Talking about film genre is an exercise in stilted speech. Ever had one of those conversations, trying to describe a particular film? “Oh, it’s this family drama but also kind of a crime mystery, with this, um, metaphysical thing going on too—I don’t know, just watch it yourself.”
Genre broadly refers to an arrangement of films that share some narrative, thematic and stylistic conventions. While a film may not hit every convention in a genre, it will hit some. For the audience, it’s shorthand that indicates what they’re getting themselves into.
But what is genre to filmmakers? Is it a hindrance to creativity, or a handy tool to keep things simple? For the more adventurous, perhaps, it’s a magician’s sexy assistant: i.e. an element of misdirection that enables the unexpected. After all, defying genre is how the greats made their names. Andrei Tarkovsky said it best:
“What is Bresson’s genre? He doesn’t have one. Bresson is Bresson. He is a genre in himself. Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Dovzhenko, Vigo, Mizoguchi, Bunuel—each is identified with himself. The very concept of genre is as cold as the tomb. And is Chaplin—comedy? No: he is Chaplin, pure and simple; a unique phenomenon, never to be repeated.”
Sometimes the real-life application of genre can feel like a caste system—not all are equal in the eyes of the industry. Tell someone, “I’m writing a thriller,” and you’ll often get a positive response. But in the wild west of independent film financing, if you let slip the dreaded “D” word—“drama”—you may well find a curious lack of response to emails and phone calls.
When I was writing the script for my feature In Stereo, I didn’t give genre a second thought, for better or worse. Now that I’m promoting its release, though, I’ve been forced to. And I knew I wasn’t the only one. So I spoke to my friend and fellow independent moviemaker, Patrick Brice, whose new feature, The Overnight, premiered at Sundance this year. In Stereo is about a couple in New York trying to define their relationship outside of societal romantic conventions, while The Overnight features a play date between two families that goes off the rails after the kids go to bed, as the adults explore their sexual desires and hang-ups.
Mel Rodriguez III (MR): I wanted to have a discussion between two filmmakers with films that are in the same family of subject matter, about relationships and couples and love, with moments of brutal honesty that tend towards drama. The Overnight is about two couples and their relationships, yet I don’t think you could call it a romantic comedy.
Patrick Brice: Ha! No, I doubt it. I would say that both of my films, from a broad perspective, could be put into specific genres: I made a found-footage horror movie, Creep, and then a broad comedy, The Overnight. But at the same time they completely subvert all the tropes of those genres. I think it’s because those are two genres that I’m fairly ignorant about, actually. I have maybe seen two found-footage horror movies before making one, which ended up being a total benefit because [Creep producer] Mark Duplass and I were able to bring all this weirdness to the table in a genre that has just been worked over completely. Horror fans being as rabid as they are, I was worried going out with this movie as a horror movie because there’s no blood in the movie. It’s all about psychological horror. Awkward situations, similarly to The Overnight. So it was a real relief to show it to horror fans and have them respond to it because it was not doing the same thing that they were used to seeing.
MR: Horror is very easily identifiable as a genre. You expect something very specific from it.
PB: Right. And that guarantee, that expectation, is why people buy tickets for these movies. They think they know what they’re gonna get. I’m still nervous watching Creep with people, because it’s like “Oh fuck, they’re not getting what they assumed they were gonna get.”
MR: You go in excited to make your movie and if it doesn’t neatly fit into a genre, it doesn’t matter to you. Then, the question of genre is sort of foisted upon you later.
PB: So much of filmmaking is intuitive. And asking someone “What’s your movie about?” is one of the worst questions you can ask a filmmaker. I don’t think that’s a question that every filmmaker has to have the answer to.
MR: If you’re thoughtful about your work, put it in context with the time you’re living in. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a big influence on me and a film I thought a lot about for In Stereo. In 1969, a romantic comedy wasn’t just meant to entertain you and send you out smiling. The sexual revolution was going on and Paul Mazursky was saying something about that moment in time and place.
PB: Absolutely! Although they’re similar stories, your movie feels more modern than mine does, in the sense that you’re dealing with people’s day-to-day lives in New York City, with characters looking through other characters’ texts. In mine, I made it a point to simplify things as much as possible because I knew I was telling a story that took place over 24 hours.
MR: Is there ever a reason then, to box yourself into a genre?
PB: I feel like I’ve only benefitted from the fact that something like The Overnight can fit into a genre to the people for whom it needs to fit in a box. I’ve been able to benefit from the film having the attributes of a popular genre, but then I throw all kinds of weird stuff into it. My films can fit in that box to the people who control the money and that means that the stuff can get out there while I can still make something that reflects what I want to do. Like you did with In Stereo: a movie about people going through life decisions in their 30s but with unexpected storytelling elements like a non-linear narrative.
MR: In describing my movie, the words “dark comedy” and “romance” are thrown around, so it certainly fits into something recognizable. It’s not some completely off-the-wall experimental film. I experimented with form and technique, but having it fall under the guise of a familiar premise—“boy meets girl; they break up and meet again”—you are sort of covered, and then you can play.
PB: That said, a film can get away with a lot more deviation and still be considered a comedy. You can have elements of drama in your film, and it can still fall under the comedy banner. So in terms of getting your stuff distributed and seen, it’s a surer bet than, say, the “indie drama.” Even if your movie has stars in it, it seems like people aren’t watching dramas as much, or the people who are watching movies on VOD aren’t watching dramas.
MR: What else were you thinking about when making The Overnight? I’m interested in what you drew from, because it’s thought-provoking in ways that some comedies are not.
PB: I was thinking about what other films were able to do with characters in a 24-hour time frame; something like Scorsese’s After Hours. Tonally that film is all over the place, but you accept it somehow because its taking you to these places in such a skilled manner. I was also thinking of Chris Columbus’ Adventures in Babysitting: a character can only go through so much change in a 24-hour period. That’s why I embraced the smallness of The Overnight.
What you did with a pretty small story was ambitious, too. What were you thinking about when getting ready to make In Stereo?
MR: I was shooting my first film in New York, so I was gonna shoot the hell out of the city at every turn. I admire Woody Allen’s work so much, which made me feel at liberty to make my own “people talking about their problems” kind of film. And while his have a classical visual style, I wanted to be dynamic with camera movement and open it up visually. Which also confounds a genre expectation: Often, small, character-driven movies don’t look like this.
Movies like ours don’t live in any one genre—comedy, drama, romance—enough to be any one of them. So what are they?
PB: The easy answer is “The film is whatever you want it to be.” It becomes a “Choose Your Own Adventure.” The Overnight has elements of dramatic tension you don’t always see in comedies, laid out like little breadcrumbs of information—almost like a horror movie trope.
Often, in discussions about genre, it’s important to talk about tone. If you read the script for The Overnight, you could have read it as an R-rated sex comedy. But the tone was going to have a realistic feel—we wanted to ground it. And that comes from your ability to communicate as a director and instincts of your actor.
MR: Genre and tone go hand and hand. A thriller can employ elements of satire—like Nightcrawler, for example. In many ways tone can control a genre, because if the tone was handled a little differently, that movie could have been very different.
PB: Yeah, the broad characters are funny and the violence grounds those characters in reality. With a movie like that, hopefully marketers can check off those boxes they need to do their job, though it requires a little more nuance.
Sometimes genre lurks around like the weird guy at a party; other times, it’s the center of attention, demanding that you watch him do his party trick. When it comes to genre, my advice is to be ever so slightly aware of its presence. Knowing that a genre is hanging around your film can serve you in very interesting ways. Play around with it. Be its pal. Muss its hair up a little, it won’t mind. You’ll make a more dynamic film. MM
In Stereo opens in theaters and VOD on July 3. The Overnight opens in theaters on June 19, 2015, courtesy of The Orchard. Creep is available on Netflix starting July 14, 2015.
Photo credits: Black & white images, Michael Rababy. The Overnight, Duplass Brothers Productions. In Stereo, Parkside Pictures.