Sunday, October 30, 2016
Podcast Episode 1: Channeling Master Thespian
You guys have heard me as a guest many times on the “Narrative Breakdown” Podcast, but in honor of the launch of the book, I thought it would be fun to start my very own, or rather our very own, because I’m co-hosting with longtime friend-of-the-blog, James Kennedy, author of “The Order of Odd Fish”!
You guys know that James frequently makes his objections known in the comments, so I thought it might be fun to let him pick at me in person, forcing me to defend stuff I’ve said here. For the first episode, we start with my post from a few weeks ago: Beware of Master Thespian. James disagrees, and we have it out, hopefully in an amusing way. We then try out a second feature: Free Story Ideas. I’ll let you listen to discover what that’s all about.
Will we have more episodes? Who knows! It depends on the reaction and how lazy we are. Let us know what you think!
UPDATE: The Podcast is now on iTunes and you can stream it here or download it by clicking on the title below and going to the SoundCloud page.
Labels: Podcast, Secrets of Story Podcast
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Notes from Some Guy What Is on the Internet:
The back-and-forth is welcome. By necessity, Matt's declarations on the blog feel like declarations of fact. As I am someone who is not Matt (trust me, I've checked), while reading I keep thinking "yeah, but what about..." or "good point, but there's a caveat...". Those thoughts occasionally manifest as a comment but often they don't, and there's a difference between a blog comment that drops a slab of text versus a back and forth. Keep that format.
On a purely technical note, the edits in audio were unmissable. I can't offer software or hardware suggestions, but maybe record in an area with consistent acoustics? The podcast "The Worst Idea of All Time" is (or at least was) recorded by guys who set up tabletop micro-booths with cardboard and foam egg crates. With egg crate close by on three sides, echo and interference would be less. I hope I'm remembering their descriptions correctly...
The subject of this particular episode was strong, as both sides make a great deal of sense. There's an inherent tension in your own advice -- "be unhateable" and "make it so good that your fellow writers call you an SOB" are not opposites, but there's a clear tension between those two that makes them feel like opposites. Your discussion called it out, and in the way I expected: James worries about the advice leading to timidity and thus mediocrity, you worrying that failing to heed the advice leads to audience check-out. Both make a great deal of sense.
What I would add is that what makes "hammy dialogue" a problem in scripts, or hammy prose in novels, is sentimentalism. Intense dialogue becomes hammy dialogue if the intensity is unearned. Julianne Moore's breakdown scene in Magnolia worked because we'd built to it and it also felt honest. Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian is hilarious because his intensity is so disconnected from the subject. He's acting with oversize emotions because he enjoys oversized emotions. The difficult part of the art is figuring out how much emotion has been earned at any given point.
Also, an internet high-five to James [whap!] for calling out your change in tone when describing your Laika story and sliding into structural cliche. My own interest sagged the split second you started talking about "this is where she changes and grows," and it was a joy to have that corroborated by your co-host. Again, the blog and book are necessarily written with an authoritative tone and that can easily lead to over-rigid applications of its ideas. He called that tendency towards rigidity out and you clarified, and that's good stuff.
The Laika story seed itself runs hard against the problem of sentience. If Laika is sentient, then it opens up all sorts of major ethical problems as well as threatens to turn the story into a cartoon; if she's non-sentient, she can't be a protagonist for more than a page or two. If the aliens make her sentient, that borks the entire story as well. My approach -- which I won't take, so anyone in internet-land can use this if it sounds fun -- would be to make it a short story where the protagonist is an alien, and the alien tries to make itself understood by the dog. "This Earth being is fearless," the alien thinks, "and it reacts not at all to extinction threats to its homeworld...What manner of creatures are they?" Meanwhile, Laika gnaws on her own back for a minute solid.
Okay, it's very 1950s SF magazine stuff, but that's what pops to mind. Genre cliches! Woo!
Oh, and as far as "the audience wants to love you" vs. "the audience is looking for a chance to reject you," my own impression is that it's like you're on a first date with a recent divorcee. He or she really does want this to work out, but half-suspects you're a psycho or a bore until you prove you aren't. Once you get past the drinks-and-appetizers phase with some degree of charm and your date has lost the "maybe this man/woman is going to kill me and keep my dismembered body in a freezer in the garage" feeling, you have a little more freedom. You can break someone's heart and have them love you for it, but you can't lead with it and expect it to work.
And you can't stay super-pleasant the whole time. From the Ross Macdonald novel Black Money, a relevant quote: "He was a handsome cold-eyed man of forty, overdressed, with the little graces of a pleaser and a pleaser's lack of resonance."
This is another area where I think genre matters a lot. The more the audience buys into a genre, perhaps the more likely they are to let things slide or let you get away with stuff...though almost certainly that generosity is bought through adherence to genre requirements. An action fan will sit through some dreadful garbage or oddball choices as long as you make with the punchy-splodey, horror fans the same as long as the scares are there, and so forth. Well, maybe. I'm thinking out loud.
I suspect that there's a big divide between reading screenplays and reading novels, when it comes to this principle. When you're reading a screenplay, so much of the experience has to be provided by your imagination -- there's huge chunks of the dialogue in *Juno*, for example, that didn't work for me on the page but worked much better when performed by good actors.
When you're writing a novel you can trust that if your prose works, if your characterization works, if your tone and atmosphere work, then most of your readers are going to get your dialogue - if it's on the edge between dramatic in a moving way and dramatic in a melodramatic way, you can do a lot as a novelist to tip it one way or another. When you're writing a screenplay, you have to somehow get your readers to imagine a whole movie just from stage directions and dialogue. And I think there's a bigger risk, at least, of dialogue that works in your own head (and could work in a finished movie) looking cheesy or hammy or melodramatic on the page.
I don't know if I'm totally wrong here; I'm VERY new to writing screenplays and maybe they're not as different from novels as it now seems to me.
[quote]If Laika is sentient, then it opens up all sorts of major ethical problems[/quote]
I haven’t watched the podcast as I don’t understand spoken american english, but isn’t major ethical problems a thing you would want?
Good point. I should clarify what I meant: I think it would open up ethical problems you probably don't want to address in the story. The suggested story involved the Russian dog sent into space in the 1950s, Laika, being kidnapped by aliens while in orbit. If the dog is sentient, that opens up ethical questions about shooting dogs into space, but it also raises questions about all the animals back on Earth that the audience can't help but ask.
Normally you can avoid the ethical issues in talking animal stories by making sure the audience doesn't ask questions about the difficult parts. However, if the story hinges on a thinking dog saving the very beings who shot her into outer space to die, that will force the audience to consider ethical issues that would stretch far outside the boundaries of the "dog in space with aliens" story.
So I guess you're right. I wouldn't go in that direction, but it might be the right way to go. The story struck me as a silly adventure, but it doesn't have to be.
Yeah, I think the whole "It was wrong to shoot Laika into space" is something you can deal with, even in a kids' movie.
Thanks for all your notes, everyone!
On the specific question of inoculating yourself against criticism of purple prose, I think I have to agree with James. Personally, the point at which I start to hate my writing comes very very early in the process and I tend to genuinely need someone to provide some voice of reason feedback to prevent myself from either 1) never letting it out in the open, or 2) editing it down to the most banal version of itself. So I think James is right on about allowing those rough edges in there to give your first readers a chance to find the hidden gems in your writing.
You guys touched a little on the difference between first drafts and editing, but I wanted to expand on that a bit. It sometimes seems to me that in your advice writing there is a bit of an unspoken conflation of "audience/reader" meaning 1) the end consumer, and 2) the editor, agent, studio exec, etc. I've never had anything to do with the world of "real" publishing or filmmaking, but it seems pretty obvious that the gatekeepers (group 2) are much more clearly in line with your description of suspicious readers, whereas the end users are more like what James was talking about--willing to give you more of the benefit of the doubt (although this group is far too diverse to ever make monolithic generalizations about).
I have a *ton* of thoughts on your discussion about "art" movies and David Lynch, but I think I'll save them for another time.
Thanks for everyone's input! I'm glad that many of you enjoyed our experiment in podcasting!
Harvey, thanks for your thoughtful and gratifyingly copious feedback. Especially for my internet high-five . . . and also especially for the ace technical suggestion about how our edits might be improved (that DIY sound booth from "The Worst Idea of All Time" sounds worth investigating.) As we evolve, we amateurs will find ways to execute the audio aspects more gracefully.
Emily, your point is well taken too. I'm a novelist, not a screenwriter, so my reactions to Matt's advice come out of that context. I think there's a lot more tolerance for eccentricity and weird choices in a relatively low-stakes format like the novel. (When I say low-stakes, I mean it primarily only takes one person to write a novel, so a novel can afford to be idiosyncratic in ways that a movie, which takes many people and a lot of money to produce, probably can't. A novel doesn't have to pass as many gatekeepers, and culturally it's a comparatively marginal form, unfortunately.)
Mark, that's a great point that our discussion conflated the role of the end consumer and the editor/agent/studio exec etc. Matt and I were probably just talking past each other on that point. If we had clarified that, I think there might have been less disagreement.
That said, Mark, I'd love to hear your thoughts on art movies and David Lynch -- if you don't want to put it in a comment, why don't we make it part of the podcast? Record your own voice making whatever point you want to make, like a minute or so, and send it to email@example.com, and then Matt and I can respond to it live?
James - Oh, I don't mind putting it in the comments (don't mind being part of the podcast either!), I was just pretty busy this morning.
My basic thoughts about "art" films turn on definitions. There are several different things that we mean when we talk about art films (or indie films, or whatever other word you want). Matt's blog and book are about narrative/story, but many forms of art (films and novels included) are either uninterested or lightly interested in narrative/story.
At the most extreme end, you have completely non-narrative films--say, Michael Snow's WAVELENGTH or BACK AND FORTH, which are entirely formalist exercises in camera movement.
There are in-between steps (my favorite film of all time is LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, which I would categorize as a film which has some loose narrative strands, and is actually quite interested in narrative as a conception, but can not primarily be encountered as a "story"), but I'll skip ahead to narrative films that *contain* narratives but are not primarily *about* their narratives. Mid-to-late period Godard, much of Jacques Rivette, Richard Lester's THE BED SITTING ROOM. These are movies with characters, incidents, and plots even, but they locate their meanings in images, metaphors, gags, and a lot more.
Then there are of course the whole set of films which Matt readily acknowledges--movies that are not about solving a big problem.
And there are most certainly many other steps and categories I could detail, but this is already going way long. The point is that when Matt says that his checklist can apply to "art" films, we have to be careful about what we mean by art films. Clearly, there are whole groups of films that are entirely excluded from the checklist by virtue of their entirely different aims (I am perfectly aware that you and Matt know this, but I always think its best to get all the definitions out on the table so we know what we're dealing with).
And the reason for getting all that out on the table is that things start to get really tricky when you look at a filmmaker like David Lunch. Lynch is someone who comes from a non- or quasi- narrative background (ever seen his short "The Grandmother"? It's excellent) and has had varying approaches to how he integrates narrative into his films. Not so coincidentally, a lot of this has to do with money.
You guys mentioned three of his films--ERASERHEAD, DUNE, and BLUE VELVET. And as far as I'm concerned, those are three very different animals.
ERASERHEAD was funded entirely (I believe) by a grant from the American Film Institute. Lynch had complete control over the film and final edit.
DUNE and BLUE VELVET were both made by Hollywood studios, under the auspices of Dino De Laurentis's production company. In both cases Lynch was contractually obligated to produce a 2 hour movie. In the case of DUNE, his 3 or 4 hour cut was taken from him and re-edited by De Laurentis's people. While Blue Velvet remained in his hands to the end (what we might call an independent movie made with studio resources).
Now, it's been over a decade since I've seen ERASERHEAD, so I'm going on very foggy memories, but my recollection is that while there is certainly a narrative of sorts, it would not really conform to much of Matt's checklist--if for no other reason than the stunning amount of alienating (to use you guys' word) effects in it. I'd say, by virtue of its production history, ERASERHEAD fits fairly well with your description of novels as "low-stakes"--neither Lynch, nor AFI expected or intended ERASERHEAD to be a wide-audience, commercial film, and so Lynch was much more free to chuck whatever pieces of narrative he felt like.
Interestingly, despite their very different production histories, BLUE VELVET and DUNE (along with ELEPHANT MAN) are by far the most clearly narrative of Lynch's entire body of work (oh yeah, and THE STRAIGHT STORY, always forget that one). Matt was able to get a pretty high score out of BLUE VELVET, and I'd imagine that if he put DUNE through the wringer, most of the problems would result from the book or the editing.
But LOST HIGHWAY, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and INLAND EMPIRE, are all quite clearly attempting something different. While many have made compelling cases about how to fit all the pieces of those movies together, Lynch himself has always been cagey about the "answer" and I think it is part of his project to specifically *question* the value of a through-narrative line in these films. This makes analyses them in the manner of Matt's book not necessarily worthless (you could take a lot of lessons from specific set pieces and sequences), but certainly a different type of analysis.
OK - I've said enough for now, and I have to get in the car anyway. If I haven't bored everyone to tears I'm happy to hear your thoughts on any or all of the above.
Mark and James- I'll elide your Lynch discussion for now and go back to your first point of discussion: Yeah, when I was editing the podcast, I found myself wishing I had made the distinction between gatekeepers and consumers. On the one hand, you would think the gakekeepers would be more inclined to be generous, because they're getting paid to read instead of losing their money, but they're inundated with low-quality product, so they're more inclined to assume you suck, so this advice is especially important with them. I think maybe I could have won that damn argument if I'd remembered to bring that up!
Excellent analysis of Lynch, Mark. It would be interesting to subject "Eraserhead" to the checklist. It has one hell of a passive protagonist, but it does have a linear narrative about a large problem.
As you point out, I do have at least some advice that applies to just about every type of story. After all, one of my consistent themes is the power of objects and that's true of every type of film, down to the artiest of the arty.
When will the book be available on Kindle?
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