Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 1st, 2010

Lessons from Woody Allen

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So today is Woody Allen’s 75th birthday, which gives me an excuse to talk about two of my favorite books on film: When the Shooting Stops…The Cutting Begins, by Allen’s frequent editor, the late Ralph Rosenblum, and Conversations With Woody Allen, by Eric Lax.

Ralph Rosenblum was a legendary editor best known for extracting what became Annie Hall out of three hours of brilliant but shapeless footage. It’s hard to believe, but Annie Hall, which seems so focused and inevitable now, was originally a steam-of-consciousness comedy called Anhedonia, in which Diane Keaton’s character appeared only in passing. Rosenblum and Allen, faced with what looked like an unsalvageable movie, carved out its core love story by making massive cuts, juxtaposing previously unrelated scenes, adding music, and incorporating a few strategic voiceovers. If revision is the heart of creation, then Rosenblum’s work here ranks among the most creative acts in the history of movies.

As for Conversations With Woody Allen, it consists of thematically arranged interviews between Allen and Eric Lax over the past forty years, from Bananas to Whatever Works. (It also has a very nice Chip Kidd cover.) Opening it at random, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the density of insights per page. Here, for example, is Allen on finding time to develop ideas:

If I’m sitting somewhere for ten minutes unoccupied, my mind just clicks into it. I can’t help it. I come home and I’m thinking about it. It just works that way. I even try to think about it when I get into bed to go to sleep.

I never like to let any time go unused. When I walk somewhere in the morning, I still plan what I’m going to think about, which problem I’m going to tackle. I may say, This morning I’m going to think of titles. When I get in the shower in the morning, I try to use that time. So much of my time is spent thinking because that’s the only way to attack these writing problems.

(Aside: You may have noticed that I like using examples from film to talk about fiction. The reason for this, besides the fact that I love movies, is that I believe that most good fiction arises from action and structure, which result, if done correctly, in what we think of as character and theme. And the nice thing about action and structure is that they can be taught by example, while such matters as style and voice can only come from long practice.

Many, perhaps most, books on writing concentrate on style and voice, which means that they focus, unhelpfully, on what is largely unteachable. Books on film and screenwriting, by contrast, have no problem discussing issues of action and structure, which makes them especially useful for writers who are still working on the fundamentals of craft. So if I tend to cite Woody Allen or David Mamet as often as John Gardner, you’ll know the reason why.)

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Tangled’s web

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The big news in pop culture this week, of course, is the unexpected resurgence, in the form of Tangled, of the classic Walt Disney brand. As many critics have noted, Tangled is the closest thing to the full Disney package—fairy tale setting, beautiful princess, dashing hero, amusing animal sidekicks, Alan Menken—that we’ve had in at least fifteen years.  The result, while sentimental, undeniably works. Watching Tangled, I felt something like what Pauline Kael described when reviewing a very different movie: “The pieces of the story fit together so beautifully that eventually the director has you wrapped up in the foolishness. By the end, all the large, sappy, satisfying emotions get to you.”

So what are the lessons for writers? It’s easy, and definitely accurate, to credit John Lasseter, the Pixar genius who shepherded Tangled throughout its entire production, with much of the movie’s success. But it’s also worth spotlighting the contribution of animator Glen Keane, who would have directed Tangled had he not suffered a heart attack midway through production. Den of Geek has a really fine interview with Keane, which is worth reading in its entirety, but especially for this story, which describes something to which any writer can relate:

The amazing thing was that in May, this year, we were only at 40% finished in our animation. We had to have 60% of the movie by the middle of July. And it was impossible. And it was all of the most subtle, difficult, stuff.

I remember telling [the animators], “look, we have an impossible amount of work to do, none of you will be the animators you are now by the end of the film, you will have grown. You will have animated scenes that you can’t even imagine that you did. And I can’t tell you how you will do them. But you will do them, and there’s just something that is happening right now, and I call it collective learning.”

The history of animation, in general, is something that every writer should study, because it’s by far the best documented of any of the narrative arts. Because every stage in the animation process—initial sketches, concept art, storyboards, backgrounds—is fun to look at in itself (which isn’t true, for example, of most novelists’ first drafts), the creative process is exceptionally well chronicled. A book like Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards is an inspiring read for any writer who needs a reminder of how tentative and exploratory the artistic process can be, especially in its earliest stages.

Animation is also worth studying because it tells stories simply and cleanly, as most writers should strive to do. It’s especially good at breaking stories down into their basic units, which, as I’ve noted already, is the first and most important rule of writing. Any writer, for example, would benefit from the sort of advice that Shamus Culhane gives in Animation: From Script to Screen:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

Disney can be accused of tastelessness and commercialism, to put it mildly, but it’s also better than anyone I know (except, perhaps, the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, about whom I’ll have much more to say later) at creating works of art that exemplify the most fundamental reasons we go to the movies, or seek out any kind of art at all. The success of Tangled is only the most recent reminder of how powerful those elements can be.

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2010 at 11:45 am

Quote of the Day

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What shouldn’t you do if you’re a young playwright? Don’t bore the audience! I mean, even if you have to resort to totally arbitrary killing on stage, or pointless gunfire, at least it’ll catch their attention and keep them awake. Just keep the thing going any way you can.

—Tennessee Williams

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2010 at 8:08 am

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