True story

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Truth is relative. Truth isn’t about facts so much as believability. Something can be objectively factual, but if I do not believe it, it is not true (to me).

And while this position can complicate social interactions and any discussion of politics, its corollary is vital to creativity:

Something can be objectively fictional, but if I believe it, it is true (to me).

I stumbled across this concept years ago, while studying improvisation at Second City.

I entered the school thinking I was there to be funny, but rapidly learned that despite the appellation “improvisational comedy”, the discipline is more about being fully engaged with the other performers and your environment rather than being funny.

Despite the lack of props, despite the lack of costumes, despite being confined to a stage, improv is about truth. If it isn’t, if the audience doesn’t believe you, then your performance is ineffective.

Without truth, the audience will not engage emotionally, they will not invest in the characters, and at best, the performance becomes an intellectual exercise. At worst, it becomes boring.

The same is true for writing.

As part of my everyday life, but particularly as a screenwriting instructor, screenplay competition reader and story analyst/coach for So, What’s Your Story?, I digest a lot of stories that cover every medium and genre. In analyzing these stories, teasing out what works and looking for ways to improve what isn’t working, I find that most of my feedback ultimately drills down to the truth of the story.

All good stories are true stories, but not all true stories are good.

Who are these characters? What do they want? What do they need? Why are they acting that way?

The world can be completely fantastical; it doesn’t have to look or function like any place I have experienced. The characters don’t have to be human or even corporeal.

But both must have a truth that I, as a reader or audience member, can believe in, something I can connect to.

Except with possibly the most Art House of work—where the thwarting of inherent truth is often the whole point—the world must have consistent laws by which it functions, even if those laws are completely alien to my real-world experience.

And, although I may not agree with a character’s motivations and reactions, I must on some level understand them and recognize them as true and consistent for the character and the world in which that character exists.

From my perspective, this is reason why Arrival works, and Valerian doesn’t.

Yes, there were plotting challenges in Arrival, its mixed timelines presentation often confusing things (and yet, ironically, that was the overall point of the story), but the characters made sense, their actions were believable, their world consistent if only in hindsight.

In contrast, the world of Valerian seemed to shift as required by the plot, a deus ex machina around every corner. And most of the characters seemed to suffer from erratic multiple personality disorder (respect to those challenged by the actual disorder) that invalidated each motivation and reaction as soon as it happened.

For me, Arrival had an inherent and universal truth, whereas Valerian was little more than artifice, an intellectual exercise in which I chose not to participate.

Consider your favourite stories from whatever medium—the page-turner novels, the lean-forward movies.

What pulled you into the story? What kept you enthralled? What made you forget there was a world outside?

Perhaps it was good writing. Maybe, an excellent plot. Possibly, interesting characters.

Whatever the intellectual rationale, you believed. If only for a brief period, the story was true (to you).

As difficult as it sounds, that is your target in writing. And because of your proximity to the story, it will be a challenge. But truth is the difference-maker.

Our writing is only as good as the truth we tell.

Best of luck.

 

Arrival: Screenplay (pdf) by Eric Heisserer

Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets: Screenplay by Luc Besson

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Curtained call

Rides

Tears carve channels

Through caked whiteness,

Intersecting painted smiles,

As limbs that juggled

And balanced on beams

Seem weighted and dead.

 

The music no longer plays,

Replaced by heavy silence

As tired hands wrestle

Cold cream jars and tissues.

The show has ended.

Only reality remains.

 

The face in the mirror

Beams gleefully back,

Yet the seated corpse

Sobs uncontrollably;

Everything left behind

On saw dusted floors.

 

If I give you everything,

Leave nothing for me,

How do I pass the night

Alone with this shell?

What can I be when

The clown is not here?

 

I frolicked; you smirked.

I stumbled; you laughed.

I collapsed; you roared.

I died; you applauded,

Departing for dull lives

As I melted to decay.

 

Who am I if not an

Echo of your delight?

As I remove my makeup,

Do I not erase myself?

Who will love the man

Who cries alone?

Thor: Ragnarok – Review

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I would not have blinked had one of the characters in Thor: Ragnarok suddenly broken into song, bellowing “Kill the wabbit!”, because this movie was a live-action Bugs Bunny cartoon devoid only of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck.

And I enjoyed it, exactly for that.

Unlike previous Thor outings that tried to delve into the frat boy-cum-reluctant prince (Chris Hemsworth’s Thor) and then dueling brothers (add in Tom Hiddleston’s Loki), this third treatise tossed aside any pretense at character development and plot, replacing it with 2+ hours of slapstick and one-liners designed to tickle the 12-year-old boy in all of us, regardless of gender.

By design, this movie was stupid and silly and wocka-wocka, and in that, it worked on all cylinders.

At best, the plot was a series of expositional “what you need to know now” moments that extended the sibling rivalry to include a supremely ambitious sister (Cate Blanchett aka Hela, God of Death) who felt slighted by Dad (Anthony Hopkin’s aging Odin).

Interwoven with this story was a side-plot that attempted to quantify whose dick was bigger: Thor’s or Hulk’s. Not surprisingly, the biggest dick actually belonged to alcoholic side-kick and fallen warrior Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson).

Despite the carnage—LOTS of people get brutally wiped out, so not sure if this is kiddie fare—the movie was downright fluffy and vapid, and your memory of it will likely evaporate by the time you get home. That said, the process of watching the film is fun, and one or two elements come to light (NO SPOILERS) that you know will feature in an upcoming Avengers saga.

And while we wait for that film, I suggest you YouTube What’s Opera, Doc?

Why even bother? (Creative crisis)

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The life of anyone practicing an art form—whatever you do with passion is your art—is a continual balancing act between impassioned self-expression and self-questioning despair. For me, this duality revolves around my efforts in fiction writing (i.e., screen, novel, poetry, short stories, etc.).

Earlier today, I learned that the television series 2 Broke Girls ended its six-season run on CBS, and the news briefly shifted my balance toward despair.

On a couple of occasions, I tried to watch the sitcom about two broke girls plying their trade as diner waitresses while targeting a dream of opening a cupcake shop. But each time, I had to turn the show off after a few minutes because I found the comedy so excruciating.

Every 15 seconds, there was yet another wink-wink nudge-nudge one-liner that I felt lacked any art whatsoever, dialogue that but for an incessant laugh-track would likely have been met with complete silence in front of a live audience.

And yet, the series aired for six seasons. It had enough of an audience for CBS to keep it on the air.

I like broad comedy; truthfully, I do. I even write it on occasion.

I live for Mel Brooks’ comedies, for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for Blackadder, for The Muppet Show, for SCTV, In Living Color and Kids in the Hall.

Anyone who has followed me for any period of time—especially on Twitter—knows I am up for any joke-opalyse.

But the appeal of 2 Broke Girls and its ilk—looking at you, Two-and-a-Half Men—simply eludes me. It feels like one-liners in search of a higher purpose.

But here’s the thing I constantly need to remind myself:

This difficulty rests entirely within me, and has nothing to do with the creators or writers of any of these shows.

 

Celebrate, don’t negate

Getting ANY television show to air, getting any screenplay turned into a movie is difficult, even in this era of seemingly limitless venues and diminishing equipment costs.

That any show manages more than a pilot episode is amazing. So, six seasons of broadcast should be celebrated from every mountain top.

As an artist, I applaud 2 Broke Girls creators Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings for getting their show on the air. I congratulate the people behind the Sharknado series for continuing to produce films.

To denigrate these efforts simply because they do not suit my tastes is not only unfair, it is also blatant hubris.

Who the hell am I—a writer who has one television special to his credit (thank you, SomeTV!)—to say that these efforts are unworthy of attention?

For that matter, even if I were more routinely lauded and vastly more accomplished, it would not be my place to dictate what should be valued as Art.

And as an artist, as someone exploring my passions:

Dwelling on this topic is useless. More importantly, it is detrimental to me and the craft as I exercise it.

 

Remembering why

It would be naïve to suggest that trends in comedy and writing have no influence on my career as a writer, but honestly, my career is secondary to my writing; a beneficial side effect, if you will.

Comparing my efforts to those of others is therefore unimportant.

My only true comparator is what I wrote yesterday and any internal sense of whether I am getting better at making the points I wish to make, telling the stories I want to tell.

I write because I have something to say.

I write because I don’t know how not to.

I write because it brings me joy.

Certainly, part of understanding my craft is seeing how others approach the same challenges and opportunities I face.

Just as I must choose my path forward, so too must they theirs. Although I may not see the merits in their choices, they are doing what is right for them and I must honour that.

There is room enough for all of us.

 

Disclosure:

I own complete series collections of Get Smart and Hogan’s Heroes, which I appreciate others might consider as insipid as I do 2 Broke Girls.

 

See also:

So, What’s Your Story? (web)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

A call to live your passion

My friend Jarrod Terrell, whom I met through Kevin Scott‘s Effortless Alphas group, recently challenged his fellow Alphas to share their goals and dreams for life in a Facebook video.

In part, the idea was that verbalizing your dreams made them real for you, but it also opened the door to others in your community who might be able to help make those dreams come to fruition.

Here is my video.

How can I help you discover, explore and share your passion?

See also:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (FB page)

Contagious Adrenaline (FB page)

 

The Last Laugh – review

Last Laugh poster

As I sat in Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, munching my popcorn and sipping my soda, I started to get the sneaking suspicion I had accidentally seated myself in a Synagogue, such was the nature of the audience who slowly closed in around me.

And as the theatre lights dimmed, I realized that they were here to see a documentary about the Holocaust, while I was here to see one about comedy. We were both in the right place.

For me, the central theme of The Last Laugh is the question: Is there any topic that is off-limits to comedy?

For the others, it was probably more a question of whether any humour could be found in something as horrific as the wholesale slaughter of 6 million Jews.

Through a series of interviews with comedians—most Jewish—and Holocaust survivors, centering on the thoughts of Renee Firestone, The Last Laugh pivots back and forth between heavy discussions about survival under unreal conditions and light-hearted attempts to understand the dark humours arising from those conditions as expressed by the generations of comedians that followed.

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As Mel Brooks pointed out, if he had tried to produce “The Inquisition” sequence of History of the World, Part I back in the late 1400s, he probably wouldn’t have fared as well in 1981. Likewise, other comedians pointed out that when The Producers was released in 1968, the concept of “Spring Time for Hitler” was scandalous, whereas people seeing the Broadway musical now are apt to sing along with the music.

For many, it was a matter of timing. How much time had passed since the original horror? For others, it was a bit more complicated, and it was generations more than years that needed to pass, citing examples where the children of Holocaust survivors—people who themselves did not experience and therefore release the horrors—were more apt to get upset about Holocaust jokes than their parents.

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Interestingly, Brooks himself was quick to note that the Holocaust was a line he could not cross himself, but that if someone else made a funny joke, he could laugh at it.

Going back to survivor Firestone, it was very interesting to see her perspectives on this question and the various attempts by comedians like Sara Silverman to touch the subject. For Firestone, none of the jokes seemed to come across as funny, but some she acknowledged were very close to the truth of the experience or how society now thought of it.

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Writer/director Ferne Pearlstein (centre) with survivors Elly Gross and Renee Firestone

And she could see in hindsight the humour of some of the camp activities as the prisoners (I am at a loss for a better word to describe those held captive) tried to maintain a grip on sanity within the camps, whether it was preparing imaginary dinner parties or performing musical revues.

Countering opinions also entered the fray as people debated the merits of the film Life is Beautiful, most of the comedians considering it terrible and an ironic whitewashing of the horror, or bringing in other recent events such as Jim Crow racism or the events of 9/11.

Life is Beautiful

Ultimately, while I’m not sure the question of off-limit topics was ever really answered, everyone who watched the documentary was affected by it.

Where your heart was broken by a recounted memory, it was shortly thereafter mended by quip.

Where your breath caught in your chest at a recalled horror, it quickly burst forth in a gush of laughter.

After 88 minutes riding waves of conflicting emotions, the audience was neither depressed, nor bemused, but likely to a person, they had asked questions they had never considered before. Can’t really ask more of a documentary.

Artists I adore (and you should follow)

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Barnaby Dixon – puppetry

As many of you know, I am nutso for puppetry and have somehow managed to know some amazingly talented puppeteers. But as much as I adore my friends, one fellow blows me away not just for his skill as a puppeteer, but also as a puppet designer.

For a guy that looks like he’s 12—I’m over 50, so you all look 12 to me—Barnaby Dixon seems ancient in his craft and wisdom. From the very first YouTube video I watched, he has dazzled me with his love of the art form, his ability to bring the inanimate to life, and his presentation style that draws you in and makes you feel like this is a private conversation. Stellar!

Visit Barnaby’s web site, Facebook page and Twitter account

 

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Baram & Snieckus – comedy

I know, I know. I have to get past my addiction to these beautiful sketch and improv wunderkinds. But I can’t help myself.

Apart, Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus are wonderfully funny and vulnerable and endearing, but together, they rocket off the charts.

As I have reviewed previously (see below), Baram & Snieckus are to the modern era what Stiller & Meara and Nichols & May were to theirs, people who express the challenges and wonders of social awkwardness, allowing us to laugh at the things that frighten us in our daily lives.

No one is more neurotic than Matt…until Naomi erupts in her own mental mushroom cloud.

And that this husband-and-wife team are beautiful, friendly, giving, caring people is an absolute bonus.

You can follow Matt & Naomi on their web site, Facebook page or Twitter.

 

See also:

You and Me Both – A revue review

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

 

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Filippa Levemark – visual arts

As a photographer, I adore nature. As a writer, I adore bizarre or interesting juxtapositions. Thus, I had no choice but to fall in love with Filippa Levemark’s work.

With the seemingly simplest of compositions, Filippa combines nature and human infrastructure to powerfully demonstrate that the two worlds are one and the same. Try as it might, humanity cannot hold itself as distinct from the wildlife that surrounds us, nor should it.

Her work is beautifully approachable and yet is rife with meaning, offering depths that may be missed at first glance.

Based in Sweden, my greatest hope is to find a way for her to bring her works to Canada.

You can follow Filippa on her web site, Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

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Irene Carl Sankoff & David Hein – musical theatre

As a student at Toronto’s Second City Training Centre several years ago, I had the great fortune to meet and do improv with a gorgeous and talented actress named Irene Sankoff, a truly giving performer.

Years later, I heard that Irene and her husband David Hein had created the somewhat autobiographical stage musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which played to wonderful reviews in Toronto. What I didn’t realize was that the musical would explode in the theatre world both in Canada and abroad, setting these two up as a creative force of nature.

And just this past year, they have repeated (and likely surpassed) that success with a new musical Come From Away, based on events in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 when hundreds of air passengers found themselves suddenly grounded.

The musical just completed a spectacularly successful run in Toronto and begins Broadway previews on Feb 18 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, where it is sure to sell out quickly.

But like my Baram & Snieckus comment above, what makes these two particularly special is that they are genuinely wonderful people and have such love for their craft and for the people who come see the show.

Recently, on a frigid Toronto morning, the pair brought coffee and donuts to fans waiting for rush tickets to their final Toronto performance (Toronto Star article). The pair and performers from the show entertained the small crowd, singing songs and chatting with the chilled throng. That is simply beautiful.

Follow Irene & David’s adventures on their web site, Facebook and Twitter.