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You Asked ... "Four Christmases" Screenwriters Matt Allen and Caleb Wilson

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Matt Allen and Caleb Wilson


Four Christmases screenwriters Matt Allen and Caleb Wilson have shared a passion for good comedy and great storytelling since they became best friends at college in the 1990s. They started off on separate paths – Allen as a film major, Wilson dabbled in philosophy and law – yet they both ended up in the Industry. After going the agency route, they became professional screenwriters in 1998, the year they sold their first screenplay, Manchild.

Four Christmases opened on November 26, and spent its first two weeks in release Number One at the box office. The team enjoys helping writers get on the right track, and happily answered questions from the StoryLink Community. Members whose questions were chosen for this interview will receive a Visual Thesaurus.

Just wondered how the "writing as a team" works with you two. Do you divide your script ideas and each works on a portion of the script? Each works on one particular character? Works for a set period of time and then you collaborate? -Lindsay

Caleb: I think the way that Matt and I work best, is we sit in a room and toss ideas back and forth. Once we agree on a good 4 or 5 sentence idea — such as “hey, what about a couple who both come from families of divorce — they avoid their families like the plague — and now they have to do all four Christmases at once.” - what Matt and I will do is sit in a room and come up with the 5 to 10 to 15 minute version of that movie that we agree on. We’ve been best friends for 15 years, and we usually don’t disagree too much on character and if we do, we’ll talk it out until one either wins or we’re both happy.

Then you basically have the equivalent of 10 to 15 pages that’s an outline, and then we’ll just sit down and start laying down what is going to be the screenplay.

Matt: From the 10 page document, usually what we’ll do is we’ll put Post-Its up on a board that literally is an outline and every scene in the movie. And once we agree on that or most of that or any of that, then we’ll just start assigning who will write which scene, and then we’ll trade pages in a day or two. And try and polish the other one’s up.

Caleb: I always prefer to work in a linear way just because it makes it easier. But sometimes you don’t know quite what a scene is yet, and you’ll look at some big, funny scene that you know that you really want in the movie and that you get, and maybe that’s on page 75 and you’ll write that. And from that some more magic happens. And you go "now that I’ve written this and this really seems to be working, I know how to write that funny character on page 14."

So we will start assigning scenes. Once you’re done with it or if you’re stuck on it, you trade it, email it to the other guy. He’ll go through it. Polish it. Then it kind of becomes a trading back and forth.

One of the big advantages of being best friends for 20 years for knowing all the same jokes, for liking all the same things, it’s very, very easy for us to change things back and forth.

One of the big disadvantages is sometimes being best friends is you’re not as responsible to the other one as you should be to your business partner.

Were any of the holiday "episodes" that take place during Four Christmases based on your own experiences? - Phillip Ramati

Caleb: Absolutely. Christmas One is actually real people. Dallas McVee is one of our closest friends. And his father, who is played by Robert Duvall — it’s the only name they changed in the script — is based on Tom McVee, an NHL hockey coach, who now coaches for the Boston Bruins.

It’s based entirely on them. Dallas has been a mixed marshal arts competitor. They are a very blue collar family, they’ve been in pro sports their whole lives, very physical. The children’s names really are Denver and Dallas. The only fictional person was the lead character of Brad — or Orlando as we called him.

Matt: That’s a real family and we used their characters. In terms of the Christmases, there certainly is a lot of Christmas [based on our lives].

When working with a writing partner, how do you deal with disagreements among yourselves? Are you compromising, or do you try and flesh it out further until you both agree? - Jamie

Matt: We have a manager too who handles disputes sometimes. Or writing friends. Depending on the issue, we ask different people. We have a number of judges that we go to.

Caleb: Usually, that’s not how it gets settled. The truth is, when something is really, really working, everybody agrees.

If two people aren’t in agreement on a very basic idea, you have got to talk it out until you are both on the same page or maybe you don’t have the right idea.

If Matt and I disagree diametrically and we ask a third friend and he [chooses a side], I’m still not convinced. I don’t want to send Matt off to write a scene that he’s not in agreement with just because I got 4 out of 5 dentists to agree … It’s not going to be a good scene and it’s not going to work. And also if it works that well, I should be able to articulate to my best friend why that works. And if not, we should re-examine it.

I enjoy that process, because I think it’s a fantastic filter. In some ways I wish we had more of a filter because we are so similar.

If aspiring writers do not live in LA yet, and have no connections, what can we do after completing our scripts to get them into the right hands? - Anthony

Caleb:: Get a bus ticket.

Matt: If you really want to be a screenwriter, you have to move to LA. You don’t have a choice. If you want to sell a screenplay, that’s a different thing than wanting to be a screenwriter. I think trying to sell a screenplay from outside would be nearly impossible without those connections.

Caleb: Nothing happens unless you are in the room with a person. If you’re not here in LA — if you’re not making connections face to face — you’re at a huge disadvantage.

Matt:: Even NY. We have a friend who finally got off his duff and moved from New York to LA, and it has been a huge boon to his career.

Caleb:: Invariably with a screenwriter, yes, you are buying the script. But you’re also buying that writer. Not as strongly as it is in television, but in features you want to stay with your script. You want to make sure you’re going to do a bunch of re-writes on it, you want to stay with those actors, you’re gong to work with those producers, you’d better be here.

Or, you are so incredibly talented, that it doesn’t matter. And that’s very rare.

How do you decide whether a story is best told as comedy or drama? Do you write the story down first, then make the decision, then rewrite it? - Valentina

Matt: You can’t write a comedy that wouldn’t make a decent drama.

Caleb: For example, “Liar, Liar:” Big huge, funny, ha ha, laugh out loud comedy. [Caleb switches to a dramatic tome] “What about a little boy who couldn’t stand to see his father lie anymore, at least just one day.” Of course that could totally be a drama.

The better the drama, probably the better the comedy. I don’t know if that works in reverse, only because I haven’t thought about that medium quite as much. But I invite the readers to go ahead and put it to the test.

Matt: Our first drafts are almost always drama, and then we go back and add the comedy.

Caleb: If you don’t care about the characters and the character arc and his journey, you’re just not going to laugh that much. They are not going to get their hooks into you in a very meaningful way.

You want the overall body of what you are trying to deliver to have some real hooks, and then you’ll also get much louder, much more impactful laughs.

What are the best methods for distinguishing Characters from one another in dialogue? - Shelia

Caleb: It’s very difficult to write dialogue. I don’t care how good you are at it. One day, Matt and I were struggling to write dialogue - and I’m always texting. And literally, most people are.

And Matt looks at me and goes, “You can’t come up with a word for our script, but you are typing up dialogue by the pages.”

So Matt said, “I’m going to be this character, you are going to be that character, and we’re going to go in separate rooms and we’re going to IM chat each other as those characters and get the dialogue going where we’re not filtering ourselves.” And great dialogue has come from that.

When you’re texting, look at the sheer volume that you get out. Most people will agree that you are much wittier when you are texting, because it’s going so fast. Everybody knows how to write, but you just get in your own way. How do you get out of your own way? Take away all the BS.

How do you possibly describe something in your script that relies so heavily on physical comedy, so that it jumps off the page at the reader? EXAMPLE - in your film, when the baby yaks on Reese, and Vince almost comes out of his skin trying to avoid smelling it...makes me laugh out loud when I watch it, but how do you translate such a moment to the page? Or, can you? - John

Matt: One of the scenes I love the most, and Vince is so great in it, is the scene where he’s playing Joseph. On the page in the script, it didn’t read funny to me. And in actuality it’s hysterical. It was It translated great. It was all there on the page.

Caleb: Physical comedy is very hard to write. It can be hilarious on the page …

Matt: … but if it goes wrong, oh baby does it look bad.

Caleb: Those actors bring so much. And that’s why when you have a great physical presence like Vince Vaughn, you could put something in like “guy falls down” and it could work or it could not work. And when you have those great actors, man do they make it work. And it is not necessarily obvious or apparent.

It is why when you write a physical comedy scene, it better be funny aside from just “man falls down.” There had better be something smart about that physical comedy: why is it funny?

When you film those things, so much magic happens on camera that you did not expect to be funny that makes it into the movie.

As a novice screen writer I'm wondering how to keep multiple story threads moving toward convergence at the end; but all the while keeping the audience enthralled and mystified until the climax. - Jim Messner

Caleb: When you set out, you have this blueprint, and it’s like a 10 to 15 minute pitch of your movie. You talk briefly about your character arc and briefly about how they come together. But what’s so fantastic about writing your screenplay is just the way something magical can happen on camera, something magical can happen when you are writing. A certain character relationship will really start to work. A small character that you only had for 5 pages, you realize every time that character’s in the room your other characters come alive — they are so funny and they play off him so well.

Matt: The fact that this guy is thinking about intertwining the character arcs is … a good sign. A lot of writers don’t even think about that. They just think about their A plot, and in a very linear way, trying to get from point A to point B as fast as possible and don’t realize they spent 25 pages on character A and completely forgot about characters C and E, and not checked in with them.

I think you discover how to intertwine that in the process, I don’t think you can’t necessarily plan how your stories intertwine, because ultimately characters start telling their own story at their own pace.

I was wondering what you two do when you have a major case of writers block. What would you tell someone who is in that situation, like myself, to get out of it? What tools or exercises do you recommend? - MJ

Matt: Write something else that you put on the back burner a long time ago, or something that has nothing to do with what you’re doing.

Caleb If you are stuck writing, just find another way to write. Go through your computer and take those old emails that you haven’t answered — the ones that maybe have a little more bite — you haven’t talked to your mom or you haven’t talked to your aunt or you haven’t addressed a friend from high school — just start writing.

Whatever it is, write in your journal, write some silliness, just get words moving. Because that’s sometimes the hardest thing. It doesn’t matter what you write, just start writing. Eventually hopefully you’ll catch onto it and you’ll be able to write a more work-oriented piece.

When you write a commercial screenplay, do you consciously think about what will entertain viewers, or do you always focus on what feels right to you for whatever reason? - Ed

Caleb: As we get older, I like to think those things get fused together. We were always attracted to commercial filmmaking.

M: When we’re writing for a studio, we always want to satisfy both: both our own craving for what we think is funny and right. And also at the same time, we think that the studio system and the mainstream movie-going public at large will accept it as well. It has to be both. It can’t just be one. If it’s just we think we’re guessing what studios and people like, that’ll never work. And if it’s just what Caleb and I think is funny and twisted, it could work, but we’d have to be pretty lucky.

Caleb: If you are writing a studio movie, they have certain requirements. You need set pieces. They need their star to be in it, all the lines go to the star. If you’re fighting them on it, then don’t write a studio movie. Or just find a way to work within the parameters that you’re given.

Fortunately for Matt and I, that is the movie that we enjoy. The movies that we most love are big, huge, larger than life, laugh-out-loud studio movies that work, so that is what we are always shooting for.