First of all, I’d like to highlight something really, really cool: last year I was invited to the Austin Film Festival, and one of the many things I got to do on the four-day jaunt was speak on a panel about romantic comedies with Mark Silverstein and Abby Cohen and Dana Stevens. Said panel made its way to a really well-edited 20-minute clip on the AFF’s On Story site, which you can watch here.
Sorry I’m not smart enough to figure out how to embed that in this post. Anyway, I had a blast doing it and the reaction was pretty overwhelming – there were a few that really seemed to get something out of it, and for that I was impossibly happy, especially considering how hungover I was. Sadly, I have yet to be invited back, and I think it has something to do with all those hobos I killed and stashed on the roof. But I continue to cross my fingers that the AFF is willing to overlook that and give me another shot. I KNOW I can do this without any transient homicide, you guys. I just know it.
Great timing that this was released the same day I got this email from a reader, Joe, who had a specific question that’s of very basic importance to writing a romantic comedy:
“I would love your opinion on something — I’m a big fan of romantic-comedies, and I’ve been thinking recently whether rom-coms should be equally about both main characters, who each both grow, change, etc equally, where it’s really about both of them…or whether the movie needs to be ‘about’ one character where it’s really his/her movie, even if that doesn’t necessarily come across in the finished product. And when you first sat down to write GOING THE DISTANCE, the very first draft of the very first draft, were you thinking, ‘this is her/his story,’ or, ‘this is about both of them?'”
Thanks for writing, Joe. For better or worse, this answer is going to be a bit more philosophical than you might have been hoping for, but bear with me.
As for GOING THE DISTANCE, I’ve spoken on many occasions about how this story was based on the long-distance relationship of one of my good friends – whose at-the-time-girlfriend I’m also close with. The bulk of the story came from their experiences, to which I added my own romantic tribulations and thoughts. But because of the story it was based on, it HAD to be a two-hander. It HAD to be about both of them. From one standpoint, the stories I was told involved both of them, in execution and in the fallout. But even further than that, it’d be impossible to tell a story about a long-distance relationship without seeing how it challenges both people. So honestly, I didn’t even really think about the prism of who it *should* be told through – I just did what seemed natural. Think about SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE or WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (not to compare my movie to either of those, but let’s compare my movie to both of those) – would either have them have worked nearly as well if you only saw it from one side? No chance. And I’d be willing to bet that was a subconscious choice from the jump.
When we got into DEVELOPMENT on GOING THE DISTANCE, however, it turned out that I had skewed the POV a little too far to the side of Garrett. So we had to do some work to bring Erin’s side more into the equation, make sure the story had the right balance of perspective. It was absolutely the right move and something I wasn’t even fully conscious of when I was writing. Taking that into account, let me opine in such a way: I find that, most of the time, romantic comedies work best if both parties are equally represented and give room for their characters to breathe and live and react.
However, let’s flip the script here (I promise to never use that phrase again) for a second, because it certainly CAN work from a singular point of view. A great example of this is 500 DAYS OF SUMMER – this is a movie that comes in 100% from the male participant. In fact, I don’t believe there’s a single scene in the movie that shows Summer off by herself. or consorting with her friends, or bothering to teach us anything about her outside of Tom’s microscope. And you know what? IT WORKS. Because this is a movie specifically about Tom’s neurosis, about who Tom is as a person, and so everything comes filtered in through his own unique lens. The writers decided on this at some point, locked into it, and it’s a brilliant story simply because they didn’t stray from the concept. Incidentally, said concept even brought some disagreement between the film’s writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. At the end of the movie there’s a scene where, on a park bench, Tom and Summer have a conversation about their relationship, their breakup, and where they’ve gone since. I can’t recall which writer takes which side, but one of them believes this is an actual conversation that happens between the two, and the other believes it to be a figment of Tom’s imagination, a conversation he had in his own head so that he could forcibly achieve closure on the issue. That’s fascinating to me, and it really shows how fully these guys bought into their concept.
So this is where it gets philosophical. Which way is the best way into a romantic comedy? It all depends on the kind of story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.
Another thing I’ve said on many, many, MANY occasions – because I believe it to my core – is that writing a romantic comedy requires you to respect the comedy as much as the romance. And you have to ground BOTH in realism and some shred of universality for the script to work in this day and age. Beyond that, though…what’s the story you want to tell? Does it makes sense for your concept to come in solely from your (or your character’s) own worldview? If that’s the case, all you need to do is be honest and forthright and self-aware – you need to be able to see your triumphs and your failures as a person or for the character. What about from your (or the) significant other’s perspective? That requires just as much honesty, but redirected – you have to stand in the shoes of the Other and look back across the pond, which is going to require some harrowing exploration. And of course there’s always the option of splitting the difference, coming in from both equally, which is no less challenging.
There’s no concrete answer here. Your one and only master is your story, and you have to pledge full-throated allegiance to it if you have any hope of executing it properly. So, the question is asked, what’s the best, most honest way to pull this off? Like I said, there’s no “correct” answer. It’s all right and wrong at the same time, and you won’t know until you try to execute it. Such is the infinitely puzzling and invigorating life of a writer – cracking this shit and pulling it off or failing miserably and going back to the drawing board.
Pick a lane. Be passionate, be resolute, and always always ALWAYS be honest about what it is you want to say. The rest, if you have the talent, will take care of itself.
We’ll be discussing this topic just a bit more on this week’s Broken Projector.