Archive for April 2012

Stage Fright

April 23, 2012

Levon Helm of The Band passed away on April 19. He was a great drummer with a distinctive voice, played multiple instruments and acted as well. That’s him singing lead on “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” But whenever I think about The Band, the song that sticks in my mind is “Stage Fright,” which conveys the kind of feelings I have about writing for an audience.

Some people — like Levon — seem completely at ease performing in front of crowds or cameras. Not me. Even when I wrote for newspapers, I’d get nervous about what readers would say the next day… or not say. The only thing worse than criticism for a writer is complete indifference. Actors, musicians, writers, for the most part, want to see their work get reactions from others. But there’s a price to pay for wanting to be in the limelight. You feel like you’re always walking on a high wire, and all it takes is one misstep to send you crashing to earth. There’s a new book out about creativity (“Imagine: How Creativity Works”) that says a high percentage of artistic types are manic depressives, which doesn’t surprise me. That also ties into the correlation between addiction and people who choose the creative arts as their profession. Life on the tight rope brings high highs and low lows.

Every time I start a new screenplay, my stomach gets tied up in knots. The sensation never leaves, even after I type “Fade Out” at the end of a script. Actually, that’s when my “page fright” gets more intense. Whether I’m sending it out to a fellow writer or asking my wife for feedback, there’s the nagging voices in my head telling me it’s good no matter what others think — or it’s crap no matter how good they say it is. Then after more rewrites, I’ll send it out to agents, managers or producers, and wait nervously for their responses. I know 90 percent of the time, their response will be “not for me” or the soft pass (they simply never get back to you). Yet once in awhile I do get the positive response or news that my script has advanced in a screenwriting competition… and I’m back on top of the world with renewed visions of Hollywood success in my head again.

Last night, my wife and I were about to watch Mad Men and The Killing on AMC. However, the power in Kailua went out briefly, knocking out Oceanic’s cable service. The electric service for everything else was still working though, so I fished around for a DVD to play until the cable box rebooted. I blew the dust off my copy of “The Last Waltz” in honor of Levon Helm. It’s one of the great rock concert films of all time (filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1976), mainly because it features one of the best rock bands of all time. Listening to those songs reminded me how times have changed. The Band actually played their own instruments and could play just about any style, from classical to jazz, blues, rock. But they were also students of history, writing about things like the Civil War and the hardscrabble life of farmers, or humorous takes on characters who seemed like real folks. You just don’t hear much music like that these days because the people who are big stars now prefer to write about how hard it is being a star or the “tragedy” of getting dumped by a boyfriend, or want to brag about their macho ways and pimped out lifestyle. They have the opposite of stage fright — they can’t imagine life not being in the spotlight.

When I heard the news Levon died, I didn’t feel sad. I was happy he lived a relatively long life doing what he loved (not to say he didn’t have struggles and problems, including throat cancer). Watching “The Last Waltz,” I did get a little misty-eyed though when the band launches into “Stage Fright.” I remembered meeting Richard Manuel at the Lone Star Cafe in NYC, where he was performing way back in 1984 0r 1985. There used to be a giant iguana sculpture on the roof, and I saw some great musicians play in that club. Anyhow, while hanging out, I met a writer who was working on a piece about Richard and The Band. He told me that Richard was drinking hard again, and not doing very well. But when the writer introduced me to him, Richard was gracious and soft spoken. He was the guy in the song:

Now deep in the heart of a lonely kid
Who suffered so much for what he did,
They gave this ploughboy his fortune and fame,
Since that day he ain’t been the same.

See the man with the stage fright
Just standin’ up there to give it all his might.
And he got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again.

I’ve got fire water right on my breath
And the doctor warned me I might catch a death.
Said, “You can make it in your disguise,
Just never show the fear that’s in your eyes.”

See the man with the stage fright,
Just standin’ up there to give it all his might.
He got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again…

And that’s how I feel every time I sit down to write. But I no longer do it for the accolades, or because I need affirmation from others. Sometimes I just want to share what’s on my mind. Thanks Levon… and Richard, for the songs and the music. (For those who didn’t closely follow The Band after they broke up, Richard committed suicide in 1986.)


Telling Lies

April 4, 2012

We all do it to one degree or another: lie. It’s what makes us human, and prevents people from being brutally honest — which is probably a good thing, considering how hurtful or painful truth can be. For writers, lying is a necessary tool of the trade. We must lie to ourselves when we feel like writing is a waste of time and effort… we sometimes lie to spouses and significant others about what we’re writing or not writing (and who we’re really writing about and why). And what writer hasn’t lied to employers about what you really would prefer to be doing, rather than working there?

But a common problem I see in scripts and books is writers who don’t lie enough. By that, I mean you’ll be reading dialogue or a scene in which the characters are talking, and they’re sharing information via exposition or saying pretty much what’s on their minds to move the story along. Or maybe they’re professing their undying love or hatred for each other. You read it and think, eh, it’s okay… yet it lacks a spark. There’s not enough conflict. It’s too “on the nose.” What the scene could use is a little lie slipped in somewhere.

What got me to thinking about this is watching some recently-released movies that reminded me just how integral lying and dishonesty is to story-telling. These films are now available on Netflix, and are worth checking out if you haven’t seen them yet. What they have in common is they are movies that actually have substance, as opposed to most of the trite comedies and comic book hero stuff or gimmicky time travel/one note high concept studio releases that we consume like junk food.

THE DEBT is yet another Holocaust-inspired film about justifiable vengeance that hinges on a lie. I won’t reveal the spoiler, but will say this particular type of lie is tricky in films because we have a tendency to accept information revealed in movies as being more or less factual, unless we know it’s supposed to be a Rashomon style story where we get multiple POVs or interpretations of an event. Without this one twist, THE DEBT is sort of ordinary. However, that one lie does make you ponder what you would do if placed in their shoes.

THE WHISTLEBLOWER is about a woman cop who goes to war-torn Bosnia as a paid contractor for a Haliburton-like corporation that is involved with sex trafficking. I’ve been producing videos about human trafficking in Hawaii as part of a public awareness campaign for a non-profit organization, so I knew a few things about the subject. The film graphically presents the horrors of what has been going on for a long, long time. It’s disturbing and sickening in ways slasher flicks and torture porn can’t match, because in this case, the fictional story about how government officials and corporations lie, is really the truth. You won’t want to watch it, but you should… and you should tell others to watch it, because even in Hawaii I’ve heard similar true life stories of pimps beating young women and forcing them into prostitution.

CARNAGE is the Roman Polanski film adaptation of the Tony Award winning play, GOD OF CARNAGE, and is billed as a black comedy about two seemingly civil couples who become engaged in a verbal battle over the actions of their sons in a playground fight. To be honest, although I had read the play was a hit and critics praised it, I wasn’t expecting much from the movie version. It’s two couples talking and arguing for one and a half hours, right? Yet I was laughing, cringing, and felt like slapping these people around at various times. The joke, of course, is that for all their pretenses of trying to act like adults, they still revert to childish behavior when they finally stop lying and get totally honest with each other. Plus, the vomit scene is hilarious.

So, if you have a scene or dialogue exchange that seems flat or is missing something, try adding a lie to the mix. Doesn’t have to be a big whopper either. Sometimes the small lies we tell ourselves can be the most devastating, when we’re forced to confront them.