WRITING ROMCOMS ACCORDING TO MICHAEL HAUGE AND STEVE KAPLAN
I approached Jeff’s Shed thinking there may be 40 people in the auditorium willing to shell out around $500 for a two day seminar on the art of romantic comedy with US experts Michael Hauge and Steve Kaplan, presented this month in both Sydney and Melbourne by Epiphany International Artists, Inscription, Screen Australia and the Network Channels. After a few wrong turns I finally walked into an audience of over 200. Wow.
The weekend was arduous for the audience, let alone Michael and Steve, but well worth the effort. Each speaker started within five minutes of the designated time and talked for an hour and a half per session, with only the occasional respite of playing a clip from an inspirational romantic comedy or two. Hitch featured prominently during the two days, as did the 40 Year Old Virgin, Groundhog Day, Sleepless in Seattle, and Annie Hall.
I was pleased to see a number of producers in the audience, and even more gratified that they were for the most part eagerly taking notes and looking appreciative. In my experience producers sometimes have a tough time taking seriously such nuts and bolts discussion of screenplay writing, preferring to believe in the magic of real characters or story as the real basis for a winning film. In the past I have attended similar seminars which were decried by producers for being too self-consciously manipulative of the craft. For example, I recall one past producer dismissing a speaker’s words of wisdom along the lines that ‘no real writer would work that way.’ Unfortunately many producers seem to believe that a ‘real’ writer is one who gets drunk, falls into a stupor then awakes with a magnificent screenplay fully formed inside their brain, and all they have left is to type it out. Of course any writer with experience is aware that even after inspiration flows, there remains a lot of hard and challenging work ahead.
Michael Hauge comes across more as an academic than a writer, a good speaker but laughing at himself that anyone who knows him would think that he’s an expert on romance, let alone comedy. But he clearly knows his stuff, and is willing to share.
For me, the best bits of the two day session were the throwaway lines, such as in the final moments on day two when Michael mentioned that you should introduce your hero in your screenplay by themselves, taking the time to establish them clearly before moving to the next character. He illustrated that with the first few minutes of The 40 Year Old Virgin, where the main character is the only character on the screen.
“I read a lot of scripts,” Michael told us, “and so often the opening scene is at a party, with the hero introduced along with a host of others. I stop reading right there.”
Steve Kaplan’s key message, established in various ways over the second day, was essentially that a romantic comedy doesn’t need jokes so much as believable character. He showed clips of Groundhog Day to illustrate the point, pointing out a series of opportunities for Bill Murray to deliver a killer quip, but he doesn’t, because that would undermine his character. “It’s all about character, and being true to that character,” said Steve. “Anyone can lace a script with jokes. Jokes are a dime a dozen. But writing a convincing character is much harder.”
Steve showed us an early episode of Seinfeld, pointing out how the show originally created a number of structural difficulties for itself, which were later fixed. As you might expect, Kaplan was funnier than Michael Hauge and generated more interaction with the audience. But he too was focussed on the structure of writing rather than surface humour. He went through a history of comedy, 3000 years in ten minutes, which was instructive in describing the major characters invented by the 16th century players of the Commedia dell’Arte, which are still used as character prototypes today.
Michael Hauge’s focus was on the six stages of a romantic comedy, with six turning points, which he says occur in 90% of romantic comedies produced. Of course he’s talking about Hollywood, something he made clear early on. This was reinforced in day 2 when the two speakers played large slabs of The 40 Year Old Virgin, one of Judd Apatow’s oevre, to demonstrate the six stages and the turning points. It was a fascinating display. Steve Kaplan had earlier showed a number of examples of how NOT to do it, which were equally instructive.
Hauge also amplified on his concepts of inner and outer motivations, and character arc, and his idea of outer identity as opposed to inner essence as applied to the hero of the piece. He also talked about the main characters of a romantic comedy, particularly the hero and the romantic interest, as well as significant others such as the rival and the sidekick. And he went through various categories of romcom, such as ‘the big lie’, ‘the imposter,’ and ‘the magic spell.’
“Moliere saved comedy from wit,” Kaplan said, reinforcing the idea that comedy is based around character rather than ‘bon mots’. He read us some very unfunny Shakespearean wordplays and explained that the comic premise is the lie that tells the truth. He cautioned that in a screenplay the writer can only lie once, at the beginning, such as in Groundhog Day which begins with the lie that a guy could be stuck reliving the same day over and over, forever. That is of course blatantly preposterous, but once established the audience goes with it, as long as remainder of the screenplay is absolutely true to it, and free from introducing other ‘lies.’
Kaplan also cautioned that he was offering a number of tools that could assist you to overcome a problem. If you’re writing comedy and it’s flowing and everything is working well, then there’s no problem to overcome. But it’s when the writing isn’t flowing that a dip into the toolbox may come in handy.
The films offered as models were fascinating, and I’ve been inspired to revisit Groundhog Day, Hitch, the Wedding Crashers, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Roxanne, Shakespeare in Love, Notting Hill, Sideways, 500 Days of Summer and About a Boy.
The two speakers told us up front that their expertise was sourced in Hollywood movies, not Australian films, and Australia was never mentioned during the weekend. In part this may have been because Australia doesn’t have a huge history of creating romantic comedies to date, and none of the ones that could be mentioned such as Strictly Ballroom, Kenny, Crocodile Dundee, Muriel’s Wedding or Love and Other Catastrophes follow the classic formulas being discussed. But the very fact that this session was funded in part by Screen Australia shows that someone feels we should. And they’re probably right.
This article first appeared in Screen Hub.