"I feel like I haven't written enough traditional romantic comedies to be smart on the topic [of romantic comedies]," screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna told Moviefone earlier this week. Which is precisely why she's the perfect person to discuss the well-worn genre: from 'The Devil Wears Prada' to '27 Dresses' to 'I Don't Know How She Does It' (out now), McKenna has subverted some of the traditional elements of rom-coms with an eye toward modernizing them for the 21st century. Ahead, six tips from the screenwriter on writing a successful romantic comedy.
1. Don't necessarily worry about a traditional love story
"In three out of the last four I've written, the focus is not on the love story," McKenna said. "The focus is on the female character trying to get her life together and her priorities together and meet her goals. The love story is kind of an adjunct to that. I don't think of them so much as traditional romantic comedies. I think so many other people do those well and are more focused on that than I am."
Which may be a good thing, at least for her: "The more traditional boy-meets-girl are extremely hard to write. It's one of the reasons I don't attempt them as much, because I think they are really difficult to get right."
2. Learn from the best
"Some of my favorite ones have been the Judd Apatow movies," McKenna said when asked about non-traditional romances. "A lot of those have great romances. 'Knocked Up' and 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' are two of my absolute favorites. They do have sort of two people trying to find their way to each other."
Additionally, McKenna names 'Jerry Maguire' and 'Tootsie' as examples of great films that have romantic elements. "They're romantic comedies, in a way, but they're coming at it from a viewpoint of what is this person going through and what are they going to come out with on the other side that allows them to be in a relationship in a different way. I'm never very interested in stuff that's like, 'Oh, you're pretty.'"
3. Don't worry about getting everything precisely right in an adaptation
With 'The Devil Wears Prada,' 'I Don't Know How She Does It' and the upcoming 'We Bought a Zoo' under her belt, McKenna has done her fair share of literary adaptations. "I try and figure out what the essence of the story is. What the heart and soul of the story is. I'm less focused on the specifics of trying to transcribe what's in the book, and more about trying to distill the essence of it. What's important about it, what moved people about it, and which of those things would transfer well to a movie idiom."
That is very evident in 'I Don't Know How She Does It'. "We changed the story quite a bit," she said, "but I think [author Allison Pearson] feels we retained the essence of what she was trying to do."
4. Speaking of authors, try to avoid meeting them, initially
"I tend to meet with them when it's already in process in some way -- that's not true every time, but that's true of 'Prada' and of 'I Don't Know How She Does It,'" McKenna said. The reason? It makes it easier for her to create.
"If it's very personal material, it's helpful for me to imagine it without meeting the person who wrote it, so I can feel a little freer to create a character which is not the person sitting in front of me."
5. Don't get too wrapped up in the box office
Does McKenna ever try to figure out why one movie connected with audiences and another did not? "I think if you start second guessing too much it's a slippery slope. You do your best to say I connect with this and I hope other people do too. I think there's a lot of intangibles that come together in terms of what makes something a hit and what makes something a runaway hit. I try to do things that are meaningful to me, and it's nice when you hear from someone that 'I really love that' even if it wasn't the biggest commercial hit."
6. Focus on real life
As the successful romantic films released over the past few years have shown, audiences want to see something that borders on reality. "I think people love seeing movies about how people live their lives. I really do. About how people make decisions. I think a movie like 'Bridesmaids,' which sort of depicted something that women knew they were experiencing but maybe hadn't seen onscreen, that's a great thing when you can capture that. That was an instance where people really responded to that. It really resonated with people."
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/ The Weinstein Company