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Superman, Without Kryptonite, Would Just Be a Dick

Amy and I went to see a fascinating panel discussion last night at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, which is a big, magnificent, old-fashioned movie house buried inside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences building on Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills. I guess you could call it a multimedia presentation, because there were people on stage talking and there were film clips on the big screen. Technically what it was was the annual Marvin Borowsky Lecture on Screenwriting, which the academy has been presenting since 1974. It’s usually a lecture by a single, well-known screenwriter or screenwriting duo. (Although it’s an annual presentation, Bruce Davis, who introduced it, said that they’ve had to skip it some years because screenwriters just aren’t that reliable about sticking to these sorts of commitments.) Past lecturers have included Nora Ephron, Robert Towne, Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond, John Sayles, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandell, Kevin Smith, and Paul Haggis. This year, perhaps keeping the unreliability of screenwriters in mind, they had three writers give brief lectures followed by a panel discussion. The writers were Susannah Grant (Erin BrockovichThe Soloist) talking about writing screen bios, Ehren Kruger (The RingTransformers 2) talking about writing for CGI effects, and Andrew W. Marlowe (Air Force OneThe Hollow Man, and currently showrunner on Castle) talking about writing action films. There were clips from most of those films to illustrate the lectures, a group discussion afterwards, and an opportunity for the audience to ask questions. (I didn’t think of one until we were on the way home.)

It was terrific, which didn’t surprise me. Professional writers are always, almost by definition, articulate. They have to be, because otherwise no one would pay for their words. They’re also almost always funny. I’m not sure why that is — Amy thinks it’s because screenplays always need some humor — but I think it’s just that a sense of irony comes with the territory. You couldn’t survive long as a writer, especially in Hollywood, without a sense of irony.

I couldn’t begin to summarize the whole thing, so I’ll just hit on a few high points, starting with some quotes (which are very much QFM, because I wasn’t taking notes like the guy sitting on my left was):

Susannah Grant: “This advice is only going to apply to about half the audience: Don’t wear a bra.” (She meant while writing, of course.)

Ehren Kruger: “I’ve written 35 screenplays, of which 35 use CGI effects. You might expect me to have an opinion about CGI. Well, I have two. The first is that, with CGI effects, we can now do anything. The second is something my mother told me when I was leaving for college: ‘Just because you can do anything doesn’t mean you should.'”

Andrew W. Marlowe: “People respond to flaws. Superman, without kryptonite, would just be a dick.”

Marlowe probably had the pithiest things to say about actual story construction. He takes his inspiration from a book he read when he was a child called That’s Good, That’s Bad, which basically went like this: “‘I was attacked by a man-eating tiger.’ ‘That’s bad!’ ‘But I swung away on a vine.’ ‘That’s good!’ ‘But the vine turned out to be a snake.’ ‘That’s bad!’ ‘But I jumped off the snake and landed in soft sand.’ ‘That’s good!’ ‘But it was quicksand.'” And so on. He showed a couple of clips from Air Force One that illustrated the continuing reversals, often occurring within seconds of one another. (Susannah Grant said that the version of that book she’d had as a child was called Fortunately, Unfortunately. Ehren Kruger joked that his was called That’s Bad, That’s Bad. Marlowe said that he could see that in Kruger’s movies, then when the audience laughed had to explain that he hadn’t intended it as an insult.)

There was also discussion (again from Marlowe) about knowing who your character is, what he/she wants, and what’s keeping him/her from getting it. (Aaron Sorkin, in an interview I read with him the other day, refers to this as “intention and obstacle.”) There were also comments on my least favorite piece of writing advice: Write about what you know. At the beginning there were clips of various screenwriters giving out pithy, often contradictory pieces of advice and Eric Roth (Forrest GumpThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button) said, “I’m not going to tell you to write what you know because I’m sure you’ve already been told that. I don’t think anyone can write about anything other than what they know. What I tell people is to write about something you didn’t know you were interested in until now.” When the question of “Write what you know” came up during the Q&A at the end, Susannah Grant said, basically, that young writers take this to mean that they should write about their own lives and that the first thing they have to do is get over their belief that anyone else will find this interesting.

There was even a reference to my favorite songwriter, Stephen Sondheim. Ehren Kruger was talking about playing with the audience’s expectations and subverting them. As an example he used his screenplay for The Ring. It’s been several years since I sawThe Ring and my memory of it is hazy, but apparently it ends with a reversal, where what looks like the expected happy ending suddenly turns out to be a horrible ending. He said that he’s seen audience members get up and start walking out before the surprise ending, thinking the movie’s over, and wanted to yell at them, “No! Go back! It’s not over yet!” Andrew Marlowe joked, “Those must be the same people who leave the theater after the first act of Into the Woods.”

Some of you reading this may be wondering if our attending this lecture means I’m working on a screenplay. No, I think at this point I’m too old to break into screenwriting. But if somebody asked me to write one — and offered to pay me for it — I’d be all over that thing like zombies on a horse.

(If you saw Sunday night’s debut of AMC’s The Walking Dead, you’ll get that last reference.)

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About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and two cats, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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