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.”


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.


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.”


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.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On Being a Difficult Writer

I talked about this in my Write the Shots article. I hammered it home with my post on M. Night Shyamalan. And in private, I tell friends who are landing their first sales/assignments that more important than getting your vision onto the big screen is establishing a good working relationship with your producer while also delivering a jaw-droppingly sensational script. A good working relationship is, of course, important on every project, but especially so with your first few. And like clockwork, here's an email from a friend (the names and titles have been changed to protect the innocent):

So I was talking to my producer yesterday and she was telling me about her former classmate in the Film School at [BIG SCHOOL]. I guess this person is a wunderkind and was producing this script from some writer. I guess the script was really good and was on the verge of lining up a deal for financing and this thing was going to get made. But the writer was a real pain in the ass. Stubborn, opinionated, rude. So long story short, this wunderkind is now the co-producer on [MY SCRIPT]. I guess he read the script and loved it. He talked to [JOSEPHINA] (the other producer) and was complaining about what a pain in the ass the writer was. [JOSEPHINA] said I was "a joy to work with". He said he wished he could work with people that were easier to get along with. [JOSEPHINA] then asked him to be a co producer on [MY SCRIPT], and he agreed. He terminated the agreement with the other writer and is now MY co-producer. So in the span of 2 days, we've got somebody at [BIG STUDIO] on board championing our project, have [BIG STAR'S] production company scheduling a pitch, and God knows what else. And the other project is dead in the water.

Sawdust and Tinsel

Recently, I noticed two articles about the new Criterion Collection DVD of Bergman's 1953 Sawdust and Tinsel.

First, there was the
review in Slant Magazine:

Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini were both attracted to the metaphoric image of the circus, though the meanings the clowns and trapeze artists held for the two art-house heavyweights could scarcely be more different. While Fellini in La Strada envisioned the circus as a gaudy yet all-embracing setting for the fundamental comedy of the human condition, Bergman in Sawdust and Tinsel saw it as a mocking version of the theater stage that would become his recurring motif, a place where, costumes and makeup notwithstanding, people and their emotions are at their most exposed. When American distributors released Sawdust and Tinsel under the title The Naked Night to suggest Euro bawdiness, they fortuitously hit the movie's theme: The ruthless stripping of the characters' dreams and illusions by Bergman's increasingly invasive camera.

But I really enjoyed the in-depth analysis at Not Coming to a Theater Near You. Leo Goldsmith mentioned that Bergman wrote the screenplay "in a burst of unusually profound misanthropy," which was rooted in guilt over his betrayal of his third wife, Gun Hagberg, as well as his new lover and star, Harriet Andersson, on the set of Summer with Monika, "dissatisfaction with their subsequent romance, and the humiliating withdrawal of an offer to work at the Royal Dramatic Theater." And thus, "Bergman set to work on synthesizing all of this guilt, betrayal, and dissatisfaction into the first major work of his career." Of the story, Goldsmith wrote:

There is no overtly triumphant note struck for art in Sawdust and Tinsel, but like nearly all Bergman films, the film is ultimately neither fatalistic nor dour. After all, the circus is a “world of misery, lice, disease,” but it is not the artificial and the manipulative world of Sjuberg’s melodramatic theater with its two-dimensional trees and false knives. Nor is the circus the spare, claustrophobic world of Agda’s shop, that space of ticking clocks, buttons to be sewn, and formal, mirthless children. Even though he desperately attempts to rejoin it, Albert knows that this “normal” life is empty and motionless. It lacks the vitality and perpetual movement of the circus caravan, which he recognizes as teeming with life even in the depths of his drunken, jealous, suicidal rage. In a pre-showtime drinking binge with Frost, Albert threatens to kill “five or six” people, including Frost, Alma, and himself, out of mercy—“It’s a pity people must live on this earth.” But soon he bursts into the open air, and the sound of music and performers rehearsing and singing open his eyes, however momentarily or drunkenly, to the sight of life around him. It is one of those fleeting moments in so many Bergman films – the al fresco lunch in Wild Strawberries, the picnic in The Seventh Seal – in which the intensity of self-scrutiny dims for a moment and some peace is afforded, free of the constrictions of the world or the order that the mind assigns to it. It’s a temporary rest, but not an illusion to rest upon, and soon Albert and Frost drunkenly begin to whip their colleagues into shape. For better or worse, they have a performance to prepare for and there is much work to do...

But essentially, this is the world of all of Bergman’s subsequent masterpieces, fully formed, if more savage on its surface. Like so many Bergman protagonists that follow them, Albert and Anne become ensnared in their illusory fantasies of self-betterment, traps that they have laid for themselves. And in sensing the inescapability of their positions, they finally see no alternative but the perpetual motion of the caravan. At the close of the film, it is morning again, the caravan must move on, and the performers must continue playing their roles as clowns, with no possibility for escape except for alcohol (Frost’s own vice) or death. And so, stuck together in hell, without recourse to vain illusions of betterment or wealth or success, the question that these characters face is one of vulnerability: How do we make ourselves vulnerable again in a world that may well – or perhaps will inevitably – hurt us? Propelled through this circle of desire and dissatisfaction, we are bound to betray others and ourselves, and we face humiliation and cruelty at every turn. Once wounded, how can we again make ourselves vulnerable by reaching out to others? And if we cannot, what other life is there available to us?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Strike - Over?

Nikki Finke is reporting that a deal may be in place between both sides:

"It's already done, basically," the insider describes. That's because of the weeks worth of groundwork by the Hollywood agents working the writers guild leadership on one side, and the studio and network moguls on the other. I was told not to expect an agreement this week. But my source thought it was possible that the strike could be settled before Christmas.

Thank God. I believe this may have had a lot to do with the new ground rules for negotiation,
as reported by Steve Young, writer for the Late Night Show:

--Each side may bring one giant inflatable animal.

--No hot-dogging or show-boating.

--During the 15 minute break, there will be a musical performance by the National Labor Relations Board 's "Rappin' Mediator."

--The AMPTP must withdraw excessively unfavorable proposals if the WGA team chants "Hey hey, ho ho, corporate greed has got to go."

--Each negotiating team member must bring a covered dish.

--To determine the final internet residuals formula, the WGA will pick one of 26 silver briefcases held by models.

--The session will begin with an attempt to resolve a minor negotiating issue: the WGA wants to be able to sit at the table, while the AMPTP is demanding 100% of the chairs for themselves.

Variety's Survey on the Strike

Variety recent published its in-depth survey on the strike with some interesting results:

More than two-thirds of survey respondents stated the Writers Guild of America is representing its side of the battle more forcefully and more clearly than the studios under the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers umbrella org. And more than two-thirds of respondents agreed that the scribes are being "more honest and forthright" than the majors in their discussion of the key issues, chiefly increased residuals for homevid sales and for digital distribution of movies and TV shows.

But while the writers may have broad industry support, survey respondents are mindful of the realpolitik of Hollywood. Survey found that 44% of respondents believe that the strike will be resolved "in favor of the companies," while 37% feel it will be settled in a way that is "mostly fair" to both sides, and only 20% feel it will be resolved in the favor of the writers. What's more, survey respondents predict dire consequences for the industry, particularly in the TV realm, if the strike continues past December.

To read the article, click here. To see the full survey, click here.

Diabolical Don G

Nigel Andrews has a new article in the Financial Times, called The Celluloid Sopranos, in which he writes about the tragic deaths that have historically followed filmed operas:

"It is like watching childbirth. Through a narrow channel (the movie projector beam), with struggle, exertion and sometimes pain, a living entity (the opera film) is forced out into the world. The first impression is of a bawling mouth and lots of noise. The first instinct, often, is to hold the creature upside down and smack it hard. But the end result can be a miracle: a living organism growing up straight, rich, true and complex. Though the infant mortality rate in filmed opera is high – famed fiascos include 1953’s Aida with Sophia Loren miming to Renata Tebaldi’s voice – we can think in compensation of Syberberg’s Parsifal, Losey’s Don Giovanni, Bergman’s The Magic Flute. Next week we have the UK release of Kenneth Branagh’s The Magic Flute: very different from Bergman’s, possibly a candidate for smacking, but with moments of giddy grandeur."

While I’m not an opera connoisseur, I must confess, I have a real thing for Don Giovanni. As a protagonist, he’s such a bad, bad boy. He’s un-sympathetic, un-empathetic – diabolical even! - he’s the Diabolical Don G! And HE is the protagonist! Not only that, the man has no character arc. He never changes his ways, nor even considers it. At the very end when Don G literally faces death, he refuses to repent and pays the penalty with his life. Then the rest of the cast sing gaily about how this is a moral tale where the wicked die just as they lived.

The other interesting thing about Don G is the construction of the cast design. The monstrously un-sympathetic Don is surrounded by very sympathetic supporting characters. You feel sorry for them and all the ways Don G wrongs them with reckless abandon for his own self indulgences. The play also goes to great pains to show you different sides to each character in order to give them depth, which really makes me happy. In the states, Don G's usually watered down and lightened up. In Europe, especially Italy, they give you the hardcore Don G, a Don so wicked that death is only too merciful.

I love it.

With respect to the article, there will never be much of a crossover into film. Opera was always meant to be experienced in person, although in this new age of high definition DVDs and TVs and glorious surround sound, people might be more inclined to watch DVDs of operas, but like me, they’ll only want to see filmed performances.



See also:

Don Giovanni on Wikipedia

Here's the final scene of the opera from the film, Amadeus:

Screenwriting News links – 11/26/07

Hollywood's Giving Away Residuals:
Last month, HarperCollins, a division of News Corp., announced a partnership with Sharp Independent to develop movies based on HarperCollins books. Meanwhile, Random House Inc. has teamed up with Focus Features to co-produce two to three movies a year based on fiction and nonfiction from its dozen imprints… Random House and HarperCollins will get a cut of the box office sales, as well as revenue from DVDs, cable TV and other media. And the authors involved will get more say in choosing screenwriters, actors and directors.

Hollywood screenwriters, producers go back to bargaining table today
HOLLYWOOD — Akiva Goldsman never stopped writing. Not when his teachers, from grade school to grad school, said he wasn't very good. Not in his tough early years as a struggling screenwriter. But on Nov. 5, Goldsman — who went on to pen blockbuster movies such as “Cinderella Man,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Da Vinci Code” and “I, Robot” — quit writing. “I won't pick up my pen again until we have a fair deal,” the Oscar-winning Goldsman declared at a rally...

(I'll tell you what's a fair deal - Akiva never touching another Batman screenplay – THAT is a fair deal. Hehehe...)

Screenwriters of the World Unite:
In a show of support for the ongoing Writers Guild strike, 21,000 screenwriters worldwide are planning what's being described as an "international day of solidarity," with protests set for Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Mexico, France and Canada Nov. 28. "For us it's a thing of admiration for our colleagues," said David Kavanagh, chief executive of the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild. "They're taking risks now that are going to benefit us later on."

Screenwriting Guru has been added to Wikipedia.

Gaddafi is a Screenwriter

Also in the world of screenwriting news, Muammar al-Gaddafi, the dictator of Libya, the man who once fashioned himself as “the Mao Zedong of the Middle East” is now a screenwriter:

“A series of impressionistic sketches he has written evoking his country as it was on the eve of invasion by Italy in September 1911 – placid, rustic, traditional – and then as it roused itself to fight to expel the foreigners, is to become the basis for a film costing at least $40m (£19.1m) which begins shooting in Libya next year. Aimed principally at a non-Arab audience, and entitled Dhulm – Years of Torment, it will tell the story of Libya's traumatic experience at the hands of Europe's Johnny-come-lately imperialists.”

The Power of Cinema’s Images

In the vein of our discussions on Cinematic Storytelling, Write the Shots, and the Art of Visual Storytelling, I’d like to give a great big shout-out to "Space" from Bulgaria who runs the blog, [ ] or Spacest.

He writes no words. He only posts images from films. And he lifts those images from both good and bad films, from artsy to mainstream to action to drama to anime, as well as films that range anywhere between visual excess and extreme minimalism. You'll also see a lot of foreign and domestic films, too. (Except he's in Bulgaria, so I guess foreign to him would be domestic to us.)

Anyway, I love it. The photos have a funny way of sneaking up on you. Try to forget the context of the story and just consider each image on its own terms. Hopefully, you’ll find, as I did, that it can be a very compelling and even inspirational experience. His blog is such a great testament to the stirring power of cinema's images.

In his bio, Mr. Space wrote:

“...we know that, behind every image revealed, there is another image more faithful to reality, and in back of that image there is another, and yet another behind the last one, and so on, up to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that no one will ever see...”

As a taste, here are his images from The Painted Veil.

I love what you do. Thanks.