Monday, July 21, 2008

Why Moral Indignation Is Good For Your Characters But Bad For You

As promised in a previous posting How To Outrage Your Characters, here is the second aspect of evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers’ argument, as described by Robert Wright, with a twist for screenwriters!

Trivers posits that the human brain has evolved to be heavily biased in its host’s favour when it comes to disputes. The brain selectively remembers arguments (however flimsy) which support its host’s point of view, and conveniently forgets arguments (however valid) negating the same.

Comments Wright:

One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again--whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which--we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn't warranted.

So we’re programmed to be convinced we’re right. All of us. That’s weird. Because, of course, we can’t all be right all of the time, that’s logically impossible. Sometimes you’re just wrong. Or sometimes the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In this light, let’s take a look at a favourite screenwriter emotion: Moral indignation.

How often have you heard, read, or even experienced this: A screenwriter ranting about a producer who simply refuses to see the true value of what they’ve written? Or worse: A screenwriter masochistically wallowing in the role of victim, the exploited artist of the film industry?

If you’re that screenwriter, life sucks. You spend your days pecking out your own liver, cursing the day you ever decided to start writing for the screen.

However, if the screenwriter were one of your characters, you’d be on to a good thing. Before you could say … and the Oscar for best original screenplay goes to … you’d have this character running amok in his own life like a bull in a China shop. It would be clear to see for everyone except the character himself that his refusal to reflect and look at his own faults, is what is dragging him closer and closer to the abyss. And it will take at least until page 75 for this insight to start dawning on the poor guy himself. By which time it’s almost too late …

Of course, in the real world, if you’re still alive it’s never too late. There’s always time to start over and, without losing any of your passion for writing, acknowledge that it’s at least worth considering whether the other party has a point. But that requires letting go of the moral indignation.

Here’s one way to do that:

Step aside and look at your script and your career as if they belonged to your best friend. What would you advise them if you really loved and respected them? Would you tell them to look for a different producer? Change careers? Rewrite the script according to the producer’s notes?

Listen to the advice you would give your best friend, if they were you, as it were. Believe me, I know, I’m always right …

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Screenwriter, Observe Your Surroundings!

Last week, the BBC’s Alan Yentob presented a special edition of Imagine, dedicated to the late, great writer/director Anthony Minghella. As well as being a touching tribute to a very special human being, the programme also gave some interesting insights into Minghella’s working habits. One thing in particular stayed with me:

The actress Juliet Stevenson, star of Minghella’s first major film Truly, Madly, Deeply, recollects that Minghella had a mind like a sponge. He would absorb all sorts of details from his daily experience, including anecdotes people would tell him, and integrate them into his writing.

She recalls telling him, before the film was in production, about a rat infestation in a house she once lived in, which was dealt with by a very peculiar gentleman from the municipality. Imagine her surprise when she read the script and found the incident back in the story, complete with the man from the municipality and all his idiosyncrasies!

This habit, of being constantly alert to interesting and intriguing aspects of everyday life and individual people, is absolutely something to emulate. It’s so easy to overlook the material that’s all around you, staring you in the face, as it were, while trying far too hard to concoct something “original.”

The programme got me thinking. I asked myself this: What have I heard, seen or read about recently that might be worth noting down? Here are just a couple of the many things I came up with:

  • A friend of my wife’s had a terrible leakage in her flat last week. The entire place was submerged, furniture ruined and an immense conflict has been sparked with both the neighbours and the landlord. The exact same thing happened to her a year ago.

  • I stumbled across a blog written by a gun-toting ambulance driver in the US, called A Day In The Life Of An Ambulance Driver; a veritable goldmine of harrowing and fascinating tales.

  • I heard of a couple who enrolled their son in a particular high school at the last moment before the holidays, on recommendation. They have since discovered that the school is 99% Muslim (they aren’t), and they are mortified. They don’t want their son to be such an exception, but they don’t want to be seen as being anti-Muslim (they aren't). In any case, it’s too late to change schools.

  • A few evenings ago, my neighbour’s children locked themselves out while their parents were at friends. Their keys were visible on the kitchen table, but only a tiny top window was still open. I duct-taped two little coloured sticks with magnets attached (from one of my kids’ toy fishing sets) to a garden hoe, and very carefully fished the keys out of the kitchen through the tiny window.

And so on. There’s always a story, a character trait, a scene or even just a beat waiting to be spotted out there!

Go ahead, make a list for yourself and ask yourself what you (or Bruce Willis, or Helen Mirren, or Oliver Hardy) would do in the same situation …

Sunday, July 13, 2008

How To Outrage Your Characters

A recent posting from the charming and inspiring, contained a quote from a book by Robert Wright called The Moral Animal. Here, Wright discusses the work of evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, and mentions two aspects of the way human beings approach arguments which are interesting for screenwriters. Here’s the first:

The reason the generic human arguing style feels so effortless is that, by the time the arguing starts, the work has already been done. Robert Trivers has written about the periodic disputes ... that are often part of a close relationship, whether a friendship or a marriage. The argument, he notes, 'may appear to burst forth spontaneously, with little or no preview, yet as it rolls along, two whole landscapes of information appear to lie already organized, waiting only for the lightning of anger to show themselves.'

Does this sound familiar? It should! Your characters should all have this sense of being a coiled spring, ready to jump. An emotional jack-in-the-box. They should be, “… living in a powder keg and giving off sparks,” to quote a famous old hit song. There’s nothing like a fierce, emotional altercation, apparently about something entirely trivial, to illustrate the meaning of the word subtext.

Remember that phrase, “landscapes of information.” It’s a wonderful way to describe the inner world of your characters. The invisible source of their motivation and their emotional reactions to events around them. It’s the unique accumulation of upbringing, class, education, and so on, mixed with the specific backstory to the relationship or situation we’re seeing the character in.

Just to drive the point home for yourself, imagine the opposite: Your character is involved in a dispute which is about nothing other than the specific issue at hand, say, a speeding ticket.

.............You drove too fast.

.............Are you sure about that?


.............Shucks, I’m awful sorry.

.............Here’s the fine.

.............Thank you, Officer.

Not dramatically very interesting, right? But what if the dispute about the speeding ticket triggers the driver’s broader frustration with the government, with himself, with his wife (how’s he going to explain yet another ticket?) and so on. Not to mention the police officer’s sudden shift in attitude when the offender, driving an expensive car, turns out to be “one of those rich, arrogant douchebags.”

Hey presto, you have two strangers with an entire repertoire of preconceived ideas about each other, with intensely emotional opinions about the situation they’re in, outraged, going head to head within a beat or two. All because of this landscape of information which lies dormant all the time, ready to be activated by the slightest stimulus.

Coming soon to this blog: the second aspect Robert Wright discusses in the excerpt …

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Beware: Your Screenplay is not a Lottery Ticket

Much as I believe in the merits of positive thinking and visualization, I’m also convinced that it’s not possible to make it as a professional screenwriter by writing one script and spending the rest of your time waiting to be discovered.

Just as a writer writes books, so a screenwriter writes scripts. Lots of them. A few of which may eventually become films.

I was reminded of this when I read an interview the other day with Ben Stiller, concerning his latest movie Tropic Thunder. He first conceived of the premise for the film more than twenty years ago, when he was just out of film school and trying to establish himself as an actor and director.

However, Stiller wasn’t able to get the project off the ground then and it became something he returned to regularly during the years he worked tirelessly to establish himself as a hugely successful filmmaker.

His perseverance paid off. When the time was finally right, his reputation and clout made it possible for him to put the project into production. Now the film he dreamed of making so long ago is on general release.

This wouldn’t have happened if Stiller had treated his script as a lottery ticket, and just sat around waiting for his number to be called.

Although there are plenty of anecdotes about screenwriters having lucky breaks which launched their careers, what really counts is talent and stamina. It’s a hard slog. It takes a long time to develop the skills and sensibilities necessary to write a really attractive screenplay.

There’s a dictum in the Talmud which goes something like this: “It is forbidden to count on a miracle.” I think that’s a fairly wise motto for a screenwriter.

By far the best strategy is to keep the initiative. Continue writing, reading and learning. Always have something new on the boil. Keep abreast of developments in the industry. Make new contacts. And don’t wait around to get lucky.