“Picture” by Lillian Ross

Older paperback coverOne of my goals as a narrative nonfiction writer is to make my readers to feel as if they are there, seeing the events about which I am writing. In order for that to happen, I have to evoke the readers’ interest and convey to them a sense of my reliability, letting them know that either I was there observing (and now they can watch through my eyes) or at least that I did thorough research. Lillian Ross is a master in this genre and I often try to analyze her work in search of techniques that I might employ. Her ability to capture dialogue without aid of a tape recorder is truly amazing (and something I may never be able to do as skillfully as she), but there are a few techniques I can emulate.

Get out of the way. Ross uses the words “I,” “me,” and “we” only a few dozen times throughout the entire book. Her presence is thoroughly established in the opening chapter, where we readers are most acutely aware of her presence and participation in the scenes with John Huston and Arthur Fellows at the hotel suite and restaurant outing. After that, Ross uses only the occasional I/me/we to re-orient and reassure the reader that the knowledge is first-hand.

Tell the story, without bias or judgment, as if talking to a friend. At the end of the very first paragraph, Ross clearly defines herself as an observer who wishes to learn about “the American motion-picture industry” by following the process of the making of this one particular movie. This implies the role of both student and reporter, roles that are inherently unbiased and nonjudgmental (at least they were at that time). What she doesn’t state directly, and indeed it is not necessary to state, is that what she really is interested in is not so much the industry, but the people in the industry. She never verbalizes her/our questions, but by laying out the answers, the questions are implied throughout the narrative. It is as if she is a friend telling me about this movie project, and I can hear myself saying, “You’re kidding! Then what happened?”

Juxtapose and illuminate seeming contradictions to give a fuller picture. Her choice of what to include/exclude belies her fairness and compassion. There are no moral interpretations or judgments, just the facts and enough narrative to place actions and words within a full context. Ross juxtaposes Huston’s physicality with his sensitivity, perception, and intelligence. He’s 6-foot-2 with “long arms and long hands, long legs and long feet,” he drinks hard, plays hard, lights his matches with his thumbnail, and “the bridge of his nose is bashed in.” Yet he adopted an orphaned boy and knows that 12-year-olds are more intelligent than they are given credit for, he loves the quality of the dusk light, and he sees Audie as a “little, gentle-eyes creature.”

Descriptions become sharper and more memorable with the use of contrasts and comparisons.
Ross uses contrast as a descriptive tool throughout – for example, contrast between a person’s inner and outer characteristics, and between one person and another. Similarly, she uses comparison, but it is never overt. By putting two characters/descriptions within proximity she ‘invites’ the reader to see the deeper contrast. For example, when Spiegel arrives during filming at the ranch, we see Huston, “his face blackened by smoke and his shirt and trousers stained with sweat and grime” being greeted by Spiegel who was “immaculate in brown suede shoes, orange and green Argyle socks, tan gabardine slacks…”

When many characters are involved, introduce each on his turf and include as much action as possible. Picture begins with a series of scenes, each of which introduces the main characters in appropriate locations. First John Huston in New York, then producer Gottfried Reinhardt in his office full of status details, then MGM’s production VP Dore Schary at Chasen’s Restaurant, and finally Louis B. Mayer in his huge cream-colored office. Keep up momentum and variety throughout the book. The next scenes take us around the studio lot which keeps us in motion as we continue to meet other players and discover the commissary, projection room, wardrobe, casting, and other dept offices, all the while getting back story and details about the movie process. The longest sustained scenes throughout the rest of the book tend to be the shooting scenes, but the pace is varied by the many other shorter scenes, brief conversation snippets, and reprinting of primary source materials such as memos and letters.

A little detail goes a long way. The moviemaking process can be tedious; full of retakes and long waits. To recreate the process fully yet not bore the readers, Ross compresses time without losing content. For example, she covers a few hours of rehearsal time with one single paragraph, but this conciseness is balanced with details of magnitude (“ten thousand five hundred lunchboxes would be served at a cost to Metro of $15,750—one of the smaller items in the picture’s budget”) and details of minutia (prop man asks Huston to choose which one of the three small, squealing pigs is to be stolen from the farm girl).

And last but not least, the story must be about more than the specifics – good stories address broader issues and themes. On one level this is the specific story of the making of one movie, “The Red Badge of Courage” based on the Stephen Crane novel about the Civil War, and of the individuals involved. On a second level it is about the world of movie making – we learn a bit about music scoring, recording the music to film, dubbing sound, filming, cutting/editing, and even the preview process. On a third, much broader level, the more abstract message is that the more things change, the more they stay the same…and life goes on.

Note: Da Capo Press published a 50th anniversary paperback edition of Ross’ “Picture” in June 2002.