Pilar Alessandra is one of my favourite film lecturers: bright, engaging, great at audience participation. I recently bought her book The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes A Time, and it’s full of useful exercises to give you a deeper understanding of character and plot. At the London Screenwriters’ Festival recently she held a seminar on Beyond The Chick Flick: Writing The Female-Driven Screenplay. Here are the best bits:
1. Films with women as leads sell. At long last. There’s Bridesmaids, The Heat, Hunger Games, Gravity. And TV, Pilar points out, is even better at giving meaty parts for women.
2. Embrace the difference. Famously, the part of Ripley in Alien was written for a man, but changed at the last minute to a woman. That created one of the most enduring and strongest heroines in modern cinema. But, says, Pilar, to adopt that strategy wholesale means missing out on gender differences and expectations that can add depth to a screenplay. In Aliens, knowing now that the protagonist was a woman, the writers used that fact to create an instant bond with the young girl Newt, which might have been less convincing in a male protagonist.
Another example Pilar used was Kill Bill, in the scene where Uma Thurman fights Copperhead in her home: they use frying pans and kitchen knives as impromptu weapons; then, when a schoolbus pulls up and Copperhead’s child enters the living room, they both stop fighting and pretend nothing’s wrong. “So have a fight scene, but don’t forget they are women, as that can bring something extra to the scene.”
3. Use gender stereotypes – but flip them. Pilar asked the audience to shout out some negative stereotypes associated with women. Most men in the audience kept very quiet at this point! The women, however, had no problem shouting things out. Then Pilar flipped showed how negatives could be re-read as positives. Emotional could be read as caring; bitchy as forthright; indecisive as cautious; gossipy as well informed.
She then used the example of Juno, which was aware of the stereotypes but inverted them all to make a more interesting and surprising film. You expect pregnant teens to be uneducated; Juno was super-articulate. Cheerleaders are usually shallow; in Juno she is supportive. The boyfriend of a pregnant teen is usually a womaniser; here it’s him who was seduced by Juno, and he’s willing to help. Parents of pregnant teens are meant to be ashamed; here they are resigned and amused. “Flipping the stereotypes on their head was enough to make a popular movie.”
4. Ask yourself: “What would a guy do?” Pilar encourages the writer to look at “masculine activity” and see if it works better. So: a female protagonist might be expected to make a careful plan and manipulate a key character into giving her information. A man might simply break into the office and steal the computer. Confounding expectations is always interesting to the audience. By the same token, when writing a male character, ask yourself sometimes what a woman might do.
5. Spin the male-driven template. Million-Dollar Baby could be pitched as “Rocky – with a female lead”. How about trying that with The Godfather? Or Star Wars?
6. Spin the female-driven template. Cinderella saves the world; Pocahontas leads a movement.
7. Don’t be flowery. When writing a female-driven screenplay, be especially careful not to be flowery in the descriptions: make the scene directions “macho”, a bold, sharp read.
8. Don’t be frightened of flaw. “Flaw is interesting. Don’t make your women too perfect.”
Read Pilar Alessandra on Creating Character, from last year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival.