29 March, 2008

Word of mouth: “The Cottage”

The Cottage is a comedy-horror from the hyphenate of London to Brighton, Paul Andrew Williams. His first film had some major flaws but I could relate to the story and liked that he had something important to say. This follow up was actually written first but couldn't get funding until after the critical success of the first one. It's opening weekend got it to number six but the drop off from word of mouth, despite the generous reviews, meant it wasn't retained beyond some late night screenings.

In an interview Williams says: "I’m always one for when I’m working on it – writing it and getting it into pre-production – saying: “Let’s not put this into a box or a genre.” Let’s just say we’re making a film about two brothers. Of course it’s horror, bearing in mind what happens to them. But it’s always on the story and not trying to pick a genre because then as soon as it’s made then everyone will obviously put it into a genre and compare it to other films that are in that genre."

I understand his point of view in not wanting to be pidgeonholed and just writing the story you want but the audience for genre films will tend to know the genre inside out and are seeing the film because of the genre. What makes The Orphanage such a must-see classic is because the writer and director are so sure of the genre.

This film actually started off as a thriller and then changed into a horror during the writing of it. It was decided to keep it as two separate halves rather than making the first bit more of a horror. That's a valid artistic choice but it only annoys an audience who have been led by the publicity to expect something like Severence.

Williams also says: "It’s an homage to all the clichés that are in all those films. I hope we haven’t spoofed anything because I don’t think it’s a spoof movie. But we are aware of those other films, what they do with machete, the lighter and the “don’t go out there or you’ll die” kind of thing. One interesting thing I’ve noticed, though, is that loads of people are finding loads of nods to loads of films. Now I’ve got some that I’ve tried to do but there are so many that I don’t even know all of the films and I don’t know why. But it’s great if an audience thinks you’ve picked them out specially to do something with them."

In another interview he says: "Hopefully it's an ironic, subtle piss-take of the whole genre."

The problem is that, whatever our intentions are, clichés outside of a spoof are just clichés, and calling them an homage or a piss-take doesn't really change that. Clichés are used in the first place to save having to think of something original and so the same things will be in other films even if you haven't actually seen them or deliberately copied them.

The first ideas from the best writers' are going to be ones they've seen before or the most obvious ones but what what makes them the best writers is their attitude to those ideas. Rather than keep those clichés they filter them out or twist them to make them original. It's hard to do but we can at least aspire to do it.

However there are genuine genre tropes which are perfectly valid to use - you just need to use them in a fresh way and that's best done by writing fresh characters the audience can believe and identify with. The mistake some people make is taking a check list of events from successful genre films and putting them in another film, thinking that would be enough to replicate the success either from a ripping off kind of way or an 'ironic' 'homage' kind of way. Another quote from the interview:

"It’s hard to come up with an original idea of any genre. I’m so aware that almost all of the things that happen in this film are just not original because there’s been so many of these slasher/bogeymen/“he’s going to catch you and cut your head off” kind of films that I’m just kind of trying to let everyone know that I know."

Williams understands about the importance of characters as he explains here but I think we need to go the next level and allow those characters to drive the story and remain psychologically true to get original ideas. The only original thing in The Orphanage were the characters. In retrospect I have seen the same sort of the ideas and events in other supernatural horrors but I didn't think of them when watching The Orphanage because I was so emotionally involved.

The Cottage begins with a kidnap of a woman who turns out to be violent and sweary – not the typical passive female victim which is a good thing. The problem for some in the audience was the swearing. Yes, she’s a confident strong woman but she’s insulting people by calling them ‘cunts’ and ‘pussies’. Leaving aside the irony of that, it was used excessively.

We all know people who swear a lot and we may even swear a lot ourselves but it is different in the context of a story. It’s not so much the words but the frequency and how natural it seems. People walked out - and they weren't old codgers - at an early sweary scene. Swearing can be funny if done properly but it needs to be gauged really well, which will come with experience.

Adrian Reynolds discusses writing strategies here and mentions that Williams' previous film was written in a few days. But you could tell. I have no idea about this latest script but again the lack of work on it is obvious. I don’t want to piss on anyone’s writing method but I can’t help wondering - once you have written that first draft in days – if it wouldn’t, perhaps, be worth spending a few extra days correcting what doesn’t work.

Films are about the characters primarily so why not spend time just checking each character? You might not have noticed that one character, for instance, just disappears half way through for no reason. It’s a simple matter to add a line or half a page to explain it.

You might realise that having your characters choose to wander about randomly in the woods rather than follow the road into the village and certain safety is difficult to get away with. Yes, woods are scarier than roads but why not just think of a reason why they can't use the road?

With other characters you check you might notice that they don’t react to impending death like a normal person would. The comedy death may look good but if it happens because a character does something out of character or stupidly unlikely then the impact is reduced. You end up with neither comedy nor horror.

The most annoying thing about Wolf Creek, which is repeated here, was a character spending ages reading about the killer instead of escaping from the killer. It can be pretty much guaranteed that if I was in someone’s house and they were trying to kill me that I would be looking for the door and not their diary to find out why how they turned out so bad. It's a simple way to tell the killer’s backstory but by thinking of the throughline of the character and thinking what we would do if we were in that situation, then we should be able to come up with something more convincing.

The bottom line is that the generous critics and some fan support wasn't enough to overcome an underdeveloped script. It should do well on DVD rental - and maybe even sell-through - but The Cottage had unrealised huge potential.

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