A confession: Before I write. . .I watch. (Also? A few of my Oscars picks for tonight.)


DSC_3278Tonight is the night when otherwise sane reporters channel their inner Hannibal Lecter and ask women, “Who are you wearing?” It’s the sort of creepy question that is usually directed at people who have human body parts in their freezers. But not tonight. Tonight it’s the inquiry that annually precedes the Academy Awards, and it is asked of our Hollywood icons as they walk the red carpet. The women — especially those women who have been nominated for awards — smile, while thinking longingly of tomorrow, when once more they can eat and wear underwear.

I love movies as much as I love books, and so I love the Academy Awards. And here’s a confession: Movies are inspiration for my writing. Years ago, I would read a little poetry before starting to string words of my own together. Other days I would skim a thesaurus. Occasionally, I still do. But more often I start my day by watching movie trailers. I do this because of the way a good trailer distills the movie’s sensibility down to a couple of minutes, and the music has been chosen to create a very specific mood: Dread. Longing. Romance.

Moreover, I think it helps my writing even more if I’ve seen the movie. The fact that I know the story brings me back to the emotional state I was in while watching the film the first time.

There are four movies that will be discussed a lot tonight, three because they are in the running for awards, and one because one of its leads was “snubbed.” (I use this word only because everyone else has.) I’ve seen all of these films and watched the trailers a lot the last month and a half.

I’ll begin with the trailer for “Wild,” the powerful adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the Pacific Coast Trail and trying to rediscover who she was as a person. It stars Reese Witherspoon, who is my choice for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The trailer begins with Witherspoon quoting Emily Dickinson and then segues into Beck’s “Turn Away.” The opening lyric? “Turn away from the sound of your own voice.” It exudes regret and pain, moments that for better or worse pepper my fiction.

I’m also a fan of the trailer for “Cake,” the movie that has garnered ink because Jennifer Aniston looks dowdy, has bad hair, and didn’t get an Oscar nod – despite a courageous performance. The music that runs through the trailer is from a Brooklyn band called Haerts (not a typo – a before e). It’s called “Hemiplegia.” I had to look the word up when I found the song: It means paralysis of one side of the body. The music is surreal and captures beautifully for me that transitional state between sleeping and walking – when you believe you’re awake and yet are unable to move.

I’ve used the “Birdman” trailer a lot to get started, both because of Brent Smith’s spectacular cover of the old Animals hit, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and because of the way the trailer probes every artist’s worst fears: being washed-up. Being a has-been. But the movie is about risking everything to be relevant. “This is about being respected and validated, remember, that’s what you told me!” an anguished Zach Galifianakis tells Michael Keaton. The writing is honest and funny and poignant — and my pick for Best Original Screenplay.

I have watched the trailer for “Boyhood” a dozen times. “Boyhood” is Richard Linklater’s audacious experiment filmed over twelve years, and we quite literally watch child actors Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow up, and adult actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke grow older. Nothing horrific happens, and yet the movie is wrenching: it wrecked my wife and me when we saw it, because it so perfectly captures how fast our lives pass, how hard it is to be a kid, and how easy it is for even the most well-intentioned parents to make bad decisions daily. And the trailer soundtrack? “Hero,” by the band, Family of the Year. It leaves me wistful and a little wounded, which is the perfect state for me to be in when I am hanging around with my most vulnerable fictional creations.

Finally, I have to give a shout-out to the trailer for “Selma.” It is wrenching and riveting. The movie has not yet opened here in Burlington, Vermont. I hope it does soon.

When you read my next novel, you won’t see echoes of these scenes and stories. But maybe you’ll detect an emotional remnant here and there.

Enjoy the Oscars. If you have time, tweet me: Who are you wearing tonight?

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on February 22, 2015. Chris most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in May.)


Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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