Thursday, October 23, 2014

Creativity: The David O. Selznick Theory

GWTW Publicity:  Leigh, Gable, Mitchell, Selznick, De Havilland

David O. Selznick.  Producer in “old” Hollywood.  Said to have added the middle initial for flourish and musicality.  In many ways, the master mind behind 1939’s groundbreaking Gone with the Wind (GWTW).

He was also a man who got invested in the seemingly unimportant details like lace trim on petticoats and pantolettes.  Items that didn’t particularly matter to a movie audience.  One of the actresses playing Scarlett’s sisters recounted a story in the documentary about making GWTW.  She basically pulled Mr. Selznick aside and told him he was wasting a ton of money and time including this level of workmanship on their costumes.  In almost any shot, no one would even know it was there.

You’ll know it’s there,” he reportedly said.  “Now finish getting fitted.”

Mammy helping Scarlett dress

The creative mind knows more than it shows.  There is always a backstage we don’t get to see from the audience.  The producer believes in nuance that is layered.  Ready to be peeled away if the right moment comes (i.e. a telling scene between Scarlett and Mammy).

I was chatting with a coworker the other day, and she also happens to believe writing is important to sanity.  Editing, we agreed, is both the bane and blessing of every writer.  Sometimes we edit even before the words make it onto the page.  Hours of research may yield only a paragraph.  We may know the full case history of every character before we ever introduce them to someone else.  I’d call it all a calculated risk.

It’s like sewing lace on an antebellum petticoat, the whole time asking yourself if anyone will ever even know.  The labor?  The love?

It’s an intimate process, but it must be done.

Somewhere out there, someone is asking “why?”  Because if you’re going to commit to this act of creativity, you have to COMMIT.  You have to pull a Selznick and have your characters wear fine lace undergarments while you schedule a huge fire.

Yes, a fire.

First of all, you have to schedule a fire is because you have to clear the way for new production.  In GWTW, there’s a huge sequence around the burning of Atlanta.  In the 1930s, however, CG was not as sophisticated as we’ve grown accustomed to.  Based on the lace anecdote, you shouldn’t be surprised when I tell you that Selznick wasn’t going to be fine and dandy with some miniatures being burned or an artistic rendering of faux flames at work.  Instead, the solution was burning down sets of previous films, creating nearly 2 hours of footage for the famous scenes.

That was different twist on “out with the old and in with the new.”  Or as (arguably) Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings.”  No previous labor should stand so powerful in your mental landscape that you can’t set fire to it for the sake of building something new.  As one of my mentors would say, “cling loosely” to those darlings.

A word of warning however:  don’t expect to get off scot-free.  You may lose something in setting fire to the old stuff.  That little fire stunt cost the GWTW project roughly $25k.  And residents in surrounding areas were calling the fire department in genuine worry; they didn’t know it was a planned burn.  In essence, stripping away the old doesn’t come without a price or misunderstanding bystanders.

The second reason for that enormous fire is as a backdrop for new action.  A beneficial corollary of burning down old movie sets was that Selznick’s crew could then build new sets for the rest of the film.

Consider it Gestalt in action.  The fire and lace interludes become a part of the producer.  If nothing else, it is added to his repertoire as something completed in the past and therefore possible in the future.  Even better, it leads his imagination toward a blank slate.  A freshly installed playground for …

Matte paintings.  Interior sets on GWTW didn’t have ceilings; they were all matte paintings.  This allowed Selznick to propagate the embarrassingly elegant (to Margaret Mitchell) vibe.  He was going for visual extremes.  Realism wasn’t a priority unless he wanted it to be.  What producer would claim any different?

Tenuous, step-by-step on the wire is the life of a producer.  Let's get real:  creator.  By most accounts, Selznick never flourished again quite like he did in the furnace of GWTW.  If we’re honest, we can only guess why.  It doesn’t matter though.  Most of those subsequent films are inconsequential to the average person.  And so I will leave you with one thought:  if you were only remembered for one thing you did, would that be enough?

Think about it.

Selznick with Leigh at the Academy Awards

Sunday, October 19, 2014

If Food for the Stomach, Why Not the Mind? (Asking One of the Dead Greek Guys)

Let me ask you a question.  If you knew your oatmeal was laced with arsenic, would you continue to eat it?  That may seem too loaded a question, so let me put this to you a different way.  If you found out kale was actually as unhealthful as high fructose corn syrup, do you think people would continue to eat it as we do now?

If we really thought about it, the logical next step would be to discontinue eating it.

Now look at the same topic again from a different vantage point.  When someone repeatedly drinks too much, they’re said to be addicted.  This carries the threat of bad health and death from complications.  The same goes for smoking.  The same goes for any behavior that can be dubbed addictive.  These are widely accepted precepts.

Next I’ll turn your attention to the idea of entertainment.  Music.  Books.  Games.  Movies.  These are meant to engineer “fun.”  They facilitate “escapism.”  And me—well, I’m a creative type who loves to encourage my imagination.  Imagination is how I get those deep thoughts churning for the writing I love so well.  I’ve got a doctor’s excuse, right?  And if this escapism is actually killing my soul?

Oh, we’re not supposed to think in terms like that.  We must keep things light, fluffy, and as full of substance as cotton candy.  But cotton candy rots our teeth, which are designed to slice through meat and break down vegetables.  I’m probably getting too esoteric, so I’ll break it down in blunt terms.

Think of a time when you watched a movie right before going to bed and had a dream with some of the same ingredients as the movie.  (For me, a recent example was dreaming about being operated on after a House marathon.)  The escapism lingered in my mind.  It affected me even after the fun was over.

People ask me all the time:  “Why no R-rated movies?”  “Why don’t you listen to secular music?”  And you know, sometimes, I don’t feel like I have a solid reason.  Recently, however, my resolve was renewed.

I read a book that has been lauded for about 20 years; it’s currently enjoying success on a cable mini-series.  It was so highly touted that I thought I’d give the author a shot.  Being an 800-page epic, I knew it would keep me occupied for a while.  The first 200 pages were slow going, but things got intriguing after that.  Then, I started noticing something:  the negative, bad events in the story lingered in my mind like a trauma that happened to me.  Scenes echoed in my head like the words of a top-40 song in department stores.  It felt like everywhere I turned my thoughts led back to that same garbage.

I felt like I needed to spring-clean my mind.

Some ask, why no R-rated movies?  Because I can’t unsee what I’ve seen.  Because I can’t put my brain in a bath and Calgon-away the memories of something that injures my humanity.  Because I have been down that road before, and I know it doesn’t lead anywhere good.  Scattered from beginning to the end of the Bible, I read that the faithful will see God’s face…  I want that.

Some ask, why no secular music?  Because words have power.  Words I say and words I hear.  If Mark Twain could live a month on a good compliment and I’m charged with speaking life to people around me, I can’t intentionally pour a deadly poison in someone’s ear.  Because the ear tests words the way the tongue tastes food (Job 12:11).

Some say, why not continue if you have already begun?  Because I will not continue to eat arsenic-laced oatmeal.  No, I cannot put my mind in a bath and receive a convenient case of amnesia.  But Jesus can cleanse me (i.e. Luke 17).  When I call His name and ask Him to wash away the filth I invited into my mind, my mouth, my life, He washes me.  Just like He did with the lepers along the road.  He says the word, and it’s done.

“Go.  The opposite direction you were going before.”

When I get whirled around and disoriented.  When I start walking on the old road on purpose.  He meets me and says, “Go.  The opposite direction you were going before" (i.e. Prov. 24:16).

Friday, October 10, 2014

Name, Rank & Serial Number

Kids have the greatest knack for being literal, causing you to question how you communicate, explain, teach.  A couple of the absolutely brilliant boys I mentor heard me say a phrase one night, and all of a sudden, I was explaining something so much bigger than just the literal –and they were getting it.

The phrase was “name, rank, and serial number.”

For someone like me who grew up with ex-military around, the meaning is  as innate as the verb to be.  Not so for these 10-year-olds.  They have lived their years in San Francisco, probably with little exposure to military speak.  How to explain it then…?

I didn’t want to talk to them about Guantanamo Bay or ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State.  I didn’t want to talk in more terms they wouldn’t understand.  I didn’t want this to be a moment when their curious eyes glazed over because the boring adult couldn’t teach them.--  Oh, I knew what I didn’t want.

Deep breath.  And the briefest call to God as I dove in.

“Name, rank, and serial number?  It’s like when you’re a soldier and the enemy catches you.  Sometimes they want to find out stuff, so they ask you a bunch of questions.  But you’ve been trained to say the same thing over and over:  name, rank, and serial number.

“So if Satan comes and asks, ‘who do you think you are? You’re nobody,” you can say, ‘I’m M--.  I’m a son of the Most High God, and He has a plan for my life.’”  I turned to look at the other boy.  “And you can say, ‘I’m J--.  I’m a son of the Creator of everything that ever was.  He made me in His image, and I’ve been chosen to show you who He is.’”

Even as I write this, it seems like a lot for a kid to comprehend.  But in reality, they can handle more spiritual meat than we give them credit for.  These growing guys got it.  The conversations we’ve had since then show that they get it.  So regardless of whether someone tells them they’re not cool or not good enough or whatever, they’re learning that because God’s word is always true, they don’t have to worry about the lies.  They’re memorizing their identity in Christ.  They’re letting Him etch it into their hearts and memories.  Each day, they’re learning what it means to know who they are.

I could do with a little refresher myself sometimes.  “I am Valonna, daughter of the King, Who brought me out of misery to bring me into joy” (Deut. 6:23).

Friday, March 28, 2014


The piece you're about to read is one I wrote about a year and a half ago.  I was going through a ton of change, heading to a new level in God.  Giving Him things I’d held very tightly.  God had me taking prayer walks through different parts of the city.  On one particular walk, I knew the destination at the beginning, but partway through, I felt like God was telling me to take a detour.  It didn’t make sense to me, but I figured, “hey, I’m following God, so I might as well follow Him this way too.  What’ve I got to lose?”  So I made the turn, and it quickly became apparent that I was actually going to get to my destination sooner than the previous route would have got me there.  In my spirit, I could hear God telling me, “See?  You’re worried that the detour is taking you farther away, but it’s actually bringing you closer to where I want you to go.”

That conversation inspired this, which I read at a Coffeehouse Fundraiser for the 2014 Philippines Mission Trip.

*     *     *

You’re so very near me.

We’re standing beside a precipice, so close to the edge, I think one deep breath might send me flying.  The deep breath before the dive…

You look at me with protective pride and say, “My daughter.”

You look at me with jealous fervor, “My bride.”

You whisper to me, “My protégée.”

Here I stand, emboldened by awe.  My God, my All in All.

You look at me, and I remember who I am, who I want to be.  When I look in Your eyes, there’s an ache in me that only sinks deeper as I draw closer.

You hold Your arms wide to hug me tight to Your side.  You hold Your arms wide to keep the world at bay:  “Nothing will snatch you from Me,” You say.

You clutch my hand and gently… insistently… pull me along this path I can barely see.  I ask you over and over where we’re going.

            It’s when I’m quiet I can hear you say like a lover, “Trust Me.”

It’s then You stand behind me, so close I can feel Your lungs expand with each breath.  You cover my eyes with Your hands.  I can feel Your right foot move forward, so I step with my right leg.  Not too far, partly because Your grip on me is firm, and partly because I don’t want to lose contact with You.

            “I trust You.”

I can hardly hear myself say it.  Again, with more fortitude.  “I trust You.”

Off to the side, I think I hear something.  What is it?  Some attacker?  A harmless animal?  I turn my head toward the sound, but Your fingers guide me back to center.  There’s a din up ahead, and fear of that sound makes me bristle, but You’re still right there.

            You are undeterred.

            I am locked into step with You.

            We are stepping forward.

“Oh, God, what’s going on?  I need to see where I’m going.”

“No, you don’t.  Trust Me.”

Something inside me starts to resist You.  Why can’t I see?  I have a right!  How can I show others the way if I don’t know how to describe the landmarks?  Before I realize what I’m doing, I’m prying Your fingers away from my eyelids.  I NEED to see what’s up ahead.

Just as one eye gets a peek, I hear Your voice in my ear.  There’s something there…in Your voice… like You’re more determined for me to make it than I am.  Your voice:  it’s not loud, but it’s so… strong.

            It makes me pause.

            “This is the way.  Walk in it.”

This is the way?  Something like a wave of certainty floods through me, and I’m suddenly so anchored in You, the edge of this cliff no longer taunts me.

How can I deny You?  I know how You see me.  You see worth in me when no one including me sees any.  You call me Wanted when I am rejected and forgotten.  No, to You, I am Wanted.

Walk in it?  The fear barking all around me grows quiet at Your command.  When we stand this close, there is nothing that can drown out Your words.

How can I deny You?  You love me and call me Loved when I KNOW  I am unlovely.

You, who teach me when I am dull and confused.  You tuck me next to You and explain mysteries.  To You, I am Confidante.

How could I deny You Your heart’s desire?  To walk with me on this perilously narrow trail, too insignificant to be called a road…


            “If this is the way, I will walk in it.”