B movies are an occasional guilty pleasure of mine. You have to love a B movie. There’s a certain bonhomie present when the dollars are low, the motivation is high and the writing – well, whatever sort of works. I have been amazed and impressed at the directorial decisions that elevate budget constraints into cleverness – or camp. One thing I notice, quite consistently, is the presence of two-dimensional characters. I’m not sure which is more uncomfortable, listening to terribly bad dialogue or watching the actor try to work with it anyway.
When you’re watching a B movie, your expectations are much lower. In fact, you’re pretty sure you’re going to wind up with some pretty good belly laughs. And you usually do. But from a writer’s perspective, even characters in a fairly ridiculous situation (a Yeti killing all the pretty college girls in the next cabin over, or giant alien-eels with telepathy attacking your submarine) should have SOME believability. Shouldn’t they? Are writers like hairdressers at a party, doomed to observe what is NOT working and cringe?
Obviously, the writing in B movies is not meant to inspire, resonate or be otherwise organic by any measure. That goes out the window in the same way that Little Debbie Cakes are not meant to provide nutrition. And hey, I can respect that. However, if I were training a hairdresser to have a sharp eye for what is fashionable and what does and does not work, I would take that hairdresser to a romance writers convention in a podunk town and just soak it all in. That’s what I’m recommending here.
B Movies are what they are – and there have been plenty of books written on the topic. And yet, they yield lessons for screenwriters with higher – no – different aspirations.
I’ve always maintained that reading bad scripts is more instructive than reading good ones. Good scripts are just – good. What works well works so harmoniously that they are not as easy to deconstruct. But bad scripts – it’s like that scene in A BEAUTIFUL MIND when the numbers float into focus and create a pattern.
To take one example of a character flaw so roughly hewn as to give one giant splinters: In SHARK HUNTER, our main character witnessed his parents being eaten by a megalodon when he looked to be about 10. We fast forward what appeared to be about 20 years or so and he is an edgy, bitter college professor of some kind, who designs state-of-the-art undersea exploratory stations. Okay I’m making that up – some kind of undersea something stations. It was hard to tell. Now he is needed to go down into the undersea something station and try to find out what destroyed another undersea station with one giant, blunt blow to the side. Something’s fishy. And it really pisses our main character off. PISSES him off that he has to go on this adventure and that obviously what did it was the same megalodon that attacked his family 20+ years ago. And we know this because he emotes EDGY ANGER at all times. So you can see the writer’s logic: family killed, guy pissed at megalodon this whole time. Now he has a chance to come face to face with it. So what’s his character flaw? By the looks of it, that he is pissy and angry. Why? Parents were munched. And how does he pay for this flaw? Uh, he’s unpleasant? And how does he overcome this flaw? Uh, he kills the megalodon in the end?
In IT WAITS our main character is a drinking, sobbing wreck because her backstory is that her friend died in a car crash for which she was responsible. The monster, a demon unleashed from a cave puts, the Unhinged Woman whose flaw is…not taking responsibility(?)…through the wringer until she calms down enough to (SPOILER ALERT) kill it good by mashing it back into the cave and blowing it up. And so now, she has taken responsibility and…the demon is dead and…well, you know, from the perspective of a viewer, the brushstrokes are pretty broad. She killed a demon. You know, like, she slayed HER demons and now she is prepared to live a life in jail but guilt free. Because the larger theme is: slaying your demons is important if you want to live a guilt-free life. A be a good person. Or something.
Do you see how these broad strokes are just a bit too simple to resonate? Now, in a B movie, these formulaic half-character-arcs can work because the jumping off point is not meant to be profound. But as an aspiring screenwriter trying to write something more mainstream and, let’s face it, higher paying, one wants to delve deeper and use a scalpel, not a chainsaw when creating truly believable characters.
So watch some B movies sometime soon. It’s good for you on many levels; revel in and enjoy what a filmmaker can do with 50 grand, a state park and a great rubber suit but also observe the rough hewn characters and ask yourself – what IS the flaw here? WHY does this character act this way? What would you do differently?
Three of my all time favorite movies that you really should treat yourself to are:
Sharks in Venice:
Two words: Stephen Baldwin.
Attack of the Sabretooth:
A Jurassic Park riff that will have you spraying popcorn.
Mega Python vs. Gatoroid:
Debbie Gibson AND Tiffany. In one movie. Plus, my adorable daughter worked crew on this film.
My favorite B-movie production company, The Asylum (I toured their studios and interviewed principal David Latt on this blog, some time back), is now taking pitches for B-movies! That is rather a new development – wanna give it a try?