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Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story
Where are you from?
I don’t know that I am ‘from’ anywhere. I was born on an army base, Fort Belvoir, in Northern Virginia, then grew up as a young child in my mother’s hometown of Hickory, North Carolina. Then it was back to Northern Virginia, living near the Bull Run battlefield in Manassas. 150 years ago, men from all over the country came here – twice – to duke it out. Now,.people come there from all over the country so they can commute to their government or technology centered jobs, which my dad had.
Since then, the army took me across the country and to South Korea, and as a civilian I have lived in Kansas, North Carolina (again), El Paso, TX and now Tucson, Arizona. What does it mean to be from a place? I am amalgamated from all of those places and many more besides: the Corleone compounds in New York and Lake Tahoe; Discovery One, on it’s ill fated journey to Jupiter; even Desi and Lucy’s Manhattan apartment.
I come from a tribe of wanderers.
Wow! You are literally a man of many places.
Do you write screenplays and novels?
I am a screenwriter, but I did begin work on a novel in 2014 that I completely pantsed. It is a zombie dystopia (of course) told in the first person from several perspectives; my favorite was the young woman in her late teens from Pacific Palisades, California, a wealthy beachside community of Los Angeles. The good and evil groups meet up in Las Vegas, in an homage to Stephen King’s The Stand.
That’s really cool that you’re a screenwriter.
Which do you like more?
Screenplays. They are a novel distilled to it’s essence. Put a novel in the dryer on too high heat: a screenplay results.
I love the visual!
How is writing screenplays different from fiction?
The biggest differences are texture and subplots. A novel, which could be a thousand pages, could have endless subplots. A screenplay can have two or three if it is long enough, but all the narrative drive has to be supplied by the main plot; there is barely space for anything else.
Texture is the novel’s greatest strength over the screenplay. Take It, for example. King spends an enormous amount of time detailing several horrifying events in the past of the town. Gradually it becomes clear to the reader that the town has been inculcated in the evil of It. If you watch the mini series, however, that is nowhere to be found, as there is not enough time.
Texture in a film is all a result of the scene and the decorative elements thereof. Take the opening of The Godfather. It is not by accident that it begins at Connie’s wedding, nor that it is seen through the eyes of Kay, the outsider. It allows Coppola to import texture so that we get a feel for what it means to be Italian American in the 40s, before we commence with the story proper, as it were. The fact that Don Vito is feared by so many, but gently cradles his cat: that is the distillation process in full effect.
Wow. This is amazing to see the difference between the two. I’m beginning to notice the nuances between the two mediums. Funny you mentioned the Godfather because I just got the audiobook.
What’s the hardest thing about being a filmmaker?
The hardest thing about filmmaking is not filmmaking at all: it is financing. When people give you money, they tend to want it back, plus a profit. There are now just two entry points into ‘the system’. The first is make a cheap horror film. Horror does not require ‘names’, nor does it require lots of money. It does not even require a great script. All it needs is a great hook. Don’t Breathe, which came out recently, has a fantastic hook: a group of punks rob a soldier who is blind but has the keenest hearing and really objects to people breaking in. Or It Follows, from last year, which takes the horror formulation of sex = death to its logical conclusion.
The other way is to write a great screenplay for a name, which can then secure the financing. An example would be Brick, Rian Johnson’s amazing debut, which sets a film noir in a high school. This came to the attention of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was looking for a project to allow him to be taken seriously. It worked out great for both (you may have heard of Johnson’s latest project: Star Wars VIII?).
Wonderful! I think Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a great actor and chock full of talent. Then for Rian Johnson to have a ‘project’ such as Star Wars VIII is nothing short of amazing.
What are your Top 5 favorite movies and what makes them great?
Very tough. I will go with The Godfather, Part II,directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The rare, perhaps only sequel to better it’s predecessor, G2 is the tale of father and son and the huge differences between them. The two key scenes are the old woman being kicked out of her apartment because the rent will be $30 and the landlord hates her dog. Vito first asks the landlord for a favor: tell the woman the rent is 25 and come see him for the rest. Plus, please let her keep the dog. The landlord refuses. Vito kindly asks him to change his mind. The man refuses. Vito Corleone, the most powerful man in Little Italy, debases himself to come to a mutual solution. Only once the man realizes what he has done – and to whom – does Vito apply the screws, but even then, he praises the man for being so generous. Why make an enemy needlessly?
Compare to the son, who upon hearing the demands of the Nevada senator for a gaming license, arrogantly tells the senator will give him the license and get nothing in return, because Michael knows he can set the senator up and make him grateful for Michael’s help. Why spend money needlessly?
If the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, G2 makes clear that Michael’s apple landed on the slope of a hill and managed to roll far away.
Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick succinctly and hilariously shows how war begins. It is banal, tragic, petty and most of all absurd. What I love most is the cognitive dissonance Kubrick initiates: we root for the War Room to shoot down the last B-52, but we also root for the intrepid, brave flight crew, which is determined to carry out their duty, culminating in the famous ride of Slim Pickens, riding the bomb like a bucking bronco to the extinction of the human race.
Wild Strawberries, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Ostensibly a road movie of a man getting a ride from his daughter-in-law to get a lifetime achievement award, it is actually about the man’s life, it’s mistakes and tragedies and his feeble attempts to keep his son from making the same mistakes. The way Bergman literally intertwines the past and the present is shot through with emotionality.
Stray Dog, directed by Akira Kurosawa. A cop in Tokyo loses his gun; the man responsible for taking it goes on a rampage. Though made in 1949, it has modern narrative sensibilities. Seven, for example, feels very much like it in atmosphere and in the hot headedness of its protagonist (Toshiro Mifune). It is set in August in Tokyo and everything is sweating, seemingly. The heat is very much on Mifune to get his gun back and stop a murderer.
Monsoon Wedding, directed by Mira Nair. This film does what only the magic of story can. It takes a very specific situation (an extended Punjabi family preparing for a wedding) and lets us see the universality of it. Once we recognize what we have in common with them,which is much, we can appreciate the ways we are different – and accept them. Starting with this point of empathy, we can celebrate the ways this Indian family are different from us. The story is very common (there are only a handful of story forms), but it is the specifics – the jumble of Mumbai, the idiosyncratic romance of the wedding planner and the family servant, how cell reception is awful in India – it is a joyous riot.
Nice starting five. I’ve only seen the Godfather, but that was many years ago.
Your favorite sports?
My favorite sports are NHL hockey (go Washington Caps!), major league baseball (go Washington Nats!) and NFL football (go Washington Skins!).
Who’s going to win the Superbowl?
The Patriots are undefeated despite starting nobodies at quarterback. When Brady comes back, how are they going to be stopped? They have to be the favorite right now.
Your least favorite team?
My least favorite team across all sports is the Dallas Cowboys, followed by the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals. May they all have a bad end.
Name a few movies you’re dying to see.
Birth of a Nation; Manchester by the Sea; Doctor Strange (Marvel plus Benedict Cumberbatch should equal can’t miss); Passengers; La La Land wasn’t one I was anticipating, but it won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival – as have the last four Best Picture winners, so I want to see what the fuss is about; and finally, always: the next under the radar horror movie.
Definitely looking forward to seeing Marvel’s Dr. Strange with Benedict Cumberbatch. Passengers looks like a winner, and of course, Star Wars VIII!!
You’re a writer; so what’s your story, or
what inspired you?
I got started writing at 7 when I wrote a story about a leprechaun. I think (either a leprechaun or an elf). My teacher said it was a good story. Then, as now, I take some things completely literally. If my teacher thought I had a good story, then I needed to sell that story. My friend suggested we get copies made, which involved some parental logistics but soon I had my copies and went door to door, selling my story for a quarter. Not a single person bought, which is mystifying and heartless (when an eight year old comes to your door selling an elf story for a quarter, you give the kid a quarter). I did not take any rejection from this – my teacher said it was a good story.
I started writing my first screenplay at 15, but didn’t finish. 12 years later, I started another script and finished – 4 years later. The third time I stole the structure from Richard III, so it only took about a year and the time has dropped since for a first draft.
I always find it rather amazing how some people begin writing so young.
What’s your GOAL in becoming a writer?
My goal is first, to just make something a quality. After that, it is to be produced. Further, to produce my own scripts. Finally, to dethrone Gone With The Wind as the all time domestic box office champ. All I need is a movie capable of making $1.7 billion…
That’s a pretty lofty goal, yikes!
What 3 things have hindered you from completing your projects? (CONFLICT)
I have been stymied by: low budgets. The Richard III script was produced for nothing and it became a boring movie. I began shooting for better funded producers, but I needed much higher quality scripts. So I have worked over the past several years to become a higher quality writer. Finding these producers amenable to my script genre also has been stymying.
Sounds like a tough business, even harder than publishing novels.
What keeps you motivated in achieving your dream? (DESIRE)
I have no choice but to tell stories, even if only to read to Jehovah’s Witnesses who have stopped by for coffee.
Sounds like you’re very determined!
What’s your ANTAGONIST? What’s in the way?
Some of my antagonists: Laziness. I can slide form my writing for the day for various reasons. Work is a big one as well: I generally work 28 or 29 days a month, for around 10-14 hours. It doesn’t leave much time to write, particularly if the lazy grabs me.
I know this all too well. Once the tank is tapped, that’s it. A couple of days ago I saw a bumper sticker that read: MAKE USE OF YOUR ENERGY
I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Why do writers give up, quit or never complete their projects?
Discouragement. Rejection. Discovering they aren’t very good. My dad did a lot of writing, for maybe 10 years, then he just stopped and did other things. I never asked him why; I think I was afraid of the answer. I didn’t think he was very good, and I worry I led him to stop.
These are all too familiar.
What would you say to a struggling writer?
(I think) What, exactly, does it mean to struggle? There is no end to ‘the struggle’. The Buddha tells us that life is struggle and pain. I would direct this writer to Stephen King, who was nearly killed; is that not struggle? Brad Pitt had everything until September, 2016, when his wife abruptly left; is that not pain? After Michael Jackson made the biggest album of all time, the only question was: how are you going to top it?
This writer, they think they struggle now. Their struggles will be unceasing. Their nature may change. Stephen King’s struggle is gathering the cash to buy the Boston Red Sox or whatever. Oh my God, the Rolls Royce needs a new engine!
There will always be struggle. Many, perhaps most, writers, successful or not, stare at the blank page or a story problem, and wonder the same thing: is this it? Will I ever write again? This is the one where they discover I’m a fraud.
The only cure for your struggles is to keep writing. At which point your struggle will change: how do I market this book? How do I find an honest financial advisor? Should I buy or rent a private jet? How do I increase tourism to my private island? #TheStruggleContinues
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