Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Tad Friend

Bradbury’s list and Aronofsky’s diary

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Ray Bradbury

When Ray Bradbury was in his early twenties, like many aspiring young writers, he had trouble finding his own voice. In an attempt to break out of that rut—in which he wrote a lot of derivative science fiction that even he characterizes as “abysmal”—he stumbled across a technique that he describes in Zen in the Art of Writing:

I began to make lists of titles, to put down long lines of nouns. These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better self to surface. I was felling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trap door on the top of my skull. The lists ran something like this: The Lake. The Night. The Crickets. The Ravine. The Attic. The Basement. The Trap Door. The Baby. The Crowd. The Night Train. The Fog Horn. The Scythe. The Carnival. The Carousel. The Dwarf. The Mirror Maze. The Skeleton.

A few of these titles generated ideas for stories that Bradbury wrote up almost at once, while others didn’t go anywhere for decades. But he would periodically revisit the list to see if any of those words would spark a train of thought, and he was also systematic about it, picking a phrase from the list at random and then writing a kind of prose poem or essay on that subject. More often than not, halfway through, he would find that it had turned into a story. And he continued to consult that list for the rest of his life.

He wasn’t alone, either. Last year, in a New Yorker profile of the director Darren Aronofsky, the writer Tad Friend tossed off a detail that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since:

In the mid-nineties, Aronofsky wrote down ten film ideas he wanted to pursue. All six of his films have come from that list, and all have been informed by his early years.

The italics are mine. Aronofsky has referred to this list before, most notably in an interview with Slashfilm that appeared a few years earlier:

The Wrestler was my idea. When I graduated film school…one day I wrote a list of ten ideas for films in my diary. And one of them was called The Wrestler. When The Fountain shut down the first time, I started to think about it.

A list of movie ideas that included the seeds of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah reflects a singular creative personality, and it also points to a hidden structure in the career of a director who has often seemed so thrillingly unpredictable. And as I wrote on a blog post on the subject last year, many writers have a similar bucket list.

Darren Aronofsky

What really strikes me about the list now, though, is that these six films aren’t the only ones that Aronofsky was once contracted to direct: they’re just the ones he happened to finish. When you look back at his career, you find that his name has been attached at various points to all kinds of unlikely material: an adaptation of the children’s book Sector 7, a Batman movie, the film that later became The Fighter, a RoboCop remake, The Wolverine, a pilot for a television series called Hobgoblin, and more. If none of them ever got off the ground, at least not with his involvement, this isn’t particularly surprising: the résumé of any director whose name isn’t Christopher Nolan will inevitably include a number of unrealized projects. But it’s revealing that of the six films that Aronofsky has actually seen to completion, every single one of them came from that initial list. This tells us something about the role of passion in bringing a story home—Aronofsky tends to finish the projects in which he has the greatest personal stake—and, perhaps, about the talismanic significance of making such a list in the first place. Aronofsky isn’t the only director, successful or otherwise, to put together a list like this; I suspect that most film school graduates have done much the same. Simply making the list doesn’t guarantee that these ideas will go anywhere. But not making the list all but guarantees that they won’t.

And the crucial point here is that the act of making these lists is also what allowed Bradbury and Aronofsky to find themselves. When Bradbury glanced over the words that he had generated, he was reminded of things about his own inner life that he’d forgotten: his fascination with carnivals, with freak shows, with old people. He writes: “If you are a writer, or would hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.” And I have a feeling that Aronofsky used his own list to identify the common threads that link his varied output as a director, notably an interest in obsessive outsiders struggling, and often failing, to find human connection. If you haven’t done so already, you might want to devote a notebook or diary page to this kind of list, even if you don’t think you’ll get to some of those ideas for years. (It’s particularly useful for those working in fields where it’s easy to get distracted by opportunities arising in the meantime, as has occasionally happened to Aronofsky.) And it helps to write them all down for real, even if you think you won’t forget them. A life in art, like any life, can change us in ways we can’t predict, and if you haven’t made your list, you may not remember who you used to be—or the stories that person once hoped to tell.

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2015 at 9:51 am

A writer’s bucket list

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Darren Aronofsky

I never thought I’d say this, but I may as well admit it: I’m getting pretty excited for Noah. When Darren Aronofsky announced that he was tackling an epic Biblical movie as his next project, it seemed like a strange departure from the director of Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. The trailers have been oddly thrilling, though, and early word is that this is a deeply weird, personal movie that just happens to have cost a hundred million dollars to make, which is a prospect I can never resist. And in fact, Aronofsky’s obsession with Noah goes back a long time, and it reflects the intensely meaningful nature of the material he chooses. In an excellent New Yorker profile, Tad Friend writes:

In the mid-nineties [before his first film was made], Aronofsky wrote down ten film ideas he wanted to pursue. All six of his films have come from that list, and all have been informed by his early years: the stress and the bloody toes his sister incurred in ballet practice became Nina’s in Black Swan; his parents’ cancer scares informed Izzi’s cancer in The Fountain. After he wrote a prose poem about Noah for his seventh-grade English teacher, Vera Fried, he got to read it over the P.A. system—”The rain continued through the night and the cries of screaming men filled the air”—and was transformed from a math geek into a writer. He rewarded Fried by giving her a walk-on in Noah as a one-eyed hag.

I love this story, because I can relate to it: I suspect that every writer has a short list of stories that he or she would love to write one day, and Aronofsky has been lucky and tenacious enough to see many of them on the big screen. (Black Swan was the kind of unexpected international success that gives a director one free pass for his next movie, and Aronofsky, to his credit, seems to have cashed it in on the greatest possible scale.) In my own case, I’ve got a private roster of ideas that I’ve been carrying around in my head for a long time, many for close to two decades, and I’ve occasionally had the chance to get them in print. The Icon Thief was my attempt to write a conspiracy novel that would reflect—and at least partially exorcise—the love I felt in high school for Foucault’s Pendulum, and my desire to write something about the vision of Ezekiel, which dates back to around the same period, informed a good chunk of City of Exiles. As for the others, I’m developing one right now in the form of a new novel, although I’m not sure where it will end up, and I hope to get around to the rest one of these days. And if I don’t tell you what any of them are, it’s only because I want to keep them all for myself.

George R.R. Martin

In practice, though, it’s easy to postpone such ideas in favor of ones that seem more immediately pressing, both because we’re afraid that we may not be able to do them justice and because we think we’ve got more time than we really have. This can be a dangerous assumption to make, as George R.R. Martin points out in a recent issue of Vanity Fair. After discussing the early death of his friend, the writer Tom Reamy, Martin says:

But Tom’s death had a profound effect on me, because I was in my early thirties then. I’d been thinking…well, I have all these stories that I want to write, all these novels I want to write, and I have all the time in the world to write them, ‘cause I’m a young guy, and then Tom’s death happened, and I said, Boy. Maybe I don’t have all the time in the world. Maybe I’ll die tomorrow. Maybe I’ll die ten years from now…After Tom’s death, I said, “You know, I gotta try this. I don’t know if I can make a living as a full-time writer or not, but who knows how much time I have left? I don’t want to die ten years from now or twenty years from now and say I never told the stories I wanted to tell because I always thought I could do it next week or next year.

I can relate to this, too. Life is short and art is long, and it seems like there’s no excuse for putting off the stories you love for a day that may never come. But it’s also important to leave room on that bucket list for surprises, and even to depart from it occasionally to see what else you might discover. If there’s one problem with tackling nothing but your own passion projects, it’s that you’re too close to the subject matter to evaluate your work on its own merits: I’ve often done my best work when I’ve been able to start a project from a position of detachment, feeling my way into a passionate engagement with the material from the outside. In the end, like most things in an artist’s life, it’s a matter of balance, and it’s important to keep a middle ground between the stories you’ve always wanted to write and those tricky, intractable ideas that seduce you when you least expect it. (It’s perhaps no accident that Aronofsky’s two best movies, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, were based on stories by others, however closely they may have overlapped with the director’s own obsessions.) For most of us, we don’t need to choose: a writer’s life includes many stories written on impulse, under contract, or because it was all we were capable of doing at the time. And that’s fine. Because on a real writer’s bucket list, there’s only one item, which is to keep writing at all costs.

Written by nevalalee

March 18, 2014 at 9:56 am

Andrew Stanton and the world beyond Pixar

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Art is messy, art is chaos—so you need a system.

Andrew Stanton, to the New Yorker

For the second time in less than six months, the New Yorker takes on the curious case of Pixar, and this time around, the results are much more satisfying. In May, the magazine offered up a profile of John Lasseter that was close to a total failure, since critic Anthony Lane’s customary air of disdain was unprepared to draw any useful conclusions about a studio that, at least up to that point, had gotten just about everything blessedly right. This week’s piece by Tad Friend is far superior, focusing on the relatively unsung talents of Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E. And while the publication of a fawning New Yorker profile of a hot creative talent rarely bodes well for his or her next project—as witness the recent articles on Tony Gilroy, Steve Carrell, Anna Faris, or even Lasseter himself, whose profile only briefly anticipated the release of the underwhelming Cars 2—I’m still excited by Stanton’s next project, the Edgar Rice Burroughs epic John Carter, which will serve as a crucial test as to whether Pixar’s magic can extend to the world beyond animation.

Stanton’s case is particularly interesting because of the role he plays at the studio: to hear the article tell it, he’s Pixar’s resident storyteller. “Among all the top talent here,” says Jim Morris, the head of Pixar’s daily operations, “Andrew is the one who has a genius for story structure.” And what makes this all the more remarkable is the fact that Stanton seems to have essentially willed this talent into existence. Stanton was trained as an animator, and began, like most of his colleagues, by focusing on the visual side. As the script for Toy Story was being developed, however, he decided that his future would lie in narrative, and quietly began to train himself in the writer’s craft, reading classic screenplays—including, for some reason, the truly awful script for Ryan’s Daughter—and such texts as Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. In the end, he was generally acknowledged as the senior writer at Pixar, which, given the caliber of talent involved, must be a heady position indeed.

And while the article is littered with Stanton’s aphorisms on storytelling—”Inevitable but not predictable,” “Conflict + contradiction,” “Do the opposite”—his main virtue as a writer seems to lie in the most universal rule of all: “Be wrong fast.” More than anything else, Stanton’s success so far has been predicated on an admirable willingness to throw things out and start again. He spent years, for instance, working on a second act for Wall-E that was finally junked completely, and while I’m not sure he ever quite cracked the plot for that moviewhich I don’t think lives up to the promise of its first twenty minutes—there’s no question that his ruthlessness with structure did wonders for Finding Nemo, which was radically rethought and reconceived several times over the course of production. Pixar, like the rest of us, is making things up as it goes along, but is set apart by its refusal to let well enough alone. As Stanton concludes:

We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.

The real question, of course, is whether this approach to storytelling, with its necessary false starts and extensive rendering time, can survive the transition to live action, in which the use of real actors and sets makes retakes—and thus revision—drastically more expensive. So far, it sounds like John Carter is doing fine, at least judging from the trailer and early audience response, which has reportedly been encouraging. And more rides on this movie’s success or failure than the fate of one particular franchise. Pixar’s story has been extraordinary, but its most lasting legacy may turn out to be the migration of its talent beyond the safety zone of animation—assuming, of course, that their kung fu can survive. With Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and John Carter in the wingswe’re about to discover if the directors who changed animation at Pixar can do the same in live action. The New Yorker article is fine, but it buries the lede: Stanton and Bird are the first of many. And if their next movies are half as entertaining as the ones they’ve made so far, we’re looking at an earthquake in the world of pop culture.

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