Why Comedian Directors Started Telling Dark Stories and How They Got So Good at It

In the last few years there has been a battle between two groups of films — those produced by Disney with their positive "looks" and inherent happy endings and gloomy pictures about the depth of human nature. And there is one tendency which you might have noticed as well. All of the outstanding dark pictures that came out recently are made by people who shocked the audience not with screamers and heavy fictional stories, but with jokes.

by Anastasiia Ageeva


The first example was a sensation in 2019 and started a heated debate among critics and viewers about morality. Joker was not the first highly-acclaimed film based on comic-books, but it showed a stunning transformation of its director. Todd Phillips is best known for The Hangover (2009) the trilogy about four oddballs getting into trouble out of habit. The genre of his last project (before Joker) War Dogs (2016) is drama AND comedy, so practically Phillips didn't get out of his comfort zone. But in the following three years he's been planning a new work which got the Golden Lion for the Best Film at the Venice Festival.

In 2017, another Hollywood "inhabitant" took over the production of dark stories. Get Out is the first film by Jordan Peele that was not just noted by The Academy — it granted Peele an Oscar for the Best Original Screenplay and nominated it for the Best Picture and the Best Directing. The talented comedian shot his second film Us (2019) in the same genre but overdid it with subtext. Since 2003 Peele acted solely as a comedy actor in various TV-shows, and nobody had any idea that he would make such a drastic turn in the genre.
There is something magical about the number 'three', so there is one more example — John Krasinski. He not only played the role of Jim Halpert in The Office (2005-2013), but also became a producer and occasional director on the set. Krasinski made a few quiet steps as a creator with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009) and The Hollars (2015), executive-produced Manchester by the Sea (2016),and here it comes — Quiet Place (2018). This post-apocalyptic film filled with fear of giant reptile predators was received very warmly.
Since the first commercial screenings, the box office of the film has partly depended on how accurately the creators fit into the conventions of the genre. So, the first reason for the success of the aforementioned directors was that they knew how to do it and have been practicing for a long time. Having worked with comedies and known its conventions intimately, they understand causality and can easily create a scene that will definitely affect the viewer.

Lighting in comedy films is high key; as for the sound, both diegetic and non-diegetic sounds are used in almost the same proportion; and comedies are most often set in public places - those are usually towns and cities with a welcoming atmosphere. Camera shots may differ depending on the type of a comedy: dark humour, slapstick, or wit. But in comedies there is no hierarchy in the shots — all of the characters are of the same social status, no shot is better than any other. Props are also quite simple — they're something that may inflict pain on a character in a comedic sense.
It gets increasingly harder over time for a viewer to make choices, since movies mix one genre with another. Our 'dark' directors tried to avoid this in their projects. Phillips decided to make Joker a psychological thriller, due to the type of story. Tense and depressing, Joker still lacks the darkness. Nevertheless, there is an explanation for this — it is based not on reality and the fantasy world, and the latter is always more colorful. But it can still be said that Phillips stepped over himself — the film doesn't have any marvelous action scenes, humorous talk or enjoyable victory. It's pure drama.
Horror films have other features: cameras are tilted to create disorientation and are sometimes handheld; wide-angle establishing shots show the entire location; mostly non-diegetic ambient sounds are used. Peele does not deprive Get Out of a satirical note which he has used many times before. And as for the conventions, he turns them upside down. For example, the director will leave the viewer in silence in the moments of increased danger, but the music will press on our ears when nothing happens. So, bravo, we are constantly in tension.

Besides, one of the main conventions of horror are secluded locations that allow something known or unknown to harm the main characters. Peele has an amazing combination of comic and horror conventions — he puts a large number of people into space around Chris, but this does not make the character feel safe. All those around are in fact the "unknown" that wants to harm him. In Norway, where the author has studied filmmaking, Get Out is shown in classes as an example of high-quality horror.

Krasinski's film is primarily interesting because of its sound effects, as this is even reflected in its title. During preparation, the director studied how they affect viewers inThere Will Be Blood (2007) and No Country for Old Men (2007). Unlike a typical horror movie in which unlucky heroes scream, Krasinski's film has monsters that communicate using echolocation and a family that hides from them and therefore uses not words but gestures. This approach to filmmaking is revolutionary for Hollywood.
But why does pop culture favour dark nowadays? We may guess that it has all started with the rising interest towards dystopian worlds. The boom happened in the beginning of 2010s. For instance, the Hunger Games (2012) series appeared to be one of the most successful film franchises of all time. Still, there's a question — why do people watch such pictures populated by flawed and violent heroes, apart from fashion?
There is an answer given by Jesse Klein, a sociologist at Florida State University. She notes that the reason lies in the daily collision of people with an ethically complex world, the rules of which run counter to the morality that they were taught back in childhood. Both parents and fairy tales tell us that we have only two options for development: you either become good or bad. And when we grow up and independently "assess" the world we understand that everything is far from the case. We need to rebuild our moral compass and gain new knowledge. What is good and evil, what is morality, how do moral people behave? Dr. Klein in her statement speaks only of the United States, but it seems that the process has become global a long time ago.

An instructor in the department of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Junhow Wei has a more simple explanation for the audience's choice. He claims that some viewers simply find dark tales more entertaining as inherently more authentic and sophisticated. "It has something to do with the desire for audiences to have more complex and intellectually engaging popular culture," Dr. Wei says.

But A Quiet Place isn't just a thriller, like Joker is not just a comic book adaptation for big screens. All three films deliver political messages. Taking into account the reason for people to watch them, it can be easily explained why those allusions to real-life events appear in such kinds of films. But if you look closely at the political context, it is exclusively American. While the rest of the world is peacefully watching exciting stories, US citizens see them as a reflection of their reality.
A lot of critics point out that A Quiet Place was the first major post-apocalypse film made entirely during the Trump era. And there's more than that — it depicts a nuclear family growing and becoming closer as a result of the crisis. As we know, the stories in the media and movies often reflect our own fears, because they are not only ours, but also the creators'. And while we stay on the verge of the possible start of a nuclear war and watch dystopian films, Krasinski makes a picture which calls for the protection of children from a hostile world in all possible ways.
As for Joker, Todd Phillips repeatedly claimed that it is not a political film and elicited laughs from those in attendance. How a film about a poor white man so disenchanted with society that he had to turn his frustration into violence, could not be political? And here we go again — these are references to Trump. Phillips' film is a story of a forgotten man who breaks down under the yoke of a new reality. He has been stripped of his civil rights, his goodwill has been abused, and now he is determined to change that decisively. In fact, people like Arthur Fleck constitute Trump's electorate.
There are many more layers in Get Out, but the main idea still lies on the surface. Jordan Peele demonstrates the white population of the world he designed in the film (and in the real one) as a conscious purveyor of evil and conveys his notion through all sorts of tropes — this is how the black population lives in progressive white America right now.
Everyone understands that the pandemic will make its own adjustments to what we'll watch in the next ten years. Matt Reeves' Batman is being filmed, Morbius is in post-production and so on. Dark stories will stay with us for a long time. Our task is to interpret them correctly. Because if comedians are ready to change the vector so radically, then they have something important to tell us.
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