I’m embarking on a new spec and as part of my research I’m watching other films of a similar genre and premise. Many writers do this, though I also know some that avoid movies like theirs so they aren’t unduly influenced. I’ve obviously analyzed a lot of films – including a few for this blog – but in the past I haven’t often done the same kind of specific “similar film” research I’m trying now.
I am aware of the danger of becoming derivative. So I did a lot of pre-writing before I started watching. I have a three page treatment of my story and several pages of character notes, not to mention a pile of ideas. But I’m also still at a stage where things are flexible enough that I won’t mind making changes if I learn something from my research.
So what am I looking for? I break down the structure of each story, but that’s not really the main objective. The first thing I note for each film is what I liked and didn’t like about it. And I'm talking here about my reaction as an audience member who wants to be entertained. Even the ones I loved usually have something I felt could have been a little stronger, and the ones I hated frequently have one or two redeeming features.
With this information I can be aware of things I want to avoid. Particularly I might notice common pitfalls in the genre. In my case, I’m looking at romantic adventure movies so I’ve noticed some of the weaker ones suffer from unimaginative action set pieces or slow starts. I can also identify what elements are common in the movies I like most in my genre. In this case, I find that I like roguish leads with a strong, external goal; a humorous tone; and exotic locations. So I might want to include those elements in my script! But I also might look for a way to take them in a different direction - a different kind of exotic location, for example.
Another thing I do is list all the major scene/sequences as I’m watching. Most movies have 25-30. I use different color highlighters and pens to note the big action set pieces, the expository scenes, the romantic scenes, etc. I count how many of each there are and look at where they’re placed in relation to each other.
What I’m really looking for here is the rhythm of the movies. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the musicality of movies and I’m trying to approach this script somewhat like a symphony composition, paying attention to shifts in pace and tone.
Will it help? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just avoiding writing – we writers are great at finding ways to do that! But it feels like I’m coming to understand this type of film at a kind of chemical level. I’ll keep you posted.
With all that in mind, I’m thinking it’s time I did another in-depth analysis on this blog. So for the next few weeks I’m going to focus on The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore). I picked that because I want to study a comedy. The Hangover is fairly recent (2009) and was both a critical and commercial success. Plus, it’s generated a hugely successful sequel this summer, and had a notable impact on the feature comedy landscape – look at how Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) was marketed. And, by all accounts it hewed close to the script – some comedies rely more on improvisation.
So if you’re so inclined, you might want to give it another look (or a first look if you haven’t seen it.) Or you could read the screenplay here.