“Go into the story and find the animals”

May 4th, 2016 by

On May 16th, this humble blog will celebrate its 8th birthday. Eight years! In the run-up to this august event, I’m going to write an occasional post reflecting on what it is you and I do here. As always, I am keen to hear any advice and suggestions you may have, especially since the site will be transitioning over to Medium in the next few months in conjunction with my longstanding partnership with the Black List.

Today I thought I’d start at the beginning and answer a question I get with some frequency: Why did you name the blog Go Into The Story?

Many of you know the answer, but a lot of readers don’t, so allow me to regale you with one of my favorite personal anecdotes. It derives from a conversation I had with my then three year-old son Luke. I was giving him a bath, a bit distracted as I was contemplating a story I had been working on earlier. On a lark, I asked Luke a question:

Hey, Luke, I’m starting to write a new script tomorrow. And it’s funny, but no matter how many times I start a new story, I get a bit, uh, nervous about it. Got any, you know, advice for your dad?

My son peered up at me and without a moment’s hesitation said:

Go into the story and find the animals.

God as my witness, that’s what my son said.

I thought that was just about the greatest thing I’d ever heard. As I mulled it over for the next several days, I peeled back layer after layer of meaning.

For starters the whole idea of going into a story is precisely what a writer does, immersing ourselves in a narrative universe that we participate in creating.

But over time, it’s the other part in which I’ve discovered more and more layers of meaning. Start with the verb “find.” Is there any word more appropriate to describe the writing process? Here are some of its definitions:

* “to come upon by chance”: Doesn’t that sound like brainstorming?

* “to locate, attain, or obtain by search or effort”: Doesn’t that sound like research?

* “to discover or perceive after consideration”: Doesn’t that sound like what happens when we mull over our story?

* “to feel or perceive”: As we go into the story, we become more and more emotionally connected to it.

* “to become aware of, or discover”: The biggie, where as explorers we uncover a story’s hidden gems.

Then there is “the animals.” I’m almost sure what Luke was thinking about was how a children’s story so often is habituated by animals. Thus in his eyes, my task was probably pretty simple: Go find the animals. They are your characters. But what if we think about it more symbolically.

* Animals can be both domesticated and wild. So some things we discover as we go into the story are what we might expect (domesticated). Other times we’re surprised, even shocked by ideas and thoughts that spring to mind (wild).

* Animals are alive, organic, and intuitive beings. So are our story’s characters.

* Throughout human history, animals have come to mean something in stories. A fox is sly and cunning. A crow in many cultures signifies death. An owl is wise. Per Jung and others who study myth and psychoanalysis, animals can serve as conduits into the mind of the dreamer.

Which reminds me of something I read about a movie director who in prepping to make a movie gave each of the actors their own animal token as something they could reference in interpreting their character.

I’m sure if you think about it, you could probably come up with other shades of meaning for what Luke said, but suffice to say it’s become my favorite writing mantra both because of its layers of meaning and because of its source.

And that’s why I named the blog Go Into The Story.

If you have any thoughts about the blog, I would love to hear them. How do you use the site. What are your favorite features of the daily posts. And as I say, if you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Onward!

Interview (Written): Bryan Sipe (“Demolition”)

April 23rd, 2016 by

An Indiewire interview with Bryan Sipe, writer of the movie Demolition starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee.

Speaking of catching up, your career has had an odd trajectory. There’s almost a ten-year gap between this film and your last feature. What happened?

I came out here, and I got lucky early on. I sold this script, I had a writing partner, and I thought, “This is easy. No problem.” 24, 25 years old; I’ve got money in my pocket. And then I didn’t work again for like seven years.

Along the way, emotionally, I surrendered. I was waving this white flag and I was feeling this apathy. And that apathy was re-stimulating. It brought me back to this place where I was doing this demolition work [when I was younger]. What was happening was that I was in these burned out houses, ripping walls apart and stepping on nails going through my feet, standing around this debris or remains like a skeleton and going, “How the fuck is this my life?” I felt something so much bigger that wants to come out but I feel trapped inside of this environment.

There was that same apathy. It brought me back to that place, but now I was 27 years old or something like that and I was failing, not just in my career but in my relationships. I was broke. I was working in bar, where at first I thought, “I’m going to be here for a few months, I’m good.” I ended up working at that bar for nine years. Out of that apathy came this voice and that voice became this character and that character introduced me to these other characters.

So Davis and his experiences were what paved the way for you?

Once you’re walking down that hallway, it’s like, “Oh, there is a vending machine over there in a hospital. He walks over and hits the button and puts his money in, but the candy gets stuck probably, that’s what happens.” It really unraveled that way, and once I saw that thing that you see on those vending machines, a 1-800 number, I thought, “I got my other character.”

The movie is sort of elevated slightly above reality. There are things that we couldn’t get away with, that he says that we couldn’t get away with. But there are things that you think about, right? Maybe things that you want to say or things that you want to do. Like, it would be cool to get shot with a bulletproof vest. In this world it was acceptable. In my way, that was me doing it without the consequences. I get to explore what the consequences are for him.

A trailer for the movie:

For the rest of the interview, go here.

Interview (Part 4): Isaac Adamson

April 21st, 2016 by

The top rated screenplay on the 2015 Black List is “Bubbles” and it was written by Isaac Adamson. It’s a terrific story, one of the most, if not the most unique ways to approach writing a biopic I have ever seen: The story is a snapshot of Michael Jackson’s life told from the perspective of his pet chimpanzee Bubbles. I would have been interested in interviewing Isaac simply based on the creative inspiration of that idea — I mean, who thinks like that — but when it hit #1 on the Black List charts last year, it was a no-brainer. I reached out to Isaac’s manager Lee Stobby and we finally arranged a time in Isaac’s busy schedule to spend an hour together over the phone, talking with Isaac from his home in Portland, Oregon.

Today in Part 4, Isaac and I discuss some themes at work in the script “Bubbles”:

Scott:  I’d like to talk about some of the themes. We’ve already discussed, one, the hierarchical dynamic: Who’s the King? There’s another one, too, that’s played pretty strongly throughout, and that’s this idea of being in a cage.

There’s obviously the cage that Bubbles is in at the beginning in the prologue and then eventually winds back up in, but Michael Jackson himself essentially being in a cage as a kind of trapped public figure. Is that something you were going for?

Isaac:  Absolutely. That was a theme that I wanted to run through the whole thing. This idea that Michael Jackson was caged by his own celebrity. Even in Neverland, he’s constructed what amounted to a cage for himself. He thought he was building a thing that would set him free, but that turned out not to be the case.

Scott:  Kind of like Xanadu in Citizen Kane.

Isaac:  Yeah.

Scott:  Another thing, I think it’s Frank, one of Michael Jackson’s cadre of people who says on Page 83, this long and touching observant bit of business talking about Michael Jackson as a pop star in relation to the rest of the world.

He says, “You find the beast is bigger than you, stronger than you ever imagined. You discover the beast never sleeps, and the beast will trample you underfoot without a second thought.”

He’s literally talking about the public, and obviously it has some double meaning going on there.

Isaac:  Yeah. It does. He is talking about the public but…I’m not sure how to answer that one.

Scott:  Here’s a take on it that I had. Obviously, Bubbles is a beast, he’s an animal. He, through his actions to Michael Jackson later on in a horrifically violent way, exhibits that behavior. It’s almost a metaphor for what the public has done to Michael Jackson, whether he realizes it or not, through his own aberrant behavior.

Isaac:  Totally. That speech is also there to kind of presage Bubbles’ later attack on Michael.

Bubbles pointing to a photograph of the King of Pop

Scott:  You have that ticking clock, too, which the trainer says that as they get older, these chimpanzees become more in touch with their animalistic nature and you have to watch out for that. We see this instinct on Bubbles’ part, to become more and more in touch with his inner warrior.

Isaac:  It’s just a natural part of, I would say human adolescence too, but chimp adolescence is that they get more aggressive. They get stronger, they get more unruly. They don’t like to wear clothes. [laughs] I don’t know if that’s true of adolescents humans, though maybe they wear less clothes.

Beyond a certain age, they’re too dangerous to handle and throughout the script, we see Bubbles fighting against this but ultimately being unable to stop his natural evolution into an adult chimpanzee. That was one of the central themes I was going for too, that ultimately Bubbles is punished for doing the one thing Michael Jackson can’t do, which is grow up.

Scott:  I can totally see that. That leads right into this whole Jordan Chandler thing, the young boy that essentially led to the downfall of Michael Jackson in the public perception. There were the lawsuits and all that stuff where you get the sense that Michael Jackson’s trying to, setting aside whatever criminal activity may or may not have happened, trying to cling to his youth.

Isaac:  It was definitely that. He was completely enamored of Peter Pan. If you look at the photographs of Neverland, there are Peter Pan statues and pictures and stuff like that everywhere. I know he was working with, I forget what director it was, but for a long time he was trying to get a film version of Peter Pan made where he would star as Peter Pan.

Even if you look at the shape of his nose as it evolves, he was going for that upturned classic Peter Pan nose at one point in his life.

Scott: The point you made that Bubbles does grow up and Michael Jackson resists that, and Bubbles of course in growing up is getting in touch with that inner animalistic side which exhibits itself in that assault on Michael Jackson, that’s an interesting point I hadn’t quite grabbed it, it makes a lot of sense.

I’ve read conflicting accounts on this: Did Michael Jackson ever go visit Bubbles again in Florida, or did he not?

Isaac:  He never visited him in Florida that I’m aware of, but I read an interview with Bob Dunn, who was Bubbles’ trainer, that said that Michael would come visit Bubbles in Sylmar at this facility that Bob Dunn had. He visited there a few times with his kids, so that’s what that scene is based on. But once Bubbles went to Florida in 2005, Michael never came to visit him that I know of.

Scott:  How soon in the process did you know that that end scene, where Michael does come for a visit and he brings the three kids, and there’s a touching moment there, how soon in the process did you know that that was going to be, essentially, the denouement of the story?

Isaac:  That came pretty late. In my original thinking about it, there was going to be the attack and then the next thing we knew, there’s Bubbles in the ape sanctuary, thinking about Michael, still wondering about when he’ll return. But I realized that I needed something a little softer, and a little more emotional — a lot more emotional, actually — and also show some kind of healing that time has done.

I didn’t want to end with…have his last action with Michael be attacking him, because they had had this great friendship together and gone through this adventure together.

I just felt it needed a kind of grace note.

Scott:  You have a great callback, that little finger‑to‑finger thing.

Isaac:  That came pretty late, too. That was after the first draft, but before I’d shown it to anybody. I wanted them to have some kind of secret handshake that they could do, some kind of nonverbal way of communicating with each other.

I came up with the fingers touching, and I liked that a lot.

Scott:  Then you went back to set it up?

Isaac:  Exactly.

Tomorrow in Part 5, Isaac shares how he discovered “Bubbles” had been named the top-rated screenplay in the 2015 Black List and what that has meant to him as a screenwriter.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Isaac is repped by CAA and Lee Stobby.

Twitter: @isaacadamson.

Zero Draft Thirty 2016 Spring Challenge: Day 6

March 6th, 2016 by

Zero Draft Thirty: Day 6.

March 1: Type FADE IN / The Beginning.
March 30 31: Type FADE OUT / The End.

30 31 days. 1 script. Movie script. TV script. First draft. Rewrite. Whatever.

I’m doing it. You’re invited.

For background on how the Zero Draft Challenge came into being and what it is, go here, here, and here.

To download your very own Zero Draft Thirty calendar — created by Bretton Zinger — and track your daily progress, you can download a copy here.

On Twitter, use this hashtag: #ZD30SCRIPT.

Facebook: Here. 700+ members strong.

Join the conversation for a chance to win The Trumbo Award!

Today’s Writing Quote

“If I have anything to say to young writers,
it’s stop thinking of writing as art.
Think of it as work.”
— Paddy Chayefsky

Today’s Inspirational Video

It’s never too old – or too young – to chase a dream.

Zero Draft Thirty: Day 1

Zero Draft Thirty: Day 2

Zero Draft Thirty: Day 3

Zero Draft Thirty: Day 4

Zero Draft Thirty: Day 5

Check back later for the winner of today’s Trumbo Award!

Onward!

UPDATE: A Facebook post from Simon Littlefield accompanied by a photograph:

Taking a break from the keyboard this afternoon for a wintry walk along the canal in Hackney. It’s true – the universe is always trying to tell us something…

There may be no actual causal connection, at least in any scientifically verifiable form, between our Creativity and what the Universe puts in front of us.

BUT DON’T TELL A WRITER THAT!!!

The Universe sends us messages, ideas, and inspiration all the time. We just have to have eyes to see. And for that reminder, Simon is the recipient of today’s Trumbo Award!

HSW Dalton Trumbo Bathtub Award Littlefield

Congratulations, Simon! And to the rest of us, as we go about our lives today and tomorrow, let’s bring a heightened sense of what the Universe is saying to us!

Movie Analysis: “Spotlight” – Plot

March 1st, 2016 by

Another in our bi-weekly series in which we analyze movies currently in release. Why? To quote the writing mantra I coined over 5 years ago: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages. You will note which one comes first. Here are my reflections from that post about the importance of watching movies:

To be a good screenwriter, you need to have a broad exposure to the world of film. Every movie you see is a potential reference point for your writing, everything from story concepts you generate to characters you develop to scenes you construct. Moreover people who work in the movie business constantly reference existing movies when discussing stories you write; it’s a shorthand way of getting across what they mean or envision.

But most importantly, you need to watch movies in order to ‘get’ how movie stories work. If you immerse yourself in the world of film, it’s like a Gestalt experience where you begin to grasp intuitively scene composition, story structure, character functions, dialogue and subtext, transitions and pacing, and so on.

Let me add this: It’s important to see movies as they get released so that you stay on top of the business. Decisions get made in Hollywood in large part depending upon how movies perform, so watching movies as they come out puts you in the same head space as reps, producers, execs, and buyers.

This week’s movie: Spotlight which won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Picture, written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy. You may download. the script here.

Our schedule for discussion this week:

Monday: General Comments
Tuesday: Plot
Wednesday: Characters
Thursday: Themes
Friday: Dialogue
Saturday: Takeaways

For those of you who have not seen the movie, do not click MORE as we will be trafficking in major spoilers. If you have seen Spotlight, I invite you to join me in breaking down and analyzing the movie.

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Interview (Written): Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”)

February 8th, 2016 by

A Creative Screenwriting interview with Charles Randolph, co-writer of Oscar nominated movie The Big Short, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay:

What made you want to adapt Michael Lewis’s book for the screen?

I loved Plan B. I am always happy to work with them. Michael is the best American nonfiction writer. What Michael does is he is capable of being very generous to his characters while being very critical of the world they live. And he takes them at their word. He views them through the lens of what they want, and he takes what they want seriously. He believes in it. He also has inherent cinematic characters, people whose desires are very clear to us.

A man riding through the desert isn’t a story, but a man riding through the desert who is hungry becomes a story because we are no longer looking down on him but through his eyes because we know what he wants. And he is generous about his characters, they kind of hang themselves, so they have emotional complexity. He isn’t judging them at the beginning of his book.

The second thing he does is he does a very good job of casting his book. Of going into a world figuring out who are the most interesting, crazy human beings of that world and then telling about that world through those people. Inherently, they were very rich characters. So that is what Michael has.

What The Big Short, specifically has, is a very unique, emotional character in Baum (Steve Carrell), who is the guy who becomes the very thing he procures. And I thought that was the best character response to the 2008 crisis, because the 2008 crisis is us realizing we are all guilty.

I loved the idea of this man betting against the system because he believes it to be corrupt and incompetent only to win and he wakes up and realizes, “Oh, if I’m right then the system is corrupt and incompetent.” And of course no pessimist wants to believe they’re right.

The whole thing about being a pessimist is that you’re not right. So because he’s one of those guys who don’t want to be as pessimistic as he is, he is sort of bummed out and realizes there is this huge price to pay and he is part of that problem and not part of the solution. So that was interesting to me, I thought that was an interesting take on our collective culpability.

The Big Short

What was the process of adapting the book like, and how long did that take?

It took about three months to write it down, and another three months to reduce its complexity. So, six months, a little longer than usual.

There was some research to do too, although Michael had done most of it. Things like finances, that whole Florida thing, understanding how mortgage brokers thought at the time, what they were doing, understanding how strippers were owning five houses and a condo, that kind of thing.

I usually start with the characters. I try to see what defines and makes them specific and unique. I usually give them each a quirk and measure everything against that quirk. I try to arrive at that right tone.

I wrote the Florida section first because it wasn’t in the book and that’s when I realized it was more comedic than I thought. At that time, it was more satirical and more character-driven humour. And then Adam McKay came along and sort of made it more into farce, which made it work better because there is so much abstract and complex information to communicate.

In general it was trying to find the right tone that was slightly funnier than your average Milos Forman comedy, which is all grounded character-based but not so satirical where you got “Wag the Dog.” Somewhere between there was what I was shooting for.

Once I got the tone down, then I went through the plot. The market’s movements provided you with an underlying plot. You make your short deal, then the bank is trying to squeeze you out, and then it all breaks loose.  So that was pretty easy, and it provided character arcs against that.

For the rest of the interview, go here.

You may download the script for The Big Short here.

Script Analysis: “12 Years a Slave” – Part 6: Takeaways

February 6th, 2016 by

Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read. Our daily schedule:

Monday: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown
Tuesday: Plot
Wednesday: Characters
Thursday: Themes
Friday: Dialogue
Saturday: Takeaways

Today: Takeaways. You may download a PDF of the script here.

This week, we have been reading, analyzing, and discussing the script and movie 12 Years a Slave. In some ways, today’s exercise is the whole point of the series: What did you take away from the experience of reading and analyzing the script?

Screenplay by John Ridley based on a “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup.

IMDb plot summary: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

For Part 1, to read the Scene-By-Scene Breakdown, go here.

For Part 2, to read Plot analysis, go here.

For Part 3, to read Character analysis, go here.

For Part 4, to read Themes analysis, go here.

For Part 5, to read Dialogue, go here.

Head to comments and let me know what your takeaways have been from the script for 12 Years a Slave.

I am looking for volunteers to read a script and provide a scene-by-scene breakdown for it to be used as part of our weekly series. What do you get? Beyond your name being noted here, my thanks, and some creative juju, hopefully you will learn something about story structure and develop another skill set which is super helpful in learning and practicing the craft.

The latest volunteers:

12 Years a Slave – Georgevine Moss
Beasts of No Nation – Jacob Holmes-Brown
Bridge of Spies – Scott Guinn
Carol – Jillienne Bee
Celeste and Jesse Forever – Ryan Canty
Diary of a Teenage Girl – Cynthia
Ex Machina – Nick Norman-Butler
Frozen – Doc Kane
Gone Girl – Ashley Lara
Inside Out – Katha
Legend – Olivia
Leviathan – Piotr Ryczko
Locke – Megaen Kelly
Macbeth – Trung
Man Up – Kristy Brooks
Monsters University – Liz Correal
Mud – Kevin
Nightcrawler – DJ Summit
Pawn Sacrifice – Michael Waters
Steve Jobs – Angie Soliman
Straight Outta Compton – Timm Higgins
The End of the Tour – Steve F
The Iron Lady – Leslie
The Way Way Back – The Deuce
Trainwreck – Joni Brainerd
Wreck It Ralph – Kenny Crowe

Thanks, all!

To see examples of scene-by-scene breakdowns, go here. Part of the goal is to create a library of breakdowns for writers to have at their disposal for research and learning.

You may see the scripts we can use for the series – free and legal – by going here.

To date, we have analyzed 52 movie scripts, a great resource for screenwriters. To see those analyses, go here.

Thanks to any of you who will rise to the occasion and take on a scene-by-scene breakdown.

And for those of you who have volunteered, please send me your scene-by-scene breakdown as soon as possible!

Circling back to where we started, reading scripts is hugely important. Analyzing them even more so. If you want to work in Hollywood as a writer, you need to develop your critical analytical skills. This is one way to do that.

So seize this opportunity and join in the conversation!

I hope to see you in comments about this week’s script: 12 Years a Slave.

Interview (Written): Michael Arndt, J.J. Abrams, and Lawrence Kasdan

January 1st, 2016 by

I’ve read and watched several Star Wars: The Force Awakens interviews and Q&A’s with J.J. Abrams and Lawrence, but in fact they received a co-writing credit with Michael Arndt who was the first person to take a crack at the script. So in this WGA interview, I’m just going to feature Arndt’s comments.

I want to go back to the beginning, the earliest stages of this…So the decision is made to create new Star Wars films. And, Michael, you were there to break the story. You, Simon Kinberg, you went up to the Lucasfilm archives, right, and began thinking about this?

Michael Arndt: Yeah, it was I think May 2012, and I was just sort of doing nothing. I was back in New York and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I just finished working on The Hunger Games, and I was like, “Okay, like no more big Hollywood franchises. I’m going to go back and do my own original stuff.” And then [Kathleen Kennedy] called me up and the initial thing was she wanted me to write VII, VIII, and IX together, and I said, “There’s no way I can do that because it’s just too crazy and daunting.” And then the story that she pitched me was she just said it’s an origin story of a female Jedi. And I was like, “I’m in. I can’t say no to that. I have to do it.” I went to the ranch and I met with George and we spent a lot of time talking about samurai movies basically. I passed that test, you know? I had spent five years at Pixar and became a big believer in writers helping each other out, so Kathy was just brilliant in having Larry come onboard, having Simon Kinberg come onboard, and have all of us get together and sit down and just start kicking around ideas about what we wanted Star Wars to be. So that was the beginning of it.

Do you begin with characters? Or do you start by saying, “What is the world we’re in and then supply the people who live in it?”

Michael Arndt: It was all of a piece. Actually the thing that we talked about – and this happened when J.J. came onboard also – was we went back to feelings. Like, “How did it make us feel?” You know? Like, joy, euphoria, but a sort of awe and myth. You know, we’re creating a modern myth. Even before we talked about character and story, we were talking about the quality of…I mean, we had a whiteboard, and I remember we started writing down adjectives of what it meant, what a Star Wars film meant. And so we’re writing “mythic but fun.” I remember that was one of the first things we said was, “You know, it has to be fun.” So even before characters or anything else, it was really trying to define what the Star Wars feeling was.

For more, click More, but be warned: There’s a big spoiler in Arndt’s remaining comments.

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How They Write A Script: Walter Bernstein

November 30th, 2015 by

Walter Bernstein was born 1919 and thankfully is still with us, a screenwriter with a lengthy career in which he managed to survive 4 years in the Army during World War II and a stint during which he was blacklisted. Notable films for which Bernstein received credit: Fail-Safe (1964), The Front (1976) for which Bernstein won a WGA Award for best original screenplay, and Semi-Tough (1977).

These interview excerpts are taken from the excellent “Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1960s”, one of a 4-part series edited by Patrick McGilligan.

ON HIS LIFELONG LOVE OF MOVIES

I didn’t quite know what I was going to do after the war, actually. When I came back from overseas, I found myself a father with a year-old daughter. It was tough to get adjusted. But what I really wanted to do was to go to Hollywood. Movies had always been very important to me… That’s where I lived my real life. My fantasy life was at home. Starting Friday evening, after school and going through till Sunday afternoon, I lived in the movies. There was always this sense of weight dropping off me when they took the ticket and I walked into a moviehouse. It was very palpable, very important. I loved the movies.

ON WHAT HE LEARNED ON HIS FIRST HOLLYWOOD JOB WITH WRITER-DIRECTOR BOB ROSSEN

I learned about moving a story in terms of action—a kind of movie storytelling. At one particular point [in the script of All the King’s Men ]—it sticks in my mind—Rossen was trying to figure out how to tell the audience that the Huey Long character was not just a marvelous idealist. He wrote a scene—he didn’t like it; it was too wordy. Then he came up with some idea of a scene with no dialogue, where Broderick Crawford is eating a piece of chicken as people are extolling him—cutting to him and his indifferent reaction—so that we know that he’s not buying any of it. Things like that—visual detail, not dialogue—I learned that from Rossen.

ON BEING BLACKLISTED

I was blacklisted because my name was in Red Channels. That’s the only thing. I was never named, at least publicly. I was subpoenaed later on, but I never appeared.

For the next eight years, it was a question of getting different fronts and working that way. Around that time, Abe Polonsky came east, and along with another man I had become friends with, named Arnold Manoff, we formed a kind of group, the three of us, trying to get fronts and helping each other get work. We wrote many of the subsequent Danger shows. Then they started a show called You Are There, and we wrote almost all of those under various names.

I also worked on Studio One, Westinghouse, Phiico Playhouse —mostly the one-hour dramatic shows. I did everything from Thomton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey to, I remember, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Rich Boy,” which starred Grace Kelly and was a very successful show.

The front that worked the best for me was an old friend of my brother’s, someone I had known since I was ten years old, who had a job on a trade paper, didn’t want to take any money for being a front, and kind of liked the whole idea of going up to story conferences—the playacting part of it. He was the one I used mostly. He was very helpful.

You think of that period as being such an awful period, and it was. But within that, that sense of friendship and helping each other.

ON “THE FRONT”

I had always wanted to do a comedy. Humor was very much a part of me. In college I was editor of the humor magazine. Even in high school, I wrote a humor column for the school newspaper. It was always there. I just kept it down. I didn’t think it was serious, just as nobody thought going to Hollywood was serious. If you were going to be a writer, you should write plays or novels.

But for a long time, Marty [Ritt] and I had been talking about doing something about the blacklist. We wanted to do a straight dramatic story about someone who was blacklisted. We could never get anybody interested at all. It wasn’t until we came up with the idea of a front and making it as a comedy that we were able to get the film done. The Front became my first true comedy.

We went to David Begelman, who was the head of Columbia then. Being the kind of perverse guy that he is, David gave us some money to do a first draft. It was only after we had a first draft that discussions began about a star. We talked about Dustin Hoffman, A Pacino, or Warren Beatty. Certainly, I saw somebody in the role who was not a conventional leading man. I remember, we were talking about it, and Marty said, “What about that . . . kid?” I said, “What kid?” He said, “Woody Allen.” I said, “What a very interesting idea.” So we sent the script to Woody, and he said yes.

It was a very happy experience for all of us. Whether he would acknowledge it or not. Woody got a great deal from Marty in terms of his acting. He was on the film purely as an actor. He didn’t write anything. He only contributed a couple of jokes. The one time he tried something on the picture was the sequence at the end [of the film] where he’s testifying before the committee. We shot the scene and looked at the dailies, then decided we should make it funnier than it was. Woody said, “Let’s shoot it again, and let me improvise.” Marty set up the camera, and Woody improvised. He was hilarious. Only it had nothing to do with the picture. It was like ten minutes of stand-up comedy. Reluctantly, we couldn’t use it.

In some way, I think that picture released me, because I could do comedy after that. I loved doing Semi-Tough, which was really a social satire—not just about football. Things like The Molly Maguires and The Front, which came from scratch, are very important to me and mean a lot to me. But so does Semi-Tough, although it came from a book [Semi-Tough, by Dan Jenkuis (New York: Atheneum, 1972)]. [The director] Michael [Ritehie] and I threw out the story and wrote one of our own. Michael and I did our own movie, just like Marty and I did our own movies.

ON “THE HOUSE ON CARROLL STREET”

The original script was good—and it was the script that I started out to write. The script that was shot was also my script, however. There’s nothing in it that isn’t mine, so I can’t very well say they took it and changed it. But it got unfortunately watered-down and became kind of a one-note thing that happens to have unfelicitous casting. It doesn’t work.

In general, I’ve been very lucky with directors about my scripts. None of them ever wanted to write or to direct their own stuff. With Sidney, he’d read the script, he’d have very strong ideas about certain things, and that would be it. Marty would always spend more introspective time on a script. The difference is also in their personalities and their characters. Michael’s full of ideas. Sidney’s responses are very quick. Marty was always slower, he thought more, chewed it around.

On The House on Carroll Street, I am tempted to say to people . . . there was more to the original script . . . there was a scene that should have been there and is out . . . and there’s a scene they shot, which they didn’t use. But I feel terrible doing that. I hate myself for it.

ON HOLLYWOOD TODAY

I really try not to fall into the nostalgia trap and say, “Gee, it was better twenty years ago.” One of the last times I had dinner with Marty, he was saying that he felt, in his experience there of the last thirty years, that he has never seen studio executives more incompetent, venal, or corrupt than now. But I don’t have that much to do with people in Hollywood. I find it depressing when I have to go out there and meet with them. I never found it exhilarating, particularly. I do find the standards lower. I really do. I find the standards of literacy lower—film literacy, let alone intellectual literacy. There was never, in my experience, this marvelous Golden Age where all that was done was so sacred. And I feel Hollywood today reflects where this country has been going for the last eight, ten, fifteen years. Why shouldn’t it?

It’s fascinating. Some years ago, I went out to Los Angeles to pitch story ideas. My agent set up meetings with Mike Medavoy, Jeff Katzenberg, and Ned Tanen—whoever. You have these meetings with them and always their two assistants. At the end of the day, I couldn’t remember who was who of the assistants. With beards, without beards—whatever. Depressing. They’re bright but interchangeable.

ON WHY HE KEEPS AT IT

I love movies. I love movies. I still get that frisson when I go on a movie set—the most boring business in the world—but I feel that same thing I felt when I walked on the lot of Columbia in ’47: I’m here! It’s always meant that to me. I’ve always wanted to be part of making movies.

The originals—The Molly Maguires and The Front; Semi-Tough; even though the credit is shared with Collin [Welland], Yanks, which I feel very strongly about; and Fail-Safe. The good ones. But the ones that are not so good I feel are mine too, in the sense that I can’t point to any of the ones I’ve done and say, Well, somebody crapped up my script, because that’s not me up there.

I accept the cooperative nature of filmmaking. It’s one of the things that attracts me to movies, that idea. I love working with other people, so that I never feel, or have never felt—maybe it’s a lack of ego—bitter. I accept the nature of that beast—not just accept it, I like it. When I’m working with people I respect, who add creatively to the whole of the thing, I find it exhilarating. I’m a sucker for any kind of communality or community, anywhere but especially, when it’s working well, within a film.

[Originally posted July 31, 2012]

“What makes every Pixar movie tick, in one chart”

November 26th, 2015 by

As loyal GITS readers know, I have an obsession with all things Pixar as they have proven themselves to be master storytellers. So I thought this infographic put together by some folks at Vox was worth highlighting:

PIXAR THEMES GRID

There are some insights to be gleaned here, but it’s a pretty surface level take on what Pixar does. Given the fact that every single Pixar movie has opened at #1, an unparalleled achievement, I’ve always contended writers should really study their approach to storytelling.

What would be ideal is if there were an 1-week online course which analyzed every single Pixar movie, digging into themes, characters, and story structures.

A class which featured interviews with members of the Pixar ‘braintrust’ and an exclusive Q&A with the head of the studio’s story department.

Lectures coming at the subject matter specifically from a writer’s perspective, identifying dynamics common to Pixar movies, as well as storytelling tips.

A class with a title like… Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling.

Hey, wait. I already created that class! And it’s proved to be hugely popular! What’s more, I will be offering it again in January 2016, updated to include this year’s Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur.

So yes, the chart above is helpful. But if you really want to immerse yourself in the Pixar mindset, join me in January for the next session of Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling.

For the Vox article, go here.