Thursday, October 1, 2009

Short Comedy Film Shortcomings Part 2: In Praise of Story

Although we here at Iron Mule receive a wide variety of material, our submissions can usually be divided into three convenient categories: Mockumentaries, Parodies and Narrative (with a special, close-to-our-heart fourth category: Crazy-ass Bizarro Animation). This third category, the Narrative one, is the least common, and we’d like to take a moment to lament that.

For starters, we do not by any means believe that every movie has to have a story. Many of our award-winners, judges’ and audience favorites, have been from that mysterious fourth category, the plotless animated pieces that hurtle forward on the steam of their own creative hubris, seemingly making it up as they go along. However, being animation, the filmmakers have clearly had to consider every frame in detail. If only our live-action narratives received that much attention.

Though we are not expecting every film we receive to be structured around a story, it is actually much harder to NOT have one. Because, when a movie starts, a human audience will automatically seek out a story. It’s not our fault; it’s a survival instinct we’ve had for millenia, we can’t help it. If you’re eschewing a story, you’d better come up with something great to put in its place. And this brings us to the first category: the Mockumentary.

Rather than a story, the mockumentary often revolves around a subject or style the filmmakers think is weird (but in a cool way): exercise videos, infomercials, nature documentaries, art films, history. You name it, we’ve seen it mocked with a semi-serious tone. The problem is that these films tend to have only one joke: “exercise videos/informercials/art films/etc. are goofy and self-important,” and the audience will pick up on that pretty fast. Then comes the follow-up question, the raison d’etre for filmmaking (and storytelling): “Okay; so what’s next?” And more often than not, there is no “next.” So, if that’s all you’ve got, you’d better make it quick. We have certainly shown movies like this, structured around one punchline, but they are rarely over 5 minutes long, and often under 3. Mockumentaries also tend to exist because the filmmakers are cracking each other up. And while making each other laugh is a great place to start, it’s imperative that you show your movie (or, better yet, your screenplay) to people who don’t think everything you do is funny. It’ll save you a lot of time and money, and it’ll help ensure that your film works for an audience that consists of more than just your friends. Listen to what they have to say, particularly the criticisms, and then RE-WRITE IT. A few times. Always.

The pitfalls of a parody are a little different. A parody is, in many ways, almost always an inside joke. It comes from the filmmaker’s personal relationship with the source material. If he or she (though these films are invariably made by males) finds kung fu movies to be silly and poorly-paced and over-acted, then the filmmaker will make a silly, poorly-paced and over-acted movie as a bewildering “homage” to a genre he claims to love, not realizing that some people may find those movies pretty entertaining on their own terms, and not as camp. So a parody won’t work for anyone who feels differently about the genre being parodied. (Unless you actually have something to say about the material, or you’re using the source material as a metaphor to talk about something else, but that would be a satire. And that would require a story.)

As opposed to mockumentaries or parodies, narrative is exceedingly easy. You have a conflict; someone wants something they don’t have and other people keep them from acquiring it. For a short comedy, it helps if that “something” is a physical object or a readily identifiable goal: a job, a car, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, money, love, respect, revenge, etc. Even the most well-known and successful mockumentaries (“This Is Spinal Tap”) and parodies (“Airplane!”) have solid storylines. And the bonus: if done thoughtfully and with care, this NEVER gets old. We will watch stories unfold over and over until we die. However, we will quickly grow tired of hearing that ‘70’s cop shows are goofy, or that kung fu movies are over-the-top. If that’s really the subject you want to address, try sticking a story in there. It doesn’t have to have a by-the-numbers, three-act structure, it doesn’t have to be “conventional.” Just try giving one of your characters a simple objective. Then try telling this story to other people and see if they think it’s funny. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. Which is why it’s even more baffling to us that so few of the films we receive even attempt it.

When we sit down to watch a submission (and at least three different people will, by the way), the first impression goes a long way. If that first impression is, “Oh god, another mockumentary,” or “Oh god, another parody,” your film has an uphill climb ahead. Not just with us but with nearly every other festival you’re going to submit to. A simple story, well-told, will have a much better chance of getting shown than a more ambitious ten-minute, one-joke parody that leaves the audience thinking, as with any bad joke, “Well, I guess you had to be there.”

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