Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curious Case of John McCain

I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the other night. It's one of those gorgeous movies that makes you sit through plodding, pro forma scenes every 20 minutes or so. Ah, Hollywood. I'm not sure how I would have approached a project like that. The story sounds like it's best left on a page. Benjamin Button is born an old man, and dies a newborn. Through most of it Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are aged digitally. If you're thinking it's not a good idea to stick two of the most beautiful people on the planet in a mask (digital or no) for a long (very long) movie, you're thinking what I was thinking. But they pulled it off reasonably well.

There's a great deal of bravery even taking on a tale like this. The writer, Eric Roth, is an old hand. He's written everything from The Good Shepherd to Forrest Gump to The Concorde...Airport '79. He writes well, and he writes to industry expectations.

Forrest Gump is a textbook case of what many screenwriters refer to as misbehavior. There's one trait that defines a character throughout a story. It's how we know we're watching that character. It's how we place bets or worry or otherwise engage in what's about to happen. American audiences view a story vicariously through the main character. If that misbehavior isn't clear, they can't see the drama clearly. New writers often look on the misbehavior as the root of all evil in screenwriting. My characters are too complex to be summed up like that! That's why movies are too predictable and safe! It's also why their stories tend to be completely impenetrable. They don't leave a clue for how an audience should approach the story, so the events lack the significance the writer intends.

Benjamin Button is another classic example of misbehavior. Because it follows one man from birth to death, it offers a good way to explain how misbehavior works in a complex, real-life situation. Just about any trait you can think about will play out differently in an adolescent than it will in an old man. Quick to anger. Gullible. Dogmatic. Cowardly. Choose your own. Now you understand misbehavior. And now you understand the charm of Benjamin Button. He never looks his age, but the misbehavior reads as it should for his chronological age. We see a development. We're constantly looking under that clever but inevitably annoying digital mask. When the misbehavior does get murky the story lags.

The story held a strange resonance for me with the tale of John McCain. Campaigns these days are all about establishing narratives. This is not news. So much of our perception of John McCain was taken up with the task of lining up the POW in grainy black and white with the elder statesman of 2008. There are innumerable elements that make John McCain John McCain. And at the base of them is a misbehavior (in the screenwriting sense) that makes him immediately John McCain.

I was fascinated by an article in the New York Times magazine entitled The Making (and Remaking) of McCain It gets to the heart of why the poor guy went down in flames. Quite simply, his campaign made some rookie screenwriting mistakes. They started writing before they'd mapped out the story. They ran up against plot point after plot point that might make reasonable drama in their own stories, but failed to line up with the one the electorate had tuned into the week before. If you liked McCain in 2000, you'd almost inevitably be turned off by the McCain of 2008, when he hired the demons who slew him eight years previous. If you liked the experienced McCain in August, you'd have trouble with the same guy in October. This may be a sign of complexity or lack of focus. I'll let you decide. The article documents some shifts that are fairly clever (and others that, uh, weren't so clever). What they inevitably failed to see was the context that they themselves created. They looked at what wasn't working about the narrative, rather than the narrative itself.

It's worth noting that a campaign that failed to develop a compelling narrative can itself become one. The journalist was able to stand back and find that misbehavior. He found the quest and the obstacles and the rest that would illuminate and develop out a beautiful misbehavior. There's something to be learned from this. It's probably essential to a tragedy that the players can't step back in time to see the potential that their mistakes opens up. We all know that a good setback makes a bigger victory possible. Screenwriters are supposed to make it darkest before they let the dawn in. Campaigns, not so much. Or, well, who knows. Maybe this is what Karl Rove has in mind.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Subtext, Text, and Doubt

Screenwriters are very different from most writers. While your typical novelist is urged to challenge what they know and explore uncharted territory, your average screenwriter is told to hew to the straight and narrow. Baby prose writers thrive on subtext. They get a whiff of its power early on. Writing teachers and girlfriends and open mic audiences only fuel that drive into the ineffable resonance that distinguishes a real character from words on a page.

must survive a much more difficult path if they are to succeed. This path is a minefield of "five easy ways" to build a compelling character, or the ten commandments of plot, or the thirty two dozen things you must never do lest ye be cast into the slush pile for ever more. We're taught to keep our heads down and plow all our creativity into a very narrow range. It's a lot like Catholic school. If your desire to write and learn survives, you're probably better for it.

Subtext doesn't come naturally to screenwriters. My personal suspicion is that it simply falls between the cracks. We learn how to construct a non-heretical plot. We learn that characters need dialogue that moves much faster than real-life dialogue. We learn to construct the elements of character and play them through to the end.

But we tend to get a little lost with something like subtext, which is a function of not just dialogue, but also plot. And not just plot, but character also. Dialogue doesn't show up on the page like a good set up. It doesn't jump out at you like a carefully constructed misbehavior, patiently placed and coaxed from action line to action line. Subtext requires being there.

There where? There, in the story -- and off the page in front of you. It's the opposite of so much right thinking about screenwriting.

I've had more than one student come up to me half way through a semester and ask, fidgeting, what subtext really is. They want a neat little definition to put in their writer's toolbox. Truth is that subtext is like love. You know when it's there.

If you're one of those who thinks he knows, or thinks she should, do yourself a favor and watch Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. There's great subtext throughout, but it truly shines in the scene where Sisters Aloysius and James and discussing the Christmas pageant with Father Flynn.

Try transcribing this dialogue in your head. Can you find the subtext? You certainly know it's there. But it's not on the page.

It's in the audience's mind. They know the plot. They have an expectation. The discussion of the Christmas pageant (and the suspicious carol "Frosty the Snowman") conflicts with the expectation of that meeting. It conflicts with how we expect everyone to talk. And there you have subtext.

Subtext is relying on the strength of your story. It's hard to do that. We're very much like novelists and playwrights and every other kind of writer in one important respect: we're neurotic.

But writing has a strange way of rewarding faith. In a way, the more you rely on your story, the more it reveals itself. The more you rely on an audience, the bigger the bet they'll place on you (and the afternoon they're willing to risk with your work). Give yourself the chance to find that subtext. You'll fidget, looking for the simpler, page-centric answer. But you'll let that go eventuallly.

Twelve Point

A nice screenwriting blog with access to a lot of nice resources and free articles.

Enjoy twelvepoint.com.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Thought for the Day

A poem to remind us of how story is eternal and ancient and new and universal and personal and the greatest gift our little brains and hearts ever gave us:

Two girls discover
The secret of life
in a sudden line
of poetry.

I who don't know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me

(through a person)
they had found it
but not what it was
not even

what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,

the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can't find,

and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that

a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in
other lines

in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,

assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that,
most of all.

Denis Levertov, "The Secret"

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Apocalypse! And the Lambada!

Back in the early 90's I worked as a tour manager for charter groups to the Soviet Union. I remember one trip I worked for a Western Kansas radio personality and his farmer listeners. They wanted to witness the fall of communism firsthand.

Travel to the Soviet Union had been, until then, a very ordered and orderly affair. You got visas from the governments international tourist bureau, Inturist. You stayed at one of several hotels. You got on and off buses. You saw the Kremlin. You saw Swan Lake. You tried to keep tourists away from the prostitutes and vice versa. It was straightforward.

But chaos was descending. Inturist wasn't responding. There was some strange little company no one had ever heard of in its place. They had sent my visa but none of the other 72. Those were in an office in Moscow. This defeats the purpose of visas. We had reservations in a hotel no one had heard of. I was pretty much sure it was a scam.

We were on a one-day layover in Berlin, and the group was headed to Kiev, Ukraine. We were told that Ukraine was now an independent country. Americans don't need a visa. This was new.

We decided I would go to Moscow and try to score the visas and check out what was happening. The other tour manager would take the 72 farmers and the radio personality to Ukraine. I remember landing at the international airport in Moscow, and seeing no one at the counter where foreigners were required to check in. Some half-drunk meathead walked up to me and eventually took me to get the visas. There were no officials in sight. The airport was pure chaos. I asked him about the hotel, and he told me it was "almost finished".

The whole trip was like this. The government, which had provided everything, had basically vanished. Ukraine had declared independence, but no one really believed it yet. The Kansas radio personality droned on about capitalism and this and that. He wanted people dancing in the streets, and pronto. It's hard to dance in the streets when you don't know what money to use, or if your money actually means anything. It's hard to dance in the streets when you don't know what country you live in.

The trip was a seat-of-the-pants affair. We fed 72 tourists very well with a few dollars. We couldn't order tickets to the ballet from the non-existent government bureau. But we could scalp them for lunch money. The plane tickets from Kiev to Moscow never arrived, but we bribed our way onto the plane. The country was coming apart at the seams.

We ended up in Moscow, staying at a brand new hotel in the middle of an endless sea of mud. On the last night this strange little company put together a massive feast with endless vodka for us. We were their first customers. It's hard to express the desperation and elation and just overall weirdness of the time. No one knew what to expect. A young woman I barely knew proposed marriage to me. And that's when they started to play the lambada.

My coworker, Jennifer, looked over at me. She knew what the young woman next to me was saying. We'd both received a few offers in the past week. She pulled me to my feet, and we tore the place up as only two drunk gringos can. We couldn't believe we'd made it to this final day. Each and every day we'd been besieged with absurd and unimaginable changes in a familiar landscape. I looked out the window of this tacky Russian disco at the endless field of mud and realized I was crying. There's a point where you can't feel any more dislocated. There's a point when it really does feel like the end of the world. The lambada still means that to me.

What does this have to do with screenwriting?

How many movies will Hollywood make about the end of the world? Why does Hollywood make so many movies about the end of the world?

The first rule of storytelling is that the subject and main action has to be significant. And you don't get much more significant than apocalypse. It doesn't take a lot of explaining to get across the import. It's easy to tell a story about the end of the world. Throw in some CGI and Keanu Reeves and you've got yourself a movie. No matter that the first rule of storytelling is that the subject and main action must be significant relative to the context. The end of a marriage or a bank heist can mean everything in the same way.

We're suckers for tidal waves and alien ships and megastorms. We feel, on some level, that we deserve this. Or suspect we might deserve it. The tsunami washes over us and we're somehow cleansed. Some spark of humanity is all that's left, and that's enough to save us. We're new again.

But the end of the world isn't so neat and clean. There's a chaos and a dislocation that makes it difficult to tell the tale. There's no three-act structure. It's the absence of that structure. There are tinges of it running through American society right now.

I wonder how we'll tell tales about this period. I've been working on a script for a few months now. I feel the dislocation whenever I sit down to write. Last August was a different time. We've traveled farther than we know.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thought for the Day

"The world of novels, there's corruption and mediocrity, but in the end it's still a republic of letters. But film is a tyranny, and the tyrant is money. The great thing is that, in spite of that, impossibly, some people keep on smuggling out messages of hope from the other side, past the tyrant. I mean, there shouldn't be one good movie made given the way it's structured, and yet there are many good movies made. That seems to me to be implausible and marvelous at the same time"

– Australia's Richard Flanagan

Monday, December 8, 2008


... is one of those words that doesn't look write no matter how you spell it: as one word, two words, or hyphenated.

It's also a blog about writers and how they found their voices. I'm not big on this kind of thing usually. But it's compelling here. Check it out:


Sunday, December 7, 2008

More on Symmetry

I saw Quantum of Solace the other day. Can't say I was terribly excited about it -- it was just the only reasonable choice given time and companionship constraints. But there was something there.

The script is by Paul Haggis, who wrote Million Dollar Baby, Crash, and Casino Royale among many others.

Screenplays, for better or worse, run like clockwork. It might sound like a paradox at first: you have to create an audience expectation before you can exceed it. You have to mark your starting point before you can mark distance away from it. This is why symmetry is important in a script. This is why you'll usually find symmetry built into a story even when you don't consciously experience it. After you hit a midpoint, you start finding scenes and moments that bookend what you've experienced so far. As the mirror effect brings the audience back to the beginning of the story, the dramatic distance increases and the audience has a good subconscious gauge of where they are in the story -- allowing them to settle in for the long haul.

Haggis is routinely adored and reviled for his straightforward approach to this. He pulls no punches. He isn't afraid to be obvious or even manipulative. For some, this means his stories are powerful. Others love to accuse him of false depth. (Many of these accusers have a tad bit of jealousy regarding Mr. Haggis' incredible success.)

Now, a Bond film is not really about emotional depth. Generally you'll get farther with assorted car chases and a shirtless Daniel Craig than 007 walking alone on a beach, cursing seagulls for their ability to fly. The depth is secondary, but it does play a vital role. It allows you to sit down and watch 90 minutes of improbable and impossible developments without looking up and wondering whether the plants need watering.

It takes a really good movie for me to put aside my structure-head and simply enjoy a film. Quantum of Solace is not one of those really good movies. I marveled at how carefully it was put together -- watching the clockwork spin around. What struck me is that the movie did in fact shoot for a bit more than I was expecting.

I've talked about how knowing the climax of your script can usually lead you to the inciting event, or vice versa. You look for what's the same, and what's different. You want the two scenes to resonate, to set each other up. But Haggis went a bit beyond this. The climax doesn't have much to do with the inciting event. Instead, it resonates with the backstory of Monica, the Bond girl. It resonates with a story she tells us at the low point. It allows us to go a little bit deeper with her, and therefore with Bond as he helps her and frees her from her demons. There's something there that matters, if only for a while.

The resolution actually resonates with Casino Royale (which I never saw). He solves the problem of his earlier betrayal, and the fact that he actually fell in love with someone who's now gone. There's an attempt to build something here -- to make Bond not just a dashing fellow with a troublesome libido and a penchant for throwing people off buildings. He changes. He undergoes growth. And he grows from story to story. I think Ian Fleming was aiming for something like this. It's not exactly The Lives of Others, but it does toss a bone to old romantics like myself.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ask the Dust and Dating Tips

My creative writing class is drawing toward the end of the semester. We hit that awful end-of-the-semester question last Tuesday: How do you make this work in the real world? After 12 weeks of getting them to follow their own lead, dig for their own inspiration, and express their innermost freak outs and tender moments, I turn around and dare to bring up the fact that they'll be writing for other people if they stick to this.

Writing for other people sounds like a drag at first. In fact, it can be a drag. Not every idea is a winner, but you have to pursue it faithfully. You have to find someone else's voice, and then proceed from there.

Now, every week I expose these unsuspecting teens to literature that they probably would not otherwise see. There's a value to pushing them a little out of their comfort zone. William S. Burroughs, it turns out, was a lot out of their comfort zone. Still valuable, if slightly traumatizing.

Last class we read an excerpt from Ask the Dust by John Fante. In chapter 12, Arturo Bandini, a self-proclaimed mix of Casanova and Rimbaud living on the cheap side of Downtown LA in the fifties, slithers his way through the bedroom of an aging, self-hating bachelorette in an attempt to build himself back up for another shot at the woman he's stalking. Then he sits on the beach when an earthquake strikes -- which he's convinced is the earth buckling under the weight of his guilt. Arturo's a real prize.

So, I had them imagine they came upon a writing job on Craig's List or guru.com -- posting to Arturo Bandini's dating tips blog. In other words -- a truly dreadful way to make a living.

Except, well, it's not so bad if you approach Arturo Bandini, employer, with the same respect you would any character. There's a way of thinking yourself into another voice. It takes practice. But it frees you up. There are how many different voices in your script? How many employers to write for? Now you've got it.

In three hours we had several months' worth of dating tips, all written fairly convincingly in the style of Arturo Bandini. Mr. Bandini took on a life of his own -- a kind of weird feedback loop between the original text and the different students' take on him. After weeks of fiddling around with character -- theoretical approaches, free-writes, structural techniques, backstory-driven, dialogue-driven, on and on -- I think I hit on something valuable just when I expected it least.