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Writers on Writing: Lucky

Thrice Emmy®-nominated for his work on SNL, Kent Sublette knows comedy writing. But in his feature Lucky, starring Colin Hanks and Jeffrey Tambor, Sublette's humor goes dark.
Colin Hanks in Lucky

Colin Hanks stars in Lucky, photo courtesy Ten Four Pictures

What’s the recipe for a successful screenplay? Take one cup inspiration and two tablespoons persistence, pour into a heatproof glass bowl, then sprinkle with two grams dry active yeast. Let the mixture sit for 20 minutes until the yeast has -- hang on. What am I supposed to be doing? Oh yeah, writing about my script for Lucky. Sorry.

I wrote Lucky quite a few years before I started writing on Saturday Night Live and it was my first attempt at a screenplay. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited that it’s finally going to be seen by an audience. The other thing I’m grateful for is the incredible work done by director Gil Cates Jr. and the amazing cast: Colin Hanks, Ari Graynor, Jeffrey Tambor, and Ann-Margret.

(P.S. Ann-Margret is still really foxy. P.P.S. Her name is not Ann. Her name is not Ms. Margret. Her name is Ann-Margret. Like Madonna but with a hyphen. Mad-Onna. Anyway …)

Lucky is a dark comedy about a serial killer who wins the lottery and the woman who marries him for his money. I had a really great time writing this script but dark comedy is a genre that has a ton of built-in challenges that straightforward comedies just don’t have. As much as people may like the script, the voices that say “dark comedies don’t sell," and “dark comedies just don’t work” tend to be pretty loud.

It’s also hard in dark comedy to get the tone right, both for a writer and for a director. If the “comedy” part of a dark comedy is too pushed or jokey, it tends to be very jarring when the “dark” part starts to happen. Like when people get their heads bashed into the sides of toilet bowls. It’s very hard to find the perfect balance between humor and discomfort.

With that in mind I always aimed to let the humor come from heightened yet real reactions to the absurdity and intensity of the situation. I tried to write the dialogue very simply, and let the performers find the humor and fill in the blanks. For example, here’s one of the consistently biggest laughs in the film. It takes place right after the two main characters, Ben (Colin Hanks) and Lucy (Ari Graynor), are surprised by Detective Waylon (Jeffrey Tambor) who finds the two fully clothed in a swimming pool, struggling over a butchers knife.

Ben and Lucy, both soaking wet, lead Detective Waylon into the house.
 Lucy tries to steer him into the dining room where he cannot see
 Steve’s dead body.
Excuse the mess, we’re still unpacking.
I understand.
So, what you’re asking me is how I could have
 bought my lottery ticket and still not be on
 the surveillance tapes.
It’s puzzling.
Well, obviously you’re on the tape. You just
 look different now. You’ve been working out.
 He’s bigger.
Not that much bigger.
You’re on the tape. Don’t be stupid. He’s
 drunk. He’s been swimming.
I know why I’m not on the tape.
You’re on the tape. Detective, are you
 accusing him of something? Because if
 you are ...
I snapped her neck in the parking lot. I
 never went in the store.
Ben! You’re being ridiculous.
That’s why I’m not on the tape.
Be quiet! He has been swimming!

There is no real “joke” there in the traditional sense, but each time Ari talks about “swimming” it gets a huge laugh. Partly because it gives the audience a clear picture of just how much the character's mind has unraveled and also because, as excuses for murder go, “swimming” is really weird.

Here’s another of my favorite scenes that I think has a nice balance of “comedy” and “dark." In this one Lucy tries to cover up for her husband’s murders by digging up three decaying bodies and loading them into her Land Rover.

Lucy drives the body-filled car. She steers with one hand, and with
 the other, makes the Daisy Duke doll dance on the dashboard.
“Stand by your man, although he’s killed four
 people”... Keep it down back there ladies.
 Don’t make me turn this car around.
The car phone rings and Lucy screams. She answers it.
Hello? Yes? What? Ok. Ok. Will do. Goodbye.
She hangs up and grips the steering wheel hard.
(cont’d) (singing)
“Stand by your man ...”

I always loved this scene and I was crushed when the producers told me that they couldn’t get the rights to “Stand by Your Man." But then Ari improvised another song to the tune of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” that was even better than what I had written. Thanks, public domain!

Director Gil Cates Jr. and screenwriter Kent Sublette (right) on the set of Lucky

Director Gil Cates Jr. and screenwriter Kent Sublette (right) on the set of Lucky

The scripts I’m working on these days are traditional, straight-up comedies. But while I’m writing, I still try to remember what it was like working on Lucky. Don’t get me wrong, a great joke is a great joke. But for me, the most satisfying laughs still come from character, and honest responses to the reality of the scene. I think Lucky achieves that and I really hope that people seek out this film. I’m so proud of it and I feel so lucky … Hey! That’s the name of the movie! You got me.

Kent Sublette is thrice Emmy®-nominated and twice WGA award-winning for his work on Saturday Night Live.