Sunday, May 2, 2010

Day 24: The Final Frontier

I’ve often heard it said that the Apollo space program was man’s last great optimistic endeavour

Apollo, was the name for the American space program for landing astronauts on the moon. Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the moon (1968) and Apollo 11 was the first to land astronauts on the moon, on July 20th 1969. I had just turned eleven and we, my family, travelled from our home on the south coast of England, to watch the moon landing on an uncle’s colour tv (ours was black & white) in north London.

Apollo 13 was the one that nearly got away, the mission that almost never made it back. Two films detail this ill-fated mission: Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks as Captain Jim Lovell is the well-known version of the story. For All Mankind is a rarely seen documentary, not exclusively about Apollo 13, but about the whole Apollo program, made with the assistance of NASA. Any chance to get to see this docco, especially on a cinema screen, grab it.

At the beginning of the 1960’s, the Americans were in danger of losing the space race to the Russians. President Kennedy was aware of this fact and, so, in a speech to the nation, without any rationale to support his bold statement, John Kennedy stated that the United States of America would put a man on the moon by the end of that decade.

The guys at NASA nearly choked on their filter coffee, wondering how their Commander in Chief could make such an ungrounded and unfounded statement, speak such a falsehood to the American people; there was no way in this world, or any other, that they were going to be able to do this. JFK told them that this was his goal, that they could either share his optimism and become part of this adventure, or they could not. What was their choice to be?

Before John Kennedy could make such a daring claim, he had to decide something; not whether he thought that they could pull it off, but whether his word was his word. Kennedy knew that words are cheap, that it’s real easy to say 'this, that and the other', but to live a life of inspiration, of some kind of integrity, your word must be your word and you must do the things you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do them.

24 days into this Blog and I can already catch myself thinking “wow, have I bitten off more than I can chew, committing to this every day?” More than 10 years into this screenwriting apprenticeship, having switched careers over 17 years ago I ask myself, in these moments of doubt “what was I thinking??!!” I’m glad that I made the choice that my word is my word, it’s a great deal to do make with oneself. It stands me in great stead.

I love watching friends of mine meet challenges, personally and professionally, privately and publicly, it truly is inspiring.

John F. Kennedy guessed that NASA probably had the science, the nous and the technology required to fulfill the dream, but what I think clinched the deal for him, when deciding whether to make his outrageous statement or not, was his unswerving faith in people, in mankind.

Day #24 Tip: Master Your Craft

“Technology is brilliant, but should it fail, man will always be there, if and when it does, to solve things.”

The above statement, or something like it, is the Controlling Idea of the film, Apollo 13. I’m sorry for banging on about Controlling Ideas again, but it’s so important for me, for us to know exactly what it is that I’m writing about and why. Especially as we're in the early stages of putting a screenplay together

All through my apprenticship, my mantra to myself has been one of: “I want to master my craft, not be at the mercy of my imagination”.

(Lord) Laurence Olivier came off stage after a performance of Hamlet one night and someone, possibly the director, grabbed him by the shoulders, shook him vigorously and told him that his performance, that night, was stupendous! Olivier was later to be found, broken, in his dressing room, rueing that he’d been told how good he was; he said that it was the worst thing to be given such high praise, because he could never repeat such a performance as he didn’t know how he’d done it.

That may be so for an actor, may be the case for Larry. I don’t know as I don’t act.

Here, I must stress that I’m not suggesting that writing film is painting by numbers, that all you have to do is follow the prescriptive ideas laid down by Aristotle, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Christopher Vogler et al and it’ll be sweet. Oh no, indeed. What I am counselling, is for the “rules of the road” to be investigated, learnt, understood, applied, tested, rejected and/or embraced; the craft must become second nature to me so that my imagination can be free to take flight.

All the words of the scholars of dramatic writing that I’ve mentioned (and the thousand and one others...Linda Aronson, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, to name three more) are of no use without what I, the writer, bring to the table. Conversely, that which I bring to the table, if not tempered by the mastery of form and function, would end up as screen gobbledygook, that probably wouldn’t or shouldn't make it further on it's journey to the cinema screen than the smaller screen of my laptop.

I don’t want to write one screenplay and then dissolve in a puddle because I don't know how to do it again. Maybe others can do that, and repeat the exercise at will... I can’t. The crew of Apollo 13 - Jim Lovell, Jack Swaggart and Fred Hayes - couldn’t have got into space and orbitted the moon without the technology of their spacecraft and Mission Control Houston. But it was them and others on the ground that got them back when that technology was found wanting. One (technology) need the other (mankind) to successfully complete this outrageous exercise.

None of this would have happened had not John Kennedy decided, in the first place, that his word was his word.

1 comment:

  1. You know we'll forgive you if some days the postings are a little shorter than others. Or some are a little less pithy. Or some don't have the perfect image to complement it. Right?
    No one would want this to take you away from writing your screenplay!