To explain, I’m in the midst of a rewrite on a project I feel passionately about, one I believe is my best writing to date. It’s honest and direct with a very distinct voice, MINE!
So why the headache?
Because one is always contending with that other voice, the critic’s. And the best critics of all are your friends, who actually do care about your wellbeing, who want you to express yourself, accomplish your goals, and above all be heard. But when one of them says what I’m writing about “isn’t on the page” my knees go a bit weak.
And this is not the first time I’ve been accused of things not being “on the page” either, which is probably why it hurts.
But you know what? Screw that!
I am writing as a director and I see it all perfectly inside my head. It does work. It is right. Ok, so I’m not exactly following form in a stereotypical manner, resisting tried and true approaches, squeezing traditional structure into something more befitting my vision. But excuse me for seeing the world in a very particular way.
Two of these friendly critics were arguing with me lately that in films the key moments in the characters’ journeys are like boulders thrust in their way. I argued that life doesn’t actually function that way, that most of the time we learn from a series of pebbles rather than boulders. The cumulative effect of so many pebbles is that which ideally allows us to learn. And most of the time our lessons are small, our progress minimal. I don’t know about you, but I’m still waiting for that profound change in attitude that most films suggest happens with a bang at the end of Act 2 when the character finally realizes the error of their ways. I’ve realized the error of my ways many times, but that hasn’t prevented me from making the same mistakes over and over and over. And if there is anyone out there who can honestly argue otherwise, then I really want to meet you.
So what about the boulders? And why shouldn’t I write about the more honest pebbles?
My friends argue that films are short: a mere 90 minutes to make your point, as opposed to life that drudges on and on and on. That is clearly why we need the boulders. They allow for a shorthand so audiences can understand what’s happening. The many pebbles are still there, just coalesced into a clearer depiction of the main “problem.” Voila! A boulder.
Are audiences really that dumb that they can’t understand a reflection of life unless it’s a boulder crashing down on them?
Why all of a sudden am I hearing a resounding “Yes” traveling across the ether?
Our audiences will be as smart as we let them. Not that most films allow for that. Even many of the recent so-called arthouse indie flicks that claim to be much smarter are pandering to their audiences, presenting “precious” boulders rather than a truer representation of life.
Am I being too European?
I’ve lived in the US longer than anywhere else, and certainly long enough to recognize that the people around me are just as sensitive, just as flawed, just as down to earth and ordinary as anyone anywhere. We all have the capacity to recognize the pebbles in both our lives and those of others around us. Americans are just as aware of the small, simple lessons as any “European”. So can we finally do away with this American/European debate? If anything, it only promotes an attitude of American inferiority.
So why does our culture teach us that we can only respond a certain way in film? Or worse, that now that the film/audience relationship has been established, the American viewer can never learn anything different.
I’m not saying my script doesn’t need work. The end of Act 2 is indeed problematic. I have still to figure out a richer, truer, emotional arc for a couple of secondary characters. Act 3 doesn’t flow organically, as I’m seeing the finishing line and rushing across it prematurely, important emotional beats abandoned in my mad dash for the end.
So I am frustrated. But above all, I’m reckoning with that divide between what has been acceptable fodder for film, and the way I actually see the world. And even though I’m just one man, with only one point of view, I believe that my point of view is just as acceptable as any traditional approach to storytelling. And I will tell this story the way I see it, critics notwithstanding.
Because despite challenging me and pointing out my artistic shortcomings, these friends of mine recognize what I am setting out to do. They recognize the pebbles. And that encourages me to keep moving forward to tell the best damn story I can. My way.
And I can’t wait to defend my choices to investors!