'Man Up' & Underestimating Likability
The process of screenwriting is pathed with dozens of offshoots filled with rules, processes and and the like, many of which are useful to hundreds if not thousands of people. It's important to remember however that screenwriting is a creative process - that thing you do that can choose not to be limited to such things. It's up to you to decide to adhere to the page-per-minute rule or the structuring processes. Experiment and you'll eventually find what works for you (or you'll be like me and change your mind every single time you open up your laptop but that works too). One such notion I've always found important when writing (trust me, I've had zero success...I'm a pretty big deal who you should take advice from) is a sense of likability within character dialogue.
If it's a genre catered towards humour, I often find myself in my element drafting (and redrafting) snappy quip-fuelled conversations where characters bounce off one another. Many films do this successfully and are praised for doing so, but one I don't think gets enough recognition is 2015's Man Up starring Lake Bell and Simon Pegg. Screenwriter Tess Morris (thus far her only feature production) crafts an almost pitch-perfect classic-feeling romcom with a script that runs off the tongue.
Nancy (Lake Bell) is a 34-year-old romance cynic avoiding any and all possibilities of a relationship, but when she's mistaken for Jack (Simon Pegg's) blind date, she uncharacteristically says yes and the two of them embark on a night filled with drinking, bowling, and the unravelling of lies.
A large part of why Man Up works is due to the casting. Lake Bell and Simon Pegg clearly have a ball when they're in each other's company, goofing off in the behind the scenes footage and trying not to laugh at each other's takes. They're friends, and if they weren't so compatible the film wouldn't work on screen. On page however, Tess has to ignite the chemistry with herself. Jack and Nancy are awkward souls thrust together who stumble over each other's sentences and snatch every opportunity for a jibe or gag. The formatting of conversations is loose, because these people are heightened versions of themselves trying to make an impression on one another.
"If [the dialogue] feels too buttoned-down, it inhibits the looseness of the dialogue and the banter" - Ben Palmer (Director).
Nancy in particular is such a strong personality that she overhauls every conversation. Many people assume romcoms or comedy scripts need actual jokes (setups, punchlines etc.) but they don't, in a scene close to the start Nancy is talking to Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond - Jack's actual blind date) on a train, and it's brisk and clear that Jessica's just incompatible with her, which then leads to a great visual joke embedded in Nancy's personality once the two split from each other. Let the comedy come from character. Because Nancy is naturally cynical her comedic standoffishness will come into play by itself. Admittedly as an extension of her own character Tess never allows Nancy's cynicism to become grating or negative, but instead uses it to prod and persuade those around her to argue - hence the dialogue-heavy and fast-paced romance that occurs within the film.
"There's definitely merits to exploring [romantic comedy's] tropes and cliches, it's not like the genre's suddenly become crap" - Simon Pegg.
In a featurette on the home release entitled 'the seven beats of Man Up' (which we'll come to in a minute), Tess wisely states her decision to find a way to abolish mobile phones during the pivotal meet up between Nancy and Jack. By having Jack acknowledge their distractions and prompt them both to switch their phones off, it allows time for the two of them to show off their chemistry and end up enjoying each other's company. I guess in the future if you're thinking of writing a romcom it wouldn't hurt to set it in the eighties...
*Spoilers ahead for the film from now on. You've been warned*
During the writing process Tess adhered to the 'seven beats of romantic comedy' found in Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit. Whilst the film feels loose and impulsive like Nancy, in reality it follows these beats to the letter, and the fact they're not felt in the final product is a testament to Tess Morris herself. So let's have a look at those beats and how they're implemented into the film shall we?
BEAT ONE - The Chemical Equation (Setup)
This first beat treats the central couple as an equation that needs solving in order for the two of them to get together. For the initial setup to happen, both parties need to convey what they're missing in their lives and therefore how the other can offer it. Nancy is a recluse who'd rather quote-along to Silence of the Lambs in a hotel room than socialise at a party, it's clear she's been single for a while now and has lost the apparent need to see others. She's at a precipice of a daunting spiral downwards. Therefore, her eventual romantic interest will offer her redemption to this. Jack is kept a secret for this beat, as it's primarily Nancy's film, but the absences within her life are still on display clearly.
BEAT TWO - The Cute Meet (Catalyst)
You all know this part, boy meets girl/girl meets girl/boy meets boy however it goes it's the first meeting between the two. There needs to be an element of a spark in order to ignite the relationship that's sustained for the rest of the film. Nancy, bolstered by her sister's advice to be spontaneous, is flummoxed and charmed by Jack's references to Wall Street and Silence of the Lambs, sparking her interest straight away. Jack's interest is already assured too, as he's under the impression that Nancy (or Jessica as he thinks) is a twenty-four year old triathlete. He's the type of person who probably yelled 'kerching' when he was set up with her.
BEAT THREE - The Sexy Complication (Turning Point)
The complication is where things can develop on their own a little more. The budding couple can have an intense argument or realise they're from separate, rival families (thanks Shakespeare), but due to the concept of Man Up Morris decides to end Nancy's charade here. After a solid few hours of laughing and bowling together, Nancy's real identity is revealed to Jack through supporting comic relief Sean (Rory Kinnear - who went to school with Nancy) and thus Jack is furious that he's been kept from his real date. Things here on out don't look so good.
BEAT FOUR - The Hook (Midpoint)
Depending on how powerful the complication is, 'the hook' is meant to ensure that the characters stay in each other's lives in order to keep the relationship possible. Just as Jack is about to storm off, he realises he left his bag at the bar earlier with Nancy's notebook containing her parents' anniversary speech inside. The two, begrudgingly head back to the bar, only for Jack's (very) recent ex-wife and her new boyfriend to be there. It's here where Tess mixes things up a little bit to keep them interesting. She lays out Jack's version of beat one - his troubled history and emotional weakness after his divorce - which Nancy is allowed to see in full force as he cries to himself in the bar's bathroom. In order to get back at his ex, the two pose as a seemingly sexually-deviant strong couple, which allows the audience to further see their clear chemistry and allows Jack to hide his pain from the one who caused it.
BEAT FIVE - Swivel (Second Act turning point, one of the leads traditionally makes the wrong decision)
After switching their phones back on (damn technology), Jack discovers the real Jessica is still up for meeting this late into the evening. The two are too cowardly at this point to state how much they want to stay together, and frustratingly make the stupid decision to go their separate ways - Jack to Jessica, Nancy to her parents' anniversary party. Impulsive Nancy is nowhere to be seen here, she's too scared of actually showing feelings towards someone for the first time in four years, whilst Jack is left without Nancy's boisterous attitude and falls back on someone less complicated.
BEAT SIX - Dark Moment (Crisis climax)
Nancy, immediately upon returning home to the most welcoming family in film history, breaks down in tears after realising she's let the one person she had a connection with leave for someone else. This scene also is accompanied by I Need My Girl by The National so it's extra powerful. Jack's stilted date with Jessica is also shown, but isn't really all that emotional as he had his apex earlier during beat four. He does realise he's still got Nancy's notebook however...which is the sign for...
BEAT SEVEN - Joyful Defeat (Resolution)
In a resolution worthy of the best romcoms, Jack enlists the help of Sean as well as a party of rowdy teenagers to scour Greater London looking for Nancy, which of course he manages to do just in time to crash the anniversary party. It's at this point the emotionality takes over and the film sprints to climax. The audience wants them to be together as much as they do, and when Jack's able to make his speech in front of Nancy's family all sense of defeat has been silenced.
Man Up is a great romantic comedy. Without steering into the traditional sappiness of those that come before it, the film manages to feel fresh and light throughout despite forcing us to invest in the characters of Nancy and Jack. It's because they're just too darn likable. Even with Tess Morris' wonderful screenplay, lesser actors with dawdling chemistry could have derailed the film into obscurity and prevented it from being one of the genre's standouts from the past few years. So even though when it comes to production it may be out of your hands, it's important to remember to infuse your characters with as much personality as possible (when relevant, of course). The screenplay makes the sale after all, and if your characters are bold enough to draw the attention of the right actors then you're off to a good start.
I like doing these explorations/analyses of films/television shows from time to time. If you have a certain show or film or text you'd be interested in hearing my thoughts on, or if you'd be interested in contacting me about potential writing work then give me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear what you think.
Man Up is available on DVD and Blu Ray.
Tess Morris is currently working on her next feature screenplay. She also co-hosts a semi-regular podcast on romantic comedies entitled 'You Had Us At Hello'. Check it out for more of her genre wisdom.
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