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Archive for January, 2013

I saw the Google icon today was of Jackie Robinson on account of January 31 being his birthday. The Brian Helgeland (Oscar-winner for L.A. Confidential)  written and directed movie 42 (Robinson’s jersey number when he played for the Dodgers) will be released this April. But many don’t know that there was a movie of Robinson’s life made in 1950 called The Jackie Robinson Story—and starred Robinson playing himself.

Here’s the entire movie, written by Arthur Mann, Louis Pollock, and Lawrence Taylor as found on You Tube:

Scott W. Smith

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Man Vs. Nature

The Birds could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made.”
Alfred Hitchcock

photo-3

Cedar Falls, Iowa gave me a proper send off this morning as several inches fell on my Durango before I could head south. On Sunday we had an ice storm, on Monday we had a thunderstorm, today we had a snow storm, and if all goes right with my trip I’ll be in sunny 70 degree weather in Central Florida capping the most varied and unusual week of weather I’ve ever had.

It made me think of movies that center around man vs. nature.  If you’re ever stuck for a script idea there’s always plenty of primal conflict to explore in nature. Here are a handful of man vs. nature movies that come to mind:

P.S. Notice these are all survival stories with the stakes being life or death.

Related Post: What’s at Stake?

Scott W. Smith

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SIlverLinings

“Because I have a son who’s had some of these emotional situations I immediately related to [the novel Silver Linings Playbook] otherwise I never would have. And I said, what a wonderful story, and a wonderful world that is tragic, heartbreaking, emotional, and ultimately funny and uplifting….While I was waiting the five years to make it, I probably rewrote the script over 20 times, and I was able to plumb new depths of it in terms of calibrating the nature of the challenges the main character faces.
Silver Linings Playbook writer/director David O.Russell
Charlie Rose Interview 2012 & WGA,West interview by Rob Feld

Related Posts:
Broken Wings & Silver Linings
Coppola & Rewriting

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I’ve overcome the blow, I’ve learned to take it well…”
Jim Croce/Operator

“Rainy day people all know there’s no sorrow they can’t rise above…”
Gordon Lightfoot/ Rainy Day People

Perhaps the reason I decided to start a post about the movie Silver Linings Playbook with a couple of lines from seventies songs is the movie has a seventies feel. Not disco 70s—Annie Hall 70s.

You know, the kind of movie that centers on great writing and great acting. Movies that transcend entertainment and are about something human. I’m not a tentpole/vampire/contrived comedy kind of guy, so I relish when a film like Silver Linings Playbook comes along. This isn’t a movie review, but a look at the movie from the perspective of the script written by the film’s director David O. Russell. (As of this writing the script can be found at this link by The Weinstein Company.)

STORY/PLOT

The story of Silver Linings Playbook is actually pretty simple. Pat (Bradley Cooper) wants to get back together with his wife. And that happens on page 1 with Pat talking to himself in a psychiatric facility:

PAT: “I blew it. But you also blew it. We can get it back. It’s all gonna be better now. I’m better now and I hope you are, too.”

No big set up of where we are or what happened to Pat, the reader/audience is engaged and playing catch-up. And we also know that Pat is part of the “end-of-the-rope club” which is often a key ingredient in a lead character. So there is a stated goal on page one—get back together with Nikki (who we learn is his estranged wife). Of course, just one of Pat’s problems is he has a court order that prohibits him from coming within 500 feet of his estranged wife.

CHARACTERS
There are two central characters; Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). This is not one of those scripts you read where you’re flipping back and forth trying to keep track of the characters. And keeping with the idea that you should have a really good reason from cutting away from the central character, I believe Pat in the script and in the movie is in every single scene. But there is meat in the supporting roles which is why Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver were attracted to the roles and why both were nominated for Academy Awards (as Bradley and Lawrence were).

There’s no real need for an antagonist role (Officer Keogh may be as close as we get), because both protagonists Pat and Tiffany do a pretty good job of being their own antagonists.

There are a handful of other roles, but essentially the story fits the idea that the audience/reader really can’t get involved in more than seven characters.

CONFLICT
Silver Linings Playbook is full of not only conflict from beginning to end, but the best kind of conflict—meaningful conflict. Pat has inner-conflict with self and his illness, interpersonal with mom, dad, brother ex-wife, friends and Tiffany, and extrapersonal conflcit with neigbors, police, his doctor and people at football game.

STAKES
What’s always at stake for Pat is being sent back to psychiatric facility. But the worst part about that for Pat is that would mean he failed at his goal of getting back together with his wife. And the stakes are even greater than if he has to go back to the hospital losing his freedom and maybe his mind.

PACING
Screenplays are often difficult to read, probably because they are a blueprint to make a movie. But Silver Linings Playbook was a fun and easy read. That was in part due to the pacing. Scene descriptions were kept between 1-3 lines and dialogue was usually kept between one and three sentences.

LENGTH
The script came in at 152 pages which is longer than most tend to be these days, but it is a verbal rather than a visual story so the running time was 2 hours.

TITLE
There have been four films made with the title The Silver Lining (1915, 1921, 1927, 1932) and the expression “every cloud has a silver lining” has been around forever. So the title Silver Linings Playbook takes something familiar and gives it a fresh twist.

REGIONAL
The movie largely takes place in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania—a small working class suburb of Philadelphia.

SETUPS & PAYOFFS
Another writer’s tool used throughout the script/movie to bring a conhesivness to the story.

EMOTIONAL
You don’t have to ever been in a psychiatric facility like Pat, or have the emotional relationship baggage Tiffany has to have an emotional connection to these characters. Everyone has their own emotional baggage and relationship issues and this film taps into what is called the laughter of recognition. What’s happening on screen is a reflection of our friends and family—and ourselevs.

TRANSFORMATION
Last year I pulled a quote where writer/director Garry Marshall talked about himself and audiences being drawn to Cinderella stories, and another quote by writer/director Frank Darabont talking about having an “uplift” and the end of movies. Of course, not all stories are Cinderella stories nor have an uplift, but if you are writing stories for an audience it is important to know that everyone is looking for a silver lining. I didn’t say a “happy ending,” but a silver lining is a plus.

THEME

“I’m gonna take all this negativity and use it for fuel, and I’m going to find a silver lining, that’s what I’m gonna do.”—Pat (Bradley Cooper), Page 14

This is what I believe to be true. This is what I learned in the hospital. You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest, and if you do, if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining.”—Pat, Page 35

There is a handwritten sign “EXCELSIOR” on Pat’s wall at his room at the psyhiatric facility that we first read about on page three of the script and becomes a running motifs throughout the script—a rally cry of sorts for Pat. Excelsior is Latin for “ever upward.”

BOX OFFICE
Silver Linings Playbook is not the kind of movie that you would think that would have a long box office run. But despite a limited release in November and a wide release at the end of December it’s still in theaters as we approach the first week of February. Heck, in the traditional Hollywood cycle this movie should already be available on DVD. Instead it was actually third at the box office this weekend. Glad this film is getting good word of mouth reviews. And while it wouldn’t seem the most international movie this little $20 million dollar movie is on its way to breaking $100 million at the global box office.

OSCARS
The film has been nominated for a total of eighth Oscars.

NOVEL
Silver Linings Playbook originated as a novel by Matthew Quick and his real life story of quitting his teaching job and taking off three years to focus on his writing is a post for another day. The date on the screenplay says 2008, the year the book was released. If that’s when the script was written (or even just purchased) that means that it was a four/five-year journey to bring that story to the screen. (And I don’t know how many years it took Quick to write the novel.)

BROKEN WINGS
For those of you who haven’t seen the film I won’t tell you how it ends, just that the film is really about taking a step on the road to redemption believing that broken wings can be mended and silver linings found.

P.S. Didn’t make this connection until after I wrote this post, but singer Jim Croce was born in South Philadelphia and played in many tough bars in Philadelphia before heading to New York City and greater fame. Unfortunately he died at only age 30. His wife Ingrid owns Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar in San Diego. I had a memorable meal there a few years ago while sitting in their outside area and enjoyed watching the people in the historic Gaslamp Quarter walk by.

Related Posts:
Average Length of a Movie Scene (Tip #21)
Writing Actor Bait (Tip #64)
What’s at Stake? (Tip  #9)
“Goal. Stakes. Urgency.” (Tip #60)
40 Days of Emotions
Screenwriting by Numbers (Tip #4)
Writing Beyond the Numbers (Tip #8)
Setups & Payoffs (Tip #57) 

Scott W. Smith

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“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.”
William Froug

“START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. IT MUST START BECAUSE THE HERO HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.”
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO?

Last week I did something I’ve never done before, I read a screenplay of a film that was just released and then a couple of days later went to the movie. It was a great experience.

The script and movie was Silver Linings Playbook written and directed by David O. Russell from a book by Matthew Quick. Earlier this month the movie, director  and screenplay all received Oscar nominations, along with being the first film in 31 years to be nominated in all for acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress). I’ll write more about the movie Monday, but the great thing about reading the PDF official screenplay at the website of The Weinstein Company who produced the film is regardless of how well the actors performed—the script totally worked on the page.

Of course, you kind of expect that, but we’ve all read scripts where we think “those actors really made that movie better than the script.” Not to take anything away from Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jackie Weaver, but I believe several top actors would have made an equally compelling movie because the script is so dang strong. I look forward to reading Quick’s novel to see how different it is from Russell’s script.

You can also find the screenplay of other Oscar-nominated film produced by  The Weinstein Company, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained online.  I happened to see Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained back to back last weekend and noticed that while they are different genres and take places in different eras, the core stories are the same—men who want to reconnect with their wives. A pretty simple through-line or story spine.

But read both screenplays and watch each movie to see how the filmmakers develop their stories. The originality come from taking a simple (and shared) concept and mixing it with familiar yet unique settings , along with complex characters surrounded by conflict with much at stake.

My writer friend Matthew sent me this link at Film Buff Online that actually has 30 recently Oscar-nominated scripts offered by the studios. I’m not sure  how long these links will be live so if you’re interested check them out before the Oscar ceremonies.

P.S. Anyone else remember the days when you had to save up $15 and head down to Hollywood to buy a script or go to AFI where you had to hand over your driver’s licence to read a script in their library?

Related Posts:
What’s at Stake? (Tip#9)
Descriptive Writing—Characters

Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (Tip#7)
“Goal. Stakes. Urgency.” (Tip #60)

Scott W. Smith

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As this blog Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places enters into its sixth year this week here’s a fitting thought from the always informative blog Go Into the Story:

“Assuming you’re not a native Californian or a long-time transplant to L.A., you developed your writing voice elsewhere. Iowa, New Jersey, England, Norway, wherever. The sum of your life experiences and the very place in which you live now has helped to make you the writer you are, giving you your distinctive take on the world….Let me end with the question that is always on the mind of aspiring writers who live well outside Los Angeles: Do I have to move there to break into the business?

The answer is no. You can write a spec script anywhere. If it’s great, that will be your passport into the business. In fact, I have recently interviewed two 2012 Nicholl Fellow winners, one from Louisiana [Allan Durand], one from South Africa [Sean Robert Daniels]. They and many other writers I know live and work outside Los Angeles.

But if you do sell a spec, and even in anticipation of that chance, at least you should be envisioning the possibility of relocating. Because on the whole, the positives of living and writing in L.A. outweigh the negatives.”
Scott Myers
The Business of Screenwriting: Living and writing in L.A.

Check out the whole article, and if somehow Myers’ screenwriting blog is off your radar check it out—it’s a great one.

Related Posts:

Do You Have To Live In L.A. To Be A Screenwriter?
Why You Should Move to L.A.
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.

Scott W. Smith

 

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My Satellite Office

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”
President John F. Kennedy

“I have a tendency to go places where I want to go without knowing where that’s going to take me.”
Academy & Emmy Winning Director/Actor Kevin Costner

Pod-4 1725

When I moved to Iowa from Florida in 2003 it was supposed to be a three months stop-over on my way to Chicago where I had been doing some freelance producing for a TV program. I never would have guessed it would be a ten year run. A run that included opportunities to shoot projects in Russia, Jamaica, South Africa, Hawaii, and Brazil. And eventually lead me to start a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. But a part of my Iowa chapter is closing this month.

Earlier this week a moving POD left our driveway in -4 degree weather with most of our earthly belongings and headed south to Florida. I’m moving back to Central Florida where I’ve spent most of my life, but with a twist this time being based in Satellite Beach on the Space Coast, about an hour from Orlando.  Here’s a photo of the back wall of my Cedar Falls, Iowa office before I packed it up. In that photo among other memorabilia you’ll see a Jimmy Buffett poster, an A1A sign, a Save the Manatee Florida Licence plate, and a framed original 1969 New York Times front page proclaiming MEN WALK ON MOON.

Office Back Wall 1725

Buffett, route A1A along the beach, manatees, and one of the greatest technological achievements in history all scream “Space Coast.”

It really has nothing to do with leaving the Midwest in the middle of winter as much as an opportunity to rejuvenate myself creatively which is what brought me to Iowa in the first place. It helps that the housing market is strong here in Cedar Falls and soft in Florida. (We accepted an offer on our house just over a week after we listed it for sale.)  Brevard County, where I’m heading, just last month was reported to lead the nation in foreclosure filings. (Due largely to massive NASA layoffs as they ended the space shuttle program.)

On paper it might not look like the idea place to move my production company, but I will keep clients up here, have some long established clients in Orlando, and have another client who told me my close proximity to the Orlando International Airport would make it easier for him to fly me to various gigs. I have another production friend I’ve talked to about  the option of sharing an office on the lot at Universal Studios—Orlando. Plus the greater Space Coast itself has more than five times the population where I currently live so I’d like to think that there’s room for an Emmy winning producer to build a base of local clients.

Whether it’s big or small
If you have a passion at all
Just say, someday I will
Jimmy Buffett/Someday I Will 

This has been something I’ve contemplated for years and as much as I’ve always dreamed of living at the beach (aside from living three months in Seal Beach, California after graduating from film school) this will be my first opportunity to realize that dream. No risk, no reward—right? And I’m taking with me the first painting I’ve ever purchased—just picked up last weekend. This still life done by Cedar Falls artist Gary Kelley who I’m working on a new project with this spring called The Planets, Revisited.

photo-30

Friends have asked about what this means for my blog and the answer is simple—nothing. It’s called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. I’ve always looked at Iowa as the quintessential metaphor for the last place you’d think of when you think of screenwriting. I have showed writers who developed their literary voice in Iowa, but as the digital age matures I enjoy seeing writers and filmmakers pop up in unlikely places everywhere. Places like Satellite Beach.

But if the Space Coast can produce arguably the greatest surfer ever (Kelly Slater) in Cocoa Beach, plus build and launch a rocket that lands on the moon from Cape Canaveral—then some screenwriters coming from the area really doesn’t seem like a stretch. The area has already produced some compelling movies and TV programs.

P.S. I am looking at donating as many as 200 books on screenwriting and filmmaking to a group in Central Florida so if you know a school, arts groups, creative coffee-house interested please contact me.

Scott W. Smith

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“It always comes down to the script. Write a great one, you can be a zillion years old living in Antarctica and Hollywood will want you.”
Scott Myers
Go Into the Story

Scott & Scripts 1725

Thank you.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the blog Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, and I’d like to thank you for reading this blog. My original goals were modest; give it a year and see what happens. I kept writing and people kept reading. And the results are today’s post is number 1,447.  It’s definitely a “bird by bird” thing— to borrow Anne Lamott’s phrase (that she borrowed from her father).

And a special thanks to those readers who were there from the start in 2008. Back when it was common for me to write those 1,500-2,000 word posts. (I usually try to land between 250—500 words these days.) And special thanks to those who subscribe via email as they really make me consider whether something is worth posting or not.

The big surprise in 2012 was when I pulled a couple of quotes from the not-so-young writer/director Garry Marshall  (Pretty Woman, Happy Days) and the response was so positive that I kept pulling quotes from him for an entire month. That’s the first and only time that’s happened and that month of Garry Marshallwas the single most viewed month I’ve had in the five years of blogging. (Garry Marshall’s “Gentle Hilarity”  was posted on October 1, 2012 and the entire month was insights from him on writing and directing.)

Just to give you a glimpse of how organic and intuitive this blog is and the part you play as readers let me just say that last year when I was in the Dallas/Irving area to do a video shoot at Deion Sanders’ house, I stopped in a used bookstore and purchased Marshall’s book Wake Me When It’s Funny for a couple bucks and pulled a few quotes I though would be of interest to readers. I thought it might be a gamble because I knew a lot of readers of this blog weren’t even born when Marshall had some of his biggest Tv hits in the 70s. But good insights are good insights and I was just being conduit for those insights.

“It is true that I look for the Cinderella aspect when I am making a film. Most good stories are Cinderella. Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”
Garry Marshall
Screenwriting Quote #171 (Garry Marshall)

In the past year I did notice that the quotes I was finding from screenwriters was starting to fall into categories I had already covered. Not really redundant, but I felt it reinforced and shaded in areas I had already covered in the pervious four years. Sometimes a newer writer will turn a new phrase on an old concept and  jazz it up a bit.

But after five years of blogging I finally want to hit my goal to condense these insights into a book. Really three books.  Sort of beginning, middle, and end. Each book will be approximately 60,000 words and really give a streamlined structure to what this blog is all about. My goal is to get these books into an ebook format by the end of June. (If that’s your field of expertise, I welcome any insights you have. You can always email me at info@scottwsmith.com)

I know there’s always a lot of talk about reading books only by produced feature screenwriters. But the truth is there just aren’t that many out there. And if the criteria is raised to having written a high quality award-winning screenplay that did great at the box office, I think you’re left with just one or two books.

In fact, I just read a book over the weekend over that was written by a produced and well-respected screenwriter of some wonderful films, but the book just did nothing for me. In fact, it’s the first book in my life that I’ve ever taken back to a book store and asked for my money back. (Thanks to Barnes & Noble for refunding my $28.44.)  If you’re going to sell a book for almost thirty bucks that promises to condense a thirty year career you really got to bring it. About 25 pages into the book I was waiting for the meat, by page 50 I realized it was running on fumes.

My point is not really to call out that screenwriting book I returned or the screenwriter who wrote it, just to say that it’s a myth that gifted and produced screenwriters make the best teachers, or that they can really explain what they do in a book. (Or that they can inspire you to do the same.)

“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Two-time Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Lining Playbook, Winter’s Bone) on acting
The New York Times
article that mentions she’s never had an acting class or acting teacher

To paraphrase Tim Ferriss, despite Michael Phelps having won 18 Olympic gold medals in swimming—he may not be the best person to teach a 35-year-old how to swim.  (Especially true during the peak of Phelps’ career.) But just watching Phelps swim might inspire a 35-year-old to seek out a swimming teacher at their local rec center who despite falling short of Olympic glory has taught hundreds of people how to swim over the years.

Save your $28.44 and just read one of the most read posts on this blog Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) where Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt unpacks the Pixar methods that’s produced hit after hit. I pulled insights off the Toy Story 3 DVD special features the week it was released. Then read one of my favorite all-time posts from last year called The Secret of Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) where the Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (Hugo, Rango) discusses the secrets of his success in BAFTA interview. And a third post that’s proven popular is last year’s Dan Harmon’s Story Circle.—from the creator of the TV program Community.

But ultimately, what separates someone like Michael Arndt from the screenwriting pack is the same thing that separated Michael Phelps from the swimming pack—talent, drive, and determination. All I’m really doing on this blog is helping point the way—the hard part is up to you.

I have said it before and say it again, I’m a much more successful blogger than screenwriter. (As I joke with my production friends, “Did I ever tell you my blog won an Emmy?”) Though I’ve written nine (unproduced) screenplays and have written and directed nine produced short films (on top of producing well over 100 video projects), I think my unique skill is to aggregate the best insights from some of the most talented writers and filmmakers throughout film history, including the up and comers. (I should have learned something from all those books and screenplays I’ve read in the above photo.) Concepts and insights that I hope will inspire you in whatever unlikely place you live in the world.

At last count I have quoted and/or told the story of more than 400 writers and filmmakers over the last five years. The problem with the blog now is there are five years of posts—more than 650,000 words—with very little overall structure for someone who stumbles upon this blog today. It’s almost impossible to wade through 1,447 posts.  So phase two—which I’m about 90% done writing—is to whittle down the essentials of this blog—the greatest hits–into user-friendly and inspirational ebooks.

Wish me well with that process, and I wish you well in your writing.

And thanks again for checking out this blog, because without a growing readership there’s no way I would have had the energy or desire to keep this up for five years.

Related Post: Life Beyond Hollywood (the very first post on January 22, 2008)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“HOLLYWOOD is easy to hate, easy to sneer at, easy to lampoon.”
Raymond Chandler’s essay Writers in Hollywood published in the Atlantic in 1945

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that novelist/screenwriter Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity) was not in a happy place when he wrote the essay  Writers in Hollywood which was published in the Atlantic back in 1945.

“The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion. Hollywood is a showman’s paradise. But showmen make nothing; they exploit what someone else has made.”
Raymond Chandler
Writers in Hollywood 

“The first picture I worked on was nominated for an Academy award (if that means anything), but I was not even invited to the press review held right in the studio. An extremely successful picture made by another studio from a story I wrote used verbatim lines out of the story in its promotional campaign, but my name was never mentioned once in any radio, magazine, billboard, or newspaper advertising that I saw or heard – and I saw and heard a great deal. This neglect is of no consequence to me personally; to any writer of books a Hollywood by-line is trivial.
Raymond Chandler
Writers in Hollywood

“Few screenwriters possess homes in Bel-Air, illuminated swimming pools, wives in full-length mink coats, three servants, and that air of tired genius gone a little sour. Money buys pathetically little in Hollywood beyond the pleasure of living in an unreal world, associating with a narrow group of people who think, talk, and drink nothing but pictures, most of them bad, and the doubtful pleasure of watching famous actors and actresses guzzle in some of the rudest restaurants in the world. I do not mean that Hollywood society is any duller or more dissipated than moneyed society anywhere: God knows it couldn’t be. But it is a pretty thin reward for a lifetime devoted to the essential craft of what might be a great art.”
Raymond Chandler
Writers in Hollywood

But that essay was written over 65 years ago, and he was talking about a Hollywood studio system of the 30s & 40s. One we ironically look back on as the golden era of Hollywood—the era before TV muddied the waters. Time and time again you hear 1939 named as the best year ever in the history of motion pictures: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz. (And 1941 wasn’t too bad either: Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Meet John Doe, Suspicion, Sergeant York, How Green Was My Valley, Sullivan’s Travels.)

Every era produces its share of bad people and bad movies, but given a little time all of that is forgotten and we remember mostly the great movies—and the great filmmakers who made those movies. My guess is back in 1945 Chandler was too close to the egos—the sauguage making—to step back and see that some great movies were made.

When I first saw Double Indemnity 40 years after it was made I knew nothing of Raymond Chandler (screenwriter), Billy Wilder (screenwriter/director), or James M. Cain (who wrote the novel).  I was unaware of the tension Chandler and Wilder had in writing the script—I just knew it was a great film.  (I did know Fred MacMurray from the TV show My Three Sons, so it did take some effort seeing him as the bad guy.)

It would be interesting to see what Raymond Chandler would write today about Hollywood, independent filmmaking, global cinema, and even television. But he did end his 1945 essay with a little hope:

“In spite of all I have said, the writers of Hollywood are winning their battle for prestige. More and more of them are becoming showmen in their own right, producers and directors of their own screenplays. Let us be glad for their additional importance and power, and not examine the artistic result too critically. The boys make good (and some of them might even make good pictures). Let us rejoice together, for the tendency to become showmen is well in the acceptable tradition of the literary art as practiced among the cameras.
Raymond Chandler
Writers in Hollywood

Chandler would have liked Joe Eszterhas a lot.  And I imagine if Chandler were alive to watch the 2008 Academy Awards he would have smiled when screenwriter/”showman” Diablo Cody won her Oscar for Juno and simply said, “You go girl.” And I think he’d be proud—and amazed— of the modern filmmakers that produced Winter’s Bone, The Artist, and Life of Pi.

To paraphrase what David Mamet said of theater, “Cinema is always dying, and always being reborn.”

Related post: The Original Screenwriting Rock Star

And since it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day— Martin Luther King Jr Special

Scott W. Smith

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“Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”
Sydney Greenstreet’s character in The Maltese Falcon
Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett 

“Hammett  made the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues.”
Raymond Chandler

Just as Raymond Chandler influenced other writers, other writers influenced him.  And one of those writers was Dashiell Hammett (1884-1961)  who The New York Times called ‘the dean of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction.” It’s interesting to note that Hammett was born before—and lived longer—than Chandler. But as I noted in a pervious post, Chandler was late bloomer and didn’t begin writing until he was into his 40s. Hammett was raised Catholic on a farm in southern Maryland and served in the US Army before writing the novels he is known for: The Thin Man, Red Harvest, The Glass Key, and The Maltese Falcon.

He once said, “All my characters were based on people I’ve known personally, or known about.” What follows is an excerpt from an essay by Chandler that was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944:

“I doubt that Hammett had any deliberate artistic aims whatever; he was trying to make a living by writing something he had first hand information about. He made some of it up; all writers do; but it had a basis in fact; it was made up out of real things. The only reality the English detection writers knew was the conversational accent of Surbiton and Bognor Regis. If they wrote about dukes and Venetian vases, they knew no more about them out of their own experience than the well-heeled Hollywood character knows about the French Modernists that hang in his Bel-Air château or the semi-antique Chippendale-cum-cobbler’s bench that he uses for a coffee table. Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. He wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.

Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more. All language begins with speech, and the speech of common men at that, but when it develops to the point of becoming a literary medium it only looks like speech. Hammett’s style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything. I believe this style, which does not belong to Hammett or to anybody, but is the American language (and not even exclusively that any more), can say things he did not know how to say or feel the need of saying. In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill. He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”
Raymond Chandler
The Simple Art of Murder

 P.S. Hammett had one of those complicated lives that artists often live. He consumed mass quantities of alcohol and cigarettes and had other health issues. He got married, had kids, got divorced, and fit in a 30-year affair with playwright Lillian Hellman, joined the communist party in 1937, lived his later years as a hermit with his typewriter untouched, and died of lung cancer. He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He did work for a time as a screenwriter and many of his stories and characters were turned into movies and TV programs.

Scott W. Smith

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