Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Noir Interview #6: Brooks Reeves

How did your interest in film noir originally get sparked?

BROOKS REEVES: I've always been a big fan of mysteries. When I was a kid I always loved reading Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers type stuff. You know, a dead body in the library, eight red herrings and a cleverly concealed murderer. It wasn't until, my late teenage years that I discovered the old pulp detective fiction, primarily the novels of Dashiel Hammit and the short stories of Raymond Chandler, the first of whom I pioneered the movement, and the second of whom perfected it. These stories were a complete rethinking of the mystery genre and they fascinated me to the core. They were written with a sense of wit and style that completely bowled me over.

So, what is film noir? How do you define it?

BROOKS REEVES: Well, it's my understanding that technically film noir refers to film. But when I think of it, I generally think back to the literature that our classical noir films were based on. For some people film noir is the black and white picture, with the venetian blinds and the smokey office, but for me three things clearly define it in my eyes: Attitude, Language, and Structure.

First, the attitude of a film noir is all cynicism all the time. Every character is corrupted and sinful, and that's even before we get to know their dirty secrets. The anti-hero makes questionable ethical decisions, and even though the mystery is always solved, evil usually triumphs in the end.

Second, I think that the particular use of language defines the genre. Nowhere else, but in an Oscar Wilde play do characters speak almost entirely in epigrams. If the material wasn't so dark, you'd almost believe you were reading (or watching) a comedy. Take this line from The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler: “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

However for me, the way film noir structurally distinguishes itself from the usual mystery is the most intriguing aspect. Most mysteries start from a single point: a crime. Then the narrative branches out, as the detective goes after a variety of different clues and suspects. But the film noir often works in the exact opposite way. In the beginning, our protagonist is quickly introduced to a variety of seemingly unrelated events and characters, and then throughout the course of the narrative they are slowly brought closer together until they are all connected in one single explanation. This is not always true, but especially with detective fiction, this structure is employed some of the best examples of the work. That's often why people have a hard time getting into film noirs because they're so confusing at the beginning. Nothing is explained until the very bitter end.

Do you have a favorite film which for you most clearly defines the movement/style/sub-genre?

BROOKS REEVES: The Big Lebowski. The film, while lacking many of the characteristic stylistic cues of film noir, is as clear representative of how these types of stories work. If you don't think it's film noir, watch it again. Genius.

What do you think, generally speaking, film noir has to offer the theatre artist?

BROOKS REEVES: I'm not sure. I mean it's a very easily recognized model both for story and style. The audience comes into it with a lot of preconceived notions, which can be very helpful. People already know what kind of guy the detective in the fedora is supposed to be. They're already familiar with the femme fetale. It makes establishing your characters very easy. You can then also play with the audiences expectations, though with Film Noir it's more difficult, because mysteries by definition are always trying to trick your preconceived notions anyway.

But I know for me, writing this play was very freeing and forced me to think of theater in a very different way. I've always been very impressed with contained plays, dramatic stories that establish themselves and play out at one time, in one location. But of course the conventions of film noir are very cinematic. I would never have normally written a play with a forty-two characters or one set in so many different locations, but then theater is all about suspending disbelief, and I think in the end the whole experience served to broaden my range as a playwright and expand what I now know theater is capable of.

Why do you think the past few years have been so noir-saturated in film, television, and theatre?

BROOKS REEVES: I'm not sure, exactly. For one, the genre is honestly really really cool. It's replete with sex, violence, and a general level of “bad-assity” that you can't really find in a lot of other forms. But I also think that we've reached this strange point culturally where we've become compelled to reference and rereference past movements. It's everwhere from all of the remakes and sequels that come out of hollywood to every damn episode of the Family Guy. It's sort of the snake eating its own tail, kind of thing. Not that I should say anything about it, because honestly, this play is nothing more than reference after reference after reference. In that respect, I'm not sure exactly how I feel about it now.

Tell us a bit about The City That Cried Wolf and how you created it. What were you trying to achieve/explore? Can we expect to see the production remounted at some point in the future?

BROOKS REEVES: I wrote this play in college. I had already slotted it to be performed the next year by our college theatre, despite the fact I hadn't written it yet. All I really wanted to do was write a comedy, and preferably a comedy that would allow actors to play multiple parts. I had earlier written a short story retelling Winnie the Pooh as a film noir tale (let's just say that Christopher Robin comes to a very nasty end.) and so I decided to go with a similar slant.

My very first draft was very silly, very tongue in cheek. I had half heartedly added a small subplot involving Bo Peep, as a wolf, purely as a method of melding the Little Red Riding story with Chinatown. I had a first reading at the Lost Nation Theater in Vermont and everyone loved it. As far as I was concerned I was finished.

Ha. Ha.

I went back and showed it to my good friend, and director of that production, Ben Kahn who promptly gave back pages and pages of notes. One of the strongest suggestions he made was how interesting the throw-away subplot had been about the wolves. (at that point the play was titled “Black Sheep”, because believe it or not, the entire plot focused around ovines) It had never occurred to me to try to make the play anything other than a silly silly parody. But it really hit me, that I could make this play smarter, more interesting, and more satisfying if I wove it as an allegory.

So I completely rewrote it. And then completely rewrote it again. And again. And again. And when I say completely rewrote, I mean everything changed. There was a point when the Big Bad Wolf was a secondary villian, a foil to Mother Goose. There was a whole meta-fictional plot involving the very story book that made up the world. I wrote a very funny scene involving an ugly step sister and an un-P.C. tour guide leading three blind mice through city hall. Unfortunately none of these made it into the final draft.

Writing this play was itself an education. I feel almost ashamed to call myself the playwright, when so many different people helped me throughout the process. People, like my friend Ben, who helped my make drastic changes, and others like dramaturg Byam Stevens who helped me tinker. I have been unbelievably blessed by this project.

BROOKS REEVES: Are there any other film styles you are eager to explore in your own work?

I can't say so. Not right now. I think working on any kind of film genre, transferred to the theater would have a similar ring. They all call for expansiveness. They all call for more characters than you would usually use in a play. But there are other “styles” that I am very interested in bringing to the stage. Right now, I'm working with a friend on a script based on 1940's era radio formats. And I also think it helps to look back even further to observe theatrical styles from other cultures and parts of history.

But I can't say that I'm anxious to begin working on another type of parody piece. This play has been wonderful to work with, but I'd rather broaden my range even further.

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