Holidays and the movies. Two great tastes that go great together. But what’s the most effective way to use one? While doing some research – or staring at the ceiling and occasionally typing something into IMDb – I realized there are basically four main methods of working a holiday into your story.
First, you’ve got your straight up holiday films. These are telling a story specifically designed to highlight the holiday in question. They tend to be Christmas films (with the occasional Hop, or Eight Crazy Nights thrown in there for good measure), and it’s all of the classics that everyone knows – It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Jingle All the Way, A Christmas Story, and White Christmas.
The holiday can, of course, relate thematically to the story you’re trying to tell. Would Mike Myers have been as scary if he had attacked a small town on Arbor Day? Could Love Actually have won the heart of audiences everywhere if it had taken place in the middle of July (yeah probably, as long as Bill Nighy was still there belting out songs at his boozy best)? Using a holiday which shares a connection to what you’re trying to say, can be an effective emotional shortcut for audiences.
There’s also a related branch of holiday films that embrace this thematic practice, strip it of any artistic value it might have, and take it to its inevitable extreme. Usually a rom-com, these films simply mesh together a random holiday – let’s say, oh I don’t know, Valentine’s Day, or New Year’s Eve – with an large ensemble group of attractive (and apparently cash strapped) actors and calls it a day. Plot be damned! On a side note, I’d just like to say to Katherine Fugate, the screenwriter for both of those films – I’d love to work with you sometime. Call me.
Finally, there are the films that use a holiday as a contrast to the story they’re trying to tell. These also tend to involve Christmas, but with lots of explosions and/or death. So hold on tight as we wade hip deep into the yuletide cheer this holiday season and take a look at…
Holidays and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
If you’re one of the five people who say Shane Black’s modern noir in the theaters, congratulations. You not only have excellent taste in film, but were among the first people to witness the rebirth of Robert Downey Jr.’s career. I didn’t see it for years, but when I finally sat down and watched it, I was mesmerized. It’s spectacular on so many levels. The trademark Shane Black dialogue… the perfectly executed pacing… the quirky and dark humor of its self-aware narrator… all of it combines with the dazzling personality of the man who would become Iron Man, and what is perhaps the best performance of Val Kilmer’s career (outside of Dieter Von Cunth in MacGruber) and melds into a film that is substantially more than the sum of its parts.
Oh, and it’s set in Los Angeles at Christmastime.
But what strikes me about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in particular? Why, with all of the examples I had to choose from, did I decide to focus on this one? Simple really. It’s the way it utilizes its holiday of choice in such a subtle, but impressively multilayered fashion. See, Shane Black didn’t just happen to set his film at Christmas, it was a deliberate choice. A way for him to explore certain thematic elements without having to hit his audience over the head with it.
In this world, LA is a cesspool – a city filled with people who are only looking out for themselves. The characters that populate this script haven’t just lost their moral compass, they’ve voluntarily thrown them in the trash. And then set the trash on fire. In other words, everything about this story is the living, breathing, opposite of Christmas.
The film’s overarching point seems to be that LA destroys everything good and decent that it touches. Christmas is alternately overly commercialized, completely pointless, overtly sexual, and sometimes even deadly. And this juxtaposition manages to simultaneously make both the action even darker, and the true spirit of the season more important than ever. That the script pulls it off in such spectacular fashion – a morality play that doesn’t play like one – speaks to the craftsmanship of Shane Black, and it’s an often overlooked aspect of the film.
Deciding to use a holiday setting in your script should be like any other decision you make with your writing. Does it serve a purpose, or is it just window dressing? Be honest with yourself, and with your story. If the answer is window dressing, think about taking it out. Now, that doesn’t mean it has to be the centerpiece of your holiday meal – sitting on a platter in the middle of the table. There’s nothing wrong with having it be the cranberry sauce; a nice, satisfying side dish that complements the meal. But if it’s not tied in at all, if it’s not serving an actual purpose in your story, then the holiday in your script is just that weird dish your aunt brings every year that no one ever touches.
Happy holidays. Now get writing!
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Tools to Help:
- Genre Screenwriting: How to Write Screenplays that Sell
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- What Makes a Great Scene Webinar with Erik Bork, screenwriter and producer of HBO’s Band of Brothers