Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Rom Com-mon Denominator

Wordplay is a gold mine. Truly. There may actually be unanswered screenwriting questions on that site, but a person would be hard pressed to find them. In response to my question about Rom Coms that never grow old, Mariama pointed me to a thread that follows Ted Elliott's thoughts on blah romantic comedies.

Ted basically says that when the primary task is to fall in love, everything else is somewhat unconvincing. But, when two people fall in love while attempting to accomplish common or conflicting tasks, you have a memorable story. Story first. Romance second. Simple.

When I think of the Rom Coms/hybrids/cross genres that I never tire of watching and have withstood the test of time -- Tootsie (1982), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Groundhog Day (1993), Romancing the Stone (1984) -- romance isn't the primary storyline.

* Heaven Can Wait - Joe Pendleton wants a body
* Tootsie - Michael Dorsey wants an acting job
* Groundhog Day - Phil Conners wants the day to end
* Romancing the Stone - Joan Wilder wants to save her sister

Something besides love drives each of those stories and it's something I can relate to enough that bell bottoms and big hair won't keep me from watching the movie over and over. Working Girl (1988) and The Secret of My Success (1987) are even basically the same film with different genders, but I love them both because who can't relate to wanting out from behind the secretary's desk or out of the mailroom?

Story first. Romance second. This is a very workable thought process for me. No more pressure to be a romantic comedy aficionado in order to incorporate humor and romance into my screenplays. Story first. Romance second. Of course, that leaves the humor unaddressed. Coincidentally, I am beginning Chapter Eight of Billy Mernit's book, Writing the Romantic Comedy, and what is it called? Finding the Funny.


shecanfilmit said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you...

I love Tootsie so much I've watched it once month for the past 5 years. Now I have a new understanding of the film. I'm also about to write a rom com.

How about When Harry Met Sally? That's another one I can watch over and over again. Or French Kiss? Ah, a beautiful film.

What are the principal story lines in those two films? My hypothesis - in both cases, romance with other people than who they end up with.

Optimistic_Reader said...

Hi MaryAn, that's great advice there - as a script reader I get a lot of romantic comedies and they can be some of the most difficult scripts to analyse. Also agree with shecanfilmit that in a lot of rom-coms the lead character is initially pursuing romance with an inappropriate partner - The Wedding Singer is one that springs to mind in that category.

This post makes me want to watch Working Girl again - it has one of my favourite lines ever, delivered by Joan Cusack to Harrison Ford: "Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Me?" Can't imagine any other actress delivering that so well!

Lucy said...

Harrison Ford in the 80's... Pity I was only about 7 when Working Girl came out. He's a little bony for my tastes now, along with Al Pacino. >SIGH<

As a script reader myself, RomComs can be the DULLEST genre to read since writers often mistake BOY-MEETS-GIRL as being the ONLY bit "to it", when it should be BOY-MEETS-GIRL-BUT-BACKGROUNDS/FAMILIES/MONEY/THE DAY WON'T END/BUT THERE ARE SNAKES ON THE PLANE (hey, could happen) should be the real plot. Thanks for that.

mernitman said...

MaryAn, I wasn't being flip I said I'd address your great question ("what endures?") in a blog post -- you'll have my two cents, or a quarter, on this topic tomorrow (Friday) morning.

In the meantime, let me just chime in briefly to second you and the folks above on this "make it about something other than romance" issue. My favorites tend to be the movies that don’t look like Romantic Comedies, where the romantic comedy material is like the great rich filling you come upon when you bite into a high concept cake. TOOTSIE's a classic case. Take ZELIG, for example: the romance in it is so left-of-center, you don’t think of it as a romantic comedy (the movie's ostensibly a documentary about "Chameleon Man"). Or GROUNDHOG DAY: the device is so central that the love story seems secondary, but it’s not. Which is also the case with Albert Brooks’ DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, and TRULY MADLY DEEPLY; they both have high concept hooks about the after-life (in the Brooks movie, the couple meets after they’re both dead), but they’re ultimately rom-coms.

I think what's key is having a protagonist whose primary "want" is something other than romance. WORKING GIRL isn't looking for a guy, she's looking for a job. Love becomes the complication in these stories. It's true of even movies with plots rooted in the arena of romance and sex; take our most recent genres successes, WEDDING CRASHERS and 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN -- the guys are looking to get laid, period, not looking for true love.

It's why I spend so much page space in the book exploring "hybrids" and "cross-genre" rom-coms. If you look at those lists (teen rom-coms, crime rom-coms, gender-benders, et al) I think you'll find that the plots find their tension and story suspense in other-genre elements... which is why they'll sustain the interest of your Reader readers.

Come to think of it, that snakes-on-a-plane rom-com has real potential...

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Love is the complication -- perfectly worded and impossible to forget. Love changes everything, hands and faces, earth and sky, how you live and how you die, brings you glory, brings you shame, live or perish in its flame.

Somebody should make that a song. I didn't think you were being flip, Billy, you are a generous and patient teacher, but I do think you have more important things in life to do than serving as my own personal tutor.

Of course, if you want it, the job is yours, but there could be -- complications.

Anonymous said...

bend the mold, don't break it I suppose? if you think about it, what makes the same old romantic stories memorable to us in retrospect, is what made them different than all the other dribble we put our aching eyes through... I am tackling one in my next project, a real mold bender.. just hope it's recognized as a cake and not flan

oneslackmartian said...

great tip, and how COOL is it that you get Billy Mernit's book AND comments from him. Gotta love the scribosphere.

good luck there, girl!

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Billy is uber cool to lend his time and wisdom to a poser.