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“Stop making the same, safe, soul-less movies and TV shows.”
Part of a memo from the Sony Pictures leak

“We have a new paradigm, a new reality, and we’re going to have to come to real terms with it all the way down the line.”
George Clooney on the Sony hack and canceling of The Interview release
Deadline Hollywood December 18, 2014

Did you get the memo? If not, maybe that’s because the Sony hack was reportedly 100 terabytes of information. A massive tidal wave of information that if was just in paper form would probably take a lifetime for one person to read it all. (Among the information is said to be 47,000 social security numbers.)

My first thought when I heard the news (with a group called Guardians of Peace taking credit) was something an old boss of mine used to repeat often—”There are no secrets.”

I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my systems blow
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Radioactive lyrics

I do believe that—as George Clooney basically said, and as the Carpenters used to sing— “We’ve only just begun.” Now an unnamed person or group (many believe connected to North Korea, though the government has denied) has taken the next step and threatened further damage to Sony Pictures if they released their movie The Interview—a comedy about a mission to kill the leader of North Korea—and any moviegoers who watch the film in theaters. The December 25 film release has been canceled.

Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age

The has been much speculation about how the leak—and last month’s shut down of Sony’s website—could happen without some Sony—or former Sony—insider. (To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Hell hath no furry like an employee scorned.”) Perhaps we’ll never know the intricate mysteries behind the hack, but some of the information from it has been interesting.

My favorite line being a plea to, “Stop making the same, safe, soul-less movies and TV shows.” And this extended thought:

“Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I’ve been disappointed with the content of some of the films we’ve been producing lately. I don’t think people who know me would consider me a prude, but the boorish, least common denominator slate strikes me as a waste of resource and reputation. ‘I think the mirror should be tilted slightly upward when it`s reflecting life — toward the cheerful, the tender, the compassionate, the brave, the funny, the encouraging, all those things — and not tilted down to the gutter part of the time, into the troubled vistas of conflict’—(actress/philanthropist) Greer Garson 1990. I think that quote could be adapted to apply to the base elements of some of the films we produce.”

I’ll leave to authorities to sort out the legalities of the hack, and to the pundits dealing with the ramification of Sony Pictures canceling the December 25th release of The Interview. But my charge to all screenwriters and film and TV producers is, “Stop making the same, safe, soul-less movies and TV shows.”

Of course, one could say Sony didn’t take the safe road producing a film that depicts the killing of the leader of North Korea. And I’ll defend Sony Pictures all day long with its AMC productions Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Neither of which were the same, safe, or soul-less. I don’t know the date of the “soul-less” memo—maybe it’s what led to taking a chance with creators Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan.

And lastly, while I haven’t seen it yet, there doesn’t appear to be anything safe or soulless about Sony’s recent release Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle.

P.S. Countdown to 2000th special post on January 22, 2015—14 posts.

Related Posts:
‘Mad Men’ Diet & Workout
Breaking Bad’s Beginning
Jerry Maguire’s Mission Statement

 Scott W. Smith

“I used to call what we do when we light for movies ‘poetic realism.’ A scene should look real, but it should also have poetry. When we light something in a movie, we sometimes want it to look better than life. Sometimes we want to exaggerate a little bit to get the point across. We might make early-morning sunshine coming through a window extremely light, even sparkling. On its own, the eye probably wouldn’t see that light that way, but perhaps we want the audience to not just see the brightness, but also feel it. When you light to tell a story, you don’t want to simply duplicate what the eye would see in that situation, you also want to create a feeling. We all see a  lot of detail in shadows, but when cinematographers light a dark scene, we often let the shadows go completely black. Would all the detail the eye sees be more interesting than exaggerating the feeling of darkness?…It’s almost imperative that you overdo some things a little bit in order for the audiences to perceive what they’re seeing as real. And that’s okay, because audiences are used to seeing things that way in movies! Moonlight is a perfect example — it never looks in a movie the way it does in reality. Real moonlight is very subtle, but in movies it usually ends up looking somewhat blue. And the real moon doesn’t reflect the amount of light that artificial moonlight has in movies. Sometimes you have to use a sort of impressionistic technique to get the point across, and if you do that well, audiences are very willing to accept ‘movie reality.’”
Oscar-winning Vilmos Zsigmond Director of Photography (Close Encounters of the Third Kind)
ASC Interview with Jon Siberg

Let me add that one of the real cinematography cheats of the moonlight spilling into homes—especially when people are sleeping—is not the color or the illumination, it’s that the curtains are usually open in movies and television programs. I’ve walked and driven  through many neighborhoods in my life and I’d guess that 95% of the curtains/blinds are closed at night. And in real life the only reasons you’d leave your curtains open in your bedroom when you sleep is if you want to wake up at sunrise and/or to a beautiful view.

And since in my last post I said that Janusz Kaminski was born in Poland, I should mention Zsigmond was born in Szeged, Hungary.

Related Posts:
Cinematography Cheats #1
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)
How to Get Started Working in Production (2.0) Where I found a quote about Zsigmond after he immigrated to the United States first found work in Los Angeles as a technician in a film lab and also as a home portrait photographer.
Start Small…But Start Somewhere

P.S. Countdown to 2000th special post on January 22, 2015—15 posts.

 

Scott W. Smith

“I can make three bad movies and still make movies.”
Janusz Kaminski on the career longevity of a cinematographer verses a director

How does one go from being born in Ziebice, Dolnoslaski, Poland to being the Oscar-winning right hand cinematographer of director Steven Spielberg?

The short answer is talent and hustle.

At least that’s what I gathered from reading and watching various interviews with Janusz Kaminski who shot Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, War Horse, Lincoln, Munich as well as other Spielberg and many other non-Spielberg projects.

Kaminski also used his weakness to his advantage. Because he was an immigrant to the United States he felt like English as a second language might create some communication barriers if he chose to be a director or writer while in film school so he focused on shooting.

And shooting a lot. While a student at Columbia College Chicago (82-87) he says he shot between 30-40 student films. That’s a lot of films. Especially since that was back in the day where I imagine we’re talking narrative and documentary films actually shot on film not You Tube-ready videos that are shot and edited in a day.

Being foreign he said also made him strong on non verbal storytelling. Another advantage Kaminski had growing up in Poland during a communistic regime is the only American films he was allowed to see where ones that showed a disillusioned America—meaning a heavy dose of 70s films like Taxi Driver and The Panic in Needle Park.

(An America he says he didn’t find when he first came to the United States and still hasn’t seen. When he arrived in the USA the country was in the middle of a fitness craze.)

He made a demo reel from his student films and landed an independent feature film in Hollywood. He also spent a year at AFI one year and started working for Roger Corman’s company New Horizons shooting what he says were exploitation films and silly movies with men running around in rubber suits and crime suspense.

And here’s one more little gem I can pass on that Kaminski did to set himself a part from everyone else. He said he once interned on a film shot by John A. Alonzo that starred Tom Hanks.

I think that film was Nothing in Common (1986) which makes sense because I believe that was shot in Chicago during the time Kaminski was going to college. But he didn’t take the formal route to get the internship. He simple saw a film being shot, jumped a fence introduced himself to Alonzo. As Christopher Lockhart has said— when you see a shot take it.

You can bet he learned a thing or two about lighting and running a crew from the man who was the Oscar-nominated director of photography on Chinatown.

It was the TV movie Wildflower (1991) Kaminski shot that caught Spielberg’s eye and led to their longtime beginning with Class of ’61 followed by Schindler’s List (1993).  Schindler’s List by the way takes place in Poland during World War II. Circle of life stuff.

Both Spielberg and Kaminski won Oscars for their work on that movie.

P.S. These days–as was true when I was in film school— it’s easy to see people getting caught up in technical jargon when discussing filmmaking. I love Kaminski’s answer to a question just a couple years ago at a film festival.

Question:- When you’re looking at an image do you go with the philosophy of adding light to get the image or subtracting to take away to get the image?
Janusz Kaminski-“I have no idea…I don’t know how it happens.”

It’s all about capturing the magic. And you do that making film after film…and maybe jumping a fence or two.

Related Post:
Ida’ (My favorite film this year was shot in Poland.)
Cinematography Cheats #1 Kaminski’s work on Jerry Maguire

P.S. Countdown to 2000th special post on January 22, 2015—16 posts.

Scott W. Smith

Cinematographers are a bunch a liars and cheaters. Screenwriters, too. In a good way, of course. It’s all part of the job.  Just doing their part in creating a world of make believe.

For instance, Jerry Maguire didn’t really exist. Sure there were composites of real people he was based on, but he was a fictional character out of the cranium of writer/director Cameron Crowe.

Look at the screenshot below of Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) and what do you see? Can you see how cinematographer Janusz Kaminski lied and cheated to help bring that character to life?

JerryMaguireLamps

“If there’s a lamp most of the time the light would come from that lamp. It doesn’t mean that I would actually use that lamp to illuminate that scene because it’s just not sufficient enough to give [enough] illumination, but I would motivate the light sources by [using] existing lighting sources on the set. And, of course, if the drama of the existing light was not sufficient for the story I will totally abandon the practice of being realistic and just be dramatic with the light. I would just go for  go with non-realistic light sources to make the movie more interesting in terms of the storytelling.”
Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski
(Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List—and Jerry Maguire)
Interview 

So in that well-known Jerry Maguire mission statement scene Kaminski does various things to make the scene visually interesting. He turns all the lamp lights on (even turn one on its side on the ground) in one shot, but in another place he turns all the lights off and allows what supposed to be exterior light (streetlights?) to stream in with rain pouring off the windows creating patterns on the walls, and in another place he uses an open small refrigerator to help illumine the scene. All to make it visually interesting and to meet the writer/directors expectations of a character having an epiphany .

JerryMRainFrig

Here’s how the much of scene played out:

Related Post:
Jerry Maguire’s Mission Statement
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)

P.S. Countdown to 2000th special post on January 22, 2015—17 posts.

Scott W. Smith

“We hit it off on Schindler’s List and never stopped working together. I just think [Janusz] is the best cameraman I’ve ever worked with in my entire life.”
Director Steven Spielberg

“I want to make movies where I can express myself to visuals.”
Cinematographer Janusz Kamisnski (Saving Private Ryan)

“It looks kind of effortless when you’re seeing [movies] on the screen, but it’s a really complicated process. Especially in that opening scene [of Saving Private Ryan]. We had to lay down the mannequins, we had to lay down the explosives, we had the complicated scenes where people are catching on fire—the safety was essential because you don’t want anybody getting hurt. You can have all that technology—yet at the end you want to evoke emotions. It’s all about emotions, you know? ‘Cause you get really amazing films made by directors who have great technology and [yet] you just walk away and you are not moved emotionally.”
Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski
Big Bear Lake International Film Festival Q&A

While Kamiski’s own long list of films shot is impressive (Schindler’s List, Lincoln, War Horse, Amistad, Le scaphandre et le papillon, Jerry Maguire, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—to name a few) he was asked last year by Christy Lenire “What are five of the most beautifully photographed films you’ve ever seen?” his short list follows:

_ “The Conformist” (1970): Bernardo Bertolucci’s dramatically stylized commentary on 1930s fascism, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant of this year’s best-picture nominee “Amour.” Kaminski’s reason for choosing it: “Use of color and light.”

_ “In Cold Blood” (1967): Based on Truman Capote’s pioneering true-crime book about a vicious family murder that took place in a small Midwestern town. Kaminski praised its “visual metaphors.”

_ “Citizen Kane” (1941): Well it’s … it’s “Citizen Kane.” Kaminski chose it for its “angles and drama within the composition, also within the frame.”

_ “The French Connection” (1971): The classic crime thriller starring Gene Hackman as a detective on the trail of a major drug smuggling ring, it won five Oscars including best picture. Kaminski appreciated the film “for the action and realistic representation of New York.”

_ “Empire of the Sun” (1987): A Spielberg movie that Kaminski didn’t shoot, actually. Allen Daviau, a previous collaborator of his in the mid-’80s, received an Oscar nomination for the visually lavish film, featuring a young Christian Bale. Kaminski enjoyed its “use of color and light.”

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions “Emotion is your screenplay’s lifeblood.”—Karl Iglesias
Filmmaking Quote #27 (Frank Capra) “I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”
Cinematography & Emotions
Cinematography & Emotions (Part 2)
Editing for Emotions
Pity, Fear, Catharsis (Tip #69)

P.S. Countdown to special 2000th post on January 22, 2015—18 posts.

Scott W. Smith

 

Countdown to 2000

“Let both sides seek to involve the wonders of science…let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage arts and commerce.”
President John F. Kennedy
Inaugural Address on January 16, 1961

Apollo 11 Liftoff July 16,1969

Apollo 11 Liftoff
July 16, 1969

I have news to announce—the Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places countdown. Countdown to what? I’m not 100% sure. But the clock is ticking. (Rumor has it that an ebook may be involved.)

Back in the 1960s the United States had a clear goal—to be the first country to put men on the moon. The Soviet Union had hard landed the unmanned Luna spacecraft in 1959 and the space race was in full swing. (With brilliant Germans working on both sides—but that’s another post.)

The one thing I have in common with Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, George Clooney, and President Obama is I’m a tail-end boomer. Boomers that were too young to know where they were when JFK was shot. But I was old enough on July 20, 1969 to understand how cool it was that Kennedy’s eight year old prediction was fulfilled on that day as men landed on the moon.

“This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
President Kennedy on May 25, 1961

My father got me the front page of the New York Times with its headline MEN WALK ON MOON. (Which I still have to this day.) Following the return of the Apollo 11 astronauts there was a ticker-tape parade in New York City. It was kind of a big deal.

Admittedly, my countdown news is not quite as big a deal. I’m not expecting any front page headlines or ticker-tape parades. (Though I’m open to both.) And I don’t know what exactly is going to happen at the end of the countdown, but I know the countdown officially starts today and ends on January 22, 2015. Mark your calendars now. Something’s going to happen.

In the next 20 posts spread out over the next two months I will lead up to my 2000th post. Again, not man on the moon stuff, but worth celebrating. That will also coincide with my seventh anniversary of this blog. I had some modest goals when I started this blog—none included writing 2,000 posts over seven years.

But let me thank you ahead of time, because without people reading this blog there’s no way I would have sustained this blog all these years. The Regional Emmy, the TomCruise.com mention, the Script Mag screenwriting website of the week, and various other shout-outs have been nice—but it’s people reading this blog that have been the fuel to keep going.

My goals all along has been simple—to improve my own writing and understanding of screenwriting/filmmaking with hopes that it would also help other people with their own writing and understanding of screenwriting/filmmaking.

Cheers—

P.S. Any ebook gurus who read this blog and can offer a handle on Amazon, Gumroad, Shopify, and the like shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com .

Related Posts:
Screenwriting from Space (Star Trek)
Postcard #46 (Huntsville) “Dr. von Braun Says Rocket Flights Possible to Moon”—1950 Headline
Creating ‘I Dream of Jeannie’
Shoot for the Moon
The Story of Men on the Moon Remember where you’re standing when the spotlight goes off, you’ll have to find your own way off the stage.” — Down to earth advice from Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell
Life Beyond Hollywood My very first post on January 22, 2008

Scott W. Smith

 

“I formed my notions of America in Yugoslavia by watching films. And most of the films were westerns so therefore when I landed [in the USA] I honestly expected—maybe if not John Wayne, a close friend of his to be there on a horse.”
Screenwriter Steve Tesich (The World According to Garp, American Flyers)

I don’t know how many screenwriters David Letterman has had on his show over the years but on that short list is Oscar winning screenwriter Steve Tesich (1942-1996).

Tesich was born in Yugoslavia but immigrated to the United States when he was 14. His family settled in East Chicago, Indiana (the Hoosier state) back in its heavy industrial days when soot filled the skies daily.

He did his undergraduate work at Indiana University, and according to Wikipedia he was actually an alternate rider for the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity team that rode in the Little 500 bike race that is featured in the movie Breaking Away, which was based on his screenplay.

And because I’m always interested in story origins, this is the beginning of the creative process that lead Tesich to his first produced film—an eight year journey from script to screen—and his only Oscar Award:

“I ran into a guy [in Bloomington] who was doing his Italian fantasy. I was riding a bike— I hear an Italian opera being sung behind me and I turn around and there’s this guy climbing a hill singing. He starts talking Italian to me, and being Yugoslavian and knowing how tough it is on foreigners I really have pity on the guy. For a week I try to tell him what America is like, what it’s like to be in Indiana and all this and I find out he’s from Indianapolis [Indiana]. He grew up there and this whole fantasy was just kind of a daydream.” 

Yes, inspiration and story ideas can be found in unusual places all over the world. Like Stephen King says, you have to be like a paleontologist looking for bone fragments in the ground.

Related Posts:
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Where Are The Wild Men?
Stagecoach Revisited 2.0
‘Breaking Away’—Like a Rock
Screenwriting Quote #55 (Stephen King) “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
The King of Cool’s Roots Steve McQueen was from Indiana. James Dean, too. (John Wayne, now he was from Iowa.)

Scott W. Smith

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