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Archive for the ‘filmmaking’ Category

‘I love the script I wrote for Erin Brockovich. But even more, I love the movie. I love what it started as, and I love everything that was added to it by all the bright, talented people who came onto the project after me.”
Susannah Grant
Erin Brockovich: The Shooting Script (Newmarket Press)

“Film is, of course, a collaborative art and yes, sometimes those collaborations are like shotgun weddings of mismatched souls; the whole thing goes awry and everyone walks off in a huff vowing never to talk to each other. That can definitely happen.

“But what can also happen is that you end up working with enormously gifted collaborators whose input elevates your writing above and beyond what it would have been had you just been working on your own. Nora Ephron had a great analogy for this, and since I wouldn’t dream of trying to improve on Nora Ephron I’ll simply paraphrase her. She likened it to making a pizza.

“She said the screenwriter makes the dough, the sauce and the cheese and says ‘look I made a pizza’. The director comes along and says ‘hey that’s a great pizza, I wonder what it would be like if we added some pepperoni’. And you add the pepperoni. And then a couple of actors come along and they say ‘you know what else would be really good – some tomatoes and maybe some peppers’. And it goes on like that.

“I have been very lucky to have had some great condiments added to my pizza over the years. I want to share with you one of my favorites, it’s a scene from Erin Brockovich.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)
2013 BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series
(Below is the scene–from 0:00 to 2:21— Grant showed at her lecture. And the quote below is how she drove home her point.)

“Okay, arguably not a poorly written scene. However Aaron Eckhart’s falling to his knees and then on his face at the end, to me, is my favorite moment in the [movie] and that was all him. That is what you get when you work with [talented] people.”

I don’t know if the idea to have Eckhart fall forward came from Eckhart, the director Steven Soderbergh , Richard LaGravense who did uncredited work on the script, or someone else on the crew—but it was a super way to visually show how he’d been shot down by the no nonsense Brockovich. And a nice way to tie up the scene with a touch of humor.

BTW—I found this article where Nora Ephron talks about collaborating and pizza making and gives the flip side of the story, which is sometimes the ingredients added make the pizza worse.

P.S. Last year George Johnson writing in Slate reflected back on the now 20 year old events surrounding PG&E and Hinkley, California stating:

“The Erin Brockovich incident, one of the most famous, is among the many [environmental contaminants] that have been debunked. Hexavalent chromium in the water supply of a small California town was blamed for causing cancer, resulting in a $333 million legal settlement and a movie starring Julia Roberts. But an epidemiological study ultimately showed that the cancer rate was no greater than that of the general population. The rate was actually slightly less.”

The truth is out there somewhere.

Related posts:
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme “I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble.”
Writing ‘Erin Brockovich’
Emotional Autobiography (2.0)
Scriptshadow Secrets Touches on character introductions with Erin Brockovich as a good example.

Scott W. Smith

 

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Editing Baby Steps

It’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other.”
Writer/Director Sidney Lumet (The Verdict)

Baby steps. That’s how I’ve felt the last two weeks as I cut my first project on Adobe Premiere Pro CC. In film school I cut my first 16mm project on an upright Moviola. My first production job I edited on a Steenbeck 16mm flatbed editor. Eventually I started editing video using various equipment until things went digital and then I cut for five years on a AVID, then for a decade on Final Cut Pro, and am now embracing Adobe Premiere.

After few baby steps I’m now on my feet with yet another editing system. The best thing about learning new production software these days is there are so many great online tutorials out there to help speed up the learning curve. I learned a great deal from several lynda.com tutorials on Premiere, and from Larry Jordan’s Premiere tutorial on creativeLIVE as well as Jordan’s book Adobe Production Premium for Final Cut Studio Editors (published by Focal Press which has a lot of helpful media books).

I’m also taking baby steps in learning After Effects. My guess is in the future more and more filmmakers (especially indie filmmakers trying to raise money via crowdfunding) will be rely on programs like After Effects to create quality animatics to help get their films made. Pixar is famous for doing detailed animatics. Here’s a high end animatic/previsualization  from Iron Man 3 where Federico D’Alessando was the lead storyboard artist.

“Frederico brings to the table a level of craft unhead of in film previz. Ask anyone in the storyboarding biz—or just watch their jaws drom when Rico’s stuff previews.”
Writer/director Shane Black (Iron Man 3)

No guarantee that you or your artistic friends can rise up to that level, but take baby steps and see what you can do.

Scott W. Smith

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“Well somewhere along the line your drinks caught up with you and you got lost…”
The Twilight Zone episode Stopover in a Quiet Town

On this repost Saturday, I’m tapping into a post I originally wrote in 2009. Of course, Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone are ageless:

All filmmaking is embracing limitations because you always have to draw the line somewhere on running time and expenses.

The Twilight Zone was no exception. Now considered one of the best programs ever produced for television it had trouble finding an audience in the early sixties an actually only ran for a few years. Rod Serling wrote 49 original programs in three years which is an amazing output. According to The Twilight Zone producer Buck Houghton, Serling came up with a pattern that became the standard for all programs.

According to Houghton in his book What a Producer Does here are a few of the patterns they used.

Find an interesting character, or a group, at a moment of crisis in life, and get there quickly; then lay on some magic.

The character(s) must be ordinary and average and modern, and the problem facing him (her, them) must be commonplace. (The Twilight Zone always stuck people as identifiable as to whom it was about, and the story hangups as resonant of their own fears, dreams, wishes.)

The story must be impossible in the real world. A request at some point to suspend disbelief is a trademark of the series.

Embrace your limitations.

Scott W. Smith

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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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