Cutting with The Muppets

We ran into a problem while rehearsing for the table read of Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Ida Walker: The read-through ran longer than the block of studio time we had reserved for the recording.

The traditional rule estimates that one screenplay page equals one minute of screen time. Whether or not you believe that measurement, you can chuck the ratio out the window when someone needs to read the action and description lines out loud.

I needed to make cuts, and there was one more restriction. These had to be straight cuts: No additions or substitutions.

(I was trying to be mindful of school resources since I’d already printed copies of the scripts for the actors once.)

As I sat down with a pencil and a copy of the script, I lost some of my nerve. The revision I did before handing the script over to actors already cut a number of pages. How was I supposed to know what else to trim?

That’s when my daughter’s obsession with The Muppets helped me get over my uncertainty.

Nearly every time we get into the car, she asks “Can we listen to the Muppet music?” I grew up on the Muppets, and all things Jim Henson, so I’m totally fine indulging her obsession.

The film’s soundtrack includes an extended cut of the villainous Tex Richman’s rap “Let’s Talk About Me,” where he explains how rich, powerful, and awesome he is to the Muppets.

It’s great. Academy Award Winner Chris Cooper chews the scenery so hard, you want to offer him a Tums. You should listen to it.

The difference with the film version? The soundtrack cut features an operatic bridge:

I recall a heartbreaking story
About my own tenth birthday party
Should’ve been a glorious day for me
I’d have been happy as can be
But the Muppets were there
To put on a show
They started to dance
They were telling their jokes
I didn’t laugh
I didn’t know how
Then my friends
They all turned around
And they laughed at me
They laughed at me
I hate you, Muppets so

It provides an explanation for why the character needs to say “Maniacal laugh” to his henchmen instead of laughing himself. It gives a motivation for why he buys the Muppet Studio. It informs why he’s so cruel to the Muppets. And it sets up the joke at the end of the movie where Gonzo hits him with a bowling ball and he learns how to laugh.

Seems necessary, right?

But without that verse, we can still understand why he buys the studio (he wants to drill for oil), and why he’s cruel to the Muppets (he’s an evil oil barron that wants to drill for oil).

The inability to laugh is funny even without an explanation, and the repeated action itself sets up the joke for when a comical concussion knocks some laughter into him.

Everything doesn’t need to be explained in full.

Humans are narrative-making creatures. We try to fill in the gaps and find sense in events. Allowing for small omissions understands this feature of human thinking and respects the audience.

Everybody writes Tex Bridges.

You don’t trust that people will understand a strange choice you made. You worry that something will cause your reader or audience to bump, so you try to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet. You love the backstory you’ve come up with for a character and think everybody else will love it, too.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a Tex Bridge, but there’s also nothing wrong with cutting it and trusting your narrative momentum.

So I thought about Tex Richman, and looked for the places in my script that felt like that bridge: Places that might be entertaining, but over-explained something that the audience could infer from everything else.

Advertisements

The Farmer(‘s Wife)

A local nursery had a sale this weekend with a petting zoo, and Sprout wanted to wear her overalls. I didn’t think this would become a bigger conversation, but then —

“I’m going to be a farmer’s wife!” she said.

“Don’t you want to be a farmer?” I asked.

“Farmer’s wife.”

“Girls can be farmers, too.”

“I’m a farmer’s wife.”

I thought for a second. “Is Mom a librarian’s wife?”

“No.”

“Right, she’s a librarian. And is Grandma a teacher’s wife?”

“Noooooo.”

“Right. She’s a teacher. So could you be a farmer?”

“Okay. I can be a farmer and a lady. And an eye doctor. Actually, I just want to be an eye doctor.” She picked up a toy from her doctor bag. “This is my otoscope!”


This isn’t an outlier in the conversations I have with my daughter. And sometimes she’s the one who gets things started:

This wasn’t a one-off conversation, either. There was a day she refused to watch Sesame Street, and when I asked her why, she told me it was “Because they’re all boys!” A show with a tradition of quality isn’t above criticism, and my daughter was loud and clear on the problem: She wanted to see characters that were like her on the screen.

Are we using words like “representation” and “gender parity?” Not usually.

But that doesn’t mean we’re not talking about these things. When she sees something that doesn’t look like it includes her, or it’s not for her, she grapples with it.

Even a three-and-a-half year old can catch on to the idea that something’s wrong when the world on the screen doesn’t reflect the population of the world she lives in.

 

When Sprout wants me to make up a story to tell her, she says “Tell me a story with your mouth.”

Usually she asks for this when she’s supposed to be falling asleep, and she knows I won’t turn the light back on to read one (or four) more books.

The other day, I was feeling pretty worn out, so I asked her if she’d tell me a story with her mouth instead. “But I don’t know how.”

Jumping over to physicist Richard Feynman:

Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin 1/2 particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics. He gauged his audience perfectly and said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But a few days later he returned and said, “You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.” (source)

I was challenging myself to see if I could break down how to tell a story for a three-and-a-half year old. What I came up with was:

  • Pick someone
  • They’re trying to do something they like
  • Something makes it difficult to do that thing

It’s a setup she’s familiar with, from Moana to Daniel Tiger to Elephant & Piggie.

So I asked her who the story should be about. She chose Fletcher. If you haven’t met Fletcher before, he’s a stuffed fox from Target that Rosie got for her first birthday and has loved since first sight. Here he is:

IMG_6425.jpg

“Okay,” I said, “so what does Fletcher like to do?”

“Paint!”

“And when Fletcher goes to paint, what’s something that could go wrong.”

She thought for a moment. Then it dawned on her. “A volcano!”

“That’s cool! But what about something that could go wrong while he’s painting?”

“He could open the paint and there’s a volcano inside.”

We’ll work on plausibility and foreshadowing later.

 

Making Small Talk

I held the door open for an older woman carrying two tote bags full of books out of the library.

She said, “The sun’s nice. If only it were 40 degrees warmer!”

“At this point, I’d take 20.”

“True! Don’t want to get greedy.”

And that was that. We went to our cars. I cranked up the heater.

A big part of being taught how to write is all about removing unnecessary conversation. Trimming “shoe leather” from scenes.

It’s common for people to say they don’t “do” small talk, or that they’re uncomfortable with it.

But some days, I really like small talk.

It’s almost always about something directly in front of the two people having the conversation. It’s a moment of shared presence.

We could have absolutely nothing else in common other than both being at the same place at the same time, but we’re taking a moment to acknowledge that.

We are here. We’re here together.

My First Lockdown

My school was on lockdown today. There was a shooting in the dorms on campus this morning, and we were told to shelter in place about five minutes into my second class of the day.

It’s still raw for me, but I need to get this out of my system now.

I don’t have a coherent narrative here. Just some moments. Things that happened.

My One Phone Call

I allowed myself one call at the very beginning, before we knew much, just so I could get my head in the game and focus on the fifteen people in my room. I called my wife, said we were on lockdown, said I loved her, and told her I’d keep her updated.

This was both the appropriate thing to do, as well as a completely shitty thing to do.

She needed to know right away, but I had next to no information for her. It was basically saying “You may need to start panicking a lot, or you might only need to panic just a little for a minute and everything will be fine.”

Not calling would’ve been worse, no matter how the situation ended.

This is apparently my job

  • I had to decide on and direct how we were going to situate ourselves during a lockdown to keep everyone calm and make ourselves less susceptible to potential threats.
  • I had to bring in additional students from the hall who weren’t in class at the time and make them feel comfortable, even though they’re strangers.
  • I had to manage the emotional and physical well-being of a group of people in a high-stress, limited-information environment.
  • I had to stay calm and keep from indulging in my own desire to obsessively look for more updates on what was actually happening.
  • I had to hold in check those moments when my own fear might spike.
  • I had to coordinate my actions with the other people in the building and the directives of university police.

My lesson plan for today involved workshopping some student assignments and letting them go a little early since it’s the last day of class before spring break.

We may not have gotten through all of that.

When There’s Nothing Left To Do, Laugh

Here’s the thing: Being a dad has totally changed my perspective on so many things, but I think the biggest is the value of goofy distraction.

When a small child is locked in to their fight-or-flight freak out response, sometimes you can snap them out of it with just the right distraction.

As it turns out, this can sometimes still work as we get older.

There were many bad puns. There were some side conversations about what we would not be covering in class. There was an extended conversation where I got people who were scared to stop thinking about it for a few minutes and tell the rest of us about their favorite movies.

And I may have monologued a bit on why they all need to watch The Brothers Bloom.

Now that I think about it, that’s something I learned from Rio Bravo, too: Sometimes, even when it feels like there’s danger all around you, you’ve just got to fill that time while you’re waiting. Fill it with whatever you can so fear doesn’t have enough space to take hold.

I am definitely not the kind of person you want managing a large-scale emergency response.

But if you want somebody who will get you to put down your phone and snap out of your cycle of fear for 90 seconds so you don’t collapse under the weight of your anxiety? I’m your huckleberry.

The Kids Are A Little Too Alright

For the most part, the students in my classroom took this pretty well. Or at least they appeared to.

They knew the drill. You check social media. Text and call the people you need to. See who’s following on a police scanner and report it to the rest of the room. Sit tight.

There were a few moments it looked like an absolutely normal classroom, with no outward signs of the manhunt going on outside.

I was glad to see that they were doing a decent job of going with the flow, but the more it sank in, the sadder I felt that this felt so shrug-worthy to them. This is just a thing that needs to be dealt with from time to time. Sheltering in place while police search for a shooter is normal.

The Right Stuff

There’s a line from Trudy Cooper in The Right Stuff that I’m thinking about now.

I went back east to a reunion and all my friends could talk about their husband’s work. How “dog-eat-dog” and cutthroat it was on Madison Ave. Places like that. Cutthroat. I wondered how they would’ve felt if every time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a one in four chance he wouldn’t come out of that meeting.

Astronauts have dangerous jobs. Police, firefighters, and first responders have dangerous jobs.

Nobody becomes a teacher with the expectation that it’s going to be a dangerous job.

Even though we’ve had shootings in schools for years. Even though we’ve had tragedy after tragedy. You never think you’re going to actually have to come face-to-face with a room full of students looking for you to control a potentially deadly situation.

And the whole time, my brain was instinctively trying to minimize my own fear:

  • It’s not a real school shooting, because they don’t have the weaponry to kill a lot of students indiscriminately.
  • It’s not a real school shooting, because they keep reminding us in the alert messages that no students have been shot.
  • It’s not a *real school shooting, because nothing happened in the actual building I’m in.
  • It’s not a real

But you know what was real?

Fear.

Your body doesn’t know the difference between fear that you’re experiencing for a tangible, actual reason, and fear you’re experiencing because you’re just thinking about it. That’s how entertainment works: You empathize with the imagined fear of others.

At the start of that lockdown, the fear was real for all the students in my room, even if the threat was less direct to us.

The fear was real.

Fear that comes from knowing that these things just keep happening in this country.

Fear that comes from the knowledge that a person with ill will in their heart and a gun is deadlier than a person with ill will all by themselves.

Fear that comes from students believing that not a single person with any power in this country believes their lives are worth protecting.

I have nothing but bile and contempt for every spineless politician that’s never had to sit in a room full of people, every one of them afraid, looking for you to tell them it’ll be okay. And then to make good on that promise.

The One Bright Side

So many people reached out and got in touch with me throughout this day.

Thank you. Every single one of you.

Thank you for your support, your prayers, your shared fury.

We have to do better, and you make me believe it’s possible.