Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Writers, Get Thee to the Movies!
By Sarah R. Shaber
Recently I saw Wonder Boys, a great film from the novel by Michael Chabon. I watched it with a group of writer friends, and we were beside ourselves because it was ABOUT WRITERS AND WRITING! It was sad, and hilarious, and sweet, and IT WAS ABOUT US!
Michael Douglas stars as Prof. Grady Tripp, a writing teacher who is hopelessly blocked on his second novel, Wonder Boys, which is scheduled to follow his well-reviewed and well-received first novel, The Arsonist’s Daughter. We know that feeling, don’t we, boys and girls?
In one wild weekend Tripp’s wife leaves him, he struggles to protect a promising student (Tobey McGuire) from the clutches, both literary and sexual, of Tripp’s best friend and editor (Robert Downey Jr, brilliant here, and in Iron Man and Zodiac, I am so over Jake Gyllenhaal), deal with his pregnant girlfriend (Frances McDormand), and receive a blisteringly negative review of his manuscript from one of his own students (Katie Holmes, who knew she could act?) who is all of twenty years old.
I won’t spoil the movie for you, but the best parts, for me, anyway, are the inside writing jokes. You must see this movie. There was something about watching a good film about writing that was so validating and cathartic that a month later I’m still getting good vibrations from it.
So I bought Stranger Than Ficton, the movie with Emma Thompson and Will Farrell about a man (Ferrell) who realizes he’s a character in a book being written by a famous writer (Thompson) whose signature, get this, is that in all her books the main character dies! Needless to say Farrell’s boring, predictable life is turned upside down as he enlists the help of a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) to identify the writer so he can save his life.
Emma Thompson as the writer is perfect. She’s unkempt, obsessed with her plot, driven to sit at her typewriter for hours every day. She resides in an empty apartment because she lives inside her mind, not in the world. She spends most of her time dreaming up ways to kill her characters.
Again, I don’t want to spoil the plot for you, but Farrell shows up at her door to plead for his life. Her reaction is priceless. She recognizes him instantly, and becomes beset with guilt and anxiety as she plans his demise. I identify so with her reaction. I have no doubt I would recognize my own characters if I met them, and I often must remind myself, as I burden their lives with murders, broken love affairs, and problems galore, that they aren’t real people—I hope!
Over the weekend my friend Brenda Witchger reminded me about Adaptation, a 2002 film starring Nicholas Cage as twin film writers Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Charlie’s got a gig adapting The Orchid Thief, a best-selling nonfiction book about orchid poaching, into a fiction screenplay that is set to star Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper. Charlie, so committed to his art, is tormented beyond belief by his assignment to do justice to the book. He faces self-doubt, writer’s block, and frustration. Watching him sit at a makeshift desk, roll paper into his typewriter and stare, paralyzed, at the keyboard, with only the company of his unmade bed, is a scene we all recognize. If you haven’t been there, you’re not a writer. Then there’s his freeloading and superficial twin brother Donald, typing away at a clichéd screenplay about a serial killer that gets bought immediately by Hollywood. Of course Charlie Kaufman is a real screenwriter—he also wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Donald is his imaginary “evil” twin, who takes the easy way out of the writer’s dilemma.
Most people aren’t writers. No matter how much your spouse, children, and friends care about you, they don’t understand the writing process. You need the company of other writers for that. And a few good movies to reassure you that you’re not alone. For those of you who aren’t writers, but are interesting in writer, these films will give you insight into the writing life.