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Merry Christmas—50 weeks early. When I was driving through Nashville last November after a production I had lunch with William Akers (Your Screenplay Sucks!) and he told me about a video of Orson Welles doing a Q&A with students at USC back in 1981. I’d never seen or even heard of the video, so I figured it would be a great way to start 2014 by pulling a few quotes this week. (Below is the complete hour and a half video.)

“I never sit down and plan with a cinematographer. I had storyboards in [Citizen] Kane only because I was made to. I believe I’m the only director—that I know of—who does this particular thing, which is probably the worst way to go about it. I didn’t begin this way but I’ve developed this way. I light a set with a cameraman before I decide where anybody will go. And then when the set looks right to me I put the actors where I think they ought to be. I don’t put the actors in and then light the set—it’s the exact opposite. Because the set is all we have besides the actors and it ought to have a chance. The only way to give it a chance is to begin with it. That’s my theory anyway.”
Producer/director/writer/actor Orson Welles
At the 44:38 mark when asked about working with planning the look of The Trial (1962) with cinematographer Edmond Richard.

Welles wrote The Trial screenplay based on the 1925 uncompleted novel by Franz Kafka and the movie starred Anthony Perkins as a 30-year-old man arrested without knowing why. (A little Orwell, Orson, Obama mix with the novel 1984, a touch of the 2002 film Minority Report where you’re arrested before you commit a crime, and some 2013 news of NSA spying. Nothing new under the sun.

Now that Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places enters this month into its seventh year I will be writing more filmmaking posts. Toying with a few other ideas to take things up a notch but welcome any ideas and suggestions readers have to make this a more helpful site for screenwriters and filmmakers. You can email me at info@scottwsmith.com. Best wishes on your screenwriting and filmmaking this year.

P.S. A little Anthony Perkins trivia; Like Fred Rogers, Perkins attended Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. (Where I just happen to live.) If you’re looking for a quirky creative challenge today, write a scene where the star of the thriller Psycho and the star of children’s TV program Mr. Rogers Neighborhood are college roommates. Bonus points if you can do a mash-up video of the Hitchcock classic and the PBS show. Working title: It’s a Beautiful Day at the Bates Motel.

Related posts:
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)
Screenwriting Quote #38
Stagecoach Revisited (2.0) Welles watched the John Ford classic 40 times while making Citizen Kane.

Scott W. Smith

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Obama Speaking in Waterloo, Iowa 2007
Obama Speaking in Waterloo, Iowa 2007

 

There is some speculation about what President-elect Obama’s howdy factor will be. They don’t call it that, but that’s what it’s known as in some screenwriting circles. (I’m not sure who I learned this from, but when I remember I’ll give them credit.)

The howdy factor (or howdy trait) is the thing that every President has to have to seem more down to earth. (Maybe for Obama we should call it The Aloha Factor.)

John F. Kennedy; Pick-up football games on the White House lawn
Richard Nixon; Bowling
Gerald Ford; Skiing and golfing
Jimmy Carter; Softball
Ronald Reagan; Cowboy
George Bush Sr; Fishing
Bill Clinton; Jogging 
George W. Bush; Mountain biking  & kid’s baseball games on the White House lawn
 
Now Obama is already a pretty cool cat, but he still needs a howdy factor. And while he does play golf, I think he’s going to be the first President with a penchant for basketball. That’s part of his regular workout these days so as long as his knees and legs hold out I think that’s what he’ll be about.

“Hey, M.J. can you can swing by around 2:00 for some hoops? And see if Magic and Bird are available so we can roll two on two.”

George Clooney said that he liked the character he played on E.R. when he read the first script. Though his character was flawed, at one point he saves a dog and knew that he was a complex character that people would embrace.

Blake Snyder would call that a “Save the Cat” moment. A little trick of the trade that sometimes up pops in films where a character does something — like saving a cat (or a dog in Clooney’s case) — that makes him or her more likable. Once you become aware of these howdy traits you see them everywhere. (Blake and his readers have been known to yell out “Save the Cat” when they see it occur at the theaters.)

Of course, it doesn’t have to literally be a save the cat scene, but it can be. In I Am Legend, Will Smith’s character is on a hunt for food when he comes upon a lion that looks like quite a few meals. He raises his gun to shoot, but doesn’t pull the trigger when he sees a baby lion come around the corner. He decides to let the animals go (save the large cats) and it’s meant to convey he’s a good guy. 

In the Fugitive Harrison Ford’s character is falsely convicted of killing his wife and is sent to prison. On a bus ride to the prison with other prisoners the bus is hit by a train and the prisoners flee the wrecked bus and escape in the night. But before Ford escapes he takes his time to save an injured prisoner. A save the cat moment to prove that he is a good man setting up that he really is innocent of killing his wife.  

It’s best to show a howdy trait as early as possible. They are usually found in the first act if not in the first 10 pages in many screenplays because they are a shorthand way of establishing character.

Do you have any howdy factors in the script you are working on now? Now that I think about it there is also a “kill the dog” scene in I Am Legend, but even that is a compassionate act.

Oh, and by the time Obama finished his tour of the White House today, I bet he knew exactly where he was going to put the b-ball court. 

Related Posts:  Politics, Power & Screenwriting (tip #3)

 

Photo and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“I finally figured out we are somewhere between the end of the line and the middle of nowhere.”
Dr. Joel Fleischman
Northern Exposure

Goethe’s final words: “More light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry: “More light.” Sunlight. Torchlight. Candlight. Neon. Incandescent. Lights that banish the darkness from our caves, to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerator.”

Chris in Morning
KBHR, Cicely, Alaska
Northern Exposure

When Sarah (Barracuda) Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate it was textbook solid screenwriting inspired. A nice twist in the story. If it were a movie and she ends up VP I’d call it Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington. Kind of a remake of the Jimmy Stewart classic.

How do you offset the first African-American presidential candidate who makes his acceptance speech before more than 80,000 people at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on 45th anniversary to the day of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech? How do you offset Obama being raised by a single mom and forgoing a Wall Street career to do social work on the south side of Chicago?

How do you take advantage of millions of women who are upset that Hillary Clinton is not the presidential or VP candidate? How does McCain avoid being seen as just rich and elitist and out of touch with the countries economic problems?

You head north…to Alaska, that’s what you do. You choose their female governor as your running mate.  A “hockey mom” with five kids (pro-family)  including one with Downs Syndrome (pro-life) , a moose hunter (NRA), whose husband is part Yup’ik Eskimo (multiethnic) and a commercial fisherman (working class) and union worker (union), whose parents were teachers (middle class), who has faith (evangelicals), who has brought reform to government there (change), who fought the “bridge to nowhere” (fiscally responsible), whose son joined the Army last year on September 11 (patriotism), and who comes from an area more than 3,500 miles from Washington D.C. (beltway outsider).

As a former broadcaster she is media savvy and can read a teleprompter. And her selection as the first VP GOP candidate came on the 88th anniversary of women being allowed to vote. And to top it off the former Miss Wasilla has the whole sexy librarian thing going on with the glasses and wearing her hair up.

I’ll leave it to others to debate whether she’s qualified for the White House, but there is no debate she has a heck of a story. And stories outside L.A. is what this blog is all about.

Is choosing Palin a Hail Mary pass by McCain? If so, he’s old enough to remember when Doug Flutie’s desperation pass beat the mighty Miami Hurricanes back in ’84. Sometimes the high risk pass works.

And for the media, picking Palin is a slice of Hollywood. A political narrative full of conflict. Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Palin’s candidacy “will be either dramatically successful or dramatically not; it won’t be something in between.”

We know screenwriter Gary Ross (Big, Seabiscuit) has written presidential speeches for the Democrats. The talent pool of Republican or conservative screenwriters is not quite as deep (99 to 1?), but I wonder what writer or filmmaker they’ve employed. (Perhaps John Milius, Clint Eastwood, Dennis Hopper or David Mamet.)

Maybe it was Hillary’s Hollywood people (Spielberg or Murphy Brown creator Diane English)  suggestion since a Republican victory is Mrs. Clinton’s only chance to make a run in ’12.

No matter the outcome of the election, from a dramatic standpoint McCain couldn’t have written a better script. Well, Palin could have been born in Cedar Falls, Iowa to an African-American mother and a Hispanic father and have captured Bigfoot last week–but let’s not get carried away.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Alaska has been at the heart of many good stories as well as being full of folklore. Say, did you hear the “Little known facts” about Palin? “The Northern Lights are really just the reflection from Sarah Palin’s eyes.” “Sarah Palin doesn’t need a gun to hunt. She has been known to throw a bullet through an adult bull elk.” (Do you know how long it took for Chuck Norris to get that kind of street cred? She did it in one day.)

On second thought, Sarah Palin appears to have more in common with Erin Brockovich than she does Jimmy Stewart. (“You may want to re-think those ties.” Erin, in the movie written by Susannah Grant.) But let’s get back to Alaska.

Stories do flow from Alaska; Jack London’s Call of the Wild, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, Never Cry Wolf, and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia written by Hilary Seltz , Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, Johnny Horton’s number one hit North to Alaska, documentaries by Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North)  and Warner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and more recently the Sean Penn movie Into the Wild from the Jon Krakauer book.

But my favorite set of stories that are Alaska-based is what I think of as one of the all-time great TV programs - Northern Exposure. (In my book it’s right up there with The Twilight Zone and Seinfeld.) Though the show was filmed in Roslyn, Washington it retains the feel of a small eccentric, creative town you’d like to think exists in Alaska. Some say it is based on the quirky little town of Talkeetna, Alaska and others say the quirky town of Ely, Minnesota, a town near the Canadian border in the Boundary Waters.

In part because of my love for the show I’ve been to  Roslyn, Talkeetna and Ely. (However, I’ve never been to Moosefest.)  I do think the show Northern Exposure in part lead me to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Growing up in Florida steeped on Jimmy Buffett’s songs about Key West, the Caribbean, and paradise mixed with a heavy dose of Walt Disney’s version of Main Street, I think I have always been looking for my own personal Margaritaville. (A place where “My old red bike gets me ’round.”)

Even if you didn’t get into Northern Exposure you’d have to give it points for originality. Where else in the history of TV have you seen two people arm wrestle over the doctrine of transubstantiation or see someone have a conversation with a human-sized dust mite? And isn’t there a little spunky Maggie O’Connell (Janie Turner) in Palin? Yes, Palin even owns a float plane. I’m sure Noexers (as fans of the show are called) have already connected John & Cindy McCain with the older/younger couple Shelly & Holling.

Is it more than a coincidence that one of the co-creators of Northern Exposure went to college just a little over an hour from Cedar Falls? John Falsey is one more MFA graduate from the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. The Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe winning producer/writer also worked on St. Elsewhere, The White Shadow and I’ll Fly Away. (I don’t know much of what he’s done in the last decade. “Where have you gone John Falsey?” Maybe he cashed in and moved to his own personal Cicely, Alaska.)

And I guess this blog is my own little version of Northern Exposures resident radio DJ Chris in the Morning (John Corbett). Trying to do my best to wax philosophically while making odd connections.

Cedar Falls is a little bigger than Cicely Alaska, but it’s got enough characteristics to feel similar and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than Key West, FL, Seal Beach, CA, or Crested Butte, CO. No oceans or mountains here (though we do have a river and killer bike trails) but we have a perfect view of the political process as I pointed out in Politics, Power & Screenwriting.

I’m sure will see plenty of Mrs. Palin which will make up for all the times I saw Obama last year. (I think the guy was stalking me.) If John McCain and Sarah Palin don’t make it to the White House I think they could have shots at a career in Hollywood. At least a reality show.

And whoever is our next president I wish they add to their packed political campaign platform a decree for films to be better. Yesterday I walked out of two movies in one day for the first time in my life. On second thought, that’s really not the government’s job–it’s yours, so get busy writing.

And just to tie this all together as we say goodbye for now you might not know that the beautiful, haunting song that was played at the end of the last episode of Northern Exposure was written and performed by Iris DeMent — a folk artist who is married to another folk artist named Greg Brown from Iowa City and where I believe they both now live.

If you’ve never heard “Our Town” or if it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, do yourself a favor and listen to the link below. The song resonates every bone of my body and I hope it hits a nerve or two for you. (And if you’ve never seen the show at all check it out because it is a fine example of great writing.)

September 4 Update: From a public speaking perspective you’d have to pull for an Obama-Palin ticket. Palin: “The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?.. Lipstick.” Great writing and great delivery. All of this reminds me of that great Jon Stewart quip at the 2008 Oscars: “Normally when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.”

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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