How To Be a Latin Lover: Turning Sadness Into Salsa
This week we’re going to be talking about How To Be a Latin Lover, by, Chris Spain and Jon Zack. And, while this wonderfully silly screenplay may not teach you how to be a Latin lover, it will teach you a hell of a lot about screenwriting.
If you’ve seen How To Be a Latin Lover, or if you’ve read the script, you know that from page one, from the very first scene of the film, it’s easy to know if you’re going to love this movie or hate it– if you want to go on the ride with these characters or if you don’t.
If you want to succeed as a screenwriter, the most important page you will ever write is your very first page.
And the most important page you will ever rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, is also your very first page.
Your first page is the most important page in your screenplay, because the first page is the only page anyone is actually going to read.
Your manager, your agent, your coverage reader, your producer, your star– everybody in the entertainment industry is overwhelmed with all the reading they have to do. They’re absolutely swamped, receiving screenplay, after screenplay, after screenplay. All these screenplays they have to read, stacking up on their desks or on their ipads.
And the truth is, everybody wants to read all those scripts, but no one actually does. Because reading every script that you receive is physically impossible.
Most of the scripts get sent out for coverage, and even the coverage readers can’t really, fully, read all of the scripts that are descending upon them.
A coverage reader makes about $50 a script. So, when you think about what it would take for you to read a whole script, write a good logline, a good summary, and a good commentary, you realize there is no way that a coverage reader can afford to actually read every script they’re given. They’d be working for less than minimum wage!
Instead, what most coverage readers are doing is that they’re making a decision about whether to read or skim, and they’re making a decision on the very first page. Because what most of coverage readers read is bad.
Most of what coverage readers read is not exciting, not marketable, not producible.
And that means coverage readers are jaded.
They have a really rough job. They have to read bad material again and again and again. And that means that when they open your script, especially a script from an unrepresented writer or a writer they don’t already know, they’re already making an assumption it’s probably not going to be very good.
Because even the scripts they get from famous writers, from produced writers, from writers with big managers, and big agents– oftentimes those scripts aren’t good.
So you’ve got someone who’s already feeling down before they even open your script, They’re already feeling jaded before they open your script.
And at the same time, every single one of those people desperately wants to find a diamond in the rough.
Because nobody wants to stay a coverage reader. Coverage readers want to become writers, or agents, or assistants, or development executives. And the way that you get there is by knocking the socks off of your boss with your incredible ability to find that diamond in the rough.
So there’s this interesting thing going on for coverage readers. On the one hand, they want to find a diamond in the rough, and on the other hand they all feel like they’re never going to see it, because if you read a 1000 scripts, 999 of them are bad.
Which means that if you want to win them over, you have to win them over from the very first page.
You can think of this like a job interview.
If you’re going for a job interview, and you show up in a really great suit, versus if you go in a job interview and you show up, and you look rumpled or disheveled, or you fly is undone, or your skirt is on backwards.
Even though you might give the best interview of your life– even though you might eventually win them over to considering you– you can never erase that first impression.
The first scene and the first page of your movie, are the first impression that anyone will ever have of your film. And once you give that impression it is impossible to erase it.
If you’re writing a comedy, and you make them laugh on the first– or even better, the first half-page, the first quarter-page– they will be inclined to laugh or the rest of your script. They will already be feeling the humor. They will be seeing everything through that window.
If you write a horror movie and you make them cringe from the very first page, they will already be inclined to cringe, to see your movie through that horror window.
If you’re writing a movie about family, and you make them feel that family connection in the very first page, they’re going to see your movie through that window.
If you’re writing a big ol’ Sci-Fi Epic, and you make them feel that Sci-Fi Epic feeling from the very page, they’re going to see everything through that window.
So this is what you’re looking for. You’re looking to create a first scene that captures the feeling of the script. You’re looking to create a first scene that announces your voice as a writer. You’re looking for a first scene that locks in exactly who this character is. You’re looking for a first scene that sets the world of your movie.
To say in it in a simplest way, you’re looking for a scene that grabs your reader by their designer lapels and says Look! You’ve got to pay attention to me! This one’s actually good.
The problem is you don’t find that by trying to be good.
And that’s the challenge that we have as writers. Often when we try to be good or when we try to be impressive, we end up being showy, or we end up being false.
The way you write a screenplay that can demand that kind of attention is by understanding what your movie really is about. And sometimes it takes time to understand what your movie really is about. It takes time to fully connect, to fully get in there, to understand what your themes are, and you who your characters are, and how your characters are.
In fact, in How To Be a Latin Lover, the real theme, the real thing holding this movie together, starts to emerge pretty late into the movie.
For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Maximo, played by Eugenio Derbez, is the ultimate gold digger. At the beginning of the movie, as a dashing young man, he marries a wealthy old woman for her money. And then, after 20 years of the pampered life he’s always wished for, she ends up dumping him for a younger man, leaving him with absolutely nothing.
Now he has not reconnect with his sister Sarah, played by Salma Hayak, who he’s basically ignored for 20 years, in order to cajole her into giving him a place to live, and hopefully buy enough time to seduce another rich woman so he can go back to his old lifestyle.
So this is the premise of the movie, but this isn’t what the movie is about.
The movie is really about his relationship with his sister, and his relationship with his sister’s son, Hugo.
And pretty late into the script there’s a scene between Maximo and Sarah, where the real theme emerges, and the real emotional underpinning of this very silly script, gets established.
Sarah’s husband has died a short time before the movie started. She’s just been asked out on a date by her next door neighbor, and she is afraid to go on the date.
Maximo advises her to do what he does when he gets scared: get drunk! So, Maximo and his estranged sister get really, really drunk together.
And there’s a moment where Sarah tells Maximo that her favorite thing to do is to take really sad songs and turn them into Salsa.
And this is a funny little scene, as she takes the saddest song she knows, and turns it into a Salsa.
But it’s also the real theme of the piece. It’s really what the movie is about.
It’s about taking the sad things in our lives and turning them into comedy.
And, in fact, as anyone who’s written comedy professionally can tell you that’s what comedy is really about. Comedy is not about making the audience laugh. Comedy is about looking inside of yourself and making yourself laugh. Looking inside of yourself and laughing at the things that have hurt you: turning sadness into laughter.
And what’s really cool is that this theme gets established from the very first scene. One of the saddest events possible, the loss of a father, gets played in this very first scene for ridiculous comedy.
We are watching Young Maximo, as his voiceover tells us the story of his father, who always worked very hard, and who told his children you don’t get what you wish for, you get what you work for.
He talks about how his father, a truck driver, was always away for long periods of time. But he would drive all night to come home.
And there’s this adorable little scene, in which the whole family runs out of the house to wave hello to the father, who falls asleep at the wheel of his tanker-truck just a few yards from home–
The family scatters as he crashes the truck all the way through the other side of the house, out the back and into the desert. And as the truck rolls to a stop, we hear Dad’s voice reassure his family from the truck “I’m okay!”
And then, WHOOSH! The tanker-truck goes up in a giant explosion.
And there you are in the audience, laughing your butt off as a little boys father goes up in flames. But this is not funny! This is sad. It’s just sadness executed in a tone that makes you laugh.
The truth is, How To Be A Latin Lover is riddled with sadness.
Actor-director Ken Marino, left, with Eugenio Derbez on the set of “How to Be a Latin Lover.”
We may laugh at him as a gold digger, but the truth is, after 20 years of marriage Maximo has lost his wife. Sarah has lost her husband. Her son Hugo has lost his father.
And despite its Romantic Comedy roots, How To Be A Latin Lover is not actually built like a Romantic Comedy.
Now, if you haven’t seen How To Be a Latin Lover, there are some mild spoilers ahead.
We’ve actually seen this structure many times before: the ne’er-do-well guy who has to reconcile with his family in order to develop a relationship with a child who changes him forever.
We’ve seen it in Romantic Comedies like High Fidelity, we’ve seen it in dramas like Manchester By The Sea, we recently saw it with Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy in St. Vincent.
It’s a very common structure. And because we’re used to that common structure, we have certain expectations.
So the moment that we see Maximo, and we understand his problem: he’s a man who believes that romance is just a way of getting money from old rich women.
And as soon as we send him into the yogurt shop with the ridiculous, funny, authentic and beautiful cat lady, Cindy, played by Kristin Bell, who seems to like him, we think we know exactly where we are.
We think we’re watching a Romantic Comedy. We think that Maximo and the funny cat-lady are going to fall in real love. We think that Maximo is then gonna have to choose between the rich old lady of his dreams and the girl who has nothing– so he can finally make the right choice and really be happy.
All of those expectations are set up for us, and knowing our expectations, the writers Chris Spain and John Zack turn those expectations upside down.
Because that love story never develops.
Instead, what we watch is Maximo bounce from person to person, unable to form any kind of lasting relationship.
He doesn’t have his youth anymore, he’s not attractive to the Raquel Welsh character, Celeste, who he’s trying to seduce. He’s not attractive to the Kristin Bell character, Cindy, who he works with, and by the end of the movie, while he has of course, as we can see coming, reconciled with his sister and her little boy, he still doesn’t find love.
Rather, he finds himself back in another gold digger relationship. He finds himself not changing in relationship to love.
A few weeks ago I did a podcast about Manchester By the Sea, about characters who don’t change, or characters who only change a little.
Maximo is a character that changes a lot, but also doesn’t change at all. And if you let Kenneth Lonergan write this and direct this, rather than being a comedy, this same movie could feel like Manchester By The Sea.
This same movie could feel like a really hard to watch character-driven drama, about a guy who lost his dad, a sister who lost her husband, a boy who lost his father. About a bunch of people who want to believe in love, but can’t.
This same movie that plays as a Romantic Comedy, with a happy ending, could play as a dark drama with just a couple of different twists in the execution.
With just a few tiny changes in the execution, this is a tragedy about a guy who lost his father, and a woman who lost her husband, and a son who lost his father.
It’s a tragedy about a dysfunctional family, about a guy who doesn’t care about his sister, or his nephew until he needs something from them.
It’s a tragedy about a guy who discovers the love that’s right in front of him, only to realize that time has passed him by.
It’s a tragedy about a world in which a talented, young female architect can’t get a break. Where only a gold digger relationship can actually open the door to success for anyone.
It’s a tragedy about a guy who, learning what love really is too late, ends up sacrificing his chances at love, in order to help his sister.
In different hands this exact same plot is not a comedy at all, it’s a tragedy. It’s another Manchester By The Sea.
And similarly, in different hands, Manchester By The Sea can become a comedy.
Tragedy and comedy both come from the same place.
They come from looking inside of you, finding the characters who live inside of you, and looking at those characters through a very specific lens.
They come from looking at the beauty and the pain. And choosing to laugh about it or cry about it.
Comedy is just tone.
Jerry Perzigian, who teaches our TV Comedy classes here at the Studio, once said something to me that I thought was really brilliant. Jerry was a showrunner and writer on a ton of hit shows in the 80s and 90s– Married With Children, The Golden Girls, The Jeffersons, Frasier— and we’re really lucky to have him here teaching.
And one of the many words of wisdom that Jerry said to me was this:
“When I work with comedy writers, I tell them first write it true, and then make it funny. As opposed to the other way around.”
Comedy doesn’t come from trying to be funny. Comedy comes from writing true.
And that’s what makes me really excited about a movie like How To Be A Latin Lover. Not because it’s a great movie, and not because it’s a perfect script. How To Be A Latin Lover is about as silly and goofy as a comedy can be. And despite the sadness underneath, it’s just about as “feel-good” as a comedy can be as well.
Because everything is looked at through a very specific lens, through which instead of taking the tragedies so seriously, we learn to smile at them.
A couple of months ago I shared a podcast about an extremely powerfull meditation I experienced while I was traveling in Thailand. First we cried intensely about our troubles, allowing our emotions to totally and publicly overwhelm us for a full 10 minutes of sobbing. And then we turned around and in the next 10 minutes we allowed ourselves to laugh out loud at those very same troubles. We laughed at them realizing how small they are in the face of the giant scope of the universe.
How To Be A Latin Lover is a movie that lets us do just that.
So what can you take from this?
Often I’m asked questions like these by my students:
What if I’m trying to write a comedy and it’s not funny?
What if I’m writing a comedy and I write a scene that’s a drama?
What if I’m trying to write a drama and it comes out funny? Or people are laughing where I don’t want them to laugh?
And the answer is always the same.
Tragedy and Comedy and Drama and Sci Fi and Horror and Rom-Com and Thriller and Noir and all these other genres– these are just tones — these are just coating you lay on top of the truth.
But writing comes from looking inside of yourself and finding that truth. And then deciding if you want to cry about it or if you want to laugh about it. Or, sometimes, if you want to do both.
On a deep level, you can learn that from How To Be A Latin Lover.
And on the shallow level, you can learn something about technique. Which is this:
It doesn’t matter where you’re going, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing comedy or tragedy or something in between. It matters how you execute your particular take on the truth. And it matters how you announce it from the first page.
You want your first page to be the best page in your script, and not just the “best” page in the script, this page that feels most like your script.
You want your page to feel most like your script, because you want your reader ,on that first page, to immediately know, yes this is the kind of thing that I want. Or no, this is not the kind of thing that I want.
You want them to know from the very start.
Oftentimes as writers we have the urge to save the best for last. To hold off on the really funny joke, on the really funny gag, on the trick ending.
We have the urge to do that because we’re afraid we’re never going to get that funny again, or we believe we need to set stuff up for the audience.
But by the time you’re done setting stuff up for the audience, or by the time you’re done setting stuff up for the audience, the audience will have stopped reading.
Instead of saving your best for last, I want you to save your best for first.
Throw the best thing you’ve got right up at the beginning of the script,
This is going to help you in two ways.
First it’s going to help you commercially. When you save the best for first, and your coverage reader reads it, they immediately know, yeah I’m not gonna skim this one, I’m gonna read this one. They immediately perk up. They’re immediately excited.
It’s like if you thought you were going to eat a crappy McDonalds hamburger and you were suddenly served a filet mignon.
When your producer reads that first page, which is the only page that they’re likely to ever read, your producer will immediately know, yeah this is for me, or no, this isn’t.
Introduce your character with the best scene on the very first page, so that then when your star reads, they can go yeah, this is the role that I want to play.
When you save the best for first, you give yourself a chance of succeeding. Because if you save the best for last, by the time it comes up, they’ve probably already stopped.
So this is going to help you commercially, but it’s also going to help you creatively.
Because, when you save the best for first, it forces you to consistently outdo it.
I’m going to tell you a story about my first job.
I was director’s intern on A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to The Forum on Broadway, with one of my mentors, Jerry Zaks.
Jerry is one of the great theater directors of all time. He’s also directed some really wonderful films. And I’ll never forget, Jerry had a gag at the beginning of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum— if you’ve seen it, it starts with big chorus number — it’s this big funny chorus number that’s introducing you to the world of the show, and basically telling you: this is going to be total ridiculous, funny, farce.
And Jerry had a great gag right at the very top of the show.
The whole cast is singing, and they run up towards the front of the stage, and as they run up the curtain falls, and now the whole cast is singing behind the curtain.
Then the curtain comes up just to their knees, and you see all these legs lined up, and they’re still singing behind the curtains, but you can only see from the kneecaps down…
And then the curtain goes up, and all the legs go up with it!
And it’s a showstopping laugh. If you saw that production on Broadway, you know there was a full minute that they had to pause the show because the audience laughed so hard. A
nd I’ll never forget, when he first pitched the idea, a producer on the show said, “Jerry, you can’t do it — you can’t do a showstopping laugh at the very beginning of your show.”
Jerry said, “why not?”
The producer responded,” what if it’s never that funny again, the audience will eat you alive.”
And Jerry, as he always did, clapped his hands once, which was his signature move that everything was going to be okay. And then Jerry said, “that’s why we have to keep making it funnier.”
And that’s the thing that saving the best for first– putting your very best scene, the scene that feels most like your movie, right at the start of your script– forces you to accomplish creatively. It forces you to outdo it, outdo it, and outdo it.
In How To Be a Latin Lover, by putting the father’s death scene at the very start– a scene that’s rendered with that kind of specificity up at the very beginning– that very specific gag that turned this tragedy into comedy, the writers create a very specific lens for us to view everything that will folllow– a lens that lets us laugh at this incredibly sad moment, that lets us turn sadness into Salsa.
It sets the bar for the whole rest of the movie– it lets us see the whole rest of the movie through the same lens, and it forces the writer to find that kind of specificity in every scene.
So if you haven’t gone to see How To Be A Latin Lover, go see it, and watch, whether you love or you hate it, how in every scene the writers find one little specific thing to make it funny. How the writer finds one little gag, one little piece of rhythm, one little odd thing, one little surprise.
Watch how the writers outdo themselves, and outdo themselves, and outdo themselves, again, and again, and again.
This is really your job as a writer. Your job is not to make them laugh, not to prove how great you are, not to do it right for them, your job is to look inside of you, pull out something real, laugh at it, cry about it, feel it in some way.
Save your very best scenes for the very first, and then outdo, and outdo them, and outdo them.