P:O.V. No.6 - Alan Alda on Storytelling

An interview with Alan Alda
on storytelling in film

Richard Raskin

Excerpts from two scenes in A New Life (1988)
written and directed by Alan Alda

1. The stethoscope scene (discussed on below)

Steve (Alan Alda) is having his heart checked by Dr. Hutton (Veronica Hamel). Whenever she puts her hand on his shoulder while listening to his heartbeat, Steve's pulse accelerates dramatically, only to slow down again whenever she removes her hand. She suspects that this is happening, and smiles to herself when her hypothesis is confirmed.

2. Cutting the umbilical cord (discussed below)

Having passed out when amniotic fluid was taken from his wife's uterus, and unable to cope with preparations for giving birth, Steve is asked moments after the birth: "Daddy, would you like to cut the cord?" At this moment of decision, he manages to overcome his fears.

One of the most memorable scenes in A New Life is the stethoscope scene, which might be viewed as a perfect model of storytelling in film with pictures and sounds. Athough there is some dialogue, other elements in the scene really carry the story. I'm aware that more than ten years have elapsesdsince the production of A New Life, but do you happen to remember how the idea for that scene came to you?

I really don't. I do remember though thinking that I was taking a little bit of a risk... It's funny, I was just reading a little bit of that manifesto of that new [Dogma] group, where they say: "I hereby renounce artistic taste." (Laughter.) It makes me smile, because I can remember constantly having artistic taste bells going off in my head as I would think of ideas. And that was one in which I wondered if I was being too sketchy. By that I mean writing it too much as if it were a vaudeville sketch rather than a comedy. And the difference to me is that in comedy, the behavior is as plausible as possible. Now in a sketch, you can hear a person's heart race instantaneously when a woman touches a man. But in real life, it might take a little bit longer. And for it to be funny, it had to verge toward the instantaneous. And I worried about that a little bit. And then I thought that it was probably close enough to reality for me to feel comfortable with it.

The odd thing is that in movies, increasingly, audiences are not asked to be able to tell the difference between comedy and sketch-comedy... and don't make any distinction! Long 90 minute sketches are presented as comedies. The sole purpose of sketch-writing is to make you laugh, the same way that a cartoon would, where rules of reality are out the window; it's just the rules of tickling your funny bone that count. And people have lost track of comedy, which is more interesting - it's more interesting to have all those things going at once: reality and funny at the same time.

Anyway, that's all I can remember about that scene.

Another thing that I especially admire in A New Life is the quality that you give to the women characters in the story. They're independent and competent, and they're the ones who set the agenda for the men, to a very large degree. They aren't just parts of a man's story, they shape their own stories. I learned just a few days ago that you've been very active in campaigning for women's rights, [1]and I assume that there's a connection between that and the roles you give to women in your stories.

I don't know. I suppose so. I guess that if in my private life, I campaigned as I did for the equal rights amendment, I would see things in that light... But that's as far as I would go with it, because I really don't believe that any of that stuff is there because I was trying to make a propaganda point. In fact, the reason I don't believe it was there is that I am very much against using films for propaganda purposes. I hate it when I see it in films. I just like to poke around in real human experience and let people come to some kind of understanding that doesn't have to do with learning lessons, or the way you should vote. That's all so minor compared to what you can get out of a really good film.

Another wonderful moment in A New Life is the moment when your character is asked if he would like to cut the umbilical cord, and he does it. This is one of those situations in which you have placed a character before a choice, involving a symbolic gesture that is full of meaning. When you write a screenplay, do you think in terms of confronting characters with choices?

I know that a lot of people talk about storytelling in terms of choices, especially moral choices, and that all seems really interesting to me. I don't know quite how they do it. (Laughter.) I don't do it consciously. I don't think I do, anyway.

I do think it's important to let the character be in a pickle, that the character has to fight his or her way out of. And a really good pickle is where you have to make a choice between two conflicting values. Do you put your family first or do you put your country first? Do you put your love for your wife, who's having a baby, ahead of your need to pass out, or your inability to deal with the mucky part of life and death and birth?

I don't have it down to a formula. And as a matter of fact, I notice that when I write something, and when I act in something, I find myself inventing a new method, a new systematic approach to it each time, which is born of the piece itself.

I remember wanting to write a long time ago and making notes on the story about a preacher that I thought I might play, I thought it would be fun to play that character. And last night, I saw for the first time the movie that Robert Duvall wrote, directed and acted in, about a preacher. It was called The Apostle and was really brilliant. I would never have been able to come anywhere near it, because he spent 12 years I think researching it, meeting those people, living with them. And what I thought was the most interesting thing about it was the way he told the story. He started with a murder. It was manslaughter, it wasn't pre-meditated. But he kills a guy. He's a preacher, and he's running from the law from then on. And yet, while he's running from the law, you see him rededicating himself to what seems to be a sincere service to other people and to the God he believes in. It's a really fascinating contrast, and you can't help but be involved because he seems to be so much of two minds and yet he's completely involved in both of them. He doesn't seem to have any remorse for the killing, and yet he seems to be totally dedicated to this religious life. It's very interesting. But the storytelling element of starting the story off with that, rather than some ordinary event in his life, and watching him in action and seeing some kind of conflict that comes out of everyday events... It's not an everyday event to kill somebody. But I think I might have looked for everyday events, at least when I was working on the story. The ways in which he used the people around him, and the ways in which he had power over people. I think that would have interested me. And it wouldn't have occurred to me to have him kill somebody out of a jealous rage. And yet what a great storytelling device that is. I really thought I learned something from that about storytelling.

So rather than tell you about great storytelling that I've done in the past, I think the best thing I can point to is what he did.

I've learned recently that many Danish television people believe that any given story is or should be primarily one character's. They ask: whose story is it. And generally they expect to find that character both in the opening and in the final shot. Is this something that you think is generally the case? That a story is generally one character's more than any other's? Or do you think that stories can also be shared just about equally?

Well, I tried to share stories in A New Life. I don't think I was as successful as I thought I was going to be with that. Although I think I shared the story between the character I played and the character Ann-Margret played, and their paths crossed at the end even though they didn't know it. I think a little more of the emphasis was on his story because I do think I have what you could call an old-fashioned sense of storytelling, or time-tested if you want to be less pejorative about it. That it's probably most satisfying to mostly follow the adventures of one person.

If I have a thing that I do when I write that's consistent, even though I kind of reinvent my method each time, I almost invariably go back to Aristotle's Poetics. And I do this when I'm writing, when I'm directing and when I'm acting. The central idea that I think is so valuable in that essay where he analyzes Oedipus Rex and tries to figure out what makes it a play, and what is a play, is the notion of dramatic action. And what I take that to mean is that no character can come on stage without wanting something - really desperately, really deeply wanting something. And if everybody wants something, even if it's the delivery boy, then they'll automatically be in conflict; you don't have to concoct conflict for them. I can always tell, I think, when conflict is concocted in a hastily written television drama, like a cop drama, because it looks like the writer has struggled to find ways in which the characters disagree, because that writer's convinced that the essence of it is conflict. But that's missing the point, I think. You automatically get conflict if people in fact want something, and want it so passionately that they believe they deserve to have what they want. Nero deserves to be able to play, even if Rome is burning, because play is that important to him. He doesn't know that he's being foolish or stupid or villainous when he does that. He deserves it. And somebody who tries to stop him because people are dying or hungry wants it for reasons that are just as important to them. And they'll find themselves in conflict.

I learned something very interesting when I was young and was in an improvising workshop. It was Paul Sill's workshop. He ran a company here called Second City. And his mother had invented theater games. We did theater games for six months or so. In one of the exercises, people tried to agree with each other. And what was fascinating about that was, no matter how hard you tried to agree, there was always some little conflict that came up between you which made it difficult to agree.

The fact is, I think, any time you have two conscious humans, they're going to want something just a little bit different from one another, and conflict will be automatic. So you don't have to pursue conflict. What you have to pursue is what they want. And if you pursue what they want, not only will you get conflict, but you get life... because the people die if they don't want anything. You have dead, cartoon characters - just flat, two-dimensional drawings up there unless they want something. And when they do want something, the people can't take their eyes off them. The people are drawn into that, because we want what they want. We want to see if they can get it, even if they want something villainous. We want to see if they can get away with it. We have a chance vicariously to get rich at other people's expense, to have sex with this beautiful woman even though she's married, or whatever the story is.

It's interesting to see if they're going to get what they want. I think of that in very concrete terms. You can get a crowd of people on the street to stop and look at you if you just stand and look up at something on the second floor of a building. They want to see what you find so interesting. They want to see what you're involved in. What are you after? There's something active about your just standing there and looking at it... if it's not just a casual glance, if you're really focused on it. And that's tied into wanting things. I think people are drawn to watch people who want things. And my wanting what I want, your wanting what you want, your trying therefore to stop me from getting what I want so you can get what you want, is the protagonist and antagonist from the Poetics. And I think you get good writing if you look for that, and you get good acting and good directing. And if the writer hasn't given the character a strong "want", something that they're endeavoring to accomplish, the actor is lost. You can't make it up with being cute or charming. You have to find some way to bring that to it.

It's especially difficult when the author thinks it doesn't really matter that they give you dialogue to say that's just expository. They're really just giving the audience information, and they're making the actor be the messenger boy, the Western Union delivery person. It shouldn't be permitted. There should be an artistic law against that, because it's boring and it's demeaning to the actor. The actor can bring so much life to to it if the actor has somethng to achieve, something to accomplish, and in the course of accomplishing it, gets the author's exposition across.

To me, one of the best examples of that are the opening lines in Othello: It's a fight about something. Roderigo says to Iago:

Tush, I take it much unkindly that thou, Iago,
who hast held my pursestrings as thy very own,
should treat me thus.

Roderigo has been giving him money so that he'll advance his cause with Othello, and he doesn't think Iago is using the money right, and Iago is saying: "No, are you kidding, I'm helping you, I'm helping you!" and tries to show him, tries to convince him he's helping him. So in the first couple of lines of dialogue, you've got a want expressed. He wants his money back or he wants his money's worth. And the other guy is trying to convince him to keep giving him money. And in the course of convincing him, we learn everything we need to know about who Othello is, who Iago is, and what's been happening up until the curtain went up. That's much better than the maid picking up the phone and saying: "Master isn't home now. He drove to Philadelphia. He should be back in two days. And the Mrs. has been drinking too much lately." This bald faced exposition is not only boring, it's an affront. Whereas if you can keep it active, it's fun for everybody. It's fun for the actors to play, and the audience doesn't even know you're telling them stuff. It's carried on the back of this active animal.

That's what I try to do. Those are ways in which I consciously try to tell stories.

What do you see as hardest thing about telling stories in film?

There are a number of things, but one of the first that comes to mind is the tension between the need to tell things visually and the use of words. There is a real pleasure in language that we all experience. And a pure silent movie without language isn't as satisfying as good visual storytelling supported by rich language. But it's difficult to get the right balance. And it depends on the kind of story you're telling and the kind of audience that will probably come and see it.

And there are some films that are delicious and almost completely verbal and hardly visual at all, in the conventional sense anyway, like a couple of Eric Rohmer movies that I can remember, and My Dinner with André [Louis Malle, 1981]. One of the most wonderful movies I've ever seen is Wally Shawn's movie that Mike Nichols is in? You have to see it. It's gorgeous. The people sit at a table and talk to the camera. They don't even talk to each other. But it's brilliant! Mike Nichols gives a performance like nothing I've ever seen on the screen. The Designated Mourner it's called. It was a play that they did in London and then made a film out of it. It's brilliant and it breaks most of the rules I just told you about. (Laughter.)

I think when you're really honest, you keep discovering exceptions to your own rules.

And it's good. And I think it's good to shake things up and try to do things in a way you've never done them before.

I love it, what they say in their [Dogma] manifesto: "From now on, I renounce being an artist and I give up artistic taste and æsthetic considerations." I can't wait to see that movie, The Celebration, because it sounds like an interesting movie. I think it's really a good idea to reconsider everything every once in a while.

May I ask what comes easiest to you in the storytelling process?

I love dialogue. And that's why I feel tension between that and the visual. When I was about twelve, I started playing with a movie camera, shooting silent movies in my backyard. So I've always loved telling stories through imagery too. But it was only a few years later as a teenager that I was sitting on trains, when my father was doing a play in Philadelphia - he was trying out Guys and Dolls - and I would take the train down to Philadelphia to see him. And on the way, I'd be writing down conversations I was overhearing, trying to learn how people spoke. We all think we know how people speak, but if you actually copy down a real conversation, you find ellipses and repetitions that you're not aware of when you're in a real conversation. And they're fascinating. You can hear the brain working. And you can hear what the people really desire of one another, that they may not even be aware of themselves. So I would copy down those conversations, and I had been reading Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and had, I thought, learned something from the way they listened to the way people talked. Especially Gertrude Stein. And since then, I've given a lot of thought to it and I'm really interested in the way people speak in short bursts, with a lot of repetititon. And each repetition is a burst of its own, with its own energy. It's like little packets of information. People don't speak in paragraphs.

And I think there's a lot I've learned about that from Shakespeare too, because every clause of Shakespeare, and every clause within a clause, is so difficult to parse. That's possibly just another way of writing down the packets of thought that are being communicated. There are probably very believable and recognizable familiar ways to say that, that we think we can't do because we think we have to make it clear in some other way. People are always parsing it vocally instead of saying: what if this had been written down verbatum on a train to Philadelphia? What was the person going through when they said it? Now obviously people didn't speak in iambic pentameter on the train to Philadelphia. But even if they had been, they probably would have spoken in bursts. And I think you have to find out where those little impulses come from.

I am fascinated with dialogue. I wouldn't say it comes easily to me, so much as I just love it. So I have to make sure I don't get buried in it.

What do you see as the worst mistakes a beginning screenwriter can make when telling a story? And is there any advice that you would want to give student filmmakers about their storytelling?

Those are two good questions.

I think a really big pitfall for beginning writers - and this was true of me and I think is true of many other beginning writers whose work I read - is that you really can't write convincingly about something you don't know anything about. I think Robert Duvall's living with those people for twelve years is a great gift that he made to the audience. Because I believe that I'm looking at real lives, something like the way they were really lived.

It's really not worth much to just tell me a bunch of stereotypical impressions that you got from reading a newspaper or that you figured you could just imagine if you sat down and thought about it for five minutes. And stereotypes come easily to us. In a way, we have to think in steoreotypes to get through the day. But stereotypes are the enemy of art, I think. When we're children, and we draw a face - sometimes its because an adult will show us the stereotype - we'll draw a circle for the face and a couple of circles for eyes and maybe a circle for the nose and a line for the mouth. That's not a face! It doesn't look like a face. It isn't a face. We've just all agreed that those stereotypical symbols represent a face. And if you try to actually draw what's really there, what you really see, it's shocking sometimes how much more alive that looks, even if the proportions are all wrong.

So I would say to a beginner: be really on guard against stereotypical impressions. Just because you're writing about a mobster, doesn't mean he necessarily talks tough. He might look like an accountant, he might be effeminate. There might be all kinds of things about him that you would never expect. But don't make them up out of fantasy. See if you can learn what it's really like and when you're looking at the real thing, try to really look at the real thing, and don't filter it through some stereotype and say, "Ah, yes. I see what this is. This is that stereotype..." You have to get to recognize your own stereotypical thinking so you can check it at the door.

Another thing to watch out for is thinking you can impose on the audience and they won't mind. They might not mind, but they'll get tired of you and they'll leave. By impose on them, I mean: give them a whole lot of exposition that's not active and not playable, but just sort of "the daily news" about this character. It's tiresome for an audience.

Those are just a couple of things. There are plenty of other things for beginners to think about. But something that I don't think I've heard anybody else say about what to look for in a beginning film that I've noticed in most beginning films that I've seen, is that there is almost always a moment in the film that's crucial to your understanding what the film is about. And very often, that moment isn't clear. The filmmaker knows what it means, and the audience doesn't. And if you say to the filmmaker: "You know, this moment doesn't work. Why don't you just cut it out?", the filmmaker will grab his or her hair and say: "What do you mean? That's the whole picture! That's where he decides to give the secrets to the Nazis..." And you say: "But it's not there. You haven't shown that." He says but that what he's thinking. So I say: "Then make him do something that let's me know what he's thinking because I can't tell."

It's amazing how difficult it is, especially in the crucial moments, to make it clear what's happening. I think you have to be able to say to yourself: "Why is this shot here? What do I think is happening in this shot? Is it really happening?" And you need to be able to take it when somebody says to you: "That's not what I see happening." You need then to go back and re-shoot it, and make it happen."

It may also be that you're trying to squeeze too much into it. You need sometimes to be very simple about it and break it down into simple steps so that people get it.

It's tricky because on the one hand, all art is more affecting the more compressed it is. On the other hand, sometimes the more compressed it is, the more confusing and obfuscated it is. So have to just hit that right balance, or come in at the right angle, so that you're not telling them everything, you're not telling them what they already know, and yet you're telling them enough so they know what's going on. They should be able to follow the story.

And we're just talking about following the story. We haven't even gotten into what does the story add up to, what does it mean. Are there levels of meaning in it?

There's a wonderful movie that just came out here called Smoke Signals - the first movie written, directed and acted by Native Americans ("Indians"). In that movie, the writer and the director are able to take an image of a father and a son and allow it to mean a half a dozen different things. They mean the actual psychological relationship between the father and the son; they mean the sociological implications of fathers and sons who behave like that toward each other; they mean the religious, spiritual relationship of us to our forefathers; and they mean the relationship between us and the earth as the father or the father-mother... I mean it's just amazing how, by virtue of the images that you see, and the way the images are cut together, with not much dialogue and no stating of the theme, literally, just by the way the images come at you and how they're juxtaposed with one another, you get this layered meaning. And that makes it tremendously satisfying æsthetically, intellectually. And yet it's completely understandable on a base level of storytelling, of what happened to this boy and his father, between him and his father. It's really good storytelling. I hope you get a chance to talk to both of those people: to Duvall, and the guys who made Smoke Signals. I think that they're both really good examples of storytelling in film.

New York, 12 October 1998

[1]Alda campaigned extensively for 10 years for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and in 1976, was appointed by President Gerald Ford to serve on the National Commission for the Observance of International Women's Year.