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Posts Tagged ‘Al Pacino’

“When I started writing Donnie Brasco—first of all, it was right at the beginning of my career so I was just really grateful to have a job. It was the first thing I did with Barry Levinson, and really that experience with Barry—you know Quiz Show came out of that, Homicide came out of that—it was fundamental to my development as a writer because all I’d been hearing up to that point was a lot of that kind of Syd Field, Robert McKee kind of [story structure]. And Barry basically, if you wrote a funny scene—that’s what he was looking for. It was really like the Howard Hawks’ apothegm that a good movie is five or six scenes and something in-between. If you have the five or six scenes the structure would announce itself. That was eye-opening for me. And when found that I could do that, that was the experience of [writing] Donnie Brasco.

It was really zeroing in on this character Lefty (Al Pacino). And what was great with that too is there is a lot of tape because they were eavesdropped on by the feds all the time. You could understand Lefty through how he sounded. And there was just all of this tape. And it was that relationship. The basic spine of it was clear to me early on which was at the end he [Donnie Brasco/Johnny Depp] either had to betray himself or betray his friend. That’s all you really need to find the structure.”
Screenwriter Paul Attanasio on writing Donnie Brasco
The Dialogue interview with Mike DeLuca (part 1)

Donnie Brasco originated from the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joseph D. Pistone with Richard Woodley.

“What [Levinson] got from the book was that mob life was really about guys in coffee shops scheming and bullsh*#ing, so that spoke to Diner, and Tin Men (other Barry Levinson films). Perception about people that he has mined for a while, and it wasn’t The Godfather and the beautiful Gordon Willis lighting, and the dignity of those guys. It was low life. And what I found in there is the relationship that gave it some heart and emotion.”
Paul Attanasio

P.S. Several years ago I interviewed former capo in the Columbo family Michael Franzese in Santa Monica for a TV program I was producing. I asked him what his favorite mafia film was and he said that he preferred the term “the family” and singled out Donnie Brasco. Fortune magazine once listed Franzese as number 18 of the “Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses.”

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Filmmaking Quote #39 (Howard Hawks)
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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The following quotes are pulled from Garry Marshall’s book, Wake Me When It’s Funny:

“I don’t storyboard. I don’t lay out each days shots, and I don’t always follow the dozen of other so-called rules of directing. I improvise as I go along while always remembering to protect the structure of the story and script and the integrity of the characters. Every character must want something and the main character must want to the most noble thing of all. There must be constant heat and tension that puts the main character’s future in jeopardy until the end of the film. Those were the major rules that guided me on each film I directed.”
Garry Marshall

“On Frankie and Johnny, one of the first questions I asked Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino was, ‘So, fine actors tell me about your lives.’ I wanted to know their hobbies, interests, and quirks so I could put them in the film to enhance the characters. It’s much more difficult to teach actors new hobbies…Michelle Pfeiffer told me she lived to bowl, so in Frankie and Johnny, we wrote in a scene at a bowling alley.”
Garry Marshall

(Note while actors are great at acting, performing an athletic feat with skill requires muscle memory. It often takes years (or intense training for several months) to make an actor look like they know what they’re doing playing tennis, throwing a football/baseball, surfing, and the like. Not an uncommon casting error in big and low budget films and TV programs. )

“I went from being a wise old sage of television to the new kid on the block in film. One minute I was at the top of the totem pole and the next minute I wasn’t even on it. I was forty-seven years old and regardless of what anybody tells you, to start a new career at forty-seven is daunting. Moving into film was like the first day at a new school where everybody knows the rules but you. They also seemed to know each other. When you don’t know the rules, you have to do your homework. I asked all my friends for advice on directing. The designer and producer Polly Platt reminded me of William Wyler’s words: ‘The key to directing is to resist the temptation to be a swell fellow.’ Everyone wants to be liked, but the key to directing is that you don’t want everyone to like you all the time. If you want to be adored on a movie set, don’t be a director, be the caterer. Everyone loves lunch.”
Garry Marshall

P.S. Richard Gere (who Marshall directed in two films) was asked by James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio what his favorite word was and Gere replied, “Lunch.” On student films (and micro budget features) you might be the director and the caterer. One of the most practical things I learned in film school was to properly feed the crew. Especially when you aren’t paying full rates (or they are volunteering their time) BTW—True of small video shoots as well. A couple weeks ago I worked on a nine person crew for a reality program and made sure they were feed. (Actually, nine people is bigger than some micro-features.)

P.P.S. Michelle Pfeiffer lives to bowl—who knew? Marshall didn’t just toss a bowling scene in the movie, he chose to use the bowling alley as a place for a key piece of character revelation. (Warning—Michelle can cuss like a league bowler, too.)

Scott W. Smith

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Between many of the screenwriting books and seminars that border and thrive on infomercial-like hype, there is a quiet realty that doesn’t help sell books and seminars. And that is that writing a script, selling a script, seeing that script get produced, that movie finding an audience, and it winning a major award doesn’t happen to very many people. It’s hard work that involve a lot of factors to come together at the right time.

And those it does happen to are usually very talented people who have worked very hard to have their moment in the spotlight. For screenwriter Adam Mazer that moment came last Sunday night at the Emmy Awards when he walked with the award for outstanding writing for a mini-series, movie, or dramatic special, for his work on the HBO movie You Don’t Know Jack.

But before he worked on the film which was directed by Barry Levinson and starred Al Pacino (who also won the Emmy for outstanding male actor for his role as Jack Kevorkian) Mazer grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from George Washington High School in 1985. Twelve years later in 1997 he sold his first script, but it would be another 10 years before one of his scripts got made (Breach).

So even though Mazer is around 43-years-old and had just films made he’s not complaining.

“I’m happy that it didn’t happen too soon. I got to learn what the drive was, how you have to persevere. . . . The last week, last couple of days, I can really appreciate it. I’ve been happy to make a living as a writer. There is a sizable cohort of comfortable screenwriters who have never had one of their works produced. People outside of Hollywood don’t understand how things work. I do make a nice living.
Adam Mazer quotes pulled from
Jonathan Storms article, he Philadelphia Inquirer Television Critic

I hope the Emmy helps Mazer see more of his scripts produced.

And for what it’s worth, Mazer graduated from Syracuse University where writers Rod Serling and Aaron Sorkin also attended.

Scott W. Smith

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“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) quoting fatherly advice
Ranked #58 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes

After the screen success of The Godfather the studios were interested in making a sequel. Wrtier/director Francis Ford Coppola, who did not enjoy the process of making The Godfather, was not as thrilled with repeating the experience and turned down their offer. The studios told him they couldn’t  believe he had found the secret formula but was not interested in making more of the product. Eventually Coppola agreed to produce the film finding a new director and then circumstances changed and once again he was leading The Godfather family, writing and directing the sequel.

“The Godfather Part II had taken upon itself a very ambitious structure  which was that it was going to tell its story in two entirely different time periods basically going back and forth in a kind of parallel structure between them. Actually, this was an idea before I knew I was making this Godfather Part II, I wanted to write a screenplay about a man and his son but both at the same age—like let’s say 30 years old— and tell the parallel story. Finally, I found myself doing The Godfather Part II—I basically just took that notion and conceived of Part II as having two time periods told against each other.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Part II DVD Commentary

Coppola basically wrote the contemporary parts that were set in Miami, Lake Tahoe and Cuba while the older sections in Italy and New York were taken from Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. The Godfather Part II was nominated for 11 Academy Award winning 6, including Best Screenplay from Adapted Material for both Coppola and Puzo. The Godfather Part II is listed #32  on AFI’s !00 Years…100 Movies—1oth Anniversay Edition. And Michael Corleone is listed as the #11 top villian in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villians. Not bad for a film Coppola didn’t initially want to make.

(Though personally, I must add that I think Pacino as Tony Montana—Scarface— could take Pacino as Michael Corleone any day of the week. Unless Montana was all coked-up.)

Scott W. Smith

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“I was in great danger of being fired.”
Francis Ford Coppola (reflecting on the third week of shooting The Godfather)

One of the best things I learned in film school was from a professor who said in a nice Brooklyn accent, “Everybody on the set believes they can direct the picture better than you.” That’s true of student films, and it was no different for Francis Ford Coppola when he was directing The Godfather.

He overheard in a bathroom crews members saying things like, “Ah, what do you think of this director? Boy, he doesn’t know anything.” The studios didn’t like Coppola’s choice of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone. They preferred Robert Redford to Al Pacino as Michael. They didn’t like the lighting of the DP Gordon Willis. By the third week of shooting he thought he was going to be fired. So, in Mafia-like fashion, he fired four key crew members that he thought were “traitors” and conspiring against him, which forced the studio to keep him on the picture.

“I was very unhappy during (the shooting of) The Godfather, I had been told by everyone that my ideas for it were so bad— and I didn’t have a hell of a lot of confidence in myself—I was only about 30 years old or so. And I was just hanging on by my wits. You know I had no indication that this nightmare was going to turn into a successful film, much less a film that was to become a classic. So I always feel for young people working—remember that those times when you feel that your ideas aren’t good— or people are putting down your ideas, or you’re getting fired, that those are the same ideas that you’re going to be celebrated for 30 years later. So you almost have to have courage.”
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather DVD Commentary

It would probably be good to edit the words “almost have to have” from that last line and replace it with the word “must.” As in, “So you must have courage.”

The Godfather won three Academy Awards—Best Picture, Marlon Brando as Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Mario Puzo and Coppola won for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film was nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards and has been named by Entertainment Weekly and Empire Magazine as the greatest movie ever made.

Scott W. Smith

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Last night I watched Michael Mann’s Heat for the first time. I’m not sure what took me 15 years to see the film starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. I should have seen this when it first came out if for no other reason that I believe it’s the first time Pacino and DeNiro faced each other in a film. It’s not your typical good guy/bad guy story. Mann exposes for the grey areas of the characters and you think that it wouldn’t take much for the good guy to be the bad guy and the bad guy to be the good guy. Similar criminal minds who have taken different paths that pit them against each other.

My favorite line in the film was said by Val Kilmer when De Niro asks him why his woman is leaving him and Kilmer says (in his ocean front house), “Not enough steaks in the freezer.”  That’s tight writing and we know he’s not talking about literal “steaks in the freezer.”

Heat screenwriter/ director Michael Mann was born and raised in Chicago and got turned on to filmmaking while an English major at the University of Wisconsin. He made documentaries in London before writing for TV shows like Starsky & Hutch and Police Story and creating Miami Vice. From there he’s gone on to write and or direct some terrific feature films including The Last of the Mohicans, Collateral, and The Insider. Along the way he’s picked up four Oscar nominations.

To get a glimpse of how Mann works here is a part of an interview that Mann did with Michael Sragow talking about writing and directing The Insider starring Pacino and Russell Crowe:

I tried to direct the subtext. That’s where I found the meaning of the scenes. You could write the story of certain scenes in a code that would be completely coherent but have nothing to do with the lines you hear.

For example, in the hotel room scene, Scene 35, when Lowell and Jeffrey first meet: All Lowell knows for sure is that Jeffrey has said “no” to helping him analyze a story about tobacco for “60 Minutes.” He doesn’t know yet that there’s a “yes” hiding behind this “no.” There’s a whole story going on that’s not what anybody’s talking about.

If you wrote an alternate speech for Jeffrey, it would go: “I’m here to resurrect some of my dignity, because I’ve been fired, and that’s why I dressed up this way and that’s why I have these patrician, corporate-officer attitudes.” And you could do the same for Lowell, and have him sitting there and saying, “This man wants to tell me something that is not about why he’s meeting me.”

Al Pacino just took over Lowell’s great reporter’s intuition to sit there and laser-scan Jeffrey with his eyes. You know, he looks at him, looks at him, and doesn’t move, until, after all the fidgeting and shuffling with the papers, Russell, as Jeffrey, gets to say his great line — “I was a corporate vice president” — with the attitude “Once upon a time, I was a very important person.” And that [Mann snaps his fingers] is when Lowell has it.

Suddenly, here’s the significance of this meeting: “He’s the former head of research and development at Browne & Williamson Tobacco Company, and he wants to talk to me.” Without hitting anything on the head with exposition, without any of that awful dialogue, like “Boy, have I got a lead which may give us the newsbreak of the decade,” you know that Lowell knows he’s on the scent of a helluva story.

Scott W. Smith

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“(Scent of a Woman) is my favorite only because I feel like I matured and the movie reflects that.”
Screenwriter Bo Goldman

Before Bo Goldman won an Academy Award as a screenwriter he had to experience his own personal life of ups and downs.

His father owned a chain of department stores which afforded Goldman an opportunity to attend prep schools and prepared him for Princeton University. He spent three years in the Army. All of those experiences would come in handy years later in writing Scent of a Woman.

But in the meantime while still in his twenties had his first play performed on Broadway. He was on the fast track. “First Impressions ran about three months. Then I was ten years trying to get my second one on Broadway,” Goldman told William Froug in Zen and the Art of Screenwriting.

That’s when things got tough for Goldman. “I was young and had a large family. And you know the old story about Broadway; You can’t make a living, you can only make a killing. I was starving, and when my parents died around 1970, 71, 72, I kind of bottomed out…It was humiliating.”

He wrote for TV including a Christmas show for PBS that was successful, and at the same time wrote a screenplay about marriages he saw breaking up which was a new trend. It took nine years to get Shoot the Moon made but the script became a calling card and got the attention of director Milos Forman who was having trouble with a script for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Goldman stepped in to get his first produced film credit, as well as his first Oscar. (Shared with Lawrence Hauben, and based on the novel by Ken Kesey and the play written by Dale Wasserman.)

He won his second Oscar four years later for Melvin and Howard.  Scent of a Woman was released in 1992, 13 years after is second Oscar. Goldman explained to Froug where the concept for Scent of a Woman (1992) came from;

“I had been estranged from most of my family, and still am from the ones I grew up with and my long-lost brother, who made millions in mortgage brokerage, became an alcoholic, and had a terribly tragic life. Then I got this SOS from another brother of mine who said the once-rich brother was going to need conservator. He was living in a big expensive New York apartment, a year behind on rent, and had no money at all. I went there and found him living in a kind of shabby elegance. The skeletons of his life were riddled with moral cancer, to strike a phrase. A week later, I came back to California and got a call from Martin Brest, who showed me this sort of forgotten Italian movie, Profuma di Donna. I looked at this movie, and this character struck me as being exactly like my brother, who became the character in Scent of a Woman. The character was crossed with my first sergeant in the Army, a member of the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who was the second man I’ve ever really been afraid of, and the first man I was afraid of—my father. The sergeant was a real soldier…So this character became a hybrid of all these people.”

Of course, Al Pacino brought that character to life (and, believe it or not, is Pacino’s only Oscar-winning performance)—a character forged from Goldman’s life in prep school, experience in the military, his father, and a brother who had gone from riches to rags.

That process that Goldman talked about is a perfect example what I wrote about in Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C).

And how about that phrase of Goldman’s—”The skeletons of his life were riddled with moral cancer.” Fine writing and good inspritation for you to write about the characters who have crossed your path who are living in their equivalent world “of shabby elegance” and riddled with moral cancer. Audiences will always find those creatures facinating to watch. (Noah Cross in Chinatown and Gordon Gekko in Wall St. come to mind.)

Scott W. Smith

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