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Monday, December 10, 2007

Interview with Billy Mernit

The Wave-inatrix has been lucky enough to have known Billy Mernit, the King of Romcom, for some time. I first met Billy when I enrolled in his Writing the Romantic Comedy at the UCLA Writer's Studio almost 8 years ago. I spent several fantastic days absolutely immersed in the world of romantic comedy.

Later, Billy mentored me through a romcom I had written. I was struck then as I am still, by Billy's impressive, encyclopedic knowledge and frank love of the genre. This guy knows from romcom and he's a born romantic at heart. He also has a fabulous blog Living the Romantic Comedy which is a must for those Rouge Wavers in the midst of or even considering writing a romantic comedy. Heck, it's a must for anyone who likes a good blog, let's face it.

But I digress. Billy and I stayed in touch and he has continued to be the source of advice, support and friendship to me. So I exploited that friendship just for you, Rouge Wavers, and asked Billy if he'd be willing to answer a few questions here on the Rouge Wave. And of course, Billy agreed to generously give of his time. So here, for your entertainment and edification, is a Q&A with Mr. Romcom - Billy Mernit.

What is your favorite romantic comedy of the past three years and why?


40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN got my vote in 2005, and it only looks better on repeated viewings. Crude, lewd, and sometimes tacky in its geek/broad comedy aesthetic it nonetheless reveals, at moments between belly laughs, a tender lovelorn soul. It's got great comedic set-pieces (e.g. hapless Andy's drunk-driver date from hell, that excruciating hair-waxing, et al); the dialogue is consistently sharp and funny; the supports are strong and memorable (Seth Rogen and crew have since become a Preston Sturges-like repertory company for Judd Apatow). And the coupling of Steve Carell and Catherine Keener passes that ultimate rom-com test: as they literally sing and dance their way into the sunset, we believe that these two well-matched lovers will make it as a couple -- and they've earned a life for themselves in our imagination.

Do you think of KNOCKED UP as a romcom or romcom hybrid? Do you think Apatow has changed the face of modern romcom say compared the Farrelly Brothers with their SOMETHING ABOUT MARY take?

I don't see it as a hybrid, unless you really consider the "A" story here to be protagonist Ben's coming-of-age -- which has been an integral through-line of many a male POV romantic comedy for over a decade or two. No, it's straight rom-com with a very strong concept (i.e. boy really "meets" girl after he's already gotten her pregnant). But sure, we've definitely just lived through the Year of Apatow (with SUPERBAD as well and the countless spec script imitations that deluged the studios after KNOCKED UP's success). There's no denying that he's codified -- and made his own -- a trend that's been coming on for some time: male point of view romantic comedies that are often as much about the love between guys as they are about guys getting the girl. Look, explicit sexual humor has been spicing up the genre (and making it more contemporary) for awhile now, with MARY a huge boundary-buster; just look at the phenomenal success of SEX AND THE CITY, which was in a sense a serial (ensemble) rom-com. What Apatow has brought to the equation is a wonderful sort of genuine innocence. What makes his movies work is the real sweetness at the core of his characters and their concerns; the more decent his protagonists are, the raunchier the humor can get. Even this is no reinvention of the genre wheel (see, for example, teen rom-coms like AMERICAN PIE), but Apatow's success with this formula has definitely pushed the genre firmly into the present-day. That said, I do agree with the astute question David Denby put to Apatow in his New Yorker piece on what I call such "macho chick flicks": now that we've wallowed in the world of boy-men for a few years, where are the new strong women -- i.e. the kind of roles that'll let some potential female rom-com stars shine?

I remember your once describing romcom as the "little black dress" of entertainment meaning that it is a Hollywood staple. But right now, is romcom a good genre for writers trying to break in with in the spec market? Everybody talks about horror being the best genre in terms of both domestic and international box office.

So go write a great horror rom-com! Like say, SHAUN OF THE DEAD. That's the "little black dress" effect of this ever-hardy genre: you can combine it with just about anything, and if you do it well, it'll fly. I've seen a plethora of vampire romantic comedy projects over the past few years, and I'll wager one will break out and hit it big. But to answer your question re: the spec market more specifically, what I can tell you is: every studio in town is still looking for good romantic comedies. They're usually cheap to make, they have a built-in demographic (that's expandable), they attract talent -- and they're very good showcases for a fledgling writer's character-driven plot and dialogue chops.

I think you're addicted to love.

Is this being recorded?

Author of the bestselling screenwriting book, Writing the Romantic Comedy (Harper/Collins), BILLY MERNIT teaches half a dozen courses at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, where he was awarded 2001's Outstanding Screenwriting Instructor of the Year. He also teaches seminars around the country (such as the Santa Fe Screenwriting Conference and at the University of Hawaii) and is regularly a Star Speaker at the Creative Screenwriting Expo in L.A. He is currently a story analyst at Universal Studios, after stints with Sony and Paramount. Billy is currently negotiating with Harper/Collins a "revised and expanded" version of his must-have Writing the Romantic Comedy textbook. His novel "Imagine Me and You" will be published by Random House/Shaye Areheart in April.

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D. Montoya said...

Wow. Two of my favorite bloggers in one place. How convenient!

Julie Gray said...

I know; it's a cute meet!

The Other Pete said...

The romantic comedy is one of the most underrated genres in film. My suspicion has always been that most screenwriters are too Machiavellian to convincingly write about something as naive as "true love."

I wonder if it isn't time for a reinvention of the romantic comedy. Even in this age of fractured relationships, there has to be a way to write believably about such a basic human need as to love and be loved.