Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 2015

“That’s all I was asked to give…”

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"Bogdan spoke first..."

Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 38. You can read the previous installments here.

Ever since I got it for Christmas, I’ve been slowly working my way through the special features for the Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, which, among its other pleasures, offers us the chance to listen once more to the voice of Christopher McQuarrie, one of the smartest men in movies. As with such legendary screenwriters as David Mamet or Robert Towne, nearly everything McQuarrie has to say is of interest, and his commentary track and interviews are loaded with insights into the challenges of making a huge franchise movie by the seat of your pants. (My favorite tip is that if you’re filming a scene with a lot of exposition, keep the characters in tight closeup, against a backdrop that can be easily recreated in the studio, just in case you need to reshoot the whole thing to accommodate a change in the plot.) And he tells an amusing anecdote about how the movie solved a tricky narrative problem. The film’s obvious high point is the lengthy sequence at the Vienna Opera House, culminating in the assassination of the Chancellor of Austria, but for a long time, they didn’t know how the killing tied in with the rest of the script. McQuarrie and his producer Tom Cruise brainstormed various possibilities, but they were all impossibly convoluted, and they only slowed down the story at a crucial hinge point. Finally, on the day of the shoot, Cruise came up with a single line: “Killing the Chancellor tonight was a statement—the start of a new phase.” And that, incredibly, was all they needed.

I love this kind of thing, in part because it echoes how Alfred Hitchcock solved a similar dilemma in North by Northwest—a movie that Cruise consciously evokes in Rogue Nation‘s opening scene. In his famous interview with François Truffaut, which was recently the subject of its own documentary, Hitchcock says:

My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?”
The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and an exporter.”
“But what does he sell?”
“Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer.
Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!

And the suspense genre, in particular, often boils down to an exercise in seeing how little information you need to get from one point in the story to another.

"That's all I was asked to give..."

This can also apply to what was once a series of scenes: to accelerate the narrative, you cut the sequence down to the one moment that gets the point across. Pauline Kael hints at something like this in her initial, mostly unfavorable review of Raging Bull:

[Scorsese] makes this movie out of remembered high points, leaping from one to another. When Jake is courting the fifteen-year-old platinum-blond Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), he takes her to a miniature-golf course, and their little golf ball rolls into a little wooden church and never comes out. The scene is like one of a series in an old-movie montage showing the path to marriage. But Scorsese just puts in this one step; probably for him it stands for the series.

Kael may be right, but I think it’s more likely that additional material was written, shot, or improvised, and Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker kept cutting it until they ended up with the one scene that they needed. Raging Bull, like Goodfellas and Casino, is full of this kind of compression because it covers a large expanse of time, but the same is equally true of stories that cover a lot of space. You try to skip as many transitional moments as possible, and sometimes you end up nudging the balance a bit too far in the wrong direction. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne magically reappears in the besieged Gotham City after escaping from a foreign prison, and the film doesn’t provide any information whatsoever about how he did it. It’s easy to say “Well, he’s Batman,” but the lack of even the slightest nod toward the problem momentarily takes us out of the movie—a rare but not totally uncharacteristic lapse in an otherwise superbly organized film.

Chapter 38 of Eternal Empire provides a nice example of a single moment that takes the place of what could have been an entire sequence. Earlier in the novel, I establish that Vasylenko has been sprung from prison solely because he can provide safe passage, using his connections with the criminal underworld, on Ilya’s journey across Europe. To justify this, I needed to provide at least one instance in which those contacts were employed, and it ended up taking the form of this scene, in which Ilya and Bogdan visit the home of a “bride of the brotherhood” in Yalta. It’s a cute little chapter, in which Ilya obtains some necessary equipment, learns about the next phase of his mission, and even has a brief moment of emotional connection with the woman who has given him refuge. (It’s a small touch, but it will pay off much later, in the very last scene of the entire trilogy.) What’s funny, though, is that this could have been part of a much longer story arc. In his previous appearance, Ilya was in Moldova, or nearly five hundred miles to the west, and I don’t talk at all about how he got from one place to another, although he certainly could have had a few adventures along the way. At this point in the novel, though, it’s more important to keep the story clocking along, so his encounter with Katya—whose background, I’m fairly sure, was lifted from a few paragraphs in Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Education—has to stand in for the rest. I think that it works, and even if the reader momentarily wonders how Ilya got here, it doesn’t really matter. His next meeting, as we’re about to see, will be far more interesting…

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 31, 2015 at 7:30 am

The rendering time

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No-knead bread

Over the last month, I’ve started to bake bread at home, initially as an activity to share with my daughter. Not surprisingly, I’ve been relying on the no-knead recipe first developed by Jim Lahey and popularized by Mark Bittman a decade ago in the New York Times, which I recently rediscovered after neglecting it for years. As many amateur bakers know, it’s simplicity itself: instead of kneading, you mix a very wet dough with a tiny amount of yeast, and then let it rise for about eighteen hours. Bittman quotes Harold McGee, author of the legendary tome On Food and Cooking, who says:

It makes sense. The long, slow rise does over hours what intensive kneading does in minutes: it brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile in a high proportion of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.

Bittman continues: “Mr. McGee said he had been kneading less and less as the years have gone by, relying on time to do the work for him.” And the results, I’m pleased to confirm, are close to foolproof: even if you’re less than precise or make a few mistakes along the way, as I have, you almost always get a delicious, light, crusty loaf.

And the idea that you can use the power of time to achieve results that would otherwise require intensive work is central to much of modernist cuisine, as the freelance genius and food scientist Nathan Myhrvold notes in his massive book of the same name. Government food safety guidelines, he points out, are based on raising the core temperature of meat to a certain minimum, which is often set unreasonably high to account for different cooking styles and impatient chefs. In reality, most pathogens are killed by temperatures as low as 120 degrees Fahrenheit—but only if the food has been allowed to cook for a sufficient length of time. The idea that a lower temperature can be counterbalanced by a longer time is the basic premise behind sous vide, in which food is cooked in a warm water bath for hours rather than more rapidly over high heat. This works because you’re trading one kind of precision for another: the temperature is carefully controlled over the course of the cooking process, but once you’re past a certain point, you can be less precise about the time. Anyone who has ever prepared a meal in a crock pot knows this, and the marvel of sous vide lies in how it applies the same basic insight to a wider variety of recipes. (In fact, there’s a little gadget that you can buy for less than a hundred dollars that can convert any crock pot into a sous vide machine, and although I haven’t bought one for myself yet, I intend to try it one of these days.)

Sous vide

But the relationship between intensity and time has applications far beyond the kitchen. Elsewhere, I’ve talked about the rendering time that all creative acts seem to require: it seems that you just have to live with a work of art for a certain period, and if your process has become more efficient, you still fill that time by rendering or revising the work. As Blinn’s Law states: “As technology advances, rendering time remains constant.” And rendering, of course, is also a term from the food industry, in which the inedible waste from the butcher shop is converted, using time and heat, into something useful or delicious. But one lesson that artists quickly learn is that time can be used in place of intensity, as well as the other way around. Many of the writing rules that I try to follow—trim ten percent from each draft, cut the beginning and ending of every scene, overlap the action, remove transitional moments—are tricks to circumvent a protracted revision process, with intense work and scrutiny over a focused window taking the place of a longer, less structured engagement. If I just sat and fiddled with the story for months or years, I’d probably end up making most of the same changes, but I use these rules of thumb to hurry up the revisions that I would have made anyway. They aren’t always right, and they can’t entirely take the place of an extended period of living with a story, but I can rely on them to get maybe ninety percent of the way there, and the time I save more than compensates for that initial expenditure of energy.

And art, like cooking, often consists of finding the right balance between time and intensity. I’ve found that I write best in bursts of focused activity, which is why I try to keep my total working time for a short story to a couple of weeks or so. But I’ve also learned to set the resulting draft aside for a while before the final revision and submission, which allows me to subconsciously work through the remaining problems and find any plot holes. (On a few occasions that I haven’t done this, I’ve submitted a story only to realize within a day or two that I’d overlooked something important.) The amount of real work I do remains the same, but like dough rising quietly on the countertop, the story has time to align itself in my brain while I’m occupied with other matters. And while time can do wonders for any work of art, the few good tricks I use to speed up the process are still necessary: you aren’t likely to give up on your dough just because it takes an extra day to rise, but the difference between a novel that takes twelve months to write and one that takes three years often amounts to one you finish and one you abandon. The proper balance depends on many outside factors, and you may find that greater intensity and less time, or vice versa, is the approach you need to make it fit with everything else in your life. But baking no-knead bread has reminded me that we have a surprising amount of control over the relationship between the two. And as we approach the start of a new year—or what the Irish once called the Day of the Buttered Bread—we should start to think about what we can set to rise, or render, right now.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2015 at 8:34 am

Quote of the Day

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Lynn Nottage

The problem [in theater] is that you have all these institutions that have invested in buildings that are very expensive and have to be maintained, and they have to have something to put on their stage and to feed the desires of their subscribers, and as a result they’re selecting work that is popular enough to sell tickets. Which means that writers are creating work to get produced. And I’m like, what if you stopped thinking that way? Theater today doesn’t have to exist in the proscenium anymore.

Lynn Nottage, to American Theatre

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

Revenge of the list

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Note: A few minor spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

When I try to explain my mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movie, I find myself turning, heretically, to a story about the franchise’s greatest rival. Nicholas Meyer was, in many ways, the J.J. Abrams of his day: a hugely talented, relatively young outsider who was brought in to correct the course of a series that had lost its sense of purpose. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan, but he was able to find elements—like its echoes of the Horatio Hornblower novels—that he could highlight and enlarge. When he signed on to write and direct the first sequel, however, five separate scripts had already been written, and he had to prepare a workable screenplay in twelve days. His response to the challenge resulted in one of my favorite Hollywood anecdotes ever, as Meyer recounts it in his memoir The View From the Bridge:

“Well, here’s my other idea,” I told them, taking a deep breath and producing a yellow legal pad from under my chair. “Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even…And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose…”

We then made the list. It included…Khan (from the “Space Seed” episode…); the Genesis Project (creating planetary life); Kirk meeting his son; Lieutenant Saavik (Spock’s beautiful Vulan protégée); the death of Spock; and the simulator sequence…All these materials were culled higgledy-piggledy from the five different drafts that I never—to the best of my recollection—consulted again.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I never tire of retelling this story, both as an illustration of the power of lists as a creative tool and as a reminder of how surprising, organic narratives can emerge from the most artificial of beginnings. And it’s as true today as it ever was. In the excellent bonus features for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they began writing the movie with a list of action set pieces, and that important emotional beats—including Ilsa Faust’s motivations and the entire character of Attlee—emerged when they put those scenes in a certain order. Matthew Weiner and his core writing staff assembled a list of possible themes and ideas to revisit when it came time to plot out the final season of Mad Men. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen The Peanuts Movie, of which I wrote: “[It] sometimes plays as if it had been written according to the model that Nicholas Meyer used when cracking The Wrath of Khan…The result is an anthology, gracefully assembled, of the best moments from the strip and specials.” And now, of course, we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which struck me when I first saw it as a kind of greatest hits collection from the original trilogy, only to have this confirmed by the same Wired interview with J.J. Abrams that I discussed yesterday: “When we began working on this film, Larry [Kasdan] and I started by making a list of things that we knew held interest for us, the things we wanted to see, the things we felt were important.”

Nicholas Meyer and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yet the fact remains that The Wrath of Khan comes off as a seamless burst of pure story, while The Force Awakens, for all its considerable merits, still feels like a list. (The best thing that could be said for it, and this shouldn’t be lightly disregarded, is that it’s the right list. ) When you look at the list that Meyer put together for Star Trek, with the notable exception of Khan himself, you see that it consists of ideas that audiences hadn’t seen before. The Force Awakens, by contrast, is a list of things that are familiar, and once we’ve seen a couple of moments or images that remind us of the original movies, we naturally start a mental checklist as we keep an eye out for more. Sometimes, the way it quotes its predecessors is delightful; at other times, as when it gears up for yet another aerial assault on an impregnable planetary superweapon, it’s less than wonderful. As the Resistance prepared for the attack on Starkiller Base, I felt a slight sinking feeling: two out of the first three Star Wars movies ended in exactly the same way, perhaps as a nod to The Dam Busters, and I hoped that Abrams was about to spring some kind of novel twist or variation on that theme. Obviously, he doesn’t, to the extent that he includes a story point—a small group on the ground fighting to deactivate the shield generator—lifted straight from Return of the Jedi. It isn’t hard to imagine a version of this sort of climax that would have given us something new: I’d love to see a full-on Saving Private Ryan sequence showing an infantry assault on the base, or even a naval battle. And if we didn’t get it here, it’s because Abrams and the rest were sticking closely to their list.

But this kind of respectful homage is utterly alien to the spirit of the original movies themselves, which were eager to show us things that we had never imagined. The opening scenes on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, immediately expand the possibilities of that universe: not only does the ice planet give us a gloriously different backdrop, but the battle with the Imperial Walkers feels like a deliberate inversion of the dogfights that ended the first movie. The entire film, in fact, plays like a deliciously inverted list: it takes the things that audiences loved about Star Wars and then turns them all by a hundred and eighty degrees. The Force Awakens lacks that kind of basic invention, as much I liked so much of it. (Among other things, it makes it unnecessary to watch the prequels ever again. If Disney follows through with its plans of releasing a movie of comparable quality every year, Episode I, II, and III will start to take on the status of The Sting II or Grease 2: we’ll have trouble remembering that they even exist.) It’s possible that, like the first season of Fargo, the new movie’s energies were devoted mostly to establishing its bona fides, and that the next batch of sequels will be more willing to go into unexpected directions. Still, the fact remains that while Abrams and Kasdan made a great list, they failed to add anything new to it—which raises the troubling implication that the galaxy of Star Wars, after six films, isn’t as vast or rich with potential as we always thought it was. I hope that isn’t the case. But now that Abrams and his collaborators have gotten that list out of their system, the next thing they need to do is throw it into the nearest trash compactor.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The forced error

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R2-D2 and J.J. Abrams on the set of The Force Awakens

Note: Oblique spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

At this point, it might seem that there isn’t anything new left to say about The Force Awakens, but I’d like to highlight a revealing statement from director J.J. Abrams that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been given its due emphasis before. It appears in an interview that was published by Wired on November 9, or over a month in advance of the film’s release. When the reporter Scott Dadich asks if there are any moments from the original trilogy that stand out to him, Abrams replies:

It would be a much shorter conversation to talk about the scenes that didn’t stand out. As a fan of Star Wars, I can look at those movies and both respect and love what they’ve done. But working on The Force Awakens, we’ve had to consider them in a slightly different context. For example, it’s very easy to love “I am your father.” But when you think about how and when and where that came, I’m not sure that even Star Wars itself could have supported that story point had it existed in the first film, Episode IV. Meaning: It was a massively powerful, instantly classic moment in movie history, but it was only possible because it stood on the shoulders of the film that came before it. There had been a couple of years to allow the idea of Darth Vader to sink in, to let him emerge as one of the greatest movie villains ever. Time built up everyone’s expectations about the impending conflict between Luke and Vader. If “I am your father” had been in the first film, I don’t know if it would have had the resonance. I actually don’t know if it would have worked.

Taken in isolation, the statement is interesting but not especially revelatory. When we revisit it in light of what we now know about The Force Awakens, however, it takes on a startling second meaning. It’s hard not to read it today without thinking of a particular reveal about one new character and the sudden departure of another important player. When I first saw the film, without having read the interview in Wired, it immediately struck me that these plot points were in the wrong movie: they seemed much more like moments that would have felt more at home in the second installment of the sequel trilogy, and not merely because the sequence in question openly pays homage to the most memorable scene in The Empire Strikes Back. To venture briefly into spoilerish territory: if Kylo Ren had been allowed to dominate the entirety of The Force Awakens “as one of the greatest movie villains ever,” to use Abrams’s own words, the impact of his actions and what we learn about his motivations would have been far more powerful—but only if they had been saved for Episode VIII. As it stands, we’re introduced to Ren and his backstory all but in the same breath, and it can’t help but feel rushed. Similarly, when another important character appears and exits the franchise within an hour or so of screentime, it feels like a wasted opportunity. They only had one chance to do it right, and compressing what properly should have been the events of two films into one is a real flaw in an otherwise enjoyable movie.

The Empire Strikes Back

And what intrigues me the most about the quote above is that Abrams himself seems agonizingly aware of the issue. When you read over his response again, it becomes clear that he isn’t quite responding to the question that the interviewer asked. Instead, he goes off on a tangent that wouldn’t even have occurred to him if it hadn’t already been on his mind. I have no way of looking into Abrams’s brain, Jedi style, but it isn’t difficult to imagine what happened. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt—the three credited screenwriters, which doesn’t even take into account the countless other producers and executives who took a hand in the process—must have discussed the timing of these plot elements in detail, along with so many others, and at some point, the question would have been raised as to whether they might not better be saved for a later movie. Abrams’s statement to Wired feels like an undigested excerpt from those discussions that surfaced in an unrelated context, simply because he happened to remember it in the course of the interview. (Anyone who has ever been interviewed, and who wants to give well-reasoned responses, will know how this works: you often end up repurposing thoughts and material that you’ve worked up elsewhere, if they have even the most tangential relevance to the topic at hand.) If you replace “Darth Vader” with “Kylo Ren” in Abrams’s reply, and make a few other revisions to square it with Episode VII, you can forensically reconstruct one side of an argument that must have taken place in the offices of Bad Robot on multiple occasions. And Abrams never forgot it.

So what made him decide to ignore an insight so good that he practically internalized it? There’s no way of knowing for sure, but it seems likely that contract negotiations with one of the actors involved—and those who have seen the movie will know which one I mean—affected the decision to move this scene up to where it appears now. Dramatically speaking, it’s in the wrong place, but Abrams and his collaborators may not have had a choice. As he implies throughout this interview and elsewhere, The Force Awakens was made under conditions of enormous pressure: it isn’t just a single movie, but the opening act in the renewal of a global entertainment franchise, and the variables involved are so complicated that no one filmmaker can have full control over the result. (It’s also tempting to put some of the blame on Abrams’s directing style, which rushes headlong from one plot point to another as if this were the only new Star Wars movie we were ever going to get. The approach works wonderfully in the first half, which is refreshingly eager to get down to business and slot the necessary pieces into place, but it starts to backfire in the second and third acts, which burn through big moments so quickly that we’re left scrambling to feel anything about what we’ve seen.) Tomorrow, I’m going to talk a little more about how the result left me feeling both optimistic and slightly wary of what the future of Star Wars might bring. But in this particular instance, Abrams made an error. Or he suspects that he did. And when he searches his feelings, he knows it to be true.

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2015 at 10:16 am

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