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A Few Thoughts On Writing Well

A Guest Article by Michael Orr

In the early 1950s, at a well-attended Hollywood union meeting, a renowned director rose to speak to the issue at hand, introducing himself this way: “My name is John Ford and I make westerns.”

The fact that the majority of his pictures were not was irrelevant. John Ford wanted the floor. He also wanted his audience at that particular moment to see him not as just another guest in a rented hall, but standing tall and terrible by the camera, totally in charge of his crew, actors, animals and, yes, even nature itself—unable to be dwarfed by the raw beauty of Monument Valley where all his westerns were shot. He believed, correctly, that image would give his words more weight.

I write movie essays on American films (and have a book coming out this year entitled Hollywood’s A Scary Place!, much of it set in the late 1920s). For the purposes of this piece everything else I have written to make a living and raise a family (TV documentaries, conferences for multi-nationals, videos, newspaper journalism, speeches for politicians) is irrelevant. My only intent for this article is to try to say something of value to other writers, or those just starting up, who wish to write about films.

Work habits are simple

My work habits are not complicated. In a recent interview, when asked how I approach my assignments, I answered: “I research the hell out of everything. I learn more than I will ever need to use.”

One of the benefits of this approach is that what doesn’t make the final edit can find new life in another version of the same essay down the line. For example, say your newspaper or magazine puts you at a 1000-word limit, but you know you can entertain and inform a reader for twice that length. The moment you get the opportunity, re-write it using up the rest of that that file of often unknown facts your publisher did not have room for—then you’re ready to send a new, usually superior version, the first chance you get to another publication. (Never sell anything but “First Printing Rights Only.”)

Equally important, having that scope of understanding of your subject logged away in your notebooks allows you to make the kind of important editing decisions while writing that helps to result in a seamless, informative finished piece.

As to selection of subject, if you’re fortunate enough to reach a point where you can accept only those commissions you are interested in, and you have a fair knowledge of film, then let passion be your guide. Pick the movies that interest you and there’s an excellent chance they will almost certainly be of interest to your readers. If the film title is assigned then the guidelines that follow still apply.

Let me use one essay as an example (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea which is reprinted elsewhere—see link) and tell you how I approached preparing it. There’s not much point in suggesting how you might want to begin such a commission without showing an example of my work.

Every good article should have what editors refer to as a “news peg.” You can also think of it as a “narrative hook” or just plain “good idea.” In this case I had two pegs to pitch: 1) This was the first live action feature produced by Walt Disney Studios, and 2) The special effects stand up extremely well even today, when literally everything can be created for the eye, to the point that in some films now there are no sets at all and the actors perform in front of a blue screen with pretty much everything you see later created in post-production.

The film was released in 1954, and Walt’s business genius showed yet again when he authorized the expenditure required to make a documentary about the making of the film. And this documentary won an Oscar!

Steps to getting it written

Here’s how I went about it writing my essay.

  1. I re-read the original unabridged novel.

  2. I researched the life of the author (about whom I knew quite a bit, but it never hurts to take a refresher course).

  3. I investigated just where in their careers the various cast members were at the time of filming—and how important this movie was to become as part of their body of work.

  4. I watched the film twice. (I had last seen it twenty years ago.)

  5. As always, I took careful and extensive notes during both screenings.

  6. I did some research into giant squid, something Verne makes reference to but the existence of which had long gone unproven—and were invariably dismissed as old sailor’s tales.

  7. I shared the film with friends who had children and grandchildren, both pre-teen or in their teens, supplied the pizza and soft drinks and asked only to talk to them later. (Their age was important because I was most concerned with their reaction to the special effects. Could they be so jaded by what is available today that even Disney’s genius, and the work of his hugely talented staff, would not still stand up fifty years later?)

And, finally, as with all my film essays, I added something different. When contributing to a series for the Saturday Toronto Star (circulation 657,000) mine was the only column that carried the sidebar Hollywood Popcorn: Did You Know… ? This I can make as short or as long as my editor, and the space available that week, permits.

It not only was part of my “signature style,” it became for many of my readers the first place they’d look. I know this because I would receive telephone calls from complete strangers who just wanted to chat about a recent article of mine or movies in general. Often they would tell me they turned to Hollywood Popcorn first before reading the essay. This was flattering and proved my theory that most pieces on film do not dig as deeply as they might. Film fans can never get enough behind-the-scenes information and my sidebar often spurs readers to go off and explore a little more on their own. As a writer I have always found “You can never do enough research.”

So that’s all folks, as one of Warner Bros.’ celebrated animated characters liked to close with. I hope you enjoy the essay.

Michael Orr has written numerous short subject films and documentaries, been a speechwriter and a journalist. He fell in love with movies as a youngster and continues to publish essays about American cinema. A special interest is the late 1920s when “silents, talkies, and radio all violently collide resulting in a cinematic cosmic big bang”—at the heart of his recently completed novel, Hollywood’s A Scary Place! to be released this year by a British publisher. He makes his home in Toronto. He also “doctors” other people’s work and ghostwrites on occasion when the assignment is of interest. You may contact him at Writedumas@aol.com



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