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.
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.
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.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.