SPEAKING WITH… TED ELLIOTT

PART TWO

Welcome back to the 62nd installment of What Th--? And the second part of my interview with TED ELLIOTT, co-writer with partner TERRY ROSSIO of such movies as The Mask of Zorro, Shrek and most recently Pirates Of The Caribbean. Not shabby.
One of the things about Ted is he understands writing. He understands why he does what he does and, when you hear about changes that are made on his and Terry’s scripts, and you hear what their original idea was, invariably they were correct. The story should have been done the way they wanted. Now, I loved Mask of Zorro. I don’t often see movies in the theater more than once these days, but I loved the film so much I paid to see it several times. And then I bought the DVD. But as much as I loved it, their original ending was even better than the one we saw.

To read more about Ted and Terry, go to their website at www.wordplayer.com. You’ll be amazed at the wealth of material you’ll find there.

Now, take it away, Ted. Oh, and since I know you’ll be reading this, c’mon back to the card game. We really enjoyed taking your money. I mean, we really enjoy your company.

MW: DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR AUDIENCE WHEN YOU CREATE A STORY?

TE: That's actually two different questions, and the answers are: Yes, and me.
Tackling the last one first: there's just no way to write a story that doesn't embody your own sensibilities. There's no way to write a story that isn't aimed at your own sensibilities. It's not necessary to consciously think "I'm writing this for me" -- it's a given. (And Terry's and my sensibilities have a pretty large overlap -- even where we might disagree on the specific expression of the intent, we're virtually always in agreement in regards to intent).

And the audience must be considered -- at least in screenwriting, because it is really kind of wonky form of writing, in that the medium in which the work is created and presented is not the medium for which it is intended. Basically, one must create a story suited to the film medium, then figure out a way to demonstrate that story in the film medium, and then describe the movie that demonstrates the story in the film medium using the written word. The stage play is the closest analogue, but even then, since theater is a for the most part a spoken- (or sung-) word medium, the dialogue is what carries the narrative. In film, of course, the visuals must be at least integral to the narrative. I don't really subscribe to the notion that one should be able to understand a movie with the sound off -- at least, not a sound movie -- but I do believe that you shouldn't be able to understand a movie with the *picture* off.

Wow, that was kind of a long digression. Back on point: since the screenwriter must both create a movie which demonstrates his story to an audience, and write a screenplay which communicates that movie to an audience -- the reader -- it would seem to be absolutely necessary to consider the audience. Maybe not a specific audience, but at least the idea of the audience ... will the audience understand the significance of this scene, this story point? Will the audience (the reader) understand from the description on the page how this will work on film? That kind of thing.

The word "storyteller" implies both the person telling the story and the person to whom the story is being told, and that's how Terry and I look at ourselves: as storytellers.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS WHEN YOU SIT DOWN TO WRITE A STORY?

TE: Generally, the preparation to write the actual first draft of the screenplay is much longer than the writing itself, and in each case, the exact way a screenplay develops is different. For instance, in the case of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: MORE WORDS GO HERE, the genesis of that movie was move than ten years ago, with Terry and I wanting to write a swashbuckling, romanticized pirate movie, which meant trying to figure out how to convince someone to finance making a swashbuckling, romanticized pirate movie. We hit on bringing in supernatural elements as a hook that would allow us to do all the other things we wanted to do, and then realized that what we were talking about dovetailed perfectly with the elements in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which would certainly make it seem like something Disney might finance, so we pitched it to them ... and they said "no." Ten years and several changes in management later, they finally said "yes" ... so, technically, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE RIDE: THE MOVIE: THE SUBTITLE represents over a decade of preparation. I think that might be our record.

In terms of nuts and bolts, we don't really consider the preparation begun until we have at least an approach to the movie that we are excited about. With SHREK, we read the William Steig book, and almost immediately knew what the approach had to be: since the hero of the story was a conventional fairy tale villain, it made sense to make the entire story be an inversion or subversion of fairy tale convention, both literary and cinematic. But in the case of THE MASK OF ZORRO, Steven Speilberg already had an approach he liked -- the older hero training his replacement in order to get revenge against the man who done them both wrong -- but since Terry and I felt that Zorro should not be motivated by revenge, we spent a lot of time thinking about an approach to the characters to find a way to do a story that would actually make that point (the point was made much more clearly in our screenplay then it was in the final movie).

So I guess the real answer to your question is either "The goal is always a good story well-told" or "It depends." Not much help, I know.

MW: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FIRST DRAFT AND FUTURE DRAFTS?

TE: William Goldman gives the single best piece of advice about first drafts that I've ever heard: You've got to have something in order to have something to change. In other words, the first draft is for getting everything right you can think of, and the future drafts are for getting everything right that you haven't thought of ... yet.
It sort of goes to the idea of Terry's and my ten-years-to-first-sale plan -- it's important to give yourself permission to fail, because that isnecessary to be willing to take the chance in the first place.

MW: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATING A CHARACTER?

TE: Terry and I will generally work from a thematic point of view. It goes back to classical Greek dramatic theory: a play is an argument. The protagonist embodies a certain point of view on an idea or issue, the antagonist embodies a contradictory point of view, and through the story, the issue is argued, with the resolution of the story being the resolution of the argument. We extend that to all the major characters in the story; each embodies a different point of view on the thematic issue. The nice thing about this is that it automatically creates conflict among all the characters, both major and minor. The other thing we do is never let any of the characters embody the point of view we are ultimately arguing -- the resolution is emergent from the interaction of all the characters over the course of the story, in how they change or fail to change, and in how the audience ultimately feels about that resolution.

MW: WHAT MAKES A STORY?

TE: My short definition: "What human beings want and what human beings need in conflict with each other makes a story." This goes to not only the wants and needs of the characters in the story, but also the storyteller's perception of the wants and needs of the audience for the story being told. If you showed CASABLANCA to someone who never saw it before and stopped it before the ending and asked what they wanted to happen -- wait, whoops, let me say here: SPOILERS for CASABLANCA, turn back now if you don't want it to be spoiled -- they would invariably want Rick and Ilsa to end up together; but the fact, is that is not what the story needs, and that's not what the audience needs: both need Rick and Ilsa to end up apart. Or, as I think it was how Stan Lee put it, figure out what the audience wants, and then don't give it to 'em.

In my mind, "plot" refers to the events that MUST happen for the story to unfold. That event may be external to the characters -- the army asks Indiana Jones to find the Ark of the Covenant -- or it may internal to a character -- Indiana Jones can't destroy the Ark, even if it costs his and Marion's lives -- but it MUST occur for the next event to occur. Of course, this definition is at odds with the commonly-accepted definition, which draws a distinction between "plot" and "character," but too bad.

"Theme," I think, gets a bad rap nowadays, because most people think of it in terms of Aesop: here's the story, here is what you were supposed to learn from the story, the end. However, theme in its real sense -- or, at least in the sense I use the word -- is: the subject of artistic expression. It’s idea or issue that the work examines, either directly, metaphorically, or in reification (to treat an abstraction as if it had concrete or material existence).

Bringing them all together ... now, that's the trick, isn't it? Generally, Terry and I start by looking at what thematic issues are inherent in a plot or character concept; so far, we've never started with a thematic issue and worked out to character and plot. That's not to say it's not possible, or even that we won't someday create a story that way, only that we haven't done it yet.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AND WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WHEN WRITING IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSES?

TE: For Terry and I, the goal is to replicate the feeling the work in its original form engenders in the audience. On PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, our goal was to write a movie that would cause people -- kids and adults -- to feel the way the ride causes people to feel the first time they go on it. With SHREK, we came to the conclusion that the real emotional power of the book came not from its text per se, but from its theme and symbolism, and so that's what we focused on (and the greatest compliment we got on the movie came from author William Steig himself who, after watching it, said "Yep, that's my story"). For all the ways film is like other mediums, it has unique properties unto itself. We look for ways to take best advantage of those properties in adapting a work from another medium, and use them to give the audience as similar an emotional experience to the original form of the property as possible.

This is why I really don't think Terry and I will be doing any superhero comic-based movies in the future ... the aesthetic that has evolved in regards to superhero movies tends to result in movies that don't give me an emotional experience similar to the one I get from superhero comics (or, rather, got ... superhero comics tend not to give me that emotional experience anymore, either). SPIDER-MAN came closest, but only if I ignore those biological webspinners (I always liked the fact, particularly in the Lee/Ditko stuff, that more often than not it was Peter Parker's brains, rather than Spider-man's powers, that defeated the villain. Sheer power wasn't enough; the proper application ofpower made the difference. Seemed to go well with the whole "With great power comes great responsibility" idea).

MW: WHAT IS YOUR GENERAL ADVICE TO WRITERS AND WOULD-BE WRITERS?

TE: One thing I have noticed that is fairly common to aspiring writers is the attitude of "I can write better than the kind of crap that gets made (or published)." This is just plain wrong thinking; one should aspire to do better than the best work in a field, not the worst. Crap plus one is still crap.

***

Once again, I’d like to thank Ted for taking the time to answer these questions. Don’t forget to check out his website at [www.wordplayer.com], and, while you’re at it, check out mine at www.marvwolfman.com.

See you in seven.

Marv Wolfman

 



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