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Monday, April 21, 2008

Genre Bending


Another great question from the mailbag deftly answered by our own Margaux Froley Outhred in this first of a two-part answer:

Dear Wave-inatrix:
You once mentioned that moving from RomComs to Thrillers was a really smart move for you... why is that? What are the pros and cons of "getting married" to a genre? I have noticed that my scripts vary a lot genre wise. For example, I have a gritty drama in the vein of Amores Perros, but also a family drama in the vein of Ordinary People, a road-movie/comedy like Little Miss Sunshine and a dark, gothic thriller that could be comparable to Sweeney Todd. Do you always do thrillers? Is it because they are easier to sell for you or because you're "mastering" the genre? What do you think of varying a lot genre wise? I know there are no hard rules about this, but just wanted to hear your opinion.
-
Signed, Fruitful in Florida

Margaux deftly answers:

Dear Fruitful:

This is a great question, especially coming from a writing craft perspective.

A lot of writers go through this genre dance as they are getting their feet wet in screenwriting and really discovering their own voice. And, by the way, this dance sometimes takes years. Really mastering a craft does not happen in a year or two, so writers shouldn’t get discouraged if their work might not all mesh together into a cohesive genre and voice right off the bat.

As a general rule, as writers solidify their voice, they will start to gravitate towards writing certain types or kinds of stories. Potentially these stories could cover a variety of genres, but they are essentially about the same story. As creative people, writers see and process the world with their own distinct shade of glasses, and it’s that individual interpretation that writers bring to the page. In my case, my first handful of feature films covered a wide variety of genres: from an urban drama, an action movie, a family adventure film, to a romantic comedy. However, despite large differences on the surface, these movies were all essentially about the same thing, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. As a creative person, this is more or less my own issue or “take” that I put out into the world. As a paradigm, I love inventing crazy worlds that can happen to someone underneath the normal fa├žade they project into society. I’m brainstorming a new thriller feature idea that uncovers a dark secret underneath a “normal” apartment complex. But for me, it took writing at least three features to notice that common theme running through them all.

Steven Spielberg’s projects are often underdog stories. He highlights heroes in many worlds, from Schlinder’s List to Indiana Jones. J.J. Abrams is focused on mysteries. In most of his projects there is always an elusive mystery keeping the audience in their chair. A lot of the real creators out there do have this consistency in their work, and this separates true storytellers from mere moviemakers. Can anyone tell me what Brett Ratner’s movies say about his take on the world? They’re actually consistent from what I can surmise of his personality, someone who gravitates towards the tits and ass of the world. Good explosions, fight sequences, a rotating casting couch of beautiful and well-endowed women. These elements are actually consistent with Ratner owning a fancy, historic Hollywood house, his friendship with Robert Evans; this is a glamour man, through and through, and his movies are just that. Vapid glamour in all its glory. And that’s not a judgment, well, maybe a little, but, while Brett’s material might not say very much, it still projects his worldview.

The original question asked about the Wavintarix’s transition from rom com to thrillers? I saw it happen and it was a true shift worth sharing (hope you don’t mind, Miss Rouge Wave). When I was the Director of Development at Writers Boot Camp, Julie gave me a script she had finished. With a few scripts already under her belt, this script was the one Julie was most proud of, and should have been her best work to date. It was a supernatural rom com with quite a cute premise. But that was also the problem, there was something not connecting in it. It was almost too cute, the jokes were good but not laugh-out-loud; all of this, however, hinged on an intriguing story. My theory is that Julie often writes about a character’s breaking point; how far can someone be pushed before they crack. (Again, Julie, correct me if I’m wrong, but this might be a good working theory). So, even though what Julie’s script was about was intriguing, it’s a tough story to execute with a romantic comedy tone. I dutifully gave Julie some notes on how to improve the script, but really, I wasn’t sure it could be salvaged. When Julie put her head down and cranked out a 2nd draft of this rom com, it became a good script, but still not a great one. At this point even Julie was frustrated. My notes were similar the second time around. Technically everything was solid and working, but, something still kept the reader at a distance, and for one of the first times with my script reading, I was stumped on how to help her any more.

Two months later Julie slammed a script down on my desk. Well, she probably didn’t slam it on my desk, but her energy was dramatically different. Instead of a friendly writer looking for encouragement sitting in my office, this commanding woman walked in and told me to read this script because she nailed it. I read the script that night, and yes, she did nail it. I called her first thing the next day. This new thriller with a very different story than her rom com, yet still told the story of a character pushed over the edge, was a terrific psychological thriller. Her voice finally aligned with the material and Julie’s talent was able to shine through. While Julie is both funny and romantic, my guess is that her take on the world tends to explore the dark side of personalities, which gravitates towards thriller films. That could always change for Julie, but for now, she has found a great home in the thriller genre.

So, yes, while writers can tell their story through various genres, some voices are best utilized by certain genre conventions and tones. And again, this is from a pure craft perspective of just a writer discovering and solidifying his or her own voice. However, for many of us, writing is also a business, or the hope of a business. And this is where this consistent voice also comes into play.

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Every agent and producer I've met has said that they look for a writer who specializes in a particular genre. They don't even bother with writers who write in a wide variety of genres.

I recently read the Diablo Cody has written a new script about a teenager who becomes an alien and kills the boys at her school, while her best friend tries to stop her. I thought, huh, a sci-fi film? But the connecting thread between the killer cheerleader and Juno, is one of teenage life and being a little "different".

I think that's her take on the world. She's still dealing with issues she might have had in high school.

I recommend you find your world view and try it in different genres and when you find the one that fits, stick with it to become an expert in that genre.

Anonymous said...

Every agent and producer I've met has said that they look for a writer who specializes in a particular genre. They don't even bother with writers who write in a wide variety of genres.

I recently read the Diablo Cody has written a new script about a teenager who becomes an alien and kills the boys at her school, while her best friend tries to stop her. I thought, huh, a sci-fi film? But the connecting thread between the killer cheerleader and Juno, is one of teenage life and being a little "different".

I think that's her take on the world. She's still dealing with issues she might have had in high school.

I recommend you find your world view and try it in different genres and when you find the one that fits, stick with it to become an expert in that genre.

PJ McIlvaine said...

Excellent post.