When I wrote about the prime directive, two people e-mailed me to ask about the other movie rules I used to write about. Thanks for asking. As a man who has probably seen more bad movies than anyone else in history, I don’t know the first thing about making good movies, but I think I can tell you everything you need to know to avoid making a really bad one:
The Prime Directive. If you are filming a movie that will get you an R rating for violence and language, load up on breasts. You can’t get an NC-17 just for breasts (Dancing at the Blue Iguana has breasts non-stop, wall-to-wall, and is rated R), so if you add breasts you will still get an R rating. As Johnny Cochrane might have said, “If the R is for V, the knockers are free.”
The Alma Mahler rule. If you are going to film a story about real people, that does not absolve you from the requirement to make the movie entertaining. Movies are movies, not history lessons. Alma Mahler was a fascinating woman, but that is no guarantee that your biopic will be as fascinating unless it has some good reason to exist on its own. You have to make it good enough so that people will like it even if they think the characters are fictional.
Sub-rule: You may as well make it entertaining, because we know it’s not going to be true. All movies based on true stories are full of lies and fabrications. There are many reasons for this. One is that we don’t want people to be the way they really were, but rather the way we want them to be, so documentaries and historical films are really about the filmmaker, not the subject. Another is that people are too complicated, and too much happens to them in a lifetime, to summarize in 100 minutes. If you have to make a historical movie, choose an interesting event in someone’s life, not the entire life.
Sub-rule 2: At least do some homework. There is no historical personage named Brandi of Equitaine, and if there were, she would not have dotted her “i’s”with little hearts.
The Ian Fleming rule. Your bad guys must kill the good guys immediately if (a) it is necessary to their evil plot, and (b) they have the opportunity. They must not tie them up to kill later or, worse yet, tie them up so they can tell them the plot.
The definition rule. The words “horror” and “comedy” have certain definitions. A horror movie is supposed to be scary, and a comedy is supposed to be funny. If you make an erotic thriller, it must be (at minimum) either erotic or thrilling. Preferably both.
The comedy heirarchy rule. As you look for your comedy model, the farther you go down the heirarchy, the less likely is the comedy to be funny. Model your comedy after the top of the heirarchy, not the bottom. The Allen heirarchy is: Early Woody, Steve, Late Woody, Fred, Tim, Marty, Krista. The Marx heirarchy of comedy is as follows: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Karl, Gummo, Zeppo. I’ve never actually seen Gummo. I just assume he’d have to be funnier than Zeppo, since even Erasmus of Rotterdam and the prophet Jeremiah were funnier than Zeppo. Possibly he was funnier than Karl as well.
The Dudley Moore rule. Sometimes it’s just a generation thing, and can’t be explained. Make movies for your generation, rather than copying the past. Look, if you’re 25 years old, I can’t explain to you why anyone ever thought Dudley Moore was funny. Nobody knows. When you’re my age, let’s hear you explain Colin Quinn to your kids, wise guy.
The John Cleese Rule. There is no John Cleese rule.
The Kieslowski rule. Were you thinking of having them wake up and it was all a dream? Or maybe part of a mysterious double life that can’t be explained? Don’t even contemplate it unless you are a famous Polish auteur with a last name beginning with K.
The Interview with a Blade Runner rule. Thinking of making a vampire movie narrated in voice-over? That’s the first step toward a rewarding career in the fast food industry.
The Marquez rule. I know they give all kinds of important prizes to people who write Magical Realism. Now that I’ve admitted that, if you write a gritty John Steinbeck piece for an hour and a half, and then in the last ten minutes the hero escapes his life by sprouting wings and flying away from the cannery, or if the hero makes the evil slave-driving boss into a nice man by cooking him a meal salted with the workers’ tears, I’ll have to send your home address to Hannibal Lecter.
The Ben Affleck rule. Not everyone has to agree. For example, I think that Ben Affleck’s acting “sucks,” but others disagree. Some feel that he “blows,” others that he “bites,” and there are some radical thinkers who think that he “munches.” It’s OK to hold these other opinions. This freedom to disagree is the basis of democracy.
The body doubles rule. “Scale” actresses don’t get body doubles, because that costs double – scale for the actress, scale for the double – and that defeats the purpose of hiring a scale actress in the first place. Needless to say, instead of paying two scales, hire another scale actress willing to do the nudity. Believe me, there are thousands to choose from.
The “Captain Corelli” rule. A resurrection is an indication of a bad movie, whether it involves Jesus, zombies, or people presumed dead. There has never been a good movie with more than one resurrection.
The “Rules of Engagement” rule. Don’t give us those “whatever happened to them after the story” word captions before the closing credits unless they are necessary. How might they be necessary? (A) If it’s a comedy, and the fate of the characters is a good laugh. (B) If they are real people, and you can tell us what their lives were like before or after the story we just saw. But don’t give us more imaginary tidbits about imaginary people. If it’s worth including, include it. If it isn’t worth including, it isn’t worth mentioning either.
The “Lost World” rule. Creatures in movies which move faster than the creatures they pursue must catch them in the proper amount of time. People run about 20 feet per second. Cheetahs cover about 100 feet per second. Therefore, if a Cheetah is 20 feet behind you, it will catch you in a quarter of a second.
The “Frankenstein” rule. Creatures in movies which move slower than the creatures they pursue must lose them appropriately. You run about 20 feet per second. A guy lumbering along with his knees locked will cover about three feet per second. Therefore, if he chases you for five minutes, he will be a mile away, and you can safely stop at a pub for a pint and a smoke, because it takes him about half an hour to cover a mile.
The “Nightbreed” rule (aka the Prime Directive of Fantasy/Horror). A grotesque, heavily made-up creature, glimpsed fleetingly in the shadows, can be intensely frightening. A long close-up of the same creature will probably start to provoke giggles.
The MPD/amnesia rule. Don’t use multiple personality disorder or amnesia to explain otherwise inexplicable plot twists. Don’t have the murderer try to frame someone with multiple personality disorder or amnesia.
The obvious rule. A word to the dumb – I shouldn’t have had to mention this, but no EVIL TWINS or EVIL DWARVES, and especially no cases where the twin we think is the good one is really the evil one.
The instant genius rule. Children who begin a movie presumed to be mute or retarded should not end the movie chattier than Katie Couric and smarter than Steven Hawking. If they do have some kind of realistic breakthrough, they should not die tragically immediately afterward.
The Gilbert Roland rule. It is not possible to make a good movie where the good guy is deep diving and the bad guy is operating the air line.
The Chabrol rule. It is not possible to make a good movie where the good guy has to drive a car down a winding mountain road, and the bad guy is his brake-and-steering mechanic.
The McCloud rule. No renegade cops. Let me guess what’s in your script. He’s a good cop, but he doesn’t always play by the rules, he doesn’t stay within his budget, and he doesn’t like to fill out his paperwork. Sometimes his lieutenant has to chew him out for going too far over the line, breaking too many rules, and destroying too much property to bring in that mass murderer, but then the boss winks and says, “Good work, McCloud”
The catch-all rule. Scoopy will add, subtract or modify rules whenever the hell he pleases. There may even be a John Cleese rule someday, although I doubt it. There is a greater chance that I will write a script where the vampire wakes up and it was all a dream induced by a serum prepared by his evil twin, who is currently a renegade cop.