Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Specificity is Universal

Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” says of its creation
  • “We originally had very little hope of its ever being produced. On the surface, it seemed to have very little commercial appeal. After all, we were writing about a community of poor Russian Jews facing a pogrom - a very unlikely subject for a musical. There was, in fact, very little enthusiasm from producers about presenting the show. But we kept working on it because we loved the subject, we loved what the show was saying, and we felt very close to the material.
He talks about going to the first Japanese production:
  • “Japan was the first non-English production and I was very nervous about how it would be received in a completely foreign environment…I got there just during the rehearsal period and the Japanese producer asked me, ‘Do they understand this show in America?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course, we wrote it for America. Why do you ask?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s so Japanese.’”
Likewise, in the DVD documentary, Anna Wang talks about The Farewell:
  • “When I first told my parents that I was gonna make this film, they were sort of skeptical, because I showed them the script that I’d written and my dad said ‘Yeah, this is how it happened, but why does anybody want to see this, y’know?’ They were shocked that anybody was willing to give me money to put these mundane details of our lives, of our family life up on a big screen”
She goes on to say:
  • “These details, they’re not boring, and they are worthwhile on a big screen, and so, I didn’t really know how people would respond, because I dove into the specificity of my family, and so to see the response at Sundance, to see people saying, ‘Oh, this is so universal, the story is so universal, these characters are so universal, this family is so universal.’ It’s so meaningful because it speaks to the fact that you can fine universality through specificity and that a story can be universal because of the specifics and not in spite of them, and so I think that my biggest dream is just that this opens doors for other filmmakers to tell their own specific stories and that people are gonna be more inviting to let filmmakers tell their own stories and do it on their own terms.”
Specificity is universal. The reason it works is because of scenes like the one I discussed yesterday, where the family winds up having a comedy of errors at the grandfather’s grave. The whole point of the scene is that this would only ever happen in China, where they have very particular graveside traditions that seem absurd to outsiders, even to a granddaughter who was born there but moved away young.

But because the details of the scene are so oddly specific to one culture, they feel universal.

To a certain extent, both Stein and Wang said, “Fuck it, I’m not going to write about a de-racialized plucky everyman hero in an attempt to ingratiate myself with the storytelling public, I’m going to write a story that only I can tell about my own people that will probably only appeal to my own people, but it’s the story I want to tell.”

Audiences worldwide are more likely to identify with specific, odd, absurd details that we haven’t seen before than we are to identify with “universal” details that we’re already familiar with. Judaism has very little in common with Shintoism, but if you write a very Jewish story with enough specificity, many Japanese people will say, “This was written just for us.”


Robert K S said...

Great observations! And very inspiring for anyone who's ever gotten the note "audiences won't identify with your characters" just because the characters aren't white 21st century suburbanites.

In other news, it was reported today that Tony DeVito died of COVID.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

A story from Cinema of Outsiders by Emanuel Levy:

"In an introduction to the published script [for Eat Drink Man Woman], co-written by [Ang] Lee, Hui-Ling Wang, and James Schamus, Schamus recalls Lee's complaint that the psychology of the characters wasn't Chinese enough. Schamus proceeded to deliberately make the scenes as Jewish as possible, after which Lee said 'Ah, ha, very Chinese!'"