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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What You Can Learn From Clark Rockefeller

Did anybody else read that article in Vanity Fair about "Clark Rockefeller," the German guy who successfully made up a number of mysterious and wealthy personas, including claiming to be a Rockefeller? His audacious and slightly alarming story makes the Catch Me If You Can guy look like a pussy cat by comparison.

What can we, as writers, learn from "Clark?" Anyone? Oh - I see a hand in the back. Yes, correct, we can learn that we all want to believe in the beautiful lie. In other words, people are willing to believe almost anything. Why just last evening, after watching Milla Jovovich complete an extraordinary martial arts stunt in RESIDENT EVIL, my best pal told me he is practicing the same one in his class. Seemed totally plausible to me - my friend is in great shape. Turns out he was joking. But how was I to know? I don't know anything about martial arts. Sure, looking back now, as my friend was lying flat on his back on my sofa eating popcorn, it may have been a suspicious claim. But in the moment - hell, who knows right?

If someone told you that he or she had lived in Brazil for six months and helped indigenous people build new thatch huts while fighting off tarantulas and a neighboring, warlike tribe BEFORE returning to Yale where he or she was studying the Sociology of Indigenous South American Tribes, would you buy that? Because that could possibly be true, well, what reason would you have to disbelieve it?

Yesterday I watched YES MAN - there's a nose-wheely stunt done on a Ducati. Real? Or a movie stunt with some CGI benefit? Real, as it turns out. I'd not know the difference and I don't care - it was a good moment in the movie. In BIG, Zoltar grants Tom Hank's wish. We know in real life this couldn't happen but in the movie - we willingly suspend our disbelief. A willing suspension of disbelief is the free ticket handed to you, the screenwriter, by every audience member going to see your movie.

But taking this idea a step further, or perhaps backwards and to the left - when thinking about your characters - who do they want people to believe they are? Who do you want people to believe YOU are? You see, Clark Rockefeller was motivated by more than a need to scam money, rides in private jets and exclusive club memberships - he reveled in the feeling he got from the perception that he was monied and blue blooded. Imagine how differently a Rockefeller is treated making dinner reservations at the most expensive restaurant. Imagine the carte blanche that gives you. Even if you are not writing a character who is a pathological liar - being that that is the extreme - everyone has a self and public image that they cultivate. I'm the nice dad, the crazy artist, the neurotic writer, the dependable friend. But that's just on the surface - in the bathroom mirror - all alone - who is your character, really? Who are you - really?

Every one of us is playing a role - if not several. You might be one person at work, another person to your family, another person to your lover or friends. Now, we all know that healthy people don't have huge differences in these different roles - but remember, your main character, at the top of the story, isn't totally healthy and balanced - they need to change. And you, the writer (aka God in this script) are going to force that change. In the arc of your character, he/she is going to unite inner and outer selves - the external want and the internal need - so that he/she is healthier and more realized and fulfilled in the end. It is that tension between who your character wants to be and who they need to be that fuels their arc.

As the truth began to sneak up on Clark Rockefeller, his lies grew more and more farfetched. He was desperately avoiding being found out and he got sloppy. Or began to dissemble psychologically. Yeah, well, probably the latter, but if he were a character in a movie, his fall apart would coincide with an epiphany - he'd finally come face to face with what it is he's been running from. Again there's Reality and then there's Movie Reality. In Reality, "Rockefeller" will probably just sit in jail for years believing his own lies then writing a book about the experience. But in Movie Reality, he'd have a flash of insight that would lead to personal growth and a satisfying ending.

There are several lessons to draw from this convoluted and, I hope, entertaining post:

1. Read the paper and/or magazines: If you hadn't heard of Clark Rockefeller til now, you've missed out on just one of trillions of fascinating real life stories that can inspire your writing and your understanding of character.

2. Audiences are like a group of people at a party standing in a circle around that one totally fascinating dude - they've had a couple of drinks and will buy almost anything. Exploit that.

3. Your main character is one person on the exterior but someone else on the inside. It's your job to unite those two selves in a satisfying way. Your main character will hate you for trying.

4. The more you think about what makes people tick - everyone from yourself to crazy, pathological liars to that enormously cranky woman who works at the post office - the deeper your writing can explore that.

5. People are weird. We all are. It's a matter of degree. But movie characters are not like you and me - they are composite, escalated versions of who we fear we'll become if we don't find love, spontaneity, courage - you name it. And in the end, they are who we'd like to be. They are life writ large, they are on a journey with a happy, tragic or in some way conclusive and definable ending. Audiences crave it. So do you. Deliver on that.

6. Writers are weavers of The Beautiful Lie. We are that dude at the party. We are Clark Rockefeller. Have fun with it.

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Anonymous said...

Talking about YES MAN. How did
Andrew Mogel (II) get a gig writing the screenplay? He does not have one single credit on IMDB before Yes Man.

Does anyone know anything about him or is this an example on how you help a friend kick start a career?

Julie Gray said...

I don't see any other past credits either but on Studio System, he has three projects in development. I'm not sure what his rise to Yes Man was comprised of. Though his imdb may be pretty empty, my guess is there's more going on than meets the eye.

Judith said...

Hey Julie,the little light bulb in my head went off when you asked,"Who do your characters think they are?"It's a great question to ask when writing.Someone doesn't have to be a conman or pathological liar to have a slightly distorted view of themselves.As you mentioned we all have 'ideas' of who we are and it depends whether or not the people around us are prepared to reflect that back to us.It's given me a lot to think about. :) Thanks

Julie Gray said...

Judith - I'm so glad a light bulb went off! A friend just said of me the other day, that I am an "earth mother" and I thought - REALLY?? He's not the first person to use that phrase to describe me but it absolutely does not match my own self image. Which is interesting, isn't it? The way the inside does not always match the outside?

Anonymous said...

I came across the Black List top 10for 2006. Andrew Mogel came in 10th for HIMELFARB.

2 years later he has a massive hit as co-writer for YES MAN. Also Seven Pounds came in 9th.

Here is the list.



After the siege of a small town by outlaws leaves over sixty dead, a sheriff teams with a mysterious doctor to find the responsible villains.


STATE OF PLAY by Matt Carnahan

A tabloid reporter struggles to uncover the truth behind the suicide of a Washington intern who was the lover of a popular, married senator.


RENDITION by Kelley Sane

After an Egyptian expat/Canadian citizen, wrongly suspected of terrorist ties, is captured and rendered by the US to Egypt for questioning, his American wife, a congressional aide, and a CIA man try to gain his release.


VILLIAN by Josh Zetumer

Two slightly deranged brothers stalk each other in the wilderness of Alaska until their angry rivalry starts claiming innocent lives.


THE GRACKLE by Mike Arnold & Chris Poole

A thug, who beats up bad guys for a living, struggles to overcome the revenge plot of a victim - an ex-con with plans to takeover the French Quarter.

THE CITY WALLS by Caleb Kane

A young man feels remorse after he delivers a teenage girl to his pimp benefactor and attempts to rescue her and himself from the mean streets of Eighties New York


LAST MAN HOME by Jamie Moss

An AWOL Marine battles a Special Forces team and a crew of CIA hitmen as he struggles to locate his missing Air Force pilot brother - smack dab in the middle of the shock and awe of Uncle Sam’s assault on Baghdad, circa 2003.




SEVEN POUNDS by Grant Nieporte

An IRS agent tracks down good people whose lives have been ruined by tragedy and arranges to help them all before killing himself.


HIMELFARB by Andrew Mogel & Harrod Paul

After one bad blind date, a hopeless geek becomes obsessed with a small-town girl and crashes her family Thanksgiving to try to make it work between them.