** No Real Spoilers **
So last weekend I watched DOM HEMINGWAY (2013) with @BrideofChrist, who despite her Twitter handle is actually one saucy little minx. It’s definitely a “Marmite” kind of film: you’re bound to love it OR hate it – and a lot of people hated it, apparently (but let’s face it, as I always say, a reaction is better than “meh”), so rather predictably then, I LOVED IT.
What was perhaps most interesting about DOM HEMINGWAY however was the fact I was aware of just how *different* it was, right from the very first second. It’s these type of movies arguably that can really teach spec screenwriters the most, even if they hate the actual stories … That’s right! Here’s how:
1) Breakin’ The Law, Breakin’ The Law
Okay so as we know there’s a load of stuff readers can tell about scripts on page 1 and there’s loads of “rules” (that aren’t actually RULES FYI, they’re just SENSIBLE), because obviously you **don’t** start your movie with with a dramatic monologue that goes on and on … BUT OH WAIT: this one does! And what’s more, it’s Dom himself telling us how exquisite his cock is?? This screenwriter must be on DRUGS, who could think that was a good idea? Well clearly the writer/director and a bunch of others up the chain so um, yeah. Guess it got this one noticed. And financed. And made. AND sold and distributed!
WHAT WE CAN LEARN: Format-wise the last thing you want to do is start off your screenplay with a very long soliloquy since it’s one of the fastest ways to turn the reader OFF your material … Unless of course you can do it DOM HEMINGWAY-style, ie. in such a way we haven’t seen before, about a subject we haven’t heard before, from a performer who doesn’t do this sort of thing usually. And oh yeah: make it FUNNY (or horrifying … or intriguing … or whatever. Make it WORK to earn its keep!) But perhaps MOST crucially, if you want to break those “rules” or rather, expectations Readers have?? You gotta know what they ARE. ALRITE?!
2) Mobster Vs. Gangster
The genre of DOM HEMINGWAY is “black comedy” and/or gangster, something the Brits are **known** for, so it’s perhaps a surprise that Writer/Director Richard Shepard is apparently from NY. Arguably American gangster films are distinctly different: Brit gangster films are usually “smaller”, “grittier” and more comedic than their slick, cool, urban Mobster US counterparts. But this is just it: anyone can make anything as far as I’m concerned and perhaps Shephard’s lived here for donkey’s or perhaps he’s really good at research, who knows? What matters is the end product, not the people behind it — as long as it feels “authentic” (whatever that means). INNIT?
WHAT WE CAN LEARN: One of the biggest issues spec screenplays have is consistency of tone. It’s really hard to keep a larger than life story world going, but DOM HEMINGWAY shows where the competition is. It hits the ground running and introduces not only violence, depravity and general insanity; it also brings forth pathos and poignancy, especially when Dom Hemingway is joined on the bath and at his wife’s gravestone by his grandson, who by the way NEVER speaks.
3) Don’t Take That Tone With Me …
… Or rather, if you do?? STICK WITH IT. The tone of DOM HEMINGWAY is “hyper real”, right from the off, from Dom’s blow job speech; to his repeated bouts of nakedness, rage, violence and occasional emotional appeals to both his estranged daughter and dead wife. If we knew him in real life, we’d probably be scared shitless of him (I think if he ended up my neighbour, I’d be moving house first chance I got). But thankfully, Dom is a movie character, someone so far removed from reality, so larger than life, we just can’t take our eyes off him. We are so incredulous we can’t help but laugh (when if it were real life we’d probably be screaming for the hills). Even in his quieter moments, it’s obvious he doesn’t quite belong to the world the rest of us do … or even the rest of the characters actually IN the movie, so that when he meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl Melody, we realise their *connection*:
DOM: What’s your name?
MELODY: I’m Melody.
DOM: Nah. I think I’ll call you Lisa, if I may.
MELODY: (pleased) My cousin is called Lisa!
Theirs is not a sexual relationship by the way (refreshing!), but they are bonded together throughout the story for reasons I won’t spoil here, which is *maybe* a little bit handy but we don’t even care because really, no one watches a film like DOM HEMINGWAY for the plot (and actually, even if that *thing* is a teensy bit handy? It’s still inspired).
WHAT WE CAN LEARN: As writers we can often get hung up on the notion of story and say it’s *all about that*, but in reality there’s a myriad of reasons people [nb. who AREN’T writers!] engage with movies. The most common element is special effects and spectacle, but DOM HEMINGWAY reminds us that if the characters are truly unusual, **out there** and mesmerising for whatever reason, this IS enough to carry a slightly handy plot. The movie feels like an insight to Dom’s mad world and absolutely none of it is a dreaded DEM. Instead it’s about seeing life from Dom’s totally warped POV, warts and all. LUVIT.
4) NOW We’re Talking!!!
So whilst the plot sort of hangs together (in fact it jumps all over the place), the characters are MENTAL and the story world possibly bears potentially zero resemblance to anyone’s *real* life anywhere in the known universe, there is indeed one aspect that acts as the glue which holds the whole crazy thing together:
Yes, yes I KNOW I’m always going on about how screenplays have too much dialogue and fact is, on the surface DOM HEMINGWAY is no different … Technically it *does* have more dialogue than the average feature screenplay, but you know why it becomes a SELLING POINT of this story?
Because it’s unlike any I’ve read/heard before.
THAT’S RIGHT. I spend my working weeks reading scripts, day in, day out. I watch movies everyday. Every single day. Yet DOM HEMINGWAY‘s dialogue is a new one on me. It’s fresh, it’s original, it’s bloody effing brilliant.
What’s so great about it, you ask? Well let’s put it this way. If The Bard himself was transported from Jacobean times into inner city London and decided he wanted to write black comedies involving insane criminals with the wordy capabilities of Machiavelli himself, then the result would be DOM HEMINGWAY. Yes, I said it:
HowZAT for a USP??? Sign me up, baby.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN: If you want to write loads of dialogue? Knock yourself out. But it’s got to be the BEST F***ING DIALOGUE IN THE WORLD, EVER. It’s got to be noticeable in *some way* and it’s got to be UNlike anything that’s come before it. That means NOT copying Sorkin, Tarantino or Whedon: you gotta tread your own path and bring us your OWN unique take.
The UK is known for gangster films; it’s known for black comedy and/or larger than life characters. Writer/Director Richard Shepherd tapped an EXISTING MARKET with that one … and then brought his OWN UNIQUE TAKE to it.
But … But … You don’t like gangster films, black comedy, effin’ Jude Law??? Whatever homies. Watch DOM HEMINGWAY as a masterclass in how it’s done when The Industry wants “The same … but DIFFERENT“.
So stop imitating. Start innovating. What’s the worst that can happen?