Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Killing Babies with Pilar Alessandra

Our honeymoon was a spectacular and rather spontaneous road-trip up the Pacific coast that almost crossed into Canada except the money ran out and we beat it back home in a single marathon drive praying we’d make it and running on fumes.  But before the coffers went from crinkle to jingle, we spent a few days walking the entire city of Seattle, which closes promptly at four p.m., and stopped in at the Seattle International Film Festival.  Didn’t even know it was going on until we got there, and how perfect for a pair of flick-philes?  We shocked the Canadian-adjacent by tipping for our frothy coffees and sat down for an epic viewing session that included Ulysses Gaze.

If you find yourself facing the end of your life, consider spending your remaining time watching Ulysses’s Gaze.  It will be the longest four and a half hours you’ve ever experienced.  Feel free to drink loads of frothy coffee, too, for while the filmmaker provides about a half-dozen perfectly satisfying endings, the film truly goes on forever.  You can escape for a potty break or a scone or what have you without missing any action whatsoever.  When you hit the melancholic journey by barge with the huge stone head of Lenin, you have oodles of time to step away and come right back to enjoy (believe it or not) at least a quarter hour of slightly different angles of that same rocky noggin.  We didn’t know that at the time.  We don't usually walk out on movies, no matter how bad.  They’re not easy to make and almost always have some redeeming quality somewhere.  So though we squirmed miserably after drinking (apparently) way too many coffees, we concluded they had to still be filming Ulysses’s Gaze and simply streaming the raw footage into the theater as we sat and suffered.  (It did feel that unedited at the time.)

I don’t mention the flick to bash it to bits.  As I said, if you have only four hours, that’s one way to really stretch ‘em out!  But it’s an object lesson in failing to do the work of creative production, what some call “killing your babies.”  When you get too precious about your film or your writing or your cartoon or whatever, you lose objectivity.  The result can be “creative masturbation,” which sounds a lot racier than what it is.  Remember in Meet Joe Black when the young couple who just met over coffee part ways and look back at each other something like seventeen times?  At some point, it’s just too much.  SPOILER ALERT—just run Brad Pitt over with the car already, the scene ended six minutes ago!  You know that feeling.  Maybe you’re reading a novel or watching a movie like A.I.—over and over you get that sense of natural resolution but the yarn spins on and, when it's a movie, 100 minutes of awesome become a 260 minute exercise in bladder control.

This comes to mind because I did indeed find ten minutes to commit to one of Pilar Alessandra’s Take Ten exercises.  I have to say, I like the book so far (I’m up to page 8 now!), I love the idea that it’s possible to crank out a sound screenplay working ten minutes at a time, but the key to Pilar’s book and prompting questions is, as is often the case, the hardest part of creating anything:  making decisions and sticking to them.  It isn’t difficult to write a screenplay.  What’s beat-your-head-against-the-wall difficult is writing only one.  I don’t know about you, but writing on any one story always triggers creativity in at least a half-dozen other directions.  Right now, I have the project I’ve begun, two novels I’ve been toying with, a feature I that wants revising, and two others I haven’t started yet.  All are populated with characters who clamor for my attention and the narrative spotlight.  They distract me with great dialogue totally inappropriate or irrelevant to what I’m working on.  And the most frustrating thing is if I submit and turn the spotlight on any other project, those chuckle-heads scatter and everyone else chimes in.  It makes getting to sleep a serious challenge.  On the other hand, I’m rarely lonely.
And maybe just a skosh mentally ill as I read that back over…

One tight screenplay detailed enough to surprise and stand out and structured with the precision of a Swiss watch—that’s the goal, that’s what gets budgets and green-lights and movie-goers to open their wallets and fork over that especially-hard-earned cash.  And it’s really f-ing hard to do. 

Deciding is easy.  Being creative is easy.  But committing to it, knowing when to leave it alone—for me, that’s the toughest part of writing anything.  The curse of spec-writing is the soft deadline—self-defined and too often lenient.  The second best part of working for hire (just under getting a paycheck on delivery) is never having to let go of a project because the Suits who cut the checks rip it right out of your hands.  Then it’s on to editors or publishers or studios or directors or production companies to torture themselves with how to cut sixty-eight shots of circling Lenin’s head by helicopter.  Seriously, pick two and move on!

So, Take-Ten exercise one--focused on the main character (Pilar calls it the MC--already sparing me a big stalling habit I have of obsessing about names--I've wasted days worth of valuable writing time trying to name a character that needed, let's face it, a great deal of work on a few other little areas, like the plot) and the basic points--what's the problem and what's MC do about it.  Amazing how sticking to the basics and just focusing for ten minutes can really help you cut the hooey and get to work. 

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