I don't want to prove anything, I merely want to live.
-- Anna Karenina
A good part of my holiday weekend was spent in the desert with wife, dogs and friends. There was much neck-craning as the fire burned down, trying to see Andromeda and other heavenly bodies, which can get pretty funny without a star map ("There's Mars!" "Cool -- it does look kind of red." "Oh, wait, no -- there's Mars!" etc.).
Conversations around the campsite were similarly all over the map, variably profound, deranged, and happily inane, but one in particular has really stayed with me. My friend Phillip and I were talking about Tolstoy (Hey, now that Dancing With the Stars is on hiatus, what else does one discuss?), and he noted that when Tolstoy started out writing Anna Karenina, he saw Anna as a villain, the anti-heroine of a cautionary moral tale, but as he got further into the work...
"She seduced him," I said, because Tolstoy did in fact have a change of heart about his adulterous protagonist, the further his project progressed: he ended up having such compassion for Anna that far from a figure of scorn, she became his beloved, capital-H Heroine by the final draft.
Phillips and I talked about how characters can change your opinions about them, and I confessed that I'm a bit leery of the old "My character took on a life of her own!" thing. It strikes me as a somewhat sentimental notion, too redolent of Artist-Writer as the Great Creator and all that. I do think it's true that when you get deeply involved with a fictional creation, the actions your unconscious suggests for them to do can be surprising, even startling. But in Tolstoy's case, I think what happened was fundamentally different.
From what I know of Leo and his methodology, he was a ceaseless observer of his culture and the people in it. Like all great writers, he wasn't so much spinning tales made out of imaginary whole cloth as he was reporting on the known. Tolstoy was a conduit, a receiver and transmitter; he was a kind of divine divining rod, with perceptions so acute and empathy so intuitive, that I've always felt in reading Anna K (three times so far and more to come, God willing) that it's as if I'm reading what a book written by life itself might be like.
Bear with me here, those of you who are Russian Lit fans and would like to say, "I have Count Tolstoy right here, and he says, You know nothing of my work!": I don't really think Tolstoy created an imaginary villainess who seduced him into making her a heroine. I think that what he was doing was bringing an already existing, specific-but-universal, emblematic-of-the-epoch woman of his day, age and culture into focus.
The more Tolstoy learned about what a contemporary woman at this moment in Russia's (and the planet's) history was really like, the more accurate, less judgmental, and transcendentally real Anna Karenina became. She couldn't be what he'd preconceived her to be, once he'd fine-tuned his already exquisite sensitivities to the task of seeing who the living 1877 Anna looked like; she had to be who she really was.
And that, most readers would agree, is a large part of why she still seems alive to us, over a hundred and thirty years later.
I think that's one reason my wife and I are obsessed with Beyonce -- cultural icon as avatar of where we are and who we are, right now -- but I'm here to talk about screenwriting, or rather, to open up a conversation about it. Here's my point:
We are living on the verge of we-don't-know-what. Our world is in crisis on every conceivable level, and certainly on the economic front, if you're paying attention to the gloomier of the punditry, we can expect things to get a lot worse before they get better. Yet we Americans have also just lived through a historic election that was all about the triumph of hope and a faith in change. Much of our political conversation these days centers on: How different will it be? Will it be too much the same? What, exactly, is the next presidency (and the future of our country) going to look like?
You wouldn't write a movie about "today" with a Bush Republican world view. Now is not the time, some Hollywood watchers have noted, to release a comedy about the hilarities of going into debt called Confessions of a Shopaholic. But then, what is it the time for? If you accept my premise -- that the job of great writers is to accurately perceive the moment they're living in, and reflect on this present moment with us and for us -- this is an incredibly rich and strange opportunity for scribes. What does it feel like to be us, at this point in our lives? I think that's the inquiry our most intriguing and effective screenwriting is bound to come from.
This doesn't mean, by the way, that one has to literally write about the here and now. A key ingredient to the success of Mad Men is that although it takes place in the early 1960s, the emotional feel of that time -- filtered through the prism of Matt Weiner's take on our here and now -- has an eerie resonance: it's about a moment just before a paradigm shifted, when change was staring us in the face, but we couldn't quite recognize it.
When I talk to industry colleagues these days, invariably we end up musing on the currently unknowable, i.e where are the currents taking us? What kind of a movie is the public going to want to see? What is the nature of the story that we're all living in right now?
I don't have an answer, and this is where you come in. Call it a readers and lurkers alert: I'm genuinely curious to hear, especially from those of you who've yet to comment here, how what you're working on has been affected by current events, and what you think the present-day screenwriter could and should be writing about. Living the RomCom wants to know.