Thursday, June 26, 2008

Central Station

I've been studying the Brazilian film Central Station this week. It's always been a favorite of mine, but I never looked at the mechanics too closely.

I'm studying it because I am working out a story idea with a similar main character. Dora, the lead in Central Station, is a bitter old woman who makes money writing letters for illiterate people at the bus station. She's a liar and a cheat. She usually doesn't bother to mail the letters and just pockets the money.

One day a mother with a young son is run over by a bus and killed right after paying for a letter. Unmoved, she refuses to help the boy with a new letter. She refuses to help for days as the boy sits helpless and alone in the bus station.

But slowly she cannot help but care, and there the story begins. Most of her attempts at help are more or less ways of assuaging her guilt as cheaply and easily as possible. But there's really no way to dump the boy off on someone else. Every time he calls her on her lies and cruel behavior, and slowly she's drawn in. They begin a bus journey together halfway across Brazil to find a father who seems to either not exist or to have nothing to do with the boy.

The script is based on a story idea by the director, Walter Salles. This is not an American movie. Dora lies, cheats and shirks her duty practically up to the climax. She's no Julia Roberts. Rene Zellweger would run screaming from this script. Meryl Streep's agent would hide this script from her.

I'd started studying the movie by looking for how the writers maintain character sympathy for this tough old broad. They employ a couple strategies. Dora's punished every time she lies or cheats, and usually by the boy. So her amoral behavior moves the plot forward (and it's often very entertaining).

Her best friend functions as a kind of Greek chorus with an on/off switch. She's brought a voice of conscience into her life, even if she has no conscience of her own.

When she's faced with her own cruelty, she reacts and moves to fix the situation -- very quickly. We're not allowed to think she's abysmally bad for more than a scene. There's always hope for redemption, no matter how unlikely.

But I realized that all these are more or less strategies for keeping Dora in the ballpark with character sympathy. Why is it so deeply moving?

Dora crosses an astonishing dramatic distance, from unfeeling, dishonest and selfish to someone who sacrifices herself completely to find this boy's family. It's much more moving than if she'd been plucky, with a heart of gold, slightly obscured by the fig leaf of some tepid misbehavior. The writers found the heart of the story. They knew why they were writing it. They aimed straight at it, rather than at carefully balanced character palettes and all that. They saw the big picture, and the mechanics fell into line.

There's a lot I could say here, but I won't go on. If you read this blog regularly, you might want to think about the movie in terms of the quantum theory mumbo jumbo I was going on about: each beat somehow recapitulates the overall structure. On a more mainstream level, the structure of the script clearly lays out the standard 12 beats of the three acts. The writers are true professionals who are clearly profoundly aware of theory and practice of screenwriting.

But what's important is that they clearly wanted to write the story on a deep and personal level.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Anthropic Principle

I've been reading through more of the Wordplay site, and I have to say that a number of the articles are a bit dated -- but often still good advice. There's an article about how to fudge page length -- with an IBM Selectric and a Xerox machine. The writer seems to appreciate the arrival of these word processing programs everyone's so crazy about.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't look it over. Have you been doing your widow hunts? And if you're using final draft you can fudge your page length pretty substantially by going to DOCUMENT -> PAGE LAYOUT -> OPTIONS -> LINE SPACING. Then choose tight or very tight, depending on how chatty your characters are. And of course, get rid of your MORE'S and CONTINUED'S.

One article reminded me of some great lessons on how to work coincidence into your script without it seeming contrived: The Anthropic Principal. Yes, it should be 'principle', but that's how the writer spells it. At some point in your script your protagonist will probably need a lucky break. This article will tell you how. Hint: it's at the worst possible moment, when you're moving your plot forward at full speed.

What's cool about the article is that it takes the issue of coincidence and pushes it forward to something a little deeper. The Anthropic Principal is a response to the incredible set of coincidences required for life to actually exist on earth. If one constant, from the strength of gravity to the speed of light to the relative strength of electrons and protons was even slightly different, life could not have developed. The anthropic principle suggests that it's therefore INEVITABLE that we exist.

Why does this connect to screenwriting? Well, you're creating a universe. The forces need to be balanced -- sometimes in conflict and sometimes working together like a machine. You need to create this balance. It ain't easy. But build your characters correctly and give them enough time, and they'll give you a story.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Website for Screenwriters

Thought I'd share a pretty cool website with you all: Wordplay.

It's basically a collection of articles on everything from creating meaningful story to what a real contract should look like and whether to write on spec.... all those questions that fuel the screenwriting seminar industry. It's definitely worth a peek.

I found Story Molecule pretty charming. The article follows how you initially shepherd a story idea into existence, but unlike most articles, keeps going as the story molecule runs into powerful people, feasibility, dumb ideas, money, and god knows what else. If you've reached the point of working with producers, you'll understand. If not, then prepare yourself.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Eleanor Roosevelt and Mrs. Alf Landon

PBS broadcast a tremendous documentary about Eleanor Roosevelt as part of their American Experience series last night. Catch it if you can.

Mrs. Roosevelt has a lot to teach writers about character. She was a hero both in a historical sense and in a narrative sense. What made her a hero? What makes her a good character?

She began life in the shadow of a grandmother who felt she had not lived a fulfilling life. She was a woman of wealth and privilege who had raised a large family. But for some, that's simply not enough -- even for a grandma in the early 20th century. Eleanor saw this, and immediately identified what a screenwriter might call her universal desire: the need to make her life into a contribution to something larger.

Eleanor Roosevelt isn't the first or last person to feel this. We all feel it at some point. But very few of us have either the drive to make ourselves happy or the will to bend away from what's socially expected of us. Eleanor very quickly developed that will. This is what screenwriters might call a misbehavior, or a character 'flaw'. This is the trait in the character that they are unable to resist. They must fight. Or they must love. Or they must steal. That's who they are.

So Eleanor has the two very clear traits that a screenwriter might use to structure her character around in a narrative film. She's also got tremendous character sympathy, because she's fighting for her own happiness (something we don't always do ourselves..) and she's fighting for those less fortunate.

Eleanor fought to make an independent life for herself within her marriage. She fought to make a role for herself that her high social class would not allow her to have. She found her way into politics almost by accident. When she started to win battles within the New York Democratic Party, she was surprised as anyone.

And she found a new identity for herself. She found new friends and colleagues. She grew more exposed to problems of the poor and minorities in the Great Depression. And then when her husband was elected president, he asked her to give it all up. No more politics. No more charity work. No more advocacy. Time to serve tea to heads of state.

The adjustment threw Eleanor into a depression. She was nothing like the picture of a First Lady. She wasn't pretty. She wasn't proper. She jaunted around with lesbians and a slightly too dashing bodyguard. All gone.

But only briefly. Enter the misbehavior and the universal desire. Eleanor reasserts her power in her marriage. Before anyone can say anything, she's back to advocating, and now on a much grander scale. She's pushing forward new planned communities in West Virginia, fighting poverty in Puerto Rico and supporting mine workers in Pennsylvania. America has never seen anything like her.

I don't need to recount her whole life -- most of us know that she supported her husband as he fought polio, the Great Depression and Germany and Japan. She chaired the UN committee that created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But one very small moment in the documentary really struck me as getting to the heart of good character. In the 1936 election, Eleanor's unlady-like behavior became a campaign issue. The Republicans put together newsreels of her covered in coal dust hanging out with the boys, or slogging through mud and chatting with farmers while dressed almost mannishly. They opposed her to Mrs. Alf Landon, the wife of the Republican candidate. Mrs. Landon plays a harp, fondles orchids, and pats toddlers on the head while smiling demurely at the camera.

Mrs. Landon is a picture while Mrs. Roosevelt is a journey. When we start writing, often our characters look like Mrs. Landon when they should grow and breathe like Mrs. Roosevelt. I don't think Eleanor ever really planned to become the person she did become, but somehow it was also inevitable. It's scary to embrace that in a character. How can you include a free radical like that in your carefully thought out structure? But it's that uncertainty that IS drama. That's what brings a story to life. It's the reason we're writing.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Bird by Bird

I'm coming up with plans for a creative writing class I'm teaching this fall at Cogswell College. I'm going through all the things a good writer goes through as they enter into a new project: neurosis, insecurity, mental block, self-doubt. No fun. Screenwriting is so different from prose and poetry. I do write in all three forms, but hey -- who died and left me the expert? I'm not even much of a fan of writing classes. I took one once when I won free tuition in a competition. Writers with academic training tend to impress me like good Swedish furniture. Well made and little boring. Writing's always been an anarchic process for me. All the really good stuff comes from the weird characters and memories you forget you have. The structure of a screenplay more of less tells you where to put it. But if you let it guide too much of your creation, you're predictable.

I needed a textbook. I never used a textbook. I've certainly read a lot of writers discussing their creative lives, but I don't know if William S. Burroughs running far afield -- to drug use, geopolitics and god knows what is going to bring a lot of structure to class time. I'd love to read William Gass' On Being Blue because I think it's an essential view into a writer's mind. But it doesn't explain how to get there. Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet might be perfect, except if you've never written creatively before (because you're unlikely to start after reading it).

After a few days of what-the-hell-did-I-get-myself-into, I found exactly one book that might work to build a class around: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

Lamott highlights two invaluable pieces of advice: short assignments and, as she calls them, "shitty first drafts". Just for today, let's talk about short assignments.

This is breaking off something you can actually chew. It's limiting your scope to what's manageable, but also what's at the right level of magnification, if you will. You can find the right details without them overwhelming you or your story. It's the sweet spot.

I had a dream last night. It was fairly apocalyptic but not well remembered. I know I was on a Soviet-era passenger jet, and it had to get somewhere like New York in time, but there wasn't enough fuel and we were flying from the past. Or something. I remember best the icy clouds out the window, and the cold seeping in around the windows, and little cushions and too much metal and the smell of strange cigarettes.

So where's the small assignment? I sat down with my notebook and recalled flying out of Tbilisi in Soviet Georgia in 1987. I remembered one single moment: getting off the bus on the tarmac in front of the plane that was supposed to carry me back to Moscow. It struck me as the strangest looking plane I'd ever seen: low to the ground, with gigantic engines on short, stubby wings, it looked like a plane morphed from a wrestler. It sat in the middle of an almost endless tarmac of weird looking Soviet planes ringed by the Caucasus mountains. And I was there.

I sat down and described that moment. It felt good to get it out, of course, but as I wrote, I remembered so much more. This all happened over twenty years ago. But one detail brings the whole story back into focus.

The runway in Tbilisi is (or, at least, was) rather short for large aircraft. I remember sitting over the wing as the pilot set the brakes and revved the engines up to maximum. I thought the engines would tear the wings off. As he released the brakes, I was thrown back against my seat and before I knew it there was a mountain perilously below, speeding by much too fast and somehow horizontal.