Humor Me’s Sam Hoffman on directing and his love for Wes Anderson

Humor Me - Sam Hoffman

If you don’t know Sam Hoffman then you might know some of his work. He has been a producer on 2 Wes Anderson films (The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom). He also is the producer of CBS’ “Madam Secretary.” You may also know him from his web series “Old Jews Tell Jokes.” The popular series went off to become an off-Broadway play, a bestselling book, and a lecture series. We got a chance to talk to director Sam Hoffman during LA Film Festival to talk about his feature film debut, Humor Me.

Nerd Reactor: How did this thing start off for you as far as you wanting to write and direct this film?

Sam Hoffman: I’ve been making other people’s movies for my entire adult life. First, I was a PA (production assistant) in a 19… Well, I don’t want to say [what year] but it started with a 19. Then I was an AD (assistant director) and a producer. I’ve done almost every job you can think of—except [being a] writer-director. That’s something that I always wanted to do. So, if you’re going to get that opportunity, you kind of have to make it for yourself to some extent. I’ve been writing for many years and written a number of screenplays. But this is the first one that I really felt was worthy of pushing to make.

The directing side is a little bit less of a reach because I’ve done short films, commercials, episodes of television, and second units. Also, I was an assistant director for some of the greatest filmmakers alive: Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Tim Robbins, [and] Stanley Tucci. I was lucky enough to be an assistant director for great, great filmmakers. A big part of being an assistant director is sitting there and working with the director. I’ve had that opportunity to be mentored by [these] great people. With this in mind, the biggest challenge when you’re moving from an assistant director or producer to a director is you just have to be comfortable working with actors. That’s not a problem for me.

NR: So there wasn’t a learning curve going from television to a feature film?

SH: Not really. The learning curve is just being responsible. That’s the learning curve. It’s up to you whether the material has been filmed properly. Ultimately, in almost any of the other jobs, it’s someone else’s ultimate responsibility. You’re trying to help that person get there and get their thing. Yet you have to back off of it at their decision point.

NR: That’s intriguing because I feel as if it’s not as stressful as directing television. I feel like television is on a quick set schedule as opposed to a feature film.

SH: It’s interesting to say that. My episode of “Madam Secretary” was 8 days long and [Humor Me] was 22 days long. The 8 days of “Madam Secretary,” we were making 42-minutes of material. In 22 days of my film, we were making 90-minutes of material, theoretically. You would think that in some ways it’d be easier to make the film.

In fact, it’s much, much harder to make the film. For one thing, you’re shooting “Madam Secretary” on existing sets that have all been lit. Also, there’s a big crew of people and a big operation. You basically walk in, have three cameras [set up] and you’re able to do a 4-page scene in an hour or an hour and a half. You just have this thing nailed down already.

NR: It’s much more streamlined, right?

SH: Oh, it’s a machine. Inertia is a big part of filmmaking, right? A body in motion tends to stay in motion. So a TV show is a body in motion but an independent movie is a body at rest. Therefore, you got to get that goddamn thing moving with yourself and your energy.

It’s hard and I definitely felt like I could’ve used more time. I’m not unhappy with the way the movie looked. I think the production designer (Tania Bijlani) and our cinematographer (Seamus Tierney) both did great jobs. Our costume designer (Amy Roth) also did a great job. I’m really happy with the way the movie looked. But there are certain times in the movie where we were shooting and it had been a really long day. I thought to myself, “I’m not as good as I would be on a shorter day right now.”

NR: So what would you have done if you were given more time?

SH: If I had a couple of more days, the days would’ve been shorter. There would’ve been more choices to be made. But you know, I’ve worked on huge movies that have had the same issue. I worked on a movie that I’m not going to name. It’s a Meryl Streep movie that I was an assistant director on. Meryl comes to us and says, “I’m really good for 10 hours. After 10 hours, I’m not as good anymore.” Yet we still worked her for 14 hours.

It’s an insane thing to do if you think about it. Why would you push your assets past their prime? Under those circumstances, you just get diminishing returns. It’s not just the actors, either. You have to magnify that because you also have the crew, the director, every single person is having a diminished return on what they’re doing. You also have the guys moving the heavy stuff too! There’s a danger to that.

Humor Me - Elliot Gould and Jermaine Clement

NR: Now you mentioned that you worked with Wes Anderson before. Watching the film, I noticed some similarities between his signature cinematography and Humor Me. Was that a nod towards him or an aesthetic choice?

SH: There was a sequence that was definitely a nod to him. Do you know which one I’m talking about?

NR: The locker room scene.

SH: Yeah, that one. That was just a little nod. I love Wes and I adore him. Yet I didn’t really want to copy his style but give a little nod to him. Just because I’ve learned so much from him and he’s such a brilliant guy. I’ve had such a wonderful experience working with him. So that one little sequence is definitely an homage to Wes’ style.

NR: Humor Me feels like a very personal film. Especially with Nate (Jermaine Clement) using his own personal story to write his famous play. Was your own personal story the inspiration behind the film?

SH: Yeah. I’m a guy who’s been making other people’s films for a long time while quietly writing my own stuff at home. If you look at the Nate character, he’s someone who’s writing and writing and can’t seem to get it done. I think that one could argue that there are some parallels. My wife is also an art dealer.

NR: [laughs] Still together right?

SH: Oh yeah! [laughs] It’s actually really funny since some people have said to me, “is your wife okay with that character?” I was like, “are you kidding me? She LOVES that character.” She even dressed the character. She told me, “I’m bringing my shoes to set the day you shoot her because I want to make sure that she wears proper art dealer shoes.”  My wife was very supportive.

NR: In the film, you had a scene where Bob was telling this raunchy joke set on a desert island. So if you stranded on a desert island, what joke would you tell them to break the ice?

SH: [laughs] I would tell them the desert island joke! There’s a bunch of desert island jokes, actually.

NR: So what was it about that one?

SH: I just loved that joke. Especially once I zeroed in on the idea that “you can’t explain love” then that joke just really made sense to me.

The funny thing is that the one thing that I didn’t think about was that dogs and sheep can’t be in the same frame together. My biggest concern at the time was making a beach look like a desert island. However, I didn’t give any thought that a sheep wouldn’t stay put while a dog ran into the frame. [laughs]

Humor Me stars Jermaine Clement and Elliot Gould. Ingrid Michaelson, Annie Potts, Bebe Neuwirth, Priscilla Lopez and Erich Bergen co-star in the film as well.

HUMOR ME is a heartfelt father-son comedy about a struggling playwright (NATE) who, after a series of setbacks, is forced to move in with his joke-telling dad (BOB) in a New Jersey retirement community. Living with Bob, Nate is constantly reminded how his dad tells jokes to avoid emotionally engaging.  With the help of Bob’s opinionated friends, and a little Gilbert and Sullivan, Nate reconnects with his passion for theater and ultimately with his father.

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Mark Pacis
Mark Pacis 1160 posts

Self-proclaimed "Human IMDb" and comic book geek. Biggest Iron Man fan you'll probably ever meet.