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Archive for December, 2008

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“There’s enough land here (Florida) to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.”
Walt Disney

Florida has had an awkward dance with movies for the past 100 years. While it’s had its share of feature films and TV programs filmed there over the years it’s almost as if the industry there is a façade. (Just like the above New York façade I shot on the Universal Studios Florida back lot last week.)

It looks real, but upon further investigation you see that it’s not–but stick with me there is a silver lining. You may recall in the 80s & 90s when Florida was calling itself “Hollywood East” as Disney and Universal were building studios. Some believe the studios were built for tourism from the start and word was that Disney even once hired people to push movie lights around when a tram went by.

But for a while it seemed to be working. Ron Howard and Steve Martin came to Orlando to make Parenthood, Wesley Snipes made Passenger 57, Nickelodeon was busy on the Universal lot, TV programs The Mickey Mouse Club, Superboy and Sea Quest were also shooting around Orlando.

Adam Sandler went to Central Florida to make The Waterboy, Director John Singleton to make Rosewood, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to make Edward Scissorhands, Michael J. Fox to become Doc Hollywood, and Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro to make Marvin’s Room. Then it seemed like every other state and country got into the tax incentives for filmmakers game.

And then like a crew wrapping a production on location and returning home “Hollywood East” disappeared.  Around the same time a handful of filmmakers educated in Orlando colleges made one of the biggest splashes in independent film history making The Blair Witch Project landing two of the filmmakers on the cover of Time Magazine. Then they all but disappeared as well.

Perhaps the greatest illusion of Florida is the fact that two of the greatest films ever made are set in Florida but neither were shot in the Sunshine State. Both Citizen Kane (listed as AFI’s top film) and Some Like it Hot (AFI’s top comedy film) were shot in California adding to the irony of the Florida film industry.

And most of Scarface, with a story set in Miami, was shot in California. But if you want to see what Miami’s South Beach looked like 25 years ago (gritty) then Scarface is the film to see because they captured well those great art deco exteriors. Even the classic Lauren Bacall & Humphrey Bogart film Key Largo was filmed mostly in California. See what I mean about Florida’s strange dance with the movie industry? But while movies about Florida are not always shot in Florida, Florida did doubled for the Amazon underwater scenes in the cult favorite Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The film industry first came to Florida at the turn of twentieth century and it looked like Jacksonville in North Florida would be a major player in film production. Dozens of films were made there and studios began to pop up to take advantage of the warm sunny days. But eventually the film industry chose Hollywood as it’s go to place to film around the year.

The greater Ft. Lauderdale-Miami -Palm Beach area has seemed positioned over the years to be a leader in the film industry and some fine films and TV programs have been made down there: Body HeatThe Jackie Gleanson Show, Flipper, Gentle Ben, Miami Vice, and most recently CSI Miami, Burn Notice, and Marley & Me written by South Florida reporter and author John Grogan.

And some iconic stars and well know have made films in Florida including Elvis Presley (Follow that Dream), Gary Cooper (Distant Drums), Frank Sinatra (Lady in Cement) and Paul Newman (Absence of Malice). Not to mention a cast of more recent movie stars including John Travolta, Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, and Demi Moore, as well as Florida’s own legend Burt Reynolds have made movies in Florida.

On the surface when  you step back from the picture what you see emerge in Florida’s 100 year movie history is that Florida doesn’t so much have a unified film industry –it’s one giant back lot. A great place for New York & California filmmakers to come and make movies and commercials. And they have made a lot of them over the years.

But when you look beyond the smoke and mirrors of “Hollywood East” you begin to a deeper foundation.  Since I like to talk about screenwriting and regionalism you can’t get any more regional in Florida than The Yearling written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize Novel in 1939 and it became a great  film in 1947 and also was made as a TV film in 1994.

In a similar vein is Minneapolis born writer Theodore Pratt who after a time freelancing in New York spent most of the last 35 years of his life living in Florida and writing more than thirty novels that were set in Florida. His most well-known novel The Barefoot Mailman was made into a movie in 1951.

Zora Neale Hurtson was part of the Harlem Renaissance movement  in the 20s & 30s and used her hometown of Eatonville, Florida as the backdrop for her most well-known novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Oprah Windfrey produced the TV version of that book in 2005 starring Halle Berry.

As a quirky side note my high school and college creative writing/English teacher  (and Zora Neale Hurston scholar) Annye Refore got me interested in Hurston’s work back in the early 80s and when I was in film school in California I talked to an actress named Cyndi James-Reece who I was taking an acting class with saying she’d be great in the role that Berry eventually played. (Reece went on to win Star Search one year and married Lou Gossett Jr.)

And of course there are a whole list of writers who have called Florida home over the years some whose work has become movies; Ernest Hemingway, James Michener, E.B. White, Harry Crews, John D. McDonald, Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry to name a few.

But what about…screenwriters from Florida? Yes. Let’s see what we can find. Let’s start with writer/director Victor Nunez who though a UCLA film school graduate is known for his un-Hollywood films. In fact, he could be the poster child for regional filmmakers. The first film I saw of his was A Flash of Green that not only introduced me to his talent but also that of a young actor named Ed Harris. His next film Ruby in Paradise was Ashely Judd’s first film as a lead actress.

Nunez’s Ulee’s Gold starred Peter Fonda (who received an Oscar nomination) and was just the second film for a young actress named Jessica Biel. Nunez continues to make films but his day job is currently teaching film at Florida State University.

Which leads us to Tallahassee where FSU is and where screenwriter Robin Swicord graduated from. She recently got a screen story credit on The Curious Case of Behjamin Button, the David Fincher and Brad Pitt film that just opened yesterday. She also wrote the scripts for The Jane Austen Book Club, Memiors of a Geisha, and Little Women.

We are Marshall screenwriter Jamie Linden is also an FSU grad and Fort Lauderdale native Steve Conrad briefly attended FSU before going to Northwestern and eventually writing the script The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith.

And while famed FSU football coach Bobby Bowden may not be a screenwriter I heard or read many memorable one liners come from him while growing up in Orlando. My favorite was when he talked about one player, “He doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear, in fact, looking at his grades he doesn’t know the meaning of a lot of words.

Screenwriter Melissa Carter who wrote Little Black Book starring Brittany Murphey and Kathy Bates is an FSU alum.

And while not a screenwriter (and who actually was an advertising-marketing major at FSU)  I must give Cherylanne Martin a special mention because she has worked on a magic carpet ride list of feature films (about 30 total). Beginning as a production assistant in 1983 on Jaws 3-D (shot in Orlando), she worked her way up to second assistant director on Rain Man, first assistant director on Forrest Gump, unit production manager on Castaway, and more recently was one of the producers of Nancy Drew. Quite a career, right?  (Years ago I crossed paths with Cherylanne when in a happy accident I met her father and he kindly past a script of mine on to her.)

And lastly (but the most  highly rewarded FSU grad) is Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty. (From the theater school where Burt Reynolds graduated from back in the day.)

I know there are many colleges in Florida doing media and theater training but none that have the fruit of the FSU program. (This coming from a Miami Hurricane mind you. Though it is worth mentioning that Sylvester Stallone did attend a few semesters at the University of Miami and later went back using his script for Rocky to finally earn his degree. It’s good to see that writing a film that wins an Academy Award for best picture is worth a few college credits.)

Native Floridian writer Connie May Fowler wrote the book and script Before Women Had Wings (BTW–I love that title) that became an Emmy winning movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Barkin.

Florida will always be place to shoot films and TV programs like the classic Sea Hunt starring Loyd Bridges, because of the local and weather. But I also believe there is a remnant left over from “Hollywood East” made up of actors and production people who will keep turning out independent features from time to time.

While I was in Orlando last week I stopped by and visited some old haunts; Building 22-A at Universal, Panavison Florida and some friends who now work at Full Sail (which does have the most amazing sound stages I’ve ever seen for students). The good news is Universal has had a solid run of booking their sound stages for the past 18 months with a variety of productions and we’ll have to see what this new economy brings.

The talent, studios, desire, film commission offices, and other infrastructures are in place for things to take off in Florida. But for whatever reason it seems like Florida as a whole as been in rehearsals for 100 years. I believe Florida is ready for its close-up beyond just attractive people running around on the beach. And that’s where screenwriters from Florida come into the picture.

Producer's Building-22A Producer’s Building-22A
Panavision Florida

Panavision Florida

Full Sail Stage

Full Sail Stage

Florida is fertile ground for writers. It has an eclectic multi-cultural mix of characters and a large transient culture. (Heck, Jimmy Buffett’s had a long career writing songs about such people. And if you haven’t seen Errol Morris’ early documentary Vernon, Florida I’d recommend checking that out.)   There are stories to be told from there and there  just needs to be some screenwriters who can tap into the real Florida rather than Hollywood’s version of Florida.

Sidenotes: Orlando-based editor Oliver Peters who has edited features and documentaries (and a heck of a lot of corporate and commercials) has a helpful and informative blog called Digitalfilms for those of you interested in filmmaking. And to find out  about production news in Florida (including tax incentives) contact Film in Florida. Florida also has over 50 film festivals including the Florida Film Festival hosted by the wonderful Enzian Theater in Maitland, Florida.

Text & Photos Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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When I was taking photos of this house just a few blocks from my own house on Christmas eve three different vehicles pulled up and people went inside. One child yelled “grandpa” as an older man opened the door.  A slice of Bedford Falls (It’s Wonderful Life) right here in Cedar Falls.

Speaking of Bedford Falls & Iowa…did you know that the Academy Award-winning actress Donna Reed was born on a farm near Denison, Iowa?  She played  Mary Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life. While that film had a weak run at the box office after it was first released it is now considered a Christmas classic and named by AFI has one of the best 100 American films ever made and number one  on their list of the most inspirational American films of all time.

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Yesterday I returned to Lake Howell High School in Winter Park, Florida where I graduated from years ago to talk to five classes and around 350 students total. The groups were a mix of students in video and TV production, radio, graphic design, journalism and entrepreneurship.  Since Lake Howell was where I took my first photography class and wrote and directed my first videos I was thrilled with the opportunity to speak to them about much of what I write about on this blog.

I believe that high school students today who are interested in various forms of production are in a great position. And so this post will be an abridged version and recount of my talk yesterday.

When I was 18 years old there was a place called Fotomat where I used to take my still photography film (Not one student could tell me what Fotomat did). It was cutting edge for that time period. You would drop your film off and the next day you’d get it back. (Lots of mock “oohs” and “ahhs” from the students.)  At its peak there were over 4,000 Fotomat booths throughout the United States.

I asked them why all of those Fotomat booths if they still existed were no longer Fotomats and they correctly pointed to one-hour developing and digital photography. That is the technology changed the game.  

A photographer friend from San Diego tells me that in 1980 the president of Fotomat gave the keynote address at a big convention in Las Vegas where he basically said that Fotomat had nothing to fear from the new “mini lab” industry.  The next year they lost 50% of their business to mini labs. 

Technology is a two edged sword in that it opens news opportunities while at the same time closing the door on older ways of doing things (usually resulting in jobs loses…like the whaling industry in days of old, and more recently the newspaper business). 

Today digital technology offers amazing opportunities for high school students. It is common today for students to be editing video projects on non-linear editing systems. And not unheard of for students to be editing on Final Cut Pro which is the same editing system that the Coen Brothers edited “No Country for Old Men” on which won an Academy Award for Best Picture last year.

There are also DVD and Internet tutorials available to ambitious students. (Sometimes for free in the case of tv.adobe.com) Movies can also be studied on DVDs and there are filmmaker commentaries for additional insights. There are plenty of instructional books and magazines on screenwriting and other areas of production.  The quality of even consumer cameras has improved greatly. There are free versions of screenwriting software kicking around and even the top of the line programs only cost around $200. And there are places on the Internet where you can pitch your ideas and scripts and try to connect with producers.

Years ago when I made my video projects they were watched by a class and then eventually lost or the master tapes recycled for another class. Today a young person can make a video that can be watched by hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people via You Tube or other places on the Internet. (Speaking of You Tube, I just discovered  some Rod Serling interviews of him talking about writing.)

It  is crazy and stunning what a teenager can learn today before they even graduate from high school. (And most of it probably outside the classroom.) Stuff that even graduate students just a few years ago were not exposed to. 

And all of this is not limited to high school students. Not long ago I had an eighth grader show me a documentary he did on Buddy Holly. Nikki Reed was 13 when she co-wrote the movie Thirteen. The Hollywood Reporter recently announced that 9-year-old Alec Greven’s book How to Talk to Girls was recently picked up by Fox to become a movie.

Of course, those are the exceptions. And as it’s been said, while it only takes a few hours to learn how to play chess it takes many years to learn to play the game well. Alfred Hitchcock said it only takes about two days to learn what you need to know about the technical aspects of making films, but making good films is obviously a different story.

I told the students yesterday about one of my favorite quotes, “We tend to overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in ten” (Richard Foster). And that while I had traveled to all 50 of the United States and over 15 countries that, in fact, when I graduated from high school I had only been to a total of 3 states in my life. (Only if you included the Atlanta, Georgia airport.) With that said I told them to dream big, but take little steps in working toward their goal. To borrow from a phrase from Anne Lamott, the way I traveled to all 50 states was state by state over several decades. And the way you build a career in production is  script by script, film by film, short story by short story, photograph by photograph, video by video, and/or blog by blog.

So if you’re in high school (or even middle school) student know that there is no better time to be learning these skills. So keep writing scripts and making films and getting better at what you do. Use all that  youthful energy to work those long hours needed to hone your skills. I do believe that today you are better position than any group that has gone before you to have a career in production.

And for the teachers out there my challenge to you is to take you most talented and focused students and make a feature film over the school year. You have a huge set full of props (the school), you have actors (students, teachers, parents, school workers), you have the time of the school year, all you need is a script. Maybe one semester students write the script and the second semester have some students shoot the script and some edit it and then have a big screening the last week of school. It doesn’t have to be that good, the learning comes in the doing.

I would like to thank the teachers, administration, tech crew and students for giving me  the opportunity to speak yesterday and I hope some of it sticks.

*LAKE HOWELL TRIVA…After speaking I was given a tour of the school and saw for the first time my name listed on a wall as some kind of special mention for playing wide receiver back in the day. Actor Scott Porter who plays injured quarterback Jason Street in the tv program Friday Night Lights also played wide receiver at Lake Howell. And I graduated with Claude McKnight who is the Grammy winning founder of the group Take 6. Go Silver Hawks!

 

copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“With the exception of My Dinner with Andre, very few films can sustain interest in one type of location for too long. Mix it up with day and night scenes, interiors and exteriors. Too many scenes in one type of location will hypnotize a reader like the centerlines on a highway.
                                                             Jim Suthers
                                                             Common Screenwriting Mistakes

“I’m a little bit country…I’m a little bit rock-n-roll”
                                                            Donnie & Marie

On Tuesday morning in Cedar Falls, Iowa I got tired of trying to scrape the ice off my SUV windows and ended up riding my bike to work on the snow packed roads. (My office is only a few blocks away.) Three days later I was riding a bike on the beach in a much warmer and sunnier New Smyrna Beach, Florida. That’s quite a contrast.

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And that got me thinking of how contrast is used in screenwriting and in film/video/TV production.

It may only be something you become aware of in the rewriting stage or editing stage but how you handle contrast effects the flow of your story. If you’ve ever seen a production board of a feature film you’ve seen that there are different color strips for interior or exterior locations. Also listed are characters needed for certain scenes.

It helps producers and production managers get an overall feel of what is needed each day to bring a film in on time and on budget. It also helps a producer who is running over budget to know where to cut. And some contrasts begin to emerge in the story.

Some writers find it helpful to lay out their story in a similar way to see if there are any problems that jump out. Laid out in sequence you can see if there are x-amount of pages where your protagonist isn’t on screen ( a common problem).

Are there too many scenes in a row inside the same house? (Granted this works in a movie like Halloween, but is best to mix it up and move it around.) Let me give you another visual contrast from New Smyrna Beach of a sign a took yesterday.

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The mostly white sign pops against the deep blue sky. Contrasts are used across the board in production from the script, to the way the script is shot and edited.

By contrast I mean things like:
Hot/Cold
Rich/Poor
Big/Small
Light/Dark
Innocent/Guilty

As basic as this is many writers neglect addressing contrast favoring a more intuitive approach. But if we look over at our fellow creatives in the painting field they understand contrast very well. They are deliberate in their approach to color and composition.

Films are a visual medium and audiences enjoy seeing a contrast on screen. This can be seen in the biggest blockbuster of all time in how James Cameron deals with the world of the upper class wealthy and working class represented by Leonardo Dicaprio in Titanic.

It also contrast the arrogance of those who thought they had built a ship that couldn’t be sunk with the realities of hitting an iceberg. The film deals with a contrast between life & death as the unsinkable ship begins to sink. Another way to look at contrast in this story is wet/dry.

On the Legally Blonde DVD commentary the production designers talk how they designed Reese Witherspoon’s California sorority lifestyle to be a pastel and playful world  to contrast the serious world of East Coast Harvard law school..

In both Jaws and Cold Manor Creek there is a contrast between families leaving the mean evil big cities seeking calm small town living –only to have those small town utopias turn into dangerous places. (Just for the record New Smyrna Beach with all its charm is the shark bite capital of the the US if not the world.)

Romeo & Juliet is the contrasts between two families.

In Fatal Attraction & The Godfather the calm demeanor of the Glenn Close and Marlon Brando characters are just one side of who they are.

Hitchcock built suspense in many a scene and movie using contrasts.

You get the picture. And of course the reasons for the contrast goes back to conflict. (If you a haven’t read the post Everything I learned in Film School (tip #1), that covers much of this ground.)

So the equation looks like this: CONTRAST=CONFLICT

Look for it everywhere in your script.

And look for it when you watch film and TV shows. Watch how they handle contrasts.

When you watch A Place in the Sun look see how Elizabeth Taylor is dressed compared to Shelly Winters, both of whom are of interest to Montgomery Clift. Listen to the music and sounds associated with each character. Great writers and directors are intentional in their choices.

Watch how directors and directors of photography and editors use wide shots, medium, and close-ups (and some times ultra wide & extreme close-ups) in making a scene effective.

In the circles I travel in we call this shooting a sequence, other people call it coverage. Where you are shooting the same action in wide, medium, and close up shots. Without that coverage you have no contrast and it can make it difficult for an editor to make a scene work.

If photographers don’t have contrasts in their photos they talk about the photo being flat. While at times you can use that to your advantage, it is best to avoid writing flat characters. And the way you do that is adding contrasts to every scene.

Extra Credit: Since the opening quote mentioned My Dinner with Andre, I’d like to know if anyone has heard the rumor that it was written by Wally Shawn in the Black Hawk Hotel in Cedar Fall, IA–not  a half a block from my office. Several people have said that Shawn lived at the Black Hawk Hotel for a time in the 70′s and performed with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony. I’d like to read some confirmation of that.

Update: The day before I flew back to Iowa it was 80 degree in Orlando and a windchill of minus 20 in Cedar Falls, that’s a 100 degree difference. Quite a contrast indeed.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith˙

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“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.
Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
Speech circa 1880

 “All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war, and rule number one is young men die. And rule number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one.”
                                                                    M*A*S*H, TV Program/Season One
                                                                   (Sometimes You Hear the Bullet)

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour on this day in 1941 five brothers in Waterloo, Iowa walked into a Navy recruiting station and demanded that they all serve on the same ship.  Two months later all five bothers (George, Frank, Red, Matt & Al) were photographed on the USS Juneau and became a famous band of brothers.

Nine months later they were all killed in the South Pacific in the Battle of the Guadalcanal. You can imagine the scene when the news was delivered to their parents home on Adams St. where they raised their boys.

“War is hell” is the often paraphrased Sherman quote. And that hell is full of drama so it is not surprising that there have been so many war movies.

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A movie on the five brothers, The Fighting Sullivans written by  Edward Doherty and  Jules Schermer was released in 1944 and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. (The Academy would later call the Best Story the Best Original Screenplay).

A similar story of eight brothers dying in the Civil War was the inspiration for Robert Rodat’s script Saving Private Ryan that would be nominated for 11 Academy Award and for which Steven Spielberg would win best director honors. (Private Ryan is from the fictious town of  Peyton, Iowa and I do not know if this is a minor tribute to the Sullivan Brothers who would of come up in Rodat’s research as he looked for a World War II angle.)

Just a few weeks ago The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum opened in Waterloo, Iowa. The 32,000-square-foot state-of-the art facility  is named after the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo and honors the men and women who have served in the United States Military.

Since today is Pearl Harbor Day in the US  it seemed a fitting time to look at screenwriting and war. I guess I could have called this Screenwriting from Vietnam, Screenwriting from Germany or Screenwriting from Iraq.

There have been many great movies made dealing with war because it has everything I’ve covered over the year; Strong, meaningful conflict where larger than life characters deal with life and death decisions that have consequences greater than there own lives. Actions that could in fact change the world.

The upcoming Tom Cruise film Valkyrie  appears to be in this tradition. The Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander script centers around an assassination plot against Hitler. It would be hard to film a character in history that has been at the core of  more films, TV programs, and books than Hitler. Understanding evil seems to be one of our chief preoccupations. (When we’re not Googling Britney Spears.)

One of the first films I ever remember seeing in the theater was The Green Beret starring John Wayne and David Janseen.  (And for what it’s worth Wayne was born in Iowa and Janseen in Nebraska.)  By doing the math I was seven years old when that movie came out. I didn’t see the movie again for almost 30 years but there were scenes that I have always carried with me.

The first two were booby traps where soldiers are killed (one into  a wall of spikes, maybe I was too young to see this movie) and the other was the ending where a little boy goes looking for  Sgt. Petersen who befriended the boy. But Petersen has been killed and it’s heartbreaker (at least it was for a seven-year-old viewing it) as he runs from helicopter to helicopter yelling “Peter-san,  Peter-san!”

My boyhood friends and I had no real understanding of Vietnam but we loved the concept of shooting guns, rolling off a hill of sand pretending to be shot, talking on walkie talkies, and dressing up like G.I. Joe.  I think every boy at that stage of his life is a dramatist. Making up dramatic scenarios and living them out daily. One day they’re playing with stick that’s an old west gun, the next day it’s a Medieval sword, and the next day it’s a futuristic laser.

Fast forward to when I was in high school and  Apocalypse Now was released. That made me want to be a filmmaker and make sure I avoided going into war. Because of Vietnam  the majority of young people at that time didn’t get excited about joining the military until the movie Top Gun game out in 1986 where people signed up in record numbers once again proving the influence of Hollywood. (Ironically, Platoon came out that same year.)

Here is a partial list of some of the greatest war films:

Patton
All Quiet on the Western Front
From Here to Eternity
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Schindler’s List
The Sand Pebbles
Glory
The Dirty Dozen
Battleship Potemkin
Das Boot
The Caine Mutiny
Black Hawk Down
Henry V
Letters From Iwo Jima
Gone With the Wind
Battleship Potemkin
Ran
Zulu
The Last of the Mohicans
Braveheart

Some films have dealt with war from a perspective of humor or irony:
Stalag 17
M*A*S*H
Dr. Strangelove
Catch-22
Good Morning, Vietnam
Stripes
Private Benjamin
The General
The Great Dictator

And yet other films deal with the lingering effects of returning home from war:
The Deer Hunter
Courage Under Fire
The Best Years of Our Lives
First Blood
Coming Home

“Out in the Pacific they say he was the best,
now he’s in his civvies heading home like all the rest.” 

Jimmy Buffett
Sending the Old Man Home 

Just as there were stories that emerged after World War II I believe there will be a new crop of stories emerging from Iraq. Jarhead writer Anthony Swofford not only recounted his experiences from The Gulf War but earned an MFA from the University of Iowa.  The script for that movie was written by William Broyles Jr. who himself was a Marines in Vietnam.

So there will be more stories to tell from places far away from Hollywood. Stories than help give us meaning or at least a glimmer of humanity in a world that has been at war for thousands of years.

“The next wave of Hollywood filmmakers will undoubtedly include veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their values and empathy could alter the landscape of the filmmaking industry, even the world we share.”
Liz Alani
Script  magazine/ Real Men Write 

It’s my hope that this posts finds its way to Iraq and Afghanistan where a solider or two can read it and be inspired. Thanks to all the soldiers who have fought for this country over the years and have made it such a great place to call home.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith


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Tender Mercies was filmed in Texas in the Waxahachie area with mainly Texas crews.

                                                               Horton Foote, Texas-born screenwriter
                                                               Tender Mercies, A Trip to Bountiful

I was born and raised in Texas in a family with 10 brothers and sisters. I was a daydreamer and bored at school, so I’d draw and doodle and make little flip cartoon movies. When I was 12, I decided to start making actual movies rather than just cartoons using my dad’s Super 8 camera.

                                                               Robert Rodriguez, Filmmaker
                                                               His movies have earned over $600 million 


There was an Austin breeze in Iowa last night as Willie Nelson was in town for a concert. The good seats costs $69.50 to hear the 75-year-old, and Sling Blade writer/director Billy Bob Thornton (The Boxmasters) was on the bill as well. I didn’t go but it did make me think it would be a fitting time to look at screenwriting from Texas.

While Willie is not a screenwriter, he is a legend. And he is a Texan (which I think is bigger than being a legend). And he certainly is a proven storyteller, a prolific songwriter and believe it or not has over 300 film and TV credits as actor, sound track music, composer, producer, and playing himself.

I’ve been hooked on Willie’s music ever since I first heard “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow-Up to be Cowboys” and have heard him play live a couple times. And I remember fondly his starring roll in Barbarosa back in the day. (And just for the record, the Barbarosa screenplay was written by Texas born Bill Wittliff who would go on to write the scripts for Legends of the Fall and The Perfect Storm.)

I don’t have time to write about all the talent that has come from Texas because it is a big state. But when I think of movies and Texas one name stands tall;

Horton Foote. 

That pretty much sums up screenwriting from Texas. Of course, he’s not the only writer from Texas — he just embodies the essence of fine writing from the longhorn state. He is best known for his screenplays Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird both of which earned him Academy Awards.

But he has had a long distinguished career that includes the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his play The Man from Atlanta, A Trip to Bountiful (for which Geraldine Page would win an Oscar for Best Actress), and the script for the Gary Sinise & John Malkovich version of Of Mice and Men.  

Foote was a trained actor born in 1916 in Wharton, Texas and made his broadway debut in 1944. But it was writing for the theater and in the early days of TV where he earned a living and made a name for himself eventually being called the “American Chekhov.”

But standing next to Horton Foote on the right is Larry McMurty.

McMurty, born in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1936 is yet another giant literary talent from the state. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1972 for The Last Picture Show and shared an Oscar win with Diana Ossana for the script for Brokeback Mountain.

He won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel Lonesome Dove that was also turned into a popular TV mini-series. (Wittliff, if you’re keeping a scorecard, also won a WGA Award for adapting part one of Lonesome Dove.)  And way back in 1963 McMurty’s novel Horseman Pass By was made into the Mitt Ritt directed Hud staring Paul Newman and Patricia Neal (who won the Oscar for Best Actress in a leading role).

Two quirky things about the prolific McMurty is he still writes on a typewriter and he owns a large antiquarian bookstore, Booked Up, in Archer City Texas where The Last Picture Show was shot and where he now lives.

And standing next to Horton Foote on the left I’ll put  three time Oscar winner writer/director Robert Benton who was born in Waxahachie. Huh? The same place Tender Mercies was filmed in — interesting. I don’t know what’s in the water there, but once coming back from a gig in Austin I went out of my way to drive through Waxahachie just to breath the air.

Benton’s screenwriting career began with Bonnie & Clyde and he  wrote and directed Places in the Heart which is just a beautiful film. Ellen McCathy of the Washington Post wrote this about Benton; “His most noteworthy films of the past three decades — 1979′s Kramer vs. Kramer, 1984′s Places in the Heart and 1994′s Nobody’s Fool – present familiar characters, ordinary lives and the full range of love’s twisted complexities.”

Maybe instead of calling my blog Screenwriting from Iowa I should of called it Screenwriting from Waxahachie. Then again, how many people can spell Waxahachie? I think it’s an Native Indian word that means land of sacred storytellers.

I’m not sure where to put Robert Rodriguez. But then again he stands out from the pack because he does a little of everything and is one of the greatest overall creative forces in cinematic history.

Born in Texas in 1968, Rodriguez has done a remarkable job of making the low budget El Mariachi (on a reported $7,000 budget) as well as big Hollywood mega hits including Spy Kids which made over $100 million. Personally I like what Rodriguez is doing more than what he has done. That is I don’t revisit his films but I love that he is a producer, director, camera operator, Steadicam operator, director of photography, actor, writer, editor, sound mixer, visual effects supervisor and composer who not only pushes the envelop in the digital world but he is free to tell you what he’s doing so you can get in on the show.

Rodriguez is based in Austin which is its own filmmaking mecca that has inspired  Matthew McConaughey (by the way, love the Airstream in Malibu concept), Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Mike Judge, Owen Wilson and is home to The Austin Film Festival. Austin as a whole is one of the most interesting cities in the country. The have the state capitol, a major college in the heart of the city, there are plenty of old hippies, rednecks, computer geeks, business people, artists and musicians of all kinds thrown into the mix for a great overall creative vibe. 

And since at the time of this post the number one box office movie is Twilight (with a $70 million opening weekend) I must mention that the director Catherine Hardwicke was born and raised in McAllen, Texas. She was also the writer/director of Thirteen. (Making a case for speed writing, Thirteen was co-written in six days with 14-year old Nikki Reed.)

And the newcomer from Texas is Chris Eska who comes from Ottine, Texas (pop 98) whose film debut Evening August  was the winner of the 2008 Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award and the Best Film Awards at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Like those oil wells, Texas just keeps producing.

And Texas as a whole is a full of a wonderful wacky history and mix of characters and talent Mark Cuban, Don Henley, Lance Armstrong and you fill-in-the-rest. Here is a short list of some of the films made in Texas that I haven’t mentioned:

Red River (1948)
Giant (1956)
Urban Cowboy (1980)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
North Dallas Forty (1979) 
Southern Comfort (1981)
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)
Waltz Across Texas (1982) 
Fandango (1985)
Scary Movie (1989)
Rushmore (1998)
Office Space (1999)
Miss Congeniality (2000)
The Alamo (2004) 
Friday Night Lights (2004)
No Country for Old Men (2007) 
There Will Be Blood (2007) 

North Dallas Forty writer Peter Gent played wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys and is an excellent writer and who for whatever reason only has one film credit to his name. Now living in Michigan I hope it’s not his last and that he hook-ups with one of those Michigan filmmakers and knocks our socks off once again. (How about a look into the heart of the auto industry like you did with professional football?)

As I said I’m sure I missed a few people and great films but feel free to send your comments. But a fitting place to end this tour of Texas is back in Austin with William Broyles Jr. the Oscar-nominated screenwriter from Houston (who now lives in Austin) who wrote the screenplays for Apollo 13, Cast Away, and Flags of Our Fathers

“This movie (Cast Away) begins and ends in Texas. And that’s not an accident. This is where my heart is.” 
                                                                    William  Broyles Jr.
                                                                     The Austin Chronicle (Dec. 2000)

Apparently he’s not alone there.


2008 Copyright Scott W. Smith

 

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safetylast-1

Does anybody really know what time it is?
                                                             Robert Lamm/Chicago

Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By
                                                             Humphrey Bogart
                                                             Casablanca 


Did you know that Three Days of the Condor was based on Six Days of the Condor?

That is the movie Three Days of the Condor was based on the novel Six Days of the Condor.

Why do you think the screenwriters Lorenzo Semple and David Rayfiel compressed the novel by James Grady? I haven’t read any comments by the writers, Robert Redford who was the star, or by director Syndey Pollack on why that was done, but I have a pretty good hunch.

Movies do not handle long passages of time well. More often than not films will compress time for the sake of moving the story forward and keeping your interest.

Screenwriters and producers often talk of a time-lock on a film. A specific set of time the story is set when something must happen by. (“If you don’t get the heck out of Dodge by sunset there will be hell to pay.”) It sets the parameters for the story. Here are some films that have a time-lock:
High Noon
Speed
48 Hours
Apollo 13

Lew Hunter in his book Screenwriting 434 says when you use a time-lock “you inject an urgency into your story that can give it additional drive to heighten audience involvement and anxiety.” Of course, the more organic to the story the better.

Some movie deal with time by placing them in a single day, in just a night, or even in real time in the length of the film:

American Graffiti
The Breakfast Club
Halloween
Phone Booth 
Before Sunrise
Rope 
Timecode 
Russian Ark 

In a talk I heard John Updike give at the University of Iowa earlier this year he spoke about the limitations that film has in showing the passing of time. When he’s writing a novel he can take a person from a baby to old age and it’s no problem for the reader, but in movies it doesn’t work as well. He explained that if your main character is a child for the first 30 minutes of the film they have a certain amount invested in that person and to switch to another person is a jolt.

This may be one of the problems Updike is having in bringing the story of Olympic wrestler/famed college coach Dan Gable to to screen. Gable had a great high school, college career before winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Then he went on to win 10 national championships as a head coach at the University of Iowa before retiring. Then he came back as an assistant coach last year to help Iowa win another national championship.

How do you show that in an hour and a half or two hour movie? And even if you found a way, can you really have the same person play Gable as a 15-year-old high school freshman and Gable as a 63-year-old coach? See the problem there? 

Maybe the digital world will help this in the future and it will be interesting to see the effect on Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button where he plays an man born in his eighties and ages backwards. If anyone can pull that off it’s David Fincher & Eric Roth. (Didn’t that once happen on a Star Trek episode?) But it’s still Brad Pitt we are investing in.

Of course there are other exceptions, and generally Hollywood has found some creative ways to deal with the passing of time when needed. For instance, in Forrest Gump we are introduced to Forrest (Tom Hanks) as an adult in the opening scene and while we see Forrest as a child the majority of the film is as an adult. We are invested in Tom Hanks.

In The Natural they chose to have Robert Redford play both the thirtysomething Roy Hobbs as well as the teenage Roy Hobbs. They used soft lighting, shadows (and Redford’s youthful look) to create believability for the audience. 

The remarkable TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won eight primetime Emmys including two for actress Cicely Tyson. Tyson playing a 110-year old woman reflecting on her life was amazing, and aided greatly by makeup and costume design (that both also won Emmys) as well as a whole creative team that brought the Ernest J. Gaines novel to life. (Leonard Maltin called it “One of TV’s all-time best,” so it’s worth renting of you’ve never seen it.)

One major problem with the passing of time is the amount of money it takes to create different eras. Think of the expense of the cars alone cover the time period of a story set in the 40s, 60s, 80s. Sure it’s been done, but if you are starting out it may be best to avoid that hurdle. (A short time frame also favors lower budget films since you have less continuity issues to worry about. Always good especially if you don’t have a script supervisor.) 

In my post Screenwriting by Numbers (tip #4) I point out some averages related to running time in movies such as most movies tend to be between 90-120 minutes in length and most scenes tend to run between 1-3 minutes long. And if all of this seems cold and artificial let me once again to the great quote by design guru Milton Glazer; “Limitation stimulates the imagination.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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