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Specs & The City: Changing Screenplay Genres and 'My Blue Heaven'

We’ve all been there. You have a great idea for a script. It’s going to blow everyone away and take your career to the next level. And then you sit down to write. You make it through your outline, maybe you even break into your second act, but there’s just no denying it. This great, game-changing idea just isn’t working as well as you thought. You’re struggling to move your story forward and you can’t quite figure out why.

The key to telling any story is to let it unravel organically. Some stories just work better when told in certain ways – there���s a reason that some novels are viewed as “unfilmable”. If your story is a square peg, trying to make it fit into a round hole is a guaranteed recipe for frustration - okay maybe temporary insanity - and (even worse) a bad script. But what are the options? What can you do when once you finally admit that you have a problem?

Why not try changing the genre of your script?


Pineapple Express

What happens to your mobster on the run if you make it a romantic comedy instead of a drama? How do the story possibilities change for your pot-smoking, twenty-something slacker if you take him (notice I assume it’s a him. Changing the sex of your Protagonist can shake things up too, but that’s another column) out of the comedy he’s in and throw him into an action movie. Pineapple Express anyone? See, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

But there’s one example that works better than any other to illustrate exactly how much genre choice can impact and change your source material.

Let’s take a look at…

Changing Genres and ‘My Blue Heaven’

Vincent 'Vinnie' Antonelli

Vincent 'Vinnie' Antonelli

In 1986, author Nicholas Pileggi sat down with gangster Henry Hill for a series of in-depth interviews. The notes from these sessions went on to become the basis for Pileggi’s bestselling book Wiseguy, which in turn was adapted into the Scorsese masterpiece Goodfellas. But there was also a third person present for those sessions – Pileggi’s wife. A writer-director in search of her next project, she was also taking notes; looking for a story buried in the anecdotes of a formal mobster.

Pileggi’s wife was Nora Ephron and, for her, Henry's story became a movie called My Blue Heaven.

In story terms, My Blue Heaven is almost a direct sequel to GoodFellas, picking up right after Henry is relocated to suburbia as part of the witness relocation program. Now that you know, go back and watch both films again. It’s unmistakable. Sure “Henry Hill” was changed to "Vincent 'Vinnie' Antonelli", but the character is still the same. Vinnie is a charismatic mobster who can’t quite get crime out of his system once he’s relocated. In both films, the character complains about ordering spaghetti and meatballs and getting “egg noodles and ketchup”. And Vinnie’s mantra of over-tipping, comes directly from another mobster featured in Goodfellas, Jimmy Conway (played by Robert De Niro). Ephron liked that concept so much that she eventually decided to add it to the character of Vinnie.

The point is, this story could have easily been pitched as a Goodfellas sequel. Another grim and gritty gangster tale set during a mobster’s days of fading glory. But Ephron chose to take the story and make it a comedy. And that decision is what made the film click. It made it unique by looking at the source material from a different angle. And being unique is what got studio’s interested.

So the next time you’re stuck. You have your core idea, but it just doesn’t seem to be working. As an exercise, try changing the genre of the film and working your way through an outline. It could be the one tweak that makes the whole thing click for you.

Now finish dancing that poolside Merengue and keep writing!

Meet Brad in person at Screenwriters World Conference in NYC April 5-7! 

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