Thursday, June 3, 2010

Day 56: Me & Bob Towne (Part #2)

Previously on this Blog: I was talking yesterday about writing down the name of the person in the world that I’d most like to work with and then drifted into a reverie about my all-time favourite film Chinatown. Indeed the name the I would jot down, would be that of Chinatown’s screenwriter, Robert Towne.

In October of 2006 I was selected as one of eight screenwriters, from around Australia, to take part in the Australian Film Commission’s script “hothouse’, Spark, in Byron Bay. Over the course of eight days, each writer would be assigned four industry mentors to work with them on their script, so that by the end of the week, each would leave with a new direction for their next draft. One of my mentors was to be Robert Towne.

Legend, myth and word has it that for Robert Towne to look at your script, in Hollywood, costs about a million bucks. Now, I have to say that sounds outlandish to me (just look at my menu of consultancy prices on this site if you want to compare), but I’m willing to believe it in pursuit of a great story. I’d heard Robert Towne speak before, on a previous excursion to Australia, when he was here to do Q&A’s which were generally filled with the topic of Chinatown, much moreso that any of the other movies that he’s scripted (The Last Detail, Days Of Thunder, Shampoo) or directed.

I know what he looks like, so at a meet-and-greet when we arrived at the fives star Byron On Byron on that first Sunday evening, I knew who the man with the mane of silver hair, puffing on a cheroot was. Someone ushered me forward, like a debutante, before I had a chance to stop them, with a “Robert meet Rog-” and cutting off the official introduction, he said these words (in his deep drawl) as he extended his great paw “-I know who you are, you’re Roger Joyce, I read your script, The Detective, in LA”. You could have pushed me over, literally, with a feather at that point. I know it sounds cliché, but then the truth often does.

I didn’t get my first session with Robert until the Tuesday afternoon, when we were locked down for two hours together. We chose to sit on the 100m long verandah that overlooked the swimming pool and rainforest (that’s not true: he chose, there was no “we” about it. Good choice though). As we sat there, me with pen and notepad in hand (has to be yellow A4 pad), Robert would speak for a second or two, then fall into these gaping long silences which I thought was my cue to fill the space with inane chatter until the penny quickly dropped and I realised that actually, I ought maybe to shut up and let the man think.

Let me tell you, ten minutes in the company of Robert Towne is a lot of thinking time. In that time though, this is what he would do: he’d take out his small leather cigar case, select a little Cuban missile and and role the end around in his mouth. At this point, someone swimming laps in the pool would take his attention. Then he’d return to the cigar, pull a clipper from his pocket and snip off the end, before lighting it, wafting the most delicious smelling cigar smoke all over me. He’d then turn his gaze to the rainforest as he pulled stray tobacco from his lips before turning back to me, weighing me up with his beady eye and steely stare. Then ten minutes.....and I mean TEN LONG minutes, would pass during which I swore that he was silently getting the measure of me. Then and only then would he speak.

Writing a detecetive story is almost mathematical (ironic as I hated maths) in that for the plot to play out and work, there must be endless equations and formulas of logic and reason that must add up. This character could not have shot that character if he was in this location at the time that the victim was caught on the CCTV in the car. Things like that. As a writer, going over your script you must plug the holes. If you’ve got too many holes then you haven’t constructed your work properly with due diligence to your craft in the first place. But no matter how painstaking you are, there will always be holes (moments that couldn’t possibly be if the logic of the storytelling was interrogated)...there’s even one in Chinatown, that ends up on screen (I’m not telling you where, you’ll have to do the detective work yourself).

I reckon that I had a couple of holes, maybe three in my second draft of The Detective and I was just waiting for Robert Towne, the creator of Jakes Gittes (private investigator) to point out where one was. That is not what he did at the end of this TEN MINUTES, instead, what Mr Towne did was ask me a question about the backstory of my script....actually that’s not true either; he asked me a question about a character biography of my protagonist that helped form the backstory that aided the creation of the script that he’d read in LA. He asked me a question that I never thought anyone would ever ask me, how could they know? See, Robert Towne had spotted one of the holes in the story and had worked backwards through the script to find out why it was there. Not yet satisfied, he went beyond the first page of the script and guessed at my backstory that led up to the script and when he couldn’t find the answer there, went further. He went into his own imagination and made up roughly the same character biog that I had made up for the protagonist and finally came to the point where he could go no further, the point at which the unravelling began that led to my teensy-weensy hole.

“Tell me Roger. How did character A meet character B?” I had no answer and he knew that. I came clean and admitted that I had no answer, I hadn’t been as thorough as I could have been. Robert Towne didn’t admonish or scold me, instead he diid this. In that ten minutes (and probably many other minutes between California and Northern NSW) he’d not only worked out where the hole started, he’d worked out a solution, which he then told me: “Roger. Character A met character B when they were.....”. the specifics of his suggestion do not matter. What matters is that his solution to the problem in the biog was like a magic, golden carpet that rolled out through the biography, into the backstory and up to the moment where the hole in the script lay. It filled in that hole, with a screenwriter’s version of million-dollar was more than a drop-dead, knock-out idea, so much more.

Day #55 Tip: No Holes
Backstory, biog’s, backstory, biog’s backstory, biog’s and research. I do them ‘til I’m blue in the face and the sky falls in, because that’s where the holes get filled and the million dollar ideas come from.

Comedy can maybe tolerate holes more than drama, but either way, it behooves me to ensure that to the very best of my ability I’ve done whatever I can humanely do to ensure that there are few if any holes in my stories, especially the detective scripts. If it’s good enough for Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett then it sure is good enough for me. Come the reckoning day (which I hope and pray is a long long way away) when I sit down in that ‘coffee shop in the sky” to spitball with crime writers like those guys, I don’t want to be introduced as the lazy sonofa***** who couldn’t be bothered to do the work of a real writer and plug his holes.

I sit in the cinema and all too often I’m dismayed by the whopping, great, glaring holes that pop up - especially at the start of films - that the writer, the director, the producer all side-stepped, all tippy-toed round; often the very PREMISE of the film??!! Why do they leave it there.....because they wouldn’t be able to tell the rest of the story that they so wanted to tell if they had to let, logic and sound reason rule the day.

Pride in your craft people. One day you’ll have your own Robert Towne moment and, in hindsight, thank the Lord that I only had two or three holes in my screenplay. How could the man who held an Oscar in his hand for Chinatown, and bailed Francis Ford Coppola out on The Godfather, have taken me seriously as a screenwriter if it had been otherwise?

I conclude ‘Me & Bob Towne’ tomorrow.

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