Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Silver Lining I found in "The Silver Linings Playbook"

Lately, I have been questioning everything --- if I can write, if I am a good screenwriter, or if I have just been fooling myself all along. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The day I tell myself that I am good, that I have reached the peak of my ability, that there is nothing left for me to learn or accomplish, is the day that I should quit. A lot of people consider me to be a really good writer but there have been enough recent cases of people not understanding my stuff, questioning it  -  some of these questions or doubts even  coming from myself - that I need to re-evaluate. Of course, what good is an artist who doesn’t doubt himself every now and then?

I won't lie. Even if I did lie, you wouldn't believe me. I am not a superstar A-list screenwriter. At my position in the industry, competition is brutal. For every time that I have beaten out 200-300 other writers for a job, there are probably 20 - 50 cases where I am one of the guys who didn't get the gig.

I am not yet in a place where I can regularly turn down work. Okay, last year, I turned down a job writing a movie about teenage vampires.  The producer begged me to reconsider and I wound up writing a decent little movie that I'd actually like to see made.

A few weeks ago, I turned down another job. Asked to re-write a romantic comedy where the plot hinged on Multiple Personality Disorder, I said no.  Not because I didn't feel that I could do anything with the script. I said no because I felt I shouldn't do anything with the script, Mental illness is not something to take lightly or make fun of.

After seeing The Silver Linings Playbook, writer-director David O. Russell's smart, touching, moving and, yes, very funny movie about mental illness, I am so glad that I passed on that writing job. I declined a challenge on moral or ethical grounds. More than being a brilliant filmmaker, Russell is a daring filmmaker. He took a chance on something and, while I am sure that we were both given wildly different source material to work with, I decided against taking a chance on something similar.

As I write, I wonder if, rather than being intimidated, I should be inspired  and take another look at that mental illness screenplay. If I am doing my job, I can take a bad screenplay and make it good.  Russell took a chance, tried and succeeded.

David O. Russell is a master filmmaker. I don't use that phrase lightly. From the opening scenes, I could tell  it was made by a guy who is justifiably confident in his vision and his command of the craft. On a good day, I am a half-decent screenwriter. That means that I can and in fact have written a really good first draft of a feature length screenplay in two days. It also means that I can be slow, lazy and not push myself to find the most creative ways to tell a story.

With the exception of I (heart) Huckabees, the one film that I found strained, all of Russell's films are much more than just okay. All of his films are messy, complicated and difficult both in subject manner and production --- tales of his unconventional, inappropriate and even scary behavior on-set are the now the stuff of Hollywood legend. Like life, his films are always rough around the edges and sometimes even rougher within the edges. Before I even finished watching his hilarious but devastating first film Spanking The Monkey more than twenty years ago, I knew  I was watching the work of a filmmaker who not only knows his stuff but has something intelligent and challenging to say and the chops to say it in an unconventional way.

As a screenwriting teacher, I  instruct my introductory students in the simplest, most basic, conservative style of the form. I am hard on my students about proper structure and formatting. I want to see everyone established in the first ten pages. I want to see an Act Break on Page 30, not Page 29 or 31. I tell my students that, like Picasso and The Beatles, they have to know the rules before they break them. Even if it is my inclination to look for another way to tell a story, to push against the conventions of motion picture narrative, sometimes it is just easier to follow the rules.

Much as I liked the film, I am still pretty picky about movies. If anything, I think Silver Linings Playbook shifts from being primarily character driven in the first half, richly establishing Pat and Tiffany while letting the narrative go a little loose a bit,  to being more plot driven in the second half, where it focuses on the training for the big dance competition and the bookmaking concerns of Pat senior. While Bradley Cooper’s unstable Pat is the bumpy center of the story, Jennifer Lawrence’s similarly troubled Tiffany had much more to do in the first half, but her character settles into  dance instructor mode for much of the second half.  Lawrence doesn’t merely shine in her performance. She is on fire. It is such a good role, with so many great moments early on that it is a little disappointing that she doesn’t have quite as much to do in the second half. Regardless, it is a guaranteed Oscar-nominated performance.

If Russell does not totally break the rules all of the time, he usually applies them differently, always has, always will, while keeping a firm grasp on what makes movies work. He knows how to bend the rules and make movies that are still accessible. If Silver Linings Playbook initially doesn’t appear to adhere to three-act structure in the conventional sense, it somehow manages to wind up with an ending straight out of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Maybe the next time that someone asks me to write a mental illness themed romantic-comedy, I won’t be so dismissive.

Part 2: Philly on Philm, again.
After being disappointed with almost every movie I have seen recently, I really needed to see something that would restore my faith in the movies. I was predisposed to like Silver Linings Playbook because I am always rooting for films made in Philly, especially films with Philly roots ---- Silver is based on a novel by a local writer and star Bradley Cooper grew up in the burbs.

As a movie geek growing up in the 70’s, Rocky had a huge impact on me --- the idea that this virtually unknown actor from the area could write a screenplay, get a crew to come here from Hollywood and make a low-budget film that became a critical and commercial hit just blew me away.

Almost forty years later, there have been plenty of movies shot here but only a few of them have genuine Philly roots. Local author Jennifer Wiener’s In Her Shoes is great Philly film that showcases the city but it is not inherently Philly-centric. Similarly, one of my personal favorites, the delightful but criminally under-seen The Answer Man made great use of area locations.

Yes, technically, Silver... could have been set anywhere but the choice was made (presumably by Co-producer Cooper who, with last year’s Limitless seems to have an interest in bringing more work to the area)  to shoot in town.  In addition to the  thrill of seeing things onscreen that you can see in real life, it is a great feeling to realize that your friends and neighbors might have worked on the film. In Silver..., Cooper’s elusive wife is played by actress Brea Bee, who has done two readings of screenplays I wrote.. Cooper’s friend in the film, played by Chris Tucker, shows up at the end with a new girlfriend, played by Tiffany Green, who has also done a screenplay reading for me. I have lost track of how many former students I have seen in the end credits of nearly every film that shoots here.

Area native M. Night Shyamalan is famous for shooting all of his films in the region but, despite ample use of locations in and around the city, few of them have a distinctly Philly feel and it is unlikely that After Earth, his upcoming collaboration with local hero Will Smith, will have much of a local connection.

While people wait to see if there is any truth to the already-brewing rumors about another Cooper/Russell/Philly project in the works, I submit  my nod for best Philly-centric production.

I have to admit that I have not yet seen the recent film Backwards, the rowing drama written by and starring local rower turned actress/screenwriter Sarah Megan Thomas, that shot here last year. So, what is it? Nope, it is not Invincible, the wonderful film about school teacher turned Eagles star, Vince Papale. Nor is it 2008‘s Explicit Ills, the grungy, indie directorial debut of Philly-based actor Mark Webber (who made his acting debut in 1998‘s Edge City, a grungy, indie, fictionalized account of the notorious Eddie Polec tragedy, written and directed by my friend Eugene Martin) that features Roots maestro Tariq Trotter AKA Black Thought in a strong performance.

My pick is Pride, the story of Jim Ellis, who coached an inner-city swim team in the early ‘70‘s. Written by a local, Michael Gozzard. and starring area resident Terrence Howard, it is a true story, something that happened in town, was shot here and has a genuine Philly vibe.

Now, if I could only get another producer interested in taking on my been-to-Hollywood-and-back screenplay Aftermath, we would have something else to talk about.