Saturday, December 29, 2007

The deal with the audience

Many people put their faith in charismatic individuals who embody a value they wish they had themselves. The strong leader, the wise guru, the energetic motivator, the happy-go-lucky celebrity, etc.

The same can be said of the way believers find strength in religious images or personalities. It’s also true of the positive side of the therapeutic relationship.

All these situations have in common that an individual vicariously experiences the love, strength, determination, courage or whatever it is they feel they lack. Of course this vicarious experience is a bit of an oxymoron. You can’t really have an emotion without … well, having the emotion.

By attributing the feeling or trait to an external figure, an individual allows that repressed or underdeveloped aspect of themselves to express itself safely. It’s not them feeling brave or loving, it’s God, Saint Bono, their yoga instructor, etc.

Does this sound a little like what happens when you see a really great movie? No coincidence. It’s the same mechanism at work here too. Which is why a main character has to be designed in such a way that the audience can experience their emotions while keeping up the pretence that it’s the character on the screen who is being brave, loving, terrified, etc.

Whether the audience does anything with the emotions they permitted themselves to feel, is their business. But if the film makes them experience compassion, courage, self-confidence or whatever else, it proves the film was well-made and that they have that potential within them.

Which kind of sums up the unspoken deal between audience and filmmaker: The audience pays to be made to experience emotions they normally keep under wraps.

Next time you re-read one of your scenes, imagine yourself in the audience watching it. If you don’t feel anything, uplifting or otherwise, you’re not keeping your side of the bargain.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Is your beard stuck in the thicket?

There are many archetypal images I love from the world of fairy tales. One of my favourites is someone, usually an imp or a demon, with their beard stuck in a thorny bush.

For those of you with a Freudian bias, it might come as a surprise that a bush can stand for anything other than a bush.

However, according to the Jungian school of analytical psychology, especially the late great Marie-Louise von Franz, this image is a depiction of procrastination. It’s a symbolic version of the wrong kind of perfectionism: a person getting caught up in preparation rather than getting down to the task at hand. It’s the epitome of the difference between activity and action. Between the dabbler and the do-er.

One of the reasons I like this image so much is because it's the perfect representation of a screenwriter spending too much time thinking and planning instead of writing. Not that I think preparation is wrong. On the contrary, I use outlines and scene lists myself and for me they work.

The wisdom of this image is that too much focus on preparation is counter-productive. At some point you have to just dive in and start writing. At which point you give the characters the opportunity to come alive and show you, the writer, who they are. That’s when the real fun starts! Plus that’s when you really discover what works and what doesn’t.

In this respect I agree totally with Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, whose wonderful quote I’ve added to this page: “The first draft is nothing more than a starting point, so be wrong as fast as you can.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Do you need to be nagged?

Here’s a link to a wonderful little website I came across the other day, called hassleme. The idea is simple: You enter the text of something you want to be nagged about on a regular basis. You specify the number of days between nags. Then you receive an email every time that number of days passes, or thereabouts, telling you to call your mum, go for a walk or whatever it is you wanted to be prodded into doing.

In itself a cute idea, but perhaps there’s something to learn here as well.

How about being ordered, unexpectedly, every twenty days or so, to drop everything and spend half an hour brainstorming a completely new story?

How often do you have an idea but tell yourself you’re too busy to waste time imagining some new endeavour because you’re up to your ears in your current work? Probably too often. And yet there’s nothing more reassuring (other than a very fat bank account, perhaps) than having a healthy stock of original ideas up your sleeve.

It's not just reassuring, it makes good professional sense too.

You never know when you might be able to pitch an idea or to whom. It’s always good to have a choice of projects to hawk rather than just that single script you’ve been rewriting for seven years.

Anyway, I’ve set up precisely the hassle I described above. No doubt I’ll have forgotten all about it when the first nag arrives in a few weeks’ time. I’ll let you know what happens…

Monday, December 10, 2007

How replaceable are you?

The money and respect a person receives for their labour is usually directly related to the degree to which they are replaceable.

Which is one reason government ministers aren’t the best paid executives in the world.

But seriously. What makes you interesting as a screenwriter is what makes you irreplaceable. What can you write that no one else can? Go ahead, make a list. What do you write best? When do you feel most comfortable and “in the flow” while writing?

Some screenwriters are absolutely the best at writing dialogue, others have a special talent for plot. Some screenwriters write fascinating original stories, while others are experts at adapting novels and short stories for the screen.

You may have inside knowledge of an ethnic or religious group, or perhaps you have experience in a specific trade or profession. Then again, maybe an aspect of the writing itself (dialogue, gags, structure, plot) is what you love doing most.

There are only so many stories to tell, but a unique and intriguing retelling of a familiar story is a highly sought after commodity in the film industry. So whatever raises your writing above the generic, is what makes you an interesting prospect to work with.

The only way to succeed is to acknowledge and nurture what is personal and unique about your writing. That is what makes your writing attractive, not contrived plot devices or derivative rehashes of the latest Hollywood genre crossover.

This also means recognizing what you’re not good at, which is perhaps even more arduous but equally worthwhile. But more about that some other time. I need to get back to work.

Now then, where’s that hugely original outline I was writing about a genetically mutated child prodigy born to an Eskimo mother and an Italian newspaper magnate, who travels back in time in an attempt to prevent the dinosaurs from going extinct …