New Wine in New Bottles

Recently I had an epiphany, and being an outgoing kind of guy I thought I’d share it with you. Especially since it concerns the very heart of film and television writing.

Last weekend, after watching my umpteenth stupid and unbelievable megahit feature film and my zillionth stupid and unrealistic TV episode I realized that the problem wasn’t with the films and the series, the problem was within me. I was using the wrong criteria for my judgments.

My disappointment in all this expensively produced fare was based on what I call the Traditional Approach to Film & TV Writing, Reading, & Watching. The Traditional Approach is to regard a script in terms of how well its characterization and story reflect and illuminate reality. Traditionally, a “good” screenplay presents truth but heightens it so that it is exciting and moving, involving us in the story and teaching us something about humanity that we may not have realized before.

Looked at from this perspective, none of what I was seeing was even acceptable, let alone good. That, I now see, is because it was created according to what I’m calling the Nouvelle Approach. The Nouvelle Approach is to regard a script, and the film or TV production that stems from it, in terms of how well it presents its genre. In this way, a good screenplay becomes one that fulfills the writer’s, readers’, and viewers’ expectations of what that kind of script should be, in as exciting a way as possible. In other words–no relationship to reality is required, or even desired.

No, no, stop shaking your heads. I’m serious here. The Nouvelle Approach says that screenplays exist in and of themselves as examples of–screenplays. This means that instead of presenting detective stories that show how real detectives solve real cases, the Nouvelle detective script presents detective stories that give the audience all the elements of detective stories, adding intensity and excitement by heightening those elements as much as possible with wilder and crazier twists to the storyline, wilder and crazier characters, wilder and crazier car chases, et al. The same holds true for all other genres.

How did this approach displace the Traditional one and become the norm? I’m thinking that’s because today’s writers, executives, and the audience itself, have all seen thousands upon thousands of films of all kinds and instinctively know all the right moves without having the need for the solid human foundation that causes the moves. If we see the hero’s son shot down in one scene and then the hero go out and shoot the killer in the next we already know how the hero felt and what he went through to get to that point because we’ve already seen that movie. So we expect the hero to take action. What interests us these days is what action he takes and how he takes it.

In 1990, as the Producer of a series called SUPERFORCE I argued that the audience at that time already knew all the reasons things happened the way they happened and that therefore the show should just get to the highlights, the exciting parts. We only had half an hour, and I figured that the audience could fill in enough blanks so that we could tell an hour’s worth of story this way. The execs at Viacom, which was syndicating the series, didn’t have a clue what I was up to, and eventually we went with the Traditional Approach. More eventually, I left the show. Now, though, Viacom and everyone else is doing exactly what SUPERFORCE wanted to do, so maybe I was right after all.

As a writer and storyteller I find myself torn between these two ways of creating. I miss genuine characterization and the feeling of learning something about people, but I also find the degree of self-reference in today’s work intriguing and sometimes compelling. And, as a teacher, it’s my responsibility to not only ground writers in the eternal verities of art but also to keep pushing them toward new horizons and the use of new tools.

My discussions with friends in film and TV development have taught me that today most of the scripts that are bought and writers who are hired to start new projects are the scripts and writers that demonstrate the Traditional Approach. But these same scripts and projects are then almost always rewritten and finished by writers who have proven themselves as masters of the Nouvelle Approach, writers who are champs at overlaying truth with exciting spin.

What this means to those of you trying to get started in mass media as it exists today is that for you to succeed your work must serve as a calling card in both ways. My advice is that as you work on your material keep in mind that you have to prove that you can do it all. New writers have always had to be “better” than the old pros (In the words of Garry Marshall: “We’ve already got people who can write like that. We need people who can write better”), but now we actually know what “better” means. The samples you send out must be perfect scripts under both sets of criteria, combining the reality of life with the expectations of film, and adding the spin and exaggeration that will grab and hold the attention of the buyers and force them to say, “Get me this writer. Now!”

Good luck, gang, and remember – TVWriter.Com and Larry Brody WANT YOU TO MAKE IT. (Hey, I love hearing myself thanked at awards banquets!)

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