More and more often, in recent years, I've found myself being asked to read screenplays and story treatments written by various peers and associates. Most recently, I was asked to eyeball a story outline for a ghost story - a feature film being written by a friend and colleague. (I don't think he wants me blabbing about his project to anyone yet, so I won't divulge his name, or the plot or title of his movie here.)
Over coffee (I sipped a tasty red eye, my usual), "J" and I went over his outline, and discussed it, point by point. For the record, I think J is on to a very cool story, and I believe if this film gets made at some point, it will be fascinating and mega-spooky.
Near the end of the outline, J had penciled in an exorcism scene. As soon as we started talking about this sequence, his face crinkled up in disgust. Was his coffee still too hot? He had recently cracked a few ribs falling down a flight of stairs, and his pain meds were not 100 percent eliminating his agony. Could this explain his apparent displeasure? No, he really was vexed - seemingly embarrassed, in fact - that he had proposed this exorcism scene in his film.
I asked him why he thought the exorcism scene was a problem. He expressed the usual reasons one would hesitate to include such a scene. He worried about it being clichéd and coming off "cheesy b-movie". He worried about doing something people had seen a thousand times before. I understood such concerns, but I asked him to consider it from a different perspective. The reason an "exorcism scene" seems like a bad idea is likely because when one hears "exorcism scene" one tends to think of a hundred lousy b-movie rip-offs of William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973). It's okay to love those nutty possession films... but a writer shouldn't feel pressured to avoid certain subject matter simply because it was poorly (unintentionally or intentionally) handled in numerous previous films designed to cash in on a craze. Don't visualize the clichés prevalent in the Exorcist rip-off sub-genre then decide to cut your exorcism scene out. Instead, make the scene your own. Use your own voice, not the voice of all the bad movies that spring into your head when you hear "exorcism scene".
J seemed to warm up to the idea of keeping the scene in. We discussed some interesting things he could do with the sequence. Maybe he'll end up cutting the scene out. It's his to do with as he pleases. But at least I had my say.
I've found myself in similar territory when trying to discuss my own screenplays - though usually I'm the one excited about doing something new and cool with the material, and the person I'm talking to is usually the one terrified of falling into the cliché trap.
For example, I wrote my most recent film Ratline with Jason Christ. While there are Nazi characters in Ratline, I had no intention of breaking out the b-movie Nazi cookie cutter... but as soon as Jason heard the word "Nazi" he tuned out. His head filled with a hundred bad Nazi exploitation films - and he wanted nothing to do with Ratline! It's okay to love those nutty Nazi exploitation films... but that was not the kind of movie I wanted to make. Jason became enthusiastic about making Ratline with me - but only after I poured considerable effort into illustrating my intentions, and shooing all those old Nazisploitation flicks out of his brain.
More recently, a writing partner and I had to grapple with the inclusion of a "strip club" in a screenplay we are creating. I gotta admit, my skin kinda crawls when I have to describe this location in the screenplay as a "strip club" ...simply because the term conjures up a hundred typical strip clubs you've seen in films and on television... and I don't intend this place to be anything like those. I wouldn't want it in the script if I didn't intend to do something different, interesting, and impactful with it.
It's pretty weird, getting excited about a concept, theme, character, or location, and then feeling pressure to cut it from the script because the term ("exorcism" "Nazi" "strip club") is so soiled by a history of film cliché and mediocrity. The lesson is, don't throw out what's right for your story, or what interests you as a filmmaker, just because the same material has been mined, sometimes heavily, before. Even though it's been done by others, it hasn't been done in your voice. In circumventing the clichés, you have the opportunity to reinvent and transform a familiar concept into something fresh, exciting, and really cool.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze