Monday, January 25, 2010

Studio Stories III – Dwan, McCarey, Wilder, & David O. Russell

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


The history of screen story creation is interesting. In Who The Devil Made It, Peter Bogdanovich interviewed director Allan Dwan (1885 – 1981; Sands of Iwo Jima, Brewster’s Millions, Slightly Scarlet). Dwan started only two years after D.W. Griffith (!), in 1909, the dawn of movies, but was still directing into the early 1960s (!!), and planning to direct into the ‘70s (!!!). IMDB lists 438 director credits for him.

Dwan described (for Bogdanovich) his method of story creation from his early days shooting silent films. Back then filmmaking was fraught with danger. They often shot their films one step ahead of hired goon squads attempting to beat them senseless and destroy their cameras for infringing Thomas Edison’s patent – a bogus claim, by the way. Bogdanovich made parts of that story into a film of his own, Nickelodeon. Here, Dwan explains how he came up with his stories:

On the way out (to the location for the shooting), I’d try to contrive something to do (author’s note - i.e., conceive the story!). I’d see a cliff or something of the sort. I had a heavy named Jack Richardson, so we’d send J. Warren Kerrigan, the leading man, up there to struggle with Richardson and throw him off the cliff. Now, having made the last scene of the picture, I had to go backward and try to figure out why all this happened.

So, he would come up with the story on the way to the location. I’ve heard of writing on the set, but not the entire story!

Later, Dwan, who studied to be an engineer, added:

Stories, to me, were mathematical problems - as most problems were. There’s always a mathematical solution to anything... But everything I did was triangles... (italics, mine) If I constructed a story and I had four characters in it, I’d put them down as dots and if they didn’t hook up into triangles, if any of them were left out there without a sufficient relationship to any of the rest, I knew I had to discard them because they’d be a distraction. And you’re only related to people through triangles or lines. If I’m related to a third person and you’re not, there’s something wrong in our relationship together. One of us is dangling. So I say, “How do I tie that person to you? How do I complete that line?” And I have to work the story so I can complete that line. In other words, create a relationship, an incident, something that will bring us into the eternal triangle.

Source: Peter Bogdanovich, Who The Devil Made It, Ballantine, 1997, pp. 56, 60-1.

"Triangles." In other posts in this space I’ve discussed how the number three recurs in and around screenwriting. Consider these:

Again, in Who The Devil Made It, p. 394, Bogdanovich interviewed writer/director Leo McCarey just prior to his death - he was in the hospital with emphysema, having never had his recollections recorded. McCarey had put Laurel and Hardy together before sound came in, and, with them, conceived over a hundred of their silent comedies. Bogdanovich asked him about his notion of threes in relation to comedy:

Bogdanovich - Is it true that most gags are based on threes? 
McCarey -  Yes. It became almost an unwritten rule. 
Bogdanovich - Many of the Laurel and Hardys are in three sections. Was that consciously done? 
McCarey -  Yes. 
And for some it just comes naturally. Consider this spontaneous answer Billy Wilder gave to Cameron Crowe for Crowe’s book-length interview of Wilder, Conversations With Wilder, Alfred A Knopf, 2000, p. 308:

Crowe - During a commercial, I ask Wilder about the famous New York doctor Max Jacobson, also known as Dr. Feelgood. 
Wilder - He was my doctor in Berlin, Dr. Feelgood, yes. Max Jacobson. He was a good doctor, very bold... Kennedy was one of his patients. They called him before the subcommittee. 
(And then the joke) 
He is an old man. 
He’s 110 now. 
However, he’s dead. 
As always, three distinct parts: set-up, delivery, and punch-line.
But are Dwan’s ideas about story creation and characters obsolete? Consider this from current writer-director David O. Russell (Spanking The Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings), interviewed in Screenwriters’ Masterclass, Edited by Kevin Conroy Scott, Faber & Faber Ltd. 2005, p. 328, about his writing process:
Well, first there’s whatever it is that excites me about the idea, and then sometimes you have fragments or pieces of a story, and then you have scenes that you love and think are really great, and then character ideas—all these things aren’t necessarily meshed together, but (italics, mine)I list them all in columns, like characters. I’ve actually distilled it down so that I will take each character and write an arc from left to right, and then I try to find the links between those arcs, between the stories of each character, and then I curtail them and condense them into one story. It can be a long process of trying to figure out what the story is - if it’s interesting enough, whether it’s going too much in the direction of one character, how do you pull it back? That’s always a fight: (again, my italics) ‘Whose movie is it?
Notice the final remark, “Whose movie is it?” and how it specifically relates to Russell’s structuring of his story? This perfectly echoes our comments on structure a month or two back.

So, these two very similar conceptual approaches by writers nearly a hundred years apart, are universal truths. But I wonder if Russell ever tried it on the way to the set. #


Lee A. Matthias

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