Dear reader, teaching is often as frustrated as it is rewarding. A teacher cannot force students to care or to learn or to grow…that desire must come from within. Well, Peter Melnick is a former student of mine, and a fascinating young man who has that internal desire. The gentleman was kind enough to think of me in the rush of excitement he felt after a brush with his writing idol. I suggested that he might want to share his thoughts and inspiration with all of you by writing an essay about the experience. It is just our luck; he agreed to write an essay for all of us and Great Writers Steal is quite pleased to present it. Mr. Melnick also happens to be a graphic designer and has been kind enough to produce an attractive PDF of the piece that you can read and download.
The Tough Shit I Learned from Kevin Smith
I’m pretty sure that if I never discovered the work of Kevin Smith, I would not have taken the path I had in life to become an artist as both a writer and graphic designer.
Bold statement, isn’t it? While that may be the case, it is most certainly true. Back in 2001, Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back hit the theaters. Around the time this movie was coming out, I was a 12 year old about to enter the 7th grade. Unfortunately due to having a parent who didn’t want to take me to an R-rated film (understandable), I wouldn’t be able to see the film until a few months later on VHS. Before that would happen, I was able to get my hands on a copy of the film’s script and somehow convinced my 7th grade “Reading” teacher to let me take the script and do a book report on it. My school had both an English teacher for that grade and a “Reading” teacher – the difference between the two classes? I couldn’t tell you even if I tried. Thankfully the script was released as a physical book from Miramax and I didn’t have to take 90 something pieces of stapled printer paper and use that. I probably got a good grade on it. It’s been almost 13 years since I was in middle school, so I couldn’t tell you every single grade I got back then. All I know is that not long after reading the script and then watching the movie, that exposure made me into a fan of Kevin and his work.
When you’re a kid and you discover things like films, television shows, etc., you sort of become obsessed. Deny it all you want, but it’s true. When I was 5 years old, I was completely obsessed with the Power Rangers. Three years later? Star Wars was the love of my life. A year later? Pokemon. I think you get the point. Once you discover something you like, you want to do whatever you can to learn more and enjoy what you love. Discovering the work of Kevin Smith was no different. Once I finally saw Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I had to see everything he had committed to celluloid. By the time I reached 8th grade, I practically wore out my VHS copies of the Clerks animated series and Mallrats.
Fast forward to Fall 2007. My grades were in the toilet from high school, but I decided to enroll at my local community college to try and boost them. Sitting in the registrar’s office, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to choose Liberal Arts as a major mainly due to the fact that math and I are just not compatible. So right then and there while looking at the options I had available, I decided to go with Graphic Design as a major. Now what does this have to do with Kevin Smith? Numerous times throughout his career, he has told people to “do what you enjoy,” so I did just that. I had really enjoyed working with Photoshop over the years prior, so I thought why not?
Now we move ahead two years and I graduated from that community college with an Associates Degree in Graphic Design. At this time, I had gotten accepted by SUNY Oneonta, but due to circumstances beyond my control, I was not able to attend. For the next year, I decided to continue my education (i.e. avoid the real world for another year) and go into Communications since there were no other programs that interested me quite like that one. Again, I went with Kevin’s logic of “do what you enjoy.”
During this time, I was reapplying to some of the schools to which I applied to a year earlier. One of the schools that caught my eye was SUNY Oswego. My best friend had been attending for the past year and told me how great it was, so I decided to go for it. During that first semester, I took two Creative Writing courses, one with Leigh Wilson and the other with Chris Motto. Both were phenomenal professors and made me realize that writing was something else that I enjoyed on top of my work in Graphic Design.
The next semester rolled around and I was in a meeting with my advisor. During said meeting, she made the suggestion that perhaps I could add a minor to my college career. Looking through my options, I decided that maybe Creative Writing was the right thing for me. Over the years of watching Kevin’s work, I realized that what he was doing was essentially getting out how he felt about the world around him, expressed his thoughts through written word. This led to myself taking a poetry class the year prior at my previous college. Much like Kevin, I was writing out how I felt about the world around me. Though these were short bursts of expression, I knew that if I could bring out those thoughts in small doses, I could certainly do it in larger ones as well.
As the semester was ending, it was time to start scheduling what was to come in the Fall. The thing that I was gung ho on was taking a screen writing course. Unfortunately, I was not able to get into any of the classes. Instead, I decided to go another route: playwriting. Since both were similar in many ways (and different in others, obviously), I decided to go that route. As luck would have it, an introductory course on the subject was open for the Fall semester and was being taught by Kenneth Nichols. The only downside to the class was the 8 AM start time. Regardless, I went in and I appreciated what was being taught to me. Nichols’s teaching method was unique in that he didn’t rely strictly on showing the standard playwriting materials like the work of the greats in the field, but rather often presented clips from sitcoms, films, and even news programs. By using these sources, he showed us ways to borrow methods from other forms of media and incorporate it into our playwriting. Additionally, he showed us that it doesn’t matter where inspiration comes from. As long as something connects with you, you’ll be set. Kevin would even go on to do something similar when he worked on his soon-to-be released film, Tusk. He found a bizarre ad online and creativity was brought forth.
It wasn’t until a full year later that I would be able to take the followup course. When I did, I fell further in love with the concept of playwriting. One of the most important things that Brad Korbesmeyer gave us was the ability to have our plays read aloud and even acted out in class. Doing so, we were able to see just how things work and how they don’t. It’s one thing to think over the lines in your head, but it’s another to actually see the words and actions on your page come to life. When a play is going into production, you can’t really fix things up during a live reading. The people who are putting on the production usually like the play the way it is and may not want to see changes. With Brad’s method of having the class act out the play, you still have time for revisions for your upcoming drafts. On top of all of that, you can also get to cringe when one of your lines doesn’t sound the way you want it to (though that’s not really a positive thing to experience).
After graduating college and leaving Oswego, I returned home. One of the very first things I did was start writing again. The problem with leaving school, however, is you don’t really have deadlines. Instead, you have to create your own and go from there. Without official deadlines, sometimes it will become “oh, I’ll write tomorrow” or “I’ll write after the weekend is over.” For myself, this would go from days of not writing to weeks and finally, to months.
Over the course of the past year and a half, I have run into different people who occupy prominent places in a wide range of creative realms. Quite a few of them would be comic book writers due to my love of the medium. In many ways, the job of a comic book writer can be hard since they’re constantly on the spot to create original content on a monthly basis. Since they have such a heavy burden with issues (no pun intended) like that, I felt it would be good to get advice from them. I would hear from people like Evan Dorkin (of Milk and Cheese and Beasts of Burden fame), Justin Jordan (writer of The Strange Talent of Luther Strode), and Jill Thompson (of Scary Godmother fame). On top of all of this, I was able to hear from Bryan Johnson (the writer/director of the film Vulgar) who gave me the simple, yet valuable advice of “write every day.”
One bit of advice would come almost a year after my graduation from college. Who was it from you ask? Writer/director/producer/actor/podcaster/Bane vocal impersonator, Kevin Smith. Early in the month of May, it was announced that Kevin would be doing an “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) on the website Reddit. I knew immediately I had to ask him a question. Unfortunately, due to the large number of users, it would be impossible to get him to see my question in time, so I decided to write up my question in detail ahead of time. After all, if I’m going to ask the man something, I might as well go all the way. Ten minutes before the official thread was posted, I copied my message/question to Kevin into my phone. I then proceeded to continually refresh the app I was using like a person anxiously waiting to enter a store on Black Friday to see when the AMA was posted so I could post my question.
About 5-6 minutes before the AMA was supposed to start, I noticed that Kevin had just posted the official thread. As fast as I could, I opened up the discussion and posted my question into the box and submitted it. My question was one of the first two or three submitted, so I know that he had at least seen it. I then went over to his profile and kept refreshing to see how many answers he had given. The first one was a humorous one in which he answered back to someone who asked if they could his accountant. After that, there would not be another answer from Kevin from another several minutes. In the meantime, I noticed that my comment was getting buried at the bottom of the page with “downvotes” (Downvotes are a way to hide posts on Reddit you may not agree with or find acceptable. In this case, people were downvoting my question so their’s could be seen by Kevin over mine.), to the point that it was in the negative numbers.
This was my message that I relayed to Kevin:
First off, I want you to know that I absolutely adore your work. It was your work that pushed me in the direction of wanting to become a writer in the first place (even going as far as adding on a Creative Writing minor to my college degree in Graphic Design). Your ability to manipulate language and so forth really inspired me and for that, I thank you. Yes, it’s cliche to say, but you are my hero.
Now, over the past few months, I’ve been doing some writing and trying to keep at it daily. There have been a number of times where I don’t know what to do next. I stare at the screen and try to figure out what to write. Others would say it’s “writer’s block,” but I’m one of those who believes such a thing does not exist.
Prior to the recent work that I’ve been doing, I would stop writing for days to even weeks. Lately though, I’ve been of the mindset where I have to push myself to write even if I don’t think it’s very good.
So, what I want to know is what keeps you going? What inspires you to write and have there been times where even you, a man who is verbally gifted didn’t know what to put to paper/type on a keyboard?”
Then it happened.
I refreshed my phone and saw the following reply to my question:
“Honestly? Death motivates me. One day it all ends for our hero, and he doesn’t get to express myself anymore. Nightmare thought for a motor mouth full of ideas (some of which are actually good). What am I waiting for? Might as well spit it all out now while I’ve got the chance.
You know what also helps? Change up the creative outlet from time to time. A writer writes, sure – but a writer can also podcast, and sometimes saying shit out loud can help. Or go take some photographs. Or shoot a short film. Or paint. Even if the words aren’t flowing, capture SOME moment that you can share or convey to others: that’s your only job as an artist. Don’t worry about whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as art is in the eye of the beholder anyway. You just capture the moment, by any means necessary (Except, y’know, any way that hurts or kills someone else).”
After briefly shaking from the realization that the guy who made me want to become a writer actually acknowledged me, I began to calm down and to absorb the wisdom he had granted me. The idea that life ends really didn’t occur to me when it comes to writing. My lack of foresight was due, in part, to being young and believing in the “tomorrow will be another day” mentality. With that bit of advice from Kevin, it made me realize I should let whatever thoughts flow into whatever it is that I’m writing as there may not be a second, third, fourth, or even fifth chance. When the opportunity arises, you should grab it and write. Literally, if you want to take writing seriously, you should do it as though your life depends on it. Otherwise, those thoughts will never be free and be shared with the world around you. In a way, I wish I knew that bit of advice sooner for the fact that maybe I could have gotten more things out earlier than I did. To be fair, however, there’s no time like the present, so it shouldn’t matter how soon or how late I began writing. The fact I’m getting all of my thoughts out now is the most important thing.
The suggestion of taking part in as many activities as possible was also incredibly helpful. Like I had stated earlier, I’m a graphic designer and writer. I already have my hands in two pots. Why not go and do more? Be creative in as many avenues as possible. Sure, the product of one might not be as good as the others, but it doesn’t matter. You’re capturing how YOU feel. It shouldn’t matter what the quality is. Look at the work of Ed Wood. Sure, what he made wasn’t great to many, but he gave the world his vision (no matter how strange it was). There were probably some better takes from his films that made it to the cutting room floor, but what he used was what he felt was right for that situation.
Will I listen to every bit of advice that Kevin gave me? Absolutely. In many ways, it helped push me to go further as a writer. I shouldn’t look back and I shouldn’t be so critical of my own work. I’m also going to be starting up a blog of my own in the near future to jot down my thoughts about the world around me. I used to maintain a blog when I was a teenager, but eventually abandoned it. The blog isn’t the only place where my writing abilities will be showcased. For the past few months, I’ve been keeping busy working on a play that I hope to shop around to various playwriting contests within the next few months. I’m always going to be a graphic designer, first and foremost. I preoccupy my time doing freelance work for clients in a variety of realms, be it logo design, poster work, among others.
I just feel that no matter what, if you want to be serious about what you do, you should live every day like it could be your last. Be brave and take a chance. This can be in the form of the littlest things like starting a blog or painting a picture, to the large like going skydiving or bungee jumping. Kevin told me to “capture the moment” and I hope to do so not just with my art, but also with my life.
Peter Melnick is a graphic designer, writer, and graduate of the State University at Oswego. If you would like to take a glimpse into his everyday life, follow him on Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/PeterMelnick). He is not related to the composer of the same name, but was once friends with said composer on Facebook for a day.
Title of Work and its Form: The short films hosted on wafflepwn’s YouTube channel Author: wafflepwn Date of Work: 2009 – present Where the Work Can Be Found: The films can be found on the wafflepwn YouTube channel.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure
It all started with concerned parents who shut off the World of Warcraft account when their son, Stephen, needed to be disciplined. Stephen did not take the punishment with very much grace:
Nor did Stephen appreciate the car his parents gave him for his sixteenth birthday:
And Stephen certainly did not endure the pain of his first tattoo with much grace:
Over the course of two dozen videos, Stephen has demonstrated his lack of impulse control, his adolescent sexual confusion and his inability to understand the effect his behavior has on others. Why are these videos something more than simple digital artifacts of sibling rivalry? The creators (ostensibly Stephen and his brother Jack) have actually constructed effective short films that trade on classic themes.
First, let’s look at the structure. Jack is very good at releasing the exposition the audience needs and he does so in a graceful manner. Here’s an example. Jack begins “Greatest freak out ever 4” by staring into the camera and stating,
Okay, my parents aren’t home and Stephen’s playing my Dad’s guitar, so I’m going to mess with him a little, okay?
This is all the setup we need. What are the compelling points of drama involved in the film?
Sibling rivalry. Even if you don’t have a brother or sister, you understand that siblings enjoy messing with each other.
Your parents’ stuff. You didn’t mess with your parents’ stuff, did you? Probably not. And especially not a guitar, something that can be expensive to replace.
The adolescent interest in playing guitar. This is where garage bands come from. Young people enjoy making music…and playing guitar is a traditional way to facilitate conversations with prospective boyfriends or girlfriends.
So Jack tells Stephen he sucks, knowing that Stephen will scream and yell and eventually do something stupid. Jack and Stephen are big fans of Freytag’s Pyramid, even if they don’t know it. Stephen’s rage gets bigger and bigger until he finally destroys his father’s guitar Pete Townshend-style. There’s even a fitting denouement: Stephen walks away, having demonstrated his manhood and unwillingness to endure teasing from his brother.
In case you’ve forgotten, here is Freytag’s Pyramid:
Freytag would also smile upon “How the Stephen Stole Christmas:”
Jack releases the exposition: he has hidden all of Stephen’s presents on Christmas morning. If you know Stephen, you know this will not end well. There are peaks. Stephen opens the present Jack got him. Stephen realizes there are no presents for him under the tree. There’s TENSION…how will Stephen react? Through the course of seven minutes and thirty-nine seconds, Jack and Stephen fulfill all of the obligations of story, including characterization, a beginning, middle and end, a climax and a resolution. Even though the young gentlemen are making “silly” YouTube videos, they are still telling stories in the time-honored traditions that have worked since the dawn of man.
I am often asked how long a story or a play should be. I often suspect that the person asking the question is hoping for a cut-and-dried answer, that I will tell them, for example, that their ten-page play must be ten pages long. No more and no less. Unfortunately, the real answer is both simpler and more complicated:
A story must be as long as it demands and deserves.
I know. That sounds like a zen koan or something, doesn’t it? There are plenty of beautiful and perfect two-page stories. There are just as many beautiful and perfect 800-page novels. What makes the difference? Some plots are more complicated and require more page space for the author to accomplish his or her desired effect. The wafflepwn plots are very simple:
“Stephen cleans up the kitchen.”
“Stephen gets a visit from the police when he breaks my Mom’s TV.”
“Stephen learns how to swim.”
These are not wildly grand ideas. Les Miserables needed to be incredibly long, but you can tell the story of how Stephen reacts when he sees a cat in less than two minutes. Yes, you can consider all of the wafflepwn videos collectively and end up with a whole with more meaning than its parts. But Jack and Stephen never let a bit go on too long. In this way, they remind me of Holland/Dozier/Holland and Smokey Robinson and all of the other great Motown songwriters. Those writers got your toe tapping, gave you a thrill and then ended the song. No down time. No digressions. Beginning, middle, end and out. Can you honestly tell me there is any down time in a song such as “ABC?”
What Should We Steal?
Adhere to traditional story structure, even if you’re working in a non-traditional medium.The methods by which stories are told change over time. The nature of the most effective stories do not.
Make your story as long or as short as it needs to be. I’m not happy about it either, but word count guidelines only apply to what editors want to read. They shouldn’t affect the length of your story in the least. (They just determine where you send your work.)
Medical History: Born in 2010. Serious Stephen Baldwin infestation. Has been passed around the Evangelical community. As of the time of this appointment, the film can be watched on Netflix Instant. The protagonist of the film is Julie Thompson, a 23-year-old virgin. When her tire goes flat, Mike (a troubled mechanic) stumbles off of his barstool to help her. Mike has some sort of flashback to his evil boss and rapes Julie, who quickly finds out she’s pregnant. Julie goes into labor as Mike goes to jail. Julie starts visiting Mike at the prison, bringing their young son. Yada, yada, yada, Mike’s hard heart is softened by Julie’s goodness and by Jesus. Trailer:
SCRIPT DOCTOR’S INITIAL NOTES:
I’d be violating that whole “don’t bear false witness thing” if I didn’t say that Loving the Bad Man is a sometimes confusing film that has major, major problems. (I think it’s fair to say that those who created the film wouldn’t want me to violate a commandment, right?) What is much more important is that I respond to the film according to some of my own KENmandments.
The First KENmandment: Thou shalt respect the beauty of the artistic impulse.
The men and women responsible for Loving the Bad Man seem to care very deeply about the film. Whether or not the movie is great, they shared a very special experience and worked together to tell a story that mattered to them.
The Second KENmandment: Thou shalt evaluate a work according to its specific goals.
Mr. Engert and his cast and crew seem to want to evangelize their religion and concept of faith to others. I am perfectly willing to believe that Loving the Bad Man successfully touched the hearts of many people.
The Third KENmandment: Thou shalt try not to be a jerk to other artists unless there’s a really good reason to do so.
Mr. Engert has never spit on my car and the film doesn’t endorse any dogmatic positions that may be “problematic.” So why should I lay into the gentleman’s work in an unpleasant manner? We’re all artists and are subject to literary criticism, but it shouldn’t get personal unless there’s a good reason.
First Act Problems
There are some pretty big flaws in the first act of Loving the Bad Man. The characters are extremely simple. Mike the Rapist is bad. His boss is super mean. Julie is good and nice. Mr. Engert does not allow shades of gray into the characterization. Julie is 23 and works in a supermarket. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but we get no sense of what she intends for the larger scope of her life. She has two good parents…it seems they would probably have worked with her on that before the age of 23. And if not, why not? Mike beats up the mean boss and there are witnesses, but there are no repercussions. Why not?
The turning point of Act One is Julie’s rape. It occurs at the perfect time: 16 minutes in. (In case you didn’t know, “turning point” is a screenwriting term. Look up Syd Field.) Now, including such a sad event in your work can get you a lot of pathos. Any kind of rape story or anything involving harming children certainly makes me Insta-sad. But here’s the problem. We’re only told that poor Julie is raped. I’m certainly not suggesting the filmmakers include a fifty-minute scene of the whole encounter, but the viewer must piece things together from being TOLD, not shown. Here is the worst that we are shown:
Like I said, I don’t need to see a super graphic scene to understand what is happening to Julie. But in a movie whose whole premise depends upon her being impregnated by rape, it seems appropriate to show just a little more. Compare this scene from Loving the Bad Man to the very powerful scene near the beginning of Breaking the Waves in which Emily Watson loses her virginity. It’s just a very tight close-up on the actress’s face. We know exactly what is happening and exactly how the character feels and what the experience means to her.
The next scene depicts the parents finding Julie’s car parked askew on the lawn and Julie is passed out behind some bushes. The filmmakers expect us to believe that a young woman is passed out for several hours in the front yard of a suburban home in full view of the street and no one has said anything? (The Bystander Effect is strong, but not that strong.) Oh, and the father—justifiably furious—drives by the scene of the crime the next day and what was a desolate street with zero traffic is now a bustling thoroughfare.
Immediately after that, Julie has dinner with her family at a picnic table. Her mother emerges from the home, stricken. This happens:
It’s my understanding that it’s wildly illegal for a medical-type-person to disclose this kind of information to a parent, particularly considering the patient is 23. Why did this problem occur? Perhaps because Mr. Engert had to get that information out somehow and a scene in a doctor’s office might have slowed things down; the outside dinner scene also serves to establish the father’s anger at Julie and the kindness of Cole, the “good man” who wants to do mission work and serves as contrast to Mike the Rapist. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, the parents instantly suggest Julie abort the baby and Julie instantly decides not to. Is this the way important decisions are made by real people?
Immediately after this scene, the audience gets this:
…then one minute later, Julie’s having her baby:
That was fast! I love that the birth scene is intercut with the scenes of Mike going to prison (even being examined by the prison doctor), but Mr. Engert is jumping around too much and making us do too much math.
Is the baby premature? I don’t believe the characters say so later.
Did it take three months for a rape victim to determine she is pregnant?
Has the gestation period of human beings changed recently?
As a bachelor in his thirties and a writer, I don’t like doing math and I’m not entirely familiar with all of the ins and outs of human reproduction.
It’s my professional opinion that THIS is where the movie really should begin. This is not a movie about a woman having a baby, so don’t waste half an hour of screen time getting there. It’s intended to be a story about the redemption of an evil man and a triumph of a righteous woman. What exposition was released in Act One that couldn’t be released elsewhere in the story? Not much. As it stands, Mike already has flashbacks of the rape. The father has scenes in Act Two in which he takes his anger out on Julie and the baby. The audience loses nothing if you just lop off those first thirty minutes.
It takes an awful lot of page space and several experiences for Jean Valjean to cast off the anger that is weighing him down. His epiphany is complicated and ongoing. He even needs at least two tune-ups after his incident with Petit Picpus. (Admitting he is Jean Valjean and atoning for casting Fantine away.)
This is not the case in Loving the Bad Man. How do you forgive the man who raped you, took your virginity and impregnated you? Why, you put the baby to sleep, cry a little and then look at the cross on your wall. Then this happens:
After that, you are ready to bring your baby to meet his rapist father and have called “bygones” on what happened. Is forgiveness really that easy? So quick? Even if the viewer can’t imagine bringing the baby to prison to see his father, we want to like Julie and we want to feel for her, but these actions just don’t seem realistic. Epiphanies are not easy.
Unless they begin Act Three, apparently. Do I believe a rapist can feel guilt? Of course. But Mike doesn’t gain catharsis by begging Julie for forgiveness. He doesn’t write a thousand letters of apology to her. His epiphany comes when he reads the Bible passages that Julie marked in the book she gave him. See?
In Les Miserables, atonement was a big struggle for Jean Valjean and resulted in the poor guy repaying everyone possible. When Javert has his own epiphany, he commits suicide out of guilt for what he has done to subvert real justice and because he realizes he has lived in a fantasy world for decades.
The process must be more difficult and uncomfortable for both Julie and Mike. Yes, I understand that Mr. Engert wants to make the Bible and Jesus a big part of it, and that’s fine. But complicated emotions and circumstances require a more complicated depiction. Julie must be more conflicted about meeting with her rapist (instead of appearing excited and joyful to be doing so from the start) and Mike must manifest the weight of his guilt a lot more if we’re really to feel a lot at the end of the film.
A Confusing Title and Some Things Don’t Make Sense
The title Loving the Bad Man implies that Julie loves her rapist, right? I guess I can buy it on a woman-comes-to-forgive-and-moves-on basis. But from the title alone, I thought there was going to be some romance between the two. Is it just me, or would that be a bridge too far? According to the title, who is being told to love and who must be loved? The bad guys in the prison are way worse people than Mike.
At one point, the father has purchased and is installing a car seat. Julie and her mother look on and laugh; he’s bought “the wrong one.” Julie owns a regular sedan; are there child car seats that won’t work in a…you know…a car?
Julie gets kicked out of the house because her father is upset about the “bastard” child. She immediately seems to have found an apartment. Where did she go that night? Do we get enough of the father’s point of view to understand his anger, or is it simply a convenient plot point?
Why does Julie have zero anger or fear or any compunction whatsoever about visiting Mike in the prison? She also instantly assumes Mike will be super jazzed to see her and a baby. I get that Julie is supposed to be a good person, but this doesn’t seem realistic.
I can’t help but point out Stephen Baldwin’s fake tattoos. In case you weren’t aware, “88” is a big thing for white supremacist/neo-Nazi types. The eighth letter in the alphabet is H. “HH” = “Heil Hitler.” (I learned that from the controversy surrounding what’s her name who was with Jesse James.)
I dunno. Change those things a little?
The Unrequited Love Elephant in the Room
Before I retired from pursuing romantic relationships (all my fault, I hasten to point out), I found myself on the unfortunate end of many situations in which my affection was unrequited. Don’t we all have these experiences from time to time? Well, I related strongly to Cole, a too-perfect guy who worked with Julie, ostensibly before she had to quit to have and care for her baby. in the third act, Cole is the manager of the store. After Julie is told at the prison that she can’t visit the man who raped her, she tearfully heads to the store, hoping for Cole to reassure her and show her some kindness.
Poor Julie is breaking down because her family is rebelling against her and life is just getting very, very tough. Cole, of course, is happy to lend her his incredibly absorbent shoulder.
Who’s that on the what now? Julie is lamenting that even her rapist has seemingly turned his back on her. (He’s in the infirmary after being stabbed in the stomach, but the guard wouldn’t tell her that.) I am willing to believe that people are capable of just about anything, but we need to be prepared for this kind of thought.
Here’s my main point, and maybe it’s a personal one. Whether intentionally or not, the film treats Mike the Rapist far more kindly than it does Cole the Grocery Guy.
This is supposed to be a story about Mike’s redemption, but Mr. Engert introduced this thread of the story, too. As one of Mike’s friends points out, families come in all kinds of configurations. Perhaps Cole would adopt the baby and give Julie a four-person family. I kept waiting for Julie to treat Cole with more kindness than Mike, but it never happened. At one point, she mentions that the two are “talking about it” or something, but come on. (And we never see it.) (And the closing title sequence suggests that she and Cole don’t get together.)
If you’re not going to pay off Cole’s narrative, cut him out or eliminate his crush on Julie. I know it’s tough because he facilitates a lot of the redemption stuff with the father, but this is the primary problem of the film. These characters should be real people with real lives that occur off-screen. Instead, it seems that Cole is put into stasis until the story needs him. We shouldn’t ask any big questions in our work that we’re not willing to answer.
The characters in our work should be put ahead of the message we are trying to convey. They are a vehicle toward enhanced understanding. And I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say that reading a letter from a person is not a very satisfying denouement. The final moments of the film should have established the new conditions of everyone’s lives and provided catharsis for the audience.
Title of Work and its Form: Escape From L.A., feature film Author: Written by John Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell. Directed by John Carpenter (on Twitter @TheHorrorMaster) Date of Work: 1996 Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD. As of this writing, the film can be viewed on Netflix Instant. Want to see the official trailer?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: The Exposition Dump
Friends, I often don’t sleep well. One of the ways I try to lull myself to sleep is to watch movies. (If one of them puts me to sleep, it’s not necessarily the film’s fault, of course.) Once in a while, a writer or director does something in a film that pleases me as a storyteller. I selected Escape from L.A. on Netflix and saw this:
John Carpenter began Escape from L.A. with what is called an exposition dump. Mr. Carpenter had a TON of exposition to get across. Why?
The film is a sequel to Escape from New York, a film that had been released fifteen years earlier.
The film is a science fiction story about a world very different from our own. The big one hit in the year 2000 and Los Angeles is now an island. The Constitution has been changed significantly. The U.S. now has a President-for-life. The capital has been moved from Washington D.C. to the President’s hometown. Morality is being enforced in a disturbing manner.
The setting of the film (Los Angeles, of course) is now a type of penal colony.
Some might say that Mr. Carpenter violated the classic writing dictate of SHOW, DON’T TELL. Indeed, the calm-voiced female narrator is TELLING us all about how the world has changed. The truth is that Mr. Carpenter executed a very skillful exposition dump.
Different stories require different kinds of exposition and different kinds of exposition will have different effects on the reader or viewer. The first couple minutes of Escape to L.A. immerses you in an unpleasant world very quickly. We all like Los Angeles…we see it destroyed. We all want freedom of conscience when it comes to religion (or lack thereof)…it’s gone. We’re all grateful that we live in a country in which power is transferred peacefully and according to election results…not anymore. There’s a visceral shock in this exposition dump.
Compare this section of the film with what you see in most Twilight Zone episodes. I don’t want to ruin any episodes of the program for you…but you should have already watched them! Mr. Serling and his writers reveal secrets slowly and hide information from you in such a way as to preserve the final shock of the program. Mr. Carpenter keeps secrets from you, but they’re all related to Snake and the adventures he’s going to have. Mr. Carpenter realized that it was not a good idea to hide how American society has changed between the year the film was made and the year the film takes place. 2013–eek!
What Should We Steal?
Consider an exposition dump to get your reader up to speed. It can be fun when a writer pretends that you are in the world of the book or film, or being dropped into that world like a lobster into the pot.
Keep only the secrets you must.You and the audience are on a similar journey. You certainly want to keep some details and plot developments from your company, but you must make sure that you are both at the same places on the path.
Title of Work and its Form: Hit and Run, feature film Author: Written by Dax Shepard (on Twitter @daxshepard1). Directed by David Palmer (on Twitter @palmerman) and Dax Shepard. Date of Work: 2012 Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. As of this writing, the film can be viewed on Netflix Instant. Want to see the official trailer?
Bonuses:Here is Roger Ebert’s very kind review of the film. Here is a fun Dax Shepard/Kristen Bell interview from The Hollywood Reporter. Here is a short interview about the car chases in the film.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization
Charlie Bronson (Dax Shepard) has a beautiful new life. He lives in a small town with a knockout girlfriend who is as brilliant as she is attractive. The Witness Protection Program has helped him get away from the problems in his old life and everything is perfect, until…INCITING INCIDENT. Annie (Kristen Bell) gets a dream job in L.A. Even though he knows he’s putting himself in danger, Charlie realizes that he must not only force Annie to go, he must abandon the Program and go with her. COMPLICATION: Annie must get her “teaching certificate” from her creepy ex-boyfriend. The ex-boyfriend uncovers Charlie’s real identity and gets the bad guys, Charlie’s former partners, on his trail. This is a road trip/car chase movie; I don’t want to summarize any further; just watch the movie and enjoy the twists and turns for yourself! (You’ll love Kristen Bell’s performance; she’s electric in everything she does. I’m pretty excited for the Veronica Marsmovie.)
Before I get into my analysis, I have to point out that Mr. Shepard is one of the folks of whom I should be terribly jealous. Thankfully, I’m a tiny bit mature and I can get over it. Mr. Shepard and I were both born in Michigan (Warren represent!) and both of us are writers and funny people. Mr. Shepard played Frito Pendejo in the best film of all time: Idiocracy. (I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer, but I hope I’d be a little better than Frito.)
Mr. Shepard has pointed out in several interviews that, after having many scripts optioned into Development Hell, he wrote Hit and Run based upon what he would like to see on the screen. Instead of trying to calculate which characters and situations and jokes would reach the largest audience (or would appeal to the most studio executives), he told the kind of story he would enjoy. I don’t know how other writers feel, but I often wrote “for others” when I was a teen. I would try to write like Raymond Carver. This didn’t work. Why? I’m not Raymond Carver. A writer must privilege his or her muse over the desires of others. (At least most of the time.)
Another of the many great choices Mr. Shepard made was to devote a great deal of time to his characters, even in a car chase movie. Think about a Transformers film. There’s lots of stuff blowing up, sure, but we don’t really care about what is being blown up or why. Mr. Shepard allows Charlie and Annie to have several discussions in which they share their outlooks on the world. These characters seem like real people, so we care when the inevitable troubles erupt. And I love that Annie is only angry with Charlie when she really needs to be. When she does “start fights” in the film, she is doing it because of the real problems she sees in their relationship, and not just because Mr. Shepard needed a complication for the turning point of Act 2.
So Hit and Run doesn’t have a lot in common with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Mr. Shepard and Mr. Palmer do, however, mimic James Cameron in at least one important way. Instead of springing elements upon you, Mr. Shepard and Mr. Palmer make them very clear. Tom Arnold plays a U.S. Marshal who doesn’t handle his weapon in a very safe manner. This part of his character is made clear very early on. Later in the film, the Marshal is driving. We see the gun drop to the floorboard and KNOW what is going to happen and we KNOW it makes sense. There’s a moment in the film in which Charlie and Annie accidentally enter the wrong hotel room. (You need to see for yourself.) At first, I figured this was just a funny beat meant to enhance the comedy. Several minutes later, I was pleased to see that Mr. Shepard made that moment do some actual work in the story and it enhanced the suspense of the chase that was occurring. The point is that a writer must lay the groundwork so the surprises in a story seem inevitable.
What Should We Steal?
Write the piece YOU would want to read. Homogenized writing is often boring and why try to be Stephen King? Stephen King is Stephen King.
Devote time to your characters.Audiences are far less likely to care about lovers if they don’t have a hint as to what makes them or their situation unique.
Telegraph what will happen in your work to make the events seem inevitable. I have trouble believing that a U.S. Marshal has trouble keeping his weapon safe. I will believe this is the case if you make it clear early on and in a graceful manner.
Title of Work and its Form:Reefer Madness, the movie based upon the musical based upon the propaganda film. Author: Lyrics written by Kevin Murphy. Music composed by Dan Studney (on Twitter: @danstudney). Both wrote the book. The equally talented Andy Fickman (on Twitter: @andyfickman) directed the first productions of the show and the movie musical. Date of Work: The world premiere was in 1998. The New York premiere was in 2001. Showtime made the stage musical into a movie musical in 2005. Where the Work Can Be Found: The musical is staged all over the world. The movie is available on DVD. You really should buy it.
Bonuses: Here is the musical’s official site. This is where you go if you would like to buy the right to stage the musical. Guess what? The world-class cast of the film (aside from Kristen Bell) did a live event at Joe’s Pub. I wasn’t there, but some folks who had cameras were there. Look how much fun it was when the whole cast sang “Mary Jane/Mary Lane.”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Meaningful Wordplay
Jimmy Harper is a kind young man with a bright future. He likes a girl—Mary Lane—and she likes him, too! What could go wrong? I’ll tell you: reefer. The Lecturer (a mid-century snake oil salesman type) shares the truth with all of the concerned parents in town. There’s a terrible threat out there just waiting to destroy your children and turn them into jazz musicians and trick them into dating outside of their race. This deadly assassin captures Jimmy, who spends all of his time with his dealer. He even begins to ignore Mary Lane, who heads to the drug den to save him…she is soon captured, too. (The role of Ralph, sadly, is the only one I would be able to knock out of the park onstage.) Mary Lane gets shot and Jimmy is framed for the murder and is sentenced to death. President Roosevelt shows up to offer a pardon and a reminder: the government always tells us the truth and always acts in the best interest of its citizens, right? Right?
The show is a lot more complicated than that, but it’s also simpler somehow. I came to love the musical almost by accident. I’m not usually a big fan of drug humor, but something possessed me to look at the reverse of the DVD. I saw Kristen Bell (an actress I admired from Veronica Mars) was in the film, so I gave it a chance. When I popped the DVD into my player, I was immediately hooked. (Kinda like Jimmy!) The musical is not about DRUGS. It’s about important social issues and how the government and other agencies attempt to regulate behavior. It’s also hilarious and a ton of fun. Mr. Murphy, Mr. Studney, Mr. Fickman and the cast all do their jobs at a high level and there really is no more enjoyable way to pass a couple hours. (Mr. Fickman’s direction should not go overlooked; he somehow brings even more joy and laughter out of a script that is already bursting with it. The film looks as though it cost twice as much as it did to make.)
Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney stole a LOT in the creation of the musical. (The good kind of stealing, of course.) First of all, they stole the plot and title of the original Reefer Madness film. The movie was intended to prevent young people from using marijuana, but was so melodramatic and poorly made and unrealistic that young people started watching it WHILE USING marijuana. Further, all of the statistics that the Lecturer spouts were actual quotes from long-ago anti-drug people. Not only did Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney get shock value by having The Lecturer repeat some of the horrible things that were said about drug use (lots of sexism and racism and the like), but they also reinforced the film’s message. Several phrases from the song “Romeo and Juliet” are lovingly borrowed from the Bard himself…which is also the point of the song. The public domain and other public-type resources are ripe for literary theft. Further, you have the Fair Use Doctrine on your side. You can steal all you like within the limits of the Doctrine. Reefer Madness is definitely a parody of Tell Your Children and similar anti-drug efforts. Tina Fey got a ton of laughs (and influenced the 2010 election in some way) by stealing and repeating Sarah Palin’s comments verbatim.
I’ve probably confessed to one of my earliest desires: to become a Tin Pan Alley lyricist. (I set myself up for disappointment from the start, as Tin Pan Alley went away decades before I was born.) The rhymes in a Gershwin song or a Rodgers and Hart song or a song from Reefer Madness are awesome for many reasons, not just because they are funny. A rhyme in a musical theater song is a promise. When Reefer Madness’s Jesus sings, “Just say no to marijuana,” he’s promising that he’s going to complete the lyric with a rhyme. What will it be? By the time you figure out your own, Jesus has already told you. (“This comes straight from the Madonna.”) A musical theater rhyme also attracts and retains the audience because they are a playful surprise. We can’t help but be attracted by fun wordplay, even from childhood. Here are some particularly enjoyable rhymes:
The wafers now don’t taste so great
They won’t transubstantiate
Without you near, the gospel choir sounds askew
Jimmy, come back and fill my lonely pew.
A gloomy church that you’re not in
Could lead a girl to mortal sin
Mary Jane, oh, Mary Jane
You’ve conquered me like Charlemagne
Jimmy’s a rube, provincial and dull
Don’t be tricked; he’s strictly quadrilateral.
Satan went and conned ya’
Musn’t touch his evil ganja
Rhymes (and other consequences of structure) also involve other parts of your brain. While you’re enjoying the simple fun of hearing an actor sing “conquered me like Charlemagne,” you’re dipping into another section of your mind to put everything together. It’s a beautiful feeling to empathize with a character while you’re wondering how the heck they found such a great phrase to rhyme with “transubstantiate.” It is easy to tell you to create powerful rhymes. It takes a lot of brainstorming, a vast amount of knowledge already in your brain and, perhaps, a rhyming dictionary.
A smaller observation: I LOVE the structure of the song, “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy.” The song is constructed in such a way that Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney can simply toss in entertaining couplets that allow Jesus to have a lot of fun and get a lot of laughs. The character of Jesus may not be as strong as the others, but there are also two thousand years of people in Western culture telling us about the guy. (“Don’t let reefer kick your kiester/ I’m the poster boy for Easter.” “I floated down from Heaven when I heard a lamb had strayed./ Look at you here, your brain has turned to marmalade.”)
Fun songs? Check. Lotsa jokes? Check. Subject matter that appeals to young people? Check. Reefer Madness goes the extra step by actually being solid dramatically. (Especially in its own universe.) I love this example from the song, “Lonely Pew.” First of all, I am thinking that Mary Lane is not JUST singing about the empty seating place beside her. At the point in the show when she sings the song, she’s quite repressed and scared and afraid that Jimmy no longer loves her. If this were just a silly drug humor play, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney would not have taken the time or effort to make the characters well-rounded. I love the moment in “Lonely Pew” when Mary Lane sings the following:
In a fog or lost at sea,
Or could it be you’re tired of me?
It’s a line of thought I’d rather not pursue
Jimmy, come back and fill my lonely pew.
A simple character that could end up a caricature is given a moment of great depth that is certainly paid off during “Little Mary Sunshine.” (And I LOVE the internal rhyme of “not” and thought.”) Think about Mae, the woman who runs the drug den of sin. She is given a meaningful backstory! (She was a good student until The Stuff.) There is real pathos to the character, particularly when she sings about the way Jack mistreats her. I think the broader point is that Mr. Murphy and Mr. Studney give each and every character a lot of laughs and a few meaningful moments. (The actors in the movie version certainly take advantage of the opportunity.)
A great deal of drama and comedy are derived from shifts in power; a very clear transfer of power occurs during the song, “Little Mary Sunshine.” Reefer fiend Ralph (played to perfection by John Kassir) intends to turn Mary Lane into a Sally-like drug addict and to take advantage of her. He tricks her into trying the reefer and believes that he will soon have her in a compliant state. What’s the allocation of power? Ralph 100%, Mary 0%. The tables are turned on Ralph. The marijuana turns Mary Lane into a nymphomaniac and she begins to force Ralph into bondage games that he didn’t quite want to play. Check out what is one of the most enjoyable scenes in the history of film:
(Weren’t the actors great? I love the versatility that Mr. Kassir and Ms. Bell possess.) This effective technique does a number of things. Mary Lane acquires agency; gaining some control over her life. The audience laughs because the hunter has become the hunted. We also feel a kind of vindication because we likely disapproved of Ralph’s intentions…his own medicine is fed to him and he doesn’t like the taste.
What Should We Steal?
Pluck what you need from the public domain and government resources.Guess what: you own a lot of space-type pictures. Use them in your play. You paid for the research that went into the drug war in the twentieth century; feel free to steal the conclusions those folks made. (Consult an attorney before you do anything crazy, of course.)
Craft powerful rhymes in your work.Is it easy to come up with unanticipated rhymes? No. It’s worth the effort; a great lyric can accomplish a great deal more than simply getting the writer a laugh.
Offer all of your characters a moment in the sun and a real personality. Perhaps this is a good way to think of the principle, particularly when writing fiction and poetry: would an actor be able to use your piece as a kind of script? He or she wouldn’t need to know EVERYTHING about their character, but they would need to know enough to construct enough of a backstory to allow them to give a great performance.
Emphasize changes in the power relationship between characters to increase drama and earn laughs (if you want them). It’s really the oldest trick in the book. We laugh at a politician who gets a pie in the face because the person loses his or her status in that moment.
Title of Work and its Form:Ed Wood, feature film Author: Directed by Tim Burton, written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski Date of Work: 1994 Where the Work Can Be Found: The film was FINALLY released on DVD and can be purchased through the usual outlets. (Go do that now. The movie is literally awesome.)
Bonuses: Here is Roger Ebert’s review of the film. The film was discussed on a very cool podcast: An Hour With Your Ex. Mr. Burton will reteam with Mr. Alexander and Mr. Karaszewski for his next film. I will be there! And here is a Halloween podcast that features both of the scribes!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: EVERYTHING
I was an adolescent in 1994 and knew very little about the world or about myself. What I did know is that I loved writing and the creation of art made me happy. I cherish the memory of my father taking me to see Ed Wood in the theater; it’s one of the first times I fell in love with anything. The writers and director tell the story of Edward D. Wood Jr., another man who loved sharing his creativity. Are his films any good? That’s not the point. Ed Wood poured his heart and soul into his work and laid his soul bare for the audience. The film begins as Wood debuts his new play, The Casual Company. The reviews were as bad as the production values. A simple twist of fate: Ed Wood happens to meet and befriend Bela Lugosi, who has a terrible drug problem and needs money. Wood talks his way into directing his first film: a fictionalization of the Christine Jorgensen story. Why must her name be taken off the picture? As producer George Weiss says, “That bitch is asking for the sky.” Glen or Glenda is released…kinda. It loses money. The rest of the film details the creation of Bride of the Atom and Plan 9 From Outer Space, easily two of the worst films ever made. Wood went to extreme lengths to get the movies made: he was baptized by church people who had money, he sweet-talked a meat distributor into giving him money and even gave a plum part to a woman he believed had money. (He was wrong.) When Lugosi dies, Wood wonders how he will finish Plan 9. Why, with a body double, of course! Just as all seems lost and Wood reaches his breaking point, he meets Orson Welles, who speaks with him filmmaker-to-filmmaker. “Is it all worth it?” Wood asks. Welles replies:
“Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”
Plan 9 is finished, guided by Wood’s creative instincts. Howard Shore’s superlative score swells and the hero has won the day.
Like I said, this is my favorite movie of all time and is objectively one of the best of its era, if not of all time. I understand up front that this essay will fall short of what I want to say about the film. You know what? That’s okay. Ed Wood may not have created any towering works of creative genius, but he created. He wrote novels, directed films, wrote scripts… he produced. Many writers allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. How many of us are ever going to create a Hamlet or a Superman or a The Godfather or an “Annabel Lee”? Not too many of us, sadly. The important thing is that we feed, honor and collaborate with our muses as much as possible.
Although Wood takes them in stride, he is challenged by numerous obstacles, both internal and external.
Societal distaste (and worse) for transvestites
The need to be accepted
Societal misunderstanding of transvestitism
The need to be accepted for who he really is
Inability to “fit in” with the normal Hollywood crowd
The need to tell the stories dictated by his muse
The inherent difficulty in getting films financed
The desire to employ Bela against the need to exploit him
The inherent difficulty in making a great film (or any great work of art)
Dolores’s lack of understanding in their romantic relationship
The difficult task of motivating other people to work in the interest of your work
Bela’s poor health and advanced age
One of the reasons that the film is so great is that Wood is cast as the successful underdog, even though his movies didn’t turn out very good. You may not be a transvestite, but there are still times when your identity causes problems for you. The audience has someone to root for in Wood, no matter who they are. In constructing the character of Wood, Alexander and Karaszewski follow the advice Polonius gave to his France-bound son:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Ed Wood is so compelling because the massive obstacles don’t stop him from being a dynamic character. Just about every character in the film, in fact, is the same way. Bela keeps working (as though he had a choice) and Wood’s crew overcomes their fatigue to finish their films. The overall point seems to be this: a powerfully dynamic character needs a lot of conflicts to overcome. Hamlet. Harrison Bergeron. Carrie Bradshaw. These are oversized personalities who require oversized obstacles. Who wants to see LeBron James play one-on-one with a five-year-old? (Or Aaron Carter with Shaquille O’Neal?)
Another one of my favorite parts of the film is the whip-smart dialogue. Alexander and Karaszewski demonstrate their ability to write world-class comedy dialogue in the film. (As they did in their previous classic Problem Child. Seriously.) It’s certainly true that the actors are responsible for their stellar line readings. But they wouldn’t have anything to say if Alexander and Karaszewski hadn’t put fingers to keyboard.
Look at one of the first scenes in the film. The cast and crew of The Casual Company are reading the review of their show. Their faces go from excitement to disappointment. Then:
Oh, what does that old queen know? She didn’t even show. Sent her copy boy to do the dirty work. Screw you, Miss Crowley.
Do I really have a face like a horse?
What does “ostentatious” mean?
Hey, it’s not that bad. You can’t concentrate on the negative. Look, he’s got some nice things to say here. “The soldiers’ costumes are very realistic.” That’s positive!
The exchange is so great because it is hilarious, but the lines are also deeply rooted in character. Bunny’s gender is…well, he’s not quite sure. And that’s okay. Dolores is a beautiful young ingénue who later breaks up with Ed because of the perception of others. Paul is an insecure actor who isn’t exactly the best-educated guy around. And Ed is an optimist at heart.
Comedy works best when the punchlines are derived from the characters who deliver them. Why? I think because the audience has lots to go on. Not only are they laughing at the construction of the joke, but another part of their brain is factoring in their established understanding of the character. Even better, you’re using more than one tool from your writer’s toolbox. In this case, Alexander and Karaszewski are getting laughs while establishing character and dropping in exposition.
(I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to the great transition to the following scene. Wood reassures everyone they’re doing “great work.” A second later, he’s in bed with Dolores. A thunderclap reverberates as he says, “Honey, what if I’m wrong? What if I just don’t got it?” Although an optimist, Wood is a kind of realist.)
Ed Wood is an all-time classic that, to me, represents one of the artistic high-water marks in the careers of those involved. I have no idea if Alexander and Karaszewski were aware of what they were doing, but the character of Ed Wood is a shining example for writers of all kinds and his story (both the true version and the fictional) is an ideal to which we should all aspire.
What Should We Steal?
Believe in your work and in yourself, no matter what. Should you get cocky about your talent and make risky life decisions? Maybe not. Or maybe you should…
Match the character’s dynamism to their level of strength and motivation. A story may not be compelling if the dragon is slayed too easily.
Derive your comedy from your unique characters. Give your reader the context that allows them to know why they should laugh.
Surround yourself with great people.Remember the timeless wisdom of Ed Wood:
Eddie’s the only fella in town who doesn’t pass judgment on people.
That’s right. If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.
Title of Work and its Form:Terminator 2: Judgment Day, feature film Author: Written by James Cameron and William Wisher, Jr. Directed by James Cameron Date of Work: 1991 Where the Work Can Be Found: The work is on DVD and is likely in your collection. As of this writing, the film is streaming on Netflix.
Bonuses: Whoa, cool. Here‘s the Stan Winston Studios recap of some of the effects they created for the film. Here‘s what the great Roger Ebert thought of the film. Oh, this is cool. Here‘s what a real psychiatrist-type person thinks of the representation of psychiatric treatment in the film.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Audience Preparation
Do I love Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde? Of course. I’m also quite proud of my affection for the work of James Cameron. His movies feature plots that tick along with flawless logic and immense energy. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is certainly no exception. It’s several years after the events depicted in The Terminator. Sarah Connor is in a mental institution because she tried to blow up the company responsible for creating Skynet in the future. John Connor, the future leader of the human rebels, is living with a progression of foster parents. (His father, if you’ll recall, is both from the future and dead.) Well, Skynet sent back another Terminator to kill John Connor before he can become the great leader in the post-apocalyptic future. The big secret? The T-1000 liquid metal Terminator is the bad guy, even though he is played by Robert Patrick and looks nice. The T-800 (Arnold) is the good guy, even though he was the antagonist in the previous movie. Picture a Commodore 64 fighting your current PC. Not an easy task. John gets his mother out of the psychiatric center and the three become a strange family as they 1) kill the T-1000 and 2) destroy Cyberdyne, the company that will create Skynet.
The big difference between a James Cameron film and an action movie from a lesser director is very clear: Cameron has a reason for each of the zillions of choices he makes. There are certainly surprises in his films, but the viewer is prepared for each of them in such a way that they’re not really a surprise when viewed in retrospect. Think of it this way. You may be shocked when your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you. But if you were paying attention to the important details of your life, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
Let’s begin by examining what happens around 26:00 minutes into the film. (The beginning of Act Two?) It’s been established that the two Terminators (Arnold and Patrick) are looking for John Connor. In a reference to the first film, Arnold has stolen clothing. The music even tells us that he’s “bad to the bone.” Patrick visits John’s foster parents…I hope he’s going to help the young man. Sure, it seems as though he stole the policeman’s uniform, but it’s okay so long as he’s helping humans in the future. (Kyle Reese stole, too. He was justified, right?)
Both Terminators realize that John is at the mall, where he’s spending stolen money in the arcade. Budnick from Salute Your Shorts gives John a heads-up that the police officer is looking for him. As John slides into the bowels of the mall, the following “beats” happen, followed by what the audience learns:
Cameron establishes that both Terminators are in the corridors. They must be looking for John.
John sees the T-800 as he cocks the shotgun that was hidden in the box of flowers. This is the mythological creature that his mother has warned him about his whole life. He’s scared.
John tries to find an open door, but can’t. There’s a janitor standing in the hallway, yelling at John.
The T-800 points his gun right at John’s head. It’s lights out for Johnny boy, right?
The T-1000 approaches from the other side of the hallway. John is trapped as the T-1000 pulls a gun and points it at John.
The T-800 tells him to “get down.” (He doesn’t mean that John should start dancing.)
No longer in slow motion, the T-800 fires the shotgun. Whoa, did Arnold just shoot a policeman?
The T-800 shields John from the shots fired by the T-1000, who has a weird metallic wound on his arm. The poor janitor gets shot, giving us the clue that the T-1000 is not the good guy.
As the T-1000 is reloading, the T-800 tosses John into one of the rooms whose doors John couldn’t previously open.
Firefight between Terminators. The T-1000 is down for an eight count. John peers around the corner just in time to see that…
The T-1000 is morphing itself back to health. What?!?!?
Hand-to-hand Terminator combat starting with a distinct image. The T-800 was established as superhuman in the previous film, but now the much smaller T-1000 is matching his strength. Arnold looks confused.
Both crash each other into the walls. The audience starts to understand the power of the T-1000.
The T-1000 throws the T-800 into a clothing store and out the window. The T-1000 deliberately takes a look at a mannequin that looks like a liquid metal robot. Is this a coincidence?
As the T-800 gets back up, a bystander takes several photos of him. These will be used later, obviously.
John is still running away as both Terminators are in pursuit. He starts his dirt bike just in time. The cop who was shot about a zillion times is now running after him like Usain Bolt. Boy, that T-1000 doesn’t seem to get tired or to sweat!
John almost wipes out and nearly gets run over by a giant black big rig. The driver swears at the darn kid in his way. Geez…that giant square machine looks awfully imposing!
The driver is pulled out of his rig by the T-1000 and crumples to the pavement. How did the T-1000 catch up and why doesn’t he care about human life?
Oooh, Arnold pulls out on his hog. Looks like both Terminators are determined to catch up with John.
There’s a lull as John descends into the L.A. River basin. Phew. That feels better. I needed a break and a chance to catch my breath.
Oh, snap. The big rig just crashed into the pavement and is pursuing John. He’s not messing around. Those old, rickety non-liquid metal machines are quite fragile, aren’t they?
John speeds away as the T-800 spots him. He can’t get over quite yet. Which one will catch up to John first?
The T-800 makes his way into the actual basin. A fight between a big rig and a motorcycle doesn’t seem fair, just like a fight between a new Terminator and an old one!
The T-800 shoots at the T-1000 in the truck’s cab. Well, the T-1000 knows he has competition.
Oh, shoot. The top of the rig is sheared off by the overpass. Hopefully the T-1000 was ki—oh, never mind, he shoots up easily.
The rig taps John’s bike. He’s caught up. Luckily, the T-800 has slid past him.
The T-800 easily lifts John and puts him on the chopper. The dirt bike is crushed under the tires of the big rig. OMG…that’s what would have happened to John Connor! We’re seeing the effect of the T-1000’s desired action!
The T-800 shoots out one of the rig’s tires…the rig crashes into a bridge support and immediately catches fire.
A tire rolls out of the flaming wreckage. The T-800 is crazy suspicious of it…but holsters the shotgun. They speed away. Phew! Everything is okay for now.
Hey, why are we still at the wreckage? Why didn’t we go off with John and the T-800? Whoa…the metal guy is walking out of the wreckage. And he looks just like that mannequin in the clothing store! He’s not even hurt and he’s already trying to figure out where John will go! I guess that terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until John Connor is dead.
Imagine it’s 1991. Vanilla Ice is ruling the charts with “Ice Ice Baby.” Teenagers have to speak to each other on phones that either have cords or that must remain within a small radius of the base. Not a single Kardashian was famous and Bruce Jenner was famous for being an athlete instead of…I’ll let you finish the joke.
If you were interested in seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day, you had likely seen the first film, or at least knew about it. You knew a lot about the “world” of The Terminator. John Connor was destined to be a hero in the humans’ war against the robots. Sarah Connor is the only person in the world who understands the threat. The Arnold Schwarzenegger character is the bad guy and he’s really tough to kill. The original Terminator survives a massive police station shoot-‘em-up and a fuel truck fire. The T-1000 can do all of that and more, making him a worthy adversary.
The first time I saw Terminator 2, I’m sure the joy was in seeing the cool action setpieces and in the humor the actors bring to the tight script. Upon reflection, however, it’s clear why the film is so great (to my mind, at least). Mr. Cameron makes everything add up in the film’s ledger.
He establishes the doors in the hall are heavy and locked, making it more impressive when the T-800 busts them open.
He makes sure a looky-loo takes pictures of the T-800 in the mall; these are used moments later during Sarah’s interrogation scene.
At point, no audience had ever seen a morphing liquid metal robot. Seeing the silver mannequin prepared you to accept this wrinkle in the rules of the Terminator saga, as did…
The splashy squib wounds on the T-1000 add believability later on when you learn the extent of his abilities.
The primitive machine versus advanced machine is reinforced by the conflict between the three vehicles.
Every beat has a direct purpose! And Mr. Cameron is a master at laying out the geography of his settings to make the events believable. There are lots of wide establishing shots in order to inform you, for example, where the T-800 is in relation to the T-1000. At the end of the film, it’s not a surprise that the foundry has a giant pit of liquid metal (how appropriate) because Mr. Cameron showed you before the pit came into play in the action.
Above all, Mr. Cameron labors intensely before, during and after his films are in principal photography. Some folks assert that he’s a little prickly on set, but only because he is completely dedicated to making the best film he can. Shouldn’t you feel the same way about your own work?
What Should We Steal?
Play with your audience’s expectations and subvert them when necessary.Once you’ve clearly laid out the rules of the world in which your story works, feel free to change up the formula
Prepare your audience for what will happen and make all of your surprises natural in retrospect. Just like in the real world, all of your surprises must have a perfectly reasonable explanation.
Give your pieces the attention they deserve. In a way, you are the parent of your stories and poems; prepare them for the world with the same dedication you would give a child.
Title of Work and its Form:At the Movies, film review program Author:Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (Roger Ebert is on Twitter at @ebertchicago. Siskel, sadly, passed away in 1999.) Date of Work: 196X – present? Where the Work Can Be Found: There is no longer an official portal to store assorted episodes of the programs Mr. Ebert and Mr. Siskel made together or with others. There is, however, SiskelandEbert.org, a place where you can see many, many episodes. Mr. Ebert has written many books, most of which are available at Amazon and his reviews and journal are available at his main site.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Creative Identity
This is a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary Great Writers Steal essay. Instead of looking at a single creative work, I intend to discuss what we can steal from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on the whole. In a way, I grew up with both men; I remember watching their show on PBS to learn about the movies that were coming out. I also remember their appearances on The Critic and on many other programs. For those hypothetical few who have no idea who I’m talking about, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert began as film critics in Chicago and eventually earned their way onto television reviewing films. The men cared deeply for each other, but fought about movies with equal passion. Siskel & Ebert became a famous duo because of their engaging discussions and their hook: each film got a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” from each critic.
Criticism is a LOT more than simply telling folks whether or not you liked something or whether they should see the movie or read the book. Mr. Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize because his work fulfills the much more complicated requirements of CRITICISM. (Siskel fulfilled these requirements, too; like the rest of us, he just didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize.) These include, but are not limited to:
Provide enough information so the reader knows what the work is about and who is in it and who made it
Orient the reader with respect to the work’s place in contemporary culture
Elucidate the themes of the work, both the ones intended by its creator and those unintended
Offer insight as to what is done well in the work and what is done poorly
Compare the work to others in the same genre
Evaluate the work with respect to the artist’s intentions, both fulfilled and unfulfilled
I suppose it’s meaningful to have someone you trust tell you whether or not you would like a movie, but what does such a recommendation really mean? You won’t really understand the work on a deeper level until you involve yourself in the critical conversation surrounding the piece. The same goes for your own writing. I get it. Sometimes, all you want is your significant other to finish your story and give you a hug and tell you that they loved everything about your work. You won’t understand your stuff on a deep, meaningful level until you experience real criticism. “Criticism” is not synonymous with “being a jerk” in this case.
Writers in any genre should see Mr. Ebert’s commentary on the Citizen Kane DVD. It’s simply stunning. Mr. Ebert has seen the film a thousand times and has spent countless hours thinking about the film and discussing it with others. When you hear him talk about Kane, you gain insight into a great critical mind and into Welles’ great creative mind at the same time.
Writing is indeed a solitary pursuit; that’s why we create communities. To improve your writing, you must make sure that you receive different but equally learned perspectives on your work. Here’s a great example. Gene Siskel was a smart man and knew more about movies than I’ll ever know. But check out what he thought of Silence of the Lambs, one of the best movies ever. Go to 8:38-ish.
That’s right; Mr. Siskel said the following about Silence of the Lambs: “I found it completely lacking in redemptive qualities and I sat there thinking, ‘Why are all these talented people involved in this project?’” I suppose he makes some interesting criticisms of the film, even though I simply don’t agree. Mr. Ebert gave Silence a “thumbs up” and later included the film in his “Great Movies” series. Why not take a look at his original review and his Great Movies essay?
Another primary reason that Siskel and Ebert succeeded (and continue to be important) is that they branded themselves. Think about the “hooks” present in the original partnership and in Mr. Ebert’s more recent efforts:
“Thumbs up”/“thumbs down”
The contrast in the physical appearances of Siskel & Ebert
Respectful, but passionate arguments
The movie balcony set
The theme song
Interest in a wide range of films and a deep understanding of film history
Mr. Siskel and Mr. Ebert were very smart because their program and other endeavors appeal to film nerds and the general public alike. We’ve all heard about the “thumbs up” in relation to movies…it’s my understanding that Mr. Ebert owns the trademark. (Good for him!) All of these elements created a SISKEL AND EBERT brand that folks couldn’t get anywhere else. Even though the pair were seemingly all over the place, they never sold out and never jeopardized their reputations as serious film critics.
An additional note: We all face challenges in life. We are defined, of course, by the way we react to these challenges. Mr. Ebert has famously had health problems over the past decade. Various illnesses and surgeries have left Mr. Ebert unable to speak or eat. I know enough about myself to know that I would not handle such obstacles with the same kind of grace. We should all take a lesson from Mr. Ebert and be happy (most of the time), no matter our situation. After all, Mr. Ebert can still write (which he does a lot) and is still surrounded by people who love him a great deal. When you really think about it, what else matters?
What Should We Steal?
Offer and receive CRITICISM, not just REVIEWS. Yes, it feels great to have a loved one say that they enjoyed your poem or story or short film. You won’t learn anything until someone respects you enough to offer criticism.
Surround yourself with creative peers who sometimes disagree with you.You don’t want to fall victim to confirmation bias. Be brave and share your work with friends who have great insight into your work, both good and bad.
Brand yourself but don’t sell out. Make sure people know who you are, but make sure it’s for excellent creative work.
Title of Work and its Form:Trapped in the Closet, feature film? I don’t even know. Author: R. Kelly (on Twitter: @rkelly) Date of Work: 2005 – present Where the Work Can Be Found: The first 22 chapters have been released on DVD. The Independent Film Channel has also created a site at which you can view each installment. (Thank you, IFC!)
Bonuses: If you’re having trouble following the Trapped in the Closet saga, the humor site Something Awful has created a study guide to help you out. Cool: the brilliant Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay about the work!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tension
Discussion: Trapped in the Closet, to some extent, defies description. The saga begins at seven o’clock in the morning, as the rays of the sun wakes Sylvester, a man who spent the previous night cheating on his wife. In short order, her husband comes home, only to confess that he is also cheating. Sylvester’s life seems to have been a fun whirlwind that was under his control. Now, however, he is trapped in a series of increasingly outlandish conflicts between increasingly outlandish characters. The only real way to understand Trapped in the Closet is to clear an evening and watch the whole saga with friends.
Here’s the central dilemma of Trapped in the Closet: a lot of is is genius, and a lot of it is really, really bad. No matter what, you can’t stop watching. (Please: don’t die having seen Trapped in the Closet, but not having seen Citizen Kane.) What should a writer do when confronted with a work of art that has serious flaws, but soars to such ridiculous heights of beauty? If there is a genuine creative spark behind the work, there’s at least one thing to appreciate about it. Can you really dispute that R. Kelly clearly loves his work and has spent a great deal of time trying to create the best hip-hopera that he can?
I’ll go a little crazy if I write about every installment of Trapped in the Closet, but I thought I might offer thoughts about some of my favorite installments.
Trapped in the Closet – Chapter 1
R. Kelly begins the saga at the beginning of the protagonist’s day. As I noted in my essay about the pilot of Cheers, this is a felicitous choice because it mimics the way we all experience life. This is THE DAY SYLVESTER’S LIFE CHANGES FOREVER, so why not begin the work where it does?
“You’re not gonna believe it, but things get deeper as the story goes on…” R. Kelly and his narrator (also R. Kelly?) delight in their roles. They recount the story with enthusiasm and they know that they are on a ride with the audience—and it’s a wild ride.
Most of the chapters end with a cliffhanger, and the first chapter is no exception. Chuck is opening the closet door as Sylvester readies his gun. R. Kelly certainly gives us a reason to keep watching.
Trapped in the Closet – Chapter 9
Officer James is confronting his wife, Bridget. The woman is clearly hiding something and James is quite determined to uncover what is going on.
If you’ll notice, R. Kelly sings the voice of each character differently in the same manner that a parent changes his or her voice when reading to a child. Each different voice lends characterization. For instance, we wonder where is Bridget from. Pimp Lucious, introduced in a later chapter, has a pronounced stutter. (The stutter stops up the drama somewhat, but at least it keeps things interesting.) Each of your characters should be granted the same individuality.
At one point, the officer remembers that his wife is allergic to cherry pie. The fact that the cherry pie on the table is missing a piece confirms his suspicions that Bridget is cheating. At first, I thought the detail was a kind of cheat. Oh…Bridget just HAPPENS to be allergic to cherry pie. Why would a wife make a pie that she can’t share with her husband? Well, it turns out that Mr. Kelly explained this in a previous chapter. We’re told that cherry is Officer James’s favorite kind of pie. (Come on, now; who doesn’t love cherry pie?) Because R. Kelly gave us specific foreshadowing of that clue, it seems perfectly reasonable that a wife made her husband a pie she can’t eat. Why? Because it’s his favorite?
The narrator LITERALLY stops the story as Officer James opens the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink:
Now pause the movie because what I’m about to say to y’all is so damn twisted
Not only is there a man in his cabinet, but the man is a midget…midget…midget…
This move is very interesting because the narrator is explicitly STOPPING THE NARRATIVE. I suppose some folks could argue that the move is beneficial because it increases suspense and prepares the audience for an unexpected development that might otherwise seem outlandish. Here’s the deal: Trapped in the Closet is inherently outlandish. The world R. Kelly established in the previous chapters allows for a little person to appear (and then to defecate himself). Think of it this way: a teenager who has dented his parents’ car will include this narrative roadblock as he releases that exposition:
Mom…Dad…I want you to sit down. Okay, you’re not going to believe this—and don’t worry, everyone’s okay. It’s really not a big deal, everything’s going to be okay…but…I slightly bumped into a parking lot guardrail just a little bit.
Mr. Kelly underestimated the work he had done to construct his world. I don’t know about you, but I am perfectly comfortable with the fact that little people are capable of just about anything, including committing acts of infidelity and being “blessed.”
Trapped in the Closet – Chapter 12
Mr. Kelly asserts his prerogative as narrator and returns to Cathy and Chuck and Rufus, the love triangle that began Trapped in the Closet. Sylvester has just left, allowing the three of them to begin to discuss the issues that are bothering them. Cathy (understandably, but somewhat hypocritically) expresses her concern that Chuck has given Rufus an STD, one that could potentially have been passed to her. Chuck responds angrily and a fight begins.
The backing music actually stops and the three characters threaten each other a capella. This is a cool move for a couple reasons. Mr. Kelly is keeping our attention by playing with the repetitive format and is allowing all of the characters to express their emotions at once. This reminds me of an ensemble, a term that comes from opera. During an ensemble, all of the characters are united onstage and each typically drops the veil on his or her feelings. The ensemble can summarize the story and carry the audience into the second act (as it does in Les Miserables’ “One Day More”) and can provide a vocal showcase during a trio (as it does in Trapped in the Closet).
One of the parts of storytelling that challenges many writers (especially beginning writers) is determining how much STUFF to include about the movements of the characters. R. Kelly goes a little bit overboard in this chapter of Trapped in the Closet and in others. Mr. Kelly spends an awful lot of time singing about who is moving where and what facial expressions they are wearing. Include only the most important movements; each should have its own significance.
What Should We Steal?
Appreciate creative work on its own terms and try to learn from every creative work you experience.Like it or not, Trapped in the Closet offers a great deal of writing advice. Instead of simply dismissing it, why not see what we can learn to improve our own work?
Invest your whole heart into your work. The best writers clearly care deeply about what they produce. Parents believe their children are the most attractive and talented in the world; you should have that same feeling about your stuff.
Invent variations on themes and other elements that occur in your work. R. Kelly knows that we don’t want to hear the same three-plus minute backing track and same rhythms in every chapter. Instead, there are times when he changes the melody or stops the music entirely to sing a capella or does something else to maintain the audience’s attention.