Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Isolation of Interest: More thoughts on Learning

 If you ever want to get better at learning, become a teacher—you will see all of the things people do that stop themselves from learning. One thing we do that blocks us from learning is that we listen/read with an agenda. In magic this is called isolation of interest.

Here is a story I have told before, but to make a different point, about a magician who was teaching a class on magic in Las Vegas. While at a craps table, he told the students that he would roll a seven. He passed the dice around to be examined to make sure they were normal dice. They passed inspection.

Then, as he said, the magician rolled a seven—to much amazement and applause. But he topped that by pointing out that the dice he passed around were red and that the dice on the table were green.

By telling the spectators that he was going to roll a seven, he isolated their interest and they never noticed him switch the dice. This kind of mono-focus makes us blind and deaf to all other things. Magicians know this very well.  In cognitive science it is known as selective attention.
If you listen to a teacher with an agenda, you will only listen for things relevant to that agenda and miss, or dismiss, everything else.

I once taught a person who had studied geology. She told me that her professor once gave a test where he laid several rocks in a row on the table and the students had to correctly identify them. No one noticed, but all of the rocks were of the same type.

When the professor revealed this fact he told them, “The eye seldom sees what the mind does not anticipate.”

The students had blinded themselves by looking only for what was different about the rocks; they could not see what was similar about them.

People can be so good at isolation of interest that I guarantee that there is someone who is reading this blog post right now and asking themselves what geology has to do with storytelling. They will fail to see any reason for me telling this story.

Another way people stop themselves from learning is to assume that they understand an idea at first blush. In the West, and in American in particular, we like to get things quickly. We think it makes us smart. This is reinforced by the educational systems. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his book Outliers.

I think this rush to understand things forces us to grasp ideas and concepts at only their most basic levels. We understand things on the surface, but are unaware that there are layers and layers beneath that can takes years to uncover. In Zen practice, they understand the value of deep contemplation—there is no rush to “get it.” 

I have noticed that the people who actually don’t “get it” are often the people who think they get it quickly. Those are the people who never look any deeper. But that is like looking at the surface of the ocean and believing that that’s all there is to it. There’s a whole world underneath that you’ll never see if you don’t take the time to look.

I spoke with a woman not too long ago who was stuck on the ending for a short story she was working on. We talked for a while, and then I asked her to define what a story was.  Or at least, what her definition of a story was. She stammered and could not answer the question.

I gave her my definition, which is very close to what the dictionary will tell you: A story is the telling of a series of events leading to a conclusion.

With that she scoffed, as if to say, Of course. In fact, she said, “Sure, that’s basic.” Sure. It was so basic that when I asked her what a story was she had no answer.

But if she had this definition in her head, she would not have been stuck for an ending because that would have been where she was headed the entire time.

The reason she scoffed is why many people scoff at that kind of information—we have been taught that simple explanations must be flawed because they are not nuanced. But the student is supposed to take this simple explanation and think about it. Make their own discoveries. I have learned that if you want to discover the profound you should contemplate the mundane.

Take light, for instance. Light is all around us and few of us think much about it, but great artists and thinkers have made profound discoveries from the study of light. This includes painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt and scientists like Newton and Einstein

Look, you don’t have to agree with my definition of what a story is, but if you are a storyteller you should start to consider how you might define it in the simplest terms for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the most basic of questions.

And as you study, try to be open to learning anything that comes. Don’t limit yourself by isolating your interest.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Movies I Like: Sunset Boulevard

“Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.”—Billy Wilder, talking about the audience.

The Major and the Minor, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and The Fortune Cookie are just some of the classic films co-written and directed by the great Billy Wilder.

This list does not even include the classics he wrote as a screenwriter before he became a director. You could do worse than studying the work of Wilder and I could talk about many of his films, but one of his best is Sunset Boulevard.

What’s so great about it? What isn’t?

The film is about a young and struggling Hollywood screenwriter in the 1950s who is in debt and desperately needs a job. Through happenstance he ends up the kept man of a movie star whose best days, during the silent era, are behind her.

The film starts with the young screenwriter, Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), floating dead in a swimming pool as his voice-over narrates the scene. He explains how he always wanted a pool, but that the price proved to be too high. Then he says he will tell us the story of what really happened here and the story flashes back to the true beginning of the story.

Here’s what’s great about this opening. It starts with a great “outer boundary” as I call it. That is right away the story lets you know what can happen, and will happen, in this story’s world. It lets us know the most extreme thing that can happen in this reality.

The classic It’s a Wonderful Life begins with angels, depicted as pulsating stars in the sky, talking to one another. It is a long time before anything else supernatural happens in the film. But when it does happen the audience has been primed for it and has no problem believing the fantastic.

This is the same trick used in the opening of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. We see that character is fantastic situations and so we believe it later. We have been primed.

The other thing these scenes do is whet our appetites for what is to come. We want to know how this fantastic thing links up with the rest of the story.

In the case of Sunset Boulevard, we want to know how Joe Gillis ended up dead in a pool. This is a very smart way to open a film. It grabs the audience.

In Act One we see Joe Gillis being hounded by repo men for his car. He spends the first act looking for money and/or a job so that he can pay to keep his car. While trying to outrun the repo men in a car chase, he ducks into the garage of an old dilapidated mansion. He thinks it is abandoned. It is not.

This is what I call the Land of the Dead. All stories have a point where characters enter the Land of the Dead. These are places where things are in disrepair. Things may be rotting or in decay. Sometimes there is death or the very real possibility of death in these places. Or people may hurting physically or emotionally or spiritually. There is often isolation or loneliness. One or all of these things may be present in the Land of the Dead.

Wilder makes sure that this house is a dead place. It feels like a mausoleum. There is death here, as you will see when you watch the film.

It is here that Joe Gillis meets Norma Desmond, the old silent movie star played by the real-life silent movie star Gloria Swanson. This is a woman who will not let go of the past. She lives in the Land of the Dead.

In stories, the Land of the Dead is no place to live. One may visit to learn the story’s lesson, but in order to be healthy the hero must leave this place.

Because Joe Gillis needs money he ends up the kept man of this woman. He is her pet. She has money and he has none, and so Joe feels trapped in this dead place. At one point the house butler, Max, tells Joe that Norma Desmond is suicidal and in order to protect her from herself there are no locks on any of the doors.

This may seem like a detail that doesn’t matter, but think about it. Joe feels trapped here and is expressly told that there are no locks here. Thematically it means he can leave whenever he wants.

There is a great scene where, on New Year’s Eve, Norma throws a party, but Joe is surprised that by design he is to be the only guest. This is a dead place without life. No guests at a party. Frustrated, Joe leaves the mansion to find a party with life in it, but as he tries to leave his clothes get caught on the door handle. This is a perfect thing for the story thematically, for a man who feels trapped.

This is the story of a man who learns to that living as a poor man is better than being wealthy in the Land of the Dead.

There are about a million good things to say about this film, but the main thing is that every element in this film is there to help tell the story. The mansion is not creepy for the sake of being creepy. It has to be a mausoleum. There are no guests at the party not to have an odd scene, but to drive home that this is a place without life. What could say that better than a party without guests?

Everything in Wilder’s films in there for a reason. No fat.

If you have seen this film watch it again and see what you notice that you didn’t before. If you have never seen it, you are in for a treat.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mountain Music -- The Movie

Last year I was asked to direct a three-minute documentary for MTV. This was for their show $5 Cover and the short films were companion pieces called B-sides. Several filmmakers made shorts for the show and as far as I know MTV has never done anything with them.

They wanted us to do something about the Seattle music scene, but not a typical Seattle music story. So my producing partner and I settled on a band called The Tallboys that plays old time mountain music. Two of the band members, Charmaine Li-Lei Slaven and Charlie Beck, have another band called Squirrel Butter with just the two of them.

Since I always look for the emotion in any story and focus on that it became clear that the story was really about Charmaine, the female member of the band. She had the most compelling story and we had to focus on just one person. We only had three minutes.

She was a great subject and there was a bunch of cool stuff that we just couldn’t put in the film.

Anyway, I just wanted to share this with you guys because I don’t want to be one of those people who writes about filmmaking and never does anything himself.

Hope you enjoy the film.

Squirrel Butter and the Tall Boys Old Time music from Marcus Donner on Vimeo.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Movies I Like: Shadow of a Doubt

Alfred Hitchcock’s directing career spanned form 1922 to 1976: 54 years. He started with silent film and saw the advancements of sound (he made the first British talkie), color and even 3-D within his lifetime. And he was a master of filmmaking almost from the beginning.

Some of his classic films include Blackmail, The Lodger, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Lifeboat, Dial M for Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds, Rear Window, and Psycho.

My personal favorite, followed closely by Rear Window, is Shadow of a Doubt, released in 1943. Not only did Hitchcock direct, but the great Thornton Wilder (author of the classic Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town) wrote the screenplay. This was Hitchcock’s personal favorite, and it is also David Mamet’s favorite of Hitchcock’s films.

If you have read any of my previous posts then you’ll know that I believe that a great story has a focus – a direction. It knows what it’s about – what’s it’s trying to say.

In the first act we are introduced to a young woman named Charlie who is tired of her boring town and her boring family. Nothing exciting ever happens. She lives a Norman Rockwell existence.

She wants to break up this monotony and goes to the telegraph office to invite her favorite uncle, also named Charlie, to come visit. But when she gets there, she finds that there is already a telegram there for her from her uncle saying he’s on his way. The two Charlies have a special connection.

What the girl Charlie eventually discovers is that her uncle is a notorious murderer on the run. Uncle Charlie is not the kindly affable man he pretends to the world. Now that she knows the truth about her uncle, all Charlie wants is her old boring life back.

This is a Thornton Wilder theme – that life, even a simple, uneventful life, is a wonderful thing that we do not take the time to appreciate. You can see this theme in Our Town after one of the characters dies and is able to go back and see/relive moments in her past. She chooses an ordinary day, nothing special. And she is surprised to realize that people don’t find each moment of their life precious.

This is the very same theme in Shadow of a Doubt – young Charlie had a good life and now she wants it back. But it is too late: She knows what she knows and can’t return to that life.

This is a deep theme dressed as a common thriller – it is so much more. As a thriller it is Hitchcock at his best. And as a piece of art, it is Wilder doing what he did best.

I have to admit that there is a tacked-on love story that I believe the studio wanted – another writer handled that (some things never change). This is not on par with the rest on the film, but the film is too good to be ruined by this. Hitchcock himself was never happy with the love story.

When I say they don’t make movies like they used to this is what I mean. If I see a thriller now and say it was empty and meaningless people say to me, “What do you want? It’s just a thriller!”

You know what I want? Shadow of a Doubt.

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.