Friday, October 29, 2010

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Another Movie I Like

William Goldman, who wrote the script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is one of the most respected screenwriters in the history of the medium, and this film is one of the reasons. It has left an imprint on the “buddy picture” that has not diminished since its 1969 release.

What I love about this movie is that it has a laser focus—it knows what it’s about. Goldman knows his theme and drives it home at every opportunity. Sure, the film is fun.

The banter between the two lead characters, played by Paul Newman (the salad dressing guy to you young people) and Robert Redford, is clever. The actors have chemistry.

But this film is much deeper than it appears. It says that we cannot run from death. Sooner or later the world changes, and try as we might, we cannot stop this encroachment any more than we can stop death from coming. It says that and it’s still funny. What more can you ask?

These two men are notorious bank robbers and in the very first scene we see Butch (Paul Newman) casing a bank. Upon seeing that it is heavily fortified, he asks a guard:

BUTCH: What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.

GUARD: People kept robbing it.

BUTCH: Small price to pay for beauty.

Right off the bat the world is changing and challenging. These are the first lines spoken.

Not very much later—the very next scene in fact—we are introduced to Sundance. He is in a saloon in the midst of a two-man card game when Butch comes by to collect his partner. But there is a dispute and the other card player thinks Sundance has been cheating and says as much. The man, named Macon, also threatens Sundance:

MACON: You can die—no one’s immune—you can both die.

It is clear that guns are about to be drawn and Butch tries to talk his buddy out of shooting it out with the other man. He says to Sundance that he doesn’t know how fast Macon is. Then he says:

BUTCH: Well, I’m over the hill—it can happen to you—everyday you get older—that’s a law.

It is very precise language that gets to the heart of the film—the point of the film. Getting older is a law. It is a law that even these master outlaws cannot break. When most people say that something had good dialogue they do not mean this—this is great dialogue because it matters.

Goldman never drops the ball on this. At one point he introduces a brand new invention called a bicycle, which represents the coming future. In fact, Butch, who buys the bike at one point, discards the thing with the line:

BUTCH: The future’s all yours, you lousy bicycle.

But the outlaws keep trying to hold onto to their past—to the old world. At one point they rob a train. They have robbed this train before and the owner of the company isn’t happy about it. He hires a “Superposse,” as the screenplay calls them, to hunt down Butch and Sundance.

This posse is almost superhuman in their ability to track Butch and Sundance over every type of terrain. They never seem to tire. They are relentless. And we never see their faces. They are almost always black silhouettes in the distance. They are death. And you cannot outrun death.

I won’t tell you the ending, but it is the only ending there could be to this story. This story may not sound like it would be fun to watch, but it is. It’s great. I wish any film I could see in the theater today had as much to say and could say it with the skill of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Most classic films are classics because they are done with much more skill than the others. Much more focus and precision. That’s a law.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Changing the Verb

Last season I was a writer for the show Hoarders. That’s the A&E reality show about people who are compulsive hoarders and the problems it causes them and their loved ones.

How does one “ write” a reality show, one might ask.

Well, what we did is look through all of the footage and transcripts of the 40 hours of tape, find the story there, and reduce it to 22 minutes. Hard work. But we were using the wrong verb. We weren’t writing—we were structuring. We were storytelling.

I think our cultural emphasis on the written word has confused us as storytellers. We have been calling the task “writing” when we are “ storytelling.”

Some of the worst advice writers have ever gotten, I think, is that writers write. No, writers tell stories.

I recently spoke with a writer who has been writing a novel for years without much progress. I also spoke with a short story writer who is having the same problem. They have no idea what to write and believe that the act of writing something down will magically produce a story. It doesn’t, and it won’t. But we have been trained to believe that it will.

If we are lucky sometimes writing sparks an idea for a story, but more often then not it doesn’t.

And if it does, the story meanders because it was created in a roundabout way.

How many of you have stories you started, but abandoned because you had no idea what comes next? You got lost in the woods because you had no path to follow.

We have been taught that as long as we are producing words we are doing something. But while we may be getting better at putting words together, we are not making any progress as storytellers. We are running as fast as we can inside a hamster’s wheel.

What if we started to think of ourselves as storytellers first, instead of as writers? After all, storytelling doesn’t necessarily require words. The silent movie era is a testament to that. So is any Norman Rockwell painting.

In fact stories without words can have enormous power. Just look at the first acts of
Pixar’s UP or WALL-E.

So what if when we sat down we gave ourselves a task other than producing words: Changing the verb from writing to storytelling may change the way we think about the work.

This would require thinking more than we wrote. We have years of training telling us that thinking is not working. But it’s the hardest work of all. Producing words is relatively easy if they don’t have to add up to anything. Or if one believes that somehow a story will be born out of the act of typing.

It is much harder to know what we want to write about before we start typing. But if we do this work, the string of words we do put down matter more. Every word is a brick on a path leading us to our destination.

If you are not used to working this way, it will at first give you a headache and you will want to abandon this method. It’s too hard, you will think. But push through that feeling. Try to redefine yourself as a storyteller rather than a writer.

I think you’ll find that becoming a good storyteller will make you a far better writer.

Friday, October 22, 2010

My new book is out(ish)!

I know some of you out there have been waiting for my new book The Golden Theme, well it’s sort of here. What I mean is that it is available for pre-order on Amazon. It will be a week or two before you can hold it your hot little hands, but you can order it right now.

Sorry, Amazon takes a while to put up a cover image for some reason.

Anyway, this is from the foreword by National Book Award winner Charles Johnson:

“Brian McDonald is one of the world’s wisest teachers of
the elements that create great storytelling. On this subject,
you can trust everything he says, because there is simply no
angle or aspect of storytelling – what stories mean and our
experience of them – that he has not deeply reflected upon
(and from the standpoint of numerous disciplines in the
sciences and humanities), then drawn a conclusion that we
can take to the bank….

…If I had not retired last year from teaching classes on literature and
the craft of writing at the University of Washington, I would place
McDonald’s two books before my undergraduate and graduate students as
required reading…

…So my recommendation is quite simple:

If you a writer in any genre, read The Golden Theme. If
you are a non-writing reader who just loves stories, read it. If
you are a teacher, share it with your students. And give it to
friends, who will thank you for the clarity Brian McDonald
so generously brings to our lives.”

-- Charles Johnson

I want to thank everyone for getting the first book, Invisible Ink, and saying such nice things about it. I’m proud of The Golden Theme and hope that you all like it.

Thank you,

-- Brian

Monday, October 04, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Learning


“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” -- Benjamin Franklin

Before I start this blog post I will warn you that there is a little bit of swearing and a bit of imagery that may be slightly off-putting to some. But I think the lesson of this post is an important one and worth the risk of offending.

I am often taken aback by students and others I talk to who say they want to learn about something, but then reject information about their subject of interest.

An aspiring screenwriter once approached me. She told me that she was looking for the secret to engaging an audience. She said that there must be a way to hold an audience spellbound and keep their attention. She spoke with the passion of a person on a quest for the secret to the universe. She went on for a while wondering aloud if there was some trick or technique that might help her engage an audience in this way.

I told her that she should read interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, because he was quite articulate about how to involve an audience in your story.

The woman scoffed and said, “I don’t like Hitchcock’s movies, so I don’t care what he said.”

My head still spins when I think about it. Hitchcock had a fifty-year career all because he knew how to play an audience like a fiddle. His nickname is Master of Suspense. The man has a list of classics as long as my arm and this would-be screenwriter blew him off like a one-hit-wonder.

The truth is she didn’t want the answer to her question—she wanted to be on her intellectual quest. For her, pondering this “unanswerable” question was its own reward.

One of the other things is that people will say to me that they’d like to take my class, just to learn screenwriting. They will say, these people, that they already know how to write because they write poetry or something.

They have already made they assumption that they have they aren’t learning a new craft, but merely learning a few technical details particular to screenwriting. This is like a biologist deciding that he can build a rocket ship because he is a scientist after all. How different can it be?

I see this all the time: People dismissing new information with confidence—even cockiness—born of ignorance.

I was once introduced to the friend of a good friend of mine. Both of these people are trained martial artists. This woman, during our chance meeting on the street, mentioned that she was creating her very own martial art. This sounded ridiculous to me, and I wondered just who she thought she was.
When she and my friend were finished with their visits we said our Nice-to-meet-yous and she walked off.

As soon as she was gone, my friend turned to me and said that this woman was the best martial artist he had ever seen—she knew many martial arts and was a champion in them. Whenever she wanted to learn a new form, she never told her teacher who she was; she would take the class as if she was a beginner. She learned the basics and worked her way up to the top.

This is a person who can put her ego aside in order to learn something new. Impressive.

More than once I have finished teaching a class and students have excitedly told me how much they learned. And they say that they want to learn more. If I give them a list of movies to watch, they often point out the films that they have already seen and tell me that they don’t need to see those. Or they will watch some of the films and report back on which ones they didn’t like.

Understand that after the class they tell me how much I changed they way they “see” stories, and yet they blow off the very thing I know will help them learn more: patient study.

First, they shouldn’t refuse to watch a film they have seen because now they are looking with new eyes. They know more than they knew when they saw it before. And secondly, if they don’t like a film on my list, what they should do is ask themselves why I thought they could learn from it.

I had one student who watched, and didn’t like, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. He had no idea why I thought it was good. But you know what he did? He watched it again. And again. And again. Until he saw what I saw. Now he loves the film and sees the craftsmanship that was invisible to him before. He did the very same thing with Hitchcock’s Rear Window. He now loves that film as well. And he has learned too how to be a better storyteller.

The following story is a little vulgar, but worth telling to make my point, I think.

I used to know a man from a West African village. We once talked about his manhood initiation ritual. He said to me in his thick accent, “In my village when you are a boy in manhood training you must go take a shit (he pronounced it sheet) in the woods.” He paused. “Then you sit all day and you watch your sheet.” Then he paused for a long while. I had no idea what he was getting at. Then he said, “Then you see everything that depends on your sheet.” The boys learn, from this exercise, their vital connection to the rest of the living world. This is a profound lesson to emerge from such seemingly pointless act.

Remember that sometimes when someone is trying to teach you something new, your job is not to judge what he or she asks you to do, but to fully understand why you should do it.

If you do this, you may be surprised by what you have allowed yourself to learn.