Alec Nevala-Lee

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My ten creative books #7: On Directing Film

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On Directing Film

Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

When it comes to giving advice on something as inherently unteachable as writing, books on the subject tend to fall into one of three categories. The first treats the writing manual as an extension of the self-help genre, offering what amounts to an extended pep talk that is long on encouragement but short on specifics. A second, more useful approach is to consolidate material on a variety of potential strategies, either through the voices of multiple writers—as George Plimpton did so wonderfully in The Writer’s Chapbook, which assembles the best of the legendary interviews given to The Paris Review—or through the perspective of a writer and teacher, like John Gardner, generous enough to consider the full range of what the art of fiction can be. And the third, exemplified by David Mamet’s On Directing Film, is to lay out a single, highly prescriptive recipe for constructing stories. This last approach might seem unduly severe. Yet after a lifetime of reading what other writers have to say on the subject, Mamet’s little book is still the best I’ve ever found, not just for film, but for fiction and narrative nonfiction as well. On one level, it can serve as a starting point for your own thoughts about how the writing process should look: Mamet provides a strict, almost mathematical set of tools for building a plot from first principles, and even if you disagree with his methods, they clarify your thinking in a way that a more generalized treatment might not. But even if you just take it at face value, it’s still the closest thing I know to a foolproof formula for generating rock-solid first drafts. (If Mamet himself has a flaw as a director, it’s that he often stops there.) In fact, it’s so useful, so lucid, and so reliable that I sometimes feel reluctant to recommend it, as if I were giving away an industrial secret to my competitors.

Mamet’s principles are easy to grasp, but endlessly challenging to follow. You start by figuring out what every scene is about, mostly by asking one question: “What does the protagonist want?” You then divide each scene up into a sequence of beats, consisting of an immediate objective and a logical action that the protagonist takes to achieve it, ideally in a form that can be told in visual terms, without the need for expository dialogue. And you repeat the process until the protagonist succeeds or fails at his or her ultimate objective, at which point the story is over. This may sound straightforward, but as soon as you start forcing yourself to think this way consistently, you discover how tough it can be. Mamet’s book consists of a few simple examples, teased out in a series of discussions at a class he taught at Columbia, and it’s studded with insights that once heard are never forgotten: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” “Here is a tool—choose your shots, beats, scenes, objectives, and always refer to them by the names you chose.” “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate those rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.” “The audience doesn’t want to read a sign; they want to watch a motion picture.” “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” “Now, why did all those Olympic skaters fall down? The only answer I know is that they hadn’t practiced enough.” And my own personal favorite: “The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.”

Written by nevalalee

August 7, 2018 at 9:00 am

Famous monsters of filmland

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For his new book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of the Movies, the journalist Ben Fritz reviewed every email from the hack of Sony Pictures, which are still available online. Whatever you might think about the ethics of using such material, it’s a gold mine of information about how Hollywood has done business over the last decade, and Fritz has come up with some fascinating nuggets. One of the most memorable finds is an exchange between studio head Amy Pascal and the producer Scott Rudin, who was trying to convince her to take a chance on Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Steve Jobs. Pascal had expressed doubts about the project, particularly over the casting of Michael Fassbender in the lead, and after arguing it was less risky than The Social Network, Rudin delivered a remarkable pep talk:

You ought to be doing this movie—period—and you and I both know that the cold feet you are feeling is costing you this movie that you want. Once you have cold feet, you’re done. You’re making this decision in the anticipation of how you will be looked at in failure. That’s how you fail. So you’re feeling wobbly in the job right now. Here’s the fact: nothing conventional you could do is going to change that, and there is no life-changing hit that is going to fall into your lap that is not a nervous decision, because the big obvious movies are going to go elsewhere and you don’t have the IP right now to create them from standard material. You have this. Face it…Force yourself to muster some confidence about it and do the exact thing right now for which your career will be known in movie history: be the person who makes the tough decisions and sticks with them and makes the unlikely things succeed. Fall on your sword—when you’ve lost that, it’s finished. You’re the person who does these movies. That’s—for better or worse—who you are and who you will remain. To lose that is to lose yourself.

Steve Jobs turned out to be a financial disappointment, and its failure—despite the prestige of its subject, director, and cast—feels emblematic of the move away from films driven by stars to those that depend on “intellectual property” of the kind that Sony lacked. In particular, the movie industry seems to have shifted to a model perfected by Marvel Studios, which builds a cinematic universe that can drum up excitement for future installments and generate huge grosses overseas. Yet this isn’t exactly new. In the groundbreaking book The Genius of the System, which was published three decades ago, Thomas Schatz notes that Universal did much the same in the thirties, when it pioneered the genre of cinematic horror under founder Carl Laemmle and his son:

The horror picture scarcely emerged full-blown from the Universal machinery, however. In fact, the studio had been cultivating the genre for years, precisely because it played to Universal’s strengths and maximized its resources…Over the years Carl Laemmle built a strong international distribution system, particularly in Europe…[European filmmakers] brought a fascination for the cinema’s distinctly unrealistic qualities, its capacity to depict a surreal landscape of darkness, nightmare logic, and death. This style sold well in Europe.

After noting that the aesthetics of horror lent itself to movies built out of little more than shadows and fog, which were the visual effects of its time, Schatz continues: “This rather odd form of narrative economy was vitally important to a studio with limited financial resources and no top stars to carry its pictures. And in casting, too, the studio turned a limitation into an asset, since the horror film did not require romantic leads or name stars.”

The turning point was Tod Browning’s Dracula, a movie “based on a presold property” that could serve as an entry point for other films along the same lines. It didn’t require a star, but “an offbeat character actor,” and Universal’s expectations for it eerily foreshadow the way in which studio executives still talk today. Schatz writes:

Laemmle was sure it would [succeed]—so sure, in fact, that he closed the Frankenstein deal several weeks before Dracula’s February 1931 release. The Lugosi picture promptly took off at the box office, and Laemmle was more convinced than ever that the horror film was an ideal formula for Universal, given its resources and the prevailing market conditions. He was convinced, too, that he had made the right decision with Frankenstein, which had little presold appeal but now had the success of Dracula to generate audience anticipation.

Frankenstein, in short, was sort of like the Ant-Man of the thirties, a niche property that leveraged the success of its predecessors into something like real excitement. It worked, and Universal’s approach to its monsters anticipates what Marvel would later do on a vaster scale, with “ambitious crossover events” like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula that combined the studio’s big franchises with lesser names that seemed unable to carry a film on their own. (If Universal’s more recent attempt to do the same with The Mummy fell flat, it was partially because it was unable to distinguish between the horror genre, the star picture, and the comic book movie, resulting in a film that turned out to be none of the above. The real equivalent today would be Blumhouse Productions, which has done a much better job of building its brand—and which distributes its movies through Universal.)

And the inability of such movies to provide narrative closure isn’t a new development, either. After seeing James Whale’s Frankenstein, Carl Laemmle, Jr. reacted in much the same way that executives presumably do now:

Junior Laemmle was equally pleased with Whale’s work, but after seeing the rough cut he was certain that the end of the picture needed to be changed. His concerns were twofold. The finale, in which both Frankenstein and his monster are killed, seemed vaguely dissatisfying; Laemmle suspected that audiences might want a glimmer of hope or redemption. He also had a more pragmatic concern about killing off the characters—and thus any possibility of sequels. Laemmle now regretted letting Professor Van Helsing drive that stake through Count Dracula’s heart, since it consigned the original character to the grave…Laemmle was not about to make the same mistake by letting that angry mob do away with the mad doctor and his monster.

Whale disagreed, but he was persuaded to change the ending after a preview screening, leaving open the possibility that the monster might have survived. Over eight decades later, Joss Whedon offered a similar explanation in an interview with Mental Floss: “It’s difficult because you’re living in franchise world—not just Marvel, but in most big films—where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant…My feeling in these situations with Marvel is that if somebody has to be placed on the altar and sacrificed, I’ll let you guys decide if they stay there.” For now, we’re living in a world made by the Universal monsters—and with only a handful of viable properties, half of which are owned by Disney. Without them, it might seem impossible, as Rudin said, “to create them from standard material.” But we’re also still waiting to be blindsided by the next great franchise. As another famous monster once put it: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” And when it came to the movies, at least, Steve Jobs was right.

My great books #9: On Directing Film

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On Directing Film

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here

When it comes to giving advice on something as inherently unteachable as writing, books on the subject tend to fall into one of three categories. The first treats the writing manual as an extension of the self-help genre, offering what amounts to an extended pep talk that is long on encouragement but short on specifics. A second, more useful approach is to consolidate material on a variety of potential strategies, either through the voices of multiple writers—as George Plimpton did so wonderfully in The Writer’s Chapbook, which assembles the best of the legendary interviews given to The Paris Review—or through the perspective of a writer and teacher, like John Gardner, generous enough to consider the full range of what the art of fiction can be. And the third, exemplified by David Mamet’s On Directing Film, is to lay out a single, highly prescriptive recipe for constructing stories. This last approach might seem unduly severe. Yet after a lifetime of reading what other writers have to say on the subject, Mamet’s little book is still the best I’ve ever found, not just for film, but for fiction and narrative nonfiction as well. On one level, it can serve as a starting point for your own thoughts about how the writing process should look: Mamet provides a strict, almost mathematical set of tools for building a plot from first principles, and even if you disagree with his methods, they clarify your thinking in a way that a more generalized treatment might not. But even if you just take it at face value, it’s still the closest thing I know to a foolproof formula for generating rock-solid first drafts. (If Mamet himself has a flaw as a director, it’s that he often stops there.) In fact, it’s so useful, so lucid, and so reliable that I sometimes feel reluctant to recommend it, as if I were giving away an industrial secret to my competitors.

Mamet’s principles are easy to grasp, but endlessly challenging to follow. You start by figuring out what every scene is about, mostly by asking one question: “What does the protagonist want?” You then divide each scene up into a sequence of beats, consisting of an immediate objective and a logical action that the protagonist takes to achieve it, ideally in a form that can be told in visual terms, without the need for expository dialogue. And you repeat the process until the protagonist succeeds or fails at his or her ultimate objective, at which point the story is over. This may sound straightforward, but as soon as you start forcing yourself to think this way consistently, you discover how tough it can be. Mamet’s book consists of a few simple examples, teased out in a series of discussions at a class he taught at Columbia, and it’s studded with insights that once heard are never forgotten: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.” “Here is a tool—choose your shots, beats, scenes, objectives, and always refer to them by the names you chose.” “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate those rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.” “The audience doesn’t want to read a sign; they want to watch a motion picture.” “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” “Now, why did all those Olympic skaters fall down? The only answer I know is that they hadn’t practiced enough.” And my own personal favorite: “The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.”

Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2015 at 9:00 am

My great books #7: The Biographical Dictionary of Film

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The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is one of the weirdest books in all of literature, and more than the work of any other critic, it has subtly changed the way I think about both life and the movies. His central theme—which is stated everywhere and nowhere—is the essential strangeness of turning shadows on a screen into men and women who can seem more real to us than the people in our own lives. His writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of his earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies. And his looniness is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing much the same thing. (If his work is a secret novel, its real precursor is Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. A recent, bewildered review of his latest book on The A.V. Club is a good example of the reaction he gets from readers who aren’t in on the joke.)

But if you leave him with nothing but his perversity and obsessiveness, you end up with Armond White, while Thomson succeeds because he’s also lucid, encyclopedically informed, and ultimately sane, although he does his best to hide it. The various editions of The Biographical Dictionary of Film haven’t been revised so much as they’ve accumulated: Thomson rarely goes back to rewrite earlier entries, but tacks on new thoughts to the end of each article, so that it grows by a process of accretion, like a coral reef. The result can be confusing, but when I go back to his earlier articles, I remember at once why this is still the essential book on film. I’ll look at Thomson on Coppola (“He is Sonny and Michael Corleone for sure, but there are traces of Fredo, too”); on Sydney Greenstreet (“Indeed, there were several men trapped in his grossness: the conventional thin man; a young man; an aesthete; a romantic”); or on Eleanor Powell’s dance with Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 (“Maybe the loveliest moment in films is the last second or so, as the dancers finish, and Powell’s alive frock has another half-turn, like a spirit embracing the person”). Or, perhaps most memorably of all, his thoughts on Citizen Kane, which, lest we forget, is about the futile search of a reporter named Thompson:

As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

It’s a strange, seductive, indispensable book, and to paraphrase Thomson’s own musings on Welles, it’s the greatest career in film criticism, the most tragic, and the one with the most warnings for the rest of us.

Written by nevalalee

November 10, 2015 at 9:00 am

The films of a life

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Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita

The other week, while musing on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—which I still haven’t seen—I noted that we often don’t have the chance to experience the movies that might speak most urgently to us at the later stages of our lives. Many of us who love film encounter the movies we love at a relatively young age, and we spend our teens and twenties devouring the classics that came out before we were born. And that’s exactly how it should be: when we’re young, we have the time and energy to explore enormous swaths of the canon, and we absorb images and stories that will enrich the years to come. Yet we’re also handicapped by being relatively inexperienced and emotionally circumscribed, at least compared to later in life. We’re wowed by technical excellence, virtuoso effects, relentless action, or even just a vision of the world in which we’d like to believe. And by the time we’re old enough to judge such things more critically, we find that we aren’t watching movies as much as we once were, and it takes a real effort to seek out the more difficult, reflective masterpieces that might provide us with signposts for the way ahead.   

What we can do, however, is look back at the movies we loved when we were younger and see what they have to say to us now. I’ve always treasured Roger Ebert’s account of his shifting feelings toward Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which he called “a page-marker in my own life”:

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw La Dolce Vita in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom “the sweet life” represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello’s world; Chicago’s North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello’s age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was ten years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him.

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

And when we realize how our feelings toward certain movies have shifted, it can be both moving and a little terrifying. Life transforms us so insidiously that it’s often only when we compare our feelings to a fixed benchmark that we become aware of the changes that have taken place. Watching Citizen Kane at twenty and again at thirty is a disorienting experience, especially when you’re hoping to make a life for yourself in the arts. Orson Welles was twenty-five when he directed it, and when you see it at twenty, it feels like both an inspiration and a challenge: part of you believes, recklessly, that you could be Welles, and the possibilities of the next few years of your life seem limitless. Looking back at it at thirty, after a decade’s worth of effort and compromise, you start to realize both the absurdity of his achievement and how singular it really is, and the movie seems suffused with what David Thomson calls Welles’s “vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent.” You begin to understand the ambivalence with which more experienced filmmakers regarded the Wellesian monster of energy and ambition, and it quietly affects the way you think about Kane‘s reflections on time and old age.

The more personal our attachment to a movie, the harder these lessons can be to swallow. The other night, I sat down to watch part of The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, for the first time in several years. It’s a movie I thought I knew almost frame by frame, and I do, but I hadn’t taken the emotional component into account. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it in high school, both for its incredible beauty and for the vision it offered of a life in the arts. Later, as I rewatched it in college and in my twenties, it provided a model, a warning, and a reminder of the values I was trying to honor. Now, after I’ve been through my own share of misadventures as a writer, it seems simultaneously like a fantasy and a bittersweet emblem of a world that still seems just out of reach. I’m older than many of the characters now—although I have yet to enter my Boris Lermontov phase—and my heart aches a little when I listen to Julian’s wistful, ambitious line: “I wonder what it feels like to wake up in the morning and find oneself famous.” If The Red Shoes once felt like a promise of what could be, it’s starting to feel to me now like what could have been, or might be again. Ten years from now, it will probably feel like something else entirely. And when that time comes, I’ll let you know what I find.

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2014 at 9:30 am

The best closing shots in film

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Lawrence of Arabia

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for the holidays, I’m reposting a couple of my favorite entries from early in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on January 13, 2011. Visual spoilers follow. Cover your eyes!

As I’ve noted before, the last line of a novel is almost always of interest, but the last line of a movie generally isn’t. It isn’t hard to understand why: movies are primarily a visual medium, and there’s a sense in which even the most brilliant dialogue can often seem beside the point. And as much the writer in me wants to believe otherwise, audiences don’t go to the movies to listen to words: they go to look at pictures.

Perhaps inevitably, then, there are significantly more great closing shots in film than there are great curtain lines. Indeed, the last shot of nearly every great film is memorable, so the list of finalists can easily expand into the dozens. Here, though, in no particular order, are twelve of my favorites. Click for the titles:

Jerry Goldsmith on the art of the film score

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Jerry Goldsmith

Working to timings and synchronising your musical thoughts with the film can be stimulating rather than restrictive. Scoring is a limitation but like any limitation it can be made to work for you. Verdi, except for a handful of pieces, worked best when he was “turned on” by a libretto. The most difficult problem in music is form, and in a film you already have this problem solved for you. You are presented with a basic structure, a blueprint, and provided the film has been well put together, well edited, it often suggests its own rhythms and tempo. The quality of the music is strictly up to the composer. Many people seem to assume that because film music serves the visual it must be something of secondary value. Well, the function of any art is to serve a purpose in society. For many years, music and painting served religion. The thing to bear in mind is that film is the youngest of the arts, and that scoring is the youngest of the music arts. We have a great deal of development ahead of us.

Jerry Goldsmith, quoted in Music for the Movies

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July 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

Daniel Clowes on the lessons of film editing

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To me, the most useful experience in working in “the film industry” has been watching and learning the editing process. You can write whatever you want and try to film whatever you want, but the whole thing really happens in that editing room. How do you edit comics? If you do them in a certain way, the standard way, it’s basically impossible. That’s what led me to this approach of breaking my stories into segments that all have a beginning and end on one, two, three pages. This makes it much easier to shift things around, to rearrange parts of the story sequence. It’s something that I’m really interested in trying to figure out, but there are pluses and minuses to every approach. For instance, I think if you did all your panels exactly the same size and left a certain amount of “breathing room” throughout the story, you could make fairly extensive after-the-fact changes, but you’d sacrifice a lot by doing that…

It’s a very mysterious process: you put together a cut of the film and at the first viewing it always seems just terrible, then you work on it for two weeks and you can’t imagine what else you could do with it; then six months later, you’re still working on it and making significant changes every day. It’s very odd, but you kind of know when it’s there.

Daniel Clowes, quoted by Todd Hignite in In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists

Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

Fiction into film: L.A. Confidential

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Of all the movies I’ve ever seen, Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential has influenced my own work the most. This isn’t to say that it’s my favorite movie of all time—although it’s certainly in the top ten—or even that I find its themes especially resonant: I have huge admiration for Ellroy’s talents, but it’s safe to say that he and I are operating under a different set of obsessions. Rather, it’s the structure of the film that I find so compelling: three protagonists, with three main stories, that interweave and overlap in unexpected ways until they finally converge at the climax. It’s a narrative structure that has influenced just about every novel I’ve ever written, or tried to write—and the result, ironically, has made my own work less adaptable for the movies.

Movies, you see, aren’t especially good at multiple plots and protagonists. Most screenplays center, with good reason, on a single character, the star part, whose personal story is the story of the movie. Anything that departs from this form is seen as inherently problematic, which is why L.A. Confidential’s example is so singular, so seductive, and so misleading. As epic and layered as the movie is, Ellroy’s novel is infinitely larger: it covers a longer span of time, with more characters and subplots, to the point where entire storylines—like that of a particularly gruesome serial killer—were jettisoned completely for the movie version. Originally it was optioned as a possible miniseries, which would have made a lot of sense, but to the eternal credit of Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, they decided that there might also be a movie here.

To narrow things down, they started with my own favorite creative tool: they made a list. As the excellent bonus materials for the film make clear, Hanson and Helgeland began with a list of characters or plot points they wanted to keep: Bloody Christmas, the Nite Owl massacre, Bud White’s romance with Lynn Bracken, and so on. Then they ruthlessly pared away the rest of the novel, keeping the strands they liked, finding ways to link them together, and writing new material when necessary, to the point where some of the film’s most memorable moments—including the valediction of Jack Vincennes and the final showdown at the Victory Motel, which repurposes elements of the book’s prologue—are entirely invented. And the result, as Ellroy says, was a kind of “alternate life” for the characters he had envisioned.

So what are the lessons here? For aspiring screenwriters, surprisingly few: a film like L.A. Confidential appears only a couple of times each decade, and the fact that it was made at all, without visible compromise, is one of the unheralded miracles of modern movies. If nothing else, though, it’s a reminder that adaptation is less about literal faithfulness than fidelity of spirit. L.A. Confidential may keep less than half of Ellroy’s original material, but it feels as turbulent and teeming with possibility, and gives us the sense that some of the missing stories may still be happening here, only slightly offscreen. Any attempt to adapt similarly complex material without that kind of winnowing process, as in the unfortunate Watchmen, usually leaves audiences bewildered. The key is to find the material’s alternate life. And no other movie has done it so well.

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2011 at 10:12 am

Fiction into film: The Silence of the Lambs

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It’s been just over twenty years now since The Silence of the Lambs was released in theaters, and the passage of time—and its undisputed status as a classic—sometimes threatens to blind us to the fact that it’s such a peculiar movie. At the time, it certainly seemed like a dubious prospect: it had a director known better for comedy than suspense, an exceptional cast but no real stars, and a story whose violence verged on outright kinkiness. If it emphatically overcame those doubts, it was with its mastery of tone and style, a pair of iconic performances, and, not incidentally, the best movie poster of the modern era. And the fact that it not only became a financial success but took home the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as the four other major Oscars, remains genre filmmaking’s single most unqualified triumph.

It also had the benefit of some extraordinary source material. I’ve written at length about Thomas Harris elsewhere, but what’s worth emphasizing about his original novel is that it’s the product of several diverse temperaments. Harris began his career as a journalist, and there’s a reportorial streak running through all his best early books, with their fascination with the technical language, tools, and arcana of various esoteric professions, from forensic profiling to brain tanning. He also has a Gothic sensibility that has only grown more pronounced with time, a love of language fed by the poetry of William Blake and John Donne, and, in a quality that is sometimes undervalued, the instincts of a great pulp novelist. The result is an endlessly fascinating book poised halfway between calculated bestseller and major novel, and all the better for that underlying tension.

Which is why it pains me as a writer to say that as good as the book is, the movie is better. Part of this is due to the inherent differences in the way we experience movies and popular fiction: for detailed character studies, novels have the edge, but for a character who is seen mostly from the outside, as an enigma, nothing in Harris prepares us for what Anthony Hopkins does with Hannibal Lecter, even if it amounts to nothing more than a few careful acting decisions for his eyes and voice. It’s also an example of how a popular novel can benefit from an intelligent, respectful adaptation. Over time, Ted Tally’s fine screenplay has come to seem less like a variation on Harris’s novel than a superlative second draft: Tally keeps all that is good in the book, pares away the excesses, and even improves the dialogue. (It’s the difference between eating a census taker’s liver with “a big Amarone” and “a nice Chianti.”)

And while the movie is a sleeker, more streamlined animal, it still benefits from the novel’s strangeness. For better or worse, The Silence of the Lambs created an entire genre—the sleek, modern serial killer movie—but like most founding works, it has a fundamental oddity that leaves it out of place among its own successors. The details of its crimes are horrible, but what lingers are its elegance, its dry humor, and the curious rhythms of its central relationship, which feels like a love story in ways that Hannibal made unfortunately explicit. It’s genuinely concerned with women, even as it subjects them to horrible fates, and in its look and mood, it’s a work of stark realism shading inexorably into a fairy tale. That ability to combine strangeness with ruthless efficiency is the greatest thing a thriller in any medium can do. Few movies, or books, have managed it since, even after twenty years of trying.

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2011 at 8:39 am

Fiction into film: The English Patient

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A few months ago, after greatly enjoying The Conversations, Michael Ondaatje’s delightful book-length interview with Walter Murch, I decided to read Ondaatje’s The English Patient for the first time. I went through it very slowly, only a handful of pages each day, in parallel with my own work on the sequel to The Icon Thief. Upon finishing it last week, I was deeply impressed, not just by the writing, which had drawn me to the book in the first place, but also by the novel’s structural ingenuity—derived, Ondaatje says, from a long process of rewriting and revision—and the richness of its research. This is one of the few novels where detailed historical background has been integrated seamlessly into the poetry of the story itself, and it reflects a real, uniquely novelistic curiosity about other times and places. It’s a great book.

Reading The English Patient also made me want to check out the movie, which I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, when I watched it as part of a special screening for a college course. I recalled admiring it, although in a rather detached way, and found that I didn’t remember much about the story, aside from a few moments and images (and the phrase “suprasternal notch”). But I sensed it would be worth revisiting, both because I’d just finished the book and because I’ve become deeply interested, over the past few years, in the career of editor Walter Murch. Murch is one of film’s last true polymaths, an enormously intelligent man who just happened to settle into editing and sound design, and The English Patient, for which he won two Oscars (including the first ever awarded for a digitally edited movie), is a landmark in his career. It was with a great deal of interest, then, that I watched the film again last night.

First, the good news. The adaptation, by director Anthony Minghella, is very intelligently done. It was probably impossible to film Ondaatje’s full story, with its impressionistic collage of lives and memories, in any kind of commercially viable way, so the decision was wisely made to focus on the central romantic episode, the doomed love affair between Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas). Doing so involved inventing a lot of new, explicitly cinematic material, some satisfying (the car crash and sandstorm in the desert), some less so (Almásy’s melodramatic escape from the prison train). The film also makes the stakes more personal: the mission of Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) is less about simple fact-finding, as it was in the book, than about revenge. And the new ending, with Almásy silently asking Hana (Juliette Binoche) to end his life, gives the film a sense of resolution that the book deliberately lacks.

These changes, while extensive, are smartly done, and they respect the book while acknowledging its limitations as source material. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of Apocalypse Now, another milestone in Murch’s career, movies aren’t very good at conveying abstract ideas, but they’re great for showing us “the look of a battle, the expression on a face, the mood of a country.” On this level, The English Patient sustains comparison with the works of David Lean, with a greater interest in women, and remains, as David Thomson says, “one of the most deeply textured of films.” Murch’s work, in particular, is astonishing, and the level of craft on display here is very impressive.

Yet the pieces don’t quite come together. The novel’s tentative, intellectual nature, which the adaptation doesn’t try to match, infects the movie as well. It feels like an art film that has willed itself into being an epic romance, when in fact the great epic romances need to be a little vulgar—just look at Gone With the Wind. Doomed romances may obsess their participants in real life, but in fiction, seen from the outside, they can seem silly or absurd. The English Patient understands a great deal about the craft of the romantic epic, the genre in which it has chosen to plant itself, but nothing of its absurdity. In the end, it’s just too intelligent, too beautifully made, to move us on more than an abstract level. It’s a heroic effort; I just wish it were something a little more, or a lot less.

The best closing shots in film

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Warning: Visual spoilers follow. Cover your eyes!

As I’ve noted before, the last line of a novel is almost always of interest, but the last line of a movie generally isn’t. It isn’t hard to understand why: movies are primarily a visual medium, after all, and there’s a sense in which even the most brilliant dialogue can often seem beside the point. And as much the writer in me wants to believe otherwise, audiences don’t go to the movies to listen to words: they go to look at pictures.

Perhaps inevitably, then, there are significantly more great closing shots in film than there are great curtain lines. Indeed, the last shot of nearly every great film is memorable, so the list of finalists can easily expand into the dozens. Here, though, in no particular order, are twelve of my favorites. Click or mouse over for the titles:

Quote of the Day

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When the system doesn’t respond, when it doesn’t accept what you’re doing—and most of the time it won’t—you have a chance to become self-reliant and create your own system. There will always be periods of solitude and loneliness, but you must have the courage to follow your own path. Cleverness on the terrain is the most important trait of a filmmaker.

Always take the initiative. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting the shot you need. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey. Beware of the cliché. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief. Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Thwart institutional cowardice. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Take your fate into your own hands. Don’t preach on deaf ears. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory. Walk straight ahead, never detour. Learn on the job. Maneuver and mislead, but always deliver. Don’t be fearful of rejection. Develop your own voice. Day one is the point of no return. Know how to act alone and in a group. Guard your time carefully. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema. Guerrilla tactics are best. Take revenge if need be. Get used to the bear behind you. Form clandestine rogue cells everywhere.

Werner Herzog, A Guide for the Perplexed

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November 3, 2020 at 8:40 am

Notes from all over

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It’s been a while since I last posted, so I thought I’d quickly run through a few upcoming items. On Saturday June 15, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago will be showing Arwen Curry’s acclaimed new documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. After the screening, I’ll be taking part in a discussion panel with Mary Anne Mohanraj and Madhu Dubey to discuss the legacy of Le Guin, whose work increasingly seems to me like the culmination of the main line of science fiction in the United States, even if she doesn’t figure prominently in Astounding. (Which, by the way, is up for a Locus Award, the results of which will be announced at the end of this month.) The next day, on June 16, I’ll be hosting a session of my writing workshop, “Writing Fiction that Sells,” at Mary Anne’s Maram Makerspace in Oak Park. People seem to like the class, which runs from 10:00-11:45 am, and it would be great to see some of you there!

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June 10, 2019 at 9:35 am

Flash Gordon and the time machine

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I remember the day my father came home from the neighbors’ in 1949 and said they had a radio with talking pictures. It was his way of explaining television to us in terms of what he knew: radio. Several years later I would sit on the rug with half a dozen neighborhood kids at the house down the block, watching Flash Gordon and advertisements for Buster Brown shoes.

Such early space-travel films may have marked my first encounter with the idea of time machines, those phone booths with the capacity to transpose one into encounters with Napoleon or to propel one ahead into dilemmas on distant planets. I was six or seven years old and already leading a double life as an imagined horse disguised as a young girl…

Flash Gordon never became a horse by stepping into a time machine, but he could choose any one of countless masquerades at crucial moments in history or in the futures he hoped to outsmart. This whole idea of past or future being accessible at the push of a button seemed so natural to me as a child that I have been waiting for science to catch up to the idea ever since.

Tess Gallagher, “The Poem as Time Machine”

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December 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

The temple of doom

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Steven Spielberg on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Note: I’m taking some time off for the holidays, so I’m republishing a few pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 27, 2017.

I think America is going through a paroxysm of rage…But I think there’s going to be a happy ending in November.

Steven Spielberg, to Sky News, July 17, 2016

Last week, in an interview with the New York Times about the twenty-fifth anniversary of Schindler’s List and the expansion of the mission of The Shoah Foundation, Steven Spielberg said of this historical moment:

I think there’s a measurable uptick in anti-Semitism, and certainly an uptick in xenophobia. The racial divide is bigger than I would ever imagine it could be in this modern era. People are voicing hate more now because there’s so many more outlets that give voice to reasonable and unreasonable opinions and demands. People in the highest places are allowing others who would never express their hatred to publicly express it. And that’s been a big change.

Spielberg, it’s fair to say, remains the most quintessentially American of all directors, despite a filmography that ranges freely between cultures and seems equally comfortable in the past and in the future. He’s often called a mythmaker, and if there’s a place where his glossy period pieces, suburban landscapes, and visionary adventures meet, it’s somewhere in the nation’s collective unconscious: its secret reveries of what it used to be, what it is, and what it might be again. Spielberg country, as Stranger Things was determined to remind us, is one of small towns and kids on bikes, but it also still vividly remembers how it beat the Nazis, and it can’t resist turning John Hammond from a calculating billionaire into a grandfatherly, harmless dreamer. No other artist of the last half century has done so much to shape how we all feel about ourselves. He took over where Walt Disney left off. But what has he really done?

To put it in the harshest possible terms, it’s worth asking whether Spielberg—whose personal politics are impeccably liberal—is responsible in part for our current predicament. He taught the New Hollywood how to make movies that force audiences to feel without asking them to think, to encourage an illusion of empathy instead of the real thing, and to create happy endings that confirm viewers in their complacency. You can’t appeal to all four quadrants, as Spielberg did to a greater extent than anyone who has ever lived, without consistently telling people exactly what they want to hear. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how film serves as an exercise ground for the emotions, bringing us closer on a regular basis to the terror, wonder, and despair that many of us would otherwise experience only rarely. It reminds the middle class of what it means to feel pain or awe. But I worry that when we discharge these feelings at the movies, it reduces our capacity to experience them in real life, or, even more insidiously, makes us think that we’re more empathetic and compassionate than we actually are. Few movies have made viewers cry as much as E.T., and few have presented a dilemma further removed than anything a real person is likely to face. (Turn E.T. into an illegal alien being sheltered from a government agency, maybe, and you’d be onto something.) Nearly every film from the first half of Spielberg’s career can be taken as a metaphor for something else. But great popular entertainment has a way of referring to nothing but itself, in a cognitive bridge to nowhere, and his images are so overwhelming that it can seem superfluous to give them any larger meaning.

Steven Spielberg on the set of Jaws

If Spielberg had been content to be nothing but a propagandist, he would have been the greatest one who ever lived. (Hence, perhaps, his queasy fascination with the films of Leni Riefenstahl, who has affinities with Spielberg that make nonsense out of political or religious labels.) Instead, he grew into something that is much harder to define. Jaws, his second film, became the most successful movie ever made, and when he followed it up with Close Encounters, it became obvious that he was in a position with few parallels in the history of art—he occupied a central place in the culture and was also one of its most advanced craftsmen, at a younger age than Damien Chazelle is now. If you’re talented enough to assume that role and smart enough to stay there, your work will inevitably be put to uses that you never could have anticipated. It’s possible to pull clips from Spielberg’s films that make him seem like the cuddliest, most repellent reactionary imaginable, of the sort that once prompted Tony Kushner to say:

Steven Spielberg is apparently a Democrat. He just gave a big party for Bill Clinton. I guess that means he’s probably idiotic…Jurassic Park is sublimely good, hideously reactionary art. E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism. They’re fascinating for that reason, because Spielberg is somebody who has just an astonishing ear for the rumblings of reaction, and he just goes right for it and he knows exactly what to do with it.

Kushner, of course, later became Spielberg’s most devoted screenwriter. And the total transformation of the leading playwright of his generation is the greatest testament imaginable to this director’s uncanny power and importance.

In reality, Spielberg has always been more interesting than he had any right to be, and if his movies have been used to shake people up in the dark while numbing them in other ways, or to confirm the received notions of those who are nostalgic for an America that never existed, it’s hard to conceive of a director of his stature for whom this wouldn’t have been the case. To his credit, Spielberg clearly grasps the uniqueness of his position, and he has done what he could with it, in ways that can seem overly studied. For the last two decades, he has worked hard to challenge some of our assumptions, and at least one of his efforts, Munich, is a masterpiece. But if I’m honest, the film that I find myself thinking about the most is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It isn’t my favorite Indiana Jones movie—I’d rank it a distant third. For long stretches, it isn’t even all that good. It also trades in the kind of casual racial stereotyping that would be unthinkable today, and it isn’t any more excusable because it deliberately harks back to the conventions of an earlier era. (The fact that it’s even watchable now only indicates how much ground East and South Asians have yet to cover.) But its best scenes are so exciting, so wonderful, and so conductive to dreams that I’ve never gotten over it. Spielberg himself was never particularly pleased with the result, and if asked, he might express discomfort with some of the decisions he made. But there’s no greater tribute to his artistry, which executed that misguided project with such unthinking skill that he exhilarated us almost against his better judgment. It tells us how dangerous he might have been if he hadn’t been so deeply humane. And we should count ourselves lucky that he turned out to be as good of a man as he did, because we’d never have known if he hadn’t.

The fairy tale theater

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It must have all started with The Princess Switch, although that’s so long ago now that I can barely remember. Netflix was pushing me hard to watch an original movie with Vanessa Hudgens in a dual role as a European royal and a baker from Chicago who trade places and end up romantically entangled with each other’s love interests at Christmas, and I finally gave in. In the weeks since, my wife and I have watched Pride, Prejudice, and MistletoeThe Nine Lives of ChristmasCrown for ChristmasThe Holiday CalendarChristmas at the Palace; and possibly one or two others that I’ve forgotten. A few were on Netflix, but most were on Hallmark, which has staked out this space so aggressively that it can seem frighteningly singleminded in its pursuit of Yuletide cheer. By now, it airs close to forty original holiday romances between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, and like its paperback predecessors, it knows better than to tinker with a proven formula. As two of its writers anonymously reveal in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:

We have an idea and it maybe takes us a week or so just to break it down into a treatment, a synopsis of the story; it’s like a beat sheet where you pretty much write what’s going to happen in every scene you just don’t write the scene. If we have a solid beat sheet done and it’s approved, then it’s only going to take us about a week and a half to finish a draft. Basically, an act or two a day and there’s nine. They’re kind of simple because there are so many rules so you know what you can and can’t do, and if you have everything worked out it comes together.

And the rules are revealing in themselves. As one writer notes: “The first rule is snow. We really wanted to do one where the basic conflict was a fear that there will not be snow on Christmas. We were told you cannot do that, there must be snow. They can’t be waiting for the snow, there has to be snow. You cannot threaten them with no snow.” And the conventions that make these movies so watchable are built directly into the structure:

There cannot be a single scene that does not acknowledge the theme. Well, maybe a scene, but you can’t have a single act that doesn’t acknowledge it and there are nine of them, so there’s lots of opportunities for Christmas. They have a really rigid nine-act structure that makes writing them a lot of fun because it’s almost like an exercise. You know where you have to get to: People have to be kissing for the first time, probably in some sort of a Christmas setting, probably with snow falling from the sky, probably with a small crowd watching. You have to start with two people who, for whatever reason, don’t like each other and you’re just maneuvering through those nine acts to get them to that kiss in the snow.

The result, as I’ve learned firsthand, is a movie that seems familiar before you’ve even seen it. You can watch with one eye as you’re wrapping presents, or tune in halfway through with no fear of becoming confused. It allows its viewers to give it exactly as much attention as they’re willing to spare, and at a time when the mere act of watching prestige television can be physically exhausting, there’s something to be said for an option that asks nothing of us at all.

After you’ve seen two or three of these movies, of course, the details start to blur, particularly when it comes to the male leads. The writers speak hopefully of making the characters “as unique and interesting as they can be within the confines of Hallmark land,” but while the women are allowed an occasional flash of individuality, the men are unfailingly generic. This is particularly true of the subgenre in which the love interest is a king or prince, who doesn’t get any more personality than his counterpart in fairy tales. Yet this may not be a flaw. In On Directing Film, which is the best work on storytelling that I’ve ever read, David Mamet provides a relevant word of advice:

In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim says of fairy tales the same thing Alfred Hitchcock said about thrillers: that the less the hero of the play is inflected, identified, and characterized, the more we will endow him with our own internal meaning—the more we will identify with him—which is to say the more we will be assured that we are that hero. “The hero rode up on a white horse.” You don’t say “a short hero rode up on a white horse,” because if the listener isn’t short he isn’t going to identify with that hero. You don’t say “a tall hero rode up on a white horse,” because if the listener isn’t tall, he won’t identify with the hero. You say “a hero,” and the audience subconsciously realize they are that hero.

Yet Mamet also overlooks the fact that the women in fairy tales, like Snow White, are often described with great specificity—it’s the prince who is glimpsed only faintly. Hallmark follows much the same rule, which implies that it’s less important for the audience to identify with the protagonist than to fantasize without constraint about the object of desire.

This also leads to some unfortunate decisions about diversity, which is more or less what you might expect. As one writer says candidly to Entertainment Weekly:

On our end, we just write everybody as white, we don’t even bother to fight that war. If they want to put someone of color in there, that would be wonderful, but we don’t have control of that…I found out Meghan Markle had been in some and she’s biracial, but it almost seems like they’ve tightened those restrictions more recently. Everything’s just such a white, white, white, white world. It’s a white Christmas after all—with the snow and the people.

With more than thirty original movies coming out every year, you might think that Hallmark could make a few exceptions, especially since the demand clearly exists, but this isn’t about marketing at all. It’s a reflection of the fact that nonwhiteness is still seen as a token of difference, or a deviation from an assumed norm, and it’s the logical extension of the rules that I’ve listed above. White characters have the privilege—which is invisible but very real—of seeming culturally uninflected, which is the baseline that allows the formula to unfold. This seems very close to John W. Campbell’s implicit notion that all characters in science fiction should be white males by default, and while other genres have gradually moved past this point, it’s still very much the case with Hallmark. (There can be nonwhite characters, but they have to follow the rules: “Normally there’ll be a black character that’s like a friend or a boss, usually someone benevolent because you don’t want your one person of color to not be positive.”) With diversity, as with everything else, Hallmark is very mindful of how much variation its audience will accept. It thinks that it knows the formula. And it might not even be wrong.

Go set a playwright

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If you follow theatrical gossip as avidly as I do, you’re probably aware of the unexpected drama that briefly surrounded the new Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which was written for the stage by Aaron Sorkin. In March, Lee’s estate sued producer Scott Rudin, claiming that the production was in breach of contract for straying drastically from the book. According to the original agreement, the new version wasn’t supposed to “depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters,” which Sorkin’s interpretation unquestionably did. (Rudin says just as much on the record: “I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics. It wouldn’t be of interest. The world has changed since then.”) But the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. As a lawyer consulted by the New York Times explains:

Does “spirit” have a definite and precise meaning, or could there be a difference of opinion as to what is “the spirit” of the novel? I do not think that a dictionary definition of “spirit” will resolve that question. Similarly, the contract states that the characters should not be altered. In its pre-action letter, Harper Lee’s estate repeatedly states that the characters “would never have” and “would not have” done numerous things; unless as a matter of historical fact the characters would not have done something…who is to say what a creature of fiction “would never have” or “would not have” done?

Now that the suit has been settled and the play is finally on Broadway, this might all seem beside the point, but there’s one aspect of the story that I think deserves further exploration. Earlier this week, Sorkin spoke to Greg Evans of Deadline about his writing process, noting that he took the initial call from Rudin for good reasons: “The last three times Scott called me and said ‘I have something very exciting to talk to you about,’ I ended up writing Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, so I was paying attention.” His first pass was a faithful version of the original story, which took him about six months to write: “I had just taken the greatest hits of the book, the most important themes, the most necessary themes. I stood them up and dramatized them. I turned them into dialogue.” When he was finished, he had a fateful meeting with Rudin:

He had two notes. The first was, “We’ve got to get to the trial sooner.” That’s a structural note. The second was the note that changed everything. He said, “Atticus can’t be Atticus for the whole play. He’s got to become Atticus,” and of course, he was right. A protagonist has to change. A protagonist has to be put through something and change as a result, and a protagonist has to have a flaw. And I wondered how Harper Lee had gotten away with having Atticus be Atticus for the whole book, and it’s because Atticus isn’t the protagonist in the book. Scout is. But in the play, Atticus was going to be the protagonist, and I threw out that first draft. I started all over again, but this time the goal wasn’t to be as much like the book as possible. The goal wasn’t to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and then gently transfer it to a stage. I was going to write a new play.

This is fascinating stuff, but it’s worth emphasizing that while Rudin’s first piece of feedback was “a structural note,” the second one was as well. The notions that “a protagonist has to change” and “a protagonist has to have a flaw” are narrative conventions that have evolved over time, and for good reason. Like the idea of building the action around a clear sequence of objectives, they’re basically artificial constructs that have little to do with the accurate representation of life. Some people never change for years, and while we’re all flawed in one way or another, our faults aren’t always reflected in dramatic terms in the situations in which we find ourselves. These rules are useful primarily for structuring the audience’s experience, which comes down to the ability to process and remember information delivered over time. (As Kurt Vonnegut, who otherwise might not seem to have much in common with Harper Lee, once said to The Paris Review: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”) Yet they aren’t essential, either, as the written and filmed versions of To Kill a Mockingbird make clear. The original novel, in particular, has a rock-solid plot and supporting characters who can change and surprise us in ways that Atticus can’t. Unfortunately, it’s hard for plot alone to carry a play, which is largely a form about character, and Atticus is obviously the star part. Sorkin doesn’t shy away from using the backbone that Lee provides—the play does indeed get to the jury trial, which is still the most reliable dramatic convention ever devised, more quickly than the book does—but he also grasped the need to turn the main character into someone who could give shape to the audience’s experience of watching the play. It was this consideration, and not the politics, that turned out to be crucial.

There are two morals to this story. One is how someone like Sorkin, who can fall into traps of his own as a writer, benefits from feedback from even stronger personalities. The other is how a note on structure, which Sorkin takes seriously, forced him to engage more deeply with the play’s real material. As all writers know, it’s harder than it looks to sequence a story as a series of objectives or to depict a change in the protagonist, but simply by thinking about such fundamental units of narrative, a writer will come up with new insights, not just about the hero, but about everyone else. As Sorkin says of his lead character in an interview with Vulture:

He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.

In other words, Sorkin’s new perspective on Atticus also required him to rethink the roles of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, which may turn out to be the most beneficial change of all. (This didn’t sit well with the Harper Lee estate, which protested in its complaint that black characters who “knew their place” wouldn’t behave this way at the time.) As Sorkin says of their lack of agency in the original novel: “It’s noticeable, it’s wrong, and it’s also a wasted opportunity.” That’s exactly right—and I like the last reason the best. In theater, as in any other form of narrative, the technical considerations of storytelling are more important than doing the right thing. But to any experienced writer, it’s also clear that they’re usually one and the same.

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December 14, 2018 at 8:39 am

The tip of the spear

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Over the last couple of days, mostly by coincidence, I’ve been thinking about two sidelong portraits of great directors. One is Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, the diary by Eleanor Coppola that was later adapted into the unforgettable movie Hearts of Darkness. The other is Filmworker, a documentary about Leon Vitali, who served for decades as the assistant to Stanley Kubrick. By approaching their more famous subjects from an angle, they end up telling us more about Francis Ford Coppola and Kubrick than a more direct engagement ever could, just as we arguably learn more about Sylvia Plath from Janet Malcolm’s oblique The Silent Woman than by reading volumes of the poet’s books and letters. Major artists, especially movie directors, can be overwhelming to contemplate, and they’re hard to view objectively, as Eleanor Coppola notes in her journal:

[Francis] started talking about how lonely he was. How essentially there are only two positions for most everybody to take with him. One is to kiss his ass, tell him he is great, and be paralyzed with admiration. The other is to resist him. That is, show him that no matter how rich and successful and talented he is, they are not impressed. Hardly anyone can just accept him, say, “That’s great, and so what?”

That’s equally true of biographers and critics, which is why it can be so valuable to listen to the memories of family members and associates who were close enough to see their subjects from all sides, if never quite to take them for granted.

Between Eleanor Coppola and Vitali, it’s hard to say who had the more difficult time of it. In Notes, Coppola hints at what it was like to be married to a director whose fame in the seventies exceeded that of any of his contemporaries: “When I am cashing a check or using a credit card, people often ask me if I am related to Francis Ford Coppola. Sometimes I say I am married to him. People change before my eyes. They start smiling nervously and forget to give me my package or change. I think I look fairly normal. I wear sweaters and skirts and boots. Maybe they are expecting a Playboy bunny.” But that level of recognition can also cause problems of its own. Coppola has a revealing passage about the aftermath of her husband’s birthday:

His gifts were unloaded onto the table in the hall. This morning I was straightening up. I couldn’t help reading some of the cards. “Thanks for letting me participate in your greatness. Love…” Some days I am tried and just want out. It seems hopeless. There will always be a fresh crop of adoring young protégées waiting in the wings. This current situation stated during Godfather II. I was on location with Francis, away from San Francisco, my friends and the things that stimulated and interested me at the time. I was so angry with myself, angry that I couldn’t just get totally happy focusing on Francis and the making of his film. Someone else did.

That last line is left hanging, but it speaks volumes about the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the face of so much outside adoration.

In Kubrick’s case, much of this tension seems to have been unloaded onto Vitali, who was the director’s right arm for the last quarter century of his life. Vitali was a promising young actor who made a strong impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, but he became fascinated by Kubrick, whom he approached with the offer to work for him in any capacity whatsoever. Kubrick took him up on it, and Vitali found himself testing five thousand children for the role of Danny in The Shining. For the next twenty years, they were inseparable, as Vitali saw after everything from casting and coaching actors to checking the foreign dubs and transfers for every film in the director’s back catalog. He was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and he was the perpetual object both of Kubrick’s unexpected tenderness and his sudden wrath. (Vitali also appeared on camera one last time, his face unseen, as the figure in the red cloak who asks Tom Cruise for the password for the house in Eyes Wide Shut.) Serving as a director’s personal assistant can be a hellish job in any case, and it was apparently even worse in the service of such a notorious perfectionist. Vitali lasted in that role for longer than seems humanly possible, and Kubrick had no compunction about using him for such unenviable tasks as informing the actor Tim Colceri, who had been cast eight months earlier as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, that he had lost the role to R. Lee Ermey. And the work continued even after Kubrick’s death. Before the release of Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali personally checked one out of every five prints, or over five hundred in all, by screening them nonstop for thirty-six hours. Occasionally, he had to ask someone else to watch the screen for a few minutes so he could leave the room to throw up. Speaking of this period in the documentary, Vitali, who is otherwise so candid, says after a moment: “I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

But you also see why he stayed with Kubrick so long. As another interview subject in Filmworker notes, Vitali wasn’t just a spear carrier, but “the tip of the spear” in one of the most complex operations in the history of filmmaking, and that position can be very addictive. (You could compare it, perhaps, to the role of the White House chief of staff, an awful job that usually has people lining up for it, at least under most presidents.) Kubrick and Coppola were very different in their directorial styles, as well as in their personal lives, but few other filmmakers have ever managed the hat trick of being simultaneously brilliant, independent, and the beneficiary of massive studio resources. Coppola only managed to stay in that position for a few years—he was personally on the line for millions of dollars if Apocalypse Now was a failure, and after he miraculously pulled it off, he threw it all away on One From the Heart. Kubrick hung in there for decades, and he depended enormously on the presence of Vitali, who served as his intermediary to Warner Bros. According to the documentary, Kubrick would often sign his assistant’s name to scathing letters to the studio, and after his death, Vitali bore much of the repressed rage from people who had felt slighted or mistreated by the director during his lifetime. Eleanor Coppola’s position was obviously very different, and she shared in its material rewards in ways that Vitali, who was left in borderline poverty, never did. But if they ever meet, they might have a lot to say to each other. Coppola closes her book with an account of reading the journals of American pioneers during the westward expansion, of which she writes:

I particularly identified with one account in which a family in their journey reached the landmark Independence Rock. The husband described scaling the sides and the remarkable view from the top. The woman wrote about trying to find a patch of shade at the base where she could nurse the baby and cook lunch for the family.

Quote of the Day

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The way you people make movies is you start with character and build outward. I start with construction and then fill it in.

Brian De Palma, in the documentary De Palma

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2018 at 7:30 am

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