Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Absolute Power

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

The Gilroy Ultimatum

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William Goldman, the dean of American screenwriters, likes to tell the story of how Tony Gilroy saved the day. In Which Lie Did I Tell?—my favorite book on screenwriting, and one of the most entertaining books I’ve read of any kind—Goldman goes into great detail about his travails in adapting the novel Absolute Power, with its huge number of characters and infuriating structure, which kills off the protagonist halfway through and doesn’t have anything resembling a useable ending. Frustrated, Goldman found himself at a basketball game with Gilroy, a much younger writer who agreed to take a look at the project. The following day, Gilroy came in with a number of fixes, all of which diverged dramatically from the book. When Goldman objected, Gilroy shot back: “Forget about the novel—I haven’t read the novel—my main strength is that I haven’t read the novel—the novel is killing you.” In the end, Goldman saw the light, made the changes that Gilroy suggested, and finished the screenplay at last.

It’s a great story that has contributed significantly to Tony Gilroy’s current standing in Hollywood, which is similar to the one that Goldman occupied forty years ago—the smartest screenwriter in the room, the man who can fix any script. Yet there’s something deeply comic about the story as well. These are two incredibly smart, talented writers giving their all to the script of Absolute Power, a movie that didn’t exactly set the world on fire. When you look at Gilroy’s history ever since, you see a deep ambivalence toward his own reputation as a genius fixer. This comes through clearly in the title character of Michael Clayton, who says bitterly: “I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor.” It’s made even more obvious by a famous New Yorker profile, which reveals that not only was Gilroy unhappy about how his work was treated on The Bourne Supremacy, but he wrote a draft of The Bourne Ultimatum only on the condition that he wouldn’t have to talk to director Paul Greengrass. Not surprisingly, then, his goal has long been to get to a place where he can direct his own movies.

And the results have been fascinating, if not always successful. Let’s start with The Bourne Legacy, which is a singular mix of expertise and almost unbelievable amateurishness. At its best, its set pieces are stunning: a grim workplace shooting in a government laboratory is almost too harrowing—it takes us right out of the movie—but the followup, in which Rachel Weisz’s character is visited by a pair of sinister psychologists, is a nice, nasty scene that Hitchcock would have relished. The movie, shot by the great Robert Elswit, looks terrific, and it holds our attention for well over two hours. But it never establishes a clear point of view or tells us who Jeremy Renner’s Bourne successor is supposed to be. Its attempt to layer its plot over events from The Bourne Ultimatum is interesting, but unnecessary: all of those clever connective scenes could be cut without any harm to the story. And its ending is ludicrously abrupt and unsatisfying: it concludes, like all the Bourne movies, by playing Moby’s “Extreme Ways,” but it might as well be a techno remix of “Is That All There Is?”

Still, I have huge admiration for Tony Gilroy, who has taught all of us a lot about storytelling. (In my limited experience, I’ve found that he’s the writer whose work tends to come up the most when literary agents talk about what they want in a suspense novel.) But his work as a director has been frustratingly uneven. Michael Clayton is a great movie that benefits, oddly, from its confusion over whether it’s a thriller or a character piece: its story is layered enough to encompass a satisfyingly wide range of tones. Duplicity was a real passion project, but so underwhelming that it became a key example in my formulation of the New Yorker feature curse. And what The Bourne Legacy demonstrates is that for all Gilroy’s considerable gifts, being a director may not be his first, best destiny. There’s no shame in that: Goldman, among others, was never tempted to direct, and the number of great screenwriters who became major directors is shatteringly small. Gilroy may not be a born director, but he’s one of the smartest writers of movies we’ve ever had. Is that really so bad a legacy?

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