Busting genres and joining a grand tradition

The Man With no Name

A Fistful of Dollars movie poster

For my short story 20,000 Yards Across the Frontier, which also forms a segment of my novel Copout, I needed to write a western. I wanted to model it on the spaghetti western trilogy featuring Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name”. So I set to work, putting my character Donovan into Clint’s shoes, and calling down all the western atmosphere and idioms associated with those films that I could. But something was missing.

I completed this segment, a simple story about a man riding into town and being mistreated by the locals before getting his cold revenge (which is apparently the best way to serve it up). It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t do anything new either. I thought, it’ll do for a six minute segment in my movie.

I came back to a couple years later, wanting to make my screenplay into the best movie ever made (although it hadn’t been made then, and still hasn’t been made now) and I looked again at the western. It was okay — but it needed to be awesome. I decided to throw it away and start this segment again from scratch. I puzzled over the possibilities for a story. A new story is really hard to tell as a western, because westerns are all bound in a particular time, place, and style. Most are simple revenge tales and cowboys and indians, what can you do with a western? Maybe a complex character study, which I didn’t have time for, this being a short story.

Captain Nemo and the Nautilus

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea movie poster

I hit upon the idea of writing a western which was actually another story in disguise. I needed to merge my horse opera with some other completely different genre. What to use? I started thinking of classic movies that could be transposed into Western, and got some good ideas too. The Maltese Falcon, Star Wars, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Othello The Moor of Dead Man’s Gulch. There were a lot of possibilities. One that really got me imagining was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That was the one, I thought. Surely nobody would ever try to turn that into a western. How combine the Nautilus with horses and gunslingers? What place does Captain Nemo have in the old West? To my mind, it was the perfect challenge.

Finding a way is one of the great satisfactions in writing a story. How can I persuasively incorporate these things? When the solution games, it’s a real rush of adrenaline, and you have to get it on the page before the feeling goes.

There are two other genre-busting mash ups within Copout. The space story The Treasure of Sirius Major is an outer space reimagining of a classic film. (Can you guess what it is?) Business of Blood was originally a straightforward detective story, which I was very fond of but which I also realised needed an extra something — therefore it gets a supernatural twist. It’s immensely fun to mix metaphors this way, but it also stretches and challenges my writing abilities.

Each dream segment in Copout is written to carefully emulate a particular cinematic style. I hope that readers will feel echoes of Philip Marlowe, Zane Grey, Thomas Mallory, and a few others when they read my book. Or, more in keeping with my original intent, they will visualise the segments in the styles of the movies that inspired them.

Of course I know I’m not the first to use established genres to tell other stories. Akira Kurosawa told the story of Macbeth in his film Throne of Blood, but relocated it to feudal Japan, with samurai and all that goes with them. He did the same thing again, retelling Shakespeare’s King Lear in his epic RanWest Side Story is just Romeo and Juliet under a different guise. And Francis Ford Coppola decided to set Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the Vietnam war as Apocalypse Now.

It’s a good feeling to join a grand tradition.

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