On September 30, 2011, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman gave a lecture at a British Academy of Film and Television Arts event. I thought his presentation offered such wonderful insights not only into Kaufman’s world view, but also the very act of creativity that we should go through the entire thing on GITS. Today: Part 8.
Storytelling is inherently dangerous. 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 one hundredth time. It’s not the same thing. A few components enter into the change. One is perspective. Most people think perspective is a good thing to have in a story. You can figure out characters arcs, you can apply a moral, you can tell it from a distance with understanding and context. The problem is that this perspective is a misrepresentation of the incident; it’s a reconstruction with meaning and as such bears very little resemblance to the event.
The other thing that happens in storytelling is the process of adjustment for the audience over time. You find out which part of the story works, which parts to embellish, which parts to jettison. You fashion it. Your goal, your reasons for telling it are to be entertaining, to garner sympathy. This is true for a story told at a dinner party, and it’s true for stories told in movies.
I’m sifting through now, to see if there’s stuff… So I should stop soon?
CK: I’ll do this part now because this sort of relates. So in relation to that, don’t let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include or what form it must take. As an experiment, go out of your way to write a non-story. It will still be a story, but it will have a chance of being a different story. Our brains make stories. It is as basic to us as breathing; we cannot do otherwise. Free yourself – and by extension the rest of us – with your efforts. If you give yourself too specific an assignment you will keep yourself locked away from your work. Go where it takes you. If you say you want to write about homeless people, and in the end reveal their humanity, you’ll end up with something illustrative and perhaps instructive.
If you say, ‘There aren’t words to put this moan I feel in me, but I’m going to swim in it and see what happens,’ you’ll end up with something real. But you’ll have to throw away any predetermined notion of what real is. It doesn’t mean you’ll end up with a million dollar screenplay or that critics will love it. You can write to that if that’s your goal. In the process you might lose track of who you are but that’s okay. They’ll assign you an identity.
With a screenplay you’re creating a world; consider everything, every character, every room, every juxtaposition, every increment of time as an embodiment of that world. Look at all of this through that filter and make sure it is all consistent. As in a painting, every element is part of one whole composition, just as there is nothing separate in the actual world there should be nothing separate in the world you create.
This is a little thing that I wrote, that’s just a personal thing for me, and it’s very… I don’t know, but you’ll see. But I hate this, so I’m just going to share with you that I hate it. ‘Do not write jokes to your readers in your stage directions.’ You know what I mean by that? People do that. Don’t do that. Your job is to create an atmosphere. You’re trying to establish a mood. You’re writing a story and what you’re trying to do is to help this large group of people who are going to come together to understand the tone and the spirit and the feeling of this movie so that they can come together and make it. That’s what you should spend your time on, not with winks and stuff. Not winking at people.
This is all gold by the way [referring to his notes], but I’m… you know, some of this I’ve covered. I’ll tell you this little story now, and I don’t know why I’m telling it but it’s interesting to me and it just seems like there’s something inherently cinematic about it. I run in my neighbourhood, and one day I ran past this guy who was running in the other direction, an older guy, a big hulky kind of guy, really struggling, huffing and puffing. I was kind of going down a slight hill and he was coming up the hill. But it was very slight, and he was wearing a headband and his sweatshirt.
So he passes me and he goes, ‘Well sure, it’s all downhill that way,’ and I love that joke because it’s funny. And he made a connection and it was sort of a witty thing to say. So I had it in my head that I like this guy, this is a cool guy, you know, and he’s my friend now. So a few weeks later I’m passing by him again, I see him in the distance coming towards me, we’re going opposite ways, and I’m thinking, ‘There’s the guy, that’s cool.’ So as we pass each other he says, ‘Well sure, it’s all downhill that way.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, okay. He’s got a repertoire, and doesn’t know… I’m not that special. He’s probably said it to other people. Maybe he doesn’t remember me, he’s an older guy, maybe there’s some… but okay. I laughed. But this time my laugh was a little forced, because I’ve got all these things going on in my head and I’m disappointed.
And then I pass him again, and he says it again. And this time he’s going downhill and I’m going uphill. So it doesn’t even make any sense any more, it’s not about anything. And I started to have so much pain about this, because I’m embarrassed for him and there’s something wrong with him I think. And then it just keeps happening. It’s all downhill that way. Probably heard it seven or eight more times. And I start to avoid him. I see him coming and I cross the street because you know… And if I can’t cross the street then I look like I’m really focused on my running, he says it anyway if he passes me, even if I’m not looking.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this story, except that I like the idea that changes over time and nothing has changed. What’s changed is all in my head and has to do with a realisation on my character’s part through time. There’s no outward story here, and it can only be told in a form. It can’t be told in a painting, I guess is the point I’m making. I wouldn’t know how to do that, and… I’m probably reaching here to say this, but I do think that when you’re doing a movie, when you’re doing a screenplay, you have to know why it’s a movie. And if it doesn’t have to be a movie then you shouldn’t make it.
It’s very important that what you do is specific to the medium in which you’re doing it. And that you utilise what’s specific about that medium to do the work. And if you can’t think about why it should be done this way or needs to be done this way, then it doesn’t need to be done this way and then you should figure out what it is about this – if you want to do it – that needs to be told in the form of a movie.
I think about YouTube, I really do think about it, because this stuff just ends up on there and then everybody in the world says what a jerk you are or whatever, you know. It’s a very weird thing to think about that as the thing that you’re contending with when you come and do anything in public; this other sort of element of mindless aggression that exists on the internet.
I’ve got a bunch of other stuff, but I think it’s 8.02 so I think I should stop and do the Q&A. Yeah? Okay, because my other stuff is my B material. Thank you.
HT to @Brentwgraham for the link.