The True School Tools Of The Trade

Illustration for article titled The True School Tools Of The Trade

Pat Jordan's wife calls him a troglodyte, kicking a screaming into the 19th century. I first visited Pat at his home in Florida back in 2006 and looked through hundreds of manuscripts and drafts. I saw his tools of ignorance: an old Hermes 10 typewriter (he buys old machines on ebay for the parts), yellow second sheets (discontinued), stubby corrective pencils, a glue-pot, a pair of scissors, and even a bottle of yellow white out (also discontinued). Having come from a fine arts background, I appreciated the tactile nature of Pat's writing process.


If I've learned anything about writing from Pat it's how important thinking is to good writing. Jordan is a deliberate and meticulous writer. When he has a magazine assignment, he first researches the subject, then composes his questions before he conducts interviews and takes notes. Does the interviews, transcribes and organizes them and begins to make story outlines. If afforded the time, he'll review the notes, the transcribed interviews and his outlines and revised outlines, over and over before he starts writing. He might not stick to an outline but he always has one as a way to structure his thinking. When he finally begins to write, he goes sentence-by-sentence like he's laying brick. Two pages a day is a productive one for him. When he starts again the next the morning, he reviews what he's written, revise anything that needs fixing, continue.

The tools Pat uses to write are antiquated but they are an essential part of how me makes stories. When I worked in the post-production end of the movie world, I was fortunate enough to be on jobs with Ken Burns, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers, who all still cut on film when I was with them (mid-'90s). The physical nature of the medium forced the editor and director to make hard, clear decisions. For instance, if you made a cut on Tuesday, it would take a lot of time and man-power to fix it by Thursday. And even after Joel and Ethan Coen had previewed a reel on their KEM flatbed, it would take five, six minutes to rewind the reel to the start. They'd sit and contemplate what they had just watched as it rewound. I learned how productive the waiting was. It allowed them time to think things through.

All three filmmakers cut on computers now. Last winter I spoke with Paul Barnes, Burns' longtime editor, and asked if he'd ever go back to cutting on film. "Not in a million years," he said. He doesn't need to, of course. He got his chops the old fashioned way, so the new technology makes his life easier. However, for a younger generation, who didn't grown up cutting on film, there can, at times, be too many choices, so many options that the creative process is overwhelmed by the possibilities.

I was thinking of Pat and his old typewriter when I caught the following Q&A with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in Entertainment Weekly:

SPIELBERG: I guess the worst thing he ever called me was old-fashioned. But I celebrate that. He knows me like a brother. It's true, I am old-fashioned.

LUCAS: I think the word ''Luddite'' came into it. In a very heated discussion.

SPIELBERG: I said I wasn't, I was Jewish! [Laughter]

LUCAS: The end of it is, I said, ''Look, Steve, this is your movie. You get to do it your way.'' And in the end, I didn't force Steven to do it. That doesn't mean I didn't pester him, and tease him, and get on him all the time.

SPIELBERG: It was all 35-millimeter, chemically processed film.... I like cutting the images on film. I'm the only person left cutting on film.

LUCAS: And I'm the guy that invented digital editing. But we coexist. I mean, I also like widescreen and color. Steven and Marty [Scorsese] have gone back and shot in black-and-white [on Schindler's List and Raging Bull, respectively]. I don't get on their case and say, ''Oh my God, this is a terrible thing, why are you going backwards?'' I say, ''That's your choice, and I can appreciate it.''

SPIELBERG: Eventually I'll have to shoot [and edit] movies digitally, when there is no more film — and I'm willing to accept that. But I will be the last person to shoot and cut on film, y'know?

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is the editing part getting harder to do the old way, when the rest of the industry is using electronic editing on computers?

GEORGE LUCAS: He still uses a Moviola! One of these days, the belt will break on it. And he'll go down to one of those repair places and they'll say, ''Oh, I'm sorry, sir, we don't sell those anymore.''

STEVEN SPIELBERG: We cut on a Moviola, and we preview on a KEM.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Wow — so wait, let's get this right for our readership. A KEM is a so-called flatbed editing machine, which came into fashion around the 1970s as a replacement for Moviolas, which go back to the '20s. And you and your editor Michael Kahn still use both?

SPIELBERG: I own about 30 KEMs. We cannibalize them for bulbs and parts. It's like the Concorde in the last three years of its service.

LUCAS: Steven enjoys the look and feel of the technology that existed when he came into the movie business. He's familiar with it, it's comfortable, he likes it, he's nostalgic about it. But he is not above, when we've got a problem, using new technology to say, ''I will solve this problem that way. I am not gonna just do it the old way for its own sake.''


And while you're at it head on over to Cinephilia and Beyond for this dope post on the great Dede Allen.

An editor told me recently that he believes computers set writing back fifty years. I'm not convinced of that. But I do believe there is something to be cherished about the idea of working slowly and carefully. We don't always have the time. But when we do, I believe it shows up in the work.


Here's a good bit from an interview Pat once did with Playboy:

JORDAN: I grew up with radio and as a result I'd go to bed at night listening to "The Shadow," "The Lone Ranger," "Batman and Robin," "The Green Hornet" and with radio I had to use my imagination to figure out what they look like. What does The Shadow look like? And so it stimulated my imagination and it made me very conscious of the way things look. To this day I'm very detail oriented, but unlike Tom Wolfe, who lists 48 things that a guy is wearing to supposedly describe him, I say it is not the accumulation of detail, it is right details. If you get the right details, you allow the reader to create the scene himself. It is always about the reader, I want the reader to think he wrote the story and that I didn't.

PLAYBOY: You mention this in the book's forward…

JORDAN: You create the ideal story when at the end of it the reader can't yellow out a paragraph on page three and point to where you told him what the story was about. The reader needs to think that they discovered something in the story that the author didn't because the author didn't spell it out. If the writer doesn't hand it to him the reader to thinks that they are in the process of discovering more of the story than the writer intended to put in. I think of it as a collaborative deal.

PLAYBOY: So you've made a living by making people think that you aren't as smart as you actually are?

JORDAN: Exactly. They don't think that you are leading them and they don't know you set it up bit by bit. As far as sentences go, I feel that you should never have a sentence so complex that the reader has to stop and go over it again to get the meaning. The same applies to images. If you use a metaphor you need the reader to not reread the metaphor over again and sit down and think, "What does he mean a cow is like a moon?" If the reader has to unravel a sentence or a metaphor, that's bad. You want them to read it all through effortlessly so they would be reading the story as if they were looking over your shoulder when you were typing. Some stories come easily. The stories you think came easily you think are genius and it comes out later that they weren't that good. And the one that was like pulling teeth, that you had to bang on your typewriter like hammering nails into wood, that you hated doing because it was so hard to get right, you find out that that was the good one. In the end you want it to appear that the story is flowing out of you and that it is effortless. These are all the things that you do that nobody knows about.