Something greater than yourself

You’re in service of something stronger than you. Like the story has to be stronger than you. And your certainty has to be stronger than anybody else’s because the story speaks to you. Not because it’s you. (It’s) because you say “Look this is what it needs, not me.” And you actually feel carried on. You go through the difficulties but you feel carried on in terms of faith and certainty — Mexican film director, screenwriter, producer and novelist Guillermo del Toro speaking at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival

As a writer, you are in service of something bigger than just simply your existence. You are a storyteller whether the tales you tell are true-life or fictionalized.

It has taken me a lifetime to definitively conclude that I am a storyteller. Whether through images or words or a combination of both, I am a storyteller. That is something I am most proud of and is the most comfortable skin I’ve ever worn.

There will always be people who expect me to wear a different skin because of the way I look and the stereotypes/biases that come with it. I have to humour them. Or least humour them long enough to figure out what it is they really want from me and make the conscious and pointed decision to disappoint them.

My current writing project has pushed me onto another level of storytelling. It’s something I’ve always planned to do… push myself with each writing project. The field research is a part of this process. This story is so different from the first book. And I anticipate getting interesting reactions about it once it’s done.

I’m a ‘like it’, ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ kind of person. You can’t get more basic that that. I’m not crazy about over-analyzing things. Navel-gazing isn’t all that much fun in my opinion. I’ll leave that to the folks who like doing that kind of thing. Reminds me of dealing with a backseat driver. I’d rather kick them out of the car and let them fend for themselves rather than listen to them tell me what my thought process is. Adiós, amigos.

Those who really know me, respect me, love me and are weirdly entertained by me. And not necessarily in that order. Being weirdly entertaining wins out most of the time.

Four days into my field research, I have met people, with interesting stories, who are genuinely interested in me and the silly things I get myself into. If I sound surprised, it’s because I am. The idea of me actually being interesting to another human being is a bit baffling at times.

As a result, I’ll be walking away, at the conclusion of my field research, with a few more friends to populate my life.

The field research has been going great. A lot of information to process and absorb. I’ve been taking notes. Not everything I’ve been exposed to will end up in my current writing project. But there is always the chance some of that information will appear in future stories. I don’t know if I’ll absorb enough stuff to have a truly nerdy did-you-know moment á la Cliff Clavin from Cheers.

Anyway, there is more stuff to do this week. I brought books with me to read and I haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. Ack. I really should set aside some time to unwind and read. There might be time near the end of the trip. But maybe I should start now. Hmmm.

For now, there is more stuff to process, to absorb and to be greater than the sum of its parts.

A revelatory moment

Movies are made on models, particularly in the last few decades. You read a script and it’s like three acts. Something has to happen to the character that has to go to the end of the first act so that the second act is going to evolve the things until you end the second act with a big problem then at the end, things are going to be solved or it’s going to be sad or whatever. And then you have casual dialogue in the first act, then it becomes open dialogue between characters and ends up in being big monologues. This is, for me, a travesty and I hate it. But that is how 99 per cent of the fare that is given to us in cinemas worksLuca Guadagnino speaking at the 2017 TIFF Talks in Toronto to promote his latest film, Call Me By Your Name

Luca Guadagnino is officially one of my favourite directors — along with Barry Jenkins, Wong Kar-wai and Guillermo del Toro. Actually, he is at the top of my list.

Admittedly, my paltry list of favourite film directors isn’t as meaty as my list of favourite film composers. I just might be pickier when it comes to directors. But then, I also haven’t made the time to see a lot of movies either. I understand John Cassavates is a director whose work is a must-see for those wanting to get their toes wet in the world of film and filmmakers. I probably should start with a small list of directors I need to watch.

There are a number of things that go into making my favourites list. I’m hardly a film geek by any stretch of the imagination. But I know what I like and it’s usually the intangibles that grab my attention and determine who makes the list. I probably should be more geeky about the directors of photography but I haven’t figure that one out yet.

So, why is Guadagnino at the top of my favourite directors list? Oddly enough, it isn’t because of any of the films he has directed. I confess to not seeing any of them except for I am Love. It’s impossible to forget Tilda Swinton. I should watch that movie again before I see Call Me By Your Name. And I should also watch A Bigger Splash. It was a film that had been on my radar when it first came out but for whatever reason, I never got around to watching it. I can be so delinquent.

The reason Guadagnino is my number one director is because of the quote at the beginning of this post. But there’s much more to that quote and how he approaches filmmaking, storytelling and the truth as it exists in a story.

When he spoke about the three-act story arc, my mouth hit the floor. It must have stayed on the floor for a solid 5-10 minutes. Guadagnino referring to the three-act story arc as a travesty didn’t shock me. What shocked me was that there was someone else who felt the same way I (more than occasionally) felt about adhering to a three-act story arc. I should have jumped up and down for joy upon discovering that there was a like-minded soul out there. But I was so surprised by what he said, I didn’t know what to do with myself when I heard it. It was revelatory.

In another interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, he talked about the concept of genre movies and how very much it was an American construct, a way of compartmentalizing things, boxing things. Personally, I think one of the reasons genres are used to categorize anything and everything in the entertainment and literary industries is it makes marketing easier for studios and publishers.

Coming from a European filmmaking point of view, Guadagnino noted that genres are not as adhered to on the other side of the Atlantic pond. All that matters, ultimately for him, is telling a good story regardless of what genre the story falls under.

I just might be living on the wrong continent. I could not love the man more if I tried.

If someone were to ask me what genre of fiction I write in, I’d respond with “I don’t think about genre. I think about the story.” I couldn’t give a flying fuck what genre my stories fit into. The only reason I describe my current writing project as falling into the crime genre is because my writing mentor labelled it as such. Before that I couldn’t tell you because I don’t think about genre. I don’t like boxing in a story in that manner. I have plenty to deal with so that genre will never be a priority with me. That may or may not get me into a shitload of trouble down the road but I couldn’t give a fuck right now.

With each genre, there are conventions a writer should adhere to in order for it to fit into that genre. I probably was aware of this as a reader on some sort of subconscious level. As a writer, not so much. I was informed by my writing mentor about certain things that never appear or are never really used in crime novels. I won’t discuss discuss what they were but rest assured, I was not impressed. Ultimately, the do’s and don’ts are things I can deal with although I’m probably going to push the envelope where the ‘dont’s’ are concerned. Not because I’d be doing it out of spite. It’s more the case of I can’t fucking help myself.

It’s my understanding that each genre has its own rhythm. The crime genre definitely has it’s own rhythm. I, on the other hand, am familiar with one rhythm — mine. So, to get a taste and feeling for the rhythm, I read The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain, I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane, Sin City by Frank Miller and Elmore Leonard’s City Primeval.

At the outset, I can’t tell you what I’ve learned from reading those books because it’s one of those learn-through-osmosis deals. Whatever I’ve absorbed will be blended into my storytelling rhythm. I suppose it will be one of those slow evolution situations that I won’t notice unless someone points it out because they see it.

Listening to Guadagnino’s words has added more fuel to a fire that has been happily crackling away. Now, it’s become a little brighter and a few degrees warmer. I might be understating the heat temperature, though. Just a little.

Now, I’m gotta get back to that fire and stoke it for awhile.

Movie snacks, socks and stories to tell

Last week, I managed to find some time to watch four feature films. I didn’t watch them in the theatre, although, there is one I plan on grabbing some hot buttered popcorn for.

Watching movies at home is great. You don’t have to buy overpriced drinks and popcorn or nachos. Settling in with a gin and tonic or a tumbler of whiskey sounds like a good idea. But I do think having whiskey during movie night depends on what movie you’re planning on watching. I have yet to figure out kind of movie would be appropriate with the hard stuff.

However, I can think of a couple of actors who would go well with a shot or two of Lagavulin or Macallan. My mouth waters at the thought. Considering I haven’t found the right movie that goes with a good whiskey, I defaulted to a good herbal tea for the four films. Yes, that’s boring. No, I don’t care. Just know that when I bring out the whiskey, it will be for something special, something unique.

As for in-home movie snacks, I guess I could make my own popcorn. Unfortunately, I don’t have a popcorn popper. I could use one of my stainless steel pots to make the popcorn but then, I’d set off the smoke alarm and ruin a perfectly good pot. Not really interested in a hot air popcorn popper even though it’s considered the healthy alternative to using hot oil. And I’m ambivalent about microwaved popcorn.

Since I refuse to put in the work to make good theatre-worthy popcorn, snacks of choice would be mixed nuts or rice cakes with almond butter. That might be a little too healthy for some folks but that’s how my tastebuds roll. I had the rice cakes.

Screenwriting is always about what people say
or do, whereas good writing is about
a thought process or an abstract image
or an internal monologue, none of which
works on screen
— David Nicholls

Now that the discussion of in-home movie snacks has been dealt with, I’d like to say watching the four films was the first time I was consciously aware I was viewing the films as more than just as a person looking to be entertained by what was on the screen.

To be more specific, I was looking at lighting, the choice of camera angles and the type of camera shot. I practiced figuring out within the three-act story arc where act two and act three started. Not sure if I was all the successful. Yeah, I was getting nerdy.

Call it research. Call it learning. Call it absorbing everything like a sponge and reflecting on it.

And before I started watching the third film, I came up with another idea for another novel. Let’s just say the idea was inspired by one of the first two films I watched. A re-imagining, perhaps. Maybe more like a deconstruction? Anyway, it probably won’t look anything like the source of the inspiration after I’m done figuring out the characters and fine-tuning the storyline.

Considering I have two writing projects I need to focus on, coming up with another future project seems a little ambitious and is begging for trouble when it comes to time management. It’s probably safe to say that for a lot of writers, coming up with several story ideas that have enough traction to become novels or screenplays is something to relish and be grateful for. It offers the choice to work on a couple of ideas simultaneously or one by one — finish one project and start on the next.

When I started writing, I didn’t know if I had a story worthy of becoming a book inside me. Then, after I wrote The Raven Sonata, I didn’t know if there was another story tucked inside me that I could sink my teeth into. To continue to hone, to stretch and push, and to get more ambitious with my storytelling skillset.

It turns out I have more than one story to tell. It’s not like I have a ton of stories dying to be told. I have no idea how many stories I have and how many of them will end up on paper. And I don’t think I’m too concerned about that right now. Nevertheless, I’m surprised. Surprised that I like being a storyteller. Surprised that I’ve found the one thing that allows me to express myself in a way where I simply couldn’t give a fuck what anyone else says. And I’ll never stop being surprised by the tiny pile of story ideas I’ve acquired, all with not-fully developed characters, waiting to play with me.

I know I’m becoming more ambitious with the stories I want to tell. Being more ambitious requires figuring out how to execute those lofty goals a person has set for oneself. That’s where I am now. Complexity and simplicity have been ubiquitous qualities that have shaped all aspects of my life. So, why wouldn’t I have that enter my writing. It’s a matter of allowing the complexity and simplicity to flow and express itself in the written word. It’s not an easy process but the journey has been rewarding, so far.

Although my focus is on the second novel and the short film screenplay, it doesn’t stop me from thinking about the most recent idea. It will remain an idea that will incubate and grow on its own. I estimate working on the story arc for this new idea won’t happen until late summer/early fall unless something changes and I find myself scratching notes on file cards sooner than later.

It’s always exciting to come up with new story ideas that immediately grab hold of your imagination. All fun and games until you realize you have to prioritize. Either I reel in my imagination or pull up my socks and manage my time so I can get this pile of stuff done…

I guess I’ll pull up my socks.