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Posts Tagged ‘Film Studies’

I’ve had the occasion to perform readings of new works – in early drafts just for the writer and when the work is more polished in front of audiences. One of the more frequent “mistakes” I see novice writers make is to have too many circumstances come to the aid of the protagonist. Some years ago, I read for the writer and later in front of an audience a play called “The Iron Bear.” After the first rehearsal in the writer’s living room, I tried to find a metaphor for how the plotline appeared: “It’s like watching a swimmer in a strong current, but each wave is pushing the swimmer to shore. There are no obstacles. It’s much more interesting to watch a swimmer fight the current than to see one simply washed ashore.”

Recently, I started re-reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I have no idea how many times I’ve read this novel (or any other Graham Greene novel). I own them all and when I can’t remember the plot any more, I pick it up again. Oddly, I forget the plots and characters rather quickly. This is unusual – W.H. Auden described potboilers as the book “you can’t put down at night and can’t remember in the morning” (The Dyer’s Hand). Greene’s novels are compact structures of plot and character. The plots move like a potboiler, but the writing is on a literary par with The Great Gatsby. Oddly, I can discuss The Great Gatsby in great detail – even if I haven’t read the book in 20 years (I don’t think I’ve ever gone 20 years without reading it, but the point is I remember all the details). Greene’s novels, however tend to fade like old curtains -the outlines are clear, everything else has been bleached by time and the sun.

Greene’s characters are never superheroes. They are extremely flawed men (usually) with the odds stacked against them. Fowler, the protagonist of The Quiet American has one expressed desire: he wishes to stay in Saigon with his young female companion Phuong. One of the immediately apparent obstacles is simply Fowler’s age – although Greene never specifies Fowler’s exact age, the character himself frequently refers to the “decade” or so he has left to live. To complicate matters, Fowler has a rival, a young American Economic attaché named Pyle. Pyle is as innocent as Fowler is jaded, hopeful where Fowler is resigned. They are a contrast in character – foils, if you will. Pyle boards Fowler at a restaurant and as his first contact, assures himself that Fowler is a friend. Not that any of this seems to matter to Phuong. She is happy with Fowler, but she is concerned about her future.

The matter would be settled in a minute if Fowler could marry Phuong – but that would be too easy. So the next obstacle is that Fowler is married. And without marriage, can Phuong’s future be assured? Greene ups the ante – not only is Fowler married, but his wife is a devout Anglican who told her fiancé before they married that there’d be no chance of divorce. It went against her beliefs. Pyle, on the other hand, is not married and is idealistic enough to fall in love after one dance with a woman who cannot speak his language (Phuong speaks Vietnamese and the local brand of French) – even to the point of marriage.

The location itself creates obstacles. Fowler, Pyle and Phuong are all living (or stationed) in Saigon shortly before French Indochina collapses at Dien Bien Phu. Fowler is a foreign correspondent who occasionally travels to some of the less secure locations in Vietnam-thus both his and Phuong’s future are threaten simply by his manner of making a living. Even Saigon, where things are relatively safe, has bridges that are occupied by the French during the day and the Vietminh at night. The restaurants foreigners patronize are on second floors-with grill work to guard against hand grenades.

Greene is not satisfied with letting the obstacles halt at this pass. We learn that Phuong has a sister who exerts a lot of influence and wishes to see Phuong married. She had accompanied Phuong to the dance where she met (and continued to meet) Fowler throughout their courtship. Phuong was never let out of her sight and the couple were never allowed to be alone – until the sister came down with a fever. One night. And then Phuong was with Fowler. The sister never forgave them and is still looking for marriage prospects.

One of the more bizarre twists of the story is that as a romantic idealist, Pyle never goes behind Fowler’s back, but insists on informing the journalist of his intentions at every step. Once Pyle discovers that he is in love with Phuong – he makes an arduous journey to find Fowler at the front. Moments prior to an artillery attack, Pyle informs Fowler that he’s in love with Phuong. Once he’s made his secret known, he is relieved. Pyle keeps insisting that he has Phuong’s best interests at heart. Obviously there are parallels in the personal relationship with the colonial and “democracy bearing” powers and the native culture-who for the most part simply wants to be secure and go about her daily business. Is this an obstacle? Think about it – someone is in love with your girlfriend and insists on telling you their every move because you are their friend. Enter conscience – it becomes harder to strike someone who shares their thoughts with childlike simplicity.

Complication next: a telegram comes for Fowler when he’s returning from the front – he’s to be promoted to editor of the Southeast Asia segment of his newspaper back in London. So not only can he not offer Phuong marriage, he may not be able to offer her much more future than a few months. It may be possible to take Phuong with him, so out of desperation, Fowler writes to his wife to ask for a divorce.

In the meantime, Pyle wants Phuong to meet with him and Fowler and to choose between them. Fowler has to translate as Pyle doesn’t speak enough French of Vietnamese to communicate himself. Fowler has not yet told Phuong of the telegram. She listens to the discussion, then chooses Fowler. Pyle is defeated. He will apply for a transfer.

Fowler writes to his editor- he is a reporter, not an editor. He tells Phuong of the telegram. She imagines going with Fowler to London – but mistakes the location of skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty.

On the road from a religious festival, Fowler and Pyle run out of gas and are wounded by an attack. Pyle more or less saves Fowler. While he recovers in the hospital, a letter comes from his wife. Phuong’s sister has gotten a position at the American Embassy (whether through the influence of Pyle is left up in the air). She speaks English.

Up to this point, Fowler has been honorable – he’s told the truth. Perhaps not immediately, but in his own way he honors Phuong with the truth. When he reads the letter from his wife, the answer is a resounding “no.” She will not divorce him. Phuong sits at his side with hope. And? “No definitive answer.” Fowler is desperate enough to lie.

My intention is not to create a plot summary, but a study of a character with desire confronting a series of obstacles. What Greene does so remarkably well, not just in this novel but almost every book he’s every written is to create a character so human – a character with a strong desire who is weak enough that surmounting obstacles takes tremendous effort. Imagine, if you will, that Fowler is standing on the block at a swimming pool. Phuong is sitting on the other side of the pool. He dives. He doesn’t swim well, so he moves slowly and with concentration. Pyle dives into the next lane and begins to ask if the water is safe. A few hand grenades explode in the pool, cascading spray. Phuong hands him an opium pipe while he’s trying to recover from the waves. He smokes (one of the other obstacles I haven’t touched upon). His editor starts to drain the water from the pool. Pyle claims if he gets to the other side first he’s going to take Phuong and marry her. Fowler swallows water and begins to drown. Pyle saves him and resuscitates him, then they are back in the pool again. Fowler’s wife starts to through rocks on his back.

None of this is true in an exact sense, but what I’m trying to communicate is a character trying to pursue his desire in a direct line – and that the more obstacles that come between the character and the goal -the more compelling the plot becomes. I didn’t learn this lesson until later in my writing career. I have early plays with a lot of obstacles and no matching desire. I have characters who are blown through a series of events that happen to them- not the result of their pursuing a goal. Much of the writing is good -smart dialogue, astute characterization – but what makes a story dramatic is the pursuit of a goal through a series of daunting obstacles. Hollywood actors have ruined much of the scripting possibility by insisting on characters without weaknesses, superheroes – when the more severe the weakness, the more daunting the obstacle, the more compelling the story.

 

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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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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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Despite being told that the script had a hard deadline — as the first day of principal photography would be October 23rd, with the new script the production date was pushed back until early December of 2013.  My contact, the director (AT), wanted to start after the New Year.  “Why bring everyone down for a few days of shooting, and then have to break for the holidays?  There’s all that extra airfare.”  One of the producers (AG) insisted that there was an incentive to starting before the year was out, whether it was a tax credit or some other item involving distribution (which he kept hinting at), no one was really certain.  Now the latest conflict of the production was that AG confirmed that he also wanted to play Walt Disney.

With about ten days notice, I was told I’d have to be on set on the first day of photography — ostensibly to play Doc Sherwood.  “Do you know how to ride a horse?”

“The Doc Sherwood based character doesn’t appear on horseback.”

“He does now.”

Flashback: when I had my meeting with the producers in Florida, they wanted to add almost all of the people who had some influence on young WD — from the first person who gave him a drawing pad, to Doc Sherwood, who gave him a nickel to draw his horse.  There was nothing in any of these factoids that served the forward momentum of the story — so I’d eliminated them.  AG wanted Doc Sherwood, so I met him halfway — I had Disney go, at the nadir of his despair, to a public bath (true story).  In the opposing shower stall, he saw someone who reminded him of Doc Sherwood (fiction).  WD gets caught staring, and tells the man in the shower about Sherwood — believing in him, giving him his first nickel.  The man encourages WD — “must have seen somethin’, men don’t just throw away nickels.”  WD turns to rinse in the shower, and when he steps out to dry himself, the man is gone, but there is a nickel on his stacked clothing.  (This also = Jung’s “Old man in the fairy tale” — someone who encourages at a point where the main character is losing the way).

AT tells me that he’s had to make a few concessions to the producers.  They wrote this scene, but I was free to adjust the dialogue once I was there (and there was a strong likelihood it wouldn’t make the final edit).  I’d gone too far to turn back.  I was still intrigued how AT was going to get around AG playing Walt.

I flew into Orlando where I was met by the company driver.  I was starving, but there was no room in the schedule to stop for something to eat.  The driver complained for the 90 minutes to Deland about how many trips he had to make back and forth to the airport and to the set.  I bit my tongue.  The voice in my head kept saying, “you’re a driver.  You’re being paid to drive.  Why are you complaining about having to be on the road?”  Shortly before we arrived in Deland the answer came.  He was an actor, who was promised a walk-on part, but also given a job as driver.  Once he’d wrung out all the misery of the journeys he had to make this week, he harped back on older experiences where he’d driven someone from Florida to upstate NY (and didn’t get fed).  I don’t think I’ve been more relieved to exit an automobile, not even after a non-stop drive to South Carolina from NYC.

The production offices were set up in an old real estate office on the outskirts of Deland, though still on the main drag.  The director had sent fair warning to the production offices ahead of time about who I was really (the screenwriter), so the head of wardrobe whispered to me “bless you. This might actually be a film now;” make-up fawned on me, “my god, it’s so much better. They’re actually able to get name talent to consider it now.”  I had a cachet that no bit player could possible receive.  But there was something else to focus on: food in the office — rice and beans, pulled pork and burrito shells.

They were only covering rehearsal and wardrobe that afternoon, but the tension between AG and AT was palpable.  The director pulled me out into the parking lot at one point after I’d eaten.  He pointed toward his car.  Once we were inside, he explained that he could not get AG to see reason.  Not only that, but the other producer, AB wanted a prominent part as well.

“Maybe they can act; has either one studied acting?”

“AG thinks he can. He hired a coach last week.  But he can’t carry a film — I think my only recourse is to put him on film and let him see how he looks next to a real actor.  I’m thinking of having the two actors switch parts as an experiment, and then trying to get it to stick.  Back me up on this, will you?”

In all fairness, I was aware of this battle since mid-November  The director and several crew members challenged the producers on more than one occasion when the discussion of casting the lead role came up — they’d put off casting the lead, or even considering casting for several months.  Finally AG confirmed that he was planning to play the part. They there was an e-mail from a quitting production manager saying that the producers were sabotaging the work of many professionals by trying to turn the project into a home movie featuring their own unseasoned talent.  I saw the note one of the producers (AB) sent in response — that they were hiring a producer from L.A. to oversee the project.While they mentioned that the producer had over 60 projects to his credit, the ones they listed sounded like B films or soft porn.

Back to the first day in Florida. Not too much after I’d been in the director’s car, AG, the producer who intended to play young Walt Disney, threw one of the lines I’d written at me, but he changed the context, saying “Hey Doc, gimme a nickel.  I want my nickel.”  I nodded at him and smiled.  What was I supposed to do?  Get into character? He’d watched too many behind the scenes videos.

To be honest, though AG was Latino, he actually looked somewhat like Walt Disney in his 20s.  Striking resemblance.  Coming in a few hours later, I met the actor who’d been cast to play Ub Iwerks, one of Disney’s long time artists (and the guy who actually drew/created Mickey Mouse).  I rehearsed my scene with the nine year old actor who was playing Walt in the first scenes. Late in the day, I watched the director play cat and mouse with AG.  He rehearsed a scene between Disney and Iwerks. He directed AG, each time getting more demanding.  Finally, he asked them to switch parts, just for an experiment.

Later a small group of us went to eat at a small restaurant called De la Vega.  There was the actor/casting associate (FL), who’d gotten the director involved, myself, the director and the actor who was to play Ub.  The director told this actor (I’ve been searching for his name, but it does not come up — the reason will become apparent later) his plan was to switch roles, and to prepare himself to play Disney.  The primary topic of conversation seemed to be how the director was going to get the role of Disney away from AG.

The director was bringing a lot of his talent to the film from NYC.  Most of these actors had agreed (against union regulations) to purchase their own airfare and to house themselves in Florida.  AG was under the assumption that I would do the same.  The director convinced him that as I’d done the writing, they owed me at least that much respect (and since my payment wasn’t complete until the first day of principal photography, I was still officially the owner of the script).  They’d hired out rooms in the Ann Stevens House in Cassadaga — a place in Florida that is a renowned camp for psychics and spiritualists, but that’s a story for another day.  I have to say the accommodations were wonderful.  Both the Ub actor and I were staying there and were dropped off at the end of the night.  He had no call the following day, I wasn’t due on set until 2:00 p.m.  I did hear him on the phone, however, calling L.A. — informing both his agent and girlfriend of the good news.

The woman who ran the B&B greeted me at night when we arrived.  A charming earth lady in her 40s, she stood in my doorway and we talked for nearly an hour, despite the fact I was exhausted, one of those random occasions of rapport.  When I went down to the kitchen in the morning, her husband was there.  Apparently, AG negotiated breakfast out of the price of the B&B — i.e. we were getting rooms but no food.  I didn’t recall seeing much on the highway on the drive in the night before.  “Where can I get some food around here?  Is there a deli or something?  The production company is busy filming this morning and won’t come bring me to set until much later.” The man stared at me for a few minutes.  “I was just baking an egg casserole.  Give it a half hour and you can eat some eggs.”  He brewed coffee and put out some bread for toast.  I pulled out my pad and began the morning writing.

One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that I love being on set — I’ll be there even when not required.  Where else can you learn about film-making on a large scale?  I called the production company and told them to send someone when there was a car to spare.  My “I hate driving” driver from the day before showed up in an hour.

The set was removed from the production offices by a half hour to the north.  It was out into farm country and featured an old barn with live animals. It was unusual for a Northern boy to see pasture among the palm trees.  Neither image fit my experience. As I pulled up, they were broken for lunch.  Once again, I was handed around the crew as the savior of the script — lauded by sound, set design, et al.  My assumption at this time was that I was still going to receive credit of some sort for the work I put in.  (AT had mentioned along the way that the person he’d had working on that was the production manager who quit).

They were a little behind in the shooting, but it was a good thing.  I’d have time to spend getting acquainted with the horse.  After lunch, they continued shooting a crane shot of the Disney family getting into a Model T and Walt not piling in.  There were drawings all over the barn boards.  I stood behind the crew for take after take.  I met the horse trainer and Seamus, my mount for the afternoon.

I still had hair and make-up to attend, so at three the director sent me back to Deland.

We’d chosen a handle-bar mustache for my character and a pin-stripe suit.  I spent some time dressing, and at each button I felt more and more of the period. I had a bowler hat and a medicine bag. Since I was the last shot of the day, both make-up and hair came out to the set with me.  It was a beautiful day, I was about to act, and all was right with the world.

to be continued

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Though it’s billed as a black comedy (and I’ll admit, that’s my favorite genre of film) I didn’t find Birdman all that funny.  I don’t know whether that’s simply the result of having spent so much time on set, of being able to anticipate moments that perhaps comedy demands come at you unexpectedly, or whether the film and I are not on the same comic wave-length.

However, despite the perceived lack of ha ha’s, what makes the film relevant, especially for performers, is the “voice of the super-hero” ringing in one’s head.  While on one level the character of the Birdman is a recurrence of a role that the protagonist, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) played in his earlier career, on another level, the Birdman is the super-hero in us all, the childhood-based, ego-building voice that says “I am bigger than this,” “I’m more important,” “Why don’t they listen to me,” “Don’t they understand how powerful I am?”  It isn’t just actors who have this voice in their heads, but other than CEOs and politicians, actors have fewer checks on that larger than life ego voice.

Psychologists trace the ego to the terrible twos, the time when the child discovers that the universe does not always comply with its demands.  For most infants, cries are met with comfort or feeding, wet diapers are changed, the world seems a place in which the infant is at the direct center.  Sometime around the age of two, as the demands become more complex and the toddler actually has the language to express them, there is a disconnect — frequently the world does not comply with the child’s wishes. Thus the tantrum — don’t you know how important I am?  I’m used to making the universe answer to me.

Many Americans get stuck in this stage of development, where the outsized ego is created to compensate for the physical smallness of the child.  In fact, there are whole fields of philosophy/psychology that claim that development is complete by the age of three.  The ego is simply an inner voice, a mechanism developed to protect to body from threat.  The problem is that we acquire other voices (i.e. the voice of a mother, father, teacher, friends, etc.) that may create conflicting desires.  And the ego will try to protect us from the potential hazards of our own desires as well as hazards that may be presented by our friends and family, et al.  The bottom line, however, is that the ego is designed to keep us from feeling small. And since growth involves taking risks, its a truism that our ego rarely has our best interests at heart.

Thus, as Riggan Thomson tries to move toward authenticity, abandoning the Birdman role that won him fame, and many years later writing, producing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver, the super-sized ego, in the guise of the Birdman, works to break down all the risk inherent in taking one’s desires seriously.  And that is the source of both the comedy and the tragedy of Birdman.

Ironically, Riggan Thomson, as a former movie star, can begin in NYC on Broadway.  By way of contrast Lesley (Naomi Watt), his co-star in the piece, though married to a well-known Broadway actor, Mike (Ed Norton), is making her Broadway debut.  For Lesley, her career has been a process of work that is culminating in a leading role on Broadway.  Yet as Riggan approaches his dressing room, the Birdman voice in his head calls the St. James Theatre “a dump” and reminds Riggan “You were a movie star.”

Almost any performer knows those voices — the ones that talk us onto the ledge half the time  (“go ahead, take a chance, you can fake speaking Swahili” “Maybe they don’t really want a black actor — just show up at Ma Rainey auditions, you’ll see”) and keep us closeted in our rooms the other half of the time (“Why go to that audition, they’ve already cast the show, this is just to comply with the union” “Your hair looks a mess” “When was the last time you even got a callback from Telsey?”) Half the key to having a career at all is the ability to move out the door before the voices notice what you’re doing (the other half is the ability to stop yourself in the hallway if you’re darting toward doing something absurd).

Birdman would just be a piece for performers if this tendency didn’t live in us all.  Actors, by benefit of their profession, go on 30 – 100 job interviews every year.  That’s right, job interview.  That’s exactly what an audition is — a job interview.  Most of us can show up at a job, slog through the routine work we do and never have to think about anything except what a jerk our boss is for five to ten years or more in a row. When we start to look for a job, the voices come out (“Do I really want to work there?” “Does this tie match?” “Do I even need to wear a suit?”).  Now imagine the voices being basically a part of your job — you’re looking for work 24/7.

For me, that is the underscore of the film — it is the physicalization, the making material a metaphorical construct — that what may have once driven us is now that voice that will seek to destroy us.  Yet, it is a comedy.

Traditionally, comedy ends with marriage, tragedy with death.  (Yes, I am going to talk about the ending, so if you made it this far and you still haven’t seen the film, cover your eyes and back away now). The spectre of the Birdman becomes more prevalent as the film moves toward its conclusion.  After Riggan is talked into shooting himself on stage (and we see the life preservation instinct somehow defeating the grandiosity of the ego), his face takes on the aspect of the Birdman — his nose is masked from the surgery, the tape almost constructed like a negative inversion of his black bird mask.  When he goes to the bathroom and peels off the mask, his face is purpled and bruised with the aftermath of the event – his face is now etched with the details of his Birdman costume.  All that’s left is the denoument, the final union of the two individuals who are to be made one by the conclusion of the comedy.  We see Riggan standing on a window ledge, following the flight of a flock of birds.

When Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) comes back into the room, Riggan has taken flight.  He is no longer contained by the hospital.  A look of panic crosses Sam’s face and she immediately looks down.  There appears to be nothing below, so her gaze moves upward, into the sky.  A cryptic smile spreads across her face.  The end.  It is an enigmatic ending, to be sure.  One of the dialogue points has been that Riggan was never there for Sam (and it’s hard to believe that he’ll be there for her now).  So — what is the smile?  Does she finally understand him?  I personally believe the smile is to underscore the union — the two personalities we’ve watched dueling for almost two hours, are somehow merged.  In other words, we can choose to believe that Riggan has become insane or authentic.  It is our choice.  But it is Sam’s smile that points the way.

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