SPOILERS: DUSK TIL DAWN
Imagine you’re a script reader. You’ve just started reading a gritty realist drama about a girl whose family life is pretty rough, maybe somewhere up North or in the boonies down Sarf somewhere. The pace is pretty nice, characterisation’s rounded, dialogue’s okay. Nearly twenty pages in, you’re beginning to understand the focus of this girl: she’s going to run away to London, sure there’s a better life for her there (only you *just know* it’ll be even worse). This is the sort of stuff that would light Ken Loach’s fire, no question.
Then you get to the first turning point… And it completely changes. The girl kills her parents Mickey and Mallory style. She kidnaps a kid from a post office queue when she’s not able to cash in their giros. Maybe she has a shoot out with police on the way out for good measure. Whatever: from gritty realist drama, we’re now in high octane chase-style thriller territory. (You might think I’m exaggerating, but I really have read scripts with genre changes as marked as this, sometimes even more so).
But what’s wrong with changing your genre? After all, it keeps the audience on their toes, yeah? They better pay attention! Anyway, Tarantino and Rodriguez famously did this in Dusk Til Dawn. Right??
First things first, there’s nothing *wrong* with changing genre in a movie – if that is your intention all along: it needs to be a specific, conscious style choice. I know there’s that myth that Tarantino and Rodriguez met for a coffee and literally stuck two different scripts together, but really?? Come on! Whatever you think of Dusk Til Dawn, it was so flagrant all the way through that it gets away with it: we go from one highly implausible story to another with ease because of it. What’s more, characterisation is consistent, even if story isn’t – and that helps ease the transition: Seth accepts the vampires just like he accepts his brother’s rape and murder of the bank clerk – with barely a blink, he just gets on with it. “I don’t believe in vampires,” he says, “Yet I see f***ing vampires.”
Most of the specs change genre and tone accidentally though – it’s not a specific, conscious style choice. What’s more, in my experience both reading and writing it seems always to go drama – and then the genre of choice. Weird huh? Occasionally spec comedies I’ve seen will start incredibly mentally, they cannot “step up” in the second half, they’ve already “shot their load” as an (obviously male) reader friend of mine delightfully put it. Otherwise drama will set up for horror or thriller – making it fall somewhere in-between, neither satisfying nor intriguing to really grab a reader’s heartstrings.
Changing genre is actually surprisingly easy to do; we’ve all done it at least once and we’re sure to do it again. My most recent spec, a woman-in-peril thriller, went through three particular drafts that went horrendously wrong because of various accidental changes in the genre. Where do you draw the line between revealing character, setting up the plot and changing the genre? Sometimes it can be by just a hair’s breadth – when one reader suggested I used a sexy new dream sequence for example, I thought, “Great! That’s a good device for the thriller genre” and I did it. However I lingered a little too long on everything that went WITH it for before you know it, another reader says to me: “Your character is disturbed, so I thought I was dealing with a “Girl, Interrupted” style of film in the first half… Then you’ve got her on the run having kidnapped her own kid. WTF?”
Thrillers and horrors are the worst offenders for specs that go off the rails genre-wise I’ve noticed and I think I know why: writers want to increase plausibility for their characters’ actions or want to have a “lull before the storm”. Before you know it then, we’re in drama territory for the first half and in hardcore genre stuff for the second, just like mine was. The problem with this then is it feels as if the goal posts are moved: you might get past the first ten pages, but if the story keeps changing track, how can you appreciate the whole of it or invest in the character’s arc or the plot? It’s like being on a car journey where the car isn’t breaking down, but it threatens to, put-put-puttering all the way. Frustrating and not usually enjoyable.
Yet abrupt genre change is one of the least “accepted” points from coverage too: whilst writers may write back to me and say they were glad I spotted various points that were bothering them and were unsure what to do about (or other things they HADN’T noticed and can now see), very few seem to agree that the genre needs any attention. They will say that a character *has* to do certain things in the first half that *may seem* “dramery”, but these are necessary to understand what happens in the second half. If that were the case however, all the major genre films we know and love could never have happened: it is perfectly possible to stay within the perimeters AND make things plausible, have a lull before the storm, whatever. It’s like your Mum might tell you when attempting a Sisyphian task: start as you mean to go on. It’s harder than it looks. Drop concentration for a second, give one idea just that bit too much house room and whammo – you’re out of genre land and into the territory of accidental drama. And that’s never good.
So: if you’re writing a drama, stay with drama. If it’s SUPPOSED to be a genre film – find out the conventions, break them, change them, subvert them, build on top of them: do whatever you want – please. Just don’t try an accidental genre-drama hybrid that doesn’t really go anywhere because it has an identity crisis.
What about you – any movies that have made it to screen that seem to abruptly change in some way?