By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 3, 2010
[First, huge thanks to everybody who wrote in in response to last week’s When It Works. Wonderful stuff, from the heart. It’s tremendously gratifying to me, I must say, to see this site evolving into a real peer-to-peer meeting ground–and I include myself as one of those peers.
I picked four “winners” instead of three, but could easily have chosen ten or more. Congrats to Anjanette, Stef, David Layton and Dana. I’ll get your signed War of Arts out right away. Thanks to everybody! Now to this Wednesday’s post … ]
Have you seen the director’s cut of Apocalypse Now? Remember the French Plantation sequence? It’s a long, really interesting section, on the boat trip upriver, where Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) and the crew stop over for the night with a French colonial family, who are clinging to their rubber plantation as their world is crashing around them. The family invites Sheen and his guys to dinner, during which a lot of interesting conversation takes place (and Sheen enjoys a romantic interlude), which helps to set the U.S. experience in Vietnam within a greater historical context.
But the director, Francis Ford Coppola, had to cut it.
And he was right.
Why? Because the sequence wasn’t on-theme. It clashed with the rest of the movie, whose theme is American-madness-in-Vietnam. That’s why the Playboy bunny scene works and the Charlie Don’t Surf scene, aka “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Those scenes are uniquely American and uniquely American-crazy. That was Coppola’s theme. The French Plantation scene adds a flavor, and it’s wonderful in its own way. But it slowed the movie down. So Coppola cut it. When you watch it in the director’s cut, you feel it sapping the story’s momentum, and momentum is everything in a movie.
William Goldman famously said, “Screenplays are structure.” What he meant was that, since a movie is experienced in one start-to-finish sweep over a period of ninety minutes to two or three hours, it has to have a drive and a momentum that carries the audience and holds their interest all the way. A movie is like sex. It has to build to a climax and that climax has to justify all the acrobatics that went before it. Hence structure. Hence unity of theme. Hence no time for detours, no matter how enchanting or diverting.
This next story comes from Robert McKee. When he was a young writer-director in New York, he got a chance to interview Paddy Chayefsky, the only writer ever to win three solo Academy Awards (for Marty, Network and The Hospital). Here’s the gem of the interview, pardon my paraphrasing:
“As soon as I figure out the theme of my play, I type it out in a single sentence and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes onto the page that isn’t on-theme.”
I love that. It’s the answer, for screenwriters and playwrights, of what to keep and what to cut. But it works just as well for choreographers, for painters or photographers organizing shows, even for entrepreneurs launching new businesses or philanthropic ventures. If it’s not on-theme, it’s on the cutting-room floor.
For novelists, the game is different. A novel (or any long-form work) is not inhaled by the reader in one non-stop glump. He may read a novel for weeks. If he loves it, he doesn’t want it to end. A novel can bear digressions (see the trout-fishing sequence in The Sun Also Rises). The reader will be patient.
Herodotus, who wrote The Histories, was the all-time champ of narrative side-trips, but his digressions were so entertaining that his readers (including me) only wanted more.
In fact, here’s a digression right now: the part I love best about Paddy Chayefsky’s quote is “As soon as I figure out the theme … ” In other words, even the great Mr. C. didn’t necessarily know his theme when he started. That makes me feel better, because I almost never know mine. I’m flying by the seat of my pants for 300 pages. Many times I’ll finish the entire book and still won’t know what the theme is, even though I’ve spent hours along the way trying to dope it out.
[Again, thanks to everybody who wrote in last week. We’ll do it again as soon as something properly “on-theme” pops up.]