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Archive for the ‘Screenwriting’ Category

I’m a later-comer to the Elmore Leonard oeuvre.  Naturally I’ve heard the name and had even watched Get Shorty without exactly knowing who wrote it.  I picked up Cuba Libre not even knowing it fell in the category of crime fiction — I simply wanted to read something new.  Leonard died before I ever read a word he wrote.  I guess it wasn’t all that new.

I’m not going to say I’ve downed the Leonard collection of 46 books, 7 screenplays and 2 teleplays before I made some observations.  My first note to myself was, that as intricate as I found the plots and as quirky as I found the characters, I always put down the novels as if I hadn’t had a full meal.  Now, I’ll admit, when I picked up the novels, I saw them as fiction, not crime fiction.  They were on the library shelves for contemporary fiction — and the library has a section for crime fiction.  Maybe they jumped ship.

What I love about the novels is similar to what I love about Shakespeare.  The messenger who appears before Henry V is full of sauce and vinegar for the English king.  He claims he was told to put it on and later basically apologizes for underestimating the valor of the man whose reputation was gained as Prince Hal.  They guy appears for basically eight to ten lines and he has as rich a life and purpose as any other character in the play.  The same is true for the Lords who plotted with the French and are found out before the troops leave for France — they are justified and believe in their cause (for all of one or two lines each).  Leonard has a similar capacity to see to it that each of his characters has a personal objective that is rarely subservient to the needs of anyone else.

In Road Dogs, various characters who’ve been fleshed out in other novels intersect. Jack Foley (Out of Sight) and Cundo Rey (LaBrava) come together via prison and connect with Dawn Navarro (Riding the Rap), who is waiting for Cundo in Venice, CA.  Each time the plot twists, it is more or less a revelation that a character is adjusting how they play the scene to get what they want.  Each character in the book has an agenda, from the FBI agent who trails Foley and threatens a local gangbanger into gathering a group of hoods to act as surveillance, to the movie star who is set up by Dawn as a mark for her psychic con game.  What is true for Shakespeare is true for Leonard — there’s no such thing as an auxiliary character.  Every person you encounter is central to their own life and has their own designs on how the game should play out.

The other commonality in Leonard’s work is a mirror of the hard-boiled detective.  Like the private investigators of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, Leonard centers his work on criminals who have their own code of honor. I’d consider calling them “hard-boiled criminals,” but that phrase tends to imply something else.  Jack Foley, for example, will consider double-crossing Cundo Rey and even sleep with Dawn, his common-law wife, but as events unfold there is a bond to his yard-mate that he cannot dishonor.  Neither can he go through and pretend to exorcise the new widow Danielle’s house of ghosts — it is abhorrent to him to play on her grief as part of the scam.

So then, the novels are lean, the characters self-motivated, the plots make credible twists as each character adjusts their methods to get what they want — what accounts for the half-hour after Chinese meal syndrome?  Simply this — there are few, if any, character arcs.  There are only plot arcs.  Once again, I blame the library for not alerting me that I was reading something other than crime fiction — no one expects Sam Spade to come to some kind of self-realization during one of his private investigations.  Half of the fun of the hard-boiled detective is the narrative voice making snide observations about “losers” and “dames.”  However, Hammett atones for Spade’s lack of character arc by his vulnerability.  Sam always believes one wrong person and gets trundled into a shack or shot up with narcotics as a result — and from there he gets hardened and recovers his dignity (along with whatever prize he may have been sent to discover).

The criminals in Leonard are generally too wary to be vulnerable.  They break bread with each other knowing that there are knives at every place setting.  And most of them finish the novel, dead or alive, no smarter than they began it.  Like Chinese food, it’s a fun night out, but it makes me question his ten rules of good writing.  They don’t really tell you very much (did you expect them to?):

  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.
  5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
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Okay, so I’ve spent months writing and re-writing a script.  I’ve been listening to characters speaking in my head, jotting down their rhythms of speech, noticing their quirks of phrasing. I’ve paid attention to how scenes evolve, what words particularly piss off other characters, what words act as “keys” to character and plot.  I’ve set up jokes that evolve on the third repetition of a particular phrase — each time by a different character in a different context.  I’ve cut away every inch of useless verbiage to make way for actors to respond non-verbally and to add plot twists while keeping the page total under 108. I’ve taken the script through two or three in-house readings.  Now I’m in casting.

I “get” that actors usually only get sides.  I “get” that the film industry values immediacy over training.  I “get” that actors want to stand out.  But I never understand why actors feel compelled to improvise new lines the first time they are seen.  This is even more disturbing when they do it during a comic sequence.  Nothing ruins a joke faster than adding unnecessary verbiage.  So in an effort to assist the actor, I’m going to highlight a few things that every writer hopes for while sitting at the casting table (truth — they have little power, if they are there at all, they are mostly there because the director has much less experience with the script at this point than the writer).

Character Rhythm — if a writer has any skill at all, each character has a rhythm of speech.  Some people cut other people off (you’ll notice the ritual dash — on the line before, where someone is cut off), some characters stumble through their speeches, (“The thing is, I mean, the thing, what the hell am I saying, Trisha is, you know.  Round.  About to.” He makes a motion over his stomach. “Getting bigger.”). Not all patterns are written in stone, and we’re usually excited when someone brings truth to the words being spoken, but usually the pattern is there for a character reason — i.e. the alpha male who cuts everyone off, doesn’t find them worth listening to, and then needs to learn to listen by the end of the story; or the battered character who cannot say anything directly and must learn to stand up and confront.  Yes, writers think about it that much — there is character in speech.

Scene Rhythm — almost every scene is written with an arc, it begins at a particular point A (in a plot, in a relationship, in self-awareness), it moves through a transforming moment and ends at  point B.  Along the way, characters speak and things happen with a particular rhythm.  If I watch my son play with his best friend, they bump each other constantly as they walk from point A to B.  There’s a sort of friendly contention.  When Evan spends time with a young girl in his class, they move together like two fish swimming side by side.  The motion is less linear, and yet they are always in sync.  Scenes are like this. This does not mean there are no pauses; the question is where the actor chooses to pause.  For example, suppose these are two lines to close out a scene

Character 1 : Badda bing

Character 2: Badda boom.  [They clink beer bottles together and drink, the deal is on]

The dialogue expresses a certain amount of rapport, history and understanding between the two characters.

I can’t tell you how many times, if this were an actual audition piece (or even after the actor is cast and “keeping it fresh”) you’ll see:

Character 1: Badda……………………………………………………………………………

…b…iiiiiiii…..ng

[Now character 2 feels put on the spot, needs to one-up]

Character 2: (looks at his friend) You’re such an ass. Badda f*%kin’ boom.

What has happened to the rhythm of that scene?  Gone.  What has happened to the relationship?  Gone.  There is no sense of history, understanding or rapport. By ignoring the rhythm of the scene, the actors have now destroyed any legitimacy a joint action by these two characters would have in the future.  It would look like a manufactured plot point rather than a natural development of their mutual understanding. Weirdly, I might hire the actor reading Character 2 — he /she would have played the emotional truth of that moment.  More likely, I’d skip both of them because of the bad taste left in my mouth. Yet with different words, different scripts, I see this pattern repeated constantly — each time an actor wants to make an impression rather than play the truth of the scene.

Say the Words.  Everyone has a unique manner of speaking — even without improvising.  Some voices are high, some lower, some squeak, some lisp.  There are unique pronunciations simply because one was born in the Bronx or in Weehawken.  When someone is cast, it is in large part due to this unique quality.  The first courtesy to a writer is to say the words, as they are, at the audition.  Through the first several rehearsals.  If there is a problem, ask — what is this line supposed to mean?  Why can’t I seem to make sense of this?  In the theatre, this almost goes without saying.  But when I’ve been around film, there’s this attitude among actors (having read too many Actors Studio bios) that the words are just suggestions.  I can’t describe how many times I’ve been called back to rewrite a later scene because an actor glossed a really important piece of information while ad-libbing their lines.  I write character jokes, not punchline jokes (although I do write those on occasion) — how many times have I seen a joke killed because the actor missed the point and the necessary word to make it funny?  Then the director comes to me — “I thought this was funny — it got laughs in the reading — how come it isn’t funny?”  (because you allowed the actors to run rough-shod over the text).

Line fluffing — If I’m at an audition for a film, I can almost guarantee that half of the actors will add one of the seven words you can’t say on television to add some element of emotional emphasis they feel they cannot achieve in any other way.  It’s as if we can’t express ourselves as a culture, emotionally, without going to the septic tank. Some sprinkle the f-bomb through the lines so liberally that it seems the only thing that comes through.  One of the more embarrassing moments for me, was bringing my son — eight at the time — to a rehearsal.  These actors were cast!  They went through the scene several times.  Finally I took my son out to get some pizza.  “Daddy — did you write all those bad words?”  While I have written some F-bombs myself, when the situation and the character demanded that it be put on paper, that rehearsal was an old world family playing canasta.  Yeah.  F*%kin’ canasta.  “No, I did not write all those bad words.”  “Then how come they’re saying them?”  “Good question, boss.”

There was worse than the F*%kin’ card players, however.  We had a big reading of a script for backers back in 08′ (yes, just before the mortgage crisis, when funds could be got).  Film set in 1979.  Suddenly one of the actors, who’s playing an FBI agent (with a hippie girlfriend), starts adding “Dude” to every line.  Dude. I cringed.  I lived through 1979.  No one I knew called anyone dude.  Not in NYC.  People called each other “Man,” at times, but not “Dude.” And his use of “dude” was constant.  It made me look bad, as a writer — i.e. that I hadn’t done my research, didn’t know the slang of the era.  So, if you’re going to add a word, a line, a phrase, make sure — forget about it.  Don’t add it.

I read back over this, and while my intention was to provide some advice for actors — about how scripted dialogue is put together, and maybe how to best approach it, I feel I may have slipped  overmuch into the realm of rant.  I think that while providing examples, I slipped into ranting about those examples.  A bit.  I hope there is still enough useful information to make it worth the read.

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I became a playwright as the result of an odd night sleeping (that’s a blog for another day).  I became an actor, at first, to learn the mechanics of how a play works: I went on stage to become a better writer.  It turned out I became pretty adept at acting as well. I believe everyone who attempts to write for stage or screen should spend some time on stage or in front of the camera.  There are things one learns about dialogue that I’ve rarely seen learned any other way.  I’ll try to catalog a few of them here.

Shortly after the turn of the millennia, I was cast in the NY premiere of a work by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin.  The translation was a collaboration: the producer rendered the words in English and a Columbia University graduate playwright crafted them into a verse play (the original was in verse).  The story follows the journey of a woman and her child as they seek shelter in the world as refugees. I played the captain of a refugee ship (one who charged high prices and drank extensively). The woman could only pay for one passage on my ship, so I let her work off the other passage as my mistress. When we arrive at the next port, it is morning some weeks later.  As she goes to depart, as an actor, I chose to give her a lingering look, as if in the time she was on board, she had awoken some passion or compassion within me and I was going to miss her.  There were no words.  This was rehearsal.

When I arrived at the next rehearsal, the playwright/translator — who had the liberty to do so — had added two pages of dialogue (mostly monologue) to express in words, what I’d been exploring in a glance.  I’d worked with Kelly before and had loved her original work.  Now, I didn’t know how to respond. On the one hand, it was beautiful that my glance meant so much to her that she wanted to add two pages to solidify it; secondly and sadly, the words added nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Everything had been said in the glance. I tried the words, but it truly belabored the point and if anything now made a spontaneous moment of recognition seem overworked and trite.  Now — how do you tell that to someone who’s just written the pages for you?

I’m convinced that underwriting dialogue is the first lesson any playwright/screenwriter learns when they go on stage.  Actors do so much more with a short phrase than any writer can add in a paragraph — if the situation is spot on, if the intention behind the phrase is subtle and correct. This is the relationship to subtext — the characters are rarely talking about what they mean anyway — the meaning is underneath.

Breaking up long passages is usually not necessary: writing “What?” “When?” “How?” “Yes?” simply because one character has been talking a long time and the writer wants to break it up kills the momentum and the actors.  There is no more difficult stage situation for an actor than trying to decipher where that one word comes from: am I really curious?  Is there some special information there that I want to confirm? It is usually very obvious when those words are inserted simply to break up a long passage. I love that Yasmina Reza will write a characters name (as if for dialogue) and then insert (silence) as the dialogue line.  It shows that the attention has gone to that character and the character chooses not to reply.

Stage directions on how to speak a line (line readings given by the writer instead of the director): Actors know their craft.  A great deal of it comes from a place that is not scientific (even if it is sometimes called Method). Most directors with whom I’ve worked insist on cutting stage directions before we begin. (This is less true of film).  Assume the writer adds the direction: TED (sarcastically) “Yeah, I’m racist.” What happens?  The possibilities of the actor can become limited.  They may start thinking of ways to make that line sarcastic.  In rehearsal, the actor is free to explore — try it as truth, try it as a questioning moment.  But the reality is the subtext — to whom is Ted speaking?  what do they want from them?  Why would they use a line like that?  Is Ted joking?  Actors need to discover what the action of a phrase is — not what the manner of speaking it is.  Therefore, to an actor, the phrase (sarcastically) shouldn’t mean anything.  It’s not an action.  Ted can be tweaking his listener to get x result.  That’s an action. Unfortunately, too many actors get screwed up by paying attention to the manner of speaking and forgoing actually focusing on taking an action.

More on subtext: In a film I wrote, a very Goth fringe theatre director — a Korean woman who is perceived to be lesbian — happens upon her lead actor standing near the piers along the Hudson River.  Out on the pier, gay couples are twined about one another.  She asks him, “Do you come here often?” I like to use this as an example when discussing subtext: what is she really asking him?  Does she actually want to know if he spends a lot of time at the river? No.  In my mind (the actor can make other choices), she’s asking him if he’s gay.  It is also the first revelation in the script that she may actually not be lesbian (why else would she ask him? Would it matter to her in any other way?).

Actors constantly look for subtext.  They break scenes apart and try to determine what is going on in the relationship?  What’s at stake? What am I trying to achieve?  This information should rarely be on the surface.

Not everything is subtext.  There will be times when a character will ask “which way is the train station” and really want to know.  But there are layers of other information there as well — why don’t they know?  Are they in a foreign city?  Are they confused? Lost? Delayed?  At no time in a film should precious seconds be wasted simply ascertaining the direction to the train station.  The situation has to have further significance.  This is subtext as well.

Knowing the Whole: A good actor takes a script apart, creates timelines, biographies, backstories.  The actor will likely curse any writer who does not consider the whole story.  I remember working on two plays, almost back to back.  The first was Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, where I played Doc.  In the opening scene, Doc tells Lenny that he’s dropped off his child at the dentist.  Naturally, as the actor playing Doc, I need to know how old the child is.  So I do the math.  Meggie left 5 years ago.  I was injured for a year.  I went up North, met my wife.  Even if we conceived a child on the first day we met, given the 9 month pregnancy, the kid can only be 3 years old and change.  Now I have to make a decision — did I just drop off my three year old at the dentist?  By himself?  What the hell kind of father am I?  What kind of three year old needs a dentist? Does it mean that Meggie is so much more important to me than my own family?  Am I really a rogue? Possibly.  But Doc in the rest of the play does not jibe with a man who leaves a three-year old at the dentist.  It was infuriating trying to resolve my character to the text. How do you feel telling someone that you just left your three year old at the dentist? Does it mean anything?

In the next month or so, I was playing George Deever in “All My Sons.”  There is a bit of dialogue between Joe Keller, his wife and George, where George catches the family in a lie — the wife says “he’s never been sick a day in his life” — but Joe called in sick the day there were flaws in the manufacturing, giving George’s father the instructions to “ship them out.”  George is a lawyer, so naturally he’s used to listening to stories for the flaws.  Naturally he picks up on the lie and pursues it.  Additionally, in a brilliant bit of writing form, Miller has Joe cross-examine George in the sequence just before the information comes out (as George is about to accept their insistence that Joe is innocent). Having worked on both pieces back to back, I found a distinct comfort in making choices based on the text with the Miller play that I did not have with Crimes of the Heart.

While there are a few things I can try to pass on, nothing replaces the experience of actually being in front of people or a camera speaking words.  I recall being in the theatre a few days after Heat was released.  There were places where the dialogue was so bad that the audience was laughing  at the writing, not the situation or because the line was finny.  Despite the fact that credit belongs to Michael Mann, as a writer I cringed.  I don’t want to copy any of the dialogue for fear of copyright infringement, but you can read some of the sequences here.  Say the lines out loud — try it.  See how they feel in your mouth.  I cannot believe that lines such as those could have come from anyone who’d possibly spent a few minutes acting (even if he did write for TV).  In all fairness, Michael Mann wrote The Insider, an amazing film whose dialogue is three miles from this work.  So it’s possible that the writer was trying a stylized language.  But when the audience laughs at the language  — when it sticks out so badly that Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro cannot make it sound any better than dinner theatre fare — the words did not succeed.

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–There are two nuns walking….
–So, there’s these two nuns, right?
–A couple of penguins is hoofing it down the street….
–Yo, check it out, right, there’s these two nuns
–Two sacred vessels of God shining in glory
–Ha ha, nuns, look! Where they think they’re goin’?

I had the good fortune when I first began to study acting to take classes with Michael Beckett. His approach was always very individual, but one of the lessons that resonated in my mind was a class in which he insisted that “words don’t mean anything.” There were mutterings about the class — “that’s not true,” “How can you know anything about a play if the words don’t mean anything…” etc.

Michael then proceeded to scream “I love you” at someone, then he said the words again as if he were mocking the person to whom he was speaking and then again as if the idea that he would love the person at whom he’d directed the phrase was the most ludicrous thing in the world (the subtext was along the lines of “yeah, right, like anybody would love you”). It was suddenly clear that the phrase “I love you” could mean multiple things and that much of it depended on context. He went on through several more variations, but not one of them meant “I love you.”

In other words, something that David Mamet made me think of:  People never say what they mean, but they always mean what they mean.

I was also lucky enough a few years after that to translate Fabio Rubio’s Mosca from Spanish into English for a production that included a Spanish director and several Spanish speaking performers. One of the trickier elements was finding English language equivalents — not just for the words that were spoken, but for the manner in which each character spoke. The play is an retelling of Titus Andronicus and each character is very distinct: Aaron the Moor is blunt and brutal, Chiron comes across as the idiot son of Tamara while the elder son, Demetrius is aristocratic and dainty. Tito has the aura of a no-nonsense woodsman and his daughter Lavinia has been very affected by her years of illness (there are traces of it in her speech).

One of the items I exploited in translation was the multiple meanings of various verbs (one of the things that translators begrudge is lost in translation). For example, the verb espantar can be translated as “to astonish” or “to frighten.”  Might one character mean “to frighten” and another to “astonish”?  Next,  one tries to add multiple layers in English to words that are written the same in Spanish, i.e. the phrase “Por fin, llegamos” could simply be translated “At last, we’re here.” For Demetrius, however, I would translate “Finally, we’ve arrived.” For each character, I tried to find a distinct way of speaking so that the actors would have more room to create variety (and to feel what was in the original).  Oddly, the Spanish speaking actors were the most demonstrative against such liberties (“It simply means ‘we’re here!”).  However, the director backed me on this.

If one looks at the list with which I began, it is clear that each line is a repetition of the same phrase said — not just in a different manner, but by a different sort of character. One of the more difficult things for a writer to do is to hear voices other than his or her own. I love East of Eden — one of my top ten books simply for its wisdom and compassion — however, most of the main characters sound like they’re the same person speaking through the mouth of a differently named character. I’m not saying every writer  has to imitate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the varieties of dialects and phonetic spellings, but there is an advantage to paying attention to things like rhythm, word choice and sub-text when writing dialogue:

Rhythm: people speak in different rhythms. I knew a man once who kept winding one story into the next. I wanted to move on to another conversation at the party, but he seemed to begin each new story without taking a normal break. Once I started paying attention, I noticed that he would break for breath mid-sentence. I had been anticipating a story would end with a breath-pause; it never happened. I had an “American Renaissance” professor who spoke like train — wheels running down a track at medium speed. Clack-e-ta-clack-e-ta, he never broke stride, never hurried, never slowed, never paused. There were no emphatics, no points of humor. My notes from his class would leave a long streak that trailed off the bottom of the paper; I’d fallen asleep mid sentence and the pen slid down the page. There is no way to write rhythms without hearing them. If one lives in a city, it is easier — one can hang out in a part of town with a different ethnicity. The rhythms there are always different — and more easily heard. Sometimes I sit in a crowded place and simply try to hear voices like music — as sound only, so that the rhythmic quality of the voices comes through.

Word choice: I had a classmate in high school who, while everyone else was saying “that’s cool,” coined the phrase “that’s casual.” Someone I knew in college called women either “beauteous” or “hideous.” There was nothing in between. He also would walk into my room, pick up a cup (or pen or anything, really) and say, “what have you got here? A little cup-de dup?” He’d rub his hand on his belly while expelling air between his lips and add, “I seen betta in Maine.” My son and his classmates are now in the habit of calling anything excellent “o.p.” (over-powering). I had another friend who continually modified one description by a second — “She’s cute, in a big nose kind of way.”  “It’s good, in a stinky kind of way.” There are people who always phrase things as questions.  I acted with a model who always attributed her ideas to someone else (“I read in a book that….”; I also used this in a play).  When you add to the mix people who speak English as a second language, it gets more interesting.  Spanish speaking people frequently mix up “to make” and “to do” — thus the phrase “I have to make my homework.” (In Spanish, it’s the same verb, hacer.) A Japanese student once explained to me that “a dream has a lot of wish.”

Screenwriters who work in cityscapes have many choices to diversify their character content, not just in stereotypical ways (i.e. Pakistani cab driver) but in power-broker circles as well: club owners, grad students, library researchers, etc. can be given extravagant rhythms of speech by thinking about word choice and rhythm.

Sub-text: This goes back to my Mamet inspired statement about people not saying what they mean.  Most of us are dishonest.  We make allowances for people who can advance our careers that we’d never make for family.  We bypass honesty to be expedient.  But we still try to get what we want! Couples break up over the minor issues, never the major ones — if one is a profligate spender, the confrontation with the spouse is about some stupid six dollar object, not the repeated pattern of spending. How many times does a spouse say “You could have called me!”  But what is she or he really saying?  Possible answers: you don’t respect me. I think you’re cheating on me. I want out of this stinking marriage.  It’s important that the screenwriter never employ those last three sentences in such a context unless the character who speaks them is ready to step off a cliff.  We never say those things, not because they’re true, but because they seem irrevocable.  Once we’ve crossed into that turf, there’s no going back.  No, we much prefer to blame things on the other person, push them to leave or stay, push them to make any decision.  Right now, we’re too emotional to think clearly at all.

I was engaged many years ago to a woman in Ecuador from a very wealthy family.  Naturally, she didn’t want to leave Ecuador and insisted I go there to live.  I told her that I wanted to be sure that if I wasn’t happy in Ecuador, we could look at other places to live — i.e., I wanted to marry her, not Ecuador.  She cancelled the wedding.  I had already surrendered my apartment and my assistant professorship (tenured) and spent several days trying to get each back.  I succeeded.  In my summer job, I received a call from the young woman who had rented my apartment and had it taken back (via a real estate agent).  She told me she wanted to bring her mother by the place, as co-signer, to give the mother some idea of the places the woman was looking at.  I told her I needed to run, but she could come by around 8 p.m.

At this point, I was still numb.  It had only been a couple of days and I had been in constant motion to repair my life.  I hadn’t cried or even thought about the loss all that much.  It truly was just numbness.  I got back at 6, went for a run, and beat the woman back to the apartment by 10 minutes.  I was still breathing a little heavy from running up the stairs when they buzzed.  I let them look around.  The girl asked a few questions, showed her mother.  We made some small chat.  She was in her early twenties, dark-haired, willowy and simply dressed in jeans and a flowing blouse.

“I really just wanted to make sure the real-estate agent wasn’t pulling  a fast one.”

“What?”

“I mean, you’re really going to stay?”

I don’t know whether it was the innocence of the question, the long run, the possibility that I’d let down my guard because these people had nothing to do with my life, my lost fiance…. Suddenly I was bawling. Full out, body convulsively bawling.  The women felt awful.  They backed away, apologizing — “oh my god, I’m so sorry.  So sorry.”  They couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

As a writer and actor, I always remember — that is truth.  It is the emotion that seeps out when we least expect it — and it almost never comes from the words you would expect.  Sub-text is emotion.  It is truth.  It is what we really mean or feel when we’re busy saying something else.

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After writing about Impossible Films a week or so ago, I wondered if it were possible to categorize the possible reasons that good books don’t translate into film.  As I’m still processing the topic, I don’t imagine my list will be anything near complete.  However, there were three basic categories that seemed to define legitimate reasons that a good film cannot be made from a particular novel.

The first category, since I’d reflected on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), is the philosophical novel.  Like ZAMM, there are certain novels that embrace philosophy and in fact, might simply be the metaphorical exposition of a philosophical system (anyone recall Plato’s cave?).  If one considers Hesse’s Journey to the East or Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), it is easy to see his writing as working out a philosophical system (largely based on Eastern writings).  That some of his novels, Narcissus and Goldmund or Siddhartha, are simply stories working under those philosophical principles does not alter the predominant philosophic bent of the writer.  Can one film any of those novels?  Of course.  Siddhartha was made into a film in 1972 and there is a plan to make Narcissus and Goldmund by Senator Films.  Siddhartha is supposed to have had a decent critical reception, but it was yanked from distribution for many years.  As for N&G, if you read the release, you realize there is trouble: “We are planning to work with an international writer and director in order to realize the moving and profound story of Narcissus and Goldmund. A deep appreciation of the novel is required to be able to transport this tale on a level that works internationally.” (My bold text) Yes, but is a deep appreciation of the novel necessary to want to see it?  Milan Kundera is a tricky writer who seems to belong in this category. Yet his novels are thematic, not philosophical, despite the fact that he quotes Nietzsche. He uses philosophic questions to state his theme and builds upon it.  I was not truly aware of this until I saw the filmed version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. ULB translates very successfully film as a result.  Almost always, if the novel has a philosophic point of view woven into the fabric of the narrative — i.e. the narrative is a metaphor — the film will suffer.  I hesitate to put Ayn Rand books into this category as she is the Disney-tale of philosophy — good and bad people are easily recognized and there is little complexity of character or situation.  So while she tells her stories — and her stories are illustrations of her philosophy — one can only make films for her minions.  There is not enough complexity or depth in her work to make for a complete philosophy or a compelling film. She is the pop-psychologist of philosophers.

Narrator focused books: Have you ever seen a good film of The Great Gatsby?  Probably not.  Or at least not a film that equals the book.  There have been performances to admire, sets to die for, cars and furs galore, but the crux of the novel is Nick Carraway.  It is Nick who puts things into perspective and most of his musings do not occur when other folks are around.  He is on the fringe of two worlds, therefore the only one who can clearly see either.  Yet in a film, Nick is a minor character — as he is in the book.  So in the film, we — the audience — must assume Nick’s role.  We are the ones who are intended to muse on what we see.  Oh yeah, they use voice over, other tricks to try and assist us with Nick’s point of view, but in the end the difference between the novel and the film is this: imagine only being able to look at a scene from your window — there’s a party below, in the back yard of a neighbor and people are carousing and glamorously dressed; now imagine being in the yard itself — how has the perspective changed? That is what’s at the heart of translating Gatsby to film — it’s an impossible task and in the end I don’t envy the writers who take it.  I mentioned in No Country for Old Men what was lost in the film (narrator’s history and humanity) — it is a similar situation.  There are successful films made of books in the third person limited point of view, but not when the point of view does more than relate the tale.

Real magic (or magical realism).  I’m not talking about Harry Potter-esque magic where wands imitate weapons or do things that cranes and ropes can accomplish (don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the Harry Potter series immensely and this is not meant as a slight to the film-makers).  I’d read Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua para Chocolate some years before I saw the film. I admit that the crew was able to pull off most of the special effects with aplomb, but I watched in anxiety waiting for the final scene — how will Tita wrap the farm in her bedspread?  How will she eat candles so that her inner fire ignites them and opens the tunnel of light so she can join Pedro?  In the book it’s so beautifully told — but think of the image — a woman eating candles and then her inner fire setting them aflame….there is almost no way to do it that doesn’t look hokey.  So what did the film-maker do?  Fill the room with candles, put gauze on the lens and change the candles for matches (with an earlier explanation of how everyone carries within themselves a box of matches). It is an anti-climax for an otherwise immensely successful film.  So I actually started this category by talking about the most successfully made magical realism film.  I think that’s appropriate — I don’t like to pick on easy targets.  However, it also explains why I have trouble with the idea of making films of The Magus or 100 Years of Solitude.  There are just too many things that happen in those books that would be impossible to film.  Near the opening of 100 YoS, there is a narrative comment that things were so recently created that many of them lacked names (my translation). We are not in biblical times of the Pleistocene era — we are in the town of Macondo, in a time that appears to be somewhere between 1750 and 1890.  But Garcia Marquez conflates many eras into a single timeline:  how do you film that? The Magus has similar issues in that some appearances are magical in the book, but when you film them they become ordinary at best, hokey at worst.

I am a big fan of books.  I am also a fan of film and films made of books.  I cheer for every successfully made book-film, as I know how tricky is the work.  This list is by no means complete or even fully thought out.  As I said, it was a few days reflecting on what makes books hard to translate to film.  In almost every category, there has been a success story — but there have been a plethora more of failures.  I still look at my screenplay of Z&AMM from time to time.  I believe it can be done.  The hope I have for a list like this?  Once we identify the reasons we fail, we might have a better chance to succeed.

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Some years back, I read that Robert Redford owned the film rights to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Zen & MM).  I recently found out that was a screenwriting myth — Pirsig never sold his rights, at least according to The Guardian.  At the time, however, I became obsessed with writing the script.  There was an online version of Zen & MM which I downloaded and broke into four parts.  I carried it with me and highlighted and made notes while taking the NY subway to jobs that had so little to do with “quality,” that I could smell the irony wafting up from the subway platform.  I wanted to create a structure that would serve the philosophy in some manner — without its musings on “Quality,” Zen & MM is more or less just another road trip.  While I spent more time on other projects — projects that I’d been hired to write or had a greater chance of being produced — I always came back to Zen & MM.  Each time, it was as if I had to master the novel again before I could even consider adding a line to the script.  I’d been at it for many years before discovering that Pirsig was not likely to allow a movie to be made.

And there are films that should not be made, just as there are musicals that cannot be made.  I was told by a composer and lyricist team that during their first workshop at BMI, they were forced to make a musical version of “Hamlet,” — only as an exercise in demonstrating this principle: that it shouldn’t be attempted.  A few years before that “Anna Karenina” the musical opened at Circle on the Square.  I have no knowledge of the show — I didn’t see it, have never heard the music.  It closed after 46 performances and was roundly bashed by every critic (although it was nominated for some Tony awards).  But each time I thought of it, all I could imagine was — how do you stage the grand finale?  I had this imagine of Anna, standing on a platform, while hundreds of onlookers (train passengers) sang “Here comes the train/Here comes the train/ Whooo.”  What does Anna do?  Throw herself into the orchestra pit?  There’s just no good way out of it.  And the novel is too vast to try and turn the musical into a quintet of some sort.

Francis Ford Coppola did not make the film of On the Road.  He’d owned the rights for so many years and never made the film.  I went to a casting session in a church near Lincoln Center.  We simply lined up and walked by FFC.  We were asked not to shake his hand as he had a cold.  Ten years passed and the film never made it past pre-production.  Some time later, he did end up producing a version which I’m not sure even hit the theatres.  It wasn’t so great.  What makes the book is the narrator, not necessarily the action.  Not so long ago, I read an article on Atlas Shrugged being the screenwriter’s long time obsession (the movie was not good).  I imagine it is possible for every screenwriter to have a list of impossible films he or she’d like to make.  On my list, along with Zen & MM is also John Fowles’ The Magus and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude.

I finished reading Murakami’s After Dark again last night.  While it is not on my list, it did inspire me to ask why Murakami’s novels have not been made in more movies (Japanese versions of Norwegian Wood and the short story “Tony Takatani,” have been filmed as far as I know).  He’s hugely popular as a novelist with a world-wide appeal.  What gives?

So I did a plot outline of After Dark in my head.  Boy meets girl at amusement district Denny’s (Ikebukoro? Shinjuku?).  He goes to band practice.  A former female wrestler comes to get girl in Denny’s because she speaks Chinese. Girl beaten up in Love Hotel where wrestler is manager is Chinese.  Chinese Girl’s pimp comes to get her on a motorcycle.  Girl and female wrestler go for a beer.  Girls’ sister is sleeping for two months, she doesn’t want to go home. Man who beat Chinese girl works in local office.  Band member takes breaks twice to hang out with girl from Denny’s.  They talk and feed cats.  In the end, night office man can’t sleep when he gets home, Denny’s girl’s sister doesn’t wake, and the band member and the Denny’s girl agree to write letters when she’s in Beijing. In other words, everything that happens in the novel is not primarily plot.

There are brilliant parallels made about the kinds of walls we put up and these are reflected in so many layers of character development.  The wording often borders on lyrical: “The final darkness of the night envelops the city like a thin skin….Even the young couple who stop at a drink vending machine, tightly pressed against each other, have no more words for each other.  Instead, what they soundlessly share is the lingering warmth of their bodies.” p.173 (Knopf hardcover edition).  But there is very little you can film.

If I go through Murakami’s novels as an oeuvre, there are few that stand up to a plot breakdown. People tend to hole up in hotel rooms and order room service a lot.  Not very compelling stuff. Kafka on the Shore comes closest.  Unlike Zen & MM or The Magus, however, I do not feel compelled to put Wind Up Bird or 1Q84 on my screenwriting “to do” list.  Why?  I imagine it has a great deal to do with when I encountered each.

I found Zen & MM as a college student.  I was a philosophy minor, English major, and the book spoke directly to so many concerns and questions I had about the world.  The Magus I discovered a few years later — after I’d graduated from college, had been through a few very intimate relationships and was looking to adventure in a much wider world than the one I’d been raised in.  I remember reading Arthur Miller’s After the Fall within a year of having been in a relationship with someone whose self-esteem and addictions mirrored those of Maggie in the play.  I remember sobbing and crying “truth” as I read.  I still think it’s Miller’s most under-rated play because the press can’t treat it as theatre without screaming that Maggie is Marilyn Monroe and hating Miller for humanizing their icon (Pet peeve).

I imagine the next work that will move me that way, will be On Death and Dying (when I’m slightly closer to the end)I don’t have a whole lot of reverence left for politics, history or romance. And I do believe it is passion that makes us want to share the work that’s rocked our world with the larger world around us. In most of my script engagements now, I’m considered the “structure” guy — the guy who can stand back and see patterns, nudge motivations, individualize characters, cut away dross — but there are times I’d trade it all for a few more days of passion.

(1) I imagine someone’s already grabbed that title and used it for a production company

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I was not about to tell anyone that the last time I’d ridden a horse had been as a nine year old in day camp.  That horse, “Old Bill,” was basically glue that hadn’t yet hit the pot.  A camp counselor led him around a track inside of a corral that was smaller than a Manhattan studio bathroom.  Bill’s top speed was limping trot and he only hit it at the end of the day, when he wanted to throw us off his back and get to the hay feeder.

On set, I told the trainer that it had been some time, but did not specify the amount.  I’m sure he knew pretty quickly.  I was told that Seamus was used in rodeo shooting competitions, where the rider often had to be hands-free.  He’d be pretty responsive, if I gave him a strong enough command.

I’d have worn a cup if I’d known how much I was going to bounce in the saddle.  Seamus got moving pretty fast — at least in my estimation.  I’d been told that the scene was going to be shot in one take — we’d gallop toward the barn, I’d dismount and lead the horse to the side of young Walt and we’d walk through the shot, going through our dialogue as we did.  Later there’d be two punch-in close ups for Walt and I.

They were trying to shoot out the Disney family — other than young Walt.  They would be finished at the end of their shots and free to move on to their next project.  I rode for an hour or so.  Got off.  Watched the filming.  Got miked up.  Tested.  Waited while singles were being taken of various shots.  (I later learned that the Hollywood B-level soft porn producer had shown up and was asking the producers — why isn’t AT getting this shot or that one?  Producers leaning on AT’s ear — please explain.  Filming bogged down in the second guessing).

The sun was low on the horizon and I was just getting on Seamus.  We did a rehearsal — I came charging toward the barn, flipped a leg over the horse, landed on the ground.  Walked to the front of the horse, led him by the reins.  All good.  Except, do you think you can make getting off the horse a little faster?  And — come charging at the barn faster.

“I’m heading toward a kid.”

“I know.  Stop before you get there.”

Camera rolling.  I was off in the distance, out of the shot.  Seamus decides he wants to go backwards — and not stop.  He’s been out in the field all day.  He’s getting restless.  Action!  It took some doing just to get Seamus moving forward.  Cut.  Can you hear us?

Can someone flag me?  It’ll be a little easier.

Take two, I come charging at young Walt like hellfire. Hat flops off, but is held on by a string.  I slow the horse, flip my leg up — and my other boot is stuck in the stirrup.  I almost fall over on my back.  I gain my balance and they let the scene continue.  AT, afterwards: “My god, you looked like a menacing figure from the old West — until you stumbled out of the saddle.”  Seamus’ trainer loosened the stirrups a little.  I hadn’t practiced with these boots on when we rode after lunch.  That was clearly a mistake.

Light is fading.  We take a couple more cracks at it.  I try one with my foot almost out of the stirrup before I get up — foot slips.  Need for cup exacerbated.  I’m beginning to think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, except, each time I ride, I’m getting a better feel for being on horseback.  I know now how responsive Seamus is, but also how much pressure to apply, how to assert myself without over doing it.  The last few takes are great, though I never quite fly off the horse like I did in the first take.  Adjustments are made — they want to get me riding out of the sunset — sun glowing around me.

It’s dark in the barn when we turn to close ups.  They use reflectors, to try and match the lighting.  I’ve seen still shots of the scene — it looks phenomenal.  The people involved were first rate.

There’s a party that night at a local pub.  Everyone gets tickets for a set number of drinks.  I hand my tickets off.  I’m happy — don’t need any enhancer.  Work has always been enough.  AG catches me on the way into the place.  He mentions how much he likes one scene I wrote — where young Walt imitates Charlie Chaplin at a stockyard performance night — it’s not in the biography, but it matches certain facts.  I’d pretty much invented it out of whole cloth, and AG let on how much he was looking forward to filming it the following day.  (I would be on my flight back to NYC).  I was encouraged by the fact that he was openly admitting I’d written the script.

At the production office, before the party, I sat in the back room.  They’d put up a cork board on the wall and attached to the wall were photos of the players.  Mine was prominently not there.  The casting associate (FL) saw me looking and made a remark about having to get my picture.  He didn’t have one as I was cast by AG.  I nodded.  I can do that.  Then FL started talking about how strange it must be to be a ghostwriter on the set — knowing you’ve written something and not able to let on.  It was the first time that I’d heard the word ghostwriter used.  As I’d mentioned, initially I was to be the script doctor (uncredited); afterward, once I’d created the thing from letter A (with the exception of the two scenes I’d doctored early in the process), I’d been told I’d be getting some form of credit.  I almost corrected FL, but decided that maybe he wasn’t in the loop.  AT was playing a lot of sides, one against the other.

This also came at a time when AT and the producers were locked up in a meeting.  Later, AT told me that he’d laid down the law — on the set, he was the captain of the ship.  He wasn’t going to have anyone undercut him, no matter how many B-level credits they had.  Was that understood?  I rode with him to the party and he made a remark about having to out Alpha male a bunch of alpha-male posers.  I let him vent and kept my mouth shut.

So to have AG acknowledge that my writing was impressive, made him laugh — I took it as a good sign.  I asked him how the death of Diane Disney Miller affected his  prospects.  (She’d passed away in mid-November).  He’d told me in Orlando back in October that they were familiar with one another and he was hoping to get her approval of the project as a green-light for distribution. “Yeah, it’s sad, isn’t it.  I think she would have liked it.”  My son called at that minute, and I went out into the courtyard to talk with him.

I’d been told they were still going to shoot the shower scene (as Doc Sherwood look-alike), but they wanted to wait until AG was a little more buff.  With all the production preparation, he’d had little time to work out.   AG seemed genuinely disappointed that I wouldn’t be around to see more of the filming.  I told him that when I came back, I’d plan to spend a few more days on set.  He seemed in agreement.

Things I know or have been told:

AT filmed AG and finally convinced him, via the daily rushes, that he was not the caliber of actor to carry the film.  Over the holiday break, AG got a new Disney and cast himself as Ub — the actor AT brought in to play Ub and tried to switch into Disney, was let go.  AT was fired via e-mail during the holiday break – actually he was offered a position as “helper” to the new director, someone from L.A. who would work on spec., simply for the credit. I was aware of this, but I’d signed a contract to play Doc.  I told AT that as a member of the union, I’d be obligated to fulfill my role.  I’d directed a few e-mails at the production coordinator asking for block out dates, was always told he’d get back to me.

I never heard from them again, except once in April, AB wrote to ask for payroll information.  They’d had some issues with SAG (I received a letter from SAG in February saying they were persona non grata and not to work for them).

Any chance of my receiving credit for my work was out the window.  AT told me at one point that he’d put my name on the IMDb site a writer, but by the time I’d looked it was not there.  Additionally, I never received any credit for the work I did as Doc Sherwood (at least not on IMDb).  It seemed the further the production moved forward, the more the producers wanted to distance themselves from AT and myself.

And so I did become a ghost.  Someone who’d been an integral part of the production, but who simply disappeared from the production notes like a thought you had yesterday.  I don’t take sides — I liked the producers.  They both had their merits and their blind spots; they were nice enough to me.  I would consider working with them again, but I’d make sure I had my contract laid out up front.  I probably won’t work with the director again — I’ve known him a long time, but he has a habit of promising things that aren’t in his power to give.  He believes contracts are expedients (to help him get what he wants) that can be adjusted or renegotiated later, somewhere along the way.  Some people do business that way — I don’t.  The bottom line is I allowed myself to be swayed — rather than getting credit, more pay, etc. in writing when I was told that a new script was what it would take, I let the looming deadline affect my judgment.  So a full one-third of the responsibility falls in my lap.

Every now and then a rumor bubbles up — I was told, for example, that after AT was gone, the producers, the new director and several of the actors were writing their own versions of the script.  That this ur script is eventually what was shot.

I looked at the website recently and a pang of nostalgia kicked up — I actually had a good time on set. Several of the scenes seem exactly as I laid them out — including the imitating Chaplain in the stockyard scene. One wants to believe that somewhere there is a credit due on the cosmic balance sheet; but in my experience of the universe, it rarely works that way.  The fact that I’m alive, that my son is healthy, these are cosmic balances I’ve done nothing to deserve.  I’ve no right to expect more, but it would be nice to believe in a Hollywood ending once in a while.

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