This is an especially gracious and interesting interview I did with Marc Norman, who won two Oscars for Shakespeare in Love. To be clear, the "interesting" part all comes from him, as he shows here why he's such a good storyteller. I find particularly fascinating his discussion of the technique he uses for getting past a roadblock in a scene he's writing.
As I've mentioned previously , these come from a series I put together several years back for the Writers Guild of America website. I did the easy part, sending the screenwriters and TV writers largely the same basic questions about the process of writing. They did the heavy lifting.
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
Marc Norman won two Academy Awards for co-writing and producing Shakespeare in Love, winner of the Oscar® as Best Picture. Among his many other screenplays are Waterworld, Bat-21, Zandy's Bride, Breakout, The Killer Elite and Oklahoma Crude. He also wrote one of the first "ABC Movies of the Week, The Challenge.
For the stage, Norman wrote and directed Ormear Locklear, which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum. He has also directed for television. Among his novels, Norman wrote Fool's Errand and Oklahoma Crude.
[Subsequent to this interview, Marc Norman wrote the wonderful book, What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting. If you're interested in storytelling and how movies got from there to where we are today, you can find here.]
>> Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
MN: I suppose the movies that come to mind are "Citizen Kane," "Red River," "The Maltese Falcon," "Casablanca," "Rules of the Game," "Paths of Glory," "Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Amadeus." The interesting thing is that I saw all but the last three in l6mm in a storefront theater on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley between 1960-64. That was my film education. The theater was run by the wife of a lawyer who lived in Oakland and wanted something to do on her own, so she opened a revival house. She was Pauline Kael [later film critic for the New Yorker magazine].
In terms of books read, the great American novels of the century when I was in high-school: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Wolfe. In college, the Brits. Chinese poetry. I got a lot from Dickens. Also from Chaucer.
I was reading all the time. I pretty much hoovered libraries.
In terms of writing, I started out writing poetry at Berkeley. I never considered being a novelist--I didn't think I was up to it although I've published three since). After blowing off he idea of teaching as a career, I drifted into writing. It seemed to me that being a Hollywood screenwriter was an interesting way to fail.
Poetry's helped me a lot with screenwriting. Poetry and chamber music--I think those are two good things to have in your head when you're writing a movie.
>> When you write, how do you generally work? Are you a good procrastinator?
MN: I've pretty much established a method I like for writing over the years. I start with a pen and paper (20 pound buff, Razor Point IIs) and just sort of free-associate, jotting down ideas for scenes, characters, snips of dialogue. I don't direct it for a month or so--I let it wander. Then I start making conclusions, but I don't force them--one thing I came up with early for myself was hold off decisions about anything until the last possible moment. The form that moment takes is a kind of mental water breaking at the end of a kind of mental pregnancy--the thing has to be born, I'm sick of notes, it's time to get on with it. I'd say the proportions of time spent between notes and actual draft writing is about three to one. And I rewrite as I go along. I like my first draft to be my last draft. I probably actually do four or six or eight drafts in the course of my first reaching page 120.
I bought a house in 1973 because there was an unfinished room over the garage and I thought I could work there. I was right.
I haven't moved since. Music? Not even. My neighborhood's very quiet, but maybe fifteen years ago, I decided to build some furniture and I went out and got some power tools, and to use with them, I bought a pair of industrial strength ear protectors. One day I was writing and somebody was chain-sawing up on the hill behind me, so I went down to the garage and fetched the ear protectors and put them on. Ever since, I use them whenever I write. I have a fetish attachment to them--those ear protectors have gone with me all over the world, even though they don't pack very well.
I have never understood how any writer with a family, children, and monthly bills can procrastinate, so I have nothing to offer on this question.
>> What sort of characters and stories interest you?
MN: I was never sure what kind or characters attracted me, except maybe ones that work in movies, or characters that bankable actors want to play. But looking back, I suppose what they have most in common is that they're all makers. They're making something-- homo faber. I think I've always admired people who make things because I saw it as a concrete acting out of what interests me most in all the world, and that is creativity. I love creativity, in myself, and other people--it's what I like most about us as a species. But it's abstraction, isn't it, something hard to show, absent some thing that's being made. So Lena in Oklahoma Crude makes an oil well, and Hertzog in the script with his name makes a revolution, and Shakespeare makes a play and we wait to see if it works or not. It's a natural dramatic structure, the making of something, and I suppose it's the one I gravitate to most often. I just finished a script about young guys making hotrods.
>> How do you work through parts of a script where you hit a roadblock in the story?
MN: I was always a little annoyed the press on "Shakespeare in Love" described his problem at the beginning of the film as "writer's block," because that wasn't my intention, and in fact, I don't think there is such a thing. It's not that we're "blocked" as writers, that there are moments when nothing at all comes--stuff comes, but what comes sucks, and we don't know how to get anything better, and we refuse to write anything until it does.
When I'm at that point of not liking what I'm writing, I may try to analyze it systematically, in terms of remembering my earliest intentions, things like that. But I usually have the best luck just turning it over to the actors. I did some directing once, and I've imported a technique I picked up there into my writing. The technique is simply to admit to the people you're working with you haven't a fucking clue what you're doing and asking if they can help you.
In writing, I do the same thing in the rehearsal hall of my mind. I take my characters out of the scene, I put them in an open, well-lit neutral space, and I say, "okay, I give. You guys take over. What do you want to do?" And sometimes they'll bumble around for a while, and they'll do some real external things like fuss with their costume or their walk, the way actors do, but usually they get around to saying, "well, this is what I think I want in this scene." And the "want" of characters seems to me to be the best sort of kick-starter for a fresh take on a scene or a theme or a plot that's gotten stuck. It's a little simple minded, but you can argue that all dramatic writing consists of a number of people who want things, most often badly, and those things conflict with each other. It's rare this isn't a useful technique. In fact, I reel stoked when the characters have taken over and are dictating the structure and the dialog, because that means my subconscious (or whatever) is working for me, and I don't have to muscle the thing so much out of my forebrain, which I don't have much respect for, and seems to me to be the elephant's graveyard of cliches.
>> How do did you develop the story for "Shakespeare in Love?"
MN: I mentioned I was an English major at Berkeley, but I avoided Shakespeare in favor of other writers back then. Treating Shakespeare as a young man just starting off in his career when I began the screenplay seemed a promising, if simple minded idea--young Sherlock Holmes, young Gandhi, you get the idea. All great men were young once. And I did reread most of his plays, and I suppose I got some of the swing and lilt of the Elizabethan/ Californian style of dialogue I came up with from that.
There isn't much to read about Shakespeare himself (there's maybe five unarguable facts), but there's a fair amount to read about his world, the world of Elizabethan theater, and that's where the research hit paydirt. Because what I discovered was our business, the entertainment business, in fact the commercial entertainment writing we do, not on some quaint ye-olde English tea shoppe level, but full-bore, cut-throat, the way we know it with lawyers and goniff producers and blood on the floor, the business we're all still in. And that was the mainspring-- Shakespeare in Development Hell, showing promise, writing crap, and not knowing how to get off the merry-go-round, how to get better. Everything else followed from that.
>> What is your most memorable experience as a writer?
MN: I once worked for Sam Peckinpah [director of "The Wild Bunch"]. I showed up at his office for our introductory meeting. He had a couch that folded out into a bed in his office--he was lying on it, on crumpled sheets, naked as a jaybird in a particularly cracker-scrawny way, getting a huge vitamin B-l2 shot plunged into his ass by his secretary. He looked up at me and smiled, as if to say, "Welcome to my nightmare." He was about half dead from alcohol at that point, and couldn't keep food down.
The working relationship went downhill from there.
I once wrote a script for a Swedish director I thought was pretty good. He was going to shoot it in Big Sur with Gene Hackman and Liv Ulmann. He came from a pretty low-key Swedish film industry--you'd call up Sven and you'd call up Liv, and you'd put the Arri in the Volvo and pick them up and drive out into the country and make a scene. The studio promised the director he could work the same way, but they lied, and when he showed up to work the first day, there were thirty trucks, a hundred guys yelling on walkie-talkies, and a DP who wouldn't let him touch the fucking camera. He went into a sort or Nordic catatonia and shot my script exactly the way I wrote it. That's the only time that's happened to me.
I see these both as great, life-affecting experiences, by the way. Peckinpah was hell, but I learned a lot from him. You learn the most from your enemies.
>> Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?
MN: I had lots of help from guys early on who helped me get jobs. Burt Nodella got me out of the mail room at Universal and working with Leonard Stern on "Get Smart." From Leonard, I went to New York and worked for David Susskind. None of them mentored me as a writer--I wasn't that lucky--but I was very lucky to have guys like these who paid me while I figured out what to do with my life simply because it was their nature to be generous.
Susskind wanted me to marry his daughter. God knows what would have come from that.
>> Why do you write?
MN: As to why I write, I used to say it was because I was incapable of anything else, which of course is a description of a compulsion--something that has power over you, something whose reins you don't hold. But lately, I explain it more along the lines or the "making" stuff I mentioned earlier. I think I like to make worlds and populate them. You're sort of God, and you're sort of a miniaturist at the same time. You can make up a world and you can design the door knobs they use. I used to make model airplanes--all of us did when we were kids. Most of my friends threw them together, sloppy, with great globs of glue, and then blew them up with firecrackers. I worked for hours, painstakingly, on mine, getting books of pictures of the airplane or ship or tank in question from the library and adding details, tiny bits of things, rivet heads, all to the purpose of realism, which is another way of saying, the illusion of reality. And I suppose I'm still operating along those lines. I like inventing people and putting them in settings so finely drawn that the viewer, for some short period of time, forgets he or she is yoking at an artifice and thinks it's real. That's my performance. That's my, for lack of a better word, magic.
There was a big spike of interest in science-fiction around the turn of this century. In that incarnation, the themes weren't galactic battles and aliens--they were ghosts, spiritualism, seances. Somebody asked Joseph Conrad why he didn't write a book in that genre, since it was so popular with the public. He replied, "Because it would imply that the quotidian was not miraculous." That's always rung a bell with me. I find the lives we lead here, in our flawed world, endlessly fascinating.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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