04 December 2012

The mystery of storytelling: Julian Friedmann TEDxEaling Talk (with transcript)

Julian's been my agent since 2005. He's my third agent and my experience with him goes far beyond my previous ones. Julian's a consummate pro.

Over the years he's given me important insights, he's worked hard for me, he's been getting me the gigs, he's stood by me when needed and he's become a very close friend. So when Julian talks about his love for writers in his recent TEDx Talk, he means it from the bottom of his heart (yes, this agent's has one) and I can vouch for it from personal experience.

The TEDx is 18 minutes long and you're best off just watching it. But heck, I'm writer, I happen to love the written word and so I've transcribed that talk (starts below the clip) - it's a long read but there's some real gems in there, some nice anecdotes and a lot of food for thought. So - watch it or read it - you'll know some of the things he's talking about and you may not agree with everything he shares -  but I have no doubt that you'll be able to take a few real nuggets with you on your screenwriting journey.

Transcipt of Julian's 2012 TEDx Ealing Talk

I'm Julian Friedmann. I'm an agent and I'm going to talk to you from an agent's point of view. You may not realize it but agents are in the business of rejection. We reject a lot of people, all the time. At my agency we get about 6000 submissions from writers every year and we probably do not take on more than six writers a year. We know that there are millions of people who want to write, who want to tell stories. But we also know that most of the time, what they write, isn't very good. In fact, it's extremely boring.

I really want to demystify the process, because it appears that storytelling is somewhat mysterious. There are many experts. They disagree, fundamentally, on lots of things. And I think we need to start by looking at a really important question, which is "why is it so difficult" and the answer is partly because you've got to remember that the story is much more about the audience than it is about the characters or the plot. And it is much more about the audience than it is about the storyteller. 

I would even say that storytelling cannot be taught. I don't think it's the proper study for writers. I'm involved in setting up writing courses, I must admit that I also jump on that bandwagon. But I say this because I've worked with writers for forty years. I've been an editor, a publisher, an agent, an executive producer. I'm in awe of writers. I'm filled with admiration for them. It takes an incredible amount of courage to put your soul on paper and have people who are probably a lot less talented than you, certainly much less creative than you, trample all over it.

Agents are often derided. We have a bad press. Which actually is fine. Someone once said to me, you’re a really good agent. I said don’t tell people that. I want to be known as someone who’s nasty. A good agent was once described to me as a marriage broker and a bad one as a pimp. We are trying to develop long-term relationships. But it’s difficult. There’s this story about why in Hollywood scientists who are at the cutting edge research into the latest cure for cancer are now using agents rather than rats – there are five reasons for this:

  1. The first is that people in California are crazy.
  2. The second is that the animal liberation movement are targeting scientists who are experimenting on rats.
  3. The third is that there are more agents in California now than there are rats.
  4. The fourth is you can’t get emotionally involved with an agent.
  5. And finally – there are some things that rats won’t do.

I now want to talk about adultery. Because writers need to be unfaithful. And with due respect to anyone here who’s religious, the holy trinity, adultery and the holy trinity. For me the holy trinity, in my life and in my work, is the writer, the characters and the audience. As a writer you live with your characters for a long time, you nurture them, after all you’ve created them. You have a kind of fidelity towards them. But your audience, you very rarely meet them. You certainly, if you’re going to be successful, never meet more than a minute proportion of them. They probably have prejudices and tastes that completely differ from yours. You probably wouldn’t want to know what their personal hygiene was like. Basically, you’re just there to thrill them, to turn them on, to titillate them – and, by doing so, yourself – and then leave them. Your primary relationship has got to be with your audience, not with your characters.

Now, if the proper study for writers is not to write, what is it? I think it’s human behavior. It’s why people behave the way they do, why they are so irrational, why they can do outrageous and terrible things. Irrationality is really quite interesting. My mother used to win arguments with me by saying ‘Don’t be rational about my neuroses’. There are some experts, some people who have written about screenwriting, who I think are very good, the majority I think are not. Lajos Egri wrote a book called The Art of Dramatic Writing. And what’s interesting is the subtitle. The subtitle is ‘its basis in the creative interpretation of human motivation’. So that’s what writers should be doing.

Now we know that millions of people want to write. Why? What is it that compels people to tell stories. George Orwell wrote a book, which is probably his least well known, but it’s possibly his best book. It’s called Why I write. He describes why he writes but he also says he thinks it applies to the majority of writers. And there are four reasons he gives. And the most important and comprehensive one is sheer egotism. Sheer egotism. The other reasons are: immortality, getting back at people who put you down and trying to make the world a better place.

Samuel Johnson would not have agreed with him. He is famous for having said: “No man, but a blockhead, ever wrote but for money.” He also said, one of my favorite quotes about writing, when he was asked to read someone’s manuscript: “Your work is both good and original. Unfortunately the part that is good is not original. And the part that is original is not good.”

I believe that stories define us. Not language. It’s often said language is what defines us. But you know, dolphins have language, whales have language, elephants have language, chimpanzees have language. But they don’t, as far as we know, stories. Despite Planet of the Apes. Most of the books about screenwriting and most of the courses tell you that there is no formula. Many of them also tell you that you must write out of your own experience. Which is one of the main reasons why most of the stories a lot of these people write are boring. Most of us have pretty boring lives.

Or is there a formula? Years ago I was studying under Frank Daniel, a famous teacher. And we asked him if, in a preliterate society, in other words, before there was any writing, when the old wise men sat around the campfire, telling moral tales to try and bind the clan together, given that they’d not read Syd Field or Robert McKee, would they have used the three act structure? Frank said the three act structure is actually a function of how the human brain works. You plant a bit of information, it pays off. You have to have a beginning, to get to the middle, to get to the end. Sometimes it’s said the British film industry doesn’t work like that – it has a beginning, a muddle and an end.

Actually then, Aristotle described the formula. He did that two and a half thousand years ago. Not only did it work then, it still works today. So actually anyone who says there is no formula is wrong, there is. Aristotle did it in a way that makes it incredibly easy to remember. There’s three words – pity, fear and catharsis. He said you need to make the audience feel pity for a character. You do that usually by making the character go through some undeserved misfortune. What that does – it enables the audience to emotionally connect with the character. And once the writer has got that emotional connection between the audience and the character, the writer begins to have some control over the audience. You then put the character into a worse and worse and worse situation. And because of the emotional connection, the identification, the audience feels fear. When you release the character from the jeopardy or whatever the situation they’re in, the audience experiences a catharsis. Pity, fear, catharsis.

Now, catharsis is actually the result not of any intellectual activity, but of chemicals released in the bloodstream. Notably one called Phenylethylamine, otherwise known as PEA or the happiness drug. Now you can actually cause that release in your bloodstream by taking speed or ecstasy, or, if you want to be a bit more legal, eating chocolate or having sex. So we can try to save the British film industry by giving bars of chocolate to people who are going to see British films. They come out of it and tell their friends they had a really good time.

But just so you can see that this is not specific to a two and a half thousand year old Greek. I found in the program notes of a series of Beethoven concerts given by Maurizio Pollini, a very interesting quote. “Beethoven’s preference for happy endings is not by any means a tendency towards kitsch, but rather a musical style akin to Schiller’s philosophy of struggle, suffering and overcoming.” So you can see the pattern. Struggle, suffering and overcoming – pity, fear, catharsis – beginning, middle and end. It works. It’s always worked and it always will work.

So if you comprehend all this and you can do this in your writing - will you write better? No, probably not. You need more. You need to understand how audiences actually use stories. Why we need stories. What we do with them. And, there’s a really interesting example. For years people have known about these cave paintings that were done twenty-five thousand years ago – famous caves in Lascaux, south-west France. No one’s ever really concluded what the paintings meant. Paintings of animals with the little drawings of stick people. Now, if you know about the Maasai, when they go from being boys to men, these kids have to go and live in the bush, they have a spear and they have to kill a lion. It’s really dangerous. And what do they do? Well we know that they get pretty drunk. We know that they do a lot of rhythmic dancing to get into a kind of trance.

And think that those prehistoric caves were the earliest cinemas. I think that the hunters would go into the caves and they would look at the animals and they would imagine the fear when they went out into the savanna or the bush to face bears, wild boars, mammoth elephants and saber-tooth tigers. They rehearsed their fear. And I think that’s what we use literature for, what we use theater for, what we use cinema for.

If you now know that. You can think now - what have I got to do to enable audiences to have experiences which they can then relate to themselves? Is that enough? Actually, it’s not. Particularly if you’re working in film. You’ve got to understand that we, in Europe, have evolved a very different means of telling stories for cinema than the Americans did. We know that 80% of all the box office in Europe goes to American movies. American movies travel far better than ours. Why? Well, they have bigger budgets. They can spend more money on development. They have bigger stars. We can’t really compete with that. That’s the given – it’s an uneven playing field. They also have very accessible characters. And they also like sentimental, happy endings. It’s very common, it the British press, to see something saying ‘Great film, what a shame it was so sentimental’. Well, we can do it when we need to. We’ve done Four Weddings, Trainspotting, Bend it like Beckham, Billy Elliot, East is East. They all did phenomenally well.

So the solutions are: You have to have accessible characters that the audience can emotionally engage with. You need upbeat endings, if possible. Because we know statistically that they like them. Then there’s the question of dialogue. American movies have only two thirds the dialogue of European movies. And this is really important because it means that their movies can communicate to audiences who don’t have a high level of education, who aren’t even literate. I can explain why in more detail but I’m not going to because I’m going to run out of time. The other thing American movies do is that they tell their stories much more visually because they aren’t using dialogue so they think in, almost in storyboards. And this is important for a very simple psychological reason – we believe what we see. We don’t believe what we hear. And in fact a really clever script will sometimes have dialogue contradicting what you see because that makes the audience wake up. And instead of leaning back as a passive spectator, they will lean forward as an active participant in the process of watching your film.

We can do that. The other thing we can do, but we don’t, is shorter scenes. I was told by a company that does dubbing and subtitling, that American movies, on average, have scenes half the lengths of European movies. It’s a huge difference. Now if you have your scenes, you cut the beginning and the end, without taking out anything that’s critical to the understanding of the film. You leave a gap. And the audience will fill in that gap. And in doing so, it makes them feel good. They are actively watching your film instead of passively watching your film. It doesn’t cost anything to cut out dialogue. It also, by the way, gives the composer much more room to use music. And as we know, music is a much stronger way of connecting emotionally than words. And since your job is to try and create that emotional connection, you should.

Now I started out by saying, we’re in the business of rejection. Diana Rigg edited a book once about the worst reviews ever given of theater plays. And it was called No Turn Unstoned. And I think in a way we need to face the fact that there are going to be people who criticize what writers do, what creative people do. And writers have got to get rejected. All great writers have had lots of rejections. We know that. We could in fact do entire TEDx about rejection. You know - guy goes into his publishing company, big marble entrance hall. Security guy says 'Who have you come to see'. Writer says 'I’ve come to see my editor, I sent him my manuscript'. The security guy looks on the computer screen and says, 'I’m afraid your editor is not in but I’ll reject it if you like.'

All that does is it tells you that you will be rejected by people who probably aren’t as creative as you or as talented as you. And that, unfortunately, also often includes agents. So to end I want to read you the best rejection letter I’ve ever seen. It apparently comes from a Chinese economics journal and it was as a result of someone submitting an article: 'We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible to publish any work of any lower standard. As it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition and to be you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.'

So, on behalf of agents everywhere, to writers, please forgive us for our short sight and timidity. And if, while your egostically trying to get immortality, while you’re trying to make the world a better place, while you’re trying to get at people who put you down, please don’t forget, you have to entertain us. You have to enable us to look at ourselves. Because when we’re looking up at the screen, we’re not looking at the actors who are saying your wonderful lines, we’re not looking at the characters you have so lavishly and lovingly created, we’re certainly not looking at you, we’re looking at ourselves. Because only we are the storytellers. And only we can give you immortality.

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