Lessons from the Multiplex: Silver Linings Playbook

Part of writing is watching movies and learning from them. From time to time, I will force myself to step away from the computer and the endless grind of churning out work and  get a real education watching stuff. And I’ll post about it here briefly, and what I learned.

First up, Silver Linings Playbook which is my favorite movie of 2012 and which until two weeks ago was still playing at my local movie theater.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Still playing at a movie theater near me

Still playing at a movie theater near me

Here’s an example of a film that wakes up when a character enters. SLP is just burbling along as a familiar trope of the returned, mentally-ill, younger prodigal son (Pat) who comes home to some suburban Philadelphia neighborhood. It’s cute and funny and the character has a plan about getting his life back (alluding to finding a silver lining in everything, which I gotta say as dialogue is the one thing that felt a little contrived) so we’re rooting for him. Turns out he had a colossal breakdown sending him to a mental facility when his English teacher wife was cheating with the history teacher who had tenure (nice little detail). He has an Asian therapist that he checks in with so we can seamlessly learn this backstory. And his dad, Robert de Niro, who thank goodness, is more than just coloring by numbers here in a role with some meat on it, is a superstitious bookie forced into it by losing his job. He’s Eagles obsessed which is a neat way to tie the theme of mental illness to football in an unexpected juxtaposition that works really well.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Nothing to do with the writing, but check out the great comic framing.

So the scene’s set…a sympathetic character, a fun, quirky family (but not in an overly, indie-indulgent way) and some stakes…win my wife back. And in walks the Jennifer Lawrence character, Tiffany, who is like the archetypal bombshell romantic comedy heroine turned up to eleven. She’s a tornado: an ex-slut widow, who will always be a little “sloppy and dirty”, who is prepared to rip the scab off of Pat’s suffering. Here’s the moment I fell in love with her. A bewildered Pat, taken aback by her sexual aggressiveness on the first night they meet says “How old are you?” Tiffany replies “Old enough to have a marriage end and not wind up in a mental hospital.” (!)
But Tiffany dangles the opportunity for Pat to get a letter to his estranged wife as a bargaining chip for being her partner in a dancing contest and Pat, desperate to get back to his wife, but also afraid of messing it up by falling for Tiffany (a realistic dilemma), agrees. And the contest injects a nice bit of tension into the second act, especially when it’s coupled with the double or nothing bet on the Eagles game. (the parlay! a nice bit of random knowledge I picked up from this movie.)
Lots of things work in SLP: the minor characters who come to the fore in unexpected ways (the Asian therapist, the hen-pecked husband, the perfect brother), the harsh on the outside-fragile on the inside Tiffany, the ridiculous dance contest where our leads are hilariously moderate in an unremarkable way. And it was nice even seeing Julia Stiles as an all grown up ball-buster.
I think, against all odds, this is my favorite movie of the year.

WHAT I LEARNED: Tiffany reminded me a little of one of my own rom-com heroine characters, and by contrast, showed me how much farther I need to push that character. Extremes are where the real drama lies. Of course it helps when your extreme is courtesy mental illness because that, in a way, makes all behavior plausible, but there’s probably a way you can push your character further that makes sense.

The Bravest Person in The Room

Nora Ephron (1941-2012), Thanks and Goodbye

Nora Ephron (1941-2012), Thanks and Goodbye (Photo credit: k-ideas)

Nora Ephron died last June and it hit me in a way that I didn’t imagine it would. It is true that I love rom-coms and write them and hate that they have morphed into treacly formulaic tropes about career women and rough at the edges men, unendingly played in my nightmares by Katherine Heigel and Gerald Butler. But there are plenty of talented writers who write iconic films in my wheelhouse who if they died I’d say, well that’s a shame and move on.

Perhaps how I felt about Nora had to do with briefly meeting her at a New York Women In Film and TV event where she was the consummate storyteller and made everyone in the room feel like she was personally connecting with them. (I believe Tom Hanks when he says that he only took on “Lucky Guy” on Broadway to get a chance to hang out with her. She was that cool in her quintessential New York black turtleneck.)

Nora offered up lots of advice that night, replete with her trademark wit and pithiness but the advice that resonates the most with me had nothing to do with writing characters or dialogue. What resonates with me was the advice she gave to those who want to direct  that as a director you always have to be “the bravest person in the room”. She urged us to armor up and over-prepare (storyboards! shotlists! lookbooks!), advice which I’m taking to heart as a producer on the Bollywood-set project.

As it stands, the entertainment business operates out of a position of fear: fear of greenlighting the wrong pic, fear of choosing the wrong script, fear of pissing off the wrong powerful exec. It is so much easier and safer to do nothing and risk nothing and never be wrong. That, however, is not how movies get made. And while Nora was specifically addressing directing, she could just have easily have been talking about writing or producing.

To write, you have to be the bravest person in the room: to not be afraid of writing something awful after you’ve written something good…to not be afraid of writing something controversial if it’s what you want to tackle…to not be afraid of being misunderstood. To produce, you’ve got to be the bravest person in the room: to commit to a project that could be a flop, to take money from investors that they may lose, to run headlong in pursuit of talent and distributors even when you could be cruising for a bruising. In short, making art is an act of courage. Art is bigger than fear.

I have no trouble imagining that Nora Ephron, who the studios didn’t want to direct “This is My Life” and who refused to be pigeonholed, was often the bravest in the room. Even that night at that little New York Women in Film forum where she was ostensibly promoting “Julie and Julia.” Nora, who kept her leukemia a secret to all but her closest friends, saving us the long goodbye and going out on her own terms in the end.