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“[Robin Williams] was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit.”
President Obama on the death of Williams whose first starring role was as an alien on the TV show Mork & Mindy

“Robin signing on definitely was the linchpin for [Good Will Hunting] getting made.”
Producer Chris Moore
Good Will Hunting: An Oral History
Boston Magazine article by Janelle Nanos, January 2013

“We are food for worms lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die…Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society (1989)
Screenplay by Tom Schulman

Related posts:

Jonathan Winters (1925-2013)
Where Do Ideas Come From (A+B=C) Whenever I give a talk on creativity I always mention Robin Williams.
“The Greatest Gift” How the much loved movie It’s a Wonderful Life is a story rooted in depression, disillusionment, alcoholism and attempted suicide. 
Don’t Waste Your Life Screenwriting (2.0)

P.S. When comedian and actor Freddie Prinze (Chico and the Man) shot and killed himself at age 22 in 1977 I started to understand a connection between creative talent and depression, and sometimes depression mixed substance abuse.  And that even comedic ability didn’t not make one immune to suffering from depression and/or substance abuse problems. Johnny Carson, Jim Carrey, and Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody have all talked about their struggles with depression. Not all who suffer from depression take their lives as Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, or (apparently) Robin Williams—but I really believe there is something going on in the brains of some (many, all?) artists that helps them reach great heights, but also causes them to experience tremendous— even debilitating— lows.

Final thought: “All humor is rooted in pain.” —Commedian Richard Pryor

Scott W. Smith

“Simplicity makes bet­ter film: master, medium, choker. At least, men like Chaplin and David Lean think it does.”
Jerry Lewis
Referring to camera shots; master (wide shot with all the actors), medium (shot of actor or actors from the general area around the waist up), and choker (close-up shot of actor from the neck up). See Empire’s post on 30 camera shots to see the wider variety of shot options.

Joe Mankiewicz once said, ‘A good director is a man who creates an atmosphere for work.’ To me, that’s what it’s all about. You start out by giving actors a million-dollar hug. You don’t use them and later on start hugging them.”
Jerry Lewis

(The videos here aren’t of Jerry Lewis but are FilmSkills videos that I thought fit pretty good in this post on directing.)

“The actors must know how the scene is being covered. If not, they may spit out everything in the master shot, which is the comprehensive coverage.

If you tell the girl that you are making a master of the boy and girl, followed by a single of the boy, a single of the girl, and a tight two, she’ll save something for the snug stuff. She won’t let the tears go in the master. She’ll whine a lot in that one, which will be matchable, but then sob it out in the close shots.

I speak from personal experience. If I’m going to go facially, visually crazy I won’t do it in a head-to-toe shot. Neither will I dance my best in a close-up. A professional actor’s experience lets him know how to pace himself in the coverage of a scene if that coverage is explained to him.”
Actor/Director Jerry Lewis
The Total Film-Maker (Notes from his teaching at USC film school

“I doubt any other industry, or art form, has as many breakable rules. My camera setup is right; the next direc­tor’s is wrong. Or we’re both right and wrong. What mat­ters is the material and what has to be shown. There are no ground rules: no rules to say you must pan if a man walks around a table; no rules to say the camera has to move in any direction. You may pan and then throw half the pan away and cut to a cat. It is, absolutely, the director’s choice.”
Jerry Lewis

P.S. Keep in mind that cameras have gotten smaller (and cheaper) than when Charlie Chaplin and David Lean were making films, and when Lewis published The Total Film-Maker in 1971. So film shooting has evolved in some ways were you have films that are shot almost totally hand held, movies where since it’s being shot digitally that even rehearsals are recorded and sometimes find their way into the movie, more movies where multi-camera shots are used on scenes. Even lower budget movies can employ drone shots, and Go Pros and DSLRs tucked away in places you could never have traditionally put a 35mm Panavision or Mitchell camera. Does the medium shot still rule like it did when John Ford was shooting? That’s a good question. But as far as saving time and money on the set, it’s hard to be the simplicity and dependability of a medium shot.

Related posts:
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 1)
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 2)
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 3)
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 4)
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 5)
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 6)

Scott W. Smith

“There were times when [actors] went off somewhere and I’d look them in the eyes and they’re not looking at me. They’re pointing their eyes at me, but they’re looking at a broad over there or a guy over there. They wouldn’t listen. And I finally gave them one shot on the behind and they were very good after that. So it was just a gag, but it worked for me.”
Director Jerry Lewis on using “The Not Listening Stick”

Jerry Lewis directing with "The Not Listening Stick"

Jerry Lewis directing with “The Not Listening Stick”

“Actors are a strange breed of people. They are all nine years old. They stop at nine. If you want to attempt to un­derstand actors, read a quote from Moss Hart’s Act One: ‘The theatre is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child, and the tantrums and childishness of theatre people are not either accidental nor a necessary weapon of their profession. It has nothing to do with so-called ‘artistic temper­ament.’ The explanation, I think, is a far simpler one. For the most part, they are impaled in childhood like a fly in amber.’

Locked like flies in their million-year-old amber, they are all different, wearing different costumes, giving dif­ferent portrayals at different times, yet basically they are all alike-nine-year-old children.

Speaking now as an actor: tremendous ego is involved and we tend to believe that whatever weaknesses we have are justification for our neuroses. That’s childlike. If the actor were truly adult, in that strict sense of definition, he could not act. He’s standing up there because of needs. He must express himself, be heard.

A director, whether he’s a Wyler or a student film­ maker, cannot run on to the set and yell, ‘Hey, watch me, I’m going to show off.’ That is what actors do. That is the actors need. He’s built that way.”
Writer/director (and one time USC professor) Jerry Lewis
The Total Film-Maker (1971) 

home-alone-movie-

 

At the end of his chapter on actors, Lewis adds, “I have never known a professional actor who did not re­spond to kind and fair treatment, plus a little spoon-feed­ing. Aside from being flies in amber, actors are very human.”

Related Post:
“Never lie to an actor”—Paul Haggis
“No Dogs, No Actors” Hollywood c.1908
Sweeping the Floor
Really Good Writing & Acting “It’s a little cliché, but I’ve learned that you can’t make a movie that even works, much less that’s good, without really good writing and really good acting.”—Ben Affleck
Film Collaborating, Mismatched Souls & Pizza Making 

Scott W. Smith

“Producers and directors buy a property because they like the story. Actors buy it because they see them­selves in a part. “
Jerry Lewis
The Total Film-Maker

When you read an over 40 year old book on filmmaking you expect there to be some stuff that’s outdated, but here are some screenwriting thoughts from Jerry Lewis found in The Total Film-Maker (1971) that are timeless.

“Finding good properties to film is similar to mining 100­ carat diamonds. They don’t come along often. When they do, bidding is high. Even good original screenplays are comparatively scarce. Every studio and independent com­pany is on a constant search for suitable material, and de­spite the thousands of submissions each year only a few are bought. Of those, only one or two are really outstanding.

“…I tell new writers to study old scripts. Dig up a copy of On the Waterfront, In the Heat of the Night or The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. I have found that the best scripts are written, rewritten, and written again before they ever reach the sound stage. The director and writer have married to the point that chopping or adding isn’t an everyday occurrence once shooting begins…Ben Hecht, Abby Mann, Stirling Silliphant, Reginald Rose and Isobel Lennart are my ideas of heavy­weights in screen writing.”
Writer/director/actor Jerry Lewis (The Nutty Professor)
The Total Film-Maker 

Ben Hecht (1894- 1964) won two Oscars (The Scoundrel, The Underworld)
Abby Mann (1927-2008) Oscar-winner for writing Judgment at Nuremberg
Stirling Silliphant (1918-1996) Oscar winner for writing In The Heat of the Night
Reginald Rose (1920-2002) won an Oscar for writing 12 Angry Men and also won three Primetime Emmys
Isobel Lennart (1915-1971) won a WGA Award for writing Funny Girl, and was nominated for two Oscars (The Sundowners and  Love Me, or Leave me) 

P.S. Maybe 2014 is turning into the revival of Jerry Lewis. (Sort of like Johnny Cash experienced in his later years.) Just two days ago in a Rolling Stone online article Peter Relic wrote about an unreleased single the Beastie Boys recorded called The Jerry Lewis that included Ad-Rock rapping “Hey, yo Mike! Let’s do the Jerry Lewis!” and Mike D. responding, “My baby does the Jerry Lewis!”

When Jerry Lewis has Rolling Stone magazine, the Beastie Boys, and Screenwriting from Iowa talking about him in 2014, you know his stock is rising.

Related posts:
The Prophet Ben Hecht
Rock, Paper, Scissors & Screenwriting
Writing Actor Bait (Tip #64)

Scott W. Smith 

“I’ll tell you what I did to become a film-maker. I had this drive and I was curious.”
Jerry Lewis
Actor, producer, director, writer, composer, etc.

“You’ll be unstoppable if you become technical as well as creative.”
Robert Rodriguez
Writer, producer, director, editor, cameraman, composer etc.

“Where do you start? There’s no Monopoly board. No Start. Do Not Pass Go. I think you start out by just being there, and being curious and having the drive to make films.

More important: make film, shoot film, run film. Do something.
Make film. Shoot anything.

It does not have to be sound.

It does not have to be titled.
It does not have to be color.
There is no have to. Just do.
And show it to somebody. If it is an audience of one, do and show, and then try it again. That is how.

It sounds simple.
It’s not. Then again, it is.”
Producer, director, writer, actor Jerry Lewis 
Prologue to The Total Film-Maker

Keep in mind those words were first published in 1971 when making a film meant literally shooting and editing film.    There were hard cost to buying and developing film even if you owed or borrowed a camera. But in the digital age today it’s easier than ever to “Do something” and to “Shoot anything.”

I just shot an edited a promotional project for a talent agency and looking back the only hard cost involved was a few gallons of gas. While the cost of gas has risen greatly since 1971 (when the average gallon cost 36 cents) the cost of shooting something and showing it to an audience has dropped considerably.

Maybe not a feature film full of CGI, with the most expensive acting talent, and the latest equipment—but if you’re resourceful and driven you can do something today—as in this very day— for less than a tank of gas. It may just be you producing, directing, writing, shooting, editing–even being on camera—and that’s okay. “Do something” even “If it is an audience of one”—i.e. “The Total Film-Maker.”

“Charlie Chaplin was the first great total film-maker.”
Jerry Lewis

To round out this post, let’s go back to Lewis— “I believe that the quickest way to find out your capacity for being a total film-maker is to determine whether or not you have something to say on film.”

P.S. If it helps, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez started out making videos of his family for his family. Today the producer/director/editor/cameraman/composer/actor/etc. is the epitome of The Total Film-Maker.   Somebody at the Austin Film Festival, South by Southwest, or the Aloma Drafthouse Cinema in Austin needs to arrange Robert Rodriguez interviewing Jerry Lewis before the 88-year-old Lewis makes his final stage exit.

Related Website: Justin Bozung has a site called The Jerry Lewis Internet Archive; A Research Hub Dedicated to the The Total Film-Maker—Mr. Jerry Lewis.

 

Related Posts:

Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Creative Learning 2.0
Overnight Success
The Path is Gone
A New Kind of Filmmaker
One Benefit of Being Outside of Hollywood
The 10-Minute Film School (with Professor Rodriguez)
The Rise of Storyteller with Cameras (It’s okay to create “a thousand layers of garbage”—it’s part of the transformative learning process.)

Scott W.Smith

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight
Schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenfeffer incorporated
Laverne & Shirley theme song

schlemiel: an inept clumsy person; a bungler; a dolt 
schlimazel: a chronically unlucky person
Words flow from Yiddish/Hebrew/German words

Jerry Lewis is a one-man hero with 1,000 faces.

Some people first think of Jerry Lewis as the actor, director and co-writer of The Nutty Professor (1963)—where he played three characters in one movie. Others think fondly of his 45-year run as the host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day telethon, some think of him as the side kick of Dean Martin, and yet others recall his role in the Martin Scorsese directed film The King of Comedy (1982) which he co-starred with Robert De Niro.

But few think of Lewis as a real life college professor—so real that one of his students was George Lucas. From 1967 to 1977 he was an Adjunct Professor at the USC film school.

In 1971 Professor Lewis published a book called The Total Filmmaker which has long been out of print and copies are on sale at Amazon go for as high as $999.99.  But since earlier this year the excellent website Cinephilia and Beyond has a PDF of the book available for free. 

Today I’ll start a run of posts taken from that book. Here’s lesson one:

“I do not know that I have a carefully thought-out theory on exactly what makes people laugh, but the premise of all comedy is a man in trouble, the little guy against the big guy. Snowballs are thrown at the man in the black top hat. They aren’t thrown at the battered old fedora. The top-hat owner is always the bank president who holds the mort­ gage on the house, or he’s a representation of the under­ taker.

In the early days, working night clubs, I learned that taking a pratfall in a gray suit might get a few laughs. But I had to get up quickly and start another routine. Take the same fall dressed in a $400 tuxedo and I could stay on the floor for a minute. They would howl when the rich guy took the tumble.

Or it is the tramp, the underdog, causing the rich guy, or big guy, to fall on his ass. In this respect the sources of comedy are a simple matter of who’s doing what to whom. They include, of course, what the comedian does to him­self.

Chaplin was both the shlemiel and the shlimazel. He was the guy who spilled the drinks-the shlemiel-and the guy who had the drinks spilled on him-the shlimazel. In his shadings of comedy, and they were like a rainbow, he also played a combination of shlemiel-shlimazel. In Mode­rn Times, diving into six inches of water when he opens the back door, which is one of the great sight jokes in com­edy-film history, he does it to himself.”
Jerry Lewis

P.S. In an interview earlier this year on The Talk the 88-year-old Lewis said he began writing at the age of eight and that the idea for The Nutty Professor was to do a comedic version of  Jekyll and Hyde. (Either the Robert Lewis Stevenson novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or one of the many movies based on that book.)

Scott W. Smith

“Boris was a great artist. He did a beautiful job under difficult conditions. The weather was cold and overcast. We rushed to shoot the film in 35 days. Cheap is fast. Every day costs money. Spiegel, the producer, was on Kazan’s tail to go faster. We were pleased by the way the film turned out. Everybody was against it. We overcame all the obstacles.”
Screenwriter Budd Schulberg on Director of Photography Boris Kaufman who won an Oscar for shooting On the Waterfront which Schulberg won an Oscar for writing
on the waterfront

In the past year and a half I’ve been giving away boxes of my screenwriting and productions books to high schools and colleges. Last week I went through my bookshelves again and came up with two more boxes of books to give away and this batch includes William Froug’s Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade which was first published in 1992.

I flipped through my copy heavy with yellow highlighter marks looking for something I hadn’t covered on this blog before. Here’s the quote that jumped out at me:

“You are almost always better off if your scene is located outside in an interesting location with things happening in the background and all around the talkers. Keeping the characters moving helps. Movies are about moving pictures.”
Producer/writer/professor William Froug
Screenwritng Tricks of the Trade

Since this summer I’ve been calling these posts part of Screenwriting Summer School, it would be an interesting test to write down your all time favorite movie scenes and see if the majority of them are inside or outside. I know some screenwriters have a color coding index card system to see if they have a nice contrast of interior and exterior scenes. (Can’t recall anyone else saying you’re, “almost always better off if your scene is located outside.”)

The first exterior scene that jumped to my mind is the playground scene from On the Waterfronwritten by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. A simple walk and talk scene with Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando. It’s an understated scene and a bit of an exposition dump, but the good girl/bad boy scene (and their relationship) is important for the transformation of Brando’s character.

It’s a scene that does move the story forward and ties into the climax at the end of the story. I also like this scene because it’s an indie filmmaker-friendly kind of scene. It would be possible to shoot this scene with two actors and a four person crew. (How? Read The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns.)

The playground scene opens with a dolly shot* that runs a full two minutes without a cut. But it’s an elegant scene that’s not only well written and acted but watch it a couple of times and see how the direction and cinematography of this outdoor shot work to make the shot visually interesting. There’s the smoke from trashcan fires floating by, the swing set, the dropped glove, the stick of gum, the Manhattan skyline across the river, and the wrought iron fence—all of which to help make the three and a half-minutes visually interesting.

Van Gogh once said that he’d be content with water and a Rembrandt painting. I feel that way about On the Waterfront—a 1954 film that won 8 Oscars including Best Picture, and which the AFI lists as the #8 best movie of all time.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the climax of On the Waterfront is set outside. But the scene most played from the movie “I coulda been a contender” is set inside a car, and Karl Malden’s well-known speech is an interior scene. If someone’s expanded Froug’s outside comment please send me the link.

I’ve been watching the first season of The Sopranos (another Jersey-centered mob story like On the Waterfront) and I know cable TV—especially in the 90s before The Sopranos changed the face of TV—doesn’t have the budgets of an average Hollywood movie, but there’s a lot of sitting around and talking on The Sopranos. (Same for the #2 rated all-time TV show Seinfeld.)

Perhaps that’s the nature of the beast and it’s not fair to compare a top Tv show with a top movie.  Last year the Writer’s Guild of America named The Sopranos as the top show in television history. Created by David Chase it stands on it own and paved the way for one of the writers on The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner, to create Mad Men. And while Mad Men has its share of interior shots, the set design and set decorating of show set a new standard in Tv of how visually interesting an interior shot can be. And I’m sure there are plenty of Breaking Bad fans who would rather watch the compelling opening scene of the series a few times over the scene I chose from a black and white film that’s 60 years old.

This isn’t really about is TV more like theater than film, or a debate if TV writing is the best dramatic work being done today. It’s just three sentences by the one-time TV producer/writer and former UCLA professor Mr. Froug that I hopes helps you contemplate about your scene settings.

Here’s the second exterior scene that came to mind:

*A small indie crew couldn’t lay the tracks needed to do that On the Waterfront dolly shot with the large camera they used, but they could quickly set up and use a shorter dolly move using something like a Dana Dolly or what I have the Porta Jib Explorer. (I’ve even set my up in as little as 10 minutes shooting solo.) Or you could ditch the tracks altogether and using something like the MOVI.

Update: I learned that the studios wanted to shoot On the Waterfront on the lot in Los Angeles, but Kazan said it was an ‘East coast movie” and fought and won to shoot it in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Related posts:
The Source of ‘On the Waterfront’
Telling Our Own Shadow Stories
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
Kazan on Directing (Part 1) 

Scott W. Smith 

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