Hank Isaac Remembers the Great Stewart Stern

by Hank Isaac

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Earlier this month my mentor and former teacher, Stewart Stern, passed away. He was 92. A gentle man with a kind heart, Stewart was much more than just the writer of the classic film “Rebel Without a Cause.” He was an ardent fan of Barrie’s Peter Pan, Paul Newman’s friend and biographer, and was never at a loss for captivating career anecdotes. Even when he told his stories over and over again [yes, my point exactly] you never got tired of hearing them.

We grew up not too far from each other. We attended rival prep schools in NYC, though about twenty years apart. Both our families had close ties to Loews/MGM.

There’s a whole lot I could say, but one particular moment will forever endure and so I thought I’d share it. Make of it what you will.

Stewart was teaching a course at the University of Washington in Seattle – two decades ago, now – and we’d stayed late to listen to some of his film production tales. He ended up losing his ride home, so my wife and I said we’d give him a lift.

At the time, I was kind of soured on the whole screenwriting business – not the creative part, the business part. I’d been sending out a feature film screenplay and getting mostly ignored. What a surprise, right?

So as we neared Stewart’s home – I was driving and he was sitting in the passenger seat next to me – I remarked that I was going to harden myself in order to survive the writing and pitching process. As he got out, I got out, too, to open the door for my wife so she could switch seats. As I stood up, I said, “I’m just not going to invest myself in my characters and stories. That way, I can’t ever get hurt.”

Stewart got out and stood up at that same moment. He stared at me over the top of the car. Now bear in mind: This is one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of the planet.

But he said nothing.

Instead, he just looked at me as if I’d just killed the thing he most cherished in the world. I remember the sadness in his eyes. I will never shake that look.

We said our good-nights and went our separate ways for the evening. But what I realized in a jolting instant was that I had to invest myself. That’s the price. That’s the cost. That’s the burden.

So from that moment forward, I’ve cared about my characters as deeply as if they were close family. And if someone reads my work or watches my productions and they don’t care the way I do… Or they criticize my writing or my stories or my characters… I just don’t care what they think. I care enough on my own to get emotionally upset when my characters have problems and to delight in their victories. My goal is to make you feel that way, too.

Except my “success” is no longer dependent on someone else’s opinion.

Try it. It’s incredibly freeing.

And Stewart… Thank you.

Lilac is here: https://vimeo.com/110297552

Hank Isaac: Underfunded Overachievers #5

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The Crafting of “Lilac” – Writing a Ten-Minute Episode with a Dozen Subplots
by Hank Isaac

Speaking with a few writers and directors on the topic of “writing short,” I learned that writing TV commercials and promos is a great way to hone one’s writing skills. Face it: 10 seconds to a minute – not a whole lot of time to get a point across, is it?

Okay, so I don’t write commercials. But WEB series episodes (not counting the hour-long House of Cards) are necessarily short. Maybe not half a minute, but definitely not full TV episode running times.

“Lilac” has ten characters in its ensemble cast. Each has his own life, story, problems, etc. One season is thirteen episodes of roughly ten minutes each (the Pilot Episode plays for 15 minutes). So each season is essentially a feature film. But it’s broken up into ten-minute segments. Something has to “happen” in each episode.

And each one needs to begin with a promise and end with some sort of cliffhanger.

In some cases, “story” needs to be conveyed in an image bite or a sound bite. For example, in its simplest form, let’s say Lilac is on the street and one of the other characters – we’ll say Peter Littlejohn – hurries past in the distance. Neither character acknowledges the other. Perhaps Peter didn’t even notice Lilac. Or he did and chose to pretend he didn’t. Even if this whole encounter takes only three seconds, we have a story element. Where is Peter going in such a hurry? Where did he come from? What direction is he heading in? How is he dressed. Why doesn’t he notice Lilac? Why doesn’t Lilac shout to him? Does he encounter another character? If so, who?

And then that moment is over and perhaps Lilac encounters another character or has to do something. The point is: Peter’s three-second bit of action can move the story forward and also reveal a bit of his character. Each of the above questions can be answered with images or sound. They can be payoffs and/or setups.

Even a look or just one word spoken by one character can spin the story. The thing to try to master is some sort of balanced expression. Every story element and story beat can’t last just three seconds. It would get pretty boring, pretty quick.

Note: I tend to fall asleep during long action sequences. What always keeps me awake are great reversals – even if the reversal occurs when two characters calmly talk to each other.

And if we’re talking about talking, there’s a old TV technique referred to often as the “foreground-background” shot. This is where two or more characters appear in the same frame, each facing the camera, but at varying distances from it. And they all are engaged in a conversation with each other, but face the camera, not each other. This technique was developed for speed and economy. No cutting to capture each character’s dialogue and body language. No worrying about “crossing the line.” No moving the camera and relighting the set for each actor. A shot like this can accomplish a huge amount in a very short time.

It does, however, depend on the Director and the actors “delivering.” There’s no cutting away to another shot if things go south.

Done well, this “old style” shot can bring a lot to a WEB series episode, but in the modern era, a shot like this needs to be clever to avoid its obvious cliché.

We’re exploring ways to include more shots like that as “Lilac” continues for the very reasons they were developed – speed and economy. One of the essentials, however, is that the layout of the shot needs to be “motivated” by the characters and their story and not simply staged for its own purpose.

Lilac is here: https://vimeo.com/110297552

Next time: Writing for an audience demographic.