Okay, there is a shaving of wisdom clinging to this old saw. To evoke verisimilitude – the feel of truth – a writer needs details, and the easiest way to come by incidental details is to set your story in a world with which you are familiar. But if you write only what you know, you won’t discover anything in the process, and neither will your reader. So why bother?
You need to write about something you don’t know, ideally something nobody knows, making it new, as Ezra Pound insisted. If the genre is too familiar to you, it’s probably too familiar to your readers as well, so find a way to make it unknown. No movie genre is more thoroughly known than romantic comedy, but Ronald Bass found a way to make it new in the 1997 film, My Best Friend’s Wedding.
Ron Bass is a very smart guy. Bed-ridden in early childhood, he taught himself to read at 3, wrote stories by 6 and his first novel by 17. He went to Stanford and Yale, graduated Harvard Law, practiced entertainment law, and started writing. He published three novels and wrote the scripts for Rainman, Dangerous Minds, When A Man Loves of Woman, Joy Luck Club, Sleeping with the Enemy, Stepmom, What Dreams May Come, and more.
Some friends of mine in the movie business at first considered My Best Friend’s Wedding a failure, structurally, before its impressive box office receipts of 127 million dollars domestically and almost 300 million worldwide in its first year of distribution. The problem, they thought, was that Julia Roberts, a major star after her success in the 1990 film, Pretty Woman, failed to win the heart of the leading man in the end. Michael (played by Dermot Mulroney) preferred Kimmy (Cameron Diaz) over Julianne (Ms. Roberts). The film opens with the protagonist Julianne separated from her one true love by the prospect of his marriage to a lesser light in the Hollywood pantheon. Shouldn’t the action of the film bring together the lovers who belong together?
In fact the film does just that – but the lovers who belong together are Michael and Kimmy. Julia Roberts’ character Julianne is the other woman, the obstacle keeping the lovers apart. Ron Bass and the director P.J. Hogan demonstrate scene by scene that Kimmy not Julianne belongs with Michael, and they provide another character to console poor Julianne. George, played by Rupert Everett, is the handsomest, funniest, most charming character in the film. True, he is gay, so “there won’t be sex, but there will be dancing,” and who could really argue with that? The original choice for Michael, John Cusack, was cast instead with Dermot Mulroney, whose lesser star power might help the audience accept the idea that the protagonist of the film was not the deserving lover but the obstacle to overcome.
Ron Bass found a way to make a genre we all know too well into something new and unfamiliar. Something unknown.