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GENRE IS EMOTION


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Theme and Genre are two very different aspects of story that are often confused. Genre is the category of film - like action or horror or comedy. Theme is the underlying point, point of view, issue, or subject being explored by the movie. So Sam Peckinpah - who made westerns, war movies, and action films - always deals with the theme of what constitutes being a man..,. and often in violent world. "It's not whether you give your word or not, it's who you give it to." He explores that theme in his movies no matter what genre. My favorite writer from the 40s and 50s, Dan Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST, INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS) wrote thrillers and cop movies and science fiction... but the theme always dealt with matters of deception and trust. Whether it was femme fatale character Kathy Moffat decieving every man she comes into contact with of the Pod People pretending to be humans - he explored the same issues no matter what genre he was writing in.

Writers can be typecast by genre. It's both a good thing and a bad thing. The reason why it might be a good thing - you become the expert in a certain genre and are hired to write films in that genre. You end up on the assignment list for whatever genre you specialize in, and producers expect a certain level of quality and inventiveness when they read a genre script from you. The bad thing - what if Sam Peckinpah had wanted to do a big musical? What if Woody Allen wanted to make a horror movie? Though these might be interesting films, I'm not sure an audience would accept them. The same thing happens if you're known as a rom-com writer and you send a producer your action script. They have a preconceived notion of what your script will be like, and when it's something else entirely they can't help but be disappointed. You've been typecast! In the world of novels, a funny writer like the late Donald Westlake adopted a pseudonym like Richard Stark to write violent, edgy material so that his fans wouldn't be confused or disappointed. But the great thing about being a writer is that you can write any kind of script you want in any genre... and if you can get past those preconceived notions, you can change genres... or add a genre to your "wheelhouse". Much easier for a writer to write something different than for Seth Rogen to star in a remake of DIRTY HARRY... Though I keep expecting to read that in the trades every morning.

If you write indie films, you can do just about whatever you want... as long as you find the money or have some contactthat can find the money. If you ever wondered why so many indie films are dramas, it's because that genre is usually a hard sell to mainstream producers. Mainstream producers may make a drama or two for Oscar season, but usually they stick to popular genres.

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If you work mainstream, the audience wants to be entertained. That's why we pay our $11.50. We want to be transported to an interesting world where exciting things happen omn a regular basis. Nobody cares who wrote the movie - they care whether it is entertaining.

One of the things we've learned from the success of HANGOVER 2 was that the entertaining part is more important than the originality part. Critics dismissed the film because it was just a rehash of the first HANGOVER movie - they had seen it all before. But the critics missed the forest for the trees - when people pay to see a comedy the most important thing isn't "have we seen this basic story before" but *is it funny*? Am I gonna laugh my butt off? Funny is what the comedy genre is all about. If we were to look at the classic Bob Hope and Bing Crosby ROAD TO comedy series - ROAD TO BALI, ROAD TO UTOPIA, ROAD TO ZANZIBAR, ROAD TO SINGAPORE, etc - all were the same basic story, just with different jokes. Though this new film is just Hope & Crosby on the road again, the jokes are unique and different than the last film and the ones before it. What matters most: Is the movie *funny*? The genre. Will I laugh? Hey, people laughed at HANGOVER 2, so it didn't matter that much whether it was another story about guys who wake up after a wild bachelor party with no memory of what they did the night before. And HANGOVER 4 can follow the same story road and be successful... as long as it has new *jokes*. In a comedy, the audience doesn't care as much about the story as the funny stuff! That's what a comedy promises - and as long as it pays off the audience is happy.

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The audience *does* care who stars in the film, because they think that might be a way to figure out if it's entertaining... and what genre the film is. Hey, Jim Carrey is in this ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND movie, maybe it'll be really funny like LIAR LIAR! (Those people would have been disappointed - the film was typical Charlie Kaufman screenplay... A weird high concept comedy-drama.) Mostly, they watch the trailers to make their decisions - which means it all comes down to story elements. Part of that is genre - a "normal comedy" like LIAR LIAR will have a trailer with lots of funny gags, a film like SPOTLESS MIND is going to have a trailer with weird stuff - like cars and people being erased as Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet run to escape the erasing. That doesn't produce laughter in the average person. There's a limited audience for a film like that, and I'm part of it. I have a weird streak that's attracted to Charlie Kaufman movies. But the average person probably thinks his films are weird. They are an acquired taste.

The main element of genre is the emotional effect on the audience. So a comedy makes the audience laugh, a thriller makes them sit on the edge of their seat, a horror movie has them feel dread and fear. How well a movie communicates these emotions to the audience is the way the audience judges the film. A comedy that doesn't make the audience laugh isn't very funny... and that means it fails to meet the audience's expectations. The average movie goer will think it's not very good... even if the film is as good as SPOTLESS MIND. A comedy that has them laughing all the time is great. A movie like LIAR LIAR can make them laugh, plus make them think about issues of honesty... just as SPOTLESS MIND is all about how heartbreak is part of love,,, and maybe some relationships, no matter how painful, are inevitable (theme).

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Even though SPOTLESS MIND is about romance and stars Jim Carrey, it's *not* a romantic comedy. The story doesn't fit any of the audience's expectations for that genre. Rom-coms are not just romantic and funny, they follow a basic story pattern (genre expectations). A rom-com story has a couple that we know are meant for each other, but something keeps them apart. We hope the couple will get together, but fear they might not. SPOTLESS MIND takes place after the relationship is over - it's all about dealing with a broken heart. It's about the death of love - to the extreme that both Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet go to a place where they erase painful memories to wash each other out of their memories. Oddly enough - the film was prophetic... they've just invented a drug that erases painful memories!

That's the opposite of the emotional experience we expect from a romantic comedy. And the humor is dark and ironic - not the kind of humor we expect in a romantic comedy.

Even though SPOTLESS MIND is a great film, it wasn't a big hit. Most people were probably disappointed because Jim Carrey didn't talk aboput of his butt. The story doesn't fit the audience's genre expectations for *any* mainstream genre. It's a "none of the above" movie. It's just too weird, and too much of a weird downer (being about the death of love, rather than the birth of love) (though it has a great, hopeful, ending). I think Kaufman will always be the writer that screenwriters love - but most people who buy cinema tickets will never see any of his films (and if they do - they'll probably not love them like I do). What makes the story interesting to us as writers, makes the story a very tough sell to an audience (which means probably a tough sell to a producer, too). The folks we sell a script to are looking for great writing, but they are also looking for genre material: thrillers and romantic comedies and action films and science fiction and comedies and teen films and horror and all of those other categories they have above the shelves at Blockbuster. You may write something like SPOTLESS MIND and become the next Charlie Kaufman - the guy everybody wants to work with... or you may end up with great personal satisfaction but no sale. If you have to write a non-mainstream script, you have to write it... just don't expect it to sell. Not everything is written for money. Not everything will connect with the audience.

In a strange way, our instrument is the audience. We make a movie to spark emotions within them. How well our film sparks those emotions is how quality is decided by the audience... and sometimes the critics. But as HANGOVER 2 shows us, you can write a film the audience loves and critics hate... because the critics don't care as much about the emotional experience. Theme and genre are two different elements that often work together to create an exciting and emotional experience for the audience - you want them working together Our theme may touch a chord with the audience, but our story may not fulfill the audience's expectations of the genre. We're all working for the audience - that ticket money trickles down to development money.

1) What do you want the audience to feel while watching your film? (pick one dominant emotion)
2) How are you using the script to make them feel that emotion?
3) How does the conflict in the story create these emotions?
4) How do the characters illustrate different aspects of these emotions?
5) How does each scene make the audience feel something... and what do you want them to feel?

The idea of Genre is all about the emotional response of the audience - writing something that creates an emotional response in the viewer/reader. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is a great film about heartbreak and emotional pain and maybe the unavoidability of love and heartbreak. If you haven't seen it, yet, check it out.



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