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A few years ago I read that in this world that there are over 200 civil wars going on at any one time. We don’t hear about most of them because it would be sensory overload. But when things reach a certain level then the press or the government makes Americans aware of what’s going on. In the little traveling I have done outside the states I have sometimes wondered what keeps certain countries from total collapse.

Seeing Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined takes in a place that has collapsed. Set in the war torn Demoratic Republic of Congo (formerly know as Zaire and the Belgian Congo).  It’s a country that had over 5 million people die in the Second Congo war between 1998-2003. It was also a war where accounts of rape and other brutal acts of violence were widespread. (Nottage has pointed out that though the war is over violence on women continues in that region.)

If you’ve seen the movie Hotel Rwanda which took place is the neighboring country of Rwanda in 1996, and later spilled over into Zaire, you begin to have an understanding of the situation. Another slightly older reference is when the area was known as the Congo Free State it was the setting for Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness which was published over 100 years ago (and for which in turn was the beginning point for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.)

Somewhere in hearing the modern day suffering of women in the Demoratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Nottage decided there was something worth exploring. According to an article by Patrick Pacheco in the L.A. Times Nottage spent two months “at a Uganda refugee camp interviewing women who had been raped and brutalized in the fierce Civil War that has wracked the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades.”

He quotes Nottage about her desire to write a play on what she had seen and heard, “I thought to myself, ‘This play will be the ruin of me.’ I knew I wanted to tell a story that was not agitprop, that was universal, epic and unabashedly theatrical. Something truthful and yet joyful. And I didn’t know how I was ever going to do that.”

But somehow she did and won the Pulitzer Play in drama this year. I was fortunate to see the play in its last weekend in New York this past Saturday. It’s a powerful piece of drama and instantly took me back to high school when an African-America creative writing teacher showed our class the film A Raisin in the Sun and I began to have a whole new understanding of drama beyond Smoking and the Bandit. That class is also where I first heard the name Zora Neale Hurston. A writer who Nottage has been compared to.

Nottage’s skill as a playwright did not come from nowhere. She was raised in Brooklyn around a family of storytellers and where she began writing plays as a teenage and later graduated from Brown University and has an MFA in Drama from Yale. While working for Amnesty International she wrote a short play called Poof! that she submitted to the Actors Theater of Louisville where it won a competition and she was off to the races.

Since then many of her plays have been performed; Mud, River and Stone, Por’Knockers, Crumbs from the Table, and Intimate Apparel. And in 2007 she was named a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award.

Before Ruined found its way to the stage at the Manhatten Theatre Club it was first commissioned and produced by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The performance I saw in New York was theater at its best. It’s hard to be transplanted from a beautiful summer day in the city to some harsh realities in war-torn Africa–but somehow Nottage and the actors made it as seemless a transition as taking the subway from Grand Central Station to the Bronx.

And part of Nottage’s gift and talent as a writer is show us an incredibly painful world full of moral ambiguity and depravity and to weave a story of humor, humanity and hope.

Scott W. Smith


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“I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.”
                               Ray Bradbury
                               On writing
Fahrenheit 451 

It would be a fitting end to writing about Ray Bradbury by talking about the remake of Fahrenheit 451. But the only news I know is old news in that Tom Hank pulled out of the project a while back and director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) is still trying to get the movie done.

In an interview with MTV Darabont said, “The time has never been better for Fahrenheit 451. I think the message is something we need to hear. Anybody who believes authority should be questioned needs this movie. There’s a reason that novel has been in print for over half a century. It’s one of the most vital antiauthoritarian stories ever written. It also happens to be a really wildly galloping yarn. This would be on the bigger end of the scale for me.”

I hope Darabont gets that film made some day. But since we can’t end there I thought I’d end my posts on Bradbury by talking about the beginning. Bradbury is yet one more writer from the greater Chicago area. He was born in 1920 just a little north of downtown Chicago in Waukegan, Illinois.

Though he spent some of his childhood in Arizona much of his early inspiration came from Waukegan where he lived until his family moved to Los Angeles when he was thirteen. But by that time Bradbury already had a love for books and a strong desire to be a writer. And Bradbury is still alive in L.A. and of this writing is 88 years old. He has a website that is simply www.raybradbury.com which is where I pulled the extended quote of the day from.

“I was fully in love with writing from grade school on and in high school I began to write things about the ravine in my hometown. In FAREWELL SUMMER the ravine is the center of everything; the old people and the young live on opposite sides of this ravine that divides the town. 

Many years since DANDELION WINE began, which was the beginning of the genesis of FAREWELL SUMMER, I had begun to collect essays and short stories about front porches and summer nights and Fourth of Julys and all the celebrations that led me into writing. Looking back I realize that I never had a day when I was depressed or suffered melancholia; the reason being that I discovered that I was alive and loved the gift and wanted to celebrate it in my story. 

At one point Gourmet Magazine offered me a chance to write an article about helping my grandfather make dandelion wine when I was three in our cellar in Waukegan, Illinois. When I went back to visit my home town I wandered into the shop of the town barber, discovering that he had been there since I was a child and he remembered being my grandmother’s boarder and recalled my coming up from the cellar to gather dandelions to make wine with my grandfather.
                                      
Ray Bradbury 
                                       In His Words 

 

Related posts — and one of my most popular ones: Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Scott W. Smith

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Did you know the Midwest had a big part in the success of Sunset Boulevard? Not only was Gloria Swanson born in Chicago and William Holden born in O’Fallon, Illinois (just east of St. Louis) but Nancy Olson who received and Academy Award nomination in her supporting role in the film was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But it was a preview screening just north of the city of Chicago that first signaled there was a problem with the opening scene.

While few have seen the original opening of the movie since 1949 there are scripts kicking around with the original open. The opening scene takes place in a morgue where William Holden’s character Joe Gillis lies dead with other dead bodies of men, women and children. Then things get funky when the voices of the dead people begin to talk.

                                                           A MAN”S VOICE
                                             Don’t be scared. There’s a lot of us here.
                                             It’s all right.
                      
                                                             GILLIS
                                             I’m not scared.

And then they all continue talking about how they died and one asks if “Satchel Paige beat the White Sox yesterday?” to which the Gillis voice-over replies, “No I wouldn’t. I died before the morning paper came.” The tone Wilder was after was missed by that first audience in the Midwest.

“Because of the touchy subject matter. Paramount sought a venue far from Hollywood to preview the picture. Evanston, Illinois, seemed distant enough. After the opening credits, when the story moved down Sunset Boulevard and into the L.A County Morgue, the audience stunned Billy Wilder. Years later he recalled, ‘When the morgue label was tied on Mr. Holden’s toe, they started to scream with laughter. In the mood of hilarity I walked out of the preview, very depressed.’”
                                                    Sam Staggs
                                                    Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard
                                                    Page 151

Paramount got the same negative reviews in Poughkeepsie, New York  and Great Neck on Long Island. The release was delayed as Wilder took six months to make changes.  When the film was released with changes in 1950 it was generally well received in the larger cities with some reviews having a clear understanding of the lasting value of the film. But the film was not a blockbuster hit. But it would go on to become what many have called the greatest film about Hollywood and in 1998 AFI would list Sunset Boulevard  as #12 on its top 100 film list.

 

Scott W. Smith

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Walt Disney was a little like Moses. He never made it to the promised land. Disney died a few years before his dream project, Walt Disney World, opened in Florida in 1971.

I remember going to Disney World that opening year and it was magical. Central Florida was not the sprawling Central Florida that it is today. No, for better or worse, that sprawl is the after effects of Walt Disney World. Before Disney took a rural area and transformed it into one of the top destinations in the world, Central Florida was lucky to have air conditioning and indoor plumbing.

And in those pre-Disney days in the Orlando area, other than putt-putt golf courses, go-kart rides, and Gatorland there wasn’t a whole lot of competition for a place like Disney World.

Now Orlando has plenty of theme parks, as well as places with indoor plumbing, air-conditioning, and more than its share of strip malls. Ah, the power of imagination.

There is no question that Walt Disney is a product of the Midwest, having been born in Chicago and raised in Missouri. But few realize the huge impact little  Marceline, MO had on Walt’s imagination and in effect on the world. For Marceline’s Main Street is the inspiration for Main Street USA.

signdsc_6326

When you drive down Marceline’s Main St. today it doesn’t really seem magical. There’s no indication that there is anything special about this place. It’s not one of those quaint main streets you stumble upon while traveling that makes you say, “I’d like to live here.”

But that’s the place where young Walt Disney watched the parades go by on his way to becoming the filmmaker who has won more Oscars than any one else (32).

The farm Disney lived on (and worked on at a young age) in Marceline was also no doubt  fertile ground for young Walt as observing animals played such a large part of his enduring success.

Wade Sampson at mouseplanet.com  unearthed an interview Disney did back in 1933 following the success of his newest film The Three Little Pigs:

“All this talk about my making a lot of money is bunk.  After 10 years of pretty tough sledding, I am now making a moderate profit on my products, but every dime I take in is immediately put back into the business. I’m building for the future. And my goal isn’t millions; it’s better pictures. I’m not interested in money, except for what I can do with it to advance my work. The idea of piling up a fortune for the sake of wealth seems silly to me. Work is the real adventure in life. Money is merely a means to make more work possible….The secret of success if there is any, is liking what you do. I like my work better than my play. I play polo, when I have time, and I enjoy it, but it can’t equal work!”
                                                                                              Walt Disney 

And work in 1933, during the Great Depression, was not always easy to come by. Disney provided not only entertainment in a difficult time but also a lot of jobs.  Today Walt Disney Studios still entertains and The Walt Disney Company has annual revenues around $35 Billion.

Side note: I think it’s worth mentioning that Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri (and his inspiration for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) is only about an hour and a half away from Marceline, MO. As well as Twian’s birth place of Florida, MO.

Scott W. Smith

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I Hate Valentine’s Day!

That’s a movie now in post-production and was written by the female screenwriter who actually wrote the most successful romantic comedy in box office history. Any guesses on the title of that movie?

Here’s a hint, the screenwriter was born in Canada.  Another hint? The writer’s name is Nia Vardalos and she starred in the film. 

According to Box Office Mojo, My Big Fat Greek Wedding pulled in $241,238,208. Not bad since it only cost $5 million to make. One thing that wasn’t fat was the script as the movie came in at only 95 minutes. And I should add that it was Nia Vardalos’ first script and she received an Academy Award nomination.

She wanted to write it as a one act play but a friend told her to write it as a script first so she could register her story. So she wrote the script first then she wrote the story as a one-person play and began performing it in Canada and in the US. Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson loved the play and thought it would make a good movie and the rest is history.  

Now that the actress is now also a writer/director I figured I could find a quote from her for those of you who love screenwriting. 

“I think the lesson in everything that happened to me, for people, is don’t listen to the odds, not to listen to the naysayers, to listen to the odds of you getting hit by lighting and getting kidnapped by terrorist are greater than your screenplay being done–if you have a story to tell just write it.”
                                                                                Nia Vardalos 

And while Vardalos was born in Canada and found fortune and fame in LA, I should add that she honed her comedic chops here in the Midwest at Second City in Chicago. She worked in the ticket office for two years until she got a break one night by getting on stage when a performer was sick.

If you recall, the My Big Fat Greek Wedding is set Chicago (though it was filmed in Toronto). Years ago while on a production in Chicago I made a point to eat in Greektown. (If you’ve ever had a gyros, that’s where the tradition reportedly started in America.) It’s a great area to visit to get a different slice of America beyond the suburbs and strip malls.  

I didn’t realize this until I wrote this post that there are similarities with Nia Vardalos and Diablo Cody. First time writers that found box office success, comedy writers, Chicago connection, recognition from the Academy Awards, films focused on families dealing with issues.  (Didn’t I just write about Orson Welles and his Chicago-area connection? There’s something going on over there.)

By the way, I pulled the Vardalos quote from an interview she did that is part of a video series called The Dialogue, Learning from the Masters that looks great. Here is a sample found on You Tube.

 

Related post: Screenwriting da Chicago Way  (Which for the record is the #4 most read post on Screenwriting from Iowa.)

Scott W. Smith

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If you’re going to recycle you might as well recycle from the best. And today we’re going to not only recycle from David Mamet, but a quote that Mamet learned from others and that he calls “filmmakers’ pearls.” Chicago born Mamet is one of America’s great dramatists. He’s not only a screenwriter but a playwright, an essayist, a novelist, a director, and a poker player.

To just look at the tip of the iceberg, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his play Glengarry Glen Ross (and it didn’t even have that great opening scene in the movie version that features Alec Baldwin) and he won an Academy Award for his script for The Verdict.

Four of his books that I’m drawn to again and again are Writing in Restaurants, On Directing Film, Three Uses of the Knife and Bambi Vs Godzilla. The last one with the subtitle On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business and is where I pulled the quote for the day which was meant more about film editing, but applies to writing :

“‘Stay with the money.’ The audience came to see the star. The star is the hero; the drama consists solely in the quest of the hero.
‘You start with a scalpel and you end with a chainsaw.’ Don’t be too nice about cutting the film; throw away everything that’s not the story.”
David Mamet
BAMBI VS GOZILLA
Page 67


The next time you watch The Verdict take note of how the story stays with the star Paul Newman. I bet there are no more than five scenes without him.
Scott W. Smith

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“From Iowa to Pennsylvania, the presidential campaign has provided its share of made-for-Hollywood moments.”
                                                                                  All Things Considered
                                                                                  April 18, 2008


“It’s not until Iowa when people say this is how the American people are feeling. … So it ends up shaping how people view the race in subsequent states.”
                                                                                  Barack Obama
                                                                                  USA Today
                                                                                  July 17,2007 

obama300

Did you catch the Texas–Texas Tech game last Saturday? That was high drama. And everything I love about college football. A close game down to the last second.

Did you happen to follow the 2008 presidential election results last night? Not quite as close a game. But there was still plenty of drama in the last year and a half race to the White House including a full lineup of sideshows acts; Joe the plumber, The Obama girl (not to be confused with the John Edward’s girl), Super Tuesday, Sarah “Barracuda” Palin’s troopergate, Biden’s blunders, Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s preaching, Huckabee’s humor, Hillary Clinton and her 18 million cracks in the ceiling, and even Oprah coming to Iowa.

Congratulations to President elect Barack Obama. I was able to see 13 presidential candidates as they came through Iowa and I really never thought Obama would get past Hillary. But there he was last night showing that Dylan, Springsteen, Louis Farrakhan, Pamala Anderson, Colin Powell, Jimmy Buffett and Warren Buffett were all on the eclectic winning team.

Obama overcame his lack of experience with his message of change along with the storytelling abilities of Ronald Reagan and the inspirational chants (“Fired Up–Ready to Go!”) of a motivational speaker. So 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed we have an moment in history that represents symbolic healing. 

Congratulations to John McCain and his team for their hard fought battle. He’s served his country well and had over 55 million people pulling for him. And like many politicians who face defeat, the chances are good that Palin will do her homework and be back stronger with many lessons learned and popularity gained. (Though she’d have more fun and make more money doing the speaker/author circuit and having her own TV talk show.)

It really has been amazing to be a part of democracy in action at such an in-depth level. Who knew Iowa would play such an important role in history?

 

Never did I think when I moved to Iowa from Central Florida five years ago that I’d be close to such a dynamic election. So close in fact that I was within a couple feet of the future president of the United States of America several times in 2007 taking photos and shooting video on assignment.    

I took the photos on this blog at gatherings in Iowa a wee bit smaller than the huge crowd that showed up in Chicago last night to hear Obama’s acceptance speech. (I haven’t seen a celebration like last night’s since…well, Saturday when the Texas Tech students and fans stormed the field after upsetting the number one team in the country.)

Watching the gazed faces on TV at Grant Park kinda looked like that old footage you see of when The Beatles played at Shea Stadium. But America didn’t elected a rock star.  No, from the looks on the faces he’s bigger than that. More like a mix of Bono/JFK/MLK/Michael Jordon/Muhammad Ali/Billy Graham/Tiger Woods and Oprah –all in their prime.

Why is this man smiling?

Iowa State Fair August 2007

Last night I couldn’t help but think back to my creative writing teacher in high school where I wrote my first scripts and directed my first videos. Dr. Annye Refoe, who happens to be African-American, took this sports and girl obsessed teenager and added color to his world beyond the athletic endeavors of Paul Warfield and Joe Morgan. All these years later, she was one of the first people I contacted when I won the Emmy last week.

I also thought back to when I was a 19-year-old journalist and photographer and I interviewed then Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Doug Williams for the Sanford Evening Herald. Williams went on to become the first African-American to be a winning Super Bowl quarterback (while playing for the Washington Redskins).

Obama was born a month after I was and the arc of racial change that has occurred since then is stunning. But we have a long way to go to realize Martin Luther King’s dream that one day the color of our skin won’t matter.  This election gets us over one hump but I am reminded of the saying that every problem has a solution and every solution has a problem.  We have not reached the finish line.

Anyway — speaking of Washington D.C. –this is a blog about screenwriting so let’s look at the inspiration and movies that has come out of that rather small area of land. The political scene and the drama surrounding it is a natural fit for Hollywood. The quintessential Washington film is Frank Capria’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring Jimmy Stewart. The film earned an Oscar nomination for screenwriter Sidney Buchman who happened to be born in Duluth, Minnesota.

Between 1941-42 he served as the president of the Writers Guild of America, but was later backlisted for his refusal to name names of those in the American Communist Party to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  

Washington D.C. is also home to Georgetown University that has educated some fine talent:
Jonathan Nolan (Memento and co-writer The Dark Knight.) 
Carl Reiner (Writer/director/actor and seven time primetime Emmy winner)
Michael J. Winship (current president, Writers Guild of America East)
William Peter Blatty (writer of The Exorcist)  
John Guare (screenwriter of Atlantic City and Tony Winning playwright)
Blake Snyder (screenwriter and author of the screenwriting book Save the Cat)
 

And coming out of the historically black Howard University in D.C. are writers Zora Hurston Neal (Their Eyes Were Watching God), screenwriter and Oscar-nominated director Dianne Houston, director Ernest Dickerson who has also been the cinematographer on many Spike Lee films, Richard Wesley (Let’s Do It Again, which was directed by Sidney Poitier), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson (Wit), poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as well as a host of actors and actresses including Ossie Davis, Phylicia Rashad, and Sean (P. Diddy) Combs. 

And American University is not only home to one of the best film programs in the country, but where the top box-office female film director, Nancy  Shyer, graduated from college. Shyer not only directed Mel Gibson in What Women Want  but also co-wrote Father of the Bride, Baby Boom  along with being nominated for an Academy Award back in 1981 for co-writing Private Benjamin.

“I remember driving on the Ventura Freeway when I was about 27, to run an errand, when I thought, ‘What if a girl joined the Army to escape her problems?'”
                                                              Nancy Shyer
                                                              (On the inspiration for Private Benjamin
                                                              Hollywood Reporter 

The Oscar winning director of Rain Man and screenwriter of Diner Barry Levinson also attended Washington University. As did actors Jude law and Jack Black. 

The Washington D.C. political scene itself has provided an compelling background for many excellent films. Mainly because films work on conflict and that never seems to be in short supply there. In fact The White House may be the single most popular home featured in movies and TV shows. Here is a partial list of movies that feature Washington D.C.:

A Few Good Me
Air Force One
All the President’s Men
An American President
Being There 
Dave
Enemy of the State
First Kid
Forrest Gump
The Hunt for Red October
Independence Day
JFK
Minority Report
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 
Nixon
No Way Out
Three Days of the Condor
Thirteen Days
Traffic
Wag the Dog
West Wing
W.

 

There are also probably a few screenplays in the works on Obama’s life. (I bet Spike Lee and Tyler Perry are racing each other to be first.) Even if you didn’t vote for Obama you have to appreciate the journey–or at least the narrative or the significance. 

Of course there will be plenty of conflict in President Obama’s office. (Probably beginning day one at three in the morning — if not before he even takes office.) I’m sure before the final ballot was cast that Iran, Russia, and North Korea were moving chess pieces around preparing to welcome our new president. January of ’09 will be a hard time to take over the role as president  and Obama’s leadership skills will be tested early.

We quickly forget the pattern of almost every election, hope on the promise of change, harsh realities followed by blame of prior administration, and a plea for four more years to finally get things on track. Obama simply cannot do all the things he’s promised and people tend to become disillusioned quickly.

I just hope the criticism (and the joking from comedians) is not confused with racism or it’s one step forward and two steps back. If Powell is right about Obama being a transformational candidate, I just hope that transformation is for the good.  

I personally enjoy college football more than Washington politics and look forward to the Alabama-LSU game this weekend. Of course there are politics in college football, but at the end of the year the match-up for the title is usually the two best qualified, winning and prepared teams in the national. (Okay, maybe two out of the best three.)

And college football teaches us lessons in perspective.  Like the much hyped Matt Leinhart who had a stacked resume when he was the Arizona Cardinals’ first round draft pick in the 2006 NFL draft: Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback of two national championship teams at USC, and AP All-American.  Stats half-way through the 2008 season: 1 completed pass. (Only five more years on his 7 year 50 million dollar contract.)

Meanwhile the thought to be washed-up old-timer (and Iowa native) Kurt Warner is the starting QB for the Cardinals and who Sports Illustrated said is the clear choice for MVP at this point in the season.

Related Post: Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (tip #7)

 

photos and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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