The more I learn about filmmaking the less sure I am. I know that a good or excellent script is a basic requirement, it being the blueprint for any journey into filmmaking, but can any film lover honestly say they have not watched a film, with a less than stellar script, that has not only been enjoyable but become a hit? Conversely, I have seen brilliantly scripted films, with creditable performances, gain no traction whatsoever.
Of all film genres, it is possibly the rom-com that reflects this phenomenon the most. The boy-meets-girl, falls for her, loses her and wins her back again, is one of the most recognised storylines ever. Getting it right is still about more than a good script.
Pretty Woman, the film that catapulted Julia Roberts to superstardom and brought Richard Gere’s career out of the doldrums, was a standard Cinderella story elevated by the unexpected chemistry between the two leads and the then little known Roberts matching Gere’s ever committed performance.
Moreover, many a film, even with the proliferation of script doctors and story experts, still manage to make fundamental storytelling mistakes, the kind of errors that get fledgeling screenwriters works shoved straight into the reject pile at many a production company. Take the present fashion for superhero films. I love the Marvel films, kicking off with the little known Iron Man, they have grown into a juggernaut of a cinematic story-verse.
However, if you look at the stories that all of these heroes have been built around, with the exception of a few of the films – Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers – though all of the films have good or adequate protagonists, the antagonist in a lot of the films have been weak and forgettable, with an emphasis on dramatic set pieces at the expense of plot and character development.
Obviously, in an established franchise or series, there is some leeway, the strength of the property allowing for a less than perfect script or story. Still, there are many examples where this is not the case, the classic Patrick Swayze film Dirty Dancing is one such film. The script of Dirty Dancing is poor. Fish-out-of-water meets have and have nots premise, Dirty Dancing is another film where the chemistry of the cast, plus the wholehearted commitment to the telling of the story elevates the film.
I suppose it is the collaborative nature, with so many having opinions, a persuasive individual with the ear of an influencer can get a weak script made, even if it is neither original – there are no original stories after all – or even being told in a different way. Sometimes things just get made. There is also no accounting for taste, with so many examples of films of the past being critical flops on release only to finding critical acclaim and cult followings later in life.
William Goldman, the legendary screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man and The Princess Bride said about filmmaking: nobody knows anything…not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess, if you’re lucky, an educated one. This was a man who could write a screenplay.
It strikes me that one could and probably does waste a considerable amount of time learning to make films and write films, studying structure, theory, themes, character development and plotting, but still make a film that nobody wants to see. You could also strike gold and everybody might want to see your film, there is just no definitive correct way to make a film, no matter what all the film gurus and self-proclaimed doyens of cinema might have you believe.
The takeaway from this has to be to just do your own thing. Hopefully, someone will like it, if you’re lucky, loads of people might like it. After all, loads of people liked White Chicks, a film both brilliant and terrible. Go figure.