Theme is a component of my work that is very important to me. A movie should, above all else, be entertaining. As a comedy writer, providing laughs is a priority. But I also strive to explore a theme, generally related to one of my obsessions. I don’t have many answers, but I know all the questions and that is what a good film should do. Propose questions about life and humanity, explore them, and allow the viewers to come away with their own conclusions. There is nothing wrong with not having answers to the larger questions that plague humankind. There are things we will never completely understand. It’s one of the things that makes life an adventure.
I spend much time contemplating the nature of existence. I love philosophy. I tend to see the universe this way: a very cold and heartless place that is governed by the laws of physics, over which we have no, or at best, very little control. If a disaster of nature strikes, say a hurricane or tornado, it doesn’t care who you are, what you’ve accomplished or how good a life you lead. It will destroy everything in its path indiscriminately. That sounds very bleak, but there is a positive in my outlook.
As human beings in this system, the only thing we have is each other. It is true that people can be irrational, selfish and sadly, even downright evil. However, humankind is also capable of great compassion and reaching out to aid those in need. When disaster does strike, we come together, dig through the rubble, bury the dead, heal the injured and rebuild. Very often, the best of humanity is on display in the aftermath of a tragedy. We advance science and medicine to make life better and longer. We create works of art and philosophy to enable us to better handle the difficulties of our universe, to make life more pleasant and make some sense of it all.
That is why the themes that fascinate me are those related to interpersonal relationships. Romantic ones to be sure, but every other type as well. Parent-child, siblings, friends, co-workers, even enemies. I really like to dig into how we live together, work together, play together, like, love and even hate each other. My protagonists’ character flaws are usually connected to a problem relating to others. This all comes from my own sometimes awkward social skills and neuroses. Working through them in my screenplays helps me to deal with them in my life.
Tied into theme is the title. I personally feel that a film’s title is primarily a marketing tool. Nevertheless, it is extremely important. A good title not only draws people to want to see your film, but it gives a clue of what the movie is really about. The best ones are clever, memorable and related to more than one theme.
I was blessed with a hyperactive imagination. Since childhood, I have always daydreamed and created little stories and scenarios. I used to have little fantasies about things I wished I could experience. I would see them as mini-movies in my mind complete with camera angles, editing and music. I suppose it was natural I would end up in filmmaking.
I am constantly coming up with ideas for movies. I have a notebook where I write them down and I have many more than I can ever get to. It’s nice to be able to pick and choose from the ones that excite me the most. I never experience writer’s block either. Twenty or thirty minutes is the longest I ever go before I am able to get something down on paper. Except for my Achilles heel. Titles.
Titles are the bane of my existence as a screenwriter. I do eventually come up with a good one, but it is a long and painful process and often, I don’t have a title until I’ve written several drafts. I don’t use working titles. I just number them sequentially, using the prefix “F” for a feature or “S” for a short.
Many writers need a title before they start working on a project. It helps to keep them focused on what the story is about and acts as a backbone to hold the structure together. I am in the other category of writers who don’t need a title. I always have a theme or themes in mind when I start a project, but very often they change and evolve through the writing process. Sometimes secondary themes appear and disappear and the main theme may be altered in presentation.
It is not until I fully have the theme articulated that I can come up with a title. They tend to pop into my head at that point. My current project, the short film, ISNT’ IT ROMANTIC?, is a great example. I had already written three drafts before I had a title. At first, the theme I was concentrating on was the difference between real life and the movies and how things never neatly come together for us like they do onscreen for fictional characters. I could not think of a single title.
As I received feedback from my fellow writers and refined and polished the script, the secondary theme grew stronger and became the primary theme: what constitutes romance and how it differs in the point of view of men and women. This worked much better as it is a relatable theme that most couples have to deal with as their relationship grows. Once I made this shift and became aware of it, the title just popped into my head. I love jazz and have a penchant for old standards, so the song title became our title.
I feel that it works well in more than one way. It does express the theme, it’s a fairly well known song, so it’s recognizable and therefore pretty catchy. The other thing I love about it is just one of my personality quirks. I like that it uses punctuation. The question mark is very important because the title is whimsical. The question is, “isn’t it romantic?” the answer, “not even close”. Punctuation marks are certainly not uncommon in titles, but other than the apostrophe, most titles don’t contain them. I love looking for film titles with punctuation. After the apostrophe, I feel the question mark and the colon are the next most common. Perhaps the most rare is the asterisk. I can think of only one example, Woody Allen’s EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* *BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK. Strange thing to be fascinated by, I know, but then I never claimed to be normal. It’s part of my overall charm.