Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘House of Games

In sickness and in health

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David Mamet

As I write this blog post, I’m running on fumes. Last week, I delivered a novel to my agent for notes and promptly got sick, pretty much as I predicted I would. It was the climax of a fairly intense process that involved churning out most of a 75,000-word manuscript in something like six months, on top of child care and what felt like a summer of nonstop social commitments, and in the end, my body just gave out. (If I haven’t talked about it much here, it’s because I still hold onto the superstition about avoiding any mention of work in progress, and I’m only bringing it up now because I’m done with the first draft.) As it happens, my daughter got sick at around the same time, and although I can’t be sure who came down with what first, I have the feeling that I just no longer had any energy to fend off those baby germs. It’s also possible that I’ve been on the verge of coming down with something anyway, and I managed to push it away for long enough to lock down that last page.

And I’m not alone. Anecdotally, there’s a lot of evidence that writers and creative types tend to come down with something shortly after finishing a project. David Mamet tells this story about the filming of House of Games:

We finished shooting the movie on time and under budget in mid-August. I went home happy as a clam and immediately got as sick as I’ve ever been in my life. I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks, didn’t eat a thing, and sweated the whole time. Sidney Lumet called to welcome us back. “How did the film go?” he asked my wife. She told him. “How’s David,” he said, “is he sick yet?”

Which shouldn’t be surprising. One of the underappreciated challenges of directing a movie is how physically demanding it is: you’re up at all hours, overseeing night shoots or camping out in the editing bay after the day’s filming is done, while constantly being asked to make decisions about what kind of coffee cup a character holds in a particular scene. Occasionally, you’ll hear reports of a director suffering a breakdown halfway through production, but the really surprising thing is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Walter Murch

Then again, successful movie directors make up a select group, and if you didn’t already have the aptitude for the job’s mental and physical requirements, you’d have been weeded out long before. Walter Murch likes to say that a film editor needs a strong back and arms: if a minute of celluloid weighs a pound, the footage for a movie like Apocalypse Now amounts to something like seven tons. With modern digital tools, that’s no longer the case, but the reserves of patience, discipline, and attentiveness it requires are no different. It’s a little like playing chess, which requires exceptional levels of physical fitness in order to compete on the highest levels. Writing a novel or editing a movie sometimes feel like playing chess against an opponent of infinite stamina and perversity, and you’re figuring out the rules of the game as you go along. It’s no wonder, then, that it leaves us exhausted. (For what it’s worth, this doesn’t seem to be a purely physiological reaction: the brain sucks up a lot of energy at all times, and when we’re engaged in sustained intellectual activity, it uses a little more, but not a lot.)

But it’s also possible that the body is simply enforcing a break. Prolonged brainwork may not burn as many calories as we’d like to think, but it consumes something less tangible. We’ve all been blessed with finite amounts of ingenuity, imagination, and meticulousness, and with any project, we eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, when we can barely even see the words on the page, much less revise them in useful ways. When we hit a wall, it may be less of a sign that our limits have been reached than a precautionary measure that forces us, even to the point of physical incapacitation, into a temporary surrender. Professional writers like to think that they can will themselves through anything, but sometimes the material demands a pause, and if the mind isn’t willing to stop on its own, the body steps in to settle the issue. I don’t think I’ll be able to get much work done today, but maybe I shouldn’t be working anyway. Every writer knows how it feels for a story to reach out and give you what you need at that exact moment, and sometimes it only wants you to take a step back. So you’ve got no choice but to take your DayQuil, and when you’re ready for it, the work will still be there, pleased to welcome you back in your right mind.

Written by nevalalee

September 29, 2014 at 9:37 am

The joy of commentary tracks

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While I still haven’t gotten around to tackling the definitive appreciation of The Simpsons that I’ll inevitably need to write one day, in the meantime, I thought I’d highlight an underappreciated element of that show’s legacy: its DVD commentary tracks. Over the past decade or so, even as I’ve stopped watching the show itself, its commentary tracks—featuring Matt Groening, the showrunners for each season, and an assortment of writers, directors, and producers—have become an inseparable part of my life. Since I already know most of the episodes by heart, I’ll often play an audio commentary in the background while I’m exercising or doing chores around the house, to the point where I’ve probably listened to some of these tracks twenty times or more. And every other year or so, I’ll systematically work through the entire series, as I’m doing now, going backward from season thirteen all the way to the premiere.

It’s hard to explain why, but these commentaries have become weirdly important to me, sometimes even exceeding the importance of the episodes themselves—especially at this point in the series, when the underlying material tends to be mediocre or worse. Even for middling episodes, though, the commentaries are still compelling: two of my favorites are for “The Principal and the Pauper” and “Bart to the Future,” episodes that probably rank near the bottom of the pack. A Simpsons commentary track is simply the best radio show in the world, with a roomful of smart, nerdy guys talking with great enthusiasm about a subject of intense interest to them, and to me. In the process, I’ve enjoyed getting to know people like writers David Mirkin, Matt Selman, and Ron Hauge, and directors Mark Kirkland, Susie Dietter, and Jim Reardon, who otherwise would just be names on a screen. And I’ve painlessly absorbed a lot of valuable information about storytelling—such as the observation, by Josh Weinstein, I think, that five minutes of sentiment is too much, but fifteen seconds is just right.

At this point, though, after twenty listens or more, I’ve begun to suck most of the pulp out of these commentaries, so I’ve been casting about for alternatives. Futurama, not surprisingly, has commentaries that are equally engaging, and it’s always fun to listen to David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler, among others, unpack the show’s many references. (Futurama remains the only series that ever inspired me to look up the Wikipedia article on P versus NP.) And I’ve spoken before about how much I love audio commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola: his voice is warm, grandfatherly, almost conspiratorial, drawing you into a frank discussion of his triumphs and disappointments, generous with both his philosophy of life and the technical side of filmmaking. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to hanging out with Coppola himself, and a reminder that the best commentary tracks are a reflection of the artist’s personality.

What else? My single favorite commentary for a movie is probably Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s track for The Usual Suspects, where they cheerfully point out plot holes and continuity errors while imparting, almost incidentally, a lot of irreverent observations on the creative process. A close second is Nicholas Meyer’s commentary for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which provides a great deal of candid insight into one of my favorite movies, as well as the art of storytelling itself. (“Storyteller,” Meyer tells us, is what he always puts down when asked for his profession on customs forms.) David Mamet is usually captivating, even when he’s being glib or cagey; I recently put on his commentary track for House of Games, featuring Ricky Jay, while preparing my tax returns, which made the process a lot more bearable. And I’m always looking for others. If you’re a commentary track addict like me, and if you have any special favorites, I’d love to hear about them.

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