Thursday, November 29, 2007

Coens, Pekinah, & The Western


Okay, I have to get all of this Coen brothers stuff out of my system.

First, I recently stumbled across a Creative Screenwriting
podcast interview with the Coen brothers conducted by Jeff Goldsmith. A few interesting things were said. The brothers don’t do outlines, they don’t do research (“We’re not big on that. We’re from the make-it-up school.”), nor do they ever have, with the exception of adaptations and remakes, a clue as to how their stories will end. In fact, one of the brothers said, “If the author doesn’t know, the audience couldn’t possibly know.” Goldsmith also asked them if they ever do character passes through the script to ensure that each character has a unique voice. One of them replied, “Oh no, no. We don’t do that. Whatever that would be. What a strange concept.”

Hehehe

Yup, that’s everything you’d expect from the Coens. But what are newbies to think about such things? Are they to emulate the Coens and avoid research and outlines? No. Well, not yet. Consider the fact that these guys were born in the mid-50’s, they've studied the craft of filmmaking almost all their lives, and now they’re at a level of knowledge and craftsmanship, particularly the genres within which they are working and bending, that they don’t have to rely on the tools many of us turn to for every script we write. And despite the fact that they SAY they don’t do research, they are well-read. It wasn’t until they were halfway through O, Brother Where Art Thou? that they realized they were actually writing Homer’s Odyssey. They DID the research. They just didn’t REALIZE they did it.


With respect to outlines, I recall Neil Simon saying
in his autobiography that he avoided outlines like the plague. He wanted to experience each play like the audience and not know how the story will end. Well, he frequently – dare I say, regularly – got himself into third act troubles where he wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t figure out the ending. The Coens likewise fell into the same trap with Miller’s Crossing. They lost themselves in the plot and had to put it aside. They wrote and filmed Barton Fink, returned to Miller’s Crossing with a clear head, and the rest is history. I’m not going to say it’s wrong. Personally, I think it’s better to figure out the story first in an outline and know how your story will end before you start writing the script so that it’s just a matter of figuring out the best way to get to the big ending and ensuring that every plot point and arc is setup properly so that the ending satisfies and the audience will walk out happy.

And consider this – every day, the brothers meet in an office and talk through each and every scene before they write it. The talk through all of the good and bad ideas, settle on something they like, and then put it to paper. They put more thought into each scene than some aspiring writers put into entire scripts.

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On a somewhat concurrent note, I’d like to share these links.

Here’s the
No Country For Old Men screenplay.

Jim Emerson has a number of great articles about
No Country For Old Men that are really worth your time. Consider his One Shot: They Wrote That piece. He talks about a moment in the film that he thought was a “privileged moment,” but it was in fact, a shot that was written in the screenplay. He writes, “But I just wanted to point this out, and that they wanted to be certain it was not just in the film, but even in the screenplay (which in other respects is somewhat different than the film itself). Writers often do that kind of thing, and the credit (or blame) for a shot or sequence will usually be attributed to the director, even if it was right there in the script. But it is the director who bears responsibility for realizing those images, and sequencing them, and presenting them so that they do what they need to do. The Coens, being their own writers, directors, producers and editors, pretty much understand what they're looking for. And they recognize what they've got when a miracle drops in their lap: the birds, and shadows of birds, over the highway in "Blood Simple"; the pelican plopping into the ocean at the end of "Barton Fink").”

I enjoyed
Michael Sragow’s article in which he compared No Country For Old Men with Sam Peckinah films. “In the ‘Masculine Principle’ section of his landmark book ‘Peckinpah: The Western Films,’ Paul Seydor linked Mailer and Peckinpah as artists defined by their pursuit of extreme action, their rebellion against official culture and bureaucratized society, and their recognition that the quest for authentic manhood is absolute and never-ending. Their paradoxical linkage of fragility with appetite and strength -- so different from the cheap certainty of macho camp -- drove Peckinpah to create the most dynamic of all visual lexicons and Mailer to master a dazzling variety of rhetoric in both intimate and epic modes. They found their real security only when they fully practiced their art. That's when their genius cast a spell over other artists who would rarely share their styles or biases.”

Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a spectacular piece about this film in his
Point Blank article. Matt has a tremendous ability to analyze films, which I really admire. Here’s a taste: “‘What you got ain't nothing new,’ a retired lawman says in No Country For Old Men, counseling a colleague who's so traumatized by a recent mass murder case that he's thinking of quitting his job. That's hard truth, and the fact that the sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), is more introspective than some of his colleagues doesn't make it go down any easier. Bell's astonishment at the violence unleashed by his quarry, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) -- an assassin tailing a Vietnam vet (Josh Brolin) who filched a briefcase full of drug money -- is so deep that it spurs Bell to reconsider his life, his job, the nature of morality, the mind of God, the shifting cultural character of the border country he calls home, and the profound ways in which the United States changed between World War II and the Reagan era. Bell is one of many characters forced by Chigurh's rampage to consider his place in the universe: who he really is; what he stands for; whether he believes what he believes and behaves as he does by choice, predisposition or predestination; whether evil exists and whether God, if there is one, cares one way or the other.”

And finally, A.O. Scott wrote a
sweeping historical overview of the entire western genre. I thought it was great. “Looking back at those movies today, however, you notice that the rumors of their naïveté were greatly exaggerated. It has become fashionable to locate political and sexual subtexts beneath their plain-spoken surfaces, but the subtexts were there from the start. And so was an ideological framework far more supple and complex than a simple celebration of conquest and domination or of rugged, square-jawed manhood. The archetypal western hero is a complicated figure, and the world he inhabits is a place of flux and contradiction. At the end, the stranger rides off into the wilderness, since the civilization he has helped to save holds no permanent place for him. His departure is also a promise of return, both for the star who plays him — John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Clint Eastwood — and, more profoundly, for the archetype he embodies, an archetype much older than the movies. This solitary, self-sufficient, often morally ambiguous figure — a man of violence with a shadowy background and a haunted look in his eyes — can trace his literary parentage back to Leatherstocking, the peripatetic hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels of 18th-century frontier adventure.”

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As a bonus, here are some clips from No Country For Old Men.

I just love the dialogue.















So glad I got all of that out of my system. I feel better now.

-MM

23 comments:

Sam Norton said...

Following up on the creative screenwriting podcast: Stephen Gaghan does an hour and a half episode that's very good too.

Mystery Man said...

Really? I'll definitely check that out.

-MM

Jim Endecott said...

I really enjoyed the movie. Wasn't a big fan of the ending but I delt with it.

Regarding the podcast. I was unimpressed with the brothers. It might just be me, but I though they acted very aloof and, at times, put out by having to deal Jeff. Every answer seemd to come with a chuckle and the attitude that these questions were beneath them.

I like their films, the interview left a bad taste in my mouth. They should probably just stay behind the camera.

Worst podcast I've listened to. My apologies to Jeff.

-Jim

Mystery Man said...

Well, I wasn't crazy about the way Jeff handled the interview. He fawned over them a bit too gleefully, like an ecstatic fanboy, which can put the interviewee into an awkward position where they can come across as talking down to the interviewer. The interviewer has to command a little respect if they're going to get some substantive answers about the craft, but all in all, I'm sure you're right. They probably thought it was beneath them.

I've been wanting to blog about the ending, but I guess I'll save it for later. A lot of people hate the ending, and it's worth discussing. But later.

-MM

Matt said...

I think it's a mistake to take the Coens at face value. I think they very deliberately create a laid-back, stoner-esque, "Whatever, we're just making movies vibe" that belies all the hard word that goes into their films. Anyone who's deeply studied the Odyssey and then seen O, Brother knows that the two stories parallel in too deep and significant a way for it to be an "accidental" adaptation.

Jim Endecott said...

I see your point MM.

The silver lining about this ending was there was a lot of chatter going on after the movie, even into the parking lot, which I have not experienced in a long time.

I will be interested to hear what you thought.

-Jim

Mim said...

Somebody recently posted a link to this article on TS and a bunch of people immediately jumped on to confirm, once again, that outlines and structure are for the birds.

If nobody has done it by the end of the day, I'm going home tonight and cutting and pasting the relevant bits of this article into that thread.

Thanks again, MM, for setting us straight.

Laura Deerfield said...

Just saw the movie on Monday.

Let's just say the mid-day mall theater audience here in Dallas didn't get it.

"That was like spending an afternoon with my dad... and I *paid* for that" and "I blame Red. He was reading the book." were the comments I heard on the way out. There was a lot of cringing at the violence, and uneasy moving in the seats during the dialogue.

I, however, LOVED it. It was full of poetry - both in dialogue and images.

Joshua said...

I haven't seen it yet, but first chance I get, I will, the new baby takes precedence.

King also likes to get himself into a corner and they write himself out of it (King as in Stephen) and I think it's a real viable way to work . . . a couple of my own favorite screenplays were written that way -

Of course, you hit on the problem with it . . . it takes longer than six to eight weeks - my script THE LIVING AND THE DEAD (which I haven't shown you) it took me a year to find the ending . . . but once I found it, it was the right one.

I love MILLERS CROSSING.

So it might be a great method for a spec, one you really want to surprise people with . . . but if you're under the gun and wanting something, it might be better to outline.

But sometimes you don't know how they're gonna get out of it until they do, and that's a wonderful thing to discover as a writer.

For what's it's worth, I don't really do character passes either . . . but that could be because I begin with them first, anyway . . . so I don't need to for my methodology.

Christian M. Howell said...

Great job. They do have some crisp dialogue. The direction is excellent as well, with great performances all around.
This maybe the first movie I've seen in a while. Yeah, I want to make money at this but I have a very "time-consuming" day job.

I didn't notice any attitude from them in the podcast. I thought it was pretty good.

bob said...

I've got 3 screenplays that are 65% done that I'll never be able to finish because I didn't have a good ending before I started (or an outline) I've been way more productive as a writer and my scripts have been much stronger since I"ve started outlining.

I suppose there's more than one way to skin that cat blake snyder told you to save, but for me it's outlines all the way. It gives me a creative freedom in my scenes that I find refreshing. Here's what outlining does for me:

I can plan visual imagery and themes that are coherent.

I can create complex characters who's actions and dialogue are consistent with their nature.

It allows me to set up and payoff subplots and plot points more consistently and with a sound sense of internal logic.

I can write dialogue that is richer and with more subtext because I'm not using it strictly to move the story forward.

I don't waste as many scenes straying away from my theme and my central story.

If you don't want to do outlines or think about what your characters are all about, be my guest. But for me, I don't have the brainpower or creative brilliance to have the stuff just pop into my head like that.

bob said...

I've got 3 screenplays that are 65% done that I'll never be able to finish because I didn't have a good ending before I started (or an outline) I've been way more productive as a writer and my scripts have been much stronger since I"ve started outlining.

I suppose there's more than one way to skin that cat blake snyder told you to save, but for me it's outlines all the way. It gives me a creative freedom in my scenes that I find refreshing. Here's what outlining does for me:

I can plan visual imagery and themes that are coherent.

I can create complex characters who's actions and dialogue are consistent with their nature.

It allows me to set up and payoff subplots and plot points more consistently and with a sound sense of internal logic.

I can write dialogue that is richer and with more subtext because I'm not using it strictly to move the story forward.

I don't waste as many scenes straying away from my theme and my central story.

If you don't want to do outlines or think about what your characters are all about, be my guest. But for me, I don't have the brainpower or creative brilliance to have the stuff just pop into my head like that.

Mim said...

Bob was so adamant he posted twice.

Joshua and Bob, I hope I see these comments on that thread when I check in tonight.

bob said...

The post so nice, I posted twice! Actually, I'm an idiot and don't know what the hell I'm doing on a computer.

Unk said...

My version of the script is a tad different from the one you posted but damn -- it does read pretty well even though it's missing a lot of basic formatting junk.

Which is why I'm responding... When you can work like the Coens obviously work i.e., live, breathe, dream, and eat the movie every day for say a couple of years, all the outlining and research is done cerebrally.

Josh makes an outstanding point... i.e., that when you're staring at a deadline, an outline could be the way to go but no deadline?

Bob also makes an interesting point about those screenplays that are 65% completed that may never get completed... Many many newbies make the same mistake NOT because they are aloof to outlining but because they are so passionate about the story they want to see get made into a film that they just want to GET TO WORK! They tend to try and skip ahead and end up with an unfinished project simply because the research, the structure, and the outline were never realized.

Of course if we had someone to keep US on our toes every day like the Coens obviously do (as well as several other of their prodco) we might be able to work in a similar manner. I know that when I've worked on a spec for over a year pretty much every day, I get to the point where I no longer need to go through notes and outlines anymore because all that information has been tattooed into my brain.

Good stuff!

Unk

David Alan said...

I know this movie had a limited release...but, why didn’t it do better? I mean, the movie only brought in 18,529,561 domestically. I just don’t get it. Was it word of mouth about the ending? Was it the trailer’s fault? Or did it just not look interesting?

Anyway, I would really love to know how much they made the movie for. I think they lost money on this flick...but I could be wrong...and that certainly wouldn’t be a first.

Mim said...

"...it does read pretty well even though it's missing a lot of basic formatting junk."

I haven't seen this script, Unk, but I did get to read Miller's Crossing.

Almost 2 years ago somebody (can't remember who and the account obviously got deleted) posted Miller's Crossing under a different name and changed the main character from Tom to Ray with the Find/Replace command. All the members who reviewed it, including me, recognized that it was a professional script. I hadn't seen Miller's Crossing, so I didn't know which movie it was.

When I found out it was a Coen Brothers movie, I was intrigued. So that's what a script by two of the greatest minds in Hollywood looks like.

Funny bit of trivia. The person who posted it didn't re-read it after doing the Find/Replace thing and all the tommy-guns in the script got turned into ray-guns.

Matt said...

David, the movie's performing terrifically. It started off with a small number of screens, and expanded last week to something like 400. But the movie has more than exceeded expectations, and has a strong week-to-week hold so far. The movie probably cost roughly $25, with probably that in marketing. But it's making money, and will probably continue to do so for a while (it's probably worth seeing again for that last scene in the hotel alone).

Mystery Man said...

Matt - You're damn right.

Jim - Screw it - i'll do it! Sometime next week...

Mim - Love ya, honey.

Laura - There's nothing unique with your audience in Dallas. My audience was downright pissed. I've read about that in comments of some of Emerson's articles on the film. It's not hard to fathom why most people would be pissed. I'll have to write about this next week. I'm so used to internalizing films that I think this one is worth discussing.

Joshua - Exactly. And I love Miller's Crossing, too. I'll have to watch that one again...

Christain - If you do see it, let me know how you feel about the ending.

Bob - Well said. Well said.

Unk - Agreed with every word. Of course, the Coens are writing for themselves, but the vast majority of screenwriters live off of assignments, and you're given an average of 10-12 weeks depending upon who you're working with. If it's a big studio project, you have to haul ass day and night for 12 weeks to make the script really great. Outlining helps to speed it up. Great job on the structure series, too, man.

Mim - that's hilarious.

David/Matt - The finances won't soar to any great heights, I don't believe, because there will be a lot of bad word of mouth over the ending. I'm hearing lots of reports about audiences being really mad about it. I'm going to blog about the ending next week.

ON OUTLINES

I don't mind sharing my process. When I write an outline, it's starts off as a brainstorming list, which gets shaped into an outline that's very detailed. If I feel inspired, I'll even go so far as to write whole scenes in the outline. Then I print it up and pin it to a giant corkboard and study it and revise. Then, I'll copy and paste the outline into my Final Draft document and edit the outline into scenes with headings. I'll usually write out the scenes first - "this and this has to happen, plus setup X, Y, and Z." Then, I add dialogue last. Then, I rewrite endlessly. That really works for me.

-MM

david alan said...

Matt - I just thought, with everything going for it, the movie should’ve had a stronger box office showing.

MM - Actually, my compadre just got back from seeing the film...he thought the movie was trying too hard. So, I’m chalking its down fall up to bad word of mouth.

Mystery Man said...

David - You should definitely see it. It's a conversation piece. And there's no question that at least the first three quarters of the film is four-star cinema.

-MM

Laura Deerfield said...

"There's nothing unique with your audience in Dallas. My audience was downright pissed."

Well, the ending I can understand being pissed about. It reminded me of the Sopranos ending.

I was just interested in how many people seemed not only baffled, but put-off by the rest of the movie. Look forward to your blog about it... I'll save the rest of my thoughts for that (unless I get around to blogging on it first.)

Mark said...

Another positive point about writing without an ending or a full outline is that your story can unfold in a much more organic way. The problem with figuring it all out in advance is that you run the risk of forcing the story to move in a particular direction.

One thing I find when I'm writing is that the characters and circumstances start to inform your decisions moving forward. If you've predetermined the ending then risk being dishonest and the film feels contrived. It is the line we walk when approaching the film. It's always good to have an idea of where we're going even if we don't know the exact destination.

If you can't find an ending as Bob said, maybe you are working without a Theme. Theme is superbly important and will help you to discover an ending. Satisfy the theme, not the plot.

http://members.fortunecity.com/bookdepository/plays/god/god2.html