Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 2015

Werner Herzog on editing

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Werner Herzog on the set of Rescue Dawn

I have always been very specific about what I film, and never shoot endless amounts of footage. Every second of celluloid costs money, so the impetus when shooting on film is to expose as little raw stock as possible. Even today, when I make a film on video I never end up with a lot of footage. If you let the tape run and run, you’ll have three hundred hours of mediocrity. Some filmmakers wear the fact they have so much material as a badge of honor, but attempting to be encyclopedic is a misguided strategy, practiced only by accountants. Most filmmakers with that much footage don’t know what they’re doing; I know I’m talking to a spendthrift when I meet a director who tells me they worked for years editing a film…

I can identify the strongest material at great speed, and rarely change my mind once I make a decision. Usually we can piece together a first assembly of what the final film will be in less than a fortnight. We never look at what we edited the previous day; every morning we start from the point where we finished the day before. Once we have worked through the entire film, we work backwards; this keeps the material fresh and ensures that only footage of the highest caliber remains. It isn’t that I have a particularly slovenly attitude to the editing process; I’m just ruthless with the decisions I make. I feel safe in my skills of navigation and never try out twenty different versions of the same sequence.

Werner Herzog, A Guide for the Perplexed

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January 31, 2015 at 8:50 am

Like cats and dogs

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George Lucas and Indiana

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What fictional pet would you most like to own?”

If there’s a universal rule among screenwriters, it’s that if you kill a dog, you lose the audience. I’m not talking about stories that hinge on the death of a beloved pet: Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows may break our hearts, but we’ll accept it if it’s the event around which the entire narrative turns, and we’ll probably remember it forever. But you need to be careful when it comes to treating the death of a dog as just another plot point. Filmmakers from Michael Bay to Beau Willimon—who famously offed a dog in the first scene of House of Cards—have noted that viewers who can absorb the deaths of countless human characters without blinking will turn against the story the instant a dog is killed. In his commentary track with Christopher McQuarrie on The Usual Suspects, Bryan Singer notes that you see a dog for roughly three seconds on the ship that explodes at the movie’s climax, and after the preview screenings, someone invariably asked: “Did the dog die?” And Barbet Schroeder observes: “You know, if a filmmaker has a dog killed in a film, it will be felt ten times more by the audience than if you kill a human being…I had to kill a dog in Single White Female and I had so many problems.”

And it isn’t just dogs, either. Animals of all kinds evoke a curious kind of sympathy in the audience, and it’s especially hard to turn one into a villain. (This applies, at least, to mammals: we seem to have no trouble accepting a cold-blooded creature as a remorseless killing machine.) In his commentary for The Return of the King, Peter Jackson says that he had endless trouble with the mumakil, the massive elephantine creatures that attack Minas Tirith. Viewers, he found, were more likely to feel sorry for them, so he cut most of the shots of mumakil being pierced by arrows, keeping only the one that Legolas takes down singlehanded. I’d also bet that a lot of moviegoers remember the dog that gets killed—and not without reason—in No Country for Old Men more vividly than most of that film’s other victims. And its inverse, in which a character shows exceptional kindness to animals, is sometimes a strategy of its own. Will Graham on Hannibal can be a glum, inaccessible hero, but he’s redeemed to large extent by the love he shows to his dogs, and lazier movies and television shows often use the protagonist’s pets as a narrative shorthand for his likability. It’s no accident that the most influential book on screenwriting ever written is called Save the Cat!

Marlon Brando in The Godfather

Dogs have played a surprisingly large role in the history of cinema. These days, Lassie may have been reduced to little more than a corporate spokesdog, but Rin Tin Tin, as Susan Orlean reminds us, was once the most popular star in Hollywood—there’s a longstanding rumor that he won the first Oscar vote for Best Actor, only to have the award overruled. And we all owe a great deal to a dog named Indiana: George Lucas’s Alaskan malamute is responsible for no fewer than two iconic movie characters, since the image of Chewbacca as copilot on the Millennium Falcon was inspired by his memories of driving around with his dog in the front seat. Occasionally, dogs will be treated to cameos, like Michael Powell’s two cocker spaniels, Erik and Spangle, who pop up in Contraband, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going!, and A Matter of Life and Death. And screenwriters, in particular, love their dogs, perhaps because life has taught them to bitterly distrust everybody else. When Robert Towne was fired from Greystoke, he gave the writing credit to his sheepdog, P.H. Vazak, who subsequently became the first dog to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

If dogs are a more common sight in movies than cats, it’s because they’re a director’s idea of the perfect actor: they hit their marks, act on command, and can be relied upon to listen to instructions. Cats refuse to be trained, and the only real strategy the movies have ever developed, short of tossing a cat into the frame for the sake of a jump scare, has been to film the cat for hours in hopes that it does something interesting, as George Stevens did in The Diary of Anne Frank. The most iconic cat in movies is probably the one Don Corleone cradles in The Godfather, and even that was something of an accident—Coppola simply saw the cat wandering around the studio that day and thrust it impulsively into Brando’s hands. And my favorite cinematic cat, the one that appears in Saul Bass’s incredible opening titles for Walk on the Wild Side, gives a nuanced performance that was essentially created in the editing room. (Digital effects, of course, have made the whole business somewhat easier, and the news that Kevin Spacey has just been cast as a talking cat in an upcoming movie fills me with an odd kind of delight.) Dogs simply exist to love and be loved, while cats, like audiences, are more fickle in their affections. And if filmmakers generally avoid them, it’s probably because making a movie is enough like herding cats already.

Quote of the Day

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Noah Adams

If you’re thrown into an interview situation underprepared, one question that always works is “What did you think this was going to be like before you started, and then what was it really like?”

—Attributed to Noah Adams

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January 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

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“Before I knew thy face or name…”

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"Rogozin turned to face her..."

Note: This post is the seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 6. You can read the previous installments here.

If I had to sum up the creative process in just one phrase, it would be as the conversion of the arbitrary into the inevitable. A finished work of art presents itself to us as a coherent set of symbols, but the process behind it is always somewhat random and contingent. A single decision that seemed like an intuitively good idea at the time can have unpredictable repercussions down the line, and each link in that chain represents just one out of many diverging possibilities. Some alternatives are clearly better than others, but it’s impossible to say which one is the best, and even an artist’s most logical choices are predicated on moments that emerged earlier out of impulse and chance. Revising the result so that it seems all of a piece may feel like trickery, but it’s really another instance of how art strains to imitate life. A lifetime is made up of countless incidents that could have gone any number of ways, and it’s often the smallest things—a smile, a harsh or kind word, a book or article read at the right time—that nudge us along the path we end up taking. And if it all seems obvious in retrospect, it’s only because we’ve engaged in a form of editing and unconscious revision of our own.

In fiction, both halves of the process—the arbitrary and the inevitable—are equally essential. In order to write a story that seems inevitable in itself, we first need to generate a sufficient amount of arbitrary material, like the chaos that precedes the biblical act of creation. Sometimes that search for randomness can be conscious and systematic; more often, it’s merely a result of the way authors think, gleaning bits and pieces of action, imagery, and information that might be useful later. Attaining a critical mass of raw data, which can consist equally of research, imagination, and personal experience, is an indispensable initial step, for the architects as much as the gardeners. A few decent hunches, or details that might as well have been drawn out of a hat, provide the initial set of constraints required to guide the rest. Later, we can be more logical about the details we introduce to fill in the gaps, and logic takes over entirely at certain stages of writing and revision, but those elements grow like a crystal around the seed that chance provides. And this can apply as much to the largest aspects of a story, like plot and character, as to the tiny touches a writer puts in because it felt right at the time.

"Before I knew thy face or name..."

Take the character of Vitaly Rogozin in Eternal Empire. He’s only onstage for a handful of chapters, and he serves largely as a plot point to advance the overall story, but as supporting figures go in these books, he’s a pretty good one. His core conception—a famous dissident and exile who turns out to have been working for Russian intelligence all along—feels like the kind of thing a novel like this would have in mind from the beginning. Yet nearly everything I know about him was decided either on a whim or as a consequence of prior choices I’d made without much thought. Rogozin first appears in City of Exiles as the handler Karvonen meets at the opening of the novel, and the role he plays there is purely functional. He doesn’t even have a name, and in the earliest drafts, he didn’t have much in the way of distinguishing characteristics either. When I belatedly realized that this character, whoever the hell he was, would play a major role in any sequel, I went back and introduced a few details that were sufficiently specific to pay off in the next book but vague enough to leave me some wriggle room. (Whenever I add escape hatches like this, I always think of the moment at the end of Wrath of Khan when Spock touches McCoy’s head and says “Remember.” At the time, nobody involved knew what it meant, but they were shrewd enough to know it would come in handy in Star Trek III.)

Ultimately, I say only that Karvonen’s handler is missing two fingers on his left hand. Why? I don’t know. It seemed memorable; it was concise enough to be tossed off in a sentence of description; and it made it clear that the unnamed handler wasn’t someone else we were going to meet later—which may have been the most important consideration. When it came to fleshing out the character for Eternal Empire, I hit quickly on the idea of making him a literary figure like Solzhenitsyn, although his appearance is closer to Nabokov’s, because it struck me as a choice that would hold my own interest. His missing fingers turned into a piece of backstory: as a reluctant recruit in the Soviet army, he blew them off himself rather than take part in the invasion of Prague. (This feels a lot like an idea I lifted from somewhere else, although I can’t for the life of me remember from where.) And the mistake that betrayed him, as revealed in Chapter 6, was like a filament strung between two narrative necessities. Wolfe’s first clue to his identity was a quote from the poet John Donne in one of the handler’s emails. Donne was another detail I found lying around in City of Exiles, where it was introduced for unrelated thematic reasons, but it also looks ahead to later in Eternal Empire, when the same poem exposes the true motivations of another major character. If it works, it should feel like something I had in mind from the start. Which is just another form of deception…

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January 29, 2015 at 9:41 am

Quote of the Day

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January 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Character counts

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Novel spreadsheet with chapter lengths

A couple of years ago, I published a post called “Writing by Numbers,” in which I described the unconventional approach I took to editing my novel Eternal Empire. I’d already made several passes through the manuscript with an eye to cuts, but it was still nowhere close to 100,000 words, which was the maximum I’d contracted to deliver. What I did, in the end, was make a spreadsheet in which I recorded the length of each chapter and how much it fell short or exceeded the average. Chapters that ran long for no good reason became targets for pruning. (I was especially hard on transitional chapters, which included material that was necessary to advance the story, but which were relatively sedate compared to the central set pieces and action scenes.) And it all sort of worked. The manuscript shed several thousand words, a line or two at a time, and I still credit this quantitative approach with guiding my scalpel to the right places. In all likelihood, if I’d tackled the edit more intuitively, I would have cut most of it anyway, but the numbers gave me the push I needed.

In retrospect, though, I’ve concluded that the numbers weren’t the key factor here. The spreadsheet was less important in itself than as a kind of conceptual screen, a way of regarding a familiar manuscript from a new angle. Revision hinges on the ability to read your own work as it if had been written by a stranger, or, as Zadie Smith says, even an enemy, and nearly every relevant strategy has this end result in mind. The simplest way to get some distance is to take some time off—ideally four to six weeks, and it’s even better if you’ve been working on an unrelated project in the meantime. Changing the typeface, font size, or margins has a similarly alienating effect, although I’m rarely brave enough to go that far. The same is true of reading the work in a different setting, out loud, or on paper rather than on your laptop. And the quantitative approach has an analogous effect: it directs your attention to areas of the story you might never have noticed if you were merely reading through it with an author’s eye. Any target word count is inherently arbitrary, but that’s exactly why it works.

A page from my rough draft

I got to thinking about this again after a friend recommended that I read the thoughts of ecologist Stephen Heard on the subject of revision. Heard is speaking to an audience of academic writers, and his advice has more to do with submitting journal articles for review than with writing a novel, but many of his points are still valuable. He covers some of the same tips that I mention above—reviewing your work in a different font, in a different location, or even at a time of day when you’re tired—and he has a particularly interesting take on revising for length: “Manuscript lengths are most often expressed as word counts, but I suggest you work with character counts instead, because replacing long words with short ones is just as helpful to the reader as reducing the number of words.” This takes the quantitative approach to the extreme: the story is no longer a series of pages, or even individual words, but a string of characters, each of which has equal weight when it comes to reducing the length. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have a feeling that it might turn out to be a useful tool, especially in nonfiction, even if its effects are close to subliminal. 

Obviously, an approach like this might be more practical in reworking a 2,000-word essay than a 100,000-word novel, for which it feels a little like digging a hole through a cliff with a needle, as the Humbug does in The Phantom Tollbooth. But while it might not be entirely feasible for longer works, it can’t help but make you more aware about the average length of your words, which can only be a good thing. It reminds me of an analogy given by the great Christopher Alexander, who describes how we can check whether a metal surface is smooth by inking a standard block and rubbing it against the face we’re testing:

If our metal face is not quite level, ink marks appear on it at those points which are higher than the rest. We grind these high spots, and try to fit it against the block again. The face is level when it fits the block perfectly, so that there are no high spots which stand out any more.

What’s nice about this approach is that the evidence is unambiguous—the marks show you exactly where the surface needs grinding. In fiction, the result doesn’t need to be a uniform face: all good novels have peaks and valleys, alternating rhythms, and variety of pacing. But the first step is to figure out what you have. And as in most things in life, the numbers can reveal patterns that the eye alone never could.

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January 28, 2015 at 9:21 am

Quote of the Day

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John Zachary Young

Each individual uses the store of randomness, with which he was born, to build during his life rules which are useful and can be passed on…We might therefore take as our general picture of the universe a system of continuity in which there are two elements, randomness and organization, disorder and order, if you like, alternating with one another in such a fashion as to maintain continuity.

John Zachary Young

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January 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

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