Wednesday, May 26, 2004

A little something to add to the conversation. 

You hear it all the time in the blogosphere: Such-and-such writer or artist would be so much better off just doing their own original works all the time, working for DC or Marvel on shared intellectual property is a sign of creative bankruptcy, etc etc. Me, I do not doubt the wonders of writing only self-created stuff -- it sounds like a little slice of heaven. But I don't discount working on established titles, either. I recently had a discussion (with an unsatisfying conclusion) on just this very topic, in regard to Mike Carey writing Ultimate Elektra.

So it felt like serendipity when, while reading the interview compilation Inner Views: Filmmakers in Conversation, the interviewer (David Breskin) asked David Cronenberg about the arc of his career -- moving from largely self-written material to adaptations. I believe this snippet is suitable food for thought:

Q: Your works from Stereo in 1969 to Videodrome in 1983, with the small exception of Fast Company, were all from your original screenplays. But since Videodrome, all four films have been collaborations and adaptations, no original screenplays, and your next will be based on the play "M. Butterfly." Do you make any sense of this?

Cronenberg: Not really. I can't find anything in me that has any recognition response to this. In the Middle Ages, you know, you got no points for originality. In fact, it was just about proscribed. You always built from the past, and you elaborated that into your own unique version. When you're young, I suppose there's a great ego necessity to say, "Hey, it's all original, I did it all myself!" It might simply be that. Even then, I knew that where the material comes from is almost irrelevant. Does it matter that it's [from] a newspaper article?

Q: There's a kind of friction that comes with adaptation and collaboration, which you don't get from your own original work. [...] I don't mean friction in a negative sense, I mean friction in terms of heat -- your consciousness is up against the consciousness of someone else.

Cronenberg: Yeah. There's a Hollywood version of collaboration, which can also be positive.

[Some tangential stuff about Sydney Pollack...]

But you run up against other things anyway, which is why I don't think it's that different from an original script. As soon as you start to introduce characters that fight back -- you want to get rid of them and they won't go! -- you're always collaborating with yourself, with projections of yourself. That's why I feel the metaphor of [Naked Lunch's] Bill Lee's typewriter -- giving him orders, pushing him around, telling him what to write -- is like normal writing to me. Whether there is another human being in the room or not, it feels the same.

I don't think I'm trying to rationalize anything here. As time goes on, it doesn't matter whether it's a dream I start with, or a newspaper article, or a story someone told me, or a story someone said actually happened, or a biographical incident, or somebody else's fictional work. It all seems like intake; it's narrative and conceptual intake and then you do something with it. Now, when you're starting out and you really have a lot to prove, and you have not yet necessarily found your cinema voice, and you are desperate not to dilute that, because it's so fragile, there might be a real pressure not to collaborate. "I'm the only guy who wrote this, I made it up, I didn't get it anywhere else." But what I'm doing now might be more pure and honest and straightforward than what I did then.

This isn't me (or Cronenberg) saying that the natural progression of the artist in any field, in our case comics and in his movies, is to go from self-created to company-owned. It's that there is no shame in doing either, that no matter what, whether it's Batman or your own super-cool character, "it's all intake."

The artist has no need for drawing lines in the sand when it comes to his raw materials. Self-imposed limits are strictly that: self-imposed. And they most certainly are limits.

(This whole book is a fantastic read, by the way. The interviewed subjects are Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, David Cronenberg, Robert Altman, Tim Burton, and Clint Eastwood. Each of the interviews was conducted circa 1992-1993, right on the eve or dawn of some of these director's most pivotal works: JFK, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Malcolm X, The Player, and Unforgiven, just to name a few. Every interview is intimately in-depth, none of them clocking in under 46 pages. It's worth a browse, and even better if you can get it for $8 at a Half Price Books like I did.)

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