Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Relationship Between Writing Poems and Writing Movies

I've been getting lots of questions about how my past fifteen years as a poet--eleven of those as a teacher of poetry--feeds into my new career as a writer of movies. Oddly enough, I'm not sure I could have had any better training. As a poet, I've always thought visually (in poet-speak, "imagistically"). This type of attention to ocular input is hugely important to a screenplay. Brevity? Same thing. Tight, focused writing that has layers of nuance? You got it. Well-thought-out ideas that have gone through some revision and peer feedback? Again, yes.

Writing a poem allows you the freedom to find your own way. 2 lines or 2,000, you can handle it however you want. Part of the challenge for me in writing screenplays is that I'm working within some fairly strict conventions. 100 pages (plus or minus a few). Three acts. Present your "hook" within ten pages. A host of other "must-dos." Since there's real money at stake in the movie business, a lot of the decision makers don't dare go with anything but a sure thing. This is why many movies are sold with a single sentence like "It's DIE HARD on a plane" (PASSENGER 57), "It's DIE HARD on a train" (UNDER SIEGE 2), or "It's DIE HARD in the rain" (HARD RAIN). With poems, there's really no money for anyone at any stage of the process, so editors are willing to take chances, go with their gut, and help support innovative work.

This isn't to say that I'm a creative genius and that Hollywood better damn well sit up and pay attention, even when I'm breaking the rules. It's just that a different mindset is required for one to be successful in writing screenplays. When writing poems, I think about making it the best poem it can be. That's job #1. With writing a movie? Job #1 is audience, audience, audience. That's not saying that audience doesn't come into play with a poem, but there are plenty of poems being published today where audience seems, at best, an afterthought. Try that with the movie business, the 21-year-old from Vassar writing treatments for $50/day will toss your work into the garbage and laugh about it over Pabst Blue Ribbons with his two dishwasher buddies.

I'd go on about the poetry/movie relationship a bit more, but Steven Spielberg is calling. No, wait--that's my neighbor on the phone to say I left my trash can lid off so the raccoons tore all hell out of everything again, and he wants me to get out there and start picking it up. "You bet," I tell him, thinking the raccoon fiasco isn't good material for a summer blockbuster, but maybe there's a poem in it somewhere. . . .

No comments: