There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
On Writing: I suppose, technically, this picture depicts the wonder of editing. One picture taken one place, the other in another place, and with a little helping hand, an artistic touch, someone placing them side by side, presto, storytelling.
Almost storytelling. There’s one more important element to make this wondrous lie complete:
You, dear reader, with all your experiences and your twisted imaginations. You take one photo, add it to the other, fill in the folds, the details with your own experiences, imaginations, your evolutionary (revolutionary!!) ability to make sense out of chaos, and, presto, storytelling.
This is the symbiotic (not parasitic!) relationship of writer (editor, artist) and reader (audience) as exemplified by this boy and his father and their devilish game of hide and go seek… on mars… after a long, gruelling day trudging around the underground canyons gathering much needed food product that resembles something like bladderwrack but tastes something like Hungarian salami (which is a good thing) and, of course, chasing their pet monkey Mona from red rock to red rock to red rock while avoiding laser beams and aliens shaped like humans. Stupid Mona.
Photo credit: Roman Vishniac via NYT
Also, Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
Research: I find pictures, I open them up on my desk top, and float them around my final draft document.
I used this picture to help me render a gypsy camp. It is a little dated so it didn’t help me with the more practical concerns of rendering the modern-day gypsy lifestyle (but, hey, I don’t deal in practicalities!! or realities!!). What it did do, however, was provide me with a feeling I didn’t know I was looking for.
You can almost hear him clapping.
So I’ve had a few magazines, little local magazines, I mean really huge magazines, here in Vancouver express interest in interviewing me. To feature me, maybe. To take a few pictures, maybe. Take off my shirt? Why yes, yes I will. I am hairy, thank you. What? That wasn’t a compliment? Hey, you’re the one that wanted me to take off my shirt in the first place, now take the damn pictures….
In preparation for my looming interviews and photo spread (you might call it a media blitz) I decided 1. to cut my body fat to 6% and 2. to write a fictional ditty about how one of these might go down. Check it:
Guy with tape recorder: So you write action screenplays?
Not me: Sort of.
GWTR: What do you mean “sort of”?
NM: Um… how can I say this without coming off like a pseudo intellectual asshole… I write screenplays that may or may not resemble the genre that is conventionally known as “action.”
He uses air quotes.
But I don’t - do not - write your typical run of the mill fireworks extravaganza where everyone walks out of the theatre numbed not by the shock of brilliant, original storytelling but, instead, by the shock of repetitive, meaningless explosions, of animate inanimate beings who blunder and eviscerate each other in horrible inanimate animate ways.
GWTR: Do you think that’s a problem with the modern action movie - lack of story?
NM: I think we’ve broken movies into these silly categories (action, drama, comedy) and within each genre we’ve broken it down further. We, as human beings, are pretty good at tearing things apart, into smaller and smaller pieces. But what happens, as we deconstruct and deconstruct, and then build it up again, is that we end up with a hollow shell, a copy of a copy, that in the end renders the adventure of film going meaningless because it’s all familiar.
We go to the movies to be awed. Modern action movies to me - superhero movies, what have you - tend to think awing the audience means giving them something they’ve never seen before. I think that’s sound logic and I agree with them. But I don’t always agree with the execution.
Watching earth implode, seeing giants beat each other with clubs, endlessly, it doesn’t awe me - not anymore. I have no connection to it. It isn’t real to me. Bigger is not more awesome. More awesome is thinking about who and what those giants are. It is finding something human and relatable within the workings of your fiction. I’m not just talking about the giant’s love for his giant dog. I’m talking about storytelling. About creating stakes. It’s forcing your audience to empathize - yes, empathize! - with the giant and feel bad when Jack blows his head off with a rocket launcher. You need to care. Action - no matter how inert - needs to be imbued with meaning and subtext.
GWTR: But your scripts drip in violence, in action. You’re an action screenwriter.
NM: How would you know? Have you ever read one of my screenplays? And what’s with all these labels, man? Can’t I just be a writer?
He looks confused, offended, defensive. He takes a sip of coffee. He’s a solid mask of pain. Hairy. He holds his shirt in his lap.
I try to create scenarios that make you cringe. That make you sit up in the middle of that zombie movie and go, ”Holy fuck, Zombies are humans too.” I can hear some of my friends groaning when they read this, but I think the alternative is laziness.
"Ah, Godzilla!! He’s so big and scary—"
Lots of air quotes. They’re flying like bullets.
"—He knocked over the Empire State building. And Tom Hanks just killed him by running an aircraft carrier aground and into his - Godzilla’s - bad knee. It ends in a ticker tape parade - which you know is way over the top budget-wise - because they discontinued ticker tape in the 1950s - and we watch as Tom Hanks takes his unscratched beauty - Julia Roberts - in his arms and sucks her face."
Protagonist, antagonist, Tom, Julia, Godzilla or, better yet, Dracula and Van Helsing, etc. etc. each of them needs to have a humanity. Not that they can’t be scary or evil or considered the “bad guy.”
It’s my belief this is where true awe lies. Not in how big Godzilla’s digital, towering mass may seem. Awe is when you cut open your characters - no matter how inhuman - and show what lurks underneath. It might not always be pretty (all puppy dogs and lollipops), but it will be something an audience will recognize, it will be human. Sometimes it will be the puppy dogs and lollipops, but, hopefully, it will be something an audience has never seen before, maybe something they don’t want to see. That’s how I want to be awed when I go to the movies. That’s how I like to be entertained. And that’s how I want to entertain.
GWTR: Isn’t that the problem? You’re talking about humanizing Zombies. People don’t want you to humanize their monsters.
NM: There’s always going to be a bad guy in a movie - I’m not denying that. I’m just not convinced it always has to be the one - or the many - with the rotting flesh (the obvious choice). It can be, for sure.
GWTR: Like in JAWS.
Like in JAWS. Exactly. Shark equals obvious choice. That works because the shark is used to eviscerate - metaphorically… and literally - the characters’ inside worlds. It forces us to see into the workings of human relationships under abnormal, entertaining (yes, entertaining!) pressure. I’m not arguing that the shark or Godzilla shouldn’t exist, they should, or that I will never use a vortex of evil as a surgical tool (I believe I have). What I’m saying is, I’m just not interesting in seeing JAWS and GODZILLA fight in a boxing ring. What I’m saying is, this is what the modern action movie has become - a sort of heartless, meaningless spectacle with no stakes.
I think it’s my job to use genre to awe. To cut into the guts of my characters and expose them for who they are, and, hopefully, within the folds of the subtext, in the realm I cannot control, maybe I can reach out to help someone understand who they are. That’s lofty, but what the hell.
GWTR: Basically, you want to put the humanity back into exploding heads.
NM: If I can. I want it to be emotional. If you’re not thinking about the zombie’s head exploding, if you don’t feel bad for the zombie, I want you to, at least, feel for the person who had to blow that fucker’s head off. Or I want you to cringe when the zombie murderer high fives his bikini clad sidekick and says, “Squished it!”
I went to the Pacific Cinemateque a few years back for a Samurai Film Fest. There was a double bill: Sword of Doom and Hara-Kiri. Sword of Doom rocked. The protagonist is the most evil bad ass in the entire universe and, because he’s the protagonist, because we follow him, we don’t view him as the most evil bad ass in the entire universe. He’s the hero and we automatically - as if trained from birth - empathize with him (because we are all the heroes of our own stories). And because we see ourselves in the evil badass hero, we find excuses for him. The sword is evil. That sword made him slash through forty guys and rape his own sister. It might not be his sister, but you get the point.
GWTR: Sure. He’s evil.
NM: Sword of Doom awed me because this guy - I knew intellectually - was not a good guy and his sword had nothing to do with it. But emotionally, I cared about him. I was forced to care about him because, structurally, he was the hero. So I cut him some slack and I blamed the sword of doom.
GWTR: Where are you going with this?
The depth of Sword of Doom, and other movies like it (like The Searchers) is a movie that twists the action genre. It forces you to see the action in a new way, to see yourself in a new way. Just because I’m the hero in my own story does not mean that I’m all good. You see? It forces your emotion into the action beats. Every time he kills someone, you feel for him (and for yourself, even if you blame the sword you still know the truth or some version of it anyway, you know you’re in denial).
Sword of Doom makes the kinetic not just bombast. It makes it meaningful and awe-inspiring. It makes you think but it also kicks ass aesthetically. And if you want to shut yourself off to the subtext, you can. Modern action movies assume you’re already walking into the theatre shut off, so all they give you is the aesthetic and to me that’s just tragic. One should not exist without the other. One can’t - cannot - exist without the other.
GWTR: You lost me.
NM: Subtext without action cannot exist. And this is the scariest part of modern action movies - they create action for action’s sake without examining the subtext they’re creating. They’re saying something even if they don’t intend to. They’re sending a message even when they don’t want to. That’s dangerous. I think that’s irresponsible.
GWTR: What about the second movie?
NM: What? Hara Kiri?
GWTR: Yeah. Tell me about Hara-Kiri.
NM: I can only remember a few things. There was a big set piece near the end, but the rest was quite meditative. And then, suddenly, there’s the man who, for two or three minutes, guts himself with a wooden sword. I remember there was a clever build - I think the character was a thief or a con man - and he gets caught up in his own con and he’s forced to kill himself. Aesthetically, there was nothing numbing about that scene and, to my memory, it has to be one of the most traumatic film going experiences of my life. I felt the dullness of the wood. I felt my stomach struggling to open. And after a time, I wanted it to open. And the shot was simple - just a guy on his knees digging away at his stomach for two minutes and, at first, it made me cringe and then, at about the two minute mark, it made me think. I was utterly engaged. This guy was gutting himself for me. How could I not watch?
GWTR: Tell the readers about some of your influences?
NM: Samurai movies.
GWTR: Of Course.
NM: Books. I love fables and fairy tales especially visceral ones. Kurt Vonnegut. He’s really interesting to me. I read Slaughter House Five in one sitting. An odyssey through psychosis and sci-fi all in one sitting. I like the idea of writing stories that take you from beginning to end in one sitting. Screenplays let you do that. Movies should let you do that - although lately it seems like I can’t sit still. You know what really influences me - balls. I like reading, consuming, listening to art that has some fucking balls (whether it succeeds in its endeavor or not). I think there’s something highly engaging watching something on the brink of failing and I think it takes beach balls - in our society - to risk failure. Kurt Vonnegut had some rock hard boulders.
GWTR: Did you ever read that Kurt Vonnegut interview in the Paris Review?
NM: Sure. A while back. Why?
GWTR: He did something cool there. I thought you might remember. He sort of played with genre.
NM: With the action genre?
GWTR: No, no. With the interview genre.
NM: What did he do?
GWTR: He interviewed himself.
NM: Oh yeah. Yeah. I remember now. That meta fiction B.S. mallarky. Do you think it would be douchey if I did something similar? If I did the exact same thing?
GWTR: Probably. But it’s too late now.
In my Tin Man Hands post, I spoke of wd-40, that wonderful lubricant that lets me go weird. Sometimes my wd-40 is music. Sometimes I pull together a list of music that matches the tone of whatever I’m working on. It acts sort of like treadmill music, it gives you a crutch, something to lean on, something to distract you from the pain creeping up your hamstring. You can use it to get past that second mile or that next page. For me, it’s a creative lubricant and constant drone that forces me into a bubble of manic concentration.
On rare occasions, I will take pieces of the playlist and incorporate them into my screenplays. Literally. I will take the lyrics and stuff them into the dialogue boxes. It’s a silly trick. It’s a way to break up the page when there’s little to no dialogue. Aaron Sorkin did it in THE SOCIAL NETWORK. You know the part where Zuckerberg is skipping by all the norms, just after he’s been ditched by Albright, and then he goes on a furious programming/blogging binge - in the script, Sorkin laid in a little Paul Young, “Love of the Common People.” Textually, it makes - literal, LITERAL! - sense. It sums up the theme in a neat little bow. Love of the common people. Ah-ha.
So here’s my playlist for ORIGINS OF TREE PEOPLE:
Daniel Johnston - “The sun shines down on me.”
Cat Stevens - “Hard headed woman.”
Pixies - “Hey.”
Daniel Johnston - “Funeral Home.”
Joy Division - “Warsaw.”
Nirvana - ”Jesus doesn’t want me for a sunbeam.”
Usually, it’s longer than this. I’ll throw in a few instrumentals (like Glen Gould playing Beethoven), but nothing to throw off the tone. Nothing too unfamiliar that it distracts me from writing. I have to know the music before I can ignore it and for some reason, to write, I need it loud, I need it there, and I need - need - to ignore it. Turning it off is not an option. My ears need to drown. I’ll wake up and I’ll hit the repeat cycle and I’ll write until I can’t take it anymore.
Looking back at this list, I realize they’re quite literal choices too - Sorkin is not alone. What’s nice about lyrics is that they can be literal. They can express literal emotion that writers - good ones anyway - know never to do. Emotion, to a writer, lives between the dialogue, between the actions and movements and choices of the characters. Music, for a moment, lets emotion become, how do I put it, quite literal. Literal. Literal.
What am I listening to right now:
Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor - “Hand Covers Bruise” and “In Motion” (because you can’t listen to one and not the other).
Chemical Brothers - “Hanna’s Theme (vocal)” (literal lyrics: “Dream… of a dream to feel.”)
David Byrne and Dirty Projectors - “Knotty Pine”
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - “Johnny Appleseed”
Beirut - “Guyamas Sonora”
Sufjan Stevens - “Age of Adz” (literal lyrics: “When I die, when I die I’ll rot, but when I live, when I live I’ll give it all I got.”)
Radiohead - “Lotus flower”
Some of this is new. So you know what that means. I’m not writing. wd-40.
My hands are made of tin and, at some point, I got them wet and now they’re rusted over and have grown stiff and, when I go to type, they move in ways to protect against discomfort, to stop the discomfort of trying something new.
I need oil. wd-40. Usually this comes in the form of music, something my fingers have never heard before (or haven’t heard in a long time). Sometimes it’s reading a good book. Or seeing a good film. One of these things usually leads to the noxious odor of wd-40 and the fingers loosen and slip and they are able, with a creak, to write something new, to attempt to recreate that unutterable feeling, that thing Herzog calls his “transcendent truth.”
So, again, my fingers are stiff and in need of oil. But as time goes on, like a dependable addict, my fingers do not succumb to the simple fix. They need a larger score.
So I signed them up to a short story writing class, to inspire themselves with themselves (they’re fingers, they’re not that clever).
It’s not that they are unfamiliar with this art, it’s just, well, they haven’t pursued it since the waning years of their adolescence where they wrote stories with such titles as: Vanity and His Obese Prostitute, In the Land of Darren Pumpernickel, And Other Things Chickens do (all stories that would give these fingers’ Hollywood representatives brain aneurisms). It was an adolescence spent unhinged, where these fingers were interested in other forms of lubrication, where wd-40 was not needed.
My fingers haven’t written a short story since they learned what an adjective was or a simile or who Raymond Carver was or John Cheever or Bernard Malamud. They took all of that learning and, instead, shoved it where (some might argue) it didn’t belong – into screenplays.
Oil. That’s what they’re after – to become un-rusted (not unhinged) and to find some sort of transcendent truth, to seek out something new, and to not grow so stiff that they stop moving. Because, if they have a fear, it is that they will stop moving, that they will get comfortable in their rigor, that they will stop seeking truth and be satisfied with the lie.