Beating the system down

I am listening to Creative Screenwriting Magazine Podcasts. A fantastic series. It has plethora of great info.

For example: I didn’t know that 5 days before going to production with “21” a read through was such a disaster that pulling the plug seemed almost certain. Yet the last moment script changes and the power of Kevin Spacey brought the project back to life. Hmmm. The film is glossy, that’s for sure.

The card counting teams is such an awesome subject. I knew some members of a blackjack team. One of them was an aspiring screenwriter. The guy was funny and talented. Reading his scripts I was rolling on the floor with laughter. Why hasn’t he managed to produce his film? I guess it easier to be a top “winner in disguise”, to successfully rob casinos of millions, to evade wrath of furious Las Vegas types than to produce a Hollywood film.

Somebody may say that perhaps my friend's script was not so great after all. That's the matter of opinion. However one thing is absolutely certain: the guy had a fantastic concept - equal to or better than "MIT students in Vegas". He just didn't have his story described in "Wired" nor was lucky to hook up with Kevin Spacey, who deservingly, has such an enormous cloud.

So what was my friend's concept? You don't expect me to reveal it, do you? After all we compulsive gamblers of film never quit trying to beat the system down. Never.


Pastiche - storytelling about storytelling

"Inglorious Basterds",
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

“I love rumors. Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.” - Col. Landa - “Inglorious Basterds”

The characters in Tarantino’s films are high on performing their own lives. They are storytellers of their own lives. They are self-aware of their own, self created NARRATIVES. That’s what makes them so cool. That’s probably why the entire planet went nuts over “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”.

Not only the characters in these stories are high on storytelling. The storyteller himself is high on his craft. More: the story is high on itself. Through its stylization, its self awareness. The story is at the same time both sincere and self-reflective. The key is “at the same time”, because any fool can write something straight and later comment on it.

In the Internet posted (leaked way too early?) script for “Inglorious Basterds” there is so much typographical and grammatical lapses that either Tarantino uses a manual typewriter, writes very fast, is a dyslexic or just plainly fucks with some future uptight reader. Probably the latter, as per (narratively justified) “basterds”. It works, judging by the number of indignant “He’s a fraud. He can’t write, he misspells!” comments. I wish I could participate in this delicious game, but with my English I have to restrain to the most general aspects of storytelling in the script.

Let’s take the 18 page long prologue. The upcoming events are foreshadow by the four stylistic elements:

The title. “Once Upon a Time in France”. A narrative aspect of what will follow can’t be spelled out more clearly.

The context. In the Nazi occupied France when a military car drives up to a farm house it most likely announces something no good. In fact, anything Nazi is no good.

The initial info (on page 2) that something is dramatically off. “After living for a year with a sword of Damocles suspended over his head, this may very well be the end.” We don’t know what’s wrong but the sentence is clear enough. Afterwards the more time is spent on pleasantries the more suspense accumulates. Pure Hitchcock.

And finally the narrative self-consciousness of the bad guy, Col. Landa, who gets off on his act and whose “acting” drives the Proloque.

The resulting pages are a great read. Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating so I can’t wait to see the actual film.


Genova - moving forward

“Genova” directed by Michael Winterbottom,
written by Winterbottom and Laurence Coriat

Contrary to my “Metropolis” complains about the lack of narrative progress the field evolves and it happens fast.

For example “Genova” starring Colin Firth and great Catherine Keener, the film about "moving forward", which also moves forward the narrative craft. To me "Genova" effectively reworks “Three colors: Blue.” Strange that nobody mentions it. I hope I am not going nuts! Of course I do not know if Winterbottom consciously enters into the dialog with Kieślowski. Yet, even if directing this film is more instinctual and less cerebral, we the viewers are entitled to argue and point out such (possible) connections.

The first scene is the most obvious. A car crash in both films opens the story. In “Genova” the grieving wife from “Blue” is replaced by the grieving dad and two daughters. In what follows, thematic, sequential, psychological parallels to the Kieślowski masterpiece abound.

Stylistically both films are hugely different, which is as intriguing as it is encouraging. That’s why many directorial aspects of “Genova” (and “Blue”) are worth studying.

I will add “Genova” to the list of analyzed films during my upcoming seminars (“Blue” is already there.) You need to be a SWPS student to attend. Unless I return to offering independent workshops, which may happen. So stay tuned!


Listening to Larry Gelbart


For weeks I have been warming up to start another script. I procrastinate so much that it is not funny. For example I re-read about writing scripts. The annoying thing about many writing gurus is that they KNOW. Yet great practitioners speak differently: with much more reverence, sensitivity and curiosity about the world.

For example: Larry Gelbart (of M*S*H and Tootsie fame) in May issue of “Written By”, in a conversation with Phil Rosenthal and facilitated by Richard Stayton, says:

“I need to write. I need to know what I think about things, and I don’t generally know until I find myself writing whatever it is that I feel.”

I like this thought. I read it as justification of my own huge narrative shortcomings. It is OK not to know. The saying points to writing as a process of clarifying intent. As a research into nature of things. It makes me more relaxed about approaching a new story, not fully knowing where it is going. Not knowing “what it is all about” and gradually discovering it in the process is (to me) the best part of writing. Or film editing. Both can be close to each other, just done with different tools. Particularly when one edits an essayistic documentary, where often the structure and the meaning are born during the editing process (I tend to do this a lot.)

Another aspect of the quote is that it specifies the direction for writing process: from feeling to understanding. Feeling is enough to justify embarking on a writing search. I don’t have to know the arrival point. Actually, I better not know it if I am honestly committed to solving a problem. It opens the search for discovery, allows to see unexpected. Otherwise I just try to justify my already formulated opinion. Because, if there is a solution already, why bother to honestly seek it? In reality a true search often brings unexpected results. Don’t transformative journeys reinvent their objectives?

The audience senses sincerity (or its lack) in a storyteller. The struggle and search “along the way” validates the story, makes the communication more real. This way the audience is not preached to but invited to participate in something they probably would also experience themselves, should they try.

On the other hand, precision is necessity. Otherwise we get self indulging, unclear stories. Isn’t “Tootsie? so satisfying because it is so logically put together? So well designed? Don’t all great films work this way?

The conclusion seems to be the hardest one to implement: keep the middle ground, follow the golden rule, be mindful of both processes (discovering and designing). No shortcuts. No single technique. It is relatively easy to follow either “the writing technology” or “the inner search.” Yet, the screen requires both clarity and mystery.

The sincere “I know that I don’t know” seems in this process to be the most priceless and the most difficult to bring forth. So, enough of being a smart ass, Pawel. Put your paws on the keyboard and just do it.



"Metropolis", 1927 directed by Fritz Lang,
written by Lang and Thea von Harbou

You cheats! You untalented and lazy bastards,

who elbowed your dull selves onto the silver screen

after 1927, the year “Metropolis” appeared,

you were not original whatsoever.

Nor did you offered anything significant or inspiring.

Instead were just rehashing the Lang's vision.

All those “milestone achievements” in film-making

in reality were just stolen. From Fritz.

Is it possible that most of the film history

has been hijacked by mediocrity?

That the warning tale of the tragic connection

between technology and the masses

fell upon deaf ears for almost a century?

That what appeared to be a sentimental message

of “reason and hand needing a heart to connect”

was in fact a true warning of the utmost importance?

Completely disregarded.

All the years following “Metropolis”

whether in film or politics

or in self awareness of the masses

proved the film’s call to be true.

Yet nobody has listened.

So we continue this terrifying “progress”

backward. Straight to our own doom.

Look around:

There is nothing to make a connection

between ideas and technology.

There are only dumb and easy swayed crowds.

Only bland and shallow stories.

Originating from bland and shallow minds.

Delivered to bland and shallow viewers.

Consumed by them in obnoxious and mindless stupor.

All heartless.

No change in sight.



The melted screen

“Po-lin, Silvers of Memory”, by Jolanta Dylewska

This documentary (Po-lin in Hebrew - “You will rest here”, “A place of safe refuge”, “Poland”) consists mostly of home movies taken during the 30s by American Jews visiting their home villages and towns in Poland. Something happened during its screening:

The melted screen

The screen has melted

the borders between the past and the now have disappeared

and the space have became one.

You wake up and for a while

do not know what’s more real:

the events in this very moment

or those that have been so real just seconds ago,

and are still lingering in your mind,

afterimages of the soul, hints of the real, keys to the mystery

disappearing with your every conscious blink,

every move, every breath.

Who are you?

the dreamer or the dreamed?

The remembered or the rememberer?

An image on the screen of your mind

or your mind that watches it?

Do you live now

or perhaps in a shtetl

somewhere in Poland of 1932

and have been catapulted into the future

by a wise rabbi

or some strange person with

an even stranger machine

(cinematograph it is called)

to skip the horrors,

to see that the healing

can be achieved after all,

that dead and living

can coexist in the present?

United and peaceful.

Afterwards you

(returned to the now or just visiting from the past)

find yourself sitting still,

enveloped in wonder.

Rested and safe?

In Po-lin?




“It will change when you’re rich and old,”

I’ve heard him saying.

She responded immediately:

“I’ll never be rich,”

then she hesitated for a short but somehow powerful moment.

This moment jumped out of the conversation

and exploded above the summer street like a glass grenade.

Was I the only one to notice it?

After its shinny flying splinters melted into the air,

she added, “nor will I be old.”

I turned around to see who’s taking.

She was maybe 19, slender, vibrant and pretty.

Tight jeans, light blouse, fast walk.

He was a year or two older, taller, bland.

They stopped, kissed passionately

and resumed their stride.

What was she really telling him?

Was it: “With you I have no chance to strike it rich”?

Or perhaps: “I’ll never get to the old age with you.”

Or maybe “We’re doomed, but together.”

Was it a commitment from a woman in love,

or a way of saying - “goodbye looser.”

Or maybe she was saying:

“Careful, these are the best moments of our lives?”

Neither of these possibilities I would like for her to be true.

The way she looked, she deserved better.

But I wasn’t sure what to wish for her

Because I didn’t know what was

inside the explosion.




It does not take much

to set your free:

somebody’s kind stare

going within your very core,

or a well placed

“but why not” phrase,

or even seemingly hostile

but in reality a life saving:

“you're hopeless.”

All that can work wonders

and release you.

Beware however if any of these lines

is followed by a lengthy explanations,

justifications and reasoning.

That is a sure sign that their true aim

is to build an even harsher prison around you.


The alchemical origin of “Three Colors: Red”

Krzysztof Kieślowski, Jean Louis Trintignant, Irene Jacob on the set.
This Miramax picture is from imdb.

Krzysztof Zanussi during a public scriptwriting master class lecture told a story to illustrate the need for a filmmaker to study reality and to transmute the findings.

After the collapse of Communism a former secret agent approached Zanussi seeking help in finding a job. The agent thought of Zanussi because the director for years was his professional assignment. The agent spied on the filmmaker, listening to his phone conversations and reading his correspondence. In the agent’s mind a relationship was formed.

Zanussi offered him a few days a week yard work (nice touch, isn’t it?) That was refused. The director (realizing the narrative potential of the agent’s story or just seeking others who could help the man) called Andrzej Wajda, who wasn’t at that time in Warsaw.

So Zanussi called Krzysztof Kieślowski, who met the agent and spoke with him for a long time. That’s how the telephone spying on his neighbors judge in “Red” was born.

This reminds me of what Bill Viola said about his method of work. He used the expression “an almost alchemical process” in which he takes “an impulse which could be almost anything” (if I remember it well) and then with his craft turns it into “gold.”

Granted, Zanussi’s and Kieslowski’s films are anecdote based while Viola’s work is closer to painting but the rule remains the same: take in, extract the essence, stamp with your own, rearrange, return out.


“Elegy” - another kind of fear?

“Elegy” from a Philip Roth novel,
with Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley,
directed by Isabel Coixet.

Plot spoiler - subjective comments - literary cognoscenti stay out!

When thinking about this movie I am torn between its public reception, the critical reaction and my own experience.

For months I kept hearing about the film. Either directly from mostly women who had seen it already or overhearing other women talking among themselves with excitement about the “age difference affair.” Apparently an older guy (played by a famous actor) sleeping on screen with a much younger woman (played by a sexy movie star) struck a nerve. Then I went to see the flick. Walking away I eavesdropped and sure enough most of the comments related again to “the age thing.”

Than I read reviews. The majority of them complain about sanitizing the primal, raw sex Philip Roth novella “The Dying Animal”. All analyze the performance of the two protagonists. (Either raving or critiquing their performances mostly by comparing it to their previous achievements) All of that wisely, insightfully and convincingly presented, yet none of the above provided an explanation why this movie simply floored me.

Not having read the Roth's novella and not crazy about the stars (except Dennis Hopper who steals the show with the liveliest moment when he is ... dying) I just followed the story. It is a simple one. An affair is born and after a year comes to the end when the guy refuses to finally meet her family. Hurt, she leaves. The hero suffers. Then his best friend “departs”. The girl appears only to announce that she’s got breast cancer and that he was “the one.” Handkerchief please.

The question is why didn’t David Kepesh, the hero, go to the party given by his wonderful lover and in doing so didn’t announce himself socially to her circle is the crucial one. Most, including Ben Kinglsey, talk about the fear of commitment. The actor says that he had boiled down his role to a few sentences: “‘Once upon a time there was a man who couldn’t commit. He committed, and the thing he committed to died.’ Kignsely says he has carried this idea thorough the film.

I am suspicious of such interpretation. The Kingsley character seems cynical and manipulative enough to endure no matter how awkward an afternoon to keep an exciting affair going.

What if Kepesh doesn’t go to the party because he’s frozen by another kind of fear? Not the fear or commitment but the fear of death. What if the film is not a “soap opera” type of a story about the age difference in bed, but rather a howl of “a dying animal”? What if the most important element in this film (like in most) is its proper sequencing of strong events?

It is indeed a rare skill to time events properly. When done with enough power it can’t be overshadowed much even by possible inadequacies of film makers. Banal, you will say. Yes, just like death I will respond.

Those who truly know the answer to the deceptively simply question "what makes a sequence of events powerful?" live in Malibu. OK, in NYC. OK anywhere but well because their skill is so precious. So my hat goes down to Nicholas Meyer - the script writer and primarily to he who came up with the story - Philip Roth - “The Dying Animal” novella author.


The Unwanted Proof


Why do we do bad things to ourselves,

knowing they are bad?

Doing bad things to others

is simple to explain by “knowing better”,

which is another name for love or hate.

But harming ourselves because we know better

does not make sense.

Unless harming we do out of self hate.

Does some part in us not want us to be perfect?

Is it the evolution testing the strength of its monads

so that The Future of Life will be bright and powerful?

Is it the (peculiar you must admit)

expression of God’s love to us? (Free will and all that.)

Or is it a dark force rejoicing in crippling the God’s creation?

Hating us. Seeking out every opening

to trigger our self damage.

Applying constant pressures of laziness, procrastination,

deafness, blindness and haste.

Hidden, or not so hidden, in everyday choices,

seemingly trite, in fact decisive

to the eternal consequences of our missteps.

Why are we weak, stupid and scared?

The answer that seems most reasonable is indeed

a metaphysical one.

And that is a terrifying thought.


Tokyo Crows


Somewhere inside a Warsaw cement desert of tenement buildings,

so well x-rayed in Kieslowski’s “Decalogue”,

I am editing a documentary from Japan.

Quite proud of myself, working in an intuitive way.

Writing a poem with images. Or so I think.

No talking heads, no touristy places, no banal associations.

No easy judgments, trite observations or pathetic “insights.”

Not even too much philosophy (can’t help myself with this one.)

This Gajdzin (Japanese term for a foreigner)

will finally get something right!

The scenes with the Tokyo crows stand out.

Black, big, fat and mysterious, the birds are everywhere.

Sitting. Watching. Judging. Waiting.

Hitchock would love it.

Parks, poles, wires, streets, rooftops - populated by crows.

Even in a museum a Japanese calligraphy says:

“A black crow cries - I am alone.”

She who offers to translate it to me is dressed in black.

Older. Dignified. Stylish.

I like her slick black hair, elegance and mischievous eyes.

I have videotaped this encounter.

The crows own Tokyo and its psyche.

The editing process intensifies.

The project goes through many versions.

What goes where? Is the pacing right? What’s the theme again?

Identity? Culture? Feeling? Nature?

Nature? Don’t blab about everything.

Less is more. Keep focused!

The birds are great but they stick out.

The museum woman is wonderful but somehow seems too private.

The crows with each pass fit less.

Around cut number 12 they are gone.

They were too strong, too different,

not connected enough to “the emotional through line”

When the project is done (version 16), it is clean, sharp, congruent.

For the first time in weeks I sleep like a baby.

Then, just before wee hours,


springs me upward to a sitting position. It is something


just outside my open window,

or maybe already inside.

My heart pounds with fear. Finally I see:

It is a huge black crow


Hurt! Angry! Menacing!

For a good moment we eye each other

then she shuts up and flies away.

I sit frozen

realizing I have transgressed.

Kieslowski (I only met him once in passing for 5 seconds,

but that was enough) looks at me from above

with disapproval.

I can hear his voiceless questions:

Are you capable of right judgments?

Are your ethics clean?

Can you tell a story and not harm?

Are you fit do make documentaries?

What are you going to do with the Tokyo crows?