Movies for Writers and ‘Reel’ Writing Advice
On my last trip to Walt Disney World, I noticed a sign. It was in the gift shop next to the Muppet Vision 3D found in Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM Studios). The sign listed the six rules of showbiz and primarily focused on different people who, while making a movie, are always right: the actor is always right, the director, the cameraman, composer, lighting techs. Then, at the bottom, was the last rule of showbiz.
“Rule #6: The writer is always wrong.”
I always smile when I think of that sign. I can sympathize. James Patterson once said that a writer on the set of a film is lower on the hierarchy than the caterer. As a writer, be it blogger, novelist or general wordsmith, I feel that I’m already on the outs. Friends don’t “get” why I write, others feel that I’m wasting my time, and some are even surprising that I still do “that writing thing”. Very few people share my passion, and so I turn to find solace in my ever-faithful friend: the movies.
As a writer, movies can provide a never-ending source of inspiration. But more than that, it can offer advice. When writers watch movies about writers, it takes on another layer of meaning. We as writers immediately align ourselves with the writers on the screen. We share in their suffering, understand their lack of inspiration, and find it just as hard to sit down and write. And so, as a tribute to writers everywhere, I present you with three excellent films about writing and the lessons they offer.
The Film: Most people will agree that Stranger Than Fiction is a film about writing. But only writers will really be able to align themselves with Emma Thompson’s character. It’s not that viewers won’t “get” Thompson’s character. They’re able to appreciate the random and almost erractic scenes as taking place in her own head. But writers are the ones who understand why Thompson is on her desk trying to simulate a suicide jumper, or sitting in the rain to imagine a car wreck. They’re the ones watching and saying “Yep, I’ve done that. I’ve played the ‘what if’ game or tried to imagine that”.
The Lesson for Writers: No matter what you write, bring it back to reality. I don’t care if your story is set in outer space or a small town in the Western Hemisphere. As the film demonstrates, it’s not about how absurd the situation is. It’s about those smaller bits of reality in the story that people recognize and connect with. It’s how likeable Will Ferrell is, how predictable our lives can become, and how we all want to have those new experiences. Choose whatever plot or situation you want, but give me something realistic to connect to. If you do that, you’re good.
The Film: If you’ve never seen the film, you’re missing out. Melvin (Jack Nicholson) is a brilliant writer who knows it. He writes female characters as men without “reason and accountability”. He has no friends, tolerates very few, has a biting sense of humour, and somehow becomes completely endearing by the end of the film. He’s also the author of sixty-two books who gets to work at home and be comfortable in his own apartment. Unfortunately, life turns his world completely upside down with him suddenly inheriting a dog, avoiding a friendship with a gay neighbour, and potentially falling in love with a waitress and single mother. This not only changes him, but is quite possibly the best group of things to happen to him in a long while.
The Lesson for Writers: Have new experiences. It doesn’t matter whether it’s meeting new people, eating somewhere different, putting yourself in awkward situations, or taking a sudden road trip. Experiences give you more material to use, more ink to write with. Those new experiences can manifest themselves in any number of ways when you write. There’s nothing wrong with the day-to-day. But if you’re trying to craft a spy novel out of those experiences, you won’t get far. But running into a former crush and having to watch what you say? You can use that experience of nervousness and caution when you write that scene where your spy tries to beat a polygraph. Have those experiences. And then use them.
The Film: If you’re a writer and you haven’t seen Midnight in Paris, you have no idea what you’re missing. The film is almost every writer’s dream. Owen Wilson plays author Gil Pender who every midnight, on a corner in Paris, gets transported back in time to meet and talk with some of the greatest authors and creative geniuses who ever lived: F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea), Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Cole Porter, and one of the best friends a writer could have, Gertrude Stein. Throughout the film Gil finds himself inspired, encouraged, and most importantly, understood.
The Lesson for Writers: Writing is a personal and independent hobby but, at the same time, no man is meant to be an island. You always want to surround yourself with people who understand you and can help you when you get stuck. It’s like any sport or hobby, like hockey or skateboarding. You’re not going to get real sympathy or advice on your kickflip from somebody who doesn’t ride. They may understand, but not enough to really relate. Writers should find ways to surround themselves with others who understand or, at the very least, have other creative individuals in their lives who they can pull inspiration from when their own well runs dry.
As an occasional reflection of life in general, movies have a way of not only capturing our problems, but offering suggestions or solutions. Pulling writing advice is only one of the few ways that movies can help provide motivation, understanding, or even help to our problems. Someone told me once that if you can’t say what you want quite yet, you don’t have the right verbs. The same goes with film. If you haven’t found the right solution to your problem yet, you haven’t found the right film.
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