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Complications Ensue:
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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ori and Rom Brafman's SWAY: THE IRRESISTABLE PULL OF IRRATIONAL BEHAVIOR is a smart little think book about the many ways in which people stick to an idea after the evidence has turned against it. For example, it's very hard for people to accept a loss now in order to avoid a bigger loss later. (See Vietnam War. See also first impressions.)

The book quotes an interesting study in which men told they were talking to a pretty woman on the phone thought she was also funnier, more sociable, warmer, etc. (They had been given fake photos, half of pretty women, half of plain women.) That's not surprising, but then, when other men listened only to the woman's responses after the first men's voices were edited out, without any indication whether she was pretty or not, the second group of men found the "pretty" women to be funnier, more sociable, warmer etc. In other words, if men think you're pretty you start acting pretty.

I read these books for fun, but I can always winkle out a nugget of screenwriting advice. The Brafmans tell a story about Intel in the '80s, when it was starting to lose money in its core business of computer memory chips.
Grove related, "I was in my office with Intel's chairman and CEO, Gordon Moore... Our mood was downbeat. ... Then I turned back to Gordon and asked, 'If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?" Gordon answered without hesitation. "He would get us out of memories." I stared at him, numb, then said, "Whey shouldn't you and I walk out the door, come back, and do it ourselves?"

One of the hardest things to do for a writer is abandon the creative path he's been pursuing when he gets a great but radical note. It means accepting a loss now (you have to junk parts of the script, or even the whole script) in order to head off a bigger loss later (the script doesn't get bought). Any time I get a great note, there's a part of me that thinks, "Damn you! You couldn't have just suggested I tweak the dialog?"

Part of the skills you learn as a writer (or any other creative thinker) are mental. You train yourself to accept radical notes. You train yourself to seek them out. Otherwise you're just polishing a rotten piece of wood.

It's useful to ask, "If I were just arriving on the scene and were given the choice to either jump into this project as it stands now or pass on it, would I jump in?" If the answer is no, then chances are we've been swayed by the hidden force of commitment.
I repeatedly took Richard Marks's editing class at UCLA. He had an amazing ability to look at a film and not remember any of the times he'd seen it before. So he could be confused who the characters were, if the current version had failed to set them up properly. Likewise, one of the skills you want to develop is the ability to read your own script as if you've never seen it before, tracking what the audience knows, what they're thinking, what they're rooting for, what they're scared of. Not knowing where it's going.

That's why it's sometimes good to let a project lay fallow. I'm currently rewriting a pair of screenplays that I hadn't touched in a year. It's amazing how much clearer their flaws become. But if you don't have the perspective of time, someone else's feedback can draw your attention to those flaws. That's why it's so important to listen to all criticisms. Your readers have the perspective you have usually lost.

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Interesting post. I'm getting the book.
-- Paul

By Blogger Paul Worthington, at 6:44 PM  

I think leaving your own work on the wayside for months - if not years- can be one of the best things if you have no other resources to go to with your script / pitch. I have on numerous occasions gone back to old scripts years after and realized how rubbish a specific idea was. It's a real eye opener.
That being said, what would you suggest to a budding Canadian screenwriter who is looking for guidance and support?
Are there any mentors one could approach? Perhaps organizations dedicated to helping out the scriptwriting comminity?


By Blogger Unknown, at 11:16 AM  

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