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Archive for January, 2011

“(Vilmos Zsigmond) made his way to Hollywood, where he found work as a technician in a film lab and also as a home portrait photographer.”
Ray Morton writing about the days long before Zsigmond won an Oscar for Best Cinematography
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic Film

Here’s a case study of how to get a start working in production. (And what I wish somebody would have told me back when I was in film school.)

My first interaction with Josh McCabe was about 2 years ago—at about 3 in the morning. River Run Productions was looking for some production assistance and we asked the local college to recommend to us their best student. They recommended Josh. So I sent him an email early one morning and figured we’d touch base later that day.  He emailed me back right away.

I asked him what he was doing up so late. I think he said he was working on some editing tutorials at Lynda.com. That was a good sign to me.

We met and he left his job at a credit union and began working on a regular freelance basis with us.  There is an old concept that employers use that says hire for attitude, and then train the person. Josh came with not only a great attitude, and a willingness to learn, but he was well versed in editing on Final Cut Pro.  He was still in school as an electronic arts major at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) where he worked on various student productions and also did some weddings videos on his own.

Josh jumped in right away wherever we needed him. As you’ll see from some of the pictures here, sometimes he edited projects, sometimes he logged footage, sometimes he helped carry a heavy Jimmy Jib up three flights of stairs, sometimes he was a PA, sometimes a grip, sometimes a cameraman, sometimes he was a technical advisor, photographer, sound designer, sometimes he pushed a dolly, and sometimes he worked 16 hour days—he did whatever we threw at him.

Josh got to work on everything from industrial & corporate projects, commercials, web videos, promotional videos, music videos, and even co-directed a couple short films with me for the 48 Hour film project. (His resume now includes working experience on not only FCP, but Motion/After Effects, Photoshop, DVD Studio Pro, Compressor, Aperture/Lightroom, Soundtrack Pro on top of green screen work, P2 workflow, etc.)

In 2009 Josh spent the summer in LA interning at Entertainment Tonight, a gig he got through ET host Mark Steines, an Iowa native who graduated from UNI.

Josh came back to Cedar Falls to finish his BA and work at River Run and graduated last May.  When an Emmy-winning editor (Dexter opening credits) and UNI grad came to speak at the school Josh not only went to hear him speak but was part of a small group of students who got together with him for drinks afterwards.

When that editor (who works for a broadcast post house in LA) had a friend at an other post house in LA call looking for an up and comer as an assistant editor —Josh’s name came up. In a sea of capable LA talent this kid in Cedar Falls, Iowa got the gig.

To make a long story a little shorter, Josh worked his last day for us Wednesday, headed west on I-80 Friday, made a quick stop in Park City, Utah Saturday night to soak in the tail end of the Sundance Film Festival and arrived in LA Sunday night, and begins his new gig today in Santa Monica.

I’m thrilled for him. So the lesson to learn here is simply have a great attitude, learn everything you can about the tools of the trade (lynda.com is a must)—party less, and do tutorials more, network like crazy, and do the little jobs (PA, logging footage, whatever) in the little places (Cedar Falls, Iowa) and that will pave the way for bigger opportunities.

Here’s the last big project we did together that just went online this week. It was produced for an economic development group and allowed me the opportunity to do a lot of things I talk about on the blog (produce, direct, write, shoot & edit) with the bulk of the work being done by two people as Josh also shot some of the beauty footage and was also co-editor on the 3 1/2 minute video.

Josh, thanks for all your work here at River Run, and I wish you the best in LA. And for all of you starting out in your career, the lesson to learn from Josh is to be not only both technical and creative, but (I know I’m repeated myself, but sometimes you have to shout) work hard /party less, network, network, network, be addicted to learning from Lynda.com, and have a great attitude. (Tattoos are optional.)

P.S. Another young creative that I’ve been able to watch grow over the years (and also use on a freelance basis) is creative director/filmmaker Edd Blott of Chicago. He currently has a short film called A Tales of Delight that is part of the Open Film contest in hopes of being turned into a feature. Today is the last day you can vote for his film—check it out at OpenFilm.com.

Related posts:
Why You Should Move to L.A.

Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.

What’s it Like to Be a Struggling Writer in L.A.

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s very hard to live up to an image.”
Elvis Presley

Last night at the Sundance Film Festival Sam Levinson won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Another Happy Day. Unfamiliar with Levinson, I was curious to see the path that the 25-year-old writer/director took to make his first feature.

“I guess it goes back to what I said about fanatically watching films since I was very young. I began to see to the film in my head and then as a reference point, I watched certain films, each of them for different reasons, but all of them had aspects of the way I wanted to shoot this film. There was nothing haphazard here, and this is not a criticism of any other style of filmmaking but I never had any thoughts of shooting this film in a verité style. I always saw this film as somehow, ‘formally informal.’ I am in no way comparing my film to these, but I went back again and again, to three extremely different types of films. I watched. ‘Who’ s afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ directed by Mike Nichols, ‘Hannah and her Sisters,’ directed by Woody Allen and ‘Carnal Knowledge,’ again Nichols.”
Sam Levinson
indieWire

I haven’t seen Another Happy Day, but since it’s an emotional drama surrounding an upper-class wedding and a dysfunctional family, it’s hard at first glance to not connect it to Rachel Getting Married. (Written by director Sidney Lumet’s daughter, Jenny.)

Turns out that Sam is the son of director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, The Natural). I’m sure Sam picked up a thing or two from his brilliant father at the dinner table.

Add Oscar-winning screenwriter Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) into the mix and you definitely see a trend emerging. So if you happen to be looking for an alternative to USC/UCLA/AFI film school, don’t have a Minneapolis background (Coen Brothers, Diablo Cody, Nick Shenk), and are looking for a way to break into screenwriting— then having a father who is a gifted and talented director can help. And I hate to complicate matters, but the elder Lumet, Coppola and Levinson are Oscar-winners, as well. (Plus I’m not sure if adoption counts.)

Truth is statistically very few sons and daughters of Hollywood’s successful producers, directors, writers, and actors make it as big as their mother or father. There’s a special burden attached to the situation. Think of the pressures of being, say, the daughter of Elvis and wanting to have a musical career. If  you don’t need the money—it’s really not worth the all the pain of constantly being compared to the king. You don’t get the luxury of failing and of taking the time to find your own voice.

So congrats to Sam Levinson (and Sofia and Jenny) for stepping up to the plate. (And keep in mind Jenny Lumet was working as a school teacher when she sold Rachel Getting Married.)

“I was driving a truck and studying to be an electrician.”
21-year-old Elvis Presley talking in 1956 about what he did before his musical career took off.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a truck driver (or a son or daughter of a truck driver)  living in a two-room house in, say, Tupelo, Mississippi and you’re writing screenplays and don’t have a single contact in Hollywood—just keep writing and making connections. Who knows, maybe you’ll hook-up with a filmmaker in Memphis and bigger things will happen for both of you. It’s happened before. Dream big, but take little steps.

“What regional filmmaking means to me is not only utilizing the actors of your area, the musicians and the artists, but probing what it means to that region. And for me, the thing about Memphis that I’ve always responded to is its music scene, from Sam Phillips recording Howlin’ Wolf, Rudus Thomas, Elvis Presely, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich.”
Memphis-based Craig Brewer,
writer/director Hustle & Flow

If there’s ever an Elvis of screenwriting I’d put my money on that person not being someone who comes from Hollywood royalty, but from a background that looks more like this…

Update 1/31/11: As far as the current crop of Hollywood sons & daughters, I’d put Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman’s son, Jason (Juno, Up in the Air), as the top candidate to top his father’s legacy.

Scott W. Smith

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“In Dial M for Murder, I did my best not to go outside…what I did was to emphasize the theatrical aspects”
Alfred Hitchcock

The film Dial M for Murder (1954) was written by Frederick Knott based on his play. Several different TV versions of the play have been done and it was the basis for the 1998 film  A Perfect Murder starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. Here’s an exchange from the ’54 version—directed by Hitchcock— between Tony (Ray Milland), Mary (Grace Kelly), and Mark (Robert Cummings).

Tony: How do you go about writing a detective story?

Mark: Well, you forget detection and concentrate on crime. Crime’s the thing. And then you imagine you’re going  to steal something or murder somebody.

Tony: Oh, is that how you do it? Interesting.

Mark: Yes, I usually put myself in the criminal’s shoes and then I keep asking myself, “what do I do next?”

Mary Do you really believe in the perfect murder?

Mark: Yes, absolutely. On paper that is. And I think I could plan one better than most people but I doubt if I could carry it out.

Tony: Why not?

Mark: Well because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to and in real life the don’t always.  No, I’m afraid my murders would be something like my bridge, I’d make some stupid mistake but not realize it until everybody was looking at me.

For low-budget filmmakers, Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder is an excellent film to study because most of it takes place in one apartment. Hitchcock said filmmakers often go wrong when they try to “open up” a play by adding exterior scenes and business. Hitchcock, of course, embraced limitations of locations in shooting Rope, Rear Window and Lifeboat. (One could imagine Hitchcock watching Buried (which takes place in a coffin) and thinking, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”

One of Hitchcock’s trademarks in many of his classic films his visual storytelling. But Dial M for Murder is dialogue driven. It’s more intellectually based  than the emotional films such as Birds, Psycho and North by Northwest. Francis Truffaut remarked to Hitchcock that he took something that’s hard to do and somehow made it look easy:

“I just did my job, using cinematic means to narrate a story taken from a stage play. All of the action in Dial M for Murder takes place in a living room, but that doesn’t matter. I could just as well have shot the whole film in a phone booth. Let’s imagine there’s a coupe in that booth. Their hands are touching, their lips meet, and accidentally one of them leans against the receiver, knocking it off the hook. Now, while they’re unaware of it, the phone operator can listen in on their intimate conversation. The drama has taken a step forward. For the audience, looking at the images, it should be the same as the reading the opening paragraphs of a novel or hearing the expositional dialogue of the stage play. You might say that the film-maker can use a telephone booth pretty much in the same way a novelist uses a blank piece of paper.”
Alfred Hitchcock
Truffaut/Hitchcock

Dial M for Murder was also filmmed in 3-D.

Scott W. Smith

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Finally, Hollywood has titled a movie after a city in Iowa. The film Cedar Rapids premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival.

Though not too many people in Cedar Rapids are going to recognize many locations. The majority of the film Cedar Rapids was shot in tax-incentive friendly Michigan. And actually from the little I know about the film, the title Grand Rapids would have probably been more fitting. (And it is in Michigan.)

The movie Cedar Rapids is centered around an insurance convention and stars Ed Helms (The Office), John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver.  It’s said to be in the ballpark of The Hangover so don’t look for heart warming stories about the flood of ’08. But one reviewer wrote, “It’s one of the most fun movies of Sundance.”

Phil Johnston wrote the Cedar Rapids script. I haven’t read any interviews yet on why he chose to set his story in Iowa. But his Cedar Rapids script was on the 2009 Black List (ranked 5th in a list of 97 scripts). If you’re not familiar with The Black List, it’s a good resource to show trends in the film industry as Hollywood insiders list their favorite unproduced screenplays of the year. Some of which eventually become movies. Cedar Rapids joins these films from  the ’09 Black List which did become films:  The Social Network, Buried, Due Date, The King’s Speech, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps.

What’s somewhat depressing about The Black List is the majority of the well regarded scripts, the cream of the crop, don’t get produced. Nobody said this was an easy business. Perhaps that’s why The Angry Filmmaker keeps telling people—”Make your own damn film.” Good advice, especially if you live in Cedar Rapids—or Grand Rapids. Or wherever you live.

For the record, there are other Hollywood connections to Cedar Rapids.  It’s the town where the older Rose lives in James Cameron’s Titanic. It’s where actor Ashton Kutcher (whose latest film has been at the top of the box office this past week) once swept the floor at the General Mills plant. Actors Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings) and Ron Livingston (Office Space) were born in Cedar Rapids.

Scott W. Smith

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“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
President Obama
State of the Union Address 1/25/11
(Referencing the Soviet’s rocket launch in 1957 which fueled the USA in the space race.)

“The piece of advice that Walter Gretzky gave (his son) Wayne Gretzky was this…’don’t go where the puck’s been, go where it’s gonna to be.’ The philosophy was simple, if you puck chase you’re always going to be behind the game…You want to be the person that’s where the puck’s going to be.”
Filmmaker Kevin Smith
Sundance 2011

Back in the good old days of 1994 filmmaker Kevin Smith sold his $27,000 film Clerks at Sundance. A year later Edward Burns’ $25,000 film The Brothers McMullen was sold. Both Smith and Burns have continued carving out careers since that time and if you want to see which way the wind is blowing take a look at the direction they are heading as independent filmmakers.

A few months ago Burns’ self-produced Nice Guy Johnny (for again $25,000) and released it on iTunes. And earlier this week Kevin Smith announced that for his latest film, The Red State, he will not be selling the film at Sundance, but instead self-distributing the film first taking it on the road to large venues across the county where he will be speaking after showing the film.

His rational is he has a large fan base that follow his podcasts, Twitter feeds, etc. and he (or a studio) doesn’t need to spend $20 million advertising the film. We’ll see how it plays out. But it’s a good indicator of where the puck is heading for one group of filmmakers.

If you wanted to pinpoint indie film’s modern Sputnik moment I think it’s fitting to point to 1999 when The Blair Witch Project showed Hollywood the power of the internet. More than 10 years later we live in a digital world that has altered the music industry and now well into altering the film and Tv industry.

Five years ago we were watching poor quality short videos on You Tube and today you can stream feature films in high quality directly to your computer or TV via Netflix or the like. It’s no surprise that the last Blockbuster video store in my area announced this month that it was going out of business (following Hollywood Video stores that are long gone).

If independent filmmakers can raise their own money, make their own films AND can control the distribution—that is truly independent filmmaking. It’s a new game for filmmakers everywhere—from LA, to Iowa, and even the former Soviet Union. Heck, I can even see hockey great Walter Gretzky making his own films with his actress wife Janet Jones. (Still remember her role in The Flamingo Kid.)

The old Hollywood expression was it takes an army to make a film, these days you just need a camera—and an army of Twitter/Facebook/You Tube followers interested in the stories you tell. (Some of them won’t just be watching your films, but helping you raise funds as well.)

P.S. Speaking of Sundance & the Internet, I received a form email today from Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald saying, “Today we are unveiling Life in a Day at Sundance for the film’s World Premiere. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of you for participating in this extraordinary experience….” I was part of the You Tube community who on July 21, 2010 submitted one of the 80,000 clips that they were gathering for a 90 minute film. (Edited down from 4,500 hours of footage. So close. I can always say, “I was this close to having a film in Sundance this year”.)  It will be interesting to see the final film.  Here’s a teaser:

Scott W. Smith

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Tell me a story, to me, are still four of the most beautiful words in our language. I remember my grandfather, I would ask him those words—’Tell me a story grandaddy.’ And he would tell me one. In the south, especially the rural south, the telling of stories on porches—that passing down of oral history by telling stories is still the reason the South retains its love of story. Retains the mystery of story.  And I don’t know any Southerner who does not love to exchange tales, tall tales. And I think the words ‘tell me a story’ has formed the entire basis of my art.”
Pat Conroy (The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides)
My Reading Life/ CD interview

Below is a prime example of a tall tale. It was based on the book Big Fish:A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Southerer Daniel Wallace. Wallace had five novels rejected before Big Fish got published in 1998. The movie version Big Fish was written by John August and directed by Tim Burton. August is the one who was captivated by the book and set things in motion for it to become a movie.

“The writing was simple, and weird, and imaginative. It clearly offered a lot of cinematic moments. But what attracted me most were the things that weren’t even on the page. I knew that the son, Will, was a reporter in Paris, married to a pregnant French woman. That’s nowhere in the story, but I was absolutely certain it was true. There wasn’t a circus anywhere in the book, yet I immediately sensed where it would fit. In short, I knew so much about the story I wanted to tell that I had to write the script immediately.”
John August

P.S. I always like to point out that John August, like Diablo Cody, went to college in Iowa. (He did his undergrauate work at Drake University in Des Moines.)

Scott W. Smith

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“If man made it, don’t eat it. Eat more fresh fruits, fresh vegetables…”
Jack LaLanne


Sure there’s news today from Sundance as well as the Academy Award nominations, but I’d like to take the time to pay respects to Jack LaLanne who just died. Long before his Power Juicer Infomercial days, he was known as one of the first fitness gurus to take advantage of television in the 1950s and today has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also played himself in several TV shows ranging from The Addams Family to The Simpsons.  And he had several nutritional, health & cooking books published.

I was fortunate to meet Jack LaLanne when I was a 21-year-old film school student in LA. I was working as an intern on one of the early cable TV shows called Alive and Well. (Kathy Smith was just beginning her career and was the fitness expert on that show.) The show was shot outside a hotel in Marina del Ray overlooking the water. I still remember the day LaLanne was a guest. I thought he was old them and that was in the 1980s. But man was he in shape. He had a lot of energy, and we tossed a hacky sack back and forth during downtime on the set.

His fitness exploits were well-known in those days. Things like swimming to Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf — handcuffed. Setting a world record for push-ups. He was similar but totally opposite to the 70s icon Evel Knieval. Both pulled off well-publicized stunts. One wrecked his body, one treated it as a temple.

The great thing about LaLanne is he practiced what he preached. (And he did preach as you can see from the photo above and the video below.) His message of eating fresh fruit and vegetables, and avoiding processed food/sugar is just as relevant today as when he spoke about them on The Jack LaLanne Show more than 50 years ago. We all won’t live to see 96 years like LaLanne did, but there are things we all can all do to make the years we have healthy ones.

News of LaLanne’s death came to me yesterday from a young writing partner. We’ve been working on a spec script and at one point we said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get a cameo from Jack LaLanne?”  I guess that could still happen via a TV clip, but regardless, LaLanne will be continue to be an inspirational figure for our grandfather character.

Like screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) said of the original Toy Story movie, Woody could “Take the high road (the healthy responsible choice) or the low road (unhealthy, irresponsible choice).” That’s universally true of all of us.

Scott W. Smith

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