February 5, 2015 by Alexander Christenson
How Not To Screw Up Your Script With A Terrible Title
The brilliant painter Walton Ford saves painting the eyes of his animals until the last possible moment. Why? Because that’s the most exciting part, he says. That’s where all the life is – the eyes. The soul. His fear is that if he painted the eyes… he’d lose interest and not work as hard on the rest of the animal. Its posture. Its fur.
After you’ve worked long enough on a project, trying to encapsulate its entirety into one short, string of words is an oddly satisfying challenge. Suddenly, everything becomes so significant. A dumb phrase like, ‘a walk down the street’ suddenly becomes A Walk Down The Street. There’s a false sense of accomplishment here. It’s easy to think that you’ve actually done something by running some words through the ‘title filter.’
If we’re really being honest with ourselves, this entire topic is irrelevant. The truth is that if you make a fantastic movie you can call it whatever you want. If you made Pulp Fiction and wound up calling it Untitled Awesome Movie, I’d wager that it would still be considered a classic. Conversely, the most mind-blowing title ever is not going to mean a thing if your movie sucks.
This all said, provided we’re doing our jobs and spending 99% of our time focusing on the story, coming up with titles is actually really fun.
There Will Be Blood, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, Reservoir Dogs, In The Bedroom, The Shawshank Redemption, The Silence of the Lambs, The Big Lebowski.
The first thing you notice about all of these titles is that they’re immediately interesting. They strike you, simply as words on paper. What is a… Clockwork Orange? It’s poetic. It has movement and contrast. Energy and color.
A good title is often more akin to a flick of the wrist than something derived from a formula. The writer, if he’s worth anything, should have built a story that’s something like the iceberg that sank the titanic; what we see and hear is the piece above water… but what we feel is the hulking mass beneath the waves.
The title should allude to that hulking mass.
Some would say well obviously, the title should have to do with the theme of the story. That isn’t untrue, but it’s not the whole picture. Simply stating the theme with flowery language is too simplistic. It’s more about cutting off a tiny piece of flesh from the whole a setting it out as an appetizer. You’re saying, “this is not the thing, but this came from the thing.”
John Milius noticed hippies wandering around wearing little buttons that said “Nirvana Now!” One of the major themes of Heart of Darkness is man’s journey into his own insanity. Milius adaptation framed this using the Vietnam war… with man’s seemingly desperate need to destroy himself and those around him. Thus Apocalypse Now! It works on many levels. It sells well, because it just looks like let’s have fun blowing shit up, but it does have a story underneath. It’s counterintuitive… to want a thing as horrible as apocalypse.
Often a title will come from a specific moment in the story. The Silence of the Lambs gets it’s title from the story Clarice tells Lector about growing up on a farm and failing to save lambs from being slaughtered. Clearly this somehow plays into why she’s joined the FBI, but it’s not presented as a clear A to B link. It’s all vaguely in the same realm as the story of serial killings, etc. The link is a poetic one. It’s a great title because it wasn’t called Lecter Eats a Guys Face. That happens, of course, but the actual title captures more of the movie’s overall feeling & tone.
Tarantino is famously avoidant on the meanings of his titles – and rightly so. Pressed over and over about Reservoir Dogs, he said,“…it’s more of a mood title than anything else. It’s just the right title, don’t ask me why.” Now, do I personally believe he has a very clear explanation what that title means? Yes, I do. Do I want to know it? No, I don’t. The meaning of the title is the film itself. It feels right. A reservoir dog feels like some kind of wretched feral animal sipping out of the scum-filled basin of a reservoir. Looking at the characters in the film… sure, yeah. I see it.
Now the really fun part: bad titles. What is the defining characteristic of a bad title? Two things come to mind. One is simplicity that feels uninspiring. The other is complexity to comic effect.
The truth is that there are a lot of really great movies that have mediocre titles. Se7en is an amazing movie that’s title is reminiscent of my middle school AIM handle. Annie Hall is obviously a classic but I’ve got to say that any title that’s simple a persons name… doesn’t do much for me. Prisoners, a movie I absolutely loved, has the most generic title conceivable. These films survive, obviously, because as we pointed out, your title doesn’t matter. The result is more of a letdown, or a disappointing moment when you realize the filmmakers could have landed on something more inspiring.
What really drives a bad title home is when it’s trying to be more than it is. For some reason there’s an irresistible trope, often employed in sci-fi, to take the name of a planet or Greek character, and then some verb implying motion. Jupiter Ascending is an example that’s in the public eye, and that title, with a bit of help from the poster, makes the movie sound like a real stinker.
The Last Airbender is a great example of a title that’s trying real hard to deliver a classic. Using any form of hyperbole, straight-faced, in your title is a dangerous wager. Sure, if your film is meant to be a sprawling epic, you’re afforded some room to create that tone with your title… but don’t disregard a more humble title just because it’s not as splashy on paper. Look at Braveheart. A simple callout to the inner strength of the main character. Let the film deliver the wow factor.
The working title of my script is Hush. Ultimately, I’ll probably go with a different title. One-word titles using commonplace words run the risk of getting mixed up with other films of the same name. Originally I liked the somewhat understated quality that it had, but now I feel as if the real heart of the story has shifted.
I have about 4 pages of title ideas at this point, and some of them are real bad. To Keep The Love Alive. The Angel and The Devil. Duck and Cover. The First Ray of Summer. I mean, seriously – you can’t write this stuff. And yet, I have. There are a lot of good ones too. It’s more of a game, at this point – writing them down. A kind of reward I give myself.
My ideas change as my understanding of my story changes. I think that’s the point. If a story has been loved long enough by its author, it’s going to have certain indecipherable qualities that get communicated to audiences on a subconscious level. Only from someone with that level of intimacy with the story can tap into the same channel to feel out an appropriate title.
And if that doesn’t work I do have my darts.