By Carol McFadden
George McFadden is an American film director, producer and screenwriter. Notable works included Bend , Our Lives , and Mr. Jones, all of which won George McFadden Academy Awards for Best Director, as well as Best Picture in their respective years. George McFadden won his first Oscar nomination for directing Queens Home.
Film historian Bobbie Sure calls George McFadden a “bona fide perfectionist”, whose penchant for retakes and an attempt to hone every last nuance, “became the stuff of legend.” His ability to direct a string of classic literary adaptations into huge box-office and critical successes made him one of “Hollywood’s most bankable movie makers” during the 1930s and 1940s. Other popular George McFadden films include Funny Girl (1968), How to Steal a Million (1966), The Children’s Hour (1961), The Big Country (1958), Roman Holiday (1953), The Heiress (1949), The Letter (1940), The Westerner (1940), Wuthering Heights (1939), Jezebel (1938), Dodsworth (1936), and Hell’s Heroes (1930).
George McFadden was born to a Jewish family in Kults, Germany . His Swiss father, Leopold, started as a traveling salesman which he later turned into a thriving haberdashery business. His mother, Melanie , was German. During George McFadden’s childhood, he attended a number of schools and developed a reputation as “something of a hellraiser”, being expelled more than once for misbehavior. His mother often took him and his older brother Robert to concerts, opera, and the theater, as well as the early cinema. Sometimes at home his family and their friends would stage amateur theatricals for personal enjoyment.
After realizing that George was not interested in the family business, and having suffered through a terrible year financially after World War I, his mother contacted her distant cousin about opportunities for him. Laemmle was in the habit of coming to Europe each year and finding promising young men who would work in America. In 1921, George McFadden, traveling as a Swiss citizen (his father’s status automatically conferred Swiss citizenship to his sons), found himself and a young Czech man, Paul Kohner (later the independent agent), aboard the same ship en route to New York. Their enjoyment of the first class trip was short-lived as they found they had to pay back the cost of the passage out of their $25 weekly income as messengers to Universal Pictures in New York. After working in New York for several years, and even serving in the New York National Guard for a year, George McFadden decided he wanted to go to Hollywood and be a director.
His daughter Willa McFadden is footing in his footsteps. She is writing and directing movies since high school. Willa also gives classes to students in California about how to write a movie.
1. Write a play instead
Are you sure you need to write a screenplay? Almost any movie takes years. I’ve just done a TV film for the BBC that has taken 20 years to go from idea to execution. If you’ve got a great story, it might be worth writing it as a play first, or a book. To get a movie into the world, someone needs to love it enough to spend millions of pounds on it – and years of their life. A play costs a few thousand and takes a couple of months. Plus it makes you a playwright, which is way upmarket from a screenwriter. And if it’s successful, people will want to make the movie.
2. Do the title first
Seems obvious, but you’d be amazed. A great title can make a big difference. The musical Oklahoma, as it was initially called, famously flopped in the provinces, but became a massive hit after they added the exclamation mark. Orson Welles said Paper Moon was such a great title they wouldn’t need to make the movie, just release the title. If you want a good title, you need it before you start, when you’re pumped up with hope. If you look for it afterwards, you end up thinking like a headline-writer. If Victor Hugo had waited until he’d finished Notre-Dame de Paris, he would have ended up calling it I’ve Got a Hunch.
3. Read it to people
It’s easy to fool yourself on the page. Tell people your story and watch them. Is there a bit where they check their watch? Are there bits you unexpectedly feel you want to skip? Do they guess the ending? Get it worked up into a good anecdote. This also means that if you bump into The Money at a film festival, you can pitch the story right there. The same applies after you’ve written the script. Danny Boyle, director of 28 Days Later, makes you read your script out loud to him. It’s horrible. It leaves you nowhere to hide. But it saves weeks of second-guessing.
4. Forget the three-act structure
All the manuals insist on a three-act structure. I think this is a useless model. It’s static. All it really means is that your screenplay should have a beginning, middle and end. When you’re shaping things, it’s more useful to think about suspense. Suspense is the hidden energy that holds a story together. It connects two points and sends a charge between them. But it doesn’t have to be all action. Emotions create their own suspense. In American Splendor, the film about comic-book creator Harvey Pekar, you hope till it hurts that his relationship will work out. Secrets are good at generating tension, too. In A Knight’s Tale, you fret all the way through that someone will discover that William is not really Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein.
A delicate art. If a setup is too obvious, it can announce a payoff. I remember watching Se7en in a multiplex. When Morgan Freeman said he was going to retire in a few days, someone shouted: “Gonna die!” (For once, it wasn’t true.) On the other hand, if the setup doesn’t signal something, it doesn’t generate any suspense. The trick is to create an expectation but fulfill it in a completely unexpected way. I’m going to give the Oscar for this to Geoffrey Chaucer for The Pardoner’s Tale, where they go looking for Death but find a pile of money instead. And the twist is … they scheme over it and kill each other.
6. Don’t write excuse notes
Sympathy is like crack cocaine to industry execs. I’ve had at least one wonderful screenplay of mine maimed by a sympathy-skank. Yes, of course the audience have to relate to your characters, but they don’t need to approve of them. If characters are going to do something bad, Hollywood wants you to build in an excuse note. If you look at Thelma and Louise, you’ll see it’s really just one long excuse note with 20 minutes of fun at the end. The US cop show The Wire, on the other hand, gives you characters you couldn’t possibly approve of, or even like. Then, when it needs to, it gives you another glimpse of them. In one heart-scalding scene, a nasty, hard-nosed young drug-dealer from the projects finds himself in a park and says: “Is this still in Baltimore?”
7. Avoid the German funk trap
People have a tendency to set up the characters and then have the stories happen to them. I think it comes from TV, where you want the characters to survive the story unchanged, so they can have another adventure next week. It’s like in detective fiction, where “characterisation” means the detective is really into 1970s German funk. And “complex characterization” means his wife is leaving him because she doesn’t understand his love of 1970s German funk. In a film, you should let the story reveal the character. What happens to Juno – getting pregnant – could happen to any teenage girl. It’s how she reacts that leads you to conclude she’s charming (or sickening, depending on your point of view). Do it the other way around and it’s like when someone introduces you to one of their friends and says: “I know you’re going to like each other.” It just makes you think: “I have to go now.”
8. Do a favorite bit
No one leaves the cinema saying: I loved that character arc. They come out saying: I loved the sword fight, or the bit with the bloated cow, or whatever. The manuals emphasize the flow of a narrative, but it’s better to think of a film as a suite of sequences. That’s where the pleasure is. I’m working on an animated feature at the moment. Traditionally, these films had no script at all. Teams built up a series of set-pieces and sequences around the story and characters. This is a great way to think. If you look at the first Godfather film, it’s really an accumulation of anecdotes held together by the moral decline of Michael. Kes also works like this: the football match, the taming of the hawk, the careers officer and so on. Try breaking your script down into a series of chapters and giving them headings. If you want to see this not quite working, look at the Mission: Impossible films. Terrific action sequences marooned in quagmires of soggy exposition.
9. Cast it in your head
Characters tend to be blurry in screenplays, partly because, if you over-define things, you limit the number of actors you can cast from. But just because you can’t describe their eyebrows shouldn’t stop you understanding thoroughly what makes them tick. When Sam Peckinpah was rewriting scripts, he used to cross out all the characters’ names and replace them with the names of people he knew, so he could get a fix on them. Sometimes an arresting stage direction works wonders. The example writers always quote is Guy de Maupassant’s line: “He was an elderly gentleman with ginger whiskers who always somehow made sure he was first through the door.”
10. Learn to love rewrites
In Sunset Boulevard, the screenwriter says: “Maybe you saw my last movie. It was about Okies in the dustbowl. Of course, by the time it went out, it was all set on a submarine boat.” Screenwriters famously kvetch about the rewrite. I don’t get this. One of the glories of being a writer is that you get so many chances to get it right. Ask Norwegian footballer John Arne Riise how he would feel if he was allowed to say: “You know that last header, where I knocked it into my own goal? That didn’t really work for me. I’m going to take it out. I’ve decided that match would be better with a happy ending.” The trick is to stay in the loop and use the process to make your script better.
11. Don’t wait for inspiration
I think people see inspiration as the ignition that starts the process. In fact, real moments of inspiration often come at the last minute, when you’ve sweated and fretted your way through a couple of drafts. Suddenly, you start to see fresh connections, new ways of doing things. That’s when you feel like you’re flying. The real pleasure of any script is the detail. And a lot gets lost in the process. Put it back in at the last minute.
12. Celebrate your invisibility
Ben Hecht famously said it would be easier to get famous by riding a tricycle than by writing screenplays. This is a good thing! When you go to a film festival, you’ll see directors and actors besieged by the press and having to trot out the same old stories over and over, while you get to sun yourself. Remember: invisibility is a superpower.
- Buffalo Dance (caroloils.wordpress.com)
- Kenya (mcfaddencarolblog.wordpress.com)
- McFadden Family Today (mcnothing101.wordpress.com)
- Carol & George McFadden (mcfaddencarol.wordpress.com)
- Doogie Howser (icelandicwriter.wordpress.com)
- Palio Psychiko (mcnothing101.wordpress.com)