How Hitchcock invented suspense

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How to write like Ray Bradbury

One of the best resources for writers is the Paris Review and its unparalleled range of interviews with everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Stephen King. Its latest subject is Ray Bradbury, one of the greats of science fiction and the author of books including The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes. He is also a successful screenwriter, including several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and John Huston’s adaptation of Moby-Dick. Here are five of the best quotes from the interview:

  1. Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.
  2. Every time you write for anyone, regardless of who they are, no matter how right the cause you may believe in, you lie. Steinbeck is one of the few writers out of the thirties who’s still read, because he didn’t write for causes at all. He wrote human stories that happened to represent causes indirectly.
  3. Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth.
  4. The novel is hard to write in terms of keeping your love intense. It’s hard to stay erect for two hundred days. So, get the big truth first. If you get the big truth, the small truths will accumulate around it.
  5. If you’re not careful in tragedy, one extra rape, one extra incest, one extra murder and it’s hoo-haw time all of a sudden.

Finally —

I have three rules to live by. One, get your work done. If that doesn’t work, shut up and drink your gin. And when all else fails, run like hell.

Sherlock Holmes And The Problem Of Scale

There’s been a lot of talk about Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, much of it around its apparent betrayal of its source. How dare he portray Holmes as some kind of scrappy action hero? That’s almost as bad as putting on a fake Cockney accent when your mum is Lady Leighton. But —

Holmes is a kind of scrappy action hero. Conan Doyle’s original has studied boxing, martial arts and swordsmanship. He’s handy with a revolver (although, just as in the movie, he generally forgets to bring his own), strong enough to bend a poker (why does that sound like some kind of Victorian double entendre?) and agile enough to take on — and knock out — one of London’s champion boxers. He wears tails in the drawing room, rags on the street and a ratty dressing gown at home, and he tends to smell of whatever vile chemical he’s been working with that morning. He’s also a manic depressive, a voracious reader of the tabloids and a regular user of cocaine, which would guarantee him a top job in television, were it not that he’s also highly intelligent with a genuine interest in people.

I love the Sherlock Holmes stories (not the novels: apart from The Hound of the Baskervilles they’re pretty tedious) and grew up on the Jeremy Brett series, but Robert Downey Jr. is as good as any Holmes we’ve seen: dangerous, mercurial and brilliant, you can see why Watson loves him, Lestrade loathes him and London’s villains tremble at his name. Ritchie and his screenwriters (Simon Kinberg, Anthony Peckham, Michael Robert Johnson and Lionel Wigram) also restore Watson to his rightful role as brave companion rather than bumbling fool, and in doing so have freed Jude Law to be a terrific character actor rather than a reluctant leading man. There’s also sparkling support from Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler and Mark Strong, who manages to play the fiendish Lord Blackwood without even a moustache to twirl. And there’s London. We’ve grown so used to Victorian London on a BBC budget — fifteen orphans and a hansom cab — that it’s a thrill to see it with a Hollywood one. Crammed with people, choked with smoke, this is a throbbing, pungent industrial metropolis. Reflecting this, Ritchie sets his action less in drawing rooms and libraries than in dry docks, slaughter houses (a very scary sequence involving Rachel McAdams and a giant bacon slicer) and laboratories: this is the port and factory of the world.

So why, after a hugely enjoyable first hour or so, is the movie ultimately disappointing? The problem, as so often with big thrillers, is a massive misjudgement of scale. In the first half of the movie, Holmes and Watson are — well, being Holmes and Watson: cracking conundrums, annoying the police and searching for a missing midget (they’re always in the last place you look). In the second half they’re saving the world, and this is where the film goes awry. As Stalin famously put it, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic”, and nowhere is this truer than in big budget films. Do we care about Ms McAdams being turned into pancetta? Hell, yes. But do we care about Mark Strong and his followers taking over the world? Well — not really. Time and again, film-makers feel that to increase the suspense of the audience they must increase the scale of the story. But in reality, the opposite is often true. When a story becomes too big it becomes statistics, and the audience stops caring what will happen, because we lose any real sense of threat.

Hitchcock always understood that the “big” story — the stolen military secrets — was essentially irrelevant: that what we cared about was Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant. James Bond has been successfully reinvented by focusing on Bond and the people around him, rather than lasers in space. And the best episodes of the relaunched Doctor Who have been its smaller, more intimate stories — Blink, The Girl In The Fireplace, Silence In The Library — rather than its “end of the universe” epics.

Sherlock Holmes is a hugely confident, clear-sighted start to a franchise. It’s funny and charming and exciting, and I’m looking forward to more of Downey, Law and McAdams. I’m also looking forward to more Moriarty, the villain in the shadows of this film. But let’s not forget that Conan Doyle’s climax was not the entire world in peril, but Holmes and Moriarty, alone at the edge of the Reichenbach Falls.

How to be Ernest Lehman

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Ernest Lehman was one of the greatest screenwriters who ever lived, the man behind such classics as Sabrina, The Sweet Smell of Success and North By Northwest, as well as the film adaptations of West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Here, in his own words, are five rules for great screen writing.

  1. I try to maintain an awareness of whether the audience understands what the character is thinking and intending. I always ask myself: are characters in character? Would they do what they’re doing?
  2. I know how to manipulate words. When it works it’s skill and craft and some unconscious ability. To me, that’s not the essence of art. Art creates an effect, but it’s less obvious in what it’s doing.
  3. Writing is solving problems. That’s what it is: how do you do it so you think it’s right?
  4. The better the heavy, the better the picture. The implacable foe. Sometime the foe is just a situation. In West Side Story it was society. You have to make it difficult for your character.
  5. Hitchcock’s way of putting it, when he didn’t like something, was, “Ernie, that’s the way they do it in the movies.” That was the worst he could ever say.