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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: Billy Crystal’s new film ‘Here Today’ deals with aging, heartbreak and humor

May 14, 2021
4 min read time

It’s been 20 years since Billy Crystal has written or directed a film (America’s Sweethearts and 61*, respectively) but it took watching an old friend regale David Letterman with a tale on TV that inspired the new film Here Today.

The comedy follows the tale of a veteran writer as he meets and forms an unlikely friendship with a New York street singer. The duo become friends at a time when both are in need of companionship, trust and love.

Partly based on true events, Here Today was written by Alan Zweibel and Crystal, who also directs and stars alongside Tiffany Haddish.

Here are five takeaways screenwriters can collect from Here Today:

1. Find the true story in your life

There are several origins behind Here Today­, including the short story The Prize by co-writer Zweibel. But where Crystal first heard the story was when Zweibel, a Saturday Night Live alum and dear friend of Crystal's, was on The Late Show with David Letterman. Zweibel shared how one of the prizes at a charity auction was having lunch with him, a veteran comedy writer. When he met the winner of the auction for their prize lunch, she didn’t know who he was. On top of that, Zweibel found out the winning bid was a paltry $22. Then the woman he was dining with ordered seafood that caused a severe allergic reaction. Finally, at the hospital Zweibel discovered she didn’t have the insurance to pay for the medical care, so he covered it.

All the above, a true story, is the set-up of the relationship between Crystal and Haddish in Here Today.

Crystal heard this story and knew there was a much richer tale to tell behind it and so the development began. The inspiration behind Haddish’s character even came to Crystal when he saw someone performing in a subway station.

Screenwriters can look into their own lives to find inspiration behind characters. Not every character needs to be thrilling in real life, but asking “what if” can provide the catalyst for character creation. What if my father, the salesman, was a secret agent? (True Lies). Or, what if someone was laying on their horn and the guy they were honking at became angry and sought revenge on their family? (Unhinged).

2. Establish the main character early

We learn just about everything we need to know about Crystal’s character Charlie Burnz in the first few minutes of the movie, even if there is some mystery behind what we’re watching.

  • He’s an older man living alone in New York
  • He wears a tie to work
  • He looks at a stop sign and says, “At the stop sign, go left.”
  • When he exits the elevator at work, everything goes dark and we see a police officer from decades ago asking if he’s Charlie Burnz
  • He works with people half his age, all dressed casually
  • He’s a comedy writer using a typewriter

Even with mysteries like the police officer, we are still making assumptions about who Charlie Burnz is on a deep level, yet we get who the character is.

Writers can see how they can quickly establish characters without much exposition and get the audience involved in those characters' lives with both familiarity and intrigue.

3. Fish out of water

Continuing with the above, some of these aspects make Charlie Burnz a fish out of water in his profession. He’s an old comedian in a sketch show writers room.

As veteran as he is, Zweibel and Crystal wrote him in an intriguing way. The showrunner, who is closer in age to the young writers and performers, refuses to let Charlie go on account of his status. This isn’t the familiar scenario where a struggling professional tries to prove themselves and the only reason he’s there is as a favor from an old producer. Rather, Charlie is someone who is respected.

Except he doesn’t quite seem to belong. He’s a fish out of water because he’s more of a mentor than a writer. Screenwriters can see how they can go against stereotypes to take familiarity and add twists to make it more unique.

4. A not-so-odd couple

A unique pairing makes for a compelling story and it’s been used countless times. Whether it’s Lethal Weapon, The Odd Couple, or even Four Good Days, bringing a pair who are seemingly opposites together is often fodder for comedy or tension.

Writers can see not only how two strangers working together can be used to tell the story — in this case, we learn about the problems surrounding Charlie’s life and we have Emma (Haddish) to lead us through the journey of discovery  but that they don’t exactly have to be opposites. Emma and Charlie aren’t opposites at all and they don’t get on each other’s nerves; they’re just two different people.

5. Know the audience

What is a target market? Producers want the young crowd with international appeal as they are the ones who are easy to market to and will spend money at the theater; they also are known to produce a greater return on investment. Yet Here Today isn’t quite for that age group, which is good because Crystal and Zweibel weren’t writing for the young demographic, but rather creating a story they could relate to in their lives (Zweibel is 70, Crystal is 73).

It's not to comment that one is more quality than the other or that anyone outside of the demographic would dislike the movie, but rather knowing the audience you’re writing for. Screenwriters can see how a film like this is set up to discuss the concerns of an aging population with jokes they can relate to. It’s no different than studying a Hallmark movie to find the tropes in a romantic comedy or watching John Wick to get the nuances of a successful action film.

Here Today is now playing in theaters.

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