Inglourious Basterds — The Elements of Suspense
Scientists at the Computational Story Laboratory have analyzed novels to identify the building blocks of all stories.
Back in 1995, Kurt Vonnegut gave a lecture in which he described his theory about the shapes of stories. In the process, he plotted several examples on a blackboard. “There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers,” he said. “They are beautiful shapes.” The video is available on YouTube.
Vonnegut was representing in graphical form an idea that writers have explored for centuries—that stories follow emotional arcs, that these arcs can have different shapes, and that some shapes are better suited to storytelling than others.
Vonnegut mapped out several arcs in his lecture. These include the simple arc encapsulating “man falls into hole, man gets out of hole” and the more complex one of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.”
Vonnegut is not alone in attempting to categorize stories into types, although he was probably the first to do it in graphical form. Aristotle was at it over 2,000 years before him, and many others have followed in his footsteps.
However, there is little agreement on the number of different emotional arcs that arise in stories or their shape. Estimates vary from three basic patterns to more than 30. But there is little in the way of scientific evidence to favor one number over another.
Today, that changes thanks to the work of Andrew Reagan at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington and a few pals. These guys have used sentiment analysis to map the emotional arcs of over 1,700 stories and then used data-mining techniques to reveal the most common arcs. “We find a set of six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives,” they say.
Their method is straightforward. The idea behind sentiment analysis is that words have a positive or negative emotional impact. So words can be a measure of the emotional valence of the text and how it changes from moment to moment. So measuring the shape of the story arc is simply a question of assessing the emotional polarity of a story at each instant and how it changes.
Reagan and co do this by analyzing the emotional polarity of “word windows” and sliding these windows through the text to build up a picture of how the emotional valence changes. They performed this task on over 1,700 English works of fiction that had each been downloaded from the Project Gutenberg website more than 150 times.
Finally, they used a variety of data-mining techniques to tease apart the different emotional arcs present in these stories.
The results make for interesting reading. Reagan and co say that their techniques all point to the existence of six basic emotional arcs that form the building blocks of more complex stories. They are also able to identify the stories that are the best examples of each arc.
The six basic emotional arcs are these:
A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll. A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet. A fall then a rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story, discussed by Vonnegut. A rise then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus. Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella. Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.
Finally, the team looks at the correlation between the emotional arc and the number of story downloads to see which types of arc are most popular. It turns out the most popular are stories that follow the Icarus and Oedipus arcs and stories that follow more complex arcs that use the basic building blocks in sequence. In particular, the team says the most popular are stories involving two sequential man-in-hole arcs and a Cinderella arc followed by a tragedy.
Of course, many books follow more complex arcs at more fine-grained resolution. Reagan and co’s method does not capture the changes in emotional polarity that occur on the level of paragraphs, for example. But instead, it captures the much broader emotional arcs involved in storytelling. Their story arcs are available here.
That’s interesting work that provides empirical evidence for the existence of basic story arcs for the first time. It also provides an important insight into the nature of storytelling and its appeal to the human psyche.
It also sets the scene for the more ambitious work. Reagan and co look mainly at works of fiction in English. It would be interesting to see how emotional arcs vary according to language or culture, how they have varied over time and also how factual books compare.
Vonnegut famously outlined his theory of story shapes in his master’s thesis in anthropology at the University of Chicago. It was summarily rejected, in Vonnegut’s words, “because it was so simple, and looked like too much fun.“ Today he would surely be amused but unsurprised.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1606.07772: The Emotional Arcs of Stories Are Dominated by Six Basic Shapes
Gene Wilder: Master Of The Comedic Pause
Lost: Desmond Introduction
Title Design: The Making of Movie Titles
One of the many perks afforded a journeyman writer/producer in television is receiving scripts for network television pilots as they are being made. It’s like the best possible version of the TV Guide Fall Preview Issue I used to compulsively reread under the covers with a flashlight as a kid. Except that now I have the added thrill: if my agents do their job, if I am good in the interview, if a million other moving parts click in the correct order, I help the people who created these shows realize their vision.
This inside window into the totality of network development puts us journeyman television writers and producers in an interesting position to spot and track trends as they develop, fade, or mature. One trend that persists — almost a decade after its inception — is every broadcaster’s ongoing quest to put on the air the next great serialized high–concept sci–fi show: to find the next Lost.
Of course, it seldom works.
My own modest contribution to the evolution of Lost — and having worked on a number of shows with similar goals in the years since — provides something of a vantage point from which to judge the success — and failure — of these attempts. More often than not, it boils down to the presence or absence of a crucial element I call “the operational theme.”
In high school and college, most of us could pick a lofty word or idea and designate it the “theme” of a play or novel: “power,” “alienation,” “banality of evil,” or (my personal favorite) “the shallowness of modern life.” We could then write a coffee–and–Red–Bull–fueled paper, using choice quotes from the partially–skimmed bit of required reading, and have a pretty good shot at not winding up ashamed to show the report card to our parents in the morning. Sadly, for the professional television writers — even the really astute ones — this is neither enough to create something that will connect with an audience — nor will it survive the production goal of many seasons and possible syndication.
Television is a populist medium with little patience for intellectual phumphering. Hour–long drama is — first and foremost — about creating characters driven by internal forces that, melded to the right situation, can fuel every action, every line, every scene, and every plot for hundreds of successful episodes. This is the operational theme: a situational vector that cleanly delineates the potential variations of action in service of the protagonist’s consistent emotional need. This is crucial to the success of a television pilot. It is crucial to the successful episodes to come. It is, indeed, what television pilots should see as the first order of business to establish. And yet, it is most often the part that’s missing — especially from the sci–fi shows.
In a procedural series, the operational theme of the protagonist is usually pretty cut–and–dry. He or she is — sometimes quite literally — dedicated to bringing about law and order. The reason cops, doctors, and lawyers rule — and will probably always rule — the airwaves in some form or another is that their operational theme is baked into their personality. It is a function of their job — the eradication of suffering and injustice at any cost — and is usually fused with personal obsession brought about by past trauma.
If television is to be believed, the most dangerous thing to be in the world is the spouse of a detective. Most of them wind up dead at the hands of some psychopath who remains uncatchable for the span of episodes it takes to score a lucrative syndication deal for the series. Television thrives on workaholic protagonists who sacrifice — or have sacrificed for them — their personal relationships in favor of protecting people like us — the viewer!
As television has evolved to include more serialized, heavily “mythologized” drama — even in the stock genres of crime, medicine, and the law — the operational theme of the protagonist must remain front and center for the series to succeed. In Breaking Bad, Walter White’s operational theme — “to save everything I love I must become something everyone hates” — creates an endless supply of drama. Every situation Walter enters requires him to tell, develop, and sustain a lie.
This brilliant operational theme requires every single scene in the show to be front–loaded with deception and subterfuge. It’s a recipe for perfect ongoing drama that allowed the show to slowly string out and develop its more academic theme: the seduction of a good man by the infinite charms of wealth, power, and his descent into darkness. But make no mistake, academic is the right word for those themes. It was the initial simplicity of Walter White’s operational theme that consistently opened dramatic avenues episode after episode.
It doesn’t end with Walter White. The current “golden era” of television is littered with very easily identifiable operational themes that burden their protagonists. Tony Soprano wants to remain a sadistic mobster even though his unconscious musters every weapon at its disposal to get him to turn away from his horrific life. Don Draper continually tries to keep up the idealized appearance of the successful mid–century man in the grey flannel suit as his inner demons plague him with the truth that his entire life is a lie. Doctor House wants to be left in peace to be a belligerent drug addict but is forced to put his basic instincts aside and perform the job of genius diagnostician.
Outside of TV, my favorite example of the perfect fusion of situation and character into operational theme is the film Die Hard. The entire narrative is an extended metaphor for marital therapy: a husband trying to earn back his estranged wife. The terrorists are the physical manifestation of the emotional barriers that keep John McClane from familial bliss. As with any person in couples counseling, McClane systematically loses his metaphorical armor as he fights to the point of exhaustion. He ends up shoeless and bloody, blubbering to his “therapist” about his love for his wife — bleeding both thematically and practically.
The bathroom confession in Die Hard could have just easily been an episode of HBO’s In Treatment: a man denuded through adversity of all the trappings of macho pride, forced to confront his raw emotional wounds.
It seems obvious, and, frankly, inevitable — in the way that a Mark Rothko painting, or an Arne Jacobsen chair, appear inevitable — that simple operational themes are the key to serialized success. And yet, by and large, most attempts at serialized, mythologized sci–fi fail to pull off this trick. Think of all the genre series that have attempted to capitalize on the serialized mystery/heavy–mythology vogue triggered by Lost: Flash Forward, Kingdom Hospital, Surface, The Event, Invasion, V, Threshold, Awake, Journeyman, Dollhouse, Persons Unknown, Terra Nova, the American remake of Life on Mars — the list goes on and on.
Most of the sci–fi shows we now regard as classics — and the majority that are currently successful and truly long–running, like Supernatural — are not Lost clones. Rather, they are straightforward procedural franchises with simple operational themes.
The brothers Winchester, Nick Burkhardt in Grimm, Mulder and Scully in The X–Files — even Buffy, the Vampire Slayer — are all basically cops: rolling into a new case week after week, interrogating suspects, finding lore that matches the methodology of the villains, confronting evildoers, serving justice, and moving on to the next week’s transgressor. In the best of these series, an overarching theme buttresses the set–up: Mulder and Scully’s dynamic was defined by opposing viewpoints which fueled every scene. In addition to being thrust into stories by their occupation every week, they always had a basic ideological conflict that spoke to their character.
Even the beloved crew of the Starship Enterprise are hyper–competent trouble–shooters placed into stories weekly by dint of external mission as opposed to internal need. In the best Star Trek series, this necessity was supported by an interesting character dynamic: Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are a three–man representation of the ego, superego, and id. The drama of the series lied in watching these three archetypes integrate into a coherent solution to the planet–of–the–week’s problem: McCoy would shout, “dammit, man, we gotta do something!” Spock would reply that “to do something would be illogical.” Kirk would eventually say “I have a plan.”
Compare that infinitely fruitful character interaction with the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation — a long and tedious stew of underdeveloped, under–thought characters kept afloat by the exigencies of a procedural franchise. On Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first two years there was always a potentially interesting issue with the planet–of–the–week. But it took almost two years for the characters to become anywhere as interesting as the show’s premise. (It’s a miracle of the extant love of Star Trek in the core audience, or the innate intrigue of the show’s premise, or the economics of first–run syndication in the late eighties — or maybe some combination of the three — that the show survived long enough for its characters to find their way into being fully–realized people who could carry a story like “The Inner Light,” “Chains of Command,” or “Tapestry.”)
Had the writers merely dropped the original characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation on a desert island — a place with no innate sense of mission — the series would have surely collapsed.
Lost succeeded in telling a longitudinal story because it managed to create a central operational theme for every single one of the characters in its voluminous ensemble. In the earliest days of the creation of the series, the creative team behind Lost — co–creators Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams, with the assistance of Paul Dini, Christian Taylor, Jennifer Johnson, and myself — came upon the idea of using flashbacks to develop the operational themes for each character. The flashbacks to the crash of Oceanic 815 first presented in the pilot transformed into full–blown plots extending through the course of the series. The island stories were presented in direct contrast to who the characters were in their former everyday lives. Every action in the island — present became an attempt to compensate for shortcomings in the past’s real world.
The operating theme of Lost is simple and applies to every character: who do you say you are when you can reinvent yourself with impunity? Every member of the Lost ensemble was living a lie on the island. These lies dictated their behavior and led them to try — either successfully or unsuccessfully — to remake themselves into their most desired version of themselves.
Jack strove to lead in spite of a life of personal failure and the scorn of an unloving father. Kate yearned to prove herself a good person in spite of being a wanted criminal. Michael tried to be an able parent after being absent from his son’s entire life. Charlie struggled to be a caretaker to Claire and her unborn child while concealing his drug addiction. John Locke — mysteriously healed of his paralysis by the island — was hell–bent on proving himself a man of action and principle after a lifetime of meek submission. Sun pretended to be a dutiful Korean wife, concealing even her fluency in the English from the brutal husband — whose brutality itself was a smokescreen to conceal a deep yearning for his own broken dreams — whom she was preparing to escape. The list goes on. What’s important is that every character had the same operational theme. The synthesis of personal desire for reinvention in contrast to the reality of each character’s previous life propelled one story after another for the course of Lost’s first two seasons: forty–eight hours of television that cemented the show’s place in the popular culture.
The operational theme of Lost — obvious as it seems in retrospect — did not become clear to the creative team until after the pilot had been shot and we were tasked with figuring out how exactly the series would work in episode after episode. We were very close to falling prey to the fallacy that makes for the downfall of most of the proposed serialized sci–fi pilots that come down the pike: we were almost — almost — seduced by a shiny concept — the mysteries of the island, from the smoke monster to the presence of ghosts from the past in the present. We almost focused on the mystery instead of the operational theme of the characters.
To this day, I thank god we had the epiphany early.
By dealing with the unknown, beguiling, and generally spectacular (aliens! robots! vampires! alien robot vampires!), sci–fi as a genre has the sneaky ability to fool otherwise extremely capable writers into believing that a nifty concept with a lot of unanswered questions is enough to carry a television series. It isn’t.
To have something spectacular take place — the arrival of aliens, a space/time conflagration that causes everyone to see a few minutes of their future, a plane crash in a mysterious island — and then spend twenty–two episodes showing how the characters figure out merely what happened, how, and whether it can be fixed, is not only the biggest failure of the imagination possible in sci–fi drama, it is also an insult to the genre. It assumes that sci–fi is somehow “easier” than a deeply character–driven kitchen–sink narrative (like Mad Men) that requires the protagonist to have a rich inner life in order to motivate conflict.
The island on Lost served the same purpose as the ad agency on Mad Men: it was a space where the protagonist sought to invent a new life in spite of all evidence to the impossibility of that endeavor. The conspiracy inOrphan Black is nothing more or less than a perfect physicalization of a young woman’s struggle to define her own identity: one which just so happens to cause her to come into conflict and allegiance with numerous clones of herself, all of them living vastly different lives with remarkably different outcomes.
Many big and shiny ideas can tap dance around a lack of an operational theme for a while — the length of a pilot, maybe even a season of decompressed cable–style narrative. But no amount of spectacle can obscure the truth that a protagonist or ensemble with a stark, robust, and recognizable operational theme is the source of all televisual drama.
Ironically, sci–fi, the genre that most often suffers from underdeveloped characters on TV probably demands more character from its characters than any other genre. Why? Because it is, at the core, a metaphorical exercise. Sci–fi poses a question that extends beyond the easily understandable stakes of the cop, doctor, or lawyer. How are the aliens, robots, mysterious islands, viral outbreaks, and vampires an external manifestation of your main character’s self–concept?
If you are writing a genre pilot and your premise can’t answer that question — while placing your protagonist in a place where the pursuit of their most prescient emotional issue is in consistent, discernible, and direct opposition of those aliens, robots, islands, viral outbreaks, and vampires — then, like any other writer in any other genre, you have to dig deeper. Because the privilege of having a scholar find and explain your lofty thematic concern like “power,” “alienation,” or (still my personal favorite,) “the shallowness of modern life” doesn’t come right away. Scholars and bloggers don’t proclaim the deep meaningful metaphors of your creation you have done the hard spade–and–trowel labor of putting an interesting main character on the screen. You must first put your characters in the one, singular (and preferably, for my money, science–fictional!) situation that mostchallenges their true self. That’s your operational theme: challenge your character’s innermost identity, do it week after week, then have your agent call my agent.
Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast: Episode 655 - Daniel Radcliffe
‘Marc Maron interviewed actor Daniel Radcliffe on Monday, and starting soon after the one hour mark (like 1:01), Radcliffe talks about how his director for the film “Kill Your Darlings,” John Krokidas, gave him “this book Directing Actors.” And Radcliffe then proceeds to give a concise and truly killer explanation of exactly why and how verbs and objectives work so well for actors!’ - Judith Weston
Jon Hamm’s Mad Men Audition: “I Don’t Know How Much More I Can Take”
Steven Soderbergh can make a whole season of The Knick almost as fast as you can watch it.
Article by Matt Zoller Seitz
Steven Soderbergh is in motion. It’s a warm day in Greenpoint, and the 52-year-old director, cinematographer, editor, and executive producer of Cinemax’s late-Victorian-era hospital drama The Knick is on the show’s main set, camera in hand, circling a table in a surgical theater, blocking a scene in which a patient’s gallbladder is removed. Soderbergh speaks softly. The cast and crew hang on every word. Then he starts shooting. He is moving, pausing, repositioning the actors, and moving some more. Technicians and writers gather just out of camera range, staring at an iPad that’s patched into Soderbergh’s camera via wireless, as the scene is sculpted and refined in real time. If you watch the screen, you can see aesthetic questions being asked and answered by the shifting positions of the actors in relation to Soderbergh’s lens. What is the point of this scene, this shot, this camera movement? Where is the best place to begin? On André Holland, who plays Algernon Edwards, the hospital’s acting chief of surgery? Or on Clive Owen, who plays Edwards’s onetime boss, the brilliant surgeon, medical inventor, and self-destructive opium addict John W. “Thack” Thackery? Perhaps the first shot should both start and end with a close-up of medical instruments used in the procedure? Would that be repetitious? Okay, maybe the shot should end farther away from the actors, and then the next shot should pick up in close-up? Ah, yes, there we go, that worked. Much better. With its elaborately choreographed and composed long shots, this is the kind of scene that might take three hours to complete on network hospital dramas and even longer on Hollywood movies. Soderbergh knocks it out in less than two.
His direction of The Knick is unusual in pretty much every imaginable way, but let’s start with the fact that it’s all his: Soderbergh helmed the entirety of the show’s first ten-episode season, which aired late last year, and did the same for season two, which premieres on October 16. For all of its visual evolution in recent decades, TV is still a writer-producer’s medium where series directors rotate in and out as needed, rarely overseeing more than two or three episodes in a row. Occasionally one person might direct eight back-to-back episodes of a limited-run project like The Honorable Woman (Hugo Blick) or True Detective’s first season (Cary Joji Fukunaga). And once in a great while you’ll see the majority of a long-running series directed by a single person, as with Louie (Louis C.K.) — but rarely on a show with as many moving parts as The Knick, and in such a punishingly tight time frame. Soderbergh has now directed 20 hours of a lavish costume drama at the speed of a run-and-gun indie film: Both seasons wrapped, according to The Knick co-creator and co-writer Jack Amiel, in about 150 days, “which is less time than a lot of crews would spend shooting one big movie.” The Knick shoots eight to nine script pages a day, double the typical rate for a TV drama, and burns through an hour-long episode in just seven days, versus the industry norm of ten to 14.
The Knick’s second season opens with a good portion of the main cast scattered to the winds: Thack has been ousted as chief of surgery for his drug use and is feeding his addiction by performing facial reconstructions on syphilis victims; the former nun Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) has been kicked out of the order for facilitating abortions; hospital-board member Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) is in San Francisco agitating against the quarantine of Chinese-Americans during a bubonic-plague epidemic. The first couple of new episodes maneuver them back into the Knickerbocker Hospital and set the season’s plot in motion, mixing in more signifiers of the city’s ongoing evolution toward modernity, such as the replacement of the hospital’s horse-drawn carriage with “horseless” ones and the increased prominence of electric lightbulbs.
The show’s style is different, too. More so than in season one, scenes in season two often consist of long, sinuous camera moves and a few tight close-ups. Sometimes, during a scene with long monologues, Soderbergh will focus on the face of a single listening character and not cut away. “There are moments when you don’t think it’s your scene, but it is,” says Eve Hewson, who plays ER nurse Lucy Elkins, Thackery’s lover. The Knick can look more like a John Ford or William Wyler or Orson Welles movie, in which every image is carefully considered, than most modern scripted TV, where the goal is mainly to capture performances and push the story along. Soderbergh mentions Welles’s The Trial and Chimes at Midnight, in particular, as influences on the look of season two, with their “sustained shots that go on forever.” “It’s kind of like the arcade game with the water-filled tube and the ball,” he says during a lunch that lasts exactly 18 and a half minutes. “How long can I keep this shot interesting, dynamic, and narratively appropriate to what’s going on, given the elements that I want to emphasize?”
Soderbergh shoots with a handheld camera, sometimes while being pushed by grips on a small, wheeled platform that he calls a “dolly du derrière.” This allows him to participate in scenes as an equal with his actors, rather than being “50 feet away, behind the monitor,” he says. “I like the intimacy of that, and I think the actors like knowing how close I am.” Watching him direct is akin to witnessing an athletic performance. Soderbergh walks, jogs, runs, sits, lies on the floor, and hangs half off dollies while PAs grip his ankles. “When I tell other cameramen what goes on with Steven, they’re flabbergasted,” says Soderbergh’s longtime second cameraman, Patrick O’Brien, who works on only about 30 percent of The Knick — usually when Soderbergh needs him to gather extra close-ups in a scene with a lot of characters, operate a crane that he’s sitting on, or shoot the other side of a two-person conversation. “He’s like a dancer,” says Holland. “One time, on the first season, it was bitter winter and we were shooting outside, and he was in this awkward, crouched-down position, holding the camera and moving at the same time, and midway through the take, his knee gave out and he jumped up and winced in pain. You could hear a pin drop, because you know that his physicality is such a huge part of the show.”
Everything and everyone on set is enabling Soderbergh’s endurance test. An assistant cameraperson shifts focus via remote control from another room, freeing Soderbergh to concentrate on movement and framing. The Knick’s standing sets are lit with visible (or “practical”) lights — desk lamps, chandeliers, and so forth — to let Soderbergh and his actors move anywhere they want and still get a lovely image. Everyone knows that they have to be as politely relentless and focused as their boss. There are no stand-ins on the set of The Knick, no Gulfstream trailers for producers and cast, and no canvas chairs, because no one sits still long enough to require them. A workday here is a nine-to-six sprint, with an hour off for lunch. “Actors love working with this guy,” O’Brien says, “because they’re not sitting around all day waiting for the set to be lit.” Soderbergh tells me: “It keeps the actors on the boil, nobody leaves, and — like we just did — you can power through the whole scene and it’s done.”
Scenes from inside the Knickerbocker Hospital. Here, costume storage next door to The Knick’s main set. Photo: Mary Cybulski/Courtesy of Cinemax
Costumed actors break for lunch. Photo: Mary Cybulski/Courtesy of Cinemax
Soderbergh’s preferred digital camera, the Red Epic Dragon, also helps. Its low-light capacity has let him shoot handsomely composed scenes, starkly illuminated by a naked lightbulb, a gas lamp, even a match — cinematographic flourishes in the spirit of one of his favorite movies, Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 drama Barry Lyndon, the first feature to shoot scenes by candlelight. At one point during our conversation, Soderbergh digs his cell phone out of his pocket and calls up a two-minute tracking shot from season two in which Cornelia Robertson moves “through a house with a candle and we follow her, and that’s it. Just one candle, and you can see everything!” he says, marveling at the flickering image on his phone.
Most directors would not get handed a handsome period drama to treat as their own personal train set, but that’s because they don’t have Soderbergh’s track record of making stylish, innovative, occasionally commercial art cheap and fast and without much fuss. Since his 1989 debut, the Cannes Palme d’Or winner sex, lies and videotape, he has directed 25 features (including the four-and-a-half-hour, two-part biopic Che) plus nearly 30 hours of TV (including the 2003 HBO political satire K Street, each episode of which was plotted, scripted, shot, cut, and broadcast in five days). He is one of the few American directors to claim two Oscar nominations for Best Picture during a single calendar year, for 2000’s Erin Brockovich and Traffic; he won Best Director for the latter. Every one of his movies — including the comparatively glossy heist thrillers Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen — was produced for what is, by contemporary American studio standards, chump change.
And he is endlessly, perhaps helplessly, prolific. In 2010, he told his friend Matt Damon that he was “retiring” from making theatrical features because he felt he’d exhausted the medium — a statement that was widely misinterpreted to mean that Soderbergh was quitting the business entirely and that launched a thousand jokes along the lines of “In the time it took you to read this tweet about Soderbergh’s retirement, he directed a remake of Berlin Alexanderplatz.” Right now he’s got The Knick; a show in the works at HBO with Sharon Stone; and an executive-producer credit on Amazon’s new Red Oaks, a circa-1985 period drama directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express). He’s fascinated by long-form storytelling, which he says is “very different” from features and offers more possibilities for experimentation, because TV’s aesthetic hasn’t been developed as deeply as cinema’s. Whole seasons of The Knick are written before a frame is shot, and any subsequent revisions are about in-the-moment problem solving. “Having all ten scripts beforehand allows me to sort of think on a macro level for longer, and that’s good for me,” he says.
Handmade, period-accurate women’s hats. Photo: Mary Cybulski/Courtesy of Cinemax
In the wardrobe trailer where main characters’ costumes are stored. Photo: Mary Cybulski/Courtesy of Cinemax
Soderbergh thinks like an editor while he’s shooting, never wasting anyone’s time on anything he thinks he might not use. “Steven doesn’t cover the same thing 19 times,” says Amiel. “He’s going to do it once and know that’ll be his first half of the scene and we’re not going to shoot it again. [For] the second half of the scene, he may shoot three or four pieces of coverage, but it’s because he’s already cut the whole scene in his head. He already knows.” “Often the shot that ends up in the show is the first one that we got,” says Holland. “Early on he said to me, ‘I don’t see any reason why we need to make things any more complicated than they have to be.’ ”
At 6 p.m. each day, Soderbergh climbs into the backseat of a van and starts cutting the day’s footage on a laptop on the way home from the set. He finishes by eight, posts the results on a password-protected website, and goes to dinner, a play, or a movie with his wife, Jules Asner. “People on the crew will say, ‘I can’t wait to see what we did today,’ ” says production designer Howard Cummings. Changes in technology have allowed Soderbergh to become imaginatively fused to his digital cameras, laptop, smartphone, and the internet. “I have to show this to you; I can probably pull it up on my phone,” Soderbergh says, hunting through footage folders on The Knick’s postproduction website and calling up an acrobatic long take that follows actors through a fund-raising ball. “If I had this shit at the beginning of my career,” he says as the phone screen fills up with costumed extras, “the movies would’ve been a lot better.”
True Detective: Comparisons and References
The secret ingredient to a successful career as a screenwriter, storyteller, filmmaker, TV writer. The recipe to super stardom.
As a literary manager and Hollywood producer, my writers are on a quest to find the formula, lucky for you, they found it. Well, Joss found it, we’re listening to his advice (in direct violation of his advice.)
You may recall, part one of JJ’s Job introduced the idea that a working writer needs to be as good at writing/directing/showrunning/team building as JJ Abrams. In the opening paragraph, I mentioned the article could have been titled Joss’ Job, well, one of my readers requested I spin a little Whedon.
So… thank you Catherine Bray @catherinebray for this excellent interview.
Let’s look at Joss’ advice and I’ll add my little bullshit commentary, like a no-talent hype man.
1. FINISH IT Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.
Ten Percenter Thoughts:
No client sells a first script. Or a second. As a rep, we get meetings off a great spec but real work, real sales, a staff job comes from the ability to consistantly deliver. A professional writer shows proficiency. This usually comes around the 12th script. Yes, finish, then finish 11 more. Don’t approach a rep about number 3 or number 7, finish 12. The goal is not only representation, the goal is mastery.
2. STRUCTURE Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what, and when? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around: the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, colored pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.
If you’re sitting in a theater, watching a film, and you’re not mentally checking off structure beats, you have work to do. Better yet, write ahead of the characters, check your work against the filmmakers. I had a client who would hear they were making an adaptation or an original film, then he’d write the entire treatment for that movie and put it in a file. When the film came out, he’d go see it, then open his file and compare his to the finished film. At first, he was terrible, but as he progressed, his treatments grew strong, showing his understanding of story structure until his ‘takes’ were often stronger than the finished film.
3. HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys?’
How is this your story? How are you the only person in the world to write it? What special thing is this script saying about who you are? A lot of great writing starts with understanding. What do you uniquely understand well enough to share universal human truths. If you don’t know, get yourself some therapy or classic literature. Good place to start.
4. EVERYBODY HAS A REASON TO LIVE Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue: you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny; not everybody has to be cute; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.
Write bios. Who are they? Where are these characters at on the Maslow Pyramid? Don’t know Maslow? You got work to do.
5. CUT WHAT YOU LOVE Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.
As a rep I couldn’t imagine the pain of killing your own babies. But Joss says to do it…
6. LISTEN When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.
Digging in is good. Have principles. Defend ideas. You often know what you’re trying to do better than anyone in the process. If they’re complaining, confused, noting you, there is probably a reason. Only the master can diagnose ‘why’ the notes.
7. TRACK THE AUDIENCE MOOD You have one goal: to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.
The guy who gets paid only when you work:
Joss knows a lot of tricks to keep audiences engaged. How can you learn more of his tricks? Learn from his people.
8. WRITE LIKE A MOVIE Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet?’
I’m not saying we’re lazy:
Reps are busy. We have a hundred scripts in the inbox. Stuidio drafts. Open assignments. Client submissions. Secret confession: when we read, we skip blocks of bullshit. Don’t write blocks of bullshit. White space, on the page, looks professional.
9. DON’T LISTEN Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up: they’d started talking about a different show.
If advice feels right, go with it. If it feels off, don’t. Keep making shit. There is no gatekeeper. You don’t need me, or any rep. Write hot shit, keep writing hot shit. Make cool videos. Hollywood is catching up to you. You got a film/TV studio in your pocket, use it.
10. DON’T SELL OUT The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie: if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skilful you are: that’s called whoring.
Last Action Hero? Kinda makes me wanna crack that idea. He’s like, super right, bout all of it. These are successful people problems, by the time you’re taking this advice you’re already a master. Getting to master is ninety percent of it, this advice is icing.
I got some great advice from a showrunner friend. Mastery by Robert Greene. Read it, learn it, live it. Let’s get started people. “We got some splainin’ to do.”
@futurePratt on Twittah.
CHEWIE (Star Wars Louie Parody) f. Chewbacca
Chewie, Chewie, Chewie, Chewieeeeeeee