Interview: Tracy Letts
Source: @Slant_Magazine @AddisonDeTwitt
#screenwriting #playwriting #story
"You know you’re dealing with an assertive artist when he’s the one who starts the interview. Before I even sit down to speak with Tracy Letts, the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning actor-playwright known for conceiving and adapting works like Bug and Killer Joe, he’s already grilling me about Slant's not-so-ecstatic recaps of Homeland, a series on which Letts starred this season as the shady Senator Andrew Lockhart. Apparently, Letts doesn’t miss a bit of press that’s linked to his work, nor does he blindly speak to outlets without doing a little digging. Though always perfectly respectful, Letts is direct, and forthcoming, which should really be no surprise given the uninhibited stories he’s put his name to.
Having penned the screenplays for Bug and Killer Joe, two indelible bits of mind-fuckery that teamed the author with William Friedkin, Letts is now unleashing his adaptation of his most personal piece, August: Osage County, the film version of which marks a partnership with director John Wells—not to mention a monumental cast. Though a far cry from the Friedkin collaborations, August: Osage County is similarly no-holds-barred, dropping the viewer amid a venom-spitting brood inspired by Letts’s own family.
A sensation when it stormed Broadway in 2007, the story of August: Osage County takes place in Letts’s home state of Oklahoma, and it’s infused not just with the drama of dysfunction, but a Midwestern history with which he’s all too familiar. The man behind the narrative that’s now led to heavy awards buzz (particularly for leading ladies Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts), Letts discussed the story’s Native American themes, his opinion that his own mother, Billie Letts, is “a goddamned liar,” and, more than anything, the limits of control. That is, of course, after addressing those recaps.
Don’t we continually get bad reviews on Slant from the guy who writes the episode recaps for Homeland?
You might! One of our writers does recap the show on our blog. But, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t read those pieces, because I’m behind on this season of Homeland and I’m avoiding spoilers.
Yeah, well, I’ve read them. I read it all. I’m shameless. I read everything.
Oh yeah? Well, I do know that we at the site are fans of movies based on your work, like Bug and Killer Joe. Slant really digs Killer Joe.
Great. Glad to hear it.
Speaking of which, since Bug, Killer Joe, and August: Osage County are so different, I’ve been trying to think of how they connect thematically, and what I’ve come up with is this element of control—people trying to control their worlds via their bodies, shady deals, self-medication, even family. Is the issue of control something you consciously try to explore?
Oh man, that’s such a good question, and I haven’t had that question before, because I haven’t really had anyone pay that much attention to the works in total. I don’t know. Perhaps I just think it’s the stuff of drama, but perhaps it’s something from my own life as well. I mean, I’ve been sober for over 20 years, and I’m a subscriber of AA and its philosophies. So there probably is something in there about my belief that a certain giving up of control is good for the soul. I certainly think that, in August: Osage County, that moment in the play when Barbara insists she’s “running things now” was always a choice moment for the audience, and it’s in the film as well. And I think it taps into something that people feel, particularly in regard to their families: “Oh my god, if you would just do what I want you to do we’d be so much better off. If you’d just behave the way I feel you should behave.” As opposed to allowing people to make…..”
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A screenwriter’s checklist: Do you have a game plan for 2014 to jumpstart your career?
#screenwriting #film #story
"Another year winds down and hopefully it’s been a successful one for you as you pursue a screenwriting career. It’s always a powerful tool to look back over the year and critically analyze the good, the bad and the ugly choices you’ve made. Hopefully, you’ve learned from your failures and enjoyed your successes. Excuses abound, but what really matters is how productive have you been? Room for improvement? Have you become a better screenwriter and have you been able to move yourself and your projects down the field? Have you opened doors and gained new “fans” of your writing? Have you been able to gain and hold new ground? Established new relationships and contacts? Created a solid body of material in a genre to show your unique voice?
The responsibility for a screenwriter’s career begins and ends with the screenwriter. The hard fact: Your screenwriting career is probably the most important struggle to you and not to anyone else. Only you know the hard work and sacrifices you’ve endured to go after your dream, so you need to protect your career path by taking responsibility for chartering the course of your career. Your time is precious and you need to constantly be moving forward and avoid the pitfalls of poor choices and negative experiences.
Too many times, I’ve heard screenwriters blame others for their own missteps or lack of success in Hollywood. Some writers look for the quick and easy way to success, but end up frustrated when their one script doesn’t sell, they have no other plans and they are not working on new material. Sure, it’s easier to soften the blow to blame the agent, manager, producer, or Hollywood itself for not getting your film made, but screenwriters need to step up and take more control over their choices.
Every time you write a new project on spec, you must consider how it fits into the bigger picture of your screenwriting goals. It’s a risk when you write a spec and you are rolling the dice with your precious time. Did you just have a “fun idea” for a movie and thought it would sell, so you decided to…..”
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Writing Pictures- The Classic Screenwriters: Carl Mayer
by Robin Bailes
When The Artist was nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay there were people (and I know some of them) who said it was ridiculous because the film had no dialogue, an attitude which shows a complete lack of understanding of how cinematic storytelling works. Cinema is a visual medium and the most essential ability for any screenwriter is to be able to tell a story with pictures. We all know however that large chunks of stage direction can be daunting to readers. So how do you make your visual storytelling come to life on the page? Well, you could do worse than to check out the work of one of the great screenwriters of the silent era; Carl Mayer.
Mayer is best remembered for his first film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and for his many collaborations with F. W. Murnau, and although Mayer did not write Murnau’s most famous work (Nosferatu), their films together include some of the best of the late silent era. Mayer wrote 7 of Murnau’s 21 films including Sunrise, voted by Cahier du Cinema as the single greatest masterwork in the history of cinema, and The Last Laugh, which has no dialogue titles at all so the visuals carry the entire narrative.
In Murnau, Mayer certainly found an ideal interpreter for his ideas, prior to The Last Laugh he had written other title-free films (notably Scherben and Sylvester for director Lupu Pick) but they did not work as well. The great achievement of The Last Laugh is not so much that you can follow it despite the absence of the titles, but that you barely notice the absence. Mayer’s work needed a great director to visualise it but it is taking nothing away from Murnau to say that Mayer was a huge factor in the success of their films. Indeed you can see how much Mayer influenced the director in the fact that Murnau made notes on the scripts of other writers in the distinctive Mayer style.
That style is the secret to Mayer’s success. He does not describe a scene per se, he tells you what you will see as a string of single images, which is of course what cinema is. To an extent he is in fact directing the scene. He wrote in brief staccato phrases, using punctuation descriptively rather than grammatically, making his scripts read like expressionist poetry, and yet their meaning is always clear. Take this excerpt from his script for the film Tartuffe;
But! Coming down the first stair:
like a shadow: almost indistinguishable.
Yes. There he stands.
Just a black shape.
Describing this in complete sentences would not only take more space but would lose much of the atmosphere. By using a question mark after ‘Tartuffe’, Mayer lets the reader know that the audience should not immediately recognise the character. The alternative would be to say ‘At first it’s just a shadowy figure but then we recognise Tartuffe’, an unwieldy and lengthy way of saying something Mayer coveys in one word. And it was not just visuals he painted, he used his unique style to express emotions in his characters as well, such as here in Schloss Vogelod;
She stays for a few more seconds. Then: She goes.
Silent. Calm. Heavy. Like lead. Now: The
Door: Then: the chatelaine. Alone.
The colons dictate the pace and thus the mood of the scene, while the description of the character’s movements says so much more than ‘sad’, ever could.
Though he wrote Murnau’s first two US films, Mayer did not move to the US with Murnau. After Murnau’s untimely death in 1931 Mayer made a successful transition into the sound era with a pair of films for director Paul Czinner. In 1932 the rise of the Nazi party forced him, as a Jew, to flee to England. He did mostly uncredited work on the scripts of others but seems never to have completed another script. He died of cancer in 1944 at the age of just 49, his contribution to film largely forgotten.
Mayer conveyed complex emotion and situations by use of image alone. I wouldn’t recommend emulating his style exactly, but there’s certainly a lesson in his ability to convey visual storytelling verbally. To my knowledge only two of Mayer’s scripts have been published, but they are worth tracking down for anyone with a serious interest in screenwriting.
Robin Bailes is a freelance writer with various credits on stage, page, screen and radio. He has 4 published stage shows, has written for 6 BBC radio shows, was a winner in the BBC’s Last Laugh sitcom writing competition and has a feature film in development with Andris Films. He is writer and presenter of the web-series ‘Dark Corners (of this sick world)’ and has written short stories for various publications both print and online. Robin is a passionate devotee of silent cinema has written a book on the subject called ‘Just As Good But Quieter’, for which he is currently seeking a publisher. Robin is currently available for paid writing work.
Catch up with Robin || website || twitter
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American Hustle (2013)
#screenwriting #film #story
"Spoiler alert: this breakdown divulges some of the plot.
American Hustle is a fun, if overly long, time at the movies. It uses all kinds of narrative smoke and mirrors to tell its classically American tale, but ultimately it’s a bit hollow inside.
To see how this film works, we have to begin by looking at its genres. American Hustle is a crime caper done as a black comedy, with a number of advanced story techniques thrown in for good measure. This is a great mix of genres, as the Coen brothers have shown over the years. The main problem here is that the writers don’t want or don’t know how to execute either genre the right way. So all kinds of potential is lost and we have a good movie, but not a great one.
A caper film, also known as a heist film, is one of the most plot heavy of
all genres. Not here. Yes, there is some complicated scamming going on, and some surprises at the payoff, as any self-respecting caper must have. But recognizable plot is missing from large portions of this film. Supposedly, co-writer and director David Russell has said he was interested in character, not plot. If so, he is making one of the biggest mistakes in story, thinking you can separate these two sides of the narrative coin, and ends up limiting both character and plot.
Black comedy, along with satire, is the most advanced of comedy sub-genres (see my Comedy Class for the story beats of all the comedy genres, including black comedy). It is the comedy of illogic and destructive systems, and it can be a profound form. But, for many reasons, it is notoriously difficult to pull off. First, the characters are all trapped in a system, which can make them reactive and anti-dramatic. Second, you have to define the details of the system, which is the true opponent of the story, while maintaining narrative drive.
American Hustle feels like Goodfellas lite, and while it is funnier than Goodfellas, it loses the comparison in almost every other way. Like Goodfellas, Hustle uses the storyteller flashback structure, but does it incorrectly. This structure, when done properly, begins in the present, just after the biggest dramatic event of the…..”
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