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Monday, April 07, 2008

Referencing my post about things I'm tired of seeing in outlines:
Q. Just out of interest, how would you feel about a film that is about a man who goes back to his hometown for the funeral of a friend, after having been away for twenty years, but also takes place twenty years ago, when he last saw the friend. In other words, there are two different timelines in the film. You see everyone the summer after highschool, and then nearly twenty years later. Two different times and storylines, but are connected by themes. I do agree with you about your rule, but my feeling is that I haven't really seen my idea very much.
There's a reason for that. Two timelines can feel gimmicky and annoying. (And this from a guy one of whose best scripts has FIVE timelines.) Typically the past timeline is the key to the present timeline. So we're all waiting for the big cathartic moment where the guy realizes, damn, I should have married Sally Mae. It's hard not to be predictable.
It would be like a Superbad/Dazed and Confused crossed with Grosse Point Blank (but without all the killing).
The tone of each of those three movies is different. Superbad is a broad comedy with fat goofballs. Dazed and Confused is a surprisingly well written sweet, realistic character comedy that was advertised as a broad comedy about goofballs. Grosse Point Blank is a darkly comic thriller.

I think it is very hard to be FUNNY when you are going back and forth between two story lines. Going into the past requires taking things seriously. Taking things seriously makes it hard to laugh at them.

Are you sure you're clear what your movie is?

Look, you can always make a comedy about going back home (e.g. SWEET HOME ALABAMA, etc.) or small fishing villages (LA GRANDE SEDUCTION) or both. And being funny forgives a multitude of sins. I'm just saying, the moment I start reading about someone going back to their small fishing village, I'm sighing and thinking, I hope this is really terrible so that I don't have to read it all the way through. It has just become something that beginning writers, particularly in the Maritimes, seem to have been told they should write. I'm tired of it, along with screenplays by aspiring writers about how some aspiring writer writes a great screenplay, has a big success, and discovers that life is not all about success. As if. 

21 Comments:

So what your saying is that I should throw away that idea I had about an aspiring writer who goes back to his tiny fishing village only to discover he should have married his high school sweetheart, whose also a major Hollywood producer, who buys his screenplay, makes him a big success, only for him to realize...oh, never mind.

By Blogger Tim W., at 9:50 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger Carlo Conda, at 11:37 PM  

Stories about aspiring writers are a little transparent. Heck, if that all an aspiring writer can write passionately about, it doesn't say much about the writer.
Spice it up.

In regards to the movie, I reccommend this:
Keep the story concentrated on the present time. The past will be mysterious and you'll reveal it as the story goes along, but NOT though flashbacks. Use things like home videos as a more creative way of showing the past.
Dialogue and character rections and emotions should also be key in revealing what happened in the past.

By Blogger Carlo Conda, at 11:38 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger Brian, at 12:43 AM  

I agree with most of what Alex said here except that "going into the past requires taking things seriously." What about comedies like 30 ROCK, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, and MY NAME IS EARL that employ comedic flashbacks?

(To start to answer my own question, perhaps you consider flashbacks in a different category altogether? If so, why? If done right, couldn't the original poster's "past" timeline just come off as an extended comedic flashback?)

In other words, why can't the past and present be funny at the same time?

Thanks in advance for any reply!

-Brian

By Blogger Brian, at 12:44 AM  

Because his movie is about a guy dying. Seeing the past means we learn about this dead guy and how great he was, or whatnot, which is drama, not comedy.

By Blogger Carlo Conda, at 2:03 AM  

We were talking about a whole timeline in the past, not flashbacks. Sure, flashing back to a single scene can be hysterical. But a whole timeline in the past? I think that's going to be tough to pull off.

And I'm sure someone can come up with a counterexample, too. But I'm not saying it's impossible. I'm just saying, "Tough to pull off."

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 8:12 AM  

I suppose the Godfather II is worth mentioning, if only to cite a film with two timelines. One timeline is the rise of the father, and the other is the fall of the son.

By Blogger Kody Chamberlain, at 11:37 AM  

Forrest Gump is also a series of flashbacks.

I'm not sure why everyone is insisting past timelines need to be funny. This movie is about a guy who died, and revisiting your home town to get back to your roots. There is no need for it to be comedic. A past timeline is obviously crucial to the story, but I think flashbacks and switches in timeline throughout the movie won't work.

By Blogger Carlo Conda, at 12:43 PM  

Helloooooo! The question is whether two timelines will work IN A COMEDY. The guy is trying to write a COMEDY.

Of COURSE multiple timelines can work in a drama.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 12:59 PM  

I guess I missed that part. Soooory Alex.

Dual timelines can work but, as you said, it'll be hard. Stick with secondary ways to show the past. Don't rely on flashbacks.

Also, timing is key when you show a flashback of a certain event or whatnot, especially when trying to be comedic.

By Blogger Carlo Conda, at 1:17 PM  

Now I have an idea. You would need to change the original idea around a lot, but you could sort of slam a "Weekend at Bernie's" with them at the funeral for Bernie. I'm not saying it would be a better movie, but this way two timelines could still be a comedy since neither of them needs to be serious.

By Blogger Michael, at 2:36 PM  

Annie Hall.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 3:28 PM  

I want to thank everyone, especially Alex, for their comments. I realize it's a very difficult concept, which is why it has taken me so long to finally run with the idea. Unfortunately, having the two different timelines is crucial to the story I want to tell. I do respectfully disagree with Alex that going back in time requires one to take things seriously. I think it's all how you set it up and I think I've figured out how to do that without it being overly serious. Now let me addendum my comparisons to Superbad, Dazed and Confused and Grosse Point Blank. I was thinking less tone and more story. This is not intended to be a broad comedy, like Superbad, but will (hopefully) have some hilarious moments. Tone-wise, I would think it would be closer to Dazed and Confused than Superbad. Funny, but not trying for a laugh every 10 seconds. Hey, if nothing else, it's a great exercise and I never have to think about it again when I'm done if I fail completely.

By Blogger Tim W., at 4:04 PM  

I have a spec question I was hoping you could answer. How should you handle characters who have been in the show before, but only briefly? Do you need to remind the reader how they fit into everything, ie:

Jason Street walks over to Erin, the waitress/one-night stand who is now carrying his baby.

Should I try to find a way to fit it in the dialog? What if I can't naturally do that?

Thanks,
Dan

By Blogger BrK, at 10:11 PM  

"I do respectfully disagree with Alex that going back in time requires one to take things seriously."

Hello, Tim W. I've read your comments on Ken Levine's blog and always find them very insightful. About the above quote: I think you're right. Yes, usually when you think about past events, (esp. at around 40 or so), you end up with a lot of bittersweet regrets, etc. BUT, there are also things that when I was young I took waaaaaay too seriously and that I can now look back at and laugh. Another source of great comedy as I look back is how incredibly naive I was about certain people or situations. As an example I cite a conversation our class had with our teacher. She was telling us about all the crazy roomies she had when she was young and how unaware of their insanity she was at the time. It took her YEARS to realize what was really going on -- and the contrast between her past flawed perceptions and her newfound clarity was truly hilarious.

Anyway, the reasons that these types of movies are cliches is that the main character always feels that his high school sweetheart was his one true love, that high school was the pinnacle of happiness and innocence, etc. In reality, though, don't a lot of us look back at our old flames and friends (and even family) and realize that we had them all wrong? Brother, the bullets we dodged, without even knowing it! All of that stuff about the past is also true but never gets addressed--which is why I personally find these types of movies so incredibly annoying and simplistic.

Sure, it'd be a tremendous challenge to make two timelines work (and I agree with Alex about movies based in small fishing villages); I don't know how you'd do it but if your comments in various writing blogs are any indication, you're a thoughtful and talented dude. The effort is sure to be interesting, just as long as you upend the tendency to get sentimental.

By Blogger Eme Kah, at 10:42 AM  

[blush]

I couldn't agree with you more (especially the part where you say complimentary things about me). In fact, if I didn't know any better, I would have said that you had read my outline! My feeling is, looking into the past doesn't always have to be sentimental or bittersweet. It's just that Hollywood seems to have hijacked the premise and schlocked it up as they often do and now it's in the general consciousness of the audience.

I mentioned to Alex my admiration for the movie Out of Sight. One of the things I liked about it is how it weaved two different timelines together. While the earlier timeline in the movie is only a couple of years previous, it's still a look back at the past. Obviously going back 20 years is a little different, but I think it's able to be done without becoming serious.

On a side note, I thought it was criminal how Out of Sight underperformed at the box office and I thought it was due to horrible marketing on the part of Universal who had no idea what to do with the movie. If anyone hasn't seen the movie, I highly recommend it.

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:34 PM  

This might be a wacky thought, but instead of using flashbacks, what if you instead used flash-forwards - ie: a probable future? For example, the main character's about to make a big decision and neurotically flashes forward to the probable future if he makes that decision - that could be fun to play with and would erase some of the sentimentality that comes with romanticizing high school...

By Blogger mary beth deline, at 6:25 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger Eme Kah, at 8:27 PM  

Thanks for everyone's input. At the very least, it's got everyone thinking.

The one thing about the two timelines is that the earlier one is not necessarily what the main character is remembering. Obviously he remembers it, but this is not his walk down memory lane trying to figure out where things went wrong or anything like that. There is only one incident from the past that is even referenced in the present timeline, but by the end, you realize (hopefully) how the two timelines are so thematically tied together. Still, believe it or not, it is a comedy, but hopefully one with a few layers.

By Blogger Tim W., at 12:37 PM  

Well, clearly we're talking about two different approaches but it was fun thinking about it. Thanks for the distraction and the food for thought. I deleted my previous comment bc I liked the three timelines solution.

By Blogger Eme Kah, at 10:10 AM  

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