An Ear for Film: The Perils of Screenwriting

The three best movie-related podcast episodes of the week.

Movies Lists
An Ear for Film: The Perils of Screenwriting

Each week, Dom plumbs the depths of podcast nation to bring you the best in cinema-related chats and programs. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing about movie podcasts is like listening to someone describe someone dancing about architecture.

The fire on Oscars-related discussions is still far from snuffing out, so chances are most movie-related podcast episodes will be sticking to over-dissecting all the contenders for the next—what—three more weeks? Cripes. That’s the case with Little Gold Men, which features an excellent talk with Whoopi Goldberg about not only winning an Oscar (making the EGOT-er, as she points out, the first black woman to win one in like 80 years or some vaguely interminable time), but one which gives her 20 minutes or so to say whatever she wants to say—and she basically just takes over the podcast—about the boycott and the lack of diversity in the nominees.

Like many people who have commented on this crisis so far, her solution is a simple one, namely that more films being made need to keep in mind, even prioritize, the necessity for providing roles and jobs for people of color (echoing W. Kamau Bell’s sentiment on his Denzel Washington podcast that these Academy members probably aren’t even actively thinking about their racist leanings). Yet, she’s the first celebrity I’ve ever heard who, as an entrenched industry person, addresses the issue with full culpability. She makes sure not to pass the blame to the much-derided “60-year-old white men” who run the Academy. Instead, she claims, these executive dinosaurs were, 25 years ago, the people who were creating films and art with people of color firmly in mind, attempting to change the face of American cinema. Whether she has a point or not is almost secondary to the fact that she’s bringing up a salient consideration—plus she’s admittedly just a great interview no matter what the subject.

Then the episode shifts into a chat with Spotlight director Tom McCarthy, and not once does anyone ask him about The Cobbler, so I call (ironically) irresponsible journalism on Little Gold Men’s part.

The smell of Sundance, too, is still in the air, and on Filmspotting: SVU, Alison Willmore returns from Park City to detail some of her favorites, as well as some films that surprised her. This succeeds a back-and-forth with co-host Matt Singer about Chi-Raq (up on Amazon Prime starting today), a film which both hosts laud as much as they find in it a lot to very plainly dislike. For such a polarizing film in the critical community, it’s refreshing to hear two writers come to a consensus down the middle of the road, respecting what the film is trying to accomplish without really loving it much at all. Though, when Willmore states that a favorite Spike Lee movie is Inside Man, the episode seems to aurally disintegrate amongst the plangent groans inside your own head.

The week also gave us the return of Matt Gourley’s I Was There Too, in which he records two episodes’ worth (in two weeks: Riders of the Lost Ark) with Steven Spielberg’s former assistant, Martin Casella, clearing up some behind-the-scenes details and offering some gruesome-ish anecdotes regarding Poltergeist. Gourley caps his episode with a clip remembering his grandma. By no means a film expert—or whatever—Gourley talks intelligently about movies because he’s a huge fan unafraid to talk about his taste from a very personal perspective. When he admits that many potential guests he’s turned down because he either didn’t like the movie in question or had never seen it, he dispels much of the blown ass-smoke that so often attends to other talking heads with their own movie-related podcasts.

Another gift this week? How about an episode of The Projection Booth that isn’t four hours too long. In it, Mike White is joined by regular guest Heather Drain and filmmaker/model Marjorie Conrad, the latter of whom (understandably) waffles about her past in the modeling industry while going deep on Michael Crichton’s Looker. Conrad perks up substantially to talk about her debut film, which is featured at Slamdance this year, and is more than happy to admit that writing and then making a movie is some seriously backbreaking labor. Which makes sense given how awesomely the podcast is willing to delve into both the finished film and the script, noting thoroughly the available symbiosis (or not) we can intuit between the two.

So, yeah, moral of the story: Writing is hard. Especially if you’re writing a screenplay, in which case words, unlike so many other mediums, usually aren’t enough.

With that, here are the three episodes you should hear this week:

ear-film-you-must-remember-this.jpgYou Must Remember This
“The Blacklist Part 1: The Prehistory of the Blacklist”

Karina Longworth’s podcast about the not-so-well-known history of cinema’s early days returns with a new season of sorts. This week she sets up a multi-part narrative on the Blacklist—the unofficial group of filmmakers (and, notably, screenwriters) who were denied employment for communist leanings and ties—following the roots of anti-fascism in Hollywood through World War II and into the thick of the Cold War, as somehow the essence of an overtly patriotic attitude transubstantiated into such a widely-maligned system of belief. Longworth is, as anyone who’s heard the podcast has come to expect, thorough but remarkably coherent in her storytelling, crafting a tale that still manages to shock in how relatable it is to today’s burgeoning, fevered anti-Other political and social movements. What’s most fascinating, though, is how without actually specifically calling anyone out, Longworth is able to draw a clear enough line between anti-fascism and communism, using popular antisemites like Walt Disney to fill in the details between. She never actually uses the phrase “popular antisemite Walt Disney,” but one can see how that might be a viable assessment of Disney (despite all his “experts” decrying such a notion) given the ways in which Disney played a part in the eventual post-war villainizing of Hollywood figures who once aided Roosevelt in turning public sentiment toward actively battling against the Axis powers. In other words, Longworth begins her story with a very literal glimpse of how quickly and comprehensively people seem to (and are willing to) forget. And in the case of her podcast, that’s an especially important thing you must remember.

ear-film-treatment.jpgThe Treatment
“Jay Roach: Trumbo

Elvis Mitchell is one of those hosts who not only seems to know everything he should know about the people he interviews, as well as the topics he discusses with the people he interviews, but a guy who seems to know the people he interviews quite personally. This is obvious in his discussion with ostensible best pal Jay Roach, recent Oscar nominee for his work at the helm of Trumbo. The episode is a perfect companion piece to Karina Longworth’s developing story about the Hollywood Blacklist, but what elevates the Mitchell-led conversation beyond a more focused look at the most prominent figure of the Hollywood Ten is how easily the host is able to pry the relatively demure director from his shell and force him into a series of musings about why Roach makes movies about such overblown personalities, be it Dalton Trumbo or Dr. Evil. More than offering a series of practical tips for writers on how to carve a big life into a much smaller story—as well as a swell anecdote about Trumbo’s appreciation of masturbation—Roach is willing to relate a persona like Trumbo’s to those of other delusional, outsized figures, wondering out loud if psychopaths make for the best, most fascinating subjects for screenwriters to hunker down on.

“The one with Jason Batemen and the Game of Thrones guys”

Hosts John August and Craig Mazin (the latter whom you might know as the “Ted Cruz was my college roommate and he’s a dickbag”-flavored tweets) “paint a word picture” of their live recording space as something tantamount to a meeting room in which an AA meeting would be reluctantly held. But that doesn’t keep Jason Bateman and Game of Thrones creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff from stopping by. While, in general, the podcast can sometimes tend to veer into helplessly insider-y discussions best left to be heard by people who actually, actively write screenplays—and only them—the fact that they’re in front of a live audience transforms August into the level-headed scholar while Mazin is given some leniency to basically just riff on whatever any guest says without providing much in the way of interview fodder. Bateman confirms that he’s a smart guy by pandering to the audience of writers, downplaying the “easy” art of being an actor, and recognizing how low on the industry totem pole most screenwriters find themselves, despite the fact that they write the fucking movies, but his most crucial addition to the episode comes about when August asks him what he looks for in a script. Circuitously wandering from one sentence to another, he doesn’t actually answer the question much at all—and not because he can’t, but because there isn’t really an answer. What does he look for in a good script? He knows it when he reads it. There’s no reproducible equation to writing a good story with good dialogue, no matter what any number of workshops or online courses try to “teach” you.

This is writ large when Weiss and Benioff take the stage. After sharing, with Mazin’s help, how Game of Thrones came into being on television (aided by a dash of hyperbole on Mazin’s part regarding how much of a miracle it was for the duo to somehow turn a disastrous first-draft pilot into a truly great series), the showrunners, sounding happy but drained, attempt to convey just how laborious it is to put together something like Game of Thrones. The takeaway, of course, is that making a TV series is a lot of work, but for screenwriters, this means literal months and maybe even years of rewriting, of starting over and starting over again, of, as Bateman puts it, hours spent alone staring at a wall. Work by any other name—even “art”—is still work: difficult, thankless and ultimately something that will get overshadowed by tweets about Ted Cruz.

Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Like everyone on this planet, he co-hosts his own podcast, Pretty Little Grown Men, which is sometimes about movies but mostly about Pretty Little Liars. You can follow him on Twitter.

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