Thursday, September 4, 2008

Play/Work/Screenplay/Scene Work

I'm of the belief that you're not truly a writer until you've been dumped for shouting "I'm working!" at a loved one through a door as you stare at an empty page one time too many. Writing is work.

I won't bore you with the old chestnut that writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, because you've heard it before. But it is true.

I know that writing is several kinds of work. From planning it out to developing characters to revising and editing to ruthless self-examination to god-knows-what the next script will demand of me. Few jobs require as many different skills as writing does. And I'm not even counting the business end here.

Writing is work. Writing wears you out. Writing builds muscles. Writing is The Man. Some days you need a few beers and burgers just to feel normal again afterward. I've done every imaginable job from Fedex courier to cab driver to teacher to manager to waiter at snotty, understaffed restaurants. Writing is the hardest.

So don't look at me funny when I tell you that writing is play.

Writing is play. Writing has to be play. To wit:

You can plan a screenplay to within an inch of its life. I mean this. While you must plan out your script if you hope to get anywhere, you can also kill a script by overplanning it. Where's the balance?

I know I've hit the limit on planning when I stop finding toys to play with. I plan to increase my enjoyment. I plan to find scenes I want to write and characters that will surprise me. I plan to take a trip that I want to take. I plan ahead. I plan to be surprised. I plan to be happy.

I used to plan for careful symmetry. I used to plan for Syd Field. I used to plan for meaning, for significance, for something literary.

Now I plan to tell stories. In a shockingly straightforward kind of way, that's all most storytellers really want to do.

Last night I was watching The Seventh Seal. For those of you not familiar with Ingmar Bergman's opus, it's the story of a crusader's return to a Sweden ravaged by the Black Death. I didn't actually choose to watch it. The boyfriend wanted to, and it seemed like a reasonable alternative to the unbearable pathos that Brooke Knows Best inevitably brings on.

What caught me up was the scene where the traveling band of actors is singing this very silly song about sheep laying eggs and hens meowing while Death goes for a walk on the beach. Off behind the stage, the actor who plays Death is busy seducing an entirely willing milkmaid. And I realized just how much fun Bergman -- yes, Bergman -- must have gotten from putting this all together. The Seventh Seal stopped being something you're supposed to watch. Something very heavy became very light.

How do you apply something like this to the work you've got in front of you?

I was coaching a student on building climaxes before the all-too-numerous act breaks in a Movie of the Week script the other day. It's one of those things that seems terribly complex until you get the hang of it. (Then it's a bit too boring/restrictive for words). And I remember back -- way, way back -- to when I was a grad student, and a friend visited me from the Soviet Union. He'd never seen a commercial in his life.

We were watching a movie of the week. He didn't speak English, and I was providing a kind of running translation. Just as we reached the first act break, the movie of course went to commercial. What? "What the $%^$?! Who is this woman on the TV? And why is she having an orgasm folding her laundry?!" How could anyone do something so mean-spirited, so tricky, so evil as to build the tension then try to sell you detergent?

I still don't have a good answer to those questions. But I don't think I could write an MOW without thinking of him.

No comments: