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“Being born in Dodge City, I really wanted to know where the trains were going. The first real light I saw was in a movie theater. I just wanted to know where they were making those movies.”
Dennis Hopper

“He was a Midwestern boy on his own…”
Bob Seger
Hollywood Nights

Dennis Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas and spent his early years on farm. When he was nine he moved to Kansas City, Missouri (where he took Saturday art classes with Thomas Hart Benton) and then on to San Diego area when he was 13, eventually being named “Most Likely to Succeed” at  Helix High School in La Mesa.

Hopper succeeded at a lot of things—unfortunately they weren’t all good for him.

His acting career started by performing Shakespeare as a teenager at The Old Globe at San Diego’s Balboa Park, and he then headed to Los Angeles when he was 18 and did some TV work before landing a role in classic James Dean films Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. On a PBS interview, Hopper would say of the actor from Marion, Indiana, “James Dean was the best actor that I ever saw work, really. He was just incredible.”

Hopper also worked with four other Midwestern actors who made their mark in Hollywood (Marlon Brando & Montgomery Cliff/Omaha, John Wayne /Iowa-Nebraska, and Paul Newman/Ohio). When Hopper died yesterday he had more than 200 credits as an actor. But he’s probably known best for just a handful or so roles on top of the James Dean films; Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, True Romance, Speed, and his Oscar-nominated role in Hoosiers. When the dust all settles he may be best remembered for directing and starring in Easy Rider for which he also received an Oscar nomination for co-writing the screenplay.

“There are moments that I`ve had some real brilliance, you know. But I think they are moments. And sometimes, in a career, moments are enough.”
Dennis Hopper

Hopper rode motorcycles with Steve McQueen, hung out with Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce and Jack Nicholson, he collected and created art, he was at the civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery which was led by Martin Luther King Jr., along with his Hollywood career that spanned 56 years.

And while Hopper had his days in the sun, he had his years (decades?) in the darkness. His was a life of excess— alcoholism, cocaine, heroin, LSD, hallucinations, abuse, violence, multiple failed marriages, detox clinics, jail, psychiatric wards, and orgies. But somehow he managed to rebound time and time again and somehow lived to be 74. (Even in his final days as he was in the midst of a divorce, he reportedly had “marijuana joints throughout his compound’ and loaded guns nearby to help ease the pain of his cancer and perhaps provide an exit—Hopper was Shakespearean to the end.)

I’ll always prefer to remember Hopper as his role in Hoosiers as the brilliant, yet alcoholic, Shooter. The story of a town drunk and a disgraced coach who both have a shot at redemption. That’s the hope I have for everyone, especially the artists—the crazy ones who seem to have a harder time than most dealing with demons.

“I am just a middle-class farm boy from Dodge City and my grandparents were wheat farmers. I thought painting, acting, directing and photography were all part of being an artist. I have made my money that way. And I have had some fun. It’s not been a bad life.”
Dennis Hopper
USA Today

Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriter Stewart Stern has popped up on this blog before because he was educated at the University of Iowa and he wrote the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause. Yesterday, I discovered an interview with himStewart Stern; Out of the Soul, Interview by Margy Rochin, which is part of the UC Press E-Books Collection online.

Anytime you can read about someone who has worked Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, Dennis Hopper and Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray, and has been nominated for two Oscars (Teresa and Rachel, Rachel), I think you might be able to learn something. I always like hearing how an idea was formed so I enjoyed the reading Stern’s description of the ground work and inspiration behind Rebel Without a Cause;

“Nick told me about all of the research that he had done: about middle-class young people. He wanted it to be specifically about them because he said that there was a big misconception that so-called juvenile delinquency was a product of economic deprivation. He felt that it was emotional deprivation…That’s when, at my request, he called his contacts at Juvenile Hall, and I went down and began researching it. I spent ten days and ten nights there, or two weeks, posing as a social worker, talking to the kids or just being there when they were processed. Then they opened up all of the psychological workups that they had done down at Juvenile Hall on the kids they brought in. Family backgrounds, records of their behavior. Whatever they had, they opened up to me. So, I was able to dig as far as it was possible to dig, in order to understand who these kids were and to create a prototype.

I couldn’t figure out what to write until I went to see On the Waterfront [1954] and got all charged up and came home and just began writing.”

Towards the end of the interview Rochin asked a question about why Stern believed Rebel Without a Cause speaks to every generation of youth.

“I think one of the things that it talked about was love, a real need for connection. And for the recognition that everything that people condemn in us as some kind of nefarious behavior—experimental behavior, dangerous behavior—is absolutely pure, sweet, incorrect reaching-out. Living on the assumption that people are trustworthy. On the assumption that, as Marlon said, we all come out of the same crucible of pain. That we are all human and that nothing stands in the way of that.”

Isn’t that the kind of guy you’d like to sit under and glean a little writing wisdom? Well, you actually can. In 2004, Stern was one of the founders of The Film School in Seattle, and also teaches through the University of Washington’s Extension Program, and does a writing workshop every summer at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab.

Scott W. Smith

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“Two american kids growin up in the heartland…”
Jack & Diane
John Mellencamp

Steve McQueen has been dead for thirty years now, but they still call him the king of cool. Last night I watched The Sand Pebbles which was McQueen’s only Oscar-nominated role.

After the film I did some checking to see where the king of cool came from and guess what I found out? He was born seventy years ago this month in Beech Grove, Indiana. The interesting thing about that is he was born just a year earlier, and about an hour and a half drive from another cool guy, James Dean who was born in Marion, Indiana.

That’s a lot of cool for one part of the country–especially at the same time. (Can’t believe John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana hasn’t written a song about that.)

McQueen’s family life wasn’t so cool as his father abandoned his family, leaving him with an alcoholic mother. As a youngster he went to live with family in another Midwest town, this time outside of Kansas City on a farm in Slater, Missouri. Later in life he would settle in Santa Paula, California and say that it reminded him of his hometown of Slater. As a teenager he was back with his mother and now living in Los Angeles but he got into various trouble and ended up living in what is now known as the Boy’s Republic, a home for at risk boys in Chino Hills, California.

He left the Boy’s Republic when he was 16 and ended up wandering the country working at various odd jobs until he joined the Marines when he was 17. He was honorably discharged a couple year later and used his G.I. Bill to study acting. After a decade of smaller roles he became a star in The Great Escape (1963), followed by Bullitt, The Cincinnati Kid and The Sand Pebbles. In 1974 he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. But it’s almost a cliché to say that didn’t mean he was happy. Cool but not content.

He went through a couple divorces and tangled with more than one director. His co-stars have said he was personable and charismatic, but also an unpredicable, angry troubled man, who was distrustful of people and insecure due to his upbringing. Perhaps that’s where his cool came from.  A sort of carefree aloofness. But there is no doubt that part of his cool factor was not only that he was a good-looking movie star, but that he raced cars and motorcycles and flew planes. That’s the image that even today sells watches, cars and khaki pants and pours money into his estate.

McQueen was a contradiction in many ways; for a while he worked out for two-hours a day, but he also smoked, drank heavily and used drugs. He was worth millions but sometimes slept in an airport hanger. He didn’t trust people and was said to be a loner who played by his own rules (much like his character Jake in The Sand Pebbles), but at the end of his life he put his trust in God. Struggling with an aggressive cancer has a way of putting into perspective fame, money and even being cool. McQueen died of cardiac arrest after a radical surgery in Mexico to remove a large tumor.

McQueen did have some advice for screenwriters saying they ruined too much with dialogue. He believed that actors could often convey more with just a look. Keep that in mind when you watch the next McQueen movie— and when you write. And if you ever question his coolness, remember that Steve McQueen is the one who encouraged Chuck Norris to study acting. That’s right, no Steve McQueen, no legend of Chuck Norris.(Found on the Internet: Chuck Norris has never won an Academy Award for acting… because he’s not acting.)

The one McQueen film I’d love to see is the one that some could say was a result of “sudden serious actor syndrome” where the cool action movie star took on the lead in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. That’s always been one of my favorite plays and it would be interesting to see how he did playing the role of a doctor who knew what was wrong with the town, though the townspeople didn’t care to listen.

“I’m out of the Midwest. It was a good place to come from. It give you a sense of right or wrong and fairness, which I think is lacking in our society.”
Steve McQueen

Scott W. Smith

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“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
                                  Woody Allen 

“It ought to be the business of every day to prepare for our last day.”
                                  Matthew Henry

 

There have been many high profile celebrity deaths in the last two weeks. It’s been kind of hard to miss that fact. A lot of people have been asking, “What’s going on?”

While the concentration of celebrity deaths in a short time is unusually high I don’t think anything is going on beyond what occurs 5,500 times everyday in the United States. That’s the number of people according to the New England Journal of Medicine who die everyday in this country. It’s just not something we tend to dwell on everyday.

Celebrity deaths from Marilyn Monroe, to James Dean, to Elvis, to Princess Diana, to Michael Jackson seem to grab our attention and provide never-ending discussions.  Death scenes in movies also grab our attention. Some of the all-time most memorable scenes in movie history are centered around death. Here are a few examples:

The shower scene in Psycho, the opening scene in Jaws, the closing scene in Braveheart, the vast number of bodies spread out on the field of battle in Gone with the Wind, and William Holden floating in a pool in Sunset Boulevard. The list goes on and on. (Tim Dirks’ filmsite.org has a whole list called Greatest Movie Death Scenes.) 

Since a major part of movies center around conflict then it’s natural that death would be at the center of some of our most memorable movie experiences.  Here’s some solid advise on how to write a death scene:

“In The Godfather, Don Corleone falls and has a fatal heart attack while entertaining his grandson. The physical life of the scene is superb: Brando slices an orange and places the peel against his teeth, pretending to be a monster. It not only adds an interesting texture but also breaks the stasis of the scene when the child bursts into tears and forces Corleone to comfort him. The physical life created a flow and opened the door for a very specific and interesting character revel. It is a very original way to write a death scene by juxtaposing play with death.” 
                              James Ryan  
                              Screenwriting from the Heart
                              page 150 

 

Scott W. Smith

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James Whitmore died yesterday and though he was an Emmy and Tony Award winning actor who was twice nominated for an Oscar I imagine most people today remember him most for his role in The Shawshank Redemption. In that film he played the elderly Brooks Hatlen who upon being released from a long time prison sentence has trouble finding his place in the world and eventually takes his own life.

Whitmore himself didn’t seem to have trouble finding his place in the world and is one of those people who lived his 87 years with gusto. He played football at Yale, served as a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II, and was a broadway actor and made his first film in 1949. He had three children and once gave an acting workshop where one of the students was James Dean.

Certainly someone with a 50 year career has at least one quote we can mull over.

The Associated Press reported that as a teenage actress Shirley Jones was starting out, Whitmore gave her this advice, “If you’re going to be in this business, you better learn your craft.” And Jones added, And he never stopped learning.”

 

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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