Monthly Archives: November 2013

Writing on the edge

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I like watching Saturday Night Live. It is sometimes outrageously funny. And when it’s not sooo funny, or not funny at all, I’m still dazzled by the amount of effort and boldness necessary to stage, every Saturday, a brand new show that comes with that clear, alluring invitation: let’s laugh for an hour.

Although the comedy series 30 Rock (created by ex SNL head writer Tina Fey) provides a window into the creative process of SNL, there is some secrecy around it, and unquenchable curiosity from writers, comedians and fans in general. Actor James Franco directed a documentary about the making of one SNL show in 2008 (hosted by John Malkovich). Some of the fans who were able to see the movie (unreleased) took the trouble to share those insights on the web for other fans to enjoy. The information available is indeed scarce.

Writing for SNL is considered a great honour in the comedy circles, something that thousands of writers only dream of. It is also reputed to be very, very hard work, because of the time constraints, the high standards of the show runners and the competition within the team. Most sketches die before they make it to the screen. Not sleeping for one or two nights is standard procedure for writers, who out of ambition/desperation/perfectionism/possibly drugs, but mainly the sheer dynamics of the show, want to deliver the best they can. Or just something.

This crazy writing life appeals enormously to me. Not that I think I could ever do this job. But being a writer in an edgy, pressure-cooker environment such as this, one that resembles the Olympics and the Wall Street Stock Exchange, certainly seems like an experience I would like to have. My working life is exactly the opposite. It’s long term, with friendly deadlines, in a silent office, with no brainstormings and discussions and trial readings and hearts pounding with expectation and disappointment.

Boredom is an issue.

But there’s no way around it. In most kinds of writing, you are alone, and that’s it. You can, and should, look for other writers, or producers, directors, or plain old buddies with whom to exchange about your work. Riding a machine such as SNL, that kind of edge, is really just a fantasy. For me, it’s one of those fantasies that have value as such – reminding me to improve the dynamics of my writing life in a realistic way. That means, on one hand, getting the best out of my time alone – with feasible but ambitious quantitative goals – and going regularly out of the office for input – see some paintings, meet people, research a certain subject, do some associative work. I’m not always so disciplined and serious about this. But when I am, it pays off: I write better and am happier.

Scene design

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I watched One flew over the cuckoo’s nest again the other day. There are many unforgettable moments, but in this post I’ll talk about only ONE great scene. When we scriptwriters are actually writing scenes, it’s awesome: it means that we already have a story that kind of sticks together and makes sense (not as easy as it may sound). A scene can be easy to write if that particular part of the story is good and clear and exciting. When there’s fog in that slice of story, when we absolutely need to write a thrilling turning point that exposes emotions and gives the spectator insight – but don’t quite know what is actually going to happen – we’re on for some hours of frustration. We often find out that the scene isn’t working because of the story around the scene and must go back to mending some story bones. But I wouldn’t necessarily advise writers to refrain from writing a scene until they have it all figured out. Rule number one is – always – write. As much as you can. Why not that scene that you don’t really know how to write? Even if it ends in the trash bin you will most certainly have moved forward.

When writing or assessing scenes, I find Robert McKee’s advice very helpful. A scene must offer some kind of progression, i.e., change. Something must be at stake; its charge must be either positive or negative at the beginning of the scene, and have turned to opposite at the end. This change of value must be constructed progressively, a little tennis match between those values, a game of expectation, deceit and surprise, until a change occurs that fulfils the purpose of the scene.

In One flew over the cuckoo’s nest there’s this amazing scene in which McMurphy (Nicholson) tries once again to convince Nurse Ratched to let him watch the baseball game on TV. The stakes are: watching the game, i.e., having it his way. In the beginning the value is charged negative: on a previous occasion, a vote to change the rules of the ward so that everyone could watch the game had been organised, amounting to nothing. But he asks once more. Nurse Ratched suggests they do a vote again. This time all of McMurphy’s “friends” in the ward raise their hands, making it clear for us and for Nurse Ratched that the power balance has shifted (positive charge). Nurse Ratched declares that those votes aren’t enough, as there are more men in the ward – although, because of their illnesses, they are unable to express their will (negative). McMurphy sets out to have one of those men raise his arm somehow (attempt to change value to positive). He franticly goes around asking, although he knows that his chances of success are next to zero. The nurse declares that the vote is closed (further negative). But the big mute Indian chief ends up raising his hand. McMurphy shows it in triumph to nurse Ratched (positive) but she says it’s too late (negative). It’s the way the scene changes to positive again that makes it so unforgettable. McMurphy sits in front of the TV as if defeated; but he starts pretending the game is on, becoming the commentator and narrating the imaginary game with such enthusiasm that all the patients gather to “see” and cheer with him. Nurse Ratched’s cold rage is palpable. The beauty is that although she doesn’t let him do what he wants, he finds a way to free himself. His choice reveals character, moves the story forward and ultimately echoes the bare message of the film: that a free mind, even behind bars, is the most powerful thing.

A stake, its charge going from positive to negative like in a game of tennis, and a leap into unexpected change at the end. I find these are good tools to produce, understand, and heal, the scenes we write.