Sunday, October 30, 2005

Writing and Screenwriting

Years ago, every insurance agent and cop and school teacher was writing a novel. It was the cool thing to do, the culturally approved aspiration. Not any more. Now they're writing screenplays.There are several reasons for that. Screenplays promise the quick score (but then so do powerball and starting your own drug cartel); they have an aura of glamour. But mostly it's because they're easier. Sorry, I hate to say it. I feel like I'm blowing Hollywood's number one trade secret. Screenwriters love to talk about how hard it is, and everyone from Robert McKee to Syd Field have made fortunes by mapping this supposed wilderness of plot points and third act reversals. Most screenplays are bad and most would-be screen-writers can't write. But that doesn't make the form intrinsically difficult. The only really hard parts are common to all story-telling: getting the idea, and making it work. Inventing plots is hard -- that's why so many people don't bother, or act like they're 'above' such vulgarities. Building a plot that makes sense is even more difficult, and incoherent plotting has been institutionalized by some of our best writers and directors, for decades.

But that's the subject for another post.

So,let's say you've cooked up a good idea, a high concept smoker, and worked out all the beats, motivations, twists and turns. Good for you, but novelists and playwights do that stuff, too. It's the basic minimum requirement of the job, buddy. From then on,life gets cushy for screenwriters because,as a screenwriter, not to put too fine a point on it, EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING YOUR WORK FOR YOU. What about dialogue?, you might ask. Fair enough, but let's face it, dialogue is either easy and natural or just plain impossible for most writers. There's not much territory between perfect pitch and tone deaf, clever and stilted. Most screenwriters can spin out ten pages of dialogue before their first latte in the morning. Cutting it back is the tricky part.

But other people do that for you, too.

And every other part of the job is a free ride for the screenwriter. Atmosphere? The cinematographer and the composer handle that stuff. Creating the physical world in which the story takes place? The director, the production designer, the location manager, the CGI teams have that corner hammered down. Chemistry between the characters? It's Brangelina for chrissake. Or Bogey and Bacall, or Tracy and Hepburn. It's handled. Sex? That's the director's lookout. Screenwriters don't even have to try. As Shane Black said among his memorable stage directions in his Last Boy Scout script, "Hey, my mother reads this stuff. Actually I probably lost Mom in the hot tub blow job scene."

But the most crucial aspect of writing fiction scarcely appears in the screenwriter's life. The only faint hints are the stage directions CUT TO and DISSOLVE TO.

I'm talking aboiut transitions.

There's a reason why Virginia Woolf, when someone asked her how her writing day had gone, answered, "It was great. I got them off the couch, through the french doors and onto the veranda." That's the tough part, making those physical transitions work. Even tougher are the mental tranisitions... or as they say in the movies: 'actor's moments'. Describing the intricate mental process by which a character figures out something important,or changes his mind, or makes a decision is the most technically demanding task a writer is ever faced with. If you make a single mistake, if a comma is out of place, if you say too much or too little, or lapse into cliche, rush or dawdle, over-play or understate, then you break the dream, and the reader becomes aware of you and your clumsy efforts, and the whole delicate machine comes to a grinding halt.

In fact, writing a book is just one transition after another, making things flow visually and physically, balancing action and thought and description in every paragraph. Compared to a screenwriter, it's like juggling a chain saw, a bowling pin and an apple (while eating the apple) ... versus, some guy lobbing a ball from hand to hand. "Look," he might remark, "Polish juggling." Pretty good line, slotted in there before the cut away. That's all a screenwriter needs.

Here's the last secret: this peripheral role in story telling is the real reason screenwriters are so miserable. Yes, they're at the bottom of the pecking order in Hollywood. Yes they get paid worse than everyone else above the line. But their status is so low because they don't have enough to do. And they don't have enough fun. Making a narrative move all by yourself, keeping the action floating aove the shallow spots, tacking through the perfect channels, is a challenge, yeah, it's tiring and frustrating. But it's also a gas. And screenwriters never feel it. Moving from the young hero to the about-to-be-killed mafioso whose death will kick the story into gear, all the screenwriter can do is say "CUT TO". The writer can do it any way he wants ... this way, for instance: "Eighty blocks downtown, Alfredo Blasi was thoroughly enjoying rhe last two hours of his life." You create momentum with a line like that. you jazz things up and put a spin on them. And you can do it as much as you want. You can play. Screenwriters can only watch the game from the outside, at that first preview (if they're invited).

No wonder they gripe all the time. But it's an easy complaint to fix. Put that half-finished script aside, and try your hand at a novel -- or even a short story. Write a first sentence that lives and keep the action alive, hot and slippery, jumping in your hand, word by word until the end.

Try real writing. You may never go back.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Full Disclosure

Here's all you need to know about me (unless you're planning to blackmail me for something juicy and you'll have to work a little harder if you want to do that) -- would-be novelist, wannabe screenwriter, occasional poet (though I hate occasional poems) living on Nantucket (aside from Juno, Alaska and possibly Guam, the farthest point in America or its protectorates from Los Angeles), painting houses for a living. Often writing and painting at the same time, much to the annoyance of my customers. Officially too old to make it in film or TV, and finally beyond the last meaningful demographic. I also digress constantly. Like now: I saw a poster for some comedy today, starring one of those C-list Saturday Night Live punks, and all I could think about was the 20 year old, smart-ass illiterate film geek writers who pitched it to the 20 year old, smart ass illiterate film geek studio executives. And I'm just not interested. The fly on the wall in that room wouldn't be interested. (though the fly on the wall when they were pitching the Fly remake sequel thought it was a pretty cool idea; but then again my pug loves Men in Black). Anyway, I felt bad when I turned fifty, because I was finally out of the 34-49 age group. After that, they couldn't care less about you, unless they're selling laxative and Depends under garments (the same company probably makes both products). But I don't care now. I don't want their new pair of sneakers with the bubbles (I like my old sneakers with the holes). I have no interest in turbo charged pick-up trucks (I rarely drive up vertical dirt hills in the desert), or lemon coke. If I want lemon coke I'll squeeze some lemon into my coke, old school style. They can't bullshit me and they know it, so they've finally stopped trying. I take it as a compliment. This is a good demographic -- no suckers allowed.

Enough of that. I read books the way I always imagined James Beard would eat a five pound lobster (though I don't wear a bib); I watch movies like a rat in a Skinner box having my pleasure centers jolted. I'm absurdly opinionated (I've been arguing with son for two months about whether hummus is a food or a condiment. Food, obviously!) Feel free to argue with me unless you actually believe that the staple dish from Dubai to Detroit is just a sauce. In which case you probably think ketchup is a vegetable. No, that was Ronald Reagan. And if you are Ronald Reagan, keep your thoughts to yourself. You're dead, dude. Even if most of your speechwriters are still alive, working for your heirs and assigns, and it's looking a lot like late afternoon in America. There are a thousand points of light, Peggy, and this is one of them. Deal with it.

So this is a Bush-hating-screenwriting (member WGAW)- novel scribbling-agent bashing-movie reviewing, house painting tall tales-telling (What to do when you spill half a gallon of paint onto a wall of anqtiue bricks? How to force a customer to pay that last payment without lawyers or blunt weapons? )Blog. Parenting tips? Light verse? Hollywood war stories? (Okay, these anecdotes are from well behind the front lines, but those bombs can be pretty loud, even back where I'm stationed. Not to mention land mines. And the food sucks) It's all here. I'd say "And more!" because people always do. But there isn't any more. That's it. See you next time.