Screenwriting: Karen Moncrieff on Creating a Heightened Awareness of Human Struggles
“Maybe my calling is to feel deeply some aspects of human pain and grief.” Karen Moncrieff
Writing the script for one of her insightful and powerful movies – Blue Car (2002) – was a “wrenching, emotional experience” for writer and director Karen Moncrieff, according to a Writers Guild magazine article.
She wrote it, she said, as “a reaction to films I had seen, like Stealing Beauty, a very idealized view of a girl’s coming of age. I wanted to get inside the woman’s experience and tell the story from her own perspective.”
From my Inner Writer post Writing Honestly: Writing and Fear.
Film reviewer Roger Ebert noted the story is about “a vulnerable teenage girl [Agnes Bruckner] who falls into the emotional trap set by her high school English teacher [David Strathairn]. The teacher watches with horror, too: He knows what he is doing [sexual abuse] is wrong, but he is weak, and pities himself more than the sad girl he is exploiting.”
One of the reasons for the impact of her creative writing is that her characters have such emotional nuance and authenticity.
Her more recent movie is The Dead Girl (2006) – about a number of characters whose lives intersect, catalyzed by the murder of a drug-addicted prostitute (played by the late Brittany Murphy). Other talented actors in the cast include Toni Collette, Piper Laurie, Giovanni Ribisi, Rose Byrne, Mary Beth Hurt, James Franco, Marcia Gay Harden, Kerry Washington and others.
Like other artists who address dark aspects of humanity, Moncrieff chooses these kinds of themes consciously, to illuminate pains and conditions that many people face.
“I feel like I’m making films for people who are like me, who like to go to movies and be shaken up, literally taken by the throat and shaken up for an hour and a half. And moved and forced to look at things that are ugly, forced to contemplate the darkest moments any of us can imagine.”
[From ‘Dead Girl’ filmmaker’s calling is to break hearts, by Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times.]
In the same article, she comments, “Somebody asked me if it would be better if the movie was uplifting,” Moncrieff recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, to me this is uplifting.’ To me what’s depressing is to see lies on-screen, to see lives sugar-coated, a fake version of life as I know it or I feel it. Anything less than that and I’d feel like I hadn’t done my job.
“There are other people who are much better at shining a light on what’s funny or what’s sweet. Maybe my calling is to feel deeply some aspects of human pain and grief. Maybe I’m working something out in my work, but it’s what I’m attracted to. People making choices, struggling to do better and change, to me is uplifting.”
In another interview, she talked about the inspiration for her script – the sort of experience that creative novelists and screenwriters can use for evocative and meaningful stories.
“I was a juror on a murder trial a few years ago,” Moncrieff said. “On the first day, it was revealed that the victim was a prostitute. I realized that I had certain preconceptions about her that were not positive. At the same time, I recognized my tendency to feel that — as the victim of a crime — she must be some kind of innocent.”
She adds, “She was a series of contradictions: a passionate mother of her young daughters, and also an unmedicated bipolar, a drug addict, and a liar. She was neither sinner, nor saint. She was a troubled human being who didn’t deserve to die. After the month long trial, I found the tremendous waste of her life stayed with me.”
Like other writers (both male and female), Moncrieff says she has “struggled for a long time to make sense of the constant violence against women and girls in our society, and its far-reaching and life-altering consequences.
“I usually feel powerless to do anything, except to try not thinking about it—which is awful in its own way. So I wanted to make a film that dealt, in part, with the consequences of violence. There have occasionally been comments made about the darkness in my films. But the reality of the lives of victims of violent crimes make my movies look downright sunny.”
“I go to the movies to be moved and touched. And pushed off my center in a way, so that I leave the theater thinking about what I’ve just experienced. Most of us walk around from day to day with some sense of numbness and isolation.
“Especially when we read in the paper about people relegated to descriptions like ‘the dead girl’ or ‘the wife of a serial killer’ or ‘the sister of the missing girl.’ If someone leaves the theater after seeing The Dead Girl with a heightened awareness of what the lives of those people might be like, or they’ve had an emotional experience that fosters a greater sense of connection, then I’ll be satisfied.”
[From The Dead Girl Interview with Karen Moncrieff, CelebrityWonder.]
Both inner and outer dark emotions when creating
As a “coach for writers, entrepreneurs and other creative types,” Cynthia Morris, CPCC says, “It would be nice to believe that the life of a creative person is one long, happy adventure. But despite the freedom and satisfaction that can come from working as a creative professional, it’s not all fun.
‘It’s not always sunny, and frankly, it can get pretty dark in there. But I do find that acknowledging the darker emotions inherent to the creative process helps my clients cope with them.”
From her article Develop your creativity by dealing with ‘negative’ realities.
Psychologist Stephen Diamond, PhD also notes that creativity may be a powerful and often dark endeavor: “The more conflict, the more rage, the more anxiety there is, the more the inner necessity to create. We must also bear in mind that gifted individuals, those with a genius (incidentally, genius was the Latin word for daimon, the basis of the daimonic concept) for certain things, feel this inner necessity even more intensely, and in some respects experience and give voice not only to their own demons but the collective daimonic as well.”
[From my interview with him: The Psychology of Creativity.]
Eby, D. (2012). Screenwriting: Karen Moncrieff on Creating a Heightened Awareness of Human Struggles. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 23, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/creative-mind/2012/02/screenwriting-karen-moncrieff-on-creating-a-heightened-awareness-of-human-struggles/