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 Ė Allen as a film major, Wilson dabbled in philosophy and law Ė 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 ó such as ďhey, what about a couple who both come from families of divorce ó they avoid their families like the plague ó and now they have to do all four Christmases at once.Ē - 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. Weíve been best friends for 15 years, and we usually donít disagree too much on character and if we do, weíll talk it out until one either wins or weíre both happy.
Then you basically have the equivalent of 10 to 15 pages thatís an outline, and then weíll just sit down and start laying down what is going to be the screenplay.
Matt: From the 10 page document, usually what weíll do is weíll 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 weíll just start assigning who will write which scene, and then weíll trade pages in a day or two. And try and polish the other oneís up.
Caleb: I always prefer to work in a linear way just because it makes it easier. But sometimes you donít know quite what a scene is yet, and youíll look at some big, funny scene that you know that you really want in the movie and that you get, and maybe thatís on page 75 and youíll write that. And from that some more magic happens. And you go "now that Iíve 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 youíre done with it or if youíre stuck on it, you trade it, email it to the other guy. Heíll 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, itís very, very easy for us to change things back and forth.
One of the big disadvantages is sometimes being best friends is youíre 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 ó itís the only name they changed in the script ó is based on Tom McVee, an NHL hockey coach, who now coaches for the Boston Bruins.
Itís based entirely on them. Dallas has been a mixed marshal arts competitor. They are a very blue collar family, theyíve been in pro sports their whole lives, very physical. The childrenís names really are Denver and Dallas. The only fictional person was the lead character of Brad ó or Orlando as we called him.
Matt: Thatís 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, thatís not how it gets settled. The truth is, when something is really, really working, everybody agrees.
If two people arenít 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 donít have the right idea.
If Matt and I disagree diametrically and we ask a third friend and he [chooses a side], Iím still not convinced. I donít want to send Matt off to write a scene that heís not in agreement with just because I got 4 out of 5 dentists to agree Ö Itís not going to be a good scene and itís 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 itís 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 donít have a choice. If you want to sell a screenplay, thatís 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 youíre not here in LA ó if youíre not making connections face to face ó youíre 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 youíre 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 youíre going to do a bunch of re-writes on it, you want to stay with those actors, youíre gong to work with those producers, youíd better be here.
Or, you are so incredibly talented, that it doesnít matter. And thatís 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 canít write a comedy that wouldnít make a decent drama.
Caleb: For example, ďLiar, Liar:Ē Big huge, funny, ha ha, laugh out loud comedy. [Caleb switches to a dramatic tome] ďWhat about a little boy who couldnít stand to see his father lie anymore, at least just one day.Ē Of course that could totally be a drama.
The better the drama, probably the better the comedy. I donít know if that works in reverse, only because I havenít 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 donít care about the characters and the character arc and his journey, youíre 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 youíll also get much louder, much more impactful laughs.
What are the best methods for distinguishing Characters from one another in dialogue? - Shelia
Caleb: Itís very difficult to write dialogue. I donít care how good you are at it. One day, Matt and I were struggling to write dialogue - and Iím always texting. And literally, most people are.
And Matt looks at me and goes, ďYou canít come up with a word for our script, but you are typing up dialogue by the pages.Ē
So Matt said, ďIím going to be this character, you are going to be that character, and weíre going to go in separate rooms and weíre going to IM chat each other as those characters and get the dialogue going where weíre not filtering ourselves.Ē And great dialogue has come from that.
When youíre texting, look at the sheer volume that you get out. Most people will agree that you are much wittier when you are texting, because itís 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 heís playing Joseph. On the page in the script, it didnít read funny to me. And in actuality itís 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 Ö
Matt: Ö but if it goes wrong, oh baby does it look bad.
Caleb: Those actors bring so much. And thatís why when you have a great physical presence like Vince Vaughn, you could put something in like ďguy falls downĒ 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 ďman falls down.Ē 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 itís 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 whatís 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 characterís in the room your other characters come alive ó 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 Ö a good sign. A lot of writers donít 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 donít 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 donít think you canít 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 youíre doing.
Caleb If you are stuck writing, just find another way to write. Go through your computer and take those old emails that you havenít answered ó the ones that maybe have a little more bite ó you havenít talked to your mom or you havenít talked to your aunt or you havenít addressed a friend from high school ó just start writing.
Whatever it is, write in your journal, write some silliness, just get words moving. Because thatís sometimes the hardest thing. It doesnít matter what you write, just start writing. Eventually hopefully youíll catch onto it and youíll 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 weíre 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 canít just be one. If itís just we think weíre guessing what studios and people like, thatíll never work. And if itís just what Caleb and I think is funny and twisted, it could work, but weíd 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 youíre fighting them on it, then donít write a studio movie. Or just find a way to work within the parameters that youíre 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.