I write fairly often about the moral lows of what I read. In part, that because it's a lot of fun to rail against the idiots who spend their creativity on dreaming up new ways to disembowel people, or find new bodily fluids that haven't been used for comedic purposes. And if they're not doing that, it seems they invest all their efforts in describing the curves of their female characters' asses, or failing that, find as many places as possible to stick in the descriptor "side boob."
But there's a fairly large amount of the submissions that land at the other end of the continuum: the "important" pictures. These are the ones whose writers are determined to show they can write DRAMA, dammit! The problem is that the amateur tends to mistake "dramatic" pictures for "films that leave you depressed and wanting to hang yourself."
Those are the sorts of films where the prom queen not only is in an abusive relationship with the captain of the football team, but he rapes her and leaves her when she turns up pregnant. Then she gets thrown out of her abusive home because her molester of a father doesn't want anyone figuring out he's also had his way with her. She's reduced to living on the streets and turning tricks, where naturally she develops both a drug habit and is infected with HIV. Naturally both cause complications with the birth of her child, who either dies moments after being born or has severe birth defects that weigh on the mother.
Oh, yeah... and these usually end in suicide.
The above might be a generalization, but I think you all get where I'm coming from - the writers who try to write important movies usually end up writing soap opera melodrama.
Or they end up writing pretentious period pieces. Often these are about IMPORTANT ISSUES like slavery, women's rights, or some really obscure corner of history. When these projects are put in the hands of a writer who knows what they're doing, they can be compelling. When one attempts them as their first project, the results are often painful for the reader.
I've been thinking lately about why someone might try to write one of these scripts right out of the gate, and the answer I keep coming back to is that the would-be writers fancy themselves serious screenwriters. They scoff at anything "commercial" and turn their nose up at the suggestions they might want to try writing something in a more marketable genre. They don't want to be hacks - they're artists. They want to be the next Frank Darabount and write The Shawshank Redemption.
But here's the thing: everyone starts somewhere. I recently raved about the Nightmare on Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again, which covered the production of all the films in the Elm Street series. Guess who co-wrote A Nightmare on Elm Street part III: Dream Warriors? Frank Darabount. You know what else he wrote? The Blob remake, The Fly II and two episodes of Tales From the Crypt - all before he made Shawshank.
For that matter, the Nightmare franchise counts Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette among its alums, two VERY serious actors.
The list goes on and on: James Cameron got his start on Piranha II, David Fincher's first feature film was Alien 3, this year's Oscar-winner for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow directed the Jamie Lee Curtis cop movie Blue Steel and then the Swayze/Reeves vehicle Point Break long before handing weighty material like The Hurt Locker. There's even a rumor that before he became a distinguised blogger and university professor, Scott Myers wrote a Jim Belushi film!
(Let's be clear - I'm not disparaging any of those films. I'm just pointing out that they are exactly the sort of fare that "serious" screenwriters seem to enjoy looking down on. And I'm absolutely not taking a cheap shot at Scott. I read Go into the Story everyday and I think he's a great guy. In fact, I haven't even seen K-9, so please don't take that last bit and spin it as "The Bitter Script Reader's talking shit about Scott Myers!" At worst, I'm giving him a gentle ribbing.)
My point is that you shouldn't make the mistake of believing your first screenplay (or even your second or third) needs to be an important screenplay. Don't try to write the next Oscar-winning epic on cholera, or feel that you need to browbeat the audience with a social issue in order to be taken seriously.
It's less critical that your work is "important" than it is for it to be entertaining.
And if some of you still aren't quite catching on to what I'm saying, go rent Sullivan's Travels.
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