Writer’s Desk: Stop Asking Questions

J.M. Anderson

A little while back, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, many Missions: Impossible) noted that he was getting asked the same question by a lot of aspiring screenwriters. Basically: How do I break into the industry? His response was a long Twitter thread that started with the premise, “You’re asking the wrong questions” and went from there.

It’s well worth reading in full, even if you’re a writer with no interest in working in the movies. At one point, he reminds aspiring writers that it’s never easy, even for those with a name and an award like him:

I spent seven years – AFTER winning an academy award – asking the same questions. My career stalled (and I still have scripts that no one will make despite subsequent commercial successes).

Much of what McQuarrie says can be boiled down to this: Stop asking permission, stop waiting for somebody to hand you the key, do the best work you can, and never stop looking for a different way in.

TV Room: ‘Watchmen’

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Regina King as Sister Knight in ‘Watchmen’ (HBO)

Damon Lindelof’s wonderfully strange and deeply political Watchmen series is more interested in exploring the further ramifications of Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel than producing a faithful reenactment. It’s a high-risk move but one that appears so far to be paying off.

My article on Watchmen is at PopMatters:

The first episode, a direly ironic hour, kicks off in Tulsa during the 1921 massacre in which whites rampaged through the black neighborhood of Greenwood. Jumping to an alternate-historical 2019 Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which the racially-mixed police wear masks to protect their identity from a murderous white-supremacist underground called the Seventh Kavalry (for Custer’s unit decimated at Little Big Horn), the episode uses the massacre less as plot point and more as ominous overture…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Fit In, Never Explain

The late, irascibly great Nick Tosches was a son of Newark who skipped college, immersed himself in rock journalism at its raucous Lester Bangs-ian height, then went on to write fiction, music biographies (Dean Martin, Jerry Lee Lewis), and a somewhat indescribable book about Dante, teaching himself Latin and medieval Italian along the way.

Tosches wrote as he damn well pleased, and had some thoughts about it:

We are uncomfortable with works that can not be placed comfortably into a category…

Most best-selling books belong to one genre or another—espionage, crime, horror, suspense, romance, mystery, self-help, ghost-written political memoirs that take the genre of boredom to a ghastlier realm…

Like every other writer worth reading, [George V. Higgins] had no clue as to how he did it…

Structure is artifice, and artifice is for saps…

Screening Room: ‘Harriet’

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Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr. in ‘Harriet’ (Focus Features)

Although far from perfect, the new Harriet Tubman biopic is well worth seeing even just for Cynthia Erivo’s transcendent turn as the legendary “slave stealer” and Union spy.

Harriet opens this week. My review is at PopMatters:

It is hard to imagine a more perfect candidate for a heroic, against-all-odds biopic. But given the culture’s habitual blindness to heroism not in white male form, it still took over a century after Tubman’s death in 1913 for a project like Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet to come to theaters…

Here is the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Remember to Tell a Story

Wilmington, Delaware. Tower Hill School, noted country day school for pupils from three to eighteen years of age. A young pupil writing in a notebook at her desk

Since the Great Recession, more college students have been shifting their majors from English toward more supposedly employment-friendly study in the STEM fields like engineering, math, and computer science.

But one advantage held by people who study literature and write (though they may not be so hot at calculating a tip on the fly) is knowing how to make an argument and tell a story in a clear and engaging manner. Who thinks that? Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller:

Shiller, who is famous for predicting the dot-com crash and coming up with the Case-Shiller Home Price Index, is spending a lot of time looking at old newspaper clippings to understand what stories and terms went viral and how they influenced people to buy things — or stop buying things.

When asked if he’s essentially arguing for more English and history majors, Shiller said, “I think so,” adding: “Compartmentalization of intellectual life is bad.”

The world needs storytellers. Regardless of your field.

Screening Room: ‘The Current War’

After a tumultuous production history that involved a fight with Harvey Weinstein, a badly mangled cut premiering at Toronto two years ago, and the director wresting his work back from Weinstein and releasing the version that he wanted, The Current War hits theaters today. It’s a curiously stylized drama about the electricity innovation battle between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison.

My review is at The Playlist:

The figures behind the AC/DC war of the 1880s and ‘90s were certainly larger than life, and so that is where screenwriter Michael Mitnick and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon put most of their energies. But there is just no getting around the fact that this is a drama about men in top hats arguing over the best electrical current to use…

Screening Room: ‘The Lighthouse’

The new movie from Robert Eggers (The Witch) strands two men (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) on a remote island and watches them unravel in a flurry of fantastical madhouse imagery.

My review of The Lighthouse is at PopMatters:

It feels fitting that Robert Eggers’ claustrophobic and sea-sprayed gothic masterpiece about two men losing their minds on a remote, storm-wracked island in the North Atlantic is hitting theaters now. This year has felt like the year when the species has finally begun to understand that we have changed the world beyond our ability to save ourselves, and that a certain vengeance is coming…

Here is the trailer: