After reading hundreds, if not thousands of screenplays, over the last number of years, it’s obvious that most writers don’t have a clue as to what is going on in screenwriting outside that how to book they bought or that film school course they took (ah, yes, film school courses on screenwriting, the death of many a good writer). Most of the screenplays entered into contests or submitted to agencies are incredibly formulaic with very few original or exciting ideas. It gets to the point where I feel like I’m Gene Wilder in The Producers, begging for his blue blankie because he’s surrounded by thousands of three hole punched manuscripts held together by two brads, and not one of them worth mentioning (you have seen the original The Producers so you can understand that reference, haven’t you? If not, rent it immediately, you idiot; you’re part of the problem, not the solution).
So I am going to make a suggestion that should, in and of itself, make you a far better writer that almost anything suggested in a book, video or website: once or, heaven forbid, even twice a week, whether at the movie theater, on TV, via Netflix or Blockbuster, see a movie outside your comfort zone.
By this I mean a classic film (you know, those movies your father and grandfather keep telling your are far better than anything made today—it’s not true, they’re not inherently better, but that doesn’t mean they’re worthless); an independent film (you know, the kinds of movies you need to be making so that one day you’ll be hired to write the next Spider Man); or a foreign film (yes, you might have to read—deal with it).
I’m not telling you to like them. I’m not telling you to think they’re any good. I’m not even telling you to tell your bromantic best friend you actually watched the latest François Ozon (that’s what rentals are for, so you can see these films alone, in the privacy of your bedroom—if your friend asks what you’re doing in there by yourself for such long periods of time, just tell him your masturbating; he won’t ask again, or he’ll want to know what your technique is). What I am telling you is to see these films, absorb them and learn from them.
I’m exaggerating, of course. I’ve read many more than a few that have shown an originality, edginess and chance taking that give me a reason to go on living another day. But it’s also not unusual for me to tell a writer that I read a script that was very reminiscent of Caché, or La Moustache, or 13 Tzameti, or I’ve asked a fellow writer if they’ve seen the latest from Pedro Almodovar or anything by Krzyztof Kieslowski, and they have absolutely no idea what or who I’m talking about. What are they teaching them in schools these days?
Screenwriting has become something of a tautology in the U.S. Why do you write a screenplay using a certain formula? Because a book says that these are the movies that get made. Why are these movies the ones that get made? Because the screenplays people write are based on a formula from a book that says that this is the way to write a screenplay that gets made. This sort of circular reasoning has come about mainly because books often tend to analyze screenplays that are the most popular financially rather than screenplays that have been judged to be the best (I was in a workshop once where the leader told someone his romantic comedy needed a happy ending like When Harry Met Sally; when the person said he was aiming for a more ambiguous ending like The Break Up, the leader told the writer that When Harry Met Sally made more money).
But it also comes about because most screenwriters I read don’t have a vision. They often have nothing to say. They want to write a movie, but other than making a living at it, don’t really have a reason to. Most screenplays are sort of the equivalent of those paintings one sees at airport and hotel shows, rows and rows of horses and landscapes—technically well done, perhaps, but devoid of any inspiration or soul.
So take a chance, writers. Expand your world. See something you would never think of seeing because it doesn’t fit into your predetermined world of what makes a good movie. They won’t bite; they might pierce your soul and leave a wound that will never heal, but that’s another story.
So that’s what pisses us off. Formulaic movies written according to some arbitrary rules rather than ambitious and unique stories that really show what you have to offer as a screenwriter.