A Presentation to
Sunday 26 Jul 15
Thank you very much. I have never been asked to deliver a speech before that was not in a lecturer/lecturee format. Harlan Ellison once said, “Be careful of monsters with teeth.” We writers, we film makers, artists, actors, we the storytellers are the monsters with teeth and people should be careful.
I wanted to talk tonight a little about inspiration and offer you the experience of watching someone fumble, because I think maybe that is what art is; a kind of fumbling in which we are given an opportunity to recognize our common humanity and vulnerability.
So, rather than being up here pretending I am an expert in anything I will just tell you I do not know anything. As William Goldman wrote: “Nobody knows anything . . . Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.”
Let me start by suggesting that writing is a process. We try to convince ourselves that the process can be codified, or understood, or ‘conquered’ in some way. Perhaps that is the intellectual in each of us or because we do not want to feel foolish or worthless.
I feel odd calling myself a writer or a screenwriter. I do when I have to – I put it on my income tax form – but I feel like it is a lie, even though it is technically true. I write for a living because that is who I am. When I was young I really wanted the label of being a writer. Today, I do not care what you call me. I do care about my ability to pay my mortgage, buy diapers, and put food on the table. That never made me ‘sell out.’ I just realized that family comes first and if you want to be something; be it.
As a young man, I worked hard at writing like the authors I had come to admire; Ernest Hemmingway, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, A. E. Van Gott, Harlan Ellison. I wanted earnestly to write something true. Life got in the way and I ended spending nearly twenty years in the Army. After three wars and two Purple Hearts, I left the military or perhaps it left me. In any case, I learned the film trade while working for a small studio that a friend from the Ranger Regiment owned.
I did not start out being a writer. I started as a gloried production assistant or PA and learned everything I could about the making of films. I am not an artist by any stretch and do admire the ‘film makers’ such as yourselves. What I learned was how a story was put together one piece at time until you could see the whole picture and the, ‘to borrow a phrase’ the tactics, techniques, and procedures of how all those pieces could fit together. I ended up working as a line producer and unit production manager; schedules and budgets. At least my military career was not wasted.
Subsequently, my boss approached me to write screenplays. Throwing me a copy of Syd Field’s book “The Foundations of Screenwriting,” he told me to come back in two weeks. I knew the kind of movies we made at that production company and came back in two weeks with a completed script. He glanced through it then threw it at me saying, “This is shit. Rewrite it.” So, I re-wrote it and re-wrote it. It finally was produced. Yecch.
What this experience allowed me to understand was not only how to tell a decent story in an economical way but how to translate that script into the visual medium of a motion picture effectively and economically.
However, there is another dynamic here; that of being an active viewer. Like an active listener, the active viewer does not watch movies to find the faults, plot holes, and problems, there is YouTube for that, but that the person watches the movies because the viewer wants to see how the story works. The active viewer wants to fall in love with the story, the characters, and the art. The active viewer and likewise the screenwriter and writer needs to be in the moment of the movie and not be distracted by production values, problems, and whether or not you like or dislike some auteur.
Because one of the fundamental differences between being a novelist and a screenwriter is that inherent knowledge that you need to understand not only how it feels to the characters speaking, but how it feels to be part of the audience, what it means to be an audience, both as a group – because an audience is an organism – but also as something made up of individuals.
But one of the truths about writers, and film makers for that matter, is another quote from Ellison, “The only thing worth writing about is people. People. Human beings. Men and women whose individuality must be created, line by line, insight by insight. If you do not do it, the story is a failure. There is no nobler chore in the universe than holding up the mirror of reality and turning it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the 'normal,' the obvious. People are reflected in the glass. The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself. And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us. Failing that, you have failed totally.”
This is where I would like to take this short presentation. This shows that I, like you, am a struggling human being, trying to be free doing what we all love to do. An obvious solution is to throw my hands up in despair. This thing we do, writing, movies, acting, is not easy. A truth is that our thing is not easy because there’s a lot in the way. In many cases a major obstacle is our deeply seated belief that our idea, our story, is not interesting. And once you convince yourself that your story is not interesting, you take it off the table.
As we move through time, things change. We change. The world changes. The way the world sees us changes. The way we see the world changes. We all age. We all fail. We all succeed. We all have moments of calm. Memories embarrass us, depress us, make us wistful. As we stand at the crossroads of life embarrassed, wistful, depressed, and angry we writers are unique in that we continually look for ways to take those memories and turn them into stories.
We consistently move in the directions these memories and thoughts take us along a crossroad. We are constantly in motion. Screenplays express the passage of time and how the characters within our story interact not only with the phenomena of the story but with the other characters as well in a fundamentally visual way.
There is this small, private conversation we writers have with ourselves. As writers, we turn our everyday anxieties, crises and longing, love, regret and guilt into beautiful rich stories. What is it that allows us the creative freedom from our dreams that other, non-writers, do not have? I do not know, but I suspect part of it is that we are inspired by our dreams and we are not constricted by worry about how our story will appear to others.
Since we are speaking of screenplays this evening, a screenplay is an exploration - a step into an abyss. A story starts somewhere, anywhere but the rest is undetermined. Sometimes, the complete story is a secret waiting to be uncovered even from the writer. While there are established forms for a screenplay, ask Syd Field if you could, the substance is up to you. If you listen to so-called experts, generally they will tell you that you have to have plot point on page umptee squat to sell your speculative screenplay.
In so far as you understand that that analysis only touches the surface of a story, allow yourself the freedom to change as you discover, allow your screenplay to grow and change as you work on it. As you twist the mirror, you discover things. You must not put these things aside, even if they’re inconvenient. Disregard all the little voices. Or, as I tell my students, write where it bleeds.
Do not worry about what your screenplay, or story, or production, or performance looks like. Do not worry about failure. Failure is a badge of honor; it means you risked failure. If you do not risk failure you are never going to do anything that is different than what you, or anyone else has already done before.
Allow yourself time to let things brew. You are constantly thinking about your story whether you realize it or not. Letting the unconscious take over brings in freedom and surprise and removes, most of the, judgment.
At every single moment, every single person wants something. Often many things, often conflicting things. Understanding want you and your characters want and allowing yourself to put them and yourself in jeopardy is the choice every good writer must make. Love is another factor. Fall in love with your story and your characters. Robert Avrech wrote that, “All stories are love stories.” Do not use ‘paradigms’ to make things simpler than they are and do not work towards set results.
Screenplays are a challenge of writing multiple points of view and coming up with visual solutions. This circumstance forces us as writers to throw away conventional approaches. While screenplays tend to be very concrete in their construction, it is the construction of these events and characters that make it a wonderful medium. However, it is a tricky medium in which to deal with interior lives. Movies share so much with our dreams which only deal with interior lives. Your brain is wired to turn emotional states into movies.
By this point in time, you are asking yourself “When is he going to get to the part about how to find inspiration as a writer?” I am trying to be helpful. Each of us writers have ancient wounds in which we continually paint over with bright colors. This is our ‘sharp teeth.’ Story telling is a sleight of hand, a distraction, in an attempt to change the pattern so that we can simultaneously expose and conceal our wounds. I believe each of us has these wounds whether we believe that or not. I believe these wounds are both specific to you as a person and common to every writer. I also truly believe that our wounds are the thing from which our art, our painting, our dance, our composition, our philosophical treatise, and our writing are born.
Storytelling is inherently dangerous; it is thing of ‘sharp teeth.’ If you consider a traumatic event in your life, consider it as you experienced it. Now think about how you told it to someone a year later. Now think about how you told it for the hundredth time. The story changes with time. A few components enter into that change. One component is perspective. The other component is adjustment.
Perspective is a reconstruction that often bears very little resemblance to the actual incident. You figure out the characters arcs, the moral, the understanding and the context.
Adjustment allows for you to figure out which part of the story that works, which parts to embellish, which parts to jettison. You fashion it. Your goals, your reasons for telling the story are to be entertaining and to garner sympathy or empathy with the characters. Whether told at a dinner party or a movie theater, adjustment is true for any story.
We as writers or creatives of any sort make stories. This activity is as basic to us as breathing; we cannot do otherwise. Through your efforts, you free yourself. Go where your imagination takes you. That is your inspiration. If you give yourself too structured an assignment you will keep yourself locked away from your work. Remembering that stories are about people, and in the end their humanity, you will end up with something that is illustrative and perhaps instructive.