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Tom Perrotta on Screenwriting

Question: Why did you get into screenwriting?

Perrotta: I think that one of the reasons that I got into screenwriting had to do with the sense that my own position, my own ability to make a living as a novelist was pretty precarious a few years ago.  That’s changed a bit, you know, with my last two books, but I, “Joe College” was my fourth book and, you know, I hadn’t really made any kind of a living as a writer.  I was teaching and I’d had, you know, a little bit of luck with “Election” being made as a film, but I was really trying to think like how am I going to keep going as a writer economically and I got some opportunities, because “Election” was so well received, to write some screenplays and, you know, I was definitely responding to a kind of economic imperative.  I wanted to make a living writing as opposed to teaching but I was also well aware that, you know, if you make a movie, millions of people see it, and if you write a book, if you’re lucky, tens of thousands of people will read it and I think that if you want, like, something like “Election” I thought, when I wrote the book, this is a political novel.  I would love for people to talk about this book in relation to the American political system.  When it came as a book, nobody did.  It was hardly reviewed and when it was reviewed, it was reviewed, and I think in terms that were smaller than I’d hoped, but when the movie came out, people immediately saw that it was a political allegory.  They still talk about it now.  I mean, in this election, Tracy Flick has come up both in terms of Hilary Clinton and in terms of Sarah Palin and, you know, just, it’s very clear to me as a writer that if “Election” only existed as a book, none of that would have happened.  Tracy Flick would not have become this iconic figure within the culture that people just… It’s just a shorthand.  Now, you say the name and people know what that is.  So, it will be, I think… it would just be disingenuous of me to say that I wasn’t aware of that disparity in terms of audience and just in terms of impact on the culture.

Question: How is screenwriting different from writing a novel?

Perrotta: Screenplay is a much more rigid form.  It’s got to be a certain length.  It’s got to have a certain characteristics if it’s going to survive in the Hollywood marketplace or even the indie marketplace.  And what happened was “Election” came out, people really responded to it in Hollywood and I suddenly got, I got an offer from the WB Network, which well, you know, makes no sense to me, really.  But they said, you know, we want you to write TV pilots for us and they gave me an offer of, you know, 2 pilots, a half-hour sitcom and an hour drama, and so I got paid to do that and, you know, it’s a sort of on-the-job training.  You know, I read the books that everybody reads in film school about writing screenplays, but I actually found it was a fairly intuitive thing for me.  I have been a huge movie fan since I was kid and, you know, spent a lot of… I took a lot of film classes in college and in the years since [I was out of] college I went to movies constantly.  So, I trained in a way without knowing I was training for it because when it came time to write a script I had a pretty good idea of what it was.  I also feel like I write my fiction in a kind of scenic way, you know.  It’s, you know, very often the conversation at the heart of a scene, the narrative structure is pretty tight.  It’s not so voice driven that you can’t make a translation from the page to the screen without doing some crazy thing.  So, even though it was a craft and I had to learn the craft, and I’m still learning it, I think I could write a competent screenplay pretty early on.

Question: How has writing “The Abstinence Teacher” informed your screenwriting?

Perrotta: Writing screenplays made me very conscious of what I could do is a novelist that I can’t do as a screenwriter.  Particularly, those 2 things are, you know, move around in time, very difficult in a script.   Even though, I will say both “Election” and “Little Children” as films were fairly literary and there are a lot of flashbacks, there’s a lot of voiceovers.  But, generally speaking, you can move in time so easily within the context of prose fiction and it’s relatively difficult in film to…  A flashback is like a big phenomena within a film.  Everything stops and it’s kind of clunky and you have to figure out some way to hint at the passage of time or the disparity in time.  So, oddly enough, you know, some people will say, “Oh, you must have start…” and I’ve had this criticism.  People say, “Oh, this looks like it was written as a screenplay,” whereas my experience of it is that I’m so much more conscious of the fact that I’m writing a novel and so much more aware of all the tools that I have at my disposal in terms of sentences, you know, literary style and movement in time in narrative structure and just space to expand.  You know, film is a tight construction and a novel can expand.  So, I feel like “Little Children” and “The Abstinence Teacher” were actually, you know, quite expansive and that in a funny way it’s a reaction against the restrictions of screenwriting that it allowed me to that, and they’re bigger in scope too.  They have a lot of characters and they try and get at, you know, an entire community.  So, I feel like screenwriting really made me appreciate all the tools at my disposal as a novelist and, you know, when I wrote “Joe College” it was right after “Election” had been made into a movie and at that point I really was thinking a little bit about, “Oh, you know, maybe this will be a movie and maybe this will be a great scene in a movie,”  and “Joe College,” as you know, never became a film.  And I wrote “Little Children” sort of feeling like I just got to forget about that.  I just want to write this is a book, and when I turned it in to my film agent, she said, “You know, I love this book, but it’s really going to be hard to make this into a movie.  It’s very dark, you know, there’s this child molester character.  It’s an ensemble piece.  The ending isn’t a happy one,” and I was fine with that. But that was the one that became a movie, and so I realized it’s just… in that corner of the film world that I work in it, it almost doesn’t matter what the book is.  It just matters if some filmmaker on the level of Alexander Payne or Todd Field or Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris, you know.  If they see a movie there, then a movie might happen.  So it’s not like I’m writing a…  It’s not you can write something to order.  Somebody has got to really connect with it, and so I just try to push that out of my mind.  You know, what would this book look like on screen?  It just, it doesn’t make any sense to try and second guess that kind of thing.

Tom Perrotta on the joy of writing movies.

Why it’s hard to tell when high-class people are incompetent

A recent study gives new meaning to the saying "fake it 'til you make it."

Surprising Science
  • The study involves four experiments that measured individuals' socioeconomic status, overconfidence and actual performance.
  • Results consistently showed that high-class people tend to overestimate their abilities.
  • However, this overconfidence was misinterpreted as genuine competence in one study, suggesting overestimating your abilities can have social advantages.
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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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Mother bonobos, too, pressure their sons to have grandchildren

If you thought your mother was pushy in her pursuit of grandchildren, wait until you learn about bonobo mothers.

Surprising Science
  • Mother bonobos have been observed to help their sons find and copulate with mates.
  • The mothers accomplish this by leading sons to mates, interfering with other males trying to copulate with females, and helping sons rise in the social hierarchy of the group.
  • Why do mother bonobos do this? The "grandmother hypothesis" might hold part of the answer.
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