Monday, July 19, 2010

Day 102: Water off a duck’s back

In the slim but pithy volume, Making Movies, by the octogenrian New York film director, Sidney Lumet, this great man of the film industry talks about “rubber ducky” moments in film scripts (at least I think it was him in that book?). A “rubber ducky” moment is when a character (often the protagonist) confides to another character, in an intimate moment, that the reason they are the way they are today is because of the moment in childhood when their father took their “rubber ducky” away from them. On coming across such mawkish and expositional moments, I think, from memory, Sid has some strong words of advice for the writer.

I have a “rubber ducky” moment or two from my own life that I’ve taken the red pen to, again and again in an effort to be rid of, here’s a favourite.

My first day of school, aged 5, in a class of about 40 other kids, we were given a crayon and a piece of paper and asked to write the letter ‘A’, no stipulation as to whether it was to be a an upper case ‘A’ or lower case ‘a’. Now I’d done a bit of prep work at home with my mum, so I happily went about my business and answered what I thought was the brief. A few minutes later, the teacher - Ms or Mrs someone - alighted on my work. This is what happened next: the teacher made me stand up and turn around to face the class, held up my piece of paper by the corner, at arm’s length (as though it were a covered in dog sh*t) and famously said “what Roger’s done is wrong”. I’d either written upper case when it should have been lower or lower when it should have been upper, but it didn’t change the fact that “what ROGER’S done is WRONG”.

Now, do you think I made a decision about my writing in that moment or do you think I made a decision about my writing? Up until quite recently, it has not been uncommon for me to spend six months of blood, sweat and toil at the coalface of a screenplay, finally to type FADE TO BLACK END, only to push back from the keyboard and think to myself “well, that’s a piece of sh*t” aka "what Roger's done is so very wrong".

It’s taken years of pneumatic psychotherapy with Freud and Jung to work through that little cracker; that’s not actually true - you probably know that Freud an Jung are both dead - but that first of two pivotal (“rubber ducky”) moments in my life has required some serious application on my part, stopping just short of exorcism.

An anagram of critic is “tricci”, in crossword parlance that could be a clue (“say”) for “tricky”. Receiving and taking on board criticism, even the constructive stuff, is really, really hard work, I can’t emphasise that enough. The destructive and unhelpful stuff, well that’s just a whole other ball game, but part and parcel of our work it is.

Taking the step outline story of my screenplay around to pitch to friends and colleagues, often atttracts praise and encouragement but always leaves me open and naked to some little gems that I wish they’d just stop short of offering up.

Day #102 Tip: No defending
As I come to the end of sharing my story with ten listeners and get ready to move to the next stage of turning the outline into a treatment, I go over the notes that I’ve made from the comments I’ve received. That’s because I took notes when they responded.

I’ve talked before about when I give notes to people and my irritation if they don’t write them down, well, it works the other way too. If I’ve eneterd into a deal with someone whereby I’ve asked them to give up valuable time and read or listen to a piece of my work, then implicit in that agreement is their prerogative to respond. For me to have them listen quietly for ten, fifteen or twenty minutes and then try to gaffer tape their mouth shut at the end would be nothing short of indecent and dumb on my part.

Whatever they’ve got to say, I need to hear and NOT defend or explain, especially with “..but what you don’t understand is...”, they understand alright, they just didn’t think it was up to snuff or, if I do have to explain it to them because it’s not clear in my story, well then I’ll be handing out flyers in the cinema to do the same. That person who’s listened to my tale is as good as any target audience member ready to stump up their hard-earned to see my film; whether they’re a Fulbright Scholar or not is neither here nor there, and furthermore, I need to whip out a pen and pad and take down what they say so that I can go over it at a later date with all the other comments I’ve received, along with thoughts of my own.

What’s most important is that I don’t view that feedback through the prism of “what Roger’s done is wrong”; one way or another, that pungent comment (which has actually been an engine room to drive me for some years) no longer serves this writer any purpose. That’s one little duck in the row that I’ve shot down.

Quack, quack. Bang bang!

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