Why is Hollywood so terrible at telling stories about artists? This week's Bradley Cooper vehicle, The Words, is extremely clumsy at discussing the whole thing at the center of its conceit: writing novels. One reviewer said it's like a movie about books written by someone who doesn't read them. Ouch. Of course, singling it out for scorn isn't entirely fair. The Words is only the latest in a chain of poor depictions of creativity that go back almost to the beginnings of cinema itself. But let's just pick on movies from the last 15 years.
Take the 1998 Oscar Wilde biopic Wilde, for instance. It boasts a marvelous performance by Stephen Fry as the infamous victim of institutional homophobia (and his own ego), as well as wonderful recreations of period speech, fashions, and architecture. It even helped temporarily convince the world that Jude Law, in a star-making turn as Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglass, was a solid A-list actor. But the one thing it didn't do was manage to put Oscar Wilde in context. The film assumes you already know that he helped create the idea of modern celebrity, but aside from a few scenes in which we see him writing some of his famous children's stories and another in which he reads literature to a group of miners in Colorado, we never once get that the man was able to do so because first and foremost he was a famous, and notorious playwright and writer. The process of creation is buried under a portrait of the creator.
Or consider 1999's Wonder Boys, which stars Michael Douglas as middle-aged pothead writer suffering from writer's block and having the usual boring American adventures, like an affair with his student. By the end of the film, he finally manages to complete his novel, presumably after stopping the pot smoking. Unfortunately, his actual writing process is simply hand-waved away via a time skip. Similarly, the underrated Blake Edwards film Skin Deep has John Ritter's writer's block-afflicted scribe distracting himself with sex rather than pot, and the result is the same. By film's end he's completed a new novel, but, well, how?
Of course, a few films manage to get the matter right. Like Argo, Ben Affleck's upcoming film about a fake movie production designed to help Americans escape from Iran in 1979. It pulls off the neat trick of nailing the sausage-making process by which movies are made, while also giving proper consideration to one of the tensest periods in the history of American foreign policy. Or perhaps Walk The Line, which though not a particularly good film, did an excellent job of putting Johnny Cash's life and art in context, depicting his surfing of first wave of Rock 'n Roll music in the '50s, his transition to country, and his evolution as a performer. Ditto Frida, Salma Hayek's painstaking portrayal of Frida Kahlo, that makes Kahlo's larger-than-life personality and her art understandable, via her unflinching dedication to communism. Likewise, Todd Haynes' love letter to the Glam Rock movement, Velvet Goldmine, manages to get across both the artistic process and the process of the image making that goes into it with something approaching brilliance.
So how can you get it right? Taking a look at these and other films about art, we've distilled making movies about the creative process to a few simple rules. Screenwriters, take note: They might just save you from writing another Skin Deep.
1) Write what you know. Figuratively
Look, screenwriters: you're already artists. Surely, you have some idea of what it's like to create something. The next time you're stuck trying to figure out how to depict The Process, just take a look at your own, and fill in the blanks. That thing you do every day? That's what being an artist is like. Use it.
2) Do NOT write what you know. Literally.
However, not all art is created equally. Screenwriter does not = painter and not every creative person went to private school. So before you start peppering your character with elements from your own background, ask yourself: would a gangsta rapper have gone to Columbia? If the answer is no, then scratch that bit. And related to this:
3) Actually consume the thing you're writing about.
If you want to capture the essence of whatever it is you're depicting, please, dear god, do not take someone else's word for it. Writing about a novelist? Read a lot of books. Writing about a singer? Listen to everything in their genre. Writing about a rapper? Start a beef with a screenwriter who lives on the opposite coast. The point is that you need to know their art inside and out, or the audience is going to smell a fake. And finally:
4) Please ignore Lord Byron for a change.
We get that artists lead interesting, often extremely troubled lives, and depicting that matters. Do not use this as an excuse to make your story all about this genius, mean-spirited, super-charismatic shining star. Sometimes, an artist is a fat, lazy schlub who can't dress and hasn't had sex in years. Related to this: not every artist who teaches at college has boffed his or her students. If you're thinking this is the case, maybe you should just give up writing and become a professor.