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“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
                                                         Gordon Gekko
                                                         Wall St. 

“Our entire economy is in danger.”
                                                         President George W. Bush
                                                         September 2008    

“When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod?”
                                                        
 Doc Hudson (voice of Paul Newman)
                                                          Cars       

                                                    

This is a look at two Hollywood icons. One fictitious, one real. One that’s alive and well and one that just died. 

But before we get to our heavyweight match-up let’s look at why I’ve put them in the ring together.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase made popular during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid. It’s always about the economy. Well, usually. Understanding economics can help your screenwriting greatly.  

First let me clarify that if you’re looking for “The Economics of Screenwriting” (how much you can get paid for screenwriting)  then check out Craig Mazin’s article at The Artful Writer

Few things are as primal in our lives as the economy. Wall Street’s recent shake-up joins a long list of economic upheaval throughout history. Just so we’re on the same page, the word economy flows down from the Greek meaning “house-hold management.” I mean it to include how people, businesses, villages, towns, cities and countries manage resources such as money, materials and natural resources. 

That is a wide path indeed. It’s why college football coach Nick Saban is on the cover of the September 1, 2008 issue of Forbes magazine as they explain why he is worth $32 million dollars to the University of Alabama. Why is the economy center stage once again in the most recent presidential election? Because… it’s always the economy, stupid.

Looking back you’ll see economics at the core issue of not only Enron, Iraq, 911 and the great depression but world wars, famines, and even the Reformation. I’m not sure how much further we can look back than Adam and Eve, but that whole apple/fruit thing in the garden had huge economic (as well as theological) ramifications. (In fact, it’s been said that there is more written in the Bible about money than about salvation.)    

There is no question that economics plays a key role in films as well — in production as well as content. On some level it’s almost always about the economy. This first dawned on me when I saw Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” for the first time and I realized the thread of money in it. Then I read Ibsen’s play  “An Enemy of the People” and noticed the economic theme there. They I started noticing it everywhere in plays, novels and movies.

From the mayor’s perspective the real danger of Bruce the shark in Jaws is he threatens the whole economy of the island town. In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney takes the boat back out because money is tight. Dustin Hoffman auditions as a women in Tootsie because he can’t get work as a male actor. Once you see this you see it everywhere in movies. 

Here is a quick random list where money, need to pay bills, lack of a job, greed and/or some form of economics play a key part in the story:

Chinatown
Scarface
Titanic
Sunset Blvd.
Tootsie
On the Waterfront
Wall St.
Cinderella 
Cinderella Man
Ragging Bull
Rocky 
Jaws
Jerry Maguire
It’s a Wonderful Life
Field of Dreams
Big
Greed
Body Heat
Falling Down
The Godfather
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 
The Jerk
Gone with the Wind
The Verdict 
Gone with the Wind 
The Grapes of Wrath
Risky Business
Do the Right Thing
Hoop Dreams 
Rain Man
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Gold Rush
Home Alone
Babette’s Feast
The Incredibles
Castway
Ocean’s Eleven
The Perfect Storm
Pretty Women
Trading Places
Indecent Proposal 
The Firm
American Ganster 
Rollover 

And it’s not limited to dramatic films. It’s hard to watch Hoops Dreams, Ken Burns’ The West, or any Michael Moore documentary and not connect it to economics.

So if you’re struggling with a story or struggling what to write, open up that door that explores economics. You don’t have to write The Wealth of Nations, but at least explore some aspect of it.  Join Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and other great writers who tackled that monster.

One thing living in the Midwest the past five years has done is help me understand how the world works economically. Because on a small level you see when John Deere is selling tractors locally, nationally and globally it helps the housing market here as the standard of living increases. The Midwest was the only place to to see homes appreciate last quarter. (Other parts of the country saw a 2 to 36% drop.)  But that wasn’t always the case.

When the farming crisis hit in the mid-eighties and John Deere (Cedar Valley’s largest employer) laid off 10,000 of it’s 15,000 employees and people were walking away from their homes. A film that came out of that era was the 1984 Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange film Country filmed right here in Black Hawk County. (By the way John Deere the company celebrates today 90 years being in this area. If you’ve ever eaten food they’ve had some role in it along the way.)

Three years later Oliver Stone’s film Wall St. came out the same year Black Monday occurred as stock markets around the world crashed. It was the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history since the great depression. (It only ranks #5 now.)  So here we are 20 years later still trying to figure it all out as two of the top ten largest stock market drops have been in the last two weeks. (Sept 29 update: Make that three of the top ten stock market drops have occurred in the last two weeks.)

(I’m sure Stone felt good when Wall St. first came out, kinda of like “I told you so.” But on the DVD commentary Michael Douglas said that he often told by stock brokers that they got into the business because of the Gekko character he played. Douglas said he doesn’t understand because he was the bad guy. But how many of those guys now in positions of leadership in the financial crisis had Gekko as their hero? To quote writer/professor Bill Romanowski one more time, “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”

The news will tell us what happened, critics will tell us why it happened, and it’s up to writers to tell us what it means. For years now I have noticed in many different states that more often than not when I go into a convenience store I see someone buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets and I ask myself, “What does this say about about the direction we are heading?”

Screenwriting is a place where we can pose those questions –and the playwright Ibsen said it was enough to ask the question.  So get busy asking questions. And if the economy gets worse remember this Carlos Stevens quote:

”Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”

On the opposite end of Hollywood from Gordon Gekko is Paul Newman. If there ever was an example of a talented actor/director and giving businessman/ social entrepreneur it was Ohio-born and raised Newman who passed away last night. Newman’s films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict will always be favorites of mine.

“I had no natural gift to be anything–not an athlete, not an actor, not a writer, not a director, a painter of garden porches–not anything. So I’ve worked really hard, because nothing ever came easily to me.”
                                                                                            Paul Newman 

 

(Newman’s Midwest roots extend to performing in summer stock theaters in Wisconsin and Illinois. And an Iowa connection is his last Academy Award nomination was for his role in The Road to Perdition which was based on the graphic novel by Iowa writer Max Allen Collins. And don’t forget that the Newman’s Own label was inspired by Cedar Rapids artist Grant Woods’ American Gothic.

I find it interesting that the three largest legendary film actors coming up in the 50s were all from the Midwest; Marlon Brando (Nebraska), James Dean (Indiana) along with Newman.)

Gavin the lawyer Newman played in the David Mamet scripted The Verdict says words that are just as relevant today as when they we spoken a couple decades ago: “You know, so much of the time we’re lost. We say, ‘Please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless…’ We become tired of hearing people lie.”

The world is upside down when we pay executives millions in golden parachutes when they drive a company into the ground. And that’s after they lied about the about the companies financial record along with their hand picked spineless board of directors. And after they’ve cashed in their own inflated stocks while the stockholders and employees are shortchanged.

But how nice to see a company like Newman’s Own whose entire profits from salad dressing and all natural food products are donated to charities. The company motto is “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.” To date Newman and his company have generated more than $250 million to thousands of charities worldwide. 

“What could be better than to hold out your hand to people who are less fortunate than you are?
                                                                                                      Paul Newman

P.S. Robert Redford had hoped he and Newman would be able to make one last film together and had bought the rights to Des Moines, Iowa born and raised Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods

“I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn’t decide if we were too old to do it,” said Redford. “The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Trouble, oh we got trouble, Right here in River City!”
                                                  Music Man, written by Iowa native Meredith Willson

How high’s the water, mama? 
Five feet high and risin’ 
                                                   Johnny Cash
                                                   Five Feet High and Risin’ 

 

I was supposed to get my haircut today…that didn’t happen.

When the morning begins with a segment of the NBC Today Show in Cedar Falls, Iowa you know there’s trouble in River City. Just two blocks from my office the Cedar River flows. In fact, we chose the name River Run Productions for our company because we saw the river as a metaphor that runs though Iowa and eventually into the Mississippi which eventually runs into the Gulf of Mexico and around the world.

Little did we know when we launched in January of ‘07 that just four months later I would be doing a shoot in Brazil including flying in a seaplane over the meeting of the waters where the Amazon and Rio Negro Rivers meet. 

But back in Cedar Falls today it was a long day of partaking along with hundreds (thousands?) of volunteers (including my partner who lost his home in the Parkersburg tornado two weeks ago) filling and placing sandbags trying to keep the river at bay. So far it’s been working to protect the downtown area, though many people in the low lying areas have evacuated and much of their homes underwater.  And the river is not supposed to crest until sometime tomorrow. 

 

Somewhere between moving boxes of photographs and memories to the basement Saturday night due to a tornado warning and taking the same boxes upstairs this morning in case of flooding, one can’t help but examine what you really need in your life.

I took all of these photos today and will give updates in coming days and then bring it full circle in regard to screenwriting and life.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday June 11, 2008 Update

The sandbagging on Tuesday paid off in Cedar Falls as the river crested at 2 AM with the downtown being spared from any flooding despite a record level of 102 feet. I drove over to Waterloo to help artist & friend Paco Rosic with his battle to hold back the flooding there from his restaurant/studio. Without much sleep in the last two night he and his father are winning the battle when most have given up.  Here are some shots of the front, inside (the multiple cords going to several water pumps), and view from the back of Galleria De Paco (voted this year as the #1 attraction in Iowa).

 

Thursday June 12, 2008 Update

Where’d all the good people go?
I’ve been changin’ channels
I don’t see them on the tv shows
Where’d all the good people go?
                                                                                                 Jack Johnson
                                                                                                 Good People

The secret’s out, Jack. A lot of those good people are in Iowa. They’re even on tv. NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams showed some of them in last night’s broadcast, including a nurse who volunteered in the morning after working an all-night shift in an intensive care unit. All told, I heard 5,000 people and 250,000 sandbags filled and placed on the levee helped keep the river back in downtown Cedar Falls. (Not that I put myself in the good people category, but I did make a brief cameo on the NBC segment in a non-speaking role as “Volunteer passing sandbag in white long sleeve t-shirt and camera strap around front.”)

It appears the worst is over in Cedar Falls but problems continue to mount in Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City and in other cites across Iowa and the Midwest. All of this reminds me of a quote from Steve Brown who I produced a video for in Nashville a couple years ago:

“The one thing I’ve learned is every day the world rolls over on top of someone who was just sitting on top of it yesterday.”

I don’t think a week goes by when I don’t think of that quote. I used to keep a list I called the roll over club. It contained names like John Kennedy Jr., Princess Diana, Mike Tyson, Kenneth Lay (Enron), Michael Vick, Britney Spears, Barry Bonds…you get the picture.

The point is things change quickly when your sitting on top of the world. I’m fond of pointing to Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air where after reaching the peak of Mount Everest exhausted he took a few pictures and then began his decent. Krakauer writes, “All told, I’d spent less than five minutes on the roof of the world.”

Over the years I’ve seen many people who were at the top of the world before it began to roll: Muhammad Ali, Christopher Reeves, and Michael J. Fox come to mind. Ali continually reminded us that he was “the greatest” though he had to recant that later, when Reeves died due to complications from a horse riding accident that had left him paralyzed one headline read, “Superman Dies,” and Fox had an amazing dream year in his early 20’s when he was the star of the top rated TV program that he shot in the day and then went to his night job shooting “Back to the Future” that would become a #1 box office hit long before his career and life took a blow as he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

And in 1990 The New York Times  ran an article on The Man Who Own Prime Time about Brandon Tartikoff who had become the youngest person ever to be chosen the head programmer of a network at 31 and rose to become president of NBC Entertainment. Under his leadership NBC flourished with a string of successes including Cheers, The Cosby Show, LA Law, Family Ties and Seinfeld and for one incredible five year run NBC was the No. 1 Network for five consecutive seasons. Seven years after that article appeared Tartiloff died at age 48 from Hodgkin’s disease. 

Despite human’s great accomplishments, the above stories and this recent flood are reminders of how fragile we are. 

Whatever mountain top you are reaching for know that if you are one of the fortunate ones who gets to the summit you don’t get to stay up there very long. An acting teaching once told me “When your feet hit the ground in the morning if you don’t want to be an actor more than anything then don’t pursue it because it’s too hard to make it and too hard to stay if you do make it. So unless you love acting it’s not worth it.” That’s great advise for the screenwriter as well.  

In the June 5 issues of Time magazine there is an article called “How to Live Live With Just 100 Things.” Lisa Mclaughlin writes, ‘Excess consumption is practically an American religion. But as anyone with a filled-to-the-gills closet knows, the things we accumulate can become oppressive.” Dave Bruno started what he calls “the 100 Thing Challenge,  a grass-roots movement in which otherwise seemingly normal folks are pledging to whittle down their possessions to a mere 100 items.”

Maybe trading in your multiple piece spoon, fork and knife set for a spork won’t bring the Jewish concept of Shalom or peace (what Cornelius Plantinga Jr. calls “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight…Shalom, in other words is the way things ought to be.”)  But maybe it’s a step in the direction of that happy ending we all seek.

I think that is the single greatest reasons why movie audiences yearn for (in some cases demand) a happy ending. Because one of the deepest longings in life is to find shalom. Look at many of the films people return to again and again (The Shawshank Redemption, Titanic, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, Finding Nemo, Rocky, The Wizard of Oz) and you will find this concept over and over again. Most (all?) films at least show a small corner of shalom or it’s opposite, a world lived outside the garden.

Who doesn’t want to have that moment of clarity that Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire has as he writes his mission statement and says, “It was the me I’d always wanted to be”? 

Often it takes an event like a flood, 9-11 or a death in the family, or a personal illness to get our attention. Out of difficult times we need to have hope that there is a purpose and meaning to our suffering. Let’s not forget those who have lost greatly in the recent tornadoes and floods and pitch in where we can. And in time we’ll hear stories from this flood about how good things came out of the calamity.

Just like the Johnny Cash song Five Feet High and Risin':

My mama always taught me that good things come from adversity if we put our faith in the Lord.
We couldn’t see much good in the flood waters when they were causing us to have to leave home, 
But when the water went down, we found that it had washed a load of rich black bottom dirt across our land. The following year we had the best cotton crop we’d ever had.

Sunday June 15, 2008 Update

This morning’s early morning lightening storm was kind of an exclamation point to two weeks of strange weather for the area.

And all the flooding in Iowa proves one thing: Jay Leno was wrong. Back in the first week January just before the Iowa caucuses he said that the word caucus was an Indian word meaning the only day of the year anyone pays attention to Iowa.

From two weeks ago when Parkersburg and other towns where hit by a tornado to the flooding of last week has provided the national press with lots of dramatic images.

Things began to return back to normal in Cedar Falls on Friday when the downtown ban was lifted and the national guard moved on. By Friday night hundreds of people had gathered in Overman Park to watch a movie in the park. Late Saturday afternoon I rode my bike downtown and saw Cup ‘O Joe was open on Main St. and the distinct sound of a Bob Marley song was being performed live at The Hub: 

Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Singin': “Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right!

                                            Bob Marley
                                            Three Little Birds

 

 

Wednesday June 18, 2008 Update

It’s tough out there
High Water Everywhere
                                                                              
Bob Dylan   
                                                                               High Water (For Charlie Patton)
 

It’s hard to believe that is less than a week that flooding in Iowa alone as displaced tens of thousands of people and caused over $1.5 billion in damage. It’s a classic man vs. nature battle that will also have long a term economic impact.

Just about a month ago I did a couple days location scouting for Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It in the very areas being hit by flood waters; Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Vinton and Cedar Rapids. Probably a good choice by Mandate Pictures to shoot their roller derby film later this summer in other states. 

But those areas will rebound because that’s what good Midwestern people do. And I thought I’d share with you some photos from this part of Iowa that I hope will be a refreshing break from the images you are seeing on the TV day after day. 

Vinton, Iowa Library

Vinton, Iowa Courthouse

 Cedar Rapids, Iowa 

Cedar Rapids Historic Theater

 

 

Photos and text copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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Auntie Em: “Why don’t you find a place where there isn’t any trouble?” 
Dorothy:
“A place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place Toto? There must be.”
                                                                               The Wizard of Oz

Melissa: “Is there an F5?… What would that be like?”
Jason ‘Preacher’ Rowe
: ”The finger of God.” 
                                                                               Twister
 

Chances are if you think back to where you were in 1996 it may seem like 100 years ago. A lot can happen in 12 years.

1996 is on my radar today because it’s the release date of a two-disc special edition of the movie Twister that was made that year. Iowa was not on my radar back then and neither were storm chasers.  Those strange people who in the name of science roam the region known as tornado alley chasing monster-sized tornados looking for data to improve warning systems and hopefully save lives. (And also a good excuse to have an exciting day at the office.)

Twister was shot in Oklahoma and Iowa and according to some reports it was one of the most demanding films ever made. It earned every penny of its almost $500 million worldwide gross. According to Box Office Mojo Twister is #50 in all-time domestic box office draw.

It was everything that you expect from a big Hollywood tent pole movie. Special effects and more special effects. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in the Twister screenplay the story is basically there to bridge one spectacular special effect with the next. The filmmakers and the studios told us what kind of film they were making and delivered on their promise.

I look forward to seeing the special edition DVD just to see the behind the scene footage and listen to the added commentary material. In fact, the commentary material may be the only way I watch some films from now on. I did that for the first time with the movie Cloverfield. I just rented it to listen to the director’s commentary. (I love learning little things like one phrase producer J.J. Abrams is fond of saying to keep the budget down is “We can make this whole movie with a ball of yarn.” Abrams and director Matt Reeves did an amazing job with special effects on Cloverfield given their budget was only a third of Twisters.)

A couple weeks ago I was meandering in a used book store next to the University of Northern Iowa looking for something different and came across a book called Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie by Keay Davidson.

I flipped through it and found this quote:

“If you want a spiritual experience, you should go spend April to June in the Midwest, because you have never seen cloud formations like this! You watch everything in the sky happening in front of you as if you were watching time-lapse photography. We would literally watch cloud towers shoot into the sky and within fifteen minutes one little cloud would rise to become one 30,000 feet high.” 
                                                                     Producer (Twister) Kathleen Kennedy

Now when Kathleen Kennedy talks you should listen. She has flat out had an amazing career in Hollywood and has had a hand in producing some of my favorite films: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Seabiscuit (the only movie poster I own), and most recently The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. If you’re still not impressed, she also produced the upcoming Indiana Jones film being released later this month. (Not bad for starting out as a secretary/production assistant for Steven Spielberg.)

To top it off Kennedy is married to Frank Marshall who produced Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Bourne Ultimatum and a whole lot in between. Together the Kennedy/Marshall duo have produced films that have made over 5 billion dollars. 

Here’s another passage from Davidson’s book:

Twister’s setting is as grandiose as its subject: the Midwest. A terrain as rich in myth for Americans as the Aegean is for Greeks…What makes the Midwestern sky “so interesting is that the terrain is so flat—more than half of what you’re seeing is sky! So you tend to pay a lot of attention to it, said (Twister) director of photography Jack Green. “They’ve got these incredible cloud patterns passing through—clouds that contrast against a clear, intense blue and nearly unpolluted sky.”

The blue sky here in Iowa can be mesmerizing. (Especially if you’ve ever been on the Disney lot in Burbank and not been able to see the Verdugo Mountains just a few miles away because of the smog.) And while some Hollywood producers only know that blue sky as they’re flying over this part of the country, there are stories to be told from here. And I hope you’re doing your part to write them down wherever you live.

On a closing note the first week of May is not even over and already around 100 tornados have been spotted in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Iowa. Unfortunately it’s cost hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damages and claimed several lives.

And even more tragic, in Myanmar (next to Thailand) they report over 20,000 deaths due to a cyclone this week.

None of us know where we’ll be 12 years from now. But one thing we can be sure of is there will be more disasters like Hurricane Katrina, 911, and the Tsunami that killed over 200,000 in Asia.  There will be many prayers said and much relief work done. But remember that stories can also bring healing power and help give us perspective on life.

“Today is Father’s Day. Until my stroke, we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar. But today we spend the whole of the symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.”
                                                                       The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
                                                                        Jean-Dominique Bauby 

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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