Thursday, January 08, 2009

THE FAMOUS WRITERS SCHOOL

INTRODUCTORY CLASS: ACQUIRING THE PROPER ATTITUDE

I'm always looking for new things to do with this space. I think that comes from the actor/dramatist/money-grubbing producer sides of me that demand neither I or those of my readership/audience ever get bored.

Last summer Dix and I had a long face-to-face thrash on why I don't write about writing. Basically, what it came down to is Uncle Willis is one of those kind, caring, sharing and all-inclusive individuals -- and I'm not.

If we'd both grown up in the Saskatchewan of a hundred years ago, he'd have been the fella out barn-raising and sharing his harvest with his neighbors. I'd be the guy with too many guns and his own still.

But last month, Karen Walton's inspired operation, Ink Canada, asked me to have a few drinks with some emerging writers and share anecdotes/mentor/whatever. Well, we did a lot of that, but mostly I listened. Listened to young creatives with a lot of great ideas, fresh takes on done-to-death material and a clear desire to make a contribution to bettering the film and TV product that comes out of this country.

What also registered was that the country isn't, and most particularly, those producers and broadcasters who will reap the greatest rewards from this work are not, interested in being there for them.

Granted, a country this size will never have enough job placements for all the film majors spewing from our various colleges, film centres and universities. What's truly disheartening, however, is that we've also perfected a system that further winnows those candidates into a "pre-approved" pile who find repeated support despite a less than successful track record.

In the last couple of days, I've also seen material debuted by writers who are not without talent, but of whom little has been demanded. There's little doubt CBC's "Wild Roses" and CTV's "Of Murder and Memory" could have been far better than they were. But in a world where "terms of license" carry far more weight than the integrity of the production, quality isn't the first priority.

And they're not going to promote the shows anyway.

In the face of that kind of reality, I honestly don't see the point of spending any of my time instructing someone in the proper methods of revealing character or transitioning scenes.

But, while watching those programs this week, I had a couple of ideas I thought young Canadian writers (and maybe young writers elsewhere) might truly benefit from -- and that's by learning from the Masters. My own version of the "Famous Writers School". Things I've learned from writers a lot of you probably haven't heard of or are unlikely to read beyond a script they wrote.

You see, in the real world of film and TV writing (ie: not how it's done in Canada) there are real stakes and real consequences of not delivering the goods. Careers are made and broken in titanic clashes of ego, creativity and commerce.

Even though most of those contests go unnoticed, they demand of a screenwriter the same commitment and embrace the same consequences as one of those "Wonderful World of Disney" nature shorts depicting a scorpion and tarantula going at it in the middle of the Mojave desert.

Writers who can hone a competitive attitude about themselves and their work succeed -- and just might start to make a difference here.


I can say without reservation that David Mamet is my favorite playwright, screenwriter -- okay, pretty much any kind of writer.

While I remain in awe of David Milch, David E. Kelley (why are all these guys named David?) Aaron Sorkin, Steven Bochco, Stephen Cannell, Tom Stoppard and a host of others in the drama trade, Mamet continually succeeds in finding new ways to blow me away.

I first "met" him through his plays "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and "A Life in the Theatre". Later on, I had the pleasure of being swept away by perhaps the best play ever written about Hollywood, Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow". Seeing or reading that work and David Rabe's (Jeezuz another David!) almost-as-inspired "Hurly Burly" is all you need to know about how the business really works.

But that hasn't stopped Mamet from making a side career out of further clarifying those truths to writers who want to get into the business.

During one of my sojourns in LA, I picked up a copy of "Writing in Restaurants" figuring that book and a cup of coffee would kill an hour before the movie I was going to see started.

I never got to the movie, closed out the coffee shop and finished reading it on a park bench in Santa Monica as the sun came up, the pages by-then dog-eared and scrawled with margin notes and underlines.

David Mamet, quite simply, reminds me of what's really important in life and helps me chart the paths I follow. And while no guru or prophet is everybody's life guide, I don't think I go far wrong in recommending his non-fiction work to those who want to write screenplays for a living.

Within those pages you'll find the truth of what goes on in this industry. A truth that is spoken clearly, without sugar coating and without concern for your personal feelings or what the cherished stances of the moment might be.

In searching for an answer to some of the discomfort I'd left that Ink Canada get together with, I re-read Mamet's last book "Bambi vs. Godzilla", admiring his perfect psychoanalysis of what makes a television executive and finding perhaps the best piece of advice a new writer can take on board as a career compass.

If you can't afford to buy the whole book, drop down to your local 'Chapters' or 'Barnes and Noble' and read the segment entitled "How to Write a Screenplay". If you are truly destined to become a successful writer, this chapter alone will inspire you to knock over the nearest candy store or old lady with a purse in order to acquire your very own copy.

For in it, Mamet describes the correct attitude a writer must have.

Without embracing this reality, you might still land a job on "Blossom: The Next Generation" or even "Sophie" but you won't be writing anything that means something to either you or the audience you once intended to serve.

"...the true entry level skill of the scenarist...is not blind obedience to authority but loathing and distrust of the same. For if the Authority -- the agencies, the studios, the producers -- knew what they were doing, they would all be peaceful, content, happy, and benevolent instead of caught in a constant, never abating struggle to the knife."

It starts with attitude, kids.

Going along to get along might get your work purchased but you'll spend all that money on drugs and alcohol as you watch your work watered down, compromised and altered into a DNA strand deemed harmless to the corporate structure that delivers it and without nutritional value to those it feeds.

Being willing to stand up for your material and what you believe may only slightly reduce your bill at the liquor store or marginally increase the sustenance in what the audience swallows, but it's something. Something you will soon discover your growing coterie of fans appreciate more than you can know.

And its something that will put you in a position to survive and find work in the new medias that will soon replace the currently crumbling one.

If our present economic situation tells us anything, it's that the corporate structures and funding paradigms we've historically known are not long for this world. Whether they collapse because they didn't work or because those who ran them trusted them even less than we did won't matter. We're entering a time where the loneliness of the writer will get lonelier as we need to find ways to execute what we've imagined without a lot of established outside support.


In that world, you will be required to stand on your own two feet and be empowered by the courage of your own convictions.

David Mamet will teach you that skill.

I hope this post helped some of you. There will be more "Famous Writers" here for you to discover in the next few days. Writers who are far less famous but who have just as much to offer and with none of that boring grammar stuff or secrets to solving the second act.

9 comments:

Trevor B. Cunningham said...

Yep. One of my favourite writers, bar-none. Have read and re-read Three Uses of the Knife, On Directing, True and False and Bambi vs Godzilla. All tattered and quoted from. I often say this to myself and others when it comes to filmmaking in general...and it's a Mamet quote to live by:

"Forget Syd Field and Robert McKee. Don't bore us".

See you at the Still.

wcdixon said...

So should we all be watching 'The Unit'? I lurves my Mamet as well, but haven't been able to find a groove with that show.

Eleanor said...

Thank you for making this series of posts. I look forward to the rest!

jimhenshaw said...

If I was living in Regina, I'd be watching ANYTHING that kept me from having to go outside.

I'm not a huge fan of "The Unit", though I've caught episodes I liked.

I think the lack of a solid groove is because neither Mamet or Shawn Ryan are on it full time. Don't know for sure but it smacks of one of those Hollywood production deal things.

I worked for one guy who was credited as an exec producer on "PeeWee's Playhouse" but who'd never even seen the thing and sure didn't like taking all the calls after PeeWee got caught hangin' out at the movies.

JA Goneaux said...

Well,I'd add Sam Shepard to your list, but hey...I'm drunkish and you're probably sober.

Anyway, I'd also add what a pretty good teacher once told me: "Just write, James. Write a beginning. Write what comes next. Then after that...".

Too many writers, particularly those dreaming of Hollywood grab Syd Field's format books and try to squeeze their creativity into plot points and commercial breaks.

You didn't think I was listening, did you?

JA Goneaux said...

Oh, and please explain "Spartan". Is it the "Kilmer Effect". I've seen it twice and still can't understand it.

JA Goneaux said...

Sorry to keep you up, Jim, but two things:

1) just watched the final episode of "Extras". Neat bit of "meta", where Ricky Gervais' character sells out, as you say, by going along to get along. I won't give away the ending, but the last 10 minutes is classic

2) William Goldman's "Adventures in the Screen Trade" should be added to your "Famous Writers School" syllabus. Hell, if he had just written the NOVEL "Princess Bride", he should be there. Let alone the screen play, and etc....

Mark said...

Great stuff Jim.

I've always admired Mamet for his simple approach to drama. The 'formula' is simple but the execution is difficult. You can go through the complex diatribe of McKee or you can read 'Three Uses of the Knife' (a much smaller book).

Mark

Brandon Laraby said...

Hey Jim!

Simply put: I'm going to read me some Mamet (which I've never done).

Thanks for the introduction ;)

Cheers man,
Brandon