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Posts Tagged ‘John Updike’

The well is deep with writer John Updike who died a couple days ago. So I thought it was fitting to quote him one more time. These insights coming from a Q&A he did with Salon when his novel In the Beauty of the Lilies first came out:

Dwight Garner: There’s a place in the new book where you say, “Movies took you right up to the edge but kept you safe.” Is that still true?

John Updike: No, they don’t keep you so safe anymore. I just saw a picture called “Leaving Las Vegas” in which very little mitigation is offered. A guy just resolves to drink himself to death, and slowly does. And he rather unaccountably attracts the attention of a very pretty Las Vegas hooker who decides she loves him and … I don’t know. It’s a story without any turn in it. There’s no point as to any real resistance. An old-fashioned Hollywood movie would have taken that guy, and at least at one point he would have looked at the girl and said, “Why am I doing this? Why am I destroying myself? I’m unfair to you, let alone myself.” He might have failed in the end.

I forget how “The Lost Weekend” worked out, actually. But that was another story of alcoholism, in which you felt a struggle. There’s no struggle here. No struggle. In the end, the movie felt to me a little flat, and French. It was rubbing our noses somehow. Rubbing our noses in something, rather than offering us a way out. In the old movies, yes, there always was the happy ending and order was restored. As it is in Shakespeare’s plays. It’s no disgrace to, in the end, restore order. And punish the wicked and, in some way, reward the righteous.

 

Scott W. Smith

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There was a big spike in readers here at Screenwriting from Iowa yesterday and I think it’s because author John Updike died this week. People’s Internet search that lead them to this blog was not because I’ve written anything about Updike, but because they probably confused him with writer John Irving who I have written a little about. (And who is still alive.)

Both are known as east coast American authors around the same age whose name happens to start with John. I bet the same thing would have happened back in the day if Faulkner’s first name was Ernest. We’d confuse who wrote which book. So just so we’re on the same page, Irving wrote The World According to Garp and Updike wrote Rabbit, Run.

Updike twice received the Pulitzer Prize and also wrote The Witches of Eastwick which became a movie in 1987 starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeffer and Susan Sarandon. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania and raised in the nearby suburbs of  Shillington and Plowville where he was an avid reader. 

“Sometimes writers need no training, and some of the amateur ones who just jump in do better than the ones who have the Ph.D. in creative writing. Colleges are very willing now to teach you, to give you a whole course of creative writing classes. Although I took some when I was a student, I’m a little skeptical about the value….To the young writers, I would merely say, ‘Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour say — or more — a day to write.’

Some very good things have been written on an hour a day. Henry Greene, one of my pets, was an industrialist actually. He was running a company, and he would come home and write for just an hour in an armchair, and wonderful books were created in this way. So, take it seriously, you know, just set a quota. Try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. Try to think of getting into print. Don’t be content just to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff. We’re still a capitalist country, and writing to some degree is a capitalist enterprise, when it’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience. ‘Read what excites you,’ would be advice, and even if you don’t imitate it you will learn from it. All those mystery novels I read I think did give me some lesson about keeping a plot taut, trying to move forward or make the reader feel that kind of a tension is being achieved, a string is being pulled tight.

Other than that, don’t try to get rich on the other hand. If you want to get rich, you should go into investment banking or being a certain kind of a lawyer. But, on the other hand, I would like to think that in a country this large — and a language even larger — that there ought to be a living in it for somebody who cares, and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”

                                                        John Updike
                                                        Interview in Academy of Achievement 

Now if you are interested in John Irving I have a longer post about him at John Irving, Iowa & Screenwriting.

 

Scott W. Smith

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Does anybody really know what time it is?
                                                             Robert Lamm/Chicago

Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By
                                                             Humphrey Bogart
                                                             Casablanca 


Did you know that Three Days of the Condor was based on Six Days of the Condor?

That is the movie Three Days of the Condor was based on the novel Six Days of the Condor.

Why do you think the screenwriters Lorenzo Semple and David Rayfiel compressed the novel by James Grady? I haven’t read any comments by the writers, Robert Redford who was the star, or by director Syndey Pollack on why that was done, but I have a pretty good hunch.

Movies do not handle long passages of time well. More often than not films will compress time for the sake of moving the story forward and keeping your interest.

Screenwriters and producers often talk of a time-lock on a film. A specific set of time the story is set when something must happen by. (“If you don’t get the heck out of Dodge by sunset there will be hell to pay.”) It sets the parameters for the story. Here are some films that have a time-lock:
High Noon
Speed
48 Hours
Apollo 13

Lew Hunter in his book Screenwriting 434 says when you use a time-lock “you inject an urgency into your story that can give it additional drive to heighten audience involvement and anxiety.” Of course, the more organic to the story the better.

Some movie deal with time by placing them in a single day, in just a night, or even in real time in the length of the film:

American Graffiti
The Breakfast Club
Halloween
Phone Booth 
Before Sunrise
Rope 
Timecode 
Russian Ark 

In a talk I heard John Updike give at the University of Iowa earlier this year he spoke about the limitations that film has in showing the passing of time. When he’s writing a novel he can take a person from a baby to old age and it’s no problem for the reader, but in movies it doesn’t work as well. He explained that if your main character is a child for the first 30 minutes of the film they have a certain amount invested in that person and to switch to another person is a jolt.

This may be one of the problems Updike is having in bringing the story of Olympic wrestler/famed college coach Dan Gable to to screen. Gable had a great high school, college career before winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Then he went on to win 10 national championships as a head coach at the University of Iowa before retiring. Then he came back as an assistant coach last year to help Iowa win another national championship.

How do you show that in an hour and a half or two hour movie? And even if you found a way, can you really have the same person play Gable as a 15-year-old high school freshman and Gable as a 63-year-old coach? See the problem there? 

Maybe the digital world will help this in the future and it will be interesting to see the effect on Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button where he plays an man born in his eighties and ages backwards. If anyone can pull that off it’s David Fincher & Eric Roth. (Didn’t that once happen on a Star Trek episode?) But it’s still Brad Pitt we are investing in.

Of course there are other exceptions, and generally Hollywood has found some creative ways to deal with the passing of time when needed. For instance, in Forrest Gump we are introduced to Forrest (Tom Hanks) as an adult in the opening scene and while we see Forrest as a child the majority of the film is as an adult. We are invested in Tom Hanks.

In The Natural they chose to have Robert Redford play both the thirtysomething Roy Hobbs as well as the teenage Roy Hobbs. They used soft lighting, shadows (and Redford’s youthful look) to create believability for the audience. 

The remarkable TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won eight primetime Emmys including two for actress Cicely Tyson. Tyson playing a 110-year old woman reflecting on her life was amazing, and aided greatly by makeup and costume design (that both also won Emmys) as well as a whole creative team that brought the Ernest J. Gaines novel to life. (Leonard Maltin called it “One of TV’s all-time best,” so it’s worth renting of you’ve never seen it.)

One major problem with the passing of time is the amount of money it takes to create different eras. Think of the expense of the cars alone cover the time period of a story set in the 40s, 60s, 80s. Sure it’s been done, but if you are starting out it may be best to avoid that hurdle. (A short time frame also favors lower budget films since you have less continuity issues to worry about. Always good especially if you don’t have a script supervisor.) 

In my post Screenwriting by Numbers (tip #4) I point out some averages related to running time in movies such as most movies tend to be between 90-120 minutes in length and most scenes tend to run between 1-3 minutes long. And if all of this seems cold and artificial let me once again to the great quote by design guru Milton Glazer; “Limitation stimulates the imagination.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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I was talking to John Irving the other day…

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Okay, technically that’s true, but it’s not like we were hanging out talking about his writings and the finer aspects of American literature. Irving was in Iowa City this week and doing a Q&A session sponsored by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was simply one of the approximately 200 people in attendance and I got to ask him a couple questions.
After University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her screenplay Juno the school gave her a blurb on its website and they put in a link to Screenwriting from Iowa because I had written an article about her called The Juno–Iowa Connection. In that blog I went into detail on the long list of great writers who have come out of the University of Iowa.

After poking around their website I found out the Writers’ Workshop had regular readings and decided that Irving was worthy of making the 75 minute trek from Cedar Falls. Not because I’m a huge fan of his work but because of his place in American literature. I do remember discovering his writings while in college and have seen most of the movies made from his novels. Since he was a student and a professor at Iowa I thought he fit the Screenwriting from Iowa concept fairly well.
Some of his movies are The Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp, Simon Birch (Prayer for Owen Meany) and The Cider House Rules. The later for which he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. 
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Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden once said of one of his players, “He may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in it doesn’t take long to call roll.” With Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonagunt dying in 2007, Irving is in a class that includes just a handful of American literary giants like John Updike and Tom Wolfe.
It’s been said that film directors are either geeks or jocks. I don’t know if that’s true of writers but in Irving’s case he looks every bit the jock. Even at age 66 he looks like a wrestler to be reckoned with and has had a life long love for the sport. If you follow the American literary scene you have to agree that he is also a writer to be reckoned with. Writer Peter Matthiessen has said, “He’s probably the great storyteller of American literature today.”  
Here are some notes from his Q&A that I thought you’d be interested in;
Irving was turned on to writing at a young age and after reading Dickens  and thought that being a writer would be a good thing. He said that if he would have read Hemingway first instead he’d of probably have ended up doing something different. He went as far as saying he hated Hemingway’s writing which was good for a few chuckles from those gathered at the Dey House. He’s said worse things about Updike in the past. Irving is a man with opinions.
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He said he never thought he could earn a living solely as a writer and in fact was a teacher through his first four books. (Before Garp made him rich and famous he had been writing for 11 years with limited success.) Though he writes his first drafts quickly he spends two-thirds of his time doing re-writing. That is when the book comes together. 
He said that he enjoys the editing side of filmmaking because it closely resembles what he does in rewriting. Though he is a novelist he comes at his work with the audience in mind. “My goal is to entertain you–and break your heart.” He wants to provoke the reader.
Like many (all?) writers with Hollywood experience he’s had his share of bad experiences. But he didn’t seem bitter when he said of the film industry, “It’s not a nice business.”

I’ve been told that in the days before amateur wrestlers wore headgear protection that you could always tell a wrestler by his cauliflower ears. (Cartilage damage that permanently deforms the ear.) It’s an old school badge of honor, a source of pride. It’s a tribal thing for wrestlers. I’m not sure what the equivalent is for a Hollywood screenwriter, but I think Irving has those scars. But he’s a grappler so they don’t appear to weigh him down. He may even enjoy that aspect of the business.
Perhaps he appears more grounded because he’s a novelist that really wouldn’t have a problem walking away from Hollywood if he had to. But more likely it’s because he lives in Toronto and Vermont. and because his roots are far from Hollywood in Exeter, New Hampshire. Maybe he learned something from the stories of Faulkner and others hanging around Hollywood too long.
In his book My Movie Business Irving writes “All writers repeat themselves; repetition is the necessary concomitant of having anything worthwhile to say.” Stephan King in his book on writing says that every writer has their “little red wagon.” For King it’s the paranormal, for John Grisham it’s justice, for Pat Conroy it’s his dysfunctional family, and for Woody Allen it’s his neurotic self.
For Irving it’s themes of disturbing sexual relations, abandonment and a touch of nihilism. I think it was Proust who said that every artist paints the same picture. You may be eclectic in the books you read and movies you watch, but chances are good that there are only a couple issues or themes you care enough about to invest your time writing stories about. (If you’re unsure of the themes that move you just look at the films you watch over and over again. Something there touches a cord inside you.)
A look at the scripts I’ve written and the few movies I own show a fascination with the concept of restoration. (David Mamet’s The Verdict, Ben Afflack & Matt Damon’s  Good Will Hunting, and Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, Gary Ross & Laura Hillenbrand‘s Seabiscuit are a few restoration movies that jump out at me as I glance over at my DVDs.)
As fallen New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer said a few days ago in his resignation speech, “I go forward with the belief, as others have said, that as human beings, our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Few of us will experience such public disgrace as being link to a sex scandal, but is anyone exempt from some level of falling and or brokenness?
“We all walk as crippled men” I once heard a Scottish preacher say drawing out the word crippled in a way that resonated with me to this day.  And so Jenny in Forrest Gump throws rocks at the home she was abused in as a child and Forrest says, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.” What I call redemption, the Greeks playwrights called catharsis (cleansing).
After Irving’s Q&A session I made a quick stop at Prairie Lights Bookstore. While it doesn’t have the funky character of The Tattered Book Cover in Denver’s LoDo district or the physical size of Powell’s City of Books in Portland, the quality of books that Prairie Lights Books carries put it on a CNN list of Nine bookstores worth a tourist stop. 
Last November I did a video shoot on Sproule Plaza at UC Berkeley and downtown Iowa City has that kind of feel. (Though I must say I thought it was humorous that the police at Berkeley were giving out tickets for bike riding on Sproule Plaza. Free speech may still be cherished there but riding a bike will cost you.)
I also grabbed this movie marque shot in Iowa City because when else again will I see The Who’s Tommy next to The Princess Bride? (If only it were a double feature.)
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If you live in Iowa or are driving through Iowa on I-80 you owe it to yourself to make a little detour in Iowa City. Soak in the atmosphere that has produced  many Pulitzer Prize winning authors and has become known as The Writing University. Below is a photo I took of the Dey House after Irving’s Q&A session. If you are interested in learning more about the MFA writing program at the University of Iowa visit the website of The Writers’ Workshop.
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The last question I ask Irving was if there was any truth to his writing a screenplay on wrestler Dan Gable. High School & college wrestling is huge in Iowa and Dan Gable is the number #1  icon. Gable was an Olympic champion and coach at the University of Iowa where he won 15 national championships. His only loss in high school and college came on the last match his senior year. Irving said he was serving as producer on the film about Gable. Irving’s love for the sport can be seen by a tattoo one of his forearms. It could be mistaken for a bulls-eye or a skinny version of the Target store logo , but it is actually a wrestling mat starting circle.  I’m sure that won’t be your typical sports film.
As I made the drive home after hearing Irving speak I couldn’t  help but think how ironic it is that in the last eight years two University of Iowa grads have both won Academy Awards for screenplays that are essentially about unplanned pregnancies? (And I’m not sure that topic could be handled more differently than the serious Cider House and the humorous Juno.)
Producer David Puttnam, who won an Oscar award for Chariots of Fire, once wrote that “all films are propaganda.” In that all films are propagating something.  So despite the old Hollywood adage “If you want to send a message use Western Union,” films again and again have messages.
Irving writes in My Movie Business, “The Cider House Rules is a didactic novel. The nature of Dr. Larch’s (Michael Caine) argument with Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is polemical, and Larch wins the argument in the end…The Cider House Rules was not a love story, Phillip Borsos and I decided. It was a history of illegal abortion.”
He went through fifty drafts of the script to make sure his abortion rights vision was clear. He was clear enough that when Paul Newman read the script he turned down the roll of Dr. Larch and told Irving, “There are so many scenes at that incinerator (Where the aborted babies are burned). That incinerator really gets me.”
What got Juno was an pro-life advocate and school friend who told the Ellen Page character, “Your baby has fingernails.” Juno stops in her tracks and says, “My baby has fingernails?” and the story takes a different direction when she decides not to have an abortion.
Juno was actually the fourth film  of ’07 (following WaitressBella, and Knocked Up) to feature an unplanned pregnancy and an attempt to adjust to less than ideal circumstances to bring the baby into this world.  An interesting trend, don’t ya think?
I’m not sure what it all means, but I’ve said before that one of my favorite quotes is from William Romanowski;  “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.” Remember that when you’re writing.
Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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