Monday, January 30, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #121: Don’t Presume Your Premise

I sometimes get to read scripts long before they’re made, and one of my favorite scripts in recent years was cheekily titled “Fuckbuddies”. Naturally they had to change the title, and they wanted to call it Friends with Benefits, but they found out there was already a competing project with that name, so they ended up with the name No Strings Attached.
“Fuckbuddies” was a very popular script, largely because the screenwriter’s “voice” was so strong: it felt fresh, real, and raw. But by the time it made it to the screen, directed on autopilot by old duffer Ivan Reitman, that bold voice had been reduced to a mutter, and the resulting movie is shockingly awful. Friends with Benefits, on the other hand, earned fewer fans as a script, but it really came alive onscreen, making for a surprisingly fun movie.
It’s tempting to blame NSA’s script/screen disconnect entirely on rewrites, and those certainly didn’t help, but it also had another problem: that bold fresh voice had been masking some fundamental construction problems, and once the voice was muted, those problems became glaringly obvious. 

NSA fails, in part, because it simply presumes its premise. We start with a too-cool-for-school heroine who has never had any interest in romance. When she announces to a schlubby acquaintance that they should have a loveless romance, he hastily agrees, and the movie is off and running. It’s not that her beliefs are unmotivated—we certainly understand how her home life left her afraid of commitment, but that’s just backstory, we never get to see those scars form.
FWB, on the other hand, builds its premise in a much more straightforward way. We begin by intercutting our two future lovers as they both go through exasperating break-ups with annoying exes. We then see how satisfying their work lives are by comparison. By the time they meet, we totally understand why each would be reluctant to get seriously involved.
Most telling are the actual hook-up scenes in the two movies. NSA goes for the old “jump each other’s bones when you least expect it” set-up, which always gets a laugh, but rarely makes sense. FWB, refreshingly, shows a far more believable hook-up: a guy and girl are hanging out platonically when, struck by a fleeting moment of horniness, the guy makes a half-hearted pass at the girl. They then discuss whether or not that’s a good idea. After coolly batting the idea back and forth in a sexy, witty, but utterly realistic way, they decide to go for it: provided that they don’t bring emotion into it. With that, the premise is strongly established, and they’re off.
Alas, this is why screenplays need to have rock-solid infrastructure: because that’s all that will be left by the time they make it to the screen. “Fuckbuddies”, on the other hand, had as its selling point a certain je ne sais qua, which translated onscreen to “Say what?”

If you’ve got a strong dialogue voice, you might have more luck on TV—and sure enough “Fuckbuddies” writer Liz Meriwether now has a witty, quirky hit sitcom, “The New Girl”, which has done a much better job at conveying her unique voice.

1 comment:

rams said...

Love "a certain je ne sais qua, which onscreen translated to “Say what?”' Will be some time now before I hear the one without thinking the other.