5 quotes from John Logan on screenwriting

This week is the (virtual) Chicago International Film Festival, and as an associate boardmember, I’ve been diving deep into the events, screenings and activities from the safety and comfort of my couch. Yesterday I sat in a masterclass conversation on screenwriting with John Logan, who wrote films like Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Aviator and Skyfall, created/produced the Penny Dreadful TV series, penned lots of plays, and just yesterday received a Tony nomination for the book for Broadway’s adaptation of Moulin Rouge! (which I was supposed to see at the end of March in New York…thanks, COVID).

In alliteration, Logan is a legend.

I took a ton of notes, but here are the top five quotes I feverishly jotted down during the hour spent listening to him describe process, research and the filmmaking business in general:

1. “Our lives aren’t interesting, but the characters we write can be.” Rather than writing what you know, write what you feel, what you think, and what’s important to you. This is good news to me, a Midwesterner for Life who’s trying to craft a novel set on the Western frontier. Logan also warned that we check preciousness and over-fondness at the door. You’ve heard “kill your darlings” when it comes to paragraphs you like — this is “kill your darlings” when it comes to the memories and autobiographical elements we try to preserve through fiction.

2. “Pitching (a movie) is not an audition; it’s a negotiation.” When approaching a director, producer, or (in my world) agent or publisher, don’t perform the entire work for them and hope they like it as-is. Instead, approach it as “I have something to offer you. What about it interests you?” and go from there. Note that Logan’s first feature film was Any Given Sunday, which was one of 10 pitches he brought an agent in LA. He sold the film by calling it “King Lear in the NFL.”

3. “Remember you’re a dramatist, not a historian. You’re just painting a base-layer with research.” Logan has written a number of historical fiction films and warned against the “siren’s song of research” — he spent five years studying Howard Hughes and all the industries touched by his octopus-like reach before having to actually sit down and write The Aviator. Currently I’m working on a Western, which means I’ve fallen down rabbit holes about clothing, food and weaponry during the Western migration; how a quarter of cowboys were Black; and how Jesse James was actually an asshole. It’s my first historically-set book, so I’m learning just how appealing that siren’s song can be, especially when procrastinating on putting pen to paper.

4. “Truth of the character is all that matters.” This really hit a nerve. When I wrote Nobody’s Hero, it was a cry for help as I sank under the waves of having a successful corporate job I wasn’t (at the time) sure I wanted or deserved. I poured my imposter syndrome and jaded perspective into the main character. From what my former agent told me, publishers and editors weren’t too enamored, and I think Logan made it clear why with this final quote:

5. “It’s not about my voice. It’s about my character’s voice.This is something I struggle with sometimes more than writing action scenes (which, I was surprised but comforted to know, are also a sore spot for Logan, who wrote two freakin’ James Bond movies). All my characters either sound like Kate in Life, Kate on Paper, or Evil Villain in the Show Kate Just Watched. Logan said he tries several voices and approaches for his characters, and eventually one clicks: This is a new practice I’ll be implementing for books moving forward.

BONUS: “Writers are great weeping masses of emotion and need.” No comment. Pass the Kleenex.

Music of the Write: “The Night Window” by Thomas Newman

If, like me, you’ve thought back to what life was like this time last month before an official pandemic required us to self-isolate, here’s what I was doing: I went to see the last movie I would see in theaters for a while, 1917. I know, about two months later than the rest of the cinephile world — but it was well worth it, as I can’t imagine seeing the film on a smaller screen and being as captivated by it. I was so tense and emotionally invested that the guy I was with at one point put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I was OK.

The truth was, I was more than OK: I was euphorically swept up by every artistic detail of the movie, as graphic and grueling as it could be.

Thomas Newman’s entire score is fantastic, but one song in particular has fueled my writing as of late. “The Night Window” comes early on the album and escalates to a heart-stopping swell. I lost track of how many times I repeated it last week while working on the next installment of Axiom’s backstory, and it’s earned a permanent place in my “Random Writing Music” playlist.

Return to the drive-in: A quarantine story of new hope

He was just settling in to the nightly news something sparked in the corner of Frank Goberwitz’s right eye. The sun was coming up again, but that couldn’t be right: It had finally just set for the day.

It couldn’t possibly be the sun, Frank decided. He rolled his wheelchair to the glass to get a better look and saw a white beam of light stretched across the empty lot next door, illuminating the giant white wall that usually did nothing but block the site of the traffic on North Avenue. “Welcome to the Cascade Drive-In” the wall now read, and as it came into focus, a cacophony of horns below applauded it. Tipping his head forward, he saw that at least a hundred cars were now parked on the crumbling asphalt.

Frank resisted the urge to harrumph his way back to the TV and instead slid the door open and rolled out onto the balcony. It was even louder out here, with the sound of motors and laughter wafting upward on a perfume cloud of popcorn and exhaust fumes.

Three years ago when he had moved into the Sunrise Hills Retirement Complex, he had been guaranteed that the drive-in next door had been closed and purchased by a golf course developer. That sounded fine by him: He didn’t play anymore, but he enjoyed hearing the clinks and pops of the clubs hitting the ball. Being 14 floors up meant it was unlikely for a whiffed shot to end up in his soup, but he would still enjoy the greenery below.

Except the golf course was still not built. The lot remained, as did the abandoned drive-in screen, which loomed like a ghostly monolith just halfway out of his sight line when he sat in his usual spot in the living room. Well, he thought, at least it’s still quiet.

“Ladies and gentleman,” a loudspeaker blared from the back of the lot. Frank jumped at the sound. “After fifteen years, we are glad to be back! Welcome one and all to the Cascade Drive-In Theater, and thank you for your patronage! Are you ready for a show?!”

The car horns blared again. Frank looked over to see Marjorie, his chatterbox next-door-neighbor, come out on her own porch. She clutched a cat in her arms, and Frank sneered at it, knowing that it was the source of the never-ceasing scratching sounds coming from her side of the wall they shared.

“What a night!” she said. “Isn’t it exciting?”

Frank grimaced. There was a reason he liked the last three months of quarantine: it meant not having to respond to niceties from people he didn’t know — or care to know, for that matter.

The cars continued to roll into the lot below as the loudspeaker shouted directions.

“Make sure your radios are set to Station 727.91 AM so you can hear the sound of the picture, though I’m sure many of you could recite it from heart. If you’re hungry, turn your hazards on, and one of our staff will come by with the concessions cart so you can make your selections. They’ll leave your order on your car hood — please remember to let them get six feet away before you exit your vehicle to retrieve it. Snacks in the time of quarantine, am I right, folks!?”

A couple car horns guffawed as Frank saw dozens of red lights start to flash below. Elaborately decorated bicycle rickshaws deployed from the back of the lot, zooming to each car that had its hazard lights ablaze.

“Wonder what the movie is?” Marjorie asked, more to her cat than Frank. He saw her slip inside her house and emerge quickly, the cat replaced by a small battery-operated radio. “I hope it’s one of those John Wick pictures. I love those, don’t you? The fight scenes are so good, and the dog is so cute. And Keanu Reeves is so handsome!”

Frank didn’t know who the hell John Wick was, possibly because he hadn’t seen a movie in some time that wasn’t edited for public consumption on cable. The quarantine had caught him with a hatred for modern technology, which meant he was at the mercy of the network schedulers — possibly another reason he had devolved into the crotchety old bastard that looked back at him from his bathroom mirror. While the rest of the world still zoomed around in its cars and video chatted with family around the world from their pristine kitchens, Frank had developed intimate friendships with Alex Trebeck and Pat Sajack as he waited for one of the nurses to drop off his tray of daily meals. His daughter, Cindy, lived across the country and used to call daily, but after a month of having to listen to his pissing and moaning, she had started only calling on Sunday afternoons. He didn’t mind. Pretending to be happy was exhausting.

Marjorie’s deck chair clattered closer to the railing, and Frank saw her hop up on top of it and prop her chin on her folded arms that rested on the balcony railing. Her feet dangled inches from the ground, one of her house slippers barely holding on.

“What a nice surprise,” she said into the evening breeze. “The first night in a week that it isn’t raining, and we get a movie!” She turned to look at Frank, and the light from her apartment sparkled in her eyes. “It makes me feel closer to humanity, somehow, even though I know they’re all down there. We’re all experiencing something at the same time, together, like a real community.”

“Sure,” chuffed Frank, who backed off the porch into his house. The news anchors were finishing their report about how quarantine had been extended for another two weeks: No gatherings of more than 10 people in an enclosed space. No bars or restaurants open for the public. No visits to senior centers unless you’re a health care provider.

Frank sighed as he turned off the TV and the side table lamp before pivoting his chair toward the bedroom door. Outside, he heard Marjorie’s tinny radio screech with the 20th Century Fox theme, followed by an orchestral explosion that blast his thoughts back to 1977.

He was 39. Cindy was 10 and desperate to see the new movie that had all the kids at school talking. Frank’s wife — God rest her soul — thought it would be too violent. “Wars” was right there in the title, after all.

The Addison Multiplex Movie Theater was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, and he took his daughter’s hand as they slid into the fourth row from the back just in time for the show to start. The lights dimmed, the 20th Century Fox searchlights lit up the screen, and then everything went black. John Williams’ fanfare sent a wave of adrenaline down his spine as yellow words floated up the screen.

That same yellow scroll now lit up Frank’s entire living room as it towered three stories high across the lot. Cars blared their horns in excitement. Marjorie applauded from her perch. And Frank shot out onto his balcony in time to see that it was time for Princess Leia to race home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that could save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…

This Banned Books Week, to Hell with the Hays Code!

In the early years of movies, filmmakers didn’t have any restrictions — apart from the sense of morality held by whoever was funding them — as to what they could put in a movie. And so the Hays Code was born.

Ultra-restrictive, the Hays Code was a set of guidelines to combat the liberal content increasingly present at the movies (which, of course, pales in comparison to today’s films). The bottom line: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

Last week I learned about this mock photograph by A.L “Whitey” Schafer, who fit as many code violations as he could into a single photograph. At the time it must have been seen as shocking by some and considered deliciously disruptive by others.

Read more here.

Personally, I see this photo as a a much-needed middle-finger to stringent rules that, among other things, banned depictions of childbirth, interracial relationships, “sexual perversions (such as homosexuality),” religious figures as villains, and illegal drug use. You could not justify illicit sexual relationships between unmarried characters, and scenes of passion were closely monitored. In love scenes, partners couldn’t be in a horizontal position while kissing, and women had to have “at least one foot on the floor” (i.e. not in bed).

So what did Whitey do? He set up this photo, which broke ten of the Hays Commandments in a single image.

Writers face the threat of people reporting, banning or burning their books all the time. That’s why this week is “Banned Book Week.” To a lot of us, having your book be listed as a threat by ultra-conservative groups is a feather in the cap. The Hate U Give might be the most recent example I can think of as a YA novel that’s constantly in turmoil because of its realistic portrayal of a black teen being shot by a cop. Harry Potter was famously burned for its magical content — though its massive popularity stoked those flames, too, as not every fantasy book gets the same treatment.

That’s why this photograph came to mind when I sat down to blog this week. As writers we often have to make people uncomfortable to make our voices heard. Safe stories are sometimes nice, but we learn when we’re pushed to see things the establishment doesn’t want us to see.

The Hays Code was eventually abandoned in the late 1960s when enforcement became impossible — too many filmmakers were just paying the fine and making movies that shook the country to its core. If no one had flouted the rules, we’d still be watching versions of Frankenstein where the doctor’s god complex was completely brushed over.

It’s our job as creators to break the rules, but to do it in a way that “punches up.” Represent the marginalized. Criticize those in power. Funny, how that not only applies to making art, but also making life…

Vignette: “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”

They killed him because he defended his wife from their slander.

They beat his skull in and threw him in the snow because he spoke up when one of them said his wife, Shelley Duvall, worked for the local brothel run by Julie Christie and Warren Beatty. And that scene just got to her. The rest of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” was weak as far as Westerns, New Cinema era films, Warren Beatty projects and movies about prostitutes go, but that scene? What an indictment of modern man. Modern men.

Watching a man’s brain turned to pulp because he dared to speak out against liars wouldn’t have had as much an effect on her if she hadn’t spent the previous day watching a woman’s brain be probed, questioned and discounted because she dared to speak out against a liar. Meanwhile, the accused’s friends allowed him a platform where he could cry, yell, wrongfully define the law, and contend that the system is rigged against him, when all he’s ever done in his life is take advantage of a system built by men who look like him, for men who look like him.

No wonder the back of her neck tingled with rage as he brought up his daughters praying for “the woman” — not even “the Doctor,” yes, “Doctor Blasey Ford.” He couldn’t even grant her the humanity that a name and title afford, even though she was forced to speak his name again and again throughout her testimony.

Suddenly that movie from 1971 seemed to predict 1991, which reappeared in 2018 and would, inevitably, end the same way. Anyone who dares speak in defense of a woman against vicious lies gets left in the snow to die, and the animals that laid him to waste get to walk free.

#NaNoWriMo2017 Day 25: “Coward”

 

I found myself self writing a villain’s monologue to this piece while sitting in a dark room last night, which seems appropriate given what happens during this part of Christopher Nolan’s “Insterstellar.” The Mozart-influenced piece builds as the drama does:

“She’s like a mouse in a maze. She knows where the center is, but she also knows that the bigger rat following her is more interested in keeping her from the prize than earning it for himself. So she runs along a small patch, hoping that it’s enough to keep him at bay while also close enough for her to make her move given the chance. If he — I — ever give her a chance, that is.”

Music of the Write: “Gangsta’s Paradise” arranged by Position Music

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets hits theaters today, and it’s the newest scifi escape by Fifth Element and Lucy director Luc Besson. Regardless of whether the movie is good, it did us the favor of presenting a heart-pounding orchestral remix of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” in the final trailer. Then again, I’m a sucker for musical scores based on unexpected popular songs. Just wait until I start posting about Ramin Djwadi’s Westworld score.