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Archive for May, 2010

“Movies are dying because they killed off the people who could make them, the writer and the director. They took away their identity.”
Ben Hecht
February 15, 1958

Yesterday, on the post The Shakespeare of Hollywood, I wondered what screenwriter Ben Hecht (Spellbound, Wuthering Heights) would think about TV and the Internet today.  In one of those happy accidents I found an 1958 interview that I think gives the answer.

Hecht was one of those guys you don’t meet much any more. He openly spoke his mind. If you didn’t agree with him he didn’t seem to care. He was what they used to call a colorful character. He died in 1964 before political correctness came into vogue. (Though he was concerned with growing censorship.) And though Hecht had a long distinguished screenwriting career, one of the things he liked to lambast was Hollywood. The main targets of his diatribes were greedy producers and how American films had dumbed down American culture. I found a link at the University of Texas that had a transcript for The Mike Wallace Interview where in 1958 Ben Hecht was a guest.

WALLACE:  You’ve said that (TV is) a babysitting industry cooing at the crowds, it threatens to turn us all into furniture.

HECHT: It will when it gets matured. When you get your screen eight by ten feet picture on the wall and color and three dimensions, I’m afraid America will lose the use of its legs.

So here we are just a little over 50 years down the road from Hecht’s comments. While in 2010 we may fall a little short of 8’X10′ screens—color, large screens, and 3-D are now here. The largest I could find on a quick search is a Panasonic 4K 3D 152-inch Plasma. (It appears to be about the same size as a 4’X6′ piece of plywood.)

And back when Hecht made that comment there would have only been three main TV stations. And it was the heyday of live TV drama when The Philco Television Playhouse provided writing opportunities for writers like Paddy Chayefsky and Horton Foote.  Of course, today all the many network and cable channels provide employment opportunities for all sorts of creative folks, including writers.

But when you step back and look at the overall kind of programing that is being produced you have to wonder what kind of culture we are helping to produce. Has the writing evolved as much as the technology? (Some say there is more crap on the air, but more good stuff as well.) Or are we creating simply creating “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? (A colorful character like Ben Hecht, the Shakespeare of Hollywood, might have said that described the final episode of LOST.)

Hey, did you see that video on You Tube where the dog wakes up and starts chasing its tail until it runs into a wall?…

Scott W. Smith



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“Writing a good movie brings a writer about as much fame as steering a bicycle.”
Ben Hecht

“The job of turning good writers into movie hacks is the producer’s chief task.”
Ben Hecht

Screenwriter Ben Hecht was born in 1894 just as moving pictures were being invented. Before he died in 1964 he worked on 70+ films and wrote many plays and books. He was the first screenwriter to ever win an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story. He’s considered  one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of motion pictures.

Hecht was born in New York City and spent time on the lower east side before moving to Racine, Wisconsin. where his mother worked in downtown Racine. For those keeping score, Racine is not far from Kenosha, WI where Orson Welles was born.

After graduating from high school in Racine and briefly attending college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (for all of three days), Hecht went to Chicago where he eventually began working for newspapers (Chicago Journal and The Chicago Daily News). His first novel (Erik Dorn) was published in 1921. His Chicago-basedplay The Front Page was written in 1928 and was made into films several times. His time in Chicago covering murders and gangster would serve him well in Hollywood as those stories translated well to the big screen.

Jumping into the world of movies just as they were using sound, his script for Underworld was released in 1929 and earned him an Oscar award. He sometimes wrote a script in a matter of days and said that he never took longer than eight weeks. Scarface (1932) was written in nine days. He is quoted as saying of his screenwriting career that he was paid, “tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle.”

He was called The Shakespeare of Hollywood but had this to say of his own career: “Out of the seventy movies I’ve written some ten of them were not entirely waste product. These were Underworld, The Scoundrel, Wuthering Heights, Viva Villa, Scarface, Specter of the Rose, Actors and Sin, Roman Holiday, Spellbound, Nothing Sacred.
Ben Hecht

Some of the other movies he worked on (credited and uncredited) include:

Gunga Din
Notorious (Oscar Nominated)
Gone with the Wind
The Shop Around the Corner
His Girl Friday
Stagecoach
Angels Over Broadway (Oscar Nominated)
Viva Villa (Oscar nominated)

He won his second Academy Award for The Scoundrel (shared with Charles MacArthur). Because he sometimes used a pseudonym (partly because he was blacklisted in Europe) we’ll probably never know exactly how many novels, plays and movies Hecht actually wrote. But it’s safe to say that he cranked out his share of pages. Combine the tough-talking gangster persona Hecht carried with the rapid exchange found in His Girl Friday (based on Hecht/MacArthur play The Front Page) and it’s hard to think that Hecht didn’t pave the way for writers Joe Eszterhas and Quentin Tarantino.  (Eszterhas in his book Hollywood Animal called Hecht “the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood history.”

Later in life Hecht had his own TV talk show in New York City (you can find a weak interview he did with Jack Kerouac on You Tube) and was critical of the culture that American movies had helped produce:

“The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century….Of their many sins, I offer as the worst their effect on the intellectual side of the nation. It is chiefly from that viewpoint I write of them — as an eruption of trash that has lamed the American mind and retarded Americans from becoming a cultured people.”
Ben Hecht

What would he say of TV and the Internet today?

Scott W. Smith

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My years in Chicago were a bright time spent in the glow of new worlds. I was a newspaper reporter, playwright, novelist, short-story writer, propagandist, publisher and crony of wild hearts and fabulous gullets.  I haunted streets, whorehouses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, mad houses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls and bookshops. I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock, tasted more than my fly belly could hold, learned not to sleep, and buried myself in a tick-tock of whirling hours that still echo in me.”
Screenwriter Ben Hecht
A Child of the Century

Tomorrow I’ll write more about the greatest Hollywood writer of his day, Ben Hecht, but before he turned to the riches of writing movies the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter was a newspaper writer in Chicago. Back in the bad old days. 1920s—Gangsters.
A collection of his articles were published in the book A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago. That’s where I found the excerpt below that gives you a glimpse of his observational powers as a journalist that I’m sure served him well in Hollywood and the 70 or so films he worked on;

People come in out of the rain. A girl without an umbrella, her face wet. Who? Perhaps a stenographer hunting a job and halted by the rain. And then a matron with an old-fashioned knitted shopping bag. And a spinster with a keen, kindly face. Others, too. They stand nervously idle, feeling that they are taking up valuable space in an industrial establishment and should perhaps make a purchase. So they permit their eyes to drift politely toward the wares. And then the chatter of the books has them. Old books, new books, live books, dead books–but they move carelessly away and toward the bargain tables–“All Books 30 Cents.” Broken down best sellers here–pausing in their gavotte toward oblivion. The next step is the junk man–$1 a hundred. Pembertons, Wrights, Farnols, Websters, Johnstones, Porters, Wards and a hundred other names reminiscent more of a page in the telephone book than a page out of a literary yesterday. The little gavotte is an old dance in the second-hand book store. The $2-shelf. The $1-rack. The 75-cent table. The 30-cent grab counter. And finis. New scribblings crowd for place, old scribblings exeunt.

The girl without an umbrella studies titles. A love story, of course, and only thirty cents. An opened page reads, “he took her in his arms….” Who would not buy such a book on a rainy day?

A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago is no-longer copyright protected and you can read the entire book for free at Project Gutenberg.

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“(Writing the screenplay for An Education) was a bit like being given an outline and being asked to color it in.”
Nick Hornby

With apologies to Henry David Thoreau— The unexamined script is not worth writing.

A few days ago I watched An Education for which screenwriter Nick Hornby received an Oscar nomination for adapting Lynn Barber’s memoir to the screen. He’s a fine writer and will always have a following for writing the book High Fidelity which was Americanized and turned into a cult movie classic of the same name starring John Cusack and Jack Black.

Hornby has long been comfortable letting others write scripts from his novels, so it’s interesting that his first step into screenwriting was adapting an essay* he read in the British literary magazine Granta. He liked the essay enough to pursue writing the screenplay.

“The degree of examination that goes on in film is very interesting for a writer, because there’s not a line that goes unchallenged in a script. You do so many drafts, so every single conjunction is subject to some kind of thought, which never happens with books…I came away with the idea that I’d like to write books the way people write screenplays. I think I’m not going to let another line go through unexamined.”
Nick Hornby

Hornby has a blog and has a post called My advice to you: which could come in handy if you ever get nominated for an Oscar. (He writes, “I actually pretty good at being in the room with Meryl Streep.”) And if you need assistance picking summer reading material Hornby’s post My Waterstone Writer’s Table may be helpful.

As a sidenote, when I was watching the finely crafted An Education I keep trying to figure out where I had seen the lead British actor. Turns out that Peter Sarsgaard has not only been in Jarhead, Flightplan, and Garden State, but his an American from the Midwest. Born and raised in Belleville, Illinois. He graduated from Washington University where he majored in history and literature (and did some acting and improv), before heading off to New York to make a career as an actor. I think that’s working out okay for him.

* Barber later expanded her essay into the 192 page book An Education)

Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriter Michael Schiffer is known for writing screenplays that have attracted some of the finest actors of this era; Crimson Tide (which starred Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman), Lean on Me (which starred Morgan Freeman as inner city principal Joe Clark) Colors which starred Robert Duvall and Sean Penn, and The Peacemaker (which starred George Clooney and Nicole Kidman).

Coming off the post Writers Getting Older I thought you’d be interested in hearing from a screenwriter who came to screenwriting later in life.

“I drove to Hollywood when I was 35 to become a screenwriter. Directing theater in college made me want to write stories myself. I gave myself five years and worked really hard, writing 14 specs before I got hired for Colors.”
Michael Schiffer
The 101 Habits of Highly successful Screenwriters
Karl Iglesias

And Shiffer, who must be around 60-years-old now, is still at it. Though I’m not sure where it is on the production chain, The Hollywood Reporter announced last year Shiffer had sold his script Speed Boyz to Alcon Entertainment.

Scott W. Smith

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Arthur Fiedler was a musician with the Boston Pops Orchestra for 15 years before being chosen as its conductor in 1930. It was a position he held for 50 years. A young conductor once told me that the reason he chose conducting was because of the longevity of career. The reason for the longevity is the older a conductor gets the greater his repertoire, experience and knowledge becomes.

Granted for Hollywood screenwriters, 40 is considered old for feature writers and 30 is considered old for TV. But that has more to do with the industry than talent. Perhaps that will change as distribution channels change making the film business less focused on Hollywood blockbusters that hit the coveted 18-25 male demographics.

But writers write, right? One way Alfred Uhry beat the Hollywood odds was writing his first play when he was over 50. It opened at a small theater in New York an ran for six weeks. Uhry was thrilled with that because it was just long enough for his relatives to make their way to New York to see this play he had written about his grandmother.

But the play struck a cord and ended up on Broadway, and eventually Driving Miss Daisy was made into a film winning four Oscars including best picture.  (To go along with the Pulitzer Prize.)

Theater*, and certainly novels, have less to do with writers needing to be young because the audiences are more diverse. It will be interesting to watch as the boomers get older, and Internet distribution grows, if screenwriters over 60 will be in demand. (Until then we’re stuck with hearing about law suits involving agism in Hollywood.)

Here is what the writer best known for writing the detective character Mike Hammer had to say on writers getting older;

“If you’re a singer you lose your voice. A baseball player loses his arm. A writer gets more knowledge, and if he’s good, the older he gets, the better he gets.”
Mickey Spillane

The key thing on the side of boomers is quite a few of them have a little stash in the bank. (Or at least have a friend or two who does.) In a world of low-budget and micro-budget filmmaking it would seem there would be one or two that would forgo buying a yet one more toy or taking one dream vacation to make a feature film.  With 4 million baby boomers turning 60 each year for the 15 or so years there has to be some older screenwriters success stories in the near future. If you hear of any, let me know.

*Case study from the world of theater: Ibsen was over 50 when he wrote, A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, and An Enemy of the People. Those are his masterpieces. (Though Ibsen began writing plays as a teenager, today I doubt many people have heard, read or seen any of the plays he wrote in his first 30 plus years of writing.)

Scott W. Smith

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“What interested me about the story (of the Dalai Lama) was how a young man who lived in a society based on the spirit, found himself in conflict with a strongly anti-religious society, the Maoist government of the Chinese communists. How does a man of non-violence deal with these people?”
Martin Scorsese

“A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker.”
Siddhartha

As unlikely as it sounds, the Dalai Lama will be speaking today in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  Since I moved here in 2003 I’ve come to almost expect these kind of things. After all, just in the last few years Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman have performed here, and Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama stumped here.

So I wouldn’t say this is a typical small town of 35,000 people. The Dalai Lama will speak a of couple times on education at the University of Northern Iowa.

There are many kinds of Buddhist (sort of like denominations among Protestants), but the one I am most familiar with is the Hollywood Buddhist. Richard Gere being the leader of the pack and who recently did the narration for The Buddha which recently aired on PBS. Harrison Ford did the narration for the documentary Dalai Lama Renaissance. Martin Scorsese directed Kundun, based on the life and writings of the Dalai Lama. And Brad Pitt starred in Seven Years in Tibet. (Not that they all claim to be Buddhist, but there is a connection, and much of what the average person in America knows about Buddhism flows from those sources.)

Others linked with Buddhism in Hollywood are Sharon Stone,  Orlando Bloom, and Oliver Stone. (Scorsese and others are interviewed in the John Halpern documentary Refuge, which is a look at why Buddhism is so popular in the West.)

Melissia Mathison, who wrote the screenplay for The Black Stallion as well as E.T., wrote the script for Kundan. The Scorsese directed film is based on the life of the Dalai Lama and the political struggles between Tibet and China. In an interview Mathison did with Erin Free she had this to say about writing the script for Kundun:

“I buried myself in research, and I loved it. I had to learn about the people, the religion, the history and it was all quite fantastic and tantalising. I read everything I could find on Tibet and this went on for a couple of years. So that was the basis. I also did interviews with lots of people, including His Holiness, the Dalai Lama… It was wonderful. I would send him questions and his secretary would fax me back the answers. I took a couple of different drafts at different times to India and read through them with him. You could imagine what a pleasure it was.”

The script for Seven Years in Tibet was written by Becky Johnston. (Johnston was nominated for an Oscar for her script Prince of Tides.) She also did a great deal of research on the religion and met for a short time with the Dalai Lama. Both Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun came out in 1997. (For whatever reason both of those films were the last film credits for both Johnston and Mathison.)

That’s as close as I could find of American screenwriters with any ties to any kind of Buddhism. William Froug did write two volumes of Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, though the title really is just a play on Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But Froug does include a quote in the second volume by screenwriter Ron Bass that I think is a pretty wise quote about life and the stories we tell; “It’s all one story really, the story of who we are and how we relate and how we get it wrong.”

Scott W. Smith

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