Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Lost (Or At Least Seriously Altered) In Translation"

A family member wrote a screenplay which he believed could alternatively be turned into a graphic novel.  He asked me to read it and tell him what I thought.

Capsule Commentary:  Let me take a moment to delineate this situation.  It is not easy.  In both directions. 

While claiming to desire “honest feedback”, the writer, in a perfect world – meaning the world in which everyone loves the writer’s work not a world where nothing bad ever happens – wants to hear only effusive compliments, unqualified enthusiasm, high praise and, most importantly, “I think I can get this to somebody who can help you.”

From the volunteer reader’s perspective, you pretty much cannot come out unscathed in such matters.  If you are effusive in your praise – even if you mean it – you can come off sounding phony.  And if you are hyper-critical – either voicing legitimate concerns, or you’re just a mean-spirited asshole who is only happy when everyone around you is sad – you are in either case unlikely to be heard. 

Criticizing helpfully is an art, a delicate recipe of empathy mixed with professionalism, generating a useful but diplomatically-expressed evaluation.

I enjoyed reading the family member’s submission.  It’s an “action” concept, and the action described was entertaining, delightfully imaginative and precise.  My overall response, however, was that his selection of the medium of production was, in my view, not an arbitrary, interchangeable determination.

What did I mean by that virtually impenetrable sentence?  What I meant was, because of some hyper-gruesome elements in the action – most prominently the storyline’s numerous beheadings – the work was more readily imaginable as a graphic novel than as a movie.


Wait.  Before “Why?”

Full Disclosure:  My experience with graphic novels numbers three – the Maus book and its sequel  (the Maus original being, to me, an absolute “must read”), and a graphic novel about a post-apocalyptic Planet Earth – though I believe that particular scenario encompasses a lot of graphic novels – which was not at all memorable.

Understanding the reader’s familiarity with graphic novels is limited to but three graphic novels, my observation should be more accurately construed to mean, “I see this material less as a movie than as what I, considering my limited experience, imagine a graphic novel to be like.”

Distillation:  It appears to me to be incomplete thinking to create a scenario, believing that it can be produced with equal success as either a graphic novel or a movie.

Because they’re different. 

Not that a graphic novel cannot be successfully turned into a blockbuster movie.  (PLACE APPROPRIATE EXAMPLES HERE, BECAUSE THOUGH I AM SURE THERE ARE A LOT OF THEM,  I AM PERSONALLY FAMILIAR WITH NONE OF THEM.)  It’s just that, turning a graphic novel into a movie – requires fundamental mindset adjustments in sensibility, tonality and style.

Hoping it is not too late, let me now segue to an arena that I actually know something about.

Back in the early nineties, I wrote a half-hour pilot script for my bosses at Universal Studios entitled The Home Team. 

PREMISE:  Hoping to eventually return to the game, an aging superstar baseball player recovering from a serious injury volunteers to temporarily to stay home with his and his wife’s recently-born baby while she ventures into the world to launch her career as a lingerie entrepreneur.  (It could have been a “software entrepreneur”, but it was a little too early for that; though, in a way, lingerie is in its own way “soft wear.”)  The ballplayer ultimately ends up as a full-time stay-at-home father.

A decent idea, which seemed considerably more adventuresome in the early nineties.  Anyway, we got a network to bankroll the pilot script.  Unfortunately, they cut me off before “Green Lighting” pilot production.  Meaning The Home Team was dead.

Or so I believed.

Ever resilient and resourceful (and uncaring of my feelings), the studio – which retained ultimate ownership of the material – submitted my script to another writer, who, on the basis of his currently hot reputation, was awarded the “Green Light” for the filming of The Home Team (that my current reputation – and completed pilot script – was unable to procure.)

The replacement writer rewrote my script and then produced it.  Since there was a tiny baby involved, the filming – or at least those scenes involving the baby – were not filmed in front of a live studio audience.  I no longer remember the circumstances, but at one point I found myself sitting in the empty bleachers watching them shoot a show I had conceived and originally written but in which I was no longer directly involved.

The scene I was auditing involved drooling.  (My original script called for no salival regurgitation whatsoever.)  The “Moment of Truth” arrived.  But the baby refused to cooperate, retaining its scenario-required spittle inside its tiny, little mouth.

Numerous “takes” were attempted – No spittle.  Since “Time is (inevitably) money”, after multiple failed efforts – and I no longer recall the specifics – a concerted, orally invasive effort was made by the production staff to induce spittle.  There could have been gum or caramels involved – I cannot remember.  In the end, “fake drool” had to be insinuated into the baby’s mouth.  The specifics at this juncture elude me.

After prodigious efforts, the baby actor finally drooled.

But, to my eyes at least, the inducement efforts appeared inappropriately invasive, the artificial drool, transparently unreal. 

And here’s the point.

The reputation of the hot, young writer brought in to replace me derived exclusively from his successful achievements on The Simpsons.  They have a baby on The Simpsons.  Who can drool whenever you require him to.  The obvious difference?

It is not a real baby.

You can make a “cartoon baby” do anything – you simply draw them expectorating.  Things are, however, – as the young hotshot eventually came to learn – entirely different with an actual baby.  Not only concerning “drooling on demand” but also in an audience’s reaction to an actual child drooling. 

Right from its inception, animation and “live action” require a distinctive, medium-appropriate approach, the writing gifts for which are not necessarily transferable.  Thinking back now, I cannot remember this cartoon-writing “phenom” ever scoring with living and breathing human being actors.

More on comparative medium differences tomorrow.

We are all familiar with favorite books that made disappointing feature films.  (My “go-to” example is always Catch-22, a book that brought uncontrollable tears of laughter to my eyes, turned into a movie which I did not laugh at even once.)  Every medium is different, requiring different needs and medium-sensitive adjustments of the modulational keyboard.

A graphic novel is no more interchangeable with a feature film script than are a hand-drawn and an actual baby, instructed to drool.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Indeed. But surely it's possible to write a draft of something and realize you picked the wrong medium?


Alan said...

Of course, nowadays, using CGI, you can draw realistic drool on a real baby...but probably not get a real laugh!

Mike said...

Why create the drool? Reference it in the other actors' dialogue and no close-ups. (A third medium, theatre.)