Keith MacKenzie 26 letters. A million and more words. No limit to stories.

The writing craft on screen

In our writers’ group, it seems like we’re always referring to movies – more so than books even – when we want to use something to refer to when talking about storytelling structure.

For instance, in our last writers’ meeting, the topic came up about the Hero’s Journey and the importance of caring about a character if a story is going to work. A reader must love or hate a character if he’s going to join him on a journey, and In Bruges was raised as an example of a fantastic movie about two scummy hitmen who go to Bruges on vacation – and as it turns out, we really like these hitmen. They’re a lot of fun to spend two hours with, which makes the whole movie very much worthwhile. We’re very willing to go on a journey with them.

With that in mind, I thought about writers in movies and movies about writing. As a writer myself, I’m a huge fan of any movie that touches on the craft or shows the utter torture a writer goes through to get his shit published. So, in the spirit of the Hero’s Journey, I want to talk about five writing movies, in no particular order. I know you’ll disagree with some, and you’ll also think I left a few out, so let’s hear your own suggestions in the comments.

Without further ado:

BARTON FINK

Oh, boy. Can the Coens ever pull it off. They did, and they did it in spades. The appeal of this movie to me is simple. Poor Barton Fink – played to a T by John Turturro – experiences hell in a hotel room battling with a severe affliction: writer’s block. Every scribe – even the greatest of them – knows what we’re talking about. That white space on a monitor, the empty page in front of you either on a typewriter or on the desk, it’s enough to drive a man mad. And mad Barton goes, and one of my all-time favourite scenes in any movie is in this one: the cre-a-a-a-ak of old wallpaper coming off the wall in the corner. Every little thing just bugs you when you’re trying to get into the zone, and this movie pulls it off niftily.

 

ADAPTATION

Two scenes I can really relate to in Adaptation. First one: Nicolas Cage sitting in front of his typewriter vowing to actually write something, and all he can think about is getting a banana-nut muffin. Mmm. Banana-nut muffin.

 

And the second one: he is seized by electrifying inspiration and proceeds to rant into his tape recorder about how his film about the Orchid Thief will come together, from the dawn of time and the origin of humankind and the orchid itself, through to present day… and then suddenly, we cut to the next scene of him listening to himself ranting and realizing with sad horror just how stupid the idea sounds. Oh, I feel for him here.

 

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY

Can’t have a “best writing movies” list without something by Woody Allen. Come on. “You’re looking out of focus”? That’s brilliant.

My love of Woody aside, it seems like every movie (and a half) by this guy has a frustrated writer in it, and that frustrated writer more often than not has a very hot girlfriend one-third his age. That aside, Deconstructing Harry has one aspect to it that rings very true to me – as a writer I feel like I know each and every one of my characters as people. They come alive in my head. It’s demented, but it’s true. They’re real people to me. When Woody Allen walks into a room and meets all his characters in one place, that got to me. I’d love for that to happen to me one day – even if it sounds creepy and impossible.

 

Which, in a way, brings us to:

STRANGER THAN FICTION

Who knew Will Ferrell could pull off a dramatic act? He does it in Stranger Than Fiction, where a character comes to life and is actually a real person. And he actually walks into his creator’s apartment to beg her not to do away with him. That’s theatre of the absurd right there, abstract existentialist weirdness with tinges of irony all mixed together in an Osterizer. And the creator still kills him off. Why? Because the story wouldn’t work otherwise. The whole point is that he fuckin’ dies at the end. Sorry about that, Harold Crick, but that’s the nature of the writing beast. No matter how real your characters are to you, you still have to treat them like shit. Because otherwise there’s no drama, and there’s no point.

 

And the one that seems to be on everyone else’s list that I didn’t like? That would be:

WONDER BOYS

I know a lot of people loved this movie – including many friends of mine – but sorry, I didn’t dig it. I can’t stand movies about tortured writers who have a 4,000-page magnum opus that never gets published, and then by some crazy quirk of fate they meet a brilliant young man who can spin off page after page of tumultuously brilliant prose without much effort, and then by the movie’s end, said tortured writer suddenly loses his magnum opus to the wind on the beach and that is the catalyst for him to finally start typing his bestselling novel which ultimately goes into print.

 

Sorry. That shit just don’t happen. If that were real life, the magnum opus would still exist and it would be 8,000 pages, and then it would be 12,000 pages, and then 20,000 pages, and then you’d die with that horrible unpublished book as the world’s biggest paper dust magnet  in the corner of your room much to your wife’s disapproval.

And if your precious manuscript was blown away by the wind on the beach, despite Robert Downey Jr.’s best efforts, you would likely not turn that into a catalytic moment of turning failure into success. That shit don’t happen.

In the end, the greatest movies about writers are about the experience of writing in itself. I’m not interested in success stories about writing – those bore me. I want to see a story that really shows what it is like to be a writer and what experiences we go through. Those top four movies do it for me, and Wonder Boys doesn’t.

And that’s that.

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Four books in the fire. Dozens of short stories fluttering about. Mission: To get the word out.

2 Responses to “The writing craft on screen”

  • Nice one, Keith. Glad to see you didn’t include Stephen King’s Misery (with James Caan) in your list.

  • Well, it’s not really about writing, is it? It’s about Kathy Bates smashing the shit out of James Caan’s legs.