One profession that presents a huge challenge for screenwriters/filmmakers to depict is The Writer. Not a journalist, because they go out in the world to gather information, but a creative writer, such as a novelist or poet, playwright or essayist.
In Finding Neverland, moviegoers saw J.M. Barrie writing in a notebook as he sat in the park, but not when he’d returned home to concentrate on putting his notes and ideas into coherent form. That movie focused more on what inspired him and how he perceived and recognized his inspiration. I love this movie for the way it visualizes how the imagination visualizes things and feeds the creative process.
In Wonder Boys, I don’t recall seeing the novelist actually working on the novel that he’s been working on for years, only the pile of pages that represented his efforts.
In Stranger Than Fiction, the approach is from the point of view of a novel’s main character (and I really loved this) as if he really existed in the alternate world of the novel being written by Emma Thompson’s writer, but I don’t recall seeing her actually at computer or typewriter, writing.
Then, there’s Moulin Rouge which illustrates the flashback device of writer (Ewan MacGregor) writing his experiences in the past. We see him at the typewriter quite a few times throughout the movie both in the past and in the narrative present. These scenes tend to be brief set-ups for whatever scenes follow.
Watching someone actually write is boring, and I don’t mean necessarily the act of typing or writing with a pen but everything that goes into the writing process. The real action occurs in the writer’s mind and rarely involves physical movement, that is “action that moves the story forward.” As a profession, it is uniquely unfit for a movie character because of the interior quality of the profession.
However, a movie I saw recently, Starting Out in the Evening, began with a novelist, the main character, sitting at his typewriter, staring apparently at the paper or the typewriter or maybe at some space in between. And daringly, he sits, silent, for over a minute. Nothing happens. That’s a long time on screen for nothing to happen. Except, I wondered what he was thinking. What character spoke to him in his head? What action played out across the landscape of his imagination? It was clear from his position in front of the typewriter that he was trying to write something.
He’s stuck. He’s been working on the novel for almost ten years. A graduate student pushes into his quiet, solitary routine to interview him for the dissertation she’s writing about his four previous novels. He declines to talk with her at first, but changes his mind when he reads an essay she’s published. Their conversation about his writing process and novels threads around and through their developing relationship and his relationship with his grown daughter. He progresses from detached to engaged.
At one point, the grad student asks him how he starts writing — does he outline his novels or does he just write without knowing the ending? He confesses he never knows the endings, that the stories start with a character, and that character accumulates other characters and he follows them around watching what they do and writing it down. By the end, we see that he’s figured out the problem with the novel he’s been working on for ten years and the movie ends with him sitting silently at the typewriter again. At that moment it hit me like a punch to my nose that the entire movie had been this writer (the first character) accumulating other characters (the grad student, his daughter, his daughter’s boyfriend, etc.) and the writer had been following everyone, including himself, and observing.
I would call this a successful movie about a writer and writing….and recommend it. A stellar cast with Frank Langella, Lili Taylor and Lauren Ambrose, and a brilliant script with sharp, authentic dialogue. There is one scene when the daughter’s boyfriend puts down the writer in a verbal way that is breathtaking….