Screenplay by… Adam Schiff

Everyone likes a good story.

But what is a good story and how do you construct it?  Then, how do you tell it?

I brought my students to a panel this week at the Writers Guild Theatre that featured the 2020 WGA nominees for best screenplay.  Overall, they had a great time listening to writer-directors Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Rian Johnson (Knives Out) and Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), as well as the screenwriters responsible for Joker, The Irishman, Booksmart and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, among others, talk about how they do what they do.

Allow me to sweep up all those names you just dropped

Even if they aren’t always the best at speaking in person about it, these women and men know a ton about story construction and how to seduce an audience through visual, verbal and other means.  They are tasked daily with figuring out what makes people tick and give them a computer screen, a piece of paper and/or a camera, you would undoubtedly be dazzled by what they come up with.

In the last 12 months, many of you already were.

But as they spoke, I couldn’t help but think of another former screenwriter, my congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA).  On that very night he had just spent hours on the Senate floor, as the lead House manager for the Impeachment of Donald J. Trump, trying to convince a recruited audience to vote for the removal of a president many voted for and still continue to support.

For those disgusted with politics, think of it like the nasty studio head purposely test marketing your new movie (Note: The one he hates) before a hostile audience he gleefully assembled in order to determine whether it will be released or not.

Or just think of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell…doing anything at all.

The purest definition of #ShtEatingGrin

The screenwriting skills of Rep. Schiff, who back in the nineties actually moonlighted as a screenwriter (Note: He received an offer from film producer Nick Weschler (The Player) to option his crime thriller The Minotaur while working as an assistant U.S. attorney) were on great display all week.

Though he had a lot of help from six other extremely articulate fellow male and female managers in proving his case, he was the one principally tasked with how to structure and execute the narrative they were about to perform.

Is it any wonder then that he chose to start with a quote from Alexander Hamilton and end with another from Atticus Finch?

My 15 minutes will never be up!

Too much a reach?  Consider that Rep. Schiff was primarily trying to put pressure on a handful of senators to allow key witnesses Trump had previously refused to allow testify before Congress to at least finally be heard.

To do this he had to not only construct a legal narrative but present his case in a way that the public could understand so they might also apply some outside pressure on their representatives to hear those stories and vote in favor of impeachment.

So what better way to prove his case to them than to quote Hamilton, the only Founding Father to have a musical named after him that is currently an international phenomenon, one that has grossed more than half a BILLION dollars on Broadway alone, has more than 20 touring companies worldwide, a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a record-setting 11 Tony awards.

… and here’s a #ShtEatingGrin that is deserved!!

I mean, when Congressman Schiff starts out by likening Trump to the type of charlatan none other than HAMILTON warned us about, a man unprincipled in private life… bold in his temper… known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty… to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day it carries some weight, right?  Not to mention it doesn’t hurt when Hamilton also characterizes that man as someone who, much like Trump, could only be trusted to pursue his own interests.

Which is to say nothing about Atticus Finch, hero of THE great American classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.  That’s the same one that none other than Aaron Sorkin recently adapted into a hit Broadway play that is just about to start its own two-year international tour.

BONUS: Ed Harris with Hair!

Every writer knows the moral weight Atticus Finch’s words carry when we seek to convince an American audience (or any American) to use the common sense their parents taught them when they were kids about the differences between right vs. wrong.  But it takes a screenwriter’s knowledge of both drama and the audience they’re tasked with seducing to know where to place it.

Gotta say as a screenwriter and teacher of writing myself, I was incredibly pleased my very own congressman was smart enough to give the Atticus quote his key ACT THREE moment in the Trump case.  Especially when Schiff himself confessed on the Senate floor that as a young lad he first heard those words from his own father (Note: Just as Mockingbird’s own writer Harper Lee had heard them her own Dad, fictionalized as Atticus).  To drive the point home further, Rep Schiff revealed that he even attributed Atticus’ words to his own father before learning years later they were actually being passed on to him by his very moral Dad only because he had taken the time to actually READ the classic story and PARENT with it. (Note: Nice touch when speaking about the well known to be NON-READING Trump).

This will be the worst school trip ever

But that wasn’t all.

As one watched Rep. Schiff and his colleagues unspool the case against our ELECTORAL COLLEGE POTUS (Note:  Full Confession; I was riveted to my DVR), it was hard not to once again recall the WGA event.  Particularly that moment when Greta Gerwig told the audience that it was only because she found out LW’s writer Louisa May Alcott managed to hold on to the copyright of her novel at a time when women were mostly powerless, that SHE was able to come up with the boldest female empowerment moments for Jo, Alcott’s heroine, in this new movie version.

Greta deserved Betta #saoirseknows

This idea of digging deep into the facts and constructing your narrative around real actions your main character takes (or took) rather than claims he/she makes was also on display with each Trump video clip Schiff and his posse unspooled on the Senate floor as they were crosscut with evidence of the true real-life contrary actions taken by Trump and documented by staff, cabinet members and in some of his own candid audio tapes in the House managers’ presentation.

It also brought to mind Rian Johnson’s confession about tricks he uses as a screenwriter as he plans his stories for ultimate dramatic effect.   He freely confessed that 80% of his writing process is outlining and structuring his story just as The Irishman’s screenwriter Steve Zailian’s admitted that in order to figure out how to execute every film story on which he’s hired (Note: See his IMDB page and be impressed) he needs a plan and OUTLINING is a good way to come in with a PLAN.

First note in outline: This line must appear every 10 minutes

No wonder after the über-outlined case against Trump unfolded on that very first day even arch adversaries like Sen. Lindsey Graham took Schiff aside and privately shook his hand at the intricately planned and structured way in which he laid out the story he was telling, convincingly taking the senators, step by step, through the Trump narrative HE had decided to tell in order to prove his case.

Of course as everyone in Hollywood knows, particularly screenwriters, you can do everything right and still not get the results you want.

Think of that film recut at the last minute (Note: Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons).  Or consider that terrific cult movie not released properly that first time around (Note: Harold and Maude or The Rocky Horror Picture Show) that had to be rediscovered months or even years later because their messages were sabotaged by the arbitrary moment in which they were determined to first arrive.

Once upon a time this film was a box office bomb

I can’t help but worry whether this will be the case for the storytellers in the Schiff posse, no matter how well constructed and executed their narrative might be.  Particularly when I read this sobering statistic in the Cook Political Report:

A majority of seats in the U.S. senate represent just 18% of the country. 

This means that ANY hope for a majority vote on any one issue in the Senate could conceivably be SUNK by a GROUP OF SENATORS accounting for UNDER ONE FIFTH of all voters in the country.

In other words, the will of more than EIGHTY PERCENT of the country that agree with my Congressman, and me, on the Trump of it all, could EASILY be ignored in the next week.  Or even two or three.

You got that right, Sutton.

This is not the Hollywood ending Schiff or anyone on the WGA panel that evening would write.    But, and not to be a downer, it is also important to remember that for all his wisdom at the end of To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus LOSES his case.

Will we settle for an ending to a similar story that took place almost a full century ago?

Or will we create our own narrative?

Hmmmmmm.

Original Hamilton Cast – “My Shot”

The Elephant on Broadway

Try as we might, we can’t get away from the elephant in our country.

You know what I mean.  Or whom.

Not only is it Trump this or Trump that, it’s how will we fight Trump, what will happen if we don’t defeat Trump or, my favorite at the moment – um please, we have a rule tonight, there is no talking about Trump.

On that latter point in my house:

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!

Of course, the latter is misguided for so many reasons.   But mostly because even when you don’t talk about IT, it’s there, lurking beneath the surface, ready to rear it’s ugly head just when you thought you’d put it to bed.

Not unlike the trauma you buried from your childhood or the pretending you do every time you toss off that rehearsed carefree smile at your ex.

Or the murderous rage you suppress whenever the driver in the car in front of you is going 3 mph because they’re texting.

Or the searing pit of bile bubbling up in your stomach when that person in the market, elevator or treadmill next to you speaks as loudly on their phone as NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio did on the stage at the first Democratic debate this past week.

Point being that totally ignoring a problem only makes IT bigger and you smaller.

Last week I snuck off to NYC for a few days to ostensibly forget the Trump of it all.  I did this by paying what would amount to the price of a small used car for orchestra tickets to three of the hottest shows on Broadway.

Think of this as the gay male equivalent of binge eating with a chaser of middle-aged entitlement because I deserved to see the original casts of this year’s big Tony Award winners since the world is shitty, I’m getting older and who knows how many years I or any of the rest of us have left.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject: HAPPY GAY PRIDE 50, everyone!!!!!!!

Cheers Queers!

In any event, and to be more specific, another way to put this is that I sat front and center for: 

Hadestown, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Oklahoma!

Yes, they were all truly brilliant, a word I hate to use but find that when it applies there is no other.

Yet what I found even more surprising is that while these three shows couldn’t be more different – certainly they were all written decades, even centuries apart – they all, in their very artistically eclectic ways, very much addressed exactly the same subject:

Trump/IT and Trump America.

Hadestown is about making a pact with the Devil for your soul in order to get what you want.  But in this case the Devil is a con man AND a BUILDER who seduces you into believing he will take care of you and, once he owns you, does anything but.

His suits fit a little better

Since it’s based on a Greek myth they call him Hades but when you watch it, well,  you will likely feel the urge to substitute….oh, some contemporary name of your choice.

Especially when during the first act curtain song entitled “Why We Build A Wall” at the Friday night performance you attend you realize Hillary Clinton is sitting directly in front of you three rows to your left. (Note: #Swear2God/Hillary).

Let’s just say I experienced a range of emotions

Then there’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a story about a 1930s southern white small town lawyer who deeply believes in justice and yet just as deeply sympathizes with the enraged, poor, white working class neighbors all around him who feel like they never get justice and have been left behind by the system for far too long.

A very different Atticus

So much so that he agrees to defend a young man of color for a crime he clearly didn’t commit knowing FULL WELL that said system and his neighbors could NEVER convict him, and certainly wouldn’t KILL (nee lynch) him, when all rational EVIDENCE points to the contrary.

This brings us to Oklahoma!, a show we mostly know as the vintage Technicolor movie musical of the same name about the infinite joys of the American heartland.  (Note:  Oh, come on – Surrey With The Fringe On Top??  Oh What A Beautiful Morning????).

Who knew all this time that what this story was really telling us was how quickly the people inhabiting our heartland would turn their backs, and very American guns, on the most unfortunate among them and literally erase them with their own bullets when they are unable to make lemonade out of the very real sour lemons life has handed them – AND jump for all the joy in America while doing it.

More like WOKE-lahoma!

If it seems all three of these are of a theme simply because my taste verges on the, well… angry, timely and political – not really. (Note:  Though, admittedly, yes they do).

I had to be dragged to Oklahoma!, a show I never liked or related to in the least, kicking and screaming.  Nor was I at all interested even a little in Greek mythology or up to revisiting the racism of the Depression era south by way of The West Wing.

At least initially.

Proving once again that every seemingly distant, dystopic time period produces valuable work that in some way (okay many ways) directly reflects what’s going in the streets and hearts of those inhabiting it… and well beyond.  Because if done particularly right a handful of these works will live on and the truth of their stories will get reimagined and reinterpreted in countless forms as both an artistic expression and, perish the thought, teaching tool and salve for future generations.

And they will seem as timely as hell while doing it even when, in the case of Oklahoma!, not one single word has been changed.

ummm.. what?

How can this be????

Because especially great art comes out of experience, passion, pain and point of view.  And paying attention.  Often it’s born from the ashes of despair or a twisted take about that which deep down sticks in our craws, inflames us and/or seeks to destroy us.

A very wise mentor once told me early on that there are only a handful of stories out there – it’s all in the way you tell them and just how much truth you are telling.

Amen!

As artists, and for that matter, citizens, we reconfigure our handful of stories with dark and light magic that not only reflects the contemporary world around us but is also informed by it.

To watch these events then play out on a stage after they’ve played out in life, or even in the political arena, at a time when all we want to do is to turn away, is one way to know that —

1. We are not alone

and

2.  The recipe for catharsis is never to live in a pretend world.

Rather it is to face our demons (aka reality) en masse through another set of eyes able to express it differently.  It’s through that very kind of  group camaraderie that we can  go from desperately hopeless to happily hopeful in the space of just a few hours.

2019 Mashup from Oklahoma 

Trumping Mr. Finch

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 2.12.24 PM

Human beings lie. This is part of who we are. This does not mean we do not tell the truth. We do to many and varying degrees. But to deny the former is to invalidate the latter.

In other words, it can’t all be good. If it all were, then the very definition of the word good would be meaningless if you took in the actual events of everyday life.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. Did you watch him? See him? Hear about it? I thought so.

Oh.. that guy?

Oh.. that guy?

Relax, this is not going to be about him – though in his alternate reality speak everything seems to be. Or at least told in terms of him. Which is what we all do to varying degrees (Note: See paragraph #1). But it’s all about degrees, isn’t it? And what we say – and to whom.

Harper Lee, who wrote one of the most famous and iconic books of any American author, To Kill A Mockingbird, has a new novel coming out this week – her SECOND at the age of 89. Rather, it is her first book (Note: As far as we know) but her second PUBLISHED novel.

See how tricky this lie thing is?

Suck it 50 Shades, I made books hot again

Suck it 50 Shades, I made books hot again

Ms. Lee’s latest is entitled Go Set A Watchman and she has been getting a lot of flack – or perhaps it’s just press – for daring to take Atticus Finch, the father figure (admittedly based on her own father) she immortalized as possibly the most principled man – certainly lawyer – on the planet in TKAM and portraying him as a racist in her new/old novel.

Now let’s set aside the fact that for whoever he might be based on Atticus is a fictional figure and that Miss (Note: She famously prefers Miss to Ms.) Lee actually wrote Watchman more than several years prior to her most renowned creation – which was first published in 1960. The real question that seems to be eating reviewers, readers of advanced copies and now the general public is:

Has Harper Lee been lying to us all these years? Is Atticus Finch really a….RACIST? A guy who she apparently chronicles in the new book once attending a Ku Klux Klan meeting and then later denounced the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education decision that desegregated the American school system?

4314326-5504607360-airpl

Okay, well, maybe that’s really two and a half questions. But really it all boils down the first – is she LYING to us? For if we cannot believe in the heroism of Atticus Finch, a guy who took on a whole Southern town in the 1930s and dared to successfully defend a Black man falsely accused of raping a White woman then – well – what else is NOT TRUE?

Um, A LOT.

Don't look at me!

Don’t look at me!

And, well, OF COURSE SHE’S LYING. As well as TELLING THE TRUTH.

None of this stuff is simple. The question we should be asking ourselves is: What is the broader truth and how do we recognize THE BIG LIE???

As a writer it amazes me to think anyone truly believes that Atticus Finch was the exact representation of Harper Lee’s real father. He couldn’t possibly be because:

  1. He is a written representation of a flesh and blood person from one subjective storyteller’s (individual’s) point of view – meaning he’s one-dimensional and frozen in place at the author’s whim rather than three-dimensional and able to roam free on his own
  2. He was played by Gregory Peck in the movie… and
  3. The movies are cultural representations of some of our most convincing lies, though not always our biggest ones, and people who win Oscars for these roles cannot possibly be entirely telling the truth since THERE IS NOT A LARGER THAN LIFE MOVIE HERO THAT EVER, EVER, EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD EVER existed in real life as they do when they’re rendered 22 feet tall and 52 feet wide.
Named AFI's #1 Greatest Movie Hero

Named AFI’s #1 Greatest Movie Hero

That we, or so many of us, could truly believe Atticus Finch was indeed real is the secret of the movies and what makes them great, enduring and an art form that will probably never disappear no matter how hard the major movie studios try to make this so with the financial choices they’ve been making as of late.

Yet all the shock and disbelief that a white man of the Deep South who was raised at the turn of the century and practiced law in the 1930s would ever have had a racist thought in his belief system truly does take me aback. Of course, it also surprises me that there are tens of thousands of people across the country who believe Donald Trump when he categorizes illegal Mexican immigrants as rapists sent here purposely by its government who are killing innocent Americans walking down the street en masse.

Interesting form of logic

Interesting form of logic

In the interests of fairness – and we here at NOTES always attempt to give equal time to opposing views no matter how nutty (Note: I didn’t say we didn’t editorialize) – it is certainly true there are among illegal Mexican immigrants a few rapists and others who do kill innocent Americans walking down the street. Mr. Trump, in fact, found one or two examples of such he reiterated to a room of crazed red meat conservatives and libertarians this weekend in Las Vegas at a Freedom Fest Convention. But it is also true that the vast majority of illegal immigrants – either from Mexico or other countries – are NOT rapists and murders. If this were so we would see a spike so high in crime statistics that no amount of real life Atticus Finches could exonerate from our daily lives and minds (Note: That is, if he did ever exist, which, I might remind you again, he did not).

To put it in terms Miss Lee might see fit to approve of – why can’t Atticus Finch be both a wonderful man, father, attorney and humanitarian yet also be a person who, through his life, espoused, hosted or otherwise considered, any number of less than admirable thoughts and views? This does not make him a bad person – simply a real person.

Yet if one were to measure him as a whole person one must consider whether his dark views represented him in the majority or if his life’s work – both professionally and personally as a father – took up the lion’s share of his existence and was not the true portrait of who he was. In the case of Atticus Finch, who among us would not say that even with what we know of him he’s still, when all is said and done, a pretty moral guy. We were not told a BIG lie about him – instead what we got were a bunch of truths that need to now be balanced against, well, a whole group of other, more disturbing facts.

This is not the case with Donald Trump – or at least it doesn’t appear to be given the information we now have about him on hand.

He traffics in THE BIG LIE. The celebrities who win the top prize on The Apprentice are not really hired by him. His proclamations that our Southern borders are the most unsafe that they’ve ever been are not borne out by current day statistics which show that today’s murder rate in a border town like El Paso, Texas, for instance, is at an all-time low. His continual claims that Pres. Obama has failed to create jobs, especially compared to his recent Republican counterparts are also untruths. In fact, the economy has gained FIVE times more jobs than under Pres. George W. Bush and the unemployment rate (5.6%) is below the historical average.

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#nailedit

None of this is to say the economy is absolutely great, Pres. Obama is faultless or that illegal immigration ceases to be one of many issues needing to be addressed in a more efficient manner.

It is only to proclaim that in each news cycle Donald Trump and many others like him (Note: You be the judge of whom – this has nothing to do with political affiliation) do tell THE BIG LIE. They use bluster, emotional manipulation and all kinds of sophisticated theatrical trickery in order to prove ill-conceived points, devoid of or carefully shading the facts to their own benefit and, specifically in Mr. Trump’s case, to advance whatever narrative he’s choosing to publicly spew at the moment.

Ding Ding Ding

Ding Ding Ding

I’m familiar with what he/they do because these are all part of the arsenal any writer uses in his or her work daily when creating compelling characters and/or watchable situations. Miss Harper Lee also knows about this – A LOT MORE about this than I do. But in entertainment – and literature – these are merely tricks of the trade.

For Donald Trump and others like him they are divisive weapons being used to take the reigns of the ACTUAL world by any BIG LIE necessary.

Watch out for them, they’re dangerous. As for Trump himself, well let’s just say he’s no Atticus Finch – no matter which of Miss Lee’s novels you choose to read.