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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Scorsese’

Today I’ll start a series of posts on Alexander Mackendrick. He directed Sweet Smell of Success and received an Oscar nomination as one of the writers of The Man in the White Suit.  Frustrated with the Hollywood studio system he turned to teaching at CalArts, where he was Dean of its School of Film from 1969 to 1993. (Despite only formally having one year of study at the Glasgow School of Art on his academic resume and being 60 years old when he taught his first class. What he did have was a 30 year filmmaking career.)

Mackenrdrick believed that student films were either “too long” or “much too long,” and used an egg timer as students pitched their stories to the class. He had a passion for craft and taught film as a popular art.

After he died in 1993 and Paul Cronin edited his teachings into the book On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director.  And if all of the above is not enough to get you interested in Mackendrick, here’s what Martin Scorsese wrote in the forward of On Film-making, “This book —this invaluable book—is the work of a lifetime, from a man who was passionately devoted to his craft and his art, and who then devoted himself to transferring his knowledge and his experience to his students, And now it’s available to all of us. What a gift.”

It’s a great book that I haven’t given the proper attention on this blog. So as I attempt to mak up for lost time, here’s a taste of Mackendrick’s teachings:

“Film writing and directing cannot be taught, only learned, and each man or woman has to learn it through his or her own system of self-education.”

“Though it will only be a couple of weeks before you are familiar with the basic mechanics of filmmaking it will take a lifetime of hard work to master them.”

“It has been said that the director is like the orchestra conductor, a maestro who must be able to play every instrument competently. Unlikely as it is that you will ever discover real ability in all three fields of directing, writing and acting, I believe you will not be even competent in any single one without a basic comprehension of the other two.”

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #175 (Mackendrick)
Learning from Others (Tip #42)
Can Screenwriting Be Taught (2.0)

Scott W. Smith

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“Now that all the decay is over, things are going to get better.”
Adam (Brendan Frazier) in Blast from the Past
Written by Billy Kelly and Hugh Wilson

Who knows how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far, so fast
The End of the Innocence
Bruce Hornsby/Don Henley

Watching It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street back to back made me think of the 1999 film Blast from the PastKind of what would happen if George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) of the 1940s showed up in Martin Scorsese’s modern version of Pottersville? (Pottersville is the Girls-Girls-Girls flip side nightmare world to the Norman Rockwell—like Bedford Falls in the Frank Capra classic.)

But Pottersville in Scorsese’s hands comes across like a perpetual party paradise.  An echo of Gary Kamiya’s All hail Pottersville! article— “Pottersville rocks!” Boring vs. Fun.

Perhaps the Wolf of Wall Street himself had a clearer view of the world he created at the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont:

“It should have been Sodom and Gomorrah. After all, it wasn’t every firm that sported hookers in the basement, drug dealers in the parking lot, exotic animals in the boardroom, and midget-tossing competitions on Fridays.”
Jordan Belfort

Earlier this month, a former worker at Stratton Oakmont who once idolized Belfort gave his perspective:

“But eventually, the blindness from the drugs, the girls and the cars, the clothes and the money, wore off. These people were some of the worst people that I have ever met in my life — they would sell their own grandmother in a second….I’m still going to see the [The Wolf of Wall Street]. My parents want to go with me. I would hope people would try to keep some morality while still trying to achieve success — but I’m not sure the movie is going to show that. Just the wild ride.”
Josh Shapiro
My life working for the real life ‘Wolf of Wall Street’

The movie is a three-hour fantasy wild ride that—well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it—but it’s an upside down world. One that Scorsese celebrates more than he condemns. Actress Hope Holiday was quoted in The Wrap saying a screen writer at an Academy screening for The Wolf of Wall Street screamed at Scorsese “Shame on you.” But if you’ve seen Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or GoodFellas you know the director has a fondness for depravity over redemption.

The Wolf of Wall Street is not Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment (1960) on steroids…or cocaine, quaaludes or even viagra. The stated theme seems to want to be “When the chickens come home to roost,” but comes across more like “Crime pays, and it pays well.” Maybe Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (Boradwalk Empire, The Sopranos) were just being faithful to Belfort’s book that the movie was based on.

It’s hard to say the 3 hour movie (okay, technically 2 hours and 59 minutes) is missing anything but constraints, but I think TIME’s Richard Corliss says it best—”What’s missing is the broker’s acknowledgement of a wasted life — if not his, then his victims.”

Scorsese said he knows the The Wolf of Wall Street is not for “everyone’s taste” and added, “It’s not made for 14 year olds.”

But I believe that 14-year-olds are going to see this film. And for some The Wolf of Wall Street will be their ideal—their goal. Just as young Jordan Belfort said Gordon Gekko in Wall Street became his ideal, his goal after watching Wall Street. (And Wall Street was not the upside down, amoral world of The Wolf of Wall Street.)

Gordon (“Greed… is good”) Gekko is the #24 Villain on AFI’s 100 Year…100 Heroes & Villains. Ranked just ahead of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining (Here’s Johnny!). But the Gekko character may rank as the #1 villain that most people want to be like. Actor Michael Douglas said he was surprised at how many people over the years have told him they became stock brokers because of his Oscar-winning performance of what he called “the bad guy.” (And how many of those Gekko followers became players in the banking collapse of 2008? Movies reflect the culture they help produce.)

“As the years have gone by, it’s heartening to see how popular the film has remained. But what I find strange and oddly disturbing is that Gordon Gekko has been mythologized and elevated from the role of villain to that of hero.”
Wall Street co-screenwriter Stanley Weiser
Repeat After Me: Greed Is Not Good, 2008 LA Times

“I’d just say anyone who took away that greed is good has missed the point. The movie speaks for itself. People who walk out of the movie and think ‘[Gekko's] such a great guy,’ they need to think and ask themselves on what terms am I willing to do that?”
Oliver Stone, Wall Street director and co-screenwriter
Oliver Stone: Life after Wall Street by Telos Demos/ CNNMoney

Wall Street was closer in ideals to It’s a Wonderful Life than The Wolf of Wall Street. More Bedford Falls than Pottersville. More the ’80s Miami of Scarface than the ancient Roman orgies of Caligula.

Perhaps the ongoing battle is the way the world is versus the way we want it to be. But what do I know? Well, I do know one thing—that Jordan Belfort’s speaking fee just went up.

P.S. A movie that’s said to have influenced Stone’s Wall Street was Executive Suite (1954) directed by Robert Wise from a script by Ernest Lehman from a novel by Cameron Hawley.

Related Posts:

Raging Bull vs. Martin Scorsese
“Study the Old Master.”—Martin  Scorsese
The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 1)
The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 2)
Hugo & The Artist
Writing Good Bad Guys (Tip #85)

Scott W. Smith

 

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“My little town blues are melting away.”
New York, New York

 “It’s not a musical; it’s a film with music. I got that definition from Billy Wilder, who said you can’t call it a musical unless the people sing in situations where you don’t expect them to. It’ll be about their marriage breaking up, about their problems in relating to one another…”
Martin Scorsese talking with Roger Ebert about New York, New York (1977) before its release

Just saying New York, New York instantly conjures up the Frank Sinatra standard New York, New York.  But did you know that’s actually a cover song? John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the song for the 1977 Martin  Scorsese directed movie New York, New York  where Liza Minnelli sings the song. But the neither the film or the original song were an instant success. Three different versions of the film were made (153 minutes, 137 minutes, and 164 minutes) trying to find an audience, and the New York, New York song was not even nominated for an Oscar.

And even the Sinatra version recorded in 1979 wasn’t a number one hit—or even make it into the top 10. It peaked at number 32 on the charts and lost out on the Grammy song of the year to Christopher Cross’ Sailing. But in the 30 years since then the song has become ubiquitous and as recognizable (and as copied) as the “I (heart) New York” logo.

If you need a smile today here’s a version where Frank and Liza sing an impromptu duet of New York, New York. 

But since this is a screenwriting blog…Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin wrote the screenplay for New York, New York from a story by Rauch.

“Martin Scorcesse’s New York, New York never pulls itself together into a coherent whole, but if we forgive the movie its confusions we’re left with a good time. In other words: Abandon your expectations of an orderly plot, and you’ll end up humming the title song. The movie’s a vast, rambling, nostalgic expedition back into the big band era, and a celebration of the considerable talents of Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro.”
Roger Ebert

Looking forward to seeing Scorsese’s latest New York state of mind movie—The Wolf of Wall Street—which hits theaters next week.

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m often asked by younger filmmakers, ‘Why do I need to look at old movies?’ I’ve made a number of pictures in the past 20 years and the response I find that I have to give them is I still consider myself a student. The more pictures I’ve made in the past 20 years, the more I realize I don’t know. And I’m always looking for something or someone I can learn from. I tell the younger filmmakers, the young students that they should do it like painters used to do it—painters do it—study the old masters. Enrich your palette. Expand the canvas. There’s always so much more to learn.”
Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese (The Departed, Goodfellas, Hugo)  
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995)
Section The Director as Smuggler

Related Post:
Learning from Others (Tip #42) Post the touches on Orson Welles watching Stagecoach 40 times while making Citizen Kane, Frank Darabont watching Goodfellas while making The Shawshank Redemption, and Christopher Nolan watching Blade Runner 100 times.
Can Screenwriting Be Taught? (2.0)

Scott W. Smith

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“I say about myself that I make comedies the way John Ford might have said ‘I make westerns.’ That might be true. That might also be cloaking something. Scorsese in his survey of American cinema, talks about the American director as smuggler. You work within a given genre and smuggle your honest, artistic concerns in those film. John Ford with westerns, Hitchcock with thrillers, Scorsese with gangster pictures. You kind of declare that you make a certain kind of film because that helps them get made, get marketed, makes them more palatable to an American film going public, so I make comedies.

“That’s helped me, the fact that I can get laughs in these dramatic films. The fact that I make them funny, charming, keep them nimble, has helped me sell them to financiers and later to audiences and forge a career that way. One reason it’s great to do comedy is that it’s such a rush when the audience laughs. ‘We love you! We love you!’ When you make a drama, the only feedback you get from the audience is no walkouts.”
Writer/director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska)
WGAW article Paynefully Funny by Denis Faye

P.S. I believe the survey Payne referenced is A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) 

Scott W. Smith

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“Bursting with earned emotion, Hugo is a mechanism that comes to life at the turn of a key in the shape of a heart.”
Richard Corliss
Time

“How can you mend a broken heart? 
…How can you mend this broken man?”
Recorded by the Bee Gees (written by Barry Gibb &  Robin Gibb)

Within the last three days I completed a Hugo trifecta.  I watched the movie Hugo, read Hugo: The Shooting Script by John Logan, and read the book that inspired both, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick— and I can say that they all share the same heartbeat. Which is kind of an amazing feat all by itself.

A good deal of the 530 page book is illustrations.

“Part of John’s challenge was to take my picture sequences and them into text, which would then be turned back into visuals by Scorsese using the latest technology the cinema has to offer:3-D.
Brian Selznick
Forward to Hugo: The Shooting Script

There are little differences here and there, but the essential plot and characters of the book and movie remain intact. And, perhaps more importantly, the theme remains the same. In the book Hugo says;

“Did you ever notice that all machines are made for some reason?” he asked Isabelle. “They are built to make you laugh, like the mouse here, or to tell time, like clocks, or to fill you with wonder, like automaton. Maybe that’s why a broken machine makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do.”

Isabelle picked up the mouse, wound it again, and set it down.

“Maybe it’s the same with people.” Hugo continued. “If you lose your purpose … it’s like you’re broken.” 

In the screenplay and movie Hugo says;

“Did you ever notice that all machines are made for some reason? They make you laugh, like Papa Georges’ toys, or they tell time, like the clocks … Maybe that’s why broken machines always make me sad, because they can’t do what they’re meant to do.”

She looks up at him. From her perspective, he is beautifully framed by the intricate clockwork.

“Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose … it’s like you’re broken.”

That’s the heart of Hugo. In also happens to be the heart of Toy Story 3, Seabiscuit, and many other books and movies featuring broken characters who have lost their way in life. And part of what gives power and meaning to these stories is that is also our story.

“We spend much of our lives trying to reconcile these two halves of our spirit and soul—call it identity—we struggle to figure out just what and who it is we genuinely are. The reason we go to the movies is precisely to explore these perpetually unanswerable questions regarding our identity. It’s the same reason we go to church, temple, mosque, ashram or meetinghouse: we seek answers to the wonderful and dreadful puzzle of our existence.”
UCLA Screenwriting Chairman Richard Walter 
The Whole Picture (Book recently updated as Essentials of Screenwriting)

Recent headlines show all too well the detrimental effects of what happens when talented people lose their purpose in life. (And, unfortunately, that’s a timeless truism.)

Tomorrow, in The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 2), we’ll look why Hugo was such a personal story for its director, Martin Scorsese. A man usually known for his gritty films—but a man not immune to being broken. Who knew that Scorsese and the Bee Gees had something in common?

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter (on writing personal stories)

Scott W. Smith

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Marcus Coral Ridge Cinema—Coralville, Iowa

Oops, I did it again. This weekend I watched both Hugo & The Artist in the theaters—just like I did last month to start the new year. (Saw Hugo at the Coral Ridge Cinema which has a nice movie tribute in their lobby—pictured above. Directly off Interstate 80 in the Iowa City area. )

I love those movies. Apparently others do as well. Yesterday, The Artist picked up seven BAFTA awards including Best Picture and for Michel Hazanavicus’s script, and Hugo picked up four awards and its director, Martin Scorsese, received the Academy Fellowship—”The highest accolades bestowed upon an individual in recognition of an outstanding and exceptional contribution to film.” (Hugo leads the Oscar pack with 11 nominations, followed by The Artist with 10.)

In my January 4th post Hugo & The Artist  I wrote, “I can’t remember when I’ve been as impressed seeing two films back to back.” Seeing them a second time allowed me to see more how they overlap and contrast each other.  They are similar in that parts of both of the stories occur in 1931 and represent a tribute of sorts to the history of cinema—and both represent broken characters. But they are also quite different in that The Artist is a black and white silent film in 4X3 format and Hugo is a colorful widescreen 3-D visual feast full of seamless special effects. Both have gotten great reviews, but unfortunately neither blazed any trails at the box office.

Those films (and their love of movies) have also set the tone for this blog this year, to weave in the history of film with more specific and contemporary issues related to screenwriting and filmmaking.

And since Valentine’s Day is tomorrow—a day to celebrate love— I thought I’d give you a few options other than roses & chocolate to give your loved one (or yourself).

1) Hugo: The Shooting Script published by Newmarket Press/Harper Collins will be made available tomorrow. I was fortunate to get an early copy and read it this weekend. The book features the John Logan screenplay, an introduction by Logan, a forward by the author Brian Selzick who wrote the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (from which the film is based), various production notes and 23 photos from the production. Over the years I’ve purchased about 10 of The Shooting Scripts and find them wonderful additions for those who love movies in general and screenwriting in particular. I’ll write more about the Hugo: The Shooting Script tomorrow, but you can order it at Amazon or perhaps find it at a bookstore tomorrow.

The other two Valentine specials are L.A.-centric, but I’m sure with a little creativity you can find something similar in your area.

2) Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp is currently playing (February 3-16,2012) at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. This theater was built in 1926 and restored in 1991. It’s where Citizen Kane had its world premiere in 1941. Across the street, and later this month is where the Academy Awards will be held at The Kodak Theatre. And for a total Hollywood evening (if you can get a reservation) eat at The Musso & Frank Grill which has been serving meals in Hollywood since 1919. According to its website, its literary guests over the years have included; F.Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, T.S. Elliot, John Steinbeck and many others, and Raymond Chandler is said to have written part of the The Big Sleep in the Back Room bar.

3) F.W. Murnau‘s classic 1927 silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans will be playing at  The Cinefamily theater in LA on Valentine’s Day (2/14/12).

4) In Chicago at the Music Box Theatre they are showing The Princes Bride on Valentine’s Day. Inconceivable!

5) Or you can always stay home and watch The Bodyguard. The Lawrence Kasden written and Mick Jackson directed film starring Kevin Costner and the late Whitney Houston.

“I hope life treats you kind
And I hope you have all you’ve dreamed of.
And I wish to you, joy and happiness.
But above all this, I wish you love.”

I Will Always Love You
performed by Whitney Houston in My Bodyguard
written by Dolly Parton

What interesting film related things are going on in your neck of the woods this Valentine’s Day?

P.S. If anyone in LA goes to Lady and the Tramp, Sunrise, or The Princess Bride shoot me a note about the experience.

Related posts:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)–Insights from Hugo screenwriter John Logan
Writing “The Artist” (Part 1)
Writing “The Artist” (Part 2)
Writing “The Artist” (Part 3)

Scott W. Smith

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“Most creators — and all would-be creators — simply aren’t obsessed enough.”
Eric Maisel

A few weeks ago I was talking to a couple filmmakers and we got to talking about a favorite topic of mine; Why are so many artists dysfunctional?  Take a handful of painters, writers, musicians and filmmakers and you’ll have more than your share of people who suffer from depression, mental illness or at least some phobia that haunts them. alcoholism and drug abuse appears more common with this tribe.

So the big question is — why?

One of the filmmakers had an easy answer, obsession.

I instantly thought of Jackson Pollock painting in his barn. I thought of Van Gogh’s passion. I thought of Martin Scorsese and his own demons. Obsession may be as good and answer as I’ve heard.

“One hasn’t become a writer until one has distilled writing into a habit, a habit that has been forced into an obsession. Writing has to be an obession. It has to be something as organic, physiological and psychological as speaking or sleeping or eating.”
Niyi Osudare
From the book One Hundred Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters/Karl Iglesias

Eric Maisel, PhD has written several books that touch on this issue including Creativity for Life, The Creativity Book, and The Van Gogh Blues. I haven’t read his books, but in his article In Praise of Positive Obsessions he does make the distinction between positive and negative obsessions. He writes:

What exactly do I mean by a positive obsession?

A fair working definition is as follows: positive obsessions are insistent, recurrent thoughts or sets of thoughts, pressurized in feel, that are extremely difficult to ignore, that compel one to act, and that connect to one’s goals and values as an active meaning-maker and authentic human being.

For Van Gogh, for a period of time, sunflowers obsessed him. For Doestovshy, for decades, the question of whether an innocent–a “saintly man” –could survive in the real world haunted and obsessed him.

Georgia O’Keeffe obsessed about how to represent the desert, thrilling herself when her imagery of bleached bones satisfied her for a time.

It is no accident or coincidence that effective artists harbor preoccupations that rise to the level of positive obsession.

So maybe we just obsess too much about those creative souls who have negative obsessions. After all those are the ones that tend to fascinate us the most. Those are the ones books are written about and movies made of their lives.

If you have any books and articles that explore the similarities and differences of positive and negative obsessions toss them my way. I don’t think my obsession is going away from thinking about it anytime soon.

And as far as screenwriting obsessions—there are many. Why do people spend so much time and money on something when the odds are so against any meaningful return on investment? Why all the books, CDs, workshops, college degrees, screenwriting expos, script consultants, etc. if there wasn’t a screenwriting obsession in this country? Why do produced screenwriters continue though they often feel less than satisfied with the finished results of their script?

Maybe it has something to do with Van Gogh continuing to paint even though the appreciation for his work would come long after he died. I hope you can find that “positive obsession,” and can continue to work on your craft without losing your mind.

Scott W. Smith



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Today I started reading Kazan on Directing, which is based on the notes of director Elia Kazan. Kazan who directed the classic (and Oscar-winning) On the Waterfront. Kazan has been called by Martin Scorsese as, “one of the most important figures in the history of movies. It’s that simple.”

Of course, Kazan first may inroads in the theater first where he was an actor in Clifford Odets plays, before going on to work on Broadway with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

He went on to be nominated for a total of seven Academy Awards, winning two and also an Honorary Oscar Award in 1999.

For the next few days I’ll be pulling quotes and sections from his book.

“The first problem of the director then is to determine what his direction is to be. And as this direction is to give organic unity to the whole production, his first job is to find a ‘center’ or ‘core’ for the work and for production. Once it is established the base decision has been made. All else devolves from this.

The director has to restate succinctly the play, its meaning and form, in his own terms; he has to reconceive it as if he had created it. What does it mean to him? What does it arouse in him? how does the manuscript affect his soul? In short, what is his relationship as an artist to this document, this manuscript?

It is not necessary that the director’s reaction match the author’s intention. Different periods have different values and meanings. And a director might want to produce a work for reasons other than the writer’s. Examples abound; the clearest is Shakespearean productions from Shakespeare’s time to ours.

Therefore, the director’s first question in approaching the script is not what the author intended, but what is his own response as an independent artist.”
Elia Kazan

Now you know why there are creative differences in theater and film productions.

Scott W. Smith

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In the last few days I’ve glanced at filmmaking from Japan. I followed some rabbit trails and it’s lead me right back to the Midwest and David Bordwell over in Madison, Wisconsin. I have quoted Bordwell before, but was unaware that he wrote a whole book on one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers. The bad news is Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema is out of print, the good news is the entire book in available online for free.

The film scholar with long-standing ties to the University of Wisconsin at Madison has an arrangement with the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies  where you can download the entire book as a PDF file. Bordwell also did the audio commentary for Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon. (Criterion Collection). You can read more of his writings at David Bordwell’s website on cinema.

I confess to dropping the first film history class I ever took at the University of Miami. I just wanted to make films. Not do a boring examination of dead filmmakers. Never understood the fascination with dates and influences. I’m not sure when that all changed for me but it probably had something to do with an interview I saw on Martin Scorsese where I began to understand the depth of his knowledge and appreciation of film history.

If you want to improve your appreciation of films, Bordwell’s writings are a great place to head.

“Filmmakers know more than they say or can say. They have secrets, some of which they don’t know they know. Let’s try to bring their tacit knowledge to light; let’s expose their secrets. Will that dispel the mysteries we cherish? Only if we cherish mysteries for their own sake. Know of how artists both rely upon and surpass their craft won’t diminish our admiration or dilute out experience. It’s illuminating to learn that Rembrandt starts from the portraitist’s standard schema for rendering eye sockets but them by applying looser brushwork conjures up a flickering glance. What seems an alchemist’s lair becomes a kitchen, where recipes are transformed by trial and error and spontaneous flair. Creation is demystified, and knowledge increases our appreciation and enjoyment.”
David Bordwell
Konban-wa, Ozu-san

Creativity is more about connecting influences rather than just making something up . An example is one of  the greatest Japanese films ever is Ozu’s Tokyo Story which was co-written with Kogo Noda. (Ozu & Noda, one of the all-time great director/writer teams, wrote 13 films together,) But that great film was inspired by the 1937 American film Make Way for Tomorrow.  (That film was written by Vina Delmar, and was based on the book The Years Are So Long (1934) by Josephine Lawrence (and a play by by Helen Leary & Noah Leary).

Lawrence was born in Newark, New Jersey kept a strict three-hour writing schedule at night after work. She wrote over thirty books for young people, and one adult novel before she wrote The Years are so Long.

Scott W. Smith

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