Thursday, March 5, 2009

Swing For The Fences!

I hate sports metaphors because they are always so cliche. But this particular one - "swing for the fences" - was the one that came to mind when I read a script for a friend recently. For those of you who don't know (it's a big world, gang, and not everyone loves/knows sports), "swing for the fences" is a baseball phrase that means to try to hit the baseball as hard and far as you can, rather than just safely connecting with the ball.


The script I read reminded me of the thousands of scripts that safely try to connect with the ball. They are solid and well-crafted, but offer no distinctive voice or perspective - nor add anything new to the language of cinema. There's nothing that can't be found in these scripts that can't be found in a thousand other scripts. It makes me wonder why someone would apply their time, energy, talent and/or skill to such mediocrity.

Maybe because that's exactly what commercial Hollywood likes to make. However, they HATE to admit it. They like to believe they are making something fresh and exciting (and every once in awhile, important). So, when you hand them something mediocre, they immediately dismiss it as derivative, because indeed it is. Too many filmmakers use other films as their creative reference point, rather than other art forms and/or life experiences.

Commercial Hollywood would MUCH rather gobble up your wildly original screenplay, and then hire a bunch of overpaid hack rewriters to turn it into derivative drivel that they can call their very own. You see, it's not derivative work they hate, it's just YOUR derivative work they hate. They seem to be endlessly pleased with their own.

So, whether you want to play in the commercial Hollywood world or if you want to make truly original, meaningful films, you have to "swing for the fences" in your writing - or in the scripts you look to develop or direct. You have to have a script in hand that is original in a way that still speaks clear cinematic language, but with a unique and stunning syntax of its own. Then, you can collect the bucks while you sit back and watch commercial Hollywood desecrate it. Or, you may get lucky and become the next Charlie Kaufman - writing and making distinctive, but odd and overly-intellectualized quirks of cinematic art that "name" actors adore (and therefore help get his pictures made - until studios realize they don't make any money). Or you may get to realize your films as written, with all of its distinctive brilliance intact.

But exactly how do we "swing for the fences" in our scripts? Well, you need to be fluent in a couple of key things. First off, it's important to know where the fence is - you need to know the type of film/genre you are creating and it's particular language and history. How can you know if you are creating something original if you don't know what's come before? Just because it is seems to come from you - and no where else that you are conscious of - doesn't always make it original. Our aesthetics are informed by so many cultural influences, we have no idea how much of it is our own distinctive perspective and how much is the cultural zeitgeist (which is often simply the product of effective marketing). You need to truly have some tangible knowledge of the kind of film you are making - where it's been aesthetically and why it is there (why its particular "rules" exist), if you are going to move beyond those aesthetics or even subvert them.

Secondly, you need to understand your own aesthetic....or, even more importantly, your own deep impulses/obsessions/fantasies/dreams, etc. What are the kinds of things that seize hold of your mind? What are they when realized to the extreme? Can they be integrated into a "story"? What do you know about yourself that others don't? What excites you that doesn't seem to excite anybody else? What embarrasses you? These distinctive quirks - which may seem to alienate you from others - are exactly the things you need to find that extra bit of power to push the ball over the fence - meaning, to give your script the originality it needs to stand out amongst the thousands of others. You really need to dig around inside yourself for these treasures. Or, if you are capable of working intuitively, just "let go" and allow them to come out.

For example, when I was growing up, I was plagued by apocalyptic dreams/nightmares. And they would recur throughout my life in times of high stress (I don't have them often, anymore, thank goodness). A multitude of doomsday scenarios would play out in my sleep - always leaving me shaken when I awoke - and strangely embarrassed. Now those dreams are perfect fodder for my latest script and serves it on many levels - psychologically (for the main character - not me), visually and thematically. When I first conceived of the idea and began working on the treatment, I wasn't even consciously thinking of those dreams. I was just exploring a sort of existential angst and a contradictory attraction/fear of chaos that played out in my relationships. Those dreams just organically appeared in the development of the main character and, eventually, in the story.

You don't always have to know exactly what's going on inside of you. In fact, it is often better if you don't, so your work is not too "controlled", schematic or self-conscious. But if what is deep and distinctive about you is not spilling forth organically, you need to get down inside yourself and dig it out. You can try what I do, sometimes - to literally sit with a pad and pen (not a computer) and list all of the things you think are "weird" about yourself. List your darkest, most shameful thoughts/fantasies. List your obsessions and excesses. Your weird dreams. Your paranoid ideas. Your embarrassing moments. But don't just list the dark stuff, also list the things about yourself that you find distinctly charming or funny or sublimely ridiculous. And if none of that seems too "extreme" or unique, play them out in your head to some logical (or illogical) extreme - then write it down again. If you start to feel foolish about doing this, remind yourself that some of the stuff on that list will provide the power in your "swing". It will allow you to take a script you've written or otherwise control and push it to the next level. Remind yourself that your creative and/or professional life depends on your ability to do this.

That said, there are obviously plenty of places for well-intentioned mediocrity because we see it in movies and on t.v. - ad nauseum. And if you continue to create well-intentioned mediocrity, you might possibly outlast the millions of other mediocrity-creators and forge a career for yourself doing mediocre t.v. and/or movies. But if you aspire to more than that, then you need to know where the fence is (by understanding the structure, language and history of your film type/genre), and give yourself the power to knock the ball over it (by exploiting your distinctive aesthetic/neuroses/charm). Then, step up to the plate and create a script that will leave them stunned, excited, angry, confused, offended, heart-broken, elated...and/or, in any other way, DEEPLY AFFECTED.

Only then can you truly forgive my bad sports cliche. And only then can you create work that really means something....most of all, to yourself.