Friday, April 16, 2010

This Is Not a Pipe: The Value of Research


Before I start I want to thank all of you who have promoted my new book on your blogs. And also thank you all very much who have bought the book. I am grateful that you think I may have something worthwhile to say to you.

The response has been great. It just got a really great review on MicroFilmmaker.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program…


A playwright once told me that I should write a book about how to research for writing stories. Until she said this I had no idea that I was any good at it. But I have noticed that people will often comment on a feeling of authenticity in my work and if that is true at all it is due to research.

I divide research into two areas – “soft research” and “hard research.” Hard research is what most of us do. This is research for factual data – things like when was the Spanish American War and why was it fought. Or finding out how tall George Washington was. Or who is buried in Grant’s Tomb.

These are just hard facts easily looked up in a book or on the Internet. But there is another kind of research that I find even more valuable – this is soft research.

Back when I was a teenager trying to learn my trade I read an interview with Lawrence Kasdan just after Raiders of the Lost Ark came out. I was obsessed with Raiders and Kasdan. And because he had written the screenplays for both Raiders and The Empire Strikes back I wanted to read anything he had to say. I would follow his advice to the letter.

Well, in this interview he said that one of the things he did when doing research for Raiders was read books and see movies that came out the year that Raiders took place. That made sense to me. This is why there is an authentic voice to the piece. It feels very much like something from the 1930s.

Kasdan’s approach is a perfect example of soft research. This kind of information goes beyond facts. It gets to the feeling of things – the intangible. And these things can make their way into your story or art or whatever in ways you could never predict.



When you are engaged in soft research you should do so without a goal. You should just be open to taking in information. Take everything in.

When the guys at Pixar were making Finding Nemo they got certified to scuba dive. This gave them the experience they needed to make their film feel like it was taking place in an actual environment.

I was once working with animation students on a project that took place in the woods. I could not convince them to go spend time in the woods to soak up the environment. They thought looking at pictures of trees on the Internet was the same thing as going into woods and looking at real trees. It isn’t.

There are things those students could have learned in the woods that they never could learn. Bruce Lee said, “If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”

As much as possible you want to “get in the water.” Soft research puts you in the water. When you are immersed in the world, you want to recreate you will have a much easier time doing so.

If I am writing a piece that takes place in the past I will see films, read books, listen to music, watch television shows, listen to radio shows, watch talk shows and look at art made at the time. I find that comic strips are good because what people laugh at tells you a lot about what they were feeling at the time. They really tell you about what people were serious about.

Hard research is the key to making your work accurate, but soft research is the key to making you work feel accurate.

9 comments:

Jett said...

Hey Brian,

Great post. I especially enjoyed the insight into Raiders...I wonder if writing for sheer fantasy is actually harder on the writer who wants to research well. I guess the solution would be to steal from all over world history in terms of environments and design, ala Lord of the Rings (not bagging on that...I think they did it beautifully giving it an "other world" feel yet also feeling familiar. Something *totally* out there would be hard to relate to methinks. Anyway, I digress.)

You have talked about the story wasteland of the feature film, do you have the same opinion for the smaller screen?

I've seen some really interesting stories told on TV series, both in stand alone episodes as well as seasonal arcs.
Some writers seem to be concentrating on telling a proper macro story (season/series) along with the micro stories (individual episodes.) Obviously, not every show is doing this and I think there have been some serious miscalculations in the endings (BSG, Xena cough cough,) but there have been some really amazing shows (Buffy Season 3, Dexter: Season One) in many, many respects I feel the best writers have given up on features and are writing on television.

Just wondering your thoughts?

Γ.Ι.Δ.Α said...

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Jett said...

Hi Brian. I was halfway through this article before I had to do a doubletake and make sure it wasn't you that read it.

http://www.obsessedwithfilm.com/features/j%E2%80%99accuse-has-hollywood-finally-killed-the-screenwriter.php

Brian McD said...

Hello Jett,

Thanks for writing. Glad you found the Raiders stuff helpful.

To answer your first question, I don’t feel like research changes at all if you are doing a fantasy piece. In fact in a fantasy piece one needs to ground the audience in something real. Anything that could also happen in the real world should be accurate.


As for television… well, I know people really enjoy many of the shows that are on, but as for me I see the same trend in TV that I see in films.

I have been saying what I say about film for years and people argued and now people are starting to see what I saw years ago. I’m sorry to say I see the same things on television.


I don’t tend to like the shows that the critics like. I think there are some very basic principals of storytelling that people are not even bothering to learn.


I wish I could say that I really like what I see, but when I watch many of theses shows they feel like the writer learned to write from watching television show rather than observing life. It all feels very fake to me.

There are a couple of exceptions Freaks and Geeks (which I will blog about one day) and Men of a Certain Age. Those shows seem to be grounded in real life and the writer seem to be interested in real life and real life interactions between people.


I feel that there was some brilliant TV in the 50s and some in the 60s and 70s (there was also crap). But I don’t think that the best stuff now can hold a candle the best stuff them. Some of the television writers in the 50s were:

Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Reginald Rose, Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Horton Foot, Gore Vidal, Mel Brooks and Tad Mosel.
If you don’t know these people look them up. There were giants.

Paul Harmon said...

That research makes so much sense! I want to do a comic about the Yakuza during60's/70's and had been buying films from that time and magazines and books from then whatever I could find but, simply to capture look and place I hadn't thought about it in those terms. Wow those were some heavy hitters from the 50's! I'm going to have to look a few of them up.
I hear a lot of great things about freaks and geeks. I'm not into a lot of TV but I did really love the WIRE.

jean said...

Hello Brian,
Just browsing some of you posts again. You mention blogging about Freaks and Geeks one day. I'd really like to hear your views on that. The pilot episode was stunning.
Jean

Brian McD said...

Hello Jean,

Yeah, that’s a great pilot. I’m not sure I will blog about Freaks and Geeks, but I will talk about a little in response to you.

In the interest of full disclosure, as I have mentioned before I know many of the people who made Freaks and Geeks because we were all stand-ups together in the 80s. We also used to hang out at a house nicknamed “The Ranch” or “The Saticoy Ranch” which was a ranch style house in North Hollywood. Those of us who were part of that group called ourselves “Rancheros”.

Paul Feig who created the show was a Ranchero as was Judd Apatow who produced the show. You can read more about The Ranch here: http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/search?q=The+Ranch

I mentioned this because I am about to heap tons of praise on this show and I’m sure that those who have never watched will think it’s because it was put on by my friends. Not so.
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Brian McD said...

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I have had people I know make things that I did not care for and to be honest it was hard to see my friends put on a show that I would have been happy to contribute to. But what can I say, the show was brilliant. It is one of my favorite shows of all time. When I say all time, that’s what I mean because my taste in television shows goes back to the 50s. I mean to say as long as there has been television few shows have been as good as Freaks and Geeks, in my humble opinion.

Back when we were stand-ups Paul used to do a character that was his high-school shop teacher. It was hilarious. Whenever he walked onto a stage comics would yell from the back, “Shop teacher!” It always killed.

Paul also had some stuff about his mother that was very funny. He had a knack for tapping into his childhood with a raw authenticity. And that’s Freaks and Geeks – it is honest. It feels like the truth.

There are a few shows on now that people tell me are great shows, but I watch them and I don’t believe a word people say or a thing they do. The characters act like people on a television show and they do thing no one would ever do just so the plot is surprising and unpredictable. Some of these shows are on networks where people can swear and take off their clothes; and while I have no problem with that as an option I feel it becomes a crutch. Naked people swearing has the illusion of reality, but it is a superficial reality.
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Brian McD said...

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There are also the champions of darkness – the people who believe that darkness is always more “realistic” than light. So anything “dark” is perceived as real. Both light and dark can be false realities. The truth has some of both.

Freaks and Geeks makes you cringed because you recognize yourself in the characters and sometimes in ways you’d rather not. Paul to explore real feelings and situations.

Most people who aspire to write film or television do not observe life – they learn to write only from watching TV and movies so their characters are inauthentic. But Paul loves to find real moments when he can. Real moments are better than fake ones any day of the week.

Knowing some of the writers, as I do, I know they sat around talking about things that really happened to them and write these things into the show. They mined their lives. Which is what we should all do, by the way. Paul has no problem tapping into his most private and embarrassing moments and sharing them to the world.

If you look for real moments you story will be both unpredictable and real. Your stories will also tap into the emotions of the view because the see themselves in the characters.

When writing a scene ask yourself what a person would really do, not what people do in movies. Your work will get instantly better. Don’t clean it up. Don’t polish it. Show it for what it is.

Freaks and Geeks is a shinning example of what can happen when you tell the raw unvarnished truth.

Here is Paul Feig telling a story from his life on This American Life:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/198/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people

And Paul was recently on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast:

http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_248_-_paul_feig