February 25th, 2010
Margaret Nagle is a Hollywood screenwriter whose 2005 HBO movie, “Warm Springs” (which, by the way, is one of my favorite movies of the past decade) won the Emmy for Best TV Movie. Nagle also won the Writers Guild Award for that screenplay. In the movie she told the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s struggle with polio — how he left his upscale, Victorian life in New York City, moved to Warm Springs in the backwoods of Georgia for several years where he witnessed poverty, racism, and illiteracy the likes of which he had never imagined and eventually managed to return to his political life and become President. In a fascinating HBO interview Margaret tells about how she grew up with a brother who was disabled in a car accident at an early age — a part of her background that gave her a connection to the FDR story. Last year she wrote the script for a television pilot called, “The Eastmans,” in which Donald Sutherland played a heart surgeon. My film school classmate, best friend, and co-star of my book, Jason Ensler, directed the pilot. I spoke with Margaret recently and she mentioned that she was working on a new script involving quite a bit of medical science, so I thought it would be interesting to have a chat with her about the interface between science and cinema.
RO: Do you have any background in science?
MN: Not really, though I wish I did. I excelled in biology. My grandfather was a surgeon of the head and neck — they didn’t call it a brain surgeon then. He studied under Harvey Cushing, the father of neuro-surgery at Harvard. He was a really great surgeon. His three sons, my uncles, are all surgeons as well. And when I would spend summers at his house — he had an office filled with things like organs floating in formaldehyde, you know, tumors. I would go watch surgery. So I grew up around science, everything being called by its anatomical name — I grew up thinking that was normal. I thought everyone knew how sutures worked, and how scars healed.
RO: And what were you doing before you became a writer?
MN: I was an actress, lots of commercials, voiceovers, guest spots on TV shows. The reason I didn’t turn to writing sooner was my son had Aspergers — he was autistic before the big wave of autism was happening, so it was very much a mystery at the time, and it was before all the services were available to help with it. I stopped acting and put in ten years towards his recovery — finding all the best doctors and best programs.
RO: What’s the first science related writing project you worked on?
MN: The Eastmans, where Donald Sutherland plays a cardiologist that invented a cardiac stent, and made millions of dollars off of it. In the story his father was a doctor, his daughter is a neurologist trying to find a cure for autism and his son is a vascular surgeon. You can see where I drew from in creating these characters. I would love to be a part of another big science project and only write about science — dramatizing it in movies and through stories. As I’m learning more about myself as a writer, I’m learning that science is where I find a lot of drama.
MN: You know, it’s an amazing documentary. But Al Gore said himself that the people who watched it were already convinced of climate change. He didn’t change anyone’s mind with that film. And I think that is a really honest thing to recognize. Culturally we are in a scary place right now. People are growing up undereducated. There is this idea that science has become political and that is really dangerous. So it’s good we’re are talking about this. Never has science writing and storytelling been more crucial.
I actually think that Mark Gordon and Roland Emmerich’s crazy weather movie (“The Day After Tomorrow”) — even though the science was wrong — I think it was more effective in reaching non believers, because the country’s gotten so divided and faith based — you’ve got to appeal to people’s emotions. With Mark’s movie, even though global warming happened in five days — the ice age came back — it made more of an impact, socially and emotionally across state lines, than Al Gore’s movie did.
RO: What makes you believe that?
MN: I have a lot of red state members of my family, very faith based. Despite being doctors they have some ideas that are really incompatible with science. The emotional drama in the story of “The Day After Tomorrow” — it penetrated into them. In the dark of the movie theater people drop something that they can’t drop in life. A movie is one of the most powerful forms of communication. It surpasses language and all cultures. When I wrote about the Lost Boys of Sudan— they came out of the stone age basically — they didn’t know what money was, they didn’t know that planes flew, they didn’t know about cars, yet they sat down and watched a movie — “Training Day” — and were able to understand what was happening in the movie — when you disobey your father, when you don’t listen to your tribe, you bring danger to your family — that’s what the movie’s about!
So movies are powerful for telling all stories. If scientists really want to get their stories across, a movie is going to do it in a way that a documentary film can never do because it’s going to an emotional level. We are all storytellers. We began from the beginning of time sitting around a campfire, passing around information, drawing pictures on cave walls, trying to tell a story that leaves something of us behind.
RO: Then do you have any suggestions to scientists on how to be better storytellers?
MN: They need to step outside the story, and try to explain the story as if they were talking to a really smart child — but not talk down, just recognize what’s relevant and exciting to the story. It’s like the old thing that if you look at an elephant you can only see a small part. If you stand at the back of an elephant, you see that little skinny tale that’s so uninspiring. If you’re at the back of the elephant you would never know it has this magnificent trunk and huge floppy ears. So you have to walk around the whole elephant in order to understand it.
Sometimes I think a scientist is so caught up with just the place where he’s standing, he needs to walk around his entire story like it’s an elephant so that he knows there are ears and a trunk and everything else — more than just the tiny tail. Scientists need to talk to people who aren’t scientists and try to explain their story. There’s a line in the movie, “Broadcast News,” where Albert Brooks is in love with Holly Hunter, and he does everything but say that — he criticizes her, he does this and that, and then he finally says, “I buried the lead — I’m in love with you, I buried the lead.” I think that scientists — because they are standing in one place — have to dig out their lead, and they need to work on that — communicating their story.
RO: How can movies convey the experiences of scientists?
MN: Let’s look at “The Wizard of Oz,” — a movie we all know. If you think about it, it’s actually a very complicated story. First off, there’s the weather — the tornado comes in — an act of God, an act of nature. Dorothy goes to this place that doesn’t look like anywhere we’ve ever been — the people seem different, there are these odd creatures, they have a set of customs that could not be more different. It is so Sci – fi.
If you look at “The Wizard of Oz,” that’s the science part of the movie — yet we as an audience get in there and make sense of it because there’s a powerful structure to it — pieces of information are dropped in their lap from unexpected places — they have to perform a task they don’t understand — get this broomstick from the Wicked Witch of the West. None of this is anything remotely like what we know in our everyday lives. But we’re able to follow the story because of the way it’s laid out in storytelling terms.
So Dorothy is our scientist. She is new to the game and has to figure a way out by doing things she doesn’t understand — and in a world with all these strange things like monkeys that fly, and people are green, and people can melt when they have water thrown on them — it’s science — the everyday guy does not know or understand anything about that, and yet we emotionally follow the story because Dorothy is so compelling, and she makes some friends of some fellow scientists — a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion — all equally bizarre and freakish. We don’t understand what their science is and what their rules are, but we watch it. It’s so well dramatized. And we are mesmerized.
I actually think there’s no story you can’t tell if you use “The Wizard of Oz” as a template. I used “The Wizard of Oz” as a template for telling the story of “Warm Springs.” Roosevelt steps out of his ordinary life, into a world, Warm Springs, Georgia, that is extraordinary, with rules and customs that he doesn’t understand — people talk different, they act different, they live differently, and he must find his way back to the normal world. But ultimately he takes what he knows from that magical world, which can be science, and takes it back to normal life. He will live his life forever changed having gone to Warm Springs. Dorothy is forever changed having gone to Oz.
RO: How does that relate to the world of science?
MN: You can use that structure — you can have any scientist take apart “The Wizard of Oz,” which they’d have fun doing since it’s a movie that everybody knows. And make it about splitting the atom and getting to the cyclotron. You could make “The Wizard of Oz,” and plug your science into that. You know, Spiderman is “The Wizard of Oz.” Tobey Maguire is Dorothy. He’s an ordinary guy, he discovers he has extraordinary powers, his entire world is turned upside down, and he has to figure out who his enemies are and who his friends are, and he has to figure that out so he can survive and go to the next place.
“The Wizard of Oz,” like so many great stories, has also at it’s core the question of, “What is the value of a human life?” We can see that Dorothy values her life very little in Kansas — that black and white life. She doesn’t understand the value of her life until she goes to Oz. So you need a character who is in a crisis that elemental and that deep. She doesn’t value her own life — she goes out in a friggin’ storm. She goes and hangs out with a strange old guy in that wagon. She’s not being very smart with her life. She knows there’s a bigger world out there, but she’s also in a crisis of self-love, which makes people do really stupid things. So she stays out in a storm and practically gets killed by the tornado, and lo and behold goes to this magical world, walks through a door, and her life is changed. She does something brave and noble and wonderful towards the end when she goes for that broomstick. Nothing is what she thought it was.
So Dorothy’s now valuing her own life, going into a world where nothing she knows works, and having to figure things out. That exercise is your fertilizer with which to grow a story. You can apply that to any science fiction movie, any science movie — Rick in “Casablanca” doesn’t know who he is — he lives in a world where its clear up front, “The rules don’t apply here,” anything you know — the ground will shift under your feet every day. So we watch this guy realize by the end of the film that his life does have value, but that other lives maybe even have more value — that guy he’s gonna put on a plane to get him out is going to do more good for the world than Rick is ever going to do, so it’s about a man rediscovering the value of his life. Rick is a guy who before he came to Casablanca was a freedom fighter and did fight in the Spanish revolutionary war. If you listen to the movie very closely, he’s a man who has had a crisis of confidence over love and lost this woman and gone to Casablanca and become this drinker who says, “I stick my neck out for no man.” And by the end, who does he stick his neck out for but the guy who the woman he loves, loves, who turns out to be a man who really can help the world out of the mess that it’s in. And that is what scientists do — they try to help the world out of the mess that it’s in. So if you can think of a way to empower and ennoble what scientists do, that is how you can reach people.
RO: As a writer how important to you is narrative structure?
MN: Narrative structure is essential, but at the same time you have to forget it and let your movie unfold. Pixar is a really good example. Those movies are beautifully structured. Absolutely elegantly structured. Like A Bug’s Life is one of the most beautifully structured films you could ever want to make. And so you want the structures defined. The human body can’t function without its bones, so the bones have to be in the right place. So the structure has to be defined, yet when you look at the human body it’s all about the eyes, and the face, and the color of the hair, and the sound of the voice, you know? And all those things, so the structure’s just a blueprint. But again, the body can’t stand up… Warm Springs kind of has an inverted structure to it that Colin Callender wrote all about it in the Writers Guild magazine. It has a very short act III, and act II has a lot of bumps in the road, it’s not like some big uplifting experience. He just felt it was structured in a very weird way, it’s more of a four act structure than a three act structure — like Casablanca is a four act structure, but you can’t really say that out loud to a studio because they get freaked out. But sometimes a story needs four acts, and so you just divide your act two into two acts. And you just don’t tell anybody and you hope they don’t notice.
RO: Have you written shorter scripts and shorter films?
MN: Never written a short film, you know like I said Warm Springs was the first thing I ever wrote. And I’d never written a film ever, I never tried. My movies tend to be 110-125 and my TV scripts are normally 65, I tend to write long in TV, I expect people to talk fast. The TV camera isn’t doing a lot of work, you’re on a smaller screen, a smaller budget. TV requires a lot of plot. And it requires a lot of conversation to move the plot. Think about an episode of Damages, think about an episode of The Sopranos, there’s a lot that happens by pages and pages of dialogue. TV is not driven by images, although one or two images in a TV show go a really long way. Where in movies you want to see not tell, but in TV it’s opposite. Think about The West Wing. In TV it’s set-up, pay-off, set-up, pay-off. Where in movies you’re setting it all up in act I, and you’re paying it all off an hour or more later.
RO: And in terms of the talking stuff, I can’t even watch an episode of CSI, because they are just sitting there explaining everything as they go along.
MN: That’s the problem with those shows and having to do development with them is just maddening. They want every little aspect explained. And it just comes to a point where there is nothing for the audience to do, there’s no suspense. They always have this one person that they think it might be but it’s really not but it’s all about the forensic science and it’s nothing about the detective skills. You know Columbo was a really great detective show.
RO: I agree.
MN: And if you talk to law enforcement, they all feel that Columbo and The Closer are the two most accurate TV shows when it comes to crime. Because often times you do have a sense of who the murderer is, when you start to investigate a crime, it’s not as much about forensics. And then you have to follow that to its conclusion. And The Closer for instance, that is just a great show. If you talk to any cop, they are just mad for that show. And they all think CSI NCIS are just absolute talking down to the audience. All the stories are told in the same way. But guess what? They get huge ratings.
RO: Given the flatness of the narrative structure of CSI, why is it so popular?
MN: You know, people love their Law and Order, too, which to me is a much more interesting narrative structure. I don’t know, because there’s not a lot that happens with those characters. Maybe there’s something really comforting about it, that they know what to expect, and its always going to stay in the same wheelhouse. They always catch the killer, they always solve their problem. It’s a really hardcore structure. One of the reasons they do that — if you watch Damages, which is 13 episodes on FX, there’s a whole dramatic arc to the episodes — you can watch them all like one big movie. Network television believes that audiences only watch every third episode. So then if you’re arcing out character development, that person coming in every third episode is going to be confused, and they’re not going to watch. You can sit down and watch CSI at any time, it doesn’t matter what you missed — nothing’s going to have happened with those characters. It’s all driven by the case.
It’s all about holding on to their viewers — the kind of viewers that they think are desirable. On network television, they want what they call “closed-ended” episodes, rather than the on-going “arced out” structure. And for a writer, its two different kinds of writing. It doesn’t win Emmy’s, it doesn’t win the love of critics, but more people watch those shows than watch “Damages,” which is probably one of the best written shows on TV. If you talk to TV critics they’ll tell you that in the last five years “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “Damages,” are better than any movie that was released.
“The Closer,” is another example — I know, for my friends in law enforcement, they just love that show. But it’s very different from “CSI,” or “NCIS,” or “Criminal Minds,” but again, those shows are all in the top ten. I know for me it’s frustrating — I’m not so drawn to that kind of storytelling — I want to be engaged in a different way when I make a commitment to something on my TV, but other people have different ways in which they want to be engaged.
RO: Have you got any final suggestions to the science community to assist them in getting their stories out?
MN: I think they need help from journalists, screenwriters and producers to see how interesting and exciting their stories really are, and how dramatic they really are. The fact is, people love science if it’s presented to them well. I’d like to write about Marie Curie and radioactive isotopes, and I think the recent Henrietta Lacks’ book (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot) is incredibly interesting. There are many stories like that out there where you need the journalists to track them down and go back to the scientists and say “You’ve got a story here, you know, this is a story, this is dramatic.” Because science happens to people, it doesn’t just happen to scientists it happens to people so you have to find a way to pull in the human side of the science. Lorenzo’s Oil was a great example — the life or death of it, and the race against time.
That’s what’s interesting about writing about medicine. I wrote a show called, “Side Order of Life.” There was this true story about conjoined twins — they hadn’t been separated yet, and they had to be separated and they knew that in the course of the surgery there was a good chance that one of them would die. So one gets to live and one gets to die. Given that choice, they both wanted to die. It was a French doctor that’s very good at doing this, and so I brought in all the medicine and all the science. But what everyone cared about was how do these girls make this choice? And how do you live if part of you is gone? You know, so how are you going to survive? And it still had all the science and all the medicine. When you get down to people like me, regular folks who aren’t scientists — it has to relate to us. We need the story told to us in those life or death terms, the ticking clock. You know, the bus from Speed is a ticking clock, they all have to get off before it explodes, and you know they can’t put on the brakes. And there you go, there’s your movie. And you can suck an audience in that’s really big, and what can scientists do along those terms? If you think about it, scientists works their asses off to change the world, to saves lives against a daily ticking clock. Their commitment is sometimes dangerous (look at Madame Curie – her work killed her). What are the advances that can change the world right now? Those are some of the stories from the science world that need to be told.