More conversations with Mills


When I was doing ‘Tigga and Togga’, a musical show with no dialogue, the production manager laughed when she saw the writers credit come on screen. A twenty year veteran couldn’t understand that a show with no dialogue had to be written! Dialogue is overrated in film. When it’s sublime, it’s sublime. However, if you haven’t worked the film out on a structural or visual level, dialogue can often become a crutch.

I’ve often struggled with Martin Scorcese. He has made some great films without a doubt. But he’s also made films that have relied so heavily on voice overs. It works in Goodfellas but Casino seemed to be a mess. It’s as if he shot a four hour movie and then hit the edit suite with a pad of paper and a pencil and filled it all in.

I think Kaufman is alright but I find his stuff too intellectual. Like Wes Anderson, emotion seems to be an exercise - something you don’t want to get too close to or you might look foolish. They’re odd and strange but it doesn’t have much of a lasting effect on me.

One thing I’m hammering the students on is theme. For me, theme is so incredibly important and if you keep working your script on a thematic level, you’ll wade your way through the plot. Satisfy the theme of the story and you’ll come up with an appropriate ending.

Thoughts on Mamet?


Mamet's great for character - his dialogue can become great when it is delivered from the mouth of an accomplished performer - the slightest hesitation and it comes across like they're chewing on a plank of wood - and when that happens it reflects not just on the performer, who bears the brunt of the immediate audience reaction, but also inevitably on the writer because it makes their words sound stiff and hollow. Mamet can write poetry when he wants to and is not above writing dreck when he can get away with it - cast his shit with the best performers and he sings - why? It's not because of the famous Mamet dialogue - it's because he depicts human beings acting badly with each other and we love to watch that so long as we aren't directly in the line of fire. Emotional gladiatorial games. The intellectual exercises of Mamet's work hinge not on mind-fucks but on emotional manipulation - emotional sleight of hand - look over there - feel this - oh, by the way, I just stole your wallet, stole your heart and dropped your pants.

Of course visual storytelling requires writing. Truman Capote dismissed Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" saying: "That's not writing, that's typing." That has nothing to do with what I'm ranting about here but I've always loved that quote and can never say it without doing my own lamentable impersonation of Capote. But, I guess, it speaks to: "What is this craft called writing?" Jack Warner used to go crazy bug nuts when he would pass the writer's building on the lot and not hear a constant clacking coming from every window. Every writer has a tale similar to this: a spouse or boss passes the door of the office, looks in and sees the writer with their feet up staring at the wall. "What are you doing?", they ask, incredulous and suspicious of the writer's obvious lazy behaviour. The writer doesn't avert their gaze from that spot on the wall as they reply: "I'm writing." The work isn't words. The work certainly isn't words on paper. That's the GRIND. The work - the stuff that's really hard but we perversely enjoy it anyway - the real writing - happens in the head. Often the process of the GRIND brings this forth. Everyone has their own discipline, their own method, their own means of bringing what is inside to the outside in a form that others can see, read, share and (hopefully) understand. But quantity is not quality. One of the hallmarks of screenwriting is "less is more" - always strive to say what needs to be said with as few words as possible.

"The Charge Of The Light Brigade" with Errol Flynn is, perhaps aprocryphally, credited with the most expensive single (and profoundly short) line in a film script:

They charge.

I don't know who wrote the script for it and I'm too lazy to look it up right now but I do know this: they understood the vagaries and necessities of the industry and resisted the urge to indulge in purple prose.

They charge.

That's it. That's all they wrote. That's all they had to. The set up and the knowledge of history provides the reader with the means to imagine a scene far greater than anything the writer could commit to paper. It's a visual medium. But you don't write out all the pictures. It is always preferable to show and not tell. But - like the Far Side comics of Gary Larson - the best scenes are the ones crafted by the audience themselves. Eisenstein showed that with his practical application of montage, taking the same image of a person's face and cutting back and forth between wildly different scenes back to this same face with the same expression and the audience swore they saw changes in the expression - it was, of course, the audience themselves projecting their own emotions upon the face before them. Most comics consist of several panels and there is always amongst creators of graphic narrative a discussion about what goes on in the "gutter", in the space between the panels, that part of the page which is the graphic equivalent of Walter Murch's "blink of the eye", that part of the narrative that is filled in not by the author or illustrator but by the reader. In Larson's case his comics were almost entirely single panels - the "gutter" existed in the timeline of the action contained within the frame - what had just happened or what was just about to happen. It provided a conceptual form of humour that required the participation of the reader to imagine the "what was" or "what will be" - and by their own participation it made the humour more funny, it made a deeper connection, as if Larson was finding some magical way of connecting directly with what you yourself personally found to be most funny - and in fact all he did was open a door so your funny could step through and present itself.

I recommend Scott McCloud's books: "Understanding Comics" and "Reinventing Comics" - along with Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art" and " Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative". They all deal primarily with comics and graphic narrative but are equally and incisively pertinent to narrative storytelling in film. They're not about drawing pictures - they're about telling stories with pictures - and they dig deeper into the process far more effectively than ANY book I've read about filmmaking.

Silent films are, by their very nature, more difficult to watch than sound films because they require our attention. You have to participate. You have to keep watching the screen to know what has happened, what is happening and what will happen next. Regardless of Eisenstein's montage we still bring ourselves to that viewing experience, filling in the blanks, sharing the emotions, enlarging them within us and lending an unconscious hand to the construction of the narrative playing out before our eyes. It can wear a person out. Early film going was an intense, entrancing and consuming experience - not dissimilar to what people are experiencing now in their virtual worlds as they navigate through endless "narratives" and experiences with social cues limited by startling yet still emerging technologies which require the active participation of the users.

Intellectual exploration is all well and good within any film, novel or theatrical experience - but it really only works when all the other crap is taken care of. Sit back, put your feet up, stare at the wall, don't work too hard, we'll do it all for you - and now we do the little dance of thought that we think is cool and hope you do too. Yeah - okay - but - couldn't you have just written an essay? Essays can be entertaining. Entertainment is generally defined as: "an agreeable occupation for the mind; a diversion; an amusement". On the surface this speaks of numbing or of some for of soporific - but look closer - "agreeable occupation" - the mind is not shut off, it is occupied, active, and the experience of this active mind is "agreeable". That, of course, doesn't mean that ALL films (or any other form of entertainment) have to be "happy" - many of us enjoy a good cry, or the rise of righteous anger, the catharsis of revenge, the empathetic connection with the suffering of others ---- others ---- that's what makes it entertainment.

Mel Brooks defined the difference between tragedy and comedy thusly:

"Tragedy is when you walk down the street and fall in a manhole. Comedy is when it happens to somebody else."

Any entertainment takes us outside of ourselves while at the same time engaging our mind to connect with that sense of "other". It can be done in words, song, dance, pictures, movement, comedy, tragedy, action, adventure, truth, fiction, people, animals - times and places may vary as required. It can be as simple as picking at a stubborn loose thread on the sleeve of your jacket. It can be as vast as the charge of a doomed army through a desolate mountain pass. A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants.

Ideas exist within their own time. They have relevance. If they are really good ideas - or if we are sufficiently inept at evolving beyond them - ideas can live a long time. Emotions we carry with us - within us - for without them we cease to exist. Entertainments that draw emotions which cause thought have far more lasting and deeply effective power than the best written essay in the existence of the entire fucking universe. If I can tell you a story - that requires you to lend yourself to understanding it - which relates a tale of some "other" - who suffers and is changed, or effects change, by that suffering - it changes you. It changes you because it allows you to "feel" what another feels. Not just to see or understand or hear or read or touch. To feel. That changes you. And that's what a writer does. Write with pictures, write with words, write with sound, write with food, write with touch or taste or smell or light or crappy little terra cotta figurines that end up selling for 10¢ in a yard sale - doesn't matter what the medium is - the fundamental notion of narrative remains the same: tell a story - make a connection - with emotion - make a change.

This is a tired old saw but I love it to much to leave it alone:

Act One: Put your hero in a tree.

Act Two: Throw rocks at your hero.

Act Three: Get your hero out of the tree.

Drape that fucking tree with as much intellectual bullshit as you want - prune that fucking tree within an inch of its life so anyone who looks at it says: "That's a tree?" - dig the fucking tree up, turn it upside down and bury it so the roots are sticking up in the air - set fire to the fucking tree - blow it up - borrow Rambo's 50mm bad ass weaponry and splatter that fucking tree all to hell and gone - just be sure to get he hero out of the tree - cuz the hero is the audience. That doesn't mean they get a happy ending or even have to intellectually understand why everyone was so pissed off with the tree they decided to climb - just be sure to get them out of the tree - set them down someplace else.

And I love Scorcese but I consider every one of his films to be a "schoon". Thelma made 'em. The true author of his films is Thelma Shoonmaker. So there. And Bogdanovich was nothing without his Polly.

And you are absolutely correct about theme - it doesn't have to be "what the film is about" - at least on the surface - the theme is what connects the audience to what is going on, the thread on the coat sleeve, the sign at the side of the road, the "line" of any good clean visual design - find the theme and the story drapes over it like a satin gown caressing Myrna Loy's ass. I won't apologize - I have my obsessions - but the point has been made. Once you pick a certain set of crayons to make your drawing with, the opportunities and reasons to use them present themselves. It can even be approached (in a less disciplined manner but relevant and legitimate nonetheless) an artsy fartsy manner of having a genre, having a structure, defining a theme and then "just let go" ------ (here's where you wave your arms over your head like a first grade theater student pretending to be a willow) ------ oooooh, look at me, I'm expressing my theme. No your not. You let the fucking theme express itself. All you have to do is recognize it when it shows itself - your job as a writer is to take dictation from the theme. It sounds flakey and it is and I don't mean to denigrate the obvious craft and hard work involved in structuring and beating the crap out of every fucking word in order to write the most perfect script in the world that someone else gets to piss all over, fuck up and claim as their own when it works. But hey - I'm on your side - theme - yes - and any theme is a set of recurring ideas or images or emotions that effectively speak together.

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