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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

On Titles

I'm part of a great writing group here in LA. It is small in size, and everyone who is in the group was known personally by at least one of the other members of the group before, increasing the level of trust and comfort. It was started by my friend L. Brooks Elms, on whose film Snapshots From a .500 Season I worked as a PA (and extra), back when I was starting out in indie production. We'd been in touch on and off over the years, and reconnected a little over a year ago when to my surprise I learned he too was living in LA (last I'd heard he was in North Carolina). He told me about the group and invited me to join, and it has played a large role in me getting more serious about my writing.

In addition to our in-person meetings, an even more major part of the writing group is an email discussion list, that includes people outside of LA as well. And a discussion popped up over the last few days on the board that I thought might be worth exploring further on here. Brooks has been working through his next indie feature, patiently revising and tweaking for some time now, to solid result, in my opinion. It is an intimate drama about alternative schooling, and the conflict a burnt-out, traditional teacher faces when exposed to such a system. Ultimately it is about coercion and how much we choose to treat children as we do adults. Originally, he had titled the film Play. But then, to his chagrin, he learned of a recent Chilean film by the same title, and since it had been doing well at the festivals, he felt it would likely get domestic distribution, and felt it would be better if he changed the name of his film.

Soon we were tossing around a number of different titles, all attempts at capturing the spirit of his film -- both the nature of learning in an alternative school as well as the struggle the put-upon adult traditional teacher had been going through. Finally, he settled on Recess. Personally, I thought this was a pretty solid title, and perhaps even better than play, since it has more specific meanings and resonances to it. But then Brooks asked the group what we thought of a different title: A Loud to Play. The response in the group was nearly unanimous against it, though Brooks still felt he liked it a lot. He felt it made people think a bit, trying to figure out its dual meanings. I, for one, felt only one of the meanings was clear, and that it was too "cutesy" and "punny" a title to be effective.

All this, however, is by way of introduction. Because it got me thinking about film titles. Why do we use them, how do we use them, what is their purpose, and what makes for a good or bad one?

To my mind, a good title should pique the audience's interest. It should be something that helps draw them in to see the film. But at the same time, it serves another purpose. As with all words, it is a signifier, that facilitates communication. It helps people discuss the film more easily. Thus, an unwieldy title works at counterpurposes to the whole purpose of a title to begin with. If a film's title were an unpronounceable glyph (as with Prince's erstwhile moniker) it would be difficult for people to talk about. "Hey, did you see... that movie with the weird symbol as its name?" Of course, there was Π and the recent What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (sorry, even that isn't written accurately , but I didn't have the patience to find all those symbols). Both of those films' titles had unpronounceable symbols, but they were replaced by words ("Pi" and "Bleep" respectively).

This need to facilitate communication about the film is also a reason many sequels or popular remakes shorten their titles to abbreviations. We've seen T2, X2, and M:I-2, as a few recent examples. And I distinctly remember advertising for the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying being advertised on billboards simply as H2S.

So unwieldy titles would seem to work against the primary purpose of a film's title. What, however, makes for a good title. I believe the best titles do have some kind of clever dual meanings to them, or at least make people think a bit more about the film, while simultaneously encapsulating the essence of the film. A good recent example of this might be The Pacifier. Right away, it evokes images of childhood in our minds, but it also has the double meaning of referring to the main character himself, some one who must actively pacify his unruly charges. Another similarly effective title would be Chapelle's classic weed comedy Half Baked. Clearly the name refers both to the stoners' plan and the ganja-addled state they were attempting it in. The script I'm currently collaborating on (I'll discuss its details more in the future, once we've written more of it) is a vampire western set against the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Its title? Hell on Wheels. Personally, I think that's a pretty good title (and after I discuss it more, you'll see why it is even more so).

And in relation to this point, what makes for bad titles? Vagueness. Though somewhat unwieldy, the original working title for the boringly named It Could Happen to You was the (in my book) preferable Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip! Then there are the slew of "adjective noun" titles: Blue Steel, Chained Heat, Double Impact, Fatal Beauty, or any number of third-rate late-night cable sexploitation thrillers. (Honestly -- how many of those movies did you need to look up before you knew which they were?)

So with Brooks' A Loud to Play, I told him I thought he might have been trying a bit too hard. His potential audience might be more confused by that proposed title than intrigued by it. I felt that it would be better for him to get people in to see his movie, and let the film itself spark thoughtful discussion, rather than trying to accomplish that goal with the title itself and run the risk of alienating that potential audience. Of course, if he wasn't super pleased with Recess, I also suggested an amended version that might play into the theme of coercion and punishment a bit more: No Recess.


Anonymous esther said...

A vampire western? Should be just the thing to tide over the hordes of Whedonites left adrift by the sudden deaths of Buffy, Angel and Firefly. Tag on to Serenity and tap into the hordes of Whedon fans, and you're golden...

5:30 AM  
Blogger Alex Epstein said...

Good points, but don't forget suggestive titles (In the Heat of the Night)... I have a whole section in my book (Crafty Screenwriting) on titles, he says self-promotingly...

7:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the title 'Recess'...Disney made a popular cartoon series by that name. I don't think it is still being produced, but you can still see re-runs on cable. You may want to suggest another title.


12:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Learning Curve.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Yeah, Anon, that was suggested already. I believe he finally settled on something like Schooled.

5:14 AM  

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