Christopher Nolan on Inception

I wasn’t a great fan of Inception (I much preferred Iain Banks’s novel Transition, which covered similar ground with much more heart and fun) but it’s undoubtedly a hugely ambitious, deeply personal film for its writer-director Christopher Nolan. The shooting script includes a fascinating interview with him. Here are some of the highlights:

On the need for rules When I saw the first Matrix film, I thought it was really terrific, but I wasn’t quite sure I understood the limits on the powers of the characters who had become self-aware. Inception, on the other hand, is about a more everyday experience …. It doesn’t question an actual reality. It’s just saying, “Okay, we all dream every night. What if you could share your dream with someone else?” And it becomes an alternate reality simply because the dream becomes a form of communication, like using a telephone or going online.

On the need for emotional risk I consider this script to have begun when I figured out I was going to use a heist movie structure … The problem I had was finishing it, because the heist movie as a genre tends to be deliberately superficial … And I realised that when you’re talking about dreaming, this universal human experience, you need the stakes of the story to have a much more emotional resonance. If you’re going to do a massive movie, you’ve got to be able to unlock that more universal experience for yourself as well as the audience. As soon as I realised that Mal would be his wife, it became completely relatable.

On melodrama I’ve written quite a few dead wives, that’s true. But you try to put your relatable fears into these things. That’s what film noir is, and Ido view Inception as film noir. You take the things you are actually worried about in real life, and you extrapolate that into a universal drama, painted as large as possible. You turn it into melodrama. People always talk about melodrama as a pejorative, but I don’t know what other word there is.

On actors I’ve been fortunate enough to work with great casts on all my films. Particularly with a lot of the supporting characters, a great actor will come in with a whole take on it, and they’ll literally give what’s on the page some kind of life that you hadn’t forseen.

On trusting audiences There are points where you worry that you might be putting too much in and alienating the audience … Somewhere in the back of my mind, for example, I had assumed that the business with the spinning top in the safe would wind up being cut out of the film … But what we realised in showing it to people is that they actually grasped the imagery as something to hold onto, as an illustration of things that had happened off camera.

On sincerity I give a film a lot of credit for trying to do something fresh — even if it doesn’t work … I think the thing that I always react against as a filmgoer is insincerity, when somebody makes a film that they don’t really enjoy themselves, just to produce an effect on the audience. And what really frustrates me with a film like Inception is when you show somebody the film and they think you’re trying to be clever. Or show off. I always feel like I’ve completely failed at that point, because I know as a filmgoer that that’s something I react against … you want to believe that the film-maker loves the movie, loves what that movie does.

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Writers’ rules for writing

There’s a terrific piece in yesterday’s Guardian in which a number of top fiction writers offer their best tips to the rest of us. Here, as a taster, are Sarah Waters’ top 10:

1 Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. I find watching films also instructive. Nearly every modern Hollywood blockbuster is hopelessly long and baggy. Trying to visualise the much better films they would have been with a few radical cuts is a great exercise in the art of story-telling. Which leads me on to . . .

2 Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve often read manuscripts – including my own – where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: “This is where the novel should actually start.” A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail. The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it. In fact . . .

3 Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.

4 Writing fiction is not “self- expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.

5 Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it is worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they may intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s. At the same time . . .

6 Don’t overcrowd the narrative. Characters should be individualised, but functional – like figures in a painting. Think of Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Mocked, in which a patiently suffering Jesus is closely surrounded by four threatening men. Each of the characters is unique, and yet each represents a type; and collectively they form a narrative that is all the more powerful for being so tightly and so economically constructed. On a similar theme . . .

7 Don’t overwrite. Avoid the redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs. Beginners, especially, seem to think that writing fiction needs a special kind of flowery prose, completely unlike any sort of language one might encounter in day-to-day life. This is a misapprehension about how the effects of fiction are produced, and can be dispelled by obeying Rule 1. To read some of the work of Colm Tóibín or Cormac McCarthy, for example, is to discover how a deliberately limited vocabulary can produce an astonishing emotional punch.

8 Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.

9 Don’t panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there’s prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too.

10 Talent trumps all. If you’re a really great writer, none of these rules need apply. If James Baldwin had felt the need to whip up the pace a bit, he could never have achieved the extended lyrical intensity of Giovanni’s Room. Without “overwritten” prose, we would have none of the linguistic exuberance of a Dickens or an Angela Carter. If everyone was economical with their characters, there would be no Wolf Hall . . . For the rest of us, however, rules remain important. And,  crucially, only by understanding what they’re for and how they work can you begin to experiment with breaking them.

You can find the rest here.

The craft of … Peter Morgan

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Great news from Variety this morning: Peter Morgan, writer of The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon and his own favourite Longford, is to make his debut as a director with his third Tony Blair story. This installment, again starring Michael Sheen, will be about Blair’s relationship with Bill Clinton. Morgan spoke a little about the project at the London Film Festival (more about that from the brilliant SP here), where he described Blair as his Everyman: a “navigator” through whom the audience can experience Balmoral or the White House. He also hinted at a fourth story, about Blair, the Iraq War and the Pope.

Morgan is perhaps the only British screenwriter whose name helps sell a movie (any other suggestions?). So what can we learn from his work?

First, he has a rigorous sense of structure: as he told the New Yorker, he has “an almost autistic ability to see a shape in a story … So The Queen, right from the get-go, was ‘Audience scene — Monday — Tuesday — Wednesday — Thursday — Friday — Audience scene’. Blair-Brown was: ‘starts at the end, goes back, tells the story for two-thirds, then goes back’. I lock onto a structure like an infant looking at colours and shapes. Once I’ve got that I’ll never deviate from it.”

Second, although he has written a lot about real people, often living ones, he has a clear mission to be, as he said at LFF, “truthful rather than accurate”. What matters is to create characters that feel plausible, in a world that feels convincing. He told The Times, “My aim is to illustrate the truth underlying a character,” sometimes through the way they speak but often through small details. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Morgan explained how he’d imagined Frost: “The image I had of him was Frost on Concorde, at 55,000ft, living eight days a week and Nixon in some sort of cave of exile. It was the defining thing. This image of the one guy circumnavigating the globe in a ludicrous soundtrack of success. He’d have a glass of Cristal in his hand, a cigar cos you could smoke and drink yourself senseless at the time”. And while every real life story involves a great deal of research — how does the Prime Minister telephone the Queen? — the emotional heart of the film may be entirely fictitious, like the almost mystical communion between the Queen and the stag, or the drunken midnight phone call that Nixon makes to Frost. 

Third, he understands that everyone’s a hero to themselves — and that nobody is perfect. His heroes are flawed, his villains sympathetic, so the audience is continually engaged. As he wrote about The Queen, “My screenplay leaves you in no doubt that I think the Queen is a cold, bigoted, uncompromising, distant person you wouldn’t particularly want as a parent. However, the film is about her being hurt and because we are often hurt there’s a shared humanity.” You rarely know what Morgan thinks, but you always know what his characters feel. 

Fourth, he’s brilliant at tackling big ideas through intimate stories. The Queen is a story about the British people’s complex relationship with the monarchy. Longford is about, in Morgan’s words, “the compassion of judgement”. The Clinton/Blair movie is about Britain’s relationship with America. These are big, bold, complex subjects, but Morgan keeps them at a human level, so the movies always feel like drama, never like debate. Every scene is rigorously argued, but feels emotionally alive. 

Above all, he’s hugely entertaining. Morgan’s one of the funniest writers around, particularly in The Queen, but also in even more potentially perilous material, like his screenplay for The Last King of Scotland, written with Jeremy Brock. A lot of screenplays are emotionally monotonous, continually playing the same note. Morgan’s dart and sparkle, full of light and shade. And he treats every story as a thriller — you will always want to know what happens next.

Right now though, my big question is: who’s going to play Bill Clinton?

The craft of … George Orwell

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Orwell has long been a hero of mine, for a number of different reasons. There’s his personal courage in the Spanish Civil War; his brilliant understanding of the nature and methods of fascism – and indeed all kinds of fundamentalism; and the number of his ideas and phrases that still resonate today: Big Brother, doublethink, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” and many more. Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular now feels like a primer for the so-called (and how Orwell would have mocked the phrase) war on terror, and Big Brother’s mantra “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” like an epitaph for the presidency of George W Bush. 

But what makes Orwell particularly relevant to Mastersvo is his dedication to rigorous thinking and clear language. In his classic essay Politics and the English Language Orwell outlined some of the ways in which language can be used as a weapon of persuasion, deception and obfuscation. “If thought can corrupt language,” he wrote, “then language can also corrupt thought”. Good writing, on the other hand, should be “like a windowpane”: you should be able to look through it to see exactly what is being written about. This is especially important in screenwriting, which gives you only very limited verbal tools to bring an entire visual, aural and emotional world to life, and where every image has to count towards the story. So here are Orwell’s six rules towards good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

You can now read Orwell’s daily diaries as a blog, thanks to the Orwell Trust.

The craft of … Billy Wilder

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Double Indemnity. Sunset Boulevard. Ace in the Hole. Stalag 17. Sabrina. The Seven Year Itch. Witness for the Prosecution. Some Like It Hot. The Apartment. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. How many film-makers made five this good, let alone ten? There’s nothing you can say about Wilder that he didn’t say better; so here, straight from the master, are his tips for writers.
  1. The audience is fickle.
  2. Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
  3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  4. Know where you’re going.
  5. The more subtle and elegant  you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is the first act.
  7. A tip from Lubitsch. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
  8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees.  Add to what they are seeing.
  9. The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then-
  11. -that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Truth and fiction

It’s not just Austrian actors who’ve had trouble with knives this week. Just in case we were in danger of placing too much trust in politicians, the Home Office has been accused of unnecessary creativity in its trumpeting of success against knife crime. Thankfully Chris Dillow has written this gleeful deconstruction of some of the ways in which crime statistics can be made to say whatever you want them to. 

There’s a general assumption that people who work with numbers are sensible, rational and factual, while people who work with words and pictures are emotional, irrational and unpredictable. But in reality the logic of a story — or a scene — has to be worked through as thoroughly as any mathematical equation. In his book Bambi vs. Godzilla David Mamet sums up this challenge brilliantly:

The filmed drama (as any drama) is a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal, so that he … is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants. […] To write a successful scene, one must stringently apply and stringently answer the following three questions:

1. Who wants what from whom?

2. What happens if they don’t get it?

3. Why now?

This process has to fit both strands of the double helix that makes up the DNA of drama: character and plot. As with statistics, you can try to massage one strand or another to fit the answer that you want; unlike statistics, you’re very unlikely to get away with it. This is because (a) we’ve all seen a vast number of stories, and (b) most people have near perfect pitch for emotional truth, which is why we find ourselves yelling at the screen: “She’d never do that!” or “Those two would never fall in love!”. As Billy Wilder said of the audience, “An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together — that is critical genius”. 

This stringent working through of a scene to find its emotional truth is as true of the wildest fantasy as it is of so-called realism, which is one reason why most superhero movies are so unsatisfying. It’s also the real secret behind Disney’s success: they have always understood that the desires and motivations of a candlestick have to be just as well developed as those of a mermaid. Ultimately, every scene in every film is there to make a case: why the audience should care what happens next. This case has to be argued as convincingly and truthfully as possible, or the audience is gone. 

Or, to put it another way: Facts are easy. Truth is hard.

The craft of … Elmore Leonard

 

The author of The Big Bounce, Out of Sight and Get Shorty, Elmore Leonard is one of our greatest living genre writers. His work has often been adapted for film, partly because of his strong plotting but equally due to his whipsmart dialogue, which transfers beautifully to the screen. Here are Leonard’s famous Ten Rules on writing:

Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle by Elmore Leonard

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.