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“I like dissolves. A dissolve is a film technique, usually a transition from scene to scene where image A begins to fade out, overlapped with the fade in of image B….Nowadays you don’t see too many dissolves in movies. And I never paid attention to when they went out of fashion. And Kevin Tent, my editor, and I think they’re beautiful. I happen to be a big fan of Hal Ashby films in the ’70s and to my mind, he an ex-editor, was a master of dissolves, and particularly long dissolves. For me, they lend emotion to a film and there’s a kind of a melancholy that comes from them….One thing is going away, another thing is coming in. And I can’t explain it, but there’s something poetic and melancholy about it.”
Producer, writer, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election)
NPR/Fresh Air Interview with Terry Gross

I think I’ve shown all the clips out there of Payne’s new film Nebraska, so today I think it’s fitting to show a video that’s a nod to Hal Ashby (1929-1988). While Ashby is best known for directing Coming Home (for which Nebraska star Bruce Dern received an Oscar nomination), Being There, The Last Detail and Harold and Maude, his sole Oscar win was for editing the 1967  film In the Heat of the Night.

I’ll have to do a run of posts on Ashby next year after I read Nick Dawson’s (@thatnickdawson) book Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel. While his acclaim did not reach the heights of many of his Easy Rider and Raging Bulls fellow filmmakers, Ashby’s influence today may be greater. Not only on Alexander but on Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell and I imagine a whole list of others.

P.S. And since I like to point out origins of filmmakers from unlikely places…Hal Ashby was born in Ogden, Utah and raised in a Mormon home where his father was a dairy farmer. Remember the wise words of Anton Ego in Ratatouille, “Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Good ones, too.

Related Post:

Editing for Emotion
40 Days of Emotions ‘I try to set things up so that they pay off in a way I hope evokes a strong reaction.” Eric Roth (Forrest Gump)
Cinematography & Emotions
Cinematography & Emotions (Part 2)

Related Blog:

Check out Oliver Peters’ blog post on a case study of editing Alexander Payne’s film The Descendants.

Scott W. Smith

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“I  never tailor a screenplay to fit the actor. I always demand the actor come to the script – even if it’s Nicholson or Clooney.”
Alexander Payne
Nebraska Coast Connection Q & A

“I’m not there to give an acting class. I’m there to make a movie. And I often don’t know, nor do I often care to know, really, what the actor is thinking about….My basic direction is: please hit your mark and recite your dialogue exactly as written. And you think I mean that somewhat facetiously. But actually, my job I feel is basically done – not done, but on the way to being done when I’ve cast them. And that old cliche is very true, 90 percent of directing is casting, not just the actors, but the technicians, everyone involved in making a film. So in the moment we’re doing a scene, and I work with intelligent actors, they know what the heck the scene’s about, so – and they know what, without being too result-oriented in their thinking, they know what emotional state the character is in. Sometimes I think that if I get too personal with a direction, you know, try doing this or think about that, I may mar what they’re already thinking about.”
Two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne
NPR/Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross

Some of the fruit of Payne’s casting and directing:

George Clooney (The Descendants) Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Feature
Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) Golden Globe Award Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture–Drama
Cast (Sideways) Screen Actors Guild  winner Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
Bruce Dern (Nebraska) Cannes Award for Best Actor

Related posts:
Directing “Chinatown”
Directing “Mud”
Writing & Directing “Rush”
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 1) Follow the thread for a total of ten tips from Marshall.
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich
Kazan on Directing (Part 1) Follow the thread for ten tips from Kazan

Scott W. Smith

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“Under no condition can you teach curiosity.”
Producer 
Brian Grazer
(Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind)

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Albert Einstein

“I believe in disrupting my comfort zone.”
Brian Grazer

Producer Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment has put up some pretty good numbers; More than 50 films for a box office total over $1 billion, five Emmys and an Oscar. (And one funky haircut.)

In the last few days I’ve written about Akiva Goldsman writing the script for A Beautiful Mind, and Sylvia Nasar first uncovering John Nash’s story, and a shout out to the movie’s director Ron Howard, but the connector of the entire project was Grazer. He reportedly had been looking for the right project for years that was an intriguing story about the brain.

A Beautiful Mind was an impossible movie to get made. Brian (Grazer) got it made. For a time, I wasn’t even going to direct it. But it was going to be a movie. Brian made sure of that. Brian nurtured this difficult project to fruition. He was responsible for A Beautiful Mind.”
Ron Howard
Esquire magazine

One of the ways that Grazer is said to keep information and ideas flowing in the pipeline is to work with a “cultural attaché.” A person who can keep up with cultural trends and help direct Grazer to meet some of the most interesting people alive. A couple of years ago in The New Yorker, Lizzie Widdicombe published an unofficial email that entailed just what a cultural attaché was expected to do working for Mr. Grazer:

This person would be responsible for keeping Brian abreast of everything that’s going on in the world; politically, culturally, musically. . . . They’re also responsible for finding an interesting person for Brian to meet with every week . . . an astronaut, a journalist, a philosopher, a buddhist monk. . . . There is LOTS of reading for this position! Grazer may ask you to read any book he’s interested in. You’ll probably get to read about 4 or 5 books a week and you may be required to travel with him on his private plane to Hawaii, New York, Europe—teaching him anything he asks you about along the way. . . . You will also be provided with an assistant. . . . Salary is around $150,000 a year. . . . You will be to Grazer what Karl Rove was to Bush.

Not a bad gig if you can land it. (Not sure if you’re paid overtime, but it doesn’t sound like a 40 hour a week job.) But if you can’t work for Brian Grazer—or be Brian Grazer (and I don’t think they’re currently taking applications for that position either)—you can at least learn from Brain Grazer.

“When I started out in the entertainment business, I made a list of people I thought it would be good to meet. Not people who could give me a job or a deal, but people who could shake me up, teach me something, challenge my ideas about myself and the world. So I started calling up experts in all kinds of fields: trial lawyers, neurosurgeons, CIA agents, embryologists, firewalkers, police chiefs, hypnotists, forensic anthropologists, and even presidents.”
Brian Grazer
Disrupting My Comfort Zone
NPR June 6, 2006

P.S. If you happen to be Brian Grazer’s cultural attaché, I am available next Wednesday for lunch if Mr. Grazer happens to be traveling through Iowa—or more likely flying over.(We do actually have one small connection. Back in the late ’80s when his film Parenthood was being shot in Orlando, my wife and son were extras. Our red Toyota van even got a cameo for a few seconds—a few frames?— in the alley scene where Steve Matin & Mary Steenburgen digging through trash. Almost famous.)

Update 2/17/11: Found a interview where Grazer was ask if he still has a cultural attaché, and he said, “That was sort of a joke title. I’ve been out meeting different people, I have a record, for 24 years, of meeting someone every two weeks. It helps inform your filter and hopefully informs your taste. I don’t have anyone that’s doing that for me right now. I use a couple of my assistants and I just say ‘hey, can I meet so-and-so’ and then we work on it or I’ll call them myself, but I don’t have a person that does that any longer.”

Related post: Jack Kerouac in Orlando

Genius, Madness & a Genuine Third Act

Scott W. Smith



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I missed the premier yesterday of the new Hawaii Five-O. In general I don’t go out of my way to watch much TV at all. But the remix of Hawaii Five-O bugs me and not because I think the original show is sacred—but because several years ago I wrote a coming-of-age screenplay the opens with 10 year-old-boys riding bikes and jumping curbs on their bikes all to the theme song from Hawaii Five-O. In my head I’ve played the opening scene out hundreds of times. It was alive with action and the pulsing of the music. And I thought it would a fresh way to introduce a new group of people to the theme song created by Morton Stevens.

Of course, because of my script and the movie that was supposed to be a hit movie, a new TV version of Hawaii Five-O would be produced with hot young actors and I would be a hero in Hawaii for helping stimulate the economy there.

Oh well, best wishes to the writers, actors, producers, etc. of the new show.

It’s disappointing but I’ll live. Speaking of disappointing did you happen to catch David Bianculli’s review of the new TV line-up on NPR yesterday?  Of course, if you’re a writer you may or may not be encouraged by this review of this year’s new TV show line-up:

“This year, more than in any year I can remember, the new shows are positively underwhelming. Every year at this time, the question I’m asked most often is, “Which new series do I have to watch?” And most years, there’s at least one easy answer. Glee and Modern Family. Lost and Desperate Housewives. 30 Rock. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though few people believed me at the time.

This year, the easy answer is Boardwalk Empire, which premiered last night on HBO. But if you restrict the question to broadcast TV — to ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC and the CW — I have a different answer.

Nothing. Nada. And I’m not just being cranky. As a TV critic, I’ve evaluated the new fall season output for 35 years now, and never before — not once — have the broadcast networks come up completely empty.”
David Bianculli
This Fall, Shows You Know Are The Only Must-See TV

Apparently, there is room for some improvement. Bianculli is also the founder/editor of the website TV Worth Watching.

Scott W. Smith

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“I couldn’t get the book published, and I kept reckoning with myself, consulting with my soul.”
Paul Harding

“For three years, Paul Harding’s unpublished novel, Tinker, sat in a drawer. The writer, a former Boston rock drummer who grew up in Wenham, (MA) had tried selling it, but nobody was interested.”
Geoff Edgers
The Boston Globe

This week 42-year-old Paul Harding won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Tinker. It was the end of a long journey. He’s quoted in The Salem News saying, “I told myself, ‘You’re a writer who writes, and it may be that this never gets published and you teach Freshman Composition the rest of your life, but you have a perfect wife and kids, and that’s already cool.'”

The University of Iowa grad (MFA/Iowa Writers’ Workshop ) and current visiting faculty member told the Iowa City Press Citizen,”I worked on it for 5 to 6 years and actually tried to have it published, but couldn’t find an agent or a publisher. From the moment I saw one copy in between two covers, it was all gravy from there.”

Back in 1990 Harding helped formed the grunge band Cold Water Flat while a student at the University of Massachusetts. According to Sam Butterfield, the band toured throughout the Northeast and disband in 1996. Harding graduated from Iowa in 2000. (Wonder if he ever met screenwriter Diablo Cody who would have been attending Iowa at the same time. The Juno—Iowa Connection.)

Carole Goldberg, of the Hartford Courant says Tinker is: “A beautifully written meditation on life, death, the passage of time and man’s eternal attempt to harness it… one of 2009’s most intriguing debuts.”

The big contract for his debut novel? According to The Boston Globe, an initial run of 3,500 copies and a $1,000 advance.

Let’s review Harding assets before that killer book deal:

—1992 Olsmobile station wagon (good for hauling drums around)

—Unemployment checks

—Drum set in corner (leftover from his Cold Water Flat band gigs)

—A 191 page novel, unpublished & unwanted and in sitting in drawer

So since January of 2009 he’s not only had his book published, but it is currently the #11 bestseller at Amazon and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot. (And now a nice meteoric rise in book sales.)

Congrats to Harding. The Pulitzer win is actually somewhere around the 50th for someone connected to the University of Iowa.

If you want to see something really unusual for these parts, check out this freaky video shot Wednesday night here in Northeast Iowa. (And be patient because the magic doesn’t start to happen until the 29 second mark.):

Check out NPR to read an excerpt from Tinker.

Trivia: According to Wikipedia, “a cold water flat is an apartment which has no running hot water.” Would make a fine title for a novel or screenplay.

Scott W. Smith

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In the 1950s, while Akira Kurosawa was in Japan making two of the most highly regarding films in cinematic history (Ikira and Seven Samurai) there was another filmmaker in Japan who was making a film with one of the most memorable and recognizable characters in cinematic history—Godzilla. Ishiro Honda, the director (and co-writer) of the first Godzilla film actually worked early and late in his career with Kurosawa.

So along with his Godzilla directing credits (Godzilla, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, All Monster Attack) he also worked as an assistant with Kurosawa on Stray Dogs, Ran and Dreams. After Honda passed away at age 81 in 1993, his eulogy was done by Kurosawa.

In his book Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda Peter H. Brothers writes, “While Honda is best remembered today for having directed the original Godzilla film, there was considerable more to his career. Honda worked on 82 feature-length films, 36 as assistant director and 46 as principle director. Of those 46 films, 25 were in the fantasy-film realm (or genre), making him arguably the most prolific director of such films in the history of cinema.”

Also part of Honda resume includes serving in the Imperial Army during World War II where he was a prisoner of war for six months in China. Honda later said, “When I returned from the war, and passed through Hiroshima there was a heavy atmosphere, a fear that the world was already coming to an end.” That gives an extra layer of needed context to the man behind Godzilla.

The version that most American’s saw as some  part of their childhood is different than the Godzilla seen in Japan in the 1950s. Remember the first fire-breathing Godzilla came on the scene in 1954. The atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred in 1945 at the tail end of World War II. The death and destruction of those bombs has been well documented. I have not seen the original cut of Godzilla, but I’ve read some say that it’s politically anti-American and or at least critical of America’s use of the bomb. Godzilla either represents America or  the fire-breathing atom bomb that America dropped. Either way, its serious anti-nuke warning is a long way from some of the cheesy Godzilla movies I remember.

According to the NPR Program that aired May 25, 2004 Original ‘Godzilla’ to Make  Uncut Debut in U.S. the exploitation distributors repackaged the Japanese film for an American audience by cutting out 40 minutes, and reshooting some scenes written by Al C. Ward. The result was the 1956 film Godzilla , King of the Monsters! starring in Raymond Burr.

Can’t imagine Honda being to thrilled with the results. Anyone have Honda quotes in regard to what he thought of the American version of his film originally known as Gojira? (It was probably whatever is Japanese for WTF.)

Ishiro Honda website.

Scott W. Smith


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Until last Saturday afternoon I was unfamiliar with the name Kate Whoriskey. By the time the afternoon turned to evening I was sure that everyone would eventually become familiar with the name Kate Whoriskey. Whoriskey directed Lynn Nottage’s  Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined which just finished its run in New York. She’s been called “one of the most admired directors in the American theatre today.”

Whoriskey comes with solid credentials with an ungraduate degree from NYU and an MFA from the American Repertory Theater at Harvard (A.R.T.). After graduating from A.R.T. in 1998 she soon directed Ibsen’s The Master Builder. She’s directed plays in in Louisville, Utah, Alaska, Chicago as well as various theaters in California and New York. 

She recently has been appointed as the artistic director of the Intiman Theater in Seattle beginning in 2011. She has said that one of the reason to move from New York to Seattle is to escape commercial pressures of the New York theater scene as well as for more aesthetic freedom. (Maybe I should start another blog—“Playwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside New York.”

Whorisky’s role was not simply directing Ruined but helping Nottage in her research including traveling with her to Uganda to interview women who had been raped and abused in the Congo. It was an experience that had a profound effect on Whoriskey and she later told NPR:

“They were all beautifully dressed, these 15 women, so colorful and beautiful. And then we heard these stories. And the stories were devastating, and to hear them back to back. … I didn’t actually recognize that rape had such physical consequences. I always thought of the psychological, but not the physical consequences. It was hard to hear, over and over, how ruined these woman’s bodies were.” 
                                 
To watch a short video with Kate Whoriskey and Lynn Nottage visit Charlie Rose “A conversation about the play Ruined.

 

Scott W. Smith

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