My dad, who passed away almost 15 years ago, loved movies. He watched them all the time. We were the first people in our building to get HBO (back when you got a box that only transmitted HBO), the first to get a VCR (a really clunky, early model that lasted way longer than subsequent replacements). We used to kid my dad because he would tape almost every movie he watched. We called him “The Mad Taper.”
He would take me and my sister to the movies a lot, mostly at Ft. Totten, an Army base that had a 50 cent movie theater. (Dad was, ahem, a tad on the thrifty side.) We saw movies like Jaws, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (the original), and The Towering Inferno.
One time the movie theater was closed for some reason, but they still showed the movie–Carrie with Sissy Spacek–in a freezing cold quonset hut during the dead of winter. They projected the movie on what seemed to be a ginormous piece of poster board. Having numb toes didn’t prevent me from jumping out of the chair during the final scene.
When I was in my teens, my mom went to work for New Yorker Films, a distributor of foreign and independent films. They also owned movie theaters. This meant free admission to a lot of movies. My dad loved that. He didn’t care if movies were subtitled, they were FREE. He ended up seeing movies by directors such as Francois Truffaut, Werner Herzog and Peter Weir. He liked all of them.
My dad read the newspaper from cover to cover every day, so he was very well-informed about current events, but otherwise he didn’t read much. He’d read maybe two books a year–one we bought him for his birthday, and one for Father’s Day. They were always non-fiction books about either sports or the Mafia. I think the only novel I ever saw him read was Jaws.
Yet he taught me what I consider the most important lesson I ever learned about storytelling.
One night I was watching the 1968 movie version of Thomas Hardy‘s Far From The Madding Crowd. He came into the room as it began and sat next to me. He asked me what it was and I told him. He settled back to watch it with me.
He didn’t say a word for the first half of the movie. If you’re familiar with Hardy, you know his stories aren’t exactly a laugh riot. Dad was so quiet I was convinced he hated it.
Suddenly, he said, “I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I love that. I LOVE that. That’s my favorite kind of story.”
I’ve never forgotten what he said. To this day, when I write a story, I try to push myself to create something that’s not predictable. If someone tells me my story went places they didn’t expect, I consider it a huge compliment.
Sometimes, it’s not the “experts” who teach us the most important things we need to know about telling our stories.