Things I Learned From… Man Up

Man Up, the first movie from writer Tess Morris, is out today. Starring Simon Pegg and Lake Bell, it’s the story of an impulsive decision that spirals into the world’s weirdest blind date, between two apparently unsuited people who might just be perfect for each other. As we all know, I’m not a huge fan of romcoms – and I really enjoyed it. Which is quite a recommendation, right? So go see it immediately!

But as a writer, what I took away from it was that changing the norms and conventions of a well-worn genre can make that genre fresh and new again.

We all know how romcoms work, right? The couple meet – and keep meeting, over weeks, months, even years. Some connection between them has been contrived – or maybe it’s just fate – that keeps bringing them back into each other’s orbits, whether they currently like or hate one another. And that’s what gives them time to get over themselves and get together.

Man Up doesn’t do that. Instead, it tracks Jack and Nancy across the course of 24 hours or so. They met by accident, they have no way to contact each other, or even much idea which of the things they think they know about the other are true. This is a whirlwind romance where, when parted, they have almost no chance of finding one another (well, apart from the help of some unlikely bystanders, but every romcom needs some intervention from Cupid…)

And that means the pressure is on. They bond tonight, or they part and it’s over. By placing the relationship in a pressure cooker, Man Up deftly avoids the perilously flabby “will they, won’t they, who cares, plenty more fish in the sea” structure of most romcoms, and raises the stakes without elevating the relationship into some unbelievable, mythic romance. Right now, these two people need each other – and right now is all that matters.

So, the writing lesson here is – how can you break the rules of your chosen genre? What if your sweeping historical epic all took place in one room? Or your contained thriller tracked the same small group of people over twenty years?  What if your action movie had an all-female cast? And most importantly, how can you use this to raise the stakes, bust cliches, and reinvent your chosen genre?

The Genre Of Hope

The London Screenwriters’ Festival twitter account recently asked a very interesting question; what is the greatest film genre?

And yes, I know, comparisons are odious and all that… (Hey, wait, I just quoted Evelyn Waugh and John Donne at the same time. Does that mean I’m an intellectual now?)  On the whole I’m not a big fan of Top Tens and  Greatest Ever Blah and “this is better than that” of any kind. The urge to line things up in a definite order and crow over which beats which is not conducive to craft, let alone art.

But it did occur to me that there’s a real answer to this question. And the answer is science fiction.

Why? Because science fiction is the genre of hope.

Horror peers into the abyss of the human heart, drama examines the minutiae of everyday life, historical fiction tells us where we came from (all fascinating things, of course) –  but only science fiction can explore the full potential of the human mind and heart, both for evil and for good. Science fiction tells us who we are, who we’re capable of becoming, and what we need to conquer, in the world and in ourselves, to get there. And that’s why I write it.

Eyes Wide Open

Film fans can afford to stick to the genres and films they know and like. Don’t like romcoms? Don’t bother with them! Prefer aliens from outer space? Watch nothing but science fiction!

Screenwriters don’t have that luxury.

An awful lot of bad writing, especially from students and writers at the very beginning of their career, seems to stem from a limited experience of film. They’ve watched only the genres that appeal to them, and now they’re regurgitating a pale imitation of the movies they’ve seen, hidebound by rules and tropes they don’t even know they’re following.

We all learn our cinematic, and screenwriting, language from the films we watch. How to use time and space, dialogue and silence, which images link scenes together and which provide contrast – all of these are techniques we absorb, without even realising it, from our films of choice. The more styles and genres we dabble in, the more techniques we’ll have at our disposal.

But if we only watch one or two types of film, we’ll only learn one or two forms of cinematic language – and that limits our ability to tell stories, even within the genre we’ve been studying. A screenwriter shouldn’t be a specialist in one martial art, but an MMA fighter, borrowing moves from every school and style to get the story told.

You don’t have to like a movie to learn from it.

And you never know when you’re going to stumble across the solution to a problem. While watching a TV series with a teenage central character, I realised that the nemesis in the feature script I was working on needed to be thirty years younger – and the whole story finally fell into place. If I hadn’t gone outside my story comfort zone, I might never have solved that problem…

Things I Learned From… Prometheus

So, Prometheus. Eagerly anticipated, endlessly speculated about, and therefore pretty much guaranteed to disappoint everyone!

Actually, I thought there was a great deal about it that was excellent. It’s an intelligent attempt to broaden the Alien universe, to ask big questions, to tackle big issues, and yet reference some of the key elements of the earlier films – artificial intelligence, the biology of alien lifeforms, and the conflict between profit, scientific curiosity and survival.

It doesn’t always succeed. Indeed, some of those issues may be near-impossible to tackle: I have yet to see a movie, Hollywood or indie, that has anything profound or illuminating to say about religious faith. Any attempt to seriously explore the nature of belief invariably ends up shallow, mawkish, or awkwardly preachy. As a Christian, I find this both frustrating and strangely reassuring. Storytelling is a process of metaphors, after all, and perhaps the best way to approach profound themes in our work is metaphorically. Stories are there to teach us how to live, not which creed to believe or which rules to follow. And a good thing too.

Anyway, Prometheus. I wonder if the problems with the flagging, slightly muddled second act lie not so much in the writing but in the genre – the exploration movie?
Movies about people going out and exploring stuff have been around a long time, but they’ve never been a major genre. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say they’ve never been a genre in and of themselves – because in fact, most movies about exploration change genre in the second act.

Take Alien, which begins with the crew of an ordinary vessel being diverted from their journey home to investigate a planet for unknown reasons. But as we all know, the movie changes course – and genre – where there’s a kind of late, secondary inciting incident involving John Hurt and a facehugger. Now we have a horror movie, and exploration is out of the window.

Similarly, Indiana Jones may set off to explore some fascinating archeological evidence, but invariably there’s a secondary inciting incident that propels the movie into an action-adventure, and Indy spends the rest of the movie punching Nazis.

Prometheus may contain a few horror tropes – and some of them are certainly horrific! – but it never changes genre. Right to the very last frame, it’s firmly about the search for the origins of life and the meaning that knowledge would give to human existence.
The problem is, that may be what dooms the story – because the explorer is just there to explore. He arrives, he looks, he tries to get back home in one piece. He’s a detached observer –

And that’s the one thing the protagonist of a movie can never be. Alien could never be about the crew discovering an alien life form and studying it, without mishaps, on the way back to earth. Indy can’t just discover that Nazis want a magical artefact and say “That’s very interesting.”. In order to be a protagonist, he can’t simply observe: he has to make a moral choice and take action based on it.

The protagonist of Prometheus is never faced with a moral choice. She’s never asked to help save lives, to choose between humans and aliens and androids, decide whether to share her research or not, or tackle any other moral quandary that the situation might produce. She just keeps on sifting the evidence for scientific, academic answers.

Which makes her a great scientist, but just maybe, not a very satisfying movie protagonist…