Tuesday, March 28, 2006

On The Shoulders of Giants

Sir Isaac Newton once said that, "if I see further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." He was of course referring to the great astronomers who came before him, people like Galileo and Kepler. Most physicists believe Newton to be the greatest scientific mind ever in their field and yet Newton gave the credit for his success to others.

Everyone I know who is good at what they do will speak with great reverence of those who influenced them and their work. August Wilson used to tell me that he wanted to be as good a playwright as Chekhov. Billy Wilder worshiped Ernst Lubitsch and kept and sign above his desk: "What would Lubitsch do?". Paddy Chayefsky said he learned to structure drama by studying Lillian Hellman. Everyone good has their giants, but I have seen in the last few years that giants are no longer acknowledged. It seems that the younger people are the more they want to make a mark without doing the work it takes to make that happen. They want more than anything to be different, to be unique. This is without studying what came before. This is without copying the work of the giants who walked the earth before them. That's right, 'copying'. Human beings seem to learn by copying others.

Mike Mignola, the artist who created the popular Hellboy comic book, developed his 'unique' drawing style by copying the drawings of artist Frank Frazetta over and over until his own style emerged.

I once heard a radio interview with a musician who had played with the legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. This man had grown up on Davis' music and one day told Miles that when he was a kid he would play his records over and over again. He said that he would play his trumpet along with the records trying to sound as much like Miles as possible. Miles laughed and said, "Sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself." Nowadays I find that people want to 'sound like themselves' without learning to sound like someone else like first. They want to skip steps taken by others. Artists want to be Picasso without going through the same steps Picasso took. They want to be innovators, but all innovators stand on the shoulders of giants and do not spring fourth fully formed from the head of Zeus.

I often tell my students to find what I call a 'virtual mentor'. That is they should find a person or two or three (giants) to copy. Copy is not a strong enough word, you should steal from these giants. Picasso said, "Bad artists copy. Great artists steal." When you find these virtual mentors try to be as much like them as possible and they will teach you things about your craft that you didn't even know were there to learn. Put a sign above your desk that says, 'What would ________ do?' And one day, without even meaning to, you will find that you have learned how to sound like yourself. And you will see just how far you can see when perched atop a giant's shoulder.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Paddy Chayefsky’s Dead

Starting sometime in the 80’s film directors became art directors. The look of a film became more important than any other aspect of the film. So all of the guys who cared more about style than substance have been touted as geniuses. It is not unusual nowadays to hear a critic wax poetic about the look of a film regardless of the narrative substance of the film. Not to pick on Memoirs of a Geisha, but all anyone could say about it was that it was beautiful. One hears that a lot these days.

Many of my friends think I like old films because they are old, but this is not so. I like older films and filmmakers because they were better. The people who wrote and directed films before were 100 times smarter than almost anyone doing the job now. There are some exceptions like Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Frank Darabont, John Lassiter, Andrew Stanton, Steven Zaillian and a few others. But for the most part the people who get to make films today have a knowledge of film history that goes all the way back to Michael Jackson’s thriller video. They also have little or no knowledge of their storyteller’s craft. Meanwhile movies are getting worse and worse. Box-office is down for the third year in a row. Movies cost $10 bucks and we, the audience, get less for our money. Back when a person could go the movies for the amount of the loose change in their pockets they got a newsreel, a short subject and/or cartoon and a great movie. Sometimes you could see a live vaudeville act (called “coolers”) put on between screenings while the projector cooled. Imagine seeing a hilarious new Bugs Bunny cartoon followed by Casablanca or The Maltase Falcon. Today we pay a lot more for a whole lot less.

Hollywood blames the emergence of new media on the drop in ticket sales. That’s an easy scapegoat that takes the responsibility off of them. One of the most profitable times for film was during the great depression. You don’t think people had other things they could spend their money on? Things like rent and food. They did. But they went to the movies anyway. Guess why? They were entertained.

The storytellers of past generations just plan knew more about their craft than the current crop. They knew that there is a history of storytelling that goes back as far as humanity. They knew that they had to honor that history and the lessons learned from those who had come before. They also made astute observations about audiences and their reactions.
You can test this theory of mine by picking a current top filmmaker and reading an interview with them to see how much insight they have, then read an older interview with Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, John Houston, Frank Capra or Paddy Chayefsky. In these interviews you will find information that will help you become a better storyteller. These guys have the keys to the kingdom. They are the keepers of knowledge that is all but lost to the ages.

Two of the best books to read are Hitchcock/Truffaut, which is an extended interview with Hitchcock by filmmaker Francois Truffaut. And another is Paddy Chayefsky’s Television Plays. This book is great. The plays themselves are good, but what is even better are the essays that follow each play. Here you will read just how the stories were put together. It is one of the best books about story construction I have ever read. It’s like a mini film school. After you read these books most of the modern filmmakers will sound like troglodytes.

So next time you want to go the movies and see a good show go to the cemetery instead and watch Alfred Hitchcock and Paddy Chayefsky spinning in their graves over what has happened to their craft. I’m sure that will be a much more entertaining show than whatever they are showing at the multi-plex.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


If you think about it, Jaws is just a monster movie. And, like a lot of monster movies, incidental characters are picked off as our hero tries to stop the creature. But, somehow, the film transcends genre. It’s because it has an armature and a character of change.

Lots of films came out after Jaws which tried to repeat its success. One film used an orca whale in place of a shark, and another used a mutated bear.

None of these films went below the surface to understand why Jaws had resonance.

Terminator and Aliens are also just monster movies on the outside; what sets them apart are their strong armatures.

This happens in literature as well. No one ever says that 1984 is just a science fiction novel. Or that Animal Farm is a kid’s book because it has talking animals. Nor do they say the same of Gulliver’s Travels because its world is fantastic.

Is Star Wars sci-fi or is it fantasy or is it action? If it is sci-fi, does it have anything in common with Alien? What do E.T. and 2001 have in common? What are the similarities between Terminator 2 and Galaxy Quest? Indeed there is little these films share in common.

We have also prescribed a hierarchy to genre stories: “This is a costume drama; it must have more to say than a sci-fi story.” This, of course, is not the truth.

When Clint Eastwood made UNFORGIVEN, it felt like few westerns before it because it was more concerned with theme than with props, setting, costumes and stereotypes. It transcended genre.

Fed-up with the restrictions enforced on him by networks and advertisers, Rod Serling stopped writing the prestigious teleplays for live television for which he was famous. When he announced that he would be doing a fantasy show, many thought he had given up on doing “serious work” for television.

Mr. Serling knew something the executives didn’t. “I knew I could have Martians say things that Democrats and Republicans couldn’t,” he said. He was able to use the prejudice of genre hierarchy to his advantage. He wrote fantastical stories about real human issues without any flack from advertisers, and audiences always knew what he was saying.

We all have a fondness for a particular motif. I like the clothes and cars from the mid-twentieth century. I have a visceral response to those things when I see them in movies. That doesn’t make the film good.

More importantly, other people may not share my appreciation for these things, so as a storyteller, I must speak to them on a deeper level. The armature must be so strong that it makes the story universal and makes the genre inconsequential.

As a storyteller, you should be aware in which genre your story will, more than likely, be viewed. Outwardly, it should be in a recognized genre.
That will make it much easier to sell and to market. Only you need to know you’ve transcended the genre. Your audience will know it too, they just won’t know they know.

Friday, March 10, 2006


Genre is visible. People know if they are watching a western or science fiction. But invisible ink is about the inner workings of story, not the costumes the characters wear.
Among the people who know me, I am known as the guy who doesn’t like any film that comes out. This isn’t true. It’s mostly true. Anyway, they rack their brains trying to figure out what it is I do like and why. They think it might be subject matter or a certain kind of tone or maybe a particular genre. But there is always some wild card film that blows their theory.

Among people I work, with I am known as a person who can go easily from writing one genre to another. They can’t figure out how I do it. It’s simple. I just try to tell a story and tell it well. That is the same thing I want from other storytellers as well.

I believe that thinking of stories in genre terms only makes one think of how stories are different from one another instead of what they all have in common. Good drama doesn’t understand the boundaries of genre. It doesn’t care if someone rides a horse, a car, or a space ship, as long as you care about the rider.

Genre is concerned with the external. Some stories have been told in completely different genres with only cosmetic changes. Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, a samurai movie, became the basis for the first Star Wars film. Another Kurosawa film, Seven Samurai, became a western.

Kurosawa himself took William Shakespeare’s King Lear and set it in feudal Japan. Patrick Stewart took that same story and set it in nineteenth-century Texas for his television production, King of Texas.

The classic musical Westside Story is Romeo and Juliet updated and set in the world of rival street gangs in 1950s New York.

The John Wayne western Red River is a retelling of the classic sea epic Mutiny on the Bounty. Same story, different genre.

Genre is irrelevant to the dramatist. A dramatist should only be concerned with drama. If one genre can help you tell your story better than another, use it. No genre is better or worse than another.