Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The magic switch

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If you understand the good magic trick, and I mean really understand it right down to the mechanics at the core of its psychology, the magic trick gets better, not worse…I like stripping things down to the absolute simplicity, and it seems like a ball and a hoop and a person is about as simple as you can get….You can’t look at a half-finished piece of magic and know whether it’s good or not. It has to be perfect before you can evaluate whether it’s good. Magic is a fantastically meticulous form. You forgive other forms. A musician misses a note, moves on, fine. He’ll come to the conclusion of the piece. Magic is an on/off switch. Either it looks like a miracle or it’s stupid.

Teller, to This American Life

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2017 at 6:51 am

Off the hook

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In his wonderful interview in John Brady’s The Craft of the Screenwriter, Robert Towne—who might best be described as the Christopher McQuarrie of his time—tosses off a statement that is typically dense with insight:

One of the things that people say when they first start writing movies is, “Jeez, I have this idea for a movie. This is the way it opens. It’s a really great opening.” And of course they don’t know where to go from there. That’s true not only of people who are just thinking of writing movies, but very often of people who write them. They’re anxious for a splashy beginning to hook an audience, but then you end up paying for it with an almost mathematical certainty. If you have a lot of action and excitement at the beginning of a picture, there’s going to have to be some explanation, some character development somewhere along the line, and there will be a big sag about twenty minutes after you get into a film with a splashy opening. It’s something you learn. I don’t know if you’d call it technique. It’s made me prefer soft openings for films. It’s been my experience that an audience will forgive you almost anything at the beginning of the picture, but almost nothing at the end. If they’re not satisfied with the end, nothing that led up to it is going to help.

There’s a lot to absorb and remember here, particularly the implication, which I love, that a narrative has a finite amount of energy, and that if you use up too much of it at the start, you end up paying for it later.

For now, though, I’d like to focus on what Towne says about openings. He’s right in cautioning screenwriters against trying to start at a high point, which may not even be possible: I’ve noted elsewhere that few of the great scenes that we remember from movies come at the very beginning, since they require a degree of setup to really pay off. Yet at this very moment, legions of aspiring writers are undoubtedly sweating over a perfect grabber opening for their screenplay. In his interview with Brady, which was published in 1981, Towne blames this on television:

Unlike television, you don’t have to keep people from turning the channel to another network when they’re in the theater. They’ve paid three-fifty or five dollars and if the opening ten or fifteen minutes of a film are a little slow, they are still going to sit a few minutes, as long as it eventually catches hold. I believe in soft openings…Why bother to capture [the audience’s] interest at the expense of the whole film? They’re there. They’re not going anywhere.

William Goldman draws a similar contrast between the two forms in Adventures in the Screen Trade, writing a clumsy opening hook for a screenplay—about a girl being chased through the woods by a “disfigured giant”—and explaining why it’s bad: “Well, among other things, it’s television.” He continues:

This paragraph contains all that I know about writing for television. They need a hook. And they need it fast. Because they’re panicked you’ll switch to ABC. So TV stuff tends to begin with some kind of grabber. But in a movie, and only at the beginning of a movie, we have time. Not a lot, but some.

And while a lot has changed since Towne and Goldman made these statements, including the “three-fifty” that used to be the price of a ticket, the underlying point remains sound. Television calls for a different kind of structure and pacing than a movie, and screenwriters shouldn’t confuse the two. Yet I don’t think that the average writer who is fretting about the opening of his script is necessarily making that mistake, or thinking in terms of what viewers will see in a theater. I suspect that he or she is worrying about a very different audience—the script reader at an agency or production company. A moviegoer probably won’t walk out if the opening doesn’t grab them, but the first reader of a screenplay will probably toss it aside if the first few pages don’t work. (This isn’t just the case with screenwriters, either. Writers of short stories are repeatedly told that they need to hook the reader in the first paragraph, and the result is often a kind of palpable desperation that can actively turn off editors.) One reason, of course, why Towne and Goldman can get away with “soft” openings is that they’ve been successful enough to be taken seriously, both in person and in print. As Towne says:

There have been some shifts in attitudes toward me. If I’m in a meeting with some people, and if I say, “Look, fellas, I don’t think it’s gonna work this way,” there is a tendency to listen to me more. Before, they tended to dismiss a little more quickly than now.

Which, when you think about it, is exactly the same phenomenon as giving the script the benefit of the doubt—it buys Towne another minute or two to make his point, which is all a screenwriter can ask.

The sad truth is that a script trying to stand out from the slush pile and a filmed narrative have fundamentally different needs. In some cases, they’re diametrically opposed. Writers trying to break into the business can easily find themselves caught between the need to hype the movie on the page and their instincts about how the story deserves to be told, and that tension can be fatal. A smart screenwriter will often draw a distinction between the selling version, which is written with an eye to the reader, and the shooting script, which provides the blueprint for the movie, but most aspiring writers don’t have that luxury. And if we think of television as a model for dealing with distracted viewers or readers, it’s only going to get worse. In a recent essay for Uproxx titled “Does Anyone Still Have Time to Wait For Shows to Get Good?”, the legendary critic Alan Sepinwall notes that the abundance of great shows makes it hard to justify waiting for a series to improve, concluding:

We all have a lot going on, in both our TV and non-TV lives, and if you don’t leave enough breadcrumbs in the early going, your viewers will just wander off to watch, or do, something else. While outlining this post, I tweeted a few things about the phenomenon, phrasing it as “It Gets Better After Six Episodes”—to which many people replied with incredulous variations on, “Six? If it’s not good after two, or even one, I’m out, pal.”

With hundreds of shows instantly at our disposal—as opposed to the handful of channels that existed when Towne and Goldman were speaking—we’ve effectively been put into the position of a studio reader with a stack of scripts. If we don’t like what we see, we can move on. The result has been the emotionally punishing nature of so much peak television, which isn’t about storytelling so much as heading off distraction. And if it sometimes seems that many writers can’t do anything else, it’s because it’s all they were ever taught to do.

Quote of the Day

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Every pattern is an obstacle to new patterns, to the extent that the first pattern is inflexible…To make progress, individual originality must be able to express itself. In order that the originality of the idealist whose dreams transcend his century may find expression, it is necessary that the originality of the criminal, who is below the level of his time, shall also be possible. One does not occur without the other.

Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method

Written by nevalalee

July 21, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Uber Achievers

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In 1997, the computer scientist Niklaus Wirth, best known as the creator of Pascal, conducted a fascinating interview with the magazine Software Development, which I’ve quoted here before. When asked if it would be better to design programming languages with “human issues” in mind, Wirth replied:

Software development is technical activity conducted by human beings. It is no secret that human beings suffer from imperfection, limited reliability, and impatience—among other things. Add to it that they have become demanding, which leads to the request for rapid, high performance in return for the requested high salaries. Work under constant time pressure, however, results in unsatisfactory, faulty products.

When I read this quotation now, I think of Uber. As a recent story by Caroline O’Donovan and Priya Anand of Buzzfeed makes clear, the company that seems to have alienated just about everyone in the world didn’t draw the line at its own staff: “Working seven days a week, sometimes until 1 or 2 a.m., was considered normal, said one employee. Another recalled her manager telling her that spending seventy to eighty hours a week in the office was simply ‘how Uber works.’ Someone else recalled working eighty to one hundred hours a week.” One engineer, who is now in therapy, recalled: “It’s pretty clear that giving that much of yourself to any one thing is not healthy. There were days where I’d wake up, shower, go to work, work until midnight or so, get a free ride home, sleep six hours, and go back to work. And I’d do that for a whole week.”

“I feel so broken and dead,” one employee concluded. But while Uber’s internal culture was undoubtedly bad for morale, it might seem hard at first to make the case that the result was an “unsatisfactory, faulty” product. As a source quoted in the article notes, stress at the company led to occasional errors: “If you’ve been woken up at 3 a.m. for the last five days, and you’re only sleeping three to four hours a day, and you make a mistake, how much at fault are you, really?” Yet the Uber app itself is undeniably elegant and reliable, and the service that it provided is astonishingly useful—if it weren’t, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about it now. When we look at what else Wirth says, though, the picture becomes more complicated. All italics in the following are mine:

Generally, the hope is that corrections will not only be easy, because software is immaterial, but that the customers will be willing to share the cost. We know of much better ways to design software than is common practice, but they are rarely followed. I know of a particular, very large software producer that explicitly assumes that design takes twenty percent of developers’ time, and debugging takes eighty percent. Although internal advocates of an eighty percent design time versus twenty percent debugging time have not only proven that their ratio is realistic, but also that it would improve the company’s tarnished image. Why, then, is the twenty-percent design time approach preferred? Because with twenty-percent design time your product is on the market earlier than that of a competitor consuming eighty-percent design time. And surveys show that the customer at large considers a shaky but early product as more attractive than a later product, even if it is stable and mature.

This description applies perfectly to Uber, as long as we remember that its “product” isn’t bounded by its app alone, but extends to its impact on drivers, employees, competitors, and the larger community in which it exists—or what an economist would call its externalities. Taken as a closed system, the Uber experience is perfect, but only because it pushes its problems outside the bounds of the ride itself. When you look at the long list of individuals and groups that its policies have harmed, you discern the outlines of its true product, which can be described as the system of interactions between the Uber app and the world. You could say this of most kinds of software, but it’s particularly stark for a service that is tied to the problem of physically moving its customers from one point to another on the earth’s surface. By that standard, “shaky but early” describes Uber beautifully. It certainly isn’t “stable and mature.” The company expanded to monstrous proportions before basic logistical, political, and legal matters had been resolved, and it acted as if it could simply bull its way through any obstacles. (Its core values, let’s not forget, included “stepping on toes” and “principled confrontation.”) Up to a point, it worked, but something had to give, and economic logic dictated that the stress fall on the human factor, which was presumably resilient enough to absorb punishment from the design and technology sides. One of the most striking quotes in the Buzzfeed article comes from Uber’s chief human resources officer: “Many employees are very tired from working very, very hard as the company grew. Resources were tight and the growth was such that we could never hire sufficiently, quickly enough, in order to keep up with the growth.” To assert that “resources were tight” at the most valuable startup on the planet seems like a contradiction in terms, and it would be more accurate to say that Uber decided to channel massive amounts of capital in certain directions while neglecting those that it cynically thought could take it.

But it was also right, until it wasn’t. Human beings are extraordinarily resilient, as long as you can convince them to push themselves past the limits of their ability, or at least to do work at rates that you can afford. In the end, they burn out, but there are ways to postpone that moment or render it irrelevant. When it came to its drivers, Uber benefited from a huge pool of potential contractors, which made turnover a statistical, rather than an individual, problem. With its corporate staff and engineers, there was always the power of money, in the form of equity in the company, to persuade people to stay long past the point where they would have otherwise quit. The firm gambled that it would lure in plenty of qualified hires willing to trade away their twenties for the possibility of future wealth, and it did. (As the Buzzfeed article reveals, Uber seems to have approached compensation for its contractors and employees in basically the same way: “Uber acknowledges that it pays less than some of its top competitors for talent…The Information reported that Uber uses an algorithm to estimate the lowest possible compensation employees will take in order to keep labor costs down.”) When the whole system finally failed, it collapsed spectacularly, and it might help to think of Uber’s implosion, which unfolded over less than six months, as a software crash, with bugs that were ignored or patched cascading in a chain reaction that brings down the entire program. And the underlying factor wasn’t just a poisonous corporate culture or the personality of its founder, but the sensibility that Wirth identified two decades ago, as a company rushed to get a flawed idea to market on the assumption that consumers—or society as a whole—would bear the costs of correcting it. As Wirth asks: “Who is to blame for this state of affairs? The programmer turned hacker; the manager under time pressure; the business man compelled to extol profit wherever possible; or the customer believing in promised miracles?”

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2017 at 8:29 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2017 at 7:30 am

Frogs for snakes

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If you’re the sort of person who can’t turn away from a show business scandal with leaked memos, insider anecdotes, and accusations of bad conduct on both sides, the last two weeks have offered a pair of weirdly similar cases. The first involves Frank Darabont, the former showrunner of The Walking Dead, who was fired during the show’s second season and is now suing the network for a share of profits from the most popular series in the history of cable television. In response, AMC released a selection of Darabont’s emails intended to demonstrate that his firing was justified, and it makes for queasily riveting reading. Some are so profane that I don’t feel comfortable quoting them here, but this one gives you a sense of the tone:

If it were up to me, I’d have not only fired [these two writers] when they handed me the worst episode three script imaginable, I’d have hunted them down and f—ing killed them with a brick, then gone and burned down their homes. I haven’t even spoken to those worthless talentless hack sons-of-bitches since their third draft was phoned in after five months of all their big talk and promises that they’d dig deep and have my back covered…Calling their [script] “phoned-in” would be vastly overstating, because they were too busy wasting my time and your money to bother picking the damn phone up. Those f—ing overpaid con artists.

In an affidavit, Darabont attempted to justify his words: “Each of these emails must be considered in context. They were sent during an intense and stressful two-year period of work during which I was fighting like a mother lion to protect the show from harm…Each of these emails was sent because a ‘professional’ showed up whose laziness, indifference, or incompetence threatened to sink the ship. My tone was the result of the stress and magnitude of this extraordinary crisis. The language and hyperbole of my emails were harsh, but so were the circumstances.”

Frankly, I don’t find this quite as convincing as the third act of The Shawshank Redemption. As it happened, the Darabont emails were released a few days before a similar dispute engulfed Steve Whitmire, the puppeteer who had been performing Kermit the Frog since the death of Jim Henson. After the news broke last week that Whitmire had been fired, accounts soon emerged of his behavior that strikingly echoed the situation with Darabont: “He’d send emails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing and attacking the director,” Brian Henson told the New York Times. Whitmire has disputed the characterization: “Nobody was yelling and screaming or using inappropriate language or typing in capitals. It was strictly that I was sending detailed notes. I don’t feel that I was, in any way, disrespectful by doing that.” And his defense, like Darabont’s, stems from what he frames as a sense of protectiveness toward the show and its characters. Of a plot point involving Kermit and his nephew Robin on the defunct series The Muppets, Whitmire said to the Hollywood Reporter:

I don’t think Kermit would lie to him. I think that as Robin came to Kermit, he would say “Things happen, people go their separate ways, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about you.” Kermit is too compassionate to lie to him to spare his feelings…We have been doing these characters for a long, long time and we know them better than anybody. I thought I was aiding to keep it on track, and I think a big reason why the show was canceled…was because that didn’t happen. I am not saying my notes would have saved it, but I think had they listened more to all of the performers, it would have made a really big difference.

Unfortunately, the case of Whitmire, like that of Darabont, is more complicated than it might seem. Henson’s children have come out in support of the firing, with Brian Henson, the public face of the company, saying that he had reservations about Whitmire’s behavior for over a decade:

I have to say, in hindsight, I feel pretty guilty that I burdened Disney by not having recast Kermit at that point because I knew that it was going to be a real problem. And I have always offered that if they wanted to recast Kermit, I was all for it, and I would absolutely help. I am very glad we have done this now. I think the character is better served to remove this destructive energy around it.

Elsewhere, Lisa Henson told the Times that Whitmire had become increasingly controlling, refusing to hire an understudy and blackballing aspiring puppeteers after the studio tried to cast alternate performers, as a source said to Gizmodo: “[Steve] told Disney that the people who were in the audition room are never allowed to work with the Muppets again.” For a Muppet fan, this is all very painful, so I’ll stop here, except to venture two comments. One is that Darabont and Whitmire may well have been right to be concerned. The second is that in expressing their thoughts, they alienated a lot of the people around them, and their protectiveness toward the material ended in them being removed from the creative process altogether. If they were simply bad at giving notes—and the evidence suggests that at least Darabont was—they weren’t alone. No one gives or takes notes well. You could even argue that the whole infrastructure of movie and television production exists to make the exchange of notes, which usually goes in just one direction, incrementally less miserable. And it doesn’t work.

Both men responded by trying to absorb more creative control into themselves, which is a natural response. Brian Henson recalls Whitmire saying: “I am now Kermit, and if you want the Muppets, you better make me happy, because the Muppets are Kermit.” And the most fascinating passage in Darabont’s correspondence is his proposal for how the show ought to be run in the future:

The crew goes away or stands there silently without milling or chattering about bullshit that doesn’t apply to the job at hand…The director [and crew]…stand there and carefully read the scene out loud word for word. Especially and including all description…The important beats are identified and discussed in terms of how they are to be shot. In other words, sole creative authority is being taken out of the director’s hands. It doesn’t matter that our actors are doing good work if the cameras fail to capture it. Any questions come straight to me by phone or text. If necessary I will shoot the coverage on my iPhone and text it to the set. The staging follows the script to the letter and is no longer willy-nilly horseshit with cameras just hosing it down from whatever angle…If the director tries to not shoot what is written, the director is beaten to death on the spot. A trained monkey is brought in to complete the job.

Reading this, I found myself thinking of an analogous situation that arose when David Mamet was running The Unit. (I’m aware that The Unit wasn’t exactly a great show—I don’t think I got through more than two episodes—but my point remains the same.) Mamet, like Darabont, was unhappy with the scripts that he was getting, but instead of writing everything himself, he wrote a memo on plot structure so lucid and logical that it has been widely shared online as a model of how to tell a story. Instead of raging at those around him, he did what he could to elevate them to his level. It strikes me as the best possible response. But as Kermit might say, that’s none of my business.

Written by nevalalee

July 19, 2017 at 9:02 am

Quote of the Day

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To get full use of [a] library…there should be someone deputed to watch the whole of current literature for items which might be relevant to the work of the laboratory, and to be able to indicate without loss of time where such items are likely to be found…It is a strange but indubitable fact that it is extremely easy for scientific workers to forget the work they themselves have done in the past.

John Desmond Bernal, The Social Function of Science

Written by nevalalee

July 19, 2017 at 7:30 am

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