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“I formed my notions of America in Yugoslavia by watching films. And most of the films were westerns so therefore when I landed [in the USA] I honestly expected—maybe if not John Wayne, a close friend of his to be there on a horse.”
Screenwriter Steve Tesich (The World According to Garp, American Flyers)

I don’t know how many screenwriters David Letterman has had on his show over the years but on that short list is Oscar winning screenwriter Steve Tesich (1942-1996).

Tesich was born in Yugoslavia but immigrated to the United States when he was 14. His family settled in East Chicago, Indiana (the Hoosier state) back in its heavy industrial days when soot filled the skies daily.

He did his undergraduate work at Indiana University, and according to Wikipedia he was actually an alternate rider for the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity team that rode in the Little 500 bike race that is featured in the movie Breaking Away, which was based on his screenplay.

And because I’m always interested in story origins, this is the beginning of the creative process that lead Tesich to his first produced film—an eight year journey from script to screen—and his only Oscar Award:

“I ran into a guy [in Bloomington] who was doing his Italian fantasy. I was riding a bike— I hear an Italian opera being sung behind me and I turn around and there’s this guy climbing a hill singing. He starts talking Italian to me, and being Yugoslavian and knowing how tough it is on foreigners I really have pity on the guy. For a week I try to tell him what America is like, what it’s like to be in Indiana and all this and I find out he’s from Indianapolis [Indiana]. He grew up there and this whole fantasy was just kind of a daydream.” 

Yes, inspiration and story ideas can be found in unusual places all over the world. Like Stephen King says, you have to be like a paleontologist looking for bone fragments in the ground.

Related Posts:
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Where Are The Wild Men?
Stagecoach Revisited 2.0
‘Breaking Away’—Like a Rock
Screenwriting Quote #55 (Stephen King) “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
The King of Cool’s Roots Steve McQueen was from Indiana. James Dean, too. (John Wayne, now he was from Iowa.)

Scott W. Smith

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“There’s a quality that most first scripts share: fresh, surprising, and unspoiled.”
Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (The Sting)
Moviespeak

I was eighteen
Didn’t have a care
Working for peanuts
Not a dime to spare
But I was lean and
Solid everywhere
Like a rock
Lyrics by Bob Seger/Like a Rock

BreakingAway

The 1979 movie Breaking Away received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and Steve Tesich won the Oscar for his screenplay. It was his first produced feature film. Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates,  also landed at #8 on AFI’s list of 100 Most Inspirational Films of All Time.

If I ever put together a Hall of Fame list of Hollywood movies that represent well the world outside of Hollywood, Breaking Away would be there. But the aspect of the movie and screenplay I want to look at today is what could be called texture.

In my last post writer/director Gary Ross touched on the texture of Seabiscuit by including key elements (fishing pole, tackle box, keysin one pivotal scene of a young boy going fishing. In Breaking Away the texture—the limestone from the area— is a major motif of the entire film.

The opening shot and opening scene are of rocks and a rock quarry in Bloomington, Indiana. Stones that were cut out of the ground built many of the buildings at the Indiana University Bloomington.

IU-MaxwellHall

Tesich (who was born in Užice, Yugoslavia but raised in Indiana) uses those stones brilliantly in his script as he shows what unites the town is also what divides it. Working in the rock quarries and cutting the stones provided jobs for the locals—the townies known as Cutters. But the buildings they built for the local college were more preppy than blue collar friendly. (This may not be true in real life, but it worked for the movie.)

Tesich touched on that contrast in the script and in the scene below shows a beautiful synthesis of the two worlds colliding—then merging.

EXT. CAMPUS – NIGHT

The campus is deserted. Dave and Mr. Blasé are walking slowly outside a huge classroom building. Mr. Blase lights a cigarette.

                                                MR. BLASE
Just one.  Don’t tell mother.
(looking at the building)
You know, I do this every now and then. Come here at night and…I cut the stone for that building over there…

                                                DAVE
Yes, I know, Dad.

                                                MR. BLASE
I was one fine stonecutter…Mike’s dad…Moocher’s, Cyril’s…we all were. Well, Cyril’s dad…Ah, never mind. The thing is. I loved it. I was young, slim and strong and damn proud of my work…and the buildings went up…and when they were finished…damnest thing happened…It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. But we just felt uncomfortable. Even now. I’d like to be able to stroll through the campus and look at the limestone but I feel out of place. I suppose you guys still go swimming in the quarries.

                                                DAVE
Sure

                                                MR. BLASE
So, all you get from my twenty years of work is the holes we left behind.

                                                DAVE
I don’t mind.

                                                MR. BLASE
I didn’t either when I was your age. But…Eh, Cyril’s dad says he tool that college exam.

                                                DAVE
Yeah, both of us did.

                                                MR. BLASE
So, how did…how did both of you do?

                                                DAVE
Well, I think, eh, one of us…eh…I won’t go, Dad. The hell with them. I’m not ashamed of being a cutter. 

And that’s pretty much how the scene played out in the movie between Mr. Blase (Paul Dooley) and Dave (Dennis Christopher). It’s a scene that shows the evolution of  both characters. At the beginning of the film Dave is fascinated with being an Italian bike racer (even though he’s an American in Bloomington, Indiana) and the the dad (Mr. Blase)—now a used car salesman— doesn’t understand his son’s directionless life. Nor does he think his son should go to college because he didn’t. But in the end, Dave’s way to break away from his directionless friends is to attend college. And his dad now sees that as a good thing.

The synthesis is a Cutter’s son will be going to the very college that he helped build. Perhaps if we could magically follow those characters today we’d discover that Dave became a successful architect and continued the building motif. But his flaw is while his education and talent helped made him financially set it also made him materialistic.

And Dave’s son doesn’t want anything to do with his father’s money or to go into debt  going the four-year college route, but instead wants to be an artist working with stone from the local quarry tapping into working with the land as his grandfather did.

All that to say, dig deep into the world you’re creating in your stories and mine the riches that surround your characters.

H/T to Jim Mercurio for mentioning the limestone in his Complete Screenwriting course making me want to revisit Breaking Away and dig a little deeper.

P.S. While these days Breaking Away is not as revered as Rocky or Raging Bull in the  movie world it did make AFI’s top 10 sports films. Which along with Hoosiers gave the state of Indiana two films in that category.

P.P.S. One of Dave’s directionless friends in Breaking Away is the former jock character played by Dennis Quaid—who for what it’s worth in that movie is built like a rock.

Related posts:
Storytellers from Indiana
Postcard #15 (Seymour, Indiana)
Against the Wind  (More Seger)
Frank Gehry on Creativity Limestone from Iowa used in LA concert hall.
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) I started this blog as an offspring of a first script—Diablo Cody’s Juno.

Scott W. Smith

 

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Ellen Page can skate. Really skate. Roller derby-style to boot. That alone makes Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It worth seeing. But wait, there’s more….

Most people know Page for her Juno role, but the 22-year-old Oscar nominated actress from Nova Scotia already has a decade old career having been in over 25 films and TV programs. We know Page can act but it’s special to watch the actress continue to blossom. Special in that way you see Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun or Paul Newman in The Hustler where you see great talent being revealed.

Many actors have stumbled in trying to play convincing roles as an athlete so I appreciate it when it’s done well. It was not a safe choice for Page or Barrymore, but they pulled it off.

Now I remember the roller derby in its 1970s incarnation.  Not that I was really a fan, but back then the roller derby was hard to miss because in a pre-cable TV and Internet world you only had three main channels to chose from. So on weekends somewhere between bowling, fishing and wrestling you had the roller derby. The roller derby was popular enough in the 70s to have a few films made about it including Unholy Rollers (1972), the documentary Derby (1972) and Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber (1972)–and let’s throw in the futuristic Rollerball (1975) for good measure.

Today the revival in roller derby is relatively small in comparison which may account for the soft opening this weekend at the box office. (That and people can’t seem to get enough of zombies.) But Barrymore and screenwriter Shauna Cross have put together a fine and entertaining film that also has a layer of wisdom in it, so I think it will continue to gather a following for years to come.

There is one scene, one line in particular (and this gives nothing away) that I thought was brilliant. It’s when Page’s character simply says, “I don’t want to be that girl.” It’s a moment that I don’t remember ever seeing in a film before and would benefit every teenage girl who is feed a steady diet of pop culture in regard to relationships. (Also part of that relationship plotline involves a t-shirt from the 80s Christian heavy metal band Stryper. I got a kick out of that as back in my L.A. days as a 16mm director and cameraman I shot an interview with Stryper’s lead singer Michael Sweet. If I find some photos from that shoot I’ll post them.)

At its core, Whip It is a coming-of-age story. Or as Save the Cat screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder calls it a rite of passage (ROP);

The ROP yarn…has three telling indicator: (1) The Problem, (2) the ‘wrong way’ to fix it, and (3) the solution to the problem: acceptance.'”

There are trampings involved with any genre and it’s hard to be original when you are dealing with a story that centers around sports, but I think Barrymore and Cross bring some subtle nuances to the film. One being the role of the parents played by Marica Gay Harden and Daniel Stern. Stern of course brings clout not only with his Wonder Years background, but as being in one of the greatest coming-of-age films/sports films ever—Breaking Away. Great casting choice. And way to go in not making the parents total dorks. (Took a page from Juno there.)

From a screenwriting perspective I do think they missed a huge opportunity to show some three dimensionality by at least giving a nod to the fact that the tribe some girls may want to be in is being in beauty pageants. What if Page’s best friend in the film would have really been gung-ho for doing the pageant thing? That’s the kind of dynamic that made John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club stand out. We’re all different and we’re all in this together.

Recently actress Sela Ward, who was raised in Mississippi, said this in an interview with Parade magazine;  “Growing up in the South, it’s all about manners and propriety. Every weekend, I went to charm school at the Sears department store, where I learned such fabulous tidbits as how to blot your face with a damp cloth to remove some of the powder and give yourself a little glow.” Not every girl is going to grow up and be dignified, refined and as graceful as Sela Ward. But those traits haven’t hurt her career any and there is still a man or two who finds that more attractive than blood and tattoos.

Two other missed opportunities were on the sound track. The dry opening to the film would have benefitted from a jump start montage of the roller derby girls intercut with shots of Page’s character getting ready for a beauty pageant with the song Roller Derby Saved My Soul by Uncle Leon and the Alibis playing. And on the credits Devo’s Whit It would have been a fitting tribute and left audiences with a big smile.

Whip It may not be as insightful as the classic Texas movie  The Last Picture Show, but you could put it on the shelf with the old John Travolta/Debra Winger film Urban Cowboy. It’s a fun film with a few life lessons thrown in, and a wonderful start for Barrymore. And she can really skate, too.

Whip It (Part 3)

Scott W. Smith

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Indiana’s been in the news the last couple weeks. First there’s the new Indiana Jones film that’s on top at the box office, there was the Indy 500 this past weekend, and then I saw the front page of New York Times yesterday morning and learned that director and Indiana native Sydney Pollack died Monday.

It seems like a fitting time to take a road trip to the Hoosier State. Though Pollack was not a screenwriter it’s worth paying tribute to this giant of a filmmaker who knew how to tell a story.

Before he headed to New York after high school in South Bend to study acting with Sanford Meisner he had spent his life in Indiana.  From acting in theater, to directing TV shows, to directing over 40 feature films Pollack was unusually gifted. I was a long time fan of Pollack’s and he directed some of my favorite films:

They Don’t Shoot Horses, Do They? The Way We Were Jeremiah Johnson Three Days of the Condor The Electric Horseman Absence of Malice Tootsie Out of Africa The Firm Sketches of Frank Gehry 

He was a two time Oscar winner (Out of Africa & Tootsie) both of which films also won Best Picture Oscars.  Another Indiana native producer/director Robert Wise also had won two best director Oscars for his films West Side Story & The Sound of Music. He also won two more Best Picture Oscars for producing both movies.

And to challenge Nebraska’s cool actor category (which produced both Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando), Indiana lays claim to Steve McQueen and James Dean. The list of entertainment icons from Indiana also includes Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), comedian Red Skelton, song writer Cole Porter, and TV host David Letterman.

Moving to the writing side, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis. Glenn Berggoetz writes, “It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis that Vonnegut gained his first writing experience. During his last two years there he wrote for and was one of the editors of the Shortridge Daily Echo, which was the first high school daily newspaper in the country. At this young age Vonnegut learned to write for a wide audience that would give him immediate feedback, rather than just writing for an audience of one in the form of a teacher.” (Note also that Vonnegut also honed his skills at the Iowa Writers Workshop.) 

Theodore Dreiser from Terre Haute wrote the novel An American Tragedy that was made twice made into a film including the 1951 George Stevens’ version (A Place in the Sun) staring Elizabeth Taylor that won 6 Academy Awards. It is a film that Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) said if you wanted to learn how to direct you should watch 50 times.

To counter Dreiser’s somber look at the dark side of America let’s look at another film with Indiana roots. Playwright and screenwriter Steve Tesich was born in Yugoslavia, raised in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University. He won an Oscar for his screenplay Breaking Away based and filmed in Bloomington, Indiana and that became the 1979 sleeper hit staring Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Chrisopher Plummer and James Earle Haley.

Tesich’s script came at a time before we were jaded by sports stories and was released just three years after Rocky. The film captures much of what I’m trying to write about in Screenwriting from Iowa. That is that there are stories to tell beyond Hollywood, and people all over the world need encouragement to tell those stories.

Frank Deford reviewed Breaking Away for Sports Illustrated in 1979:

“It is the rare film that has understood the essence of sport so well as Breaking Away; or understood summer or growing up; or, for that matter, America and Americana. This joyous story about four young A&P cowboys and a bicycle race in Bloomington, Ind. cost a measly $2.4 million to make but it is better by far than all the ballyhooed, star-studded epics. Steve Teisch’s screenplay is impeccable; Peter Yates’ direction is nearly magic in its command and sensitivity; and the cast is perfectly chosen, an ensemble always in character. And if all this were not enough, Breaking Away also evokes a spirit these times yearn for.

“I’m sure that Teisch and Yates didn’t set out to wave the flag, but there is something special here… the wonderful thing about Breaking Away is that you leave the theater very proud that America has both an Indiana and a Hollywood.”

TV and film director David Anspaugh was born in Decatur, Indiana and also studied at Indiana University before going on to win two Emmy’s producing and directing Hill Street Blues and the quintessential Indiana film Hoosiers.

Matt Williams from Evansville, Indiana is best known as the creator and executive producer of Roseanne and co-creator of Home Improvement. But he also wrote for The Cosby Show and produced the Mel Gibson film What Women Want. He graduated with a theater degree from the University of Evansville and was awarded an honorary doctorate from there in 2003.

And the newest up and coming writer/ director from Indiana is James C. Strouse (from Goshen, Indiana) whose latest film Grace is Gone won the critics awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. His first film Lonesome Jim starred Casey Affleck and was directed by Steve Busemi. 

But I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana who seems to embody a Midwestern spirit in everything he does. Going way back into the early 80’s with prefect sing-a-long songs Jack & Diana (“Two American kids growing up in the Heartland”), Pink Houses and Small Town to his classic thought-provoking album Scarecrow that addressed the farm crisis in the 80’s, to his more recent Our Country. Mellencamp embraced his Midwestern roots and we were better for it.

While his film connections are usually on the soundtracks of films he did star and direct the 1992 film Falling from Grace. Mellencamp was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Indiana University awarded him an honorary doctorate of Musical Arts.

On Sunday I spent a several hours driving on the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinenental highway in the country. (It goes through both Iowa and Indiana. And paid my first ever $4.+ per gallon for gas.) It’s hard for me to make that kind of trip and not think of Mellencamp’s lyrics, “Ain’t that America Something to See.”

It’s something to write about, too.

P.S. Did you know that in the original Indy script that it was Indiana Smith? Doesn’t have the same ring does it?  (Spielberg thought it sounded to much like Nevada Smith, a 1966 Steve McQueen film.) And isn’t it hard to see Tom Selleck as Indy, who Spielberg originally wanted but couldn’t get because of Selleck’s commitment to Magnum P.I.?

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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