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Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Taylor’

“Literature abounds with stories about meteoric rises followed by catastrophic falls. There are very few stories, much less true stories, with a genuine third act. But John Nash’s life had such a third act. In fact, it was that amazing third act that drew me to his story in the first place.”
Sylvia Nasar

On the DVD commentary of A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard mentions that mathematicians on the level of John Nash don’t think it terms of numbers but of patterns.  I’m no mathematician (and certainly no genius), but in doing this blog for the past three years I’ve seen a number of patterns emerge. Today it happens to be journalists and Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Just as there was a great trail of talented people that led to the making of the classic film On the Waterfront , there was also a lot of talented people who were behind the success of A Beautiful Mind. And though both of those films were made over 45 years apart there are some common denominators between them.

Important parts of both stories take place in New Jersey. On the Waterfront in Hoboken and A Beautiful Mind in Princeton. I have been to both places, and though they are only 50 miles apart, culturally they are a worlds away from each other. (At least they were years ago.) Both stories center around a man facing great odds with a strong woman helping them endure. Both movies won Best Picture Oscars: On the Waterfront (1955), A Beautiful Mind (2002). Wait, both titles also have three words—this is getting scary.

And both stories were first brought to light by journalists. On the Waterfront flowed from 26 front page articles written by Malcolm Johnson. They first appeared in 1947-48 in The New York Sun and later in book form. For his work in exposing organized crime Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize.

A Beautiful Mind was the brainchild of Sylvia Nasar.  She was working as an economics reporter for the New York Times when she heard that John Nash would be sharing the Nobel Prize for his doctoral dissertation that was over 40 years old.

What had become of John Nash? Was he even still alive? He was alive, but he didn’t  understand why anyone would want to write a story on his life and did not give Nasar a formal interview. His friends and peers also were reluctant to speak to Nasar. She knows why, “There had not been a paragraph written on Nash, and no one who knew him wanted to put schizophrenia on the record because he had already suffered so much.” In 1994, The New York Times published Nasar’s article, The Lost Years of a Nobel Laureate.

One person who did talk to Nasar was Nash’s sister and that was enough to get started going deeper into the story. Nasar was also able to interview and talk with John’s wife, Alicia.

“In many ways these were the first prints in the snow, and the greatest thing that could happen to a reporter. It was an extremely rewarding experience not just telling a rise and fall story, but the fall and rise of an intellectual giant.”
Sylvia Nasar

Nasar took leave from the Times and spent two and a half years writing the book A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash. In 1998 the book won the National Book Critics Award for Biography and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Nash had a great (though not perfect) first act as a rising academic in the cold war era when some mathematicians were rock stars. He earned his Ph.D. at the age of 21. He married a physics major who also happened to be a cheerleader and was said to resembled Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Butterfield 8

Act 2 is when things got rough. He failed to accomplish the great things he thought he would in his field. He began hearing voices and having delusions. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in an era where the treatment was brutal. He ended up divorced, living in poverty and obscurity.

Five years after their divorce John called Alicia from a mental hospital  in West Virginia and asked her to help him. She did. And a mere 25-years-later he was honored with the Nobel Prize, and later the film A Beautiful Mind. He had finally found the success and fame that he hungered for as a young man.

“I dedicated my biography of John Nash to his wife Alicia. A Beautiful Mind is a drama about the mystery of the human mind, but it’s also very much a love story. It is very much an exploration of what Wordsworth called “the tenderness, joys, and fears of the human heart”...Without Alicia, Nash would have perished. There would be no recovery, no Nobel, no second take on life or the marriage.
Sylvia Nasar
Talk at MIT & Interview

So what does all of this have to do with Yellow Springs, Ohio? That is where Sylvia Nasar received her undergraduate degree in literature at Anitoch College. A place I have mentioned before since it is where Rod Serling graduated from on the road to creating The Twilight Zone.

We’ve all heard the horror stories from authors of books who’ve been less than pleased with the movie results based on their writings. Nasar’s Hollywood experience is on the other end of the spectrum.

“Was I happy with the movie? Well, look….when Ron Howard screened the movie for us I had read many drafts of the screenplay. I visited the set, I talked with Ron Howard—nothing prepared me for how good it was. I was really blown away. To me this movie captured what was truley— yes, in a fictional way— what was truly unique and meaningful about this story, and did something that I have never seen any movie do by this very cleaver device it put the audience in the shoes of someone who can’t distinguish between delusion and reality…To be able to translate a story about two states of mind, mathematics and schizophrenia, that are pretty remote from most people’s experience and to communicate that to audiences in many different cultures  and countries around the world I think is extraordinary. So, I was very happy with it.”
Sylvia Nasar
MIT Talk

Nasar is the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

Related Posts:
Writing “A Beautiful Mind”
A Beautiful Heart
Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany

Scott W. Smith

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“To be alive, to know consciously that you are alive, and to relish that knowledge–this is a kind of magic.”
Edna Ferber

“Life can’t defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death.”
Edna Ferber

Move over Tom Arnold.* On a recent shoot in Ottumwa, Iowa I learned that Arnold is not the only Ottumwan with ties to Hollywood. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edna Ferber (1885-1968) lived for a spell in Ottumwa.

Ferber’s novel So Big (for which she won the Pulitzer) was made into a movie—three times. The first was a silent film in 1924, the second version  (black & white with sound) starred Barbara Stanwyck in 1932, and the third incarnation was a color version in 1953 directed by Robert Wise and starred Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden.  (Maybe a 3-D version is next.)

Ferber’s stories also made it to Broadway and Television—and in some cases her writings like Show Boat started as a novel, and became a Broadway play, and a movie. How many writers have pulled off that trifecta?  She wrote the play Dinner at Eight with Charlie Kaufman that also became a TV movie and the George Cukor directed film which featured John Barrymore and Jean Harlow.

Two of her best known works for film lovers are the western Oscar-winning Best Picture Cimarron (1960) and Giant (1956) which was directed by George Stevens and starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. (How many people have overlooked the bottom of the Special Edition DVD: FROM THE NOVEL BY EDNA FERBER. (In 2009, Giant was adapted into a musical and performed at the Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia.)

Ferber’s first published work was Dawn O’Hara in 1911 meaning that her work is coming up on a 100 year run and still appears to have legs. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, she began her literary career as a journalist after graduating from high school in Appleton, Wisconsin, before moving on to bigger stages in Chicago and New York.

In the book Great American Writers: Twentieth Century, R. Baird Shurman writes, “The triviality of the wealthy, the nobility of the working-class underdog, and the tragedy of senseless financial ruin are recurring themes in her work. These popular themes propelled Ferber’s career and ensured her popularity during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and World War II.”

“Edna Ferber is a small, peppery, restless, cosmopolitan, a Midwesterner transplanted to Park Avenue. She learned to write on a newspaper and retains a copy editor’s flair for strong simple themes and brisk sentences. Bold strokes. Challenges. Controversies. Crusades.”
Robert Wernick
Life magazine article The 3 Queens of Fiction
April 6, 1959

And while her time in Ottumwa was short it did impact her literary mindset (though not positively) according to Shurman, ” During Ferber’s early childhood years in Ottumwa, Iowa she and her family experienced unremitting anti-Semitism in a rough, marginally impoverished coal-mining town. Ferber recalled desperately running the gauntlet while taking her father’s lunch to the family store when she was young. Her witnessing of a lynching deeply impacted the young Ferber, as did recurring violent floods on the Des Moines River. The grim, dull life of the town and the often despondent attitudes of its inhabitants imprinted dark impressions on her imagination that ultimately inspired characters and plot elements in her literary works.”

Ferber’s work was also praised by Rudyard Kipling and she received an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. She was as part of the Algonquin Round Table, which was the subject of 1987 Academy-Award Winning documentary The Ten-Year Lunch. The writer’s group was also covered in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, where Ferber was portrayed by Lili Taylor. Ferber’s autobiography is called A Kind of Magic.

Today Ottumwa is an All American City with a very nice performing arts center the Bridge View Center. Suitable for a revival of Show Boat.

* Though Tom Arnold grew up in Ottumwa, the town is probably more well-known to M*A*S*H fans as the home of the fictional character Radar OReilly from the book, movie, and TV show. (Or was the fictional character really based on Don Shaffer?)

Scott W. Smith

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Over the years I’ve learned to wear quite a few hats; producer, director, writer, cameraman, editor, etc.—but one thing I have little experience in is sound design. Thanks to The Angry Filmmaker, Kelley Baker, I know a lot more today than before I met him two days ago.

Years ago, I had one class is film school where the teacher showed us the George Stevens’ classic A Place in the Sun. When it was over he asked us questions like, “What sounds do you associate with the Elizabeth Taylor character?” and “What is going on in the background noise for Shelly Winters’ character?” None of us had a clue. We talked about sound design and then watched parts of the film again and I began to understand the details that went into a well crafted film. Though it’s been a big gap, what I learned from Baker took up right where that film professor left off.

Baker stopped into my office Monday as a quick pit stop on his way from Wisconsin to St. Louis. He watched a short video I’m on the tail end of production on and offered some wisdom on sound design and added that I should cut it the whole thing by a minute. A minute? It’s only four minutes long. A minute is 25% of the almost finished video. Later that night (just before midnight) 51 seconds had been painfully edited out and it’s a better project for it.

Baker is a USC film school grad, an independent feature filmmaker, and was sound designer on several high profile features including Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, and My Own Private Idaho. That’s a pretty good resume.  These days he spends a lot of time doing film seminars and passing on what he’s learned over the years to other filmmakers. (I’ll get into why he’s the Angry Filmmaker in later posts.)

But today I want to touch on one scene Barker sound designed for Good Will Hunting. It’s the scene where Will (Matt Damon) gets into a fight. Watch the linked clip and then read Baker’s comments below. (If you really want to dip your toes in sound design, first watch the clip without sound and then ask yourself how you would design the scene, Then listen to it with sound before you read Baker’s comments below.)

Baker told me that he asked director Gus Van Sant what he wanted for the fight scene thinking he might want big punches like those found in Raging Bull. Van Sant simply told him, “I want Revolution Number 9.” That’s the Beatles song off their White Album and what Van Sant was saying was he wanted chaos.

Baker goes into more detail on his educational DVD Sound Design For Independent Films saying;

“We already agreed that the fight would be from Matt’s point of view—all the audio for the fight…You’re going to hear church bells, you’re going to hear birds, happy little birds, and you’re going to hear kind of a choir…There’s a lot more going on, but those three kind of stand out. And you have to think, “This is a fight, what am I hearing happy birds for? Why am I hearing church bells? What’s the whole deal with the choir? It’s easy. As a young man Will Hunting was beat up and knocked around and dumped on by all these foster parents and he talks about it in the movie.

The only time he’s ever happy and at peace with himself is when he’s fighting. When he’s beating the crap out of somebody. So to him to some extent—and this is only in my logic perhaps—it’s the happiest time for him when he’s invloved in a fight and he’s winning. That’s why you get happy birds, that’s why you get these religious type sound effects because he is at one. He is at peace when he’s in the middle of a fight.

Is anybody in the middle of watching the movie going to say, ‘Listen there’s a choir, he’s at one with himself because of his horrible childhood”? No, nobody’s going to say that. Are they going to pick up on it psychologically? I hope so. That’s the idea. I’m trying to tell you more about characters through sound and sound effects.”

Now watch the clip of the Good Will Hunting clip again. You may be a writer, not a sound designer, but look at the detail that professionals (including directors, actors,  editors, directors of photography, wardrobe, set designers, sound designers, etc.) are looking for clues on how to best bring your story to life.

And just for good measure listen to the Beatles Revolution Number 9 to see Van Sant’s original reference point for the fight scene sound.

Scott W. Smith

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“I write in toilets, on planes, when I’m walking, when I stop the car. I make notes. If I am working at a studio, I work at the studio in the morning, then come home. I am really writing two days instead of one. After the studio, I have my second day [at home]. I write whenever I can.”
Richard Brooks
Oscar-winning screenwriter (Elmer Gantry)

The only thing that stopped Richard Brooks from writing was his death in 1992. Before that the writer/director originally from the slums of Philadelphia racked up four decades of credits on films such as In Cold Blood, Blackboard Jungle, The Professionals, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—all of which were nominated for Academy Awards.

As a side note, I am working on a script now that has some parallels to In Cold Blood (1967) and I just watched the film last year for the first time. From the story angle that Truman Capote wrote and for which the movie is based on, to the cinematography by Conrad Hall, to the performances on screen, In Cold Blood is a fine tuned movie. (Check out the film Capote, too. How many movies are made on the research done for a book & movie?)

In Cold Blood was based on events that occurred in a small town in Kansas back in 1959,  it is also a disturbing movie as it offers glimpse into the human heart.

In Cold Blood was also directed by Brooks giving you a deeper understanding of his talent. He directed a total of 24 films getting Oscar-nominated performances out of ten different actors including Paul Newman, Lee J. Cobb, and Elizabeth Taylor. I’m always interested in the events that paved the way for writers to break into Hollywood and Brooks did it the usual way—he wrote. He wrote a lot.

After studying journalism at Temple University, he struggled to land a job at a newspaper during the depression because they were letting reporters go, not hiring them. (Sound familiar?) He eventually landed in New York doing radio and started directing plays before heading to Hollywood.  But long before Brooks spent his final days in his house in Beverly Hills (which was paid for by his creative endeavors) he wrote stories and learned his craft before anyone paid him a dime.

“I’d written some short stories before, but none was published. Anyway, every day, another short story. Everything became grist for a short story. It began to drive me crazy . . . a different plotline every day. My ambition: write one story a week instead of a different story every day. In about eleven months I wrote over 250 stories.”
Richard Brooks
Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s/Patrick McGilliagan

So before he won an Academy Award, and before he adapted (with John Huston) the script for the classic Humphrey Bogart/Edward G. Robinson film Key Largo, he wrote—in case you missed it—250 short stories. Two, five, zero. Next time you hear a writer complain about not getting anyone to buy (or even read their script) ask them how many stories they’ve written.

And I should point out for good measure that Brooks, who served in World War II, is one more Marine in Hollywood folklore.

Big hat tip to Scott Myers at Go Into The Story for the extended passage on Brooks that he pulled from McGilliagan’s book.

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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Screenwriter Millard Kaufman who died last week at age 92 was twice nominated for an Oscar for writing Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Take the High Ground (1953), but he may be more remembered for writing Raintree County which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. And for those unfamilar with those movies or Kaufman at all will undoubtedly be familiar with a character he helped co-create, Mr. Magoo.

Mr. Magoo first came on the scene in 1949 in the cartoon Ragtime Bear. The near-sighted Mr. Magoo had many incarnations over the years and two short films featuring him won Oscars, Magoo’s Puddle Jumper and When Magoo Flew. Of course, a large part of Mr. Magoo’s charm was the unusual delivery by actor Jim Backus who was the voice of Mr. Magoo. 

Kaufman was born and raised in Baltimore and didn’t set out to be a screenwriter until after World War II where he was a Marine seeing action in Guadalcanal, Guam and Okinawa.  And though Kaufman had a great run from ’49 to ’57 with Magoo, Liz, and Oscar (nominations) he continued to write into old age publishing his first novel Bowl of Cherries when he was 90.

“Years ago, I was working in Italy, and Charlie Chaplin and his family came from Switzerland. We were at a beach north of Rome, and it was a very foggy day and the beach was lousy. At about three o’clock it cleared up, and Chaplin said, ‘I’m going back to the hotel. Unless I write every day, I don’t feel I deserve my dinner.’ That made an impression on me.”
                                                                    Millard Kaufman
                                                                    First At Ninety by Rebcca Mead
                                                                    The New Yorker

Kaufman also wrote a book on screenwriting, Plots and Characters. A Screenwriter on Screenwriting.

 

Scott W. Smith

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Edward Dmytryk is not the most recognizable name in film history but you could benefit from knowing his work. First he directed 56 feature films, one of which was nominated for an Academy Award (Crossfire) and two others were nominated for DGA Awards (The Caine Mutiny, The Young Lions).  Though some believe his best films were Murder, My Sweet and Warlock. (An interesting mix of military/war films, film noir, and a western—all which happen to deal with morality.)

Along the way Dmytryk directed some of the greatest Hollywood legends; Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Montgomory Clift, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Elizabeth Taylor.

When Dmytryk is mentioned  today it’s usually in connection with his being one of The Hollywood Ten. Back in the late 40s, ten screenwriters were blacklisted after being charged with contempt of Congress for not answering questions in regard to their involvement in the communist party. It’s a highly debated issue of which much has been written about and documented on film & video.

Several films are said to have been made as a response to the events surrounding The Hollywood Ten including, High NoonOn The Waterfront, and The Crucible.

Dmytryk after serving several months in prison cleared his name by talking to the House Committee on Un-American Activities which saved his career while creating lifelong enemies. Dmytryk pleads his case in his book Odd Man Out, A Memoir of The Hollywood Ten. 

He made films into his seventies and in the 1970s began teaching at the University of Texas in Austin and later taught at USC where he held a chair in filmmaking. In the 80s he wrote a series of books on filmmaking which are some of the few books you can read by an accomplished filmmaker.

“Today, many film-makers are afraid to deal with sentiment, dismissing it as sentimentality. But the ability to properly handle sentiment and its underlying emotion, to get the most out if it without going over the line into mawlisness, is the mark of the dramatist. The greatest dramas ever written or performed have been ‘love stories’, concerned with emotional contacts and conflicts of human beings. If the characters in a film do not  ‘touch’ each other, how can they possibly touch the viewer?”
                                                                           Edward Dmytryk
                                                                           On Screen Writing
page 101 

Just for the record, I don’t think I had ever seen the word mawkishness before reading it in Dmytryk’s book, nor do I recall ever seeing it used again. It means “Excessively sentimental.”  I thought it was a fitting quote to pull the day after Valentine’s Day, which has it’s share of mawkishness.

And lastly, here is a scene from my favorite Dmytryk film The Caine Mutiny starring Bogart as Captain Queeg. The movie was based on the 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Herman Wouk. The Oscar nominated screenplay was written by Stanley Roberts who wrote the film version of Death of a Salesman just a few years prior.

Scott W. Smith

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bikeshadowdsc_4558

“With the exception of My Dinner with Andre, very few films can sustain interest in one type of location for too long. Mix it up with day and night scenes, interiors and exteriors. Too many scenes in one type of location will hypnotize a reader like the centerlines on a highway.
                                                             Jim Suthers
                                                             Common Screenwriting Mistakes

“I’m a little bit country…I’m a little bit rock-n-roll”
                                                            Donnie & Marie

On Tuesday morning in Cedar Falls, Iowa I got tired of trying to scrape the ice off my SUV windows and ended up riding my bike to work on the snow packed roads. (My office is only a few blocks away.) Three days later I was riding a bike on the beach in a much warmer and sunnier New Smyrna Beach, Florida. That’s quite a contrast.

bikesnow2dsc_4510bikesanddsc_4574

And that got me thinking of how contrast is used in screenwriting and in film/video/TV production.

It may only be something you become aware of in the rewriting stage or editing stage but how you handle contrast effects the flow of your story. If you’ve ever seen a production board of a feature film you’ve seen that there are different color strips for interior or exterior locations. Also listed are characters needed for certain scenes.

It helps producers and production managers get an overall feel of what is needed each day to bring a film in on time and on budget. It also helps a producer who is running over budget to know where to cut. And some contrasts begin to emerge in the story.

Some writers find it helpful to lay out their story in a similar way to see if there are any problems that jump out. Laid out in sequence you can see if there are x-amount of pages where your protagonist isn’t on screen ( a common problem).

Are there too many scenes in a row inside the same house? (Granted this works in a movie like Halloween, but is best to mix it up and move it around.) Let me give you another visual contrast from New Smyrna Beach of a sign a took yesterday.

nicsigndsc_45891

The mostly white sign pops against the deep blue sky. Contrasts are used across the board in production from the script, to the way the script is shot and edited.

By contrast I mean things like:
Hot/Cold
Rich/Poor
Big/Small
Light/Dark
Innocent/Guilty

As basic as this is many writers neglect addressing contrast favoring a more intuitive approach. But if we look over at our fellow creatives in the painting field they understand contrast very well. They are deliberate in their approach to color and composition.

Films are a visual medium and audiences enjoy seeing a contrast on screen. This can be seen in the biggest blockbuster of all time in how James Cameron deals with the world of the upper class wealthy and working class represented by Leonardo Dicaprio in Titanic.

It also contrast the arrogance of those who thought they had built a ship that couldn’t be sunk with the realities of hitting an iceberg. The film deals with a contrast between life & death as the unsinkable ship begins to sink. Another way to look at contrast in this story is wet/dry.

On the Legally Blonde DVD commentary the production designers talk how they designed Reese Witherspoon’s California sorority lifestyle to be a pastel and playful world  to contrast the serious world of East Coast Harvard law school..

In both Jaws and Cold Manor Creek there is a contrast between families leaving the mean evil big cities seeking calm small town living –only to have those small town utopias turn into dangerous places. (Just for the record New Smyrna Beach with all its charm is the shark bite capital of the the US if not the world.)

Romeo & Juliet is the contrasts between two families.

In Fatal Attraction & The Godfather the calm demeanor of the Glenn Close and Marlon Brando characters are just one side of who they are.

Hitchcock built suspense in many a scene and movie using contrasts.

You get the picture. And of course the reasons for the contrast goes back to conflict. (If you a haven’t read the post Everything I learned in Film School (tip #1), that covers much of this ground.)

So the equation looks like this: CONTRAST=CONFLICT

Look for it everywhere in your script.

And look for it when you watch film and TV shows. Watch how they handle contrasts.

When you watch A Place in the Sun look see how Elizabeth Taylor is dressed compared to Shelly Winters, both of whom are of interest to Montgomery Clift. Listen to the music and sounds associated with each character. Great writers and directors are intentional in their choices.

Watch how directors and directors of photography and editors use wide shots, medium, and close-ups (and some times ultra wide & extreme close-ups) in making a scene effective.

In the circles I travel in we call this shooting a sequence, other people call it coverage. Where you are shooting the same action in wide, medium, and close up shots. Without that coverage you have no contrast and it can make it difficult for an editor to make a scene work.

If photographers don’t have contrasts in their photos they talk about the photo being flat. While at times you can use that to your advantage, it is best to avoid writing flat characters. And the way you do that is adding contrasts to every scene.

Extra Credit: Since the opening quote mentioned My Dinner with Andre, I’d like to know if anyone has heard the rumor that it was written by Wally Shawn in the Black Hawk Hotel in Cedar Fall, IA–not  a half a block from my office. Several people have said that Shawn lived at the Black Hawk Hotel for a time in the 70′s and performed with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony. I’d like to read some confirmation of that.

Update: The day before I flew back to Iowa it was 80 degree in Orlando and a windchill of minus 20 in Cedar Falls, that’s a 100 degree difference. Quite a contrast indeed.

Copyright ©2008 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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