EARLIEST SCREENWRITING MEMORIES

I am not from a movie family. Not only did no one I knew growing up ever work on a movie, no one I knew particularly liked movies, until my brother’s high school girlfriend started showing up with VHS copies of Bogart and Cary Grant films. What stoked my imagination were books about history, visits to the local historic sites, and my other brother’s copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.

The cinema, when I was able to go to one, usually meant a kids’ matinee such as The Apple Dumpling Gang or Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. None of the films were quite as thrilling as a visit to Washington’s Crossing – except for Beneath the Planet of the Apes, of course. The only times I remember attending a film with my entire family were the day we saw a matinee of The Pink Panther Strikes Again at the New Jersey State Museum, a night we went to a drive-in to see The Jungle Book and I promptly passed out before it began, and the night we drove up to Princeton for a revival screening of The Producers. Watching my father laugh convulsively at Dick Shawn auditioning to play Hitler was my first clue that cinema was a bodily experience, something I didn’t experience till college.

There, I thought the programmer at the Rutgers Film Co-op, Al Nigrin, was some kind of wizard with extraordinary taste. Years later I realized his choices were really a part of an already established repertory – or perhaps were becoming repertory because of pioneers such as Nigrin – but I loved Princess Tam Tam, Persona, and I Walked With a Zombie. I still believe that the first time you see a great film, you don’t know why you love it. Cinema can be so overwhelming that, if the writer and director do their jobs properly, the seams don’t show.

It’s at home, on the underwhelming small screen, where you first notice the internal logic. Even before computers started replacing TVs, before DVR, long before I fell into the habit of interrupting Mad Men to check IMDB on my phone, when TV was still just TV, it was still easier to see the hand, or the typing hands, behind the story than it was on the big screen. The lights were on. Commercial breaks came. Taking a breather and filling one another in on the story was permissible. You didn’t simply feel a movie in your body and then get your head around it on your way home from the cinema; you felt it, if to a lesser extent, and figured it out as it went along.

So, it’s no surprise that by the time I loved a movie I’d already had my first two screenwriting memories from the small screen. One night I was left alone to watch the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers. The network was billing it as a Faye Dunaway vehicle, but it was full of stars, directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, etc.) and adapted by the writer George MacDonald Fraser, who would go on to write Octopussy. In the first minutes, D’Artagnan prepares to leave his village to go to Paris, and his father, with some fanfare, takes his grandfather’s sword out of a chest, and as he wishes his son good luck implies that his best hope for safety is to use the sword wisely. Within minutes of arriving in the capital, D’Artagnan gets into a fight, and the first time his sword clanks against another it breaks cleanly in half.

I could see that I’d been played! D’Artagnan was screwed, sure, but I’d been played, and I fell for it. All that effort building the importance of that sword, it occurred to me, was someone’s idea to show me how desperate this guy would become.

A good story starts when things go wrong, when what the hero thought was his best asset is proven completely inadequate, and his only hope is to become a better kind of hero.

The other memory was watching WKRP in Cincinnati with my father. In this particular episode a committee of picketing seniors was occupying the radio station. One had lost her cat and spent the middle third of the show coming on and off frame looking for it. I was still quite young, and by this time I’d forgotten all about the cat. When the hub-bub receded, Mister Carlson had returned to his office, and it seemed like God was in heaven and the station owner was about to put his feet up at his desk. My father said, “Watch, he’ll sit on the cat.” Sure enough: Meow. Cut to the credits.

“How is my father so clairvoyant?” I marveled, but he wasn’t. He’d seen hundreds of half-hour comedies by then, and listened to hundreds before that on the radio. I could see for the first time that there was a logic to story-telling. A right way to introduce an element (a “plant,” we’d call it) and then a proper amount of time to let it sit while the viewer forgets about it, before the pay-off. The auteur of a story, it seemed to me, was the alchemist who made something out of nothing by inventing things like that and putting them on a page. The rest was just execution.

These were just the earliest, BC memories: Before Cinema. After I started loving films, the moments started piling up, but even before I loved them I knew that a writer was at the heart of every good one.

Charlie

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