Some people say that success in Hollywood is determined solely by the quality of your work. Others maintain, "It all depends on who you know." The truth is, it's the quality of your work that determines who you get to know.
This column is about getting to know, and getting to work with, famous people.
Okay, so I figure there's no way to cover this topic without coming across like a name-dropping, holier-than-thou, look-who-we're-rubbing- elbows-with, grade-A jerk.
Hey. I can live with that. Let the e-mails and message posts begin.
'Cause y'see, the concept of these columns has always been to talk about stuff people really want to know. For myself, I'm intensely curious about big name famous folk. How are they different? What do they know that I don't? How did they get where they are? (And the usually unspoken, 'How can I get there, too?')
So as your intrepid reporter, I'm going to run down a list of more or less 'famous' people we've worked with, and see if I can recall at least one technique, observation, or insight learned from each.
Before we get to that, I can tell you a couple things, right off:
-- as a group, these are the most hard-working and dedicated people you will ever run across. There may be some pros who get by just on gobs of talent. I don't know any. The talent is always mixed with intense focus, effort, and commitment.
-- overall, these are exceptional human beings. Smart, capable, charismatic. They convey a sense of... completeness, somehow, as if they are filling up every little corner of their human potential. (It sounds corny, I know, but that's how it seems.)
-- these folk convey an air of things happening, and the ability to get things done. Like a racehorse at the gate, it seems as if every moment has the potential for sudden action. There are no delays, no hesitations... and no obstacles.
-- collectively, they seem to share a common attribute: the ability to focus completely on the task at hand. When they speak to you, you get the feeling that you're the most important person in the world (at least at that particular moment).
There are no mistakes, no flukes at the highest levels. With just one exception (and we'll get to that in a bit) every time I've ever worked with a famous person, I've come away with the thought -- "Yep, that person's success is deserved."
In fact, some of these folk are so downright impressive, it can be intimidating. Sit there in a story conference with Chuck Jones and what races through your head is, "Wow, I'm at a meeting with Chuck Jones. Hey. This is so cool." You get this impulse to point. "Look, there's Chuck Jones, right there, and he's talking to me. Wow." There are times when you really must resist the 'Garth and Wayne reaction' (re: column title, above).
Thankfully, eventually, meetings get going. Your eyes adjust to the glare of all that glamor, and you're back on solid ground --
I always assure first-time writers that they're already well-practiced at how to act in pitches and story meetings. It's just like all those post-movie parking-lot or coffee-shop discussions you've done a thousand times. You talk about what the film should've been, what they did wrong, what worked, how you would have done it better, etc. If the venue changes from parking lot to studio conference room, so what? And if it means telling Steven Spielberg he's wrong, dammit, all wrong! -- then that's what you do (before worries about potential damage to your career sink in).
It all sounds glamorous and exciting, I know. There's a perception that when you break into the movie business, you get to hang out with all these talented, famous folk and learn crucial, insider secrets on filmmaking and how the industry works.
Well, yeah, it's kinda true.
Oh, nobody ever takes you aside and actually tells you tricks of the trade. But if you keep your eyes and ears open, you can pick up quite a lot...
JOHN MUSKER, RON CLEMENTS: John is the tall, fast-talking one with the disconcerting minister's look-into-your-soul gaze. Ron is the quiet one, tugging on his beard in a secret language known only to fellow animators.
In story meetings on ALADDIN, Ron would make a distinction by asking the question: is the idea itself bad, or is the execution of the idea bad? Very often, poor execution can cause an essentially good idea to be missed. On the other hand, sparkling execution can cause you to hang onto a something that is essentially wrong (another version of 'kill your babies.') Ron also spoke of the necessity in a film for quiet, for scenes that are purely visual -- they allow the audience to process the information given, which helps them buy into the story more fully. Wall-to-wall exposition and action can leave an audience reeling, and exhausted.
One of the many things I learned from John Musker: there is a relationship between the simplicity of the intent of a scene, and the amount of fun you can have telling it. Simple scenes and plot moves are valuable, because it allows more freedom for characterization, more 'elbow room' in the telling. Complex story points eat up space, and can limit a sequence's entertainment value (unless the complexity itself is the attraction).
CHUCK JONES: Chuck had this advice, concerning raising kids: "'Why?'" he said, "is always an accusation. Don't ever ask your child 'Why did you do that?' As the he stares down at the broken vase, of course he doesn't know. Far better to ask, 'What happened?'" Jones said that this was true not only with children, but with adults as well. 'Why' was an agreed-upon off-limits word for his marriage, too. File that entry under, 'Not all the cool stuff you learn from movie people has to do with movies.'
ROGER AVARY: Co-writer of PULP FICTION, director of KILLING ZOE, wearer of shorts, T-shirts, and sandals. There's a saying in Hollywood: to assure your success, make sure that you're always the most passionate person in the room. Avary personifies that belief. He comes into the room like a force of nature, talking about the best movies ever made, the best directors, their best scenes, speaking persuasively and with absolute conviction.
Working on Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN, at one story meeting with a bunch of execs, Roger wanted to illustrate a point about sleep disorder patients and night terrors. He jumped up from his chair, laid down on a couch, and physically acted out the part, screaming and flopping around the conference room like an electrocuted fish. Yes, passion counts in this business.
SANDRA BULLOCK: We've only worked with Sandra in a development capacity -- and it turns out she's excellent, very 'good at story.' Her comments revealed to me that the acting process was perhaps not so different from the writing process -- she looked for ways for the characters to connect into the common experience of the audience. She focused on the emotional life of the characters, how they changed, and especially, the direction they were headed, and how that informed earlier choices. Working with her, I suppose it shouldn't be surprising, but I took away an appreciation for how actors look at their roles. (I think it was David Mamet who said, "All a writer can do is read books, and study acting.") Sandra was insistent that every character in the script have weight, have a point of view, some clear attitude to give the actor something to play. As writers, we may look at minor characters as functional chess pieces, aids in getting the story to happen. Sandra came to even the most minor characters from the point of view of the actors -- who would have to breath life into the role, make them unique, make them believable, make them real.
JOHN McTIERNAN: McTiernan's rule for exposition is so good it bears repeating: solve exposition problems by making the audience curious about your story. Once the audience is intrigued, you're no longer giving them exposition -- you're answering their questions.
MICHAEL EISNER: I just wanted to share a Michael Eisner story; you can make of it what you will. When Ted and I were working on A PRINCESS OF MARS for Disney, Ted fondly remembered a film he saw while in high school: SWASHBUCKLER, starring Robert Shaw. "Better than STAR WARS" was how he described it, so we wrangled a screening of the film at the old Disney animation building. It turned out that memory had been kind -- the fun parts of the film were great, but the parts that dragged really did drag (which allowed us to tease Ted mercilessly about his taste in movies, of course).
Before the screening, a friend of mine and I slipped out to find something to drink. The executive offices were down the hall -- dark, empty, but the glass doors weren't locked. We slipped in, kinda thrilled to be sneaking around in the hallowed halls of the big mouse. After stumbling around a bit, we found a well-stocked kitchen. We loaded up on drinks and chips, and my friend's hand was literally in a cookie jar when the light comes on -- and there's Michael Eisner, blinking, staring at us. And he's a tall guy, too.
So Eisner just smiles and shuffles forward. "Great minds think alike," he said. "Anything good in there?" So we told him what we were doing and hung out for a while. Now I know he's all mean and tough as nails in the corporate world -- but that night, his goofy side was on display, and we were all just a bunch of kids hanging out in the kitchen, kind of amazed to be left unsupervised for a while by the big folk, and enjoying every second.
BARRY SONNENFELD: What I learned from Barry is that humor is important and valuable not just in the script, but during the filmmaking process as well. There was an early special effects meeting on MEN IN BLACK. It was a three-way teleconference between Skywalker Ranch, Amblin' and New York. Typically, everyone was struggling with the budget -- where to find cuts, why certain shots were so expensive, etc. It was mentioned that part of the increased costs had to do with upgrading the computer equipment. "Riiiight," Barry deadpanned, "We wouldn't want to get stuck with those crummy computers they used on JURASSIC PARK." Everyone cracked up, and it broke the tension of the meeting. All things being equal, it's more fun to work with someone who has a good sense of humor. (If you're ever lucky enough to meet Barry, ask him to tell you what a 'silent schmuck' is -- you have to hear it from him, I could never do it justice.)
JAN De BONT: De Bont is one of those mysterious European artist type guys; the accent makes his English hard, but also creates a sense of style and class that an uncouth American can only envy. His reputation is that he is harsh on a set, which could be true; we've found him just as quick to smile and laugh.
When we sat down with Jan to go through our GODZILLA script, he worked with a story element I'd never considered, yet important when you think about it. Call it 'off screen movie time.' Jan paid close attention to what you could imply had just happened before the scene started, or was going to happen after the scene ended -- or what had taken place somewhere else while the scene you were watching was going on. He was very aware of what sort of events could be allowed to happen 'off screen' (important sections of the story that the audience didn't really care to see) and what things you had to show, or the audience would feel gypped.
(A quick example: Harrison Ford rummaging through the luggage on Air Force One for an interminable amount of time, searching for a cell phone, while bad guys stalk him with machine guns. I believe they tried to sustain this action through two cutaways; really, there needed to be something more for Ford to have done during the time away than just paw through coats.)
As a storyteller and director, Jan was concerned with filming just enough of the tips of the icebergs to convey the greater story underneath. It's almost as if an entire second movie takes place 'in between' the scenes you show -- like in prose writing, the unwritten meaning between the lines. The mark of a good movie is when as much happens off-screen as on-screen... and you don't miss it.
HARLAN ELLISON: Ellison once said, "All writers are essentially cowards. They'd rather face the page and battle mythical dragons and demons than go out and deal with the real world." It's something to keep in mind. How much of what we decide to do is out of design, and how much out of fear?
Growing up, I idolized Ellison's writing. He's one of the masters of science fiction. So the first time we meet, Ted and I are introduced as "The guys who wrote ALADDIN." Ellison looks at us, sticks out his hand and we shake. "You guys are great writers," he says. Of all the ways I ever imagined meeting Harlan Ellison, I never thought of that. Lesson learned: sometimes life is very, very odd.
TIM RICE: Once we suggested a lyric change to Tim Rice for a particular song. The new line was clearly better, in every way we could imagine. It made more sense, it was more thematically correct, it was more in keeping with the character. Tim didn't say he didn't like it... just pointed out that, because of the placement of vowels and consonants, it would be near impossible to sing. We were suggesting a line that looked great on the page, but didn't work for a song. Whoops. Lesson learned: hey, sometimes the pros really do know what they're doing.
Working with Tim, we realized there are two types of songs that can work in a musical or animated feature. The first is the song that reveals plot, or moves the story forward. Howard Ashman excelled at this, with the 'seduction' type song ("Poor Unfortunate Souls") and the action song ("Kill the Beast"). The second type song -- equally valid, and the type that Tim excels at -- is the 'exploration of the character moment' song ("I Don't Know How to Love Him"). When designing a musical, either type can be carved out of the story for a valid song moment.
ZAK PENN: Nice guys don't always finish last; up in front, well ahead of the pack, there's Zak, one of the most honorable people in the business, doing just fine. The great thing about Zak is that he steps into the room with the guts to take a position. Is the film a romance? Then play it like a romance, dammit. Is it a horror film? Then let's make it scary. Right? Where many writers can get bogged down in options and opinions and trade-offs and meandering, Zak is like a breath of fresh air.
For example, Zak's take on Godzilla: "Monsters should be scary. They should be more powerful than the humans around them. Godzilla should have been an unstoppable force, who just keeps coming, and coming. Instead, Godzilla gets shot at, turns and runs away, and hides. What kind of monster is that?" Zak's approach (as I see it) is to at least satisfy the conventions of the type of story you're telling, before you try to get fancy. It's okay to go beyond the conventions, but don't throw them out along the way.
TOM HANKS: We flew to Seattle for a late-night meeting with Hanks while he was shooting SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. Turns out Hanks is a fan of science fiction, and liked our PRINCESS OF MARS script. (Reportedly, he also controls the rights to STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and is a big Robert Heinlein fan. That's a movie I'd love to see.)
So, even though Hanks had a bad day with a particular actor ("Hooch gave me more than that guy does," he said) he still took the time and energy to meet for several hours and pitch us a film idea of his, and to listen to an idea of ours.
In the end, Hanks didn't connect to our stuff, and we didn't connect to his. But the experience is the best illustration of what seems to be true for most of these people: talent presumes generosity. He took the time to listen, to host the meeting, and to make us feel like we were the stars. Also, it's a testament to the power of a star: when you're the biggest box office attraction in the world, and you have an open assignment in a deal with Disney, you can get the studio to pay to fly up a couple of writers round-trip for a two-hour meeting, no problem.
DEAN DEVLIN: My favorite quote from Dean: "In this town, the ability to read a script well is as rare as the ability to write a script well."
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Novelist, screenwriter, Hugo Award winner, author of the great novel "Fevre Dream" and editor of the "Wild Card" series of books. Talking about how to adapt the Robert Heinlein story "By His Bootstraps," George spoke of how the story took advantage of the 'cloaking nature of prose.' The phrase always stuck with me as a key difference between prose-writing and screenwriting. In a novel, the delightful tension is created by the moving line of words; the trickle of information that is doled out just a little at a time, by words that are limited themselves in their ability to communicate. Films can't help but show it all. Stories, by nature (in both forms) depend on the 'reveal'; the challenge of movies, without the 'cloaking nature of prose' is to create the reveal through structure -- both the structure of the movie, and the structure of the scenes themselves.
JEFFREY KATZENBERG: Jeffrey is the consummate executive. He's always at the right place at the right time -- whether it's a charity event, the opening of a movie, giving a speech, an animation story meeting. I would find it easier to believe he's one of a set of triplets than to believe that, day in and day out, he keeps up the schedule that he does. Just one example: on the weekend that ALADDIN opened, he took time out to call on Sunday with the overnight numbers. Now, just think about that a second. Here's a busy studio executive who takes time out to call one of the screenwriters on the weekend, just to let them know a film's opening numbers.
Part of what makes Jeffrey such a great leader -- and what gets people to commit years of their lives to his cause -- is his willingness to work. When the guy who's working harder than anyone else asks you to do something, it's hard to answer no.
Also, I find Jeffrey to be one of the warmest and compassionate people I've ever met. Once I saw him come to the aid of a writer in a story meeting who was struggling to make a point. "Relax," he said, "You don't need to audition. You've got the job." Katzenberg has an amazing insight into human nature. He knew just what the writer was worried about, and just what to say. Knowing the human heart helps him not only in business, but it's the cornerstone of his creative instincts in story meetings.
The only small technique I can offer from hanging around with Katzenberg: one way he gets so much accomplished is he's eliminated 'ramp time' from his life. He comes into a meeting on the phone, finishes the call, and is ready. He doesn't need to warm up, or 'ramp up' to the meeting. And when it's done, he's out of his chair, off to the next thing -- he doesn't seem to need to unwind, or 'ramp down' afterwards. When you think about it, how much time do all of us spend just getting ready, or recovering afterwards? (Yeah, yeah, the joke is obvious: Jeffrey is all action, no foreplay or afterglow. But he gets the job done!)
MAURICE SENDAK: We're such fans of "Where the Wild Things Are," we named our 'under the bed' monster 'Maurice' in honor of Sendak. (In an odd coincidence, around the same time Bill Watterson dubbed an under-the-bed monster 'Maurice' in "Calvin & Hobbes" -- perhaps a tribute also?)
In our meeting with Sendak, he spoke about the importance of parents reading aloud to their children. "And it's not just about the words," he said. "It's the sitting together, how you smell, the rough texture of your beard, the reassuring sound and cadence of your voice. All that's important, too." File that under as the second entry under, 'Not all the cool stuff you learn from movie people has to do with movies.'
NEIL GAIMAN: Neil Gaiman is one of those men every man would like to be. Darkly handsome, successful, talented. We were working on a possible pitch to DreamWorks, and he spoke in terms of searching for suitable 'plot engines.' His idea was that plots need to do their work, they should be solid and effective -- but it's often the way the story that is told that is much more important. (In television terms, his 'engine' would be called the 'franchise' -- the reason why the character continues to get involved in stories.) Still, he made an important distinction between 'plot' (what happens) and 'story' (the way you tell the audience what happens).
Neil also talked about the idea of 'plot coupons,' which can be redeemed throughout the film; a series of small yet necessary steps the hero must take to keep the story moving forward.
One other thing about Neil. When the concept we were working on shifted away from how he thought it could best work -- which was as a comic book or television series -- his integrity radar went off, and he told us he didn't want to continue. We were disappointed, but I was impressed -- the lure of a movie deal held no fascination for him at all: his total focus was on what was best for the idea.
JON PETERS: At the opposite end of the scale is Jon Peters. He's the exception we mentioned earlier. Ted and I rarely speak ill of anyone... but... how this man continues to find work in this business escapes me. Working on Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN project, we started our pitch with the following: "So Burgess casts a spell, trying to capture the personification of DEATH -- but instead, gets the personification of DREAM (the Sandman) instead!" Peters didn't get it -- how could Death be a person? -- and we spent almost half an hour on just that sentence. The next half hour was spent with him telling us the opening seance should be people playing with a Ouija board. It was, as they say in the business, simply a dick-measuring contest. And it turns out, yes, Peters was the biggest dick.
ROBIN WILLIAMS: To see Robin Williams work is to realize that yes, there is such a thing called talent. Some people are truly unique, with abilities that seem almost suprahuman. In recording sessions you could see Williams had the ability to 'hold' one series of ideas in his head (the main dialog of the story) while another part of his brain played riffs and variations, different each time through.
It was oddly reassuring for me to realize that in some cases there is just simple raw ability -- and since there's nothing to be done about it, it's nothing to worry about. "Don't let what you can't do stand in the way of what you can," John Wooden said, and it's true. And it was good to see that not everything Williams tried worked -- and after playing with it a while, if he couldn't make it happen, he'd move on, confident in his talent, confident that he could find something else great down the line.
ELTON JOHN: We did a pitch meeting for Elton John, and for the first 20 minutes or so, he didn't seem all that interested... until we started talking about the music needs of the project. Then he brightened, started making suggestions, and got involved the story and the project very quickly. Big surprise, huh? How stupid were we? If we had thought about it, we would have brought up the music needs right off. Lesson learned: no matter how successful someone is, they probably still have love and passion for their own area of expertise, the thing that originally brought them into the business.
WALTER PARKES & LAURIE MacDONALD: Walter and Laurie are as about as close to royalty as Hollywood has these days. When they talk about the beautiful people, they mean all those actors and actresses -- and this husband and wife pair, 1998's ShowWest Producers of the Year. In meetings, Walter is the dominating alpha-male with the big hair; Laurie is the calm serene one, a sort of Greek goddess type, the true repository of wisdom. Between the two, they offer some compelling lessons in Hollywood power. Like: Force of personality counts. Quality of ideas count. Ambition counts. Confidence counts. And be able to deliver the goods.
The drawback to working with Walter is that he will use his considerable power to shape the material to his creative sensibilities. The good news is, he's an Academy Award nominated writer -- how many execs can boast that? -- and so those creative sensibilities usually pack a pretty good punch.
And that's one way that Walter looks at a scene -- whether or not, aside from all the other concerns, it has story momentum. Until we worked with Walter, I'd never considered momentum as an important element, in there with theme, plot, and characterization. Momentum is a tricky thing to design into a story -- you need just enough information to build curiosity, not so much as to bog down the pace. The opposite of momentum is one of Walter's most dismissive criticisms -- you don't want him to look at you, tilt his head and sneer that a scene is 'inert.' That's the lowest of the low, and a nice word to avoid in your writing.
Another classic Walter line was to look at us (after we had pitched a story approach) and say, "You can't think that's good." Walter himself is a study on how to pitch things well -- he's articulate, he knows his topic, he has a commanding presence he uses to great effect, and he's got this brilliant technique where he plays both the guy pitching "So what if we play the death scene at the Empire State Building so his girlfriend can see him fall?" and the guy listening, "Oh, hey, that's good, that could work. I get chills." Walter is not afraid to perform, to pitch a moment in a story meeting -- taking on the role of actor, and thus giving the actor a real moment to play in the movie.
MARTIN CAMPBELL: Speaking of story meeting technique, let's go with Martin Campbell next. Now, Martin's a great director; fearless, great with story, commanding respect from experts in all phases of the production process. I'm not going to talk about any of that. He's got this great technique for handling questions in story meetings that's just brilliant. What he does is kill the questioner with information.
If an exec asks about a particular line from a character at the end of Act Two, Martin is more than happy to answer -- from the beginning. He'll outline, for 10, 15 minutes, all of the scenes, lines, character moves, leading up to that particular moment. By the time he gets to the line in question, the questioner has forgotten what his initial concern was; Martin has bludgeoned him into submission. It's a great technique (of course, the English accent helps; you can get away with anything with an English accent). Campbell can then get on with the task at hand, which is making a great movie.
JOE DANTE: Speaking of great directors... Dante dominates meetings by being the most articulate person in the room, and the one who can talk the fastest. His experience leads to a sort of informed cynicism; yet this is balanced by an untainted delight and optimism regarding movies.
Watching Joe Dante direct, you see how a director is the heart and soul of a production. Joe is amazingly generous -- he expects others to contribute, and will accommodate others' visions -- yet brings it all together, working almost behind the scenes to give a project unity.
On the SMALL SOLDIERS set once, Joe observed we had to change a line that didn't work, because in a previous scene, "The actors didn't play it that way." Joe was willing to adjust the story intent to the actor's strengths, rather than be a slave to the original intent, and get something less. How many of us would do the same?
CHRIS FARLEY: We worked with Chris on an animated film called SHREK for over a year, up to the final weeks before his death. What struck me most seeing him work was his willingness to reveal himself, lay himself out bare, over and again, for the sake of his performance. That's a form of talent, that's a form of comedy. But mostly it showed that this industry rewards other things than talent and practice -- it rewards courage.
TED ELLIOTT: Yeah, I'm counting my own writing partner as a famous guy. What the heck? He seems to have his name on a lot of movies lately. In truth, I think very highly of Mr. Elliott -- I put his talents on the level with those other almost otherworldly talent folk, Spielberg, Katzenberg, Howard Ashman, Robin Williams. Whatever insights of value Wordplay has to offer were discovered working with Ted; but for this list, I'll just throw out one of his more recent bits of brilliance --
It's crucial to keep character dilemmas unresolved all the way through to the end of the movie, along with the unresolved plot. There's such a temptation when you set up a character issue to resolve it too early. You want to see those people reconcile, to solve their internal dilemmas; but you have to keep pushing yourself to not play that card (and it's a fun card to play!). You have to hold back. If you resolve the character stuff too early, the plot stuff at the end turns to just be plot, usually action without meaning. And that's boring. Hold back, hold back, and resolve character issues at the same time you resolve the plot, and keep your audience interested till the end.
DAN PETRIE, JR.: Oh, man, am I going to catch hell for this one. Dan Petrie, WGA President, gentleman and a scholar, could no doubt teach me a thousand important things about screenwriting. So what did I learn from him? Just how difficult the job of directing is. When we first met (on a "Turner & Hooch" television episode, of all things) he was, physically, let's say, oh, a bit bulky. Months later I pass him in a hallway and almost don't recognize him -- looked like he'd lost about 40 pounds. The difference? He had directed a movie.
When people say, "When are you going to direct?" they're always so casual about it, as if it didn't involve a decision that was going to churn up a good two years of my life, dominating every waking moment. Dan's experience shows the truth: directing is not a job, it's a lifestyle choice. The physical and emotional commitments that are necessary are extreme, and overwhelming; every aspect of your life is affected -- family, friends, everything.
STEVEN SPIELBERG: To be in Spielberg's presence is just that; it's more than just a meeting. He has kind of an old world intensity; you feel like maybe this was what it was like to hang out with Michelangelo. I still don't know what to call him -- I can't bring myself to join the group that casually uses 'Steven.' 'Mr. Spielberg,' seems too formal, 'Spielberg' too plain-wrap. 'Steven Spielberg' a bit remote. There's no good option.
You may know Woody Allen's line about your heroes: "You never get over your awe of someone who was famous before you were eighteen." For me, with Spielberg, it was even worse: he's part of the reason why I'm sitting here writing this. It was halfway through watching CLOSE ENCOUNTERS in 1978 that I knew I wanted to make films my life.
So it's one thing to work with someone you admire; it's another to just hang out with them. We were back at his place in on Long Island working on MEN IN BLACK and he took an hour to just show us around. I can tell you what ran through my head -- "Wow, I'm standing here with Steven Spielberg. Hey. This is so cool. Look, there's Steven Spielberg, and he's talking to me. Wow." I started to take a picture of his house; he recommended a better angle. I went along with his suggestion.
Later, Steven showed off some of his LOST WORLD thumbnail storyboards he was working on. (I'm happy to say that at least he doesn't draw that great; proves he's human.) It was the sequence where a dinosaur is hunted down, cut out from out of a herd. There was the jeep, bouncing along. The herd veers one way, but a motorcyclist cuts it off. Someone with a gun aims to shoot one of the creatures, but a bump is hit, and he nearly drops the gun. The gun is recovered, but now the motorcycle is in the way. The shot is fired, and now the creature is angry, and takes off, motorcycle in pursuit. Spielberg described the action as it went on, and before I knew it, the sequence was over. What I learned: he tricked me along by building smaller objectives within the main objective. Each 'mini-need'-- hanging onto and aiming the gun, for example -- carried me along, and before I knew it, the main action of the sequence was completed. Very clever.
The other lesson from Spielberg we learned working on THE MASK OF ZORRO. He insisted there had to be a scene where Montero looked into Diego's eyes at Talamantes prison. The problem was, Montero hadn't landed yet -- and Diego needed to escape from prison in order to menace Montero on the beach when he did land. To have Montero come ashore twice seemed awkward; why would he then go back to the ship? Or why wouldn't he put off looking for Zorro till after his first landing? Plus, we envisioned the prison as far away from the landing spot -- what are the odds that both would be within walking distance -- so where was the time for Diego to make it to the landing?
Many questions, but in the end, none of them mattered. It was a case of 'visceral logic' versus 'story logic.' Spielberg wanted that scene, and he knew that the audience would enjoy that scene. The lesson: you can stretch story logic a bit, as long as you strictly stay within the bounds of the emotional, or visceral, logic of the story.
What's great is, we all have the opportunity to make those magic moments -- for real -- every day.
Many apologies for the enormous length of this column. To those loyal readers who have stuck with it this far, I promise, future columns are planned to be more manageable.
And this column could very well end right here, and possibly should... but in writing it, I began to wonder and ask myself, really, why are we so impressed with these folk? It's not just their successes, which most people simply envy. No, you and I, people who want to join this group, we're impressed in a different way. We believe we want to follow in their footsteps, and attempt to create the type of art they create.
I believe the allure of these folk has to do with experiencing magic moments. These folk have the talent, the money, the power, the connections -- to take a story and shape it, and create a whole series of magic moments, which are then captured on film, to be shared by all. Those special, shared, caught moments are the true magic of the movies. They effectively do with art what all of us, deep down, would most like to experience with our lives.
And maybe that offers us a way to meet these impressive folk on equal terms. What's great is, we all have the opportunity to make those magic moments -- for real -- every day.
You can make a kid laugh when she catches a glimpse of El Capitan through the tall pine trees. You can dance in the streets at the Festival in San Vicente in the Caribbean, or watch your grandmother's eyes light up when she opens the door and sees you brought her a Burrito Supreme with extra cheese. You can make out on the warm hood of a car in the desert beneath the Perseids meteor shower (when the falling stars come once every 30 seconds, and have the big long sparkling trails; it's coming up in August, don't miss it). You can stand up and say "I do" wearing a fancy outfit in front of gathered family and friends. There are enough Scottie dogs and sno cones and sunsets to go around, and you don't even have to use Kodak film, just put those images right into your memory.
(Yes, you saw it coming, this is the goofy gushy ending part.) So how do you deal with the challenge of working with your heroes? What you do, is put yourself on equal footing. You can do in real life what they do for a living. You can fashion those perfect moments in your own life, as well as imagining them on paper.