Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nora Ephron

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.

On the inadvisability of true love

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I don’t believe in true love. At least not in fiction. In real life, it’s another story—I’ve been happily married for years now, thank you—but as a narrative device, it’s often an excuse to avoid inconvenient questions and the challenge of constructing a plausible plot. Perhaps because it’s so difficult to dramatize the process of falling in love, works of art that depict it convincingly are startlingly rare. It’s much easier to pretend that your two main characters are joined by destiny, with the universe conspiring in their favor, a convention that goes as far back as courtly romance, and has since been exploited by the likes of Nicholas Sparks and Nora Ephron. Clearly, audiences respond to it, but for me, all it does is rob characters of their most important quality: their free will. Once we sense that characters are being pushed together by the plot in which they find themselves, the choices they make cease to matter, and so does the story itself.

In a way, this is really a particular illustration of a more general problem, which is that fate or destiny has no place in most decent  fiction (with an important exception that I’ll discuss below). Plot, on its most basic level, is about characters making meaningful decisions, and while it’s certainly possible for a writer to nudge his characters one way or the other, this only works if it’s cleverly disguised. Making destiny an active player in the story automatically renders all other actions meaningless, or at least waters them down unforgivably. My main problem with the Harry Potter series, for instance, is its insistence on Harry’s exceptional destiny, as if being taken from under the stairs at the Dursleys and sent to Hogwarts wasn’t exceptional enough. Harry’s special status robs the series of much of its suspense, and it’s a testament to J.K. Rowling’s raw narrative skill that she managed to write seven engaging novels on her way to a preordained conclusion. In most other cases, however, I tune out whenever the talk turns to a Chosen One: it’s a sign that the author just isn’t going to let the characters go their own way.

Which is only a reminder that even if you believe that such forces apply in reality, they generally don’t belong in fiction. We may not know exactly how the world works, or if there’s some larger pattern in which we all play a part, and the consideration of such possibilities—no matter what you decide—is an important part of every examined life. In fiction, however, unless you’re supremely confident in your abilities, or writing for a very limited audience, it’s often necessary to exclude certain possibilities for the sake of good storytelling. Many of my favorite writers, from Chesterton to John Updike, hold nuanced religious beliefs, but very few have written readable fiction that turns on an act of explicit divine intervention, and for good reason. Not everyone believes in divine intervention, or true love, but most of us, at least in practice, believe in free will and individual responsibility. Most good fiction, whatever we hope or think in private, takes place in a world in which people are left to their own devices, in love as in all other things.

That said, there’s an exception to this rule, and it’s a negative one. As I’ve said in my post about the unfair universe, many great works of art turn on a single moment of cosmic unfairness: from Oedipus Rex to Vertigo, King Lear to The Postman Always Rings Twice, some of my favorite stories trap their characters like a fly in a web, daring them to extricate themselves, usually with unfortunate results. So why am I more happy with an unfair universe than one in which everything is destined to turn out fine? It’s far more entertaining, on an intuitive level, to see a character fight against a hostile destiny than to overcome his or her problems with the help of fate. Taken too far, this can also be irritating, as in the victim story, or those romances where a series of contrived events conspire to keep two appealing characters apart. And in general, one act of cosmic unfairness is enough. But it reminds us that what we want out of life is not always what we want out of fiction, and it’s the writer’s job to tell the difference. (On that note: Happy Valentine’s Day!)

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2012 at 10:17 am

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