Feb 25, 2012

What can John Malkovich teach you about writing?

John Malkovich meditates on his undeniable mastery

“Even if you do succeed most people wouldn't notice anyway.

I have a theory: directors fear John Malkovitch the way Thomson’s gazelles fear the cheetah. No-one makes John Malkovich act unless he wants to and, if you ask me, he seldom does.

But when The Malkovich is in the mood, let him do his thing, for beauty will adorn his gesture and liquid gold shall flow from his lips.

John Malkovich was born in Christopher, Illinois, the kind of place that is mostly content to exist and leave it at that. Small towns have this way of birthing eccentrics, nurturing them for a while and then shoving them off the nest. Best start flapping those wings, sonny boy.
That’s what Malkovich did. In 1976 he became a charter member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, founded in a Chicago church basement by Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry.

What does John Malkovich bring to his roles? If nothing else, a dangerous aura. Though in most films John acts with the exuberance of a beached whale, he’ll always have that face, that sinister face that hovers between the expression cold indifference and simmering contempt. Malko’s flat delivery somehow conveys menace -- his tone is that of a too-lubricated robot.

John Malkovich would like you to know
his tongue has earned a PhD
from the Sorbonne.
Only the Coen Brothers were capable of forcing The Malkovitch to act, and the experience must have been traumatizing, because Burn After Reading was the last truly good movie they made.*
*There’s something about A Serious Man that just doesn’t gel, if you know what I mean, and it’s not a lack of Malkovichery.

Listen: I genuinely admire John Malkovich. No thanks to the movies where he’s performed like a giant sloth on Demerol, but for the roles that were clearly suited to him and that he truly inhabited. Eragon is clearly not one of them, but Burn After Reading? Most certainly. Nor will I forget his sleazebag Vicomte in Liaisons Dangereuses.
Having suffered through Transformers: Dark of the Moon, I can tell you that the movie should have been about Malkovich’s character. I did get a kick out of Malkovich playing an ultra-charismatic jerk and confusing the hell out of Shia LeWhatsisface. If only that bit were for real. (Oh, Cybertronian Gods, please heed me.)

So, what can John Malkovich teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

“I don't want to be boring. But that's not always easy.

What do actors do? They lend their bodies and voices to imaginary people in order to make them real for a time. Real to you, that is.

Actor and director work together on developing a complex persona with her own mannerisms, her attitudes to herself and the people around her.

Fiction characters are not all equally important, but any who play a significant part must have some captivating trait, some quirk that makes them human and understandable. Bad actors, like Chuck Norris or Steven Segal, have extremely limited range. They can’t handle anything outside action roles; subtlety is beyond their ken.

John Malkovich is not like lesser mortals:
He does not require chairs.

You, the writer, have your work cut out for you. To you falls a much more daunting task than the actor’s.
Your job is to develop every single character in a mental movie. There are no flesh-and-blood actors around to inspire you. As if creating all the characters from scratch weren’t hard enough, you need to design the sets, work on the ‘lighting’… At times it gets frustrating, I know.

Characters are an investment. The more time you spend fleshing them out, the more they will engage you. Assuming you are not a ten-foot amoeba from Saturn with a predilection for basalt-flavored jelly, I’d say that any character that entertains you -- one you enjoy writing -- will find its way to the welcoming hearts of your readers.

Even when that character is a bad guy. Or an alien amoeba.   

“I've permitted myself to learn and to fail with some regularity. And that is probably the one thing I was given, and that I'm still grateful for.

John Malkovich doing what he does best
I’ve said this many times but it bears repeating. Some people shoot for perfection and they miss their target, for obvious reasons. Perfection will always seem unattainable to you. ‘Perfect’ is a quality that only fans see.

‘Perfection’ means you’ve stopped looking at your work with a critical eye.

We all need to embrace imperfection because it’s the only way to get anything done. Works of art are subjective; there’s no ‘absolute perfection gauge.’ How would you calibrate that thing? I can point to the perfect episode of Angel, but would Joss Whedon share my opinion?

The world is far from ideal, yet still a place where good things get done. Pursue ‘good’ and someday you’ll enjoy the exquisite pleasure of a reader telling you that your latest novel is ‘just perfect.’

Or ‘amazetastic,’ which is even better.

“You have to do things people see or you don't get to do anything.

The world is unforgiving to those who hide.

It’s true. The majority of writers are unwilling sword-jugglers. You need to hang on to your day job, put in the writing hours and SOMEHOW find time for your family. Some people speak of ‘demands on their time’ with great levity, but those who’re trying to make a living know just what ‘demands’ is supposed to mean.

Mary Reilly (1996) where John Malkovich was forced
to star opposite that old beast, the unsightly Julia Roberts.
 Illness doesn’t wait for the right time to knock on your door. Pets have no conception of you as a creative. Family members may be reluctant to accept that you have a need to express yourself in a coherent artistic way, everyday. While the ideal family is respectful and understanding, not everyone is equally blessed. Once at a writers’ conference a lady approached author James N. Frey and told him that she wanted to write, but her husband was not happy with that idea. Frey said, “Find a new husband.”

You know that weight on your shoulders? The pressure to succeed and the myriad small necessities that so often conspire to keep you away from the keyboard or the notepad? That weight, that pressure, they’re compounded by regret.

Show your gifts to the world. Scarcity of talent never was an impediment to success and energy is far more important than talent.

John Malkovich, on learning he'd have to work with Shia LeSmurf

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction.

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