Monday, January 21, 2013

Is it all or nothing? And what makes a script generic?

Dennis wrote in with a question:

Do you get rocked by an amazing character and say "The plot sucks, but I'd like to spend more time with that character?" 

Or do you occasionally say "What a grab f-ing story. We could spice up the characters?" 

Or do you only let the whole pizza, with all the toppings get by?

This is kind of a case-by-case basis. I've certainly written up coverage that says something along the lines of "The main character is fun, but the premise and the plot are garbage."  Just as surely I've written, "The concept is very clever and marketable, but the script is marred by some cardboard characters and leaden plotting."

As to how much a bad lead character can hurt an awesome concept, that's something that depends on the degree of the "badness" and the ingenuity of the script's virtues.  Some scripts are fixer-uppers that can easily be flipped, while others are money pits.  For the most part, you can tell the difference between the two, and that can also be influenced by a host of other elements like: who's attached to the script, how similar films like it have done recently, what sort of project are we looking to do, and so on.

The takeaway from the writer's perspective should be that you can't count on any single aspect of the script to save your ass.  Write the best damn script you can, the best damn characters you can, and have a unique plot that we haven't seen before.

Along those lines, Jeffrey asks:

I came across your blog and wanted to ask you something (not to read my screenplay though) - I presume that you spend your time head in hand (for possibly only the first ten pages) that you're reading a generic screenplay. And that's what I want to ask about. If one isn't populating the fictional world with Pynchonian weird characters, or writing Diablo Cody swearing couplets - what are some of the signs of dreaded genericism. 

I realize that this is a very open ended question, and I'm just some idiot (probably one of many) emailing you with (inane) questions, but if you'd indulge ms with a little of your wisdom, that would be great.

 It's a hard question to answer.  For me, it's if I can tell where the script is going to go long before it gets there.  Some things are obvious - if this is a romantic comedy, the couple introduced at the start is probably going to end up together.  That's a gimmie. My beef starts if the road to getting there is predictable.

Does the couple bicker and deny their feelings for a long time?
Do they get together on a contrived date that strains to be wacky?
Is there a misunderstanding that causes one member of the couple to believe the other has cheated on them?
Does said misunderstanding somehow involve a slutty friend/co-worker/rival who has been set-up as promiscuous from the start?
If a workplace romantic comedy, is someone up for promotion?

In horror films you could make a similar list that details the sorts of characters along for the ride (the good girl, the jock, the geek, the slut, the stoner and the fat guy/wacky comedy relief), the order of the kills, the pacing of the kills, the fact that someone WILL be killed in a state of undress, the liklihood that at somepoint, someone will run through the woods and another person will probably take a shower or skinny dip....

I think you get my point.  It's when the same familiar beats get executed without any irony or self-awareness.  Cabin in the Woods works because it takes all those horror cliches and puts them in a context where the people pulling the strings know that they're cliches and NEED those cliches to play out.  In doing so, the film says something about the nature of horror films and our love of the genre.

A generic film has nothing to say. It simply is. It's like a mynah bird - it can talk, but only by repeating what it's already heard.

1 comment:

  1. This is heartening to read - I'm working on a script for university where the characters have really come alive, but the plot still feels like it needs something more to be truly unique. It's good to get a reminder not to be lazy.