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 “If I were given a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of topics in American history.”
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns

“In the country of baseball, men rise to glory in their twenties and their early thirties—a garland briefer than a girl’s, or at least briefer than a young woman’s—with an abrupt rise, like scaling a cliff, and then the long meadow slopes downward.”
Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball by Donald Hall with Dock Ellis

When I heard filmmaker Ken Burns speak Monday night at Rollins College he used a phrase I’d never heard before—”emotional archaeology.” He said that’s what he aims for in his work which includes the documentaries The Civil War, Jazz, and Baseball.

Burns added that “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?”are key questions he tries to answer in his work. Others words that he said his work often addresses is “race,”  “space,” and the shared experience of life as a struggle.

And just when you thought I wasn’t going to write about baseball anymore I have at least one more baseball-themed post to sneak in—the new documentary No, No: A Dockumentary (2014) on Major League pitcher Dock Ellis who in 1970 threw a no-hitter while on LSD.

Jeff Radice directed the film and I hope to catch it tomorrow night (4/10/14) at the Florida Film Festival. Judging from the trailer the doc seems to cover race, space, and life as a struggle. You know, emotional archaeology.

Related post: 40 Days of Emotions 

Scott W. Smith 

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“In the United States words are medicine.”
Filmmaker Ken Burns

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of American had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game and do it by watching first some high-school or small town teams.”
French-born American historian Jacques Barzun

Tonight I’m going to go hear filmmaker Ken Burns speak at Rollins College. So while I’m on a string of  writing about baseball and filmmaking this seems like a good time to touch on the PBS doc Baseball; A Film by Ken Burns (1994), and his 2010 follow-up with Lynn Novick, Baseball; The Tenth Inning.

One of the things that’s addressed in those docs is baseball heroes and their flaws. Gambling and drug use being two of the the flaws that haunt some of baseball’s greatest legends.

“Loving contradictions is saying you love life. All our heroes have dark sides. Only in modern media culture would heroism mean perfection. The Greeks have told us heroism is a negotiation between strength and weakness. That defines heroism.”
Ken Burns
Orlando Sentinel article by Hal Boedekker

P.S. While I’ve read that the patron saint(s) of baseball are Saint Sebastian and/or Saint Rita, I think Robert Clemente could be considered the modern-day saint of baseball. He was an National League, MVP and the first Latino baseball player inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. He died in 1972—just a year after being voted World Series MVP—when a plane he was in taking that was taking relief aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed. Each year Major League Baseball picks a winner of the Roberto Clemente Award to the player “who demonstrates the values Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.”

Related posts:
Character Flaws 101 (Tip #30)
Ken Burns on 1+1=3
Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns)

Scott W. Smith

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‘Anonymity and Poverty’

“I thought I had just taken a vow of anonymity and poverty, if I was going to be a documentary filmmaker concentrating in American history for PBS.”
Ken Burns
New York Times 2013

There’s no doubt that my personal project Tinker Field: A Love Letter  was influenced by filmmaker Kens Burns’ PBS film Baseball.   (I’m looking forward to hearing Burns speak in a few weeks Rollins College.)

It could almost be said that when Burns set out early in his career to be a documentary filmmaker that he was aiming for no demarcation between his professional work and his personal work. And despite thinking he’d “taken a vow of anonymity and poverty,” Burns has become quite well-known, been nominated for two Oscars and won multiple Emmys, and I’m guessing doing fairly well financially.

Burns is a great example of someone finding wide success by choosing a narrow path.

Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns)
Ken Burns 1+1=3

Scott W. Smith

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The man in this case  was writer/director Alexander Mackendrick, and what he walked way from way making movies in Hollywood.  Here’s a documentary about the films Mackendrick made and how he turned to teaching at CalArts—a school founded by Walt Disney.

 

Scott W. Smith

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” A solid principle is to employ expository dialogue as the reaction to the events that take place before the lens (remember: show and then tell). Invent action or incidents as the provocation for dialogue, because exposition in film is much more interesting after the dramatic event as a comment (or perhaps an explanation) on it.”
Alexander Macindrick


“The senior writers at the film studios in London where I worked for many years used to delight in collecting examples of bad dialogue in screenplays. One of their favorites was ‘Look, Highland cattle!’ This was a quote from a particularly amateurish travelogue in which a character pointed off-screen, said this line, and the film cut to guess what? Those three words became shorthand for a piece of wholly unnecessary and redundant exposition used when the story was being told perfectly well solely through visual means. A good director will go out of his way, often in the editing process when he has both words and images in front of him, to gradually eliminate all lines that are absolutely not necessary.”
Alexander Mackindrick
On Film-making
Page 7

Here’s the opening scene (Spanish translation version) from the Breaking Bad pilot written by the show’s creator Vince Gilligan, and it’s a great example of visual and compleing storytelling with limited dialogue. You may not know what’s going on but it makes you want to know what happend and what will happen next. Much better than, “Look, Highland cattle!”—or even “Look, a meth lab!”

P.S. 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 Beautywas 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?”

I’ve found that in reading many unpublished screenplays it’s not just cutting the opening or closing line or two in a scene that works, but often a line or two of dialogue within regular ongoing conversation in scene after scene.

Related post:

Is 110 the New 120?
The Four Functions of Dialogue (Tip #45)

Scott W. Smith

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“What Sandy [Alexander] Mackendrick did for myself and my classmates was he was the first cold water we were hit with and he prepared us how to face the business.”
CalArts film student

“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling.”
Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E)
(And CalArts Grad)

“One of the tasks of the director as he transfers a screenplay to the medium of the moving-image-with-sound is almost to forget what the characters are saying and reimagine their behavior as being mute, so that all thoughts, feelings and impulses are conveyed to the audience through sound and vision—without speech. There is a curious paradox here, for when a scene has been reconstituted in this fashion the director is often able to reincorporate elements of the original dialogue in ways that make it vastly more effective. Moreover, when a script has been conceived in genuinely cinematic terms, its sparse dialogue is likely to be free of the task of exposition and will consequently be much more expressive.”
Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
page 6

A great example of feelings and emotions conveyed without dialogue is in Cast Away (2000) written by William Broyles Jr. and directed by Robert Zemeckis. At a big holiday family dinner, Chuck (Tom Hanks) looks down at his pager and then glances across the table at his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) and her expression says it all, like—”You’re not going out of town on Christmas?”

It’s a quick moment and a simple one, but one that is so core to the story. Of course, Hanks is later cast away on an island following a plane crash, but there’s a sense that he is casting away the relationship with his girlfriend for his job commitments. The moment is captured in six quick shots without a single spoken word. I couldn’t find the scene online, but it’s a great example of what Mackendrick said about conveying “thoughts, feelings and impulses” without dialogue.

Related posts:
Show, Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show, Don’t Tell (Part 2)
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO (?)  “IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.”
“Storytelling without Dialogue” (Tip #82) 

Scott W. Smith

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Today I’ll start a series of posts on Alexander Mackendrick. He directed Sweet Smell of Success and received an Oscar nomination as one of the writers of The Man in the White Suit.  Frustrated with the Hollywood studio system he turned to teaching at CalArts, where he was Dean of its School of Film from 1969 to 1993. (Despite only formally having one year of study at the Glasgow School of Art on his academic resume and being 60 years old when he taught his first class. What he did have was a 30 year filmmaking career.)

Mackenrdrick believed that student films were either “too long” or “much too long,” and used an egg timer as students pitched their stories to the class. He had a passion for craft and taught film as a popular art.

After he died in 1993 and Paul Cronin edited his teachings into the book On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director.  And if all of the above is not enough to get you interested in Mackendrick, here’s what Martin Scorsese wrote in the forward of On Film-making, “This book —this invaluable book—is the work of a lifetime, from a man who was passionately devoted to his craft and his art, and who then devoted himself to transferring his knowledge and his experience to his students, And now it’s available to all of us. What a gift.”

It’s a great book that I haven’t given the proper attention on this blog. So as I attempt to mak up for lost time, here’s a taste of Mackendrick’s teachings:

“Film writing and directing cannot be taught, only learned, and each man or woman has to learn it through his or her own system of self-education.”

“Though it will only be a couple of weeks before you are familiar with the basic mechanics of filmmaking it will take a lifetime of hard work to master them.”

“It has been said that the director is like the orchestra conductor, a maestro who must be able to play every instrument competently. Unlikely as it is that you will ever discover real ability in all three fields of directing, writing and acting, I believe you will not be even competent in any single one without a basic comprehension of the other two.”

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #175 (Mackendrick)
Learning from Others (Tip #42)
Can Screenwriting Be Taught (2.0)

Scott W. Smith

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“Over a century and a half to the present day…you see the evidence of slavery as you walk down the street…The prison population, mental illness, poverty, education.”
Oscar-nominated director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
2013 New York Times Interview by Nelson George

“In the vast majority of stories, the hero’s overall change moves from slavery to freedom.”
John Truby
The Anatomy of Story

One of the roots of this blog is steeped in African America culture. Annye L Refoe, Ph.D., was my creative writing teacher in high school. It was in one of her classes I first wrote a dramatic script and directed a video. As a black woman raised in Sanford Florida (yeah, same place where Trayvon Martin was killed) she opened up a new world to a class of white students via the writings of Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Where Watching God) and showing us the film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun.

In my very short stint playing football at the University of Miami I heard stories of black players raised in Overtown during Miami’s riots , as a photographer in L.A. I did photo assignments in Watts and Compton and heard gang stories, and I’ve been in prison chapels where blacks made up 85% of those in attendance and heard some of their life struggles.

At the same time, some of the scariest situations of my life were racially centered. Being cornered by four black youths in Florida when I was ten years old, taking a wrong turn on the South Side of Chicago after midnight, and being yelled at from two feet away for having a video camera on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica (which at the time had a higher murder rate than Haiti).

I’ve at least seen the view from both sides of the street.

It’s said that many white Americans can go through a whole day without encountering a black person, but the opposite is not true for most black Americans. I don’t pretend to fully understand the struggle of black people, but as a human being I am sensitive to the issues.  It sticks with me when actor Jamie Foxx told Oprah Winfrey, “I was called a nigger almost every day in Texas.” For many whites the Civil Rights of the 60s is old news, and slavery of the mid-1800s is ancient history. Look, “We even have a black president now.”

Yes, there have been great strides on some levels. Heck, the biggest home I’ve ever been in was NFL great Deion Sanders’ 28,000+ square foot house in Dallas where I did directed a video shoot a couple of years ago. Tyler Perry’s net worth of over $400 million makes him according to one website the fourth financially successful filmmaker in America. But only he and Oscar-nominated writer/director John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) are in the top fifty.

There are still wide gaps in our culture. And we still live in a world of much racial tension. Some have called 12 Years a Slave “Oscar bait.” If Steve McQueen wins Oscars for best director and/or best picture there will be those who say it’s because he’s black. And if he doesn’t win in either category some will say it’s because he’s black.  There’s lot of wisdom in that  William Faulkner line from Requiem for a Nun , “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” One of my favorite all-time book titles is taken from a Yeats poem by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe for his book Things Fall Apart. 

Pick any period of world history and you’ll find Koyaanisqatsi—The Hopi Indian word for “life out of balance.” (See Godfrey Reggio film Koyaannisqatsi.) We can go back and forth on the political, economic and spiritual solutions to finding peace and harmony in a world where good and evil exist. But it’s hard not to at least metaphorically agree with the thought that,  “We are reminded daily that we live outside the Garden.”

“Everything is supposed to be different than it is.”
Simon (Danny Glover)
Grand Canyon written by Lawrence Kasden & Meg Kasden

This whole global quest we’re all on for equilibrium is why I love storytelling in general, and films specifically. Artists are like those people waving large finger pointer signs at auctions telling everyone where to look. Movies at their best stir up questions and offer hope.

Here are 25 links from this blog over the years centered around blacks and filmmaking:

The First Black Feature Filmmaker

Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting –I happened to be in Atlanta the week  Coretta Scott King died.

First screenplay, Oscar—Precious

Martin Luther King Jr. Special –A multi-media project I produced with artist Gary Kelley

Screenwriting & Slavery

Blacks in Black & White “We’re a great country. We’ve got great stories. And for the most part, the great stories of people of color have not been told.”—Spike Lee

Memphis Story Wins Oscars

August Wilson’s St. Paul Roots

Lynn Nottage & her Play “Ruined”

The Kindness of Strangers

Obama, Drama & D.C. Movies

Filmmaking Quote #10 (Lee Daniels)

Nelson Mandela, Robben Island & Nudging the World

“I Have a Dream” at 50

“Super-Serving Your Niche” (Tyler Perry’s advice to Edward Burns)

Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry

Jackie, Spike & Sanford, Florida 

Off-Screen Quote #26 (Jackie Robinson)

Screenwriter Ernest R. Tidyman  Though white he explains why he wrote Shaft (1971)—It was time for a black winner [in movies], whether he was a private detective or an obstetrician.”

“The Help” Smackdown

Chris Rock & Adult Movies

The Father of Film (Part 2) Touches on Spike Lee on D.W. Griffith

Postcard #51 (Cotton Fields)

40 Days of Emotion Touches on the whipping scene of Denzel Washington in Glory

The Black List Annual Report (2013) Franklin Leonard

And let me give a shout-out to Brian McDonald who writes The Invisable Ink Blog.  I believe he’s the only black writer to have written a few books on screenwriting; Invisible Ink, The Golden ThemeInk Spots.

May the stories you tell—to borrow Oscar-winner Tom Stoppard’s words,  “nudge the world a little.” And may they nudge it in the right direction.

P.S. I know there are efforts being made helping minority screenwriters and welcome you passing those websites on to me in the comments or via email at info@scottwsmith.com

Additional links:
Writers Guild of America, West Diversity Department
CBS, Writers Mentoring Program
Deadline article about Warner Bros. diversity connection with The Black List ““For a black kid from Georgia, I’m acutely aware of the access issues the industry struggles with, and I’m excited to be part of a first step toward addressing this.”— Franklin Leonard
The Black List Newsletter Follow the links for Warner Bros Submission requirements
Fox Writers Intensive (FWI) “The Intensive is designed to introduce experienced writers with unique voices, backgrounds, life and professional experiences that reflect the diverse perspectives of the audiences Fox creates for to a wide range of Fox showrunners, writers, directors, screenwriters and creative executives.”
Diversity in Hollywood, NAACP
Universal Pictures’ Emerging Writers Fellowship,Seeking New and Unique Voices
In the While Room With Black Writers “There’s this thing in Hollywood, a ‘diversity staff writer.’ Most every writing room has one…”—Beejoli Shah
Organization of Black Screenwriters, West Hollywood
BuzzFeed interview with Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave“I’m from a small town in Wisconsin, but even when I’m in New York and I’m working for MSNBC or CNN, you’re used to being the only black person in the room. You spend your life in this space where you’re constantly seeing people who don’t even know perhaps they’re being a little dismissive of people of color, let alone the ugliness that you hear on a daily basis. So at times when people say that [racism] is bubbling up, it’s just bubbling up to a level where they’re aware of it.”

Scott W. Smith

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“The writing part is sometimes the hardest part. And I think with the writing part I just give myself a lot of time to just daydream.”
Oscar-nominated Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich)

While the Spike Jonze MasterClass with the  Ghetto Film School is more of a short interview I thought it was a good opportunity to look at some of Jonze’s work that paved the way to his writing and directing Her. (A film for which Jonze and his script won a Golden Globe Award this week, and I’m betting a film will be getting some Oscar-nominations tomorrow.) First is a commercial he directed years ago for Ikea that shows his sensibilities. The other videos are around The Creators Project which “celebrates visionary artists across multiple disciplines who are using technology in innovative ways to push the boundaries of creative expression.”

Just as Jonze was inspired by the early Coen Brothers film Raising Arizona, (1987) I think Jonze is a great inspiration for filmmakers who aspire to a vision outside the Hollywood norm.  The skateboarder born in Rockwell, Maryland, turned music video director, turned feature film writer and director, and part-time actor (Moneyball) is a voice worth listening to and talent worth exploring.

Related Posts:
Finding Your Voice (2011 post) “For me, it was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.”—Frank Darabont
Finding Your Own Voice (2009 post)”“I begin in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and experiences. Even now I do not consider myself a writer, in the ordinary sense of the word.” —Henry Miller

Scott W. Smith

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“I think The Third Man is one of the best, if not the best, non-auteur films ever made.”
Writer/Director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show)

The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen. Like many love affairs, it started at a dinner table and continued with many headaches in many places, Vienna, Venice, Ravello, London, Santa Monica.”
Screenwriter Graham Greene
‘The Third Man’ as a Story and a Film
NY Times—March 19, 1950

Towards the end of the Orson Welles Q&A at USC back in 1981 there is this brief exchange which says a lot about going to great lengths to get the right shot.

Audience member: An actor friend of mine once told me that he thought one of the great moments in film is in The Third Man when the light falls on you and you’re revealed —

Orson Welles: —”Oh, it is one of the great moments. (The USC audience laughs and applauds.) Remember I didn’t direct it, Carol Reed directed it. And do you know that we had that set built on another stage, and every afternoon for five days at the end of the day’s shooting we went and shot it again until Carol had it exactly the way he wanted it. Because he knew it was the key moment of the movie.”

I couldn’t find that scene online, and that’s just as well. If you’ve seen it you know what’s being talked about. If you haven’t seen it, you should (and not online). But I did find the classic short “cuckoo clocks” monologue by Welles that is often quoted from the movie. And a couple other related videos including a full audio commentary of The Third Man by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic ) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity). And I should at least mention that The Third Man—which is listed at number #94 on IMDB’s Top 250— was written by the novelist, playwright and screenwriter Graham Greene (but even he admitted, “the popular line of dialogue concerning Swiss cuckoo clocks was written into the script by Mr. Welles himself.”)

Scott W. Smith

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