Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Terry Rossio

The screenwriter paradox

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A few weeks ago, I had occasion to discuss “Time Risk,” a huge blog post—it’s the length of a short book—by the screenwriter Terry Rossio. It’s endlessly quotable, and I encourage you to skim it yourself, although you might come away with the impression that the greatest form of time risk is trying to write movies at all. Rossio spends much of the piece encouraging you to write a novel or make an animated short instead, and his most convincing argument is basically unanswerable:

Let’s examine the careers of several brand-name feature screenwriters, to see how they did it. In the same way we can speak of a Stephen King novel, or a Neil Simon play, we can talk about the unique qualities of a Woody Allen screenplay—Whoops, wait. Allen is best known as a director. Okay, how about a Lawrence Kasdan script—Whoops, same thing. Kasdan gained fame, even for his screenwriting, through directing his own work. Let’s see, James Cameron, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Nora Ephron, Coen Brothers, John Milius, Cameron Crowe, hmn—

Wait! A Charlie Kaufman screenplay. Thank goodness for Charlie Kaufman, or I wouldn’t be able to think of a single brand-name screenwriter working today, who didn’t make their name primarily through directing. Okay, perhaps Aaron Sorkin, but he made his main fame in plays and television. Why so few? Because—screenwriters do the bulk of their work prior to the green light. Cameras not rolling. Trying to get films made. They toil at the wrong end of the time risk curve, taking on time risk in a myriad of forms.

As Rossio memorably explains a little later on: “It’s only when cameras are rolling that power accumulates, and brands are established.” I found myself thinking about this while reading Vulture’s recent list of the hundred best screenwriters of all time, as determined by forty of their fellow writers, including Diablo Cody, Zak Penn, Wesley Strick, Terence Winter, and a bunch of others who have achieved critical acclaim and name recognition without being known predominantly for directing. And who did they pick? The top ten are Billy Wilder, Joel and Ethan Coen, Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, William Goldman, Charlie Kaufman, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, and Ernest Lehman. Of the ten, only Goldman has never directed a movie, and of the others, only Kaufman, Towne, and Lehman are primarily known for their screenwriting. That’s forty percent. And the rest of the list consists mostly of directors who write. Glancing over it, I find the following who are renowned mostly as writers: Aaron Sorkin, Paddy Chayefsky, Frances Marion, Buck Henry, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Bo Goldman, Eric Roth, Steven Zaillian, Callie Khouri, Richard Curtis, Dalton Trumbo, Frank Pierson, Cesare Zavattini, Norman Wexler, Waldo Salt, Melissa Mathison, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Alvin Sargent, Ben Hecht, Scott Frank, Jay Presson Allen, John Logan, Guillermo Arriaga, Horton Foote, Leigh Brackett, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, David Webb Peoples, Burt Kennedy, Charles Lederer, John Ridley, Diablo Cody, and Mike White. Borderline cases include Paul Schrader, David Mamet, Elaine May, Robert Benton, Christopher McQuarrie, and Shane Black. Even when you throw these names back into the hopper, the “pure” screenwriters number maybe four in ten. And this is a list compiled from the votes of writers who have every reason to highlight the work of their underappreciated colleagues.

So why do directors dominate? I can think of three possible reasons. The first, and perhaps the most likely, is that in a poll like this, a voter’s mind is more likely to turn to a more famous name at the expense of equally deserving candidates. Hence the otherwise inexplicable presence on the list of Steven Spielberg, whose only two credits as a screenwriter, Close Encounters and A.I., owe a lot more, respectively, to Paul Schrader and Stanley Kubrick. Another possibility is that Hollywood is structured to reward writers by turning them into directors, which implies that many of the names here are just screenwriters who ascended. This would be a tempting theory, if it weren’t for the presence of so many auteurs—Welles, Tarantino, the Coens—who started out directing their own screenplays and never looked back. And the third explanation is the one that Rossio offers: “[Screenwriters] toil at the wrong end of the time risk curve.” Invisibility, fungibility, and the ability to do competent work while keeping one’s head down are qualities that the system encourages, and it’s only in exceptional cases, after a screenwriter directs a movie or wins an Oscar, that he or she is given permission to be noticed. (Which doesn’t mean that there weren’t simply some glaring omissions. I’m a little stunned by the absence of Emeric Pressburger, who I think can be plausibly set forth as the finest screenwriter of all time. It’s possible that his contributions have been obscured by the fact that he and Michael Powell were credited as writer, producer, and director of the movies that they made as the Archers, but the division of labor seems fairly clear. And I don’t think any other writer on this list has three scripts as good as those for The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and A Canterbury Tale, along with your choice of A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Small Back Room, and I Know Where I’m Going!)

The one glaring exception is Joe Eszterhas, who became a household name, along with his rival Shane Black, as the two men traded records throughout the nineties for the highest price ever paid for a script. As he tells it in his weirdly riveting book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood:

I read about Shane’s sale [for The Last Boy Scout]—and my record being broken—on the front page of the Los Angeles Times while I was vacationing at the Kahala Hilton in Hawaii. Shane’s sale pissed me off. I wanted my record back. I wanted to see an article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about me setting a new record. I flew home from Hawaii and sat down immediately and stated writing the most commercial script I could think of. Twelve days later, I had my record back. I had the article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about my new record. And I had my $3 million.

The script was Basic Instinct. Would it have been enough to make Eszterhas famous if he hadn’t been paid so much for it? I don’t know—although it’s worth noting that he had previously held the record for City Hall, which was never made, and Big Shots, which nobody remembers, and he sold millions of dollars’ worth of other screenplays that never got produced. And the moment that made it all possible has passed. Eszterhas didn’t make the Vulture list; studios are no longer throwing money at untested properties; and even a monster sale doesn’t guarantee anything. The current record is still held by the script for Déjà Vu, which sold for $3 million against $5 million over a decade ago, and it serves as a sort of A/B test to remind us how much of success in Hollywood is out of anyone’s hands. There were two writers on Déjà Vu. One was Bill Marsilii, who hasn’t been credited on a movie since. The other was Terry Rossio.

Time for the stars

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Last year, the screenwriter Terry Rossio, whose blog is the best online resource I’ve ever seen for advice on survival in Hollywood, posted a long post titled “Time Risk.” How long was it? If published, it could be sold as a short book of a hundred pages or so, and it would probably be acclaimed as one of the two or three most useful works ever written on the business of screenwriting. Rossio has spent more time than any successful writer since William Goldman on sharing his experiences in the industry, and this post is his masterpiece. (It received a flurry of attention earlier this year because of one unflattering anecdote about Johnny Depp, which is a classic instance of missing the forest for the trees.) I don’t know why Rossio invested so much effort into this essay, but I suspect that it was because he realized that he had stumbled across a single powerful idea that explained so much that was otherwise inexplicable, even cruel, about the life of a writer in the movies. It’s the fact that any investment of time presents a risk, which means that there’s an enormous incentive to transfer it to others—and the writer, for better or worse, is where the process ends. As Rossio puts it in an exchange with a producer whom he calls Jake:

At the point of sitting down to write, there was no way for my writer to know whether this particular story was going to work. She set forth on faith alone. So did thousands, tens of thousands of other writers around town, none of them knowing whether their stories would pan out, or even whether they could finish, or whether they could beat out the competition and have their work land on your desk…You [the producer] not only gain the value of the time my writer put at risk, but also the risk of every other writer who sat down to face the blank page around the same time, most of whom came up short. It’s like having everyone play the lotto, then you call the one person with the winning ticket. At the start it’s a giant risk pool, and all that collective risk is represented by this one winning screenplay.

This is a remarkable insight, and it applies to more than just screenwriting. Rossio doesn’t come out and say it, but he strongly implies there’s a fundamental cognitive divide between people who can work on more than one thing at a time and those who mostly can’t. It’s the difference between writers and agents, writers and book editors, writers and producers. The relationship doesn’t need to be adversarial, but it unquestionably creates different incentives, and it can result in situations in which the two players in the room aren’t even speaking the same language. It also lead to apparently paradoxical consequences, as when Rossio describes what he calls “Death by Sale”:

The day you sell your screenplay, you gain a small real chance it will be produced, at the same time almost guaranteeing that it will never be produced. Put another way, the same screenplay, unsold, has a much better chance of reaching the silver screen than it does when purchased by a studio…Selling a screenplay represents the exchange of all future positive outcomes of a project for a single, often unlikely, current scenario. You throw in with a particular set of players, at a particular time and place, with a particular set of restrictions and parameters.

This might sound crazy, but like everything else in Rossio’s post, it’s a logical extension of the principle in the title. If you’re a rational producer, you deal with time risk in the same way that a fund manager deals with investment risk—by diversifying your portfolio. A producer can have twenty or thirty projects in the hopper at any one time, in hopes that one winner will make up for all the losers. Writers don’t have this luxury, but they engage in a kind of simulation of it during the submission process. An unsold script has a virtual portfolio of potential buyers, one of whom might one day pay off. As soon as someone buys it, all those other possibilities disappear, and if it fails, the project might be tainted forever.

So how in the world do you deal with this? Rossio’s advice is simple, but it’s also the exact opposite of the reality that most writers face: “Spend as much time as you can making films, rather than trying to get films made.” Every strategy that he proposes comes down to knowing where to commit your time and how much of it to devote to a given situation. Take what he says about buyers and sellers:

First, understand when you’re in a room with fellow sellers, and temper your excitement accordingly. Second, commit less time risk to fellow sellers—and infinite time risk to an actual buyer. Third, understand the real value of investing time with fellow sellers. The value is not just an eventual project sale. The real value is building your team.

Rossio also advises writers to take cues from the industry players, notably producers, who have learned how to maximize the relationship between risk and return. (In financial terms, they’ve figured out an investment strategy with a good Sharpe ratio.) He quotes the producer Ram Bergman: “I told Rian [Johnson], I simply will not let you sell anything you write…The more we put it together, script, cast, producer, the more effectively we can dictate how it gets made.” If you can be a director or a novelist—or set up an animation studio in your garage, as Rossio repeatedly recommends—that’s even better. But even powerful people need to take what comes. Rossio devotes a considerable amount of space to the travails of his screenplay Déjà Vu, which set and still holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a spec script, only to run into rewrite problems and a reluctant director. When Rossio complained and suggested that they pull out, the producer Jerry Bruckheimer replied: “I have a director, a script, a star, and the studio giving me a green light. It’s not my job to not make movies.” And he was right.

I could keep quoting forever from this essay, which is loaded with throwaway insights that deserve a full post of their own. (Here’s one of my favorites: “Writers and producers often do the majority of their work with the cameras snug in their form-fitting foam cases. Actors get paid when cameras roll. And it’s only when cameras are rolling that power accumulates, and brands are established.” And another: “It’s amusing to listen to film critics assign responsibility for the content of a film exclusively to the screenwriter, the one person on the team with no final authority to insist on any particular story choice.”) But I’ll close with a story about a project in which I take an obvious interest—the adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, on which Rossio worked while the rights to the novel were still held by DreamWorks. Here’s what happened:

The screenplay was completed about a month prior to the rights renewal date, and to be honest, we nailed it. The source material is of course fantastic, one of the top ten science fiction novels of all time, and the draft we turned in would have made an amazing film. The renewal date came and went, with no word from the studio, but a few days later we got a phone call. “We’re going to let the rights expire,” said the executive. “Did you not like the script?” we asked. “I’ll be honest with you,” said the executive, “We’ve been really busy. I’m sure the screenplay is fantastic, you guys always do good work. But we just didn’t have time to read it.”

Rossio concludes: “While this sounds insane from a business perspective—why option the book rights at all, on such a high profile project, or hire screenwriters to do an adaptation—it makes perfect sense from a time risk perspective. If you’re an executive, and you know the project doesn’t fit your production schedule, why expend the time risk to even read the screenplay?” He’s perfectly right, of course. But the real takeaway here is one that he leaves unspoken. In this situation, you don’t want to be Terry Rossio, or the producer, or even the executive on the other end of the phone. You want to be Heinlein.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2017 at 8:51 am

Listening to “Retention,” Part 3

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Retention

Note: I’m discussing the origins of “Retention,” the episode that I wrote for the audio science fiction anthology series The Outer Reach. It’s available for streaming here on the Howl podcast network, and you can get a free month of access by using the promotional code REACH.

One of the unsung benefits of writing for film, television, or radio is that it requires the writer to conform to a fixed format on the printed page. The stylistic conventions of the screenplay originally evolved for the sake of everyone but the screenwriter: it’s full of small courtesies for the director, actors, sound editor, production designer, and line producer, and in theory, it’s supposed to result in one minute of running time per page—although, in practice, the differences between filmmakers and genres make even this rule of thumb almost meaningless. But it also offers certain advantages for writers, too, even if it’s mostly by accident. It can be helpful for authors to force themselves to work within the typeface, margins, and arbitrary formatting rules that the script imposes: it leaves them with minimal freedom except in the choice of the words themselves. Because all the dialogue is indented, you can see the balance between talk and action at a glance, and you eventually develop an intuition about how a good script should look when you flip rapidly through the pages. (The average studio executive, I suspect, rarely does much more than this.) Its typographical constraints amount to a kind of poetic form, and you find yourself thinking in terms of the logic of that space. As the screenwriter Terry Rossio put it:

In retrospect, my dedication—or my obsession—toward getting the script to look exactly the way it should, no matter how long it took—that’s an example of the sort of focus one needs to make it in this industry…If you find yourself with this sort of obsessive behavior—like coming up with inventive ways to cheat the page count!—then, I think, you’ve got the right kind of attitude to make it in Hollywood.

When it came time to write “Retention,” I was looking forward to working within a new template: the radio play. I studied other radio scripts and did my best to make the final result look right. This was more for my own sake than for anybody else’s, and I’m pretty sure that my producer would have been happy to get a readable script in any form. But I had a feeling that it would be helpful to adapt my habitual style to the standard format, and it was. In many ways, this story was a more straightforward piece of writing than most: it’s just two actors talking with minimal sound effects. Yet the stark look of the radio script, which consists of nothing but numbered lines of dialogue alternating between characters, had a way of clarifying the backbone of the narrative. Once I had an outline, I began by typing the dialogue as quickly as I could, almost in real time, without even indicating the identities of the speakers. Then I copied and pasted the transcript—which is how I came to think of it—into the radio play template. For the second draft, I found myself making small changes, as I always do, so that the result would look good on the page, rewriting lines to make for an even right margin and tightening speeches so that they wouldn’t fall across a page break. My goal was to come up with a document that would be readable and compelling in itself. And what distinguished it from my other projects was that I knew that it would ultimately be translated into performance, which was how its intended audience would experience it.

A page from the radio script of "Retention"

I delivered a draft of the script to Nick White, my producer, on January 8, 2016, which should give you a sense of how long it takes for something like this to come to fruition. Nick made a few edits, and I did one more pass on the whole thing, but we essentially had a finished version by the end of the month. After that, there was a long stretch of waiting, as we ran the script past the Howl network and began the process of casting. It went out to a number of potential actors, and it wasn’t until September that Aparna Nancherla and Echo Kellum came on board. (I also finally got paid for the script, which was noteworthy in itself—not many similar projects can afford to pay their writers. The amount was fairly modest, but it was more than reasonable for what amounted to a week of work.) In November, I got a rough cut of the episode, and I was able to make a few small suggestions. Finally, on December 21, it premiered online. All told, it took about a year to transform my initial idea into fifteen minutes of audio, so I was able to listen to the result with a decent amount of detachment. I’m relieved to say that I’m pleased with how it turned out. Casting Aparna Nancherla as Lisa, in particular, was an inspired touch. And although I hadn’t anticipated the decision to process her voice to make it more obvious from the beginning that she was a chatbot, on balance, I think that it was a valid choice. It’s probably the most predictable of the story’s twists, and by tipping it in advance, it serves as a kind of mislead for listeners, who might catch onto it quickly and conclude, incorrectly, that it was the only surprise in store.

What I found most interesting about the whole process was how it felt to deliver what amounted to a blueprint of a story for others to execute. Playwrights and screenwriters do it all the time, but for me, it was a novel experience: I may not be entirely happy with every story I’ve published, but they’re all mine, and I bear full responsibility for the outcome. “Retention” gave me a taste, in a modest way, of how it feels to hand an idea over to someone else, and of the peculiar relationship between a script and the dramatic work itself. Many aspiring screenwriters like to think that their vision on the page is complete, but it isn’t, and it has to pass through many intermediaries—the actors, the producer, the editor, the technical team—before it comes out on the other side. On balance, I prefer writing my own stuff, but I came away from “Retention” with valuable lessons that I expect to put into practice, whether or not I write for audio again. (I’m hopeful that there will be a second season of The Outer Reach, and I’d love to be a part of it, but its future is still up in the air.) I’ve spent most of my career worrying about issues of clarity, and in the case of a script, this isn’t an abstract goal, but a strategic element that can determine how faithfully the story is translated into its final form. Any fuzzy thinking early on will only be magnified in subsequent stages, so there’s a huge incentive for the writer to make the pieces as transparent and logical as possible. This is especially true when you’re providing a sketch for someone else to finish, but it also applies when you’re writing for ordinary readers, who are doing nothing else, after all, but turning the story into a movie in their heads.

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2017 at 10:30 am

The Tone Ranger

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Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger

Last night, I watched The Lone Ranger. Given the fact that I haven’t yet seen 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, or Before Midnight, this might seem like an odd choice. In my defense, I can only plead that on those rare evenings when my wife is out of the house, I usually seize the opportunity to watch something that I don’t think she’ll enjoy—the last time around it was Battle Royale. I’ve also been intrigued by The Lone Ranger ever since it flamed out in spectacular fashion last summer. Regular readers will know that I have a weakness for flops, and everything I’d read made me think that this was the kind of fascinating studio mess that I find impossible to resist. Quentin Tarantino’s guarded endorsement counted for a lot as well, and we’re already seeing the first rumblings of a revisionist take that sees the film as a neglected treasure. I wouldn’t go quite so far; it has significant problems, and I’m not surprised that the initial reaction was so underwhelming. But I liked it a lot all the same. It’s an engaging, sometimes funny, occasionally exciting movie with more invention and ambition than your average franchise installment, and I’d sooner watch its climactic train chase again than, say, most of The Avengers.

And what interests me the most is its most problematic element, which is the range of tones it encompasses. The Lone Ranger isn’t content just to be a Western; on some level, it wants to be all Westerns, quoting freely from Dead Man and Once Upon a Time in the West while also indulging in slapstick, adventure, gruesome violence, hints of the supernatural, and even moments of tragedy. It’s a revenge narrative by way of Blazing Saddles, and it’s no surprise that the result is all over the map. Part of this may be due to the sheer scale of the production—when someone gives you $200 million to make a Western, you may as well throw everything you can into the pot—but it’s also a reflection of the sensibilities involved. Director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio had collaborated earlier, of course, on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which gained a lot of mileage from a similar stylistic mishmash, though with drastically diminishing returns. And Verbinski at his best has the talent to pull it off: he combines the eye of Michael Bay with a real knack for comedy, and I predicted years ago that he’d win an Oscar one day. (He eventually did, for Rango.)

Gore Verbinski on the set of The Lone Ranger

But playing with tone is a dangerous thing, as we see in the later Pirates films, and The Lone Ranger only gets maybe eighty percent of the way to pulling it off. Watching it, I was reminded of what the screenwriter Tony Gilroy says in his contribution to William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell? Gilroy starts by listing examples of movies that experiment with tone, both good (Dr. Strangelove, The Princess Bride) and bad (Batman and Robin, Year of the Comet) and concludes:

But tone? Tone scares me…Why? Because when it goes wrong it just sucks out loud. I think the audience—the reader—I think they make some critical decisions in the opening movements of a film. How deeply do I invest myself here? How much fun can I have? Should I be consciously referencing the rest of my life during the next two hours, or is this an experience I need to surrender to? Are you asking for my heart or my head or both? Am I rooting for the hero or the movie? Just how many pounds of disbelief are you gonna ask me to suspend before this is through?

The Lone Ranger tramples on all these questions, asking us to contemplate the slaughter of Comanches a few minutes before burying our heroes up to their necks in a nest of scorpions, and the fact that it holds together even as well as it does is a testament both to the skill of the filmmakers and the power of a strong visual style. If nothing else, it looks fantastic, which helps us over some of the rough spots, although not all of them.

And it’s perhaps no accident that William Goldman’s first great discovery of a new tone came in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s possible that there’s something about the Western that encourages this kind of experimentation: all it needs is a few men and horses, and the genre has been so commercially weakened in recent years that filmmakers have the freedom to try whatever they think might work. It’s true that The Lone Ranger works best in its last forty minutes, when The William Tell Overture blasts over the soundtrack and it seems content to return to its roots as a cliffhanging serial, but when you compare even its most misguided digressions to the relentless sameness of tone in a Liam Neeson thriller or a Bourne knockoff, it feels weirdly like a step forward. (Even Christopher Nolan, a director I admire immensely, has trouble operating outside of a narrow, fundamentally serious tonal range—it’s his one great shortcoming as a storyteller.) Going to the movies every summer would be more fun in general if more megabudgeted blockbusters looked and felt like The Lone Ranger, and its failure means that we’re more likely to see the opposite.

A marginal confession

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A page from a college essay

Recently, I made a surprising discovery about myself: I’m less likely to buy a book that has been typeset with a ragged right margin. Over the weekend, I went to the winter sale at the wonderful Open Books store here in Chicago, and while I picked up a few nice discoveries—The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, Field Notes in Science and Nature, The Genius of the System—I also passed on a couple of promising books because I didn’t like the way they were laid out. (For the curious, these were Leonard Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question, a collection of his lectures at Harvard, and David Reck’s Music of the Whole Earth.) The price wasn’t an issue; they would have been just a few dollars each. And while I’m consciously trying to cut down on my book purchases, simply because I’m running out of space, I suspect I would have bought them both if their margins had only been justified. This isn’t an instance of the larger principle, which I still think is true, that shoddiness in design and typesetting is a sign that other compromises have been made on the editorial side; margins and all, these were handsome volumes. It’s a sign of a deeper, more idiosyncratic need on my part to read books that present themselves to me in a symmetrical column of text, and it means that I routinely judge books, not by their covers, but by their margins.

And it’s been an factor in my life for some time, both in my own writing and in reading the works of others. Early in my freshman year at college, I found myself obsessively writing my essays so that the margins came out neat on both sides. At the time, I was using a version of Word that had relatively primitive justification and hyphenation settings, so my only option was to rewrite the text itself, altering words here and there so that the margins were even. (I also liked a slightly tapering shape at the top of each paragraph, as the examples posted here illustrate.) Early on, I wrote my essays in monospaced 12-point Courier, which meant that not only did the lines need to be aligned to the naked eye, but they had to contain exactly the same number of characters, the occasional dangling comma or period aside. In my senior year, I switched over to Times New Roman, a proportional font, which made things easier, and I’ve been using it ever since. But my marginal obsession still remains, if in a somewhat attenuated form. I still justify and hyphenate all my own manuscripts—although I remove the hyphenation before they go out to readers—and I continue to revise the text if the spacing on a line seems loose. And if you’ve ever noticed that most of the paragraphs on this blog are roughly the same size and shape, with the right margin only slightly ragged, well, that isn’t an accident.

A page from a college essay

This naturally raises the question of why I go through all this trouble, especially for works that are eventually going to be published in a form that I can’t control. And I don’t really have a good answer. Writers, by nature, are obsessive creatures who have been known, as Norman Mailer once was, to devote an entire working day to changing a period to a comma and back again, and it shouldn’t be surprising that they’d be equally finicky about how their work appears on the screen or the page. Anecdotally, there’s a lot of evidence that writers who format their own work for publication fiddle with the wording in similar ways. In Le Ton Beau de Marot, Douglas Hofstadter writes:

I can clearly see the spacing as I type on my screen, and I rewrite and rewrite in order to make sure that no line is too tightly or too loosely spaced. In the course of such rewritings—here extracting a word, there using a shorter or a longer one, elsewhere inserting a word where none was—words and phrases that I would otherwise not have thought of pop to mind, suggesting ideas I would not have thought of, and those ideas suggest unexpected paragraphs, and those paragraphs are in turn linked to other ones, and so on…

Hofstadter’s story, incidentally, raises the question of why he didn’t just use hyphenation to deal with loose lines, since there isn’t a single instance of it in the entire book—I’ve always wanted to ask him about this. More recently, the graphic designer Chip Kidd wrote his novel The Cheese Monkeys in Quark, allowing him to revise it for formatting purposes as he went along. (When he told Thomas Harris about this, Harris is alleged to have replied: “I wish I could do that!”)

As a matter of fact, there’s one category of authors for whom these issues are of huge practical importance: screenwriters, who are essentially formatting their own work for the skeptical eyes of producers or studio readers. Not surprisingly, they’re all obsessed by margins, line spacing, and avoiding widows and orphans, often a way to fudge the page count, but also as a reflection of something larger. As Terry Rossio observes:

In retrospect, my dedication—or my obsession—toward getting the script to look exactly the way it should, no matter how long it took—that’s an example of the sort of focus one needs to make it in this industry…If you find yourself with this sort of obsessive behavior—like coming up with inventive ways to cheat the page count!—then, I think, you’ve got the right kind of attitude to make it in Hollywood.

And I sort of believe this. Deep down, I’d like to think that my obsession with margins has made me a better writer, not just because it reflects my meticulousness in other ways, but because of the discipline it enforces. As Hofstadter points out, keeping an eye on the physical appearance of your manuscript is a source of self-composed constraints, and reworking the text in this light isn’t all that different from making the lines of a poem fit a complicated form, like a sonnet or villanelle. (I almost wrote “like a sonnet or sestina,” but the line spacing ended up looking a little weird, so I changed it.)

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2013 at 8:38 am

Speeding it up, slowing it down

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Dolly Parton

By now, many of you have probably heard “Slow Ass Jolene,” the viral version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” slowed down by twenty-five percent, which transforms it from a polished crossover country track to a haunting, soulful gay love song. It’s a reminder, first of all, of how great the original is—it’s probably my second-favorite country song of all time, second only to “Wichita Lineman”—and, more subtly, of how powerful a change in tempo can be. Recording artists have been aware of this, of course, for almost as long as they’ve been in the studio. Offhand, I know that the piano coda to “Layla,” a song to which I’ve devoted a lot of thought, was sped up slightly during the mixing session, changing its key from C major to somewhere between C and C sharp. The Beatles made great use of this, too: “When I’m Sixty-Four” was sped up in the studio to give the vocals a more bouncy feel, and a similar trick was used on the piano in “In My Life,” which was recorded with the tape playing at half speed and restored to normal in the mix.

Occasionally, you’ll see a similar approach taken in other media. David Mirkin, the showrunner responsible for what are arguably the greatest seasons of The Simpsons, would often speed up an entire episode very slightly rather than cut material to fit the show into its time slot, which is why the dialogue in episodes like “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” seems to zip along so quickly. Less successfully, during the editing of Terminator 2, James Cameron was having trouble getting the movie down to its contractual length when he was hit by a bright idea: why not just remove one frame of film from every second of the movie? The result, unfortunately, was unwatchable, but I at least give Cameron credit for ingenuity. (Cameron began his career as a screenwriter, and I’d like to think that this brainstorm was the result of the sort of fudging that most writers do to get their scripts down to an acceptable page count. Terry Rossio has a wonderful rundown of all these tricks—from changing the line spacing to physically shrinking the page on a photocopier—in a hilarious post on his blog.)

Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of The Godfather

Nearly all these examples involve compressing the underlying material to be faster and shorter, which is generally a good impulse to follow. I’ve gone on record as saying that every rough draft ought to be cut by ten percent, and sometimes it’s the pressure of an arbitrary constraint—a television time slot, a contractual length—that forces you to make these tough choices. Their absence can lead to results like the fourth season of Arrested Development, in which nearly every episode is allowed to run ten minutes too long, often with unfortunate consequences. Yet as “Slow Ass Jolene” reminds us, it can also be good to take things more slowly. Just as the tone of “Jolene” is radically altered by a slower tempo, a slow book or movie can draw us in when a faster approach would have left us untouched. The author Colin Wilson, in his essay “Fantasy and Faculty X,” argues that the slow openings of a writer like Thomas Mann force the two halves of the brain to come into sync, allowing us to imagine the action more vividly, and I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in writers as dissimilar as Marcel Proust and John Crowley.

As for movies, I don’t know any examples of films that were physically slowed down in the editing room, but the same issues of tempo and pacing guide an editor’s selection of footage, and there are times when slower is better. There’s no better example than the first cut of The Godfather. After watching the cut, which was slightly over two hours long, producer Robert Evans reportedly said to Coppola:

The picture stinks. Got it? The Untouchables is better. You shot a great film. Where the fuck is it—in the kitchen with your spaghetti? It sure ain’t on the screen. Where’s the family, the heart, the feeling—left in the kitchen too?…What studio head tells a director to make a picture longer? Only a nut like me. You shot a saga, and you turned in a trailer. Now give me a movie.

Now, this is Evans’s version of events, and he’s nothing if not self-serving. But it’s a matter of record that the initial cut of The Godfather lost much of the material, especially in the first hour, that drew us into that movie’s world, and if it hadn’t been restored, the history of cinema would be different. Knowing when to speed things up and when to slow things down is one of the trickiest questions in an artist’s life, and only time and experience can teach us the difference.

Starbucks and the narrative third place

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Nina Dobrev and Ian Somerhalder in The Vampire Diaries

Some of you are probably reading this post at Starbucks. Maybe you didn’t really need a coffee, but wanted to relax and catch up on your email in a pleasant, convenient environment where you could rent a comfortable chair for the price of a beverage. What you wanted, in short, was a third place—a location that wasn’t your home or office, but where you could unwind for half an hour among a few other regulars. In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg describes the third place as a free or inexpensive location, ideally serving food and drink, where people can meet, have conversations, or sit quietly on their own. Starbucks is well aware of the power of the third place—founder Howard Schultz mentions it repeatedly in his book—and has taken pains to turn itself into a destination where people like to spend time even if they don’t particularly need to be caffeinated. Coffeehouses, as it happens, have often played such a role: the insurance company Lloyd’s of London began as a coffeehouse where sailors, ship owners, and merchants could talk shop. And third places are an essential part of building communities and social relationships.

That’s true of fiction, too. Recently, my wife and I have been watching a lot of The Vampire Diaries, and we’re endlessly amused by the fact that all the main characters spend most of their free time at the Mystic Grill. (At least when they aren’t attending yet another picnic, clam bake, or sock hop at the mayor’s mansion.) At times, the fact that everyone in Mystic Falls seems to end up at the Grill, regardless of age, social status, or supernatural orientation, verges on the surreal—among other things, it seems to be an obligatory stop for any visiting vampire or werewolf passing through town. Yet nearly every television show has its own equivalent of the Grill, a local hangout where the characters can interact and run into one another outside their homes and workplaces. Friends had Central Perk; Beverly Hills 90210 had The Peach Pit; Seinfeld had its famous diner; and Cheers had, well, Cheers. From a budgetary perspective, it makes sense: a single standing set can serve as a backdrop for scenes that don’t require any particular location, and a restaurant or bar offers plenty of convenient business for the actors and director.

The Seinfeld diner

But it also serves a more subtle narrative purpose. The screenwriter Terry Rossio says somewhere on his excellent Wordplay blog—I can’t find the specific post—that it can be a good idea for a movie’s characters to return periodically to the same familiar spot, a narrative home base that grounds the story and allows it to develop a sense of place, rather than jumping from one new location to another. From a storytelling perspective, this saves a lot of time: instead of having to introduce a setting the viewer hasn’t seen before, you can sit the characters at their usual table and get down to the business at hand. Done properly, a third place becomes invisible. This is why it works best when the story focuses on the same handful of characters, who might naturally have a favorite place to meet, rather than the Vampire Diaries approach, in which so many different characters drift through the Grill at one point or another that it seems like the only restaurant in town. And at its best, the third place becomes a place we’d like to visit, perhaps out of the hope that we’ll see our favorite characters seated in the corner.

And at its heart, the usefulness of the third place expresses a crucial point about fiction. It’s important to vary the story’s setting, and a series of chapters set in the same office or police station are bound to start feeling a little repetitive. But if the scenes we stage there have interest and truth, the magic of the location starts to build: each scene in Hannibal Lecter’s cell, or at the lunch counter in Chungking Express, trembles with the resonance of the scenes we’ve seen there before, and this only happens if the location recurs. A third place in fiction, like a coffeehouse in real life, gains meaning from the interactions that unfold there, and a place described in just a few lines can start to seem more real than the houses in which we’ve lived. (The great example here is 221B Baker Street, which doesn’t quite qualify as a third place, but which has prompted fans to build detailed reconstructions based on a handful of tantalizing paragraphs.) So if you’re writing a story and there isn’t a third place for the characters to interact and dream, you might want to think about adding one. After all, there’s a reason that Starbucks is everywhere.

Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2013 at 9:50 am

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