Thursday 9 February 2012

Interview with Brian McDonald, part 2

* You made the mockumentary short film, ‘White Face’ in 2001.  Did it open any doors for you in Hollywood?

I made White Face to show off my directing and writing skillsit was meant to be a work sample. After the first screening, people starting saying it should win an Oscar. After I won the Audience Award at Slamdance, I got a distributor and the film sold to HBO, who aired the film before it was able to screen at an Oscar-qualifying festival.
   The movie put me on the map a little bit, but mostly with fans, not movie people. I got a little attention, but it wasn’t a feature, so I guess it was off the radar of most Hollywood folks, although a few people were getting gigs based on their shorts.
   I did talk to a producing partner of a big star who saw the film and wanted me to direct a film for them. But soon they said that they couldn’t tell from that film if I knew how to tell a story and they stopped talking to me. Stopped returning my calls.
   I did get to direct a few spots for a Visa web campaign and I think White Face helped that happen. And I did a short for MTV and I’m sure White Face helped those happen. But even those came through a filmmaker friend. 

* The Pixar studio is held in high regard by many people. How did you first become associated with Pixar, and why do you think they are they so successful

Pixar is pretty great. They have been fantastic to me.
   How I got connected with them was I had been teaching screenwriting classes for several years in Seattle at a place called 911 Media Arts. On the near-demand of a student and the advice of a friend I wrote a book based on the classes I was teaching. For years I tried to find a publisher, but had no luck. I just gave copies of the manuscript to students as class handouts.
Andrew Stanton
   I sent the manuscript to an old friend of mine, Derek Thompson, who is a story artist at Pixar. I’ve known Derek since he was in art school in L.A. Derek was working with Andrew Stanton on Wall-E and asked if he could share the manuscript with Andrew and I said that he could.
   From what Andrew later wrote me he was having some story issues with Wall-E and picked the book up on a whim to clear his mind. He read the book in one sitting and he says it helped him with the film. It is one of the coolest things that has happened to me. And then he was generous enough to give me a glowing blurb for the book.
   He suggested to the Pixar education people that I teach a class there. So I have taught a few classes there over the years starting in 2006.
   And now I have been helping a director I know there as he develops his first feature. I have also been helping out some on a Disney project. That has been really fun.
   Everyone wants to know the secret to Pixar’s magic, but no one likes the answer: Hard work. They work really hard to get it right. They are interested in telling good stories and they want to tell them well. They want to reach people emotionally and they want to communicate clearly. And at Pixar story is king.
   I once saw John Lasseter on a talk show where the host asked him the secret of their success and every time Lasseter started in on how important story was, the host would interrupt and inject something about technology being the real key to the hits. Lasseter would politely bring the subject back to story, and again the guy would interrupt. He wasn’t interested in Lasseter’s answer, because he had one of his own. Most people do that. But I can tell you at Pixar they are focused on story and the technology is just a tool that helps them tell stories. They may work on something for a long time, but abandon it if it doesn’t fit the story.
   They work hard to get it right. That’s the Pixar magic. Pixie dust is only elbow grease in powder form.

* I’m a fan of your book Invisible Ink. I think all wannabe screenwriters should study it.  [I know that both Invisible Ink and The Golden Theme are listed on the 26 book "Recommended Reading List" for interns at Pixar this year.]  One thing in the book that surprised me was that, in your analysis of White Face, you say that “each of the characters has his/her three acts.” By your reckoning, Dr Blinky has his third act before Ed Yuk-Yuk/Rollo start their second act.  We’re typically told that an entire screenplay has a single, defined, third ‘story act.’  Thinking about structure in terms of overlapping ‘character acts’ is new for me.  Could you expand on that?

Acts can be confusing to people and some great screenwriters never think in those terms at all and do just fine. White Face is really three stories cut together that express a common theme.
   The most important thing is that the story always moves forwardif you are not advancing plot, character or theme, then you aren’t doing anything and you will lose your audience’s attention. Focusing on acts, and where they are, can be kind of a trap for some people. Billy Wilder, Paddy Chayefsky, and Anton Chekhov thought in terms of acts, so I’m in good company.
   Simply put, if you introduce a character and what they want, that’s Act One. Then you introduce a barrier to that character’s objective and you are into the second act. The second act is all about how the character deals with getting around the barrier. Once the character finds a way around the obstacle you are in the third act. But those things can happen naturally, if you keep moving your story forward and you have a thematic point to make.
   If the characters have any kind of an arc, the acts will be there. It isn’t anything you need to think about too hard. Thinking about it may screw you up.
   Can thinking in terms of acts make one’s work stilted? Yes, until you master it. Many masterpieces follow three-act structure, but they are crafted so well that people don’t notice. It’s never three-act structure that is the problem with a story; it is the skill level of the storyteller.

* I’ve come across a lot of writers who were influenced early on by Rod Serling. What was it about his work that sparked so many young imaginations, yours in particular?

Serling’s stories have the elegance of a fable. They are simple without being simplistic. His stories are easy to understand no matter what age you are.
   But the real meat of his stories is in his themeshe had something to say. I think his generation of writers had a lot to say about humanity. Some good storytellers came out of that generation, because they lived through both the Depression and World War II.  Those things will teach you something about life.
   I see it in my friend Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel without a Cause. He also wrote the screenplay The Rack from a Rod Serling teleplay. The war is still with him and is woven into the fiber of his work. 
   Serling’s pre-Twilight Zone stuff is good, too. He wrote a teleplay called The Strike that is pretty great. You can read the script in Best Television Plays edited by Gore Vidal. Requiem for a Heavyweight and Patterns are also amazing. The Arena is very good, too. Twilight Zone was seen as a step down from the serious work he’d gotten famous for.

* Who has had the greatest influence on you as a writer?

I’m not sure I know that answer. The easier answer is Rod Serling: he is the writer I feel a kinship with. I have almost a son’s pride when I talk about his work.
   I’ve studied his work for so long I know his flaws, at least what I think are his flaws. For instance, all of his characters sound the samelike Serling. (He actually admitted that was a flaw of his work.) So, it isn’t that I think he’s a perfect writer, but for me, he is the perfect storyteller.
   I learned a ton from television writers because in the days before cable, Blu-ray and everything else we have now, you could not see a movie whenever you wanted. You had three channels and public television. That’s it. So I watched a ton of television. But I was never a passive viewerI was always working when I watched TV, even as a young kid I would notice the construction of the stories, or the set-up and pay-off of jokes.
   But for movies, it’s Billy Wilder. That’s it, hands down. He wins. I don’t think anyone can touch him. He was great at every aspect of screenwriting and he turned out classics for years and years. Solid stories, well told. Easy to say, hard to do. And he did it often.

* If you could recommend just one screenwriting advice book to a newcomer in Adelaide (not including one of your own), what would that book be?

One?  That’s hard.  It can depend on what a writer needs at a particular time in his or her development.  The wrong book now might be the right book tomorrow.
   Bill Idelson's Writing Class is a book I love because it was written by an old-time craftsman television writer. He’s not full of crap to make himself sound smart. He’s gone now, but he thought it was important to pass on what he had learned after years in the biz. Idelson wrote for the Twilight Zone, Andy Griffith, The Dick Van Dyke Showclassics of television. If people read his book and do the exercises before moving on to the next chapter, they will be better at crafting stories by the end. A lot better.
   I have to mention two more books to round out the information.
   On Directing Film by David Mamet.  It is ostensibly about directing, but it’s really about telling stories with pictures. This is a thing that most screenwriters have almost no idea how to do. Most screenwriters write radio plays, not screenplays. This is a visual medium. Learn to use the pictures.
   Those first two books are thin and will feel simple on the surface. I have noticed that the people with the least experience want to make everything harder than it needs to be. When they read something that makes perfect sense, they assume they must have already known it because it’s so elementary. But people who have been at a craft a long time look for simplicity. Learn to see the wisdom and beauty of simplicity. Leonardo da Vinci said simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
    The last is book I have recommended oftenThe Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky: The Television Plays. In it are not only some of his plays, but also essays on his thoughts on their construction. 
   I like these books because they are by people who told stories for a living, so their information is practical. They are no-nonsense books that will simply make you better. They will not try to dazzle you with charts, graphs and diagrams. These guys just tell you how to do it.
   I know you asked for one, but there you are…

* Finally, what comes next for Brian McDonald

I have another book that should be out soon called Ink Spots and it’s a compilation of blog posts I have done over the years.
   I have a screenplay I wrote a while ago that I want to direct, so I am in the beginning stages of planning how to make that happen. People really like the script and I think I can make a good movie out of it.
   The funny thing is, when I make it, they will call it my ‘first film’, but my first film was a flipbook I made when I was eight.  And I think that should count.


Kathy said...

"Everyone wants to know the secret to Pixar’s magic, but no one likes the answer: Hard work. ...And at Pixar story is king."
This is so refreshing to read.
Henry, thank you very much for posting such a high quality interview.

Kathy said...

I am ordering "On Directing Film" by David Mamet right now.

Anonymous said...

Great Interview!