Monday, July 28, 2014

"How Did I Do? (An Unbiased Evaluations)"

Just come out and say it?


The rewritten Major Dad scene was a detectible improvement over the original version from twenty-five years ago.  Claims the man who has not read the original for a quarter of a century, and has not made it available to his readership for objective comparison.  You’ll just have to trust me.  And why would I lie?

“Goll-ee, Earl.  You seem to have gotten worse at this.”

Okay, there’s that.  But why else? 

Do we need any more?

I guess not.  Still, in my heart – where an umpire once claimed he had never “called one wrong” – I sincerely feel the most recent version of the scene to be superior to the original. 

In what way? 

In many ways, the bulk of them relating to my previously produced “checklist”, which I am sure I had in mind the first time around, but the pressures of time, anxiety and exhaustion led me to not take it satisfactorily into account.  It happens when you’re in a state of inexorable panic.  (As I invariably was when I was running a show.)

My recollection of the version we filmed was that, lacking the ameliorating necessities of calmness and clarity, in an effort to simply get the work done, we inorganically “forced the comedy”, to the detriment of both character and situation.  This, if not forgivable, was at least understandable, since the scene’s subject matter – the guillotinous specter of a spanking – cast a darkening shadow over the proceedings, leading to an overreaction in the direction of leavening levity.  (There’s a turn of phrase you don’t see every day.  Probably because it doesn’t mean anything.)   

Here’s what I remembered the second time:

When I attended a Stanislavski acting school in England, I was taught that an important tool in bringing a scene to life is for the actor playing the protagonist, before proceeding, to construct and hold in their mind a simple, declarative statement, embodying what exactly their character is trying to accomplish.  This essential preparation – whose positive results I have personally experienced – sends the actor into the action with increased purpose and intensity, energizing the scene and, by so doing, more successfully engaging the audience.

What did the Major want to accomplish in this scene?  From a story standpoint, he wanted to spank little Casey for her disobedience.  That, however, is an action, not a propelling emotion.  For maximum effect with this process, it is necessary to delve deeper. 

“I want Casey not to hate me” is not quite it either, first, because it is a negative assertion, second, because it’s too non-specific, and third, because he was about to deliver a spanking.  Who’s not going to hate somebody who does that?

What the Major wants, I think, is to be understood.  He believes in “corporal punishment” and he wants its recipient to be clear that his actions are not personal.  Getting a handle on his motivation helped me to determine what words to put in the Major’s mouth, and how I wanted him to behave. 

And first glance, Casey’s immediate motivation is “I don’t want to be spanked.”  But that too is negative, and therefore insufficiently helpful.  What Casey wants is to be forgiven.  This intention informs her approach to the “Moment of Truth”.  And, hopefully, to my writing of it as well.

So much for “Respecting the Situation”, which I believe – admittedly without the comparative evidence of the original scene – that I handled things more truthfully this time around.  I also believe that my Stanislavskian training was – and always has been – an informing benefit to my writing, (though – twinge of retroactive regret – I never became an actual actor.) 

As for “Respecting the Characters”?  In the current version, regarding “character consistency”, I determined that the Major never surrender his principles, but simply, temporarily or otherwise (if there are no future transgressions) defer the punishment.  From her side, Casey is now committed to justifying the Major’s trust.     

From a joke standpoint – not selling out “character” for an easy laugh – I did a little better than the first time (which showed significant signs of comedic desperation), though I was hardly perfect.  (Note:  Tomorrow, I shall tackle the challenge of writing what are essentially dramatic stories comedically, the omnipresent concern being “Where is the ‘funny’ going to come from?”)       

The question is always, “Would this character say that?”  With the Major in this version, overall I can say, “Yeah.”  With seven year-old Casey?  I would have to admit to “mixed results.”

My favorite “Casey line” is when the Major makes an initial move towards her, her reaction is,

“Is it happening?”

That feels like a seven year-old’s response, the line emanating directly from the seven year-old me.  If I am anticipating a spanking, and the spanker starts towards me, yeah – that’s exactly how I’d react.  (Probably even today.)

In one sequence, I strategically hedged my bets, having Casey say, 

“Major…do we really have to do this?  You are aware you have a choice in this matter, don’t you?”

That’s “too old” for a kid to say.  So what I did was, I explained it “after the fact” by having the Major say, “Have you had some coaching?” and have Casey admit she had, thus justifying her “beyond her years” articulosity.

In other places, yeah, maybe I “reached” here and there.  But hopefully not too egregiously.

As for the ending…

Traditionally, endings of scenes – and, more obligatorily endings of acts – require “big joke finishes” to go out on.  The “big joke” has generally never been my strength.  In such cases, an assembled writing staff is invaluable for a collective “pitching the ending.” 

Working alone here, I did the best I could, relying as is my wont, not on a joke but on a realistic observation.  When Casey observes,

“It’s a good thing you’re not like your Daddy.”

The Major astutely replies,

“Roger that, Marine.  Daddy’d have given you a spanking you would never forget.  (WINCINGLY)  Then he’d have gone after me for letting you off the hook.” 

This is one of my favorite kinds of comedy – you just “say what it is”, and it’s funny because it true.  I had considered numerous, less satisfying possibilities.  But this was the best I could come up with, working alone.

Bottom Line:  I took a risk, and I did not embarrass myself.  Lesson Learned:  Relax your guard, and give scary things a try.  

At least once every twenty-five years.  

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I posted my long comment earlier because I wanted to do so while it was clear I didn't know your own opinion yet.

The point about Major wishing to be understood is an excellent one, ditto the one about Casey wanting to be forgiven. But I still think that there are enormous problems around the mother's role. Granted, they need their own relationship that is not negotiated by Casey's mother - but that's an easier sell with a less contentious issue. That was outwith the assignment, however.