Last night's episode of Breaking Bad has been all over social media. People have called it "devastating" or have said they still haven't recovered today. I'm guilty of that. Don't worry, I won't be putting any spoilers in here. I want you to have the satisfaction of seeing it firsthand.
I only mention it because of something that's been on my mind lately since reading an article about the people behind the film version of Tracy Lett's August: Osage County talking about changing the ending after a test audience. Bitter Script Reader on Twitter (follow him, seriously) had a great blog post analyzing the trajectory of Breaking Bad in regards to "the necessity of an unhappy ending." [PLEASE DON'T READ THE BLOG POST IF YOU ARE NOT CAUGHT UP ON BREAKING BAD!!] I will quote a bit of it for those who are still Netflixing (a real word, I swear) their ways through it.
It's a familiar story. An early cut of a film is screeened for a test audience. The test audience rejects the dark ending of the story, forcing the filmmakers to scramble and reshoot an ending that will leave everyone feeling good.
This was definitely the case for one of my favorite films: Little Shop of Horrors. For those who don't know, it's a musical about a nerdy guy who ends up getting duped by a blood-eating plant from outer space. It started off on Broadway and had a beautiful, dark ending, which I didn't know about until I bought the script to the play. Here's the reaction from high school me:
"WHAT THE F--!! That's awesome!!" Suffice it to say, the film does not share the same dark ending. People hated it and wanted happy. And that's what they got. The dark ending is now available on the Blu-Ray of Little Shop. I haven't seen the movie version of the ending all the way through yet. I wanted to wait until it was fully restored to get the full effect.
Here's what has been repeated by Frank Oz in various interviews and in the director's commentary of the DVD:
“David Geffen said it right off, you can’t kill your lead characters in a movie,” said Oz. “When you’re in a theater, it’s always a wide shot, no matter where you are. Even when you’re in front, it’s still a wide shot. In a movie, I tell you where to look, and that’s a close up sometimes. A close up registers emotion much, much more. You get sucked in by the characters more. Even though it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and a slight distance...you’re sucked in by that tight shot.”
Is this true? Is it harder to do an unhappy ending in film/TV than in the theatre because of the psychological realization that "those characters are really dead?" Or do you feel more for characters in film than in their theatre counterparts? Did you weep harder in the film or theatre version of Les Mis? Does the fact that the actors come out for a curtain call help a theatre audience adjust to the fact that there's an unhappy ending?
I think that's crap.
Back to the Bitter Script Reader:
Test audiences often have a hard time with downbeat endings. They like to leave the theatre feeling good. Bad test scores often spook studios, and making an ending less depressing is a fairly favored tactic. You know all those alternate endings you see featured on DVDs - that's the shit that either didn't work, or didn't make an audience happy after the first attempt.
We as artists have to know how we want to affect an audience. We have to know exactly how we want them to feel at the end. We make that decision. Are they sad because a character that they love dies? Good, we meant to do that. Are they upset that a villain got away and the good guy lost? Perfect, that's how we wanted you to feel. We have to work with our guts when we manipulate the guts of our audiences. You see, I didn't get that in my early days as a playwright. I didn't quite get it until my final year at my MFA. I remember my play Solamente Una Vez; A Thaw coming up for the workshop. This was the play that i felt the most confident about. Ever. And I knew the ending was right. I knew it. And most of my fellow playwrights hated it. They thought it was a horrible ending. They were so incensed about the decisions of the characters. You know what? That's what I wanted them to feel! Success! When the play had a reading in Atlanta at the Alliance Theatre, Artistic Director Susan V. Booth came up to me and said, "I love that ending."
Here's what I think needs to happen. We need to stop worrying about happy vs. unhappy endings and come to the realization that we want satisfying endings. What does that mean? It means we know where we're taking the audience from the beginning and we deliver them there at the end. Does that mean we can't offer surprises? No. Surprise them! Last night's Breaking Bad was surprising and a half. Surprise, shock, delight, upset, frustrate, it doesn't matter. Make it count. Make it make sense in the world you've created. It's harder with a TV series because you've created such a massive world for so long. (Can you imagine a satisfying Doctor Who series finale?!) Based on everything that's happened so far in the show, the ending to last night's episode was shocking, surprising, disturbing, but, in the end, inevitable. Make your endings inevitable. Necessary. I think that's what it boils down to. Inevitable.
For kicks, I'm doing something I didn't think I'd do: I'm posting the full script of Solamente Una Vez; A Thaw on my site, so that you can see if the ending is satisfying. Inevitable.
What are the most satisfying endings you've experienced? TV, Film, or Theatre?
Mike Wazowski cake… Mmm…
I'm still riding high after my successful completion of 31 Plays, 31 Days. Some of my friends are still asking me why I did it. Or how it was possible for me to write a play each day. I'll start with the why. It had been a long time since I was able to sit down and write, whether it was a play or even journaling. I have one main place in which I write: my Reporter Moleskine notebook. A friend once called it my "sacred space." But in the past few months… No, let's be honest, in the last year or so, I had found it difficult to enter that sacred space. I would hear the notebook talking to me in the back of my mind like a ghost, "Wriii-iiiite. Wriii-iiiite. Wriii-iiite." And it scared me. Something about that notebook scared me. I know the fear came from some deeply held insecurities. Here are some (see if you share any):
What 31 Plays, 31 Days did for me is force me to work past the fear of the notebook. For 31 days, I didn't give a shit if my writing was good or not. I didn't give a shit if I had something "important" to say. I didn't give a flying fuck if anyone liked it or not. It was work that was getting done. 31 plays are written. But it's gone further than that.
Over a year ago, I took a class with playwright and TV writer Andrea Ciannavei. She had a month-long class called "Activating your play." I so desperately wanted to take that class, but the commitment would've been too much. My wife was 7 months pregnant at that time and I didn't have enough time to devote to the class. On a whim, I asked if she would be willing to work with me one on one, never thinking that she would actually go for it, but she did. And we worked one on one, two nights a week in August, working through Skype, doing timed writing exercises, getting past the fear of my notebook. It was liberating. Again, I was pushing past the fear, getting words on the page and it didn't matter if it was good or not. It was writing.
By the end of the month, I had compiled pages and pages of notes. I think about a quarter of my notebook was now notes from my work with Andrea! She said that it was important for me to get the first draft done ASAP while I had the momentum. And I started writing and then-- BAM. September 7th, 2012. My son, Jack was born. Goodbye, time. Goodbye, sleep. Goodbye, normalcy. Goodbye… Writing.
Throughout my son's first year of life, my fear rebounded. I gave myself writing days here and there, but I was paralyzed for most of the time. I couldn't write anything without immediately passing judgement. I promised Andrea a first draft on October 15th, 2012. That day came and went…
With the end of 31 Plays, 31 Days, I wondered what my next step was. How would I take the newfound momentum and apply it to my day to day? Would I continue writing a new play each day? No. I would write everyday. I would write and wouldn't judge and wouldn't care until I finished a draft of the play I had promised Andrea last year. Then, at 11:17 pm, September 5th, 2013, my play was attached to an email that went off to Andrea. I had done it! I had finished the draft. I wrote without fear or, more importantly, without judgement. In five days I pressed through and finished something I hadn't worked on in over the past few months, except for a line here or there.
On September 7th, 2013, my son Jack turned one (see the above, adorable picture). He's been learning new things: today he learned to roll a ball, to stack a stacking toy, and to put a ball away in a bin. He also took 3 steps yesterday! He's developing so quickly now and I haven't missed a thing. And I've still found that time to write. I've taken a day or two off since the 7th in order to go to bed early; the entire month of 31 Plays, 31 Days I hadn't gone to bed before 11:30. And now with my play finished, I have a new project: a children's book. Three of them. Each day, I'm going to do some fathering, some journaling, and work on those children's books that I've been thinking about since, you know, I had a child. I already have a plan for October: drawing. Why? I'll save that for another time.
Go forth and write without fear, my fellow playwrights. Let'