Special Inside Hollywood Edition: Marc D. Allan's profile: "The Punch-Up Guy: Matt Walker

Ed’s note: The former rock critic and tv critic for the Indianapolis Star, Marc Allan has moved on to academe as an administrator and journalism teacher at Butler University. And yet some habits are hard to break, so Marc still can’t resist the urge to crank out lovely bits of showbiz reportage such as this one, published originally in Script magazine. If you didn’t see it there, this portait of Garry Marshall’s go-to joke writer, Matt Walker, is a deeply observed, deftly-written snapshot of how the movie business really works, straight from the set of Marshall’s latest romantic comedy, “Valentine’s Day.”  Check it out.

By MARC D. ALLAN

The line isn’t working. It’s Day 19 on the set of Garry Marshall’s new movie, Valentine’s Day, and he’s directing a scene where Alex (Carter Jenkins) is trying to seduce Grace (Emma Roberts). They’re inside a closed snack shop adjacent to the field where the boy Grace babysits is playing soccer. She can’t believe Alex wants their first time together to be in such a semi-public place.
“For an honors student,” she tells him, “you are a Class-A idiot.”

Marshall watches the scene through a monitor and shakes his head. He likes the look, approves of what the actors have done, but the line isn’t working. The words sound too harsh, too angry. He wants something else.

He swivels in his director’s chair to talk to Matt Walker. What Marshall says next isn’t completely audible, but it basically goes like this: “Whatta you got, Matt?”

For the next several hours, fixing that line will be one of Walker’s many duties. Walker, 41, has been a punch-up guy for Marshall for 10 years. On-set writer is his formal title, but you won’t see his name in the credits that way. The official writing credits for Valentine’s Day, the stories of nine couples and what happens to them one particular February 14, will read like this:

Written by Katherine Fugate.

Revised by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein.

Current revisions by Susannah Grant.

The stars will get top billing, of course–Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Jamie Foxx, Ashton Kutcher, Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba, and many more.

And Matt Walker? Unless Marshall casts him in a small role, which he did in Raising Helen, you won’t see his name associated with Valentine’s Day at all. Such is the life of the punch-up guy.

“The writers got all the money,” Marshall tells me later. “They’re done. It’s me and Matt against the world.”

Follow the jump into the heart of modern showbiz….

On a July day that begins at 11:00 a.m. under the relentless Hollywood sun and ends well past 8:00 p.m., Walker will pitch dozens of jokes to Marshall–some solicited, some not–for a couple of different scenes being shot that day. He’ll write a new scene to be shot the next week featuring Foxx and basketball player Chris Andersen. Hathaway is coming in next week, and her scene needs to be tightened. Same for an upcoming Ashton Kutcher-Jennifer Garner scene. Marshall will even ask him to look through a notebook full of pictures of models to pick one who looks like she’d be able to catch a football.

During the course of a day, Walker will write notes on his hand, his arm, someone else’s copy of the script.

“I’ve got pages and pages of stuff that may never get in,” Walker says. “You put it away somewhere. Maybe that joke will be used in a movie a couple of years from now.”

Walker, a soft-spoken, boyish-looking man in a purple Lakers cap, green T-shirt, dark green shorts, and black Nikes, always has one eye on Marshall in case his help is needed. He explains the protocol for pitching a line: “If it’s not something he asked you for and you’re just coming up with an idea, you write it out on a small slip of paper and hand it to him. He’ll read it. The best you can do is get a grunt or a half-chuckle. Then you’re in the ballpark. If he crumples it up, you’re dead. If he folds it up and puts it in his shirt pocket or pants pocket, you’ve got a shot.

“If it’s something where he comes to you and says, ‘Matt, whatta you got for this?'” — Here, he does a spot-on imitation of Marshall’s Brooklynese inflection. — “Usually you have some papers ready and you give him some stuff. If you’ve got a few choices, that’s good. He can choose. Invariably, what you start with won’t end up what’s in there, but some kernel of it. He’ll take it and find a way to make it better. So you’re getting the learning experience in addition to participating.”

In the course of the 52-day shoot, Walker will offer countless suggestions. The way Marshall tells it, Walker will be lucky if three make the final cut.

It’s a batting average that would kill most writers–or anyone with any amount of ego. Most of us couldn’t handle having 90-plus percent of our work rejected, even if the paychecks kept coming. Yet Walker seems strangely serene. He never takes it personally when Marshall shoots down a line. “You really don’t have time to,” he says. “If you let your ego get in the way, you’re not focusing on what you should be.”

I mentioned Matt Walker’s work to Bill Scheft, the longtime monologue writer for David Letterman and, like all comedy writers, an expert in rejection. He understood immediately how Walker got through.

“I was lucky enough to come to this answer very early on,” Scheft said. “Because when I got the job at the show, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Back then, it was: How am I going to write 15 jokes a day? Fifteen became 20, and 20 became 30, and 30 became 60. And the answer to that is very simply, if you write 60 jokes–if you write 100 jokes–and none get taken, at the end of the day, you’re still a writer. That has to be enough. That HAS to be enough. And writers write.”

Or as the writer Junot Diaz once explained: “In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Maybe Walker was meant for this. He grew up around the entertainment business and went to Santa Monica High School a few years behind Rob Lowe, Sean Penn, and Robert Downey Jr. He idolized physical comics–Chaplin, Keaton, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett–graduated clown college at 28, and spent a couple of years on the Ringling Bros. circuit.

He moved into acting, earning roles on the David Alan Grier sitcom The Preston Episodes (1995) and Supercarrier (1998), among other credits. On the side, he founded the Troubadour Theatre Company, a high-energy troupe that specializes in taking classic source material and merging it with pop music–It’s a Stevie Wonderful Life, Frosty the Snow Manilow, Alice in One-Hit Wonderland.

About 11 years ago, Walker and company auditioned for Marshall at the director’s Falcon Theatre in Burbank, giving him 20 minutes of their greatest hits, including trampolines, stilts, and big dance numbers. “You were great onstage,” Marshall said to Walker when it was over. “Do you play softball?”

He does. He plays third base for Marshall’s team. Marshall pitches, and “there’s a lot of time to get your sense of humor across,” Walker says. “Once you get past the initial shock of being around Garry Marshall–such an icon–you can just be yourself around him. If you have a sense of humor, he picks up on that.”

Soon, Walker was working for Marshall on Raising Helen, followed by The Princess Diaries 2 and Georgia Rules. There have been projects for the Los Angeles Opera and San Antonio Opera, as well as some short films. They started working on the Valentine’s Day script in late May and finished shooting in mid-September.

Walker “brings a lot of levity and he can write physical stuff,” Marshall says. “Not a lot of set writers can write such a variety of material. Then if we’re stuck, he acts.”

Marshall started his career as a punch-up guy,
but on TV, writing Jack Paar’s ad-libs for The Tonight Show. He recalls Paar saying, “You write like it’s not written. You’re good. Who is this kid?” Marshall did that for two years, then moved on to work with Lucille Ball, where he learned physical comedy, and Dick Van Dyke, where he was schooled in verbal comedy.

His later credits are the stuff of legend: Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy for TV; the movies Pretty Woman, Beaches, Runaway Bride. “What’s left?” marvels Walker. “What joke hasn’t he told? What scene hasn’t he shot?”

Marshall credits himself as one of the first directors to use an on-set writer. “Before, you couldn’t,” Marshall says. “You had to hire ’em for the whole movie. I said, ‘No, no, you need just to write what I call chuffa, chuffa–some set is wrong, so you gotta cover it, or something goes wrong.’ It says in the script, two people at the soccer game have a fight. Well, who helps write what they say? They just don’t get here and say, ‘What do I say?'”

On-set writers earn at least the Writers Guild minimum, $15,137. “But you got a $30 million, $40 million, $80 million movie. If they get three lines in, it’s worth it. I like Matt particularly. He’s been one of the best because of his ability to do it all … whatever it is.”

Just as Garry Marshall’s movies are packed with warmth and heart (or schmaltz, if you’re not a fan), so are his sets. While the Valentine’s Day crew prepares to shoot the scene inside the snack shop, Marshall visits with his children and grandchildren, then plays catch with members of the crew.

While that’s going on, Walker works to fix Roberts’ line. They don’t want her character to come across as too cross or too mean. Emotional? Near tears? No. Plus, these are high school students. Marshall wants something appropriate that gets across the message that they’re hormonal and in love and it’s Valentine’s Day.

The first line he comes up with is, “Sorry to say, you’re not gonna score a goal.”

“Da-da-DAH-da-da-dah,” Walker sings, knowing that line has no chance.

The next one: “For an honors student, you just flunked modern romance.”

And then a simple: “You’re an honors student. Don’t be an idiot.”

He writes them down and brings them over to Marshall. The director glances at the paper. He likes the second and third options. “Not bad,” he says. But he still wants to get “enormous” and “I love you” into the line.

Walker goes back to work.

When shooting begins, Roberts will try at least eight different lines, but by the third take, it’s clear that Walker’s suggestions won’t be part of the picture. He knows Marshall has something else in mind, and it’s futile to offer anything else. So he moves on, scribbling notes that may prove useful in future scenes.

“Sometimes you get lost in thinking about quantity–I have to write so much and the more I write, the better shot I have,” he says. “But once you can let go and relax; you may not add anything to a scene all day, then the next day you may get 10 things in the movie. So it just ebbs and flows.”

As for the line that made the final cut, that won’t be revealed here. You’ll have to see the movie.

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