December 01, 2011
I met Cynthia Hawkins through our mutual contributions to TNB, and I instantly liked her take on the world of cinema, how it overlaps into a wider culture, and its – at times deeply personal – connection to her own life. Also, she has a great story about meeting Ralph Fiennes and then seeing his penis in Red Dragon. So it was a pleasure to work with her on some deconstructions of 80s action movies, The Expendables, and the modern-day sequels to and remakes of those same 80s action movies (sometimes all the mis-en-scene in the world just isn’t as important as watching Randy Couture punching a burning Stone Cold Steve Austin in the face). And it’s been a privilege and a pleasure to work with her on the anthology Writing Off Script, which is now available on Amazon, and which this interview is taken from.
This time, rather than working through our favourite action flicks, Dr. Hawkins and I are skipping over a lot of the throat-slitting and explosions in favour of what turned out to be a more academic discussion; I sincerely hope I come off sounding more intelligent than I feel [editor’s note: I don’t].
SS: Let me begin by saying I like this project very much; I’m fascinated by the idea that different art forms and the techniques behind them can overlap and complement each other’s inherent strengths and weaknesses. Is it pretentious of me to cold-bloodedly use the word ‘synergy’ in the opening paragraph? Almost definitely it is, but either way, I think there’s something – and probably a number of things – to be learned from different mediums, specifically, in this case, film. And I think the obvious starting point is to ask: what have you, Cynthia Hawkins, as a writer, learned from film?
CH: The overlap in the arts, I’m fascinated by that as well and how you can listen to someone describing the craft of painting or composing music and so on and it’ll sound not so unlike someone describing the craft of writing.
Probably the biggest thing I learned from film early on was how to visualize the story I wanted to write, how to understand it as a sequence of scenes to be experienced as viscerally in the writing as it might be on screen. I’ve heard a lot of writers say that they see their stories like little movies in their minds first, but there you have it! What about you? What have you, Simon Smithson, as a writer, learned from film?
I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned from films is the necessity of properly working the mechanics of art. And the biggest inspiration I’ve had on that front was from watching Orson Welles movies. I was a real late-comer to Citizen Kane; of course, I’d heard all the hype about ‘best movie ever made,’ ‘20th century genius,’ etc., etc., and I honestly wasn’t expecting it to hold up under the weight of my expectations. But maybe five minutes in, I was transfixed.
There’s something about Kane that feels like there’s such a degree of control to every last part of it – the angles, the set-pieces, even the depth effects that they invented for the film (thanks, Wikipedia), but that kind of artistry is utterly invisible unless you’re looking for it. If you look at the opening shot to Touch of Evil the same thing is present – that one-take shot that follows all the movement down the street from the first frame to the bomb going off, in this easy, high glide – it makes me think of clockwork. There are all these tiny moving pieces, not one out of place, every piece doing its job in total harmony with the others, but you don’t see them with the clock-face shut. You just see the end product, smoothly working away.
This reminds me, if I may reference one of the authors in the anthology, I’d once complemented D. R. Haney on his impeccable craft as a writer, being as obsessed as I am about the mechanics behind things, and in reply he’d said he’d hoped everything was done so seamlessly no one noticed the craft. That’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it: “Properly working the mechanics of art.” I like the way you put that.
And now for another reference. In Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, there’s that scene in which a viewing of Citizen Kane revolutionizes the way Sam and Joe draw comics, having been inspired by Citizen Kane’s “inextricable braiding of image and narrative.” Chabon spends something like three pages extolling the film’s innovations, so now I always think of that novel when anyone mentions Citizen Kane. I’m wondering if, like Sam and Joe, you’ve put into practice any particular technique you’ve gleaned from Citizen Kane in addition to the greater goal of mastering the mechanics of art? Or can those sort of cinematic tricks even translate to writing?
Well, I scream more threats about Sing Sing at people now when they interrupt my writing time. It helps.
But Haney’s right, as he usually is when it comes to questions of technique. That’s when you know someone’s good at what they do – when you can’t see the workings of the woman being sawed in half, you just see the end result. It’s the same way you never see the hours upon hours that, for example, baseball pitchers put in – you just see them deliver that 103mph fastball over home plate and it seems perfectly natural and effortless.
Sorry, I’m straying off topic.
Kane made me think more and more about what was going on with my writing and how I could consciously make the decision to make it better. I became much more aware of the interplay of all the moving pieces; character and narrative and plot can all be made to work together seamlessly, and that awareness, I think, if it’s leveraged, serves to make a piece as strong as it can possibly be. And I spend more time editing now than I used to, and a much bigger part of that process is actually thinking about what it is I want to come away with at the end rather than making a slapdash run at the finish line.
Speaking of technique and cinematic tricks, I have a question – have you ever worked on scripts? If so, have you found it altered the way you looked at other forms of writing?
I haven’t, or at least not professionally, but I once adapted a prose manuscript I was writing just to see if it might work better as a screenplay. Of my many obsessions, the rhythm and sound of language is one, and of course all of that goes out the window when you’ve pared something down to the dialogue of your characters for a script. I don’t know if that exercise prompted me to look differently at other forms of writing, but it certainly made me look at my own fiction writing as being too dependent on the fineness of the prose to carry a story rather than the characters themselves. I think this must be why my go-to movies for writerly inspiration are always ones with exceptional dialogue, movies by Richard Linklater or Tarantino, for example, because dialogue is the cog in the machine I really want to fine-tune.
But I want to ask you this same question because I know, or at least I think I know, that you have worked on scripts.
I have, and again, we’re back to technique. That being said, I’m hardly professionally qualified when it comes to scriptwriting, so any advice I give should probably be taken with a bag of salt.
One of the standard questions my more-qualified-colleagues ask about scripts when we’re fine-tuning them is ‘What’s the purpose of this scene?’ It’s one of those classic questions you can practically hear Well-Dressed Hollywood Guy #1 asking in a pitch meeting, but as with most clichés, it’s so familiar for a reason – scenes in a script should have a purpose, whether it’s establishing character, setting time and place, driving the plot forward, or, ideally, some combination of things. Obviously there are more examples to give, but the point is that a scene shouldn’t just be sitting there idle.
And that question is something I’ve taken back with me to other forms of writing as a way of paring back the unwanted fat: What’s this thing I’ve written doing? What’s its purpose? You can do literally anything with the blank page once you’ve begun; the point is to do something that works. Why does the mailman unexpectedly enter on page 22 of your novel? Is he bringing a couriered letter in to reveal your lawyer main character is about to get served with a paternity suit from his last client? Is it because the flying head of Baron Veronica has been pursuing him through the outskirts of the village and now the mailman is seeking refuge in the first place he sees with a horseshoe on the door, a horseshoe that will later become important when the three heroes discover its mythical origin? Or is it just because? Because ‘just because’ isn’t – 99 times out of 100 – a good enough answer. Plumbers don’t tack extra taps onto pipes ‘just because.’ Car designers don’t throw an extra handful of parts under the hood at random and cross their fingers that something cool will happen. And writers shouldn’t either.
If you don’t write a novel, or at least a short story, titled The Flying Head of Baron Veronica, I think I might.
“What’s the purpose of this scene” — that’s a great question to ask. I’m reminded of a professor who used to point to a passage in a manuscript and ask, “So what?” Your way is less curmudgeony. All the fat trimmed. All the tiny pieces in working order. I do love the idea of film-inspiration leading to a tightly constructed, well-crafted, well-honed work of fiction. I feel like cracking my knuckles and getting to work, in fact. Maybe on The Flying Head of Baron Veronica. What do you make of, though, (or do with, in terms of inspiration) films that are a bit looser? Say, Godard’s films in which randomness isn’t exactly ruled out or Jarmusch films in which long moments of nothingness are left in?
Oh, TFHOBH is to be my opus, and Mr. Holland can eat it.
Well, this is where we enter blurrier territory, but I think with directors like Godard and Jarmusch, who are two favourites of mine, what’s happening really is integral to the film as a whole. Setting tone, creating a universe, creating the kind of experience that draws you in (especially Godard) is something that isn’t necessarily plot or character dependent – and it adds so much (if it’s done right). Like that great moment from the start of Blade Runner; we don’t even know who Roy Batty is at that point, but we have this overarching view of the city and that one bright blue eye. Or Sam Mendes and his water-as-death symbolism; not integral to the plot, but certainly powerful. And that, I think, is when you start talking about the director as auteur; someone who brings a vision of a time and place to life – which is something that good authors can also do. The Beach, by Alex Garland. His descriptions of the main character, Richard’s, travels in Thailand are immediately familiar to people who’ve been there, but also, in a strange way, immediately familiar to people who haven’t – the scene is just so effective in its description.
The challenge I think, when making a film, is doing it in such a way that you create the scene with some immediacy – you’ve only got about two hours, on average, to create and maintain this world. The challenge when writing is to not waffle on for thousands of words (word limits are great tools, that way).
I think Jarmusch’s films, more than others, have taught me as a writer not to shy away from the quiet spaces of a story if those spaces are, in fact, part of the experience. There’s a scene in Stranger than Paradise I’m always referencing in which the characters are watching television for several minutes. We can’t see what they’re watching. We can just see the flickering of it on their faces. They don’t say anything. They don’t react. It’s the same thing when they go to have a look at the lake and there’s nothing but fog to stare out at. Anyone else might have cut those scenes out in favor of moving the story along faster, but that juxtaposition is, in a way, the story.
Of course, then I have to decide as a writer whether I’m creating a quiet space that belongs in the narrative or indulgently waffling on for thousands of words. Ay, there’s the rub.
Writing is hard.
Or look at what Jarmusch does in Coffee and Cigarettes – it isn’t a plot as such, just a layered interconnection of themes. He uses the repeated lines, the black and white film, and the whole notion of coffee and cigarettes to stack layers of meaning vertically, not horizontally. He’s not necessarily constructing a narrative, just building upon what’s gone before. Again, juxtaposition and convergence are integral to the story.
Christ, did I really just say ‘stack layers of meaning vertically, not horizontally’? Why don’t I just give in and get myself fitted for a black turtleneck?
But that kind of touch is really important in terms of artistic merit, and hey, artistic merit is important. Which is exactly why it’s hard, and vice versa. Fortunately, the editing process exists to pare down the waffle and turn into that space of quiet meaning. Stephen King had a good line about subtext in writing – to paraphrase, if you find little subtextual icons occurring, by all means, roll with them, but don’t break your back trying to shoehorn in a meaning that isn’t there.
You know what killed me? And I hate to say this, but the film adaptation of The Godfather. I know it’s heresy, but damn. No dice.
Only someone in a black turtleneck would say such a thing! There’ll be a horse head in your bed in the morning. But … this is where I admit to something I’ve been harboring for half a lifetime: in short, I agree. I’m curious, though, if your criticism is of the film on its own merits or of the film in relation to the novel?
If a black turtleneck I must wear, then I’m going to wear the blackest damn turtleneck the world has ever seen. And I’m going to eat the most organic yogurt while I listen to Ravi Shankar and smoke unfiltered European cigarettes.
The Godfather, to me, is a prime example of displaying what books can do that films can’t (obviously, that cuts both ways, and there are things film as medium can accomplish that the written word cannot). The book is fantastic in its attention to depth and experience – one good example is the introduction of Paulie Gatto, right at the beginning. The novel has a great little section about Gatto idly planning stealing the bridal money bag, which has been growing fatter and fatter throughout the day, and acting as this watchful, ambitious schemer from the word go, and that’s a part of his character that only gets more and more important. By contrast, the film has this throwaway line of him sighing ‘If this was anybody else’s wedding!’ and then bam, move on. It may not sound like much, but it adds up, and it makes watching the film feel jerky and disjointed. So yes, my criticism is very definitely regarding the film as compared to the novel.
How about yourself?
I wish I had equally intelligent reasons for dismissing it (though I did appreciate some of my favorite actors in iconic roles and can do a mean Don Vito impersonation), but, alas, I really don’t. I’d seen it during my gangster/mafia-film phase, and when viewed with all of the other greats it was the one that had interested me the least. I should re-watch it as a grown-up to be more fair to it … or, perhaps better yet, read the novel.
It’s a rare case, I think, when a film adaptation manages to get everything just right in respect to its source. Novels just have so much more room to move in.
One thing I wish novels could do that movies can do is have a musical score. I mean, sure, people have played with the idea, marketed their books with playlists, but it’ll never be to the same effect as what film can do with the right piece of music synced to the action in a scene. Maybe this is where I get my obsession with tweaking the sound of the language in my own fiction. I gave poet Jayne Cortez a ride to a reading once, and I’d been surprised to find she’d shown up without the band she’d been known to read her poetry with. When I asked her about it, she said, “Tonight I’m my own band.” So maybe that’s it. Maybe I’m trying to be my own musical score. I have to say, I’m laughing a little at myself as I type that. And I’m wearing a black turtleneck and finishing off some organic yogurt.
One day, I’m sure, the singing birthday card technology will evolve to the point where your wildest dreams come true.
I agree; you’re actually dealing with two mediums, combined into one, working together, when considering film and music. There have been a couple of times now where I’ve heard the film score before seeing the film; it’s amazing the difference it makes to the whole experience.
As for the use of music itself – Zimmer and Nolan, for example? Those guys make for a mean double act. Two-Face’s final scene in The Dark Knight is underscored by this slow, building cello and string piece which totally darkens and spells out everything unfolding. An additional extra of music – and Zimmer’s a prime example here again – is that recurring leitmotifs can be used in a way that’s totally subtle and below the immediate viewing threshold.
Man. Directors have it so easy, you know?
Zimmer and Nolan, yes. Or the Coens and Carter Burwell. Or Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. I love these sorts of double acts.
So, let me ask you about the possibility that being influenced by movies could lead one astray as a writer. Yes, the arts can influence and overlap, and you and I and a lot of other writers love that — but I know many who believe film to be the one medium that has been gradually eroding the art and readership of the novel since its inception. So what do we say to this camp? Do they have a valid point?
It’s tough to say; I think the pervasiveness in film in culture is something that has an effect, like it or not – but as to whether it would actually erode the art of the novel? Well, that comes down to the novelist, doesn’t it? Matthew Reilly, for instance, is renowned for his approach of basically writing action-scene novels as if they were unfolding on screen, and his readers love him for it, but I’m not sure that cinema automatically influences authorial choices. The audience might change, it’s true (after all, the reality is that time and money are finite, and audiences can only invest their stores of both in one thing at a time), but there isn’t anything keeping writers from working on and evolving their craft.
What’s always interesting are the book-of-the-film releases. I used to love those when I was younger – have you ever read one of those things?
One. John Carpenter’s Starman: A Novel. I read it when I was a kid after obsessing over the movie for awhile in my kid-like way of obsessing over movies that don’t quite deserve it. I mean, we all know Carpenter’s masterpiece was Big Trouble in Little China. This book-of-the-film had four co-authors, I think, and came off as if perhaps they were just padding the screenplay and doing so in the most straightforward language possible. My young, obsessive self was not impressed. I will say that film seems to translate more easily to a novel than adapting a novel to film. With the latter you lose a lot in the adaptation, and in the case of the former you get a pretty lean and mean narrative that moves right along. That’s not a bad thing… as long as it’s as lovely as it is functional, I suppose. John Carpenter’s Starman was not.
So why were you drawn to book-of-the-film releases and what did you get out of them? Particularly as a writer?
Big Trouble in Little China. Now there was a movie. I used to watch and re-watch that obsessively as a kid, especially the opening fight scene. And the bit where Lo Pan and Egg Shen duke it out with as magical avatars of, I don’t know, purple and green light or something.
I think, as a kid who read a lot, I wanted to experience the movie I loved in as many ways as possible, and the book-of-the-film adaptations were a great way for me to do that. But then, unfortunately, I discovered that often things took place in the books which never took place in the film, and it threw me (I was pretty young). I wanted to know why I’d never seen the giant spider in Last Crusade, the Vigo-possessed Ray almost crashing the EctoMobile in Ghostbusters 2, or the Riddler having a super-buff bodysuit in Batman Forever. Then I grew up and found out that it was because the writers were often working from older screenplay drafts that had been edited before release, and so whole scenes were in the version they were working from that didn’t end up in the film.
I think I learned that sometimes, it’s best to leave well enough alone. Sometimes it can be great to get further insight into a character’s thoughts and feelings; another strength of the novel. However, sometimes the license taken by the author went too far – in the book of The Terminator the author goes into the Terminator’s point of view and it totally destroys the image of this thing as a merciless killing machine; an absolute. Sometimes it’s good to be black and white, rather than gray.
There’s that (probably well-worn) creative writing assignment in which students rewrite another writer’s poem by hand — the idea being that you process things differently when you write them out (as opposed to read or even type) and the close consideration of the poem along with the physical act of writing might jar something in your creative mind. There’s probably equal value in writing out a film scene or two, maybe finding economy in storytelling or finding the language of a scene. And if that’s true, those book-of-the-film authors must be nuts-and-bolts wizards … maybe even secret creative geniuses.
By the way, I am now wishing that I’d begun this whole conversation by saying in my best John Wayne/Jack Burton accent, “This is Cynthia Hawkins for the Pork Chop Express, and I’m talkin’ to whoever’s listenin’.”
Well I’m not sure if there’s been an adaptation of Big Trouble in Little China. There may still be time yet…
Hunter S. Thompson famously did that – rewrote other works in order to gain insight into the process and the mind-frame of the writer, learning by doing, if you will. It requires a certain presence of mind, I think, as does learning from film as a writer, or vice versa.
Ah well. Come back and talk to me again after I’ve watched Citizen Kane a few more time, and I’ve stolen Welles’s genius.
And then put it to work by writing the book adaptation of Inception 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Writing Off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema, is out now through Calavera Books, and available on Amazon and Kindle-supported devices as a downloadable ebook. All proceeds will go towards benefiting the JET 14 Program through the Joplin Schools Tornado Relief Fund.