Un-quirkify

When I try and list the Australian movies I loved just before moving here, the ones that spring to mind are Priscilla, Love Serenade, Strictly Ballroom, The Dish and Muriel. The one thing they all have in common: they’re quirky.

They’re all nineties’ comedies. Some of them worked, others didn’t. I loved them nonetheless.

It is interesting that overall our comedies seem to better stand the test of time than our serious drama, of which at least an equal amount was produced around the same period.

The comedies are what this industry is primarily remembered for.

Do they represent more accurately how Australians are seen by other cultures? Possibly.

quirk (kwûrk)

n.

1. A peculiarity of behavior; an idiosyncrasy.
2. An unpredictable or unaccountable act or event.
3. A sudden sharp turn or twist.
4. An equivocation; a quibble.
5. Architecture A lengthwise groove on a molding.

THE POWER OF QUIRKY

Australian comedies are still loved for their quirkiness. (Some, unfortunately, not by enough people to justify their cost.)

Let’s look at what advantages quirky brings to a movie.

1. Quirky is fun

Boring is certainly unquirky and therefore the screenwriter is naturally more attracted to quirky.

In this context, it also means colorful, unpredictable and plain fun.

Quirky is more visible when it comes to movie trailers, soundtracks, soundbites and posters.

2. Quirky is Australian

As suggested above, quirky is often associated with the Australian people, which is a positive one.

It may be stereotyping but hey, that’s what people do!

Non-Australians find the Australian language quirky, just like their humor and some of their customs, e.g. Akubra hats and Santa in shorts.

3. Quirky is different

If you have a competently told story, the quirkiness adds an edge. It sets the story and its characters apart.

Perhaps this quirkiness helps movies to be more unique. It seems Australian films have long put this edge above any commercial aspirations. It is my suspicion that Australian filmmakers want to appeal to the critics and to their peers more than to an audience. (That’s just my theory)

4. Quirkiness adds freedom

Quirky characters have a license to do and say things that others can’t.

Here we can easily extrapolate to television comedy, as Kath & Kim spring to mind.

It’s the archetypal function of the jester. Only, it appears to me that in some of these movies the entire cast of characters is made up of jesters.

THE DANGERS OF THE UEBER-QUIRKY

The ticket-buying audience wants movies to be uniquely familiar.

But some filmmakers put so much emphasis on the unique that the familiar disappears.

That’s when quirky turns weird. And believe me, in the mind of the ticket buyers, there is a very fine line.

I must say recently I haven’t seen too many of those ueber-quirky (I have seen less movies overall) but boy, this has been handsomely compensated by the screenplays, synopses and loglines from newbie writers that cross my desk.

Friends, seriously, you have got to un-quirkify.

Genre clashes

I have read many a screenplay in the crime or thriller genre that had a type of quirkiness that was completely distracting.

When you’re building towards a climax, don’t waste tension by throwing in some random fun.

Recently I worked on a fabulous project where one member of the team wanted to make the antagonists quirky. The consensus among the others (me included) was that this would seriously jeopardize the tension.

Unless of course the antagonist is The Joker.

An Australian example where it – kinda – worked was Chopper, in which the entire persona of the character was built upon the mix of menace and unpredictability.

Hmmm. Both characters played by some of the greatest actors from … Australia.

Quirky what?

Have you noticed that the  successful movies quoted above have quite traditional story structures?  Only the characters are a bit odd.

I would argue that quirky stories never work.  They wouldn’t make it to an audience large enough to justify the cost of making the movie.

This goes for movies made outside Australia just the same. Whether the cast and crew are A-list or not.

Ask Terry – the Quirk Master – Gilliam.  (Or better: ask his producers.)

Do you know examples of really quirky stories with quirky characters that still found their way to a large audience?

Do you miss the quirkiness of the nineties?

Keen to hear in the comments.

- Karel Segers

Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+. Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia.

Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 5-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens.

He is also the boss of this blog.

9 Comments

  1. Tom Murphy May 12, 2010 at 12:38 am #

    When I was doing my screenwriting MA at Bournemouth (a couple of years back), we had a seminar on pitching, meetings etc with a former sales exec turned marketing consultant. He bitch-slapped the first pitch that used the word ‘quirky’ by saying that in development circles, ‘quirky’ is a synonym for ‘shit’.

    (He was an Aussie, too)

    When I think of quirks that works (ahem), I think of Charlie Kaufman. Sure, the stuff in some of his scripts is wildly imaginative and non-realistic, but it’s rooted in universal and very human emotions, desires and fears.

    • Karel Segers May 12, 2010 at 9:46 am #

      Tom,

      My gut instinct was exactly that and I first intended to write the post from this approach.

      Then I thought about it for somewhat longer and decided not to over-generalize.

      Sometimes, there really is merit in quirkiness, if used properly. (see my update on The Joker)

      Thank you for your point, though.

      Most quirkiness I read in newbie scripts IS shit. ;)

  2. Margaret MM May 12, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    Most of Tim Burton’s early films jump to mind. Although one could argue that a lot of those are either quirky characters in a familiar story or visa-verse. The one that I’d say was quirky in both respects was Mars Attacks, and it was less commercially successful than some others. Of course, I am talking about the 90s here, which I do miss.

    Here’s a question: What about quirkiness on TV? Do you think the same rules apply? In that respect I’ve found Australian shows quite traditional where American shows seems to thrive on at least some degree of quirkiness. If anything, I think a lot of new shows in the States have taken the formula of a more traditional sit-com or drama, added a quirky twist, called it original, and then been renewed season after season.

    • Karel Segers May 12, 2010 at 9:54 am #

      Totally agree on Burton. Edward Scissorhands was quirky in its execution but beautifully classical in its story. I should watch it again, but isn’t it somewhat like the Hunchback story?

      Mars Attacks. Seemed too quirky at the time. ;)

      But I’m surprised with your comparison US/AU. I would have expected quite the opposite. Aren’t Americans ‘weirded out’ more easily?

      Keen to hear what shows you have in mind.

      • Margaret MM May 12, 2010 at 12:26 pm #

        Popular shows in Australia that are quite traditional include:
        Home and Away
        Packed to the Rafters
        Neighbors
        And a whole heap of other dramas that I lose track of because all the scenes of people having heart felt conversations on the beach start to blend together.
        Traditional cop dramas include:
        City Homicide
        Rescue Special Ops
        Rush
        Sea Patrol
        . . . . and the list goes on.

        There are fair amount of by the numbers shows in the US too, but ever since Lost hit such high ratings people have been going out of their way to add at least one quirky touch to otherwise traditional shows. (Actually I think it really started as a slow burn after the X-Files and Lost just added some sparks) After all, putting traditional characters on an island where a lot of weird shit happens certainly worked.

        A few years ago that brought about the start of Heroes and the not so successful runs of comedies Chuck, Reaper, and Pushing Daisies (the best of the bunch IMHO).

        The dramas are more traditional but everything has at least one twist, like Flashforward, Fringe and the re-vamp of V (the original mini-series was much better). And US audiences are so hooked on the twist now that I don’t think they recognize when they are being fed the same story just with an extra bit of quirkiness in it.

        The surprise ratings success Castle (I love you Nathan Fillion but . . .) is just Law and Order SVU if Vincent D’Onophrio’s character was a funny, quirky, playboy author. And runaway hit success Glee really wants to be Freaks and Geeks with singing (but falls desperately short on story and humor. I think it’s success is due to our nostalgic attachment to those songs, but that’s another post).

        Yes, at their core these are all traditional shows but US audiences clearly crave something that is “familiar but different.” So what makes you think American’s get weirded out so easily?

  3. Clive Hopkins May 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    I’m all for quirky, but the question is, quirky what? And here’s the problem.

    Quirky is not a genre!!!

    If you don’t believe me, go to your local Blockbuster and look for the shelf marked ‘quirky’. (While you’re at it, look for the shelf marked ‘coming of age’.)

    If a script is funny (or scary, or thrilling), then quirkiness can add to that. If a script isn’t funny, calling it a quirky comedy isn’t going to save you. (‘Black comedy’ is another one. Not funny? No worries mate! It’s a BLACK comedy!)

    On another note, when anyone writes or says ‘more unique’, I reach for my revolver. Things are either unique or they’re not.

    Must get back to that quirky coming of age script I’m working on

    • Karel Segers May 13, 2010 at 9:44 am #

      I think they’re finally waking up to this truth, at least on this little island: I believe there are a lot less ‘black comedies’ in funded development than there used to be.

  4. Warren Hately February 20, 2013 at 10:51 pm #

    Interestingly you list some of the Aus movies I detest the most.

  5. Steven Fernandez February 24, 2013 at 1:29 am #

    I agree that the fun factor has been one motivation behind the Australian drive for quirkiness. Another has been the overseas (over) association of quirkiness with Australia. But I have a long-held sneaking suspicion that a third reason why local writers favour quirkiness is because of the perceived ease in which quirkiness can paper over atrocious writing (eg bad plotting or weak characters). The psuedo-logic behind this being that any dramatic cracks become excusable once a film is set up to not be takened seriously from the start. In a similar vein, quirkiness can seem to avoid the necessity to invest much conviction behind the story (again, because its set up not to be taken seriously from the start). The fundamental problem with these excuses for quirkiness is the inevitable result: Mediocre films at best, absolute dogs quite often.

Leave a Reply