There’s No Right Way To Write: Part 4

July 3rd, 2014 by

There is no right way to write. No one way. No single approach, paradigm, theory or magic formula. No easy path. There is only the writer. Their creativity. Their stories. And lots of hard work.This week I’ve decided to feature the words of four screenwriters each day to demonstrate the endless varieties of ways to approach the craft of writing:

PAUL MAZURSKY (Harry and Tonto, Down and Out in Beverly Hills)

“In almost everything I’ve done I’ve tried to see the whole, but I don’t think anything I’ve ever done I ever really did see the whole at the beginning of writing. As the process of writing commenced, at some point… and this always is frightening… it would start to go off in places, and those places would sometimes be… well, they would make me feel elated because they were coming out nicely and real characters were taking over, or they’d made me nervous because they’d be so far away from the original idea.

“I never think what is a good theme. I never think about it, I just think about ideas that plots or people… I never say to myself, well, let’s make a film about the state of marriage in America today. I guess I’m afraid of pretense. Not to say that people who think about things are pretentious, but I sort of agree with Sam Goldwyn who said, ‘If you have a message, use Western Union.’”

ROY HUGGINS (I Love Trouble, creator of “The Rockford Files”

“A screenplay is a series of interesting scenes. Too often scenes are boring in order to head to an unusual ending. This defeats the purpose of what the writer is trying to do – keep the audience’s attention. The writer should work the story through, scene by scene, never jumping ahead until the scene he’s been working on works and is interesting.”

CHARLIE KAUFMAN (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation)

“My theory about creative work is that 99 percent of it is intention. When you go in with the intention of exploring something real, then that’s what you’ll get no matter what’s around it. It may not even be successful—people may not like it and it may make no money—but that is what you’ll have. And if you go into something with the intention of showing off and just being absurd for absurdity’s sake, then hey, that’s what you’ll get. I’m interested in trying to find a real moment between people, and hopefully that’s what people get out of my work.

“I honestly don’t think I ever really knew the rules enough to break them. I feel like I knew how to write a TV script because I’d watched a lot of TV as a kid, and because I had a natural affinity for understanding how comedy works—joke, set-up, punchline, that sort of thing. When I started screenwriting, I never really knew what I was doing, but I instinctively understood how to do it.

“Most screenwriting is very formulaic writing, and the reason my stuff breaks away from that is that I’m just not interested in the formula. But maybe it’s in there in my head, and on some other level I do understand how I’m breaking away from it. I’ve never really thought about it that way… Sometimes I do things as a reaction to the conservativeness of the medium. But more often, it’s just that I feel I have the freedom to do whatever I want in my writing.”

ELEANOR PERRY (Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Swimmer)

“In my head, although it’s not obvious in the screenplay, is a three-act structure. And the Greeks were right… that’s all there is to it. The three-act structure works. So that I don’t mean there’s 35 pages in every act… it isn’t rigid. But if you remember that in the first act you set up the problem, you set up the characters, you set up the setting. Then the second act you go into the complications and the conflicts and the confrontations and in the third act you resolve everything. That is roughly the structure of every film anyway.

“Each writer starts differently, but I think the only valid way is to start with character. Character is plot. Character is story. The human behavior and human feelings and emotions and thought is what makes a story.

“I always start with a scene I adore. Of course later I have to adjust it 80 times to fit the beginning and the set and everything else… but it’s worth it because it loosens, it opens the gates, and you have something on paper and it’s good.”

I can hear the subtext of your thoughts in reading this series of posts: Why is Myers bothering us with this news? Because it’s the truth. And if you’ve run into this teacher or that who suggests they have the key to screenwriting success or there is a secret formula to writing a hit screenplay, you deserve to know there is no such thing.

Professional screenwriters know this. They understand full well how each writer has to go on their own unique journey to find their voice. Frankly it’s one of the reasons some screenwriters express public skepticism about the very idea that a so-called screenwriting guru can bring any value to the table.

I disagree with that because there are writers, teachers, and mentors who do have things of value to say about the craft. But it’s definitely a case of buyer beware. It’s incumbent upon you to test everything you hear and read — including anything I say — against your own developing sense of yourself as a writer.

There’s no right way to write: Part 4

September 6th, 2012 by

There is no right way to write. No one way. No single approach, paradigm, theory or magic formula. No easy path. There is only the writer. Their creativity. Their stories. And lots of hard work.This week I’ve decided to feature the words of four screenwriters each day to demonstrate the endless varieties of ways to approach the craft of writing:

PAUL MAZURSKY (Harry and Tonto, Down and Out in Beverly Hills)

“In almost everything I’ve done I’ve tried to see the whole, but I don’t think anything I’ve ever done I ever really did see the whole at the beginning of writing. As the process of writing commenced, at some point… and this always is frightening… it would start to go off in places, and those places would sometimes be… well, they would make me feel elated because they were coming out nicely and real characters were taking over, or they’d made me nervous because they’d be so far away from the original idea.

“I never think what is a good theme. I never think about it, I just think about ideas that plots or people… I never say to myself, well, let’s make a film about the state of marriage in America today. I guess I’m afraid of pretense. Not to say that people who think about things are pretentious, but I sort of agree with Sam Goldwyn who said, ‘If you have a message, use Western Union.’”

ROY HUGGINS (I Love Trouble, creator of “The Rockford Files”

“A screenplay is a series of interesting scenes. Too often scenes are boring in order to head to an unusual ending. This defeats the purpose of what the writer is trying to do – keep the audience’s attention. The writer should work the story through, scene by scene, never jumping ahead until the scene he’s been working on works and is interesting.”

CHARLIE KAUFMAN (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation)

“My theory about creative work is that 99 percent of it is intention. When you go in with the intention of exploring something real, then that’s what you’ll get no matter what’s around it. It may not even be successful—people may not like it and it may make no money—but that is what you’ll have. And if you go into something with the intention of showing off and just being absurd for absurdity’s sake, then hey, that’s what you’ll get. I’m interested in trying to find a real moment between people, and hopefully that’s what people get out of my work.

“I honestly don’t think I ever really knew the rules enough to break them. I feel like I knew how to write a TV script because I’d watched a lot of TV as a kid, and because I had a natural affinity for understanding how comedy works—joke, set-up, punchline, that sort of thing. When I started screenwriting, I never really knew what I was doing, but I instinctively understood how to do it.

“Most screenwriting is very formulaic writing, and the reason my stuff breaks away from that is that I’m just not interested in the formula. But maybe it’s in there in my head, and on some other level I do understand how I’m breaking away from it. I’ve never really thought about it that way… Sometimes I do things as a reaction to the conservativeness of the medium. But more often, it’s just that I feel I have the freedom to do whatever I want in my writing.”

ELEANOR PERRY (Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Swimmer)

“In my head, although it’s not obvious in the screenplay, is a three-act structure. And the Greeks were right… that’s all there is to it. The three-act structure works. So that I don’t mean there’s 35 pages in every act… it isn’t rigid. But if you remember that in the first act you set up the problem, you set up the characters, you set up the setting. Then the second act you go into the complications and the conflicts and the confrontations and in the third act you resolve everything. That is roughly the structure of every film anyway.

“Each writer starts differently, but I think the only valid way is to start with character. Character is plot. Character is story. The human behavior and human feelings and emotions and thought is what makes a story.

“I always start with a scene I adore. Of course later I have to adjust it 80 times to fit the beginning and the set and everything else… but it’s worth it because it loosens, it opens the gates, and you have something on paper and it’s good.”

I can hear the subtext of your thoughts in reading this series of posts: Why is Myers bothering us with this news? Because it’s the truth. And if you’ve run into this teacher or that who suggests they have the key to screenwriting success or there is a secret formula to writing a hit screenplay, you deserve to know there is no such thing.

Professional screenwriters know this. They understand full well how each writer has to go on their own unique journey to find their voice. Frankly it’s one of the reasons some screenwriters express public skepticism about the very idea that a so-called screenwriting guru can bring any value to the table.

I disagree with that because there are writers, teachers, and mentors who do have things of value to say about the craft. But it’s definitely a case of buyer beware. It’s incumbent upon you to test everything you hear and read — including anything I say — against your own developing sense of yourself as a writer.

[Originally posted March 3, 2011]

Screenwriting 101: Charlie Kaufman

August 28th, 2012 by

“I think it’s my responsibility to write about the things that interest me. I feel that I’d be doing a disservice to anybody and everybody to not do what I thought was good. Because other than that, you should be in advertising or something. I think that’s what you’re trained to do. I think that’s what the studios do to a certain extent. But I think you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this interesting to me?’ ‘Is this funny to me?’ ‘Is this something I’d want to see?’ That’s something I always ask myself: ‘Is this a movie that I would go to see?’ And if the answer is yes, then it’s something to pursue. Otherwise you’re being cynical.”

— Charlie Kaufman, “Creative Screenwriting” magazine, March/April 2002

Charlie Kaufman BAFTA lecture [Final]

December 23rd, 2011 by

During the last two weeks, I’ve excerpted a recent lecture Charlie Kaufman gave at a British Academy for Film and Television Arts event. Here are links to the entire speech:

For Part 1 of this series, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

For Part 5, go here.

For Part 6, go here.

For Part 7, go here.

For Part 8, go here.

What did you learn from Kaufman’s lecture? And more generally, what have Kaufman’s movies taught you as a writer and creative thinker?

Charlie Kaufman BAFTA lecture [Part 8]

December 22nd, 2011 by

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?

Audience: No!

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.

LAUGHTER

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.

APPLAUSE

For Part 1 of this series, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

For Part 5, go here.

For Part 6, go here.

For Part 7, go here.

To watch the video of Kaufman’s presentation, go here.

To subscribe to the BAFTA newsletter, go here.

To the best fansite dedicated to Charlie Kaufman, go to Being Charlie Kaufman.

HT to @Brentwgraham for the link.

Charlie Kaufman BAFTA lecture [Part 7]

December 21st, 2011 by

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 7.

I read an article about bullying recently. Everyone is up in arms about bullying. A vocal minority thinks it’s a good thing. That it’s part of growing up, that it builds character. What was left out of this article and doesn’t seem to be part of the discussion is that bullying is a significant element of our culture. The bullying of children by children doesn’t come from nowhere. The question remains whether bullying is an inherent aspect of human nature, but that doesn’t change the fact that a culture which discourages rather than encourages bullying would have a better chance of curbing it.

Our culture is marketing. What is marketing? Trying to get people to do what you want them to. It’s what drives our consumer culture. It’s what drives our politics; it’s what drives our art. Music, movies, books, fine arts, it’s part of every research grant proposal. I don’t want to participate. I don’t want to tell you how to sell a screenplay or tell you how to write a hit, or tell you how to fit into the existing system. I want to tell you that I have a hope that there’s another way to be in this world, and that I believe with courage, vulnerability and honesty that the stuff we put into the world can serve a better purpose.

The way movies work now, and I’m talking about mainstream industry, the only goal is to get you to buy a product. The only goal. The only goal. The only goal. The only goal. And this intention creates the movies that we sit through, and the movies that we sit through create us. In government we’ve been reduced to the same game. Through trickery, obfuscation, bullying and fear mongering, the goal of marketing a candidate is achieved.

I don’t understand many things, I don’t know as much as I’d like about anything, but I’m a human being and I won’t be in competition for the right to be treated decently. I won’t play that game. Nor should anybody have to. In turn, I will try not to use whatever access I have to the public’s fear to sell things, including myself.

The world is very scary now. It always has been. But something grotesque and specific to our time is blanketing us. We need to see that it is not reality; it is a choice we are making or allowing other people to make for us.

I sincerely hope that I have something of interest or value to say tonight. I can’t tell anyone how to write a screenplay because the truth is that anything of value you might do comes from you. The way I work is not the way that you work, and the whole point of any creative act is that. What I have to offer is me, what you have to offer is you, and if you offer yourself with authenticity and generosity I will be moved. You are born into a body, into a family, into a situation, into a brain chemistry, into a gender, into a culture, into a time – as am I. At times I can feel the massive gravitation pulling of all these various things, pulling me in different directions, creating me.

I watch the reactions I have, that are as much my father’s as they are mine. I know they are inherited through genes and situation, just as they have been for my father. And I feel immense loneliness in this prison, coupled with a great shame because I can see that this prison has an open door. But I can’t get through it. How weak I am. How can I not be a saner person? A healthier person? A more generous person? My sneaker company tells me that I can, and that it’s up to me. It is a sign of great weakness if I don’t ‘Just Do It’.

And these are the priests of our culture, the therapists, the Dad with a firm hand but your best interests at heart. A sneaker company that runs sweatshops in Third World countries. This is our Dad. And I don’t know about you but I can be moved to tears by these commercials that these people put out. And I think it’s despicable.

Allow yourself the freedom to change as you discover… I’m, like, dripping. It’s like I’m watching it rain off of me. It’s not only nerves; it is actually hot up here. But this wool suit – which I wore because I was told London is a chilly place, you know – it’s not working. It’s really bad. I need a suit made out of stuff that’s got holes in it, that athletes wear sometimes. Mesh stuff, a mesh suit would be good.

Allow yourself the freedom to change as you discover, allow your screenplay to grow and change as you work on it. You will discover things as you work. You must not put these things aside, even if they’re inconvenient. Let’s not disregard all the little voices in order to simplify. Do not simplify. Let’s not worry about what it looks like, let’s not worry about failure. Failure is a badge of honour; it means you risked failure. If you don’t risk failure you’re never going to do anything that’s different than what you’ve already done, or what somebody else has done.

Just know that that’s the choice you’re making when you won’t put yourself at jeopardy like that. Don’t compartmentalise to make things simpler than they are, and don’t work towards results. Allow yourself time, let things brew. You’re thinking about it, whether you realise it or not. Letting the unconscious take over brings in freedom and surprise and removes judgement. At every single moment, every single person wants something. Often many things, often conflicting things. Understand this about your characters and yourself.

For Part 1 of this series, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

For Part 5, go here.

For Part 6, go here.

To watch the video of Kaufman’s presentation, go here.

To subscribe to the BAFTA newsletter, go here.

To the best fansite dedicated to Charlie Kaufman, go to Being Charlie Kaufman.

HT to @Brentwgraham for the link.

Charlie Kaufman BAFTA lecture [Part 6]

December 20th, 2011 by

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 6.

So what is a screenplay, or what might it be? Since we’re talking specifically about screenplays tonight. A screenplay is an exploration. It’s about the thing you don’t know. It’s a step into the abyss. It necessarily starts somewhere, anywhere; there is a starting point but the rest is undetermined. It is a secret, even from you. There’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them. We’ve been conned into thinking there is a pre-established form. Like any big business, the film business believes in mass production. It’s cheaper and more efficient as a business model.

But I don’t want to talk about that aspect of screenwriting. Here’s what I know about a screenplay; simply that it is a text which describes what happens in a movie. And I’m not even sure about this definition.

I think what might make this form of endeavour exciting for writers is that they find themselves in an environment where they’re encouraged to use their powers to explore the world, their minds and the form itself. Think about the staggering possibilities of the marriage of light, vibration and time. I think craft is a dangerous thing. I saw a trailer for a movie, I don’t want to say what the movie is, but it’s coming out soon. And it was gorgeous, it was… gorgeous. And it made me really depressed, and I was trying to figure out why.

I think there was an amazing amount of craft and skill on the part of the filmmakers in this movie. And yet it was the same shit. I know that this movie is going to do really well, and I know that the people who made it are going to get rewarded for it, and so the cycle continues. So I think the danger of craft is that it needs to be in second position to what it is that you’re doing.

It’s seductive to put it in first position, often because what you’re doing is meaningless or worthless, or just more of the same. So you can distinguish yourself by being very, very good at it. I think you need to be willing to be naked when you do anything creatively in film or any other form, that’s really what you have to do because otherwise it’s very hard to separate it from marketing. I think that it just sort of becomes what it’s about.

“The speaker stands on the stage, he looks out at the audience, he doesn’t really know why he’s here. Not really. More and more in his life he finds himself in places he can’t explain, not really explain. He knows he’s here to give a speech and he’s told himself he intends to do some good with it. But he knows that reason crumbles to dust under investigation. What he wants is to change who he is. Each predicament such as this one, each challenge, he accepts. He accepts in order to move himself to the next level of truthfulness.

Each time he goes in hoping he will come out a real person. He knows if he just takes enough risks, eventually he will be something. Something that lives a real life. Sweat forms on his brow.” How did I know [about the sweat]? It’s amazing, because I wrote this a week ago, so…

“Pools under his arms.” It is but I won’t show you. “He can feel it dripping down his sleeves, further moistening his clammy hands…” Actually my hands aren’t clammy, they don’t get clammy. That’s one of my blessings. The only part, for some reason. It’s wet now, but that’s because I rubbed my forehead.

He is to speak on a subject, he has been chosen as an expert, but the subject is unclear to him and he’s lonely, is the truth of it. He feels trapped under burdens so immense, the history he carries, the thwarted relationships, the compromised relationships, the longing that drapes him like a shroud. The want. He is a wanting machine, ever wanting. He looks out at the audience. They don’t know what to make of him. Why is he reading this story up there? He is to be giving a speech about screenwriting. Someone in the audience is happy, a train wreck is in progress and he is witnessing it.

The speaker knows this. He believes he has considered every possible audience reaction. He wants to be liked by them, he wants to be admired and adored, he wants to be found attractive. He hates himself for this, this is the stuff that it always comes down to and his goal here tonight was to be different. He wants to be real. Real in this contrived place. But he can’t be. The truth suddenly stares him in the face, this is who he is, this is the real him. This needy, wanting thing. Up here for the same aggrandisement as everyone else who does this. ‘Look at me.’

But the pain and hollowness is real, the pain that stretches back into the haze that is his childhood. He leaves. That’s it, it’s nothing like anything he has ever done. He walks off the stage. ‘People have paid money’ he thinks, as he leaves. ‘This will be on YouTube. I am finished, this life I lived until this point is now different forever, just by walking off the stage. Will they refuse to pay for my hotel room now? For my flight home? This was a terrible mistake. Maybe I can go back,’ he considers.

‘Maybe I can say ‘I needed to get something backstage.’’ He looks around, grabs a water bottle and heads back to the lectern. He tells the audience he needed some water, and to please forgive the interruption. He pantomimes surprise when he sees that there is already water on the lectern, he makes a joke about all that water… something self-deprecating. The usual stuff he is known for, eunuch-y and easy. He gets a laugh, and he’s back. Back in the comfort zone, back in Fakeville, and he’s ashamed but he’s got to make it through.

So he pulls the old standby on his subject of expertise, and he does his creaky modest bit and he gets through it. He’s played the game and he’s changed nothing in himself or the world, but the people who have brought him here seem satisfied. He is despairing. He had thought about this evening for months. The importance of it in his head had become unwieldy, he would change course with this lecture. This would be the real him revealed for the first time and then he would be free. And now it’s over and it’s all the same. He returns to his hotel and sits at the bar. There is no hope left.”

For Part 1 of this series, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

For Part 5, go here.

To watch the video of Kaufman’s presentation, go here.

To subscribe to the BAFTA newsletter, go here.

To the best fansite dedicated to Charlie Kaufman, go to Being Charlie Kaufman.

HT to @Brentwgraham for the link.

Charlie Kaufman BAFTA lecture [Part 5]

December 19th, 2011 by

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 5.

This is Harold Pinter: ‘A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don’t have to weep about that, the writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb, you find no shelter, no protection, unless you lie. In which case, of course, you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.’

It’s weird to be a human. We get to think about things, we get to wonder. It seems like quite a privileged position in the universe. And I wouldn’t give it up for certainty because when you’re certain you stop being curious. And here’s the one thing I know about the thing you’re certain about; you’re wrong.

Of course this is a paradox, how is it possible to know that you can’t know anything? It isn’t, it’s just a theory. And I remain open to being proven wrong. This is also Harold Pinter – I like Harold Pinter: ‘There never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art, there are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.’

That’s the end of that, because I’m going to go on now and I didn’t want you to think it was Harold Pinter anymore. Now this is me for a while. I think. Yeah, it’s me for a while. A manifesto is a valuable thing; it is everything else anyone tells you about; how to do things, something to react against. It gives you a focus, a framework with which to say, ‘Why?’ This is also true with any psychological or emotional insight you might have or might read or see expressed.

It’s always a mistake to settle on any explanation for anything, because whatever you settle on you will be wrong, even if you’re right. Everything is ephemeral; everything is in a constant state of flux. Thinking past any conclusion you’ve drawn will reward you with a more complex insight and a more compassionate world view. This is something I’m constantly trying to learn and re-learn.

There’s another quote that I like, this one’s a little long, but I think it’s good. It’s by a guy named John Garvey: ‘I am increasingly convinced that the need to be right has nothing whatsoever to do with the love of truth, but to face the implications of this means accepting a painful inner emptiness; I am not now what I sense somehow I am meant to be. I do not know what I feel from the bottom of my heart, I need to know. The beginning of wisdom is not to flee from this condition or distract yourself from it. It is essential not to fill it up with answers that have not been earned. It is important to learn how to wait with that emptiness. It is the desire to fill up that emptiness which leads to political or religious fanaticism.’

Think about your reaction to me, think past it. Why do you have that reaction? Why do you react a certain way to certain things? What does your reaction have to do with your wants? How does it correlate? How would your reaction to what I’m saying change if I were older? Younger? Female? A different race? British? What does it mean about you, that it would change? What does it mean about the subjectivity of your opinions? What if I was me but had a different demeanour? What if I was more confident? Less confident? What if I was more effeminate? What if I was less effeminate? What if I was drunk? What if I was on the verge of tears?

Think about all the assessments, all the interpretations that occur with each interaction. Think about all that you bring to each encounter. Multiply that by all the people here. How much is going on in this room and how do we weave that into a movie?

The challenge of multiple points of view forces us to come up with solutions, to throw away conventional approaches. Movies tend to be very concrete in their construction of events and characters. It’s a tricky medium in which to deal with interior lives. But I think it’s really a great medium for it. Movies share so much with dreams which, of course, only deal with interior lives. Your brain is wired to turn emotional states into movies.

Your dreams are very well written. I know this, without knowing any of you. People turn anxieties, crises and longing, love, regret and guilt into beautiful rich stories in their dreams. What is it that allows us the creative freedom in our dreams that we don’t have in our waking lives? I don’t know, but I suspect part of it is that in our dreams we are not constricted by worry about how we will appear to others. It’s a private conversation with ourselves, and if we’re worried about it, this becomes part of the dream. I think if we were better able to approach our work this way, the results would be different.

For Part 1 of this series, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

To watch the video of Kaufman’s presentation, go here.

To subscribe to the BAFTA newsletter, go here.

To the best fansite dedicated to Charlie Kaufman, go to Being Charlie Kaufman.

HT to @Brentwgraham for the link.

Charlie Kaufman BAFTA lecture [Part 4]

December 16th, 2011 by

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 4.

As I’m sure you know, there is a fungus – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis – that infects the brains of carpenter ants and it turns them into zombie slaves, more or less. What happens is that the ants climb to the underside of leaves near the forest floor, secure themselves to the leaves and then die, becoming a food source for the fungus.

Eventually the positioning of the ant corpse serves to allow the spores to burst out of the ant’s head and rain down on other ants. This is true. And it’s very successful. There is fossil record of this occurring up to 48 million years ago. The thing that’s fascinating about this to me is that the ant is acting mindlessly against its own interests and the interests of its fellow ants by becoming a tool of the fungus. I think a similar system has evolved in our culture.

When I first started to work in series television I didn’t need to take a course in how to write a half hour comedy. I knew what to do because I had been raised as a consumer of TV series. I understood the rhythms, I understood the types of jokes that were acceptable, I understood the stock characters. And of course all of this was in service of the perpetuation of the same consumer culture that trained me and made me desire to be part of it. I was a zombie.

It’s a massive issue because the business I’m in is the same business that politicians and corporations are in. It’s a business of selling something that’s important to them by disguising it as something that’s important to you. And it’s ubiquitous. And I don’t think it’s symbiotic. As far as I can tell the carpenter ants don’t get a damn thing out of it, so my thinking as a carpenter ant is that I want to do what I can to understand my carpenter ant self and not mindlessly disseminate the fungal spores of my masters. I like that line too.

I think the best way to begin to combat the systemic indoctrination is to look at intention. The aphorism, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions,’ doesn’t ring true to me. I think intention is at the bottom of everything. My intentions are shifting and complex and often at odds with each other. And if I know what they are, and watch them closely as they slip and slide all over the place, I have a better chance of putting something honest into the world and this is my goal. My own Hippocratic Oath – I do not want to harm.

I am painfully conscious of the harm that occurs when participating in the media with unclear intentions. I do not want to be a salesman, I do not want to scream, ‘Buy me!’ or, ‘Watch me!’ And I don’t want to do that tonight. What I’m trying to express – what I’d like to express – is the notion that, by being honest, thoughtful and aware of the existence of other living beings, a change can begin to happen in how we think of ourselves and the world, and ourselves in the world. We are not the passive audience for this big, messed up power play.

We don’t have to be. We can say who we are, we can assert our right to existence, we can say to the bullies and conmen, the people who try to shame us, embarrass us, flatter us, to the people who have no compunction about lying to us to get our money and our allegiance that we are thinking – really thinking – about who we are, and we’ll express ourselves and other people won’t feel so alone.

For Part 1 of this series, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

To watch the video of Kaufman’s presentation, go here.

To subscribe to the BAFTA newsletter, go here.

To the best fansite dedicated to Charlie Kaufman, go to Being Charlie Kaufman.

HT to @Brentwgraham for the link.

Charlie Kaufman BAFTA lecture [Part 3]

December 15th, 2011 by

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 3.

My first writing job was on a TV show called Get A Life, starring Chris Elliott. The show was mostly in the voice of its creators Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick. They’d worked together on The David Letterman Show and Chris’ character came from that show. So consequently Adam Resnick’s scripts were the best of the show and we all tried to write in Adam’s voice; that was the job.

I was frustrated with my results, but it occurred to me that there was no solution to this problem as long as my job was trying to imitate someone else’s voice. I could maybe get close but I was never going to get better at it than Adam. Rich Little can’t be better than Johnny Carson at Johnny Carson, you know?

The obvious solution was not to throw my hands up but try to find myself in a situation where I was doing me, not someone else. Do you. It isn’t easy but it’s essential. It’s not easy because there’s a lot in the way. In many cases a major obstacle is your deeply seated belief that you are not interesting. And since convincing yourself that you are interesting is probably not going to happen, take it off the table. Think, ‘Perhaps I’m not interesting but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. And by offering myself in a true way I am doing a great service to the world, because it is rare and it will help.’

As I move through time, things change. I change, the world changes, the way the world sees me changes. I age, I fail, I succeed, I am lost. I have a moment of calm. The remnants of who I have been, however, hover, embarrass me, depress me, make me wistful. The inkling of who I will be depresses me, makes me hopeful, scares me, and embarrasses me. And here I stand at this crossroads, always embarrassed, wistful, depressed, angry, longing, looking back, looking forward.

I may make a decision and move from that crossroads, at which point I find myself instantly at another crossroads. Therefore there is only movement. A screenplay is movement. It is written in time and expresses a passage of time. It is made in time, and it is viewed in time. It’s a movie, it moves.

‘That’s two hours I’ll never get back,’ is a favourite thing for an angry person to say about a movie he hates. But the thing is, every two hours are two hours he’ll never get back. You cannot hoard your two hourses [sic].

So you are here, and I am here, spending our time as we must, it must be spent. I am trying not to spend this time, as I spend most of my time, trying to get you to like me; trying to control your thoughts, to use my voodoo at the speed of light, the speed of sound, the speed of thought, trying to convince you that your two hours with me are not going to be resented afterwards.

It is an ancient pattern of time usage for me, and I’m trying to move deeper, hoping to be helpful. This pattern of time usage paints over an ancient wound, and paints it with bright colours. It’s a sleight of hand, a distraction, so to attempt to change the pattern let me expose the wound. I now step into this area blindly, I do not know what the wound is, I do know that it is old. I do know that it is a hole in my being. I do know it is tender. I do believe that it is unknowable, or at least unable to be articulable.

I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone. I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected, it is the thing that must be tap danced over five shows a day, it is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed. It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live.

It is the thing from which your art, your painting, your dance, your composition, your philosophical treatise, your screenplay is born. If you don’t acknowledge this you will come up here when it is your time and you will give your speech and you will talk about the business of screenwriting. You will say that as a screenwriter you are a cog in a business machine, you will say it is not an art form. You will say, ‘Here, this is what a screenplay looks like.’ You will discuss character arcs, how to make likeable characters. You will talk about box office. This is what you will do, this is who you will be and after you are done I will feel lonely and empty and hopeless. And I will ask you for my two hours back. I will do this to indicate my lack of love for you.

I will do this to communicate that you are a waste of time as a human being. It will be an ugly thing for me to say. It will be intended to hurt you. It will be wrong for me to say. It will lack compassion. And it will hurt you. And you will either dismiss it or take it in, but in either case you will hear it and it will affect you. And you will think about what you can do next time so you can be more lovable, and with that your wound will be buried further. Or you will think about how hateful people are and how your armour needs to be thicker so that you can proceed as planned with your ideas. With that, your wound will be buried further.

For Part 1 of this series, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

To watch the video of Kaufman’s presentation, go here.

To subscribe to the BAFTA newsletter, go here.

To the best fansite dedicated to Charlie Kaufman, go to Being Charlie Kaufman.

HT to @Brentwgraham for the link.