Writing and Selling Romantic Comedy ScreenplaysBy: Craig Batty
The following people and places were invaluable in helping this book happen. Firstly, thanks to our publisher, Kamera Books, and in particular Hannah Patterson and Ion Mills – for sharing our vision and for their patience! And thanks to Anne Hudson, for doing a great job with editing.
We’re very grateful to Bournemouth University’s Fusion Fund for supporting travel and research to Australia and the US, which was also invaluable for reducing the number of late-night Skype sessions during the evolution of this book. And to RMIT University for its generous acknowledgement of the time needed to research and write.
Special thanks go to Linda Seger, who introduced us in the first place at Carluccio’s restaurant in London – a great place for a chumcom meet cute!
Thanks also to Hal Ackerman, Ben Cookson, Julian Farino, Gene Wayne Hart, Andy Horton, Suya Lee, Jeff Reno and Stayci Taylor for sharing their time, insights and thoughts about all things romcom.
Huge thanks to Jule Selbo for agreeing to write the Foreword – we couldn’t have a better screenwriting genre expert on hand!
We’d also like to thank our families, friends, students, colleagues and collaborators for helping to make this book happen. Together, they’ve offered us moral support and guidance, inspiration and reflection, and knowledge that has influenced and transformed our thinking about romantic comedy screenplays and how to talk to others about them.
Dr Jule Selbo, award-winning screenwriter and Head of the MFA in Screenwriting at California State University, Fullerton
I began teaching film genre for screenwriters seminars a few years ago, and when I get to the romance and romantic comedy genres, I never tire of asking the writers in the class – Who believes in true love? Hands go up – and, surprisingly, more male hands than female hands. We talk about why the idea of true love is a staple in most cultures and societies, and how this idea of a ‘soulmate’ is so prevalent in reams of literature and films. We discuss possible reasons for why the romance genre is a dominant or supporting story element in many screenplays – top action/thriller/crime films such as the Bourne cycle and The Departed, westerns such as Tombstone, horror films such as Let the Right One In, fantasy/war/sci-fi adventure films such as Avatar, and countless more films in various genres.
What makes Die Hard, often considered one of the top action/thrillers, work so well? Because John McClane’s reason to enter the fray is to save his wife, so he has the opportunity to rekindle their relationship. He loves her. And that makes us love him. One of the most important elements about the James Bond re-boot is that audiences watching Casino Royale become emotionally attached to a man who almost gave up the spy game for love. His ‘soulmate’, Vesper Lynd, dies tragically in the narrative, and now Bond is a haunted, hurting man – albeit still looking great in a tuxedo. We know he’s known and given profound, gut-wrenching love. And we love him for that. Audiences tend to love lovers. Because we know how much love can ‘hurt’, how love can lift a person, how love can cause crises of self-esteem, how it can make or break one’s day – basically how it affects us and affects a great majority of (all?) people all around the world.
Film theorist Torben Grodal suggests that humans are connected to the idea of love because of a deep-seated human desire for intimate connection, whether it’s for survival, for procreation, for status or for self-esteem. Grodal also refers to Nico Frijda’s work, The Emotions, positing that true love often comes with a negotiation between partners – what’s acceptable, what’s not, how far one’s willing to go and how much one’s willing to risk.
Anthropologist and human behaviour researcher Helen Fisher, in her TED talk, The Brain in Love, points to the activity in the brain in the ventral tegmental area. Here cells create dopamine, a natural stimulant, and share it with other regions of the brain – creating a sort of reward system. She says: ‘It’s below your emotions. It’s… associated with wanting, with motivation, with focus on and craving. In fact, the same brain region where activity becomes active when you feel the rush of cocaine.’ Add a ‘comedy spin’ to these analysts’ observations and factoids – and the plots for thousands of romantic comedies come to mind.
Romance is great. It’s the adventure of discovering or accepting that we’re capable of deep emotions. That we can be swept away in an indescribable, euphoric feeling. Tolkien writes of fantasy in these terms – perhaps fantasy is connected to love, who knows. Comedy is great. It’s built on the hope that humans, by taking action, can have a strong hand in really affecting and changing their own lives. And so – in romantic comedy – things ‘work out’ because someone commits to the adventure of doing something to enhance their own life. And that’s hopeful.
Like many people, I want to believe in a special relationship that can make every day just a bit better. A communion with someone that, every once in a while, will be what Emily Esfahani Smith calls that ‘micro-moment of positivity resonance’. Audiences respond to ‘hope’ and want to believe. So no wonder I never tire of watching the great romcoms – films such as City Lights, It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, Divorce – Italian Style, Annie Hall, Moonstruck, When Harry Met Sally, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Hors de Prix, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Bride and Prejudice and Tanghi Argentini.