Wednesday 18 November 2015

Interview with Brian McDonald

Brian McDonald is the author of Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate, and The Golden Theme: How to make your writing appeal to the highest common denominator. 
   He is an award winning screenwriter who has taught his craft at several major studios, including Pixar, Disney and Industrial Light & Magic. His award-winning short film White Face has been shown all over the USA. 
   I had the privilege of asking him some questions back in January. What follows is Part 1 of that interview.

* You were born on February 18, 1965 (and named after your mother's favourite actor, Brian Keith) in St. Joseph, Missouri, which—for those who don’t know—is the place "Where the Pony Express started and Jesse James ended."  Your family later moved to Denver, then Seattle, where you grew up.  Tell us something about your childhood and family. 

I have great memories of Saint Jo, but I didn’t live there very long before my father moved us to Denver. My guess is that I was about 3 or 4 at the time. There were three of us kidsmy brother my sister and me. I’m the eldest. I have a vague memory of pulling up to the Denver house for the very first time. We lived there until I was in second grade.
   The great thing about that house was that there was a drive-in theater really close and from the porch we would watch movies at night. We couldn’t hear them, but we could see them. It’s one of those great childhood memories. 

  I remember Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks showed there and I explained what we were watching to my brother and sister because I had seen the film on a kindergarten field trip.
   That film has both live-action and animation, which is probably why I don’t make much of a distinction between the two even to this day.  I loved the idea of being in an animated world and spent a ton of time daydreaming about it.

* You were close to your father.  What is your best memory of him?  Was he a story-teller?

He was a great storyteller. I have an early memory of him talking about having seen Planet Of The Apes (1968)he was amazed by it. He loved it. I remember he was impressed with an ape that smokes in the film. For some reason the smoking ape fascinated him. It’s hard for young people to understand, but the apes make-up was mind-blowing at the time. When I finally saw the film I loved it as much as he did. 

    I didn’t really grow up with Dad because my parents divorced when I was seven. We moved away from Denver and he stayed.
   At Dad’s funeral his friends mentioned what a good storyteller he was. They said that he always had the correct story to help people with things in their lives. His love of movies and storytelling rubbed off on me, I guess.  But my mother loves movies, too, and watched old movies all the time when they came on television. 

* You struggled at school. How old were you when you found out you were dyslexic?

My dyslexia was never officially diagnosed. Most people suspected it because of my terrible spelling, bad hand writing, and my habit of switching letters and words. I was mostly put into special education classes and it was in one of those classes in high school where my teacher told me that he thought I probably had a learning disability
   Back then people didn't talk about dyslexia the way we do now and I just thought I was stupid. It wasn't until a few years later that I connected the dots when I heard more about what dyslexia was. All of my symptoms matched up. I'm sure I was 19 0r 20 before I really knew.

* Were you a football star, an athlete, or the nerd who fell in love with movies?

I just loved movies and never considered how other people might see me because of it. If I was a nerd I had no idea.
   These things get squished together with time, but I think that Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Planet of the Apes, and the 1933 version of King Kong came into my life around the same time and that set the direction of my life. I wanted to do that. Make those things.
   I wanted to know everything about how this stuff was done. So by five, I wanted to make movies. I watched any behind-the-scenes thing that was on TV. There wasn’t much back then, but if there was anything, I’d watch it. This was before anyone ever heard the name Steven Spielberg, so it was slightly unusual to be so interested in movie-making.
   We were pretty poor after my parents divorced and I had no way to get a movie camera. It was my dream to have one. Then one day I saw an episode of a children’s show that taught kids how to make a flipbook, so for years I made flipbooks at every opportunity. Mom worked in an office and brought pads of paper home for me to use. 
   The flipbooks became my way to make movies with no equipment. It taught me a lot. Animation became my way into film; I loved all types movies equally, but leaned slightly towards anything with animation.

* When did you make your first film with an actual camera?

When I was 10 years old I met a friend who had a movie camera and we made a film called The War. This was in 1975. It was a stop-motion film made with green plastic Army men. I can’t tell you how excited I was to really be making a real film.
   A little while later my mom remarried and my stepfather’s dad gave me an old 8mm camera he had. This was when everything was Super 8, so I was behind the times. But I could not have been happier. 
   After Star Wars there was a lot more stuff about films, filmmaking, and special effects in terms of books, magazines and television. I read about films all the time. It was almost all I ever readbooks and things about film.
   I never divided up the jobs of filmmaking in my mindwriting, directing, and special effects were all interesting to me so I read about every aspect of film, thinking I would need to be able to do it all. And at that time I did all of those things. 

* You wrote your first screenplay at the age of 15.  What happened to that script?

I found a place in town called Golden Age Collectables. It was the first comic book store in the U.S., I believe. They sold scripts so I would buy them with money I made mowing lawns. The first script I saw in real life was a Star Trek script called Mirror Mirror. It was the first time I saw the actual format of a script. That made me think I could write one.
   The first feature I wrote was called Problem Infinity and it was about these astronauts who crash-landed on a dinosaur planet. I just wanted to do a bunch of stop-motion. I wrote it with a friend of mine. I’m sure it was awful. We shot some test footage, but never made the film. After that, I bought a stack of screenplays and studied them.

* You grew up in Seattle. One of your early movie jobs was as a production assistant on Sleepless in Seattle, but you worked in New York, not Seattle. Tell us about that experience.

Sleepless in Seattle came kind of late for me, in reality. I will have to backtrack a little to talk about my early work. I got my first film-related job when I was teenager. The dates are fuzzy, but it was around 1979. Because I was obsessed with film I called up everyone in the phonebook who had anything to do with motion pictures (that’s how it was listed) and asked if I could come talk to them. Most said yes. So I went around town and spoke to all of the film people I could. Mostly they were animation people.
   I met a guy named Bruce Walters who did animated titles, motion graphics and effects for commercialsmostly local Seattle stuff, but some national. His company was called Trickfilm. Somehow I impressed him, and he invited me to come back and hang out. Soon I was helping him with his work, on a volunteer basis after school. After a year or so he gave me a job. It was the first job I ever had. I think I was even too young to work legally, now that I think about it.
   I worked with Bruce for a few years on ads and industrial films. It was an old-fashioned mentor-apprentice deal. This was before computers, so most of our work was done on a manual Oxberry animation stand. I learned a ton from Brucewho is some kind of genius when it comes to that stuff. Years later he would invent digital matte painting. Smart guy. He taught me even more about how to observe thingshow to learn from looking. He knew everything about the history of what he did.
   Eventually, Bruce was offered a job at ILM’s animation department to work on Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.     I stayed in Seattle, but over the years, from working for Bruce, I had gotten to know a few animation people in town and so I started working for all of them. This was not always for pay. Sometimes. But a lot of it was me showing up, hanging out and helping where I could. I sometimes got some freelance work.
   I did that for a few years, then at 21, I packed up my car and moved to L.A. which was always the plan since I was a kidmove to L.A. and get paid to write and direct movies. So, by the time I was 21, I had about six years of working experience under my belt. This was in 1986.
   I didn’t work on Sleepless in Seattle until I moved back in 1993. I only worked on the film for two days and was very surprised to see my name in the credits. I was just on the swing gangI moved furniture mostly.

Brian McDonald in 1987 with the make-up fx crew of Return of the Living Dead 2.
* What kind of film work did you do while in Los Angeles?

I was writing, of course, but on spec.  I was staying with a friend of mine from Seattle, Todd Masters, who had moved to L.A. just a little while before me. Todd was starting to work as a creature effects guy. Through Todd, the very first job I had in L.A. was working for a guy named Ted Rae on a movie called Night of the Creeps. Ted did the effects for the film. I was mostly a runner for Ted, but I did get to assist in the making of “creeps” a little bit.
   I worked on a few creature movies, but I don’t think I got credit on any. This whole time I was working on my writing. I wrote a few specs, but couldn’t get them read. 
   I had been reading comics since I was a kid and used them as a way to learn how to tell stories with pictures. So I wrote a couple of comic book stories that got published [titles include Tarzan, Predator, Lost In Space, and the first Hellboy spin-off Abe Sapien - Drums Of The Dead], but was never able to get a foothold there either.
    I had another friend, Ron Pearson, who was a stand-up comic. I started writing for him and then started to do stand-up myself. I did that for seven years or so, in between movie gigs. I was a mediocre stand-up, but it taught me a ton about audiences and communication.
   This was during the ‘comedy boom’ of the 1980s. A lot of people who are big now were just getting started at the time, and I either got to know or work with a lot of them.
   But like all booms, it ended and the work dried up. I was not high enough on the comedy totem pole to make it through the dry spell. Plus, I liked stand-up a lot, but I didn’t love it. So leaving it was sad, but it did not break my heart.
   One reason I left L.A. was practical. I was broke. And it became a hard place to be because it was killing my love of film and making me doubt myself in every way. I left because I wasn’t going to let L.A. beat me.

* 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.

You can read more about Brian's comedian friends HERE, on his blog.

First posted:  9 February 2012

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