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Posts Tagged ‘Hollywood’

“The main thing in writing a movie is to have a good ending.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects)

Thelma & Louise

Thelma & Louise

In terms of the Academy Awards, the morning of the Oscar-nominations in January and the night of the Oscar Awards in March make fitting Hollywood bookends. And it’s a time where the drama isn’t left on the big screen as the debating begins about which movies and people will win alongside speculation on why other movies and people were snubbed.

And some of the best writing happens the night of the Academy Awards like when Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri said holding her Oscar statue, “For everyone who wanted to see a happy ending for Thelma and Louise, to me this is it.”

Yesterday after a long conversation with Jason McKinnon of Screenwriting Spark I decided to pull together 50 screenwriting posts that feature Oscar-winners (in no particular order).

By the way, to download some of the most recent Oscar-nominated screenplays check out the links at Screencraft and Go Into The Story.

1) The Shakespeare of Hollywood (And the first screenwriter to win an Oscar)

2) Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie

3) Writing Quote #9 (Chayefsky)

4) Screenwriting Quote #110 (Paul Haggis)

5)  Screenwriting Quote #143 (Elia Kazan) “Have your central character in every scene…”

6) Screenwriting Quote #173 (Akiva Goldsman)

7) Screenwriter Ernest R. Tidyman

8) Screenwriter/Director Richard Brooks

9) Screenwriting Quote #44 (John Patrick Shanley)

10) Screenwriting Quote #38 (John Huston)

11) Screenwriting Quote #3 (Charlie Kaufman)

12) Screenwriting Quote #179 (Chris Terrio) 

13) Screenwriting Quote #148 (Edward Zwick)

14) Screenwriting Quote #161 (Frank Pierson)

15) Screenwriting Quote #54 (Walt Disney) Who’s won more Oscars than anyone.

16) Screenwriting Quote #139 (Stephen Gaghan)

17) Writer Budd Schulberg (1914-2009)

18) Horton Foote (1916-2009)

19) Screenwriting “To Kill A Mockingbird”

20) Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid”

21) Filmmaking Quote #19 (Robert Towne) “Filmmaking is dictated by fear…”

22) Filmmaking Quote #14 (Robert Benton)

23) Writing Quote #33 (Tom Stoppard)

24) The Making of Woody Allen in 10 Simple Steps

25) James L. Brooks on Chayefsky

26) Writing Quote #26 (Waldo Salt)

27) Woman of Steel (Diablo Cody)

28) Insanely Great Endings 

29) Tarantino on Leonard

30) Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness

31) Sorkin’s Emotional Drive

32) Filmmaking Quote #27 (Frank Capra) “I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.” 

33) Writing “Thelma & Louise”

34) Writing “Good Will Hunting”

35) Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl in Ohio (Francis Ford Coppola)

36) “Network” Notes by Paddy Chayefsky

37) First screenplay, Oscar—Precious

38) Filmmaking Quote #34 (Ben Affleck)

39) 4 Weeks + 8 Years = 1 Oscar ” “Once you start writing, go like hell—but don’t fire till you’re ready.”—William Goldman

40) Preparing for an Oscar Speech (David  Seidler-Style)

41) The Oscars & Screenwriting East of L.A.

42) First Screenplay= 9 Oscar Nominations

43) Jailbait, Rejection & Screenwriter Mark Boal’s Start

44) The Oscars Minnesota-Style

45) The Job of Writing Quote by Oscar-winner Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List)

46) Writing and Directing “Out of Africa”

47) The First Academy Awards

48) Writing “A Beautiful Mind” “I was the worst writer in my seventh grade class.”—Akiva Goldsman

49) Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)

50) How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)—Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine)

Related links:
Best Screenplay Oscar Winners A to Z at Biography.com
Oscar Winning Screenplays 1928 to present at SimplyScripts

Scott W. Smith

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“[Screenwriting] was a chore [mostly] because you’ve got several bosses. You’re not just writing for yourself. I write for myself. I’m the only one I have to please. When I have to please a producer and a director and so on, then I’m just taking in writing, doing what they want me to do.

There was a time when I had to do it, ‘cuz I needed the money. I wasn’t very proud of the pictures, but it was just something I had to do. There was no way to talk [executives] into anything. You’d have a story conference on a Friday afternoon, and they’d give all this stuff, all their ideas, [and] you’d go back to your hotel room, sit there looking at the wall and writing it, and then Monday you’d meet ‘em again, and they’d forgotten all the bullshit they’d told you Friday.”
Elmore Leonard
WGA, West article Always Writing by Dylan Callaghan

Hollywood Hacks & Shipwrecks
Hollywood=Factory Town (Michael Arndt)
One Benefit of Being Outside Hollywood (Robert Rodriguez)
Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

Scott W. Smith

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“In many ways, though, my life has remained much as it was in 2000. I still rent the same one-bedroom walk-up in Brooklyn, and I still spend my days sitting in a chair and staring at a computer (though the chair is more comfortable and the computer is nicer). The main difference is I don’t worry about having to get a day job. (Not yet, anyway).”
Screenwriter Michael Ardnt
(Writing in 2006 soon after the release of Little Miss Sunshine)

Chaplin, Charlie (Modern Times

“I live in New York, I still rent an apartment in New York, and I taught myself to write living in New York. There is a tiny, tiny little industry there where I can be reading scripts there, but the idea of going to Los Angeles and being a struggling screenwriter in Los Angeles—I just couldn’t do it. It was just too much for me to take. And in a way, I don’t think I would have written Little Miss Sunshine if I’d been living in Los Angeles, just because it’s such a factory town, you know. I hesitated for a long time to write this movie just because I knew it’s such an odd and idiosyncratic movie—and so low budget, and so small scale—that it didn’t seem like anybody was going to be interested in making it. And I think you just internalize the values of that environment. I’m going to move back to New York after I finish with Pixar [writing Toy Story 3] and I hope I stay there. 
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine)
2007 talk at Cody’s Books (Before he won his Oscar and before Toy Story 3 was released)

Related Post:

Hollywood Hacks & Shipwrecks
The Outsider Advantage
One Benefit of Being Outside of Hollywood
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.
What’s it Like to Be a Struggling Writer in L.A.

Scott W. Smith

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“When did you last see a movie that engaged your mind a week or a month later?…When crap drives out class, our taste grow coarser and the life of the imagination grows smaller.”
Stephen King
What’s Next For Pop Culture?

Recently I looked at what movies were playing at a four-plex theater by my house and couldn’t help but notice (thanks to the app I was using) something they all had in common—very low Rotten Tomatoes scores (28%, 24%, 16%, 12%). Doesn’t really matter what films they were, they were just typical Hollywood movies. Go back a few years, or look forward in a few years and there’s a good chance you see a repeated pattern. The big question is why haven’t Hollywood movies evolved?

Here’s a barrage of soundbite reviews of those movies at the four-plex:

“The comedy equivalent of mud-wrestling without the mud.”
“Uninspired trudge.”
“Unfunny, predictable, and vulgar.”
“Filled with the sentimental schmaltz.”
“Hallmark romance that ranges from the dull to the ridiculous.”
“Forget dialogue, character development, or logic.”

So why did those films get made? Why did they get made in the past? And why will they get made in the future?

The easy to answer—money.

Movie 24% and movie 16% both spent at least one week #1 at the box office and movie 12% was written by one of the most financially successful writers in history. (My wife did go to movie 12% but left before the movie was over when it got “too cheesy.” But Hollywood got the ticket sale.)

Hollywood is in the money-making business. And it’s trying to make movies that people want to see, so they can make a profit. Business 101. It’s the same reason all those trite reality TV shows that people complain about are on the air.

This all reminds me of a writing class I had in L.A. back in the ’80s taught by a playwright/screenwriter who told us that Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007) was not a good writer—but that Sheldon was a rich and famous writer. He went on to make his case against Sheldon known for his many novels, Broadway plays, movies, and for creating the TV shows Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie.  The teacher concluded his talk saying that though he considered Sidney Sheldon a hack he wished he could write like Sidney Sheldon.

I’m not an expert on Sheldon, though I confess to enjoying both Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie as a kid. (I don’t remember any storylines, but I remember Stefanie Powers and Barbera Eden well.) But I don’t think Sheldon was a hack. A hack to me doesn’t really care what he writes. I don’t remember the teacher’s name either, but that class was a memorable moment that’s stuck with me.

Looking at the work of other writers and filmmakers is often a mix of subjectivity, objectivity, education, temperament, envy and jealousy. I always think it’s best to judge any artist by their best work. And to be fair, Sheldon did win an Academy Award for writing The Bachelor and the Bobby-Sock (1947), won a Tony, received a nomination for an Emmy, was a New York Times best-selling author, and is listed as the seventh best-selling fiction author of all time—ahead of even J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss.

But it is surprising why Hollywood films as a whole aren’t better. All of the other crafts related to filmmaking have overall arguably evolved significantly. (Cinematography, editing, special effects, sound effects, acting, set design, etc.,etc.) The reason some say those crafts are better is technology has improved and they had a great tradition to build on. But the types of movies that get made don’t really seem to improve. Certainly screenwriters also have opportunities to build (not just try to duplicate) on a body of work that went before them.

Who do we blame? Screenwriters? Audiences? Studios?

“The logic behind the Hollywood development process for a motion picture goes something like this: no matter where you are making movies in the world , if you are producing a product for a mass audience, the various funnels through which your story (the entertainment you are creating) must pass will narrow in order to appeal to the most people waiting on the other side. Typically, mass audiences reduce characters to white hat/good guy and black hat/bad guy. Consequently they like the familiarity and comfort of a twice told tale…The trick for the Hollywood writer is to create a script that is intensely personal, yet still manages to resonate with a mass audience by virtue of its universal theme.”
Michael Lent
Breakfast with Sharks
Page 4

The good news if you want to—and have the desire, skill, and opportunity— to write those poorly reviewed films that pull in a big mass audiences—you can make a lot of money. (Like all that money spent at fast food restaurants and Thomas Kinkade paintings, maybe not the most nourishing things but someone’s making money.)  These days writers who aim a little higher tend to find refuge in independent films or cable TV. Or you can turn to teaching where you can breakdown why the Sidney Sheldon of the day is a hack and where one professor at a well-known film school reportedly said, “I prepare students for unemployment.”

To really end this post on a positive note.;What about those handful of great Hollywood films made every year? Perhaps Frank Darabont explained it best when he said Hollywood is like a big shipwreck, and while most of the ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean, every once in a while a couple of pieces of wood made it to shore.

And 2012 was actually a pretty solid year, wasn’t it? Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Silver Linings Playbook are just three well-done Oscar-nominated films that crowd the top of the Hollywood pyramid. In every level of production there is a pyramid. The best thing you can do wherever you are on the pyramid is to focus on what you do best and hope your work can find an audience. First with a small audience of investors (a studio, an investment group,  kickstarter) and then with a larger audience that brings a return on investment (ROI).

But if you can do that with a little heart and soul, there’s a few of us that would appreciate it.

P.S. Sidney Sheldon was raised in Chicago during the depression and attended Northwestern so I’ll see if I can find some interviews so he can get some stage time to defend himself. But since he was raised during the depression I imagine he may just say, “I wasn’t trying to be Shakespeare or Hemingway— just looking for a way to feed my family and pay some bills.”

Scott W. Smith

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“I was a city health inspector in Boston. Do the necessary work to pay your bills and take care of your family, and you’ll get there. Talent has a way of workin’ itself out. Hollywood will find you. Eventually.”
Screenwriter James L. White (Ray)

Workin 9 to 5
What a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin by
It’s all takin’
And no givin’

9 to 5
Grammy-winning, number one song written by Dolly Parton

Before screenwriter Colin Higgins bought a house in Beverly Hills, he once had a job cleaning pools there. Higgins had a great run in the 70s & 80s writing Silver Streak, Foul Play, Nine to Five, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

But in the book Tales from the Script, UCLA professor Richard Walter tells the story of how Higgins once hoped to win a Goldwyn screenwriting competition so he could quit his day job and write full-time for a year. He ended up getting second in the competition so he had to keep his day job which in turned launched his career. Here’s how Walter’s tell the story;

“(Colin Higgins) went to work for a swimming pool cleaning company. And the very first pool that he’s cleaning is in the flats in Beverly Hills–great big, fancy house. As he’s vacuuming the pool, sitting under a beach umbrella at the pool is a guy who clearly owns the house and he’s reading a screenplay. They get to chatting , and Colin tells him about this script that won the Goldwyn prize. And this producer agrees to read it, and ends up producing it. It’s Harold and Maude. So you just have to stay open to the surprises.”

Now keep in mind that when Higgins was cleaning pools he had already served in the United States Merchant Marines, had an English degree from Stanford and an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. In fact, he wrote Harold and Maude as his thesis. So don’t think he was just a pool guy who BS’ed his way into a screenwriting career. But once again, another story to add to my “bump-in factor” file.

Scott W. Smith


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“Film makers can’t get enough of Adolf Hitler. I think it’s because he’s the perfect villain.” Arnold Pistorius

Once upon a time in Hollywood…1941-1976

So in a sweeping look at American film history today we’re going to clip off 35 years.  Again one of the reasons for this brief look back at film history is to see how change has been a constant throughout the business and to see how we are in another major shift.

Hollywood had enjoyed its greatest decade through the 1930s in the short history of the film industry. (Some still believe that era was the greatest movie decade of all-time.)

1940 & 1941 continued the Golden Era of cinema. But then on December 7, 1941 the world changed for Americans with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The United States was coming off The Great Depression which started with the crash of Wall Street in 1929.

Hollywood actors and directors lended a hand in making training and propaganda films . And then there were movies about the war and its lingering effects back in the states.

So Proudly We Hail, 1943
Best Years of Our Lives, 1946

But I think the biggest lingering effect of Hitler and the Nazi’s is it created a world of fear. I’m not sure we’ve ever recovered from the idea that one man could cause so much pain and destruction in the modern world.

“The motion pictures made during World War II deeply affected Steven Spielberg, and movies about the war remain fertile ground for numerous filmmakers during subsequent decades. One reason for the continued popularity of these sages, and for movies about different wars as well, is the panoply of visual pleasures such conflicts offer.” “Citizen Spielberg”: by Lester D. Friedman

Europe exported existential thought and a new wave of movies that we free morality standards in the American film industry.

Much has been written about the prosperity that followed World War II, but many films reflected a period of questioning human existence and sometimes landing on nihilism or some for of despair. And themes that followed from World War II were prevalent for at least the next 30 years—and maybe until the present day. (The names and fears have just changed over the years)

Look at some of the top films of the 50s:

Rebel Without a Cause
On the Waterfront
Sunset Boulevard
Rear Window
War of the Worlds
Death of a Salesman

Sci-Fi films with end of the world themes were popular:
It Came From Outer Space
The Thing
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Them

Hilter may have been gone but there were plenty of worries beyond wondering how Jerry Mathers was going to break in his baseball glove on Leave it to Beaver. (The Korean War, Soviets, the Bomb, communists, etc.)

And then into the 60s President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr were shot and killed, there were riots in Chicago,  L.A. and other cities. Viet Nam War.  And if things werem’t bad enough TIME Magazine’s cover on April 8, 1966 asked, “Is God Dead?”

Some of the more well known movies of the 60s were:

Dr, Strangelove; or how I stopped learning to Love the Bomb
They Don’t Shoot Horses Do They?
Easy Rider
Psycho
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Bonnie & Clyde
Cool-Hand Luke
Midnight Cowboy
2001 A Space Odyssey
The Wild Bunch
The Manchurian Candidate

The pessimistic trend  continued into the early 1970s in politics with Viet Nam & Watergate as well as at the movies:

M*A*S*H
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Deliverance
Five Easy Pieces
The Last Picture Show
The Godfather
Chinatown

Sure you had Disney movies and light musicals during all these years but these films represent much of the best films of the era.

Bruce became the catalyst for change. Bruce was a mechanical shark on the set of the 1975 film JAWS who didn’t work as well as desired.  But he worked well in the edit bay and the $7 million film went on to make over $400 million worldwide. Sure there was blood and guts, but it had a happy ending.

The tent pole movie was born (or maybe just perfected). And once that genie was out of the bottle everybody in Hollywood was shooting for the  $100 million boxoffice goal.  By this time Viet Nam was over and Americans were ready to get on with life and the bicentennial celebration of the United States in 1976.

And Rocky was there toward the end of the year to give audiences something to cheer about. I do believe the one-two punch of JAWS & Rocky had a huge impact on the future of the film business. More thills per minute and a somewhat happy ending that would make a lot of money.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Part 5)

Scott W. Smith

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Once Upon a Time…between 1890-1927.

The history of movies did not begin in Hollywood, California. After decades of advances in photographic techniques in the nineteenth century an inventor born in Milan, Ohio and raised (and homeschooled) in Port Huron, Michigan developed the motion picture system as we know it today. Thomas Edison (and his assistant  William K.L. Dickson) worked together on the new invention that changed the way people viewed entertainment.

Work took Edison to Canada & Kentucky before he would eventually land in New Jersey and his inventions earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” (Dickson is also known to film historians as the filmmaker Fred Ott’s Sneeze in 1894.)

Edison held patents on over 900 of his inventions including the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph and around 1890 the film camera as we know it. Dickson developed the kinetograph, a sprocket camera and George Eastman (of Eastman-Kodak fame) developed the 35mm film that would pass through the camera and capture multiple images quickly.  (A technique commonly used for the last 100+ years in the film industry.)

The main problem with the early camera was it was so large it had to be permanently housed in a studio built in West Orange, New Jersey specifically for it. The studio had a track in it that allowed them to rotate camera positions to capture light coming from an opening in a room.

It’s important to look back at the early developments in film history to how Hollywood became Hollywood as we know it and why recent inventions have shifted the direction for the future of the film industry.

In the years leading up to 1900 the popularity of film grew rapidly. First using machines that allowed people to individually watch short films and evolving to nickelodeons in 1905 that projected the film images in storefronts that allowed small groups of people to watch the same film together. Within two years there were close to 4,000 nickelodeon theaters in the U.S.

New films had to be made quickly as audiences grew. And film moved from showing vaudeville acts such as juggling to telling stories. These films were usually less than ten minutes in length and made in a couple days. In 1903 Edwin S. Porter made the 12-minute film The Great Train Robbery which was seen as groundbreaking for its use of indoor/outdoor shots and use of cross cutting.  The film toured the country for years.

This all set the stage for a stage actor and playwright named D.W. Griffith in 1908 to make the film The Adventures of Dollie. Films began to grow in length as well as artistic merdits—as well becoming more economically viable.

Griffith changed the direction of the film industry in 1915 with the release of the longest and most expensive film ever made, The Birth of a Nation. The $100,000 film made $50 million dollars at the box office.

Distribution rights and patent infringements all played a roll in this emerging and profitable new industry.  New Jersey, New York (as well as Chicago and Jacksonville) all played a roll in the early development of movies. The New York area and Chicago were a natural start because that’s where the stage talent was located and Jacksonville for its warmer weather and sunshine. But there would be a shift in the film industry. (A common theme we’ll see.)

The industry eventually landed in southern California because of its combination of sunshine, warm weather and the diversity of nearby locations such as mountains, deserts, oceans, cities, open ranch land—and cheap labor. Remember places like New York and Chicago had a long established theater and vaudeville companies that were very popular. Experienced talent does not come cheap. (But producers were just as interested in producing cost efficient films as producers today. So a new industry was born on the backs of those with little or no experience in the new industry. Sound familiar?)

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica by 1915 there were 15,000 people working in the film industry and 60% was located in southern California. During this time films were all black and white and silent. The format worked well for the antics of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the beauty and talent of Mary Pickford.

But that would all change as well in 1927 as talkies came on the scene as we’ll learn in Once Upon a Time… (part 3).


Scott W. Smith

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Hollywood has a problem and it’s not my fault. Really it isn’t. But if you’re a screenwriter living outside L.A., L.A.’s problem is your opportunity.

Don’t blame me if Hollywood is the new Detroit. I just started “Screenwriting from Iowa” last year. L.A.’s runaway problem has been going on for the last decade. Runaway production is the term used to describe movies not being filmed in L.A.

The Directors Guild of America (DGA) breaks this down into two catagories; Creative Runaway and Economic Runaway. The first being those movies that are filmed outside L.A. because the story actually takes place outside L.A. and the second is movies that are filmed outside L.A. because for whatever reason it is cheaper to shoot on location.

This is where the window of opportunity comes for writers outside L.A. I think production companies are combining creative and economic reasons to film outside L.A. That is they are looking for scripts that take place outside L.A. because they are cheaper to producer there, a large part due to tax incentives given by such states as Iowa and Michigan. (Not to mention the dent already made by Canada.)

There is a lot of finger pointing going on right now in L.A. as people are watching jobs disappear (unions, traffic and hassle of filming on location in L.A., cost of living, etc.),  There is even talk about a L.A. film czar that will help reign business back to L.A. and time will tell how effective that will be. But how bad is it? Let’s look at the numbers.

According to The Wrap, back in 1996 there were 71 major film permits given in L.A. for shooting in L.A. county. (Films budgeted over $80 million.)  In 2008 the number was down to 21. This year there have only been 3 major films that have applied for film permits.

Of course, one way in which Hollywood is not like Detroit is that people still want American movies. And I think the  USA still makes the best movies. So movies are still being made and there is still an audience. It’s just that they are being made less and less in L.A.

But some even in L.A. see the positive aspects of this trend. John Nolte writes on his blog, “While people losing their livelihood is not something to cheer about, there is a silver lining. Anything that helps the film industry become less L.A.-centric will only be a positive. Maybe you have to live out here to feel this strong about it, but Los Angeles as a shooting location is played. The downtown skyline, Santa Monica Pier, Griffith Observatory, same freeways, same bridges, same Miracle Mile, etc… There’s only so much you can do with a sprawling one-story ghetto. Every once in a while a director comes along and shoots the city in a unique and imaginative way, but this is happening less and less.” 

Films have always been made outside L.A. and if you go to the section here called “Screenwriting Road Trips” you’ll see how I’ve covered many states and how many wonderful films have been made outside California. And Alexandyr Kent of USA TODAY has an excellent overview of films made in other states in his article 50 niffty filmmaking states.

L.A. and New York are the core of the industry and that won’t change.  But like almost everything else in this new economic shift people are reinventing how things are done. Will big Hollywood productions return to the streets of L.A.? Who knows? But I think this is the greatest time in the history of the film business to be a creative person living outside L.A. So keep writing those off-Hollywood stories because Hollywood is starting to land in the fly-over zone. (As of this writing four features are crewing-up in Iowa alone. And while they’re not $80 million + films, I see it as a good sign.)

And while the auto industry in the USA is in trouble I do want to say my 2004 Dodge Durango has been the best (and most dependable) vehicle I have ever owned. And I’ve had Toyotas, Nissans, and Hondas.  It’s got 82,000 miles and hasn’t had a single repair. I just load it with equipment, put gas in it, change the oil now and then. Thanks to all the good people at Chrysler Corp. who designed and built my Durango.

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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“Primary exposition is telling and showing to the audience the time and place of the story, the names and relationships of the characters, and the nature of the conflict.”

Irwin R. Blacker
The Elements of Screenwriting

“Within the first pages of a screenplay a reader can judge the relative skill of the writer simply by noting how he handles exposition.”
Robert McKee
Story

Dramatically speaking exposition is simply the way you convey information.

Consider these facts:

I share a birthday with Slim Pickens.

I was born the same year as George Clooney, Meg Ryan, Michael J. Fox, Melissa Etheridge, Peter Jackson, Heather Locklear, Enya and Barack Obama.

I graduated from high school the same year and just a few miles away from the high school Wesley Snipes graduated from.

Not that I lump myself in with those well known people (okay, I just did — but let’s just say I’m not well-known or as accomplished like those mentioned) but I want to show you a form of exposition. I wasn’t totally on the nose with the above exposition but it gives you a ballpark of how old I am. (Old, but not that old. Come on, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Sheryl Crow and Jon Bon Jovi are just a year or two behind me.) If you wanted to, with a little research you could put all the pieces together.

Exposition works best in films when it is sprinkled here and there and it doesn’t feel like exposition.

Think of exposition like exposure in photography. It reveals a subject. When you take a picture of someone on film you expose a part of them. And every angle gives you a little different exposure or insight into the person. In a close up you might see a small scar on their face, from the side you may see a tattoo on their arm, and from behind you might see their hair is thinning.

In compelling portrait photos you’re exposing someone and giving little glimpses of who the person is. In your screenwriting it’s best if your exposition is almost invisible so the audience doesn’t feel they are being spoon-feed info.

In real life people are constantly giving us exposition. Two pieces of real life expo that come to mind were in the form of a warning about other people. The first one came years ago when I was young and began a job wide-eyed and excited. A fellow who had been at the company a few years warned me about the president of the company; “Be careful there is a trail of broken relationships behind him.”

That was a great bit of exposition given in a way that was fresh and allowed me to fill in the blanks without knowing the details. Another person I worked with said of someone we knew, “I know there is a good person in there wanting to come out.” Great line.

And a fellow I once interviewed for a video told me, “The memories of my father could be put on the back of a postage stamp.” That one lines says lot more than a typical movie scene than dumping a two-minute monologue on what a bad a father he had.

This week keep track of how exposition is given to you in real life and in movies and TV shows you watch. Detective shows on TV are some of the worst at dumping exposition on an audience because they have to front load so much information because they need to grab your attention early so you know what’s going on before you change the channel. 
”Okay, we think Joe did this because his girlfriend just broke up with him and he lost his job at the factory where he works and he has a hunting rifle that uses the same caliber bullet that was used in the murder.” Then they often dump more exposition right at the end to explain all the details of why such and such happened.

Consider these great lines from movies that convey exposition in an excellent way:

“What was your Childhood like?”
“Short.”
Escape from Alcatraz

“What do you do with a girl when you’re through with her?”
“I’ve never had a girl.”
An Officer and a Gentleman

“Are you something else I’m going to have to live through?”
Erin Brockovich

In one sentence we get a glimpse that Erin’s been through some crap.

A key to writing good exposition is to only reveal what you have to reveal. We do this in real life. It’s the guy who says after the fifth date when things are getting more serious, “Have I told you I have a kid?”

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid timely exposition comes just before there is going to be a shootout and Butch says to Sundance: “Kid, I think there’s something I ought to tell you. I never shot anybody before. ” Sundance replies, “One hell of a time to tell me.” And at 90 minutes into the film it is one hell of a time to tell the audience this little bit of exposition. Butch is an outlaw and a bank robber and the admission catches Sundance and the audience off guard.

Films often use exposition early in the film to set the stage as in Jerry Maguire where the Tom Cruise character explains what a sports agent does. (Speaking of Jerry Maguire, I loved how screenwriter Cameron Crowe actually used exposition to avoid the usual spill-your-guts exposition moment when Dorothy tells Jerry, “Let’s not tell all our sad stories.”) The stuff you have to get out to set up you story is what Blake Snyder calls “laying pipe” and warns that audiences can only stand so much of that before they get bored with the technical jargon.

“Laying Pipe,” is about how much screen time you must use to set up your story. In my opinion, audiences will only stand for so much of that. A good example of “too much pipe” is Minority Report, which does not get going until Minute 40. Why? Because this adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story requires A LOT of pipe! And to me, it torques the whole movie out of shape. So we must be careful. Just because we can lean on the built-in audiences that a beloved novel brings, we have to make sure we create a movie-going experience that resonates for everyone — even those who aren’t familiar with the book.
Blake Snyder

See how well exposition is handled in Man in Black: “What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the more deadlier poisons known to man.” Mystery Man on Film says of this line of exposition: “Perfect.  The pipe is laid, the audience knows the name of the poison, its properties, and how it works.  More important, the audience knows how this scene is going to work — one of the men will die from ingesting the poison.”

One reason flashbacks in general are frowned upon in screenplays is because they are often put there to simply be an info dump rather than being integral to the story. But flashbacks and life recaps can be handled well.

In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character says, “Dad was a Yankees fan then so, of course, I rooted for Brooklyn. But in ’58 the Dodgers moved away so we had to find other things to fight about.” Two lines that sums up his relationship with his father.

“But you have to be careful that your characters are not talking only in order to get information out. If you need to give the audience a bit of information, make sure to give the character his own reason to tell us about it. That’s called making the dialogue organic to the character.”
Alex Epstein
Crafty Screenwriting

“Always ask yourself: Would the character actually say this, or is he only saying it because you need the audience to know some fact or detail? If the answer is the latter, you’re writing exposition and not dialogue. That’s not good.”
John August
Big Fish

Save the best exposition for last. Of course, one of the best examples of this is when Darth Vader says, “Luke, I am your father.” I was at midnight showing in Hollywood when I first heard that line uttered and it was a personal great movie moment. Other great memorable lines of powerful expo are “I see dead people” (The Sixth Sense) and “She’s my sister and my daughter” (Chinatown).

Good exposition doesn’t need to be spoken either. “Show don’t tell” is a popular Hollywood phrase. Films are visual. When Jack Nickelson’s character continually washes his hands in As Good as it Gets we get a hint that he’s a obsessive compulsive neurotic. We don’t need to have him explain to a character why he washes his hands. We don’t need to see a flashback of him growing up in a dirty household where his mother didn’t let him wash his hands in order to save on the water bill.

In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character reads books in a room filled with books. We get a clue that he reads a lot. Simple visual exposition.

Sometimes you can use false exposition to lead the characters and audience astray as Norman Bates does in Psycho. Just because someone tells you something (and even believes it themselves) doesn’t mean it’s true.

Subtext is another way of masking exposition. Actors love to talk about playing subtext. That is what is being said beyond the words. Think of the many ways someone can say “I love You” and have it mean so many different things including “I hate you.”

As you’re writing and rewriting your script be aware of how exposition is being conveyed. Make ever effort to make the exposition seamless and there for a good reason.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)

“The future of cinema lies in the power of the pixel. The injection of fresh ideas and methodologies will only serve to mix up the metaphorical gene pool and empower a new generation of filmmakers.
                                                                                           Roger Corman

“The comeback of documentaries is strictly linked to the arrival of digital technology. We only see the tip of the iceberg. The whole the notion of distribution will be changed in the next decade.”
                                                                                          Wim Wenders

“I wanted this movement to be like the French New Wave, in which directors told different types of stories and used the language of cinema a little differently, with smaller cameras on real locations.”
                                                                                           Gary Winick

“Cinema has always been marriage of technology and human talent.”
                                                                                           Francis Ford Coppola 

 

Francis Ford Coppola is a prophet. As he gets older he even starts to look like a Moses-like figure. (Well, at least Charlton Heston-like.)  He’s every screenwriters friend and should be an inspiration to you.

He’s made great films (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), he’s made money and lost money, he’s won five Oscars, he even has a daughter who’s won an Oscar for screenwriting, he’s been a visionary, an artist, “a idea machine,” he own a resort in Belize and a home in Buenos Aires, and he makes a good bottle of wine there in Northern California.

A few months ago I was doing a shoot in the San Francisco Bay area and had an opportunity to make a quick stop in Napa Valley. I had not been there in over a decade and one of the things that struck me was it reminded me of Iowa. Then I realized why, it’s farm land with many Victorian homes scattered around.

Granted those homes in California are five times more expensive than the ones in Iowa. But the area has a similar feel.  In fact if you head west on Interstate 80 from Iowa after a couple days you will end up in California which is essentially what Midwest people did years ago on the first transcontinetal highway looking for new opportunities (and before that looking for gold). Which is why the street names in Napa include, Iowa St., Illinois St., Omaha Ct. and Kansas Ave.

I won’t get into Coppola being born in Michigan because there’s too much room to cover already. Toward the end of part 1 of this post I mentioned Coppola using video on The Outsiders back in 1982.  But before that film he also used video according to ASC cinematographer Russ Alsobrook:

“In 1982 Francis Ford Coppola directed One from the Heart from inside his 28-foot Airstream trailer designed as a complete “Image and Sound Control Center” complete with editing suite, kitchen and Jacuzzi. Aside from the Jacuzzi, the most unusual new piece of equipment that found its way into virtually every aspect of production on One from the Heart was the computer. From word processors in the script phase to budgeting, scheduling, storyboarding, sophisticated video tapes with playback and instant editing, the newest in silicon technology was being integrated into the Hollywood system.”

Coppola and those working with him 25 years ago showed where the technology was heading and helped pave the way. Earlier this year his first film in ten years, Youth Without Youth was released. It was shot on with a high end HD video camera and edited on Final Cut Pro. With five Oscars behind him I’m pulling for Coppola himself to do some of his best work ever in this new cinema.

I’m pulling for you too which is why this is a monster length post, even after being broken up into two parts. It’s important for you to grasp where all the technology is heading. 

What happened between Coppola’s Airstream video center in 1982 and today that makes it an exciting time to be a screenwriter and filmmaker?

Let’s start with 1997. That was the year that digital video arrived on the scene with the Sony VX1000. It was a leap in image quality, portability, and cost and independent filmmakers jumped on board. Lars von Trier’s was one of the first to shoot a feature with the Sony VX1000. He did the camera work as well as direct The Idiots, which was in competition at Cannes in 1998.

In 2000 Van Trier released Dancer in the Dark which was also shot on video, but in one scene he used 100 DV cameras.  Let it be stated that the critics have be far apart on judging his films. Rodger Ebert wrote, “It smashes down the walls of habit that surround so many movies. It returns to the wellsprings. It is a bold, reckless gesture.” Another reviewer called it “A 2 ½ hour demo of auteurist self-importance that’s artistically bankrupt on almost every level.” (Derek Elly, Variety) But another reviewer said of the same film, “An exhilarating and original work of cinema. A triumph of form, content, and artistic integrity. Astonishing!” (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)

Dancer in the Dark went on to win the top award at the Cannes film festival.

In 2000, Spike Lee chose to shoot most of his $10 million dollar film Bamboozled with the Sony VX1000. In that same year Academy-award winning director Michael Figgis released a DV feature Timecode.

Another film first happened in 2002 with Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark that was shot digitally in one take.  Impossible to do with film due to limitations of film loads. (Though Hitchcock did his best to make Rope look like one take.) Russian Ark was shot not with a DV camera but a Sony HD camera. That same year Academy –award winning director Steven Soderbergh shot a DV feature Full Frontal.

Jerry Seinfeld was executive producer and featured performer for the DV documentary Comedian (2002) that covered his return to stand-up comedy after his successful run on the TV hit Seinfeld. It was made with a small crew, is raw in production values, but offers a unique behind the scene look at the work of a comedian.

In 1999 a company called InDigEnt was formed by director/producer Gary Winick, John Sloss, Jonathan Sehring, and Caroline Kaplan. 

“I got inspired by the Dogme 95 movement because I felt they were starting to tell the types of stories and tell stories in a different way, and I was hoping at InDigEnt we would do that.”
                                                                                                   Gary Winick

Winick directed Tadpole, shot with a Sony PD-150 DV camera, and won the Best Director Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

InDigEnt also made my personal favorite DV feature Pieces of April in 2003. It won many awards at film festivals and actress Patricia Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar.  It written and directed by Peter Hedges (who also wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?)

In an Interview with Indie Wire Winick told Matthew Ross:

“I could have shot Tadpole on 35mm, and would it have been a better film? I don’t know. Would I have gotten that cast? I don’t know. Part of the reasons for the cast wanting to be in the film, besides the material, was that they were all interested in working in DV, which I presented it to them as this hybrid between the theater and film. And also, I only need you for two weeks and not two months.”

Ross: I’ve never heard DV described as a hybrid of theater and film.

Winick: Actually it was Sigourney Weaver who inspired me to phrase it that way. But I think it’s well-put for a couple of reasons. One is that you can let the scene keep rolling; you can let the scene unfold like you would in theater. The actors can just perform…Digital cameras can be portable enough that if you suddenly come up with a new approach, you can just back up and redo your scene….Charlie Chaplin used to make films that way… These days, studios just aren’t going to give directors permission to play around that way in 35mm — on DV, you can.

And in 2004 the InDigEnt produced November starring Courteney Cox and shot with a $4,000. Panasonic DVX 100 DV camera by director of photography Nancy Schreiber who won best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival.

That same year at Sundance Morgan Spurlock earned the Directing Award for Super Size Me and the documentary Born into Brothels won an audience award, both of which were shot on digital video cameras. Brothels beat Super at the Academy Awards.

So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences.

You can sit around and argue all day about how film is superior to digital video, but folks the train has left the station. And it’s going to get wilder.  I really don’t think most audiences watching the above films or other DV features such as Trainspotting, Murderball, The Buena Vista Social Club, Inland Empire, and Grizzly Man really care what the film was shot on. They want to be entertained, engaged and get a glimpse into the world they live in. Dare I say films with meaning?

All of this means there are going to be more opportunities for films made and distributed outside the Hollywood system.  People have been dreaming about this time since at least 1955 when Daily Variety’s headline read “Film is Dead” with the invention of the first Ampex video tape recording machine. That bold declaration, and those like it, have caused much laughter. Hollywood is slow to change.

It’s always fun to look back at past predictions and read things like, “The radio will never replace TV because people have to stop and sit down to watch TV” and that Manhattan would never have more than 1 million people living there because there wouldn’t be enough room for all the horses.” 

I remember when a trailer for Silkwood came out in ’83 and Cher’s name appeared on screen. People in the theater laughed. Apparently they missed her excellent film acting debut performance in Robert Altman’s Welcome Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean that came out in 1982.

To the people laughing, Cher was only known as part of the kitchy TV program The Sonny and Cher Show that ran from 1976-1977. She had had a few hit songs, but no one (except Altman perhaps) took her as a serious actress. They weren’t laughing after they saw her performance in Silkwood or the next year for her roll in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, or her academy-award winning performance in Moonstruck.

But that’s the same laughter that I heard when my boyhood friends learned the motorcycle company Honda was going to make cars. It’s the same laughter that Ted Turner heard when he said he was going to start a 24 Hour News channel. When told by a reporter that he lost 10 million dollars in his first year of operation, in true maverick spirit he said, “And I plan on losing 10 million dollars every year until this works.”

No one’s laughing at CNN now and behind Tunrer’s wake are many channels dedicated to sports, weather, history, pets and home improvement. (Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dreams touches on the spirit of the entrepreneur.) The entrepreneur and the artist often share a stubborn vision of what is possible.

Artists have always taken the tools at hand and created art; Be it an old Polaroid camera or a cheap Russian made Holga camera. For years filmmakers have been using a plastic video camera designed by Fisher-Price in the 1970’s for children called PixelVision. It originally shot onto cassettes but now is commonly adapted for DV use and there are now PixelVision film festivals as well. 

Now that iTunes is selling short films from the Sundance Film Festival and Academy Award Nominated films it allows a revenue stream never seen before for short filmmakers. With a few clicks on your computer you can be watching The Last Farm shot in Iceland.

Most books on screenwriting are geared toward the traditional Hollywood feature film route and I’m indebted to those books for there I learned classic storytelling structure, but there are many alternative routes for you these days due to the increased bandwidth of the Internet.

Keep in mind that You Tube was just launched in 2005. And already it’s had success (Lonely Girl 15 and We Need Girlfriends) launching careers. The later now being developed by Sex in the City creator Darren Star, who is working on a CBS pilot with the original creators who made the videos in off hours from their day jobs.

And don’t forget the potential for screenwriting for videos games that have become more and more story orientated. Video game sales a couple years ago surpassed movie revenue. And every year more and more businesses will be using video on the Internet to tell their stories.

The digital genie is way out of the bottle. It may be digital but someone still has to write the screenplays. On the high end there will continue to be films shot digitally like Sin City and 300 that were shot on blue screens on sound stages, and this years’ $30 million Cloverfield which was shot mostly with the Panasonic HVX 200 digital camera that sells new for under $6,000. shooting onto digital P2 cards.

There will continually be upgrades to smaller high def DV cameras and films made from them, and there are films now being made being shot directly to hard drives and edited as they’re being shot, and even those older cameras like the Sony VX1000 will filter down to someone who decides its time to make a little film.

And let’s not forget those cell phone cameras I wrote about in New Cinema Screenwriting (Part 1).

This is filmmaking and screenwriting in the 21 century;  A screen is any screen available. Embrace it. That’s new cinema screenwriting.

So pick up a bottle of Coppola wine today a give a toast to Mr. Francis Ford Coppola, prophet, pioneer, and godfather of new cinema.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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