Tales from the Script

A couple weeks ago I was couch-surfing at a friend’s place over the weekend. A former roommate of my friend had been a German film student, and upon leaving he had left behind a book. Having no interest in the book, my friend offered it to me, and I took it.

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As the cover indicates Tales from the Script is a collection of anecdotes from professional Hollywood screenwriters. I knew almost nothing about screenwriting going in, and only a modest amount of knowledge about Canada’s own film industry. As I discussed with my friend when I took the book off his hands, the domestic film industry in Canada is bleak. The funding and distribution available for Canadian films is limited, with movie theatres stocking American films almost exclusively. The situation in Quebec differs somewhat as French inoculates it more from American cultural products, but I nonetheless respect the Canadian filmmakers who generally have an uphill battle getting their movies to market.

Tales from the Script is mainly of a series of thematically organized bloc quotes from the featured screenwriters. The book might be more rewarding to an aspiring screenwriter, but I found most of the anecdotes and advice somewhat pedestrian, and had a hard time retaining most of what was written. Most of what there is to learn from this book people would already know or guess about screenwriting. Only a fraction of the scripts screen-writers sell ever become finished movies, and once the script is sold it is typical for it to be warped out of recognition by the director, actors, and subsequent screenwriters.

The greatest lesson from the book is how little control a screenwriter has over whether a film will make it to completion, and what form it will take. Frequently, a studio will buy a script, fire the original scriptwriter, and hire a new writer to do revisions. A replacement writer will often even make more revisions than are necessary in the hopes that they can have the script attributed to them when the movie comes out. The thing the book taught me most about was the screenwriter arbitration process, where all writers who work on a film submit an appeal to receive credit for having written the script. A review board of other screenwriters at the writer’s guild then determine who is responsible for the chief elements of a script and awards credit for the screenplay to that individual.

The arbitration process benefits some writers enormously. David Hayter (know mostly to me as the voice of the Metal Gear Solid protagonist Snake) received credit for the first X-Men movie after not initially being the chief screenwriter, and this catapulted his career forward. The most memorable anecdote in the book about a particular script also, for my money, comes from Hayter. Hayter was tasked with writing a script for a proposed Black Widow movie, and he spent a year researching the script and character, even naming his daughter Natasha after the title character. Then, a succession of female vigilante movies came out around the same time, including Tomb Raider and Kill Bill, which did well, and BloodRayne, Ultraviolet, and Aeon Flux, which flopped. The studio determined the market was over-saturated, and the planned Black Widow movie was cancelled. Given the deluge of Marvel movies still coming out, their worries about over-saturation seem quaint now.

I cannot really recommend Tales from the Script, which is really just several interviews stitched together under some broad headings. Some screenwriters like John Carpenter, David Hayter, and William Goldman have interesting stories but most of the advice is the same: be prepared for failure and do not go into the industry if you do not love writing movies. Most scripts do not sell, and unless a writer loves their craft, they are unlikely to have the motivation to press on through the dry spells.

Next time, hopefully, a return to CanLit.

All My Puny Sorrows

Until recently I lived just off the Danforth in Toronto. One strange Torontonian practice I noticed while there was that some people would leave unwanted books on their lawn, so I happened to pick up this book one day while walking to the subway station.

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I found the book in perfect condition beside a water damaged copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which I might attempt later on down the line. I decided that I would read it as a break from my adventure through the NCL and its competitors.

All My Puny Sorrows follows a middle-aged woman, Yolanda, whose older sister Elfrieda is suicidal. Since Yolanda is the narrator of sorts, the book follows her efforts to respond to her sister’s suicide attempts and manage the other aspects of her life in the meantime. Twice divorced, Yolanda has two teenage children, and several short-term lovers which make appearances throughout the book. For my money the most compelling character is her mother, who remains emotionally strong and lively despite the innumerable sorrows she encounters throughout her life.

I choose a good time to read the book as I was teaching in a bioethics course at Toronto just as I began reading, with one of the units being focused on assisted suicide. The book raises the question, which Yolanda grapples with, of whether she should help her sister kill herself more peacefully. That her sister does not have a terminal illness, but is only inconsolably depressed, makes the question interestingly complicated. The details of the case muddle how ideal of an example the book offers however, since Elfrieda is clearly not receiving ideal medical care. The more difficult thought experiment would present us with someone who has the best help available but remained inconsolably depressed; with Elfrieda there remains a possibility that a better healthcare system could save her.

I was not surprised to learn that the core of the book is based on the author’s experiences with her own sister who committed suicide. The depiction of the Canadian mental health infrastructure is particularly scathing and is what made me suspect the author had some first-hand experience. The doctors and nurses Yolanda meets are, with some exceptions, generally jaded, unsympathetic, and self-absorbed. In fairness, this is how they seem to Yolanda’s eyes, a woman desperately searching for help for her sister. Stressed under the circumstances, it is easy to see why she would think medical professionals do too little.

I do not want to say too much more about the book as it is more recent than most I cover here. However, a colleague did catch me laughing aloud more than once at it, so that says something positive about its capacity for effectively mixing sorrow with a comedic touch.

In this book Yolanda is a writer who mostly writes tween fiction about the adventures of Rodeo Rhonda. This prompted me to reflect on how many of the viewpoint characters in the novels I’ve been reading are writers, especially since the central character in the last book I had read, The Town Below, was also an author. I realize this results from authors writing “what they know” which is frequently “being an author” but I wish more of them would branch out. I Do Remember The Fall also featured this kind of plot device, although the protagonist was a sort-of journalist, not a novelist, and not a successful one at that. I can give some modest praise to The Alley Cat here for depicting a protagonist proficient at something other than writing, namely restaurant management. It will be interesting to see whether this trend of author protagonists continues, and honestly I hope otherwise.

For next time I intended to read Antonine Maillet’s Pelagie, but having found it a difficult book that demands careful and patient reading, I’ve decided to return to it later. Instead I’ll be reading Earle Birney’s Turvey, a comedy about one man’s farcical attempts to join  the Canadian army during the Second World War. Given my current work  this seemed an appropriate book to give a read.

The Town Below

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Roger Lemlin’s The Town Below comes recommended by another author whose work I recently read: Brian Busby. I selected it to read based on the vague recollection of the recommendation from his blog, however I forgot some of his comments from that same blog post. More on that later.

 

The Town Below mainly follows Denis Boucher and Jean Colin, two young men in the Duplessis era Quebec City. Set in the city’s “lower town” the novel depicts a vibrant and bustling working class community with its internal divisions, eccentricities, and cast of strange characters. The highlight of the book is certainly the glimpses of this community, from the disjointed Liberal Party meeting, to the frantic bingo game at the local church.

I complained in my review of my favourite whipping boy, The Alley Cat, that the events of the novel do not come together into anything unified. Neither do the events of The Town Below, but that suits this sort of social satire, with its comparative realism and depiction of life as a series of not-necessarily connected events.

While the depictions of the community were what I found the most enjoyable, I did find the central conflict of the novel frustrating. Denis and Jean comprise two thirds of a love triangle completed by Lise, a girl recently returned from a convent school. Though Jean makes an early good impression, Denis quickly takes the lead and retains it for the rest of the novel with ease. This grates since Denis is pretentious, annoying, and unsympathetic, whereas Jean is hard-working, well-meaning, and doomed. The novel recognizes Denis is full of himself, but the small moments of insight the narration offers the reader does not alleviate one’s annoyance at seeing an arrogant youth have his pretensions confirmed.

Late in the novel Denis, having decided he would like to be a great writer, has entered a writing contest. I wanted him to lose. I thought he would lost because it would take him down a peg and cause him to realize that he is not simply better than everyone else by virtue of having attended school and trying (but failing) to not be emotionally invested in women. When he won the writing contest I was audibly disappointed and nearly put down the book. However, the author is clearly having some fun at the expense of this character. Although the reader and author are aware of his pretensions, Denis is not.

As much as I disliked Denis, I rather liked his foil, Jean, which added to my frustration. Jean did not have the luxury of the kind of schooling Denis is flaunting, but perseveres anyway. To impress Lise and better himself, Jean borrows some of Denis’ school books and makes some headway. Early in the book he injures himself attempting to impress Lise by collecting plums, and walks with a limp for the rest of the story. This causes him to be subjected to abuse by his parents and others who accuse him of faking the injury for sympathy. I will not spoil his fate here, but I had an inclination of where his story was going once I read the title of the book’s second of two parts.

Despite having forgotten that Busby discusses the issue at length in his blog post I noticed early on that the translation was less than ideal. Although the book is too ambitious for its own good, packing itself with more characters than it can handle, it is more muddled by a weak English translation. The NCL version I read happens to be this translation. I won’t reiterate Busby’s comments on the problem, but if possible I recommend reading the book in French. The Town Below is deserving of a better English translation.

I’m pleased to note The Town Below is currently available through Dundurn’s Voyageur Classics series, however it remains the same bad English translation as the NCL version.

Next time, something more contemporary.