This Cheat Sheet will make you master genre Part 1

Intro

Genre can be difficult to pin down. You know what works but you find yourself grasping for something but you don’t know what.

First of all, this is by no means a comprehensive list. I’m not an expert either so treat the following accordingly. While I’m not an expert I have a skill for pattern recognition in film.

I’m going to be looking into what are the subconscious undertones of each genre.

If you’re a writer and are considering working within a genre there’s no harm being prepared.

Even if you’re not a writer you understanding a genre can help why you watch something that is fine, but there’s a missing element. Usually, it was because the creators have deviated from some of the staples of the genre in an unsatisfying way.

A quick example is Kill Bill. Revenge movies have to end with the death of the character getting revenge. The heroes purpose in revenge stories is to right a wrong and then die. The hero cannot come back from the underworld and return to the normal world, certainly not whole, they have to lose something on the way.. Kill Bill not only has the hero returned from the underworld alive she has returned unscathed. That may be good filmmaking, but it isn’t great storytelling.

Know your genre.

I’m going to be talking mainly about screenwriting but this applies to other forms of fiction writing if you can see the patterns at work.

If you are considering writing a script, then I recommend The Hero With A Thousand Faces, anything on Jungian archetypes and The Uses of Enchantment.

Genres

Sci-Fi

Sci-fi is about the quest for higher knowledge about ourselves and our universe. It ends with the hero transcending, either by dying or disappearing.

Sci-fi in it’s most simple terms is “Where is god, there is god, I am god”

By god I don’t mean Yahweh the Christian God I mean god in the sense of being a higher being, higher knowledge, the next step in evoloution.

Sci-fi deals on the subconscious level about shedding the ego and the id to be part of something greater.

There is always an element of the religious when it comes to sci-fi. That is because the Bible is the basis for all sci-fi. That is why you will see a lot of Jesus imagery in sci-fi films. 2001: A Space Odyssey ends in death and rebirth as does the Matrix. Even low key sci-fi taps into religion Children of Men is the Nativity story. Battlestar Galactica is Moses in space.

The key to creating good sci-fi is reading the Bible.

Horror

I love horror; I made a horror film that you can watch here. Horror is the inverse of sci-fi. Sci-fi is an outward optimistic journey whereas horror is a pessimistic journey inward. Consider 2001 and The Shining. In 2001: A Space Odyssey the Discovery travels from Earth, and David transcends to become the Star Child. In The Shining Jack Torrance enters room 237 and goes insane.

At a basic level horror is a fear of death but let’s look at it on a deeper level. If sci-fi is the voluntary releasing of the ego, then horror is the taking of the ego. Horror is the loss of identity before the self is ready.

In slasher horror like Halloween, Evil Dead, Cabin in the Woods, Texas Chainsaw Massacre there tends to be five main characters. This number can deviate, but five is a number that represents psychological wholeness.

When the characters enter the world of the film, they are stable but as the numbers dwindle so does their psyche.

The characters in horror aren’t individuals, but together they make a whole. Cabin in the Woods spelt out Jungian archetypes for audiences. That film is a good resource for anyone wanting to develop their horror writing skills.

Monster Monster Monster

Let’s talk about the monsters of horror in broad terms.

  • Vampire stories are about the fear of promiscuity and sexual diseases.
  • Zombies are about the fear of losing your identity and becoming part of the crowd.
  • Werewolves are about the darker side of male sexuality.
  • Demonic possession is about our dark shadow, the evil that exists in the best of us. There is an argument to be made that demonic possession with the dark side of female sexuality, in Evil Dead the first victim has been raped by a tree and Regan from The Exorcist gets possessed right as she enters puberty.

Ghost Stories

Ghost stories are a genre onto themselves. They tend to have less death and any deaths that there are tend to be less violent.

The basic structure of a ghost story is as follows: There is a ghost, you are a ghost, I am a ghost. The Shining follows this structure as does The Others. There are ghostly goings-on that start small. Creaky floorboards etc. Usually ends with the hero finding out that they have been dead the whole time.

Ghost stories are about repression. It’s not uncommon for the ghost to be a symptom of the repression rather than a cause. An unsolved murder or a past wrong tend to be the centre of ghost stories.

Fantasy

If you had to sum up the fantasy genre into a sentence, it would be: Let’s set aside our differences and tackle bigger problems. You see it in Lord of the Rings; the kingdoms must unite to take on Sauron.

Even the anti-Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones you can see the structure asserting itself. The four houses are now having to unify to take on the undead.

Why You Find Star Wars a bit dull

Part of the reason that the new Star Wars films are boring is that there is no advancement of what went before. Star Wars is a fantasy film within a sci-fi setting. I tried to rewatch Return of the Jedi recently, I struggled, it’s a boring film. It should have steered into the fantasy structure.

Instead of a pointless rescue mission that takes up forty minutes of a two-hour film, you could have raised the stakes. Princess Leia is on diplomatic missions to win over more worlds to the rebellion. Meanwhile Luke goes to confront the Emperor and in doing so becomes the new one.

I may go into how I would have written Return of the Jedi. Even though I’m no longer interested in Star Wars, I still fanboy over the prequel trilogy and the missed opportunities in the saga.

To be continued

I didn’t expect to have so much to say about the genre. There are still more to cover so I’m going to split this into two and I’ll post part 2 on Monday.

You have a great weekend now.

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What Brian DePalma can teach you about life

Brian De Palma says, “Most of us don’t know what we’re doing; we go from one thing to the next. Something gets delayed, and we do that.”

De Palma, the film, is Brian De Palma, the filmmaker talking about his films. Brian sits in front of a camera for an hour and fifty minutes. While Brian talks we get cutaways to the films that he talks about.

This may not sound entertaining, but it’s a captivating watch. Brian is open and honest as he looks back over his life’s work. De Palma pulls back the curtain and lets the viewer in on what makes him tick and how his life fueled his films.

I like De Palma’s films but am not a huge fan. I was hoping for a scandalous tell-all about what went on behind the scenes on his films. The documentary isn’t about that. Instead, it’s about a man who can look back and be objective. There are a few lessons not only for wannabe filmmakers but all of us. Hidden within the film are lessons that you can apply to your own life.

You have to keep at it.

I was mistaken in thinking that Carrie was his third film. De Palma had made ten feature-length films by the time he got to making his breakout hit Carrie. The industry has changed since then. When I was growing up the nineties, it was Tarantino who was the one that you had to emulate. Now with the nature of the industry directors have to make a masterpiece straight out of the gate.

A director’s trajectory goes as follows: make your indie microbudget film (Safety Not Guaranteed, Kings of Summer, Hunt for the Wilderpeople). After that, you do a big-budget summer movie (Jurassic World, Kong: Skull Island, Thor: Ragnarok). After that who cares, either it’s a hit or a bomb.

De Palma was coming to Carrie a veteran of his craft; he had developed his style by then. DePalma had made a good deal of mistakes by the time he made the adaption of the Stephen King novel.

Film directors don’t have the chance to develop. Tarantino has said that he is going to retire once he has made ten films, that’s when most are hitting their stride.

In life, like in film, you work with what you got. You keep plugging away with what you have. What you’re doing may not be perfect, but by working more, you increase your chances of creating perfection.

Know as much as you can

De Palma says himself that he was a science nerd who wasn’t interested in film. He had to learn a lot of aspects of filmmaking himself. He did this so he would know how to pick up the slack if someone let him down. The expression about “Jack of all trades” is only half the expression. In full it is “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but often better than a master of one”.

De Palma had a talent stack. He was a good camera operator, could write scripts and work with actors. Brian was able to combine his OK talents to become a brilliant director.

Even if you are average at a couple of things that is better than being amazing at one discipline. If you ever notice how people who aren’t particularly good rise to the top of their field. That could be because they have a stack of talents.

Look at Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Tesla was the more clever of the two, but that’s all he had, and he died a pauper. Edison wasn’t a great inventor, but he was good at business and PR. That’s why you associate Edison with more inventions.

In my case I can sing OK, comfortable with public speaking and, while I’m no Arnie, have strength and endurance. This led to me, a non-musical person being able to front a comedy band. That band headlined several gigs, released an album and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Think about some of the skills you have; they add up.

“Be healthy.”

De Palma advocates for physical fitness if you are going to be a director.

Filmmaking is a gruelling process. Directors are working on a project for the guts of two years. David Mamet and Sydney Lumet write in their respective books about how as soon as a film is complete the director gets sick. Their immune system collapses after months of twelve hour days and food from the craft cart.

I’ve started taking my health seriously within the last few years. I am beginning to feel the benefits. Fitness does not just make me feel physically stronger, but I am starting to reap the mental benefits.

You have to remain strong. “I’m old” or “I deserve it” is the battle cry of the person who will die of a heart attack.

I used to be cranky and snappy with people. Don’t get me wrong I still am like that, especially if I have a load of white bread, but I recognise that I get into moods. I avoid sugar when I can although I will always love chocolate. Once I get into lifting more, I know that my energy levels are going to go through the roof.

Lying to yourself about how you are in the short term comforting. Long term you are killing yourself. I call it, passive-aggressive suicide. You can’t bring yourself to kill yourself outright. Do the next best thing. You do it slowly over several years. You have so many problems. Physical, emotional and mental that could be avoided if physical health was maintained.

Take Brian’s advice, stay healthy.