MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #19
Why write screenplays, in particular comedies, when the political season is hard upon us? Who can compete for laughs against Newt and Rick and Mitt and the whole sorry crew? They long fervently for a sweet and serene time that never was. And, if it had been, would we want to return there?
MANIFESTO OR MYTH?
We romanticize and idealize the 1950s. How else to treat that deplorable decade?
The era of Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet was also that of McCarthyism, of Jim Crow, of unspeakable kitsch in food, fashion, architecture, and design. Music, too, was Guy Lombardo and Laurence Welk until sweetly corrupting rock ’n’ roll finally liberated mainstream audiences.
How many of us would want The Simpsons cancelled in favor of a resurrected Leave it to Beaver?
For women during the ‘50s careers didn’t have glass ceilings; they were steel-reinforced concrete. As recently as the late ‘60s a woman runner was forcefully ejected from the then-still men-only Boston Marathon she had attempted to run.
Yet the notion persists that those days were solely sweet, serene, and secure. Public discourse was civilized. God--a wise and kindly old white guy with a long white beard--was not only in Heaven but at long last in the Pledge of Allegiance. Kids reciting that Pledge - upon the command, "TAKE COVER!" - dove under our desks, trembling in terror over nuclear annihilation. Did we believe our state-issue pressed-board desks would protect us from a hydrogen bomb?
Comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested, handcuffed, and hauled off to jail for using language in a private grownups’ club that Tony Soprano now long ago spoke routinely to millions of television viewers of a Sunday night.
Does this demonstrate the coarsening of the culture?
In a word: no. In those days, as now, the older generation saw the culture as already debauched. They saw its destruction in the availability of over-the-counter literature like Lolita. They heard it in the ‘jungle rhythms’ of black artists like Little Richard importuning white teenagers, “Let’s ball tonight!”
If video games and violent films threaten to destroy moral character today, fifty years ago it was comic books. Fantasy and horror comics were viewed as part and parcel of the communist conspiracy. Even early editions of Mad Magazine were pulled from news racks across the land.
Today’s movies are viewed as uniquely violent but are they truly so? Conflict has resided at the center of dramatic expression since its earliest days. Oedipus kills his father and you know what he does to his mother. Medea butchers her children in a rage against their faithless, philandering father. By the end of Hamlet there are nine corpses onstage, some poisoned, some run through on swords. Richard III slays his nephews, boys nine and eleven whom he regards as wholly innocent.
Ugly, bloody dramatic confrontation was not invented a week ago last Thursday by a coven of Hollywood evil-doers in a dark chamber at Paramount Pictures. Audiences continue to crave conflict. Consider the movie theater to be a gymnasium for the senses, a safe place to experience that violent aspect of the human condition so that it can harmlessly be purged. Rational discourse, consensus, intelligent agreement have their rightful place in our lives to be sure, but art ain’t it.
Nobody wants to see The Village of the Happy Nice People.
Children are properly set aside in the Constitution as a special class. They need to be protected from exposure to inappropriate material. That protection must flow, however, not from faceless bureaucrats but from parents who spend time with their kids and care about what they see and hear. In my own house we have one of those TVs with a switch that lets you change channels. There’s also a switch that lets you turn off the whole TV.
Americans who occasionally overhear a brutal, violent rap lyric, who inadvertently stumble across some unsolicited pornographic image, ought to rejoice because it tells them they live in a free society. They will never encounter such fare in Saudi Arabia or North Korea.
The First Amendment asserts that expression spoken, written, or printed does not have to be rational, reasonable, evenhanded, or polite. It merely has to be tolerated. Nobody has to protect your right to say, “Have a nice day,” or “The government is doing a great job.” It’s the stupid stuff, the jerky stuff, the provocative, the outrageous, and the ugly stuff that requires protection.
Lighten up, America! Take a deep breath. Must the nation go crazy because a pop star mutters the ‘f’ word during the Grammies or a performer takes it upon himself to flip the bird during half time at the Super Bowl? Does the exposure of a woman’s nipple, for a fraction of a second, from a thousand yards away, warrant paroxysms of rage and government sanction? Why is it okay to expose a man’s but not a woman's nipple? It hasn’t always been so. Didn’t men’s bathing suits, early in the last century, also have tops? Did the acceptance of public exposure of men’s nipples represent a coarsening of contemporary culture?
Do we wish to return to the prudery of the Victorian age? Does an Attorney General’s draping of the Goddess of Justice reassure or embarrass us?
Chill, my fellow citizens. Will somebody tell me what is the big f’n deal?
Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Audrey Wells
A writer, director and ‘89 UCLA MFA screenwriting alum, Audrey Wells shares how she got her start in the film industry and gives new writers guidance on why they should consider “making it small” in the big biz of Hollywood an accomplishment.
A native of San Francisco, Wells began her career in entertainment not in film, but radio. After four years on the air in both commercial and public radio, she left the business to pursue her graduate degree in film production at UCLA. During that time, she worked as an assistant to screenwriter and director Alan Sharp (Night Moves, Rob Roy).
Wells sold her first spec script, Radio Free Alaska, to Paramount in 1989. In 1996, Wells celebrated a film breakthrough with the debut of The Truth About Cats and Dogs. The quirky romantic comedy, starring Uma Thurman and Janeane Garofolo, became a hit for Wells, whose other ‘90s screenplays included George of the Jungle (1998) and an uncredited rewrite on Runaway Bride (1999), starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts.
Wells served as director for the first time in 1999 for the film Guinevere, starring Stephen Rea and Sarah Polley. The film, also written by Wells, won the Waldo Salt Screenplay Award at the Sundance Film Festival, the Jury Prize at the Deauville Film Festival and was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards before being picked up for release by Miramax. Wells went on to write the original screenplay for Disney’s The Kid (2000), a light-hearted fantasy with Bruce Willis. She also wrote the American adaptation of the Japanese film Shall We Dance, starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Lopez. She moved on to make her second film as a director, Under The Tuscan Sun (2003), from her own adaptation of the best seller by Frances Mayes. The film starred Oscar-nominee Diane Lane and Italian heartthrob Raoul Bova. Lane received a Golden Globe nomination for her role. Wells co-wrote the script for the romantic comedy The Game Plan (2007), starring Dwayne Johnson.
Wells serves as an advisor at the Sundance Screenwriting Labs put on by the Sundance Institute. In that capacity, she has just returned from Mumbai, where she mentored Indian screenwriters and filmmakers.
How did you start your writing career?
Audrey: I didn’t go straight to film school after graduating from Berkeley. I worked for a few years in San Francisco, where I had a variety of jobs in radio. I was a news writer for CBS; a jazz disc jockey at an indie radio station; and a consultant for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That last job had me working as an advisor at remote, bush radio stations in the Alaskan arctic. Five years later I wrote about that experience, and it became the basis for the first script I ever sold, “Radio Free Alaska”. Looking back, it was a good idea to work and adventure and actually live life before film school. It gave me something to write about.
When I got to UCLA and majored in film production, my goal was to become a documentarian and make politically significant movies that would help save the world. Instead, I’m known for writing romantic comedies. I still find this very strange. I’m not spontaneously funny. Writing something amusing usually requires going off into a room by myself to scrape out my own bone marrow. Reporting from Syria would probably be easier for me - and less life threatening - than writing comedy. So I’m still confused as to how this mistaken career actually happened.
What is your favorite movie of all time and why?
Audrey: The Wizard of Oz. Reds. Cabaret and every other Bob Fosse movie. More recently – Winter’s Bone. On the comic end of the spectrum -- I just watched Bull Durham again, and it’s perfect. Totally holds up and the control of tone is amazing. The Bird Cage is like that, too. Carnal Knowledge. Manhattan. Who has just one favorite movie?
What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?
Audrey: As I’m sure everyone has noticed, business in Hollywood is not the same as it used to be. I don’t know that “making it big” is as aptly a phrased aspiration as “making it small”. When I work with writers, I advise them to seek satisfaction through productivity. Write something. Make something. I sincerely hope you get paid millions for it. But what really matters is that you bring your dream to life somehow. Participate in the conversation of filmmaking in your own way and in your own time. Don’t wait for Hollywood to give you permission. If you create something, no matter how modestly, you have arrived at the mountaintop.
My other piece of advice regarding “making it” in Hollywood has to do with how one should behave in meetings. Never make self-deprecating jokes. For example, don’t tell everyone at the meeting about how you haven’t showered in days, you think you might be going insane, and your cat is reading your work at night. Self-deprecating humor will not be understood. If you say these things, they’ll smile to your face and nod encouragingly; but after you leave, they’ll turn to each other and gasp “can you believe she hasn’t showered in a week and she thinks her cat reads her work? She’s going insane.” Better that you should just tell everyone how fabulously you’re doing. Trust me. The only people in Hollywood who think personal shame is funny are other writers.
Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars: