Superbad. Die Hard. Cloverfield. What do any of these titles have to do with the movie that they’ve been slapped on to?
I mean, obviously you can’t name a movie The Day that All Those German Terrorists and Alan Rickman Broke Into My Wife’s Office and Killed Everybody and contrary to what Barney Stinson believes it isn’t called Die Hard because Hans Gruber “died hard”, so then why call it Die Hard?
It’s a great movie, so why does it have a title that sounds like it was stolen from the subtitles of a 1970’s Godzilla flick? I wish I had the answer, the truth is that I have no idea.
This whole subject came up when I consulted a friend about what I should call my screenplay that I just finished. The working title was The Man Can Fly.
Some movies can do well by advertising exactly what they’re about. We know what Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone is about. Harry Potter was already a household name and keeping his name in the title guaranteed that millions of people would fork out the money to see it. It’s also about the Sorceror’s Stone, which is essentially what causes most of the action in the film to take place. Bam. The whole film is right there in your lap.
There’s a kind of charm in spelling out exactly what you’re trying to sell and that was what I was trying to capture. We know what Glee: The 3D Concert Movie will be about before we even buy a ticket. There’s no pretense there. The Hunger Games is about, you guessed it, the Hunger Games that take place in the novel.
I wrote the film under the title The Man Can Fly and after finishing, it just seemed too cut and dry for me. My friend agreed. He told me “when in doubt, just make it the name of your title character”.
So I tried it on. Edgar. It just didn’t do it for me. I looked up and down my bookshelf o’ movies for inspiration. John Q, Billy Elliot, Jerry Maguire, Forrest Gump, Erin Brockovitch, Juno, Antwone Fisher, Jackie Brown, Donnie Darko, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III and so on and so forth.
“Huh,” I thought, “that is pretty common isn’t it?” It’s not just pretty common. It’s as common as a Target employee who hates their job.
In all of these movies, the name of the person is not nearly as interesting as what the movie is really about. Peter Pan is about a boy who can fly, will never grow up and comes from a magical world called Neverland. You would think they might have focused on those things, but no, all buyers will see on their tickets stubs was that it was about boy named Peter, who was presumably born to a Mr. and Mrs. Pan.
Sure, it’s understandable if the movie is a biopic (we need to know who were seeing in the movie after all), so films like Milk, Ali, Mary Antoinette and Ray all get a pass, but since when does the name of the main character get butts in seats? Isn’t that what a good title is supposed to do?
After Edgar didn’t work (and his full name Edgar Ackerman was even worse), I tried to go for one of those deep, insightful titles with a message that almost transcends the movie.
Silence of the Lambs is one of these movies. You only find out exactly what the title means after Lecter delivers his chilling monologue to Clarice about her childhood and how she had to listen to the lambs being slaughtered even after she tried to save them.
He deduces that she still hears the screams of these lambs at night and asks her if she thinks the lambs will stop screaming if she helps save the girl. It reveals what drives Clarice as well as frames the entire movie, giving us a sense of well-being knowing that the events in the movie eventually bring her to peace with herself, or “silence the lambs” as the title so astutely phrases it. They never once use that phrase in the film, but by the end you will understand why that is the title.
American Beauty goes the extra mile and has a double meaning. It has the esoteric meaning that obviously refers to Angela Hayes, the all-American girl that Kevin Spacey’s character becomes infatuated with, as well as a hidden and well-crafted floral interpretation.
You’ll notice that in most of the scenes in American Beauty there is very identifiable type of rose featured either in the foreground or the background. Annette Benning’s character is seen planting them in the first three minutes of the film. Can you guess what the rose is called? The American Beauty. A neat feature of the American Beauty: it can only flourish once its roots have festered and rotted.
It gave an amazing sense of overall meaning to the film since many of the characters are hiding their deepest and dirtiest laundry underneath layers and layers of fake smiles and suburban style houses. Their souls have rotted but their exterior is as beautiful as ever.
I gave the thoughtful and poetic title a go. The screenplay is about a 40 something loner who discovers (via prostitute) that he can fly in his sleep. More specifically, he floats in his sleep when he dreams. I tried He Dreamt of Clouds only to realize that it sounded douchy and self important. It sounded like the name of a chapter in one of those self-help books where the picture of the author on the back is a painting instead of a photograph.
I immediately hit “backspace” 19 times and got rid of it forever.
There has got to be a way to come up with a title that’s nice, neat and straight to the point. I ignored the hum of my bedside fan and the chirps of the birds outside as I tried to think of a catchy name for my film.
Even movies like Legally Blonde and Jurassic Park have clever and snappy titles that tell you exactly what the movie is going to be about in a few words. Legally Blonde is about a blonde (it’s basically the only adjective that fully describes her character) who is trying to get into law school to woo her ex-boyfriend back into her life. Surprise. She makes it in. Wackiness ensues.
Love it or hate it (I actually love it), the title combined with the image of Elle dressed in a full pink ensemble amidst a wave of formally clad law students complete with a purse poodle in clutch tells you everything you ever needed to know about the film. It may have deterred the upturned noses, but the market is there and dammit if Legally Blonde wasn’t ready to sell itself to the masses of people who saw the poster and went “OMG I am TOTALLY seeing that movie! Isn’t that dog so USH? Xanga!”
Jurassic Park was a movie about a theme park with dinosaurs. IT WAS ABOUT A THEME PARK WITH DINOSAURS. Enough said.
I tried the brief and clever route. Being not particularly clever myself, I came up with Flying Dream. Everyone has had the dream where they are flying, the twist would be that he is actually flying while he dreamed. I sighed and hoped that people would just glance over the title and at least allow themselves to get ten pages into the thing.
Nope, if I’m going to send this thing out I want it to have a title that I’m proud of. I got rid of Flying Dream and went back to the drawing board taking characters, themes, motifs and religious symbolism into account.
One word titles are all the rage these days (I’m surprised that this most recent Willy Wonka movie wasn’t simply titled Wonka), so I decided on Floating. My friend criticized that it was too broad and didn’t effectively capture the spirit of the movie.
“Hell,” said I, “Ryan Gosling’s latest film is called Drive. His character is named ‘Driver’. Big broad titles are what the public wants, I’m sure I can get away with Floating.”
So for three more rewrites it remained Floating and I was happy with it. Then the doubt set in. The sad thing about being a writer is how pathetically obsessed I am with what people will think about my writing.
Floating?! I thought in a rush of unnecessary panic. That’s what balloons do! I can’t call my movie this! In a series of quick movements (let’s call them twitches for accuracy’s sake), the title changed from Floating to Cross Street.
It is mentioned in the script that Edgar lives on Cross Street and there’s a fair amount of Christian symbolism in the screenplay, so at the time it made a lot of sense. After submitting it to my old screenwriting professor for notes, I was enlightened to the fact that the title said nothing about my movie.
“But…religious symbolism!” I sputtered. “It takes place in suburbia! A good amount of the themes concern the reaction of society to a man doing what is impossible! Everyone is in each-other’s business and his power gets sensationalized to the point of hysteria! Dirty laundry!”
No dice. Cross Street wasn’t working and I knew it. That’s when I began noticing titles like Superbad.
Like Die Hard, Superbad is a great movie with a name that would eventually become synonymous with greatness in its genre and yet it has nothing to do with what goes on in the film. What does it even mean? I remember seeing the trailer and thinking “that looks hysterical, I can’t wait!” The title never phased me until I spent the better part of two months trying to figure out what to call my damn movie.
Cloverfield has a name that comes from its own fictional viral marketing campaign, but how does that make it any different? The film operates on a found footage mechanism and the military codename of the classified footage is “Cloverfield”. You can see the codename at the very beginning if you’re quick enough. The name still doesn’t give me a clear image of what happens in the film. To me it sounds like a movie about an Irish baseball team.
I bring all of this up because the past few months have made me super aware of titles. Contagion, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and 30 Minutes or Less in particular have caught my title interest. I have seen trailers for all of the above, and the titles all seem fitting even when I don’t know exactly what the film will be about.
It turns out that there’s a whole subclass of creativity devoted to coming up with a decent title and that appears to be the part of my brain that’s missing. How can you boil down a 95 page screenplay (that you have gotten way too close to) into a coherent two word summary?
Hell, maybe I’ll just name my movie Fanbird. It makes as much sense as anything else.