Monday, August 15, 2016

Sorkin Speaks

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin  (Steve Jobs, "The West Wing," The Social Network, "The Newsroom," Moneyball, A Few Good Men, The American President) is currently teaching a Master Class in screenwriting, which includes a virtual writer's room (above) for an episode of "The West Wing."  Below are some highlights from his lectures.

You should start by reading Aristotle's Poetics----it's a "64-page pamphlet."  Be "evangelical" about it.

For Sorkin, the two most important elements are a "strong intention" and a "formidable obstacle."  "Without that, you're screwed blue."

But note that it's not required that your protagonist overcome the obstacle.

If, in your writing, you're attracted to a place, then aim for a TV series.  If you're interested in character, go for a feature.

"You can start without an idea."  Sorkin exhorts writers to just "start writing...literally typing."   But the story doesn't start until you introduce Intention.

"The worst crime you can commit is telling the audience something they already know."

"Audiences know the rules without knowing they know the rules."

Exposition:  "You need at least one character who knows as little as the audience does."

The first 15 pages are the most important to get your script made.

Sorkin typically takes 18-24 months to write a script, which includes "bulking up" (research, etc.), being depressed, and banging his head against the wall, because "most days you don't write, and it's demoralizing."  The actual writing takes him about 2 months.  "The fun part is the writing.  It's the thinking of what you're going to write that's agonizing."

 "A blank piece of paper is a soul-crushing experience."


Fact:  The Queen died.
Story:  The Queen died and then the King died of a broken heart.
Drama:  The Queen died.  Turns out she was the brains behind the outfit and now the King has to go it alone in the face of the subjects because everyone knows he's dumb.

Drama requires conflict.

"I don't care at all about reality.  I care about the appearance of reality."  When people say, "That's not the way people really talk," Sorkin counters, "Who cares?"  "They're characters, not people."

"A probable possibility is preferable to a possible improbability."  (Sorkin invoking Aristotle.)

"I like starting in the middle of a conversation."


1.  Nuts & Bolts (specific, not subjective).  For example:  What's the procedure for invoking the 25th Amendment with a President?
2.  Research in which you're really trying to find the movie.

Script Notes:  you want to find an editor who's smart, who understands scripts, and who understands the way you write. 

Sorkin's go to people for notes are Thomas Schlamme in television, and for features, Scott Rudin and David Fincher.  Sorkin will hole up for days with Rudin.

If you're told a scene is kind of "wet," it means you went too far emotionally--your characters are performing the emotion.

"Surgical rewrites" refers to rewriting to solve a problem.

The importance of failure:  the real value of, say, the Yale School of Drama (or wherever) is that it gives you the chance to write your worst without consequences.


Finally, Sorkin's Commandments:

1.  Take chances.
2.  Write in your own voice.
3.  Don't try to make everyone happy--don't make McDonalds hamburgers.
4.  Watch a lot, read a lot, write a lot, and find those you can trust to read your pages.
5.  Power through days of being unable to write.
6.  "We're writing things that aren't meant to be read but are meant to be performed."

Oh, and Sorkin really loves the series "Silicon Valley." He's amazed at how the writers have 
been able to sustain its premise of being about building one company.

P.S.  Sorkin is about to make his directorial debut on a script he wrote, Molly's Game, starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba.

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Neon Demon: Blonde Ambition

As I watched Nicolas Winding Refn's (Drive, Only God Forgives, Bronson) latest, I was mesmerized by how visually and aurally stunning it is (the music by Cliff Martinez and cinematography by Natasha Braier are absolutely jaw-dropping).  Refn has a true gift for mise en scène--the guy really knows how to direct.  His is a style that he has branded--literally--the film opens with "NWR," eschewing the conventional "A film by...."  I haven't seen Bronson, but it seems that Refn is increasingly more interested in sensual provocation than he is in satisfying storytelling.  As stylish as Drive is, it seems quaintly conventional compared to The Neon Demon.

The Neon Demon doesn't pretend to be a work of realism--from the outset it's very much in David Lynch territory, being specifically reminiscent of Mulholland Drive, also set in Los Angeles and focusing on an ingenue, this time an aspiring model (apparently orphaned, from some flyover state) named Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, who was 17 when this was shot.

Add to that a number of striking, ominous shots of creepy corridors and hallways (fantastic locations/art direction in this movie, especially an old Spanish mansion in the hills), as well as static scenes that echo, respectively, Kubrick's The Shining and Barry Lyndon, as well as Hitchcockian elements (the two leading competing models are also blonde, evoking Vertigo and Psycho), and you have a film that's infused with dread and with characters who are and aren't who they seem, who are alternately persona and shadow. (Bergman's Persona also comes to mind--the film is dedicated to "Liv"--Refn's wife's name, but it also made me wonder if the writer-director might also be referencing Liv Ullmann).

I haven't seen Refn's film Bronson, but based on the others, his brand is a highly stylized immersive experience (if you see this new film, it absolutely must be on a big screen) that arouses sensation.  Now, this is different from David Lynch, who in my experience engages the unconscious, or Kubrick, who gets us to tap into complex emotions (I recall taking to my bed in a fetal position and weeping after seeing Eyes Wide Shut the first time).  Refn is more of an amygdala guy--he activates/engages the the most primitive part of the brain--which seemed to really appeal to the fanboys in the audience of the screening I attended.  You're fascinated and repelled at the same time.

In the first act, Jesse asserts, "I'm not as helpless as I look."  Oh God, we hope so, but the fact that she needs to state this is a defensive red flag. Heroes are supposed to be initially reluctant, right?  Or so the screenwriting gurus tell us....

Refn wrote this with two women, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, and the film almost seems to be a feminist cautionary tale, at least initially.  And then a story of Jesse's innocence becoming corrupted by experience, which we hope she will not be helpless to overcome.  But the film is ultimately an exercise in horror, as the third act devolves into major camp. It's stunning, meticulously executed, triumphantly shocking camp, to be sure.  You'll laugh, but it will be a nervous chuckle, filled with dread.

Kudos to Fanning's co-stars Jena Malone as a non-blonde make up artist with an unconventional sexual fetish, and models Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee (memorable as one of the wives in Mad Max:  Fury Road), who function as Jesse's Furies here.  There's also a sinister cameo from Keanu Reeves as Jesse's motel manager.

You'll need a stiff drink after--or even better, during--this film:

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Grieving and Gleaning

'I will close with what Meadow once told me about being an artist.  It is partly a confidence game.  And partly magic.  But to make something you also need to be a gleaner.  What is a gleaner?  Well, it is a nice word for a thief, except you take what no one wants.  Not just unusual ideas or things.  You look closely at the familiar to discover what everyone else overlooks or ignores or discards."  From Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta

Two recent films I saw have their roots in grief:  Demolition (above; director Jean Marc Vallée and writer Bryan Sipe, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts; and director Karyn Kusama's The Invitation (below), 

a combination grief drama/paranoid thriller/horror film written by Phil Hay (Kusama's husband) and his writing partner Matt Manfredi, with a diverse ensemble cast led by the riveting "paranoid," Logan Marshall-Green (below).  

Ironically--or coincidentally--Spiotta's novel centers around two characters who are close friends and filmmakers.  One, Carrie (quoted above) is a mainstream director; the other, Meadow, is a obsessive, boundary-pushing documentarian.

I'm only about 70% through the novel, but when I read the passage above today, it made me think about these two films, Kusama's 

in particular.  She and her writers glean from the horror genre and expand upon it, rooting it in what is real and true:  a divorced couple still reeling with grief years after the loss of a lost child (and a lost marriage).  Add to that the paranoid thriller element, and you have a contained horror film that's a hybrid and a very effective elevated genre film.

Demolition deals with grief more straightforwardly--perhaps a tad too literally. Jake Gyllenhaal's character, who has, at the top of the film, lost his wife in an auto accident, expels his anger at a malfunctioning vending machine in a hospital by writing a letter of complaint to their customer service rep (Naomi Watts), but it comes out long and confessional, and you can guess the rest.  What I liked about the letter, though, was its psychological plausibility.  Jake's character also befriends Watts's character's son, whom he enlists to literally demolish the starkly modern house the grieving husband shared with his late wife.  It's a bit too schematic that he takes this to the extremes he does in order to "rebuild" his life, and there's a reveal about the deceased wife towards the end that's a cheap way to make it okay for Gyllenhaal to commit to Watts so quickly, but I nevertheless appreciated that there were many ways in which the film presented an accurate depiction of grief, despite how outlandish it seemed.  By which I mean that there is no "normal" way to grieve.  And needless to say, Gyllenhaal's performance was largely responsible for making this film work as well as it does (in a Q & A with the writer and director, they revealed that every other actor they approached passed on the project, even though the script had made The Blacklist--an annual list of the best unproduced screenplays that development execs have read that year).

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross even disavowed her theory of the stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  Not everyone goes through every stage; not everyone grieves in the same way; there is no "normal" or "typical" timeline for grief (in fact, it may never end; our losses become part of who we are).

This week I also began treating a new patient presenting with grief over his father's death.  And then Prince died (more on Prince and Bowie in another post).  And so it is the grieving time.  It is always the gleaning time--for all of us.

Here are the trailers for the films:

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