Monday, October 27, 2008

Conversations with Marilyn Atlas, Film Producer/Personal Manager

I was fortunate to speak to Marilyn Atlas over the telephone. She's gracious, funny, inspiring and full of information.
I hope you enjoy our conversations as much as I did. The final post of this multi-blog series will be her bio. Wowser!
Please welcome Marilyn Atlas to the Five Scribes. ~Leslie Ann

Part I
Conversations about Diversity and Stereotyping.

Okay, I took a deep breath and dialed.

Leslie Ann: Marilyn? Hi, it’s Leslie Sartor.

Marilyn: How are you, my dear?

LA: Feeling so lucky to talk to you. Thank you for doing this.

M: Oh, no. My pleasure. I thought your questions were great.

(Prior to our conversation, I’d emailed her a list of questions we might want to talk about. She graciously took the time to write answers, so you’ll find a mix of both during this blog series.)

LA: Really? Thanks. I was a little concerned as this is my first interview.

M: I don’t write at all, not a lick, I can talk, but I don’t write. But I thought MY GOD, this seems like a reporter wrote these.

LA: Stunned silence on my end, then a squeaky, "Thank you."

And with that, Marilyn put me at ease, and I felt as if I was talking to an old friend, one who didn’t hold back, one who loves to pass on information.

LA: The last line in your bio states that you’re committed to projects that reflect diversity and portray non-stereotypical characters. I believe, when talking about the portrayal of diversity, it can be as sweeping as using terms like "people of color," "Latinas" (ethnicity) or "Catholics" (religion,) but I also think it can be as narrow as a white vs. white or whichever color is being written about. The characters can be white, the project can be mainly white, but we still need to create diversity within this project and create non-stereotypical characters.

M: Definitely! Opposing points of view are really why there are these basic classifications to begin with. Along with that of course are varying degrees of codes of morality and social mores. But, as long as you know intrinsically your characters’ backgrounds and reasons for acting the way they do, you can create richly textured worlds.

Specificity by definition exceeds the boring straitjacket of tropes. This is why I emphasize to writers they must really know who their characters are. Only then can the writer truly show what the characters want, their goals, needs, etc.

LA: Tropes? You’re talking about Archetypes, aren’t you?

M: Yes. I think when you’re creating character...and Archetypes is one of the ways writers create characters or they check Meyer Briggs...I think you want to bring something different to it.

LA: Bring our own experiences to that archetype?

M: You know, it’s always recommended that you write what you know, but that can be expanded into researching what you know.

Knowledge doesn’t have to be based solely on experience, and if you survey your world in depth, then broadly, and then in a random, highly particular corner with no ostensible connection to what you want to do, you’ll come up with the oddities of locality that will imbue your story with juicy credibility.
I recently read a book by a white gay writer yet his portrayal of a marriage and specifically the young African American protagonist was so rich, so universal and the writer so insightful, it hardly mattered his ethnicity or sexual orientation.
I am a big believer in using one’s imagination (after having done your research) and I do not fully adhere to solely writing what you know. Even when writing what you know, it’s the writer’s original take, his voice and execution that make a story and characters memorable.

Also, I would imagine that writing about yourself, your neighbors, your friends lends a working familiarity that is hard to beat. But for more experienced or ambitious writers, there should be no explicit limits placed on themselves.

I’m so concerned about writers writing stereotypes because it’s sloppy writing to me.

LA: Lazy.

M: Yes, lazy. Exactly.

LA: Regarding Diversity. The first thing that pops into my head when I hear the word is racial or ethnic diversity.

I’ve spoken to many writers at conferences, in classes and on line that often feel uncomfortable writing outside their race because portraying another race, ethnicity or even region (south vs. west for example) is challenging to nail down without offending.

M: I really believe taboos or conceived politically/racially offensive lines should be redrawn.

If art, insight or experience can transcend initial fears, then use this foreign context to show the preconceptions of the author’s natural community in approaching this kind of material, or conversely highlighting the astigmatism within this newly explored, sensitive community as more ably seen from an outsider’s perspective.

LA: Before we had our conversation, I went to Webster’s dictionary, and one definition of diversity is: "composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities." That definition could be perceived to be simply what we talked about above, but I’m thinking "distinct or unlike elements" can be so much more.

M: Yes, exactly. One of things I thought was so interesting about Real Woman Have Curves (Marilyn Atlas--Producer. HBO Independent Films, available on DVD) is that normally in immigrant families, particularly Latino families, it’s usually the mother that’s the back bone and encourages the kids to go out and make a life for themselves. And in RWHC it was the father. He was very understanding of his kids, so that to me was interesting. He was diverse in both ethnicity but also and perhaps more importantly in his qualities.

Because I have actor clients and read for them, to me it’s always about finding a character that’s a little different, that’s three dimensional, that has qualities you don’t necessarily think they should have.

It was Marilyn’s last line: "...that has qualities you don’t necessarily think they should have" that really crystallized the fact I must not simply be content to create characters I already know.

That in order to create interesting and notable characters I must go beyond the archetype foundations and go outside my comfort zone to build characters that will make producers, editors, readers, viewers and actors, take notice.


What do you think? Please, go ahead and join the conversation.

This was a great segue into tomorrow’s blog about What Actors Want in a Script and Creating Worlds. See you then.

~ LA


Vivi Anna said...

This is a great post! Thank you for connecting with Marilyn and sharing this information.

Theresa said...

Hi Leslie,
Interesting material, but as with most objectives, I think the best is probably in the middle--meaning that when creating unique characters--three dimensional interesting people, we have to remember to make them balanced, in that they also MUST still be relatable.

Readers, movie goers, must be able to relate to and "get" the character, otherwise they will dismiss him/her as not being credible.

It's a tough needle to thread, but I agree we all must strive for it and when you hit it--you know and it's wonderful!

Can't wait to read more!

Tiffany James said...

Great post! It really got me thinking and then, of course, completely overwhelmed. I still have so much to learn!

I agree with Theresa that it's a hard balance to strike.

Thanks, Marilyn, for your thought-provoking answers, and thanks, Leslie Ann, for your insightful questions! Looking forward to the next installment.


Audra Harders said...

I liked the comment about archetypes. I think folks confuse the archetype concept as substance, rather than an guideline. It's up to us to give our charcters substance and soul. When reading contest entries, it's so easy to see where the concept of full-bodied is understood and where it is not.

Great interview, Leslie!

Leslie Ann said...

Vivi Anna, Thanks for joining us for the conversation!

T, of course you're right, but I want to try Marilyn's idea and not be afraid that I'm going to blow it. It'll be hard, but sweat makes you lose weight, right? I guess I don't think we have to relate to all characters, but maybe to mini parts of them, something that will strike a chord, maybe not a chord we want to explore deeply in us, but a bit of recognition that the character is in me. And if it's totally alien to me, then great, I have to decide if it works on so many levels...okay off my soap box. xo to you T.

Tiffany, heck we all learn, all the time. I was thinking about T's comment and it dawned on me that maybe balance isn't something we want, at least at first draft. Why not pull out all the stops and see if it works?

Not just strive for balance but truly a character that pops off the page or screen.

Just a thought off the top of my head. Thanks for joining us!