Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 2014

A life in random roles

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Stephen Tobolowsky in Groundhog Day

Slowly but surely, with one wonderful piece after another, the Random Roles interviews that Will Harris does for The A.V. Club have turned into one of my favorite things on the Internet. The premise is simple: Harris sits down with an actor, usually one best known for character parts, to discuss an assortment of the movies and television shows in which he or she has appeared—except that the subjects don’t know in advance what roles he’s going to bring up. It results in a kind of Inside the Actors Studio for actors who might have trouble filling an auditorium, even as their faces and voices constitute an essential piece of our lives as viewers and moviegoers. I’m talking about the likes of Stephen Tobolowsky, Kurtwood Smith, and Ted Levine, actors whose names we often don’t know, even as their presence sends a charge through the screen whenever they appear. We’d recognize them on the street, but if we did, we might think they sold us a car or that we knew them in college, when in fact they’ve been insinuating themselves into our consciousness in tiny increments, a line or two at a time.

Occasionally, you’ll see a bigger name pop up—Harris has spoken with Morgan Freeman, Don Johnson, and Timothy Dalton, all in the last few months—but the most engaging interviews tend to be with actors who have thrived for decades in small parts, or who spent years in the wilderness before or after their shot at the big time. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the working artist who puts as much life as possible into a few seconds of screen time on the way to the next paycheck, and not surprisingly, these interviews are all repositories of craft, knowledge, and great stories. In today’s installment, for instance, Harris talks to Kurt Fuller, who is practically the embodiment of “Hey, it’s that guy!” Here he is talking about his first onscreen appearance, as an unnamed cameraman on Knight Rider:

And my line was, “The car talks. The car talks!” And I said it just about that badly. I remember the director said to me—and this has been said to me by that director, but also by Ivan Reitman during Ghostbusters 2, which was very early on as well, when I was petrified—”Do less than you ever thought it was possible to do.” And that’s been very good advice. The more I take it, the better I feel. I can overact in two seconds.

Kurt Fuller on Supernatural

If these pieces are invariably more interesting and insightful than what usually comes out of the press junkets we get from more recognizable stars, that’s largely thanks to Harris, who seems to prepare for each interview by watching everything the subject has ever done, but it’s also due to the peculiar position of the character actor. To endure for forty years in Hollywood on one scene at a time requires enormous professionalism, versatility, and talent, and your indispensability relies on the fact that you can be taken for granted. There’s no opportunity to sulk in your trailer or fight with your director: you’re there solely to make each scene, and your fellow performers, just a little bit better. This requires considerable depth of experience, as well as an underlying pragmatism and lack of ego that comes less from natural modesty than a recognition of how best to get things done. (For an unforgettable illustration of the contrast between the life of a character actor and that of a star, check out Tobolowsky’s story of working with Steven Seagal in The Glimmer Man.)

Occasionally, you’ll see a performer with a character actor’s soul launched unexpectedly into the ranks of leading men, and it’s always worth paying attention to the result, which serves almost as a referendum on how much trickery we’re willing to tolerate. (What David Thomson says of Kevin Spacey applies strongly here: “He can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.”) It’s possible that movies and television shows work best in the way Renaissance painting did, with a singular, inexplicable presence at the center—the mystery of stardom—surrounded by figures at the edges, rendered with unobtrusive craft, that serve to bring out the main subject. These anonymous putti and cherubim don’t often have a chance to tell their stories, and they’ve long since learned to be content with being passed over at a glance, but when they do talk, we’re reminded of how crucial they can be. As Jeffrey Tambor says to Harris: “The great thing about acting is that you kind of do what’s there and do it the best you can.” And when you’re done, you cash your check, call your agent, and move on to your next small moment of vividness.

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September 30, 2014 at 9:40 am

Quote of the Day

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Pierre Reverdy

The image is a pure creation of the mind; it cannot be born from a comparison, but from the bringing together of two realities more or less remote from one another.

Pierre Reverdy

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September 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

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In sickness and in health

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David Mamet

As I write this blog post, I’m running on fumes. Last week, I delivered a novel to my agent for notes and promptly got sick, pretty much as I predicted I would. It was the climax of a fairly intense process that involved churning out most of a 75,000-word manuscript in something like six months, on top of child care and what felt like a summer of nonstop social commitments, and in the end, my body just gave out. (If I haven’t talked about it much here, it’s because I still hold onto the superstition about avoiding any mention of work in progress, and I’m only bringing it up now because I’m done with the first draft.) As it happens, my daughter got sick at around the same time, and although I can’t be sure who came down with what first, I have the feeling that I just no longer had any energy to fend off those baby germs. It’s also possible that I’ve been on the verge of coming down with something anyway, and I managed to push it away for long enough to lock down that last page.

And I’m not alone. Anecdotally, there’s a lot of evidence that writers and creative types tend to come down with something shortly after finishing a project. David Mamet tells this story about the filming of House of Games:

We finished shooting the movie on time and under budget in mid-August. I went home happy as a clam and immediately got as sick as I’ve ever been in my life. I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks, didn’t eat a thing, and sweated the whole time. Sidney Lumet called to welcome us back. “How did the film go?” he asked my wife. She told him. “How’s David,” he said, “is he sick yet?”

Which shouldn’t be surprising. One of the underappreciated challenges of directing a movie is how physically demanding it is: you’re up at all hours, overseeing night shoots or camping out in the editing bay after the day’s filming is done, while constantly being asked to make decisions about what kind of coffee cup a character holds in a particular scene. Occasionally, you’ll hear reports of a director suffering a breakdown halfway through production, but the really surprising thing is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Walter Murch

Then again, successful movie directors make up a select group, and if you didn’t already have the aptitude for the job’s mental and physical requirements, you’d have been weeded out long before. Walter Murch likes to say that a film editor needs a strong back and arms: if a minute of celluloid weighs a pound, the footage for a movie like Apocalypse Now amounts to something like seven tons. With modern digital tools, that’s no longer the case, but the reserves of patience, discipline, and attentiveness it requires are no different. It’s a little like playing chess, which requires exceptional levels of physical fitness in order to compete on the highest levels. Writing a novel or editing a movie sometimes feel like playing chess against an opponent of infinite stamina and perversity, and you’re figuring out the rules of the game as you go along. It’s no wonder, then, that it leaves us exhausted. (For what it’s worth, this doesn’t seem to be a purely physiological reaction: the brain sucks up a lot of energy at all times, and when we’re engaged in sustained intellectual activity, it uses a little more, but not a lot.)

But it’s also possible that the body is simply enforcing a break. Prolonged brainwork may not burn as many calories as we’d like to think, but it consumes something less tangible. We’ve all been blessed with finite amounts of ingenuity, imagination, and meticulousness, and with any project, we eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, when we can barely even see the words on the page, much less revise them in useful ways. When we hit a wall, it may be less of a sign that our limits have been reached than a precautionary measure that forces us, even to the point of physical incapacitation, into a temporary surrender. Professional writers like to think that they can will themselves through anything, but sometimes the material demands a pause, and if the mind isn’t willing to stop on its own, the body steps in to settle the issue. I don’t think I’ll be able to get much work done today, but maybe I shouldn’t be working anyway. Every writer knows how it feels for a story to reach out and give you what you need at that exact moment, and sometimes it only wants you to take a step back. So you’ve got no choice but to take your DayQuil, and when you’re ready for it, the work will still be there, pleased to welcome you back in your right mind.

Written by nevalalee

September 29, 2014 at 9:37 am

Quote of the Day

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The Cyclops by Odilon Redon

My originality consists in bringing to life, in a human way, improbable beings and making them live according to the laws of probability, by putting—as far as possible—the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.

Odilon Redon

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September 29, 2014 at 7:30 am

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The perils of coding cleverness

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Programming Proverbs

Every programmer has a secret desire to produce a truly clever program. Shortening the code by two lines, running the program two seconds faster, or using fewer identifiers are all popular pastimes. Resist this temptation, because the benefits seldom outweigh the hidden costs. Aside from the extra time needed to develop that “special wrinkle,” hand-checking and debugging tricky code is often a study in horror, and one must be extra careful of boundary conditions.

When tricks are indiscriminately employed, good structure, flexibility, and clarity are frequently lost. Merging two or more sections of code to wring out those “extra” lines is an easy method of preventing anyone from following your algorithm or extending your program. Before removing the extra lines, it might be worthwhile to remember that fewer lines of source code may not always result in fewer machine instructions…

In short, beware of “clever” code, and beware of being “penny wise” but “pound foolish.”

Henry F. Ledgard, Programming Proverbs

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September 28, 2014 at 7:30 am

Notes on polishing the play

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The Art of Play Production

So many elements need attention in the polishing of a play that anything like a complete discussion of them all is out of the question. A few practical hints in condensed form may, however, be useful, and I offer them as a sort of appendix to this chapter:

  • Direct the polishing rehearsals from the auditorium, not from the stage. Move farther and farther back…
  • Remember the principle of grace—that is, economy of effort. Try to eliminate unnecessary effort, or the suggestion thereof. Check grace of plan from the balcony or gallery.
  • Watch for detrimental empathies of any sort, and eliminate them. Rehearse carefully all scenes in which actors carry heavy weights. Teach those who are carried to relax. Watch all moving of furniture, and all such actions as sitting, kneeling, or rising, to see that there is no unnecessary suggestion of effort…
  • Seek out and remove all distractions. Watch especially the actors who are not speaking. Eliminate fidgeting. When there is too much movement or business, select and reject, but retain that which is relevant rather than that which is clever. Check up constantly on the principle: “No movement without a purpose.” Challenge any new movement or business introduced by the actors, and accept it only when the purpose is sound.
  • Aim constantly to simplify. Work for strength rather than elaboration…
  • When the play seems “talky,” introduce one or two significant bits of action at critical points rather than many unimportant ones…
  • Nurse the rhythms—at least in so far as they express the moods correctly—and make the most of them…
  • Check the tempo constantly. Guard against the tendency of the actors to slip back to the wrong tempo, especially the tendency of each actor to take the tempo of his line from that of the actor who speaks before him…

In other words, be omniscient and omnipotent; let nothing escape you, and perfect every detail. Outside of that there is very little to do.

—John Dolman Jr., The Art of Play Production

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September 27, 2014 at 9:00 am

A playwright’s laws of thought

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John Howard Lawson

The laws of thought which underlie the creative process require that the playwright begin with a root idea. He may be unconscious of this; he may think that the creative urge springs from random and purposeless thoughts; but disorganized thought cannot lead to organized activity; however vague his social attitude may be, it is sufficiently conscious and purposive to lead him to the volitional representation of action. Baker says that “a play may start from almost anything; a detached thought that flashes through the mind; a theory of conduct or of art which one firmly believes or wishes only to examine; a bit of dialogue overheard or imagined; a setting, real or imagined, which creates emotion in the observer; a perfectly detached scene, the antecedents and consequences of which are as yet unknown; a figure glimpsed in a crowd which for some reason arrests the attention of the dramatist, or a figure closely studied; a contrast or similarity between two people or conditions of life; a mere incident—noted in a newspaper or book, heard in idle talk, or observed; or a story, told only in the barest outlines or with the utmost detail.”

There is no doubt that a playwright may start with any of these odds and ends of fact or fancy. He may complete an entire play by spontaneously piecing together bits of experience and information, without ever attaining the slightest understanding of the principles which underlie his activity. But whether he knows it or not, the process is not as spontaneous as it appears. The “bit of dialogue,” or “figure glimpsed in a crowd,” or detailed story, do not appeal to him by chance; the reason lies in a point of view which he has developed as a result of his own experience; his point of view is sufficiently definite to make him feel the need of crystallizing it; he wants to find events which have a bearing on the picture of events which he has formed in his mind. When he finds a “bit of dialogue” or a “figure glimpsed in a crowd” or a story, he is not satisfied that this proves or justifies his point of view—if he were satisfied, he would stop right there, and would not be moved to further activity. What he seeks is the most complete volitional representation of the root idea. The root idea is abstract, because it is the sum total of many experiences. He cannot be satisfied until he has turned it into a living event.

John Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting

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September 26, 2014 at 8:52 am

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