Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Towne

The Ratner Pack

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Yesterday, the director Brett Ratner joined the depressingly long list of powerful men in Hollywood who have been accused of sexual harassment, misconduct, or assault. The charges leveled by the Los Angeles Times are both damning and horrifyingly familiar, but one detail in particular might ring a bell for attentive readers. One of the women who share their stories is Eri Sasaki, who claims that Ratner dangled the prospect of a speaking part in Rush Hour 2 in exchange for sex. In response, Ratner’s attorney, Martin Singer, called her charges “absurd” and “nonsensical,” explaining to the Times: “The movie was obviously already cast and shooting, so the notion that there would be a discussion of getting her a speaking role in the middle of a movie shoot is ridiculous.” Let’s table that argument for a second, and turn to the even more sordid case of James Toback, who supposedly used a similar line on dozens of women for decades. Four days before Toback was the subject of his own exposé in the Times, the reporter Hillel Aron asked him about the allegation “that you approach women on the street and offer them film roles, and talk about how you want to be involved with them, working in movies, and then the conversation quickly switches in some way to sex.” Toback replied:

Lemme be really clear about this. I don’t want to get a pat on the back, but I’ve struggled seriously to make movies with very little money, that I write, that I direct, that mean my life to me. The idea that I would offer a part to anyone for any other reason than that he or she was gonna be the best of anyone I could find is so disgusting to me. And anyone who says it is a lying cocksucker or c—t or both…Anyone who says that, I just want to spit in his or her fucking face.

In both cases, the reasoning, evidently, is that no real director would ever offer a woman a part in a film in exchange for sex if he weren’t completely serious about following through. Why aren’t people convinced by this?

If Ratner and Toback trade in the same line of garbage, either directly or through a surrogate, that shouldn’t come as a surprise—the two of them have been close for years. There was talk a while back of Ratner directing Toback’s screenplay about John DeLorean, which never got off the ground, while Toback has referred to the younger director as “my friend and L.A. housemate.” Ratner, for his part, said to Variety earlier this year: “My closest friends are James Toback, Roman Polanski, Warren Beatty, Bob Evans—these are the guys who have helped me and given me the best advice.” Even if we leave out Polanski, that’s quite a list. Over a decade ago, Vanity Fair ran a glowing profile of Ratner that included a quote that I’ve never forgotten:

When I screen a movie, before I show it to anybody, I show it to one of three people: Warren [Beatty], Bob Evans, or Bob Towne, because they’re the smartest guys in the business. They tell me the truth, they’re not kissing my ass.

At the time, I’ll confess that I did little more than give credit to Ratner for seeking out interesting mentors—even if Beatty and Evans seem now like models for something other than good manners toward women. (As for Towne, he’s mentioned in the recent coverage only because Ratner is accused of making “an aggressive come-on” years ago to his daughter Katharine, whom he allegedly followed into a bathroom at a movie star’s house in Los Angeles, saying: “I like ’em chubby sometimes.” Singer, Ratner’s lawyer, who is really doing his client no favors, replies: “Even if hypothetically this incident occurred exactly as claimed, how is flirting at a party, complimenting a woman on her appearance, and calling her to ask her for a date wrongful conduct?”)

But the roll call of Ratner’s buddies is striking for other reasons. Beatty, Evans, Towne, and even Toback are undeniably smart guys, but they’ve also had a rough stretch in Hollywood. Beatty’s recent career has consisted of a long retreat punctuated by an embarrassing failure, Evans and Towne’s travails are the stuff of legend, and Toback hasn’t been in a position to direct a movie on more than a shoestring budget in more than a decade. (The most pathetic detail in the Toback exposé has to be his favorite pickup line, which he delivered in locations like the Kinko’s on the Upper West Side: “My name’s James Toback. I’m a movie director. Have you ever seen Black and White or Two Girls and a Guy?” And if the woman in question hadn’t, he was happy to pull out a copy of the DVD.) You could argue that the ups and downs of their careers have turned Beatty, Evans, and the rest into unusually interesting sources of advice, and you’d be right. And their recent setbacks have made them more available to swap war stories with an eager young protégé than, say, Steven Spielberg might be. But I don’t think that Ratner was really looking for such insights, at least not when it came to making movies: I think he was seeking out the aura of Hollywood in the seventies. Ratner’s filmography consists of some of the least memorable or personal movies of the last twenty years, but it’s in his unproduced projects that you start to get a sense of his inner life. One was the DeLorean movie, which Evans was rumored at one time to be producing. Another was a film with a lead character—to which Johnny Depp was attached—clearly based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in his hotel room in New York. And as the latest accusations broke, Ratner was developing a movie about none other than Hugh Hefner, with Jared Leto set to star, which fell apart over the last twenty-four hours.

It isn’t hard to see the pattern here. Ratner may sign up to direct X-Men: The Last Stand or Hercules, but his heart obviously lies with biopics about a certain type of man. They may never get made, but in the meantime, they allow him to daydream. A lot of us contemplate such lives with a certain sick fascination—I’ve listened endlessly to Evans’s audiobook of his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture—but Ratner seems to have done everything he can to put it in into practice, first in the circle of older men with which he surrounds himself, and second in the way he evidently treats many of the women who cross his path. (His production company, incidentally, is called RatPac, which evokes yet another glamorized era of bad behavior.) It’s the sort of perverse nostalgia that we can glimpse even in Harvey Weinstein, whose abuse of women seems modeled after an even earlier period, in which studio moguls treated human beings as their personal property. Some of these men also made great works of art, which doesn’t excuse their actions, but Ratner seems content to imitate and reenact their legacy in every way except the one that really counts: by making films that viewers would admire and remember. You can get surprisingly far by paying lip service to a set of cultural values that you have no interest in realizing yourself, except as a pretext for the acquisition of sex, money, and power. And it doesn’t stop in Hollywood. I can’t overlook the fact that one of Ratner’s movies, Tower Heist, originally had a different title before it was changed in preproduction, and while I can’t say for sure what drew him to the project, I can venture a good guess. As Ratner mused earlier this summer to The Hollywood Reporter: “In retrospect, it would have been a bigger hit if it had been called Trump Heist.”

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.

Hollywood in Limbo

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In his essay on the fourth canto of Dante’s Inferno, which describes the circle of Limbo populated by the souls of virtuous pagans, Jorge Luis Borges discusses the notion of the uncanny, which has proven elusively hard to define:

Toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, or the end of the eighteenth, certain adjectives of Saxon or Scottish origin (eerie, uncanny, weird) came into circulation in the English language, serving to define those places or things that vaguely inspire horror…In German, they are perfectly translated by the word unheimlich; in Spanish, the best word may be siniestro.

I was reminded of this passage while reading, of all things, Benjamin Wallace’s recent article in Vanity Fair on the decline of National Lampoon. It’s a great piece, and it captures the sense of uncanniness that I’ve always associated with a certain part of Hollywood. Writing of the former Lampoon head Dan Laikin, Wallace says:

Poor choice of partners proved a recurring problem. Unable to get traction with the Hollywood establishment, Laikin appeared ready to work with just about anyone. “There were those of us who’d been in the business a long time,” [development executive Randi] Siegel says, “who told him not to do business with certain people. Dan had a tendency to trust people that were probably not the best people to trust. I think he wanted to see the good in it and change things.” He didn’t necessarily have much choice. If you’re not playing in Hollywood’s big leagues, you’re playing in its minors, which teem with marginal characters…“Everyone Danny hung out with was sketchy,” says someone who did business with Laikin. Laikin, for his part, blames the milieu: “I’m telling you, I don’t surround myself with these people. I don’t search them out. They’re all over this town.”

Years ago, I attended a talk by David Mamet in which he said something that I’ve never forgotten. Everybody gets a break in Hollywood after twenty-five years, but some get it at the beginning and others at the end, and the important thing is to be the one who stays after everyone else has gone home. Wallace’s article perfectly encapsulates that quality, which I’ve always found fascinating, perhaps because I’ve never had to live with it. It results in a stratum of players in the movie and television industry who haven’t quite broken through, but also haven’t reached the point where they drop out entirely. They end up, in short, in a kind of limbo, which Borges vividly describes in the same essay:

There is is something of the oppressive wax museum about this still enclosure: Caesar, armed and idle; Lavinia, eternally seated next to her father…A much later passage of the Purgatorio adds that the shades of the poets, who are barred from writing, since they are in the Inferno, seek to distract their eternity with literary discussions.

You could say that the inhabitants of Hollywood’s fourth circle of hell, who are barred from actually making movies, seek to distract their eternity by talking about the movies that they wish they could make. It’s easy to mock them, but there’s also something weirdly ennobling about their sheer persistence. They’re survivors in a profession where few of us would have lasted, if we even had the courage to go out there in the first place, and at a time when such people seem more likely to end up at something like the Fyre Festival, it’s nice to see that they still exist in Hollywood.

So what is it about the movie industry that draws and retains such personalities? One of its most emblematic figures is Robert Towne, who, despite his Oscar for Chinatown and his reputation as the dean of American screenwriters, has spent his entire career looking like a man on the verge of his big break. If Hollywood is Limbo, Towne is its Caesar, “armed and idle,” and he’s been there for five decades. Not surprisingly, he has a lot of insight into the nature of that hell. In his interview with John Brady in The Craft of the Screenwriter, Towne says:

You are often involved with a producer who is more interested in making money on the making of the movie than he is on the releasing of the movie. There is a lot of money to be made on the production of a movie, not just in salary, but all sorts of ways that are just not altogether honest. So he’s going to make his money on the making, which is really reprehensible.

“Movies are so difficult that you should really make movies that you feel you absolutely have to make,” Towne continues—and the fact that this happens so rarely implies that the studio ecosystem is set up for something totally different. Towne adds:

It’s easier for a director and an actor to be mediocre and get away with it than it is for a writer. Even a writer who happens to be mediocre has to work pretty hard to get through a script, whereas a cameraman will say to the director, “Where do you think you want to put the camera? You want it here? All right, I’m going to put it here.” In other words, a director can be carried along by the production if he’s mediocre, to some extent; and that’s true of an actor, too.

Towne tosses off these observations without dwelling on them, knowing that there’s plenty more where they came from, but if you put them together, you end up with a pretty good explanation of why Hollywood is the way it is. It’s built to profit from the making of movies, rather than from the movies themselves, which is only logical: if it depended on success at the box office, everybody would be out of a job. The industry also has structures in place that allow people to skate by for years without any particular skills, if they manage to stick to the margins. (In any field where past success is no guarantee of future performance, it’s the tall poppies that get their heads chopped off.) Under such conditions, survival isn’t a matter of talent, but of something much less definable. A brand like National Lampoon, which has been leveled by time but retains some of its old allure, draws such people like a bright light draws fish in the abyss, and it provides a place where they can be studied. The fact that Kato Kaelin makes an appearance in these circles shouldn’t be surprising—he’s the patron saint of those who hang on for decades for no particular reason. And it’s hard not to relate to the hope that sustains them:

“What everyone always does at the company is feel like something big is about to happen, and I want to be here for it,” [creative director] Marty Dundics says. “We’re one hit movie away from, or one big thing away from, being back on top. It’s always this underdog you’re rooting for. And you don’t want to miss it. That big thing that’s about to happen. That was always the mood.”

Extend that mood across a quarter of a century, and you have Hollywood, which also struggles against the realization that Borges perceives in Limbo: “The certainty that tomorrow will be like today, which was like yesterday, which was like every day.”

“To spare another man’s life…”

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"Asthana halted..."

Note: This post is the sixtieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 59. You can read the previous installments here.

Why do our villains always have to die? Roger Ebert says somewhere—I haven’t been able to track down the exact reference—that he’d be happier if a movie ended with the hero sealing the bad guy’s fate with a few well-chosen lines of dialogue, followed by a closeup of the bastard’s face as he absorbs his predicament. And there’s no question that this would be much more satisfying than the anticlimactic death scenes that most stories tend to deliver. It’s safe to say that if a book or screenplay goes through the trouble of creating a nice, hateful antagonist, it’s usually for the sake of his ultimate comeuppance: we want to see him pay for what he’s done, and hopefully suffer in the process. In practice, the manner in which he ends up being dispatched rarely lives up to the punishment we’ve mentally assigned to him in advance. For one thing, it’s often too fast. We want him to perish at a moment of total recognition, and the nature of most fictional deaths means that the realization is over almost before it begins. (This may be the real reason why so many villains are killed by falling from a great height. It leaves the hero’s hands relatively clean, however illogically, and it also allows for at least a few seconds of mute astonishment and understanding to cross the bad guy’s face. The story goes that during the filming of Die Hard, director John McTiernan let Alan Rickman drop a second before he was expecting it. Rickman was understandably furious, but the look he gives the camera is worth it: there are few things more delicious than seeing him lose that mask of perfect, icy control.)

All things being equal, it’s best to allow the villain to live to deal with the consequences. But there are also situations in which a death can feel dramatically necessary. I’ve never forgotten what Robert Towne once said about a similar plot point at the end of Chinatown. Originally, Towne had wanted the movie to conclude on an ambiguous note, but he was overruled by Roman Polanski. Years later, Towne said:

In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending, that I don’t think that what I had in mind could have been done; that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.

Chinatown, of course, ends with anything but the villain getting what he deserves, but the principle is largely the same. In some respects, it’s a matter of contrast. A story that consists of one act of violence after another might benefit from a more nuanced ending, while one that teases out its complexities would go out best with a stark, sudden conclusion. I’ve always preferred the brutally abbreviated last scene of The Departed to that of Infernal Affairs, for instance, because that twisty, convoluted story really needs to close with a full stop. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”

"To spare another man's life..."

And a villain’s death can be necessary in order to close off the story completely: it’s like scorching the end of a nylon rope to prevent it from unraveling. Death is nothing if not definitive, and it can seem unfair to the viewer or reader to leave the narrative open at one end after they’ve come so far already. The decision as to whether or not to spare the villain is a tricky one, and it can be determined by forces from much earlier in the narrative. In his director’s commentary for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they spent countless drafts trying to figure out ways for Ethan to kill Solomon Lane, only to find that none of the results seemed satisfying. The reason, they discovered, was that Lane hadn’t done enough to make Ethan hate him in particular: it just wasn’t personal, so it didn’t need to end with anything so intimate as a fight to the death. A story’s internal mechanics can also push the ending in the other direction. The original draft of The Icon Thief, which persisted almost until the book went out to publishers, had all three of the primary antagonists surviving, and in fact, Maddy even asks Ilya to spare Sharkovsky’s life. In the rewrite, I realized that Lermontov had to die to balance out the death of another character earlier in the novel, which in itself was a very late addition, and that Maddy had to be the one to take that revenge. This kind of narrative bookkeeping, in which the writer cooks the numbers until they come out more or less right, is something that every author does, consciously or otherwise. In this case, it was a choice that ended up having a huge impact on the rest of the series, and it influenced many other judgment calls to come, to an extent that I’m not sure I recognized at the time.

Chapter 59 of Eternal Empire, for example, is maybe the bloodiest sequence in the entire trilogy, in emotional impact if not in raw body count: it includes the deaths of two major characters and a fair amount of collateral damage. I get rid of Asthana, whom I liked so much that I kept her around for an entire novel after I originally planned to dispose of her, and Vasylenko, whose presence has haunted the series from the start. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy with Asthana’s swan song, which consists of a complicated set of feints and maneuvers against Wolfe. It’s fair to both characters, and it gives Asthana a second or two to process how she’s been outsmarted. (I wasn’t thinking of Arrested Development, but it’s hard for me to read it now without imagining Asthana saying to herself: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”) But I’m not particularly pleased by how I handled Vasylenko’s death, which is too bad, since by all rights it ought to be the climax of all three books. In some ways, I wrote myself into a corner: there’s really no plausible way to keep Vasylenko alive, or to extend his confrontation with Ilya for longer than a couple of paragraphs, and in my eagerness to write a definitive ending to the series, I may have rushed past the moment of truth. In my defense, the chapter has to provide closure for multiple pairs of characters—Ilya and Maddy, Ilya and Wolfe, Ilya and Vasylenko, Wolfe and Asthana—and I do what I can to give each of them the valediction they deserve. If I had to do it over again, I might have toyed with switching Asthana and Vasylekno’s final scenes, in order to close the novel on a position of greater strength, but this probably wouldn’t have been possible. The Icon Thief ended with Maddy asking Ilya to spare another man’s life; Eternal Empire had to conclude with her asking for the opposite. They don’t end in the same way. But Maddy isn’t the same person she was when we started…

The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 16, 2014.

A while back, William Weir wrote an excellent piece in Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; in the three years before the article was written, there was only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to—or an outright plagiarism of—a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

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April 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

“And what does that name have to do with this?”

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"The word on the side of your yacht..."

Note: This post is the thirtieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 29. You can read the previous installments here.

Earlier this week, in response to a devastating article in the New York Times on the allegedly crushing work environment in Amazon’s corporate offices, Jeff Bezos sent an email to employees that included the following statement:

[The article] claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter is heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either…I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the [Times] would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

Predictably, the email resulted in numerous headlines along the lines of “Jeff Bezos to Employees: You Don’t Work in a Dystopian Hellscape, Do You?” Bezos, a very smart guy, should have seen it coming. As Richard Nixon learned a long time ago, whenever you tell people that you aren’t a crook, you’re really raising the possibility that you might be. If you’re concerned about the names that your critics might call you, the last thing you want to do is put words in their mouths—it’s why public relations experts advise their clients to avoid negative language, even in the form of a denial—and saying that Amazon isn’t a soulless, dystopian workplace is a little like asking us not to think of an elephant.

Writers have recognized the negative power of certain loaded terms for a long time, and many works of art go out of their way to avoid such words, even if they’re central to the story. One of my favorite examples is the film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Coming off Seven and Zodiac, David Fincher didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a director of serial killer movies, so the dialogue exclusively uses the term “serial murderer,” although it’s doubtful how effective this was. Along the same lines, Christopher Nolan’s superhero movies are notably averse to calling their characters by their most famous names: The Dark Knight Rises never uses the name “Catwoman,” while Man of Steel, which Nolan produced, avoids “Superman,” perhaps following the example of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which indulges in similar circumlocutions. Robert Towne’s script for Greystoke never calls its central character “Tarzan,” and The Walking Dead uses just about every imaginable term for its creatures aside from “zombie,” for reasons that creator Robert Kirkman explains:

One of the things about this world is that…they’re not familiar with zombies, per se. This isn’t a world [in which] the Romero movies exist, for instance, because we don’t want to portray it that way…They’ve never seen this in pop culture. This is a completely new thing for them.

"And what does that name have to do with this?"

Kirkman’s reluctance to call anything a zombie, which has inspired an entire page on TV Tropes dedicated to similar examples, is particularly revealing. A zombie movie can’t use that word because an invasion of the undead needs to feel like something unprecedented, and falling back on a term we know conjures up all kinds of pop cultural connotations that an original take might prefer to avoid. In many cases, avoiding particular words subtly encourages us treat the story on its own terms. In The Godfather, the term “Mafia” is never uttered—an aversion, incidentally, not shared by the original novel, the working title of which was actually Mafia. This quietly allows us to judge the Corleones according to the rules of their own closed world, and it circumvents any real reflection about what the family business actually involves. (According to one famous story, the mobster Joseph Colombo paid a visit to producer Al Ruddy, demanding that the word be struck from the script as a condition for allowing the movie to continue. Ruddy, who knew that the screenplay only used the word once, promptly agreed.) The Godfather Part II is largely devoted to blowing up the first movie’s assumptions, and when the word “Mafia” is uttered at a senate hearing, it feels like the real world intruding on a comfortable fantasy. And the moment wouldn’t be as effective if the first installment hadn’t been as diligent about avoiding the term, allowing it to build a new myth in its place.

While writing Eternal Empire, I found myself confronting a similar problem. In this case, the offending word was “Shambhala.” As I’ve noted before, I decided early on that the third novel in the series would center on the Shambhala myth, a choice I made as soon as I stumbled across an excerpt from Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, in which she states that Vladimir Putin had taken a particular interest in the legend. A little research, notably in Andrei Znamenski’s Red Shambhala, confirmed that the periodic attempts by Russia to confirm the existence of that mythical kingdom, carried out in an atmosphere of espionage and spycraft in Central Asia, was a rich vein of material. The trouble was that the word “Shambhala” itself was so loaded with New Age connotations that I’d have trouble digging my way out from under it: a quick search online reveals that it’s the name of a string of meditation centers, a music festival, and a spa with its own line of massage oils, none of which is exactly in keeping with the tone that I was trying to evoke. My solution, predictably, was to structure the whole plot around the myth of Shambhala while mentioning it as little as possible: the name appears perhaps thirty times across four hundred pages. (The mythological history of Shambhala is treated barely at all, and most of the references occur in discussions of the real attempts by Russian intelligence to discover it.) The bulk of those references appear here, in Chapter 29, and I cut them all down as much as possible, focusing on the bare minimum I needed for Maddy to pique Tarkovsky’s interest. I probably could have cut them even further. But as it stands, it’s more or less enough to get the story to where it needs to be. And it doesn’t need to be any longer than it is…

The intelligence community

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Rebecca Ferguson in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

One of the major dividends of the success of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation is that it marks the return to public consciousness of the screenwriter and director Christopher McQuarrie, who has a deserved reputation as one of the smartest and most underused men in Hollywood. McQuarrie has been around for a long time: it’s been close to twenty years since he won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, and more than fifteen since he directed The Way of the Gun, a deeply flawed movie that I haven’t been able to stop watching or thinking about ever since. A fruitful partnership with Tom Cruise, starting with Valkyrie, brought him his first credited scripts in years, and with Jack Reacher and now Rogue Nation, McQuarrie has become hard to avoid. Which is all to our benefit. His commentary track with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects may be my favorite of all time, and I go back and listen to it every couple of years just to hear those voices again. And with McQuarrie making the media rounds this week to promote his first unqualified hit, particularly in a remarkably candid interview with Deadline, we’ve got a rich trove of new insights from a man who, like David Mamet or Robert Towne, seemingly can’t open his mouth without shedding light on some unexpected aspect of filmmaking.

McQuarrie’s reputation is inextricably linked to his years in exile, and there are moments when he can’t help sounding like one of the hard-boiled characters in his own movies. In particular, I’m thinking of James Caan’s “adjudicator” in The Way of the Gun, who delivers a line that I’ve never forgotten: “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” Deadline describes him as “Cruise’s accomplice in problem solving,” which is pretty much how most screenwriters like to see themselves—as the unheralded, pragmatic fixers who parachute in, like Towne famously did for The Godfather, to save troubled productions for a paycheck before moving on. McQuarrie has benefited, as Towne did before him, from falling in with Cruise, a movie star with the soul of a producer whose track record at mounting and executing deliriously complicated projects has attuned him to the value of the creative resource that a talented writer’s brain affords. As McQuarrie describes it, it sounds less like two moguls overseeing a multimillion-dollar production that a huddle between a couple of canny conspirators: “You’re confronted with an obstacle that seems so insurmountable and Tom always says the same thing. If there’s any two people who can figure this out, it’s us. We’re going to figure it out. And, usually we do.”

Christopher McQuarrie on the set of "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

This is undoubtedly romanticized, and it’s the closest McQuarrie ever comes to sounding like one of the suits that he skewers so expertly elsewhere—including in Rogue Nation itself, in which the venal spies in charge of the intelligence community often play as parodies of studio heads, with their cheerful indifference to the lives or careers that hang on their decisions. (As William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, the scariest sentence that a writer can hear from an executive has to be: “We have a special relationship with Tom Cruise.”) But it’s amply borne out by the film, which, more than any of its predecessors, is emphatically a screenwriter’s movie. It lacks a jaw-dropping set piece to compare with the Burj Khalifa ascent in Ghost Protocol, but it has a distinctly better story and structure, and at its best, it’s a marvel of smart, efficient craftsmanship. A few years ago, I drew a distinction between action that seems to have been worked out on the page and the kind that is assembled in the editing room, and I singled out Ghost Protocol, along with Drive and The International, as among a handful of recent movies that have given us coherent, inventive, written action scenes:

They have a clear beginning, middle, and end. They make memorable use of their locations. They have small setups, payoffs, and surprises along the way…Each is centered on the personalities of the characters involved—indeed, each scene unfolds as a series of logical choices, which is something you’ll never hear said of Transformers. And these are all things that can only be planned at the screenplay stage.

And Rogue Nation honors and elevates that standard. I liked it a lot from start to finish, but the scene that sticks in my mind the most is the extended set piece that unfolds place backstage during a premiere of Turnadot at the Vienna Opera House. We’ve seen this exact scene before—there’s never been an opera performance in an action movie that didn’t end in bloodshed—and I settled into it with a slight sense of resignation, wondering if McQuarrie would be content, as Quantum of Solace was, to merely use his location as an attractive backdrop. I shouldn’t have worried. McQuarrie knows his territory, and even as he structures much of the sequence as an explicit homage to the Albert Hall climax in The Man Who Knew Too Much, he’s determined to show the rest of us how it’s done. The result unspools as an increasingly dazzling series of surprises, reversals, and complications, making inspired use of the setting and of the music itself, and it culminates with a sweet little twist, as Ethan Hunt figures out how to save the Austrian chancellor from no fewer than three assassins. It’s as lovingly hewn and polished as any scene from McQuarrie’s filmography, and it’s only one high point in a film that never takes anything for granted, including the ending, which saw the director and star halting production in an attempt to get it just right. Like just about everything else, it paid off. McQuarrie, like the spies in his movie, spent years as a man without a country. But it’s his nation now.

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