My first book Crafty Screenwriting
gets a very nice review at The Artful Writer
, and lest you think Craig and I are buddies, he actually intended to lambaste the book when I sent it to him ... but decided he liked it. Which just makes my day.
He has a valid critique: he thinks I'm wrong about popcorn movies not needing themes.
He's probably right.
What I'd probably write if I were writing the book today is that a popcorn movie doesn't have to start with a theme. I used the example of Alien
, which to me isn't "about" anything more than a bug trying to eat a bunch of humans. Craig points out that some of the themes in the movie are (a) corporate greed will kill you (b) let sleeping dogs lie (c) pride goeth before a fall. Alien
has all these themes, and they enrich the movie. However I'm not sure that Dan O'Bannon was thinking about these themes when he came up with the story. I don't know the history of the project, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if he was looking at H. R. Giger's creepy-ass paintings and saw something that looked like an Alien and thought: wouldn't it be scary if one of them things was loose on your spaceship.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if the corporate greed theme came as Ron Shusett fleshed the thing out. It's there primarily as a solution to the story problem of preventing the crew from getting rid of the bug sooner. Why don't they just freeze John Hurt? Because Ian Holm is a Company plant, thass why, and the Company wants a live bug. So what does that mean thematically? That corporate greed will kill you.
The spec I was working on before the current gig came up is a popcorn movie in a sort of early Sam Raimi vein. There is an underlying theme involving the modern mindset and the medieval mindset certain people want to go back to. But that came out of the story, rather than the story coming out of the theme. At this point I'm probably incapable of writing a screenplay without a theme, simply because at some point I'm going to identify the theme that arises naturally from the story, and tweak a few more scenes to push it, just because that makes for a richer and deeper story that sticks with you longer.
So you're right Craig: I was being too flip about themes. But I'm not sure you need to have a theme when you start breaking the story. Once you're pitching it, though, you should be alive to what themes your story suggests, and you should use that theme to bind the story together.
And, thanks for the taking the time to read the book and critique it!