How watching movies has helped my writing

So a friend turned me on to Moviepass, which allows you to watch one movie a day for a flat fee of $9.99 a month. Yeah, it’s an unsustainable business model, and it’s probably not going to last. But it’s proven TERRIBLE for me, because I’ve gotten absolutely addicted to watching movies, and when the company goes bankrupt I’ll probably end up spending way more on movies than I do now.

Anyways, I’ve watched six movies in the last ten days. At this point I’ve seen most of the Oscar contenders aside from The Darkest Hour and The Post. I have to say, I think this is a good year for movies. None of the Oscar nominees is an embarrassment (the way Hacksaw Ridge was last year) and none are nearly as dull as last year’s Arrival or Manchester by the Sea. The one that comes closest to not being worth your time is, in my opinion, Dunkirk, simply because there’s not a lot in the movie to hold onto. But even in that film there’s a very good strand of the story (about two soldiers doing their best to escape from the beach and get onto the rescue ships) that serves to undercut and fill out the traditional war story.

Of this year’s Best Picture movies, I’d say The Shape of WaterCall Me By Your Name, and Phantom Thread are superlative, and Lady Bird, Get Out, and Three Billboards are extremely good. If any of those films won Best Picture I’d say, “That makes sense to me” (well, maybe not Three Billboards…)

I just saw Call Me By Your Name about five hours ago, which might shape this opinion, but I loved it. I’ve definitely seen friends call it beautiful, but empty, which is a fair criticism. But to me the movie seemed to have one purpose, which was to capture the heart of longing, and it did that better than almost any film I’ve ever seen. In fact, if there’s any movie that comes close to what I want to do with my own work, it’s Call Me By Your Name. I just loved how the camera lingered on the actor’s bodies. Love how it accentuated their long eyebrows. Loved the contrast between Timothee Chalamet’s underdeveloped pale body and Armie Hammer’s very developed golden physique. Loved the hints of intellect that were never taken too far. I don’t think the movie was empty. I think it examined the nature and shape of desire: the ways that you’re attracted not just to a person’s personality or to their character, but also to their body, and that the physical often comes before the personal.

Admittedly it was a very microscopic story. Yes, it was set in 1983, and yes there was no homophobia and no awareness of AIDS or HIV. But whatevs! You know, somewhere in America there are two undocumented people falling in love, and they’re not worrying about getting deported right now, because they’re FALLING IN LOVE. In some ways these character’s self-absorption feels, to me, very real.

But I recognize that this movie is hitting me right in the place where I, right now, am sitting. I do think it’s about thirty minutes too long, and it didn’t seem nearly as in command of its material as The Shape of Water did (say what you want about it, but TSoW is structurally perfect. I mean basically every element of it is perfect.)

Watching all of these movies has been good for my writing. I’ve started to ‘see’ a little bit more with my mind’s eye as I write. Now when I’m writing I’m able to zoom out and think, “Okay, what would this look like? What would the audience actually see?” I think there’s a tendency, when writing prose, to write from a place that’s too deep inside the character and not well enough connected to the events they’re actually experiencing. Ever since I’ve watching all these films I’ve been able to focus on the action itself, and I think that’s resulted in stronger scenes and better set-pieces.

Oh, and also in more variety of scenes! Because in a movie every scene can’t just be people sitting around and talking. You need movement. Variety. Changes in pacing.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about lately (this isn’t entirely related to the movie stuff) is that when I’m writing a book, I try to understand, “What is sustaining the audience’s interest” and “What is sustaining my own interest.”

The interesting thing, to me, is that the thing which sustains the audience’s interest is usually really simple. It’s just suspense. Will they or won’t they? Who did it? Will they defeat the bad guy?

It’s easy, I think, for the writer to forget about suspense, because to the writer, that stuff really doesn’t matter. After all, we mostly know everything that’s going to happen. And for us the thing that’s holding our attention is usually, well, it can be anything, actually. I try to write characters that are larger-than-life–ones which do or say things that the ordinary person wouldn’t–and there’s a certain amusement in letting those people play. I also like to create friends: people I’d like to know; people composed of the best and most interesting parts of people I know in real life. And I like to create startling juxtapositions–putting together people who in real life maybe would never know each other.

I think I’ve gotten very good at telling when my own attention is engaged and when I’m just doing what I feel like I’m supposed to. The interesting thing about following your own attention is noting the places where you get bored. Sometimes I know, even before writing a scene, that it’s going to bore me. Which makes me wonder if it’s even necessary. For instance, right now I’m writing a character who, although still in his thirties, lives with his parents. The story seems to demand a scene where he interacts with them, but the idea sort of bores me. And it’s making me think, well, maybe they’re not necessary. He lives with them, but he’s come to a sort of detenté with them, and they’re not actually that important to the story I’m telling.

This is the thing, I think, that often causes writer’s block. There’s a story you know how to tell, but it’s not the story you need to tell. And that means that writing is, necessarily, going to be torture until you re-learn the trick of listening to yourself.