Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ocean’s 11

“Are you still willing to play your part?”

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"Where were we?"

Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 44. You can read the previous installments here.

When you conceive of a story as a kind of puzzle box, one of the most satisfying tricks you can play is to write a scene that can be read in two different ways. At first, it suggests one obvious interpretation—if you’ve done it right, it shouldn’t even raise any questions—but on a second encounter, it says something else, based solely on the fresh perspective that the reader or audience brings to it. The canonical example here is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. It opens with the paranoid sound expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, eavesdropping on an illicit meeting in the park between a young couple, Mark and Ann, who are having an affair. Harry has been hired to follow them by Ann’s husband, but later, as he cleans up and edits the tape recording, he hears a line spoken by Mark for the first time: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” Before long, Harry, who obsessively replays that part of the conversation, becomes convinced that his client is planning to have Mark and Ann killed. Of course, that isn’t what happens, and it turns out in the end that Mark and Ann were planning to murder Ann’s husband. Harry’s interpretation of the recording was wrong: it wasn’t “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” but “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” meaning that they have to kill him first. And it’s only when the audience, along with Harry, glimpses the full picture that the line reveals its real meaning at last.

Which is an amazing feat of storytelling—except that it cheats. Walter Murch, who was left to edit the film by himself after Coppola ran off to film The Godfather Part II, was never able to make the audience understand the true meaning of that critical line of dialogue, and he ultimately hit upon a solution that broke the movie’s own rules. During one take, Frederic Forrest, who played Mark, had flubbed his line reading, inadvertently placing the emphasis on the wrong word: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” As Murch recounts in Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen:

I noted that reading at the time…and filed it away as being inappropriate. But a year later during the mixing of the film I suddenly thought, let’s see what happens if we substitute that “inappropriate” reading with its different inflection into the final reel. It might help tip audiences into understanding what had happened: that the “victims” were really the “plotters.” So I mixed it into the soundtrack in place of the original reading and took the finished film to [Coppola]…I prepared him for the change and wondered what his reaction would be when he heard it. It was a risky idea because it challenged one of the fundamental premises of the film, which is that the conversation itself remains the same, but your interpretation of it changes. I was prepared to go back to the original version. But he liked it, and that’s the way it remains in the finished film.

"Are you still willing to play your part?"

And it was the right call, even if it was a bit of a cheat. When we look at the books or movies that execute the priceless gag of having a scene appear to mean one thing but turn out to mean another, some degree of trickery is almost always involved. No film has ever pulled it off as beautifully as The Sixth Sense, with its closing montage of moments that we suddenly see in a new light, but on a second viewing, we’re acutely aware of how the script walks right up to the edge of deceiving us unfairly. (My favorite example is Lynn’s line “You got an hour,” which works when we think she’s talking to Malcolm, but not if she’s just telling her son that she’s making some triangle pancakes.) The Usual Suspects cheats even more blatantly by giving us a fake flashback—a gimmick that can be justified by the presence of an unreliable narrator, but which still feels like a lapse in an otherwise elegant movie. It’s also common for a story to omit necessary information, so that the dialogue, while not actively misleading, only gives us part of the picture. You frequently see this in movies like Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, which involve us in the planning of a heist but withhold a few details so that we don’t know what the protagonists really have in mind. In small does, this can be delightful, but it verges on being a cliché in itself, and when taken too far, it violates the implicit contract between the story and the audience, which is that we’ll be allowed to see what the main character does and draw our own conclusions.

Chapter 44 of Eternal Empire represents my own effort in that line, and I’m reasonably happy with how it turned out. The chapter opens at the tail end of what seems like a routine conversation between Maddy and Tarkovsky, then follows Maddy as she goes down to the yacht’s tender bay to meet Ilya, who is evidently preparing for Tarkovsky’s assassination. That isn’t really the case, of course, and I had a good time drawing on the standard bag of tricks for this sort of misdirection. Maddy acts as if she’s scoping out Tarkovsky’s office for the kill, when in fact she’s there to warn him, and her ensuing conversation with Ilya is filled with lines of the “He’d kill us if he had the chance” variety. (“Are we safe?” “If you’re asking if the pieces are in place, then yes, we’re ready.” “And are you still willing to play your part?” “I don’t think I have a choice.”) Looking at it objectively, I’d say that the result does its job with a minimum of jiggery-pokery, although there’s always a touch of cheating—which some readers will hate no matter what—when you don’t reveal everything that your point of view character might be thinking. Fortunately, my usual narrative mode is fairly clinical and detached: I don’t use interior monologue, and I prefer to convey emotion through action, which dovetails nicely with the requirements of a scene like this. The chapter works because it isn’t so far removed from what I normally do as a writer, which allows the characters to keep their secrets. And I’d do it again if I had the chance…

“Wolfe had been watching the front gate…”

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"Wolfe had been watching the front gate..."

Note: This post is the seventeenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 16. You can read the earlier installments here.)

A while back, I was walking out of a theater with a friend who expressed wonder at the fact that for movie after movie, screenwriters keep coming up with variations on the ultimate heist: a seemingly unbreakable safe, vault, or alarm system, set against a team of thieves who manage to circumvent the security measures in some ingenious—and preferably stylish—fashion. The movie we’d just seen was Ocean’s 11, which seemed, thirteen years ago, like a film that would set a capstone on the entire genre. Obviously, that wasn’t true: since then, we’ve seen countless other caper films, from Heist to The Italian Job to Now You See Me, that continue to pit a team of likable crooks against the usual vibration-sensitive floor and grid of laser beams. But if movies keep coming up with new variations on the same theme, it’s no mystery as to how. The screenwriter controls both halves of the equation: he can establish a seemingly insurmountable problem for the hero to solve, then give him exactly the resources he needs to address it, which is why all these impregnable citadels have a ventilation duct or airshaft that remains inexplicably unguarded.

And the heist movie is only the most obvious example of how writers quietly rig the rules to their own advantage. Mystery fiction, for instance, is built on the author’s ability to construct a puzzle that can be solved within the logic of the story itself, which often means tweaking the situation to the protagonist’s advantage in ways that should remain invisible to the reader. Reading over Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, as I’ve been doing a lot over the last couple of weeks, I’m struck again by how conveniently they unfold. Holmes is a genius, but he’s also on the receiving end of a mystery that his creator intends him to solve, to the point where I sometimes agree with Ronald Knox’s observation: “A single blunder on the part of the guilty man would have thrown all Holmes’s deductions out of joint.” You see the same tendency, although handled with much less grace, in the work of an author like Dan Brown—if you want to convince me that your lead character is a master of deduction, you’ll need to do more than give him a few anagrams to rearrange. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a character shield that keeps the star of the show alive: it may be necessary, but we’re often all too aware of the author’s hand at work.

"Wolfe sat upright..."

Of course, sometimes you just need a character to be lucky, or for a shot in the dark to pay off, to move the story along. Like so many other narrative clichés, it’s a matter of convenience: it’s easier to have your hero proceed from one good hunch to another than to show the laborious grind of real police work. The trick is to make the process seem organic, which is why a good mystery writer builds a few delays and reversals into the plot while maintaining the overall momentum. When we look back at the story, we can appreciate how beautifully the clues were laid out, but we shouldn’t be thinking in those terms when we first read it through. And at best, every detail serves multiple purposes: it fleshes out a character or provides additional color even as it serves the plot. In City of Exiles, for example, I had a specific narrative problem to solve. On the one hand, I had my antihero, Ilya, on the loose in London; on the other, I had Wolfe, who had to track him down and follow him for the upcoming climax to make sense. The means I used to get to this point weren’t all that important in themselves—in theory, I could have just had Wolfe run into Ilya randomly on the street—but the need to make the details serve double duty helped guide my thinking in the right direction.

When it came time to tackle this problem, my only guidelines were that the solution be quick and efficient; that it reveal something about both characters; and that it show a bit of ingenuity of Wolfe’s part. After some thinking, I came up with the idea of Wolfe, who knows that Ilya is a book collector with an interest in Judaica, staking out the best Jewish bookstore in London, on the assumption that Ilya will eventually make an appearance there, as he finally does in Chapter 17. (The bookstore, incidentally, is a real one, and I spent a happy afternoon browsing there in Golders Green, while quietly plotting out the action at the same time. I’ll also admit that looking for a fugitive based on an analysis of his tastes and shopping list isn’t entirely original to me—Thomas Harris does something similar, although at much greater length, in Hannibal.) For the purposes of the story, it obviously had to be sooner rather than later, although I tried to structure it so that it didn’t seem overly convenient. I’m still not sure if I entirely succeeded, but I think the result works on its own terms. And now that all the pieces are in place, we can finally get to the good stuff…

Written by nevalalee

February 6, 2014 at 10:06 am

“Gentlemen, we have a warrant…”

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"Gentlemen, we have a warrant..."

(Note: This post is the forty-second installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 41. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of the few things I know about writing is that less is usually more, and that a story is generally effective in proportion to how much the author can leave out. As overstuffed as my novels tend to be, I’m always trying to pare back elements like backstory and personal description, to the point where my advance readers often beg me to put them back in. A lot of things, I’ve found, are best left to implication, although it takes a lot of revision and feedback to find the right level of clarity. Still, there are always places where it’s necessary to spell things out. When a story contains a lot of complicated action, for instance, it’s often useful to brief readers on what they’re about to see, which can be allowed to unfold more impressionistically when the crucial moment comes: it’s fine if your characters are confused or uncertain, but that’s rarely an emotion you want in the reader, unless you’re trying to achieve it on purpose. (The best example I know of this kind of advance grounding is the computer simulation of the sinking ship in Titanic, a movie whose shrewdness of construction has been frequently underestimated.)

And giving your reader a game plan for how the action is supposed to unfold can be particularly useful in suspense. A good thriller is all about anticipation, and there’s a peculiar satisfaction in being given just enough information on what’s about to take place to look forward to the action to come—and especially to see how it deviates from what the characters are expecting. In describing the scene in The Godfather where Michael shoots Sollozzo and McCloskey, David Thomson talks about “the sinister charm of action foreseen, spelled out, and finally delivered,” and when properly done, it’s one of the most useful tools in a writer’s arsenal. Hence the moment in any decent heist movie in which the logistics of entering the mansion, disabling the security system, and cracking the safe are lovingly described in advance, which stands as one of the few instances when exposition builds the suspense, rather than destroying it.

"The club stands in a line of restaurants..."

Suspense, as Thomson points out in his discussion of Inception, has a lot in common with comedy, which is also built on anticipation and surprise, and at its best, this approach embodies a classic piece of comedy advice: “Tell them what you’re going to do. Then do it. Then tell them what you did.” In a thriller, though, this last step might be better described as “Then tell them what really happened.” Because spelling out the coming action carries an additional charge of irony and tension. A sophisticated reader—which is to say anyone who has seen a movie or two—is well aware that nothing ever goes entirely as planned: a properly constructed caper film, for instance, will withhold the most essential information until the big score itself begins to unfold, as in Ocean’s 11, which means that any initial description of the plan is really just a list of things that can go wrong. And as always, it’s best to acknowledge this, and play off the reader’s knowledge of the genre, rather than trying to fight against it.

Chapter 41 of The Icon Thief, for example, is largely taken up by one of my favorite categories of this kind of exposition: the police briefing in advance of a raid. Louis Barlow, the FBI assistant special agent in charge, spends several pages describing what will take place when they finally raid Sharkovsky’s club in Brighton Beach, and because of the considerations I’ve mentioned above, I give more space to this speech than I might have done elsewhere in the novel. In fact, this is one of the few chapters that was significantly expanded in the rewrite, as it became clear to me that I needed to lay out the impending action as clearly as possible—and if I’ve done my work properly, the reader will appreciate it on several levels at once. It creates anticipation for the scene to come; it provides a kind of map for following the action itself, which will ultimately unfold across multiple points of view; and, best of all, it allows the reader to wonder what, exactly, is going to go wrong. Because as you can probably guess, this raid isn’t going to go exactly as planned…

Written by nevalalee

April 4, 2013 at 8:52 am

“A few moments earlier, on the other side of the estate…”

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(Note: This post is the nineteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 18. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Heist stories are fun for many reasons, but a lot of their appeal comes from the sense that they’re veiled allegories for the act of storytelling itself. We see this clearly in a movie like Inception, in which the various players can be interpreted as corresponding to analogous roles behind the camera—Cobb is the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the set designer, Eames the primary actor, and Arthur is, I don’t know, the line producer, while Fischer, the mark, is a surrogate for the audience itself. (For what it’s worth, Christopher Nolan has stated that any such allegory was an unconscious one, although he seems to have embraced it after the fact.) Even in a novel, which is produced by a crew of one, there’s something in the structure of a heist that evokes a writer’s tools of the trade. It involves disguise, misdirection, perfect timing, and a ticking clock. If all goes well, it’s a well-oiled machine, and the target doesn’t even know that he’s been taken, at least not until later, when he goes back and puts together the pieces. And it’s no surprise that the heists contrived by writers, who spend most of their time constructing implausible machines, tend to be much more elaborate than their counterparts in the real world.

When I realized that I wanted to put a heist at the center of The Icon Thief, I was tickled by the opportunity, as well as somewhat daunted by the challenge. On the bright side, I had a lot of models to follow, so cobbling together a reasonable heist, in itself, was a fairly straightforward proposition. The trouble, of course, is that nearly everything in the heist genre has been done before. Every year seems to bring another movie centered on an impregnable safe or mansion, with a resourceful team of thieves—or screenwriters—determined to get inside. Audiences have seen it all. And I knew from early on that I wanted to make this heist a realistic one, without any laser grids or pressure-sensitive floors. I wanted the specifics to be clever, but not outside the means of a smart thief operating with limited resources. (A movie like Ocean’s 11, as entertaining as it may be, raises the question of why a group of criminals with access to such funding and technology would bother to steal for a living.) As I result, when I began to plot out the heist that begins to unfold in Chapter 18, I had a clear set of goals, but I wasn’t quite sure what form it would take.

The obvious place to begin was with the target itself. Consequently, I spent a memorable afternoon with a friend in the Hamptons, walking along Gin Lane, peeking over hedges, and generally acting as suspiciously as possible. The house that I describe here is a real mansion with more or less the physical setting that appears in the novel, with a mammoth hedge blocking it from the road, but a relatively accessible way in from the ocean side, where the property goes all the way down to the beach. I quickly decided that I wanted my thief to escape out the back way, onto the sand, where his getaway car would be waiting. On the way in, however, I wanted him to drive right through the gate. The crews in pickup trucks that I saw doing maintenance at many of these houses suggested one potential solution. And while I can’t quite remember how I came up with the final idea—a mid-engine pickup with an empty space under the hood large enough to allow two men to hide inside, undiscovered by security—I knew at once, when it occurred to me, that I’d found my way in.

The rest amounted to simple narrative mechanics. Following the anthropic principle of fiction that I mentioned earlier this week, I knew that I had to introduce the pickup early on, at least in the background, to make its ultimate use seem like less of a stretch—hence Sharkovsky’s enthusiasm for trophy trucks, which pops up at several points earlier in the novel. This chapter also includes one of the rare scenes told from the point of view from someone other than one of the central characters, since I wanted to put the reader in a shoes of a security guard who checks the truck thoroughly before letting it through the front gate, but neglects to look under the hood. The result is one of the novel’s more gimmicky moments, but I think it works. (Whether the arrangement that I describe in the book would actually function in real life is another matter, but at least it’s not entirely implausible, which by the standards of the genre is more than enough.) Sometimes I wonder if it’s too gimmicky, but that’s one of the pleasures of suspense: I can honor the heist genre with a quick nod in its direction, then move on as realistically as I can. And this heist is far from over…

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

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