Monday, 11 January 2010


I was actually thinking about this blog before I read David Bishop's post which mentioned Phil Paker's theory on genre. But as I've said previously, I studied screenwriting under Phil during my MA. You spend enough time with the guy, you start to buy into a lot of what he says. (Sounds like a cult I know, but he's just a very good, very enthusiastic, teacher!)

So basically I agree with Phil's theory. There are four basic genres, Romance, Horror, Thriller and Personal Drama. Having said that, there are a few sub-genres in each. For example within the Romance drama, you've got Rom Coms, Romantic Dramas and Romantic Tragedies. I'm not going into the whole thing. There are back articles by Phil in Twelvepoint and he's got his own book. One further thing though, like David said, is his belief that things like Sci-Fi and Western are not genres, but settings. This actually makes perfect sense to me (although I respect the fact that others would completely disagree) because it seems a bit odd that Star Wars and Alien are supposedly both the same genre (Sci-Fi,) but have radically different stories (because one is an Action Adventure and one is pure Horror.) You can have a love story set in the Wild West, or you can set a thriller there. You get my point.

Why is this important? Because Genre is key to understanding how stories work. If we understand genre conventions, and we understand the genre we are working in, we have the tools to analyse what is working, what is not, and crucially, why something is not. Take for example two films I saw recently, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and Pineapple Express. I believe that one works because it understood its genre and used its conventions to come up with something original, and that the other one got in a bit of a muddle.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was about Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) and his struggles to make it as a journalist, which took him somewhat inexplicably to New York. It's a Personal Drama (I'm not talking about tone. I realise it's a comedy not a drama!) Sidney's struggle is to become a journalist but not sell out and write puff pieces in order to do so. But he meets Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst) and suddenly, towards the end of the narrative, the plot starts turning on Rom Com beats. I realise you can have a love story subplot - but in which case your main story should not turn on those beats. The active question was never whether Sidney would get a girlfriend, whether Sidney and Alison end up together. They do, at one of those open air, big screen old movie showings, that only seem to exist in, well, the movies. But we don't really care. The question I wanted answering was whether Sidney stayed true to himself and his beliefs. He did, in the end, kind of. But it was all a bit wishy washy.

On the other hand, Pineapple Express takes the familiar Action Adventure film and makes it new with its protagonists. I'm not gonna rattle off the plot, but it involves someone seeing something they shouldn't, going on the run, drug gang wars, corrupt cops, shootouts and car chases. That could describe many a Will Smith or Tom Cruise movie. The only difference here is that the two leads, played by Seth Rogen and James Franco, are complete pot heads! So they stumble from one disaster to another, the worst shootout ever, the worst getaway car chase ever etc. And it's hilarious. There is total respect for the genre conventions - but with a couple of stoners thrown into the middle of it. It's similar to what Hot Fuzz tried to do, with mixed results. But it's a reminder that knowing genre conventions and using them, does not inhibit creativity and originality.

So whatever script analysis tool works for you, that is probably the one to follow. I don't always agree with Phil. (Phil - I still maintain Shakespeare in Love is a Romantic Comedy, not a Romantic Drama!) But the important thing to keep in mind is how important Genre is. Because not only will it help you write your screenplay, further down the line, it will also hopefully be a key tool in marketing your film too. But if you establish a genre, and therefore a 'contract' with the audience, and then don't deliver on those expectations for whatever reasons, chances are you'll have a bunch of unsatisfied customers on your hands.

No comments: