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What in the hell is an “objective correlative”? And why do so many movies and plays have one?

There are things in your life that you’ve attached meaning to. When you see them they conjure up memories of people, places and events. If I give my wife Toblerone chocolate it’s a fond reminder of a train trip we took in Switzerland years ago. My office is full of things that remind me of special productions I’ve worked on over the years—a soccer shirt from Brazil, a bottle of wine from South Africa, a poster from Aspen. Just glancing at those objects reminds me of positive life experiences.

I have an emotional connection to those items that is not intrinsic to their being. And it’s not materialistic (total cost of those items was under $50.) but rather symbolic. The chocolate, the shirt, the wine, the poster all point to something beyond the common material itself. (Sometimes items of meaning are free. I have a matchbook from a place called the Beehive, a coffeehouse in Pittsburgh, where I did a video shoot 20 years ago.* I smile everytime I see that matchbook.)

Writers of books, plays and movies tap into that emotion when they give meaning to certain places and objects. It’s what T.S. Eliot called the “objective correlative.”

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
T.S. Eliot/Hamlet and His Problems

In the movie Forrest Gump, when the older Jenny comes upon her childhood home an emotion is immediately evoked—upset, she begins throwing rocks at the house. And in the voice-over Forrest says, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.” The double whammy there is Jenny not only feels that emotion of remembering an abusive childhood, but the audience feels it as well. There’s a connection. An emotion that we feel for Jenny, but also an emotion that we personally know that, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.”

One of my favorite examples of an objective correlative is the volleyball in (another Tom Hanks movie) Cast Away. Hanks’ character, stranded on a deserted island, befriends a volleyball, paints a face on it, names it Wilson and it becomes his companion. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. and director Robert Zemeckis knew exactly the emotional impact it would have when Wilson is tragically lost at sea. (Another tragedy is Wilson the Volleyball is uncredited in the film.)

Now audiences don’t look at Jenny’s childhood house or Wilson and say, “Oh, look, an objective correlative.” It’s an emotional reaction. Objective correlative is just the technical phrase of something that’s useful to have in your writer’s tool kit.

“Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie. Objective correlative: the glass unicorn whose horn gets broken in the second act by the gentleman caller. Yes, a fragile sensitive little glass unicorn figurine. Fanciful? Beautiful? Tragic? Poignant? Phallic? Call it what you will, but baby, it brings with it a host of emotions. When it happens on stage, it’s damn powerful.”
Richard W. Krevolin
Screenwriting from the Soul
page 71

The more a writer is fond of symbolism (as Tennessee Williams was) the more likely you are to find a objective correlatives in their work. I’m sure there are other writers who’ve gone their entire career without giving a second thought to the concept of  a objective correlative. (Though they probably instinctively had them sprinkled throughout their work.) But if even the basic concept of an objective correlative turns you off as a writer, consider that one of the mostly highly regarded movies in the history of cinema, Citizen Kane, is filled with objective correlatives; the puzzle, the snow globe, and, of course, Rosebud.

It’s the cherry orchard in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, it’s the Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s the compressed air and cattle gun in No Country for Old Men, and the list goes on and on and on. You get the point. Now if you really dig this kind of thing here are some additional thoughts and quotes on the matter:

“I had never understood what Eliot meant by the curious phrase ‘objective correlative’ until the scene in Gatsby where the almost comically sinister Meyer Wolfshiem, who has just been introduced, displays his cuff links and explains that they are ‘the finest specimens of human molars.’ Get it? Got it. That’s what Eliot meant.”
Richard Yate
Some Very Good Masters
New York Times Book Review, April 19,1981

“I borrow the term Objective Correlative from T. S. Eliot and adapt it to mean an external object that represents a character or a state of mind. Rocky’s locker is Rocky’s manhood. When it is taken from him, it is like a castration. In Truly Madly Deeply, the cello is Jamie. In About Schmidt (by Louis Begley and Alexander Payne), when he sees his carefully prepared reports in the garbage, it represents the entirety of his life’s work.”
Hal Ackerman
Write Screenplays That Sell
Page 207

In one episode of the great TV program Northern Exposure Chris (John Corbett) defends his master’s thesis and actually uses the term  ‘objective correlative’ and identifies T. S. Eliot as the source. Which led David Lavery to write,  “Though I cannot be absolutely certain, I would venture to say that this may have been the first, and perhaps the only, time ‘objective correlative’ was ever discussed in prime-time.”

*Quirky fact: The cameraman for that shoot I did in Pittsburgh 20 years ago was related to Geroge Romero who directed the original Night of the Living Dead.
Quirky fact 2: Just went to the Beehive website and learned that according to one of the owners Scott Kramer, “The name Beehive came from a place in France where all the artists were living in the 1930s. Artists can come here and ideas can flow.” Check it out if you’re in Pittsburgh, or the next time you go there.

Update 5/15/13: According to the The Writing Barn post Craft Talk Tuesday with Carol Brender, “Term [objective  correlative] first coined prior to 1850 by Washington Allston , but later given its more literary meaning by T.S. Eliot in an essay about why Hamlet is a failed play.”

Scott W. Smith

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“My goal on first drafts is to write about three pages a day.”
Ted Tally

Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Tally was born and raised in North Carolina, went to the Yale School of Drama, and was an award-winning playwright (Terra Nova) before working in film and television. Various sources say that Tally these days lives in Pennsylvania and that most of Silence of the Lambs was shot in Pittsburgh.

Here’s some screenwriting advise from the man who helped bring to life the character that AFI listed as the #1 all time Villain (Dr. Hannibal Lecter).

“There are indeed some ‘rules’ that cannot be broken. Chief among them: Don’t Bore The Audience. And also: Make The Stakes High For the Characters (i.e., don’t waste the audience’s time and patience with trivialities). Every story, in some sense, is a matter of life and death. And also: Make the Main Character(s) End Up Somewhere Different Than Where They Started The Story (in terms of knowledge, emotion, experience – whatever). These and other ‘rules’ become ingrained with writers (not just screenwriters), so I’m not sure you even consciously think about them after a while. But certainly they’d better be in the back of your mind during the notes-and-outline stage, long before you’re writing the screenplay.”
Ted Tally
Oscar-winning Screenwriter, Silence of the Lambs
An Interview with Ted Tally by Anup Suguan

Scott W. Smith

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“Let’s talk about something important…coffee’s for closers only.”
Alec Baldwin’s character in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross

“During my time as a studio executive at MGM, I had over three thousand pitch meetings where writers, directors, stars, and producers would try to persuade me to buy their ideas. Most of the time, ideas are pitched poorly.”
Stephanie Palmer

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Are you good in a room?

I mean can you convey those great ideas in your head (or in your script) to group of strangers sitting across from you? Have you thought about how you’re going to connect with them and get them excited enough about your ideas to actually pay you money? That’s what this blog is all about as we interview former MGM executive Stephanie Palmer as she offers advice on how you can improve your chances of selling your screenplay.

As I’ve said before, I started the Screenwriting from Iowa blog a couple of days after seeing the movie Juno and hearing the unlikely story of its screenwriter Diablo Cody. (Who happened to go to college in Iowa and is now known as Oscar-winning Diablo Cody.)

But another piece of the puzzle was writer Blake Snyder, author of the screenwriting book Save the Cat. I think Blake’s angle on screenwriting is the most refreshing I’ve read in the last decade.

He also has a blog (www.blakesnyder.com) and that’s where I learned about Stephanie’s new book called Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself (and your Ideas) and Win Over Any Audience. Her book is directed toward helping screenwriters, but the book also applies to many business situations.

Stephanie was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions regarding her experiences in Hollywood and I think you’ll find them helpful in your journey.

1) How does one go from being born in Des Moines, Iowa to working on the biggest money-making movie in history (Titanic)?

Thanks so much for asking, Scott.  I’d have to say a combination of luck and hard work.  No one in my Midwestern family worked in Hollywood and I grew up in a house without a TV.  However, I read as many books as I could about the business, went to a great university and then started as an unpaid intern getting coffee, making photocopies and running errands.  Eventually, I worked my way up.  Titanic was just the beginning, but it was an incredible way to start.

2) You went from an unpaid production assistant to MGM Director of Creative Affairs. How did your degree in theater prepare you for that journey?

Well, I didn’t make that jump in one move.  I worked as an assistant for a couple years at Bruckheimer Films and at MGM, though I was given a rare internal promotion from assistant to executive.

In terms of how my theater experience prepared me for the executive side of the business, I think it helped me tremendously.  Many movie executives have backgrounds in business and finance, and sometimes, expertise in these areas is crucial.  However, I think that experience in storytelling is just as valuable.  My theatrical training helps me understand the challenges that creative people face.  With my knowledge of plays and experience directing and producing them, I have a wider body of knowledge to draw upon when developing a script or solving a production problem.

3) Carnegie Mellon has a long tradition of actors in Hollywood, did you find that being from Pittsburgh actually helped you after you moved to LA?

Being part of a network is always important, and so is having perspective.  Certainly, graduating from Carnegie Mellon put me in touch with previous graduates, one of whom helped me get my first job.  So that was incredibly important.  As well, coming from Pittsburgh, I was steeped in a culture that was more down-to-earth.  So when I got to LA, I had some perspective on the insanity.

4) In your time at MGM what did you learn that surprised you most about screenwriters?

How unprepared they were for meetings.  The fact is that the skills and talents required to come up with a great idea are different from the skills required to present it.  However, the skills that allow you to pitch effectively and with confidence can be learned by anyone.  I’ve seen the most shy, awkward people become good in a room—not because they transformed their personalities and became charismatic extroverts—but because they practiced the right techniques and developed their own style.

5) Now you have a consulting firm and have written a book called Good in a Room. Why is it important for a screenwriter to be good in a room if they’ve written a solid script?

Even great ideas don’t sell themselves because decision-makers generally don’t just buy scripts.  They invest in people who have great ideas.  Selling yourself is crucial to the success of your project.  When you sell something, you will be asked to make changes, adapt to new circumstances, and work with people whose opinions may differ from your own—for at least a year, if not more.  Therefore, before saying “Yes” to you and buying your script, the decision-maker needs to know if they like you, trust you, and can rely on you during the challenging process of making a movie.

6) A question that every writer outside of LA is interested in is “How does one get in the room in the first place?”

This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many different routes by which people have been successful.  Consider the story of Juno, where the writer of the script (Diablo Cody) was found by a producer who was just surfing the web, came across her site, and asked her if she’d written a screenplay.  To borrow from the cliché, she wrote something great and the world beat a path to her door.  I have seen that happen many times.

Of course, not every great writer gets discovered.  These days, to get in the room, at some point, you have to go where the meetings are actually happening.  This means… and I hesitate to say this… living in or near Los Angeles.  In my experience, only well-established writers can live somewhere else, then fly in for a week of meetings.  Everyone else needs to be ready to jump on opportunities when they happen.

I know that not everyone will want to move to LA, and it doesn’t seem fair to require it.  Why can’t you just write something fantastic and sell it?  Because studios and production companies aren’t just investing in your idea—they’re investing in YOU.  And if you’re not local, the perception is that you are not as committed to career as your competition.  It’s much more challenging to fulfill your function as part of the creative team.  Plus, you will have a harder time building your network and developing the relationships which help you get into the room in the first place.

7) Any closing advice for the writers in Iowa, India and other places beyond LA?

No matter where you live, you can develop your craft and learn how to present your ideas effectively.  One way to stay current is to subscribe to my free online newsletter, where twice a month I’ll send you a quick tip to help you refine and hone your meeting technique.  You can sign up at www.goodinaroom.com.  That way, when you do get that big meeting, instead of hoping that your script will do all the work (like most writers), you’ll confidently present both yourself and your ideas.  That’s what being good in a room is all about.


POSTSCRIPT
After I first posted this blog I heard from a writer in Minneapolis who was discouraged by Stephanie’s comment about screenwriters having to live in or near L.A.  Stephanie also said that, “In my experience, only well-established writers can live somewhere else, then fly in for a week of meetings.” It’s fair to say it makes the odds a little tougher on the L.A. outsiders if you go the studio route.

But there are other people around the country–around the world–who are writing and making films outside that system so don’t be discouraged. In fact, read my blog titled “Screenwriting from Ireland” that talks about the movie Once.  And this is as good a time as any to pull out a nugget I’ve been holding for the right moment and now seems as good as any.

Early in this blog I mentioned screenwriter & Save the Cat author Blake Snyder.  I asked Blake a while back if he had any encouraging words for screenwriters outside L.A. and here’s Blake’s response:
“I have said often that geography is no longer an impediment to a career in screenwriting. I know of one woman who decided to be a screenwriter in Chicago, wrote 5 scripts, sold 2 and got an agent and manager, all while never leaving the confines of her condo.  It starts with a great concept! You have a great idea and a great poster, if you execute that well, you will get phone calls — and deals.  The key is: the great script!  And that starts with the step by step process I outline in Cat!  Go get ’em!”

And the LA Times just reported that Brad Ingelsby, a 27-year-old who lives in the Philadelphia area with his parents and sells insurance for his father, just sold a script for $650,000 against $1.1 million. And just for the Midwest fans, the movie is set in Indiana. (I first learned about the Philadelphia sale via a helpful screenwriting site called mysterymanonfilm.blogspot.com.)

While selling insurance, I bet Ingelsby learned a thing or two about being good in a room. And, hey, if money is what drives you…I’m pretty sure the average insurance salesman makes more than the average screenwriter.

STEPHANIE PALMER helps creative professionals who want to perform better in high-stakes meetings, set up projects, secure financing, and receive better assignments for more money.  As the Director of Creative Affairs at MGM, she acquired screenplays, books, and pitches and supervised their development, including 21, Legally Blonde, Be Cool and Agent Cody Banks.  She has been featured on NBC’s Today, CBS’s Early Show, NPR, and in the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Good in a Room: How To Sell Yourself and Your Ideas and Win Over Any Audience

Related Post: Learning to be “Good in a Room” (Part 2)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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