02 February, 2009

Film of the Week: "Sideways"

Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
(based on the book by Rex Pickett)

Hollywood Lit Sales:

" Hollywood's desire for sympathetic, feel-good characters rubs Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor the wrong way. Taylor: "To me, it's are we interested enough, do we want to watch that person...it's complete horseshit that that's what people want to see, is only sympathetic characters." Taylor continues: "There are [kinds] of characters that appeal to us, and I don't think we're interested in people who don't do anything wrong."

Payne agrees: "I never talk about sympathetic characters. Number one, the truth is sympathetic. Number two, we make comedies so we want the movie to be sympathetic...we're interested in people, we want to see truthful people...we show our love for people precisely by including all aspects [of a character], as many as we can, in the limited form of a two-hour film." Payne says that if an exec says your protagonist isn't sympathetic, just say: "It hasn't been cast yet. That's the answer." The right actor can warm the audience up to any role, even if it appears unlikable on the page. Payne: "Why are we interested in Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE? Why are we interested in Michael Corleone? They're fascinating. What's more interesting, a cobra or a kitten?" Beware, Payne says, "especially when you're talking about likeable. Just avoid those discussions, they're tiring. Don't get lured into the turf of those discussions, because they're moronic."

If Payne and Taylor avoid sympathetic characters, they "never" talk about structure, either. Taylor: "Thinking back on it, every single film we've not known what the ending was. We might have thought we knew what the ending was when we were writing it, but we didn't ever really know until we were finished." Taylor continues: "I've actually early on tried to be more rigorous about structure, trying to build a story schematically...but it just kills the sense of creativity. One hopes that if that stuff is really true that it's in your bones, that it just naturally comes out of you. I think you can feel it if a story is just built from an erector set instead of from a truth."

Overall, Payne and Taylor keep the analysis of their craft to a minimum. Taylor: "We usually don't talk about scripts -- honestly, we don't. It's just whether it's true or not...does [it] feel real. I think what happens a lot in writing and I think it's something you have to resist all the time in screenwriting is writing the movie version of the story...you have to stop and say what would really happen if this person walked into the room...That's the most important thing...what we react to is if we write something inauthentic, and then we feel a little repulsed by it and how can we make this better."

Now this doesn't mean Payne and Taylor lack a process when they write. Payne: "We work from about 10 or 11 to 6 or 7...and a lot of that time is spent noodling." Taylor: "Just a lot of talking; we'll talk about a scene before we write it and then one of us will [write it down]...we call it Who's Driving? Sometimes we even have two keyboards so if we're really sitting at the computer we don't have to slide the keyboard back and forth." Once they get to the rewrite stage, "...then we're critiquing it together, trying to make it better." A process that Payne admits "...goes on and on and on, I mean it's constant rewriting. It's almost like when you label a draft, it's kind of arbitrary. It's like, oh, it's a snapshot of where it is at that moment that we happen to be going."

Payne continues: "I've noticed increasingly that our first draft is comprised of three drafts. Where we do one draft where you're just hacking through the forest...don't think about how long it is, just get something down on paper. And then a second draft is going through developing things which we introduced the first time...And then on a third draft...we put on more of an editor's hat and clean it up...and then you got a first draft."

Payne and Taylor use their previous acting experience in their process as well. Payne: "I think screenwriting is very related to acting. Whether you're a good actor or not...doesn't matter, but you can channel those characters...Because we spend a lot of time on dialogue, and then each individual character sounds like those characters and not like us...the cadences, the syntax, the turns of phrase -- we spend a lot of time on that."

And Payne will spend as much time as necessary to get the script right. Payne: "And I certainly won't begin production...until the script is in good enough shape to be shot...So many movies, oh, they have a start date, they're already cast and are building the sets while writing the script. I saw it in film school [UCLA] and I see it in the professional world, it's a recipe for disaster."

After focusing on adaptations the last few films, Payne feels he and Taylor are ready to do something different. As Payne explains, "Right now, I'll say we're itching to do something original, precisely to let our imaginations really go pretty wild...because ultimately it's about finding out what's rattling around inside you." "


Scott Myers has done an excellent analysis but it's probably best to see the film first before heading on over there. While watching/reading I'm going to think about how the screenwriters deal with character, truth and subtext. Miles isn't particularly sympathetic but what makes the audience interested in him?




Sideways, Tuesday 3 February 2009, 10:45pm


Robert Cass said...

Thanks for posting this. Taylor and Payne's scripts/films are some of the best, and their observation that a good actor can make an unlikable character worth watching is absolutely correct. Sometimes it's the most effective use of star power.

Robin Kelly said...

I hate the power of stars, especially when it comes to film financing, but I suppose it does have its uses.