Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sweet Home Alabama and the Love Triangle Problem

(SPOILERS: Sweet Home Alabama, Wedding Crashers)

One of the tools we use as screenwriters is "Hope and Fear." As in, what is the audience hoping will happen? What are they fearing will happen? This is a powerful tool.

One of the common devices in a romantic comedy is a love triangle. Love triangles are an example of "mutually exclusive goals." There is inherent conflict in a love triangle because you have two characters who each one something (the third character) and they can't both have it.

When we combine these two ideas, as we often do in romantic comedies, we run into a problem. Let's assume our love triangle involves Man 1 and Man 2 who are both after Woman. In order to create hope and fear, we have to make the audience hope Woman ends up with Man 1 and fear she'll end up with Man 2. Usually this is done by making Man 2 out to be a real cad.

However, we risk making Woman unsympathetic for not immediately being able to see that Man 2 is a cad. Wedding Crashers had this problem. Owen Wilson's character is after Rachel McAdams, but she has a boyfriend. A boyfriend who's such a jerk we quickly wonder what she could possibly see in him.

Sweet Home Alabama is a love triangle story but we tried to make both guys good guys. The real question is which one is right for Melanie, and the dramatic tension comes from her figuring out who she is at heart. We hope she'll figure it out in time. And fear that she won't.

But it was risky. From time to time, people still tell me Melanie chose the wrong guy. I suspect it's because Andrew would be the right choice for them. I think the movie makes clear Melanie really belongs with Jake. But I suppose I could be wrong.

It was interesting that the audience is so conditioned to the good guy/bad guy approach, they look for it even when it wasn't intended. One of the ways writers deal with the love triangle challenge is to have the bad guy cheating on the woman. We don't blame her because she doesn't know.

When we did the test screening for Sweet Home Alabama, we discovered the audience thought Andrew was sleeping with Melanie's assistant! Nowhere in the movie do we see this, nor do we see him hit on her, sneak off with her, etc. But the audience was trying to figure out "what was wrong with him" and when we didn't give them anything, they imagined something. So the director had to cut out all the scenes with Andrew and the assistant to avoid the confusion.

Ultimately I think the movie is more sophisticated for making the choice internal rather than external. It turns out romantic comedies are harder than they look!


Anonymous said...

Wow.. I wandered cross this post, cuz after watching this movie (SHA) this afternoon for the first time since it came out, I felt like reading other ppl's opinions on it, so I Google'd [ "sweet home alabama" melanie jake andrew triangle ]..

I didn't expect to find something like *this*, and as such, I really appreciate it, actually. Personally, the traditional "good guy" / "bad guy" device, in *any* triangle, has gotten so tiring.. tho I can understand how useful it is in general. But I'm now always rooting for them both to be good, and it's a pleasant (tho all-too-rare) surprise when that does happen, hehe.

And sometimes, certain characters are just *impossible* to choose between, like when the emotional connections between all three characters are *so* strong, that I just end up hoping that they'll break tradition even further and well, work out some kind of better situation.. if you know what I mean, lol. ;P (for one example, the ever-so-complicated triangle of Jack / Kate / Sawyer from LOST)

So, from one random fan, thank you for sharing your pov ;D and for making such a sweet movie!

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