Because I am incredibly nerdy, I maintain a spreadsheet list of the projects I want to write where I keep track of their current stage of development. I also have a separate tab on the spreadsheet where I note everything that I am actually mid-draft on and on which I have recently-worked. (The novel I started on my own like eight years ago and haven’t worked on in four years doesn’t count.) On the “in progress” tab, I have the projected length also marked and the ratio of the two automatically generates a neat little bar graph where I can see how far along I am with all of it.
For the first time since I made that bar graph, it has only four bars on it. One is a 10-minute play that I have half-completed. The other is a full-length play that is about 25% drafted. The other two are screenplays – this very personal sci-fi thing that I started 11 freaking years ago and seems to come out one agonizing page at a time. It’s now 72 pages and I might even finish it before I die because it really shouldn’t be over 95. And the other is another personal piece that has reached the point where I have to reconceptualize it from being a feature screenplay to something else because it really is The Script That Will Never End. I currently have 139 pages of that and am still nowhere near done.
I have been pressing hard on the sci-fi piece – my best friend/sometimes writing partner Adam really wants to see it and I must admit I am fed up with it not being done. I am also trying to make up for a couple of years where I feel like my screenwriting pace slipped to unacceptable levels. Of these four bars; I think that’s likeliest to rise up to victorious heights and then disappear like a Tetris row next.
Like I said, it’s really rare of me to have so few things mid-draft. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff brainstorming…but I don’t know what it would mean for me to have nearly all of the mid-process stuff done. To not have something to just fire up the computer and hang words on. I mean, from a practical standpoint it would mean I have no choice but to muscle some long-simmering stuff into position to be written. Whatever this restless energy is that has produced so much work these last 4-5 months is still inside me, and needs projects to work on. I’ve never had to come up with material for it on-demand in this way.
Adam and I are crunching on a new collaborative piece for which he has technically already written a few pages; but I know we’re going to re-write them and I’m not sure how long this thing should be, yet. So it’s not yet on the graph, though it will be soon. I also have a new short film idea that has triggered some good ideas over the last few days. That one could start producing pages surprisingly soon.
So maybe the bars will multiply again and I won’t have to face this unknown phase. Or maybe I should take this as a sign to really finish these pieces and see what happens then.
As usual, I have no idea what the hell I’m going to do tomorrow. Except write, Jimmy. These days, it’s a good bet I’ll be doing that.
Basically, I get an idea. Usually, the idea comes in the form of a question: “What if….?” I ask myself the question. I ask a few close friends the question. I see if the question provokes any interesting reactions in them, or in myself. I’m testing whether there’s an emotional nerve exposed and tickled by the question. Then I start wondering what might happen in the process of seeing the question dramatically answered; what the journey to the answer might feel like. This stage is absolutely crucial for whether the idea lives and grows into a story or falls apart like old Jell-o.
I add details, I reject many. I come up with stupid ideas. Astonishingly good ideas seem to come out of nowhere. I can’t glimpse the thing directly; it’s too ephemeral – but by testing one thing at a time to see whether or not it belongs in the thing, I start to understand it indirectly. Usually, there’s at least one night where I’m torn between going to sleep and jumping out of bed to get to the keyboard and write some of this stuff down.
I can’t always tell when, but at some point, I recognize it. Maybe it doesn’t have a title, but I’ve named it in my mind – because I have a sense of what it’s about, what it feels like, what I want it to look like.
And then – there’s a new thing on the list of Stuff Nick Has to Write.
Nicholas Thurkettle is pleased to announce that, on May 1st, 2013, at 1:48pm, he became the proud father of a healthy baby novel – 422 manuscript pages long and weighing in at 92,427 words.
He will allow the novel to enjoy life for a few weeks, then come back and start hacking fat off of it and berating it for not being better.
I’m drafting the last chapter of the novel now. Actually, there’s an epilogue after, but I finished that awhile back. Next Wednesday is my due date; and I am still confident that I’ll make it.
I’m writing in a weirdly-unconscious place now. I guess it’s natural that, having never-written in precisely this mode before, I would discover new responses within myself. Never in my life have I sat down so consistently for so many consecutive weeks, with such singular focus on one project. And I have never written anything this big, full stop. 2013 is already in the running for the most productive year of my life in terms of writing output, and it’s still April. That’s downright alarming.
But these days, when I open up the latest chapter, this astonishing hostility kicks in. All I can think is: “You again?!” I don’t hate the book but I feel oppressed by the familiar unfinishedness of it. It’s not the same gray rut you might feel from clocking in at a job you don’t like; maybe it’s the impatience of such a long and laborious incubation. I wake up each morning to find that it’s still just a Word doc, with a blinking cursor taunting me from the tail of an incomplete sentence, and I am enraged that it hasn’t turned itself into anything else in the night.
There’s little brainstorming left to do. I am catching up to and transcribing the inevitable narrative output of an equation I already wrote. A warped argument in my brain is trying to even deny to me the satisfaction that I’m creating anything at all in these sessions, other than hopefully-smooth sentences.
And so each day I am convinced that I can’t do it. I won’t do it. Today will be that Mulligan day I built into the schedule, when the great choking gunk we call The Block will win and I will wave the white flag and I fart the day away with a Frappuccino and video games.
And I go over what I wrote yesterday. I don’t even remember half of it; because I was writing unconsciously that day, too. I make some snips and corrections, I bring myself back to that blinking cursor, and then, somehow…I just start typing. Because whatever thought is on the page isn’t finished.
I grump my way through a sentence at a time, building a moment, orchestrating an epiphany or a reveal, trying to come up with a single damned metaphor that doesn’t barf with pretension or go limp from obscurity. Using adjectives. Hating myself for using adjectives. Reminding myself that F. Scott Fitzgerald used adjectives and survived.
Sooner or later I reach the end of a sequence; the trance snaps, I look at the word count down in the corner…and somehow I’ve written my quota for the session.
Then I think to myself: “Well, sure, you got lucky with the morning session; but this afternoon you’ll be screwed…”
And I never am.
Today I finished the first draft of a new one-act play. It’s called The Rothko and it’s about a man who kicks a hole in a $30 million painting and can’t explain why he did it. This upsets people; and I have to be ready to deal with reactions from people because I am not giving them any solid explanation as to why he does it. There’s no traumatic painting-related experience in his childhood, he never met Rothko; there’s nothing simple or logical to it. He looked at it, he was suddenly compellted to do it, and he did it.
Further; I can’t explain why it is that, as soon as this painting-kicking idea struck, I decided that it should be a Rothko that the man kicks.
Ask yourself – honestly, now – could you see kicking this?
It’s actually a greater challenge to me to not wrap it up easily – it takes a lot of care to create interest and entertainment while teetering on the edge of ambiguity; and yet that’s what I feel duty-bound to do, because to me, the communication between art and its viewer is incredibly-unpredictable, personal, and powerful, and I couldn’t reduce that.
Does that mean I want to kick a painting? I’ve never felt that urge – although I confess I’ve felt myself wrestling with other strange, destructive urges in my life. The psychological definition of vertigo is the fear of falling set in tense conflict with an inexplicable desire to jump. But why would any person jump? Well – who hasn’t wanted to just say Fuck you, gravity, I’m doing this on my terms! I think we have a million varieties of vertigo, and the way that sensation manifests itself creates some unforgettable behavior; as well as some incredible art.
My favorite thing on the Internet today is this clip from a little-seen but-reportedly-awful early-80′s Australian musical superhero spoof about an alcoholic Superman-knockoff called The Return of Captain Invincible. Alan Arkin plays Cpt. Invincible, lured away from the bottle and out of retirement, and Sir Christopher Lee plays his sadistic nemesis, Mr. Midnight, who wants to use his Hypnoray to kill all non-white people.
The songs are by Richard O’Brien – the creator of The Rocky Horror Show and its film adaptation. And in this song, Christopher Lee reduces Cpt. Invincible to a fetal position with a pun-heavy rockgasm about how much he enjoys cocktails. It’s somehow weirder than I’ve described it:
Christopher Lee – Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Bond Villain, Tolkein Wizard, Sith Lord, Metal Band Frontman, real-life Nazi-hunting Special Forces Badass…also does showtunes
I’ve read stories about Richard O’Brien showing up at Rocky Horror tributes to sing (he performed the title theme and the role of butler Riff Raff in the film) and being too drunk to remember the lyrics. And when I look at something like this, I believe that something this wretchedly grandiose and wonderfully unhinged had to come from a somehow genuine place; from someone who has had to deal with the love and loathing and pleasure and destruction of alcohol in his life in a deeply personal way, and is responding to it not with denial or self-pity but nutso pizzazz.
I think it’s in the nature of creative people to try and capture the contradictory, the inexplicable, and often gloriously-unjustifiable behavior they see in others and acknowledge in themselves. Because none of our truly-interesting struggles are one-sided or cleanly-resolved. We have the most ingenious ways of fighting back against life and asserting ourselves and I really celebrate that; I find stories where everyone behaves exactly as the majority wants them to behave to be insufferable, because that majority can be used to enforce denial of what members of the majority deny with in themselves – all their delicious, weird uniqueness.
I guess that’s the closest I can come to explaining The Rothko. Maybe, if anyone asks, I’ll just point them here and hope for the best.
Originally published 9/20/2005
Directors: Tim Burton and Mike Johnson
Writers: Story and Characters by Tim Burton, Screenplay by John August and Pamela Pettler and Caroline Thompson
Producers: Tim Burton and Allison Abbate
Featuring the voices of: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Jane Horrocks, Danny Elfman
The fairy tale is an enduring story format because it works with those simple broad tropes that resonate from the moment we start making sense of the world: Life and death. Doing what our parents want or growing into our own desires. The virtues of being poor and in love, and finding the right reason to marry someone. And how our sins always come back to haunt us.
And yet filmmaker Tim Burton seems to be the only storyteller working interested in creating new fairy tales rather than riffing off the old ones. Edward Scissorhands easily counts, as does his previous stop-motion animated feature The Nightmare Before Christmas. In a way it seizes control of the form for the misfits of the world – the popular people can have their glistering towers and flowing-haired princesses, Burton is perfectly content to patch together his stories from bugs and bones. And with Corpse Bride, he delivers yet another charming and gruesome fantasia which is not only a visual feast, but a beautifully simple story about how if we take the time to look at that which frightens us, we might find it’s not so bad after all.
Originally published 9/13/2005
The Constant Gardener
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Writers: Screenplay by Jeffrey Caine, based on the novel by John Le Carré
Producers: Simon Channing-Williams
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Hubert Koundé, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite, Gerald McSorley, Donald Sumpter, Richard McCabe
I used to work for a company with a “friendly” but off-the-books relationship with a neighboring company that had a large library of purportedly-confidential material in a scanned database. If my boss announced at a meeting that “we” should study up on a particular text, I would know to go to my computer and fill out a little form on the Internet. That form would go who-knows-where, where it would be printed out and delivered to some other party, who would produce the requested manuscript, then send it on to a delivery person, whose cart would happen by our area on its rounds and drop it off so I could read it.
The Constant Gardener, a strong and compelling on-screen intrigue, is partially about the world where killing is achieved by the same sort of convenient arrangement. By the end one character plaintively and rhetorically asks – “Who has committed murder?”, and the truth is that it is difficult to pin down, because the actual task has been so thoroughly delegated. There are a lot of layers between the wealthy, whose accumulation is threatened, and that blue pickup truck with the armed men in back who come round your corner one day. The rich never pulled the trigger, although it’s inarguable that they are going to fortunately benefit from the regrettable bit of nasty business. How do you avenge a killing arranged by corporate will?
That question leads to what the movie, based on the novel by cynical spy author John Le Carré (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Tailor of Panama), is fundamentally about, and that is the love relationship between the very proper Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), and the very improper Tessa (Rachel Weisz), who will become Mrs. Justin Quayle before her very regrettable death out on a lake in the Kenyan countryside.
Originally published 9/3/2005
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writers: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Producers: Luc Besson and Steven Chasman
Stars: Jason Statham, Alessandro Gassman, Amber Valletta, Katie Nauta, Matthew Modine, Jason Flemying, Keith David, François Berléand, Hunter Clary
In 2002’s The Transporter there was a scene where Frank Martin (Jason Statham), an ex-British Special Forces soldier now in the lucrative field of mercenary high-speed driving, smeared his body in grease and fought a roomful of thugs while standing on bicycle pedals. As their grasping hands slipped impotently off his muscled torso I realized the movie had achieved a sort of Golden Mean of preposterousness. It was so calculatedly absurd it was practically daring you to enjoy it in spite of your better nature. Though the acting was mannered and bizarre and the plot all but incomprehensible, the movie was more fun than it had any right to be.
Something about the combination of driving stunts, fisticuffs and surly demeanor clicked enough with audiences to warrant a sequel, and a well-sponsored one at that. The true sign of The Transporter’s viability as a franchise is how lovingly-photographed the Heineken bottles in Frank Martin’s fridge are; and the ingenious way he uses an iPod and the dashboard computer of an Audi to help save Miami from the spread of a biological doomsday weapon.
If that sounds pretty unlikely to you, be warned that this sequel feels no regrets about all that grease business, and aims to top it if at all possible. In a way, while I can honestly say the makers of The Transporter care more about its plot this time around, I sm not convinced that’s a good thing in this case.
Originally published 8/24/2005
The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Director: Judd Apatow
Writers: Steve Carell and Judd Apatow
Producers: Judd Apatow, Shauna Robertson, Clayton Townsend
Stars: Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Seth Rogen, Elizbaeth Banks, Leslie Mann, Jane Lynch
Steve Carell’s face is like a church service you desperately want to laugh in. This is the most square, sober, white, middlebrow, milquetoast kisser you ever saw. It passes beyond dour and into new dimensions of grave earnest. He should be selling insurance to Mormons. Which is maybe why he doesn’t even have to move to be funny.
That performance-enhanced deadpan has made him a reliable second banana for years, stealing bits out from under Will Ferrell in Anchorman, Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, even Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. In that loose-knit troupe of modern comedy stars and filmmakers that’s been dubbed “The Frat Pack” he’s like a member of the “B” squad. The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a chance for he and other supporting “Frat Pack”-ers like Paul Rudd to take their own spotlight, and historically this doesn’t always go well. But he earns his leading man bona fides and delivers us a raunchy and surprisingly sweet-natured sex comedy in the bargain.
Had a lovely outing at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles, yesterday. The city is really working to make this hillside between the Music Center and City Hall into a civic center of gravity. The design is a little concrete-heavy, but since they are trying to emphasize native and habitat-friendly plant life, a great big lawn of grass would be costly, inappropriate, and regularly destroyed.
I think part of the problem with downtown is that the design philisophy has so often seemed to reflect as its highest priority a defensive crouch against homeless people and drug dealers. But citizens can’t reclaim the space until you make a space that they have some desire to gather in. This park is clean, bright, open, and welcoming; and is due to expand. All good signs.
I got some nice shots of kids frolicking in the fountain; but I won’t make those public – they’re not my kids, right?
Grand Park - April 13
A perfect spring day in downtown LA. Kids were frolicking in the fountain, and the flowers were brilliant
Experimenting with overexposure to push it into abstract territory