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Posts Tagged ‘Big’

Big is one of those rare films that will tickle the funny bone and touch the heart.”
Movie critic Peter Travers (then with People magazine)

“(As a screenwriter) I’m in that emotional place where there is room for idealism. In Big (1988) and Dave (1993) there is a similar question being asked: Is innocence redemptive? And I want people to come away with renewed optimism.”
Four-time Oscar nominated producer/screenwriter Gary Ross (Seabiscuit)
1993 LA Times article 

The following exchange between screenwriters Anne Spielberg and Gary Ross can be seen on the second disc of the expanded edition of Big. The 1988 film brought the screenwriters an Oscar nomination, as well as landing Tom Hanks his first Academy Award nomination.

Gary: If there was a punch line on top of the situation where you could feel the writer—we’d yank it out.  If you were organically laughing at the situation, then than was great, that’s where the comedy should come from. If we went through pages and pages (in reading the script for Big) when you weren’t laughing, that was okay.

Anne: And that’s what gave the poignancy to it—that you’re always on that edge of being a kid on his own, and he can’t go home again. There’s always that little moment of sadness just right around the corner.

Gary: And under a lot of the movie there is a lot of sadness. A loss of childhood is a wonderful and sad thing, and I think we respected both of those emotions. And I think one of the things we did that was good was when the story wasn’t funny to us, but was true to the story—that was okay.

An interesting sidenote to the casting of big; Tom Hanks originally turned now the role in Big, and Anne and Gary (and director Penny Marshall) were working with Robert De Niro to play the role of the boy who wakes up a man. Imagine how different that film would be.

And way back in 1959 a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling called Walking Distance first aired. It’s the story of an ad man who mysteriously returns to his childhood town—and nothing has changed. Rod said it was one of his most personal episodes and the theme of returning to one’s youth was never far from his thoughts. You can read that script at rodserling.com. The small boy in the clip below from that episode was played by Ron Howard.

(Yes, Hollywood is one big family–Ron’s dad, Rance Howard, is an actor, Anne’s brother is Steven, and Gary’s dad, Arthur A. Ross, was a screenwriter —deal with it. Write a script as good as Big and you’ll be in the family as well. One more reason Diablo Cody should be your screenwriting hero—a total Hollywood outsider…until she had a hit film and won a Oscar.)

I think the Big commentary by Anne and Gary is the single best commentary I’ve ever heard on a movie from the perspective of a screenwriter, because it is the only one I know that has the original recordings of the creative process as they developed the story right out of the gate.

Related posts:

It Takes Guts to be a Screenwriter (Gary Ross quote)

Rod Serling’s Binghamton Roots

Writing “Seabiscuit”

The Juno—Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

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We can learn a lot by setting two things alongside one another. It’s even better if we have a reason to do so.”
David Bordwell

“Can we really discuss 13 Going on 30 without mentioning Big?
Adam Levenberg

Big (1988): When a boy wishes to be big at a magic wish machine, he wakes up the next morning and finds himself in an adult body literally overnight.

13 Going on 30 (2004): A 13 year old girl plays a game on her 13th birthday and wakes up the next day as a 30 year old woman.

There are many words and phrases to explain why some films appear to be very similar to other films: Remake, update, homage, rip-off, mash-up, inspired by, parallels, movie mapping, story patterns, story echo, influences, and good old-fashioned plagiarism.

Sea of Love= Basic Instinct
A Stranger Among Us= Witness
Double Indemnity=Body Heat
Indecent Proposal=Honeymoon in Vegas
Clueless=Emma
Westworld=Jurassic Park
A Christmas Carol= Scrooged
Cyrano de Bergerc=Roxanne
Hardcore=The Searchers
First Blood= The Sheepman
Yojimbo=A Fistful of Dollars
Dreamscape=Inception
Doc Hollywood=Cars
City on Fire= Reservoir Dogs
(This one even gets a video Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?)

Fatal Attraction=Unfaithful

“We could hold a Fatal Attraction film festival, screening the teen version Swimfan, the African American comedy version The Thin Line Between Love and Hate, the parody superhero hybrid My Super Ex-Girlfriend, the recent hit Obsessed.”
Adam Levenberg
The Starter Screenplay

Of course, before Fatal Attraction there was Play Misty for Me. The 1971 film was the directorial debut of  Clint Eastwood, who would later say that the film was “The original Fatal Attraction.” Play Misty for Me was written by Jo Heims and Dean Riesner. Even if you haven’t seen that film, see if the IMDB description doesn’t sound familiar:

“A brief fling between a male disc jockey and an obsessed female fan takes a frightening, and perhaps even deadly turn when another woman enters the picture.”

There is a long standing debate on just how much the work of Christopher Marlowe shaped the works of William Shakespeare. But the cycle never really stops as Shakespeare has been accused of stealing from the Roman writer Plautus and Plautus adapted many a Greek playwright.

There are plenty of books and articles as critics discuss the similarities of such and such a film. Tomorrow well look at what some filmmakers and screenwriters have to say about the topic.

Scott W. Smith



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“There’s no such thing as a totally new concept, just reworking old ones to make them current and fresh.”
Adam Levenberg
The Starter Screenplay

We’ll start the new year by looking at an old trend in the movie business—Similiarities between films.

It’s not hard to look at Roger Corman’s Piranha (1978) and see how it was influenced by JAWS (1975). But it’s also not hard to see how JAWS was influenced by the classic 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. I’d like to think that a then eight year old Steven Spielberg saw Creature from the Black Lagoon when it first came out and thought, “Gee, when I grow up I think it would be fun to work at Universal Studios.”

—The creature and the shark both kill people
—The creature and the shark strand a boat that threatens all aboard
—Both stories have an element of greed on the part of the humans
—Both have quirky boat captains
—Both have scientists
—Similar music to announce impending danger of creature/shark (Da-Dum)
—Both are Universal Pictures
—The creature and the shark are killed at the end

I’m sure there are a few other similarities. Just as there are similarities between Creature and King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1946), Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). Of course Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein was published in 1818. And if we went back in time we have tales of creatures by the Greeks and Romans, and even in the Garden of Eden we have the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve.

To use Blake Snyder’s phrase, “monster in the house” stories have been with us a long time. (Even if the house is technically a lagoon or a small beach town.) Overall I think we put too much emphasis on the similarities of film instead of their differences. Earlier this week I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon and JAWS and found they each stand on their own.

I once had a teacher say that if you gave ten writers the basic concept of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and had them write a script you would have ten original stories. Heck, Scorsese has made a career out of lifting chunks of 1930s gangster films and giving them his own imprint.

So don’t be discouraged when people read your script and say, “Oh, it’s just like….” They’re just seeing patterns that are in every film. Last week I saw The Black Swan and I thought, “Oh, it’s The Wrestler meets The Fight Club.” Then I saw Mark Walhberg in The Fighter and even though it’s based on a true story, I still thought, “It’s part Rocky (1976) and part Fat City (1972).” Your originality will come from your own unique background.

And speaking of  Creature from the Black Lagoon, I saw where screenwriter Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) is remaking the film. Turns out that Ross’ father, Arthur A. Ross, was one of the screenwriters on the original film. The elder Ross was nominated for an Oscar for the 1980 film Brubaker which was just eight years before Gary received his first Oscar nomination for Big—shared with co-writer Anne Spielberg, who happens to be Steven’s sister. (One big happy family, right?)

And lastly, I can’t help but point out that the actress (Julie Adams) who the creature from the Black Lagoon was attracted to, in real life was born in Waterloo, Iowa. (Just a few miles from where I type this post in Cedar Falls, Iowa.)



P.S. If you’re a filmmaker near the Florida panhandle, the exterior shots for Creature from the Black Lagoon were shot in Wakulla Springs State Park. I’m not sure what the requirements are to shoot there, but it’s as untouched today as it was when then filmed Creature. Crystal clear water and beautiful natural light.

© 2011 Scott W. Smith


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Years ago, philosophers Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a serious book called How to Read a Book. In it, they mentioned that unless you’d read a book three times, you really handn’t read the book. That is, you hadn’t digested the book. I wonder how many of the estimated 1.7 billion DVDs sold last year were viewed more than once (not counting Finding Nemo).

The best way to watch a movie in order to grow as a screenwriter and filmmaker is to watch it over an over again. Writer/director Frank Darabont admits that, on his days off while making The Shawshank Redemption, “I would just watch Goodfellows again and again…just for inspiration.”

Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch George Stevens’ classic, A Place in the Sun 50 times. In fact, the single best class I had in film school was taught by a professor who showed us A Place in the Sun and afterwards asked us questions like “what sounds and visuals do you associate with the Shelly Winters’ character?” and “What music is playing whenever Elizabeth Taylors’ character appears?” It was the first time I really saw the intentionality of a filmmaker.

Film school was also the first time I was challenged to watch a film with the sound turned off and then just listening to the audio. Just out of school as VHS machines finally became affordable is when I began to break down movies scene for scene and to time the length of scenes as well.

Repeated viewing take you to a deeper understanding and appreciation of film. And now with DVDs and the like you can easily locate a single memorable scene, allowing you insights on how lighting, editing, pacing, economy of writing, direction, music sound effects and performance all come together for maximum impact.

While many DVDs come with extras, the real gold is in the commentaries. I’m not talking about the ones with film professors and critics, but the real nuggets that come from the writers and directors who made the film.

One DVD that I recommend you invest your time studying is the 15th Anniversary edition of Rain Man. The film, winner of “Best Picture” Oscar in 1988, has been out long enough to stand the test of time and be considered a modern-day classic. One aspect that separates it from the DVD pack is its three commentaries.

The director, Barry Levinson, the original writer Barry Marrow, and the rewrite writer, Ron Bass, offer more than six hours of insights that warrant repeated listening as well as the film itself.

The commentaries on Rain Man expose the collaborative process at its best. At one point, Steven Spielberg was set to direct, and had spent many months working with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise on their characters and mulling over script ideas with Bass. You learn how difficult it was to get the film made even with top talent attached.

Levinson explains how he sought to shoot in a way that would give the audience glimpses of how Hoffman’s autistic savant character saw patterns in the world. And he notes that his direction was designed to show that Cruise was as handicapped (relationaly) as his brother, making the film a journey of two broken people connecting.

Rain Man works on so many levels (psychologically, visually, emotionally, and performance-wise) that you can begin to appreciate its depth only by repeated viewings.

So don’t concern yourself with watching films just to check them off your AFI Greatest Films list. Invest in couple DVDs of your favorite movies that you’ve heard good things about the commentary and watch those–study those–repeatedly. And like Van Gogh studying a Rembrandt painting, you will be partaking in a timeless creative tradition.

Here is a short list of my favorite DVD commentaries:

The Godfather; Francis Ford Coppola commentary

Stand by Me; Directing inexperienced actors and using improvisation

Seabiscuit; On adapting a film from a best-selling book

The Shawshank Redemption (15th Anniversary Edition); Frank Darabont and “Happy Accidents”

Pieces of April: On funding falling through and finally making the low-budget movie in 16 days.

Big: Commentary with writers Gary Ross and Annie Spielberg which has original excerpts of when they were writing the original script before they had ever had a script produced. Great stuff.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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