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 …


Anonymous said...

hEY Dave,
If I use the backstory from my ex-girlfriend or ex-wife or maybe future mistresses, do I have to get their permission?


Raving Dave Herman said...

Hi A,

Let me answer like this: Most writers will tell you their fictional characters are based on a combination of real people they’ve met. Their fictional stories are inspired by authentic events they’ve experienced or very real questions and dilemma’s they’ve faced.

So unless you’re making documentaries about your (ex-)lovers, then whatever your experiences are with them, simply approach them as a starting point. An inspiration from which a new, fictional entity evolves.

If you want to know what happens if you don’t fictionalize your experiences sufficiently, watch Woody Allen’s Manhattan again. Especially the scene where Woody Allen pleads with his ex-wife (Meryll Streep) not to publish her book, in which the worst of his inadequacies are graphically spelled out.

Alternatively, you could always ask people to sign a release form before they get into bed with you ...