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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

....but it's not going to sell your script.

Last week, I read a really good script. It was so well executed. Compelling, masterful, entertaining. But completely unoriginal. Because it was a carbon copy of a movie which has already been made.

So this tells me the writer is a quick study, a fan of the genre, and a competent writer. But it also tells me this writer has not done his or her homework thoroughly enough when it comes to understanding the marketplace.

How do you know whether what you've written is truly original or whether it is a carbon copy of something else? Well - what movie would you compare your script to? Have you written DISTURBIA which bears a close resemblance to REAR WINDOW (Ah, a little too close, according to the news of the day.) and yet turned some key points inside out? Is this a riff on another movie or a rip off of another movie?

Now - each genre has expectations. Take a sub-genre that for some reason has shown up in several movies and scripts within my world lately - the crazy-person-stalker-movie. LAKEVIEW TERRACE is related to FATAL ATTRACTION which is related to SWIM FAN which is related to SINGLE WHITE FEMALE. All good movies - well, mea culpa, haven't seen LAKEVIEW quite yet but it's Sam Jackson so my hopes are high. But here we have the seemingly friendly person that you get mixed up with who turns out to be someone you cannot get rid of. It's a great sub-genre because it has an everyman-resonance. We can all relate to it, either because it's happened to us or because we fear that it could. We build our lives so carefully and hold so many things to be so dear and then someone can come along and destroy our lives from the inside out. That's a nightmare we can all relate to.

You'll notice that in each of the movies I mentioned above, the basic story type is the same while the specifics are different. Different enough to make each movie unique. And yet familiar enough to make each movie appealing to audiences.

In each genre there are conventions and expectations. Some of the expectations of psychological thriller are that the main character has made an error in judgment and now must pay for it. But it gets out of control and the antagonist is generally insane. There will be blood in a psychological thriller - meaning there is often an escalation of the conflict until the antagonist must die a spectacular, deserved death. The main character should go to the police but cannot because of that initial error in judgment - the battle must be fought alone. Another genre expectation of the antagonist in this sub-genre of crazy-person-stalker is that the antagonist inextricably insinuates him or herself into the intimate life of the main character by way of that initial judgment error. And they make this initial incursion by identifying the weakness of that main character. Which is a great jumping off point for identifying the flaw of your main character.

Each genre has expectations - a template, if you will. Would a truly great horror movie entertain you quite as much if there weren't at least ONE good pop-out moment? In THE ORPHANAGE, as one great example, there is certainly the good ol' pop-out moment but done with such originality and with a stamp of uniqueness on it, that it satisfies over and above the expectation. If you haven't seen THE ORPHANAGE, by the way, you should treat yourself. Here is the trailer.

So here's how you can check in with yourself to see if you've written an imitation of a movie you loved or whether you've taken it to a new level of uniqueness:

*Ask yourself: do you truly understand the conventions and expectations of the genre? I mean - do you TRULY understand them? Watch this genre over and over until you can identify the conventions. This is a great way to take a break while writing, if you feel stuck. Go to the video store and rent 2 or 3 movies that are in any way similar to your own. This is probably one of the healthiest, most productive ways you can procrastinate. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

*List the ways in which your script has met the conventions of the genre. Go ahead. List 'em. As one example: If you're writing a romcom have you got the "cute meet"? Have you got the "bellamy"?

*Now: having identified that you have indeed included the expected conventions and beats, ask yourself, yes, but how have I taken that convention and gone one step beyond it? Is it a run-of-the-mill horror pop-out moment or have I made this pop-out something that has not been done in this particular way before? This is where YOUR particular voice and point of view comes into play. There are cute meets and there are CUTE MEETS which we have not yet seen before. Hint: a cute meet in which the two romantic leads bump into each other and stoop to pick up their books? Not original.

Writing a script which is a carbon copy of a previously made movie save for the location and the names of the characters is a good exercise. I suppose. But it is also a waste of your time. But do not fear if this is what you have done. Go back and look at your script and look for those conventional moments - now think outside the box. How can you take this whole script a giant step beyond what has already been done?

You might ask how your script speaks to the zeitgeist two years from now. Ghosts have been and will always be good, scary stuff for viewers. Ghosts of little orphaned children? Good, stock stuff. But THE ORPHANAGE took that a step beyond and if you've seen it, you'll know that there is a particularly powerful call-back moment - a game that the children play - that is one of the several things that makes this movie stand out.

In fact, THE ORPHANAGE could be grouped together with THE OTHERS. This would be a good homework viewing double-feature, in fact, which would handily sum up my point here. They are the same - but quite different.

And that's what you want to shoot for - familiarity but uniqueness. A seemingly difficult combination. The best piece of advice I can give Rouge Wavers who are aspiring writers is:
Know your genre inside out. Then do it differently. The same. But different.

Remember - when your audience member goes out to the movies, they like to have some idea of what they're getting. They paid the sitter, parked the car, went out to dinner and are now shelling out upwards of $12 to see your movie. And they happened to have felt like seeing a romantic comedy this Friday evening. So you damn well better give them a romantic comedy. But not one they've seen before.


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11 comments:

James said...

I disagree with your hypothesis. Most producers are looking for "the same, only different," regardless if they tell you that or not.

They want material that feels different and original, but at the same time has a familiarity that SELLS and can be slotted into an already proven market.

The number of producers looking for a new Charlie Kaufman are few and far between. It's too much time and money to put at risk to try something new. Sad, but ultimately how 90% of the industry works -- and for the first time screenwriter, it is important to hit the biggest targets possible.

DISTURBIA made a good chunk of money, was a fun, exciting screenplay to read, was readily comparable to a classic movie, and was dirt cheap to make due to its limited locations. (THE STRANGERS, and a few other thriller/horror movies-in-a-box are following suit).

The fact that an exec could say, "Hey, this is a modern day REAR WINDOW," is EXACTLY the reason it sold.

And look -- they were right. It made money. People wanted to see it, even if there are people like me out there that refused to pay 10 dollars to see such a blatant rip-off of REAR WINDOW. Obviously I, and others like me, were in the minority.

Julie Gray said...

Actually, James, I think you need to reread my post. We are in agreement. The same but different is exactly what sells. Just not nearly identical. Because it's been done. It's about riffing on another movie that did well - but not ripping it off directly. Here's where we disagree - I thought that Disturbia, while not my favorite movie, was an inspired take and update on REAR WINDOW. But something that is a cookie cutter replicant of another movie will not garner attention for an aspiring writer trying to break in. It will be seen as derivative, lazy and unoriginal. Producers want to see that you have a VOICE and a fresh take on what has worked in the past.

Dave Shepherd said...

They're looking for a new spin on a proven-genre.

Charlie Kauffman is so out there that he's created his own genre, and right now it's niche at best (this coming from someone who LOVED Adaptation).

In essence, you want to write a screenplay that is:

1. Good.
2. Fits into a proven market (genre).
3. Easy to sell in a 30 second trailer.

The reason why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is Charlie's highest grossing movie isn't because it's the best, it's because it's the easiest to sell in 30 seconds.

That's also why Fight Club -- a good movie -- only made $40 million domestic gross, while Seven made $100 million, even though they're both going after the same market (give or take).

One of them you can sell in 30 seconds, one of them you can't.

There's something to be said for simplicity.

E.C. Henry said...

Great thought provoking post, Julie.

I say write great art and let people dissect as they choose. I LOVE romantic comedies. I'll watch a GOOD one like 10 - 15 times, and just admire all the fine artistic touches varrious aspects that it's creators put in.

I tend to rely on my instincts, and put comparisions to other movies in the back burner when actually writing, 'cuz I don't wanna write a carbon copy of ANYONE'S movie.

To be compared favoribly to Charlie Kaufman is one of the highest forms of flattery a pre-pro screenwriter can ever get. The guy is just so creative... The chances he takes are daring, and Charilie is brillant. So what if some people don't get. Hollywood'll crank out more "Scary Movies" for those mental midgets.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

I read so many scripts that are well executed but the writer does not have a voice.

As if they paid some professional writer to do a rewrite for them. I see this happen all the time.

Since we are on the topic. What is your opinion on aspiring screenwriters who pay pro writers to edit their work 100%.

I read so many script that smell like someone else edited all the sentences in that script.

This is very disturbing.

Please advise.

Sam said...

Can I give you an example that makes people laugh when I tell them - 8 Mile and Saturday Night Fever.

They are the same story - young man from a lower class, family issues/angst, dead end job, mates that mean well but aren't exactly motivational, rocky love interest... and the main character has an innate talent that could be his ticket out of that life.

Very different looking films but essentially the same story. And there is surely loads more that follow the same recipe, one for each generation, perhaps?

Julie Gray said...

Depends on what you mean by "edit" their scripts.

I would think it nearly impossible to prove, in the situations you have seen: "[scripts] that smell like someone else edited all the sentences in that script."

An aspiring writer who would hire someone else to edit - in the purest sense of the word is fine by me. Editing as defined by proofreading and language/grammar corrections.

But if you mean edit in a more collaborative, creative sense, i.e., rewrite action lines, etc., that seems very counter-intuitive to me since at some point you have to stand on your own two feet.

The only aspiring writers I know of who have done that are not really aspiring writers, they are people who have a script they'd like to see made and know their own limitations and so hire someone else to execute the script to its highest potential. They aren't looking for a writing career, per se, but rather to get financing on a project that they consider their baby. They aren't really writers, they are would-be producers who think x, y or z story MUST be told, tried to execute a good script, hit the rocks pretty hard and then decide to bring someone else in to get the script to where it needs to be to be taken seriously.

Julie Gray said...

EIGHT MILE and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER: I'd buy that for a dollar! I think that's actually a pretty astute observation!

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

You really have a good sense of direction in this business.

I like your feedback and advice and point of view.

Working this hard with amazing honesty, I think you are on your way of rocking this screenwriting industry.

It's good to see someone like you with great leadership skills.



Cheers!

Julie Gray said...

Aw - thank you, Anonymous. I really appreciate your comment very much. If this blog is in some way both entertaining and educating even one reader, that makes my day. Cupcake for you!
xo

Joshua James said...

The trailer for LAKEVIEW TERRACE is basically the same movie as UNLAWFUL ENTRY, except with a black guy playing the Ray Liotta part.

I mean, that's what it feels like to me.