Monday, September 29, 2008

Foot-Foot and Butt-Butt

I was exercising my god-given right as a writer to eavesdrop the other day when I stumbled upon a conversation. It made me think of a quote from Mark Twain:

"The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it."

I actually remembered the quote as its converse: that a grave tale is best told with humor. That's just me.

As I sipped my coffee, a laid back Californian-style hipster chatted with his very east coast fiancee. His dog, Foot-Foot, had eaten the strap off her handbag. It was a disaster. Foot-Foot was a terror, and clearly jealous of the hold the fiancee had on her master. The young man was of the no-problem-without-a-solution type. They spend Saturday finding a new handbag, make an adventure of it. She'd be happy. I think he was stoned.

She was not convinced. There seemed to be a bigger problem in general: dogs. She would brook no opposition, least of all from canines. Failure to prosecute Foot-Foot for his crime was a serious issue. Just as serious: the very name of the young man's second dog: Butt-Butt.

Now, these are great dog names, if you ask me. You can see Foot-Foot, Butt-Butt, and the young man having a great time, making a mess of the kitchen, chasing slobber-covered tennis balls, barking at passing fire engines. It all makes sense.

But she was putting her foot down. She doesn't like slobber-covered tennis balls, or scratches on the door, or midnight pee runs. The man tried to lighten the moment by joking that he planned to get a third dog and call it Nut-Nut.

Like I said, I think he was stoned.

Was she expected to call out to Nut-Nut in public? What about when her parents came to visit? You sensed that Nut-Nut would have complete power to chew up any accessory. She wasn't about to shout Nut-Nut out loud. It was completely unacceptable.

Nut-Nut quickly rose up, like a scowling head of Putin in the airspace over Alaska. The issue of Nut-Nut became, you sensed, the main conflict that would either break this relationship, or test it for many years to come. The young man had never realized just how serious this was. It was incomprehensible to him. But it was becoming very clear now. The plot was moving forward. We'd learned more about the characters. More importantly, the characters were learning more about each other.

Many new writers of drama do their best to shove as much drama as possible into a dramatic scene. It's as if the presence of a joke (or, god forbid, a humorous premise) will shake the scene's gravitas to its core. Scripts move from unrelenting conflict to unrelenting conflict... that's what the screenwriting books tell you to do, right? Never let up? It can very quickly become unrelentingly monotonous.

You'll find higher highs to contrast with your lower lows if you allow your audience to breathe, to laugh, to enter the situation. Tell a story, enjoy yourself, and find what sounds true.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Thought for the Day

"Character gives us qualities, but it is in actions -- what we do -- that we are happy or the reverse. All human happiness and misery take the form of action."


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Misbehavior and Desire

There's a basic structure to almost every movie you've ever seen. It doesn't matter if the movie you're watching is Killer Klowns from Outer Space or 3:10 to Yuma or Kung Fu Panda. It doesn't actually matter if it's The Godfather or a commercial for laundry detergent. There's a common structure there. It's present in 'serious' indie stuff and Disney films (and their spoofs).

Why is the structure there? Because people expect it. It's a chicken and egg thing. It's vaguely disturbing how prevalent the three-act structure is. If I were in a better mood, I'd find it endlessly fascinating just how productive this structure is. I'd wonder if humans weren't hard-wired for this story structure. I'd go on and on about how formulaic films do everything they can to fit into the structure, while more challenging films merely use the structure to help create new and better story. But it's been a long week, so it's just vaguely disturbing right now.

What is this structure, exactly? You can find a description of it in Aristotle's Poetics. You can find reams of paper written on the hero's journey, the writer's journey, George Lucas' journey. Syd Field will bisect the middle act, and make three acts into four. Individuals throughout history have produced incredibly insightful and careful analyses of the basic story structure that has fueled drama and literature for as long as we've existed.

If you're not up for a big research project right now, let me sum it up for you. Your hero walks carefree and/or miserable through the equilibrium of his life until wham -- something throws everything out of balance. The hero reacts indignantly -- as any of us would. But things get worse -- he can't get away from the plot. Just has to power through. Things start looking up -- our guy even learns a bit about himself -- but it lasts just long enough to find a bigger problem. "Hey -- here's something I didn't know I could do!" he thinks. And of course, he can't actually do it. It's all going to hell now. The train's riding down the tracks, the alien forces are massing overhead, or you find yourself facing a debate in front of 100 million people right after humiliating yourself with a transparent political stunt. But lo and behold, you learn how to escape what got you into trouble in the first place. You overcome it. You gain knowledge. You gain love. You gain That Which Means Most to You. Or, in some dreadful cases, you don't.

How does this all fit together? Well, the character is usually constructed from two main elements: the goal of the story and the inability to reach that goal. That inability is usually neatly summarized as a flaw or misbehavior. Even in fairly complex characters there's one main defining trait because it helps the audience recognize the character.

Now why on earth would that appeal to human beings? Like it or not, we're all tied up with our own misbehaviors and desires. We're tied up in our own cycles. We usually are responsible for these cycles because of some behavior we can't get past. We drink too much. We surf the web too much. We avoid conflict, or race toward it. We're bullies, or we're wimps. We've got a basic nature, and that means the stories we experience tend to repeat themselves. Every Tuesday afternoon I teach for six hours. Every Tuesday morning about 10 AM I'm frantic with worry about what I forgot to do. Every Tuesday at 10:15 I remember it's eating and bathing that I've forgotten. At 10:45 I'm running out the door to catch the train. It doesn't matter how much I plan. I'm bound to do it.

Think about it.

There's something hugely cathartic about people escaping their cycles. Watching others do it is powerful. It's rare in real life. But it's a gorgeous thing when it does. Maybe that's all movies are really about.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Prodigal Sons

A few years ago I met Kim Reed at a screenwriters' conference. She was working on a story about three siblings: a high school football star and class president who underwent a sex change, a gay man, and an adopted brother who found out he was the son of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Naturally, I assumed this was a rather far-fetched feature.

It's not. Prodigal Sons is a documentary about the true story of Kim's family, and it's bursting onto the indie documentary scene after an incredibly successful debut at the Telluride Film Festival.

Here's what Variety had to say. If you get a chance, check it out.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Getting Unreasonable with 'em

I was rooting around this morning for pithy online resources for my Creative Writing students. This is the kind of activity which engenders far more ambivalence in me than you might expect. I'm not down with pithy advice to writers. I'm firmly of a mind that writing is more or less like teaching a rider to become the horse. You have to learn to to let the animal take the reins. But that's much too frightening a reality to teach new writers, and so I spent the morning looking for comforting baby steps that'll keep them writing long enough to find out the dirty bits themselves. And I stumbled upon this in an article entitled Five Tips to Avoiding Total Disaster as a Novelist:

Tip #5. Ignore all reasonable sounding advice like “write about what you know,” “read as much as you can,” or “try to write every day.” If you need to hear this advice you are in the wrong game. But more importantly, reasonableness won’t get the job done. One day in an ice-stricken back alley in Boston I saw a fat little Irishman beat the daylights out of four larger, stronger assailants. When it was over, and it was over astonishingly quickly, he brushed himself off and said simply, “I had to get unreasonable with ‘em.” Unless you are willing to face the unreasonable in yourself -- unless you are willing to entertain some strange notions (and deal with them when they stick around) -- unless you are willing to get lost, confused and even terrified -- then what you’re doing won’t have any meaning. The famous device of conflict upon which all stories are supposed to hinge starts within the writer. You are all the characters in your dreams and so too with a novel. You can’t put your creations into jeopardy or into embarrassing or miraculous situations without going there yourself, and that is not a sensible ambition for a grown person to have. As a writer who has made more mistakes than most, my goal above all else is to be very, very unreasonable.

I'm less than convinced about some of his other tips. As he says, spending years collecting odd material and playing with weird writing styles is absolutely a waste of time. He's entirely correct. I just wish it wasn't entirely necessary to the development of a writing style. I nevertheless hold author Kris Saknussemm in a high regard. You can find out more about his novel Zanesville here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show

Mr. Gary is playing in the ATA Film and Video Festival Friday, October 3. If you're in San Francisco, check it out! It's in a pretty decent line up of underground and indie films. Well worth a day away from the multiplex, if I do say so myself.

Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show is the story of Flora, an elderly shut in who calls in to a surreal Dr. Phil-like radio personality and ends up controlling the universe. It's shot in a set designed by Megan Wilson.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Immediate and Real, like a Dream

Writing is one of those things nobody really understands. We can build devices that shoot our thoughts and words off across great distances. But we can't really understand how we form those thoughts, or how they're rebuilt in the mind of the listener. We're in the middle of some information age -- be it evolution, revolution or death spiral -- and somehow we still dawdle around wondering if words came first or images or meaning. Sooner or later you're right back praying to the muses, just like the Greeks a couple millenia ago.

Things get no easier when you try to build a life around writing. You think you get your head around it, then it humbles you again. You dare to 'teach' it -- and wham, there's always something more. You foolishly rush into the profession of writing, and there you are with your toolbox full of plot and character and elements of drama, standing dumbfounded by the monster in front of you. Writing is like love. It pays to recognize ahead of time that you'll be regularly dumbfounded.

I've settled on the comfortingly obtuse idea that our brains are basically quantum machines. We bring things into being by observing them, by making choices about them, by pointing our intention at them. It explains to me why a character that I've constructed roughly out of a couple basic elements can just start chattering back at me one day. There's a real act of creation here. It doesn't matter that the character isn't standing there in front of you. Apparently we can't directly experience seven of the ten major dimensions anyway. What's another protagonist or two?

There's a lot of research implying that as far as the brain is concerned, dreams and memory are pretty much the same as actual experience. "Show, don't tell" indeed.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Play/Work/Screenplay/Scene Work

I'm of the belief that you're not truly a writer until you've been dumped for shouting "I'm working!" at a loved one through a door as you stare at an empty page one time too many. Writing is work.

I won't bore you with the old chestnut that writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, because you've heard it before. But it is true.

I know that writing is several kinds of work. From planning it out to developing characters to revising and editing to ruthless self-examination to god-knows-what the next script will demand of me. Few jobs require as many different skills as writing does. And I'm not even counting the business end here.

Writing is work. Writing wears you out. Writing builds muscles. Writing is The Man. Some days you need a few beers and burgers just to feel normal again afterward. I've done every imaginable job from Fedex courier to cab driver to teacher to manager to waiter at snotty, understaffed restaurants. Writing is the hardest.

So don't look at me funny when I tell you that writing is play.

Writing is play. Writing has to be play. To wit:

You can plan a screenplay to within an inch of its life. I mean this. While you must plan out your script if you hope to get anywhere, you can also kill a script by overplanning it. Where's the balance?

I know I've hit the limit on planning when I stop finding toys to play with. I plan to increase my enjoyment. I plan to find scenes I want to write and characters that will surprise me. I plan to take a trip that I want to take. I plan ahead. I plan to be surprised. I plan to be happy.

I used to plan for careful symmetry. I used to plan for Syd Field. I used to plan for meaning, for significance, for something literary.

Now I plan to tell stories. In a shockingly straightforward kind of way, that's all most storytellers really want to do.

Last night I was watching The Seventh Seal. For those of you not familiar with Ingmar Bergman's opus, it's the story of a crusader's return to a Sweden ravaged by the Black Death. I didn't actually choose to watch it. The boyfriend wanted to, and it seemed like a reasonable alternative to the unbearable pathos that Brooke Knows Best inevitably brings on.

What caught me up was the scene where the traveling band of actors is singing this very silly song about sheep laying eggs and hens meowing while Death goes for a walk on the beach. Off behind the stage, the actor who plays Death is busy seducing an entirely willing milkmaid. And I realized just how much fun Bergman -- yes, Bergman -- must have gotten from putting this all together. The Seventh Seal stopped being something you're supposed to watch. Something very heavy became very light.

How do you apply something like this to the work you've got in front of you?

I was coaching a student on building climaxes before the all-too-numerous act breaks in a Movie of the Week script the other day. It's one of those things that seems terribly complex until you get the hang of it. (Then it's a bit too boring/restrictive for words). And I remember back -- way, way back -- to when I was a grad student, and a friend visited me from the Soviet Union. He'd never seen a commercial in his life.

We were watching a movie of the week. He didn't speak English, and I was providing a kind of running translation. Just as we reached the first act break, the movie of course went to commercial. What? "What the $%^$?! Who is this woman on the TV? And why is she having an orgasm folding her laundry?!" How could anyone do something so mean-spirited, so tricky, so evil as to build the tension then try to sell you detergent?

I still don't have a good answer to those questions. But I don't think I could write an MOW without thinking of him.