Monday, 20 December 2010

Anatomy of a trailer

If I haven’t already bored you with this information, the official UK trailer for CHALET GIRL has just gone online.

I’m totally chuffed about it for loads of reasons, but principally because:

-          That Paramount logo at the start gives me goose-bumps

-          Momentum Pictures were very accommodating in letting the film’s creative team have input on its development – there were about a dozen cuts of this one trailer – and we’re all happy that it reflects the spirit and tone of the film faithfully (which I guess is important)

-          It’s got a creative idea of its own (the postcard) which makes it a bit more original than the usual ‘Meet Kim...’ version that we could have offered up

-          I’m also pretty excited about all the good stuff that they couldn’t fit in the trailer – so hopefully this won’t be one of those movies where all five gags are given away before the audience has actually started watching it

-          It’s beginning to become real – the Westwick fansites are already going loopy for the new footage – who cares if it’s any good, as long as Chuck Bass is looking ‘peng’ (my new word of the day), right?

All that aside, watching the trailer again (as I do, three or four times an hour), it got me thinking about how analysing a marketing tool like this can help with script development on future projects.  After all, this is how they’re going to sell your movie – this and the one-sheet – so it probably makes sense to try to be sensitive to that process while you’re writing the script in the first place. 

I’m not saying your should actually script your trailer in advance or design the one-sheet, although I know some people do.  The process is invariably so complex and Chinese Whispersy that you’re unlikely to predict exactly what is going to come out at the other end or, more pertinently, what the audience is going to respond to best (if you could then Spielberg would be fetching your cappuccinos).

But there is an important lesson here, I think, which is understanding the primary audience you are writing for and the primary genre in which you are functioning.  CHALET GIRL has something to offer an older audience, and has elements of the sports movie and the personal drama about it – the character story and the cross-genre approach were partly what kept us all enthused about it for so long.  But from very early on the producers also rammed home the importance of hitting our core audience, and our core genre: the teen romcom.  Look at the trailer.  That’s what it is.

So in script development, in casting (dreamy Ed), in shooting style, in the pacing of the edit, in the choice of music, and now of course in the marketing materials, we had to put our target audience first, and rightly so.  This was an expensive movie to shoot: if we don’t get the kids in, we’re screwed.

So what have we got?  It’s a two minute trailer and it breaks down like this:

-          10 seconds setting up the basic conflict of the story – Kim is not posh, but she’s going to end up in a posh world – how will she cope?

-          15 seconds of plot set-up – Kim has somehow ended up in the Alps, she’s a chalet girl, she’s way out of her depth and to top it off she can’t ski – that enough to be going on with?

-          10 seconds visually contrasting the luxury of her new world (helicopters, champagne, mountain picnics) with the (very) ordinary world from which she came;

-          20 seconds of ‘fun and games’ – champagne cork in the face, boiling water in the crotch, house party, before we hit the money beat: the love story;

-          25 seconds of Felicity / Kim and Ed / Jonny (bless ‘em) – things go well, things wobble, things go wrong – they’re from different worlds, they’re too far apart, how will it ever work?  I’m tearing up just writing this;

-          15 seconds of the mandatory ‘this February...’ (well, it beats ‘this holiday season...’) and an emphasis on the ensemble appeal of the cast;

-          15 seconds building to a frantic finale, in which the third act’s snowboarding competition emerges as our heroine’s best shot at personal fulfilment, with a bit of themey voice-over (‘conquer your fears’ etc);

-          5 seconds of a silly / flirty gag at the end to send ‘em out smiling;

-          5 seconds of credits wall – and you wouldn’t believe how long they spent deciding on that font...

What is interesting (to me) about this breakdown is that it almost perfectly summarises the component parts of the film, and in the right sort of balance, too.  We begin on Kim, which is fitting since this is very much a heroine’s journey story, we are with her from start to finish, when she jumps we jump etc.  In order to draw us into her story we have to spend a decent chunk of time setting up the fish-out-of-water situation: Kim in her own world, Kim in her new world, and the yawning chasm of comedy and drama that exists between the two.  (One thing the trailer doesn’t give us much of is Bill Bailey as the dad she leaves back home, but those are the more dramatic beats of the film that don’t ping as well in a trailer.  You’ll just have to watch it.)  Then we have a considerable section of fun and games – what is a ski season without hot tubs and sticky cakes, after all – but it was always going to be important that we didn’t let these dominate the rest of the story, as it could easily have done.  The heart of the piece, beyond Kim’s own journey, is obviously the love story, and so it is right that the trailer lets us enjoy this for a while (not to mention giving us ample opportunity to dwell on that jaw line).  And the third act, as in the trailer, is all about pulling these elements together in a finale that comprises sport, love, comedy, drama, and a load of different character stories coming together.  (Another important point for us was to have enough snowboarding so that we pulled in that crowd, but not so much that we alienated everybody else, a balance in the final film which again the trailer accurately reflects.)  And, right at the end, in case you missed it, we’ve got a little reminder that it should be sweet and quite funny (this guy is one funny fooker, by the way).

So that’s it.  Wildly schizophrenic is one way to look at it, but I prefer to see it as a faithful representation of a film which, even for a ‘teen romcom’, has a fair amount going on.  It might be formulaic, but then isn’t that what an audience comes to see?  A crowd-pleasing formula, well replicated but with a dash of individuality.  Sounds easy.  Isn’t.

You’ll probably have guessed by now that this blog post is just a none-too-subtle way for me to push the CHALET GIRL trailer again (did I mention that it’s online?), that it’s a bit of a ramble and that I don’t have anything too wonderfully wise to impart on this subject that hasn’t already been said on the Temple of Apollo or a hundred other screenwriting websites.

But I’m researching a new script at the moment and I do keep coming back to the trailer, and the poster.  At the moment I still don’t have a definite idea of what the trailer looks like or sounds like, what kind of actor is in it, what they are doing or what music is accompanying it.  And I couldn’t tell you whether the poster is a one-sheet of just the heroine or an ensembly thing with six different actors on it (although, amusingly, this is a debate that is still current about the CHALET GIRL poster, so go figure).  Maybe these are some small signs that I still don’t know my material well enough yet and that, to reference an earlier blog, I need to keep digging for a little longer.  After all, if I don’t know how I would sell it, how can I expect anybody else to?

Merry Christmas to you, my eleven blog readers.  Roll on February.

Monday, 6 December 2010

If it matters to them...

I’m at that intriguing development stage of my new script (of which more later).  I’ve got the characters, the basic story arc and the big moments and set pieces.  But to tie it all together I still have to identify the key ingredient: why does it matter?  Why does an audience care?  As with CHALET GIRL – and most of the romantic comedies I have written in the past – this is not a life or death scenario we are talking about.  The fate of the civilised world does not depend on our hero’s actions, nor are the lives of thirty orphans in jeopardy.  And yet, as every screenwriting manual will tell you, the story needs to be hugely significant in the life of our protagonist (or protagonists, as there is an ensemble element to this script) – otherwise, why does it need to be told? 


The key here is that it matters to them.  And if it matters to them, it will matter to the audience.


Look at sport.  I don’t much like football, but I will always watch the World Cup Final because you know that winning it means absolutely everything to each man on the pitch.  It is literally their lives, in ninety minutes: they will either be winners, or nearly men.  That’s awesome.  And it doesn’t need to be the World Cup Final.  Maybe Yeovil Town have got through to an FA cup fourth round match against Manchester United, and somehow they’re 1-0 up with ten minutes to go.  That’s exciting, isn’t it?  I remember watching some bizarre sports at the Winter OIympics earlier this year (online, when I should have been working).  What do I know about curling, or the luge, or the biathlon?  Nothing, other than the fact that these contestants have been training for years, have probably had to win a load of tournaments just to qualify, and this hour, or five minutes, or ninety seconds, is their one chance of glory.  It mattered to them and so, amazingly, it mattered to me.


Returning to writing, there are some wonderfully judged pieces that might seem (to me) to be the dramatic equivalents of curling, and yet they are totally absorbing because of the way the writers show us what is at stake for their characters.  Two old plays I remember studying at school (and both have been turned into films a couple of times each) demonstrate this point well.  The Winslow Boy is ostensibly about the theft of a five shilling postal order by a school boy.  But the amount wasn’t important, nor even the petty theft – it was the dishonour that the accusation did to the boy, and his family, and his family’s name, which gave the story huge power.  It meant the world to them, and so their fight to clear their name mattered to us.  Likewise in The Browning Version, young Taplow’s innocent inscription in the copy of Agamemnon that he gives to the crusty teacher Crocker-Harris (“God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master”) is enough to bring the fierce old man to tears.  It is a tiny moment of narrative, but one with vast emotional resonance: the boy’s opinion matters greatly to the school master.  Some of the works of Ian McEwan, particularly Atonement and On Chesil Beach, turn on similar beats – to an outsider, nothing much seems to be going on, but to the characters in question, and to the reader or viewer, the aftershocks are massive.  The irony is that these small moments, rooted in character, often generate more dramatic power than Bruce Willis saving the planet or (god forbid) Ben Affleck exacting revenge for Pearl Harbour.


Maybe I’m over-thinking this.  After all, romantic comedies are pretty simple, aren’t they?  Boy meets girl, and so on – isn’t that enough?  It’s true, love is probably the greatest of all dramatic stakes, and a good example of what we are talking about here.  The world might not shift on its axis if this couple don’t get together, but it’s the most important thing in their lives right now, which makes it interesting for us.  But a kiss on its own is not enough.  Most of the best romantic comedies have more going on than just a love story, and are building up to more than just a kiss.  Done well – and of course this goes for any genre – they are about a character going on a fundamental, transformative emotional journey.  Look at JERRY MAGUIRE or FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL or THE APARTMENT or MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING or WHEN HARRY MET SALLY.  They are all good for lots of reasons, but they are all great because of the character journeys that lie at their heart.


At the start of CHALET GIRL, our heroine has lost her mother, and her self-confidence.  She faces various challenges through the course of the story – professional, sporting, romantic – but they all boil down to a question of whether she can lay her mother’s memory to rest and regain the confidence she had before her mum died.  That means – at least we hope – that all the obstacles she faces have greater significance, because they are part of a bigger picture: her journey.  So it’s not just about pretty boys and girls playing around in a ski resort, which is one version of the movie that we could have made (the bad one).  It’s about Kim, our chalet girl, making some decisions that will literally change how the rest of her life will play out.  The last line of the movie confirms this “this girl’s got a great future ahead of her”.  She has now, but she might not have.  That is our story.  The drama is in her journey: the kiss is the reward.


(Sidebar gripe: in the development and financing stage, various people turned down CHALET GIRL for the reason suggested at above: “why should I care about a load of posh people dicking around in the snow?”  It’s a valid question, except it’s not what the film is about.  For one thing Kim isn’t posh, and for another thing we’re not just dicking around – this is important to her.  I bet FOUR WEDDINGS got a load of similar gripes, ditto DOWNTON ABBEY.  There is a particularly British feeling that rich people can’t have real problems, presumably based on a moral relativism which states that we can’t care too much because they will be alright in the end.  As Spike says in NOTTING HILL (there’s another one): “What he’s going to say next is there are people starving in the Sudan...” – so nothing really matters, right?  In my opinion, not right.  We can – or should be able to – care about anybody, anywhere, anywhen.  It’s the writer’s job to make us care and perhaps it’s harder to make us care about a privileged person than someone at the bottom who really does have nowhere else to turn to.  But just because it’s harder, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.  And if this post has argued anything – has it? – it’s that what is happening inside a character is immeasurably more interesting than what is going on in the world around them.)


So in my new script I have to keep reminding myself: why does it matter to these characters?  If it doesn’t matter to them, if they fail and can shrug it off and go ‘ah well, maybe next time’ then it absolutely won’t matter to the audience.  But if it does, then it will.  And if I am addressing that question honestly and ruthlessly on every page, then I’m heading in the right direction.