'They eat it up': Edmonton screenwriting author discusses power and pitfalls of movie clichés
Stuck! Learn to Love Your Screenplay Again launched at Audrey’s Books on Thursday
From the film The Killing (1959) to Snatch (2000), there's a classic scene in caper movies that Josh Miller has seen again and again.
"Whether there's an art heist or a bank heist, often what happens is they succeed — they get the loot, but in the last scene of the movie, the money blows away or goes up in flames," said the author of the new book, Stuck! Learn to Love Your Screenplay Again.
The CEO of the Edmonton Screen Industries Office, Miller decided to compile his notes from his previous work teaching screenwriting at the University of Alberta to write a book of lessons about how to write an original screenplay.
He drew on his background as a screenwriter, working on series including Friday the 13th, Trial by Jury, and Danger Bay, a Canadian classic.
Along the way, he found certain tropes can be helpful to underscore the message of the plot.
"The point of the [heist] film is that the person, or group of people, achieved what they wanted to do," he said. "It's usually more than just stealing something, it's about proving something about themselves, so in a way the loot doesn't matter."
'They eat it up'
Miller devoted a chapter of his book to the genre conventions he's observed in films, whether it's the injured hero who howls in agony as a caring woman treats his wound, after showing no signs of pain in a brawl — or the infantry of soldiers in a war movie, who bravely face impossible odds.
"The squad is beat up, it's just been through battle and they get tapped for this mission," said Miller.
"Of course, they don't have the right equipment."
He highlights those conventions in his book to illustrate how they can become a trap when they're repeated too often.
"As a screenwriter, you have to figure out a way to freshen those things up, otherwise they become clichés and the audience goes, 'oh, I've seen this movie before,'" he said.
"It's fine to write action movies, it's fine to do comedies, but when they have a message — something that the author wants to say — and the story proves it to be true, I think it's a richer experience for the audience.
"I also think it's very commercial because people are starved for films with some substance."
Though he also admits, in some cases the audience does just want more of the same.
"In a Western, you have to have the lone hero," he said. "He's given up his guns and wants to live a peaceful life but then gets pulled back in."
"People who love Westerns, they don't care. They want that. They eat it up."
Miller launched Stuck! Learn to Love Your Screenplay Again at Audrey's Books on Jasper Avenue Thursday at 7 p.m.