Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade

Which lie did he tell?

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is, no question, the most popular thing I’ve ever been connected with. When I die, if the Times gives me an obit, it’s going to be because of Butch.

—William Goldman, The Princess Bride

When William Goldman passed away last week, I had the distinct sense that the world was mourning three different men. One was the novelist whose most lasting work will certainly end up being The Princess Bride; another was the screenwriter who won Academy Awards for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men; and a third was the Hollywood insider who wrote the indispensable books Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I I Tell? I’ll miss all three of them, and there’s no question that they led a deeply interconnected existence, but it’s the last one who might have had the greatest impact on my life. Goldman’s books on the movie industry are two of the great reads of all time, and I revisit them both every couple of years for the sheer pleasure that they offer me. (His book about Broadway, The Season, is equally excellent, although I lent my copy to a friend over a decade ago and never got it back.) They’re also some of the best books on writing ever published, and although Goldman cautions against applying their insights to other kinds of fiction, I often find myself drawing on his advice. Between the two, I prefer Which Lie Did I I Tell?, even through it chronicles a period in the author’s career in which he didn’t produce any memorable movies, apart from the significant exception of The Princess Bride itself. In fact, these books are fascinating largely because Goldman is capable of mining as many insights, if not more, from Absolute Power and The Ghost and the Darkness as he is from Butch Cassidy. One possible takeaway might be that there’s a similarly interesting story behind every movie, and that it’s unfortunate that they don’t all have chroniclers as eloquent and candid as Goldman. But it’s also a testament to his talent as a writer, which was to take some of the most challenging forms imaginable and make them seem as natural as breathing, even if that impression was an act of impersonation in itself.

When I look back at this blog, I discover that I’ve cited Goldman endlessly on all kinds of topics. My favorite passage from Which Lie Did I Tell?, which I quoted in one of my earliest posts, is a story that he relates about somebody else:

One of the great breaks of my career came in 1960, when I was among those called in to doctor a musical in very deep trouble, Tenderloin. The show eventually was not a success. But the experience was profound. George Abbott, the legitimately legendary Broadway figure, was the director of the show—he was closing in on seventy-five during our months together and hotter than ever…He was coming from backstage during rehearsals, and as he crossed the stage into the auditorium he noticed a dozen dancers were just standing there. The choreographer sat in the audience alone, his head in his hands. “What’s going on?” Mr. Abbott asked him. The choreographer looked at Mr. Abbott, shook his head. “I can’t figure out what they should do next.” Mr. Abbott never stopped moving. He jumped the three feet from the stage into the aisle. “Well, have them do something!” Mr. Abbott said. “That way we’ll have something to change.”

This is a classic piece of advice, and the fact that it comes up during a discussion of the writing of Absolute Power doesn’t diminish its importance. Shortly afterward, Goldman adds: “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.” And he writes of his initial stab at Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.”

I think about that last line a lot, with its implication that even prodigious levels of craft and experience won’t necessarily lead to anything worthwhile. (Walter Murch gets at something similar when he notes that the best we can hope to achieve in life is a B, and the rest is up to the gods.) And it’s his awareness that success is largely out of our hands, along with his willingness to discuss his failures along with his triumphs, that results in Goldman’s remarkable air of authority. His books are full of great insights into screenwriting, but there are plenty of other valuable works available on the subject, and if you’re just looking for a foolproof system for constructing scripts, David Mamet’s On Directing Film probably offers more useful information in a fifth of the space. Other screenwriters, including Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne in Monster, have spoken just as openly about the frustrations of working in Hollywood. Goldman’s gift was his ability to somehow do both at the same time, while enhancing both sides in the process. My favorite example is the chapter in Adventures in the Screen Trade devoted to All the President’s Men. Goldman tells us a lot about structure and process, including his decision to end the movie halfway through the original book: “Bernstein and Woodward had made one crucial mistake dealing with the knowledge of one of Nixon’s top aides. It was a goof that, for a while, cost them momentum. I decided to end the story on their mistake, because the public already knew they had eventually been vindicated, and one mistake didn’t stop them. The notion behind it was to go out with them down and let the audience supply their eventual triumph.” He shares a few juicy anecdotes about Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, and he discusses his eventual disillusionment with the whole project. And he finally tells us that if he could live his entire movie career over again, “I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

What Goldman doesn’t mention is the minor point that the screenplay also won him his second Oscar. In fact, he uses exactly the same strategy in his discussion of All the President’s Men that he did in the movie itself—he ends it on a down note, and he lets us supply his eventual triumph. And I think that this gets at something important about Goldman’s sly appeal. Few other writers have ever managed to pull off the conversational tone that he captures in these books, which is vastly more difficult than it seems. (That voice is a big part of the reason why it’s such a joy to read his thoughts on movies that we’ve never seen, and I deeply regret the nonexistence of an impossible third volume that would tell the stories behind The General’s Daughter, Hearts in Atlantis, and Dreamcatcher.) But it’s also a character that he creates for himself, just as he does in the “autobiographical” sections of The Princess Bride, which draw attention to the artifice that Adventures in the Screen Trade expertly conceals. Goldman mostly comes off as likable as possible, which can only leave out many of the true complexities of a man who spent years as the most successful and famous screenwriter in the world. In Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman recounts a story that seems startlingly unlike his usual persona, about his miserable experience working on Memoirs of an Invisible Man:

The…memory is something I think I said. (I read in a magazine that I did, although I have no real recollection of it.) Chevy [Chase] and [producer Bruce] Bodner tried to bring me back after the fiasco. For one final whack at the material…They were both gentlemen and I listened. Then I got up, said this: “I’m sorry, but I’m too old and too rich to put up with this shit.”

He concludes: “Wouldn’t that be neat if it was me?” And the side of him that it reveals, even briefly, suggests that a real biography of Goldman would be a major event. In his account of the writing of The Ghost and the Darkness, he warns against the dangers of backstory, or spelling out too much about the protagonist’s past, and he ends by admonishing us: “Hollywood heroes must have mystery.” And so did William Goldman.

The sound of the teletypes

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A few days ago, after a string of horrifying sexual harassment accusations were leveled against the political journalist Mark Halperin, HBO announced that it was canceling a planned miniseries based on an upcoming book by Halperin and John Heilemann about last year’s presidential election. (Penguin, their publisher, pulled the plug on the book itself later that day.) It’s hard to argue with this decision, which also raises the question of why anyone thought that there would be demand for a television series on this subject at all. We’re still in the middle of this story, which shows no sign of ending, and the notion that viewers would voluntarily submit themselves to a fictionalized version of it—on top of everything else—is hard to believe. But it isn’t the first time that this issue has come up. Over four decades ago, while working on the adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the screenwriter William Goldman ran up against the same skepticism, as he recounts in his great book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

When I began researching the Woodward-Bernstein book, before it was published, it seemed, at best, a dubious project. Politics were anathema at the box office, the material was talky, there was no action, etc., etc. Most of all, though, people were sick to fucking death of Watergate. For months, whenever anyone asked me what I was working on, and I answered, there was invariably the same reply: “Gee, don’t you think we’ve heard enough about Watergate?” Repeated often enough, that can make you lose confidence.

He concludes: “Because, of course, we had. Had enough and more than enough. Years of headlines, claims and disclaimers, lies, and occasional clarifying truths.”

This certainly sounds familiar. And even if that Trump miniseries never happens, we can still learn a lot from the effort by one of America’s smartest writers to come to terms with the most complicated political story of his time. When Goldman was brought on board by Robert Redford, he knew that he could hardly turn down the assignment, but he was uncomfortably aware of the challenges that it would present: “There were all those goddam names that no one could keep straight: Stans and Sturgis and Barker and Segretti and McCord and Kalmbach and Magruder and Kleindienst and Strachan and Abplanalp and Rebozo and backward reeled the mind.” (If we’re lucky, there will come a day when Manafort and Gates and Goldstone and Veselnitskaya and Page and even Kushner will blur together, too.) As he dug into the story, he was encouraged to find a lot of interesting information that nobody else seemed to know. There had actually been an earlier attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate, for instance, but the burglars had to turn back because they had brought the wrong set of keys. Goldman was so taken by this story that it became the opening scene in his first draft, as a way of alerting viewers that they had to pay attention, although he later admitted that it was perhaps for the best that it was cut: “If the original opening had been incorporated, and you looked at it today, I think you would wonder what the hell it was doing there.” Despite such wrong turns, he continued to work on the structure, and as he was trying to make sense of it, he asked Bob Woodward to list what he thought were the thirteen most important events in the Watergate story. Checking what he had written so far, he saw that he had included all of them already: “So even if the screenplay stunk, at least the structure would be sound.”

As it turned out, the structure would be his primary contribution to the movie that eventually won him an Academy Award. After laboring over the screenplay, Goldman was infamously ambushed at a meeting by Redford, who informed him that Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron had secretly written their own version of the script, and that he should read it. (Goldman’s account of the situation, which he calls “a gutless betrayal” by Redford, throws a bit of shade that I’ve always loved: “One other thing to note about [Bernstein and Ephron’s] screenplay: I don’t know about real life, but in what they wrote, Bernstein was sure catnip to the ladies.”) From his perspective, matters got even worse after the hiring of director Alan Pakula, who asked him for multiple versions of every scene and kept him busy with rewrites for months. A subplot about Woodward’s love life, which Goldman knew would never make it into the film, turned out to be a huge waste of everyone’s time. Finally, he says, the phone stopped ringing, and he didn’t have any involvement with the film’s production. Goldman recalls in his book:

I saw it at my local neighborhood theater and it seemed very much to resemble what I’d done; of course there were changes but there are always changes. There was a lot of ad-libbing, scenes were placed in different locations, that kind of thing. But the structure of the piece remained unchanged. And it also seemed, with what objectivity I could bring to it, to be well directed and acted, especially by the stars.

In the end, however, Goldman says that if he could live his entire movie career over again, “I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

But the thing that sticks in my head the most about the screenplay is the ending. Goldman writes: “My wife remembers my telling her that my biggest problem would be somehow to make the ending work, since the public already knew the outcome.” Here’s how he solved it:

Bernstein and Woodward had made one crucial mistake dealing with the knowledge of one of Nixon’s top aides. It was a goof that, for a while, cost them momentum. I decided to end the story on their mistake, because the public already knew they had eventually been vindicated, and one mistake didn’t stop them. The notion behind it was to go out with them down and let the audience supply their eventual triumph.

In practice, this meant that the movie doesn’t even cover the book’s second half, which is something that most viewers don’t realize. (In his later memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman writes: “In All the President’s Men, we got great credit for our faithfulness to the Woodward-Bernstein book. Total horseshit: the movie ended halfway through the book.”) Instead, it gives us the unforgettable shot of the reporters working in the background as Nixon’s inauguration plays on television, followed by the rattle of the teletype machines covering the events of the next two years. The movie trusts us to fill in the blanks because we know what happened next, and it works brilliantly. If I bring this up now, it’s because the first charges have just been filed in the Mueller investigation. This is only the beginning. But when the Trump movie gets made, and it probably will, today might be the very last scene.

Off the hook

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In his wonderful interview in John Brady’s The Craft of the Screenwriter, Robert Towne—who might best be described as the Christopher McQuarrie of his time—tosses off a statement that is typically dense with insight:

One of the things that people say when they first start writing movies is, “Jeez, I have this idea for a movie. This is the way it opens. It’s a really great opening.” And of course they don’t know where to go from there. That’s true not only of people who are just thinking of writing movies, but very often of people who write them. They’re anxious for a splashy beginning to hook an audience, but then you end up paying for it with an almost mathematical certainty. If you have a lot of action and excitement at the beginning of a picture, there’s going to have to be some explanation, some character development somewhere along the line, and there will be a big sag about twenty minutes after you get into a film with a splashy opening. It’s something you learn. I don’t know if you’d call it technique. It’s made me prefer soft openings for films. It’s been my experience that an audience will forgive you almost anything at the beginning of the picture, but almost nothing at the end. If they’re not satisfied with the end, nothing that led up to it is going to help.

There’s a lot to absorb and remember here, particularly the implication, which I love, that a narrative has a finite amount of energy, and that if you use up too much of it at the start, you end up paying for it later.

For now, though, I’d like to focus on what Towne says about openings. He’s right in cautioning screenwriters against trying to start at a high point, which may not even be possible: I’ve noted elsewhere that few of the great scenes that we remember from movies come at the very beginning, since they require a degree of setup to really pay off. Yet at this very moment, legions of aspiring writers are undoubtedly sweating over a perfect grabber opening for their screenplay. In his interview with Brady, which was published in 1981, Towne blames this on television:

Unlike television, you don’t have to keep people from turning the channel to another network when they’re in the theater. They’ve paid three-fifty or five dollars and if the opening ten or fifteen minutes of a film are a little slow, they are still going to sit a few minutes, as long as it eventually catches hold. I believe in soft openings…Why bother to capture [the audience’s] interest at the expense of the whole film? They’re there. They’re not going anywhere.

William Goldman draws a similar contrast between the two forms in Adventures in the Screen Trade, writing a clumsy opening hook for a screenplay—about a girl being chased through the woods by a “disfigured giant”—and explaining why it’s bad: “Well, among other things, it’s television.” He continues:

This paragraph contains all that I know about writing for television. They need a hook. And they need it fast. Because they’re panicked you’ll switch to ABC. So TV stuff tends to begin with some kind of grabber. But in a movie, and only at the beginning of a movie, we have time. Not a lot, but some.

And while a lot has changed since Towne and Goldman made these statements, including the “three-fifty” that used to be the price of a ticket, the underlying point remains sound. Television calls for a different kind of structure and pacing than a movie, and screenwriters shouldn’t confuse the two. Yet I don’t think that the average writer who is fretting about the opening of his script is necessarily making that mistake, or thinking in terms of what viewers will see in a theater. I suspect that he or she is worrying about a very different audience—the script reader at an agency or production company. A moviegoer probably won’t walk out if the opening doesn’t grab them, but the first reader of a screenplay will probably toss it aside if the first few pages don’t work. (This isn’t just the case with screenwriters, either. Writers of short stories are repeatedly told that they need to hook the reader in the first paragraph, and the result is often a kind of palpable desperation that can actively turn off editors.) One reason, of course, why Towne and Goldman can get away with “soft” openings is that they’ve been successful enough to be taken seriously, both in person and in print. As Towne says:

There have been some shifts in attitudes toward me. If I’m in a meeting with some people, and if I say, “Look, fellas, I don’t think it’s gonna work this way,” there is a tendency to listen to me more. Before, they tended to dismiss a little more quickly than now.

Which, when you think about it, is exactly the same phenomenon as giving the script the benefit of the doubt—it buys Towne another minute or two to make his point, which is all a screenwriter can ask.

The sad truth is that a script trying to stand out from the slush pile and a filmed narrative have fundamentally different needs. In some cases, they’re diametrically opposed. Writers trying to break into the business can easily find themselves caught between the need to hype the movie on the page and their instincts about how the story deserves to be told, and that tension can be fatal. A smart screenwriter will often draw a distinction between the selling version, which is written with an eye to the reader, and the shooting script, which provides the blueprint for the movie, but most aspiring writers don’t have that luxury. And if we think of television as a model for dealing with distracted viewers or readers, it’s only going to get worse. In a recent essay for Uproxx titled “Does Anyone Still Have Time to Wait For Shows to Get Good?”, the legendary critic Alan Sepinwall notes that the abundance of great shows makes it hard to justify waiting for a series to improve, concluding:

We all have a lot going on, in both our TV and non-TV lives, and if you don’t leave enough breadcrumbs in the early going, your viewers will just wander off to watch, or do, something else. While outlining this post, I tweeted a few things about the phenomenon, phrasing it as “It Gets Better After Six Episodes”—to which many people replied with incredulous variations on, “Six? If it’s not good after two, or even one, I’m out, pal.”

With hundreds of shows instantly at our disposal—as opposed to the handful of channels that existed when Towne and Goldman were speaking—we’ve effectively been put into the position of a studio reader with a stack of scripts. If we don’t like what we see, we can move on. The result has been the emotionally punishing nature of so much peak television, which isn’t about storytelling so much as heading off distraction. And if it sometimes seems that many writers can’t do anything else, it’s because it’s all they were ever taught to do.

“This had never been a game of chance…”

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"Do you know how Russian roulette began?"

Note: This post is the fifty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 57. You can read the previous installments here.

Earlier this week, in my discussion of Michael Cimino and The Deer Hunter, I managed to avoid mentioning its single most famous—and controversial—plot point. Here’s what William Goldman had to say on the subject in Adventures in the Screen Trade:

Does anyone remember, say, the last part of Deer Hunter? Saigon is going up in flames, and Robert De Niro…is out of service and back in Pennsylvania. He hears about his old buddy, Christopher Walken, who’s still back there…Do you know what Walken has been doing all this time? He’s been playing that game of Russian roulette with real bullets. (The Russian roulette ploy was made up by the movie’s creators, by the way; it didn’t happen in reality.) For months and months, Walken has been taking on all comers in this loony tunes Russian roulette, and…he’s undefeated, untied, and unscored on.

It would take a computer a while to give the odds against that happening, but never mind, because now we’re into the confrontation scene. De Niro versus Walken at Russian roulette. If you looked at the billing of the picture on your way in, did you ever doubt who was going to win?

Obviously, De Niro survives and Walken dies. Goldman concludes that The Deer Hunter, for all its trappings of realism, is ultimately “a comic book movie,” and he adds: “What Deer Hunter told me was what I already knew and believed in: No matter how horrid the notion of war, Robert De Niro would end up staring soulfully at the beautiful, long-suffering Meryl Streep.” And while the film’s Russian roulette sequences are far from its only implausible element, they’ve always served as a focal point for the movie’s critics, both because of their air of racism and because they were invented by the screenwriters out of thin air. What really fascinates me, though, is that these scenes were actually the seed of the entire story, and they came before Vietnam, Pennsylvania, or anything else. The producer Michael Deeley had bought a script called The Man Who Came to Play about games of Russian roulette in Las Vegas, which he called “a very clever piece of writing,” and it was rewritten by Cimino and his collaborator Deric Washburn to take place during the war. You could almost say that these scenes, as arbitrary as they seem in relation to the real Vietnam experience, are what is truly essential, and the rest—all that loving atmosphere at the steel mill and the wedding and the deer hunt and Chopin’s Nocturne—is incidental. And despite my mixed feelings about the movie, I have to concede that Cimino’s fundamental instinct, which was that the Russian roulette element would provide a spine strong enough for him to tell literally any story he wanted, was brilliant. As Roger Ebert, who liked The Deer Hunter far more than I did, wrote, it becomes “the organizing symbol of the film.”

"This had never been a game of chance..."

Elsewhere, I’ve said that discovering this kind of narrative trick can feel like stumbling across a new industrial process, and I don’t think that’s ever been more true than it is here. Russian roulette, as a tool for generating suspense, is a writer’s dream: it’s infinitely expansible and compressible, meaning that it can be used to fill thirty seconds of screen time or serve as the motor that drives an entire third act, and it requires a minimum of setup. I’ve often suspected that the whole legal procedural genre sprang up around the fact that a jury delivering its verdict is the most foolproof scene in all of drama: even if the outcome is foreordained, when the foreman passes the folded note to the judge and the defendant is asked to rise, there’s always an increase in tension and anticipation. The trouble—if you’re a writer with the right amount of laziness, which is just another word for the pragmatic use of your limited resources—is you can’t just jump into a verdict scene without any preparation. It requires a fair amount of work to get there. Russian roulette, for better or worse, is a self-contained component: you can slide it in almost anywhere and it works, if only on the most primitive levels of the brain. It delivers violence, or the threat of it, at an unpredictable time in a structured way. I can’t think of anything else in fiction or real life that comes even close to it. Fortunately, perhaps, it’s the sort of thing that can only be done once on this kind of scale. As much as I dislike The Deer Hunter, I almost feel that Cimino deserved to win Best Picture, if only because he recognized the opportunity that the device presented and capitalized on it before anyone else ever could.

Of course, this hasn’t prevented other opportunistic writers from occasionally making use of it. (Among other things, it provides the backbone for the final act of my favorite episode of The X-Files.) And I resort to it here, in Chapter 57 of Eternal Empire, for all the reasons that I mentioned above. Pragmatically, the scene could be about anything or nothing: Maddy has been brought back by her enemies to the isolated dacha in Sochi, and the chapter’s only function is to crank our concern for her safety up to as high a pitch as possible, in roughly five pages, before Wolfe and Ilya storm the compound. A scene like this has to walk a fine line, and I do what I can to give Maddy as much agency as I can, as she tries to turn her captors against one another. But when Vasylenko takes out his revolver and removes all of the cartridges except for one, suddenly it’s all business, and you can almost sense me, as the writer, looking ahead to the next chapter and seeing that I have only a page or two to get my point across. It helps, obviously, that we’re in Russia itself, and Vasylenko’s brief excursus on the history of the game—which I lifted from James H. Billington’s The Icon and the Axe—goes a long way toward justifying it in my eyes. And Maddy’s final revelation, which is that none of this has been a game of chance, is really a character’s glimpse of her author. Like Cimino, I’ve rigged the game to get her here. In the end, the scene works, and Vasylenko doesn’t even need to pull the trigger. That’s the beauty of it. And it’s also why it still makes me a little uneasy…

The power of the punchline

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

A few days ago, my wife sent me a link to “Jamie and Jeff’s Note to the Babysitter,” a McSweeney’s piece by Paul William Davies. I thought it was hilarious, both because I’ve written similar letters myself and because it’s a true rarity: a properly constructed page of humorous writing that fully develops its funny conceit from start to finish. Like many of its peers, it basically takes the form of a list, a format that the Harvard Lampoon pioneered decades ago, but unlike most, it doesn’t rely on that framework as an excuse to string together a loose series of unrelated gags. Instead, it benefits from the fact that its central idea lends itself naturally to the list structure, and above all from its last line, which Davies clearly knows is gold. Like Vijith Assar’s very different but equally excellent “Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar”—which is probably my favorite McSweeney’s piece ever—it has a punchline. And that makes all the difference. (The lack of a punchline is why so many “Shouts and Murmurs” pieces in The New Yorker seem to wither away into nothing: they tend to suffer from what I’ve elsewhere identified as that magazine’s distrust of neat endings, which leads to articles that conclude at the most arbitrary place imaginable, as if the writer had suffered a stroke before typing the final paragraph.)

And it got me thinking about the power of the punchline, not just to end a piece on a strong note, but to enable everything that comes before it. In his commentary track for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie talks at length about the challenges involved in structuring the fantastic sequence set at the Vienna Opera House. I’ve watched it maybe five times now, and it gets better with every viewing: I’m convinced that if it had been directed by, say, Brian DePalma, we’d already be calling it one of the most virtuosic scenes that the genre has ever produced. It’s an immensely complicated piece of suspense with simultaneous action unfolding on three or four different levels, and it was evidently a nightmare to stage and edit. But McQuarrie had an ace up his sleeve. The moment when Ethan has to figure out how to save the Chancellor of Austria from two different assassins, with only a single bullet at his disposal, is priceless, and the whole crazy machine builds to that punchline. McQuarrie knew it would work. And although I don’t think he says so explicitly, he obviously felt liberated to indulge in such a teasingly long, complex set piece because he had that destination in mind. (And he probably wishes he’d done the same with the rest of the movie, the ending of which was being constantly rewritten even as the film was being shot—not that you can tell from the final result.)

Rebecca Ferguson in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

A punchline, in short, can reach backward in a work of art to allow for greater flexibility in the journey, which is something that most writers eventually learn. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman makes the same point in a discussion of the famous twenty-minute chase in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

There were two reasons I wrote it so long. One: I felt without such an implacable, irresistible enemy, the move to South America wouldn’t wash. Two: I wrote it so long because I had the confidence to be able to do it. And that confidence was born of one thing—I knew the Sundance Kid couldn’t swim…

When you have what you hope is gold in your hands, you can ruin it all by poor placement. If, for example, when Butch and Sundance were fording the stream on their way to Hole-in-the-Wall, Butch had said, “Why do you always get nervous around water?” and Sundance had said, “Because I can’t swim,” that wouldn’t have been so smart.

So I saved it for the moment just before the jump off the cliff. In point of fact, the entire Superposse chase is structured toward that moment. I was positive that no matter how badly the chase as a whole might be done, the swimming revelation, followed by the jump off the cliff, would save me. The jump was, had to be, surefire.

In other words, when you know you’ve got a good punchline, you’re free to develop what comes before it in the fashion it deserves. The opposite point also holds true: when you don’t know where you’re going, you’re more likely to flail around, casting about for ways to make the action more “interesting” when you lack a basic end point. I always try to keep a residue of unresolved problems—to borrow a phrase from the film editor Walter Murch—throughout the writing process, but I also know more or less where a story will conclude, and whenever I’ve broken that rule, as in my short story “Cryptids,” I think the weakness shows. On the plus side of the column, I allowed myself to take The Icon Thief into strange byways because I knew that the ending, in which Maddy breaks into the installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, would be memorable no matter what I did, and a story like “The Whale God” hinges almost entirely on its killer last line. And while writing my first radio script, for a project that I hope to be able to discuss in more detail soon, I gained confidence from the knowledge that the ending would work. A good punchline is a great thing in itself, but it’s even more valuable as a kind of seed crystal that shapes the preceding material before the reader is even aware of it, so that the ending comes as both surprising and inevitable. Or in the words of David Mamet: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.”

The Jedi mind trick

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BB-8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.

—Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

At some point over the next few hours, perhaps as you’re reading this post, The Force Awakens is projected to surge past Avatar to become the highest-grossing movie in the history of the North American box office. We usually don’t adjust such figures for inflation, of course, probably because there wouldn’t be as many records broken each year if we did, and it’s all but certain that the original Star Wars will remain tops in the franchise in terms of tickets sold. Yet it’s impossible to discount this achievement. If the latest installment continues on its present trajectory, it has a good chance of cracking the adjusted top ten of all time—it would need to gross somewhere north of $948 million domestic to exceed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and earn a spot on that rarefied list, and this is starting to feel like a genuine possibility. Given the changes in the entertainment landscape over the last century, this is beyond flabbergasting. But even this doesn’t get at the real, singular nature of what we’re witnessing today. The most unexpected thing about the success of The Force Awakens is how expected it was. And at a time when Hollywood is moving increasingly toward a tentpole model in which a handful of blockbusters finance all the rest, it represents both a historic high point for the industry and an accomplishment that we’re unlikely to ever see again.

When you look at the lineal timeline of the most successful films at the domestic box office, you have to go back seventy-five years to find a title that even the shrewdest industry insider could have reasonably foreseen. This list, unadjusted for inflation, consists of Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Titanic, and Avatar. Gone With the Wind, which claimed the title that The Birth of a Nation had won a quarter of a century earlier, is the one exception: there’s no doubt that David O. Selznick hoped that it could be the biggest film of its era, even before the first match had been struck for the burning of Atlanta. Every other movie here is a headscratcher. No studio insider at the time would have been willing to bet that The Sound of Music—which Pauline Kael later called The Sound of Money—would outgross not just Doctor Zhivago and Thunderball that year, but every other movie ever made. The Godfather and Jaws were both based on bestselling novels, but that’s hardly a guarantee of success, and both were troubled productions with untested directors at the helm. Star Wars itself hardly needs to be discussed here. Columbia famously passed on E.T., and Titanic was widely regarded before its release as a looming disaster. And even Avatar, which everyone thought would be huge, exceeded all expectations: when you take regression to the mean into account, the idea that James Cameron could break his own record is so implausible that I have a hard time believing it even now.

Avatar

Which is just another way of saying that these movies were all outliers: unique, idiosyncratic projects, not part of any existing franchise, that audiences discovered gradually, often to the bewilderment of the studios themselves. The Force Awakens was different. It had barely been announced before pundits were speculating that it could set the domestic record, and although Disney spent much of buildup to its opening weekend downplaying such forecasts—with the implication that rival studios were inflating projections to make its final performance seem disappointing—it’s hard to believe that the possibility hadn’t crossed everybody’s mind. Most movie fans will remember that William Goldman said “Nobody knows anything” in Adventures in the Screen Trade, but it’s worth quoting the relevant paragraph in full. After noting that everyone in town except for Paramount turned down Raiders of the Lost Ark, he continues:

Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that may just cost them, when all the sequels and spinoffs and toy money and book money and video-game money are totaled, over a billion dollars? Because nobody, nobody—not now, not ever—knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.

If Hollywood has learned anything since, it’s that you don’t pass on Star Wars. Whatever you might think of its merits as a movie, The Force Awakens marks the one and only time that somebody knew something. And it’s probably the last time, too. It may turn into the reassuring bedtime story that studio executives use to lull themselves to sleep, and Disney may plan on releasing a new installment on an annual basis forever, but the triumphant rebirth of the franchise after ten years of dormancy—or three decades, depending on how you feel about the prequels—is the kind of epochal moment that the industry is doing its best to see never happens again. We aren’t going to have another chance to miss Star Wars because it isn’t going to go away, and the excitement that arose around its return can’t be repeated. The Force Awakens is both the ultimate vindication of the blockbuster model and a high-water mark that will make everything that follows seem like diminishing returns. (More insidiously, it may be the Jedi mind trick that convinces the studios that they know more than they do, which can only lead to heartbreak.) Records are made to be broken, and at some point in my lifetime, another movie will take the crown, if only because inflation will proceed to a point where the mathematics become inevitable. But it won’t be a Star Wars sequel. And it won’t be a movie that anyone, not even a Jedi, can see coming.

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2016 at 8:13 am

“You have a better chance than I do…”

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"Why me?"

Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 16. You can read the previous installments here.

Writers are often told that it’s a mistake to build their stories around luck, particularly if it works to the hero’s advantage. As Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats famously said: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” And it seems intuitively true that a story, whenever possible, should arise out of decisions made by the protagonist and antagonist. Yet this is a genre convention in itself, and it isn’t there, in spite of appearances, because it’s more “realistic.” Luck plays an enormous role in real life, and if exclude it from our plotting, it isn’t for the sake of realism, but plausibility, which are two entirely different things. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes a hypothetical scene in which the hero, tasked with entering a heavily secured castle, simply blunders in without a plan. He climbs the wall within sight of the guards, who don’t react; wanders around for a while in plain view; trips a few alarms without drawing any attention; and finally ends up, by accident, in the room he’s trying to enter. If this were a movie, we’d throw tomatoes. But it’s exactly how a man named Michael Fagan once broke into Buckingham Palace and ended up in the bedroom of the Queen.

If we rule out such moments of luck in fiction, it isn’t because they can’t happen, but because we feel that they take the writer and characters off the hook. It seems lazy, and worse, it pulls us out of the fictional dream by breaking an implied contract between author and reader, which states that events should emerge from the logical consequences of the characters’ actions. But there’s one interesting exception. Sometimes the master plan is so farfetched that only an absurdly omniscient protagonist could pull it off, anticipating every last detail with pinpoint precision. (Think, for instance, of the Saw movies, or even of the Joker’s stratagems in The Dark Knight.) This can be even less believable than a plan that hinges on luck, so constructing the plot turns into a choice between implausibilities—or, better, as a balance between the two. You could see it as a problem of narrative engineering: a solution that depends solely on either luck or unerring foresight collapses under its own unlikelihood, but a combination of the two stands firm. The challenge lies in mixing these elements in the right proportions, with a little luck and a little cleverness, so that the reader or viewer doesn’t regard the result as anything less than a natural development.

"You have a better chance than I do..."

And whenever luck is involved, it’s best to push it as far from the center of the story as possible, or to make it a fait accompli, so that it seems less like a stroke of fortune than a condition of the plot itself. Most movies about an impossible heist, for instance, hinge on elements of luck: there’s always a convenient air duct, or a hallway without any security cameras, or a moment when the guards change shifts. A well-constructed story will introduce these elements as soon as it can. If Danny Ocean stumbles across an unsecured ventilation shaft during the heist, we cry foul; if he mentions it beforehand, we more or less accept it, although the element of luck is exactly the same. On a higher level, the villain’s complicated plan in Vertigo depends on a single huge assumption, as Hitchcock himself admitted to François Truffaut:

The husband was planning to throw his wife down from the top of the tower. But how could he know that James Stewart wouldn’t make it up those stairs? Because he became dizzy? How could he be sure of that!

Truffaut’s response is revealingly pragmatic: “That’s true, but I saw it as one of those assumptions you felt people would accept.” Which we do—but only because it’s there in the title of the movie itself, as a kind of anthropic principle on which the whole story depends. It’s still luck, but in a form that can’t be separated from the fabric of the overall movie.

I made good use of this principle in Eternal Empire, which includes more than its fair share of wild notions. Arguably the largest involves a plot point early in the novel: Maya Asthana, my unlikely mole, has to kill a man held in solitary confinement while avoiding all suspicion. At the very least, it was necessary that she be left alone with him without any security cameras—and here, already, were two big implausibilities. I “solved” the problem by putting it entirely out of her hands. Earlier in the novel, she and Wolfe visit Rogozin in detention, and it’s Wolfe who asks that the cameras be turned off, supposedly to put the suspect at ease, but really to make it less glaring when Asthana makes the same request later on. Similarly, in Chapter 16, it’s Wolfe who tells her to visit Rogozin, saying that she’s under too much scrutiny to go herself, while unwittingly setting the stage for Asthana’s plan. Clearly, from Asthana’s point of view, these are two enormous strokes of luck. I was reasonably fine with this, though, because the alternative, in which Asthana arranges for an unobserved visit entirely on her own initiative, would be even less plausible. Like most good villains, Asthana knows how to play the hand she’s been dealt. And if the deck has been stacked in her favor, hopefully the reader won’t see this until after the trick is over…

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