Genre is a tricky beast to tackle. Each genre has its own pros and cons; its own rules and regulations. Genre writing is difficult enough for a 90 page feature film, let alone condensing those elements down into a 5 to 9 minute short film.
To be honest, when I write, I don’t think too much about genre. For me, it’s all about character. Story, genre, location – that all comes AFTER I have a character in my head who whispers their story into my ear.
However, genre in short film is something that I have thought about at length.
Writing a short film isn’t like writing a feature. There are similarities, of course, but there are a whole range of different conventions that I find useful when writing a short film. There will be a blog post on short film structure coming up soon, but I wanted to talk about genre in short film for now.
In 2008, I was watching the graduate screening for my university. All the films made by the graduate students of that year, up there on the screen, showing to a real audience for the first time. There were some fantastic films, there were some not so fantastic films. But you always get a mixed bag in collections of shorts like that – it’s part of the deal. One of the things I did notice that night was that almost all the films were deeply dramatic, dark and depressing. Guns were a regular fixture, intense loneliness in children, night shoots – the tone was so similar that they’ve blurred together in the past few years. Some that I do remember were really well made, my own, or comedies. It didn’t even matter if the comedy fell flat – the fact was it stuck out because it was different. The only relief in an oppressing flood of drama.
I went to another screening shortly after and EVERY SINGLE FILM was a dark drama or a gloomy abstract film. I’m not saying the films were badly made – on the contrary, some were incredibly well put together, but the fact remains that drama dominates short film.
I realised that to make my film memorable, I’d have to make it different.
So I decided to write a comedy for my graduate film in 2009.
It was one of the best experiences of my life. I’m not going to talk too much about that short film (called ‘Operation: Playstation’, if you were interested), but I learnt a lot from it. The script needed a lot more work than it got, but it was a fantastic experience and I loved doing it.
And it was the first comedic anything I’d written seriously.
I’ve been writing for most of my life. And I don’t say that lightly – I have memories of writing stories in my Grade 5 notebook. That makes me about 10 years old. I’ve been reading since I was 3. I’ve always loved stories. And even those half-written stories, scribbled in a primary school notebook, tell me something.
I’ve always written drama.
It makes sense. The market is so saturated with drama that it’s easy to pick up on it and channel it onto the page. From ‘real-life’ drama (I use the term ‘real-life’ very loosely), I moved on to fantasy drama. My first serious short film script was a police drama. Scribbled ideas in notebooks or scenes saved on to my computer were always dramatic.
So to challenge myself to write comedy was slightly daunting.
And writing comedy is hard. It is a really difficult thing. A person’s sense of humour is entirely relative. Whilst you’re crying with laughter at something you could find hilarious, the person sitting next to you can be impatiently waiting for the joke.
The single hardest part about writing comedy is getting the jokes to leap off the page and make the reader laugh.
I’m still working on it. I’m not pretending like I have all the answers, because I don’t. At the end of the day, I think that ‘With A Little Help From Our Friends’ is a funny script. It makes me giggle like mad. I sent it off to some writers for critical feedback and they commented on some parts positively and other parts they thought fell flat. But that was okay. I tweaked the jokes and tried again.
The easiest way to figure it out is to try. ‘With A Little Help From Our Friends’ isn’t a script filled with belly laughs (on the page. Once you bring actors into the equation, magic can happen). I wrote another drama/comedy script for a competition recently and the bit of feedback that made me grin the most was that the readers were coming back to me and consistently telling me that the same part of the script was funny. They were laughing aloud as they read it.
That’s no mean feat. It’s something I’m really proud of.
If you can make a reader laugh aloud from black words on a white page, you can get an audience to roar with laughter in the cinema.
And, at the end of the day, the audience is the most important part of the equation.