“You are all my guests. It’s not the other way around.” – Lars von Trier, defending his film Antichrist at the Cannes Film Festival (2009)
Before the hostile take over can begin, I would like to thank my former CSSC Writer Laureates, Evan Jobb and Carolynne Ciceri. The two of you have built an incredible foundation of writing over at this space. May you both look over my shoulder as disapproving-but-secretly-proud parents, heaping loads of unreasonable expectations and residual guilt on their poor, bewildered child.
Figuratively speaking, of course.
Also, I must extend my gratitude to David Cormican. I already owe a great debt to Mr. Cormican and his Canadian Short Screenplay Competition for recognizing Elijah the Prophet in 2010/11. Now you’ve given me a soapbox to boot. Let it be said that money is not necessary to feed a writer’s ego; a forum for pontification will suffice.
Well then, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty, a State of the Blog if you will. Whether or not I am qualified in any certifiable way to give advice on screenwriting, I really can’t say.
I started college as a public relations major, but we’ll casually gloss over the complicated history behind that. Long-story-short: If anyone ever says the words “compromise career” to you before you turn 35 years old – and especially before you graduate high-school – please, stop listening immediately. Even if it’s coming from someone you love.
As the head rush of my first semester away from home receded with the summer heat…
Smack! Bam! The realization sunk in: I had seriously fucked up.
Or to be less vulgar about it, I had grossly misgauged my interests and how they could relate to… well I hesitate to say a future “job”, so let’s go full-pretentious and term it a “calling.” Within the year, I was skipping Saturday football games to watch Written on the Wind and Last Year at Marienbad in the library basement.
I’m not entirely sure why I never attempted to write a screenplay before the summer of 2008. There were plenty of excuses: I didn’t know the correct format, I hadn’t read this screenplay or watched that film. I would like to chalk it up to a fear of embarrassment or failure, but in the past, I had been fairly confident when sharing my other writing samples (album and movie reviews, some dabbling in poetry and prose).
There are a few pet theories I have kicking around my head as to why it had taken me so long to define myself as a writer. As a (proud) product of a middle-class/upper middle-class suburban upbringing and education, I had instilled in me the value of “writing skills.” No matter what you do in life, you will almost certainly use “writing skills” in the professional world – words like these are stressed and re-stressed in various classrooms from K through 12.
To want to be a writer though… well that’s slightly audacious. Lawyers write, so do psychiatrists, general physicians, accountants, research scientists, professors and judges. There’s plenty of good work available to those who can write. But seriously, where the hell were the boozy-romantic Ernest Hemingway types in my neighborhood who were writers, and nothing but?*
Studying broadcast and print journalism, I learned the value of quick, lean copy. Much like news copy, a screenplay isn’t read; it’s devoured. Borrowing traits from the novel (Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver), poetry (Walter Hill, Alien or The Driver) and playwriting (Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters), screenwriting is a true bastard form; the attempt to put images into words with the idea that the words will eventually have to be turned back into images.
Why then, do I favor screenwriting over any of its purer antecedents? Simple. Cinema is dangerous. And therefore, much more fun to play around with.
Around the time I was 11 or 12 years old, my father mistakenly showed me Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. For those of you who have not yet seen Dressed to Kill:
a) Please, stop reading this nonsense and go watch Dressed to Kill. Honestly, I won’t be offended.
b) If you’re still reading and have postponed your planned screening of Dressed to Kill until after finishing this blog entry (I’m flattered!), rest assured, Dressed to Kill is COMPLETELY INAPPROPRIATE for a child who has not reached the recommended viewing age for Ace Ventura.
Small side-note: I used to sneer at a friend in high school who referred to her attendance at a certain Phish concert as “transcendental” and “life-changing.” While I would still thumb my nose at such an exclamation, especially at the former descriptor, I find myself a wee bit sympathetic to this friend’s experience as I try to explain the effect De Palma’s film had on me.
Dressed to Kill contains dark levels of humor and irony that reach far beyond the analytical capabilities of your average 11 – 12 year old. Besides severely freaking me out – and exposing me to my first cinematic dose of female full-frontal – Dressed to Kill taught me a valuable lesson with regards to the power of cinema at a very impressionable age. That film stuck with me for years, it dragged my pre-adolescent imagination down through the grimy, neon-lit streets and exposed me to a world I never would have wanted to go searching for (have I mentioned Blue Velvet is a personal favorite as well?).
Great literature can be memorized and recited, sure. But film imprints. You can’t fight off great cinema, or skim over it. The images seep in and make themselves known.
My apologies if you haven’t gleamed much of my purpose from the above introduction. There’s a good reason for that, and frankly, it’s because I don’t have much of a purpose. I’m not a teacher by nature; I’m a writer. I have no set agenda week-to-week for what will happen in this blog space. Safe bet it will have something to do with movies, and usually, screenwriting as well.
I was always taught that in creative writing, you’re best off writing for yourself. Never write for an audience. You’re not an authority on the hypothetical “audience”, but you probably know a thing or two about what you would like to see.
Hence the Lars von Trier quote opening the post. Ever since I read that, I’ve tried to carry it as my writing mantra, so to speak. It’s forceful, yet oddly hospitable.
In that vein, let me offer a kind welcome to all my guests. We’ve got a long year together.
*For good measure, I was raised on this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gIjEdCootY&feature=related