Thursday, June 02, 2011

The High Bar - An Interview with Me

The High Bar w/ Warren Etheredge & Brian McDonald from The High Bar on Vimeo.

26 comments:

Christine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christine said...

Always love listening to you talk, Brian! ;o) You always leave me with something interesting to think about - thanks!!!

imyjimmy said...

This is a gold mine. I've been tweeting about it all morning! You said a lot of things one can think about for a very long time.

Joon Kim said...

I was going to just have this playing in the background while I worked, but I couldn't take my eyes away!

Brian McD said...

Thanks, guys.

ERIK said...

I know, Joon! Brian is so handsome, isn't he?

Kidding aside, great interview man. I've pimped it out as much as I can.

Glad to see you're getting some exposure, even if it's as a "teacher"/"author" and not as a "screenwriter"/"director".

James said...

Great interview! I'd love to see more like this.

Elise Stephens said...

Two of my favorite quotes from this:

"It took nine writers to write Armageddon and one writer to write Of Mice and Men." Wow. I love this.

Also, "Everyone is planning to fail and no one is trying to win." It's a scary thing to think about, and a challenge to live against.

I like how it's clear you've thought about what you say before you say it. You can back up all of the arguments that you make here. Thank you for sharing this and for speaking up for storytelling.

Jett said...

Hey Brian,

Terrific interview. I've got some thoughts about why storytelling in Hollywood has gone down the crapper. I'm wondering if with such a disintegration of common morays and what seems to be an all out assault on morality, Hollywood is not merely uncomfortable in telling stories with a point/moral but seems more invested in making sure their stuff *doesn't*.
If you are trying to tell something with a moral, you are making a judgment...which means some people are going to be excuded/offended if they disagree or fall outside the moral.
If you make a movie about a man who is torn about leaving his wife and kids etc... but decides to stick it out with them (moral, you should live up to your promises and responsibilities) there are going to be howls from the folks who think if you are unhappy, you should move on etc...
So rather than tell any story with any sort of morality to it we are getting nihilistic pieces of crap.
I'm still trying to formulate my thoughts on this without feeling like I'm babbling. Please forgive the ramble.

It was a great interview and you've got a little "Tom Hanks" in your voice. Looking forward to meeting you at Tr!ckster this summer.

Brian McD said...

Thanks for the nice comments everybody.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jett,

Glad you dug the interview. It’s anyone’s guess what happened to Hollywood. I do think that you have hit on something. They do want to get as many butts in seats as they can so they make things as middle of the road as they can.

But my feeling is that making stories by committee is not the best way. The process itself is designed (intentionally or not) to remove any personal voice. Very strong writers do have a way of getting some of their voice through.

The other thing is that many of the people working in the movies don’t love movies. They don’t know the history, or care to learn it. They are business people. Marketers.


I spoke with a frustrated studio executive once who quit his job out of frustration because he was the only executive there who had even seen the film Casablanca.

The process is a machine. I think that it is a bad idea to rewrite every script as a matter of course. One could argue that no script is perfect, but is the process of automatic, and sometimes endless, rewrites producing many classics?

What would happen if a writer turned in a screenplay that was the exact quality of Casablanca, Sunset Blvd, The Apartment, Paper Moon, The Godfather, Raiders of the Lost Ark, It’s a Wonderful Life or any number of classics? It would be rewritten, that’s what would happen.

I am not saying that there are not many screenplays that need work; I am just saying that if the rewrites were applied on a case-by-case basis they might yield better results. But that would take real assessment and not many people have those skills.

I think that movies could learn something from theater. They could have a workshop period with actors to see what works and what does and doesn’t work and let the writer make changes based on that process. This will never happen, but it would be cool.

See you at Tr!ckster.

Paul Chadwick said...

...a who quit his job out of frustration because he was the only executive there who had even seen the film Casablanca.

Wow.

Brian McD said...

Hey Paul,

Yeah, one would hope that people working in film would care about film, but many of them do not. And those that do find it hard to work within that system.

Michael Barquero said...

This was awesome! Just finished your book (Invisible Ink) and really loved watching this after.

If you're ever down in the bay area you have to come talk to us at CCA. All the best at Tr!ckster!!!

Lea said...

Thanks Brian and Warren--it was great seeing two of my favorite teachers chatting about the idea of story.

Brian McD said...

Thanks, Lea.

Brian McD said...

Thanks everyone for listening to me drone on. Glad you all dug it.

Jonathan Moore said...

Brian, I have to say I love your blog and your book Invisible Ink. You are a true scholar of storytelling. With that being said, I have to be very honest with you and have some very serious misgivings with part of this interview.

Honestly, I think this is a very ignorant view to say that games should never and can never have stories.

The first issue is this:

The last thing you said was you do not play games and do not like games. Bingo. How can you make such bold claims about games when you do not even enjoy them or play them?

That is like an art historian critiquing a piece of art without understanding the past context and what was happening in contemporaries. Not to mention not even liking art.

It's like M. Night Shyamalan critiquing your book without ever having read it.

Secondly, yes, games are in a strange place and do not know what they are. However, to say that there is no means for storytelling with interactivity is errant I believe. By saying this, you are limiting creative possibilities.

That is like telling an artist, "Oh painting is dead. Photography is dead. Don't bother, you cant tell story or have a point with it."

"Seeing is different than being told."

What does a story have? It has a point, a moral, an armature. Many games have the same thing. Some are just as much a morality play as Everyman, or Faust. Not all are as good at storytelling yet, but that is because people like you (who are good storytellers) do not trust them. I think this is a grave mistake.

I honestly believe you will be proven wrong. If you have the openness to see that, is another matter.

Brian McD said...

Hello Jonathan,

First I’d like to thank you for your kind words. Thanks for following the blog. I hope you continue to do so.

I want to address your comment, but I’m realizing that is almost impossible to defend one’s position without looking or sounding defensive. I hope I do not come off that way.

A couple of things you should know – one is that I am not afraid to be proven wrong. I do not come from that place. Learning is all about being wrong. You can’t learn anything without being wrong. So if someone finds a way to do combine stories and games I will be the first person in line to hail her/his genius.

It is important to note that I spent most of my childhood feeling like a moron. My undiagnosed dyslexia made school hard for me. I still have a hard time with my handwriting and with spelling. I’m so used to misspelling things that when spell check says I have no spelling errors I don’t trust it. I think IT must be wrong. I’m serious.

These facts about myself are still embarrassing to talk about, but my job as both a teacher and storyteller is to be as honest emotionally as I can stand to be. The reason I am sharing this now is to stress the point that being wrong and I are old friends. I only know what I know now from making mistakes.

But there is another trait (a coping mechanism to survive school) I have developed. I learned not to say anything unless I was sure before I spoke. If I made a strong statement about craft I have probably thought about it for years and looked at it from every angle. Your perception that I am not open to new ideas is not true. What you are seeing is the result much contemplation.
(Continued next comment)...

Brian McD said...

...Someone recently paid me a complement by saying that I was ‘talented’. It was nice of him to say, but talent is just what hard work looks like from the other side.

When it comes to stories and storytelling it is a safe bet that if I am awake I am thinking about it. The hours I have spent thinking about this subject are incalculable. It is openness that got me this far.

You ‘nailed’ me because I don’t play games, but you seem to be making a huge leap here. It is difficult to make it through childhood without having played some games. Games have just held little interest for me, so I tend to forget the rules relatively quickly after the game is done.

This is not to say that I have not thought about games and their relationship to story. For years when people would excitedly tell me that a new video game had a great story I would be excited to see it. But then upon seeing it the game would have elements of story, but was never a true story.

Stories are one of the few subjects in life where people feel like their familiarity with them equals expertise about them. I have seen, and been inside, countless buildings in my life but would never argue with a builder about how to best construct one.

(Continued next comment)...

Brian McD said...

...As for games being stories, I’m sure why people feel a need to blend them. It seems purely emotional. Over the years I have had this talk with many, many people – gamers and gamer designers mostly, but not with master storytellers. Just because something feels like a story doesn’t mean that’s what it is. I was on the Star Tours ride at Disneyland and I sure felt like I was flying, but just because I felt like it doesn’t make it so.

There are people who believe that Obama is a Marxist, a fascist, and a socialist. As has been pointed out by others words do, in fact, have definitions. You can’t just make things go together because it feels true. Games ARE a thing. And stories ARE a thing. They have definitions. I did not make up these definitions.

In fact I was involved in an exploration of the idea of blending stories and games with the computer science department at the University of Washington. These computer scientist and game designers could not find a way to blend these things. They spent a ton of time telling me that it could be done, but to this day have not done it.

So my assertion that stories and games cannot coexist is not, as you claim, the same as M. Night Shyamalan critiquing my book without ever having read it. It is as if he critiqued my book after several readings and much thought. And being in a book club where all they talked about was my book.

I was paid to study combining stories and games. It was my job.

But in all of the arguments and discussions not one person has ever made an argument refuting the logic of my argument. They ‘feel’ like I am wrong. Prove it. A scientist would say the same thing. If you don’t believe in black holes all you have to do is come up with the math that disproves it. That’s all you have to do.

I am just looking at the thousands of years of civilization, which has a rich history of games and stories, but not the blending of the two.

(Continued next comment)...

Brian McD said...

...Here’s the thing the word story really does come from the word history. It is from the Middle English storie, and storie is from the Anglo-French estoire, estorie, from the Latin word historia.

Embedded in the origin of the word is the idea that a story is not something happening in the present moment. An event is not a story as it happens – it is only a story when it is finished and people recount the event. Games happen in real time. Once a story becomes interactive is ceases to be a story and becomes a game.

Listen, I have no dog in this fight. I don’t care if stories and games coexist. I just don’t see how they can because they seem to be contradictory experiences.


I’m just not sure why people feel like these things need to coexist. What is gained?

Don’t agree? Show me the logic that disproves it. That’s all anyone has to do. But the fact that it feels like I’m wrong is not an argument.

I am not sure I am the one who is not open here.

domnellly said...

Hey Brian, i like your stuff too. Just wanna say, you should try to play uncharted and uncharted 2. I think they are actually doing a really good job at integrating story into games. I think its worth looking at.

Brian McD said...

Thanks, if someone I know has it, I'm sure I'll see it.

Thanks for reading my stuff.

imyjimmy said...

I've watched my roommate play Uncharted. I don't really remember what happened, so I guess the story in it is marginally forgettable?

All I can remember is that the guy seems to get into a lot of near-death situations while looking for lost treasure. And you as the player must keep him/you alive to get to the treasure.

That being said, video games now have a lot of the elements of story. You empathize with the main character. You feel adrenaline when he/she is in a bad spot, etc etc. But does it make it a story?

This goes back to the fundamental question of, what is a story? And what is a game?

Joon Kim said...

The Uncharted games are fun diversions, but the actual gameplay is not the story. You could cut together the cut scenes from the game and end up with something that is merely a mediocre riff off of Indiana Jones.

Putting in clever dialogue and exposition during the actual gameplay doesn't make for a story.

As Brian says, most games try too hard to look and sound like movies instead of being their own thing.

What do video games add to the storytelling craft? At the moment, nothing significant. Unless you really want to get post-modern with the whole topic until it becomes almost meaningless, the interactivity of games separates it from narrative storytelling.

It's not a dig on video games. It's just something else.

What really doesn't help this debate is that most movies feel more like video games these days.