Ira Glass: By the Book

August 20th, 2012

The New York Times
August 19, 2012

The host of “This American Life” and co-writer of the coming film “Sleepwalk With Me” would like to meet Edgar Allan Poe. “I don’t have a question, but dude just seems like he could use a hug.”

What book is on your night stand now?

Everything I’m reading right now is homework of one sort or another. That’s pretty typical. I’m jumping around like a grad student, writing a paper on Mary Wingerd’s history, “North Country: The Making of Minnesota,” for this big story we’re doing on the show about the Dakota Uprising of 1862.

I just finished the manuscript of the new book “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish, a Novel,” by David Rakoff. It’s a rhyming “novel,” very funny and very sad, which is my favorite combination.

Were there any books that helped with the process of making your new movie?

I just got a copy of the screenwriting manual “Save the Cat!” to fact-check a thing I’m hoping to talk about while promoting this film we’re putting out this month.

And I’m rereading Cameron Crowe’s “Conversations With Wilder.” I first read it over a decade ago when screenwriters and studios started trying to convert stories from our show into films, and I was trying to understand the storytelling tricks you can use in a movie. I’m sure people who study film in school would have a different perspective, but for someone like me who’s just a movie fan, scanning for quick insight, it was wonderful: anecdotal and fun to read.

Crowe was a reporter before he became a filmmaker, and you get both sides of him here. He’s interviewing Billy Wilder, who made “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment” and “Sunset Boulevard” and “Double Indemnity,” and sometimes Crowe talks to him like a peer and sometimes like the best-informed fan in the world. In a typical bit of wisdom, Wilder is explaining to Crowe how director Ernst Lubitsch solved a story problem Wilder was having in writing the screenplay for “Ninotchka”: How would they show Greta Garbo’s evolution from hard-core Communist to fierce capitalist without a lot of cumbersome speechifying? They’d do it with a prop! A hat! At three spots in the film. Near the top, she’s with her three Bolshevik comrades and spots the hat in a store window and sneers at this capitalist trinket:

“She gives it a disgusted look and says, ‘How can a civilization survive which allows women to wear this on their heads?’ Then the second time she goes by the hat and makes a noise — tch, tch, tch. The third time, she is finally alone, she has gotten rid of her Bolshevik accomplices, opens a drawer and pulls it out. And now she wears it.”

I spent a lot of my spare time over the last three years co-writing and co-producing a film — not a documentary but a comedy, with actors and all — and I’m having the pleasure of rereading the book and noticing completely different things now that I’ve gone through the process. That “Ninotchka” story was a complete revelation when I first read it, a totally new idea, that you’d illustrate out the turns in a story through a prop like that. Now I realize, that’s the basics. The A B C’s. Every move in a screenplay aspires to work like that, to illustrate the emotional beats and the plot turns with such simple visual gestures.

What was the last truly great book you read?

Michael Lewis’s “The Big Short.” God knows he doesn’t need the press: he’s the greatest living nonfiction writer; Brad Pitt stars in the movie adaptations of his books. But “The Big Short” made me want to give up journalism it’s so good. Scene after scene I felt like, how do you compete with this? He’s telling the story of the mortgage crisis, and his angle couldn’t be better: he follows the guys who knew it was coming and bet on it. This lets him explain how they knew and tell the story through these amazing contrarians and great funny scenes. It’s crazy how funny the book is. And as a story it’s got everything going against it. His characters are rich know-it-alls, but somehow Lewis makes you love them because he loves them. You know how it’s all going to end, but somehow he creates suspense. When the market doesn’t collapse as quickly as his characters think it should, some of them start to wonder: “Am I wrong? Is the whole world right and I’m wrong?” It all climaxes in this amazing, almost hallucinogenic set of scenes at this convention for the mortgage industry in Las Vegas, where our heroes have a series of encounters that make them all realize, no, no, no, they’re not wrong. Everything’s going to collapse. The economy will go to hell. And these people walking around are like zombies who just don’t know they’re doomed.

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