Tag Archives: movies

Inspirations

This past week I saw the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his last role. As I wrote here, he has retired from acting. Seeing the movie now, after months of getting used to the idea that it will be his last, left me sad but also energized and amazed by his work, as well as the other actors and the movie itself. Seeing artists like these at work inspires me. And Day-Lewis is a special inspiration — the way he approaches character and character development — for my writing and being a writer.

I find often that when I’m stuck with my writing, watching a good movie with good actors can rattle my imagination’s doors and windows. What is it that the actors do to establish the character?  And how do they sustain the character? What actors do is what writers do in creating and developing characters.  Paying attention to actors when they’re acting can be very helpful to fiction writers.

Physical

There are two areas of a character’s physical existence that both actors and writers pay attention to. The first is physical appearance. What does the character look like?  What is his hair color and style? Height? Weight? What kinds of clothes does the character wear? Does this change over the course of the story? I remember at one point when working on a draft of Perceval’s Secret, I decided to let Evan Quinn “go to seed,” i.e. he stops shaving, stops going to a barber, stops paying attention to his grooming to reflect his extreme focus on his work. But then he becomes interested in disguise and how it can help him lead a normal life — another aspect of physical appearance. Clothing can reveal character with respect to its style.  Someone (like Evan Quinn) who prefers to wear jeans and a T-shirt with sneakers is not the same as someone who wears chinos, an Oxford shirt, and loafers. When we walk down a street, we notice what other people are wearing and make conclusions about them based on their fashion choices. So readers will notice when a writer makes note of a character’s clothing. Also, is the character comfortable without clothing? Does he have scars, tattoos, birthmarks?

Paul Newman

The second physical aspect is movement, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, how a character stands (ramrod straight or slouched?), how a character walks. The actor Paul Newman had a distinctive walk that he used at times for a character he was playing, and sometimes not. Does the character walk fast, slow, with long strides or short? Do the toes point out? Maybe the character limps. Or maybe the character has a facial tic or a distinctive gesture. Some characters talk with their hands, as people do in real life, and others do not. Gesture can be a very subtle thing, but if it’s consistent, it can also reveal character.

Speech

What does the character’s voice sound like? Does she lisp or stutter? Perhaps she speaks with a foreign accent? Perhaps she’s a real chatterbox compared with someone more laconic. How a character speaks in any given situation reveals the characters emotions as well as thoughts. A writer puts the words in a character’s mouth, or ideally, the character simply speaks as the writer listens and records. An actor will have what’s in the script (which may or may not be written in stone — in theater it tends to be, but not so much for movies), and there’ll be a collaboration between actor and director on how those lines will be spoken. I remember seeing an interview with Anthony Hopkins talking about how he created Hannibal Lecter for The Silence of the Lambs. He commented that the key for him into the character was Lecter’s voice and manner of speaking. Once he heard that in his mind and could do it, he had Lecter. How a character speaks should not be underestimated as a key character trait. How a character uses language reveals intelligence level and emotion.

Anthony Hopkins

Occupation

What a character does for a living can be a method of self expression and another path to reveal the character. In this interview in W, Daniel Day-Lewis talks about the preparations he made, the research he did, to play Reynolds Woodcock, the couture fashion designer in Phantom Thread. Writers will (and should) do similar research into the occupations of their characters in order to insure their characters behave in a plausible way for the occupations. So, with Evan Quinn, an orchestra conductor, I researched orchestra conductors — how they live, work, travel, and see their work. An orchestra conductor will have a different life compared with a plumber or businessman, or a fashion designer. Knowing how a character acts while working adds authenticity to the character in the viewer’s or reader’s eyes.

Inspirations

So, when I need some inspiration for character creation and development, I turn to fine actors who have helped me in the past, such as Daniel Day-Lewis. Who do you turn to?

Flashbacks in Movies

In prose, flashbacks provide information not available in a story’s present, i.e. something a character experienced that can help a reader understand why the character behaves the way he does in the story’s present. Or they can be the entire story as an older narrator remembers an earlier time and experiences, or a specific person. The first novel that comes to mind that uses an extended flashback is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. An adult Scout (Louise) tells the story about the events leading up to her brother Jem breaking his arm. When a story focuses on a present, however, inserting flashbacks into it can slow down the momentum which is not really a good thing.

Recently, I once again encountered flashbacks in movies. They are used for the same reasons as in prose and in much the same way. As a storytelling device, it limits the point of view to the character who is remembering the flashback events.  This is usually signaled to the viewer by the camera zooming in slowly on the character’s face as he or she thinks back. As in prose, there is a “rule” that the contents of the flashback must be what the remembering character experienced him or herself. Filmmakers try to fudge this and it’s one of my pet peeves about flashbacks in movies.

For example: I recently finally saw the 2017 movie Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot as Diana Prince. I was excited to finally see this movie! Not that I’m a huge fan of comic book characters, but I grew up with Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and I’ve always thought of this character as being strong and intelligent, a rarity to see on television at the time. The movie began with Diana Prince arriving at the Louvre in present day Paris, accepting the delivery of a photograph showing her and a motley crew. The voice over sets us up for her memory of how that photograph came to be and we are in an extended flashback.

The photograph Diana Prince looks at that starts her memory

My memory-checking antenna activated and at first it looked as if this movie would not fall prey to the most common mistake filmmakers make when using flashback to tell a story, i.e. slipping into the omniscient point of view of the camera and showing scenes that the person remembering were not in or could not have known about.  Then the first, albeit brief, moment occurred when the Amazon Queen and her sister are talking but Diana is not present. She does come up behind them a moment later. OK. The story continued from Diana’s point of view, with one detour into Steve Trevor’s point of view when he’s telling her about infiltrating the arms factory in Turkey and stealing the evil chemist’s notebook. Fine. After that, however, there are at least two scenes that involved Ludendorff and Dr. Maru in which Diana was not present and neither was Steve Trevor. Diana could not have remembered those scenes nor does either Ludendorff or Dr. Maru describe them to her so she could remember them. What a disappointment! I enjoyed the movie up to a point — I was also a little confused as to why Steve Trevor had to fly the plane full of the poison gas bombs if he’d had faith that Diana would defeat Ares and the fighting would stop.  It wouldn’t have been necessary for him to blow up that plane. Ah, well.

The most egregious example of misusing extended flashback in a movie, though, is Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Rodat. At the very beginning of that movie, we see old guys walking through a cemetery near the coast of France — one of the D-Day cemeteries. One old guy crouches down in front of one headstone, the camera zooms in on his face, and we are taken back in his memory. We don’t know yet who this old guy is, so my assumption was that it was Captain Miller played by Tom Hanks. Especially since we then see a series of scenes that lead up to the famous D-Day sequence that seem to be from his experience. I watched the entire movie thinking that it was an extended flashback of Captain Miller’s experience of finding Private Ryan to return him home. Until it suddenly could not have been his experience anymore, which left me wondering who the old guy in the cemetery was. And we do find out at the end of the movie — it was Private Ryan. Shock. How could that extended flashback have been Ryan when he’s not present at all in the story until three-quarters of the way through the movie when Captain Miller’s platoon finds him? I was actually pretty outraged by what Spielberg and his screenwriter had done in the way they told this movie, and thought Spielberg should have known better. But the really sad part is that very few people who have seen that movie realized that the flashback could not have been Ryan’s memory.

So whether you’re writing prose or a screenplay, be careful with flashbacks!

 

Writing Death

This past week I received news that a college friend had been involved in a pedestrian traffic accident and killed. Total shock. Anger. Sorrow. A reminder that death is a part of life. My heart went out to her husband, children and family. In the midst of my own grief, I eventually began thinking about mortality and death in writing. It’s not something anyone thinks about initially when sitting down to write, that’s for certain. But inevitably, characters die. Or they should, if we want our writing to be plausible and full of life.

How to write death, though? The thing about death is that it can sneak up and surprise just as much as be anticipated because of long illness or old age. I grew up in a family of much older relatives so I learned about death early. The thing about death that makes it so difficult is its finality. The emotions around that finality are powerful and difficult to capture in prose. In fact, I cannot think of a prose example that truly captures the emotional response to death in a precise and honest way. I welcome any examples from my readers.

A movie example comes to mind, however. The first is a movie I’ve written about before here: Seven Pounds. Guilt is one emotional response to death, especially if one survives and a loved one dies as in this movie. Another movie, and novel actually, comes to mind: The Constant Gardner. This novel is my favorite John le Carre novel.  While the backdrop of the story deals with Big Pharma nefarious shenanigans in East Africa, le Carre reveals how two different men, friends of each other in the British diplomatic service, respond to the death of the wife of one of them, especially since one of them (not the husband) is actually fully responsible for it. Again, there is guilt, but also anger, profound sorrow, and a need to know how and why she died. Le Carre doesn’t describe her death at the time it happens, but through the eyes of these two men seeing the aftermath and through forensics.

When I began Perceval’s Secret, the deaths that most affected Evan Quinn had happened before the story begins, so I didn’t think I’d be writing death in this novel.  Was I ever wrong! In that novel, I began the journey of Evan learning about himself, i.e. his authentic self, and part of that exploration is learning also about how he thinks and feels about death. What I discovered is that, like a lot of people, Evan tends to repress most of his emotions about death. Anger, however, is an acceptable emotion to feel, and that is what Evan feels the most. There is one death that will haunt him through the entire series, though, and I’m very interested to see what other emotions of his will come into play.

Describing actual death is not necessarily the hard part of writing death. It’s really the emotions surrounding death and writing them true and precise that is hard. What will a specific character feel about another character’s death? It will depend on his relationship with the deceased character before her death, and his previous experience with death. Someone who’s grown up in a society and family that accepts death as a part of life and teaches children how to grieve will respond much differently than someone who has grown up in a society and family that doesn’t talk about death.  A character who has faced death herself may respond differently also. Grief comes in many forms and colors. The most powerful prose that describes it is spare, I think.

To conclude my brief “meditation” on writing death, I’d like to ask other writers how they write death and the emotions surrounding it. Do you find it more difficult than writing about life? Less difficult? Do you think about it or just do it? Or do you avoid it altogether if possible?

The Structure Game

A story is a story is a story. The medium tends to make no difference when looking at narrative structure. I often find myself noting plot points that signal the progress of the story’s structure when I’m reading a novel or watching a movie. Act 1 shouldn’t be long but set-up the goal the main character wants to achieve. Act 2 does its best with ever-increasing obstacles and conflicts to prevent the protagonist from achieving the goal. And then when all looks lost at the end of Act 2, the main character works out something that points the way to the climax in Act 3 when he or she achieves the goal or not.  Have you ever played the structure game while watching a movie?

Last evening I was watching a suspenseful action movie entitled Unstoppable. A half-mile long train gets away from an engineer when he leaves its cab to change a switch that would have diverted the train off the main line.  The train’s locomotive pulls freight cars, some carrying a toxic chemical, some carrying diesel fuel, and others carrying non-toxic materials. Because the engineer was moving the train off the main line, he failed to connect the train’s air brake system which would have stopped the train automatically.  So, the train barrels down the main railroad line in Pennsylvania, heading for a highly populated area. One railroad manager called it a “missile.” This was the set-up for the action in this story, commonly called act 1. The train plays the villain. As soon as the train gets loose and the railroad people realize the danger it poses — the “revelation” — the viewer understands that the goal for all these people is to stop the train.  But how?

Who are the heroes?  I use the plural form because there are more than one in this movie. We meet them all in act 1 also, their character introductions juxtaposed with the train.  A railroad manager named Connie who coordinates the action from a command center.  A veteran engineer named Frank who’s a bit irritated to be breaking in a new conductor named Will. And then there’s Ned who ends up being a wild catalyst for the climax of this story — he also works for the railroad, but I cannot remember now what his official title was.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

In the second act, these four characters have to overcome the obstacles put in their way by the railroad’s upper management who are only thinking about how much money the railroad could lose, as well as actual physical obstacles like distance, speed, and the unmanned villainous train. They must deal with conflicts of ideas among themselves, conflicts of personalities, and the inevitable conflicts with law enforcement and politicians and the media (who always seem to get in the way in this type of story). I’m not going to describe anything specific here because I don’t want to ruin this really fun story — I recommend the movie.  Suffice it to say that at one point I realized I was shaking I was so tense, and I had to get up and walk around while I watched. I genuinely admire movie stories that are unpredictable, i.e. there’s no way to know what will happen next. This was definitely one of those stories.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

The beginning of act 3 shows the characters in desperation and despair. Will they be able to stop the train? Will they survive the ordeal? People have already lost their lives because of this runaway train. Desperation breeds desperate actions, and I was quite pleased that in this movie, the desperate actions made sense. They were all extremely dangerous and breath-taking, too. I really wasn’t sure at all that these four characters would accomplish their goal at the end. And that’s what the climax is all about: answering the question does the protagonist achieve the goal or no? It’s not that rare for a protagonist not to achieve a goal, but perhaps he or she grows in some way as a result of seeking to achieve the goal. What writers want to accomplish at the end is an ending that is satisfying to the reader or, in the case of movies, the viewer.

Unstoppable (2010) entertained me immensely and I’m not even that interested in trains.  But part of the entertainment for me was noting the plot points that signaled the narrative structure and its progress.  The next time you’re watching a movie, see if you can play the structure game.

Becoming a Writer: “Whisper of the Heart”

Hayao Miyazaki (from documentary "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness")

Hayao Miyazaki (from documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”)

Life demands and a lack of money have prevented me from going out to movies very often in the last couple of years. I had to end my Netflix subscription also a year ago in order to save money. I hadn’t realized how much I missed movies until a co-worker and I got into a conversation about the brilliant Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. We’re both dedicated fans of his work, and my co-worker offered to loan me an early movie that Miyazaki had done the screenplay and storyboards for and I’d not seen. All he’d say about it was that it was sweet and wonderful, more grounded in reality than Miyazaki’s later work but with touches of magic. I jumped at the opportunity to see a Miyazaki movie I hadn’t seen before.

DVD from Disney

DVD from Disney

In Whisper of the Heart, Shizuku, a young teen, has reached the point when she’s begun to question the direction of her life and what her true talents are. She loves to read and her father works in a library which gives Shizuku easy access to lots of books. She notices that a boy, Seiji, has checked out all the books before her that she’s been reading. This strange fact sparks her curiosity and imagination. One day, as she’s on her way to the library on the train, a cat with one purple ear catches her attention. The cat jumps up onto the seat next to her and studiously ignores her attempts to befriend him.  When the cat gets off the train at her stop, she runs after him, follows him up hills to a lovely residential neighborhood. True to cat behavior, he continues to ignore Shizuku, but seems to point the way to an intriguing antique store where she meets the elderly owner and The Baron, a cat figurine.

By this point, I’m totally hooked into this story, especially as Shizuku keeps running into a mysterious boy, Seiji, who turns out to be the grandson of the antique store’s owner. I don’t want to give away too much of this gentle story revealing the emotional lives of creative teens and how they help, support, and inspire each other. What I want to review about this movie is how Miyazaki reveals the life of the creative artist, and what the creative process is really like.  For Shizuku is a budding writer, and Seiji a budding violin maker who can also play a mean violin.

Shizuku and the Cat (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

Shizuku and the Cat (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

How does someone become creative? More specifically, how does someone become a creative artist?  Every human being on this planet is creative in his or her own way.  For example, problem solving requires creativity and imagination. Relating to each other successfully takes a lot of imagination (for empathy) and creativity. But when it comes to art, this is when the human mind and imagination fuse to bring forth truths of existence in ways that stimulate the imaginations of the people who are experiencing the art. As Miyazaki has done with Whisper of the Heart.

I believe that we are each born to certain lives but we each have the choice of whether to fulfill those particular lives or do something else. My father, for example, loved music and art — he played the clarinet and painted oil pictures — but he chose not to fulfill that creative spark; instead he chose to pursue a job in financial services. He allowed the powerful influence of American society to pursue “business” and the making of money to squash whatever creative inclinations he had. Fortunately for me, he supported my creative pursuits from my first forays in elementary school, but only up to a point. He notoriously said to me when I announced my music major in college, “You can’t eat a piano,” and when I told him and my mother that I’d finally recognized my creative spirit in writing, he responded with the pithy, “Writers are prostitutes.”

Shizuku and the Baron

Shizuku and the Baron (Studio Ghibli/Disney)

Which brings me to the crux of Whisper of the Heart. Being a creative artist is extremely difficult even in the best of times or most supportive of conditions. Other people — family, friends, as well as strangers — will pressure the artist to do something more “practical,” to not pursue creative expression, and this pressure can be incredibly strong, often hurtful, and constant. It takes power and a belief in the strength of the soul’s desire to be creative in spite of the pressure not to be. And then there are the self doubts. Both Shizuku and Seiji eloquently show and tell others their doubts about their abilities and talents. But they keep going because they must. And that need is inspired and supported and sustained by each other as well as Seiji’s grandfather. (Not to mention the cat with one purple ear and The Baron!)

My favorite moment in this movie (in addition to the moment Shizuku meets the cat)? It’s when, after Seiji’s grandfather has read her story and told her that it’s a wonderful raw gem that now needs cutting and polishing, Shizuku bursts into tears, wailing that she doesn’t know if she can do it.  Been there, done that!  Many times. So, Whisper of the Heart is not only Miyazaki’s homage to the creative process, but the moving story of a young writer discovering her imagination and the creative process in writing.

I loved this movie! (It’s now on my Amazon wish list.)  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the creative process, in writing, in Japanese animation, or in the early work of Hayao Miyazaki to see how his creative expression was developing.

cute-cat-picture-wallpaper by jasonlefkowitz.net