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Posts Tagged ‘Billy Wilder’

“Now that all the decay is over, things are going to get better.”
Adam (Brendan Frazier) in Blast from the Past
Written by Billy Kelly and Hugh Wilson

Who knows how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far, so fast
The End of the Innocence
Bruce Hornsby/Don Henley

Watching It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street back to back made me think of the 1999 film Blast from the PastKind of what would happen if George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) of the 1940s showed up in Martin Scorsese’s modern version of Pottersville? (Pottersville is the Girls-Girls-Girls flip side nightmare world to the Norman Rockwell—like Bedford Falls in the Frank Capra classic.)

But Pottersville in Scorsese’s hands comes across like a perpetual party paradise.  An echo of Gary Kamiya’s All hail Pottersville! article— “Pottersville rocks!” Boring vs. Fun.

Perhaps the Wolf of Wall Street himself had a clearer view of the world he created at the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont:

“It should have been Sodom and Gomorrah. After all, it wasn’t every firm that sported hookers in the basement, drug dealers in the parking lot, exotic animals in the boardroom, and midget-tossing competitions on Fridays.”
Jordan Belfort

Earlier this month, a former worker at Stratton Oakmont who once idolized Belfort gave his perspective:

“But eventually, the blindness from the drugs, the girls and the cars, the clothes and the money, wore off. These people were some of the worst people that I have ever met in my life — they would sell their own grandmother in a second….I’m still going to see the [The Wolf of Wall Street]. My parents want to go with me. I would hope people would try to keep some morality while still trying to achieve success — but I’m not sure the movie is going to show that. Just the wild ride.”
Josh Shapiro
My life working for the real life ‘Wolf of Wall Street’

The movie is a three-hour fantasy wild ride that—well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it—but it’s an upside down world. One that Scorsese celebrates more than he condemns. Actress Hope Holiday was quoted in The Wrap saying a screen writer at an Academy screening for The Wolf of Wall Street screamed at Scorsese “Shame on you.” But if you’ve seen Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or GoodFellas you know the director has a fondness for depravity over redemption.

The Wolf of Wall Street is not Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment (1960) on steroids…or cocaine, quaaludes or even viagra. The stated theme seems to want to be “When the chickens come home to roost,” but comes across more like “Crime pays, and it pays well.” Maybe Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (Boradwalk Empire, The Sopranos) were just being faithful to Belfort’s book that the movie was based on.

It’s hard to say the 3 hour movie (okay, technically 2 hours and 59 minutes) is missing anything but constraints, but I think TIME’s Richard Corliss says it best—”What’s missing is the broker’s acknowledgement of a wasted life — if not his, then his victims.”

Scorsese said he knows the The Wolf of Wall Street is not for “everyone’s taste” and added, “It’s not made for 14 year olds.”

But I believe that 14-year-olds are going to see this film. And for some The Wolf of Wall Street will be their ideal—their goal. Just as young Jordan Belfort said Gordon Gekko in Wall Street became his ideal, his goal after watching Wall Street. (And Wall Street was not the upside down, amoral world of The Wolf of Wall Street.)

Gordon (“Greed… is good”) Gekko is the #24 Villain on AFI’s 100 Year…100 Heroes & Villains. Ranked just ahead of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining (Here’s Johnny!). But the Gekko character may rank as the #1 villain that most people want to be like. Actor Michael Douglas said he was surprised at how many people over the years have told him they became stock brokers because of his Oscar-winning performance of what he called “the bad guy.” (And how many of those Gekko followers became players in the banking collapse of 2008? Movies reflect the culture they help produce.)

“As the years have gone by, it’s heartening to see how popular the film has remained. But what I find strange and oddly disturbing is that Gordon Gekko has been mythologized and elevated from the role of villain to that of hero.”
Wall Street co-screenwriter Stanley Weiser
Repeat After Me: Greed Is Not Good, 2008 LA Times

“I’d just say anyone who took away that greed is good has missed the point. The movie speaks for itself. People who walk out of the movie and think ‘[Gekko’s] such a great guy,’ they need to think and ask themselves on what terms am I willing to do that?”
Oliver Stone, Wall Street director and co-screenwriter
Oliver Stone: Life after Wall Street by Telos Demos/ CNNMoney

Wall Street was closer in ideals to It’s a Wonderful Life than The Wolf of Wall Street. More Bedford Falls than Pottersville. More the ’80s Miami of Scarface than the ancient Roman orgies of Caligula.

Perhaps the ongoing battle is the way the world is versus the way we want it to be. But what do I know? Well, I do know one thing—that Jordan Belfort’s speaking fee just went up.

P.S. A movie that’s said to have influenced Stone’s Wall Street was Executive Suite (1954) directed by Robert Wise from a script by Ernest Lehman from a novel by Cameron Hawley.

Related Posts:

Raging Bull vs. Martin Scorsese
“Study the Old Master.”—Martin  Scorsese
The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 1)
The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 2)
Hugo & The Artist
Writing Good Bad Guys (Tip #85)

Scott W. Smith

 

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The Billy Wilder Way

“I would have said to Billy Wilder – and I thank God I knew him and I loved him – about The Apartment: ‘I’ll tell you what, there’s no way a guy in an ad agency who rents his apartment out to his boss to take hookers and other people is ever going to be a sympathetic character,’ but you love Jack Lemmon because Billy knew how to write it. But as a then-studio head, I would say to him, ‘There’s no way this is going to work. And the elevator operator winds up in his bed and tries to commit suicide and you think people are going to enjoy this movie? Make me laugh.’ But what a wonderful film – because it came out of him. And it’s not Billy Wilder the director, it’s Billy Wilder the writer that said, ‘No, no, no, this is going to work. People are going to want to see this, they’re going to get involved in this, they’re going to get involved in the characters.’”
Writer/director Tom Mankiewicz (Ladyhawke)
Script magazine interview with Ray Morton

Here’s the trailer for The Apartment (which by the way, won the Best Picture Oscar in 1961)


Scott W. Smith

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“When I write a script, I am telling a story that comes from my heart.”
Matthew Weiner, 9-time Emmy winning writer/producer (The Sopranos, Mad Men)

“He had a home,
The love of a girl,
But men get lost sometimes,
As years unfurl”
New York Minute
Lyrics by Don Henley, Danny Korthchmar, Jai L. Winding

I’m on a steady Mad Men diet. No, I didn’t see the season premiere of the Emmy-winning AMC TV program earlier this week. Not being a regular TV watcher it takes me a little time to commit to watching a show. But once I’m in, I’m all in. This week alone I’ve watched 9 episodes. (All which aired originally in 2007.)

It’s really more of a workout—literally. At the gym I set either a stationary bike or an elliptical machine for 47 minutes. (The length of an episode.) And I’ve even switched machines and watched shows back to back. So if you had a sedate winter give that Mad Men diet and workout a try. (Results vary.)

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”— but it sure can make for good drama. It worked for Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman and it works for Matthew Weiner and his writing team for Mad Men. In fact, the subtitle of Man Men could borrow words from Thoreau; “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Mad Men is everything that television usually isn’t; intelligent, philosophical, contemplative, and even spiritual. (Along with a good deal of smoking, drinking, and philandering.) And its use of subtext and visual storytelling* exceeds what you’ll find in the typical Hollywood feature film.

So I thought I’d find a little inspiration today for you from the Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

“Writers were idolized in my home. My parents had a big poster picture of Ernest Hemingway on a wall in a hallway in our house. I thought I was going to be a poet and that I would find some other profession, teaching or something, to support me. After I graduated from film school at the University of Southern California, it was about 10 years before I got a paying job in the industry, but I never gave myself a time limit. I wrote the pilot episode for Mad Men in 1999 at night while I already had a job, and finally got it produced in 2006.”
Matthew Weiner
A Conversation with Matthew Weiner by Bob Fisher 

Don’t gloss over that 10 year deal. It was 10 years after Weiner earned his MFA from USC that he got “a paying job in the industry.” He also did his undergraduate work at Wesleyan University where he was in “a Great Books program with philosophy, literature and history mixed together.” Smart cookie, with educated and affluent parents, but it still took him 10 years to get a paying job in the industry. Say he’s 24 when he gets his Master’s degree, that puts him at 34 before his career started to take off.

I don’t know what he did in that ten-year period, but I bet he was cranking out pages. (He did have some scripts optioned for free.)

“I’ve learned that tenacity is a common part of the personalities of successful writers whom I have met. Now, maybe because I have had some success, I can say that the struggling  for the 10 years or so before I got a paying  job, made me a better writer.”
Matthew Weiner

Looking for a word today to put on a 3X5 card to place on the wall behind your computer? Try tenacity. Meaning persistent, relentless—like a dog on a bone.

P.S. From the quirky connection category. Weiner is four years younger than me an attended the all-boys prep school Harvard in Los Angeles (Now the co-ed Harvard-Westlake School). When I was in film school I worked for Yary Photography taking pictures of sports groups throughout Southern California. I did several shoots at the Harvard School when I was 21/22-years-old. Weiner would have been a 17/18-year-old student meaning if he played sports our paths could have crossed for a fleeting moment.

And for what it’s worth, writer-director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) is also an alumni of the Harvard-Westlake School where the tuition for this school year is $30,000.

P.P.S. Care for a Midwest angle on Mad Men? Jon Hamm, who plays creative director Don Draper was born in St. Louis, Missouri and graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Missouri. Same school Brad Pitt attended. Ironically, neither of the future stars and Sexist Men Alive were theater majors at the Columbia, MO college. And January Jones (who plays Don’s wife Betty) was born and raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (about 10 miles from the Iowa border).

* Visual storytelling Mad Men example: In the episode Long Weekend, the number #2 man at the advertising agency Sterling-Cooper calls a secretary into his office (who is having an affair with) and just before she closes the door to his office she decides to leave it ajar about a foot. Nothing said, but so much implied. As the scene plays on it turns out she has seen Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and  sympathizes with the Shirley MacLaine character and wonders if she herself is just being used.

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Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
“Unstoppable” Wesleyan University
Screenwriting Quote #32 (Mad Men)
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) John Logan’s (Hugo, Rango) 10 year struggle as a writer.

Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I was on the phone with an actor from Minneapolis for a project I am shooting next week. It’s not an elaborate shoot, but I am casting three actors for a shoot I am doing in Des Moines which is doubling for San Francisco. (Not as hard as you think since many of  the older San Francisco Victorian houses were built by Midwesterners for relocated Midwesterners.)  No matter your budget, you always have schedule and budget issues when casting a project. It’s the nature of the beast when you try to bring a group of people (cast & crew) together for a production.

And it’s easy to think when producing lower-budget projects that more money and time would solve your problems. But listen to difficulties and last-minute solutions that the great director Billy Wilder had in casting the classic Sunset Boulevard:

“I wanted to make things a little harder for myself, I wanted to do that thing which never quite works—a picture about Hollywood. Originally it was a comedy, possibly for Mae West. The picture became about a silent star and a writer. And we could not find the person to play the great silent star. Mae West did not want to do it. Mary Pickford, no. We were about to sign or not sign Pola Negri for the movie. Then we came upon the idea of Gloria Swanson. She had already been abandoned; she was a death knell—she had lost a lot of money on the Paramount lot. But I insisted on her. A wonderful idea, that carried with it the great value that she had been a silent star, and had made a picture with Erich von Stroheim called Queen Kelly, which we could also use on the projection screen in her home. We did a screen test, she did a few lines, where an angry Swanson maintains that she’s still the greatest. Now we had a picture.

Montgomery Cliff was to play the writer. Three days before, he pulled out. It so happened Mr. Clift had had an affair with an older woman in New York. And he did not want to make his first big picture, playing the lead, the story os a man being kept by a very rich woman twice his age…Leading men at that time we all under contract to the studios. And I had to start shooting on Monday, right? So I went through the list Paramount had at that time. And they had a young actor named William Holden. Beedle was his name really, and he had changed it. He made a picture I enjoyed, it was very good, Golden Boy, I gave Holden the script to Holden at one o-clock, and at three he was at my house, and he said, “Absolutely, I want to do it.”‘
Billy Wilder
Conversations with Wilder (interviews with screenwriter Cameron Crowe)
Pages 47-48

Scott W. Smith

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“God help you if you use voice-over in your work my friends. God help you! That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of the character.”
Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) in Adaptation

“You see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion – with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of ‘B’ pictures to his credit.”
William Holden VO in Sunset Blvd.

Last night I watched The Holiday listening to the director’s commentary by writer/director Nancy Meyers and she mentioned that while writing The Holiday that she watched Billy Wilder’s The Apartment three times. I haven’t quoted Wilder in a while so now is as good a time as any unearth another one from the great six-time Oscar winner.

In some circles having voice-over narration is taboo, but Wilder didn’t shy away from it. Heck, Wilder (and additional writers  Charles Brackett & D.M. Marshman, Jr.) in Sunset Blvd. even had a dead guy give VO. And the writers won an Oscar for the story. Granted that was 60 years ago, but is voice-over narration really sloppy writing?

What about these films?

The Shawshank Redemption
Forrest Gump
Days of Heaven
Taxi Driver
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Big Lebowski
Election
A Christmas Story
Goodfellas
Stand by Me
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Fight Club
The Usual Suspects
American Beauty
The Princess Bride
Double Indemnity

 

Unless someone changed the definition of sloppy writing there isn’t a whole lot of fat in those films. And just for good measure, Nancy Meyers is fond of using voice-over narration and she’s the most successful female box office money-making director. And she takes her lead in the voice-over department from Wilder.

“In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.”
Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s sreenwriting tips as told to Cameron Crowe

Scott W. Smith

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“I think every writer harbors—secretly or not-so-secretly—delusions of grandeur. Still, when you’re starting out, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll ever ‘succeed.'”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt 

“There are two kinds of people in this world, winners and losers.”
Quasi-motivational speaker Richard Hoover (Greg  Kinnear), Little Miss Sunshine

Screenwriter Michael Arndt is a textbook example of everything I’ve been writing about on this blog for the past two and a half years. Like Diablo Cody his first produced screenplay (Little Miss Sunshine) not only became a sleeper hit, but it won him an Oscar for best original screenplay. A pretty good start, huh? Except that’s not the start.

Rewind a few years and you’ll find that he’s a New York University film school grad (steeped in the films of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, and Woody Allen) who spent 10 years working in the film business as an assistant and a script reader. Times that weren’t always fun, but his time as a reader served him well.

“I had read enough mediocre scripts and was determined not to inflict another one on the world.”
Michael Arndt

According to an article by Anne Thompson in The Hollywood Reporter, Arndt quit his job in 1999 and with $25,000. in savings took time to just focus on writing screenplays. And lots of them.

Thompson writes; “(Arndt) holed up in his cheap Brooklyn apartment and knocked out six stories. Six of them didn’t sing. The seventh did. ‘It was the most simple story,’ Arndt says. ‘That’s a mistake a lot of scripts make: Their plots are too complicated, so you don’t have time for characters.’ So he kept working on it, writing it over and over and over, 100 drafts, until it was as good as he could get it.”

That script was Little Miss Sunshine. The script created buzz as soon as it was sent out, but it would still take five years to get it produced and released.

“I read a lot of comedy screenplays and the reason why most of them don’t work is they’re not about anything. If your story isn’t about anything, or your character just wants a pretty girl and the bag of money then—it’s not going to add up to anything…I wanted Little Miss Sunshine to actually have a real climax at the end.”
Michael Arndt

I’m not sure what other writing opportunities the success of Little Miss Sunshine brought Arndt after 2006, but you may be surprised to learn that to date Little Miss Sunshine is his sole feature credited film that has been released. Of course, that will all change next month when Toy Story 3 is released. That’s right, the small indie, philosophical screenwriter who wrote what one reviewer called “a cultural look at the emptiness of America,” follows his Oscar success with a big budget Disney franchise film.

Remember what screenwriter Christopher (The Usual Suspects) McQuarrie said; “(Winning an Oscar) doesn’t make the studios want to make your movie any more than before. It just means they want you to make their movies.”

I’m personally excited to see what Arndt comes up with for Woody and the gang. One thing that I know he came away with on Toy Story 3 is a boat load of money. And let’s be honest, doesn’t every screenwriter want an Oscar and a boat load of money? (In addition to writing satisfactory screenplays that are turned into artistic films, of course.)

So let’s review Arndt’s 10 not so easy steps to becoming a successful screenwriter:
1) Film degree from NYU
2) Toil in the industry at various non-writing/non-production jobs for 10 years
3) Save money
4) Quit job
5) Write six screenplays in less than a year
6) Write one more that you finally think is “the one” in three days
7) Write 100 drafts of “the one” over the next year
8)Send it out
9)Sell it ($150,000) and wait five years for it to get made and become a sensation
10) Collect Oscar

Losers are people who are so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try.” Grandpa Hooper (Alan  Arkin) Little Miss Sunshine

Pop quiz:  What do these comedies all have in common?: The Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Groundhog Day, Tootsie, The Apartment, Modern Times.
(Ding, ding) Correct, they are all about something.

Related Posts:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Insanely Great Endings

Scott W. Smith

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“The Wilder message is don’t bore – don’t bore people.”
                                                    Billy Wilder

 

By the time Billy Wilder directed Sunset Boulevard he had already worked on over 40 feature films. He had already been nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two for his work on The Lost Weekend. It’s safe to say that Wilder knew what he was doing when he made Sunset Boulevard which would bring him another Oscar as one of the movie’s three writers.  A few years ago when the Writer’s Guild of America picked the best 101 screenplays of all-time they listed Sunset Boulevard at #7.

So just in case you aren’t that familiar with the film I wanted you to know the importance of the script and film. If you’ve read the post Screenwriting by the Numbers you’ll see how Sunset Boulevard perfectly fits the classic three-act structure. Heck, Wilder even fades to black so the audience doesn’t miss the act breaks. (A nod to the theater when the curtain would go down at act breaks.) 

Here’s my breakdown of the movie and how it measures up with some things I’ve written about in the past. (It’s best read if you’ve seen the film because there are some spoilers mentioned. And this is a film that every writer should watch multiple times.)

Sunset Boulevard has 57 scenes. (40-60 is average for most feature films.)

Sunset Boulevard runs 110 minutes. Which averages around 2 minutes a scene. (Most features tend to run 90-120 minutes.)

Only three scenes are over three minutes in length and they are saved for key moments. (If characters move from one part of the house to the next and it’s a different camera set-up I mark that as a scene break.) 

There are two main characters (Norma Desmond & Joe Gillis). 

William Holden, who plays Gillis, is in almost every scene in the film. (“Stay with the money” is the old Hollywood saying.)

There are three reoccurring supporting characters  (Max, Nancy, Artie).

Except for the long voice-overs of Joe Gillis, most dialogue is three lines or less. 

There are three acts. Act 1 ends at 26:51, Act 2 ends at 75:48 min., and Act 3 ends, of course, at the end of the film 110 minutes. (Though the script does indicate they worked in five different sequences marking them “A,” “B”, “C”, “D” and “E.” so one could argue a five-act structure.)

There is one main story (Gillis writing Norma’s script and becoming a boy toy in the process) and three subplots. The subplot with Nancy ties directly to the main plot and the climax of the film. The youthful Nancy new to Hollywood also offers a contrast to Norma, the aging movie star.

Almost every scene has conversation with three people or less. 

A good amount of the scenes are just two people talking.

Norma’s house is one giant set piece and where most of the story takes place.

The film is a mix of drama, comedy, action, satire, melodrama and film noir.

Gillis’ lack of work and money sets the story in motion. (Read the post Gordon Gekko vs. Paul Newman)

The title is literal and metaphorical as it is the name of a street in L.A. where Norma lives and sunset also represents her fading career/life. “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”

Contrasts is used throughout the film;  interior/exterior scenes, day/night scenes, theme of rich/poor, old/young, small apartment/huge mansion.

Coincidence is used early in the film to put Gillis at Norma’s house.

Exposition is sprinkled throughout the film with Max’s little secret coming when toward the end of the film when it would have most impact.

The ending is ironic. Gillis gets his pool and Norma gets back in the spotlight. Though what they get is not in the way they thought they’d get it.  He’s dead and she’s off to jail. (On top of that her desired close-up is out of focus.)

Of course, it was the solid writing during the 110 minutes that sets the film a part. That is the hard part. But I did want to show you the simplicity of limiting characters and locations as the writers Charles Brackett, D.M Marshman, Jr, and Wilder did on their way to creating screen magic. 

The bottom line is study the masters.

Bonus low-budget production tip; To get the famous shot of Joe Gillis floating face down dead in the pool with the police looking down on him was shot by placing a mirror in the pool under the floating body and shooting down into the mirror.  They found that having a water temp of 40 degrees added the right mix of visual clarity with a hint of distortion. 

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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