Monday, 27 January 2014

Rules of Writing via Nazis, Kafka and Peter Sellers


 




If anyone reading this post has not read Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing, stop now, do a Google search (other search engines are available but they’re not as good and the FBI won’t get to read your history – seems a shame to keep them out in the cold) and enjoy. Oh, and do come back won’t you. I’ll be here…

 

I’m not a great believer in rules when it comes to most things. Testing boundaries, stretching them even, produces the best from everyone.  There are of course some of Elmore Leonard’s rules that should not be broken, ever. For me, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘cutting out the parts that readers skip,’ is an absolute. Quite a few of the other rules can be bent. ‘Don’t open with the weather,’ - lots of books open with the weather and some great books at that. Before we go any further, I would like to state that Elmore Leonard didn’t mean to have his rules be hard and fast deal breakers. He meant it more as a guide, to be used or not, as the case may be, however, a lot of what he says is good advice. Then you have the vast amount on the internet that is concerned with ‘rules’ of writing.

 If you read enough ‘advice’ articles on the net you feel as though there’s a rule book of writing. I’ve read a number of these articles and they all seem to have a common theme.

(1) Your protagonist (hero) has to be likeable. I’ve no idea where this came from but you see it time and again.

(2) The antagonist (villain) has to be in direct opposition to the protagonist.

(3) The protagonist has to have a strong moral motivation that the reader can really get behind i.e. the protagonist’s goal should be a noble one.

Bear these three in mind.

Because it’s possible to have an incredible story by breaking all three of these rules which come up often in writing advice articles.

To illustrate, for a moment, let’s pretend that the world is a darker and lonelier place. We are imagining a world without the movie ‘The Producers.’ For the next part of this blog post, strike that movie from your mind; it does not exist.

Now imagine a young writer is calling his agent, today, January 2014, to pitch him an idea for a movie. I stress, this is not my agent – who is a very nice man indeed.

Agent: So what’s this great movie idea you want to pitch? I can’t wait to hear it.

Writer: Okay, so the movie opens in a run-down apartment building where we find the office of Max Bialystock, Broadway Producer. He’s fending off a sex-crazed octogenarian. Max leeches money from this little old lady to finance his terrible plays. In exchange for cash Max indulges in sex games with the old lady…

Agent: Wow! Great villain.

Writer: Villain? No, no, no… you don’t understand, he’s one of the heroes.

Agent: What? So who’s the villain?

Writer: There isn’t one. Not really.  

Agent: No villain? So Max is a hero, okay, who’s the other hero?

Writer: Well the other hero is about to enter the story. Leo Bloom is a neurotic accountant who has just arrived to inspect Max’s books.

Agent: Hang on…so there are two heroes in this movie: Max - a pervert who exploits the elderly, and Leo, a neurotic accountant?

Writer: Yeah. So, while doing the books Leo notices that the last play Max put on was over financed. He’d raised more money than it cost to produce. But the play closed after a week and didn’t make any money. The IRS won’t audit that play. Nobody is interested in a flop so Max could keep the extra money that he didn’t use to stage the play. That’s when Leo has an idea – technically it would be possible for a Broadway producer to make more money with a flop than a hit. They would just need to raise a lot more money than they needed to produce the play. Max thinks this is genius and persuades Leo to join him in a scam.  

Agent: Tax fraud? This is a movie about a sex maniac and an accountant defaulting on their taxes?

Writer: No, not at all. The fraud is on the little old ladies that Max persuades to finance the play with their life savings by promising them sexual favours in return for the cash.

Agent: That might be…problematic. Let’s move on - why do they need the money? What’s their real motivation? Does a kid need a life-saving operation? Or maybe they’re raising the money to save the local orphanage?

Writer: No, nothing like that. They want to go to Rio.

Agent: Rio. So the two heroes in this movie are on a quest to scam a whole bunch of little old ladies out of their life savings so they can move to Rio?

Writer: Yeah, well, actually no. The move is really about gay Nazis.

Telephone falls to the floor.

Agent: Sorry, what? I dropped the damn phone. For a second there I thought you said the movie was really about gay Nazis.

Writer: (pause) it is really about gay Nazis, well super-camp Nazis. You see, Leo and Max have to put on a play that is a sure-fire stinker, a guaranteed loser that will close on opening night because it’s so bad. So they find this play which is basically a love letter to Hitler.

Agent: Hitler, as in Adolf Hitler?

Writer: You know another Hitler?

Agent: I’m not sure this is such a good…

Writer: So they find this awful, offensive play and they hire the worst director in the county who’s going to turn it into a fabulously camp musical. Then they employ this permanently-stoned actor to play Hitler…

Agent: A drug addict Hitler?

Writer: Sure. The play has beautiful women in SS uniforms dancing in swastika formations and tanks and the lead tenor is dressed as a member of the Gestapo. It’s just spectacular and the actor playing Hitler is so bombed and the songs about invading Europe are so camp and gay that the audience actually thinks it’s a satire. So instead of the audience hating it, the play becomes a surprise hit. Of course, the Nazi playwright isn't happy and he tries to blow up the theatre...

Agent: So in the finale, how do they get away with the money and fly to Rio?

Writer: They don’t. They all get caught and end up in prison. I’m going to call the movie ‘Springtime for Hitler: A Gay romp with Adolf and Eva,’ or ‘The Producers.’ I haven’t quite decided yet.  

Silence.

Writer: Hello? Hello…you still there?

If I pitched the same project to my agent, he’d tell me it was a great idea, superb, wonderful. He’d hang up the phone and call my wife and tell her that I’d had some kind of mental breakdown and she should call the doctor (I told you he was a nice man).

What astounds me is that The Producers ever got made. I’m not sure if it were to be pitched as an original idea today that it would stand a chance of getting the green light. It’s amazing that this movie went into production just 15 years after the end of the Second World War.  Upon release the critics hated it but it went on to win an Oscar for Mel Brooks for his screenplay and has since been recognised by the American Film institute along with the Library of Congress preserving the film in its archives due to its cultural significance. That brilliant screenplay and the performances were the key to the film’s success. It’s funny, it’s original and despite Leo and Max’s motivations, you’re with them all the way. You want them to get the money and fly away to Rio but you’re not sure why – you just fall in love with them. If you analyse the film, it’s easy to see that the play within the movie actually serves as a metaphor for the film as a whole; in the film, the play ‘Springtime for Hitler’, shouldn't work, but, in spite of everything, it does work and it’s genius. Same with the film itself – on paper it should not work, it should in fact be one of the worst films ever made. Instead, it’s amazing.

As an aside here's a couple of little facts: 1) The character of Max Bialystock is based on a real Broadway producer that Mel Brooks worked with but has stoically refused to name (2) Peter Sellers was supposed to play the part of Leo Bloom (3) Dustin Hoffman was cast as the Nazi playwright Liebkind, but begged Mel Brooks for permission to audition for a lead part in another movie. Mel knew this part was a lead alongside his then partner Anne Bancroft and didn't think Hoffman stood a chance of getting the role so he let him audition. Against all odds Hoffman got the lead role opposite Bancroft in The Graduate and pulled out of the Producers.

This film breaks all the rules of taste, commercial appeal and story arc together with every one of those basic 3 rules of writing quoted above.

 

Lots of other artistic works broke all the rules.

When Leo and Max are sifting through scripts looking for the worst play ever written, Max reads aloud a first line – “I woke up one morning to discover I had transformed into a giant cockroach. No, too good.”

That’s a line from Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’. An existential story that also broke the rules. Kafka didn’t have any real success as a writer during his lifetime but is now thought of as one of the most influential writers of the last hundred years. Interestingly, while doing a little research on Kafka I found out that he never managed to become a full time writer. His day job was practicing as a personal injury lawyer. I knew he was a lawyer but I didn’t know that he devoted most of his working life to representing employees in accident at work claims. He went on to open an Asbestos factory. Somebody reading this who is smarter than me can probably tell if that is merely ironic or veritably Kafkaesque.

Anyway, even though the critics hated The Producers and it didn’t do great business in the US, it is now regarded as a classic. One of the great endorsements it received at the time was from Peter Sellers, who took out a full page ad in Variety and called The Producers the greatest comedy ever made.

I suppose the real lesson here is not to stick too closely to the rules. If we all wrote according to what we thought agents or publishers or the market was looking for, or if we listened to every single advice article and shaped our characters to a demographic, we wouldn’t have great pieces of art like The Producers. And the world would be a darker place for it.

By all means, write something commercial, write something that everyone will love. It can still be original. Break the rules or stick to them. The trick is believing in what you write. If you want to write a love story between a golden retriever and a hooker with an artificial leg who enters a bowling tournament in order to win a lifetime’s supply of hair gel, then go right ahead. As long as you have talent you might be able to pull it off. And that is the one thing that agents and publishers are looking for – talent. Not badly written, but likeable characters on a noble quest that they’ve read hundreds of times before.

A great character doesn’t have to be a likeable character. In reality, there are no rules. Write whatever you want. Sometimes crazy can be good; if it’s good-crazy.

To illustrate good-crazy, and for one final little joke, we return to Peter Sellers.

It’s the early Seventies, Peter Sellers is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. It’s three o’clock in the morning and Seller’s best friend, Spike Milligan, is awakened by a loud and insistent knocking on his front door. A bleary-eyed Spike puts on his robe, goes downstairs and opens the door to his London home. Standing before him is a completely naked Peter Sellers who simply says, ‘Do you know a good tailor?’

To me, that’s crazy, but isn’t it good crazy?

Steve.

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Be good.