Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to write a romantic movie

Had the chance to see NIGHTS IN RODANTHE. Not the kind of movie I usually watch but I was trapped on a plane and it stars Diane Lane. Based on the few movies of this weepy… excuse me, “romantic” genre I have been bored enough on long flights to see, I have managed to glean the formula. So if you’re about to write one, follow these easy steps to chick flick success.

Start with an attractive couple. He can be in his 50s, she can be in her 40s but only if she looks like she’s in her 30s.

Opening scene – she catches her husband cheating. Big emotional trauma. He begs forgiveness and vows never to screw any of her sisters again. You must cast a handsome but boring actor who can play weak.

She needs time to think.

She goes to a picturesque setting like Tuscany or a charming bed & breakfast by the sea. A few scenes of her shopping for vegetables and arranging flowers in her room. A best friend advises she’s got to loosen up, live a little, and of course she finds that out of the question. Better to window shop for clocks to keep track of your youth slipping away.

She meets a man. Handsome but with baggage. Widower, never married, or wife went nuts and became a Scientologist. Now you write 20 pages of exposition -- she must be artistically inclined, he’s misunderstood, and they’re both mourning a dead relative who meant so much to them. This is the “getting to know you” section. Have them bumping into each other at cafes, him helping her lift firewood, sharing a love for Dinah Washington, laughing over something incredibly lame like her plastic fork breaks.

During this section do not concern yourself with the fact that the audience knows exactly where this is going. Toss in a scene where they argue about something as a mislead but don’t dwell on it because no one’s buying it.

A big cinematic event must now take place. Hurricanes are good. Cossacks if your film has a more historical bent. Danger! Danger! Something brings them together and they kiss. Music swells. You’re halfway home.

Now comes the “happy-in-love” section. Scenes in the sack, natch. But don’t forget the walks along the beach hand in hand as they gaze mooney-eyed at each other.

They must go to the inevitable local festival. Here they dance, they laugh, they eat local delicacies. Whole new worlds are opening up for this crazy couple. She’s having fun for the first time in ages. They go off and kiss in the moonlight. Return to the sack.

Then the post coital glow scene. Still in bed, cuddling, making plans that will never come true because the audience hasn’t cried enough yet.

Here’s where it gets murky. Now you must create some bogus issue to split them up. Something to snap them back into reality. Here’s where kids come in very handy. One goes to the hospital. Mom wasn’t there. Guilt! Guilt! (preferred dialogue: She: “What am I doing? I can’t just run off and do this.” He: “Hey, you’re entitled to your own happiness.”) Other love buzz kills – he has to fly to Peru, her kids want daddy back, he still has feelings for Sarah Palin.

This is followed by the separation sequence. Long solitary walks along the beach (with close ups of the waves crashing of course), wandering through the quaint town, not stopping to watch the village idiot wiggle his ears for money.

Lean heavy on voice overs. They can always exchange letters. No line is too cloying, no thought too overwrought. “When I met you it was like I stepped out of a dream.” “You’ve given me the courage to love.” I’m sure you can find something a little more heavy-handed, but that’s the general idea.

Now it’s time for one of them to die. This chestnut has been a staple since LOVE STORY. The survivor now has at least five scenes of crying, remembering the good times (flashbacks required), moping, not eating or sleeping, and of course Dinah Washington wailing some heart tugging dirge. You might cap this with another voice over – the last letter is always the knockout punch. Lay it on thick here. “I’m counting the hours until we can start our life together”.

There won’t be a dry seat in the house.

But finally time passes, the children and friends rally around, the survivor realizes that he or she became a much better, more understanding, compassionate, enlightened, and sympathetic person as a result of the now-corpse. Her art is better, he sees Sarah Palin for who she is. So let the healing begin. Reprise a song from the festival, a shared moment, the coming of spring. Something to elicit a smile. Once you get to that smile, you’re done. Slap a confusing title like NIGHTS IN RODANTHE (what the hell does that even mean?) on it and you’re ready to see what Diane Lane and Richard Gere have on their plates for the fall.

Now you may think I’m a cynic. I’m not. I love a good romance. Just not one by the numbers. But those are what sells. So get busy. We’re running out of charming little towns. You don’t want to be stuck with Pismo Beach.

Happy Valentine’s Day.


Tim W. said...

You had me at "Had the chance to see NIGHTS IN RODANTHE."

Anonymous said...

Could it be possible to apply this formula to a romantic prison movie?

Man finds new addition to prison in the form of a 19 year old first offender, man rapes 19 year old first offender, other man stabs 19 year old first offender over incident in the lunchroom, man rapes other man, other man gets the skinhead gang to get revenge on man, guards shoot everybody during prison riot, man sent to infirmary and rekindles his passion with the 19 year old first offender, man sent to gas chamber, 5 years later, the now 24 year old first offender reminisces about the man when he catches the eye of a new inmate in the form of a 17 year old first offender who was tried as an adult.

Nah, even that's too mushy for the romance crowd.

Cap'n Bob said...

RODANTHE is how someone whose front teeth are missing says "romance."

WV: runticom. A web site for runts.

beybes_08 said...

Funny. But true. Still, I can't help liking these kinds of movies. Although they're obviously fictional and very unlikely to happen in real life, they give loveless people hope. I guess that's what makes them a good watch - for hopeless romantics anyway.

Anonymous said...

As a human female, may I just say every time that horrible song from the trailer comes on the radio, I lunge for the knob, even if I'm making a U-turn. Nothing looked so repulsive to me than that movie. Chick flicks need to perk up or die violently. If I want romance, I watch 'The Lion in Winter'.

Oh, don't forget the obligatory sassy black best friend for the formula. Because God knows black women don't have other friends/personalities/duplicates. (You see, they just need one for the movie, then they have diversity! :D)

Sorry. Chick flicks give me gas.

Anonymous said...

Rodanthe is a North Carolina town on the Outer Banks. It is a gorgeous place. Pronounced Ro-Dan-Thee. Don't let this horrible movie prevent you from going there. The NC barrier islands are unique and beautiful.

ELS said...

Ken, you just described the relationship that I had with my wife before we got married!

Except that I didn't have to die. I did get a nasty case of athlete's foot, though... does that count for the crisis?

I remain,
Eric L. Sofer
The Bad Clown

Anonymous said...

Today is your birthday....happy birthday to you...

Mary Stella said...

You forgot that in many cases the one who dies did something that made them too stupid too live. Instead of being touched by the tragic loss, I think "That man/woman was a freaking idiot" and the movie is ruined for me.

At least in Kate and Leopold, Kate broke out of her mold and traveled back in time to find him, making this one of the rare Meg Ryan movies that I loved. Hugh Jackman might have had something to do with that. *g*

wv= impit -- Where instant messages go to die.

Anonymous said...

Hey, what's wrong with Pismo Beach? (Being up here in freezing Toronto, anything with the word "beach" in it sounds wonderful!)

olucy said...

One of my favorite romantic movies that breaks this formula at every turn: Bread and Tulips.

Anonymous said...

"There won’t be a dry seat in the house."

Dry *seat*? Heh.

Anonymous said...

and people wonder why this chick doesn't like "chick flicks."

and, Joanne, if the sassy friend isn't black, then she's fat... sometimes both.. more laughs per pound.

WV: Tarized- what happens to your feet on the beach in El Segundo

Anonymous said...

On a whim, I looked up the plot summary for Nights in Rodanthe on Wikipedia to see how close it is to your formula.

Check out this line: "There is only one guest for the weekend, Paul (Richard Gere), a surgeon who arrives at the inn with his own emotional baggage."

Granted, it's Wikipedia, but whoever wrote that line was tuned in.

Unknown said...

This isn't romance, it's tragedy. Or call it sobfest.

"Notting Hill" is romance. I got so many DVDs and not one tragedy amongst them. My life sucks enough on its own I don't need Hollywood to make me cry about people that aren't even real. Hmpf.

vw: parids


Karen from Mentor said...

Hey Ken,
The only good "romantic" movies are romantic comedies. Most of the best ones were in black and white. And are now being "remade". But a great (fairly recent) one that's worth watching is "something's gotta give". Diane Keaton is just so good in that. I personally believe that anyone who can look like they're enjoying kissing Jack Nicholson should just automatically get an oscar. That point aside, Diane is hysterical and believable throughout the movie. Yeah Diane Keaton! And yes it (spoiler alert) has a happy ending, but it doesn't make you feel stupid that you liked the way it turns out. (ok maybe a little bit, but a formula is a formula)

I enjoyed your interview on the radio Dan show. I've reinvented myself late in life too, but I didn't want to be a play by play announcer...glad you got to live the dream. Thanks for sharing your wit and wisdom with the aspiring writers out there. Oh, and now I pronounce your name correctly. Happy birthday tomorrow!

Emily Blake said...

*takes notes*

Anonymous said...

If I were to cast, say, Don King as a...oh, I dunno, banker...who would be the actress that'd make this formula work under these parameters?

Anonymous said...

P.S. My WVW is "nishing" which is noshing on seafood.

Anonymous said...

This was the worst romantic movie I've seen in a long time. But I was flying overseas.

Anonymous said...

"dry seat in the house" Are we talkiing about movies here or about riding in a car with my daughter driving?

Anonymous said...

Ken, baby--call my office. I think maybe you've got something really special and unique there that we want to be your partner on.

Anonymous said...

Ken forgot to credit the writer of the B'way musical "City of Angels" for the "dry seat in the house" line. No doubt Ken would want that acknowledged. It was originally written by some guy named Larry Gelbart who used to write for M*A*S*H* He may have done some other comedy writing as well.O'Hara

blogward said...

Happy Birthday Ken. Apropos of sack scenes and St. Valentine's day, I'd love to hear any tales about the difference between what's in the script and what happens on the set.

WV: cutort, a cutting retort.

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, your "formula" is probably the main reason why "Sleepless in Seattle" is one of the few romantic films I ever really enjoyed... It breaks the formula on a lot of different levels, and at the end of it I always find myself saying "Well, that was a refreshing change..."

Kirk said...

beybes_08 said this kind of movie gives loveless people hope. Ken said this movie ends with a survivor and a corpse.

The loveless people are hoping for the former, and not the latter, I hope.

Grunt said...

Pismo Beach used to be awesome! When I was a kid it had a roller rink and arcades and a movie theater! It's gone way down hill in recent years but you could totally use Pismo Beach circa 1981.

Tom Quigley said...

Just re-read today's post -- and thought "My God, one more death and he's captured 'Romeo & Juliet'!"

Buttermilk Sky said...

If Wanda Sykes is not available, the heroine's best friend may be gay. (See Lane, Nathan)

WV: Poulitn. He died in one of Stalin's purges.

Anonymous said...

Buttermilk Sky: Since Wanda Sykes recently came out of the closet, you'd get a two-fer with her.

Anonymous said...

They shudda used Cossacks...

E.C. Henry said...

Haven't seen "Nights in Rodanthe," but based on your comical critique it sounds horrible. HUGE fan of the romantic comedy genre in general. Wrote a couple rom-com spec scripts, and have included some variety of boy-girl love in virtually all the specs I've written to date.

Love your posts Ken. Loved ya up here in Seattle when you used to do the post game for the Seattle Mariner games. You brought in a fresh voice of wit, that's been lacking since you left. Mariners poised to resign Ken Griffey Jr., "Woopie!" We're a LONG WAY from re-couping the magic of the '95 season where the Mariners won a one game playoff from the Angels, then miraculously came back from an 0-2, best of five, series deficit to defeat the Yankees.

Back to subject. Wanna watch a "good" feature length romantic comedy? Try "13 Going on 30" or "How to Loose a Guy in 10 Days." The romantic comedy genre is pretty deep and wide these days. Judd Apatow's recent stuff has added yet another wrinkle in the genre.
Billy Mernit has written a GREAT book about really getting into and understanding what makes the modern romantic comedy movie tick, it's called, "Writing the Romantic Comedy." If nothing else Billy delivers an excelent baseline off which creatives can evaluate their an others romantic comedy material.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Anonymous said...

Not being familiar with Rodanthe, I just assumed it was the name of Diane Lane's character.

Dave Mackey said...

Trapped in a chick flick with no way out. You poor man.

WV: "omast" - component of an Irish schooner