learning from a master

This blog has been quiet lately, and not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I didn’t have the time to write it.

I was very occupied with the Galway Film Fleadh, and those who keep up with babblogue will know that I blogged extensively about the Fleadh and the films and events I attended.

I didn’t discuss the Paul Schrader masterclass on babblogue as I figured that was a subject for this journal.

In the morning of the masterclass there was a screening of Taxi Driver (1976), which Schrader introduced. As we subsequently discovered in the afternoon, Schrader has a phobia about watching his work, so he left when the film rolled. It’s interesting how a film you have seen numerous times on television can attain a completely different life when projected onto a big screen and shown to an audience. After all, this is the medium for which filmmaking is intended. It’s remains a powerful film, and it questions about loneliness, obsession and anger are still relevant.

In the afternoon a large segment of the Irish filmmaking community turned up and squeezed into a hot airless room to listen to Schrader’s thoughts on the art of writing for film.

Schrader digressed at the beginning of his talk onto a subject he’s been ruminating upon for some time: the death of conventional narrative cinema. He believes that cinema is an artifice of the 20th century, and innovations in other media–such as reality television, computer games, mobile technology–are changing the way we view storytelling. His attitude is that cinema is lagging behind in regards to these new directions, and has yet to catch up; however, he was unable to predict where it will end up in the future.

Schrader is a proponent of using art as therapy for personal issues. In Taxi Driver he was able to use the character of Travis Bickle as a venting mechanism for some of his own pent-up problems that were due to his divorce, isolation, and drinking. As he put it, if you’re a screenwriter then you’re in the “dirty laundry business”. Even if the project is not your own, in the end you invest some part of yourself in the script. His attitude is that if you are trying to protect yourself you won’t develop as a writer or as a person.

In his films Schrader establishes a metaphor for the central problem in the story. In Taxi Driver for instance, the taxi–an iron coffin that traverses crowds and offers limited social contact–is a perfect metaphor for loneliness. The person inside the box is a prisoner of his own making. Schrader posited that films that can be re-imagined successfully possess a strong “metaphorical purity.”

For it to work the metaphor must be similar to the issue, but not not quite the same thing. Another example is his film American Gigolo (1980), where the metaphor of the Gigolo expresses the problem of a man who does not know how to open himself to love. The useful aspect of embedding a metaphor in the story is that you know where the engine of the story resides. If you encounter any problems then you can always return to the engine. Therefore, Schrader’s attitude is that the plot does not have to be original, because the strength of the film lies in its metaphor. The plot, after all, is coming up with “things that happen”. The metaphor can be an occupation, or a moment in history, a crime, etc., as long as it has “metaphorical strength”.

At this point Schrader spent some time discussing his own methodology of putting a script together. As I referred to in an earlier entry, Schrader believes in the importance of telling the story–out loud–to other people. His attitude is that you should have as much of the story and its plot sorted out before you commit anything to paper. Part of this is to avoid writing stories that just don’t have enough stamina for a feature-length movie. While there is useful advice in Schrader’s suggestions I think its benefits vary from writer to writer. As he pointed out, some writers have to work the story out by writing it. That’s not his way of doing it.

The section after the break was not as gripping. Schrader was reticent when asked about his own films, but the Q&A session prompted some more insights. The most useful observation he made was to note that screenwriters need to develop visual literacy.

I think the most constructive part of Schrader’s discussion–for me–was his advocacy of having a strong metaphor for the central problem in a film. This is something I’m going to consider for my current project, and in the future when I’m developing a story.