A crowd of around 200 people gathered in the Yale School of Art on Monday evening for a talk featuring the screenwriter Charles Randolph ’90 and the writer Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell led the discussion, which explored Randolph’s screenwriting process and the creation of art in the current social climate. The talk was organized by the Graduate Studies in Photography department at the Yale School of Art. Randolph wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for “The Big Short,” while Gladwell works as a staff writer at the New Yorker, hosts the “Revisionist History” podcast and has authored five New York Times bestselling books, including “The Tipping Point,” “Blink” and “Outliers.”
Nowadays, Randolph said, the difficulty in creating art is trying to condense narratives when so much information is available. The biggest challenge lies in trying to find stories that have novelty and freshness, he added, and then trying to breathe life into them. Randolph said he is currently working on a film about the 2015 Volkswagen diesel scandal and the company’s “culture of corruption.”
At the talk, Randolph told a short story to illustrate for the audience how he goes about developing characters.
“My friend has a four year old that has learned — as all four year olds do – that you can’t say the words ‘hate’ and ‘stupid,’” Randolph said. “With one exception — if you are a four year old marching through West Village in New York, you can say with no compunction, ‘I hate Donald Trump. Donald Trump is stupid.’ So this kid marches around saying that. ‘I hate Donald Trump. I love Hillary Clinton.’ And of course all the adults laugh. But one day, the kid comes back home and he’s furious. He looks at his mom and says ‘Hillary Clinton is a girl?’”
Randolph said that in this story, one or two details establish a character, familiarizing the audience with the boy.
In an effective character arc, Randolph said, something happens to change the story, as the character makes a choice that does not violate the audience’s original understanding of the person but still comes as a surprise. This change contributes to character development.
“Finding those narratives, finding those people who ultimately make a choice that surprises us, but doesn’t violate our understanding of them, is super hard to do,” Randolph said.
However, this crucial turn doesn’t always manifest itself in the lead character, said Randolph, citing recent movies like “Call Me By Your Name” and “Ladybird” as examples.
Randolph said his job as a screenwriter is to provide two key components to a story: emotional specificity and moral complexity.
“In some ways adding emotional specificity is the easier part … but how do you explore complexity?” Randolph said. “It is difficult to find lines of moral transgression. There are no lines defining acceptable critique.”
In his movie “The Big Short,” there are several moments in which characters break the fourth wall to explain complicated financial terms and operations, such as when Margot Robbie stares straight at the screen and explains subprime loans. This technique “really buys you a lot to get your audiences to come with you,” Randolph said.
Gladwell proceeded to ask Randolph whether he would change his movie “The Big Short” for an audience consisting only of the people in the room at that moment: Yalies.
“It would probably not be different,” Randolph said. “The audience around the world that watches smarter films like ‘The Big Short,’ that’s actually a pretty smart audience. It’s shocking how literate that group is.”
Attendee Ayla Khan ’21 said she was interested in attending the talk because Gladwell “ties different historical trends and different people’s stories with one psychology phenomenon.”
One audience member asked Gladwell about his thoughts on the Yale endowment, in reference to a series of 10 tweets posted by Gladwell in 2015 about how Yale’s endowment wspent $480 million paying its hedge fund managers. “Does this mean that if I spend four years at a hedge fund I get a Yale degree?,” he tweeted.
In response, Gladwell joked, “You guys have too much money. You should feel ashamed about it. Give it away to someone else who needs it if you can.”
Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath, was published in 2013.
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