Saturday, August 31, 2013

ALW's New Project

“Stephen Ward” is the title of the new musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on a libretto by  Christopher Hampton (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and the English adaptation of "Rebecca") with lyrics by Don Black ("Sunset Boulevard"). It dramatizes the 1963 London political scandal known as the Profumo Affair. "Stephen Ward" will be directed by Richard Eyre  and choreographed by Stephen Mear.  Previews begin December 3 ahead of a December 19 opening at London’s Aldwych Theater.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Aaron Sorkin On Story Structure

I kind of worship at the altar of intention and obstacle. Somebody wants something. Something's standing in their way of getting it. They want the money, they want the girl, they want to get to Philadelphia — doesn't matter. And if they can need it, that's even better. Whatever the obstacle is, you can't overcome it like that or the audience is going to say, "Why don't they just take the other car?" or "Why don't you just shoot him?" The obstacle has to be difficult to overcome. And that's the clothesline that you hang everything on — the tactics by which your characters try to achieve their goal. That's the story that you end up telling. The rules are all in a sixty-four-page pamphlet by Aristotle called Poetics. It was written almost three thousand years ago, but I promise you, if something is wrong with what you're writing, you've probably broken one of Aristotle's rules.
Aaron Sorkin

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sorkin Himself

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Coming Soon: The Other Jobs Biopic

After seeing the surprisingly good first Steve Jobs biopic by “Jobs,” directed by Joshua Michael Stern and starring Ashton Kutcher as the iconic tech guru, I am waiting for Aaron Sorkin's take on Jobs' life. This will be based on Isaac's brilliant biography on the Apple founder. Steve Wozniak who is almost a minor character in Stern's movie is consulting on the Sorkin version. Aaron already revealed that his plan is to focus on the minutes leading up to the launch of a Macintosh computer; an event during Mr Job's time at Next Computer - possibly 1998's launch of the system in San Francisco; and the unveiling of an iPod. He intends to write just three scenes for the movie, each set backstage immediately before a product launch and said that every half hour that passed in the on-screen characters' lives would last 30 minutes of the audience's time. Most probably his movie will be totally different from the on I saw ten days ago in New York. Not just better. Different.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Start With A Tree

"How do you write? My answer is that I start with the trees and keep right on straight ahead. A writer writes, and if he begins by remembering a tree in the backyard, that is solely to permit him gradually to reach the piano in the parlor upon which rests the photograph of the kid brother killed in the war. And the writer, 9 or 10 years old at the time, can notice that his mother is crying at the loss of the kid brother, who, if the truth is told, was nothing much more than any kid brother, a brat, a kind of continuous nuisance, and yet death had made him the darling of the family heart. And so I wrote it, starting with the old English walnut tree with every year literally thousands of the magnificent hard fruit, which, when you removed the black casing, which dried and could be made to crumble away to the grooved shell, which then you could break with a hammer and then behold as a design of intricate engineering, of art, of construction, the hardwood slick and light brown in its convolutions in which the meat of the nut, as it is called, had ripened to a substance with the most subtle and satisfying flavor implanted into anything that creatures including human beings and small boys, like Henry and Willie, as my brother and I were referred to by other members of the family and neighborhood, and still are, thank God, could remove from the shell and put into the mouth and taste and chew and swallow and never suspect that indeed that is how we do, how we live, how we die, how we write, how we read."
William Saroyan (1908-1981)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Movies Changed The Way We Write (And Read)

"As more than one critic has noted, today's novelists tend not to write exposition as fully as novelists of the 19th century. Where the first chapter of Stendahl's "Red and the Black" (1830) is given over to the leisurely description of a provincial French town, its topographic features, the basis of its economy, the person of its mayor, the mayor's mansion, the mansion's terraced gardens and so on, Faulkner's "Sanctuary" (1931) begins this way: "From beyond the screen of bushes which surrounded the spring, Popeye watched the man drinking." The 20th-century novel minimizes discourse that dwells on settings, characters' CVs and the like. The writer finds it preferable to incorporate all necessary information in the action, to carry it along in the current of the narrative, as is done in movies.
Of course there are 19th-century works, Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer," for example (" 'Tom?' No answer."), that jump right into things, and perhaps American writers always have been disposed to move along at a snappier pace than their European counterparts. But the minimal use of exposition does suppose a kind of filmic compact between writer and reader, that everything will become clear eventually. Beyond that, the rise of film art is coincident with the tendency of novelists to conceive of compositions less symphonic and more solo voiced, intimate personalist work expressive of the operating consciousness. A case could be made that the novel's steady retreat from realism is as much a result of film's expansive record of the way the world looks as it is of the increasing sophistications of literature itself."
E. L. Doctorow

Sunday, August 25, 2013

What Writers Keeps Going

Saul Bellow once remembered that John Cheever told him that it was his readers who kept him going, people from every part of the country who had written to him. When he was at work, he was aware of these readers and correspondents in the woods beyond the lawn. "If I couldn't picture them, I'd be sunk," he said. And the novelist Wright Morris, urging John Updike to get an electric typewriter, said that he seldom turned his machine off. "When I'm not writing, I listen to the electricity," he said. "It keeps me company. We have conversations." Today we writers seldom get letters from our readers. We must try to get some encouragement from Facebook "friends". And instead of a humming electric typewriter we find company in the computer. Very soon it will start to talk with us. Hopefully console, not chide us for our mistakes.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Elmor Leonard's Trick

A few days ago Elmore John Leonard, Jr. died. He wrote crime fiction and suspense thrillers, many of which have been adapted into motion pictures. One of them is Get Shorty, a favorite of mine. Leonard was highly successful as a writer, and I love the way he explained his string of bestsellers: "I just leave out the parts that people skip."

Friday, August 23, 2013


Thursday, August 22, 2013

The New Steve Jobs Movie - And What It Can Teach A Writer

Last Sunday I saw the new movie, Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher as the visionary Apple co-founder. It is less than great, and if you are not familiar with Steve Jobs' bio you may have trouble to understand everything. But Kutcher is very believable. The film is heavy with quotes that reflect Jobs’ business philosophy and approach to life. I recognize most of Kutcher’s lines in the movie as being either direct quotes from Steve Jobs or compilations of his quotes. Some of them are perfect for all creative people, especially writers. Here's a list of my six favorite ones:

  1. The greatest artists like Dylan, Picasso and Newton risked failure. And if we want to be great, we’ve got to risk it too.
  2. How does somebody know what they want if they haven’t even seen it?
  3. Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently…they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
  4. It [what you choose to do] has got to be something that you’re passionate about because otherwise you won’t have the perseverance to see it through.
  5. In your life you only get to do so many things and right now we’ve chosen to do this, so let’s make it great.
  6. If you want to beat your competitors don't try to be better. Try to be different.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


There are a too many smart asses in this world pretending to be experts although they have only a faint idea what they are talking about. They never dig deep, but they always find "the truth". They know a bit of everything, but they don't really know anything. They gather some facts and neglect all others.  They make up their minds before they inform themselves, being only interested in substantiating their prejudice. Why in the world do most of them become journalists? Maybe they are attracted by the opportunity to live on some inborn talent to chatter about everything without any real knowledge. Matter of fact is that these shallow "intellectuals" find their playground all too often in a print or digital medium. I know well that there are some excellent, scrupulous and assiduous journalists - my father was one, and some of my best friends are. They hate those colleagues that give their profession a bad name. Unfortunately they are exceptions to the rule. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Christopher Durang

Christopher Durang improves his writing by listening to actors read his first draft.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Masterly Exposition

This excerpt from Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike features the second three minutes of the play.  Before this conversation Sonia brings a morning cup of coffee to Vanya, but because he already poured himself a cup, she throws it on the floor. Then she sits next to him and tells him that she had a bad dream - a dream about her real life which is miserable.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"We Licked The Postage Stamps!"

Yesterday I saw Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the latest play of one of the greatest living playwrights, Christopher Durang, a master of comedy writing. Leaving the Golden Theatre on Broadway after 150 hilarious minutes I thought: That's what theatre is all about. The tragedies of life put on stage with so much irony that you can laugh about it. Durang takes characters and themes from Chekhov, puts them in a contemporary place, pours them into a blender and mixes them up. There's not much of a plot. Vanya and his stepsister Sonia have lived their entire lives in their family's farmhouse. While they stayed home to take care of their ailing parents, their sister Masha has been gallivanting around the world as a successful actress and movie star, leaving Vanya and Sonia to feel trapped and regretful. Their soothsayer/cleaning woman Cassandra keeps warning them about terrible things in the future, which include a sudden visit from Masha and her twenty-something boy toy Spike. The absolute highlight of the play is Vanya's rant about how the world changed over the last sixty years. "We used to lick postage stamps back then... We used typewriters back then. And Wite-Out for corrections. And carbon paper for copies. We had telephones and we had to dial a number by putting our fingers in a round hole representing two to zero... We didn't multitask. Doing one thing at a time seemed appropriate. There are 785 television channels. You can watch the news report that matches what you already think. In the 50s there were only three or four channels, and it was all black and white... We didn't have answering machines. You had to call people back... We played Scrabble and Monopoly. We didn't play video games...where we would kill policemen and prostitutes... When I was 13 I saw Goldfinger with Sean Connery as James Bond, and I didn't get the meaning of the character name "Pussy Galore". Went right over my head. Nowadays, three year olds get the joke. They can barely walk and know what Pussy Galore means... No more licking of postage stamps, no more typewriters or letters, no more shared national TV shows... There are no shared memories anymore. Now there's twitter and email and Facebook and cable and's all separate. And our lives are...disconnected." I watched the marvelous David Hyde Pierce deliver these lines in a stunning outburst of despair and fury. Yes, I laughed, but at the same time felt like crying.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Well Put

“Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass. It's about learning how to dance in the rain.”
Vivian Greene

Friday, August 16, 2013

Words You Can Feel

I lost a world the other day.
Has anybody found?
You'll know it by the row of stars
Around its forehead bound.

A rich man might not notice it;
Yet to my frugal eye
Of more esteem than ducats.
Oh, find it, sir, for me!
Emily Dickinson

"When my father’s medical practice kept him out in the evening, my mother turned dinner into a reading-out-loud hour, with poetry the bill of fare: Eugene Field, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, H. D., Emily Dickinson. If you fall for Dickinson early, you’re committed to language for life, and almost unavoidably to Dickinson’s kind of language. It’s more concrete than just words on a page or in the air. It’s language as a physical material, a substance so concentrated that you can all but hold it in your hands, turn it over, feel its textures. And it’s addictive. Once in your system, it’s impossible to shake, like a neurological imprint. In my experience, Longfellow’s intensely visual poetry was like a mural or a movie. You just wanted to stand back and let it happen to you. Dickinson’s language was visual, too, but in a startling, flashbulb way — a bang of illumination after which your vision took time to adjust to normal light. Poetry, in general, made me sense that language could be about big, urgent subjects, the kind that ruffled even a 9-year-old mind. Will everyone I love always be here? If not, where, exactly, is heaven, and what does it look like? Perhaps most important to a writer in formation, Dickinson’s language felt personally usable. It made you want to write, made you think you could. So I did, just for the pleasure and power of creating pictures from words."
Holland Cotter (A critic of the New York Times)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Man On Wire

This is an excerpt from the last part of the Man On Wire documentary which is currently available on DVD. What a triumph of imagination over reality!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sky Dance

On a flight across the Atlantic I happened to watch Man On Wire, a BBC/Discovery documentary on Philippe Petit, the man who danced on a rope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Those towers were constructed for business purposes, and it is almost impossible to mention them without thinking of the horrible act of terrorism that destroyed them. For Philippe Petit they became a lifelong dream ever since that day he saw concept art for the massive structures in a magazine in a dentist's office in France. He began preparing his sky walk in France at the same time as the construction of the towers started in New York. As soon as the buildings were ready, he was ready, too. His walking across a wire spanning 140 feet across and 1,300 feet above ground was an act of bravery and an accomplishment of a lifetime. What fascinates me is that it was also a poetic metaphor - a dreamer overcoming all odds, defying law, common sense and gravity and dancing for 40 minutes high up in the sky between ecstasy and death.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Creating The Antagonist

I love to work on the antagonist. Every writer knows that his or her hero can only be as great as his or her nemesis. I'd say to create the perfect antagonist you got to know what your protagonist wants to achieve and what he has to learn in your story. The antagonist must have the same goal as the hero, so there can be only one winner in their fight. Also, I think it is essential that all the odds are on the antagonist's side. David challenges Goliath. Even more important is the learning aspect. The right antagonist exposes the hero's weakness, this way forcing him to admit to himself that there's something wrong with him. He will overcome the antagonist only after such self-relevation. Finally, the antagonist should represent a value system that is antagonistic to the protagonist's. Let's say, our hero fights for individual freedom. Then his or her antagonist should defend the interests of the general public, the state, law and order. I have to understand his or her motives to give the antagonist an authentic voice.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Principle Of Antagonism

"In my experience the principle of antagonism is the most important and least understood precept in story design. Neglect of this fundamental concept is the primary reason screenplays and films made from them fail... A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them."
Robert McKee

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mamet On Stage Directions

"Don't write stage directions. If it is not apparent what the character is trying to accomplish by saying the line, telling us how the character said it, or whether or not she moved to the couch isn't going to aid the case. We might understand better what the character means, but we aren't particularly going to care."
David Mamet

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Write What You Know. Really?

"Writing teachers invariably tell students, Write about what you know. That’s, of course, what you have to do, but on the other hand, how do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing. What did Kafka know? The insurance business? So that kind of advice is foolish, because it presumes that you have to go out to a war to be able to do war. Well, some do and some don’t. I’ve had very little experience in my life. In fact, I try to avoid experience if I can. Most experience is bad."
E. L. Doctorow
Doctorow is the author of eight novels, among them Ragtime, which was made into a wonderful musical with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Your Story In Three Sentences

There is a very simple method to find out whether a first idea has the potential to become a project. It has proved useful for me, and if you are a writer or another kind of storyteller you may want to try it out. Outline your idea in three sentences, and three sentences only. Sentence One: Describe your main character and his goal or desire. Sentence Two: List the obstacles, conflicts and antagonists that stand in the way of your main character's goal. Sentence Three: State how the main character's story ends and how he changes. - Now put the three sentences aside for a few days. Then read them again. If you think, ah, that could be a great story, you have another project. Otherwise you can erase the three sentences from your computer and forget about the idea.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Plot or character - what's more important?

That's a never ending discussion among dramatists. My teacher, Robert McKee, used to say that plot and character are the same. Certain things happen only to certain people. For John Truby the plot is a lesson for the protagonist that teaches him or her how to overcome his/her character flaws, therefore he also regards plot as secondary to character. On the other hand, an interesting character may be enough for a great novel, but not good enough for a dramatic play. I agree with Frank Capra who said: "The whole thing is you've got to make them care about somebody." You do if that somebody is someone you like and if he or her is threatened. Conflict is as important as character. Without conflict there is no drama. More important: Without conflict character does not show. True, without character there's no story. But without story your character remains lifeless. How someone acts under pressure reveals who he is. As a dramatist you have to invent revealing situations. Character and plot are far from being the same. They are connected, though, like everything in a well structured story should be.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Mother Of All Computers

"I had a TV set and a typewriter and that made me think a computer should be laid out like a typewriter with a video screen."
Steve Wozniak 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Missing The Typewriter

In the window of an antiquarian book store I saw an old Olympia portable typewriter, and I became sentimental. My father who was a journalist had almost the same one. So I see myself as a four year old boy standing next to my fathers big wooden desk watching him beat the keys in a staccato rhythm. Every now and then there was the ring-a-ding of a little bell. It was music to my ears. Many years later I had my own portable typewriter. I never realized how much I had loved the clickity-clack of typing, it only dawned on me when I looked at that Olympia in the window. I suddenly remembered the pleasure of hacking on those keys. The thing about the typewriter was that you could not erase what you had written. That forced you to prepare in your head what you planned to put on paper. You tried to avoid having to start all over again. I admit that that computer has made my life as a writer much easier. Still I considered for a moment entering the shop. Then I shrugged and moved on. The typewriter is history, just like the shorthand pad, the copy paper and the teleprinter. Why then do I miss it like a lost friend?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Hollywood's Musical Projects

The heat is on. All of a sudden all want a big piece of the cake. According to the New York Times, Universal Pictures right now is turning “Animal House” into a musical, “Back to the Future” and “The Sting” may be next. Twentieth Century Fox is eyeing “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Waitress.” Sony is developing “Tootsie.” Warner Brothers has “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in London and is talking to producers about a possible musical version of the Channing Tatum flick “Magic Mike.”

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Hollywood Enters The Musical Scene

It took them a long time, but finally Hollywood studio moguls have realized how much sense it makes to invest in musicals. I was always baffled by their reluctance. In a hundred years only some ten movies crossed the one billion box office mark, while five musicals made more than two billion over the last ten years. And producing a film costs about 10 to 100 times more than producing a musical. It was Stephen Schwartz who woke Hollywood up. When he was applying for the rights for the 1995 novel Wicked, he was directed to Universal Pictures. They had optioned the rights to make it into a film. Stephen convinced them to let him do the musical first, and they were willing to invest in it. The 14 million production budget was not even 10 % of what the film would have cost. By now Wicked is the most profitable venture in the 101-year history of Universal, far more lucrative than its top-grossing movies like “Jurassic Park” and “E.T.”

Friday, August 2, 2013

Scene Description And Set

My scene descriptions are meant to give everyone involved an idea of the realistic environment, but I never expect to see a copy of it on stage. If I wanted naturalism I would write movie scripts. Hans Schavernoch's sets in the Viennese productions of "Elisabeth" and "Mozart!" or those of the Japanese productions of my shows hardly ever tried to be realistic. In that respect I'm clearly influenced by my mentor who is responsible for my becoming a librettist, the great American director Hal Prince. He started all his productions with a mental image. "Fiddler Of The Roof" - Chagal's famous picture; "Cabaret" - a German joint he frequented when he was a soldier; "Evita" - a photo of a Chinese parade...etc. I always want the set designer to find an overall image that sets the atmosphere of the show and ideally is a symbol of its theme. Hal Prince's original production of Sweeney Todd in New York is a perfect example. Hal developed all scenes out of an old engraving of a British 19th century factory. The respective scenes grew out of this image just by movements of certain parts of the set and some additional pieces of props.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ben Sprecher Exonerated

The producer of Rebecca-The Musical which is still slated for a Broadway opening in 2014 has been proven innocent. Mark Hotton, 47, admitted on Monday to having scammed cash from him by "finding" millionaire investors who turned out to be fictional characters. When Ben Sprecher got suspicious about one of Hotton's phantom investors, he had him suddenly die from malaria, court papers say. The con was part of an elaborate scheme to pocket $65,000 in finder's fees. "Some of these fees and expenses . . . were paid as a result of false pretenses by me," the cool and collected con artist told Judge John Koeltl. While he admitted to both scams, he said he pocketed less than the feds had claimed. Anyway, it is  Hotton's motivation is still in the dark. He is also scheduled to cop a plea to a money laundering conspiracy in connection with a $3.7 million scheme to rip off Brooklyn's Maimonides Medical Center through fraudulent invoices. Compared to that sum, the 65,000 are peanuts. Asked for an explanation, Hotton's lawyer, Ira London, said his client authorized him to say that, "There's a chapter yet to be written in this saga," but refused to elaborate. Very mysterious.