Austin Film Festival recently kicked off the second season of On Story, its PBS series with directors and screenwriters curated from interviews from the festival. In the season premiere, the legendary late Sydney Pollack identifies the moments in the development of his classic films Tootsie, The Way We Were, and Jeremiah Johnson, when he discovered the keys to making his characters work in the context of the stories he was trying to tell, and how those discoveries were translated into the scripts and the final films. In this same episode, David Milch, creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood, also describes how he created the character of Andy Sipowicz and how he channeled his frustration of not being able to tell the biblical tale of Paul into a storyline for Deadwood.
For me, the biggest takeaway for me from this episode was when Sydney Pollack described how he learns from his characters' arguments:
Every film I’ve ever done is an argument. I’ve never done a movie that isn’t a love story, and the heart of the love story is always an argument. The argument is too complicated for the people to overcome it, and they don’t end up together in the films that I’ve done…I love the argument, and I don’t like to take sides…The only way I can use myself is to be the other person as much as possible and try to inhabit that as fully as possible and take pleasure in what I learn from the arguments. I learn a lot every time I do one of these dumb things.
The writing process is always a learning process for me -- not learning how to write, but having new experiences over the course of a story through my characters' eyes. Ultimately, the goal is make a movie from the script, but if that doesn't happen, each story and each character has a lesson to teach the writer.
By the way, if you were distracted by Pollack's illumination of one of the more compelling reasons to write and make films in the block quote above, take note that he also points out that the characters in his love stories never end up together. One of the beauties of tragic love stories well-told in film is audiences keep coming back to the same movie over and over just to see the two leads together and hoping this time, against all odds and logic, maybe they stay together at the end. Even though Hollywood studios tend to believe that audiences always want a happy ending, Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, E.T., Titanic, and Pollack's own Out of Africa, Tootsie, and The Way We Were beg to differ.
So if Hollywood doesn't want to learn from its own successes, maybe independent filmmakers will.
To watch more episodes of On Story online, including the entire first season, check out the links below: