Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The AV Club

The two kinds of gatekeepers

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Yesterday I finished reading Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, which I decided to check out mainly because of a terrific interview they recently gave to The A.V. Club. Lennon and Garant are former cast members of The State and Reno 911! who have also managed to build remarkably lucrative careers for themselves as screenwriters, with their movies, as they remind us repeatedly, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide. (Though only a fraction of these dollars are thanks to movies not named Night at the Museum.) The book is a fast, amusing read, and while its advice on writing is only marginally useful, as a look at the life of a professional screenwriter, it’s candid and fun. Half of its readers, I suspect, will be tempted to move to Los Angeles at once, while the rest will resolve to stay the hell away.

Lennon and Garant’s best stories, like those of every other screenwriter who ever lived, are cautionary tales of studio interference. Horror stories about clueless stars, directors, and studio executives are, of course, a mainstay of screenwriting memoirs, starting with William Goldman’s great Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? (One of my favorite examples is Goldman’s account of his involvement with the doomed Chevy Chase adaptation of Memoirs of An Invisible Man, which inspired this comment after a particularly useless meeting: “AAARRRGHHHH.”) Lennon and Garant are especially good at explaining why some executives seem determined to destroy otherwise decent screenplays. Often it’s because they don’t understand the script, or haven’t bothered to read it, but the reasons can be even more insidious. From the book:

  • Sometimes they want to get some ideas of theirs into the movie, even if it doesn’t work, so they can take credit for it, to gain headway in their career at the studio. (“You know that GREAT scene where Godzilla steps on a building—that was mine.”)
  • Sometimes they don’t like the executive who bought your movie. Politics are rampant.
  • Sometimes they don’t like you. This doesn’t happen often. If you’re a writer, most executives won’t even remember you.
  • Sometimes they think they should be president, and they think the way to do that is to develop your movie in some new direction—to prove THEY’RE smarter than the person who bought your movie.

And so on. Which is only a reminder of the fact that a writer, in the course of any career, is going to deal with two kinds of gatekeepers. Gatekeepers are an inevitable part of any creative profession: for a novel, in particular, getting published requires clearing at least four obvious hurdles (the initial query, the agent, the acquiring editor, and the publisher) and probably others that the writer never sees. Each of these gatekeepers, like all ambitious people, have goals of their own, which is exactly how it should be. The best kind of gatekeeper is someone whose goals are aligned with yours—that is, someone whose career success is tied up in your work doing well. This is mostly true of your agent and everyone at the publishing house, from the art department to the copy desk. These people aren’t your friends, exactly, but they are your allies, because if you win, they win.

For a screenwriter, this isn’t necessarily true. A studio executive, as Goldman points out, is like the coach of a professional sports team: he knows that sooner or later, he’s going to get fired, and his only goal is to postpone being fired for as long as possible by signing movie stars to projects. And the writer contributes close to nothing to the executive’s ambitions. Screenwriters are fungible, which means that one can be swapped out for another without anyone even noticing. (According to Lennon and Garant, no fewer than twenty-four screenwriters worked on Herbie: Fully Loaded.) Which means, to put it mildly, that the interests of studio executives are not the same as yours. This doesn’t mean they aren’t good at their jobs: to get where they are, they need to be at least moderately resourceful and ambitious. But as the second kind of gatekeeper, they should be approached with caution. For a healthy dose of that kind of realism, as well as much other good advice, Lennon and Garant’s book is a decent place to start.

Midnight in Paris and the true golden age

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Yesterday my wife and I finally caught a screening of Midnight in Paris, which is already on track to become Woody Allen’s highest-grossing movie since Hannah and Her Sisters. While it’s definitely one of Allen’s slighter films, it’s easy to see why it’s doing so well: it’s clever and fun, and by the end, it’s hard not to be charmed by its premise. I was especially envious of the fact that my wife managed to enter the theater without knowing the movie’s central twist, which is that—spoiler alert—the main character, played by Owen Wilson, travels back in time to Paris in the 1920s, allowing him to rub elbows with Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and many other luminaries. (I was really hoping for a cameo by Duchamp, but had to settle for Dali and Man Ray.)

The funny thing is that even though I liked the movie a lot, I responded more to its air of Parisian romance (the cinematography, by the legendary Darius Khondji, is gorgeous) than to its underlying conceit, which is that it would be awesome to have the chance to hang out with your favorite writers. In my own experience, writers generally aren’t great company: the best ones put so much of themselves into their work that there isn’t much left for social niceties. And that applies to great writers as much as to anyone else. Joyce and Proust met only once, at a party thrown by art patrons Violet and Sydney Schiff, and while they evidently shared a carriage ride home, they didn’t have much to say to each other. (Proust, evidently, spent most of the night complaining about his health problems.)

And in the end, the books themselves are more than enough. It’s possible to know Proust more intimately than just about any other person, because he put so much of himself into his writing. Reading, as others have pointed out, is the only form of time travel that we’re currently afforded, and the nice thing about being a reader in the present is that you can access so much of previous eras. One of the messages of Midnight in Paris is that every generation, even the ones that we idealize today, has looked back to a lost golden age. But objectively speaking, if there’s a real golden age, it’s right now, even if you’re the kind of person—like me—who tends to be stuck in the past. There’s simply more past than ever before, in libraries, record shops, movie houses, and, yes, even online. And I’d never want to give up any of it.

That said, it’s still fun to think about what your own golden age might be (as the AV Club did last year, in one of my favorite Q&As). I’d happily spend an afternoon with any version of Orson Welles, or, if we’re going to restrict ourselves to a more recent period, to Coppola and the Zoetrope Studios, ideally in the narrow window after Apocalypse Now and before One From the Heart. As I’ve mentioned before, I’d love to go back in time to Berkeley of the 1970s. And there’s something very tempting about that party with Proust and Joyce, which was also attended by Picasso, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev. In the end, though, I’m happiest here, because I can enjoy the best of the past and look forward to more to come. The trouble with going back in time, after all, is that you’d know all that was coming, good and bad, and would never have the chance to be surprised by a masterpiece—or even just a very good Woody Allen movie. And where’s the fun in that?

The books of my life

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Today, inspired by an unusually compelling AVQ&A, I’ll be talking about the books that I’ve read more than any other. First up is Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those novels that I probably would have loved anyway, but which left an indelible mark on my life simply because of when I first encountered it—when I was thirteen years old and hungering deeply for books that, like the conspiracy theory at the heart of Eco’s novel, had “something to do with everything.” Looking back, I can see its limitations more clearly, and as I’ve said before, I’m afraid it’s been something of a dead end for me as a writer. Yet for better or worse, it’s influenced just about everything I’ve done since, most notably The Icon Thief, and it remains a work of exquisite wit and ingenuity. Aside from my own drafts, it’s the novel I’ve read the most—perhaps twenty times, mostly before my eighteenth birthday—although that record will probably be broken one day, possibly by The Silence of the Lambs.

The next book on the list is Labyrinths, at least the section devoted to short fiction. (Sad to say, but as much as I love many of Borges’s other essays, I don’t think I’ve ever made it through “The Argentine Writer and Tradition.”) Borges, like Eco, is primarily a writer of ideas, but he’s distinguished by greater precision and originality, and by a style that can seem curiously digressive on the paragraph level but intensely focused as a whole. If this is a paradox, it’s only the first of many that Borges inspires, and I suspect that he’s still rewiring my brain, years after I first read “The Library of Babel.” These days, the stories that I revisit the most include “The Immortal,” “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” and of course “Death and the Compass,” which is one of those works of art, like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that I seem fated to constantly rewrite in one way or another. (Interestingly, I realize only now that I got into both Eco and Borges, back in my early teens, because of the entries devoted to their work in Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s great Dictionary of Imaginary Places. I should dig up a copy of that sometime.)

My last book is probably the third edition of The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher. This might seem like a strange choice, since I’ve always been a creature of the city, and it wasn’t until my recent trip to Peru and Bolivia that I did any backpacking at all. Yet Fletcher’s book seized my imagination when I discovered it at the age of ten, and I still love it more than almost any other, partly because of Fletcher’s wonderfully amusing and intelligent style, but also because of his vision of life. The world of The Complete Walker is one of remarkable order and simplicity, in which the pack becomes a self-contained house on your back, its weight pared, its pockets organized, its every item meticulously accounted for. Read as a straight guidebook for backpacking, it’s the best there is; read as an allegory for rigorous self-sufficiency, pursued with equal amounts of poetry and common sense, it’s the equal of Walden, and its solutions to our culture’s current predicament are even more accessible than Thoreau’s.

The runners up on my list would include many books that you’ve heard me talk about before: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Art of Fiction, The Biographical Dictionary of Film, and Roger Ebert’s collected reviews, circa 1987, among others. And the remarkable thing about these books is how much remains to be read. I suspect that there are still a few Sherlock Holmes stories I haven’t read yet (maybe “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place?”), and while Labyrinths is a slim volume, there are still a few essays I haven’t touched, or at least don’t remember. Whole sections of Foucault’s Pendulum have long since fallen out of memory, and I can’t say for sure that I’ve explored every last nook of The Complete Walker. And I could spend a lifetime finding new things in Proust alone. In the end, it gives me a strange sort of comfort to know that there’s more out there, even in my most beloved books, waiting to be discovered. What about you?

Great art and the problem of spoilers

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Today on the A.V. Club, an article by critic Noel Murray has inspired a nice little discussion on the problem of spoilers, an issue on which I have some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ve been spoiled before. I had the death of a major character on The Wire spoiled for me by a clue in the New York Sun crossword puzzle, of all things. (Why, Peter Gordon, why?) And it always stings. On the other hand, I also believe that avoiding spoilers entirely can make it hard to read any kind of serious criticism. In some cases, a detailed plot summary can make it easier to get through a challenging work of art, whether it’s Game of Thrones or Andrei Rublev. And a good work of art is, or should be, more than the isolated details of its plot. It’s impossible to spoil a movie’s visual aspects, its director’s style, or the details of a great performance—although it’s certainly possible, alas, to spoil a joke.

In fact, you could make the argument that a defining factor of great art is its immunity to spoilers. And the opposite also holds: once a bad work of art has been spoiled for you, there’s rarely any reason to seek it out. Like a lot of people, I enjoy reading detailed plot summaries of horror movies that I never intend to see, to the point where I could probably give you a pretty good description, sight unseen, of the plot of Saw II. And I don’t think I’ve missed much—which is not the case for The Descent, for instance, not to mention The Shining. The same is true, unfortunately, of many works of mystery and science fiction. All too often, such stories are little more than delivery systems for a twist or an interesting idea, which could be conveyed as effectively in a paragraph as in an entire novel. (That’s why I like Borges, who pretends that the novel he wants to write already exists, and gives us the essential points by writing a review of it.)

A really good novel or movie, by contrast, has qualities that can’t be expressed in summary form. And it’s still possible to enjoy such works of art while knowing how they conclude, if the artist’s craft is strong enough to return you, at least temporarily, to a state of narrative innocence. One of the most striking examples is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Everybody “knows” what happens in that story, so it’s startling to read it again, as I did a few weeks ago, and remember that the original novel, unlike its many adaptations, is structured as a straight mystery. Stevenson saves the revelation of Hyde’s true identity for the end of the ninth chapter, and the effect, if you can put yourself in the position of a reader experiencing it for the first time, is stunning—the only detective story, as others have pointed out, where the solution is more horrible than the crime.

The same is true of many classic movies. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve watched Psycho—I’ve seen it on the big screen three times, twice in the past two years alone—and yet the structure of that movie is so strong, with its brilliant opening mislead, that the first appearance of the Bates Motel, through its dark curtain of rain, hasn’t lost any of its original power. (Seeing it with an audience also helps, especially when it comes to that wonderful second murder, which has rarely, if ever, been spoiled.) The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the end of Citizen Kane: I’ll never be able to experience it the way it was intended, but by the time that moment comes, I can glimpse at least a shadow of what it might have been. Is it good enough? Yes. But I’d still give anything to experience it, just once, the way it was meant to be seen.

Learning from the masters: Arrested Development

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As long as we’re on the subject of ensembles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the best ensemble sitcom of the decade, and arguably the best television show of any kind: Arrested Development. Like most people, I caught up with this series long after it had been canceled, and for a while, I was reluctant to try it, mostly because it was clear to me that this was a writer’s show, with elaborate plots and storylines, which are usually deadly to comedy. I couldn’t have been more wrong, of course: once I finally gave it a chance, thanks to its availability on Hulu, I discovered that this is the rare series that successfully blends comedy, farce, and surrealism into a flawless whole. And while Arrested Development remains so singular a series that it turned out to be difficult—even for its creator, Mitch Hurwitz—to apply its lessons elsewhere, it’s still tempting to ask how the show does what it does.

Granted, nothing ruins a joke like explaining it, and Arrested Development can hardly be reduced to a set of rules. Still, it’s possible to gently examine the roots of the show’s appeal. First off, it has a strong cast playing extraordinary characters, all of whom compete fiercely and successfully for the viewer’s attention. It’s worth emphasizing how unusual this is: in most ensemble shows, not every character is equally compelling, but in Arrested Development, everyone in the primary cast is ridiculously watchable, and even among the scores of recurring characters, there’s barely a dud (except perhaps Martin Short’s painfully unfunny Uncle Jack). And as the AV Club’s Steve Heisler recently pointed out, the enormous cast works, from a dramatic perspective, because each character has a clearly defined selfish agenda. (I once used The Godfather as an illustration of how large casts need to be defined by their objectives, but Arrested Development may be an even better example.)

Second, this is an incredibly organized show. One reason that Arrested Development struggled to find an audience is that it makes the viewer work, or at least pay attention, in a way that other sitcoms don’t. As David Mamet likes to point out, you can tune into a show like Friends halfway through and know, within seconds, what the story is. Arrested Development is the exception: it asks us to keep track of a huge cast, an intricate ongoing plot, and throwaway gags that often don’t become clear until after multiple viewings of an entire season. This isn’t entirely unprecedented: The Simpsons did it for many years. But it took The Simpsons at least three seasons to ramp up to its peak velocity, while Arrested Development hit the ground running. And, as in most great shows, form is inseparable from content: it was the first sitcom to use the now-popular documentary format, but so far, it’s the only one to use that form (with cutaway shots, archive footage, and above all Ron Howard’s terrific narration) to increase the density of information that the viewer can process.

Third, and perhaps most crucially, the show used its exceptional cast and innovative narrative techniques to tell strong, emotionally grounded stories. True, the emotion usually only crept in at the last minute of each episode, but as writers on The Simpsons like to point out, fifteen seconds of sentiment is often all you need, while two minutes is probably too much. Arrested Development‘s greatest achievement lies in making you care, weirdly, about the characters: Will Arnett’s work as Gob stands as a master class in turning a gloriously unsympathetic character into someone easy to love. The result was a show that, for all its frenetic pacing, was also willing to take its time when it counted—for instance, in the slow burn of Charlize Theron’s arc as Rita, Michael’s mysterious girlfriend, which took five episodes to build to an unforgettable conclusion. And for all its imitators, it stands alone. There may or may not be a movie; Mitch Hurwitz may never have a chance to make a show this good again. But he did it once. And that’s enough to ensure his immortality.

In the meantime, though, here’s some Tobias:

The uncanny influence of Stephen King

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Over the past year, I’ve sold two novelettes to Analog that have strong overtones of horror, a genre in which I’d previously displayed limited interest as a writer. “Kawataro” is my homage to Japanese horror movies, while the upcoming “The Boneless One” is sort of a haunted house story and murder mystery set aboard a research yacht in the Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t set out to write stories this creepy, but seem to have arrived at them by accident. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that they reflect the influence of a writer whose impact on my work is invisible but pervasive. He’s a novelist of massive fluency and technical proficiency, enormously inventive and imaginative, with a real gift for character and setting. He seems capable of doing just about anything within the conventions of the popular novel—although he rarely knows how to end a story. And through sheer cultural dominance alone, he’s had a subterranean influence on a whole generation of writers. He’s Stephen King.

King’s lasting mark on writers my age reflects one of the fundamental truths of fiction: if you want to change your readers’ lives forever, get them while they’re young. I don’t remember the first King novel I read, but it was probably The Talisman, picked up when I was a fifth grader as a tattered paperback at the much mourned Roskie & Wallace (later known as Gray Wolf Books) in San Leandro, California. Over the next two years, I worked my way through most of King’s oeuvre, the high points of which were, and remain, It, The Shining, Pet Sematary, and The Stand. Was I too young to be reading King? Sure. But that’s the best time to be reading his novels—when you’re just a little too young for the violence and sex and ideas they contain, so they seem to promise all of the primal power that fiction affords. The comments on this AV Club article imply that my experience was shared by millions of young men (and women) who came of age in the last thirty years. As a result, I think that King will influence, and has influenced, the writing of this generation in ways that will become increasingly clear as time goes on.

Stephen King

King, although far from a faultless writer, is certainly the most powerful popular novelist alive. His medium is horror, but very rarely has this seemed like a commercial calculation. Rather, it feels like an inner compulsion, a sense that horror and the supernatural provide him with the best way of exploring the themes to which he repeatedly returns—childhood, family, the inevitability and unfairness of death, the power of imagination, the memory of place. That willingness to follow character and theme wherever they lead, all the way into the darkness, makes King utterly unlike most other mainstream novelists. Reading It again two years ago, I was simultaneously impressed by how convincing and rich these thematic elements remained, and how dated the horror had become. It no longer has the power to scare me—though the thought of Tim Curry in clown makeup might—but it still has the power to move me. It might be my favorite popular novel in any genre.

Not all of King’s books have aged as well. The Talisman, on rereading, remains hugely inventive and textured, but structurally all over the map; the uncut version of The Stand is one of the most ambitious of all popular novels, but its mythic confrontation of good versus evil hasn’t dated well, and it’s also clear that King had no idea how to end it (a shortcoming that affects nearly all of his books). Pet Sematary, though, is almost flawlessly imagined and controlled, up to its grand guignol conclusion, which strikes me now as a failure of nerve, while still undeniably effective. And King’s best short stories are particularly fine—they may end up being his most lasting work. But his real legacy is impossible to measure. For thirty years and counting, through sheer skill, scale, and luck, he wound up shaping the inner lives of almost every young person who saw a future for himself, or herself, in imaginative literature. No other living author can claim nearly as much.

Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2011 at 10:17 am

On going out to readers

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Working on the acknowledgments section of The Icon Thief this week reminds me of the debt I owe to a special group of people: the readers who looked at the novel in manuscript. They pointed out inconsistencies and inaccuracies, gave me suggestions for where to cut or tighten, and helped me find the heart of the story. Some of their feedback even reshaped the course of the plot itself: the single most powerful moment in the novel, which nearly every subsequent reader has singled out as a high point, was the direct result of those early comments, and it forced me to rethink the ending of the book. So I’m quite serious when I say that reader feedback is an essential part of my writing process, which wasn’t always the case.

Once you’ve decided to go out to readers, the question is who and how many. While it’s best to get more than one reaction, too many can be a problem as well—you’re looking for focused, intelligent criticism, not taking a survey. Before I went out to agents, I ended up showing my novel to five readers, three of whom provided detailed comments, which strikes me as about right. They also came from various backgrounds, although this was more of a happy accident: they included a journalist, a doctor, a lawyer (who also happened, crucially, to know Russian), a poet and memoirist, and a film student. Because my novel had a female main character, four of these readers were women, which worked out nicely, because my editor and agents all turned out to be men.

So it’s safe to say that I ended up with a pretty good group. An equally important decision, though, is when to go out with your material. Personally, I think that it’s a mistake to show unfinished work. As much as my agent might prefer otherwise, I’m not showing him any part of the sequel to The Icon Thief until the entire first draft is finished. A novel doesn’t evolve in a linear fashion—a word choice in Chapter 44 can fundamentally change something three hundred pages earlier—so involving readers too soon can only disrupt the process. But you don’t want to wait too long, either, because if the draft is overly polished, you lose the chance to make surprising discoveries. The director Paul Feig, in a recent interview with the AV Club, talks about something similar in relation to focus groups:

Judd [Apatow] actually has this whole thing they do with side-by-side screenings at two theaters right next door to each other and do a “P” version, which is a polished version, which is the one we think is close to what we want to have be our final cut. And then another one called the “E” version, the extended version, which is the dumping ground for everything we think might work, or we wanted to try, or we’re just curious if it’s gonna work. And out of all of those screenings, you’ll always get about five or 10 new things that you didn’t think were ever gonna work that go through the roof and you plug ’em into the polished one.

The “E” version, perhaps tightened very slightly, is what you want to show your readers. If anything, I waited too long with The Icon Thief: I didn’t send it to readers until I was just about ready to go out to agents, which meant that I wasn’t able to make the wholesale changes that, in retrospect, the novel still needed at that point. For the sequel, I’m hoping to share it fairly soon after finishing the first draft, though not until I’ve followed Stephen King’s dictum and cut it by ten percent. (My compressed schedule, with a final draft due in September, means that I couldn’t wait too much longer, anyway.) After that, it’s in the hands of my readers, hopefully the same group as last time. And I have a hunch that I’m going to learn a lot from them.

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2011 at 9:54 am

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