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Posts Tagged ‘Glory’

“Find what gave you emotion: what the action was that gave you excitement. Then write it down making it clear the reader can see it too.”
Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea)

“For me, it’s about setup and payoff. I try to set things up so that they pay off in a way I hope evokes a strong reaction,”
Eric Roth (Forrest Gump)

“What you are doing is feeling the emotions that your characters are feeling, and finding the best way to express those emotions in the most powerfully felt, truthful, effective, moving way to yourself.”
Ron Bass (Rain Man)

The title 40 Days of Emotions sounds epic and Biblical, so I brought out the big guns (Hemingway, Roth, Bass) to lead off this post that marks the end of 40 consecutive days writing about emotions in regard to screenwriting and filmmaking.

I didn’t start out with this 40-day goal in mind. I was inspired by the book Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias (all the above quotes above were pulled from that book or his other book, The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters) and I got on the emotion train and it just kept going.

What make emotions so powerful in screenwriting and movie making is they are closely connected to conflict and theme—two areas that are crucial in connecting with an audience. If you wonder how a film can have a good plot, solid structure, and interesting characters, and be totally unremarkable I’d blame it on the writers and filmmakers failing to make an emotional connection with the audience.

Over the years I’ve written about writers who start with plot, character, theme, or a situation.  But I had never heard about a writer starting from emotion until I read that’s how Tennessee Williams started his plays.

“Some screenwriters, and many playwrights, begin with the emotional story, or inner story…They layer key dramatic moments between the protagonist and antagonist in conflict with each other, creating heightened emotional moments that serve as climaxes and story beats. By intuiting  the depth of character conflict, without emphasizing plot and structure, they work through the unconscious movement of the story by way of external character, revealing ‘story’ as a by-product. Tennessee Williams worked this way.”
Kate Wright
Storytelling is Screenwriting

Recently I listened to an old CD (circa 1951) recording of The Glass Menagerie written by Tennessee and featuring Montgomery Clift as Tom. The emotional symbolism Tennessee uses is powerful stuff. Four actors, one apartment, one mediocre recording, and it still has plenty of emotional impact.

It’s fitting that I close this post with what I consider the most emotional scene I personally have ever scene on film. It’s from the film Glory that I saw in the theaters when it opened in 1989. While it’s the film where Denzel Washington won his first Oscar, it’s the first time I recalled ever seeing him on screen. Part of what gave the scene below its impact on me was I wasn’t watching a movie star or even an actor. It was like I was in that moment. That’s an emotional connection.

(This You Tube clip doesn’t compare to the experience of seeing it on the big screen. You don’t really see the scars, the twitch, the tear or know the backstory that leads to this powerful moment—but here it is just the same.)

When we use terms like head and heart to separate intellect and emotions it’s really a metaphor. Because emotion really does flow from the brain as well. Perhaps a different part than the logic part, but emotion is not anti-intellectual. Part of what gives that scene from Glory its emotion impact is knowing the history of slavery in the United States and the resulting racism that overflowed into our culture.

“I was called a nigger almost every day in Texas.”
Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx (Ray) born in 1967
O, The Oprah Magazine

In ’65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights between the black and white

There was nothing you could do…
Bruce Springsteen (Graduated in 1967 from Freehold High School in New Jersey.)
My Hometown 

Personally it’s growing up in Florida in the 60s & 70s and being well aware of racial tensions. I was aware of the Ku Klux Klan. I remember what a cultural event it was in the pre-internet, pre-cable Tv days of 1977 when Alex Haley’s Roots first aired. It was said that 85% of the homes in the United States saw some of the eight part series and the final episode was watched 100 million viewers. (The Roots finale is still the number #3 watched Tv program in U.S. history.)  It won eight Emmy Awards including Best Writing in a Drama Series—Ernest Kinoy and William Blinn (for part II).

I doubt that if Roots aired today that it would be anywhere near the cultural phenomenon it was back in 1977.  We live a world a way from there. (Not perfect, but a long way from 1977.) I remember back in the late 70s when the debate around Tampa Bay QB Doug Williams was whether blacks could really be successful playing quarterback. Seriously. Williams went on to be the MVP of Super Bowl XXII with Washington. And also since 1977 we’ve seen the rise of successful and visable African-American leaders like Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and President Obama.

All that to say that emotion is not void of thinking—it’s not disconnected from cognitive knowledge. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was emotional for me even though I was never in the military. But I imagine if you were in the military during World War II, or Korea, or Viet Nam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan or Iraq—or really any war in any country—that that scene would have even a deeper emotional impact because of your personal life experiences and the memories and knowledge you have of watching those around you die in battle.

Lastly, the screenplay for Glory was written by Detroit-born Kevin Jarre (who passed away earlier this year) and the movie was directed by Edward Zwick.  The script was nominated for a WGA award, but lost to Alfred Uhry/Driving Miss Daisy. Jarre told the L.A. Times of Glory, “I never thought I could interest anybody in it. A Civil War epic, about black people. But I’d got really attached to the story….I’d end up in tears when I got through writing.”

Notice in the scene above how many words it takes for Denzel to communicate a wide range of emotions—zero. There have been enough people over the years pounding “structure-structure-structure” that I think it’s time to balance that with “write visual stories full of emotional meaning.”

So there you have it—from Hitchcock to Hemingway and beyond—40 days on the importance of emotion. For good measure let’s memorize one sentence written by Karl Iglesias; “Emotion is your screenplay’s lifeblood.” 

P.S. From the odd connection department—Screenwriter Craig Mazin (The Hangover II) also graduated from Freehold High School where Springteen attended.

Scott W. Smith

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“Later that night the ocean again entered Tristan’s dreams…”
Legends of the Fall (Jim Harrison)

“So many nights I just dream of the ocean…”
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (Jimmy Buffett)

I’m not sure what the connection is between writer Jim Harrison and musician Jimmy Buffett, but I’m pretty sure there is one. Some secret Livingston/Key West handshake.

And somewhere in that connection is a spirit that resonates a longing not limited to the books, poems, and songs they’ve created but they’ve tapped into a desire to experience what it means to be alive. And to desire to not only live a life in full—or to use Hemingway’s phrase “all the way up”— but also to have “a good death.”

The 1994 movie Legends of the Fall, based on a novella by Harrison, is a movie I watch every couple of years. I don’t know if it’s the scenery where director Edward Zwick (Glory) picked to shoot the film in the beautiful Canadian Rockies. I don’t know if it’s the cinematography that captured that beauty—for which DP John Toll won an Oscar in 1995. I don’t know if it’s the actors—or simply Brad Pitt’s character Tristan or his Lawrence of Arabia/John Wayne-like  introduction, or the James Horner music—whatever the reason, I find Legends of the Fall repeatedly enjoyable to watch.

Critics were spilt at the time of its release and it’s not hard to see why. It has one foot in being an epic story and one foot in melodrama. Tricky territory. And I think that was by design in an attempt for the movie to gain a large audience of both men and women.  Coming off the heals of a Dances with WolvesLegends of the Falls fell short at the box office & Academy Award-wise compared with Dances (which won Pest Picture and 7 total Oscars and made $184 million domestic). But Legends is the one I return to again and again.

Perhaps Legends the film split the vote more than the book did and paid the price. You have wild horses, guns and war for the men and beautiful western clothes, lawn tennis, and a romance normally associated with a romance novel or soap opera for the ladies. And if any men were on the fence, Pitt’s flowing hair (often perfectly backlit) kept them from going over. I’m never surprised when men tell me they’ve never seen the film. Perhaps a sweeping generalization and an oversimplification, but that’s my take. It’s too—to use Harrison’s word—pretty.

Pitt even jokes on the DVD commentary that the movie’s like a L.L. Bean catalog. This is what the original source writer had to say of the refined mountain life portrayed in the movie;

“I did have issues, as they say now, with certain parts of the film, because I thought, ‘Do they have a French dry cleaner right down the street or something like that?,’ ’cause everybody looked— pretty. But so many people seem to like it and I have no objections because it’s a director’s medium. When you accept your check you’re selling your kid.”
Jim Harrison
NPR, All Things Considered, Feb. 08, 2007

The movie basically extracts the characters that Harrison created and somewhat places them in a new story. Col. Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), Alfred (Aidan Quinn), Samuel (Henry Thomas), Tristan (Pitt) and others are all there. Susannah’s role (Julia Ormond) is altered and beefed up. Heck, the book opens with the brothers going to the war where in the movie that doesn’t occur until the 32 minute mark. The book is more Tristan focused and covers more of his far away adventures. Like writer Walter Kirn (who also happens lives in Livingston, Montana where Harrison lives part of the year) said of the movie Up in the Air that was based on his book of the same name—the book is not the movie, and the movie is not the book, but they have the same DNA.

To director Zwick’s credit I think he and screenwriters Bill Wittliff and Susan Shiliday, as well as the talented cast & crew created a film that continues to have legs (and a heartbeat) more than 15 years after it was created and that’s not an easy accomplishment. (And something that I don’t think any of the other films based on Harrison’s work have achieved.)

As a side note, though Harrison has homes now in both Arizona and Montana, and has traveled widely, this is what he wrote a few years ago:

“I have several dear friends in Nebraska and the Niobrara River Valley in the Sandhills is my favorite beautiful spot on earth.”
Jim Harrison

In my adventures over the years I have been fortunate to experience such things as witnessing a full solar eclipse in Salzburg, been free diving with large green turtles in Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, and flown in a seaplane over the Amazon River, but one of the most unbelievable and unexpected experiences I’ve ever had is watching thousands of Sandhill Cranes fill the sky on the edge of the Nebraska Sand Hills.

To beat the drum once again you don’t need to be in New York and L.A. to find adventures or stories worth telling. Certainly, even a somewhat remote place such as Nebraska has been fertile ground for writers from Harrison (Dalva), to Willa Cather (My Antonia) and screenwriter Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt).

“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pig pen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.”
Willa Cather
My Antonia

May you all have eyes to see.

Up in the Air—The Novel vs. The Film

Scott W. Smith

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There are two performances by actors that stick in my mind as transcending acting. In both performances I had not see the actors before which helped bring a sense of heightened reality to the roles they played. And both come down to a single scene that burned into my memory. One was Denzel Washington and his role in Glory when he was being whipped, and the other was Scott Glenn’s role in Urban Cowboy when he drinks from a bottle of tequilla and eats the worm.

Glenn had actually been kicking around Hollywood for 15 years by the time he played the tough ex-con in Urban Cowboy.  But as he approached 40 he had given up on Hollywood and moved to Idaho with his wife and family. His agent talked him into auditioning for the role and the rest is history. From then on the former Marine was a Hollywood movie star.

What I remember when I watched his performance is that I thought, “This guy isn’t an actor, he’s a real bad ass.” Glenn has said he picks roles not for the story but whether or not the character interests him as something he wants to spend four months doing. But there is a Glenn quote I remembered reading years ago that I thought would be a fitting quote of the day.

I couldn’t find the original quote but did find one in the same vane where in speaking about his decision to move to Ketchum, Idaho back in 1978 Glenn said:

My plan was to get a job as a bartender and apprentice myself out as a cross-country ski guide for hunting and fishing and do Shakespeare in the park in Boise during the summer until the kids were older.”

That’s a spirit I can appreciate.

 

Scott W. Smith

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