Below are highlights of a recent TriggerStreet script review of mine, which was for a story about a great painter. The script brought to mind a film that I'm sure many of you have not seen, called Lust for Life, a great, great film on so many levels.
There are parallels that can be made between writers today and Van Gogh's personal aspiration to break through his own "iron wall." We all have them. And I believe that all aspiring writers must labor just as intensely to break through their own unique iron walls.
Anyway, you'll see. Hope you enjoy it.
Van Gogh’s “Iron Wall”
Ya know, I'm trying to recall the last few films I've seen about great painters. Umm, it would probably be Girl with a Pearl Earring, Frida, and Pollock, I believe. All had their strengths.
But my heart will always belong to Lust for Life, the Vincent Van Gogh biop with Kirk Douglas, arguably one of the greatest movies about a painter in cinema history. You mentioned Van Gogh a few times in your spec. Listen, if you're going to see Lust for Life, don't watch it instantly on Netflix. Rent the DVD, see it in widescreen on a big TV and soak in all of its glorious and sumptuous visuals. That film never fails to move me. It's downright SPOOKY how much Kirk Douglas actually looked like Van Gogh. The whole project fascinated me. It was a passion project for Vincent Minnelli, the director, who later regarded this as the toughest challenge in his career. It was cool how Minnelli used color as both psychological and artistic expressions of his protag. Structurally, the film concentrated on four phases of the artist's life: the black-and-white drawings from the mining district of the Boringe, the Dutch drawings and paintings of rural labor in the Hague, the impressionist landscapes of Paris, and the portraits and nature paintings of Southern France. And so, Minnelli asked his cinematographers to create different color schemes for each of the four phases of Van Gogh's career: the coal-mining scenes were dominated by grays, the Dutch sequences by bluish greens, the Parisian episodes by bright reds, and the concluding session, Minnelli’s favorite, were in sunny yellows.
With respect to the writers, no one thought this story could be told successfully. Minelli first turned to Robert Ardrey (Madame Bovary) and then Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) who both declined to write the film because they thought the story was too internal and emotional to be effective as big screen entertainment. Plus, it's kind of a downer when a character cuts off his own ear. Minelli then turned to Norman Corwin (The Blue Veil) and he was the natural choice. He was the studio's fastest and most prolific writer, and he found a way to carry a through-line throughout those four phases of Van Gogh's life by centering on his ever-evolving relationship with his brother, Theo.
Corwin got an Oscar nom for that script.
In any case, there are two reasons why I share Lust for Life.
1) I thought of two lines from that film. First, Van Gogh takes his black-and-white drawings to his cousin artist, Anton Mauve. Mauve asks him, "What kind of an artist do you want to be?" Van Gogh replies, "I want to create things that touch people. I want to move them so they say 'he feels deeply and tenderly.'" Mauve responds, "It's fine, fine. But before you can move people, you first have to learn your business. It needs skill as well as heart." The second line is when his brother, Theo, offers to let Van Gogh live with him in Paris. Van Gogh says, "If I'm to be anything as a painter, I have to break through the iron wall between what I feel and what I can express." I thought of these lines, because this is where you're still at, as a writer, I think. Lots of potential for greatness but still in need of more experience so that you can communicate with crystal clarity to your audience what you feel in your heart through story. There's a sometimes surprising disconnect to aspiring writers between what they feel when they write a script and how effectively those feelings are being communicated. It takes a lot of practice and lots of scripts before you get a sense of how well you are effectively moving your readers.
2) The second reason is because this film has in spades the one element that this script lacks - conflict. On the one hand, I should praise you for working in subtleties and subtext within your scenes. You clearly understand how little gestures have big implications in film. On the other hand, everything was so subtle, it was to the detriment of conflict. In every single scene in Lust for Life, there was a clearly identifiable conflict. We were always watching a scene because something was wrong. Or someone was trying to right a wrong. Or we were being shown something that was going to go wrong. Norman Corwin reveled in emotional conflicts in ways that were so very moving, and I'd like to see you delve right into all that conflict. Lust also had an overall conflict that carried through all of the little conflicts in each scene, that is, Van Gogh's pursuit to break through his own perceived "iron wall" of his art, which he never felt he attained. In the end, he tore up a painting and screamed, "It's impossible! Impossible!"