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Last year writer David Dessauer commissioned me to write a screenplay based on his book Harper Lee and Me. The book is based on a 5-year research project where Dessauer tried to unearth what motivated Harper Lee to write her masterpiece novel To Kill A Mockingbird. When Dave approached me with the project, I was struck by the unique perspective he brought to the effort. Much of the thesis he developed surrounding the book grew out of his Christian faith and belief that Harper Lee was essentially trying to do a retelling of the Book of Proverbs with her book.

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in the film ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

The challenge was to translate David’s book into a compelling story, as the process of research itself — and even the results of the research — do not necessarily make for a good screen narrative, no matter how interesting and compelling the material is.

It became necessary, therefore, to conduct my own research into Dave’s process and how his family dynamics played a part in order to find the spine of a story that would translate well into film. In essence, the story becomes one of a disillusioned man trying to regain faith in himself and the respect of his family. We follow a hero’s journey arc of separation, descent into the unknown, and return. I based the story on several conversations I had with Dave, where I gleaned the essential love that he had for his family and that they had for him. In addition to Dessauer’s insights into Harper Lee, it was this familial love that I tried to convey in the script.

I do believe that a great (often untold) story of our modern America is the disappointment that people have in the fact that they dreamed of doing numerous things but never really set out to make their dreams a reality. Instead, they live those dreams vicariously through others: celebrities, sports figures, and their children. The ‘reality’ that is paramount becomes, for many, the raising of those children and the focus on their security. People’s dreams can often take a back burner in this process.

Dessauer sought to break that pattern with himself and realize his dream. That essentially becomes the story arc of the screenplay version of Harper Lee and Me — how a man grapples with his sense of limitation and overcomes it. I suspect many people share Dessauer’s feelings of personal disappointment, and many, like Dave Dessauer, do attempt to overcome those feelings. That said, while many would love to have an impact on the world, responsibilities overwhelm them. Within this context, personal — sometimes even small — victories are possible and even necessary. Dreams can be adjusted and made more realistic. Small victories can indeed become large ones; this is another message in Harper Lee and Me.

The script has been a lot of positive attention, including ‘Best Screenplay’ and ‘Best Writer’ awards from the Christian Film Festival and a Finalist nod (for Best Screenplay) from the Branson Film Festival. More recently, the 2022 PopCon Film Festival has nominated the script for ‘Best Feature Screenplay’. We also placed high in both the Stage 32 and Screencraft Family-Friendly script competitions.

PopCon International Film Festival

I’m hopeful we’ll get the film produced. That in itself is a process. I’m optimistic because I believe many people in the modern era share Dave’s journey and feelings. In a society that celebrates the ‘huge’ wins of the rich and famous, perhaps it’s time to also leave a little room for the smaller, yet important, victories of everyday people in everyday life. Harper Lee and Me is such a celebration.

— Don Thompson

Thompson can be contacted at nextpix@gmail.com

David Dessauer’s book Harper Lee and Me is available here.

Don Thompson talks about his video essay ‘Signs of a Rebel Buddha’ that is an Official Selection at the Kolkata Shorts International Film Festival (India) 2020.

Conversation #2 between Emmy award-winning journalist Ursula Pfeiffer and Don Thompson of nextPix — some great discussion and dialog, seeking a path forward for society.

https://youtu.be/XaoIcyEof5I

UrsulaDon

I just finished the audio book by Walter Isaacson about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. I would highly recommend it to all as it conveys a sense of not only the man, but also what a life devoted to creativity can be.

And what is that? Interestingly, it is the liberal spirit of experimentation and willingness to fail, or half complete works, that was the hallmark of Leonardo. For example, he only completed four portraits of women – one of which is considered by many to be the best Renaissance painting and emblematic of the time – the Mona Lisa. Many of his projects, and paintings, were left unfinished.

Another interesting and inspiring aspect of Leonardo was his willingness to invent technique and his success at doing so. Among those techniques was Sfumato – the sfumato-001technique of intentionally blurring lines and color to create an overall sense of realism. How? Because in life there are no ‘lines’, there is only the interplay between light and dark. The two often blend harmoniously.

Leonardo never wrote an overarching treatise – there is no opus book or books that depict his philosophy or conveys his style. Rather, he kept thousands of pages of notes, all that were apparently designed to inform himself and remind himself of certain aspects of whatever craft or art he was trying to master, including the craft of designing buildings and machines of all sorts, some of them machines of war.

He was, then, a blend of artist and scientist, and investigator into the known and unknown, who chronicled what he observed for sometimes mundane, sometimes profound reasons.

A bit more about sfumato. For me, sfumato not only revealed a style, but a perspective on life. In sum, life is not absolute light and dark, good and evil. It is, rather, the sfumato-002constant shades between. So sfumato as a technique is inherently humanizing. It emphasizes that nothing is perfect: there are no straight lines, there is no definitive light and dark, and there certainly is no perfected human form. By inference, there is no perfect human being.

What the technique of sfumato allows to happen is for the innate human inner light to shine through: a light that points to another kind of perfection. That is, that the light is imperceptible in a sense, and yet, perceived on some level as the human spirit. Often, but not always, that spirit is compassionate. Other times it is cruel. At yet other times, mysterious. The genius of Leonardo was his ability to convey that spirit and light in all its forms.

This does not at all mean we should stop attempting to be better human beings or to shape our own moral code.  Rather, it prompts us to have a broader, hopefully wiser perspective.  In other words,  the passion for truth and beauty does lead, it seems to me, to an understanding that no one has an absolute claim on it.  It is, rather, a sfumato. It is a blurring. It is in this blurring that we can find our common humanity and can abide peacefully in the light that pervades all of experience. This ‘great light’ is not so much a ‘spiritual’ light only for the religious – for a artist like da Vinci perceived it without necessarily always being overtly religious. It is the light of sfumato.sfumato-003

You can find a link to the amazon page for Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo here.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

What’s interesting in writing about films that attempt to move the medium forward is that such films tend to impact the mind of the critic a little bit more than others. They begin a thought process where one idea inevitably leads to another in an interesting, intuitive but generally causal way. Such it is with The Shape of Water, written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor and directed by Mr. del Toro.

I admittedly lack an in-depth knowledge of del Toro’s previous work – most of which I haven’t seen – but this film provides a successful example of combining the feminine and masculine voice in storytelling, something that the collaborative nature of film allows to happen. The film also taps into some intriguing philosophical territory, even while conveying an essentially melodramatic love story involving a mute young SOW-005woman (played by Sally Hawkins) and a primordial and monstrous amphibious creature (played by Doug Jones) reminiscent of the 1954 horror film, Creature from the Black Lagoon. Another, more recent, corollary being the film version of The Beauty and the Beast.

Vanessa Taylor, who scripted the sci-fi film Divergent, honed her skills primarily as a television writer. The advantage of television writing is that it tends to force the writer to focus on character interaction and subtleties (when it’s good), and because of constraints of budget and time often tends to shy away from a dependence on special effects. It is the strength of the character’s interactions – coupled with a compelling story told in a unique way – that makes The Shape of Water so easy to watch.

The Shape of Water, sometimes billed as a fantasy/drama, also brings together a mélange of philosophical ideas in a very impressive way – ideas that may often be the brainchild of Mr. del Toro. While the film’s execution budget and scope are relatively modest in Hollywood terms ($19 million), the intellectual scope of the film extends quite further. Now, whether or not all of this philosophical ‘profundity’ is a result of my own personal meanderings over the past few years, or the intended result of the filmmakers, we’ll never know (unless I happen to meet them). Nevertheless, some readers might find the following reflections of value.

While many film professionals have, for a variety of reasons, recently flocked to television Read the rest of this entry »

When looking at the cultural and media landscape of the United States it strikes me that there is little or no discussion of the cultural Zeitgeists – more specifically, the viewpoints and mindsets that continually compete for our attention, usually in order to convince us that a particular viewpoint is superior to another, and that a particular worldview should prevail.

These Zeitgeists show up in our films, our media, our social discourse, on Facebook posts, in television shows, in the News, and in discussions over dinner. Often considered cultural ‘givens’, some of these mindsets can lead us to conflict, even while others try to lead us toward peace and reconciliation. Yet other Zeitgeists imply that we should give up to the futility of the human condition which is, after all, tragic – that fatalism is the only realistic approach to life.

So what do I mean by Zeitgeist? The definition of Zeitgeist is ‘spirit of the time’ – and some philosophers would argue that one cannot determine the Zeitgeist of a time except through a historical lens. A Zeitgeist is a mindset, a prevailing mood and way of seeing, an overarching frame through which we view the world.

I’ll argue that we can define cultural Zeitgeists as they exist today, and furthermore that we can actually find several Zeitgeists in contemporary culture that compete for our attention. In my mind, the top three are:

  • Humanistic
  • Mythic
  • Nihilistic

The Humanistic Zeitgeist sees human beings as of central concern – that human dignity, compassion, tolerance, reconciliation, common human values and social justice are of paramount importance. This Zeitgeist seeks to humanize the other side and to have empathy for their viewpoint.

The Mythic Zeitgeist views the world through the lens of the hero. Always requiring a villain and/or nemesis, the hero’s journey and path believes that wars are just and winnable, that evil is absolute, and that eye-for-an-eye justice should prevail. This mindset is the world of angels and devils, winners and losers, of spoils going to the righteous victorious. It is, in the end, hopeful and optimistic for a future when the final war is won and a golden age prevails.

A Nihilistic Zeitgeist tells us that the good guys do not always win, that evil may in fact prevail, and that the inevitability of death stalks all human beings. The reality of our mortality, and the uncertainty of anything beyond this life and world and our ability to survive in it alone, without trusting others to help, is what defines this worldview.

Since most of us are film fans, it might be useful to break down these Zeitgeists in terms of familiar movies. Please bear in mind that the categories are fluid, with many crossovers from one Zeitgeist to another, with some stories that pit one Zeitgeist against the other.  Below is a breakdown of each Zeitgeist by its sources (and example theater and films), themes and music corollaries:

Humanistic

Sources: Greek Theater, Shakespeare, Auteur films, Disney/Pixar, Literature, Romance

randi-lee2

Randi forgives Lee in ‘Manchester by the Sea’

Examples: Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Bicycle Thief, Dead Man Walking, 40 Days and 40 Nights, Manchester by the Sea, Toy Story, Out of Africa, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gandhi

Themes: human dignity, reconciliation, relative evil, compassion, social justice, humanizing the other, common values – trends toward more traditional drama, tragedy, comedy

Music Corollaries: Classical, melodic, poignant, sensitive, emotive, soft rock.

Mythic

Sources: Greek Epics, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Marvel

Examples: The Odyssey, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Never Ending Story, Kill Bill, The Hunger Games, Iron Man

superman-ww

Superman and Wonder Woman duke it out with an enemy

Themes: hero’s journey, family/tribal and national bonds, eye for an eye justice, requires a villain/nemesis, wars are winnable, hopeful – trends toward melodrama and fantasy

Music Corollaries: Wagner, impressionistic, operatic, rock mashup.

Nihilistic

Sources: Horror, Crime, Action/Thriller

Examples: The Thing, The Strangers, American Psycho, Reservoir Dogs, The Accountant, Open Water, The French Connection

nihilist-frenchconnection

The bad guy gets away in ‘The French Connection’

Themes: survival, revenge justice, security, trust no one, you are alone, cynical of human intentions, fatalistic – trends toward the absurd and violent

Music Corollaries: Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, post-modern, atonal, dissonant, heavy metal.

It does not take much imagination to quickly surmise that these three Zeitgeists permeate culture on every level. They inform who we call an enemy and if we can forgive them, if we require a villain or nemesis to define who we are, whether or not we seek a cause to support, or whether we take guilty pleasure in looking at other people suffer (as long as we don’t).  These Zeitgeists define the nature of revenge, of fame, of misfortune, and of attempts at peace and reconciliation. They are such givens to most people that to consider them as cultural templates – realities that arise from conscious choices that we each make as individuals – is unthinkable. And yet they do inform our choices in everything from the films we see to how we react to the political ‘other’ (whether Republican or Democrat) on Facebook.

These Zeitgeists are, in fact, a grand landscape for manipulation to both beneficial and not-so beneficial outcomes.  They are the realm of politicians and marketers and advertisers who seek to convince us to move to vote this way or that, to buy this product or that one. Often, they have strong and prevailing economic agendas that buttress them. While there are arguably other Zeitgeists that should make the list (for example, rationalism) the three discussed here, in my mind, pervade culture more dominantly because they address the emotional as well as intellectual needs of people.

Why talk about Zeitgeists? In my mind, awareness that cultural Zeitgeists are in the realm of human choice is paramount if we have any hope of moving to a more peaceful, tolerant and accepting world.  If we actually believe, for example, that the world is made up of good and evil people, then that will color our personal interactions, our votes, our choice of entertainment, and the news that we watch. If we believe, on the other hand, that evil is relative, that empathy and dialog are possible, that each war plants the seed for the next conflict in a never-ending cycle – then we are free to choose a different path. On the other hand, if we believe human nature is unredeemable, any attempt to change it tantamount to arrogant folly, and to accept the inevitability of mankind’s destructive path is the only truly mature and realistic frame, then we nudge humanity toward yet a different outcome.

The point is that we all make choices – and by our choices we influence the power of the Zeitgeists described here.  While we may believe our individual choices are trivial and unimportant, when combined they make for powerful social forces that literally can determine the fate of mankind.  This is, in fact, the reality of the individual. We each, in our own way, define the world. It is up to each one of us to define it wisely.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

Kenneth Lonergan is not the most prolific of directors, but when he makes a film it tends to have an impact. So it was with his 2000 classic, You Can Count On Me (reviewed by me here) as well as his recent dramatic effort, Manchester By The Sea.

On one level, Manchester is a story about time. Time overlaps, fuses, and conjoins in interesting ways, due to the non-linear way that Lonergan chose to tell his story. Not only does time overlap, but dialog does as well (overlapping dialog apparently being a favorite technique of Lonergan’s). The weaving of non-linear time and very focused, human, simple and in-the-moment scenes, along with overlaying classical music onto the scenes and transitions (extending Lesley Barber’s original score), gives the film a feeling of both the natural chaos of life and, ironically, of refinement. It is the tension between the two – the sublime and the tragically simple and human – that becomes the almost Zen-like framework through which Lonergan tells his story. This particular film probably could have been edited a dozen different ways, even though the outcome could have been essentially the same.  As Lonergan said in an interview, the only way he could perceive the story being told was ‘all at once’.

This was absolutely by design; Manchester likely evolved into a final film in the editing room in a very real way, with substantial shifts and changes occurring at that stage. manchester-coreyLonergan may have even shot the different aspects of the story without being 100 percent sure of how he would ultimately weave them together. He apparently went through several drafts in writing the script, throwing out many scenes, rewriting others, then starting the process again. The result can be at times confusing, but ultimately satisfying as Lonergan and team meld together various threads of a the tragic tale of handyman Lee Chandler (brilliantly played by Casey Affleck) as a pivotal error in his life caused him to lose literally everything, most importantly his two children. The film explores the consequences of that event.

While the story Mr. Lonergan tells is non-linear, the themes are timeless, as is the sea that surrounds the small fishing community where the events take place. The fundamental theme behind the story is one of redemption: how does one redeem oneself after a tragic mistake? Moreover, the film, it seems to me, focuses on the idea of how a person – a man – redeems himself in such a situation through what are essentially very simple actions.

Why would the story necessarily be different for a man than a woman?  I will argue that this story is primarily about the responsibilities that men will often assume, mainly, fixing things in the way that the handyman Lee does. Moreover, the story evokes the necessity an ambiguity of accepting responsibility even where there is no clear ‘blame’ to be had. In the case of Lee, whose error was a simple and yet profound mistake, the question becomes one of context. The context of the mistake is that the character lives in a community that both created the framework of ‘stupid men doing stupid things’ to occur, and then makes it impossible for Lee to rejoin the community and accept their forgiveness – perhaps because there was a collective guilt associated with the deaths of Lee’s children because the tragedy took place as a direct result of a ‘boy’s night of fun’ that took place at Lee’s house, in the basement, where the children slept. His daughter’s deaths were, therefore, a communal responsibility.

That said, there is no real indication that, for the most part, the punishment for Lee’s error came from anywhere else than inside his own head. His wife Randi (played poignantly by Michelle Williams) did ultimately leave him, remarry and have another child. While Lee had a similar manchesterbythesea_traileropportunity for another relationship, he didn’t take it. His choice was not to forgive himself and not really to move on, at least not until the end, where he allows another human being into his life – his nephew who experiences his own personal tragedy.

Within the context of a fairly tolerant society (Lee was not accused of manslaughter) Lee slowly finds redemption through the de facto adoption of his brother’s son Patrick (played effectively by Lucas Hedges) after Patrick’s father’s death (Lee’s brother Joe, played stoically by Kyle Chandler) – even though here Lee is also unable to take on full responsibility for that task and does so in a very cautious, meandering way.

In a world defined by competence, Lee’s error was one of fundamental lapse in his generally competent self as evident in a stupid error. So it could be said of mankind in general, for the problems of the world are very much the problems created by men and their activities – with the efforts at ‘fixing’ things creating more problems than the problems themselves. That men have, for the most part, shaped the modern world, Manchester By The Sea suggests that perhaps is their special place to accept responsibility for making it right. The film also suggests this may be no easy task.

An alternative to a male-dominated world is never really explored, but we are left with a gaping hole in the film, the ‘need’ for someone to step in and take control when nobody really wants to. As with You Can Count On Me, there is an palpable absence in the film that can be, on a simplistic level, defined as God. Or perhaps it is, in this city of fisherman, the Jesus who never shows up, referring to the biblical Jesus who chose to recruit his disciples from among fisherman. On another level, this absence can be defined as the loss of love, or the ability to love one’s self, and to treat one’s self and others with respect.

The self-hatred evident with Lee would, in another era, be fodder for the redemptive role of religion. In this film, the cross is taken on by the individual, who must in a sense take on the role of the Christ in order to find redemption; there is, apparently, no other way for a modern man do so, or so it would seem.  The film lacks any sense of a communal or individual spirituality, outside of an off-the-cuff (and humorous) allusion to Catholicism and the non-consequential appearance of a lone character randomly on the street (played in a cameo by Lonergan himself) who appears briefly (similar to Lonergan’s role as the priest in You Can Count On Me) to chide Lee about his lack of parenting skills.  As with You Can Count On Me, such advice becomes almost comic relief.

Thus suffering, in Lonergan’s tale, is so deep and pervasive that the superficial balm of religion and/or of God can do little to provide comfort. Lee’s mistake, taken as a metaphor for the modern human, puts the only hope for salvation clearly in the hands of mankind itself, and perhaps even more specifically with men themselves, loath as they are nowadays to accept that there may be a sort of universal male attitude problem and inability to mature, particularly in the US, the country that has spread its influence quite effectively in the world, and where the fruits of that influence are a mixed bag, to say the least.

As for the story of Manchester By The Sea, the most moving moment is where Randi forgives Lee. It is in Randi’s forgiveness that the film ultimately speaks to reconciliation and the kind of catharsis that makes for great drama, although again Lee is unable to accept MBTS_3869.CR2Randi’s forgiveness as he can apparently not forgive himself.

At the end of the day, perhaps Manchester By The Sea seems to strike a chord with audiences because it portrays the perceived impossibility of our current world situation, where human beings have created their own hell through their own numerous errors in judgment, and have to somehow either fix it or sink with their own doomed ship.  With the (male defined) world order clearly at risk, and the rise of scapegoating populism, it seems that the forgiveness displayed by Lee’s wife Randi is the only real hope for humanity.

Is this the ‘prescription’ given by Lonergan and Manchester By The Sea? Probably not, as I’m sure Mr. Lonergan would deny the film is in any way prescriptive in nature or perhaps not even recognize some of the comments that I’ve made about his film as being part of his intended result. But still, this is my takeaway and my advice from viewing Manchester By The Sea. For without forgiveness and love – and quietly accepting individual responsibility for our behavior without complaint or expectation of reward – without these qualities, there is only a never ending cycle of hatred and blame.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

Don Thompson’s ‘The God of This World’ is recognized by Indie Theater Now as one of the most “interesting, innovative, challenging and pertinent” plays of the past year — one of 12 new plays included in ITN’s ‘Plays and Playwrights 2017’ anthology. gotw-poster-vimeo

Read ITN announcement here...

Buy and read anthology on ITN here

In light of the recent election, I thought this blog might be worth another look…

SolPix Blog

Note: This article was updated in November, 2016 and was originally published in 2010.

When starting nextPix in 2000 one of my personal goals was to form a company that produced and promoted ‘humanistic media.’ Exactly what that means has been a work in progress, as the term humanism itself can take on a variety of meanings depending on who is defining the term.

Humanists, in the traditional sense, are secular in their outlook. They believe that ‘people are the center of all things’ and that scientific rationality, not religion, superstition or spirituality, offer the best answers for humanity’s ills. What I have proposed as defining ‘humanistic media’ is different from the purely secular in that it can and should include what might be called a spiritual or New Humanism as laid out by the late Mario Rodriquez Cobos or the ‘common human values‘ supported by the Dalai Lama in laying the groundwork for World Peace.  Moreover…

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