I was going to call this post Stopped because I have been thinking about Tony Scott’s tragic death last week. I happened to have watched 3 of his films in the last six months. A writer I was working with used Man On Fire as a touchstone for a script project. I have been playing with time travel so I was curious about Deja Vu. And Unstoppable was sent to me as a screener. In each of these films, Denzel Washington presents a protagonist living in a somewhat or greatly tortured present though the stories and the structures of these films are very different. The visual styles are similar – Tony Scott films all have a particular look and feel – something screenwriters don’t generally place on the page. As a writer, the thing that resonates today from all those films is the way that Tony Scott brought the feel of his own personal issues, his demons to his protagonists. We all do that when we write. The external conflicts and internal conflicts are almost always about things we can relate to because they are parts of us. I think we have to accept that and let it thrive through our pages. It may be part of the reason we write – to air out our souls.
Tony Scott didn’t make movies that were considered highly literate, from screenplays which were always great, in formal terms. Yet one of the many things he did fantastically was to bring the agony, beauty, the juicy conflict of living real life which we all experience more or less in our daily lives to the screen through his protagonists.
As we write our pages, mindful of story, plot, subplot, the intricacies of character development, the raw facts of the mindsets of our protagonist may be the most essential thing. The heart and soul from ourselves which we carry into that may be the thing which makes our written work memorable and resonant. For me, the spectacular and harsh way Tony Scott took his life last week sticks as a visual the way so much in his films did. There is also this blur between his protagonists, their internal conflicts and the filmmaker now and probably forever. We all need to do a better job of conquering our demons than Tony Scott did, obviously. Displaying them as well as he did in his creative work endures as a great role model amidst this tragedy.
Right now, I am working on an adaptation of a non-fiction book. I am trying to stay true to the spirit and facts of the story, but I am also seeking to elevate the drama. This balancing act/struggle may continue for some time. I have to figure out a way to tell the large story without diminishing or totally fictionalizing important details.
In Spartacus, a film directed by one of my heros, Stanley Kubrick, there was a conflict about those kinds of issues which put screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, in conflict with director Kubrick. There is a 78 page set of notes that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo gave to Kubrick and producers Eddie Lewis and Kirk Douglas after seeing the first rough cut of the film. I will say that again – Dalton Trumbo banged out 78 pages of notes for his director and producers about the rough cut of Spartacus. Below, an excerpt including Trumbo’s Large Spartacus/Small Spartacus analysis.
“I am going to try to point out as objectively as I can what I consider to be our past mistakes which have brought us to this present condition, not to arouse old differences between us, but to resolve them in a way that we shall not have to fear their repetition in the future. From the very beginning there have been two perfectly honest points of view on the nature of the Spartacus story. They are, I hope, objectively summarized below:
LARGE SPARTACUS: The revolt of the slaves was a major rebellion that shook the Republic.
SMALL SPARTACUS: That it was, in reality, more on the scale of a jail-break and subsequent dash for freedom.
LARGE SPARTACUS: That it lasted a full year.
SMALL SPARTACUS: That it was much briefer duration.
LARGE SPARTACUS: That it involved a series of brilliant slave military campaigns, and the defeat of the best Rome had to offer.
SMALL SPARTACUS: That it was a simple dash to the sea.
LARGE SPARTACUS: That it was finally put down only by the overwhelming weight of three Roman armies against the single slave army.
SMALL SPARTACUS: That it was put down by one Roman army.”
Trumbo argued for a large Spartacus. This was not an Indie film. This was not a history book. Spartacus was to be an epic film, a Hollywood movie. Trumbo preferred a Spartacus which moved hearts on the silver screen over historical veracity and perhaps character enigma.
Kubrick saw the film very differently. He told an interviewer: In Spartacus I tried with only limited success to make the film as [historically] real as possible but I was up against a pretty dumb script which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus. History tells us that he twice led his victorious slave army to the northern borders of Italy, and could quite easily have gotten out of the country. But he didn’t, and instead he led his army back to pillage Roman cities. What the reasons were for this might have been the most interesting question the film might have pondered. Did the intentions of the rebellion change? Did Spartacus lose control of his leaders who by now may have been more interested in the spoils of war than in freedom? In the film, Spartacus was prevented from escape by the silly contrivance of a pirate leader who reneged on a deal to take the slave army away in his ships. If I ever needed any convincing of the limits of persuasion a director can have on a film where someone else is the producer and he is merely the highest-paid member of the crew, then Spartacus provided proof to last a lifetime.
For my non-fiction script, the goal is to be LARGE without fudging the truth. No matter what the scale of the story being told is, the inherent proportions of the events, the stakes need to be internally massive, emotionally real for the characters. The emotions inherent in a script may be epic without battalions of soldiers on-screen whether it is a big movie or very small film.
Looking for something to watch with my wife (no thrillers or action movies) I stumbled on Friends With Benefits on Netflix streaming and read that audiences and critics had liked it much more than its studio lookalike movie, No Strings Attached, which I have completely forgotten even though we watched it no more than 6 weeks ago. Friends With Benefits is better. Much better. Thirty minutes in, though I found myself engaged, I was surprised to see that the wonderful Richard Jenkins was in the cast. I wondered to myself why he had allowed himself to be in this negligible film. Then the plot got a bit more complicated. The internal issues of the protagonist, played by Justin Timberlake, were well delineated and palpable. Timberlake’s conflicts with his love interest, Mila Kunis, functioned well in the context of the story. But I still couldn’t figure out why Richard Jenkins was there playing this innocuous role of Timberlake’s father – who has Alzheimer’s Disease. I didn’t see the signal of a subplot and that may have been the beauty of it.
Ultimately, Richard Jenkins delivered a speech with a message in the third act which brought home the protagonist’s internal conflict very well. It also gave the father character stature, depth and some unexpected back story of his own. The justification for Richard Jenkins’ presence in the film was delivered excellently, on point, moving, highly effective. That subplot enhanced and almost super-charged the narrative.
I watched another Netflix streamer, Down to the Bone, with the wonderful Vera Farmiga. After re-watching The Departed and Up In the Air, I was curious about her earlier roles. Farmiga won a Best Actress award at Sundance for Down to the Bone and she is great in the film. The screenplay is narrowly focused on the protagonist. The film keys to the isolation of this main character. Subplot is minimal if non-existent. The film concludes on a sign of hope for the protagonist, but there is no sign post to redemption or happiness. The resolution is still evocative and effective, true to the nature of struggles with addiction. Because the life of Farmiga’s character touched so many others in the film, it is interesting to speculate whether some embellishment to secondary characters, a slightly more structured approach to their narratives, (her friend, husband, children) could have amplified the story, provided more insight into the film’s concerns. As it stands, Down to the Bone is a fascinating character study. It could have been a great film rather than just a good one. Appropriate subplot might have made the difference here. Maybe not. Thoughts, anyone?
LINK TO BLOG POST ON GOINTOTHESTORY.COM -
Every writing project we undertake is a saga(mostly told only to a select few who bear with us) about the writing. That is in addition to the story we are actually trying to tell on the page every day. The list of spec sales each month that we track represents the aftermath of writing a particular draft for the screenwriters involved. Resolution on a project may be when a decent draft is finished. The saga of the making of the film – that is another story altogether.
Of course, screenwriters don’t always need studios or big production companies to get their scripts shot. Two of my former students are involved in a project, Cockroaches, which just achieved its funding goal of $80,000 on Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website. They are actually past $82,000 now. So my screenwriting student, Ryan de Quintal, who wrote the script will get to direct the film now. And Chris Corpus, another one of my students, is one of the producers of the movie. Congratulations, guys! I am looking forward to seeing the finished film. The trailer-teaser and lot of other information about Cockroaches is on Kickstarter at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/roachtown/cockroaches and is definitely worth taking a look at. Also notable, on a timeline for the project, writer-director Ryan de Quintal notes the date he completed his 9th rewrite of the script. That is what it takes.
I am considering my own DIY project right now, which leads me to the subject of this post – resolution and aftermath. I always write my scripts from page one straight through. I like to envision the movie scene by scene, page by page, to keep it organized in my mind. Most of us probably write this way.
Not everyone, of course. I recently did a video interview with TV writer Ed Bernero(Criminal Minds, Third Watch) for an upcoming class on writing one hour TV pilots. Ed told me that he always writes his third act first — after finishing his story outline.
What is interesting about that is if you can really imagine your character stories in resolution — the final confrontations of the script in a decent way, it is possible to do some very creative, inspired deductive reasoning and discover things to include in the second act culminations which might be better than what you would have created without writing the third act sooner. Ed’s technique seemed like an interesting notion, but not something I was really anxious to try any time soon.
Until a couple of days ago. I had a meeting with the gifted and wonderful Yugoslavian cinematographer, Seo Mutarevic, about making a DIY film of my novel, Peloponnesia. Seo had a lot of interesting things to say about the characters, their conflicts and ways to film the period battle sequences without elaborate costumes or sets. Seo also had many questions about the third act. We discussed the adaptation I planned to do of the book. Seo suggested that I write the third act first, to answer a number of questions he thought needed to be answered in the story.
I decided right at that moment — I will write the third act of my adaptation of the book first. Thanks, Ed. Thanks, Seo. A new approach for me. Feels refreshing. I am always pushing my writers in workshop to answer all the questions that are set up in the first act in the resolution. I always want to make sure they have framed their character and story conflicts early in the script and that they find ways to dramatically resolve them in the third act. It’s my turn now to bust open my own third act and brainstorm the most satisfying resolutions I can imagine. They may already be in the pages of the novel. But there are sure to be some that I have not fully explored yet.
This is a little story from the black list. Not the list that recognizes some of the best scripts of the year. The other black list. The one that pushed some of the best writers in Hollywood out of the business for nearly a decade – because of their politics, or what was alleged about them. We have to do many things to get a script sold these days, but fortunately, signing a loyalty oath is not one of them.
My novel, Peloponnesia, is about a producer with dementia who believes he is the main character in a script he has owned for a long time. Cleon, the protagonist from the script, is a prominent Greek general from the Peloponnesian Wars. My fictional producer, Harley Grace, walks around Los Angeles, thinking he is Cleon most of the time.
Now, right in my neighborhood, I just heard about a real life actor who has declared himself to be the character he once played in a movie long ago. Neighbor Joan Lewis, is the daughter of amazing Hollywood producers, Mildred and Edward Lewis. Among their credits: Spartacus, Lonely are the Brave, Missing, Harold and Maude, Seven Days in May, The Gypsy Moths, The River, many more.
Kirk Douglas, 95 years old, just wrote a book about the ending of the 1950s black list. The title: I AM SPARTACUS! There is no dispute about one thing: On screen, Kirk Douglas did play Spartacus. However, Douglas has chosen to rewrite history quite a bit. In the book, and in interviews, Douglas claims sole credit for breaking the Hollywood blacklist by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus.
Edward Lewis was, in fact, the producer of Spartacus and has been acknowledged by Dalton Trumbo as the individual who gave him back his name. Unfortunately, Kirk Douglas’ new book and in press interviews, Douglas equates himself with the actual Spartacus, and, simultaneously, rewrites history, by erasing Edward Lewis from this story. Edward Lewis, in fact, was instrumental in helping to end the blacklist.
Kirk Douglas did not produce Spartacus. Edward Lewis received sole producing credit on the film. Kirk Douglas was an executive producer. Edward Lewis brought the project to Dalton Trumbo. Howard Fast had been engaged to write the script but when that did not work out, Lewis offered the project to Dalton Trumbo.
Edward Lewis: “I gave Trumbo the book with a disclaimer: he might not want to work on it because the author, Howard Fast, had cooperated with the House Un-American Affairs Committee, and named names. Dalton’s response was, ‘If I turned the assignment down because I didn’t like his politics, I’d be guilty of the same blacklisting I’m fighting. It’s a short novel. I’m a fast reader.’ When the screenplay was finished, Dalton asked me to ‘front’ for him. My name was on the script as sole author when it was submitted to Universal. I went to London as writer/producer, met with Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov, and secured their commitment to star. When financing and distribution were locked, I insisted that my name be removed from the screenplay, an action that set in motion a sequence of events that led to Dalton Trumbo getting screen credit. Trumbo himself orchestrated much of what occurred. There were many people who helped break the black list. I was one of them.”
Dalton gave Eddie Lewis a copy of his novel, Johnny Got His Gun, with this inscription:
To Edward Lewis
Who risked his name to help a man who’d lost his name.
Words simply cannot say it, and I shan’t try to force them.
But you understand.
As does Your friend
June 2, 1959
I Am Spartacus!, the book, does not tell the whole story. Robert Cortes, former producing partner of Edward Lewis, observed that 95 year old Kirk Douglas apparently forgot the message of the movie that Dalton Trumbo so beautifully illustrated in the scene where all the surviving slaves are rounded up and the Romans demand the identity of Spartacus. All the slaves proclaim themselves Spartacus. It was the collective action of the slaves that was needed in the effort to right a wrong. Collectively they demanded freedom much as during the McCarthy period it was many who demanded, and made changes to end the tyranny of the blacklist.
Kirk Douglas is a bit old to play Cleon if Peloponnesia ever gets made into a movie. He does understand the part, though.