Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George Lucas

Writing by numbers

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Writers spend so much time dealing with words that we often forget how useful numbers can be. Every book consists of some flexible sequence of individual chapters or scenes, and once this kind of framework exists, it can be broken down numerically in ways that often shed a surprising light on the story’s structure. I’ve quoted the young George Lucas on this point before, but I may as well do it again:

In the end I want to end up with a list of scenes. And the way I work generally is I figure a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes depending on which scale you want to work on. A thirty scene thing means that each scene is going to be around four pages long. A sixty one means that every scene is going to run twenty pages long…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out.

In the most extreme case, screenwriters can turn into obsessive scene- and page-counters, to the point where certain screenwriting guides advise you to put the inciting incident on page 10, the “all is lost” moment on page 75, and the second turning point on page 90. And although this kind of quantitative approach may seem to have little place in writing a novel, there are times when it helps to reduce a book to the numbers, in order to guide or supplement a more intuitive approach.

As I noted yesterday, when I realized that my rough draft of Eternal Empire was about 15,000 words too long, I began by cutting it like a sculptor, looking at each page and crossing out paragraphs that seemed to break the visual rhythm of the scene, while also trimming chapters that felt too long when I was flipping through the manuscript. This top-down, predominantly intuitive method got me partway there, but in the end, I still had a lot of material to cut if I wanted to get the draft anywhere near 100,000 words. As any writer can attest, once you’ve passed a certain point in cutting, it gets much harder—the extraneous material isn’t standing there in plain sight, but is buried within otherwise tight-looking paragraphs in the form of an extra sentence, an unnecessary line of dialogue, or a clause that only repeats information that the reader already knows. To get the length down any further, I had to cut this book to the bone. And the obvious way to do this was to focus on chapters that were objectively on the long side.

I responded with what I often do when faced with a problem like this: I made a spreadsheet. I began by listing each chapter, its point of view character, its length, and whether or not it was predominantly transitional. (A transitional chapter, roughly speaking, provides a moment of relative downtime between the more intense moments and set pieces. Such quiet spots are essential, because a book that was nothing but high points would quickly become exhausting, but they also need to advance the story in some way, and should probably be kept on the short side.) Looking at the ensuing list, I saw that most of the major chapters were about 2,000 words long, while transitional chapters tended to be closer to 1,500. This, then, was my benchmark: any chapter that was longer than its characteristic length would have to be cut down. This could mean cutting fifty words or several hundred, but the result would be a draft in which no chapter was longer than its narrative peers without reason. And my spreadsheet gave me a good sense of where to start.

If this sounds crazy, well, maybe it is. (I’m often reminded of Daniel Okrent in the documentary Wordplay, in which he explains that he keeps a notebook recording all of his solving times for the New York Times crossword puzzle “because I’m an obsessive creep.”) And I would never recommend this approach to anyone whose mind didn’t lend itself to these kinds of solutions—I like putting together spreadsheets, and naturally tend to use them to organize projects. But there’s a larger point here that I think applies to every writer. It may seem ridiculous to worry about whether a chapter is 1,750 words long or only 1,500, but this approach, in general, will draw your attention to parts of the story that are relatively more likely to be in need of cutting. And any cut you can make will almost always be a good one. The real test, obviously, lies in reading the novel itself, in which an objectively short chapter may drag and a lengthy chapter may seem just right. But looking at the numbers will guide the scalpel to places that might not be obvious to the naked eye. In the end, I cut several thousand more words out of the draft, and I don’t even know where they went. The result was a much stronger novel. And I can thank the numbers for this.

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2012 at 10:08 am

Posted in Writing

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Write like a hedgehog, think like a fox

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“The fox knows many things,” Archilochus writes, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” And ever since Isaiah Berlin wrote his great essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, readers and critics have been dividing up writers into one category or the other—foxes who range widely over the world without any central philosophy, and hedgehogs who focus on one big idea. Really, however, most writers tend to alternate between the two roles: they’re foxes when gathering material and hedgehogs when the time comes to sit down and write. Writers have a dauntingly wide range of interests and obsessions, but in their actual fiction, they often rely on a handful of the same tricks—which is exactly how it should be. One or two good tricks that a writer has thoroughly internalized can be more valuable than an entire shelf’s worth of undigested literary wisdom. And while I’ve previously shared my ten rules of writing, I thought it might be worth distilling them down to the three big, hedgehog-level tricks on which I rely whenever I’m writing something new, even after everything else has fallen away:

1. Structure your stories one objective at a time. As Kurt Vonnegut points out, if you can make your central character want something right away, even if it’s just a glass of water, it will keep the reader reading. The key insight of my writing life is that if you maintain a laserlike focus on the character’s objectives at each successive beat of the story, without worrying about what comes next, the result will have a shapeliness and authenticity that you never could have achieved by planning from the top down. A character who has convincing objectives from moment to moment will also be convincing when you step back to regard him as a whole—and it’s both easier and more effective to concentrate on each beat in succession. This argument is emphatically made in David Mamet’s On Directing Film, the best book on storytelling I know, which I recommend to everyone who cares about writing. The result may not always be inspired—Mamet’s own films can come off as flat and a little bloodless—but if you write a rough draft with this rule in mind, the damned thing will at least work. And that’s really all you can ask of it.

2. Think of the story in threes. George Lucas, who at his best was one of the great methodical, not natural, storytellers of all time, expresses a similar point in the famous Raiders of the Lost Ark story conference: “The way I work generally is I figure out a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out.” And he’s right: it’s a lot easier when you have a number. In my own case, instead of the thirty or sixty scenes that Lucas talks about, I start with a pattern of three rough acts, which I know I’m aiming for even before I know what the story is about. Not every story lends itself naturally to a three-act structure, but it’s nice to have it in mind, both because it’s an intuitively appealing story formula with a beginning, middle, and end, and because, as Lucas points out, it gives you some useful parameters. And you can drill down even deeper, on an almost fractal level: I find myself dividing sections, chapters, and even individual scenes into three subsidiary units. This kind of structure, as arbitrary as it may seem, is an essential step toward finding a story’s organic shape. Which brings me to my third point…

3. Cut wherever possible—and at least ten percent. Just because you’ve structured a story in threes, and as a series of discrete objectives, doesn’t mean you need to keep all of them in the final version. In fact, the whole point of structuring the story so mechanically is to give you something to change—a solid substructure that you can refine based on how the resulting story reads in real time. If you’ve done your work properly, your rough draft will be a functional object that you can then shape at your leisure, knowing that you can always fall back on the earlier version when necessary. In practice, this often means pruning away the structure you’ve laboriously imposed: in particular, you’ll often cut the first and third beats of a given unit, leaving only the crucial middle. And, of course, you’re seeking to condense wherever possible. If you follow Stephen King’s dictum that the second draft equals the first draft minus ten percent, I promise that magical things will happen. These are simple, stupid rules, based on a couple of basic numbers—one, three, ten—that even a hedgehog can understand. But it’s the only way to release your inner fox.

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2012 at 9:57 am

Indy movies

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On Saturday, my wife and I spent seven hours at the River East theater in Chicago, watching a marathon of the Indiana Jones movies, which I still insist on calling a trilogy, in advance of their release tomorrow on Blu-ray. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen all three films on the big screen—I spent a wonderful day watching them all at the sadly departed UC Theater in Berkeley over a decade ago—but it had been a long time since I’d seen them from start to finish. The experience, I’m happy to say, was close to perfect: the digital prints were gorgeous, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, and the movies were as satisfying as ever. And the fact that we left before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t diminish my appreciation for what the original trilogy achieved. Like everyone else, I’m critical of George Lucas: he remains, as David Thomson notes, the saddest of moguls, and his career over the last twenty years has consisted of one long retreat. And yet with these three films, he shaped and enriched my inner life more than any other filmmaker, and for that, I’m forever grateful.

Of the three, Raiders is by far the most cinematically exciting: it was made when Steven Spielberg was still only thirty-four, with the greatest natural eye in movie history, and the result is dazzlingly assembled—it may be his most technically thrilling film of any kind. A great deal of this can be credited to the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, which pulls off the difficult job of moving between set pieces conceived by the director and producer while lavishing every scene with ingenious and delightful beats. (Even so modest a sequence as the “bad dates” scene is a small masterpiece of acting, writing, editing, and direction.) The script for Temple of Doom, by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, is far more problematic, and the connective material is considerably less graceful, but the big set pieces—the opening sequence in Shanghai, the spike room, the mine car chase—reach dizzying heights. By comparison, the action in Last Crusade is competent, inventive, but less divinely inspired, and there isn’t an action sequence here that really holds up with the best of the first two movies.

Yet Last Crusade has always been my favorite of the three, and one of my favorite movies of any kind, which gets at a very important point: these films aren’t about action or special effects, as fine as they may be, but about a certain spirit, a promise about the kinds of experiences and adventures that the movies can offer us, and Last Crusade captures that spirit perfectly. It’s both endearingly innocent and highly sophisticated, and it expresses, as Truffaut would have said, both an idea of life and an idea of cinema—and the fact that the ideas are straight out of a boy’s book of adventures doesn’t make them any less moving or less true. Looking back, I’ve begun to realize that it’s as responsible as any movie for the direction my own life has taken: I saw it when I was about ten years old, and it was arguably the first in a sequence of books, movies, and television shows that convinced me that I wanted to tell stories for a living. Other movies have since become more important to me, and I fully see its limitations, but few works of art have ever seized my imagination in quite the same way.

And its spirit is one that I’ve been trying to recapture in my own work ever since. One night after college, I was watching Temple of Doom with my family when I dozed off near the end and awoke as the closing credits began to roll. Somehow, in that moment between sleep and waking, I heard something in the score by John Williams—it’s the unbearably beautiful theme that appears in “Slave Children’s Crusade”—that I’d never heard before: it seemed to crystallize, in a few bars of music, everything that I hoped to accomplish as a storyteller. My first novel, a long adventure story set in India, may have been my subconscious effort to work out that one moment of dreamlike inspiration. And while that novel remains unpublished, one of the great challenges I now face as a writer is gradually nudging my work back to that theme, which has been reduced to a subtle, almost imperceptible note in my published novels and stories. I’m still trying to figure out what shape it will take. But it’s there. And I have a hunch that Indy will be the one to show me the way.

The Fandom Menace

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What does it mean to be a true fan? I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days, ever since watching the documentary The People Vs. George Lucas, a loving portrait of the vocal, passionate fringe of Star Wars fandom. “If it says Star Wars on it, I’ll buy it,” one fan gleefully admits, while others say that, yes, they didn’t care much for The Phantom Menace, but they still saw it ten times in the theater. Fandom is stronger than one’s like or dislike of any individual film or piece of merchandise: even more than the movies themselves, it’s about the shared experience of caring deeply about something, and about being around others who know how you feel. For the sake of that sense of community—of being part of something larger than yourself—sitting repeatedly through a movie you don’t really like is a small price to pay. And if you don’t feel that the franchise is living up to its potential, there are plenty of ways to address the situation on your own, whether through fan edits, conventions, or simply venting your feelings online.

Fandom, as I see it, is primarily a quest to keep a certain set of feelings alive. It’s the feeling you get when you see a great movie for the first time, or when you’re a child playing with a few plastic toys that seem capable of having endless adventures on their own. It’s about a moment in which the world—or at least the world of narrative possibility—seems full of limitless potential, with an infinite number of stories that could be told. To recapture that feeling, you want to spend as much time in this world as possible. You extend the experience in every way you can, either by revisiting the works that first triggered the emotion or exploring the expanded universe. But after a certain point, a new comic book or video game doesn’t expand the universe of stories. Rather, it contracts them, either by closing off unspoken possibilities or reducing them to yet another mediocre spinoff. Great storytelling, after all, is a rare commodity. Very few franchises have managed to sustain it for even three movies.

That’s when fandom starts to curdle—and not necessarily for the right reasons. Looking at the new movies and toys we’ve been given, and how much worse they are than the ones that encouraged us to love this world in the first place, we can only conclude that George Lucas just doesn’t care as much as we do. It never occurs to us that the first two Star Wars movies might have been outliers, and that even Return of the Jedi represents a regression to the mean. (My wife and I watched the Despecialized Edition of Jedi the other night, and the fall in quality from Empire—one of the greatest movies of all time—was painfully clear.) If the prequels were disappointing, it isn’t because Lucas wasn’t trying, although he may have suffered from hubris and lack of oversight: it’s because it’s unlikely that all these pieces would fall into place again in just the right way. And if that’s true of the movies, it’s doubly true of everything else. If we’re lucky, a franchise will give us one or two great films. Given the vagaries of any kind of artistic production, it’s unrealistic to expect anything else.

But of course, we do expect more, and it’s those expectations that bind fans together, as quixotic as they might be. Fandoms thrive on the sense of being endangered, or at least of being part of a vocal minority pitted against a complacent mainstream. Plenty of Star Wars fans like to think of themselves as the loyal opposition to Lucasfilm, and, even more radically, to the vast number of ordinary moviegoers who see Star Wars as just another movie—or, worse, make no distinction between the prequels and the original trilogy. As The People Vs. George Lucas points out, kids love Jar Jar Binks, and the generation that grew up on the prequels is graduating from college with their good feelings for these movies intact. Fans see their role as that of holding the franchise to a higher standard—to the one that they remember, rightly or not, as their first experience of this world. The fact that this ideal may not exist doesn’t enter into the equation. Indeed, their power comes from the fact that, like Yoda, they want the impossible.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2012 at 10:06 am

Revenge of the Fan Edits

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“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft,” H.G. Wells said, and he was perfectly right—except, of course, for the passion among certain fans to create their own version of Star Wars. Over the past few days, I’ve found myself sucked into the curious world of Star Wars fan edits, thanks to the wonderful documentary The People Vs. George Lucas, which I watched twice in a row one night last week. Fan edits are a sort of fanfic executed with Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro: a chance for enthusiastics to engage directly with their favorite—or most hated—works of art, in a way that is guaranteed to reach a small but receptive audience. In the case of Star Wars, fan editors recut, restructure, and even radically augment the original films to fix problems, address perceived shortcomings, or serve an artistic agenda of their own. Fan edits, at their best, can serve as a showcase for considerable talent in editing, film restoration, and special effects. And like fanfic, they often reveal surprising things not just about the fans involved, but about how we think about storytelling in general.

In the world of fan edits, there are two prevailing tendencies, which I’ll refer to as the preservationist and the revisionist (although there’s a lot of overlap). The preservationists are the ones concerned, and rightly so, with the fact that no adequate high-definition print of the original, unaltered Star Wars films is currently available, and Lucasfilm seems to have no interest in ever providing it. The result is a community of intelligent, informed preservationists who are as concerned with restoring the correct color balance to The Empire Strikes Back as they are with making sure Han shoots first, with the undisputed masterpiece of the form being Harmy’s Despecialized Edition, which painstakingly restores the original trilogy to something like its pristine state. In many cases, the apparent restoration is an illusion, with new mattes and rotoscoping used to recreate the original effects, but it’s an incredibly compelling one. I’ve been watching it with something like awe all weekend, and when I finally have the chance to show Star Wars to my own children, this is the version I’m going to use.

The revisionist tendency is somewhat more problematic. The Star Wars prequels, for obvious reasons, have inspired the most revision, starting with the famous Phantom Edit, which removes much of The Phantom Menace‘s exposition, its talk of trade disputes and midichlorians, and most of Jar Jar Binks. The result is a stronger film, but also less interesting: by removing the worst of its excesses, we’re left with just another bland space opera. Much more ambitious is Adywan’s Star Wars Revisited, an obsessive fan edit of A New Hope. Continuity errors have been fixed; special effects have been cleaned up and enhanced; entire sequences have been reedited or created from scratch. Sometimes the changes are fun—as when the soundtrack swells with the Imperial March, which originally didn’t appear until the second movie—but they occasionally cross the line: Revisited radically reedits the final assault on the Death Star, for instance, as if the original weren’t exciting enough on its own, and it even fixes Han Solo’s floppy wrist motion as he fires his blaster in one scene.

These changes are perfectly fine when viewed as a sort of elaborate fan criticism, or as a demo reel to show off the reviser’s skills at editing and visual effects (which are impressive…most impressive). But I disturbed by the implication on one forum that for some fans of the film, this has become their preferred way to watch the movie—or even to introduce it to viewers seeing Star Wars for the first time. At that point, their philosophy begins to shade into that of Lucas himself, who apparently would be quite happy if all copies of the original version of Star Wars were somehow destroyed—as they will be, in time, if they aren’t adequately preserved. The original Star Wars isn’t perfect, and that’s part of its charm: it’s a film made by real men and women on real sets, under considerable constraints, with solutions invented on the fly, without the luxury of digital retouching. It’s a film made lovingly by hand, and I like even the things that bug me about it. In one shot, for instance, you can see a crew member crouching behind a droid at the Jawa Sandcrawler, dressed to blend in with the background. You can erase him, of course—but why would you want to lose that connection to that day’s shooting, out in the hot Tunisia sun?

Written by nevalalee

June 18, 2012 at 10:21 am

Frank Darabont and the screenplay of doom

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Writers are hired and fired from movies all the time, but few departures were more widely reported than Frank Darabont’s exit from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Darabont himself has expressed amazement that the media cared so much: “Where were you guys when that other script four years ago went in the shitter? You weren’t paying attention because it wasn’t Spielberg, and it wasn’t Lucas, and it wasn’t Indiana Jones.” But it was hard not to care, especially when the movie itself turned out to be such a disappointment. For all its other problems, the story was especially weak, and it was common knowledge that Darabont had written a draft that Spielberg loved, but Lucas rejected. (As I’ve said before, Hollywood is the kind of place where the man who wrote The Shawshank Redemption is getting script notes from the guy who wrote Attack of the Clones.)

So it became almost an article of faith that the Darabont version would have resulted in a much better movie. And yet Darabont’s Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods, which I finally read over the weekend, isn’t all that great either. It’s incrementally more interesting than the final version, with some nice action scenes and a much better understanding of the relationship between Indy and Marion. There’s a pleasant air of intrigue and a few inspired double-crosses (which makes the insipid “triple agent” of the final version all the more infuriating). But the machinery of the plot takes a long time to get going, the central adventure never quite takes hold, and I missed Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, if not Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt. If I had been Lucas, I probably would have asked for a rewrite as well. But the real takeaway is that no rewrite could have made up for the shakiness of the underlying conception.

The trouble is that in any version, the crystal skull simply isn’t an interesting artifact. Darabont himself seems slightly bored by it, and doesn’t bother explaining what it does or why it matters until the script is halfway over. Even in the last act, when we finally enter the City of the Gods, we aren’t quite sure what the big deal is. Compared to a movie like Last Crusade, which had a wonderful screenplay by Jeffrey Boam that made the emotional stakes exceptionally clear, it’s hard to forgive this kind of narrative confusion, especially when the payoff is so underwhelming. (Its treatment in the final version of the script, as written by David Koepp, is even less satisfying: instead of searching for the skull, most of the movie is devoted to putting it back where it came from, which isn’t the best way to build narrative momentum.)

Of course, you could argue that the artifact is less important than the man pursuing it: Temple of Doom, after all, is essentially about the recovery of some sacred rocks. But City of the Gods is an uncomfortable reminder that we aren’t interested in the things Indy does because we like Indiana Jones; we like Indiana Jones because he does interesting things. Without a decent plot, he becomes the Harrison Ford of the past decade, the man David Thomson accurately saw as a “limited, anxious actor” with little interest in charming the audience. Given the right material, Ford can be wonderful, but he was never an actor who could elevate a film simply with his own presence. He needed Indy as much as Indy needed him. And neither Darabont nor his successors, alas, could ever quite figure out how to bring Indy back.

Source Code and the state of modern science fiction

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On Saturday, my wife and I finally saw Source Code, the new science fiction thriller directed by Moon‘s Duncan Jones. I liked Moon a lot, but wasn’t sure what to expect from his latest film, and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be the best new movie I’ve seen this year. Admittedly, this is rather faint praise—by any measure, this has been a slow three months for moviegoers. And Source Code has its share of problems. It unfolds almost perfectly for more than an hour, then gets mired in an ending that tries, not entirely successfully, to be emotionally resonant and tie up all its loose ends, testing the audience’s patience at the worst possible time. Still, I really enjoyed it. The story draws you in viscerally and is logically consistent, at least up to a point, and amounts to a rare example of real science fiction in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

By “real” science fiction, of course, I don’t mean that the science is plausible. The science in Source Code is cheerfully absurd, explained with a bit of handwaving about quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus, but the movie is unusual in having the courage to follow a tantalizing premise—what if you could repeatedly inhabit the mind of a dead man eight minutes before he died?—through most of its possible variations. This is what the best science fiction does: it starts with an outlandish idea and follows it relentlessly through all its implications, while never violating the rules that the story has established. And one of the subtlest pleasures of Ben Ripley’s screenplay for Source Code lies in its gradual reveal of what the rules actually are. (If anything, I wish I’d known less about the story before entering the theater.)

This may sound like a modest accomplishment, but it’s actually extraordinarily rare. Most of what we call science fiction in film is thinly veiled fantasy with a technological sheen. A movie like Avatar could be set almost anywhere—the futuristic trappings are incidental to a story that could have been lifted from any western or war movie. (Walter Murch even suggests that George Lucas based the plot of Star Wars on the work he did developing Apocalypse Now.) Star Trek was often a show about ideas, but its big-screen incarnation is much more about action and spectacle: Wrath of Khan, which I think is the best science fiction film ever made, has been aptly described as Horatio Hornblower in space. And many of the greatest sci-fi movies—Children of Men, Blade Runner, Brazil—are more about creating the look and feel of a speculative future than any sense of how it might actually work.

And this is exactly how it should be. Movies, after all, aren’t especially good at conveying ideas; a short story, or even an episode of a television show, is a much better vehicle for working out a clever premise than a feature film. Because movies are primarily about action, character, and image, it isn’t surprising that Hollywood has appropriated certain elements of science fiction and left the rest behind. What’s heartening about Source Code, especially so soon after the breakthrough of Inception, is how it harnesses its fairly ingenious premise to a story that works as pure entertainment. There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing the high and low aspects of the genre joined so seamlessly, and it requires a peculiar set of skills on the part of the director, who needs to be both fluent with action and committed to ideas. Chris Nolan is one; Duncan Jones, I’m excited to say, looks very much like another.

St. Francis of the Troubles

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Last night, my wife and I watched the great documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which will hopefully bring my resurgent fascination with Apocalypse Now to a close, at least for the moment. (Which is something my wife is probably glad to hear.) And yet I’m still not quite sure why this movie, so extraordinary and yet so flawed, seized my imagination so forcefully again, when it had been at least ten years since I saw it any form. Part of it, obviously, was learning about Walter Murch’s fascinating editing process in the book The Conversations, but I think it’s also because this movie represents an audacity and willingness to take risks that has largely passed out of fashion, and which I’m trying to recover in my own work, albeit at a much more modest scale.

For those of us who were too young, or unborn, to remember when this movie came out, here’s the short version. Francis Coppola, coming off the great success of the two Godfather movies, decides to make Apocalypse Now, from a script by John Milius, as the first movie by his nascent Zoetrope Studios, even though he isn’t sure about the ending. Instead of the small, guerrilla-style movie that other potential directors, including George Lucas, had envisioned, Coppola elects to make a big, commercial war movie “in the tradition of Irwin Allen,” as he says in Hearts of Darkness. He pays the most important actor in the world, Marlon Brando, three million dollars for three weeks of filming. The entire Philippine air force is placed at his disposal. He goes off into the jungle, along with his entire family and a huge production team—and then what?

Well, he goes deeper. He throws out the original ending, fires his lead actor (Harvey Keitel, who was replaced with Martin Sheen after filming had already begun), and puts millions of dollars of his own money on the line. When Brando arrives, hugely overweight and unable to perform the role as written, the rest of the production is put on hold as they indulge in days of filmed improvisations, searching for a way out of their narrative bind. Coppola is convinced that the movie will be a failure, yet seems to bet everything on the hope that his own audacity will carry him through. And it works. The movie opens years behind schedule and grossly over budget, but it’s a huge hit. It wins many awards and is named one of the greatest movies of all time. Coppola survives. (It isn’t until a couple of years later, with One From the Heart, that he meets his real downfall, not in the jungle but in his own backyard.)

This is an astonishing story, and one that is unlikely ever to repeat itself. (Only Michael Bay gets that kind of money these days.) And yet, for all its excesses, the story has universal resonance. Coppola is the quintessential director, even more than Welles. His life reads like the perfect summation of the New Hollywood: he began in cheap quickies for the Roger Corman factory, became an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, created two of the greatest and most popular movies in history, became rich enough almost be a studio in himself, gambled it all, won, gambled it all again, lost, spent a decade or more in the wilderness, and now presides over a vineyard, his own personal film projects, and the most extraordinary family in American movies. (Any family that includes Sofia Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Nicolas Cage is in a class by itself.)

So what are the lessons here? Looking at Coppola, I’m reminded of what Goethe said about Napoleon: “The story of Napoleon produces on me an impression like that produced by the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. We all feel there must be something more in it, but we do not know what.” And that’s how I feel about St. Francis of the Troubles, as David Thomson so aptly calls him. No director—not Lucas, not Spielberg, not Scorsese—has risked or accomplished more. If Zoetrope had survived in the form for which it had been intended, the history of movies might have been different. Instead, it’s a mirage, a dream, like Kane’s Xanadu. All that remains is Coppola’s voice, so intimate in his commentary tracks, warm, conversational, and charged with regret, inviting us to imagine what might have been.

With great power comes great incomprehensibility

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So I’m deep into the first volume of Stephen Sondheim’s spellbinding memoir Finishing the Hat, which reprints the collected lyrics from the first half of his career, along with “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.” I’m not even that well up on my Sondheim—my exposure to his work consists of West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and a handful of songs from other shows—but as a writer, albeit of a very different kind, I find his candor and insight irresistible. (For a sample, see my recent post here.)

As is often the case when writers talk about their craft (William Goldman comes to mind), Sondheim is rather more interesting when discussing his failures than his successes. At the moment, I’m working my way through the chapter on Anyone Can Whistle, the ill-fated musical satire that Sondheim created in collaboration with Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book and directed. Especially intriguing is the revelation that David Merrick, the most famous theatrical impresario of his time, passed on producing the show because he didn’t want Laurents to serve as both writer and director. Sondheim writes:

[Merrick] claimed, astutely, that authors, especially authors of musicals, shouldn’t direct the initial productions of their own works. Without a director to argue with, egoistic self-ingulgence might color everything, he claimed…The blessing of a writer serving as his own director is that one vision emerges, there being no outsider to contradict him. The curse, inevitably, is that the vision may turn out to be myopic, there being no outsider to contradict him.

Now, I defy anyone who has been following the latest news from Broadway to read these lines and not think at once of Julie Taymor. The most recent of the many New York Times articles on the ongoing train wreck of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark expresses the theater world’s reservations about Taymor, who was given what amounted to a blank check as the musical’s director and co-writer, in strikingly similar terms:

Julie Taymor signed on as director and co-writer of the script, a dual role that many on Broadway consider risky. Rather than take a strong hand in managing the production, as producers usually do, Mr. [Michael] Cohl [the lead producer of the show] saw his job as aiding and abetting her vision.

The result has been making headlines for months: a visually spellbinding but narratively incoherent show that is already the most expensive musical in the history of Broadway. (In all fairness, I haven’t seen the show yet, and won’t anytime soon, unless I happen to be in New York on a week that TKTS seats are on sale.) And it seems fairly clear, especially after Taymor’s unceremonious departure from the show, that if the director had been subjected to a stronger controlling hand—as she was with The Lion King—the outcome might have been very different.

The lesson here, obviously, is that all artists, even the most creative and idiosyncratic, need someone around to keep them in line. It’s why there are surprisingly few truly great writer-directors in film, and the ones who do exist usually produce their best work with a forceful collaborator pushing back at every step of the way—witness Powell and Pressburger. And it’s why every writer needs strong readers and editors. Without such constraints, you occasionally get a Kubrick, yes, but more often, you wind up with the recent career of George Lucas. Or, it seems, a Julie Taymor. So it’s best to let Sondheim have the last word: “In today’s musical theater, there are two kinds of directors: those who are writers and those who want to be, or, more ominously, think they are.”

Steven Spielberg and the child’s eye

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Because I left for London halfway through the Super Bowl, and was away from my desk for the rest of the week, I’ve only just now seen the latest trailer for Super 8, in which J.J. Abrams clearly stakes his claim to be the next Steven Spielberg. Whether Abrams can pull it off remains unknown: he’s tremendously gifted, but his talents, even on the big screen, are those of a brilliant writer and television producer, while Spielberg—who is credited as a producer on Super 8—has nothing less than the greatest eye in movies. Still, this trailer, which includes more references to Spielberg’s early work than I thought were possible in less than thirty seconds, gives me an excuse to talk about one of the most unexpectedly fascinating careers in American film. And there’s no better place to start than with the trailer’s final shot, that of a child staring at something unimaginable offscreen, which remains the central image in all of Spielberg’s work.

The first thing to realize about Spielberg, whose work is thematically richer than many of his critics like to admit, is that his films fall into two categories: that of real life shading imperceptibly into the unknown, and that in which the unknown—which includes the historical, the futuristic, and the fantastic—takes center stage. The first category, with its elements of the director’s own autobiography, is the dominant mode in Spielberg’s early work, most notably in Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., and the producer’s sidelights of Poltergeist, Gremlins, and The Goonies. Those early films display an interest in the lives of small towns, and of children, that Spielberg seems to have lost in recent years, perhaps as an inevitable result of fame and incredible wealth. Even his most impressive later work, from Schindler’s List to Munich, lacks the urgency of those suburban stories, which may be why the evocation of that period in the Super 8 trailer fills me with such fierce nostalgia.

Of course, this raises the question of where to put the Indiana Jones series, still a trilogy in my own heart, which is both Spielberg’s least personal work and his greatest achievement. Watching those films now, they seem increasingly outside the main line of Spielberg’s development, and much more the work of George Lucas, which goes a long way toward explaining why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was so disappointing. And the almost complete absence of children is especially striking. As much as I love Short Round, he’s more of a tiny adult than a real boy, and none of Temple of Doom takes place through his eyes, much less those of the child slaves in the background. In Spielberg’s early work, by contrast, many of the greatest moments of awe and terror are filtered through a child’s perspective: the abducted boy in Close Encounters, the girl who vanishes in Poltergeist, even the little boy devoured in Jaws.

And yet the Indiana Jones trilogy remains a child’s dream of what it means to be a man—whether an archaeologist, a professor, or even a writer of thrilling stories. Despite the lack of children, the child’s point of view isn’t gone: it disappears from the movie, but embeds itself in the audience. With a nod to the impeccable taste of Carey Mulligan, who calls it her favorite film, no work of art takes me back to my boyhood like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which remains the movie that cuts closest to the reasons why I want to tell stories for a living. Of Hitchcock, David Thomson says, “His great films are only partly his; they also belong to the minds that interpret them.” The same is true, in a way, of Indy, but it has nothing to do with interpretation. Pull back from the screen, and the missing children are there, in the audience, relishing a boy wonder’s vision of what it means to be a grownup. If Super 8 can generate even a fraction of that wonder, Abrams can begin to set himself against Spielberg. Until then, he can only get in line.

In praise of David Thomson

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The publication of the fifth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the best book ever written on the movies, is cause for celebration, and an excuse for me to talk about one of the weirdest books in all of literature. Thomson is a controversial figure, and for good reason: his film writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of Thomson’s earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies.

First, a word about the book’s shortcomings. As in previous editions, instead of revising the entries for living subjects in their entirety, Thomson simply adds another paragraph or two to the existing filmographies, so that the book seems to grow by accretion, like a coral reef. This leads to inconsistencies in tone within individual articles, and also to factual mistakes when the entry hasn’t been updated recently enough—like the article on George Lucas, for instance, in which the latter two Star Wars prequels still evidently lie in the future. And the book is full of the kind of errors that occur when one tries to keep up, in print, with the vagaries of movie production—as when it credits David O. Russell with the nonexistent Nailed and omits The Fighter. (Now that this information is readily available online, Thomson should really just delete all of the detailed filmographies in the next edition, which would cut the book’s size by a quarter or more.)

And then, of course, there are Thomson’s own opinions, which are contrarian in a way that can often seem perverse. He’s lukewarm on Kurosawa, very hard on Kubrick (The Shining is the only movie he admires), and thinks that Christopher Nolan’s work “has already become progressively less interesting.” He thinks that The Wrestler is “a wretched, interminable film,” but he loves Nine. He displays next to no interest in animation or international cinema. There’s something to be outraged about on nearly every page, which is probably why the Dictionary averages barely more than three stars from reviewers on Amazon. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks that a critic whose opinions differ from your own must be corrupt, crazy, or incompetent—as many of Roger Ebert’s correspondents apparently do—then you should stay far, far away from Thomson, who goes out of his way to infuriate even his most passionate defenders.

Yet Thomson’s perversity is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing the same thing. And it’s impossible not to be challenged and stirred by his opinions. There is a way, after all, in which Kurosawa is a more limited director than Ozu—although I know which one I ultimately prefer. Kubrick’s alienation from humanity would have crippled any director who was not Kubrick. Until The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan’s movies were, indeed, something of a retreat from the promise of Memento. And for each moment of temporary insanity on Thomson’s part, you get something equally transcendent. Here he is on Orson Welles, for example, in a paragraph that has forever changed how I watch Citizen Kane:

Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself…As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

On Spielberg and Schindler’s List:

Schindler’s List is the most moving film I have ever seen. This does not mean it is faultless. To take just one point: the reddening of one little girl’s coat in a black-and-white film strikes me as a mistake, and a sign of how calculating a director Spielberg is. For the calculations reveal themselves in these few errors that escape. I don’t really believe in Spielberg as an artist…But Schindler’s List is like an earthquake in a culture of gardens. And it helps persuade this viewer that cinema—or American film—is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.

And, wonderfully, on what is perhaps my own favorite bad movie of all time:

Yet in truth, I think Kevin [Spacey] himself is the biggest experiment, and to substantiate that one has only to call to the stand Beyond the Sea, written, produced and directed by Kev and with himself as Bobby Darin. The result is intoxicating, one of the really great dreadful films ever made, worthy of an annual Beyond the Sea award (why not give it on Oscar night?), as well as clinching evidence that this man is mad. Anything could happen.

The result, as I note above, is a massive Proustian novel in which nearly every major figure in the history of film plays a role. (Thomson has already written a novel, Suspects, that does this more explicitly, and his book-length study of Nicole Kidman is manifestly a novel in disguise.) Reading the Dictionary, which is as addictive as Wikipedia or TV Tropes, is like diving headfirst into a vast ocean, and trying to see how deep you can go before coming up for air. Although if it really is a novel, it’s less like Proust than like Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. (In that light, even the book’s mistakes seem to carry a larger meaning. What does it mean, for instance, that Thomson’s brilliant article on Heath Ledger, in which he muses on “the brief purchasing power” of fame, was “inadvertently dropped” from the fifth edition?)

And what monstrous truth does the Dictionary conceal? It’s the same truth, which applies as much to Thomson himself as it does to you and me, as the one that he spells out, unforgettably, at the end of Rosebud, his study of Orson Welles:

So film perhaps had made a wasted life?
One has to do something.

George Lucas: Writer of a Lost Art

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As long as we’re on the subject of beloved artists who experienced a marked decline in quality, let’s talk about…George Lucas. (Because, obviously, no one has ever discussed this before.) I’m not going to go into all the ways that Lucas’s recent work has been disappointing—you have the entire Internet for that—but I do think it’s important to highlight the ways in which Lucas was, at his best, a remarkable writer.

Exhibit A is the famous transcript, which appeared online last year, of an early story conference for Raiders of the Lost Ark. (You can find a nice clean copy here.) Seated around a table with Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan, Lucas spins out one idea after another, laying the groundwork not only for Raiders but for the entire Indiana Jones series. The whole transcript is worth a look, but there are a few particular moments that are especially valuable. Here’s Lucas on the importance of a structured plan, and the usefulness of making lists:

In the end I want to end up with a list of scenes. And the way I work generally is I figure a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes depending on which scale you want to work on. A thirty scene thing means that each scene is going to be around four pages long. A sixty one means that every scene is going to run twenty pages long…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out. Especially a thing like this.

(The process might sound mechanical, but in my own experience, nearly all complex narratives begin in a similar way: you start with ideas for a certain number of scenes, and know you’ll need a certain number of chapters, so you do your best to make the two numbers fit.)

On plausibility:

The trouble with cliff hangers is, you get somebody into something, you sort have to get them out in a plausible way. A believable way, anyway. That’s another important concept of the movie—that it be totally believable.

On the proper use of backstory:

We’ve established that he’s a college professor. It doesn’t have to be done in a strong way. It starts out in a museum. They just call him doctor this and doctor that. We can very easily make that transition, and very quickly establish that whole side of his character. [Italics mine.]

Finally, this wonderful moment:

Spielberg: One thing you should do—He’s on this airplane. There are about four or five passengers around him. He’s asleep and these passengers are looking at him. We don’t know why. They they all get up and put on parachutes, and they jump out the door. He wakes up when he hears the door open, and realizes he’s all alone. The door to the cockpit is locked. The airplane begins to go into a spin. He’s trapped in this airplane and it’s going down. The whole thing was a set up. That’s a great cliffhanger, to see how he gets out.

Lucas: That’s great. Then what happens? One sentence further and it’s a great idea. [Italics mine, of course.]

So what happened between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? The simplest answer: for Raiders, Lucas was working for a studio. For Crystal Skull, he was the studio. Raiders was made under a surprising number of limitations—Spielberg had just come off the notorious flop 1941, and was anxious to prove that he could deliver a movie on time and under budget—while Crystal Skull had no limitations at all. And without limitations, as I’ve pointed out before, an artist is free to indulge in all of his worst impulses, until the small moments of ingenuity that made him so special are gone.

Remember, above all else: a good artist needs to be criticized. Every writer needs a handful of early readers whose feedback he or she trusts. At first, it will probably be one or two close friends; later, hopefully, it will be an editor. But Lucas is the richest man in Hollywood; he produces and owns the Star Wars franchise outright; he doesn’t need to listen to critics. And he might reasonably argue that he doesn’t have to. But no matter what your level of success, you need someone to tell you when you’ve lost your way. And Lucas, sad to say, hasn’t had this for a long time.

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