Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William Goldman

The A/B Test

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In this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, there’s a profile of Mark Zuckerberg by Farhad Manjoo, who describes how the founder of Facebook is coming to terms with his role in the world in the aftermath of last year’s election. I find myself thinking about Zuckerberg a lot these days, arguably even more than I use Facebook itself. We just missed overlapping in college, and with one possible exception, which I’ll mention later, he’s the most influential figure to emerge from those ranks in the last two decades. Manjoo depicts him as an intensely private man obliged to walk a fine line in public, leading him to be absurdly cautious about what he says: “When I asked if he had chatted with Obama about the former president’s critique of Facebook, Zuckerberg paused for several seconds, nearly to the point of awkwardness, before answering that he had.” Zuckerberg is trying to figure out what he believes—and how to act—under conditions of enormous scrutiny, but he also has more resources at his disposal than just about anyone else in history. Here’s the passage in the article that stuck with me the most:

The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition, or seniority. They are concerned only with quantifiable outcomes about people’s actions on the site. That data, at Facebook, is the only real truth…This ideal runs so deep that the people who make News Feed often have to put aside their own notions of what’s best. “One of the things we’ve all learned over the years is that our intuition can be wrong a fair amount of the time,” John Hegeman, the vice president of product management and a News Feed team member, told me. “There are things you don’t expect will happen. And we learn a lot from that process: Why didn’t that happen, and what might that mean?”

Reading this, I began to reflect on how rarely we actually test our intuitions. I’ve spoken a lot on this blog about the role of intuitive thinking in the arts and sciences, mostly because it doesn’t get the emphasis it deserves, but there’s also no guarantee that intuition will steer us in the right direction. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has devoted his career to showing how we tend to overvalue our gut reactions, particularly if we’ve been fortunate enough to be right in the past, and the study of human irrationality has become a rich avenue of research in the social sciences, which are often undermined by poor hunches of their own. It may not even be a matter of right or wrong. An intuitive choice may be better or worse than the alternative, but for the most part, we’ll never know. One of the quirks of Silicon Valley culture is that it claims to base everything on raw data, but it’s often in the service of notions that are outlandish, untested, and easy to misrepresent. Facebook comes closer than any company in existence to the ideal of an endless A/B test, in which the user base is randomly divided into two or more groups to see which approaches are the most effective. It’s the best lab ever developed for testing our hunches about human behavior. (Most controversially, Facebook modified the news feeds of hundreds of thousands of users to adjust the number of positive or negative posts, in order to gauge the emotional impact, and it has conducted similar tests on voter turnout.) And it shouldn’t surprise us if many of our intuitions turn out to be mistaken. If anything, we should expect them to be right about half the time—and if we can nudge that percentage just a little bit upward, in theory, it should give us a significant competitive advantage.

So what good is intuition, anyway? I like to start with William Goldman’s story about the Broadway producer George Abbott, who once passed a choreographer holding his head in his hands while the dancers stood around doing nothing. When Abbott asked what was wrong, the choreographer said that he couldn’t figure out what to do next. Abbott shot back: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.” Intuition, as I’ve argued before, is mostly about taking you from zero ideas to one idea, which you can then start to refine. John W. Campbell makes much the same argument in what might be his single best editorial, “The Value of Panic,” which begins with a maxim from the Harvard professor Wayne Batteau: “In total ignorance, try anything. Then you won’t be so ignorant.” Campbell argues that this provides an evolutionary rationale for panic, in which an animal acts “in a manner entirely different from the normal behavior patterns of the organism.” He continues:

Given: An organism with N characteristic behavior modes available. Given: An environmental situation which cannot be solved by any of the N available behavior modes, but which must be solved immediately if the organism is to survive. Logical conclusion: The organism will inevitably die. But…if we introduce Panic, allowing the organism to generate a purely random behavior mode not a member of the N modes characteristically available?

Campbell concludes: “When the probability of survival is zero on the basis of all known factors—it’s time to throw in an unknown.” In extreme situations, the result is panic; under less intense circumstances, it’s a blind hunch. You can even see them as points on a spectrum, the purpose of which is to provide us with a random action or idea that can then be revised into something better, assuming that we survive for long enough. But sometimes the animal just gets eaten.

The idea of refinement, revision, or testing is inseparable from intuition, and Zuckerberg has been granted the most powerful tool imaginable for asking hard questions and getting quantifiable answers. What he does with it is another matter entirely. But it’s also worth looking at his only peer from college who could conceivably challenge him in terms of global influence. On paper, Mark Zuckerberg and Jared Kushner have remarkable similarities. Both are young Jewish men—although Kushner is more observant—who were born less than four years and sixty miles apart. Kushner, whose acceptance to Harvard was so manifestly the result of his family’s wealth that it became a case study in a book on the subject, was a member of the final clubs that Zuckerberg badly wanted to join, or so Aaron Sorkin would have us believe. Both ended up as unlikely media magnates of a very different kind: Kushner, like Charles Foster Kane, took over a New York newspaper from a man named Carter. Yet their approaches to their newfound positions couldn’t be more different. Kushner has been called “a shadow secretary of state” whose portfolio includes Mexico, China, the Middle East, and the reorganization of the federal government, but it feels like one long improvisation, on the apparent assumption that he can wing it and succeed where so many others have failed. As Bruce Bartlett writes in the New York Times, without a staff, Kushner “is just a dilettante meddling in matters he lacks the depth or the resources to grasp,” and we may not have a chance to recover if his intuitions are wrong. In other words, he resembles his father-in-law, as Frank Bruni notes:

I’m told by insiders that when Trump’s long-shot campaign led to victory, he and Kushner became convinced not only that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about America, but that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about the two of them.

Zuckerberg and Kushner’s lives ran roughly in parallel for a long time, but now they’re diverging at a point at which they almost seem to be offering us two alternate versions of the future, like an A/B test with only one possible outcome. Neither is wholly positive, but that doesn’t make the choice any less stark. And if you think this sounds farfetched, bookmark this post, and read it again in about six years.

Blazing the trail

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When I’m looking for insights into writing, I often turn to the nonliterary arts, and the one that I’ve found the most consistently stimulating is film editing. This is partially because the basic problem that a movie editor confronts—the arrangement and distillation of a huge mass of unorganized material into a coherent shape—is roughly analogous to what a writer does, but at a larger scale and under conditions of greater scrutiny and pressure, which encourages the development of pragmatic technical solutions. This was especially true in the era before digital editing. As Walter Murch, my hero, has pointed out, one minute of film equals a pound of celluloid. A movie like Apocalypse Now generates something like seven tons of raw footage, so an editor, as Murch notes, needs “a strong back and arms.” At the same time, incredibly, he or she also has to keep track of the location of individual frames, which weigh just a few thousandths of an ounce. With such software tools as Final Cut Pro, this kind of bookkeeping becomes relatively easier, and I doubt that many professional editors are inclined to be sentimental about the old days. But there’s also a sense in which wrestling with celluloid required habits of mind and organization that are slowly being lost. In A Guide for the Perplexed, which I once described as the first book I’d recommend to anyone about almost anything, Werner Herzog writes:

I can edit almost as fast as I can think because I’m able to sink details of fifty hours of footage into my mind. This might have something to do with the fact that I started working on film, when there was so much celluloid about the place that you had to know where absolutely every frame was. But my memory of all this footage never lasts long, and within two days of finishing editing it becomes a blur in my mind.

On a more practical level, editing a movie means keeping good notes, and all editors eventually come up with their own system. Here’s how Herzog describes his method:

The way I work is to look through everything I have—very quickly, over a couple of days—and make notes. For all my films over the past decade I have kept a logbook in which I briefly describe, in longhand, the details of every shot and what people are saying. I know there’s a particularly wonderful moment at minute 4:13 on tape eight because I have marked the description of the action with an exclamation point. These days my editor Joe Bini and I just move from one exclamation point to the next; anything unmarked is almost always bypassed. When it comes to those invaluable clips with three exclamation marks, I tell Joe, “If these moments don’t appear in the finished film, I have lived in vain.”

What I like about Herzog’s approach to editing is its simplicity. Other editors, including Murch, keep detailed notes on each take, but Herzog knows that all he has to do is flag it and move on. When the time comes, he’ll remember why it seemed important, and he has implicit faith in the instincts of his past self, which he trusts to steer him in the right direction. It’s like blazing a trail through the woods. A few marks on a tree or a pile of stones, properly used, are all you need to indicate the path, but instead of trying to communicate with hikers who come after you, you’re sending a message to yourself in the future. As Herzog writes: “I feel safe in my skills of navigation.”

Reading Herzog’s description of his editorial notes, I realized that I do much the same thing with the books that I read for my work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Whenever I go back to revisit a source, I’ll often see underlinings or other marks that I left on a previous pass, and I naturally look at those sections more closely, in order to remind myself why it seemed to matter. (I’ve learned to mark passages with a single vertical line in the outer margin, which allows me to flip quickly through the book to scan for key sections.) The screenwriter William Goldman describes a similar method of signaling to himself in his great book Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which he talks about the process of adapting novels to the screen:

Here is how I adapt and it’s very simple: I read the text again. And I read it this time with a pen in my hand—let’s pick a color, blue. Armed with that, I go back to the book, slower this time than when I was a traveler. And as I go through the book word by word, page by page, every time I hit anything I think might be useful—dialogue line, sequence, description—I make a mark in the margin…Then maybe two weeks later, I read the book again, this time with a different color pen…And I repeat the same marking process—a line in the margin for anything I think might make the screenplay…When I am done with all my various color-marked readings—five or six of them—I should have the spine. I should know where the story starts, where it ends. The people should be in my head now.

Goldman doesn’t say this explicitly, but he implies that if a passage struck him on multiple passes, which he undertook at different times and states of mind, it’s likely to be more useful than one that caught his eye only once. Speaking of a page in Stephen King’s novel Misery that ended up with six lines in the margin—it’s the scene in which Annie cuts off Paul’s foot—Goldman writes: “It’s pretty obvious that whatever the spine of the piece was, I knew from the start it had to pass through this sequence.”

And a line or an exclamation point is sometimes all you need. Trying to keep more involved notes can even be a hindrance: not only do they slow you down, but they can distort your subsequent impressions. If a thought is worth having, it will probably occur to you each time you encounter the same passage. You often won’t know its true significance until later, and in the meantime, you should just keep going. (This is part of the reason why Walter Mosley recommends that writers put a red question mark next to any unresolved questions in the first draft, rather than trying to work them out then and there. Stopping to research something the first time around can easily turn into a form of procrastination, and when you go back, you may find that you didn’t need it at all.) Finally, it’s worth remembering that an exclamation point, a line in the margin, or a red question mark are subtly different on paper than on a computer screen. There are plenty of ways to flag sections in a text document, and I often use the search function in Microsoft Word that allows me to review everything I’ve underlined. But having a physical document that you periodically mark up in ink has benefits of its own. When you repeatedly go back to the same book, manuscript, or journal over the course of a project, you find that you’ve changed, but the pages have stayed the same. It starts to feel like a piece of yourself that you’ve externalized and put in a safe place. You’ll often be surprised by the clues that your past self has left behind, like a hobo leaving signs for others, or Leonard writing notes to himself in Memento, and it helps if the hints are a little opaque. Faced with that exclamation point, you ask yourself: “What was I thinking?” And there’s no better way to figure out what you’re thinking right now.

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2017 at 9:08 am

The lives of the robots

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Jeffrey Wright on Westworld

Note: Spoilers follow for the Westworld episode “The Stray.”

There’s a clever moment in the third episode of Westworld when Teddy, the clean-cut gunslinger played by James Marsden, is finally given a backstory. Teddy has spoken vaguely of a guilty secret in his past, but when he’s pressed for the details, he doesn’t elaborate. That’s the mark of a good hero. As William Goldman points out in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, protagonists need to have mystery, and when you give them a sob story, here’s what happens:

They make [him] a wimp. They make him a loser. He’s just another whiny asshole who went to pieces when the gods pissed on him. “Oh, you cannot know the depth of my pain” is what that seems to be saying to the audience. Well, if I’m in that audience, what I think is this: Fuck you. I know people who are dying of cancer, I know people who are close to vegetables, and guess what—they play it as it lays.

Of course, we know that Teddy is really an android, and if he doesn’t talk about his past, it’s for good reason: as Dr. Ford, his creator, gently explains, the writers never bothered to give him one. With a few commands on a touchscreen, a complete backstory is uploaded into his system, and Teddy sets off on a doomed quest in pursuit of his old enemy, Wyatt, against whom he has sworn undying revenge. We don’t know how this plot thread ties into the rest of Dr. Ford’s plan, but we can only assume that it’s going somewhere—and it’s lucky for him that he had a convenient hero available to fill that role.

There are several levels of sly commentary here. When you’re writing a television show—or a series of novels—you want to avoid filling in anybody’s backstory for as long as possible. Part of the reason, as Goldman notes above, is to maintain a sense of mystery, and for the sake of narrative momentum, it makes sense to avoid dwelling on what happened before the story began. But it’s also a good idea to keep this information in your back pocket for when you really need it. If you know how to deploy it strategically, backstory can be very useful, and it can get you out of trouble or provide a targeted nudge when you need to push the plot in a particular direction. If you’re too explicit about it too soon, you narrow your range of options. (You also make it harder for viewers to project their own notions onto the characters, which is what Westworld, the theme park, is all about.) I almost wish that Westworld had saved this moment with Teddy for later in the show’s run, which would underline its narrative point. We’re only a third of the way through the first season, but within the world of the show itself, the park has been running for decades with the same generic storylines. Dr. Ford has a few ideas about how to shake things up, and Teddy is a handy blank slate. Television showrunners make that sort of judgment call all the time. In the internal logic of the park, this isn’t the first season, but more like its fifth or sixth, when a scripted drama tends to go off the rails, and the accumulation of years of backstory starts to feel like a burden.

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood on Westworld

“The Stray,” in fact, is essentially about backstory, on the level both of the park and of the humans who are running it. Shortly after filling in the details of Teddy’s past, Dr. Ford does exactly the same thing for himself: he delivers a long, not entirely convincing monologue about a mysterious business partner, Arnold, who died in the park and was later removed from its corporate history. At the end of the speech, he looks at Bernard, his head of programming, and tells him that he knows how much his son’s death still haunts him. It’s a little on the nose, but I think it’s supposed to be. It makes us wonder if Bernard might unknowingly be a robot himself, a la Blade Runner, and whether his flashbacks of his son are just as artificial as Teddy’s memories of Wyatt. I hope that this isn’t the big twist, if only because it seems too obvious, but in a way, it doesn’t really matter. Bernard may or may not be a robot, but there’s no question that Bernard, Dr. Ford, and all the other humans in sight are characters on a show called Westworld, and whatever backstories they’ve been given by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are as calculated as the ones that the androids have received. Even if Bernard’s memories are “real,” we’re being shown them for a reason. (It helps that Dr. Ford and Bernard are played by Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright, two actors who are good at giving technically exquisite performances that draw subtle attention to their own artifice. Wright’s trademark whisper—he’s like a man of great passion who refuses to raise his voice—draws the viewer into a conspiracy with the actor, as if he’s letting us in on a secret.)

The trouble with this reading, of course, is that it allows us to excuse instances of narrative sloppiness under the assumption that the series is deliberately commenting on itself. I’m willing to see Dr. Ford’s speech about Arnold as a winking nod to the tendency of television shows to dispense backstory in big infodumps, but I’m less sure about the moment in which he berates a lab technician for covering up a robot’s naked body and slashes at the android’s face. It’s doesn’t seem like the Dr. Ford of the pilot, talking nostalgically to Old Bill in storage, and while we’re presumably supposed to see him as a man of contradictions, it feels more like a juxtaposition of two character beats that weren’t meant to be so close together. (I have a hunch that it also reflects Hopkins’s availability: the show seems to have him for about two scenes per episode, which means that it has to do in five minutes what might have been better done in ten.) Westworld, as you might expect from a show from one of the Nolan brothers, has more ideas than it knows how handle: it hurries past a reference to Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind so quickly that it’s as if the writers just want to let us know that they’ve read the book. But I still have faith in this show’s potential. When Teddy is ignominiously killed yet again by Wyatt’s henchmen, it forces Dolores to face the familiar attackers in her own storyline by herself—an ingenious way of getting her to where she needs to be, but also a reminder, I think, of how the choices that a storyteller makes in one place can have unexpected consequences somewhere else. It’s a risk that all writers take. And Westworld is playing the same tricky game as the characters whose stories it tells.

“This had never been a game of chance…”

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"Do you know how Russian roulette began?"

Note: This post is the fifty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 57. You can read the previous installments here.

Earlier this week, in my discussion of Michael Cimino and The Deer Hunter, I managed to avoid mentioning its single most famous—and controversial—plot point. Here’s what William Goldman had to say on the subject in Adventures in the Screen Trade:

Does anyone remember, say, the last part of Deer Hunter? Saigon is going up in flames, and Robert De Niro…is out of service and back in Pennsylvania. He hears about his old buddy, Christopher Walken, who’s still back there…Do you know what Walken has been doing all this time? He’s been playing that game of Russian roulette with real bullets. (The Russian roulette ploy was made up by the movie’s creators, by the way; it didn’t happen in reality.) For months and months, Walken has been taking on all comers in this loony tunes Russian roulette, and…he’s undefeated, untied, and unscored on.

It would take a computer a while to give the odds against that happening, but never mind, because now we’re into the confrontation scene. De Niro versus Walken at Russian roulette. If you looked at the billing of the picture on your way in, did you ever doubt who was going to win?

Obviously, De Niro survives and Walken dies. Goldman concludes that The Deer Hunter, for all its trappings of realism, is ultimately “a comic book movie,” and he adds: “What Deer Hunter told me was what I already knew and believed in: No matter how horrid the notion of war, Robert De Niro would end up staring soulfully at the beautiful, long-suffering Meryl Streep.” And while the film’s Russian roulette sequences are far from its only implausible element, they’ve always served as a focal point for the movie’s critics, both because of their air of racism and because they were invented by the screenwriters out of thin air. What really fascinates me, though, is that these scenes were actually the seed of the entire story, and they came before Vietnam, Pennsylvania, or anything else. The producer Michael Deeley had bought a script called The Man Who Came to Play about games of Russian roulette in Las Vegas, which he called “a very clever piece of writing,” and it was rewritten by Cimino and his collaborator Deric Washburn to take place during the war. You could almost say that these scenes, as arbitrary as they seem in relation to the real Vietnam experience, are what is truly essential, and the rest—all that loving atmosphere at the steel mill and the wedding and the deer hunt and Chopin’s Nocturne—is incidental. And despite my mixed feelings about the movie, I have to concede that Cimino’s fundamental instinct, which was that the Russian roulette element would provide a spine strong enough for him to tell literally any story he wanted, was brilliant. As Roger Ebert, who liked The Deer Hunter far more than I did, wrote, it becomes “the organizing symbol of the film.”

"This had never been a game of chance..."

Elsewhere, I’ve said that discovering this kind of narrative trick can feel like stumbling across a new industrial process, and I don’t think that’s ever been more true than it is here. Russian roulette, as a tool for generating suspense, is a writer’s dream: it’s infinitely expansible and compressible, meaning that it can be used to fill thirty seconds of screen time or serve as the motor that drives an entire third act, and it requires a minimum of setup. I’ve often suspected that the whole legal procedural genre sprang up around the fact that a jury delivering its verdict is the most foolproof scene in all of drama: even if the outcome is foreordained, when the foreman passes the folded note to the judge and the defendant is asked to rise, there’s always an increase in tension and anticipation. The trouble—if you’re a writer with the right amount of laziness, which is just another word for the pragmatic use of your limited resources—is you can’t just jump into a verdict scene without any preparation. It requires a fair amount of work to get there. Russian roulette, for better or worse, is a self-contained component: you can slide it in almost anywhere and it works, if only on the most primitive levels of the brain. It delivers violence, or the threat of it, at an unpredictable time in a structured way. I can’t think of anything else in fiction or real life that comes even close to it. Fortunately, perhaps, it’s the sort of thing that can only be done once on this kind of scale. As much as I dislike The Deer Hunter, I almost feel that Cimino deserved to win Best Picture, if only because he recognized the opportunity that the device presented and capitalized on it before anyone else ever could.

Of course, this hasn’t prevented other opportunistic writers from occasionally making use of it. (Among other things, it provides the backbone for the final act of my favorite episode of The X-Files.) And I resort to it here, in Chapter 57 of Eternal Empire, for all the reasons that I mentioned above. Pragmatically, the scene could be about anything or nothing: Maddy has been brought back by her enemies to the isolated dacha in Sochi, and the chapter’s only function is to crank our concern for her safety up to as high a pitch as possible, in roughly five pages, before Wolfe and Ilya storm the compound. A scene like this has to walk a fine line, and I do what I can to give Maddy as much agency as I can, as she tries to turn her captors against one another. But when Vasylenko takes out his revolver and removes all of the cartridges except for one, suddenly it’s all business, and you can almost sense me, as the writer, looking ahead to the next chapter and seeing that I have only a page or two to get my point across. It helps, obviously, that we’re in Russia itself, and Vasylenko’s brief excursus on the history of the game—which I lifted from James H. Billington’s The Icon and the Axe—goes a long way toward justifying it in my eyes. And Maddy’s final revelation, which is that none of this has been a game of chance, is really a character’s glimpse of her author. Like Cimino, I’ve rigged the game to get her here. In the end, the scene works, and Vasylenko doesn’t even need to pull the trigger. That’s the beauty of it. And it’s also why it still makes me a little uneasy…

Peak television and the future of stardom

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Kevin Costner in The Postman

Earlier this week, I devoured the long, excellent article by Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez of Vulture on the business of peak television. It’s full of useful insights and even better gossip—and it names plenty of names—but there’s one passage that really caught my eye, in a section about the huge salaries that movie stars are being paid to make the switch to the small screen:

A top agent defends the sums his clients are commanding, explaining that, in the overall scheme of things, the extra money isn’t all that significant. “Look at it this way,” he says. “If you’re Amazon and you’re going to launch a David E. Kelley show, that’s gonna cost $4 million an episode [to produce], right? That’s $40 million. You can have Bradley Whitford starring in it, [who is] gonna cost you $150,000 an episode. That’s $1.5 million of your $40 million. Or you could spend another $3.5 million [to get Costner] on what will end up being a $60 million investment by the time you market and promote it. You can either spend $60 [million] and have the Bradley Whitford show, or $63.5 [million] and have the Kevin Costner show. It makes a lot of sense when you look at it that way.”

With all due apologies to Bradley Whitford, I found this thought experiment fascinating, and not just for the reasons that the agent presumably shared it. It implies, for one thing, that television—which is often said to be overtaking Hollywood in terms of quality—is becoming more like feature filmmaking in another respect: it’s the last refuge of the traditional star. We frequently hear that movie stardom is dead and that audiences are drawn more to franchises than to recognizable faces, so the fact that cable and streaming networks seem intensely interested in signing film stars, in a post-True Detective world, implies that their model is different. Some of it may be due to the fact, as William Goldman once said, that no studio executive ever got fired for hiring a movie star: as the new platforms fight to establish themselves, it makes sense that they’d fall back on the idea of star power, which is one of the few things that corporate storytelling has ever been able to quantify or understand. It may also be because the marketing strategy for television inherently differs from that for film: an online series is unusually dependent on media coverage to stand out from the pack, and signing a star always generates headlines. Or at least it once did. (The Vulture article notes that Woody Allen’s new series for Amazon “may end up marking peak Peak TV,” and it seems a lot like a deal that was made for the sake of the coverage it would produce.)

Kevin Costner in JFK

But the most plausible explanation lies in simple economics. As the article explains, Netflix and the other streaming companies operate according to a “cost-plus” model: “Rather than holding out the promise of syndication gold, the company instead pays its studio and showrunner talent a guaranteed up-front profit—typically twenty or thirty percent above what it takes to make a show. In exchange, it owns all or most of the rights to distribute the show, domestically and internationally.” This limits the initial risk to the studio, but also the potential upside: nobody involved in producing the show itself will see any money on the back end. In addition, it means that even the lead actors of the series are paid a flat dollar amount, which makes them a more attractive investment than they might be for a movie. Most of the major stars in Hollywood earn gross points, which means that they get a cut of the box office receipts before the film turns a profit—a “first dollar” deal that makes the mathematics of breaking even much more complicated. The thought experiment about Bradley Whitford and Kevin Costner only makes sense if you can get Costner at a fixed salary per episode. In other words, movie stars are being actively courted by television because its model is a throwback to an earlier era, when actors were held under contract by a studio without any profit participation, and before stars and their agents negotiated better deals that ended up undermining the economic basis of the star system entirely.

And it’s revealing that Costner, of all actors, appears in this example. His name came up mostly because multiple sources told Vulture that he was offered $500,000 per episode to star in a streaming series: “He passed,” the article says, “but industry insiders predict he’ll eventually say ‘yes’ to the right offer.” But he also resonates because he stands for a kind of movie stardom that was already on the wane when he first became famous. It has something to do with the quintessentially American roles that he liked to play—even JFK is starting to seem like the last great national epic—and an aura that somehow kept him in leading parts two decades after his career as a major star was essentially over. That’s weirdly impressive in itself, and it testifies to how intriguing a figure he remains, even if audiences aren’t likely to pay to see him in a movie. Whenever I think of Costner, I remember what the studio executive Mike Medavoy once claimed to have told him right at the beginning of his career:

“You know,” I said to him over lunch, “I have this sense that I’m sitting here with someone who is going to become a great big star. You’re going to want to direct your own movies, produce your own movies, and you’re going to end up leaving your wife and going through the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle.”

Costner did, in fact, end up leaving his first wife. And if he also leaves film for television, even temporarily, it may reveal that “the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle” has a surprising final act that few of us could have anticipated.

Written by nevalalee

May 27, 2016 at 9:03 am

“Yet she was still a woman…”

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"More curiosity than respect..."

Note: This post is the forty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 48. You can read the previous installments here.

“When I start a play, I’ll think, does it matter if this character is a man or a woman?” David Lindsay-Abaire once said. “And if it doesn’t, I make it a woman.” I do pretty much the same thing. And I’d like to think that we both take this approach for an utterly unsentimental reason: it results in better stories. There’s a tendency for writers, male and female alike, to use male characters as default placeholders, especially in genres that have traditionally been dominated by men. By systematically visualizing women instead—even if it’s nothing more than an initial sketch—you’ve already redirected your thought processes at a slightly different angle, which can only be good for the outcome. Whenever I read stories from the golden age of science fiction, I’m struck by the absence of women, which seems less like a sin than a mistake. It’s hard to think of a story from that era that wouldn’t have been improved by turning half of the men into women, without any other revisions aside from the relevant pronouns, as was done, much later, with Ripley in Alien. And I would have addressed this advice squarely to those pragmatic hacks who were only interested in making a living. There are so few writing rules of any value that a professional ought to utilize anything that works on a consistent basis, and the fact that so many of the women we see in these stories are either love interests or secretaries, even in the far future, feels like a missed opportunity.

There’s even a handy empirical test that you can use to verify this. Take a story from any genre in which the genders of the main characters are mostly irrelevant—that is, in which you could rewrite most of the men as women, or vice versa, while leaving the overall plot unchanged. Now mentally change a few of the men into women. The result, in most cases, is more interesting: it generates registers of meaning that weren’t there before. Now mentally turn some of the women in the original story into men. I’m willing to bet that it has the net opposite result: it actually saps the narrative of interest, and makes the whole thing flatter and duller. If you don’t believe me, just try it a few times. Even better, do it when you’re constructing a story, and see which version you like better. In the book Which Lie Did I Tell?, the screenwriter William Goldman writes:

I remember once being in an office with a studio guy and a couple of people were sitting around, fighting the story. And once of the people said this: “What if they’re all women?” Now the story, as I remember, was a male adventure flick. And the studio guy commented on that—“This is an adventure movie here, how stupid a suggestion is that?” Naturally the writer was finished for that day.

The truth, as Goldman points out, is that it was an excellent idea: “Making them all women opened up the world. I use it a lot myself now.” And that’s all the more reason to do it automatically at the earliest possible stage.

"Yet she was still a woman..."

Which isn’t to say that you can just change the names and pronouns and be done with it. This exercise is only useful if you follow through on the implications that come with making a character a woman, especially in a genre like suspense, which defines itself so casually in terms of action and violence. In my novels, you could change most of the women to men without affecting the main outlines of the plot, but there would be a real loss of meaning. In part, this is because I unconsciously situated these characters in worlds in which women face particular challenges. For Maddy, it was the world of art and finance; for Wolfe, of law enforcement; and for Asthana, of thieves and criminals. These tensions are mostly just implied, but I’d like to think that they quietly affect the way we see these characters, who are enriched by the choices they must have made before the story began. In retrospect, this explains, for instance, why Wolfe is so much more interesting than Alan Powell, to whom I devoted a third of The Icon Thief before mostly shelving him in Eternal Empire. Wolfe would have had to prove herself in ways that someone like Powell never would, and it shows, even if it’s unstated. And I have a hunch that my endless struggles with Powell as a character might have been avoided entirely if I’d done the logical thing and made him a woman as well.

There’s another missed chance in this series, and it involves the character of Asthana. The only time I come close to exploring the peculiar position she holds—as a woman of color in a criminal world—is in Chapter 48 of Eternal Empire, in which she enters a house in Sochi occupied entirely by Russian thieves. Her thoughts turn briefly to the fact that she’ll always be regarded as an outsider, and I try to show how she establishes herself in the pecking order by being a little smarter than the men around her. But I don’t do nearly enough. Part of this is simply due to a lack of space, and to the fact that it felt more important to define Asthana in relation to Wolfe. Still, her presence here raises a lot of questions that go mostly unanswered, and I can’t help but feel that I could have touched on them more. (If I were doing it all over again today, I would have remembered what Christopher McQuarrie says about Rebecca Ferguson’s character in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation: “They’re not men. They’re women that are not trying to be men…You’re here on your own terms and you’re in a shitty situation created by people in power above you. How do you escape this situation and maintain your dignity?”) If anything, the result would have made Asthana an even more formidable antagonist for Wolfe. And although there’s a showdown coming soon between these two women, the most interesting parts of this story will mostly remain unspoken…

The power of the punchline

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

A few days ago, my wife sent me a link to “Jamie and Jeff’s Note to the Babysitter,” a McSweeney’s piece by Paul William Davies. I thought it was hilarious, both because I’ve written similar letters myself and because it’s a true rarity: a properly constructed page of humorous writing that fully develops its funny conceit from start to finish. Like many of its peers, it basically takes the form of a list, a format that the Harvard Lampoon pioneered decades ago, but unlike most, it doesn’t rely on that framework as an excuse to string together a loose series of unrelated gags. Instead, it benefits from the fact that its central idea lends itself naturally to the list structure, and above all from its last line, which Davies clearly knows is gold. Like Vijith Assar’s very different but equally excellent “Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar”—which is probably my favorite McSweeney’s piece ever—it has a punchline. And that makes all the difference. (The lack of a punchline is why so many “Shouts and Murmurs” pieces in The New Yorker seem to wither away into nothing: they tend to suffer from what I’ve elsewhere identified as that magazine’s distrust of neat endings, which leads to articles that conclude at the most arbitrary place imaginable, as if the writer had suffered a stroke before typing the final paragraph.)

And it got me thinking about the power of the punchline, not just to end a piece on a strong note, but to enable everything that comes before it. In his commentary track for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie talks at length about the challenges involved in structuring the fantastic sequence set at the Vienna Opera House. I’ve watched it maybe five times now, and it gets better with every viewing: I’m convinced that if it had been directed by, say, Brian DePalma, we’d already be calling it one of the most virtuosic scenes that the genre has ever produced. It’s an immensely complicated piece of suspense with simultaneous action unfolding on three or four different levels, and it was evidently a nightmare to stage and edit. But McQuarrie had an ace up his sleeve. The moment when Ethan has to figure out how to save the Chancellor of Austria from two different assassins, with only a single bullet at his disposal, is priceless, and the whole crazy machine builds to that punchline. McQuarrie knew it would work. And although I don’t think he says so explicitly, he obviously felt liberated to indulge in such a teasingly long, complex set piece because he had that destination in mind. (And he probably wishes he’d done the same with the rest of the movie, the ending of which was being constantly rewritten even as the film was being shot—not that you can tell from the final result.)

Rebecca Ferguson in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

A punchline, in short, can reach backward in a work of art to allow for greater flexibility in the journey, which is something that most writers eventually learn. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman makes the same point in a discussion of the famous twenty-minute chase in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

There were two reasons I wrote it so long. One: I felt without such an implacable, irresistible enemy, the move to South America wouldn’t wash. Two: I wrote it so long because I had the confidence to be able to do it. And that confidence was born of one thing—I knew the Sundance Kid couldn’t swim…

When you have what you hope is gold in your hands, you can ruin it all by poor placement. If, for example, when Butch and Sundance were fording the stream on their way to Hole-in-the-Wall, Butch had said, “Why do you always get nervous around water?” and Sundance had said, “Because I can’t swim,” that wouldn’t have been so smart.

So I saved it for the moment just before the jump off the cliff. In point of fact, the entire Superposse chase is structured toward that moment. I was positive that no matter how badly the chase as a whole might be done, the swimming revelation, followed by the jump off the cliff, would save me. The jump was, had to be, surefire.

In other words, when you know you’ve got a good punchline, you’re free to develop what comes before it in the fashion it deserves. The opposite point also holds true: when you don’t know where you’re going, you’re more likely to flail around, casting about for ways to make the action more “interesting” when you lack a basic end point. I always try to keep a residue of unresolved problems—to borrow a phrase from the film editor Walter Murch—throughout the writing process, but I also know more or less where a story will conclude, and whenever I’ve broken that rule, as in my short story “Cryptids,” I think the weakness shows. On the plus side of the column, I allowed myself to take The Icon Thief into strange byways because I knew that the ending, in which Maddy breaks into the installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, would be memorable no matter what I did, and a story like “The Whale God” hinges almost entirely on its killer last line. And while writing my first radio script, for a project that I hope to be able to discuss in more detail soon, I gained confidence from the knowledge that the ending would work. A good punchline is a great thing in itself, but it’s even more valuable as a kind of seed crystal that shapes the preceding material before the reader is even aware of it, so that the ending comes as both surprising and inevitable. Or in the words of David Mamet: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.”

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