Wednesday, December 8, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: James M. Cain Talks Theme vs. Plot

James M. Cain, tough guy novelist & screenwriter, was interviewed before his death in 1977. 

Many of his great works were made into movies, ex. "Double Indemnity" & "The Postman Always Rings Twice."  His novel, "Mildred Pierce", was recently remade for HBO with Kate Winslet.

I thought his words re: the difference between theme vs. plot were so helpful.  It is in the 3rd to last paragraph.

Here's an excerpt from the interview: 

[I've changed the paragraphing for your viewing pleasure.  All parentheticals are mine.]

Q: What are the events behind Mildred Pierce?

A: Jim McGuinness, my old producer friend at Columbia, once made a remark that led to "Mildred Pierce."  Out in Hollywood all they talk about is story - secretaries, everybody - story. 

Well, one day we were going to lunch, talking about stories, when he said, "There's one that's never failed yet, and that's the story of a woman who uses men to gain her ends."  I though, well, if it's never failed yet that sounds like a pretty good story to me.

Secretly, then, I began to try to adjust this formula.  For a while I had the woman as an airline stewardess.  Then she was a girl who won a beauty contest & came to Hollywood.  Neither of these came to life, so I thought, maybe it makes some difference what ends.

I suddenly thought it might help if her children were the ends she used men for, & naturally it would be better if it focused on one child.  But I had to have another child in there so it wouldn't seem so pat & easy.

Then  made her not a femme fatale at all, just a housewife, but she had that instinct to use men. 

Every time I had trouble with that book I thought, "My friend, you've forgotten what your story is about.  This is not the story of a woman who is devoted to her daughter & is nuts about her [plot]; it's a story about a woman who uses men to gain her ends [theme]."

Every time I'd remember that & reinstate that theme in the book, it would go.

No reviewer or anybody who read it ever detected that that's what the book is about. I didn't highlight it enough.  I don't take much pride in "Mildred Pierce," I have to confess to you.  It's not my kind of book. I made some egregious mistakes in it, especially right at the end, which is a very costly place to make mistakes.

From "Backstory:Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age," by Pat McGilligan (1986).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: 30 Scripts in 30 Days

Here's what I've learned in the past 30 days:

1 - As I moved up to #1, the scripts got better.

2 - Why did they get better?  The characters became fuller, clearer.

3 - How do I define "clearer"?

We're dropping in on a character on a particular day in their lives.  They have busy lives before & after this story. 

If a "character is just a function of the plot" as Tom Hooper says, they are cardboard cutouts who exist just for the script. 

4 - The plot follows the character, not the other way around.

ex. In Citizen Kane, we're following Kane.  It doesn't matter that the story isn't in chronological order.

ex. In the Godfather, we're following Michael as he struggles. It doesn't matter who he's fighting.  All we want to see is how he takes on the mantle of Don.

ex. In Casablanca, we're following Rick.  Is he really going to leave Casablanca?

5 - Most people mention the plot when talking about scripts #20-30.  Most people mention the characters when talking about #1-19.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This is the best thing I've done for myself as a writer. 

It's easy to read scripts, but the real work is studying why they work.