Danielle Krage interviews Billy Mernit – screenwriter, novelist and author of Writing The Romantic Comedy: The Art of Crafting Funny Love Stories for the Screen. Billy has served as a story analyst and script consultant at Universal Pictures, an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and has published some 20 romance novels under a female pen name. In this conversation, he shares really practical ways of approaching writing romantic comedy, including in today’s landscape of mixing genres.
00:00 Introduction and Background
01:00 Love for Rom-Coms
02:25 The Triangle and the Ensemble
07:43 Favourite Rom-Coms
13:16 The Importance of World
17:48 The Connection Between Image and Theme
25:36 Mixing Genres in Rom-Coms
31:06 Rom-Coms in Series Format
34:07 Personal Development as a Writer
37:14 Music and Writing
10:15 The Importance of Characters in Romantic Comedies
20:30 The Role of Conflict in Romantic Comedies
30:45 The Art of Crafting Funny Love Stories
39:41 Recommendation and Conclusion
You can find out more about Billy and his work here:
CLICK HERE FOR TRANSCRIPT
Today, I am thrilled to have Billy Mernit with me, screenwriter, novelist, and author of Writing the Romantic Comedy: the Art of Crafting Funny Love Stories for the Screen. Billy is also a story analyst at Universal Pictures, a script consultant, an instructor at UCLA, and he has published over 20 romance novels himself under a pen name. So quite the amazing career, but Billy, before we dive in, is there anything else you’d love people to know about you and your connections to creating comedy?
Billy Mernit (00:37.12)
That’s probably more than enough right there.
You’ve done so much to ask you about. What I want to start with though, is a broad question, which is that you have focused so much of your career on rom-coms, both analysing and you’re also a practitioner and being a novelist too. What is it that you really love about rom-coms as a genre that’s made you want to invest so much time in them?
Billy Mernit (01:00.45)
Well, I was born a romantic, evidently. And my parents were a very loving couple, and they were smart, sort of sophisticated New Yorkers, and so they liked to banter. And I can remember, in fact, some of the first romantic comedies I ever saw was at the foot of their bed on the old TV, watching screwballs like Bringing Up Baby and The Awful Truth, and Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and those kinds of things. And evidently, it really ruined me for real life, but it got me onto it from an early age. And it also, to be honest, I just found it a fairly easy form to write in for whatever reason. It just kind of, the humour and the, I guess I’m an optimist and one sort of needs to be if you’re gonna believe in true love, you know, and things like that. So I’m jaded and cynical now in my older age, but from early on I certainly was on that track.
I love that. And yeah, it’s lovely to come at it from that sort of feeling approach. Because I love that you balance both…. that you come across in the book as such a lover of the genre and someone who also from all the vast experience that you had is able to analyze it in really useful ways. I found so many of the frameworks really, really useful.
So one of the frameworks that I actually wanted to jump into, and we’ll mix a bit of craft and also analysis into the conversation, is the triangle and the ensemble. And talking about that in relation to the dynamics within the genre. And why I found it so helpful, in a really subjective way is… I was then trying to pick out different movies in terms of how I’ve enjoyed them and which category they fit into, and I definitely had a clear preference for all kinds of reasons. So I found that framework really helpful. For people who haven’t read the book. I’d love you to unpick just a little bit, what interests you about the dynamics in romcoms.
Billy Mernit (03:05.506)
Right, well, I should have the book in front of me to make sure of this, but I kind of break down romantic comedies into a few little subclasses, triangle being one of them. I think people are drawn to it because there’s just so much more to work with. First of all, you’ve got instant conflict, right? Because most couples, unless you’re polyamorous or whatever, conventionally, it’s two people.
But in a triangle rom-com, obviously you have three. And in the best kinds of triangle romantic comedies, it’s not binary in terms of characterization, meaning you need to see good qualities in the one that you don’t want your protagonist to head up with, just as you want to see some problems, perhaps, with this ostensible hero or heroine. So it actually sort of inherently forces a writer to be a little more nuanced, a little more complex in approaches to character.
Triangle movies that are not as effective are ones where you just look at the other guy and you go, I’d never end up with him. Bridget Jones’s diary comes to mind, especially because it’s based on a granddaddy of all contemporary romantic comedies, which is Jane Austen’s work. You know, Hugh Grant is a cad. And there’s no doubt that you would not want to depend on him as a committed mate. Nonetheless, he’s incredibly charming and he’s always funny. And even when he’s being awful, there’s something very appealing about him. And so to me, that’s like a great paradigm for the kinds of characters that work in the romantic comedy, because the romantic comedy, although much maligned as being superficial and not about much, and I know we’re gonna talk about themes, so we’ll get more into that, but is actually one that is really character driven by the nature of the beast, right? And so it kind of fosters, I think, a deeper understanding of character than let’s say your average action thriller, or many of the other popular genres where character is just a sketch. He’s the man with the gun, okay.
So for that reason, triangles are really rich and you get to play characters against each other and as I say, you have that tension inherent which means you can create other conflicts on top of it and then you’ve got a full platter. Ensemble romantic comedies are difficult because, you know, just the sheer numbers involved and there the danger is being superficial because you don’t want to just slap a characteristic on somebody and say that’s them.
But what’s nice about ensembles is that it gives the writer a great variety to work with. And certainly if you’re working with a given theme, let’s say your story’s about trust, then you get to actually act out four different, five different versions of what trust is about. You know, this part of the ensemble is about people who are just inherently untrustworthy. This couple is people who are, you know, too naive and trusting, etcetera, etcetera.
So you can really get a workout on whatever your movie is about if you’re using an ensemble. And of course, traditionally over the years, ensembles have been very adept at hitting different demographics, right? You’ve got the young couple, the old couple, you know, everything in between. And so it’s, for that reason, as I say, it’s challenging for any screenwriter. And also for readers, by the way, because any producer or anyone who’s looking at your script has sort of got to have a playlist to keep tabs on all these characters. So I wouldn’t, it’s not that I wouldn’t say don’t try this at home, but I would say maybe not kick off your writing career with an ensemble because those are tougher to do.
Yeah, I do love it when it works. So you brought to life, as an example, one of my favourite movies, Crazy Stupid Love in the ensemble comedies. And I was like, yeah, oh, that’s why I love that so much. I mean, so many reasons.
And really hard to pick out all of them. And you’ve already said that some of them you have particular memory associations with because it’s when you saw them. I love that image of you at the foot of your parents. That’s beautiful. But are there any others that you find that you go back to multiple times with that feeling that you just still absolutely love to watch them as a viewer without having to necessarily be an analyst. It’s really hard to pick favourites.
Billy Mernit (07:57.162)
It is, but there are a few that I’m addicted to. The one that, of course, always comes to mind for repeated and repeated and repeated viewings. And it’s going to sound facetious. Groundhog Day. Because, first of all, people don’t generally think of it as a romantic comedy, but it totally is from top to bottom. The whole story is driven by his romance with.. the newscasters romance with his TV producer.
And in fact, the climax hinges on it. He either gets out of it through his pursuit of her or he doesn’t. So what I love about Groundhog Day as a rom-com is it’s a hybrid because you can just look at it as sort of a sci-fi or rather fantasy comedy because the Groundhog Day, which by the way has become a paradigm now…. I mean, I can’t tell you how many scripts one reads where it’s Groundhog Day on the moon, or Groundhog Day at school or in whatever context. And in fact, one of the most recent rom-coms that I really enjoyed on Netflix, Palm Springs, which is, you know, which is a sort of a Groundhog Day variant right there. Anyway, the reason I love it is it’s one of those.
And I’ve come to know Danny Rubin, he’s an acquaintance friend. It’s one of those just brilliantly inspired ideas. The concept is just so good that it has spawned its own mini-genre. And of course, Bill Murray is the perfect hero for a movie like this. And so the humour is nonstop, but it’s about something and it’s about something profound. It’s about questioning, why are we here? What are we doing and what makes it worthwhile? And so you’re getting really the full platter in that movie. And of course, when you watch it over and over again, as one does.
There’s so many great runners, meaning gags that are, you know, seated early on and just have multiple payoffs throughout the movie. And it’s just full of them. So you’ve got a lot to look at and a lot to enjoy. Another one that comes to mind that I will always sort of drop everything and get sucked into if I happen upon it on TV is Moonstruck, which is unusually well written. It’s a playwright, John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the screenplay. He’s got that playwright’s depth. And I just think the characters are just so memorable. I mean, if you’ve seen it, you will never forget Nick Cage and Cher and the family. It’s kind of almost a little ensemble-ish, right? Because you’ve got the mom and dad and you’ve got other subplots going on. And it’s such a vivid world. I mean, you just know who those people are and where they live and what that culture is about. And…It’s got that sort of wishfulfillment and fantasy of everybody goes… Oh, I wish I, you know, had that kind of a vivid family with such great food. And the poetic imagery and everything about it is just, it’s just a gorgeous piece of work. So those are the two more contemporary ones that I think I find myself coming back to.
You mentioned in more recent years, Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Mmm, loved it.
Billy Mernit (11:20.226)
Which got sort of maligned a little bit when it first came out, as most rom-coms do. But I think over time, it’s just looking better and better. And it’s got a few iconic scenes in it. The great Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling with the tribute to Dirty Dancing. And, you know, that whole sequence is just so lovely. But everybody in the movie is quite good. It ends a few times too many, and they’re…There is one storyline in it, which is kind of vaguely offensive, you know, with the kid. It’s a little overwritten, but there’s a lot to like in it. So that more recently.
If I was gonna reach way back, then I would say the Lady Eve, probably the paradigm of a great Golden Age romantic comedy. And the other ones I mentioned, like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, those Hawksian rom-coms back then. And if you really want to go all the way back, I was happy to see City Lights make the AFI, you know, the big and even the British BAFTA list. It was very, very high, I think. And again, we tend to forget silent movies. What, you know, who cares at this point? But Chaplin, City Lights. So romantic. So there’s that.
Hmm. I love that. And so many things I want to follow up on in the bits that you pulled out from that too. So one that I’d love to pick up on is world. And what you mean by that and how you think…so many different angles we could come at it from, but for example, things that you think get overused, or risks that you would like people to consider, or ways to make it really rich.
Take it from any angle that you like, but how to think about world, because often I think people feel a little more confident thinking about the characters, still loads to do there, but what about world?
Billy Mernit (13:25.482)
Well, I would say, taking off from what you just said, and that’s a great question, character and world are interrelated, right? I mentioned Moonstruck. Well, those characters can only live in that world. They come from that world. So I think the first thing to think about is we go to the movies to enjoy wish fulfillment fantasies and to enjoy other people and other worlds. It’s a big part of what makes any movie fun is you go to some place you’re not familiar with or you see a place you are familiar with in a new light, in a different way or with more depth. So the thing about world is it just gives you a great hook to hang your story on. So to really think about…what’s a place I would like to see? What’s a setting that I don’t always like?
You said, what is something that’s abused or misused? Immediately, what came to mind for me is New York City, which by the time we get into this century had been so over-exploited, specifically in romantic comedies, that it just becomes shorthand for romantic city. As a studio reader, I now am thankful that these days, I’m starting to see so many scripts that are set in, you know, out of the way cities, out of the way places, smaller towns. For example, Chicago has become, has sort of shifted…. New York has given the mantle over to Chicago. London has become very popular. But anyway, just by way of saying, try not to pick a world that you feel like you’ve seen it in, you know, hundreds of movies.
And what’s one that you know intimately? And what’s one that you may know a little something about that you can use in your story. This also factors into something you had mentioned, which is this idea of making your movie cinematic. Romantic comedy writers, because they’re so dialogue driven, usually tend to forget that we want visual stimulation and we want to see great imagery. And some of the stronger romantic comedies do have that. And before New York was a cliche, and before Woody Allen was a pariah, back in the old days, he was a master of using parts of a city to create visual interest. It’s pretty much what Nora Ephron borrowed, let’s say. Everyone always uses the word homage for creative stealing. If you look at When Harry Met Sally, it’s essentially a Woody Allen movie in drag. In terms of all the things about New York and all the settings that are used.
I would say if you’re a romantic comedy writer and you’re wanting to use a world that is either unfamiliar or you don’t think of as romantic, when Harry Met Sally is actually a good movie to look at in terms of how a world is used because there’s all kinds of wonderful little gags, whether it’s them doing the wave at the baseball game, or the women at another table, the famous diner scene, that’s the set piece in the middle of that movie with Meg’s fake orgasm. Very adept at using both setting and props. There’s a scene in When Harry, where he’s about to run into his ex and he’s playing with one of these karaoke-like machines that just happens to be in that section. So it’s a great movie to look at in terms of, hmm, how did Rob Reiner find ways, because if you look at the screenplay for When Harry, it’s wall-to-wall dialogue. It’s just pages and pages of just, you know, there’s nothing else but that. And he had the task of like, oh, God, you know, how do I somehow make this a movie movie? Well, he did it by really investing in the worlds that he had and really turning up the volume.
I love that and so many brilliant things to think about there. I wanted to pick up on, you’ve mentioned images in that context as well. How does image connect to theme for you? And also why does theme matter so much? You have really brilliant questions and insights in the book for this genre.
Billy Mernit (17:48.846)
Yeah, let me start with that because this is, it’s really so important. Theme, by the way, the word theme, I think is what scares people off of considering it, you know, cause it sounds like…Oh, theme, like it’s this thing that, you know, gets put on top of a, unfortunately, in a lot of our schooling, I don’t know if this is true in Britain as well as America, you know, it’s all… you have to read something, define the theme and it’s like…well, great, but how about let me enjoy the poem, you know?
So to me, it’s more, what is it that you want to write about? You know, the thing that I ask most of my clients in my consult work and anybody that I’m working with, and it’s what we do at the studio often, trying to find the spine of a story, you wanna determine if it’s a romantic comedy, it’s not just enough to say, here’s the two people who are going to end up together.
It’s because they discover true love, let’s say. It’s… what is it about love? What specific thing are you saying love means for these characters? Because there are multiple answers to that. I mean, there’s so many, you know, anybody that you would pose it to would probably give you a variation on what is it. And we all have, like for example, just because we’ve been talking about it, Harry Met Sally….For Nora Ephron, she became fascinated. She was talking to Rob Reiner, and he gave her a male point of view on dating and getting involved with women. And she was, well, appalled, first of all, but secondarily fascinated by men and their whole take on dealing with romance and women. And so she had questions that she wanted to answer and explore about men and women, which led…to this sort of the misnomer theme of when Harry Met Sally that everybody goes to is… can a man and a woman really be friends?
And yes, the movie is about that. It’s also about other things beyond that if you kind of dig a little deeper and I don’t wanna get down in the weeds with that particular film. But all by way of saying, once you know you’re exploring… what does love mean to me, or how do people fall in love in a contemporary way, or what is the difference between one kind of love and another kind of love, or whatever question you are personally invested in, then you’ve got something to hang your movie on. Because otherwise, if it’s just two funny people who have funny things happen to them as they fall in love, you end up on a very surface level.
And to me, the great opportunity that the romantic comedy affords more than many other genres as I started out saying is the ability to really delve into character and say… What is this character? What is the character about? What is their belief system? And how does that change how they are in the world and how they relate to other people and is there something in their insight that we could relate to and perhaps think about our own beliefs in a different way.
People want to know… why does love endure? If you meet a couple that’s been together for 60 years, you’re going to say, oh my god, how is that possible? Well, that’s a great question to answer. And again, we’d all have different versions of it. Some couples have been together for 60 years and they don’t even talk. And it’s just, it’s a marriage of convenience. But you’ve all, we’ve all met the couples, whether it’s 10 years or whatever, where we know when we meet them, this is a real love, a lasting love. And of course, what you want to find out is…How? Why? What is it that makes this work? That’s a central question for all of us as human beings. So as much as we disparage this genre, and by now you even just say the words romantic comedy and you can be in trouble in certain circles, but it’s really a form that forces a writer to grapple with some fairly central questions about being alive on the planet.
I love that. Yeah.
Billy Mernit (22:12.062)
So you mentioned imagery though. I kind of got lost in the theme part of it. Imagery is just another vehicle for expressing… This what it’s about. Moonstruck for example is about… Can this pragmatic cynical Italian American woman who just doesn’t believe in any of that crap so to speak… Can she find love that’s more romantic, and can she really come to believe in love as a transformative force? She meets one of the most romantic men alive, a guy who’s all about opera.
And then if you start to look at the movie, you see what is it that brings them together. And there’s two motifs that are always interacting throughout Moonstruck. One is the moon, obviously, and they’ve all got their different moons, right? And then there’s the hands. And there’s this great visual run in Moonstruck where when they go to the opera together, they’re seeing, I think it’s La Boheme, and there’s a moment where the characters on stage take each other’s hands and it’s featured very prominently. About 15 minutes later in the film when Loretta is for the first time going to go upstairs with the Nick Cage character,
And he’s of course got a wooden hand, right? He lost his hand due to something, an accident that happened with his brother. There, her taking his hand is then like 10 times more meaningful because A, we’ve seen it in the opera and we know it’s a sort of a symbol of trust and romanticism. And it relates to the story in a very specific way. And there’s this kind of this idea of intimacy that the hand symbolizes.
You know, it’s not something that you would think. Again, people think imagery and they think, oh my God, it’s got to look like Lord of the Rings. Or, you know, imagery has got to be like something really wild. No, an image could be a glass of water. You know, if that means something, if it represents something to your characters, it can be huge.
Think, for example, at the end of
Oh, God, I’m terrible with names these days. My soup strainer head is starting to drop them. The movie that ends in a close-up of a spinning top. Not a romantic comedy.
Oh, I’m blanking as well. Yeah, no, we can totally edit this bit.
Billy Mernit (24:50.186)
We’ll either edit this or it’ll come back to me. It’s a one word title, Leo DiCaprio, I think. Anyway, we’ll move on. But I mean, but there’s a movie, there’s a movie which hung the entire end, the climax, simply on this one closeup of just this image of this thing spinning. So it can be anything. Imagery can be, you know, a foot. Imagery can be a book. Imagery can be.
Yeah, no worries. Yeah, we could just.
Billy Mernit (25:18.502)
anything that you find meaningful that can be a vehicle of expressing something in your story.
Yeah, I think it’s really fun to think about. And as you mentioned with Groundhog Day and going back to watch all those things that have been seeded as well. Interesting to think how things connect through and develop and layer emotionally. Yeah, and pay off. I love that. I think it’s really fun to think about. Oh, I love it.
And I wanted to ask you before I forget about writers who are interested in combining genres. Because you mentioned a couple of things. You mentioned that, you know, there can be almost like this frustration with pure rom-com, or as we move through the decades, we have different thoughts about how relationships work. But there is also this huge opportunity to explore it, in so many different ways. You mentioned Palm Springs, and in the book as well, you mentioned Her. And I hadn’t actually thought about the sort of rom-com element of that, as strange as it is, because I think in my head, I had kind of put it more almost in the technology side, even though clearly it’s a relationship. For some reason, I think because I’d made a slightly narrow definition of rom-com, I hadn’t moved it across into like, of course. So I’d love to know any sort of practical advice for other writers who might unintentionally have boxed themselves in a little bit when they’re thinking about rom-com, to sort of think intelligently about mixing genres.
Billy Mernit (26:45.998)
That’s a beautifully articulated question. And this is something near and dear to me as a topic. Romantic comedy is very misunderstood in that a lot of movies that are romantic comedies, I mentioned Groundhog Day, are hybrids, are both romantic comedies and other kinds of movies. Her, as you say, technological, sci-fi, fantasy, but the whole movie, I mean, when you look at it from a rom-com point of view, it’s a romantic comedy that says…What happens when a guy falls in love with his computer? I mean, that’s basically, you know, sort of the origin of that as a romantic comedy.
But here’s the thing. Hybrids are great now more than ever. By hybrid, I mean when you’re combining a strong romantic comedy plot and through line with something else. In the 90s, there were a lot of crime comedies that had romantic comedy through lines in them, from Prizzi’s Honor to Something Wild, movies like that. We often see these days, even Marvel movies that have some romantic comedy elements or at least superhero or heroine movies that had that. Because romantic comedy in its purest form, which people think of as two people sitting around talking in a cafe, is hard to get produced. And that genre has fallen into disrepute.
If you’re a writer who’s looking to get produced, it behooves you to think… what’s the most unusual place that I could find a romantic comedy in? In other words, not only world, but what’s the genre? Sports, for example, Bull Durham famously was a merging of that. I just read another baseball rom-com just last week. Soccer, there have been a few.
For example, though, I mean, for somebody like a male writer who loves football, you know, there’s a great opportunity. You don’t have to, the thing about romantic comedy is not to think it’s a romantic comedy. I know that sounds odd, but what I mean is, if you’re not thinking, oh, it has to be like a romantic comedy, and instead just think, here are two characters I love who are going to get involved with each other, simply that. And then just think, where could this be? It could be in a crime context, it could be a romance in the stone adventure context, it could be in a technological context, it could be all over the map in terms of the kinds of movies that could have a romance. I’ve even lately seen a number of specs that are outer space romances. Just to say hybrids are great because you have the advantage.
Let’s say if you’re using, what was the one with the.
Terrible title that you can never remember, but it was Tom Cruise and Emma Stone, the one, and it was Groundhog Day-ish one. It was, we’ll have to look up this name.
Yeah, I’m trying to think what he’s been in. So he did, I always watched that, but that was Nicole Kidman. I wonder what it was. Well.
Billy Mernit (30:06.114)
Yeah, no, this is one that, and I think they were going to even do a sequel. They’re talking about it. It’s something like Day After Tomorrow or it’s a really forgettable title. Uh, but anyway, all by way of saying it had all of this, it had aliens, it had, you know, like all of these big screen special effects and stuff, but it was a love story. And so if you’re thinking in terms of how do we get a romantic comedy made, uh, hybrids are a really fertile, fertile ground to till.
Right, that does sound a forgettable title, yeah.
Yeah, I love it. And the great encouragement to kind of just shift the view finders and think a bit differently, which is great. Because it’s so easy to get a little tunnel visioned about what it should be or could be. Perfect. And I’d love to ask, this is not an easy question, but just we, there’s just been such a huge rise in the streamers, like Netflix, Amazon producing a series. And you mentioned some great ones in your book.
Do you think there are meta level questions writers should really ask themselves if they’re considering a series shape versus a movie shape for how to think about rom-com? That’s not an easy question I know.
Billy Mernit (31:22.614)
No, but I’m loving these questions. They’re all really thoughtful. It’s harder to sustain a romantic comedy throughline in a series. Again, a romantic comedy centric way of looking at TV is to realize that one of the most popular sitcoms in history, Friends, was actually a serial romantic comedy. I mean, the relationships there, the two central relationships, you know, that’s really what drove that series. I mean, yes, the friends and everything else. But again, we’re not thinking of a lot of series work as being rom-com, but it often is. So if you’ve got, I guess it comes back to the hybrid idea. If you have an idea for a series where you can sustain a world and a cast of characters, which will most probably have to be somewhat ensemble, to sustain the series. Thinking of romantic comedy as a through line for it is a way to go.
I mean, it depends. Something like Catastrophe, the British series. I mean, I think that was only two seasons, right? I believe.
Yeah, yeah. I don’t know, it definitely was at least two. I can’t remember if it was two or three, but yes, definitely more than one, but quite short, yeah.
Billy Mernit (32:43.558)
Yeah, but I again that just shows you they couldn’t they couldn’t quite sustain beyond, even though they had a great premise, which is… let’s just get married and you know, we’ll just see if this works. Yeah, so I would say the only drawback is they’re harder to sustain. And in series like the Mindy Kaling one, the Mindy project is it you could feel the strain of that by season five…. oh, they’re bringing the old boyfriend back. Oh, you know, there’s a little bit of that sort of, you know, it’s just the contrivances start to pile up. But in a limited series, I mean, there’s nothing wrong there. And again, if the other side of your equation, if the hybrid side, whether it’s crime or drama or whatever the other thing is that you’re working in, if that is strong and has its own energy and richness, then you might be able to make it work.
Yeah, I love that. And I love also that you have such a keen eye as someone who analyzes really practically and works with Universal and has been able to articulate it so clearly in a book. I found it incredibly helpful, the Writing the Romantic Comedy, so many great frameworks. And you were also a practitioner in that you’ve written over 20 romance novels. So I’m just curious for you in terms of the development of your work, it may all…
Billy Mernit (34:07.65)
My sordid past, yeah.
No, I don’t think so. I think it’s brilliant. I love it. I love that you do that. So I was curious to know just in terms, it may be hard to remember, but just if you were to try to like assess your own work in terms of your own developments, either from a craft perspective or a theme perspective, is there anything that you would really notice about your own developments as a writer having that whole body of work to look back on?
Billy Mernit (34:18.777)
I think I stumbled into the notion of spending, giving more attention to character. I think when I started out writing romance novels, there was a certain formulaic structure that you had to adhere to. I was writing as a woman, of course, back in the 80s, which is when I was doing this, and you weren’t supposed to be involved in romance novels, if you were a man. There were famous, there are a number of gay writers who masqueraded as couples or as women. So I was writing under a woman’s name and obviously writing all the books from a female perspective. That probably cured me of 90% of my sexism over the years. So there’s that because I was constantly, I was constantly quizzing my then wife, and my other female friends and just running up to them with like… what would you wear to such a level? Like, or even that thought of….why would you be worried about your clothing? And, you know, endless questions in terms of what a ‘female’ perspective would be. And in a way proving the maxim that at the core, you know, we’re all the same human animal, right? Even though there are vast differences in gender.
I guess I was becoming gender fluid ahead of the pack in that regard because it forced me to really tap into the more sensitive side of my own male persona. And the further I got into it, ironically to keep myself from being bored, the more I had to delve into unusual or deeper aspects of character.
I started out just doing like, oh, here’s a cute plot, or like, here’s a funny situation for these people to be in. And that was what drove the earlier books that I wrote. And by the time I finished, they were more dramatic than funny, I think, because I was getting into slightly deeper waters.
That’s super interesting. What an amazing journey to have had. And I also read that you’ve composed songs for Carly Simon and Morrissey. When I read that, I was like…how does that fit in your career? I love it.
Billy Mernit (37:14.186)
Okay, well it answers its own question because the only reason Morrissey is on my list is he covered a song that I wrote with Carly, which is called When You Close Your Eyes. It was on his most recent album where he did covers. And I was thrilled. I just woke up one morning and somebody had sent me a video online and I was like, Morrisey? Really? My other covers before that had all been either songs that I’d written with Carly or that she had recorded of mine. Judy Collins, another singer… I know this all dates me. These are singers from back in the day. And those are the two biggest names. There are others as well.
But I had my own solo album on Electra back in the early 70s. I was a young sort of guy. I had a record deal when I was in high school…. If you wanna talk about things that can really ruin your life, there’s one. And I…did not make much of the success of it. The album tanked, but I did get covers and I sustained my career as a songwriter for a number of years. And it was really only in the early 90s where I finally kind of left the musical career behind and moved to LA. I moved from New York to Los Angeles going, I hear that they’re paying writers in Hollywood.
Hmm. Yeah. And what do you think you’ve taken from music, if anything?
Billy Mernit (38:42.462)
The best thing I think you can take from music is brevity. Meaning, you know, screenwriting is so much about compression. I mean, if you are working as a screenwriter now on any kind of project, think for a moment how, what’s the percentage of time you spend shrinking things down? How much time are you spending compressing what you’re doing? It’s, as someone once likened screenplays to 120 pages of haiku.
Oh, yeah, that makes sense.
Billy Mernit (39:11.798)
Well, when you’re a songwriter, it’s the same deal, meaning you have to be taking sometimes pretty big stories or pretty huge emotions or pretty complicated situations and you’ve got to somehow distill that into a lyric that is maybe, you know, a short poem length. And so I think you learn a lot about what a little can do and also how to kind of not sweat the small stuff and get to expressing larger things in smaller ways.
Oh, I love that. And that’s so beautifully said and listeners, so many wonderful things in this conversation today and Billy’s book, Writing the Romantic Comedy: The Art of Crafting Funny Love Stories for the Screen is packed with them. For example, there are more craft enhancers in there, all of which I wrote down, all of which I went, please let me never forget this, let me write some post-it notes. Compression being one of them. And there’s four more in the book. So I highly encourage you to read it. I found it really practical, useful, encouraging, insightful, and it made me want to go back and watch some of the movies from that perspective. Like I want to go back now and watch Her from that perspective and see how it works. So thank you so much for your time today, Billy. Before we sign off, where can people go to find out more about you and your work?
Billy Mernit (40:29.67)
I’ve just got a website which is billymernit.com. So that’s pretty much got all the details. Everything else, just online. You know, you can find me on Insta @mernitman. I used to be on Twitter, but of course, it’s not Twitter anymore. I’ll just say that. So, yeah.
Wonderful. Excellent. Thank you. I really enjoyed speaking with you, Billy.
Billy Mernit (40:55.798)
Such a pleasure. Thank you so much.