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Archive for March, 2009

Yes, I am going from seven days in a row expounding about the virtues of Sunset Boulevard to quoting writer/director Kevin Smith. While he’s no stranger to controversy, raunchiness, and profanity, and you may not care for his films—but you have to at least give the guy credit for launching a career by making Clerks for $27,000. All filmed in a New Jersey convenience store where he actually worked (and edited in a video store where Smith also worked).

“I was awed by (Richard Linklater’s film) Slacker, that it existed. And Richard’s story was kind of compelling too. This guy from Austin, Texas—not from Hollywood, not from New York—had made a film that’s playing in New York and look at all these people here to see it! And he’d made it for such a low amount of money. But by the end of the film I was thinking, I could definitely do this! And oddly enough it was the reaction that Clerks would have a few years later…Anyway we’re driving back to New Jersey and I say, ‘You Know, Vincent, I think that’s what I want to do. I think I want to make a film.”
Kevin Smith
My First Movie
20 Directors Talk About Their First Film
Page 74
Edited by Stephen Lowenstein

Scott W. Smith

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 “Somebody came up to Arthur Miller after an opening and said ‘That was a nice play, but couldn’t you call it Life of a Salesman?’ But a play is not nice things happening to nice people. A play is about terrible things happening to people who are as nice or not nice as we are ourselves.”
                                                      
                                David Mamet

                                                    
                                Three Uses of a Knife

“Modern literature is devoted, in great measure, to a courageous, open-eyed observation of the sickeningly broken figurations that abound before us, around us, and within.”
                                Joseph Campbell
                               The Hero with a Thousand Faces
                                page 27

 

“All Glory is Fleeting.”

Gen. George C.  Patton told the story of how when Roman conquerors returned from war victorious they were greeted with great fanfare on their triumphant return. And as the leader waved to the large crowds from his passing chariot, a slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning that; “All glory is fleeting.”

And so as I wrap up seven days of talking about the great film Sunset Boulevard I think of Norma Desmond and how it would have been wise for her to have her servant Max whisper in her ear every now and then, “All glory is fleeting.”

And Max knew this first hand as that character was played by the great silent film director Erich von Stroheim (Greed) whose career sputtered with the advent of sound and who hadn’t directed a film in more than 17 years when Wilder cast him as the servant in Sunset Boulevard.

Truth is we’re all Norma Desmond’s and Joe Gillis’ in training. Most of us fall between struggling to make it (and dealing with compromise) and the residual effect of having already been to the top of the mountain and wondering, “What’s next?”

Nowhere is this greater seen than in the sporting world. And nowhere in the sporting world is this seen better than every couple years during the Olympics. An athlete trains for a lifetime in obscurity and if they are fortunate to win a gold medal one of the first questions reporters ask is, will you try again at the next Olympics? If they don’t then they are virtually considered has-beens in short time if not forgotten all together.

As I’ve said before, climbers that reach the peak of Mount Everest only get to enjoy the view at the top of the world for about five minutes before they have to head back down. It doesn’t last long.

For everyone who’s scored the winning touchdown, heard the applause of a packed house in a regional theater, or won a salesman of the year award has had a taste of what Norma Desmond struggled with. And they know what it’s like afterwards to not be on top of the mountain. To see read the articles again when the paper has faded and dust had gathered on the award.

Think back to the big name actors 5-10-15-20 years ago and you’ll see how quick the spotlight fades.

“All glory is fleeting.”

Even Sunset Boulevard director Billy Wilder became a little Norma-like in his later years.

It had been fifteen years since the great director had made a film when writer/director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) began interviewing Wilder for what became the book Conversations with Billy Wilder. Crowe wrote in 1999, “His life of the last ten years has often been about the dutiful collecting of awards and accolades, but the truth is even more Wilderesque. The very same industry icons honoring him could have better spent their time employing the great Wilder to direct new movies.”

Alan W. Livingston died a couple weeks ago at age 91. Does that name ring a bell? It didn’t to me. He was once married to Nancy Olson who played William Holden’s young writing partner and love interest in Sunset Boulevard.  But that wasn’t his real claim to fame. That came as being the creator of Bozo the Clown. 

Bozo the Clown —now that’s a name I remember from my childhood.. But Alan W. Livingston? I don’t recall ever hearing.

“All glory is fleeting.”

A couple days ago I saw where Aaron Spelling’s widowed wife was putting on the market her L.A. mansion for a mere $150 million. (Well, the interest rates are really low these days.)

What do you get for $150 million? 

56,000 square feet on 4.6 acres

Over 100 rooms. “”There’s a lot. (The house) has evolved and I actually haven’t gone around and counted” Spelling told a reporter.

A bowling alley

Screening room

A 17,000 sq. foot attic that includes a barber shop and beauty salon

Tennis court

16 car ports

Rooftop rose garden

I’ll have to double check, but I think for $150 million you can buy the entire state of Iowa. Mrs. Spelling has downsized to a $47 million condo, and apparently since Mr. Spelling is dead the mansion is of no use to him.

“All glory is fleeting.”

And lastly I’ve included a picture from my L.A. days when I was a 16mm cameraman and editor for a company in Burbank. This was taken on the Paramount Studios lot—the very lot where part of Sunset Boulevard  was shot. You can’t really seen with this size shot but if you look back over my left shoulder that white line near the top of the mountain is actually the famed Hollywood sign. 

“All glory is fleeting.” (Apparently so was all that hair I had.)

 

paramont-studios-web

Movies like Sunset Boulevard and tragic figures like Norma Desmond offer what the Greek poets and Aristole called “katharsis”—a purification of sorts. (It’s where the English word “catharsis” comes from.) 

There is no doubt that the ending of Sunset Boulevard is tragic all the way around. But it also provides the viewers a roadmap in their own life.

Certainly one of the themes of Sunset Boulevard is “All glory is fleeting.”

Another would be “What will it profit a man if he gains the world and forfeits his soul?” 

Keep those things in mind as you reach for the stars.

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

 

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She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast
He was a Midwestern boy on his own
She looked at him with those soft eyes,
So innocent and blue
He knew right then he was too far from home he was too far from home

                                           Bob Seger
                                           Hollywood Nights 

 

Though I’ve said that Diablo Cody was the inspiration for me to start the Screenwriting from Iowa blog, it was an event that happened three years after she was born that probably planted the seed that eventually led me to Iowa.

When William Holden the lead actor of Sunset Boulevard died November 12, 1981 it made a huge impact on me. I had just moved to L.A. a few months prior from Orlando and was attending film school and studying acting. I was already familiar with his work on the movies Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, and Network. I knew that he was an Oscar winner and one of the biggest stars of the 1950s.

But it wasn’t his films and life that made the news of his death leaving such an impression on me. It was the way he died. The news in L.A. at that time played up the fact that he apparently fell while drunk in his Santa Monica apartment and had hit his head on a table and bled to death. And he laid there dead in his apartment overlooking the Pacific Ocean for several days before anyone missed him. He died alone. 

I remember thinking at that time, “How is that possible?” How is it possible for a guy that’s achieved everything I could ever hope to achieve in the movie business to lay in his condo for several days before any one missed him? This is the original Golden Boy, who was linked romantically to Audrey Hepburn, Shelly Winters, Grace Kelly and at the end with Stefanie Powers,. He had a six decade career including heavyweight the films The Bridge on the River Kawi, Sabrina, and The Wild Bunch.

He was rich and famous and he is now #25 on AFI’s list of top movie stars. But he died alone.

Two weeks later actress Natalie Wood died in a mysterious late-night accident involving a boat off Santa Catalina Island in Southern California.

A few miles away from where Holden died, and just four months later actor/comedian John Belushi died of a heroin overdose at the Chateau Marmont which just happens to be on Sunset Boulevard.  Much of my misspent youth as a teenager was spent laughing at Belushi’s antics on Saturday Night Live (Cheezebuger, Cheezburger), Animal House and The Blues Brothers so I didn’t find anything funny about his death.

I was only 20 years old and hadn’t even been in L.A. a year and I knew something was wrong with the place. While I was an intern on a cable TV show called Alive and Well that was taped in Marina del Rey I remember talking to L.A. Dodger Steve Yeager who was a guest on the show about L.A. and he told me something I never forgot. (Yeager, by the way, went to high school in Dayton, Ohio which just happened to be where William Holden’s character was from in Sunset Boulevard.) I asked Yeager if he thought L.A. was a plastic town and he said, “Yes, but if you live here long enough you don’t see the plastic.”

I only lived there five years so I could still see the plastic when I headed back to Florida. I still love much about L.A, but maybe it wasn’t so crazy to eventually move to Iowa. 

Yesterday I read that Forbes listed nearby Iowa City, Iowa as the #9 best small metro places to live and work (Waterloo-Cedar Falls was #33) and not too far away Des Moines was listed as the #7 best metro places to live and work.  How did California fare? According to Forbes writer Kurt Badenhausen “Bringing up the rear of our rankings are the troubled spots in California. The Golden State had its worst showing ever in our tally.” Los Angeles ranked #180.

I hope as the digital revolution continues that the William Holden’s and John Belushi’s of the future (if they aren’t big enough to live in Montana or France) can do their thing in their home states and avoid some of the L.A. trappings. Holden and Belushi weren’t the first do die in excess in L.A. and they won’t be the last. (And it’s also true that every part of the country has its problems with drugs and alcohol. But L.A. seems to have a special gift for leading actors and musicians—and in some cases actors turned musicians—toward a path of destruction.)

Do you wonder if William Holden when he was all alone in his apartment did he ever fire up a projector and watch Sunset Boulevard?  He was a respected (and still working actor) but faded movie star that Susanne Vega referenced in her song Tom’s Diner;

I open
Up the paper
There’s a story
Of an actor

Who had died
While he was drinking
It was no one
I had heard of

  

Certainly as Holden wandered alone in his large apartment at least once had to see some parallels between his life and Norma Desmond’s. 

And right now a 20 year old actor is pulling into Hollywood for the first time and he’s never heard of Norma Desmond, William Holden…or even Susanne Vega.

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

 


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“The Wilder message is don’t bore – don’t bore people.”
                                                    Billy Wilder

 

By the time Billy Wilder directed Sunset Boulevard he had already worked on over 40 feature films. He had already been nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two for his work on The Lost Weekend. It’s safe to say that Wilder knew what he was doing when he made Sunset Boulevard which would bring him another Oscar as one of the movie’s three writers.  A few years ago when the Writer’s Guild of America picked the best 101 screenplays of all-time they listed Sunset Boulevard at #7.

So just in case you aren’t that familiar with the film I wanted you to know the importance of the script and film. If you’ve read the post Screenwriting by the Numbers you’ll see how Sunset Boulevard perfectly fits the classic three-act structure. Heck, Wilder even fades to black so the audience doesn’t miss the act breaks. (A nod to the theater when the curtain would go down at act breaks.) 

Here’s my breakdown of the movie and how it measures up with some things I’ve written about in the past. (It’s best read if you’ve seen the film because there are some spoilers mentioned. And this is a film that every writer should watch multiple times.)

Sunset Boulevard has 57 scenes. (40-60 is average for most feature films.)

Sunset Boulevard runs 110 minutes. Which averages around 2 minutes a scene. (Most features tend to run 90-120 minutes.)

Only three scenes are over three minutes in length and they are saved for key moments. (If characters move from one part of the house to the next and it’s a different camera set-up I mark that as a scene break.) 

There are two main characters (Norma Desmond & Joe Gillis). 

William Holden, who plays Gillis, is in almost every scene in the film. (“Stay with the money” is the old Hollywood saying.)

There are three reoccurring supporting characters  (Max, Nancy, Artie).

Except for the long voice-overs of Joe Gillis, most dialogue is three lines or less. 

There are three acts. Act 1 ends at 26:51, Act 2 ends at 75:48 min., and Act 3 ends, of course, at the end of the film 110 minutes. (Though the script does indicate they worked in five different sequences marking them “A,” “B”, “C”, “D” and “E.” so one could argue a five-act structure.)

There is one main story (Gillis writing Norma’s script and becoming a boy toy in the process) and three subplots. The subplot with Nancy ties directly to the main plot and the climax of the film. The youthful Nancy new to Hollywood also offers a contrast to Norma, the aging movie star.

Almost every scene has conversation with three people or less. 

A good amount of the scenes are just two people talking.

Norma’s house is one giant set piece and where most of the story takes place.

The film is a mix of drama, comedy, action, satire, melodrama and film noir.

Gillis’ lack of work and money sets the story in motion. (Read the post Gordon Gekko vs. Paul Newman)

The title is literal and metaphorical as it is the name of a street in L.A. where Norma lives and sunset also represents her fading career/life. “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”

Contrasts is used throughout the film;  interior/exterior scenes, day/night scenes, theme of rich/poor, old/young, small apartment/huge mansion.

Coincidence is used early in the film to put Gillis at Norma’s house.

Exposition is sprinkled throughout the film with Max’s little secret coming when toward the end of the film when it would have most impact.

The ending is ironic. Gillis gets his pool and Norma gets back in the spotlight. Though what they get is not in the way they thought they’d get it.  He’s dead and she’s off to jail. (On top of that her desired close-up is out of focus.)

Of course, it was the solid writing during the 110 minutes that sets the film a part. That is the hard part. But I did want to show you the simplicity of limiting characters and locations as the writers Charles Brackett, D.M Marshman, Jr, and Wilder did on their way to creating screen magic. 

The bottom line is study the masters.

Bonus low-budget production tip; To get the famous shot of Joe Gillis floating face down dead in the pool with the police looking down on him was shot by placing a mirror in the pool under the floating body and shooting down into the mirror.  They found that having a water temp of 40 degrees added the right mix of visual clarity with a hint of distortion. 

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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The thing that often gets lost when we talk about the outstanding career of writer/director Billy Wilder is the contribution of screenwriter Charles Brackett who wrote 13 films together with Wilder. Brackett won three Oscar awards over the years, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Academy in 1959. 

Brackett was 14 years older than Wilder and brought a considerable amount of clout to the writing table. He had graduated from Williams College and Harvard Law School, he wrote short stories, novels, and was a drama critic for the The New Yorker from 1924-29, and Hollywood took notice buying some of his stories in the 1920s until he finally moved to L.A. when he was 34 years old. 

But according to Sam Staggs the results were less than grand.  “Like many writers from the East, he distained the studio assemble line approach to writing. So he went home. Soon, however, Paramount’s blandisments lurned him to Hollywood again, and in 1932 he signed a contract with that studio as a staff writer. Some half dozen scripts followed, not one of them noteworthy, until someone at Paramount had the crazy-brilliant idea of caging Brackett with Wilder.”

The refined, educated Brackett mixed with the street smart Jewish immigrant from Europe made for an interesting mix, lots of fights and they wrote a heck of a lot of great movies including The Lost Weekend, A Foreign Affair, Ninotchka along with Sunset Boulevard. For whatever reason Sunset Boulevard was the last script they wrote together. After the break-up Brackett won another Oscar as one of the writers on 1954 film version of Titanic.

In 1938-39 Brackett was the president of the Screen Writers Guild and from 1949-1955 he was the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He died in 1969 in Beverly Hills and was buried in Saratoga Springs, New York where he was born in 1892.

Brackett’s grandson, Jim Moore, has a website dedicated to his grandfather called The Charles Brackett Project.

Scott W. Smith

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Did you know the Midwest had a big part in the success of Sunset Boulevard? Not only was Gloria Swanson born in Chicago and William Holden born in O’Fallon, Illinois (just east of St. Louis) but Nancy Olson who received and Academy Award nomination in her supporting role in the film was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But it was a preview screening just north of the city of Chicago that first signaled there was a problem with the opening scene.

While few have seen the original opening of the movie since 1949 there are scripts kicking around with the original open. The opening scene takes place in a morgue where William Holden’s character Joe Gillis lies dead with other dead bodies of men, women and children. Then things get funky when the voices of the dead people begin to talk.

                                                           A MAN”S VOICE
                                             Don’t be scared. There’s a lot of us here.
                                             It’s all right.
                      
                                                             GILLIS
                                             I’m not scared.

And then they all continue talking about how they died and one asks if “Satchel Paige beat the White Sox yesterday?” to which the Gillis voice-over replies, “No I wouldn’t. I died before the morning paper came.” The tone Wilder was after was missed by that first audience in the Midwest.

“Because of the touchy subject matter. Paramount sought a venue far from Hollywood to preview the picture. Evanston, Illinois, seemed distant enough. After the opening credits, when the story moved down Sunset Boulevard and into the L.A County Morgue, the audience stunned Billy Wilder. Years later he recalled, ‘When the morgue label was tied on Mr. Holden’s toe, they started to scream with laughter. In the mood of hilarity I walked out of the preview, very depressed.’”
                                                    Sam Staggs
                                                    Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard
                                                    Page 151

Paramount got the same negative reviews in Poughkeepsie, New York  and Great Neck on Long Island. The release was delayed as Wilder took six months to make changes.  When the film was released with changes in 1950 it was generally well received in the larger cities with some reviews having a clear understanding of the lasting value of the film. But the film was not a blockbuster hit. But it would go on to become what many have called the greatest film about Hollywood and in 1998 AFI would list Sunset Boulevard  as #12 on its top 100 film list.

 

Scott W. Smith

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There is so much ground to cover with Sunset Boulevard I think I’ll focus on it a few days. And while we’re looking at a movie about a screenwriter who is thinking about moving back to Ohio I thought I’d find a quote from a real Hollywood screenwriter who actually did move back to his home state of Ohio.

“You don’t want to turn into Joe Gillis. In Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis, screenwriter  (played by William Holden), wound up as a kept man of a broken-down movie star who hasn’t made a movie in decades. She spoiled him, belittled him, and finally killed him. In the last scene of the film , we see him floating facedown in her swimming pool.

Someone asks him in the film, ‘Don’t you sometimes hate yourself?’

Joe says, ‘Constantly.'”
                                             Joe Eszterhas
                                             The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood
                                             page 353

I wonder how many times Eszterhas watched Sunset Boulevard as he rode the success of screenwriting more than a billion dollars of box office hits including Basic Instinct, Flashdance, and Jagged Edge. And did Sunset Boulevard play any part in him moving back to Bainbridge Township outside Cleveland?

Scott W. Smith


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