Monday, November 01, 2010
A Lesson From Paddy Chayefsky
“When you ask a writer what their story’s about and they give you plot you’re in trouble.”—a paraphrased quote by director Sidney Pollack.
In the 1950s Paddy Chayefsky made a huge splash with a teleplay he had written called Marty. Marty would then become a hit movie and an Academy Award winner.
Chayefsky wrote many things of note in television, film, and theater. He was a writer’s writer (he’s Neil Simon’s favorite author) who was known for writing smart material that also connected with an audience. The man had an effect on art and culture that is still felt today.
If want to know just how smart he is buy yourself a copy of Chayefsky’s Television Plays, where he breaks down his working method. You'll learn a ton.
Back in 1980, I was a kid who was just learning the name Chayefsky. I would often hear people the generation ahead of me quote lines from Marty: “What do you wanna to do?” “I dunno…what do you wanna to do?” You’ll have to see the film, but these were very famous lines.
As a 15-year-old kid, I had not yet seen Marty or even his other classic film Network. But 1980 saw the release of a film he had written called Altered States. This movie blew my little teenage mind. I had never seen anything quite like it. (That was the year I spent most of my movie money on The Empire Strikes Back and decided I should mix it up a little.)
What floored my about the film was how real it seemed to me. It may look dated to younger eyes, but at the time it looked and felt much like the real world. This was a Chayesky trademark. That’s why a he could make a line like: “What do you wanna do?” famous.
In the film, a scientist seeks the ultimate truth (by ingesting hallucinogenic drugs while inside an isolation chamber) and taps into some primal force that causes him to regress to a protohuman form.
There are also a bunch of lame acid-trip montages that Chayfesky hated so much he took his name off the film as screenwriter. They were lame then and they don’t age well at all.
But the rest of the story really intrigued me, so I decided to read up on this famous writer. I came across an interview where he said that Altered States was really a love story. What? This made no sense to me. So I saw the film over and over trying to see what he was talking about.
And when I had seen the film enough to look past the cool effects and concept, I could see the story clearly. It is about a man who cannot love and in the end learns to love, learns the value of love. This was Chayefsky’s reason to tell the story.
This changed everything for me. I learned that no matter what a story looked like on the outside, no matter how cool the concept, there should be a human story at its core.
So when I saw Jaws I knew it wasn’t about a shark, but a man learning to face his fear, and through facing it, to conquer it. And when I saw E.T. I knew it wasn’t really about a boy and an alien, but a boy learning to empathize with others. Most stories that resonate with audiences have this human story at their center.
This may sound to some like basic knowledge, but I rarely see it in the films being made today. And if it is there, it is simply tacked onto a “cool concept” rather than being the reason to tell the story. The best storytellers have used this method over the centuries, from Aesop to Jonathan Swift to Gene Roddenberry to Paddy Chayefsky.
The above quote from Sidney Pollack is about this very idea—your story is not about what happens, it’s really about why it happens. Why are you telling this story? That’s what your story’s about.
Opponents of this method believe that it makes the work trite and preachy. But the purpose of drama is to demonstrate—to dramatize. That means showing that to face your fear is to conquer your fear as both Jaws and Aliens demonstrate. This allows the audience come to conclusions on their own so that they don’t feel spoon-fed.
I rarely see a film nowadays knows what it’s about. It is “about” the plot. Or it is “about” the amazing concept. But there is nothing stopping these filmmakers from using a cool concept to tell a story that matters.
If you don’t already work this way, it may give your work more emotional and thematic depth to give it a try. If it works, you can thank Paddy Chayefsky.