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Posts Tagged ‘Debra Eckerling’

“I start by spending as much time as possible with the people involved. And I try to be as quiet as possible, and listen and observe.”
Susannah Grant  (on her writing research of real life people)

Screenwriter Susannah Grant graduated from Amhert College and the American Film Institute, and in 1992 won the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. She then spent several years working on the TV show Party of Five and writing scripts (28 Days, Ever After, andPochantas) which all paved the way for her biggest success to date, writing the script for Erin Brockovich. In the introduction to The Shooting Script book of the script Grant explains:

I set out trying to turn a huge, complicated five-year chunk of (Erin Brockovich’s) life and work into a 120 page cohesive screenplay. The question I’m asked most about this movie is how much of it is true. And my answer is, it’s almost entirely true, but it’s not the whole truth. Any life is complex, and Erin’s, especially in the years of the PG&E trial, was a labyrinth. Writing the script was a matter of figuring out which parts of that labyrinth were essential to the story I was telling; which were germane; which were expendable; and which were inessential. but so damn funny, you couldn’t possibly leave them out.

I holed up in my office and, several months later, emerged with a finished first draft. And let me tell you—handing over a first draft over to anyone is a nerve-wracking experience, but I promise you, nothing compares to the anxiety that comes with giving it to the person on whom it is based.

The real life Erin Brockovich liked the script.  Stephen Soderbergh liked the script. Julia Roberts liked the script. Audiences liked the movie. And the Academy liked Julie Roberts enough as Erin Brockovich to give her an Oscar as Best Actress in a Leading Role. Grant also received and Oscar nomination for her script.

In a Storylink interview with Debra Eckerling, Grant further explains her writing process:

I always have a road map. It is an outline that gets revised as I move along. I start with, “How does this movie start? What’s the first scene? What’s the scene after that?” And I bite off a little piece at a time. It’s like climbing a mountain. You can’t look at the mountain top, you just have to look at the ridge you’re on.

I start with a full outline. Not every beat will be hammered down and I rarely stick to the original file. I always over-outline. … As I write, I amend and revise and condense. I wouldn’t call it an outline, I’d call it a road map that I detour from.

PS. In total, Erin Brockovich received five Academy Award nominations including Albert Finney in his supporting role as Brockovich’s boss, Ed Masry.  Finney, by the way, happens to turn 74 today. Finney came from theater where he was known for his work on Shakespeare plays. If you’ve never seen his roles in Murder on the Orient Express, Under the Volcano, or Shoot the Moon, put them on your Netflix list. Happy Birthday Mr. Finney.

FYI: If you keep track of such things, Grant’s education at Amhert College and the American Film Institute would easily cost $200,000 in today’s dollars, and take a six year commitment.

Scott W. Smith

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Last week I was asked by Debra Eckerling to do my first ever guest blogging on her excellent Write On Online website. I appreciated the opportunity and wrote the following post after making the observation that there was a heavy dose of films made beyond what is known as the thirty mile zone in L.A. (As a side note, though Eckerling lives in L.A. these days she is part of the Midwest tribe invading Southern California, having been raised in the Chicago area and college educated in Wisconsin and Nebraska.)

The Oscars & Screenwriting East of L.A.

On my blog Screenwriting from Iowa I enjoy writing about screenwriters who come from outside L.A., not because I have anything against L.A., but because I think there are wonderful stories to tell from all over the world. The famous painter Grant Wood (American Gothic) was fond of talking about regionalism in painting. I’d like to think there is a regionalism brewing from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective.

One thing that jumps out at me about this year’s Oscar nominations in both the original and adapted screenplay categories is every single one of the stories is set outside Los Angeles.

I haven’t seen all of the films, but after a little research I’m not even sure that of the 10 films nominated in the screenplay categories that there is a single scene even set in the state of California. Those are pretty staggering statistics considering that L.A. is the center of the film industry.

Original Screenplay Nominees:

District 9
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; set in Johannesburg, South Africa,

An Education
Screenplay by Nick Hornby; set in England

In the Loop
Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche; set in England and Washington, D.C.

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher; set in New York City

Up in the Air
Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner; set in various airports & airplanes around the county with key scenes set in Nebraska, Wisconsin and in the air over Iowa

Adapted Screenplay

The Hurt Locker
Written by Mark Boal; set primarily in Iraq

Inglourious Basterds
Written by Quentin Tarantino; set in France

The Messenger
Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman; set in and around New Jersey

A Serious Man
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; set in Minneapolis

Up
Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter. Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy; set in South America

Just taking a cursory glance at all the films in every single Academy Award category and I don’t notice a single movie set in Los Angeles. There are films set in places like Michigan, Memphis, China, and of course, Pandora. This year’s films represent a global cinema.

Novelist and musicians have always been able to ply their trade in far away places that over the centuries has brought an original and rich texture to their work. It’s exposed readers and listeners to new worlds and experiences.

But because feature films usually take large crews and a good deal of equipment it has traditionally resulted over the decades in a good amount of stories that are L.A.-centered. And because of that screenwriters from all over have always been drawn to Los Angeles and end up writing more stories about L.A. (Or had their stories changed to be able to be shot in California.)

Perhaps we’re witnessing the end of a cycle that began 100 years ago when the movie industry moved from New York and Chicago to Hollywood. In 2008-2009 there was a lot of talk about L.A.’s runaway production and what to do about the shrinking number of films being shot on the streets of Los Angeles.

People can argue and blame it on the economy, unions, the high cost of shooting in L.A., tax incentives that are available all over the world, reality TV, the fact that people are tired of seeing the Santa Monica Pier, or the downsizing & democratization as the result of digital production, but the one thing this year’s crop of Oscars prove is that the door is wide open (slightly cracked?) for screenwriters who have stories that take place beyond the shadow of the Hollywood sign.

We may not be at that place where Francis Ford Coppola prophesied 20 years ago when he said that, “One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart” by making a film on her father’s videocamera. But things are getting very interesting.

Mark Boal who wrote The Hurt Locker is a good example of a screenwriter who did not take a traditional route to break into Hollywood. Though neither fat or a girl he did go to a small college in Ohio where he majored in philosophy. As a journalist embedded in Iraq it led to writing the story that became the film In The Valley of Elah.Then he took the next step by writing his first screenplay (The Hurt Locker) which not only got produced, but has been nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards.

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In a related note, this year’s Oscars will be doing a John Hughes tribute. Hughes was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan until his family moved to the Chicago suburbs when he was a teenager.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more successful mainstream Hollywood writer/director who was as much of an Hollywood outsider. Hughes, whose films include Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink. Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Christmas Vacation, and of course Home Alone, once told film critic Roger Ebert:

“I’m going to do all my movies here in Chicago. The (Chicago) Tribune referred to me as a ‘former Chicagoan.’ As if, to do anything, I had to leave Chicago. I never left. I worked until I was 29 at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, and then I quit to do this. This is a working city, where people go to their jobs and raise their kids and live their lives. In Hollywood, I’d be hanging around with a lot of people who don’t have to pay when they go to the movies.”

Scott W. Smith

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“Great moments are born from great opportunities.”
Herb Brooks
1980 Team USA Hockey Coach

Today is the 30th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice.” I remember the day well. And as big as yesterday’s Team USA’s victory was over Canada, it was a blip on the radar compared to the 1980 victory over the USSR.

Even if you weren’t born yet you are probably familiar with the event that happened on February 22, 1980 when the US hockey team defeated the USSR. What made the victory so remarkable was we hadn’t defeated the USSR in 20 years. And for all of that time this country was in a Cold War and it was clear that the USSR was our enemy. High drama.

At that time there were two super powers in the world who both had loads of nuclear arms. Threat of a nuclear war was always at hand. This provided a lot of tension and some great material for Tom Clancey’s novels and quite a few Hollywood films. And, of course, it set the stage for the events that would unfold in the famous game.

I was a high school senior in Florida at the time and had never even seen snow much less been to a hockey game. But 30 year ago the Winter Olympics were special in a different way. It was a world before cable TV and the Internet. So when the Winter Olympics were on one of three available stations every four years—it  was a big deal. (And in a time before glossy, sentimental TV vignette stories, it was us against them. USA verses whoever, as opposed to pulling for the athlete with the most compelling life story.) I didn’t actually watch the game, but I remember being at work and hearing the news and the celebrations that followed.

What also made the USA hockey team’s victory over the USSR so sweet was the USSR did not have pro hockey so the best players in their country of any age and experience were playing against college age guys from the USA. It was a mismatch. The USSR had won Gold in Hockey in all but one Olympic games since 1956. In an exhibition game against Russia just a few weeks before the Olympic games Team USA lost 10-3.

According to Wikipedia, the USA Olympic coach that year was Herb Brooks who was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and in high school played on the team that won the state hockey championship. He went on to play at University of Minnesota, despite being cut by the 1960 Olympic team he played on the ’64 & ’68 Olympic squads. He then turned to coaching at the University of Minnesota where he won the NCAA championship in 1974, 1976, and 1979.

That set the stage for the “miracle.” The victory (which wasn’t even for the Gold medal that they would go on to win) was called by Sports Illustrated as the “Greatest Sports Moment of the Century.”

Brooks used a good deal of players who played for him at the University of Minnesota (9 of the 20). Keeping with the theme of this blog, I’m sure more than one was from little towns you’ve never heard of.  For instance, Neal Broten was born in Roseau, Minnesota. (Broten, by the way, who happens to be in the foreground of the SI cover is the only hockey player to play on teams that won the NCAA hockey championship, the Olympic Gold medal, and the Stanley Cup. Not bad for a guy who came from a town with a population of under 3,000 and who stands 5’7.”)

Four of the players were also from Boston University including the US captain Mike Eruzione. Eruzione would be the player who scored the game winning goal in the famous game.

A couple years ago I received a call to video tape Eruzione who was speaking in Iowa to a youth hockey organization. Just before the shoot I remembered one of the few Sports Illustrated covers I kept over the years was the March 3, 1980 issue with the famous cover shot by photographer Heinze Kluetmeier of the victory celebration. I took the magazine with me to the shoot and Eruzione was gracious enough to sign it.

I remember that victory well. It was good day.  Good enough to result in a 1981 TV movie, a documentary that aired on HBO, as well as the 2004 Disney film Miracle starring Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks.

Miracle was written by Eric Guggenheim. Here is part of a Q&A that Debra Eckerling had with Guggenheim for Storylink.

Q. (Eckerling) Why did you write Miracle?
A. (Guggenheim):I’m drawn to stories about redemption and second chances. For me Miracle was always less about hockey and more about those themes.

Of course I also responded to the fact that this was the ultimate David versus Goliath story. But the biggest draw was the coach, Herb Brooks. In Brooks you had the makings of a terrific character. He wasn’t very likeable, but what’s interesting is that he made a conscious choice to be that way in order to bond his team together. And even if that wasn’t apparent, his backstory made him incredibly sympathetic. Also, the notion that a hockey team could lift the spirits of an entire nation was very intriguing to me.

Scott W. Smith


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