Thursday, March 08, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #128: Alienation is Easy, Sincerity is Hard

Long ago, I noted that one reason that beginning screenwriters love unhappy endings is that they’re a lot easier to write: You get to end your hero’s journey early, rather than guide them all the way across the finish line.  I’ve been reading a lot of the “Amateur Friday” screenplays over at Scriptshadow recently, and I’ve come to realize that there are some additional factors at work… 

One of the biggest mistakes that beginners make is that they mistakenly think their job is to come up with ideas that nobody else has come up with before.  So they look around at all these earnest movies about sympathetic protagonists experiencing growth and change, and they think, “Gee, how come nobody has ever tried to make a movie about a wretch who suffers and dies?  I must be the first person who ever thought of trying that!  I’m going to blow their minds!”

Of course, once they write those scripts, they find out that few people want to invest millions of dollars in a story that, even if it’s great, will make everybody feel like crap.  Movies like that sometimes turn out to be masterpieces, but not often, and you have to be a truly great filmmaker to make one worth watching.  

This is where you get to the real problem: How do you become great?  This is where misanthropic screenwriting can shoot you in the foot...

Let’s say you write an earnest, straightforward screenplay with the goal of making people feel good about life… If you send it out and discover that nobody likes it, then you obviously failed, and you end up feeling like an incompetent schmuck. 

On the other hand, if you try to write a misanthropic screenplay, and nobody likes it, then you’ll be tempted to say, “Great!  It works perfectly!  If they don’t like it, that just means that they can’t handle the harsh mirror I’ve held up to their reality.”  And maybe that’s true.  Or…maybe…the screenplay just sucks.  How can you know?

When you first start out, no matter what you write, it’s probably not going to be very good.  But at least if you’ve written something from the heart, you’ll know that it failed to connect, and you’ll force yourself to do better next time.  On the other hand, if you intentionally try to alienate audiences, then I’ve got some good news and some bad news... The good news: You’re guaranteed to succeed at that goal!  The bad news: You’ll never know whether you alienated them by writing something brilliant or by writing something terrible.

Even if you’re sure that you’re the next Lars Von Trier, and you can feed us castor oil and make us like it, you should first try to write something a little less bleak, just to make sure that you know what you’re doing.  That way, when you decide it’s time to hold up that harsh mirror and piss audiences off, you’ll know that they’re getting pissed at the message, not the messenger. 


j.s. said...

Respectfully, I must disagree.

I don't think a good story about alienation is any easier to craft than one about sincerity.

I think this post is all mixed up, confusing and conflating way too many kinds of films, stories, cultures, countries, production systems and creative intentions without illuminating key and useful differences between them.

The best way to succeed is to write something great that no one else but you could write. To do that, you've got to become who you are and find your own voice within the system in which you aspire to work. So if you're really keen on Von Trier, the worst thing you could do is force yourself to write a shiny happy Romcom. Sure it makes sense to tap into your inner Lubitsch if that's what you had secretly wanted to do all along and felt pressured into drafting misery porn by the film school posers who were giving you trite feedback.

But in Europe, for instance, this can work the other way.

Some of the better extreme horror films of the last decade have come out of France. Yet when you listen to many of those directors talk about their struggles to get their work made and to get respect for it, they feel as out of place in their native land as Von Trier would feel in Hollywood or Judd Apatow would feel if he were in Poland or Hungary competing for grants with the next Bela Tarr.

If you're aspiring to work in the Hollywood system, it's not useful or interesting to think about it in terms of this kind of false dichotomy of happiness vs. despair (which one does IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE fit into?). Your job as an aspiring writer is to look at everything that succeeds in the system and then look at everything that interests you in narrative and in life and figure out the overlap. If you can find a healthy sliver where those Venn diagrams share territory, you're set. If you can't, well, move to Europe or write novels or do something else.

If your vision of life tends to be darker, then Hollywood has plenty of room for you in genres like horror films and thrillers. Just look at all the feel-good movies about positive growth and change David Fincher has made. Oh, wait, there aren't any! They are about crazy people, jerks, obsessives, rape-revengers, serial killers, terrorists... If you're looking for a happy movie in his filmography, you're looking in the wrong place.

j.s. said...

I had a friend -- a smart and good writer, coming out of literature -- who made the exact opposite mistake for her first few scripts. She was trying far too hard to second guess the marketplace and write something she imagined to be commercial, genre-y and uplifting. But nobody wanted to read those scripts because they had nothing to do with her true passion, vision or voice.

Then she wrote something dark, heavy and intellectual -- but with a great story too -- and suddenly she was getting meetings. Go figure.

Matt Bird said...

But I actually agree with most of what you said here...

I totally agree with you that, if a dark-minded screenwriter tries to write an uplifting screenplay, then it won't be his/her best work and it probably won't sell. *But I would say that that's okay*, because he or she is just learning, and they'll learn more from trying to write something uplifting than from writing something bleak.

For instance, one could take one of two lessons from your friend's experience:

1. She was wasting her time with those uplifting screenplays, and she should have just written that dark screenplay first. OR...

2. Thank god she wrote those two unsuccessful, would-be uplifting screenplays first, because they taught her what works, what doesn't, and what her authentic voice actually was.

My fear is that, if she HAD written the dark screenplay first, she wouldn't have had necessary craft yet to pull it off yet, and, even worse, she would have been unlikely to ever *gain* the craft, because she would have mis-interpreted the screenplay's rejection as a rejection of her dark message, not a rejection of her inexperience.

You say:

"I don't think a good story about alienation is any easier to craft than one about sincerity."

I agree with that. I phrased my title in a jokey way, but let me unpack it. What I really meant was this:

a: Unintentional alienation is easy (all first screenplays are unintentionally alienating)
b: Sincerity is hard.
c: Intentional alienation (a screenplay "about" alienation) is even harder.

The problem is that, if you aim for "c" and wind up at "a", it can be hard to tell the difference. If you aim for "b" at first, (even if you ultimately intend to aim for "a" in your career) then you'll learn more.

When I started out, I thought, "I'm not going to take the easy route and ask people to care about a sympathetic character. I'm going to take the hard route and and ask people to care about an unsympathetic character."

What I didn't understand was this: *It's hard to get people to care about a sympathetic character too!* Even creating sympathy for an active, moral, likable hero is very, very hard! Creating sympathy for an unlikable passive anti-hero is *insanely* hard.

That's master-class stuff, and the only way to get there, I feel, is to start with something slightly easier, even if, as you point out, that means that you're not starting out from your most authentic place.

As Joss Whedon said: Speak their language and speak your own language too. I would add: you probably have to learn their language first.

Read Whedon's early scripts "Suspension" and "After Life" (They're floating around the internet) These are fun, straightforward thrillers without his trademark subversive wit, but I think that he needed to write these in order to be able to push the form forward later.

Whew. That was long.

Anonymous said...

I find most screenwriting posts to be off the mark and naive. Yours wasn't. Most writers can't even figure out that the stories are the same underneath, as lots of analysis shows: http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

j.s said...

We've talked before about how it's next to impossible to make a film about a protagonist for whom the audience feels nothing. Though, like you say, it's not necessarily harder to write a great Jerk hero than a great and more naturally likeable one.

Most of the best art films I've seen about alienation only work because we're feeling something for the protagonist. (This is why I think Steve McQueen's SHAME is such an out and out failure).

I can count on one hand the films I've seen that work without this kind of connection: SALO, THE CHEKIST, MICHAEL... and even these films make us feel something for the victims of the atrocities they portray.

I think the extent to which dark or difficult material gets rejected simply because it is difficult or dark is way overrated. All that matters is how good the script is, how compelling the storytelling is. I don't know anyone who's written something that's really excellent and hasn't gotten noticed for it. If your script is good enough, it will get attention. You may not sell it, but people will want to meet with you. You can get away with an awful lot if you keep the reader hooked.

There was a spec that sold for a million a few years ago called PRISONERS, a bleak and twisted crime story of child abduction and worse. Probably the only American screenplay I've read that even comes close to the intensity of recent Korean cinema. Who knows when or if it will get made. But it sold and started a career in spite of its heaviness because it was well-written and told a great story.

Joss Whedon's early work might not have the maturity or complexity of his later stuff, but it still seems true to his interests. He's got nothing against big fun blockbusters -- he's making one right now. Same with the first feature Quentin Tarantino tried to make, a screwball comedy that he never finished. Not untrue to his interests at all. I don't see how it ever helps to waste time writing something that doesn't interest you or capitalize on your unique vision and voice. Because, just like I said about those character moments, if you're not interested in your story, no one else will be.

The people I see who've made the biggest mistakes diddling around with what they thought the market wanted instead of what they loved about stories and what they knew about life tended to make a number of cascading false assumptions about the way things work, such as: I'm not allowed to explore what I really want to explore (about life, movies, narrative) OR Protagonists have to be likeable OR Movies need happy endings OR There are no movies like the ones I want to write.

None of this is true. You can do whatever you want. As long as, first and foremost, you tell a great story.

I'd say these false notions are largely self-protective and mostly due to the very willful ignorance of some smart and talented folks who don't yet quite have the chops to do what they aspire to and so blame their trumped up idea of "the system" for their lack of success. These are usually people who didn't want to learn from the wisdom and mistakes of others as you do on this blog. And people who often didn't want to learn from the history of the medium itself.