Happy Valentine’s Day everybody! Or, as I used to call it when I was single, “National Hide Under A Rock Day”. If you’re fortunate enough to have a significant other, you’ll be happy to have lint in your wallet after the roses, the chocolates, the teddy bear, the prix fix dinner and, egad, the ring. You’ll have your choice of movies to go to this year including ENDLESS LOVE, ABOUT LAST NIGHT, THAT AWKWARD MOMENT, LABOR DAY, AT MIDDLETON, BEST NIGHT EVER, LOVE IS IN THE… I’m sorry, just writing that list put me to sleep. Fortunately, if you’re a writer, the long list of choices means that producers are buying Valentine’s Day movies, so we should be selling them.
Now I know you’ve peeked ahead and you’re thinking “Oh boy! Rob’s made a Top 10 Favorite Romantic Comedies List.” Wrong, Beauregard! This is a site for writers so, instead, I’ve listed the romantic comedies I watched while I was preparing to write THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG.
Usually, I’ll start by watching the top 10-20 movies in the genre according to Box Office Mojo and then cross-referencing those with their Rotten Tomatoes ratings to see who stuck the landing and made a great movie that throngs of people wanted to see. I like to build my cathedrals on the shoulders of giants so it’s good to know where to put the scaffolding.
For FROG, I started by screening every princess movie ever made. Then I screened the direct to DVD princess movies. Then the TV specials until I felt like I had a grasp of the elements the “princess audience” was looking for. We wanted FROG to feel like a classic romantic comedy so I screened a lot of those. And then I watched some modern ones until I started to see the elements that made these movies so entertaining. After about a week of dusk to dawn screenings and a ream of notes, I felt like I had enough of a handle on it to get started. Here’s some of what I looked at and why–
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)
A million years ago I was at a WGA lecture and Jonathan Roberts & Steve Bloom were talking about how their film, THE SURE THING, was a one-for-one remake of IHON. I didn’t believe it until I saw the two movies side-by-side. IHON has the best bones of any romantic comedy ever made. Almost any time you see two people who don’t like each other get into a car and drive across the country, you can bet the writer has IHON on iTunes. Watch it and then watch FROG and think of Clark Gable as Tiana and Claudette Colbert as Prince Naveen and you’ll see it. The trick is kicking enough dirt over your tracks so it’s not too obvious.
ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953)
A great beginning to a movie that, frankly, could have been better. But the idea of a wayward princess worked great and gave us some fantastic ideas for ways to efficiently introduce Prince Naveen and Lawrence during the opening musical number in FROG.
KNOCKED UP (2007)
Every time I watch this movie I think it’s the dumbest thing in the world until I get to Act 3 when I’m crying my eyes out. “You read the book!” And suddenly there aren’t enough tissues. I’m such a sap. So I asked myself what did Judd Apatow do to me and I pulled that movie apart beat by beat. Then I watched 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN (2005) to make sure I was right. Everything I discovered is in FROG. I’ll share it with you someday if you’re nice to me.
WEDDING CRASHERS (2005)
It came out right before I started working on FROG so I watched it over and over. It’s got the best First Act ever… but its 3rd Act is a mess.
FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994)
You should be sued for malpractice if you touch this genre without completely dissecting every Richard Curtis film ever made. I’ve been a fan of his since “Black Adder” and “The Young Ones” television series and the Mr. Bean movies put me away. The man has mastered this method of storytelling. Each movie is its own lab experiment. Single narrative. Anthology. Science fiction. WEDDINGS is told in chapters. It’s all there.
EASY A (2010)
I wish this had come out in 2005 because it nailed everything I was trying to do on FROG. It’s a clinic on how to update a classic. At a certain point the most important things are to create characters that great actors want to play and tell stories that resonate with large groups of people. EASY A sticks the landing.
EVERYTHING BY WOODY ALLEN
Ultimately the reason why everybody loves this genre is because we’re all searching for someone to love us… and we all look like idiots while we’re doing it. Woody’s stuff is honest, resonant and well told.
“BAD JUDD APATOW” and “BAD WOODY ALLEN”
When you write in television they give you a few weeks to “get up to speed”. That means “learn how to write the show fast!” My method was to watch and read the two best episodes and the two worst. That way I’d have a feel for what elements worked and what stuff to avoid at all cost. I also found that the writers would throw the entire bag of tools at the bad episodes in order to save them and they were all laid bare. Sitting there like roses on a trash heap. Without singling out any particular movies, I’ll just say that you can learn as much about an artist watching their bad stuff as you can watching their masterpieces.
PRETTY WOMAN (1990) – that Rodeo shopping montage is in every woman’s DNA; 50 FIRST DATES (2004) – I can’t tell you how hard I cried the first time I saw this movie. Also the greatest character introduction ever; HITCH (2005) – Great characters that great actors wanted to play; THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (1998) – A clinic in writing a great Superfreak and working backwards from there; SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993) – Jeff Arch said he visualized himself holding an Oscar and then visualized backwards until he knew what movie he had to write to get him there. What movie could two great actors with tough schedules do? What themes won the Oscar? Talk about inspirational!
I watch movies all day, every day so there are a zillion movies that deserve to be on this list that didn’t make it. The point is to give you a taste of the autopsy most movies get after they make me cry. By the way, the “Got it” thing really made me happy so let’s keep that ball rolling. Also, feel free to list your favorite romantic comedies and add a sentence about what you like about them from a writing perspective. And, most of all, enjoy your Valentine’s Day… or have a fun time under that rock.