The Art of Romantic Comedy

Karel Segers attended the Michael Hauge/Steve Kaplan double bill in Sydney and Vi Truong did the same in Melbourne. We have mixed our reviews of the event in order to give you a more or less balanced report of both weekends.

Karel Segers: I was looking forward to his weekend because I find Michael Hauge an excellent teacher and was keen to hear how his insights on Romantic Comedy would complement his 6-stage theory. Steve Kaplan was the great unknown to me. All I had ever sampled was the article published here on The Story Department a few weeks ago. Another new experience: The Australian Technology Park, an outstanding venue for a seminar like this. Easy parking, spacious surroundings and an excellent theater in terms of A/V. Only the cafe service could have been friendlier and more efficient. After queuing for 10mins, I only made it to the theater just in time.

Michael Hauge

Vi Truong: I arrived at the exhibition center on this chilly morning with great expectations. By now, we screenwriters should all be able to sell our story in sixty seconds through the hero’s two journeys and six hidden tools. So there couldn’t be much more Mike and Steve could add to that. Could there? The two long days would consist of two-hour blocks with breaks in between. The lady behind me yawns and makes me yawn. I turn to her and see Peter Moon sitting one row back. I haven’t seen him since he did the hilarious “Kung Fu” sketches with Steve Vizard. The lights dim…shhhh.

Michael Hauge’s style is light and informative, 100% transparent and no-nonsense. He is the polar opposite of performance-driven, self-proclaimed evangelists such as Robert McKee and Sydney local Billy Stoneking who impress through obfuscation. Hauge’s clarity is refreshing. He backs up every statement with examples and facts. With a calm, convincing voice he walks you through the evidence of structure and character. More than any other genre, the RomCom is formulaic. You may like this or not, the choice is yours. But if you want to be successful in this industry, you better know what works and what doesn’t.

Michael opens up with a scene from “About a Boy.” To be quite honest I thought he would open up the same way he did on the Hero’s 2 Journeys DVD. Wasn’t this meant to be just the DVD, but live? That’s what I heard in the foyer. After he briefly explained the basic components of a story, he got down to business. He introduced us to the different categories of romantic comedies, such as ‘Secrets and Lies’, The Imposter’ etc. Next, he transitioned into the aspects of the Hero, the six basic stages and the five key turning points. The great examples he used instantly made me look at movies in a different way.

The one-day seminar on Romantic Comedy was a first for Hauge. He had never taught the material in this way before. For his treatment of the RomCom, he stayed loyal to his 6-stages paradigm and provided only minor modifications. For people who had attended his story seminar before, there was a fair amount of repetition; I would say that probably only about 25% of the day was new material. In the afternoon, Michael Hauge looked story structure and he emphasized those points that are unique to romantic story lines. On my way home, I wondered why Hauge had not mentioned this one particular movie, which qualifies 100% under his definition of Romantic Comedy and which had made more money than most of his examples… Wall-E.

What some see as confusing, most of Hauge’s terminology is his own, rather than adopting generally accepted terms such as ‘Inciting Incident’ or ‘Crisis’. What others call ‘sex at sixty’ (referring to page 60 in the script), Hauge calls “Getting naked” at the 50% mark. I counted that he mentioned the idea of “identity and essence” ninety six times. Maybe I didn’t, but now I cannot help but apply it to everything I watch. Overall I found Michael’s seminar very straightforward and it didn’t really leave any of my questions unanswered, except for something like “Is destiny the reason why people fall in love? Or: “Does it only happen in movies?”

Steve Kaplan

As soon as Steve opened his mouth we get a morning laugh. He decided to present his seminar in the structure of Michael’s six stage story model. Within the first ten minutes, I knew this was going to be the most informative comedy seminar I had attended. He shared the “truth” with us by showing a soap opera where a perfect man is talking to a perfect woman, looking into her eyes rather than her open blouse.

Steve Kaplan has a slightly more nervous and energetic temperament compared to Hauge. Is this from hanging out on the East Coast? Another difference between Kaplan’s approach with his predecessor was the use of more and shorter movie clips. I have no preference for either style but the change of style was surely refreshing. Not refreshing enough for me, though… Because of lack of sleep in the previous days I was seriously struggling to keep my eyes open. Trust me, this had nothing to do with the material presented, which was riveting. When I’m tired, my body just shuts down. (It has happened during the first viewing of some of my favorite movies.)

Steve took us through the famous hidden tools and invited some audience members to demonstrate examples of how comedy works. He illustrated how the masters of comedy can make us laugh without using a single joke but only reactions. Most importantly, he convinced us that we have everything to create comedy. As he says (again) “Drama helps us dream about what we can be, but comedy helps us live with who we are”.

What I truly loved about Steve’s approach was his connection with the audience and his genuine desire to involve us. So he was not going to allow me to doze off. In stead, he singled me out to read Shakespeare in front of the room of 300… and make fun of me. It was an excellent example of how ‘funny’ is not the same as ‘comedic’ – and an even better way of getting me 200% alert again, the equivalent of a triple shot espresso. The day was enlightening and where I initially struggled with understanding the ‘Hidden Tools‘ article, this time ‘I got it’. From the Non-Hero all the way to the ‘Straight Line / Wavy Line’.

My personal favorite part of the day was a cringe worthy scene from Head of State where a group of affluent Caucasian politicians learn hip-hop manoeuvres in a matter of seconds. The second day ended with the pair running through the key turning points of The 40 year-old Virgin until 7:30pm. A few had snuck out by then. Overall was absolutely worth the Although there were a few remarks on how long the sessions were, all my expectations were met and exceeded. So no, it’s not just the DVD, but live.

It was a delight to re-watch some scenes from Groundhog Day and understand at least part of the genius of it. What an amazing movie… After the analysis of The 40-year old virgin, during the weekend’s final Q&A I asked Michael Hauge my Wall-E question. And while Hauge sat there, pondering, Steve Kaplan enthusiastically acknowledged that Wall-E was probably the most successful Romantic Comedy of recent years. My man!

I’ve said it before but during events like these I feel like a kid in a candy store. Rarely do we have opportunities down under to learn so much at such a high level in such a short period of time.  Kudos to Epiphany, Inscription, the team at Screen Australia and anyone who put in an effort to make this happen.

Did you attend either event? What was the highlight for you? Was it worth the travel/cost/lost weekend?

Please let us know in the comments!

1 thought on “The Art of Romantic Comedy”

  1. Thanks for a great review guys, I’ve been keeping an eye out for feedback from the weekend and Steve Kaplan linked to here on Twitter. I was at the Melbourne seminar and had an absolute ball, Michael Hauge and Steve complemented each other perfectly. I’m feeling much more confident about what works and why when assessing my own work (always hard to see the wood for the trees when it comes to my own stuff). But the identity/essence and comedy about being human and telling the truth are the takeaways. Definitely discovering these principles was worth the “lost weekend”!


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