Alone in a Room, Wearing a Mask

The following is from an interview with the writer and director Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Light Sleeper,” “First Reformed,” and his newest, “Master Gardener”) from the L.A. Times, September 13, 2020.

“ … over the years I’ve developed my own little genre of films. And they usually involve a man alone in a room, wearing a mask, and the mask is his occupation. So it could be a taxi driver, a drug dealer, a gigolo, a reverend, whatever. And I take that character and run it alongside a larger problem, personal or social. It could be debilitating loneliness like in ‘Taxi Driver.’ It could be an environmental crisis like in ‘First Reformed.’

            “I’m looking for deep-seated problems, either personal or societal, and some kind of oddball metaphor. The more you get closer, you run these two wires next to each other, the more sparks you see flying across. And it’s in the sparks that the viewer comes alive.  If the wires ever touch, there’s nothing left for the viewer to do. But if you keep these two wires really close to each other, the viewer will start to spark from one wire to the other. And that’s the greatest thing you can give a viewer or a reader, an opportunity to be part of the creation.”

            I love analogies like this because they really help me as a writer.

            When Mr. Schrader says “a man alone in a room with a mask on,” that strikes me as a different way of saying “get to true identity.”

            “Man” of course means man or woman.

            “In a room” means a circumscribed environment.

            “Mask” is false identity.

            The story’s job is to get the mask off and reveal the hero’s true identity.

            But I love the second part of Mr. Schrader’s construct even more—the idea of the “two wires”—the character’s story running side-by-side with a greater story but never quite touching.

            I started thinking about Dr. Zhivago.

            The man in the mask is Yuri—Dr. Zhivago (Omar Sharif). 

            The room is Russia in the time of the revolution.

            Yuri’s true identity (mask off) is a great poet, whose works and depth of sensibility transcend temporal upheavals, however monumental or Earth-altering.

            The parallel societal story is the White-Red clash that ended with the victory of the Communists and their idealistic, well-intentioned but in the end soul-destroying totalitarian worldview.

            The central scene to me, if you recall it, is when Zhivago, seeking to flee with his family to their dacha in the countryside, is snatched up and dragooned by Red Army partisans under their ruthless commander Strelnikov (Tom Courtenay), whom Zhivago had known briefly in pre-revolutionary days as the unhappy student radical Pasha Antipov (who was also the husband of Lara [Julie Christie], whom Zhivago would come to love as well and for whom his greatest poetry would be written.)

            The scene between Zhivago and Strelnikov takes place on Strelnikov’s armored high-speed train. It’s an interview, face to face, in Strelnikov’s office/cabin. The two men speak briefly of Zhivago’s poetry, which Strelnikov dismisses, not with contempt or ill will but simply as out of phase with the times.

                        STRELNIKOV

            I should find it absurdly personal.

Zhivago is stung and even unnerved by this appraisal. To him, the personal is everything. Love. Depth of emotion. The imperatives of the heart.

                        STRELNIKOV

            The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it.

            See the sparks?

            Paul Schrader is right. When you set a greater issue in parallel with a unique personal one, particularly one that involves the hero seeking his or her true identity, you get drama and magic and insight.

            Zhivago’s whole life-odyssey (and his poetry) is a testament to the permanence of the personal … of love and of feeling … over the transience of “greater” political events, even if these produce massive societal transformation that could not have been brought about in any other way.

            Zhivago collapses and dies at the end of the story, post-revolution, of a heart attack, dismounting from a streetcar in a moment of frantic passion, after spotting his great love, Lara, on the street and pursuing her as she walks past without seeing him.

                        ZHIVAGO’S BROTHER YEVGRAV (ALEC GUINNESS)

            The walls of his heart were like paper.

            The story ends with the triumph of Communism and the (justifiably true) point of view that such a mass movement was necessary to awaken Russia and bring her into the modern, industrialized world. The final scene takes place at a massive dam—a feat of engineering and construction that pre-revolutionary Russia could never have even dreamt of.

            But who “won?”

            In the end it is Zhivago’s poetry, speaking to the timeless Russian soul, that remains vivid and ineradicable, ever-alive in the hearts of the people.

            Paul Schrader’s concept is true.

            Sparks did fly between these two parallels, didn’t they?

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38 Comments

  1. M. Moore on September 13, 2023 at 1:51 am

    Thank you.

  2. GARRY on September 13, 2023 at 1:59 am

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks. That’s absolute gold, and one of the most insightful things I’ve ever read about craft.

    Onwards!
    /Garry

  3. Peter Brockwell on September 13, 2023 at 2:08 am

    I think Steve’s latest is going to provoke A LOT of thoughtful comments (Joe? Kate? BSN? at al).

    How interesting, I’ll have to ponder this. I have twelve miles of the Cotswolds to hike now, along with many friendly octogenarian Americans 🙂 , which will give me ample time to think on this.

    Thanks Steve.
    Peter

  4. Bruce on September 13, 2023 at 3:06 am

    I love your never-ending desire to help others, Stephen. Thank you for your generosity. This wisdom snippet hits home. “When you set a greater issue in parallel with a unique personal one, particularly one that involves the hero seeking his or her true identity, you get drama and magic and insight.”

  5. Claire T on September 13, 2023 at 3:21 am

    Thank you for sharing Steve, so helpful. had not thought about a story in this way but how true! Inspiration and fuel for my ongoing attempts at fiction. Much appreciated.

  6. Tolis on September 13, 2023 at 3:48 am

    Thank you very much dear Steve.

    And what a great idea to have a parallelism between a true circumstance and a personal circumstance.

    I struggle for sometime now with my book with the energy of the last chapter/chapters. I have come along the idea of focusing on the personal rather than the wider circumstances, but to let the personal lie inside the wider circumstances. But not *in* them but *next* to them. So for example it can be a group of people who try to achieve something, like the fellowship of the Ring on the first book of Tolkien who are battling their own, personal (actually about 7 x personal) battles also, while out there a great war is brewing and the whole middle Earth is in a great and raging danger.

    On the other hand, the Muse stops me there again. It’s like she wants no specific form from me, I tell you. I now found an even deeper in terms of meaning form, but the Muse is yet there to hold me back I think, although maybe less. The Muse is like this: “really cut all the bridges and let be no form”. But what is, if not a specific form, in the end? Spontaneity can be not, for I exhausted that in the past chapters. But I mean, you must write something. I feel as if the Muse doesn’t want me to write at all that ending but something else, something (entirely?) else. Strange.

    This is my final trouble. This ending flow. So far it led me to reawaken my mental/spiritual restlesness by taking on some new actions and thought processes in my life, they enrich again my empty insides, and I have formed a new form in my mind but althought that is crucial and well worked out, a meaning for the future world, it may still be “not it” for the Muse.

    Resistance pointing the way?

    I dare to say that the Muse is not asking something very specific, but that she is asking for more struggle on my part (or any creators part on such a circumstance). More time to hatch the wisest end? To go beyond me? This is an interesting question. It doesn’t feel like Resistance but then Resistance is the hand of the Muse holding me back from going full forth.

  7. Anonymous on September 13, 2023 at 4:27 am

    I love this. I’ve heard you use Paul Schrader’s metaphor about the wires and the sparks, but never really understood it. This really illustrated it for me, so thank you! The way I understand it, it’s an A and B story that run alongside each other, but never quite intersect.

  8. C.M. O'Slatara on September 13, 2023 at 4:57 am

    Perfect analogy to show how the interior struggle is tangled with the exterior struggle. But Shrader is right, the struggles can’t completely overlap or they become one struggle, there is no chemistry, dare I say romance, between the forces that try to undo the main character.
    Thanks for the great post!

    • Nom de Plume on September 14, 2023 at 6:42 pm

      By all means, say it! Romance is exactly the way to describe the interplay of the energy between those wires.

  9. Jan Petrie on September 13, 2023 at 5:10 am

    Wonderful and thoughtful culmination of this story which was a real slice of that time. Still
    Fascinating real moment frozen in time but still teaches today.

  10. Brad Graft on September 13, 2023 at 5:54 am

    Great post. Great insights. Thanks, Steve.

    And best wishes for “flying sparks” and an ever-present muse as you nail drafts 4 and 5 of your coming novel. SF..

  11. Jackie on September 13, 2023 at 7:19 am

    The threat of sparks produces more tension than the actual crossing of wires. When wires intersect, we see the outcome. The unseen, with all its potential, definitely causes the heart to beat faster. Love today’s post. Thanks Steve and by the way, thanks for the resources through your suggestion of Story Grid in a previous post.

  12. Chad Allen on September 13, 2023 at 7:24 am

    This reminds me of something I heard once: “The political is the personal, amplified.” Wonderful insights here. I wonder, though, as we’re writing the personal story, should we be always thinking about the “greater issue”? I doubt it. Better to go full bore into the personal and see later how it interacts with the broader theme.

  13. Joe Badalamente on September 13, 2023 at 8:16 am

    Mr. P, you must get tired of hearing us say thank you. Great post. I just listened to Mr. Schrader being interviewed on a podcast, so this really hit home.
    I saw Raging Bull in a theater at age 15. The experience left an indelible mark on my sensibilities in every way, of the infinite potential of cinema, acting and writing to express what it means to be human. Having grown up in the NYC of the 70s, the film’s themes of societal corruption, violence and jealousy, and how unflinchingly these ideas were examined by Schrader, Scorsese and all the actors, rang so true to my young mind, it literally felt like I was watching a documentary. (Many years later, in a class on Shakespeare, it hit me that RB was Othello. Some time after, I read an interview with Scorsese in which he stated that indeed Othello was on his mind when making RB.)
    Now, looking at RB, Taxi Driver and other Schrader works with this idea of crossing wires, and with a more mature eye, its like seeing one of those drawings within a drawing, the ‘A-Ha!’ moment of it. However, I’ve done enough writing to know that although this is a great piece of information, and a weapon to use against Resistance, it still comes down to us putting our derrières in our seats and going at it.

  14. Maureen Anderson on September 13, 2023 at 10:20 am

    Is this why I’m taking what happened to Aaron Rodgers Monday night so hard, so personally? It’s what he represents! So much excitement for a fresh start all around, all that buildup — and, well, you know.

  15. Kathy on September 13, 2023 at 10:24 am

    Steve, my head is spinning. So much to consider and perceive. I think in pictures, so I’m trying to connect the dots of all you wrote. I have to think about this and I will, because it’s blaring with potential and a loud voice I can fall back on, when I think creativity is mad at me. Thank you for your genius.

  16. Helen Norton on September 13, 2023 at 3:01 pm

    In these times, where a technology cult is threatening to ‘…wipe out all this nonsense of the soul’ ~ Yuval Harari, it is essential to read and remember this point. Thank you, Steven. Fundamentally, we, mankind, have no choice in the matter. All the self-appointed swollen ego corporate kings in the world are puffed up because their ‘soul’ pipes are blocked with crap. Instead of expressing the beauty and humility of our tragic human condition as poetry and song which would make the world a better place – they leak only gaseous ideals that poison us all. Their fear of the power greater than they, (which the soul proves), has them lashing about with digital lassos, trying to yard up every man and his dog for fear they will eat him.

  17. Erick Yates the Green on September 13, 2023 at 3:18 pm

    You constantly remind me [as a Professor of Story in Film and Video] of the essential foundations of WHY human beings cherish stories and WHAT I should primarily teach to my own fledgling collegiate storytellers seated before me in classroom. Bravo once again for your empowering lessons, Maestro Teacher Steven!!!

  18. Joe on September 13, 2023 at 6:44 pm

    This was the one of Schrader’s lines that caught me:

    “And that’s the greatest thing you can give a viewer or a reader, an opportunity to be part of the creation.”

    You want them as participants, not just observers. I was thinking of something I’d shared in here a couple years ago about “the beholder’s share.” In this short (5-min) video, neuroscientist Anil Seth says: “There’s an old art-history concept called ‘the beholder’s share.’ This is the idea that humans respond well to art that forces them to be involved in making sense of the image, whether they’re aware of it or not.”

  19. Paullette MacDougal on September 14, 2023 at 10:47 am

    Long ago, I audited Paul Schrader’s screenwriting class at Columbia University. I do not recall that he specifically said anything about sparks and parallels, but something he said must have stuck. My most successful works (produced plays) take place during wartimes or times of great societal upheavals. The characters (women) are active participants in these conflicts.

    Thanks Steve, for the reminder.

  20. Gigi Blackshear on September 15, 2023 at 9:04 am

    What I would give to write with a mind that thinks like this :
    “I’m looking for deep-seated problems, either personal or societal, and some kind of oddball metaphor. The more you get closer, you run these two wires next to each other, the more sparks you see flying across. And it’s in the sparks that the viewer comes alive. If the wires ever touch, there’s nothing left for the viewer to do. But if you keep these two wires really close to each other, the viewer will start to spark from one wire to the other. And that’s the greatest thing you can give a viewer or a reader, an opportunity to be part of the creation.”

    Now. to go back and watch Dr. Zhivago for the fourth time.

  21. Joe on September 16, 2023 at 2:12 pm

    Dudes and dudettes (or duderinos/duderinas, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing)… I just looked at the trailer for Master Gardner. I KNOW what I’m doing tonight:

    https://www.amazon.com/Master-Gardener-Joel-Edgerton/dp/B0BZ9NHSXP

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  23. Chrissie on September 19, 2023 at 2:51 am

    Thank you so muc for this beautiful reminder of life’s fragility and what survives when two solitudes collide.

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  26. Kathy on September 21, 2023 at 8:23 am

    I notice the INVASION of your latest blog, This Might Not Work, the one after this, has not been addressed….removed. Weird world now, isn’t it? Obviously, I cannot post there as I don’t want them detecting me. I’m curious though, why hasn’t the issue been addressed… removed?

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    Thank you for sharing Steve, so helpful. had not thought about a story in this way but how true! Inspiration and fuel for my ongoing attempts at fiction. Much appreciated.

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