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Archive for February, 2011

“Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies.”
King George VI (Colin Firth)
The King’s Speech, Oscar winner; Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenwriter

That above quote is the kind of the history of the world in just 25 words.

Suggestion: For the 2012 Oscars, Anne Hathaway and Steve Martin. Or Billy Crystal and Anne Hathaway. Seasoned entertainer and an attractive, youthful, spunky newcomer. Old and young. Think about it. (One 30-something friend posted on Facebook this morning, “no more ‘yang and hip’, can we have old and funny.”)

Personally I felt like I got a little closer to the Oscars last night.  I once produced a TV show with a group in Chicago and the editor of one Communicator Award-winning programs we worked on once dated now Oscar-winner Trent Reznor in his pre-Nine Inch Nails days in high school in Pennsylvania. (That’s like two degrees of separation. Every step counts. I can practically see it on the shelf next to the Addy Awards I won last week.)

I enjoyed the Oscars last night and watched the entire program for the first time in more than a decade. And while it’s common for people to focus on what they didn’t like about the Oscars, I thought the montage using the closing speech from The King’s Speech was just one of several incredibly well done segments.  The year 2010 goes down in my book as a fine year for movies.

In fact, watching the Oscars last night I came up with a top ten list of life lessons I learned from the movies last year and the Oscars this year.

1)   Don’t fear change.

2)   You can overcome staggering challenges in your life.

3)   Good friends are good to have.

4)   Don’t screw over your good friends.

5)   If you do screw over your friends, you’ll be friendless.

6)   It can take decades to win an Oscar.

7)   You can win an Oscar on your second film.

8)   Artistic perfection can kill you.

9)   Meth is bad and screws up families and communities.

10) Don’t go rock climbing alone.

And for all the screenwriters out there over 40-years-old, the grey-haired, 73-year old screenwriter David Seidler won the Oscar for writing The King’s Speech (which also won best picture) proving that sometimes it takes a little time.  And even if you broke into the business back in 1965 translating Gozzila scripts and your previous credits include the TV movie, Come on, Get Happy: The Partridge Family Story (as were both the case for Seidler) that doesn’t mean that one day you won’t write something that leaves people speechless.

Congrats to all the winners last night.

Related Posts:

Writing “The King’s Speech”

Writing “The Social Network”

Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Toy Story 3)

“Winter’s Bone” (Daniel Woodrell)

Winter’s Bone” (Debra Granik)

Scott W. Smith

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“Dating you is like dating a StairMaster.”
Erica Albright (Rooney Mara)
The Social Network

INT. COLLEGE BAR — NIGHT

Two young people sitting at a table talking and drinking beer.

MALE: I can’t believe it’s three minutes shorter than American Pie.

FEMALE: The movie?

MALE: The song.

FEMALE: What are you talking about?

MALE: The opening scene in the movie is five and a half minutes long, and the song is eight and a half minutes long.

FEMALE: What movie?

MALE: The Social Network.

FEMALE: Your point?

MALE: Eight thirty-three.

FEMALE: Eight thirty-three what?

MALE: Technically that’s how long the song is. Eight minutes and thirty-three seconds.

FEMALE: No one cares.

MALE: It’s one of the most popular songs ever.

FEMALE: No one cares that it’s eight minutes and thirty-three seconds long.

MALE: Do you want to order some food?

FEMALE: No.

MALE: Movie scenes are usually only between one and three minutes long.

FEMALE: Listen to me—No one cares.

MALE: Screenwriters care.

FEMALE You’re obsessed with screenwriting. You have screenwriting OCD. You need help.

MALE: Screenwriting leads to a better life.

FEMALE: Really? Name one screenwriter who’s happy?

MALE: I didn’t say they were happy.

FEMALE: Can we talk about something besides screenwriting?

MALE: Did you know that they did ninety-nine takes of that opening scene in The Social Network?

FEMALE: How is that even possible?

MALE: They shot it over two nights.

FEMALE: Two actors, ninety-nine takes? That’s crazy. Wait. I thought we weren’t talking about screenwriting.

MALE: We’re not. We’re talking about directing.

FEMALE: You are insane.

MALE: You should be a little more supportive. If I get in I’ll be taking you to parties and you’ll be meeting people you don’t normally get to meet.

FEMALE: You’d do that for me?

MALE: Of course. We’re dating.

FEMALE: Well I have news for you, we’re not.

MALE: Not what?

FEMALE: Dating. Bye, bye Mr. American Pie.

She’s gone. He’s left there with his beer. Alone—without a friend in the world.

The End

Director David Fincher not only did 99 takes of the opening scene in The Social Network, according to the movie’s screenwriter Aaron Sorkin he didn’t even yell “print” until the 30th take. Think of that— 99 takes of a scene that on paper is slightly over eight pages. Imagine what it took for actors Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara to pull off that scene from a sheer energy level.  (But I’m guessing that was the point, exhaustion and exasperation. You could hear one the actors saying to Fincher, “Acting for you is like working with a StairMaster.”)

Of course, they were shooting digitally on the Red Camera so there really was’t anything to “print,” but terminology tends to have a long shelf life in the film industry. (Like it will be the “film industry” long after film technically disappears.)

Fincher and director of photography Jeff Croneweth not only shot digitally, but they shot that opening scene with multiple cameras. It’s doubtful that in the history of cinema that there ever was a single scene shot on film with multiple cameras for 99 takes. The film costs alone would be outrageous. (But I’ll have to go back and check the records on Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.)

But that opening scene of The Social Network is brilliant. It’s a simple scene that is full of complexity. It reveals character, theme, and meaningful conflict, and sets the tone for the entire movie. I think that as soon as they finished editing that movie that they should have sent it directly to the Smithsonian.

We’ll see what the Academy thinks tonight at the Oscar awards.

Related posts:
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles

Movie Cloning (Aaron Sorkin)

Writing “The Social Network (part 1)

Writing “The Social Network: (part 2)

Screenwriting Quote #42 (Aaron Sorkin)

Scott W. Smith

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“Cinema has always been marriage of technology and human talent.”
Francis Ford Coppola (older filmmaker based in Napa Valley)

“I think every filmmaker needs to make 20 awful films before they can make one good one. And I made my share of totally awful films with my friends.”
Bradley Jackson (younger filmmaker based in Austin)
Interview with Ron Dawson

Screenwriter John August has a post on his blog titled Writing for Hollywood without living there where he has a first person account written by 26-year-old writer/director Bradley Jackson from Austin, Texas. Jackson recently earned more than $100,000 by winning The Doorpost Film Project (best film, best director, best script) and optioning a screenplay.

What separates Jackson from the traditional way of thinking about a career in production is he has no intentions of moving to Los Angeles. His plan right now is to stay in Austin where he has friends and family and to commute to L.A. as needed.

August’s readers made various comments on whether this is a wise thing to do and speculated if Jackson can really pull off a career writing and making films in Austin. Because my focus is encouraging writers and filmmakers who live in unusual places (and that includes some places even within the 30 mile zone in LA) three thoughts quickly came to mind;

1) It’s not like Bradley Jackson lives in a small town in Iowa. He lives in Austin, Texas which is one of the most interesting places in the United States. It’s a giant college town, has a solid tech and political base, and an intense creative culture. It’s home to the Austin Film Festival, SXSW and the last time I was in Austin I was told there are more live musical acts in a given night in Austin than any city in the USA. (Yes, that includes NY, LA and Chicago.)

2) Most people writing screenplays and making films make no money writing screenplays and making films. (Heck, even a good chunk of writers in the WGA, make little or no money in a given year.) Jackson just made over $100,000 in just the first two months of 2011 by winning The Doorpost Film Project and optioning a script. I’m not sure if that money is his, but whatever he takes home will go a lot further in Austin that it would in Los Angeles.

Jackson represents a new breed of filmmakers. He’s been making films since high school and by his own admission spent several years making bad films before he learned what he was doing. He got a film degree from UT—Austin where he was mentored by filmmaker/teacher Scott Rice.  He’s surrounded himself with other talented filmmakers in Austin and became Kickstarter savvy which helped him fund his recent film. He’s busting his butt, writing scripts, and willing to fly in to L.A. as needed.

3) Robert Rodriguez. While screenwriters and filmmakers have traditionally moved to Hollywood after they’ve gotten their first break, Rodriguez is the poster child for bucking that trend. Here’s part of what Austin-based Rodriguez told a group of filmmakers in LA back in 2003:

“One of the benefits of being outside of Hollywood—one of the reasons I think like this (shooting digitally) has to do with the fact that I don’t live here. Because (in Texas) you’re so removed you get to examine (how films are made) and say, ‘That doesn’t really make sense for us out here. Let’s do what makes sense.’ And you find a whole other way of shooting.  And that’s one of the best things you can do for yourself even if you work here (LA). Try to get a birds-eye view of things and really question it and you’ll start coming up with different ways of doing things that work.”

As I’ve said before, when I was in film school many years ago students were encouraged to not be a jack-of-all trade, and a master-of-none. But the new kind of filmmakers coming up (who may be in  middle school or retirement homes—and everywhere in between) are jack-of-all trades. And some of them are on their way to becoming master-of-all trades.

They  can not only write, but they know their way around cameras and non-linear editing systems, they are aware of various fundraising methods, they devour DVDs directors commentaries & online tutorials at lynda.com,  and they are keeping on track of new distribution trends and get exciting about the success that Edward Burns has had  self-distributing his films and the things that Kevin Smith said at Sundance ’11:

“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.”

These new kind of filmmakers are reminiscent of those rebel filmmakers like Lucas and Coppola who back in their youth were embracing new technologies and pursuing a life beyond LA.

Today this new kind of filmmaker is going where the puck isn’t and they’re not afraid to make a bad film or two in their quest to make good films.

And, of course, they read Screenwriting from Iowa daily.

To view Jackson’s winning short film go to the film’s website, TheManWhoNeverCried.com

Related posts:

One of the Benefits of Being Outside of Hollywood

Screenwriting from Texas

The 10-Minute Film School (Robert Rodriguez)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Ten parts)

New Cinema Screenwriting (Part 1)

New Cinema Screenwriting (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith


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“A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing.”
Blake (Alec Baldwin) in Glengarry Glen Ross


Do you remember Pete Jones? He’s the guy who was the first writer/director picked by Project Greenlight to have a movie made. He has a new movie out today called Hall Pass starring Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis. (Jones is credited as co-writer with Kevin Barnett, along with the Farrelly bothers from There’s Something About Mary fame.)

Ten years ago Jones was this guy in Chicago selling insurance and hoping to be one of the lucky ones chosen by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to have their script plucked from the Internet to be made into a movie. The result was the movie Stolen Summer. It was far from a blockbuster film, but it launched Jones’ career.

Back in ’03 or ’04 I met Jones in West Hollywood. I was in LA for a TV program I was producing and the cameraman on that shoot was Pete Biagi. Biagi is well-known in indie circles in Chicago and was the director of photography on Stolen Summer. So when we wrapped our shooting after a of couple of days Biagi called up Jones and a small group of us had dinner at the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.

The Formosa is one of those classic old Hollywood restaurants that’s been around since the ‘30s and whose guests over the years have included Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp and so on. The Formosa was also featured in the movies L.A. Confidential and The Majestic.

So I’m at this restaurant with this Chicago-connected gang and I’m the outsider from Orlando. So I don’t say much but I learned something important that night.

I asked Jones how many screenplays he had written before he got discovered on Project Greenlight. He said six. If you remember the HBO special made on the making of Stolen Summer you may recall how they played up the fact that Jones was an average Joe insurance salesman who wrote a script. I know people who call themselves screenwriters who haven’t written six scripts—I don’t know any average Joe salesmen who have written six screenplays.

Playing up that Jones was a salesman is called PR. Because everyone wants to think, “I could probably do that if I tried.” The fact is Jones was an insurance salesman, but he had also graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. (That school has turned out a lot of accomplished writers.) Keep in mind that he was in his early thirties when he was chosen for Project Greenlight. His sales training played a critical part of his success. Graduating from J-School couldn’t have hurt. But he still wrote six dang screenplays before being discovered.

You can pick up a used DVD set of the complete first season of Project Greenlight for under $10 on Amazon, and that’s a solid investment in getting a foundation of what it takes to make a film. I’ll go as far as to say that I think it’s the single best example on DVD I’ve ever seen of watching the entire filmmaking process unfold.

But my favorite part of Project Greenlight is when Affleck, Damon, producer Chris Jones and others have narrowed their selection down to three screenwriters. It’s late at night and after six hours of deliberations the producers have to finally make the call on what film they are going to spend a million dollars to make.

In desperation Affleck asked the sound guy working on shooting the HBO special who they should choose, and he says, “Pete. Pete’s the guy that’ll never get the chance unless you do it.” Miramax VP Jon Gordon jokes that they should just have the screenwriters wrestle for it.

What they do is bring the three finalists back individually to have them make a final pitch on why their script should be chosen.

That’s when Jones’ insurance sales background kicks in. Where the others talk about their story, Jones hits the producers emotions. He tells the group;

“It’s about making the best film. And I’m getting a little emotional and I shouldn’t be, but it’s about making the best film…and the HBO thing is great—I would personally love it. Call me narcissistic, but I enjoy that. That’s not what it’s about, it’s about you guys screwing the studio system and saying let’s make the best film. Market the film? F*#K you. Who cares? We’re making the best film, we’re putting out a million bucks. I don’t have a million bucks, but studios have some money and a million dollar budget is not going to crush them. So he’s let’s make the best film that we can make. And, obviously, I’m biased, I think my movie’s the best film to make. I think my film probably wouldn’t get made by a studio—by a big studio, you know? I think that Greenlight is the kind of project  that would make a film like this.  I’m not a Hollywood expert, so I don’t know—I’m just going on a stereotype here.”

You can tell by the faces of those in the room that it’s a done deal. Sold.  Damon and Affleck are either dead tired, stoned or mesmerized. Chris Jones says, “I don’t have any other questions after that answer. “ Remember people invest in passion. And the part where Jones says, “F*#K you. Who cares? —I’m pretty sure Jones was channeling Mamet/Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross. “Coffee’s for closers only.” Jones was a closer that day.

And that was the turning point in Pete Jones’ career. The man was good in a room. He understood the basic sales principles of features and benefits and hitting human emotions. Next thing you know Jones was directing Aidan Quinn and Bonnie Hunt.

The movie Stolen Summer had a limited theatrical release making only $140,000.  But Jones got to make another film. Oddly he chose to follow a kid film with the gay-themed movie Outing Riley (2004) which went direct to DVD. And the next year he sold the spec script Hall Pass for high six figures and it eventually, six years later, became the movie that opens in theaters today.

Everyone’s got a story, right? (Even if you haven’t seen Jones’ movies or like the ones you have seen, you have to appreciate his journey.)

The common recurring theme on this blog is Pete Jones did the leg work before he got a shot. He wrote six screenplays before he was discovered. Just like fellow Chicagoan screenwriter Diablo Cody, Jones had been writing for over a decade before his big break.  And he used that sales experience from his day job to sell Hollywood producers and actors that he was the right person to be chosen for Project Greenlight.

Related posts:

Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Learning to be “Good in a Room.” (part 1)

Screenwriting Quote #87 (Ray Bradbury)

Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic

Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Writing “Good Will Hunting

Scott W. Smith

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What in the hell is an “objective correlative”? And why do so many movies and plays have one?

There are things in your life that you’ve attached meaning to. When you see them they conjure up memories of people, places and events. If I give my wife Toblerone chocolate it’s a fond reminder of a train trip we took in Switzerland years ago. My office is full of things that remind me of special productions I’ve worked on over the years—a soccer shirt from Brazil, a bottle of wine from South Africa, a poster from Aspen. Just glancing at those objects reminds me of positive life experiences.

I have an emotional connection to those items that is not intrinsic to their being. And it’s not materialistic (total cost of those items was under $50.) but rather symbolic. The chocolate, the shirt, the wine, the poster all point to something beyond the common material itself. (Sometimes items of meaning are free. I have a matchbook from a place called the Beehive, a coffeehouse in Pittsburgh, where I did a video shoot 20 years ago.* I smile everytime I see that matchbook.)

Writers of books, plays and movies tap into that emotion when they give meaning to certain places and objects. It’s what T.S. Eliot called the “objective correlative.”

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
T.S. Eliot/Hamlet and His Problems

In the movie Forrest Gump, when the older Jenny comes upon her childhood home an emotion is immediately evoked—upset, she begins throwing rocks at the house. And in the voice-over Forrest says, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.” The double whammy there is Jenny not only feels that emotion of remembering an abusive childhood, but the audience feels it as well. There’s a connection. An emotion that we feel for Jenny, but also an emotion that we personally know that, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.”

One of my favorite examples of an objective correlative is the volleyball in (another Tom Hanks movie) Cast Away. Hanks’ character, stranded on a deserted island, befriends a volleyball, paints a face on it, names it Wilson and it becomes his companion. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. and director Robert Zemeckis knew exactly the emotional impact it would have when Wilson is tragically lost at sea. (Another tragedy is Wilson the Volleyball is uncredited in the film.)

Now audiences don’t look at Jenny’s childhood house or Wilson and say, “Oh, look, an objective correlative.” It’s an emotional reaction. Objective correlative is just the technical phrase of something that’s useful to have in your writer’s tool kit.

“Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie. Objective correlative: the glass unicorn whose horn gets broken in the second act by the gentleman caller. Yes, a fragile sensitive little glass unicorn figurine. Fanciful? Beautiful? Tragic? Poignant? Phallic? Call it what you will, but baby, it brings with it a host of emotions. When it happens on stage, it’s damn powerful.”
Richard W. Krevolin
Screenwriting from the Soul
page 71

The more a writer is fond of symbolism (as Tennessee Williams was) the more likely you are to find a objective correlatives in their work. I’m sure there are other writers who’ve gone their entire career without giving a second thought to the concept of  a objective correlative. (Though they probably instinctively had them sprinkled throughout their work.) But if even the basic concept of an objective correlative turns you off as a writer, consider that one of the mostly highly regarded movies in the history of cinema, Citizen Kane, is filled with objective correlatives; the puzzle, the snow globe, and, of course, Rosebud.

It’s the cherry orchard in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, it’s the Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s the compressed air and cattle gun in No Country for Old Men, and the list goes on and on and on. You get the point. Now if you really dig this kind of thing here are some additional thoughts and quotes on the matter:

“I had never understood what Eliot meant by the curious phrase ‘objective correlative’ until the scene in Gatsby where the almost comically sinister Meyer Wolfshiem, who has just been introduced, displays his cuff links and explains that they are ‘the finest specimens of human molars.’ Get it? Got it. That’s what Eliot meant.”
Richard Yate
Some Very Good Masters
New York Times Book Review, April 19,1981

“I borrow the term Objective Correlative from T. S. Eliot and adapt it to mean an external object that represents a character or a state of mind. Rocky’s locker is Rocky’s manhood. When it is taken from him, it is like a castration. In Truly Madly Deeply, the cello is Jamie. In About Schmidt (by Louis Begley and Alexander Payne), when he sees his carefully prepared reports in the garbage, it represents the entirety of his life’s work.”
Hal Ackerman
Write Screenplays That Sell
Page 207

In one episode of the great TV program Northern Exposure Chris (John Corbett) defends his master’s thesis and actually uses the term  ‘objective correlative’ and identifies T. S. Eliot as the source. Which led David Lavery to write,  “Though I cannot be absolutely certain, I would venture to say that this may have been the first, and perhaps the only, time ‘objective correlative’ was ever discussed in prime-time.”

*Quirky fact: The cameraman for that shoot I did in Pittsburgh 20 years ago was related to Geroge Romero who directed the original Night of the Living Dead.
Quirky fact 2: Just went to the Beehive website and learned that according to one of the owners Scott Kramer, “The name Beehive came from a place in France where all the artists were living in the 1930s. Artists can come here and ideas can flow.” Check it out if you’re in Pittsburgh, or the next time you go there.

Update 5/15/13: According to the The Writing Barn post Craft Talk Tuesday with Carol Brender, “Term [objective  correlative] first coined prior to 1850 by Washington Allston , but later given its more literary meaning by T.S. Eliot in an essay about why Hamlet is a failed play.”

Scott W. Smith

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One of the great things about watching films over and over again is you begin to notice little details and see patterns emerge.  Ideally the first time you watch a movie you are simply engaged in the story.  Then you go back as a screenwriter looking for clues as to what made the films work, and more importantly what will make you a better screenwriter and filmmaker. One things you’ll notice in many films—off the top of my head The Verdict, A Beautiful Mind, Erin Brockovich and Juno come to mind—is in those films the main characters (Paul Newman, Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts and Ellen Page) are in almost every scene in the movie. There’s a reason for that.

Stay with the money. The audience came because you advertised the star. Shoot the star. (NB: Howard Lindsay,* coauthor of the plays Arsenic and Old Lace, Life with Father, State of the Union, et cetera, once privately printed a small volume of stage wisdom. One of his axioms was: take the great lines from the secondary characters and give them to the lead. This works like gangbusters in film and on stage).”
David Mamet
Bambi VS. Godzilla
page 112

*Lindsay (1889-1969) along with writing partner Russel Crouse won the Pulitzer Prize for their 1946 play State of the Union, but they are better known for their work on the Tony Award-winning The Sound of Music. Lindsay’s had more than 25 films made from his work and was the co-screenwriter of the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers movie Swing Time. That movie features the Oscar-winning song The Way You Look Tonight, which has been covered by many people including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. The song was also featured in the 1991 film Father of the Bride and sung by Steve Tyrell. Today many people are most familiar with the Rod Stewart rendition.

Related Post: Screenwriting Quote #143 (Elia Kazan)” ‘Have your central character in every scene.’ This is a way of ensuring unity to the work and keeping the focus sharp.”

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Since in the past few days I’ve written about two Hollywood screenplays that not only featured mathematical geniuses (A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting) but both happened to win Oscars for their screenwriters.

So I thought it appropriate to crunch some numbers and look at the going script length of screenplays in the marketplace today.

This week I’m on the third rewrite of a script I’ve co-written. Some scenes were recently cut, some scenes were added. The script at the end of the second rewrite was at 110 pages, but like a diet gone bad on the third pass it actually started ballooning up to 118-119. Which would be okay if this was 1983. So radical steps were taken and the script got down to 109, then 105. Is it really necessary to obsess about page numbers like a John Nash nightmare? If you’re Aaron Sorkin, no, just keep writing. But if you’re not  Mr. Sorkin you may what to reconsider sending out that 120 page screenplay.

“Is 110 the new 120? – Up In The Air may clock in at 124 pages but that’s because Jason Reitman only has to impress himself. I have been seeing so many 100-110 page spec scripts lately. It’s so rare that one of the chunkier ones sneaks through that you begin to wonder if 120 is becoming the screenplay equivalent of standard definition. Of course, thrillers and comedies are naturally shorter. If you’re writing a drama, you can eek into 110+ territory. But I’d still look to keep it under 110. Readers are just used to it. And after being yelled at and ridiculed for 9 hours, these poor souls have to go home and read 3 professional scripts before they reach yours – the unknown writer – the one script they’ve been dreading and the one they know if they don’t like by page 20, they’re getting some shuteye. So don’t give them a reason to tune out before they’ve tuned in.”
SCRIPTSHADOW July 13. 2009

An interesting editing concept I picked up from Sam Mendes on the DVD commentary of American Beauty is looking at cutting the first line or two of the opening of the scene and doing the same at the end of the scene. American Beauty was Mendes’ first film and he discovered in editing that often times those lines weren’t needed. It’s an interesting exercise to read your script again from page one asking yourself— “If the opening and closing lines were edited out, would it make any difference?”

Obviously that simple concept didn’t hurt American Beauty as Mendes won the Oscar for Best Directing, screenwriter Alan Ball walked away with an Oscar for his script, and the movie won the Oscar for Best Picture.

P.S. If you’re planning on making your own film and are on a limited budget then the best reason to aim for a 9o pages is 90 pages is a legitimate length for a feature and the less pages you have to shoot, the less the film cost to make.

Screenwriting by Numbers (Tip #4)

Meet Your First Audience

Scott W. Smith

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“At first the screenplay (Good Will Hunting) seemed perhaps a little wordy. As Matt (Damon) joked on the set when we shot the movie, the Good Will staging was usually two people sitting in chairs across from each other and talking. Only the backgrounds and the characters changed, and usually only one of the characters changed since Will is in virtually every scene. “
Director Gus Van Sant
Introduction to Good Will Hunting; A Screenplay

Perhaps the reason that Good Will Hunting has so many scenes of two people talking is that its writers (and co-stars), Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (then in their early 20s), wrote much of the screenplay with just the two of them driving a car across the country between Boston and LA.

“A lot of Good Will was written on such cross-county road trips. We tell each other stories while in a particular character, usually to make each other laugh or to make sure that Ben doesn’t nod off…So it sort of ups the ante as far as the story goes. When we both get into an improv that we both like, that we both think is going well and dialogue we are relatively excited by, I will open up the glove compartment where I keep a notebook and write down a few notes that we will use later to recall the entire improvisation.”
Matt Damon

Damon and Affleck won an Oscar in 1998 for their script. Best Writing. Check out this video as Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau present the award to the childhood friends turned actors/writers and eventually Hollywood superstars. Because over the years since then Damon and Affleck haven’t written another script together some speculated if they really wrote the script. Writers and directors from William Goldman, Kevin Smith to Rob Reiner have been mentioned at one time or another. But since Damon and Affleck’s careers took off after their early success, they probably haven’t had much time together for many cross-country roads trips. More recently Damon as mentioned a little help from an Oscar nominated director.

“We just asked if we could have a meeting with (Terrence Malick) . We went to Boston to see him. And we had it in the script that my character and Minnie’s left together at the end of the movie. Terry didn’t read the script but we explained the whole story to him, and in the middle of the dinner, he said, ‘I think it would be better if she left and he went after her.’ And Ben and I looked at each other. It was one of those things where you go: of course that ‘s better. He said it and he probably doesn’t even remember that he said it. He started talking about Antonioni. ‘In Italian movies a guy just leaves town at the end and that’s enough.’ And we said of course that’s enough. That’s where we come from. If you just leave that’s a big enough deal. It doesn’t have to build up to anything more.”
Matt Damon
Interview with Tom Shone

So you can add writer/director  Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up) to those said to have had a hand (a finger?) in making Good Will Hunting work. But there are only two names on that Oscar—Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. How does the expression go? Success has many fathers, but failure has no mother.

P.S. Four years after Good Will Hunting’s Oscar win, another story about another math genuis with ties to Boston (A Beautiful Mind) won four Oscars including Best Screenplay and Best Picture. More movie cloning?

Related post: Writing “A Beautiful Mind”

Scott W. Smith

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“Movies are about heroes trapped in extreme situations. They are forced to do outrageous things and overcome impossible odds to achieve a specific goal. It’s much easier to create ideas of value by appealing to the audience’s desire to revel in the sensational.”
Adam Levenberg
The Starter Screenplay

Related posts:
Writing “Black Hawk Down”

Filmmaking Quote #12 (Hitchcock) 
Writing “A Beautiful Mind” (Extreme situations don’t have to be action-adventures)

Scott W. Smith

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“My grandma really said I should, so I did.”
Cassey Herkelman on her decision to become a wrestler

“Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip…”
Casey at the Bat
Ernest Thayer, poem first published in 1888

By default yesterday Cedar Falls, Iowa was back in the national news with an intriguing story. It’s not your typical boy meets girl story, but instead a girl beats boy story. (At least in the history books it goes down as a “W.”)

Remember Cedar Falls is the town where Robert Waller wrote The Bridges of Madison Country and where Nancy Price wrote Sleeping with the Enemy. It’s where quarterback Kurt Warner played college ball and bagged groceries before becoming a Super Bowl MVP, and it’s where Ali Frarokhmanesh made a name for himself last year playing for the University of Northern Iowa and making a clutch 3-point shot that defeated the #1 ranked team in the country and landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

And of course, Cedar Falls is the international headquarters for Screenwriting from Iowa. There is something about this place that makes this town of 36,145 people special.

This week the spotlight has been shinning just on one resident, Cassey Herkelman—a 112 pound freshman at Cedar Falls High School who became the first female wrestler to win at the State tournament level. The story went national because of a mini-controversy when a male wrestler decided to withdrawal from competition citing “a matter of conviction and religious beliefs” against physically wrestling a girl in the potentially violent sport. (The same decision, by the way, he made a few years ago when he faced Herkelman in a youth tournament. His pre-tournament record this year was 34-4.)

The student wrestler’s father, Jamie Northrup, is a pastor and had this statement,”We believe in the elevation and respect of woman and we don’t think that wrestling a woman is the right thing to do. Body slamming and takedowns, that full contact sport is not how to do that.” Fair enough. (I think most people ideally wish there were separate divisions for guys and girls, but there are not enough female wrestlers in Iowa as there is in other states.)

Herkelman just wants to wrestle. It’s something she’s been doing competitively since she was in second grade. Sometimes competing in 40 tournaments a year. (Her father Bill qualified for state his senior year of high school.) Herkelman has made enough of a name for herself that last year she was listed in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd:

Cassandra Herkelman

CEDAR FALLS, IOWA > Wrestling

Cassandra, an eighth-grader at Peet Junior High, won the 105-pound class in the middle school division at the U.S. Girls’ Wrestling Association national championships on April 4. The week before, she won at 103 pounds in the 6th- to 8th-grade division at the Girls Folkstyle Nationals. She was Iowa’s 105-pound middle school champion in 2010 and 111-pound titlist in ’09.

So with the forfeit yesterday of her male opponent  Herkelman became the first female wrestler to win an Iowa state tournament match.

Herkelman plans to go to national competitions where she will wrestle against other girls and dreams of being on Team USA and wrestling in the Olympics in 2012 (London) or Rio de Janeiro (2016).

But the road that leads to England or Brazil starts back here in Cedar Falls where she will continue to train—mostly away from the spotlight. But you can follow the journey on her website cassandraherkelman.com.

The take away once again is little successes often lead to larger successes. And your job as a storyteller is to bring to light those unusual stories in unusual places. Tell them as 2-minute You Tube videos or as a feature film.

By the way, there aren’t many movies about wrestling but if you want taste of what it entails, check out the 1985 film Vision Quest starring Matthew Modine.


 

Scott W. Smith


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