I know: You only took this job because it paid well, and because you needed to offset your losses from the last one and keep getting your name out there. And now the studio's pushed up production dates because Universal's got a similar project coming out and yours has to beat theirs to theaters, and you've got phone calls and emails and agents breathing down your neck, and all you can think is that back when you were working clerical you could've gotten this stupid cavity fixed for free. So, naturally, when you're hours from deadline and haven't slept, and you've just finally, miraculously typed "FADE TO BLACK" for the last time, I can understand why, scrolling back 90 pages and discovering - to your horror - a blank title page, you find yourself at less than peak inspiration. I sympathize. And I understand the urge, once your brain shifts into crisis mode, to just toss down that throwaway, initial-reaction working title that's been bounding about stubbornly in your head. "If it's really all that bad, they'll change it," you reason, easily stifling the faint, protesting pangs of an overworked artistic ego. It's too late, you think. Your inner perfectionist checked out hours ago. Besides, no one's looking ...
Do me a favor: If you're hurting for motivation, step out of the apartment for a moment. Grab a little air. Take a little stroll down Wilshire or Sunset or whatever to the cineplex and peruse the marquee. See? (Zoom, Click) Not to get all (The Ant Bully, Little Man) Ghost-of-Christmas-Future/ Donnie Darko on you, but (Step Up; You, Me and Dupree) there's a choice here. You can change what's to come. Don't let My Super Ex-Girlfriend happen to you. Or rather, to us.
What's that? Not bad enough for you? Hmm. Perhaps we should define terms. The Devil Wears Prada, for instance, is an inane title in a different way than is The Break-Up. There are sins of omission - laziness, a general un-concern that results in basic-plot/scene/setting/characterdescription- as-title (The Night Listener, The Descent, The Lake House, Cars). These are generally more forgivable; they don't aim high, so their disappointment index is accordingly low - it's the writer's way of saying, "Yeah, I didn't feel like trying, but at least I'm not trying to bullshit you."
Certainly, in some cases, such simplicity is wholly acceptable (Ray, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Hamlet), or even effective or preferable (Alien). The line, though, can be a fine one: If played for mystery/intrigue (Se7en) or impact (12 Angry Men), it can work, but it can also be downright execrable (Hoot `about owls`, Goal! The Dream Begins `about soccer`, The Hot Chick `about to kill myself`).
There is, of course, some gray area. Lady in the Water, likely contingent upon your M. Night Shyamalan stance, might go either way. World Trade Center is also tricky - clearly aimed at impact, but a bit broad, and perhaps better suited to a documentary. Classics, meanwhile, tend to get a little leeway (The Hustler, The Sting).
Then there are those errors of commission, where the author clearly tried something, wanted to be clever, but (1) fell just a bit short, (2) became a victim of his or her own hubris, or (3) missed the boat entirely, creating an altogether new and horrifying brand of abomination. To be clear, I'm not referring to those all-too-mindfully terrible bits that occasionally find their way to theaters, or, more often, video-store aisles. Cannibal Women In The Avocado Jungle of Death and Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill, Kill! draw no ire from me; nor do the innocuous, winking Surf Nazis Must Die or Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. (Adult films, too, get a free pass - how, after all, can one in good conscience cast aspersions upon What's the Lesbian Doing in My Pirate Movie? ) No, we're talking Lucky Number Slevin. We're talking Gleaming the Cube. And, not least: Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
Perhaps the most prolific offender is author Ian Fleming, and, by extension, his voluminous direct and indirect Bond-centric progeny: From You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me to Never Say Never Again to The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day, no single series's component titles suck anywhere close to as much as the 007 installments do thoroughly and dependably suck.
Other contemporary candidates include Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties (I know it's for children, but I don't think children deserve such bold-faced contempt, either) and the upcoming Die Hard sequel, reportedly called ... Live Free or Die Hard. Wow.
Worse still, though, are a pair of disturbing trends that seem to have been developing over the past half-decade or so, a dual phenomenon I'll call "American Gerunding." Simply: In the wakes of Chasing Amy and American Beauty, filmmakers have lost their effing minds. Consider: An American Haunting, American Dreamz, American Pie, American Wedding, American Gun, American Pimp,American Psycho,American Soldiers, American Hardcore, American Beer, American Teen Movie, Chasing Papi, Chasing Sleep, Chasing Holden, Chasing Chekhov, Chasing 3000, Chasing Indigo, Chasing Montana, Saving Private Ryan, Saving Silverman, Saving 'Star Wars', Saving Sophie, Saving Newburgh, Finding Forrester, Finding Home, Finding Neverland, Finding Nemo, Finding Jack Kerouac, Finding Jackson Pollock, Finding Rin Tin Tin.
Of course, there were such titles before Chasing Amy and American Beauty, but it seems there's been something of a bumper crop in recent years. And, to be sure, there are some titles that use the convention well, or purposefully (American History X, Being John Malkovich) - but it's the lazy ones, the ones that slap on a gerund to grant a little unearned pseudo-poesy, or use "American" to "universalize" their film and nab a one-step "everyman" quality, that tend to chafe. (Also, the name-droppers: Chasing Holden or Chekhov, Finding Kerouac, Pollock, the K-9 Cop ... oy.)
Admittedly, I've been exceedingly negative thus far; what, then, makes a good or effective title? Well, I'd venture that such a handle ought to serve at least two of the following functions: (1) relates in an intimate way to the story, (2) stokes interest in the story, and (3) has a touch of the pithy or the poet in't. It can be longish (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), not (My Left Foot), or in the middle (The Shawshank Redemption).
Assuming you don't currently have such a gem rattling about in the noggin, fear not - neither did those screenwriters. Almost without exception, the best titles are (lovingly) pilfered from literature: Shawshank and My Left Foot come from their printed counterparts; Spotless is from a verse by Alexander Pope.
You're too busy to go sifting 17th-century couplets, and your script's an original, sans built-in label? Not a problem - reach for the Bard. Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, The Sound and the Fury - there's nothing you could possibly want to say that Shakespeare hasn't already said much more cleverly. (He's sort of the anti- Fleming that way.) Failing that, just go the one-word route. Double entendre (Proof) or no (Big), it's hard to go significantly wrong that way (though it's been done; see above). Assuming you can't pick just one, take a name or line from one of your characters, or a specific event - but make sure it's a good one. We're shooting for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, not Dude, Where's My Car?
So. I've said my piece. I leave you now, to your computer and conscience. Who knows? Open your mind, go with your gut, and you might just join the (hallowed?) ranks of 1989's I Gonna Fuck You Back to the Stoneage, or the upcoming novel adaptation Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Or maybe, just maybe, you'll rival a particular breed of reptiles on a certain flying machine.