I recently sat down with my good friend, the talented Kim Krizan, co-writer of BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET to discuss writing, creativity and her hilarious and insightful new book, “Original Sins: Trade Secrets of the Femme Fatale” for Scriptmag.com.
Kim Krizan is an Academy Award-nominated writer of the films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. She appeared as an actor in the films Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, and wrote the critically-acclaimed graphic novel Zombie Tales: 2061. Krizan earned a Master’s degree in literature and teaches creative writing classes for UCLA Extension. Original Sins: Trade Secrets of the Femme Fatale is her first book and will be available through Kickstarter.com beginning October 1, 2012.
I first met Kim when I had the good fortune to be sent to observe her class as part of my training to become an instructor for the UCLA Writers Extension program. As I was already a great fan of her films, it was a pleasure to meet the woman behind them and discover she was just as smart, witty and insightful as her work would lead you to believe. Shortly thereafter, we discovered we had some common interests and had fought some similar battles in Hollywood, and I’m honored to say we’ve since become good friends. As she’s just recently completed her first book, a wickedly funny and razor sharp take on the femme fatale, I asked her to sit down with me and talk a little bit about her writing process and experience.
DIANE: You’re probably best known for your screenwriting work on Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two very beloved films.
KIM: You know, if those movies have been successful, it’s because of the fans who connected with them. I’m so grateful to that audience who understood the story and believed in the characters. It’s gratifying when you see you’ve been able to strike a chord with people. You must’ve felt that way after you wrote What Women Want, right? That was a brilliant idea! Talk about hitting the nail on the head.
DIANE: Thanks. Yeah, I have to say, when I first came up with that idea of a man who can read women’s minds I was excited and felt I’d stumbled onto something pretty universal. And thank you for the plug. (laughs)
KIM: I’ve met people who feel their lives were affected by the Before films, some who actually flew to Europe and got on trains, or who got on Amtrak here in America in search of a romantic adventure. That’s an amazing thing. One person told me that after watching the film he realized he was with the wrong woman, but he eventually found the right woman and is now happily married and he credits Before Sunrise. That’s pretty magical.
DIANE: That’s so cool! It’s really moving when people take the time to tell you how they’ve been touched by your work.
KIM: I enjoyed creating those stories. It was one of those soul-searching things that I love, and I’m proud of my work on them. But having had that collaborative experience, twice now, I was ready to take on a new challenge.
DIANE: Hence, the book.
KIM: Yes. I’m a big book person. I was a literature major and I like nothing better than sinking into a really delicious book. But the idea for Original Sins came to me when I was watching a film, The Lady from Shanghai, directed by Orson Welles and in which Rita Hayworth plays an unhappily married woman. The poster for the film shows Rita looking over her shoulder and saying, “I told you . . . you know nothing about wickedness.” There’s this incredible scene at the end of the movie where Rita’s character is in a hall of mirrors and she’s all dolled-up in a beautiful black suit, a black hat, and a graduated-bead necklace. Her yucky husband shows up and she takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him. And I thought, “Oh this is good to know. Should I ever decide to shoot my husband in a hall of mirrors, I now know exactly what to what to wear!” So the idea for the book sprang from that.
DIANE: Ha– it’s true, it’s always so tough to figure out what to wear to a murder, especially after Labor Day. I hope Chip, (Kim’s husband), has paid attention and knows to hightail it out of there if you ever show up dressed like that.
KIM: Are you kidding? He’s practically playing Russian roulette just living in the same house with me. (laughs)
DIANE: Why do you think you’re fascinated by femme fatales?
KIM: My interest in the femme fatale probably began in earnest when I started attending my mother’s church when I was eleven years old. We read the Genesis story, which I find quite beautiful and metaphorical, but as a child I was taught, without a hint of irony, that the first woman, Eve, lured all of mankind away from an eternity in paradise and that her disobedience is the reason we suffer, get sick, and die. I spent years thinking about this, ruminating on the concept that a woman was blamed for all of our troubles. Fortunately I see the humor in this. I see Eve as the first femme fatale. And I was taught, in so many words, that women are suspect. Now I think that’s funny. And I think we should just embrace it. Hell yeah, we’re that powerful, so beware, mon cher!
DIANE: I loved that about the book. It’s not only very funny and clever, it’s genuinely eye-opening. And the insouciant voice of it is so much fun. If I may just quote one short passage here to illustrate, “Knowing that he was oh-so-close to living a kick ass life in Paradise, man will never forgive himself for being such a patsy with Eve.”
KIM: I looked at history, mythology, the tabloid culture, and especially film, because the femme fatale really put the sin in cinema! I had so much fun researching and writing the book. I really love the femme fatale and I loved trying to crack who she really is.
DIANE: I was surprised, though, that you included Marilyn Monroe in a book about femme fatales, as she’s known for having been more of a victim.
KIM: Yes, but she played a fantastic femme fatale in Niagara, which was a B-movie about a treacherous wife and her fragile husband. Marilyn uses a different voice in this film, not the soft, little girl voice, and she seems to delight in torturing the poor husband, who’s some sort of PTSD case. And I believe Marilyn was an extremely crafty, cunning woman. She learned to be so because of her victimization, after being in numerous foster homes and all. In fact, I believe most femme fatales are created through the tough times they encounter. Marilyn hid behind the persona of the super-sensitive sex bomb, but she was also shrewd and quite strong.
DIANE: How did the writing process differ for you in writing a book versus writing a screenplay?
KIM: Interestingly, I think a book deals with another spot in your brain. With a screenplay you find the characters within yourself, but with a book you find yourself as a character.
DIANE: On a related note, I’ve always been intrigued by the name of a class you teach at UCLA called “Answering the Muse”. Can you talk a little about that?
KIM: “Answering the Muse” is a creative writing class I developed for UCLA Extension. I based it on methods and techniques and attitudes I discovered that got me writing. I’m very interested in the psychology of creativity. I wrote my Master’s thesis on this subject and I believe it’s possible to listen to the muse– which really means just opening up to that playful, creative side of your psyche– and to respond or “answer” her. Most people who take the class can write productively and happily.
DIANE: What advice do you have for those who feel blocked?
KIM: Write a piece of crap. Go ahead and write and don’t worry about the quality right now. Tell the voice inside your head that’s being mean to you– this is the left brain inner critic– to shut the hell up. Or, rather, reason with it to take a back seat while you get words on the page. Writer’s block is fear. Allowing yourself to write a piece of crap will help. I believe the answers are on the inside, rather than on the outside, so listen to the part of you that’s dying to tell a story. There’s wisdom there if you’ll trust it and get out of its way.
DIANE: Why do you think people want to be creative? What is that drive about?
KIM: This is a very interesting question. I believe people want to give order to amorphous feelings. Life can be difficult sometimes. It can be harsh and confusing. I think the modern euphemism is “challenging,” but I’d prefer some other term involving curse words! To create anything – a screenplay, a book, a poem, a painting, a dance – gives order. It solves something in the person who created it and they feel a sense of relief, whether or not anyone else ever sees what they’ve created. In a way, doing creative work answers a question, or perhaps it defines the question in a satisfying way. Of course it’s always nice when someone else reads the story we’ve written and approves our work, because we then feel a sense of connection to the world, but there’s value in being creative for its own sake, just for ourselves. I think a lot of us write or create our art for survival, for sanity, or even to make ourselves laugh and see the humor in some of the bonkers things that happen to us in this life.
DIANE: I agree with all you say, but given that, why do you think the theft of others’ work is such an issue in Hollywood, and in journalism lately, for that matter? Doesn’t to steal someone else’s ideas and work kind of defeat the purpose of wanting to live a creative life in the first place?
KIM: Completely. If one creates organically, out of an internal need to tell a particular story or explore a question, then they’re rewarded through the exploration of that idea and the attempt to express it. The reward is internal, it’s satisfying, and it’s fulfilling. But we live in a world of “ownership” and, strangely, we’ve made art a business. And then money and power come into it. The whole point of the endeavor gets confused. I always tell my writing students that the answer is inside, not outside. If one goes inside, there are stories to be found, questions to be explored. If a person is in contact with what they have inside, there’s no need to take other people’s work.
DIANE: I think there is the issue of ego as well. Do you think these crimes of Hollywood occur because of that?
KIM: Oh hell yes. Yes. (laughs) But not healthy ego – weak, unhealthy ego. Ego that needs to be rebuilt from the inside. Because that external stuff isn’t going to work in the long run. Ironically, I think when you’re really writing the ego gets out of the way and you’re fueled by something else, an energy that’s beneath the ego. The ego is not helpful with creative work. The ego may be helpful afterward, when one needs the confidence and brass to get their work out in the world, but that’s a different phase altogether.
DIANE: I also believe the impulse to thievery is borne out of laziness, an unwillingness to do the hard work, as well as insecurity. Those who don’t trust that they do have something worthwhile inside to draw upon tend to prey on the work of others. Oh, and I forgot greed. I’d say I digress but, hey, speaking of prey and greed, back to your book… (laughs) It also deals with the theme of revenge. A lot of these women really are pretty unapologetically wicked, was it fun to explore that?
KIM: Extremely fun. I was interested in why these women were and are wicked – the origins of their wickedness. I did my research and I believe femme fatales have their reasons. There’s a code of conduct that any woman can study, should they, perhaps, want to be wicked too. (laughs) One of my favorite things was researching exactly what we should wear when, say, we’re executed by firing squad, as was Mata Hari, who had the courage to blow a kiss to her executioners just before they opened fire. Because, Diane, we want to be polite and ladylike when we’re executed by firing squad!
DIANE: Indeed! Hm, does this interest in wickedness have anything to do with your experiences in Hollywood?…
KIM: Oh, certainly. That and being alive on the planet! (laughs) Art is just the best way to express feelings. And sometimes you’ll find that if you go deeply enough into a sad thing — a tragedy, a wrong that makes you angry because of its injustice — what comes out the other side is comedy. Comedy and insight and understanding.
DIANE: If you’re lucky… And if not, well, I guess there are always firearms, right? KIM: Ha, yes, but I like to believe the MacBook is mightier than the .38 special.
DIANE: And there’s usually less prison time involved.
KIM: Ain’t writing grand?
DIANE: I think we’ll leave it there. Thanks so much for taking the time to share some of your experience and insights. And may I say, people are really in for a treat when they buy your book. KIM: Thank you so much, Diane! It’s a lot of fun to talk to a real Hollywood Fatale!
Diane Drake is a professional screenwriter, creative consultant via her website, www.dianedrake.com, and screenwriting instructor with the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. Her produced original screenplays include Only You, starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr. and What Women Want, starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. Diane grew up in Los Angeles and began her career as a script reader and producer’s assistant working for companies such as Warner Co., Fox, Columbia Pictures, and PBS/American Playhouse among others. She landed a job as story editor for Academy Award-winning director/producer Sydney Pollack and worked her way up to become the Vice President of Creative Affairs, before turning to screenwriting full-time. Follow her on twitter @dianedrake.