Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How I learned to stop worrying and love genres

Oh, how I hated genres when I started writing. I mean, come on! Genres are everything that's wrong with modern movies. Instead of coming up with an original story, they shoehorn an idea into a narrow category that imposes all these rules on it and prevents it from ever being fun or interesting. My screenplays sure as hell were not going to fall victim to that kind of literary castration. I was going to invent a bunch of new, exciting, creative concepts that couldn't possibly bear simplistic labels like "comedy" or "drama" or "action."

So I wrote, like, three scripts. They all suck. I'm not talking "suck" in an "oh, it's just a first draft" kind of sense here; they're just plain bad, to the extent that I don't think it's even worth trying to rework any of them. (More about this here.) But hey, none of them could really be pigeonholed into one of those annoying "genre" things!

The script I'm working on now is the best one I've written. It's not perfect yet; it may never be. Just like I wouldn't expect to cook a world-class dinner the fourth time I picked up a chef's knife, I'm not holding my breath for unmitigated success on the screenplay that's only three away from being my very first.

This one is, however, firmly entrenched in a genre (action/adventure). So what does that mean? Did I, as so many others have in the past, need to take an artistic step backward in order to increase my odds of one day getting paid? Well... no. I really didn't. In fact, I'd say the current script is a hell of a lot more creative, intelligent, interesting, thematically solid, and emotionally accurate than any of the others. That's right! More interesting! Even though my only goal with the rest of them was to write something interesting. Crazy, huh.

So now for the denouement. (That's French for "the part where Velma rips the mask off the bad guy's face and he explains how he would have pulled off his whole scam if it hadn't been for those meddling kids.") Why did it work? What's so magical about writing in a genre? How many rhetorical questions can you pose before you have to resume speaking in the declarative?

The answer, I think, is relatively simple. It's about expectations. While the expectations of movies as a whole aren't all that clear, the expectations of individual genres are. Put another way, if your script has no genre, you have no idea what people will be expecting when they read it. They might toss it aside and say it's nowhere near as good as Braveheart or Goodfellas, and you can argue, no, that's not what I was going for at all... but too bad -- you didn't know what you were going for, so you didn't know what expectations you were building. But if you stick to a genre, your task as a writer is immediately clear: Figure out the expectations of your genre, and meet them.

It's not an easy task, obviously, but it's a lot more straightforward than just "write something interesting." Everything's relative, but "interesting" is a lot more relative than "exciting" or "funny" or "terrifying." Comparing Silence of the Lambs with Annie Hall, it's hard to say which one is more interesting, but it's pretty obvious which one is more terrifying and which one is funnier. That kind of clarity is especially important when it comes time to rewrite. If you've written a comedy and there are only three or four scenes that make you laugh, there's your rewriting goal. Action movie where the people are just sitting around talking most of the time? You know what to do. And so on.

Genres are also important because they provide a guide for what to borrow. And you definitely need stuff to borrow. Oh, yes you do. I'm not talking about dialogue or actual scenes or anything that specific. But general components like structure, characters, momentum... nobody creates these things from nothing. You need other movies in your genre for guidance, influence, and inspiration. If you wall yourself up in concrete and pretend that no movies exist outside your own imagination, and you're going to invent everything yourself, then what happens is that you borrow a ton of stuff without realizing it. That's definitely happened to me, and it's not good. You want to be fully aware of what you're borrowing; it's the best way to ensure that you can put your own spin on it. Much of the history of good movies vs. bad movies boils down to the difference between "uncomfortably close to Movie X" and "interesting twist on Movie X," and not being aware of your specific influences is a good way to end up with the former. Chinatown is a screenplay that everyone and their sister refer to as a paragon of original screenwriting, but the reason it's so good is because Robert Towne drew on plot conventions and characters from four decades of noir films. Then he put his own spin on it, which was the emphasis on real L.A. history. Do people call it a knock-off? Do they say it's just a retread of other movies? Of course not. But if Towne hadn't had all those direct influences to build on, Chinatown would have been just another shitty detective movie.

So, see, genres can be pretty darn helpful. And I think I'm done talking about them now.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Locations are one thing I don't think I've ever had much instruction on, screenwriting-wise -- either in class or from books. Most people will teach you about the basics: (1) character, (2) plot, and (3) dialogue (in that order). Not that there's anything wrong with that. If you can't nail those three elements, nothing else is going to save you. But there are other components to a really good screenplay, and depending on the genre, some of them can be pretty important. So let's talk about one of them.

It's easy to take locations for granted when you're watching a movie. Scenes in films are typically short, and they're focused on action and character. By the time you digest those things, you're already watching a new scene that's taking place somewhere else. And that's usually true even if you're watching a film as a writer, actively trying to pick up tips. Sure, there are exceptions, like when a location is used as a punchline. Example: Guy invites girl to dinner at "the best place in town," place turns out to be a strip club. Cue laugh track. (Note: Only for use on The CW.) And there are plenty of occasions where the scene dictates the location. If the main characters are going out drinking, you can't set the scene in an elementary school classroom. (Although, if you could figure out a way to do that, it would be pretty awesome.) But I'm not interested in any of these situations right now.

I'm talking about scenes where, on the most basic level, the location doesn't really matter. A knife fight. A meeting of two competing businesspeople. A couple breaking up. A father and daughter reuniting. And so on. In any of these examples, the focus of the scene is the characters, what they're saying and what they're doing -- and rightly so. Nonetheless, finding the right location can really elevate the scene; and by extension, finding the right locations throughout can really elevate the script. Look at Pulp Fiction. Vincent and Mia's iconic dinner date is so well-written that it could take place anywhere and still be great; and the location itself doesn't really matter in the overall scheme of the plot. Nonetheless, I think it's fair to say that the setting -- Jack Rabbit Slim's, the restaurant everyone wishes really existed -- is what made it truly memorable. How about the chase through the sewers in The Fugitive, culminating in that historic jump? It didn't need to happen there. The sewer and the dam are not plot points in and of themselves. The plot point is really just, "Gerard finally catches up to Kimble, who makes a daring escape." You could make that happen in any number of other ways, and the movie would carry on identically afterwards. But I can't imagine another way that would have been nearly as good. As great as the entire movie is, that's the scene that we all remember 15 years later -- not just because of what happens, but because of where it happens.

The bottom line, clearly, is that locations need to serve the story. But the level to which they serve the story is highly variable. In a lot of scripts I've read (and some that I've written), the locations make sense to the story but they don't add much. Coffee shop. Office. Apartment. Yawn. Sure, you could say, a lot of movies don't have the budget for interesting locations. You could say that, but I'd disagree, because look at Swingers, which was made for practically nothing but still managed an interesting variety of settings that conveyed the feeling of being young in Los Angeles more effectively than just about any other film I've seen. Clerks, which makes Swingers look like a Spielberg film budgetwise, pretty much has just the one location -- but it's the right one, and it works. (Clerks 2, not so much.)

I remember a line from a screenwriting book I read many years ago that said all scenes have both context and content, and that writers need to be conscious of both of those elements. The notion of context is itself composed of a myriad of other factors, including but not limited to: Time, position in the story, the characters' emotional states... and, of course, the physical location of the scene. As writers, we have absolute control over every one of these details for as long as the script remains in our hands, so it behooves us to use that control to ensure that each element is perfect. We can agonize over every line of dialogue, spend hours pondering whether it's better for Steve to say "Bob, I just don't know" or "Well, Bob, I just don't know" and yet it's so easy to write "INT. BAR - NIGHT" on the very first draft and never give a second thought to whether or not a bar is the most interesting place for that scene to happen. I think part of the reason for this phenomenon is that, in trying to get our minds around this vast, 100+ page mountain of story, we tend to use locations as footholds ("We open in the park, then they're at the courthouse, then they're at the mansion, then they're on the plane, then they're at the bar...") and it can seem like we might just fall off that mountain if we mess with any of those footholds. But they're much more than footholds -- to use an entirely different metaphor, if the scene is a drink, the location is the glass it's served in. And if you really want to impress a guest, you don't just mix up the best drink you can; you also look through the cabinet for the best glass you can find.


On the torturous path to becoming a successful screenwriter, I find that I am occasionally hit over the head with revelations about the craft of movie writing -- some small, some big, some probably incomprehensible to anyone other than me. Anyway, I thought it might be a good idea to start a forum for sharing these little nuggets of information, if for no other reason than to make sure they don't leave my head without being written down.