Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Bujalski

The Coco Chanel rule

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Coco Chanel

“Before you leave the house,” the fashion designer Coco Chanel is supposed to have said, “look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” As much as I like it, I’m sorry to say that this quote is most likely apocryphal: you see it attributed to Chanel everywhere, but without the benefit of an original source, which implies that it’s one of those pieces of collective wisdom that have attached themselves parasitically to a famous name. Still, it’s valuable advice. It’s usually interpreted, correctly enough, as a reminder that less is more, but I prefer to think of it as a statement about revision. The quote isn’t about reaching simplicity from the ground up, but about taking something and improving it by subtracting one element, like the writing rule that advises you to cut ten percent from every draft. And what I like the most about it is that its moment of truth arrives at the very last second, when you’re about to leave the house. That final glance in the mirror, when it’s almost too late to make additional changes, is often when the true strengths and weaknesses of your decisions become clear, if you’re smart enough to distinguish it from the jitters. (As Jeffrey Eugenides said to The Paris Review: “Usually I’m turning the book in at the last minute. I always say it’s like the Greek Olympics—’Hope the torch lights.'”)

But which accessory should you remove? In the indispensable book Behind the Seen, the editor Walter Murch gives us an important clue, using an analogy from filmmaking:

In interior might have four different sources of light in it: the light from the window, the light from the table lamp, the light from the flashlight that the character is holding, and some other remotely sourced lights. The danger is that, without hardly trying, you can create a luminous clutter out of all that. There’s a shadow over here, so you put another light on that shadow to make it disappear. Well, that new light casts a shadow in the other direction. Suddenly there are fifteen lights and you only want four.

As a cameraman what you paradoxically do is have the gaffer turn off the main light, because it is confusing your ability to really see what you’ve got. Once you do that, you selectively turn off some of the lights and see what’s left. And you discover that, “OK, those other three lights I really don’t need at all—kill ’em.” But it can also happen that you turn off the main light and suddenly, “Hey, this looks great! I don’t need that main light after all, just these secondary lights. What was I thinking?”

This principle, which Murch elsewhere calls “blinking the key,” implies that you should take away the most important piece, or the accessory that you thought you couldn’t live without.

Walter Murch

This squares nicely with a number of principles that I’ve discussed here before. I once said that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed, and when you follow the Chanel rule, on a deeper level, the missing accessory is still present, even after you’ve taken it off. The remaining accessories were presumably chosen with it in mind, and they preserve its outlines, resulting in a kind of charged negative space that binds the rest together. This applies to writing, too. “The Cask of Amontillado” practically amounts to a manual on how to wall up a man alive, but Poe omits the one crucial detail—the reason for Montresor’s murderous hatred—that most writers would have provided up front, and the result is all the more powerful. Shakespeare consistently leaves out key explanatory details from his source material, which renders the behavior of his characters more mysterious, but no less concrete. And the mumblecore filmmaker Andrew Bujalski made a similar point a few years ago to The New York Times Magazine: “Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., ‘I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.’) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.”

This is a piece of advice that many artists could stand to take to heart, especially if they’ve been blessed with an abundance of invention. I like Interstellar, for instance, but I have a hunch that it would have been an even stronger film if Christopher Nolan had made a few cuts. If he had removed Anne Hathaway’s speech on the power of love, for instance, the same point would have come across in the action, but more subtly, assuming that the rest of the story justified its inclusion in the first place. (Of course, every film that Nolan has ever made strives valiantly to strike a balance between action and exposition, and in this case, it stumbled a little in the wrong direction. Interstellar is so openly indebted to 2001 that I wish it had taken a cue from that movie’s script, in which Kubrick and Clarke made the right strategic choice by minimizing the human element wherever possible.) What makes the Chanel rule so powerful is that when you glance in the mirror on your way out the door, what catches your eye first is likely to be the largest, flashiest, or most obvious component, which often adds the most by its subtraction. It’s the accessory that explains too much, or draws attention to itself, rather than complementing the whole, and by removing it, we’re consciously saying no to what the mind initially suggests. As Chanel is often quoted as saying: “Elegance is refusal.” And she was right—even if it was really Diana Vreeland who said it. 

Ten ways of looking at cutting

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Akira Kurosawa

I’ve said many times that you should strive to cut the first draft of any story by at least ten percent, but where do you begin? Here are a few thoughts to get you started:

[Kurosawa] is particularly averse to any scene which would tend to explain a past action, to predicate itself in history as it were. Kurosawa’s premises are all in the future and this is what makes them so suspenseful, one is always having to wait and see…Just as he always cuts out business which gets a character from one place to another, which, for merely geographical reasons, has him—say—opening and closing doors; so, Kurosawa is impatient with any shot which lasts too long for no good reason.

Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Start with activity. Conclude with something strong…Whenever I sense that the pace of a sequence of chapters is dragging, I try an experiment and cut the first and last paragraphs of each chapter.

David Morrell

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

Andrew Bujalski

On every story I’ve ever done, I’ve hard-edited and cut no less than ten or fifteen percent of the story. So if it’s a hundred-inch story, I always cut out ten or fifteen inches. And that’s before I give it to the editor.

Tom Hallman

David Mamet

Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit. Any time any character is saying to another “As you know,” that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit. Do not write a crock of shit.

David Mamet

Please flip to page 73. If you had to cut this scene, would the entire movie fall apart? No. You’d write around it. So cut it and deal with the absence. Repeat as needed.

John August

Take up the thousand word short story you have written and read down until you come to the first dialogue or objective action…Now, start reading all over again, beginning the story as though that first bit of action or dialogue were the start of the story. Read along for two or three hundred words while the action and dialogue continue, until you come to the point where you have again resorted to expository writing—that is, to telling the reader something, rather than to portraying the material in narrative or dramatic form. At this point, insert all of that material which went before the first action or dialogue. Write an additional sentence or two of transition, in between the dialogue and action section and the expository section. Retype the story, with the middle at the beginning, the beginning at the middle, and the ending where it was in the first place.

Jack Woodford

Umberto Eco

Well, there is a criterion for deciding whether a film is pornographic or not, and it is based on the calculation of wasted time…Pornographic movies are full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms, girls who sip various drinks and who fiddle interminably with laces and blouses before confessing to each other that they prefer Sappho to Don Juan…I repeat. Go into a movie theater. If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic.

Umberto Eco, “How to Recognize a Porn Movie”

In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat.

Charles Koppelman, Behind the Seen

I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.

Robert Rossen, director of All the King’s Men

And finally, a reminder from Elie Wiesel: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Developing the edges

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Stephin Merritt

Of all the pieces of writing advice I know, one of the most useful, at least in terms of immediate applicability, is that you should strive to omit the beginning and end of each scene, and jump from middle to middle. (I’m pretty sure that the original source of this admonition is William Goldman, either in Which Lie Did I Tell? or Adventures in the Screen Trade, although for the life of me I’ve never been able to track down the passage itself.) This only means that when you’re writing a first draft, your initial stab at the material has a way of gradually ramping into the chapter or sequence and then ramping down again, as you work your way into and out of the events taking place in your imagination, and in the rewrite, most of this material can be cut. In its simplest form, this involves nothing more than cutting the first and last few paragraphs of every chapter and seeing how it reads, a trick I first learned from David Morrell, author of First Blood. This expedient got me out of a major jam in The Icon Thief—the first third of the book never really flowed until I ruthlessly cut the beginning and end of each scene—and ever since, I’ve made a point of consciously reviewing everything I write to see if the edges can be trimmed.

Like any good rule, though, even this one can be overused, so I’ve also learned to keep an eye out for the exceptions. In screenwriting parlance, a story that dashes from one high point to another is “all legs,” with no room for anything but the plot, which robs the reader of any chance to process the incidents or get to know the characters. Usually, when you’re blocking out a story, lulls in the plot will naturally suggest themselves—if anything, they can start to seem too abundant—but it’s also worth asking yourself, when a story seems to be all business and no atmosphere, whether you can pull back slightly from time to time. In other words, there will be moments when you’ll want to invert your normal practice: you’ll cut the middle and develop the edges. This results in a change of pace, a flat stretch that provides a contrast to all those peaks, and it allows the reader to regroup while setting the climaxes into greater relief. (In musical terms, it’s something like the hypothetical song that Stephin Merritt once described, which moves repeatedly between the first and fourth chords while avoiding the fifth, creating a sense of wandering and unrealized expectations.)

Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

There are other benefits to focusing on the edges of the scene as well, particularly if you’ve explicitly stated or dramatized something that might be more effectively left to implication. I’ve quoted the director Andrew Bujalski on this point before, but I’m not ashamed to cite him again, since it’s one of the most interesting writing tidbits I’ve seen all year:

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity. (E.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

This is especially true when it comes to elements that inherently grab a reader’s attention, like violence or sex. These are powerful tools, but only when used sparingly, and novels that contain too much of either can seem exhausting. In particular, I’ve learned to save extended depictions of violence—which might otherwise overwhelm the kinds of stories I’m telling—for two or three climactic points per novel, while writing around it as much as possible in the meantime.

And final point to bear in mind is that when we look back at the works of art we’ve experienced, it’s often the stuff at the edges that we remember the most. Mad Men, for instance, has increasingly become a show about those edge moments, and I can’t remember a single thing about the Liam Neeson thriller Unknown, which is crammed with action and chases, except for one quiet scene between the two great character actors Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. A truly great artist, like Wong Kar-Wai at his best or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in A Canterbury Tale, can even give us a story that is about nothing but the edges, although this is probably something that only geniuses should attempt. Even for the rest of us, though, it’s worth acknowledging that even the most crowded, eventful story needs to make room for anticipation, pauses, and silence, as Moss Hart understood. So the next time you’re reading over a story and you find your interest starting to flag, instead of ratcheting up the tension even further, try restructuring part of it to emphasize the edge over the center. In many cases, you’ll find that the center is still there, exerting its gravitational pull, but you just can’t see it.

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2014 at 9:36 am

The crucial missing piece

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Andrew Bujalski

Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a feature in which fourteen screenwriters shared a few of their favorite writing tips. There’s a lot to enjoy here—I particularly liked Jeff Nichols’s description of how he lays out his scene cards—but the most interesting piece of advice comes courtesy of Andrew Bujalski, the writer and director of such mumblecore movies as Computer Chess and Mutual Appreciation. When asked how he writes believable dialogue, Bujalski says:

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

Which, at first, sounds like just another version of the famous quote attributed to Hemingway: “Write the story, take out all the good lines, and see if it still works.” But there’s something a little more subtle going on here, which is the fact that the center of a scene—or an entire story—can be made all the more powerful by removing it entirely.

When a writer starts working on any unit of narrative, he generally has some idea of the information it needs to convey: a plot point, an emotional beat, a clarification of the relationship between two characters. Whatever it is, it’s the heart of the scene, and the other details that surround it are selected with an eye to clarifying or enriching that pivotal moment. What’s funny, though, is that when you delete what seems like the crucial piece, the supporting material often stands perfectly well on its own, like a sculpture once the supports have been taken away. And the result often gains in resonance. I’ve noted before that there’s a theory in literary criticism that Shakespeare, who based most of his plays on existing stories, intentionally omits part of the original source material while leaving other elements intact. For instance, in the Amleth story that provided the basis for Hamlet, the lead character feigns madness for a great reason—to protect himself from a plot against his life. The fact that he removes this motivation while preserving the rest of the action goes a long way toward explaining why we find Hamlet, both the play and the character, so tantalizing.

Walter Murch

Still, it’s hard for a writer to bring himself to remove what seems like the entire justification for a scene, and we often only find ourselves doing it in order to solve some glaring problem. Walter Murch, in Behind the Seen, has a beautiful analogy for this:

An interior might have four different sources of light in it: the light from the window, the light from the table lamp, the light from the flashlight that the character is holding, and some other remotely sourced lights. The danger is that, without hardly trying, you can create a luminous clutter out of all that. There’s a shadow over here, so you put another light on that shadow to make it disappear. Well, that new light casts a shadow in the other direction. Suddenly there are fifteen lights and you only want four.

As a cameraman what you paradoxically do is have the gaffer turn off the main light, because it is confusing your ability to really see what you’ve got. Once you do that, you selectively turn off some of the lights and see what’s left. And you discover that, “OK, those other three lights I really don’t need at all—kill ’em.” But it can also happen that you turn off the main light and suddenly, “Hey, this looks great! I don’t need that main light after all, just these secondary lights. What was I thinking?”

Murch goes on to say that much the same thing can happen in film editing: you’ll cut a scene that you thought was essential to the plot, only to find that the movie works even better without it, perhaps because something was being said too explicitly. It can be hard to generate this kind of ambiguity from scratch, and you’ll often find that you need to write that pivotal scene anyway, if only for the sake of excising it. This may seem like a waste of effort, but sometimes you need a big sculptural form to lend shape and meaning to its surroundings, even if you take it out in the end.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2013 at 8:53 am

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