Billy Mernit on Writing the Romantic Comedy
Billy Mernit knows a thing or two about romantic comedies. Actually, he knows seven things about romantic comedies. Those seven things being the essential plot beats of what makes a solid romantic comedy.
Once a successful romance novelist who penned love stories for Harlequin under a nom de plume, Mernit, who has been working as a story analyst for major Hollywood studios for over 20 years, is the author of the definitive rom-com screenwriting guide, Writing the Romantic Comedy.
When he’s not analyzing and tweaking scripts at Universal – where he has worked on such successful comedies as Bridesmaids and Trainwreck – he’s teaching his rom-com template at UCLA Extension to aspiring screenwriters and acting as a private script consultant for people in the industry.
We chatted with Mernit on the state of romantic comedies, what fascinates him about the genre, and why his beats are so essential in writing a solid rom-com script.
Why focus so intently on the romantic comedy? What is it about the genre that fascinates you?
I kind of grew up on it. My folks were big fans of the early Hawks screwball comedies with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. I saw a lot of those films when I was a kid, and I always enjoyed that kind of sophisticated comedy. Films like Bringing Up Baby, which was completely nonsensical and yet very smart at the same time. There was something in the flavor of that. And for guys my age – I grew up in the ‘60s – Cary Grant remained a role model. Even as you grew your hair long, you knew there was something about that persona that was immensely appealing. So I guess I identified with that kind of earlier romantic comedy.
And when I became a romance novelist, in a sense, I was rethinking and reconceiving romantic comedies for the Harlequin novels that I was writing. I stayed with romantic comedies out of my love for the genre, and I also think romance is in my DNA. I think that I always related to love stories, but not love stories that are tragic; love stories that I can relate to.
Even though I am a straight, happily married man, I am interested in gender politics and I always had a lot of affinity for the female point of view – I guess I was a feminist before my time – and it’s one of the few genres in which you get to examine male versus female points of view and really go in depth on relationship dynamics. What makes a relationship work, and what is this thing called love? And all of that has been endlessly fascinating to me.
In your book, Writing the Romantic Comedy, you defined the seven basic romantic comedy beats. Can you elaborate on why these beats are so essential?
Here’s the thing: I am not a fan of formula at all. I have a bone to pick with everyone from Blake Snyder to Syd Field and beyond in terms of the hero’s journey and that ‘one size fits all’ story.
But what I found in romantic comedy was that when I looked at it and seriously analyzed what made it tick, I came to the realization that the standard romantic comedy paradigm actually parallels a very natural organic phenomenon in real life human relationships. Meaning romantic comedies, for the most part, in their purest states, are courtship stories.
When you think about what happens “when boy meets girl” there is a natural progression for humans. You meet someone, you become interested in them, and invariably, because we’re all human, there is always some sort of conflict. So, generally speaking, we all get tested. You think, “Is this guy for real?” “Is this woman the one for me?”
And there is usually a point, because we are human, that we will fail the test. You find out she snores, or she finds out that your mother is a horror show, so there is something that causes a problem within the relationship. The conflict in relationship often comes from within, i.e. the man or woman has to resolve his or her own inner issue, in order to be ready to commit to a relationship, so it’s not simply resolving a problem with the other person.
And I’d go so far as to say that the best rom-coms are those that combine an exterior conflict story concept (e.g. he/she’s a friend – how do they become a lover/mate?) with an interior one (e.g. he’s a cynical pessimist with a rigid belief system about men and women). That’s why When Harry Met Sally works as well as it does because it delivers both.
So if there’s something there that is worth saving in the relationship, you find ways to solve it, and you come out of the other side of that with a renewed commitment. “Okay, in spite of the fact that X is a problem, we can solve it and stay in this together.”
So, really, what the romantic comedy does is simply replicate that natural progression: meeting, getting involved, seeing what those issues are, dealing with those issues, and then, after the trust has been established, making that commitment. And then most romantic comedies conveniently end at the point when the real stuff starts.
I’m always at pains to point out that the so-called formula isn’t something I concocted in my basement over a good bong hit. It’s me reporting what I’ve seen in hundreds of these movies. It was me saying, “Aha. They always seem to follow this form.”
For me, what the challenge is, and what makes a good romantic comedy, is taking this formula and tweaking it. I was really excited this past year because a woman who has become a friend, the British screenwriter, Tess Morris, made a movie called Man Up. Three or four years ago, she got in touch with me to thank me for the book because it helped her eventually write that movie. We became friends over the years and I was just so excited to watch the movie because she made a great movie.
What she did was she took a lot of those standard beats and found ways to make them fresh. She tweaked them. She did stuff with the standard expectations and twisted it, so it went a different way. So that is the perfect example of a well structured film where you can’t predict each beat because she was very clever and savvy about how to put that formula to good use.
Rom-coms appear to be in some sort of limbo territory since the beginning of the 2000s. Why do you think there aren’t any solid rom-coms anymore?
I’ve got a pretty clear take on that due to my reporting from the belly of the beast, so to speak. The problem is with the genre that going into the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Hollywood got very complacent with the form. It became a sort of a go-to with whatever actor or actress they wanted to stick in and get a fairly easy return on it. So you have a number of movies – the cookie cutter rom-coms – essentially killing the golden goose.
Meaning, there was such a lack of attention and real imagination put on these movies. They were cheap to make, they seemed to perform well and they thought the audience was there. What they – meaning the great minds of Hollywood — failed to pay attention to was that the mores were changing. The landscape was changing. The act of courtship was shifting. More people being single, getting married later, the Internet. There is just a whole other approach on how to get together and what getting together actually means, and Hollywood was pretty much ignoring these new trends. They were continuing to make the same stupid movie that we were already tired of.
There was an interesting resurgence in the 2000s when Judd Apatow stepped in and decided, “All right. Rom-coms have gotten pretty stale, let me tell it from the male point of view” and kind of single-handedly ushered in the raunchy rom-coms with the male protagonist. But by 2010, there was this sense that we were just tired of that traditional form.
What is interesting to me is the romantic comedies that work are the ones that don’t come off as romantic comedies. For example, the audience who watched Silver Linings Playbook probably wasn’t aware they were watching a romantic comedy, but that’s what that was. I can point out the same beats that you would see in an old screwball. But it was so original in characterizations and so funny and odd in its approach to the subject that it wasn’t being packaged or sold as rom-com.
So I think that is where we are right now. Instead of going “I am going to write a rom-com,” we have writers saying, “I have a unique story to tell.” And maybe it is about a woman and a man – or a man and a man, a woman and a woman – getting together. But it’s not about being a romantic comedy. It’s about that story that is unique from the writer. So I think those are the movies that we get now.
One example is Trainwreck, which I worked on. It’s Amy Schumer’s extremely smart and subversive sensibilities applied to a romantic story. Her tweak was, instead of the man being afraid to commit, make it the woman who can’t commit. Combined with her unique take and sensibility, it became a fresh and interesting movie and found an audience. So I think that’s where writers are at now. They are looking at the genre and thinking, what does this mean now? What kind of story can we tell about falling in love in 2016 that really speaks to us?
If a writer wanted to tackle writing her first rom-com, what would you suggest she do?
At the risk of flogging the horse, don’t think about it as a romantic comedy. Don’t look at the tried and true and what the movie needs to be. Look at these people. Look at what makes them unique and perfect for each other. Think about your views on love and courtship and what you think is funny about falling in love right now, and what do you think really makes a relationship? And go at it with a consciously thematic and socially conscious point of view. “What do I have here that will really speak to my peers about love and romance?”
Another thing is, think about how it looks as a movie. What will make people want to watch it? What world am I introducing the audience to that makes it unique and distinct, and will make people want to watch it in a larger theatrical context? Because a lot of romantic comedy and truth is residing in television right now. If you look at it from a larger point of view, what is happening now is that it’s all happening on the small screen. From The Mindy Project and Girls to Louie and Catastrophe, all of these shows have taken over the job of romantic comedies. If you are writing a feature, then you need to look at that and think about, why should someone spend their hard earned money and go watch this movie when they could stay home and watch TV?
This might be a “chicken before the egg”-type question but what makes a really great romantic comedy? Is it the characters – “the chemical equation” as you call it – or the plot, the story of how they come together?
I don’t think it’s an either or. If you talk to any Hollywood executive about any movie – and you’re right, it is really a chicken before the egg thing – they would go, “Give me a great story, with really compelling characters.” That’s the ultimate combo that everyone is looking for. I wouldn’t put one before the other.
Obviously story concept rules, and if you can pitch it and hook someone then you have a real leg up. But then characterization is such a huge part of it. Often with my work at Universal, I will read a script that has a cool story but the characters are awful. So it’s the kind of script that you can recommend on concept alone, but it’s not the kind of movie that you would excitedly run into an exec’s office and say, “Make this!”
So they go together. But I think what happens is one of them is paid more attention to than the other. You have great characters, but the story concept is soft. Or you have a great story, but the execution is weak because your characters fall flat and don’t snap, crackle and pop.
You say you’re not a big fan of formulas, but when you’re writing a script, are you a fan of outlining?
Well, yeah. Here’s the thing: first drafts are for the writer and for you trying to figure out what the story is about. I am all about free form exploration. Why not? Go write, see what you got. But with movies in particular, versus a novel, there’s sense that you are writing it for a larger public, you are writing it to be produced. You don’t want to spend ten years writing it and then it doesn’t go anywhere. So outlining for me is to see how it hangs together, and see whether there is a beginning, middle and an end.
For me, when I outline, I only do the major beats and leave a lot of fat empty space between them. Then the fun in writing them is making the discoveries between. If you leave a lot of room in your outline, you can make some discoveries and find out things that you didn’t go in knowing before. So I think, yes, outline those big beats and go discover. For me, that is what has worked out best.
If someone wants to really know the rom-com genre, what are some movies and TV shows they should watch?
That’s a really good question. I will give you five classics that is sort of like a crash course in the genre.
I would say Annie Hall, which is sort of the Rosetta Stone of romantic comedies. Moonstruck holds up very well. Tootsie is arguably the great American comedy, and a romantic comedy. And then, more recently, Silver Linings Playbook is a good one in terms of a character’s point of view and how a different way of getting into the form can be approached. I think one of the most interesting romantic comedies in the last decade or two is Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because it is a really serious attempt at looking at relationships and if and how they can work.
My personal favorite romantic comedy is Groundhog Day. Again, most people don’t see it as a romantic comedy because it has such a profound story concept but it is because the form is there and the beats are all there.
If you want to go historically, there’s The Philadelphia Story, and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is marvellous. And then the Hawks screwball comedies, like Bringing Up Baby. Also a wonderful Lubitsch movie called The Shop Around the Corner, which inspired Nora Ephrons’ You’ve Got Mail.
The recent ones I mentioned, like Eternal Sunshine and Silver Linings are especially good ones to look at because there is a writer with a point of view with some strong, clear thoughts on love and relationships and they are investigating that in the form of a romantic comedy instead of going, “Oh, I think I want to write one of those.”