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Posts Tagged ‘Oklahoma’

“Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County is what [Eugene] O’Neil would be writing in 2007.”
Jeremy McCarther
New York magazine

“Killer Joe has a strong moral code, bent as it is.”
Screenwriter/Playwright Tracy Letts (on a character he created)

A couple of years ago I drove to Chicago just to see a play written by Tracy Letts. It’s a five-hour drive from Cedar Falls, Iowa to downtown Chicago, but that’s how bad I wanted to see the play August: Osage County. It wasn’t as if I had discovered a hidden jewel, by that time the Letts had already won the Pulitzer Prize and August:Osage County had won the Tony Award for best play.

Though Letts isn’t the most widely known writers outside of theatrical circles, I think that will change this year when they begin to shooting the film version August: Osage Country starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. And also the release this year of the film Killer Joe starring Matthew McConaughey also written by Letts. (The film was actually completed last year but has wrestled with an NC-17 rating. It now has a release date of July 27, 2012)

Letts’s journey is an interesting one and fits in well with what this blog is all about. He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1964 and raised in Durant, Oklahoma where he graduated from high school. After a short stint in Dallas doing the actor/waiter thing he moved to Chicago where he got plugged into the Steppenwolf Theatre Company for more than a decade.

Chicago is where his plays August: Osage County and Killer Joe premiered. The first work of Letts’s to be produced as a movie was the 2006 film Bug based on his 1996 play. There is definitely a regional flavor to Letts’s work. Both August: Osage County and Bug are set in Oklahoma and his play The Man from Nebraska is about, well, a man from Lincoln, Nebraska.

There is also a flavor of the classic playwrights Eugene O’Neil and Tennessee Williams in his work. Houses full of dysfunctional people fighting moral, spiritual and personal battles—as well as a few drugs and alcohol issues. Here’s how Letts unpacks some origins of the gritty movie that’s advertised on the Killer Joe website as, “A totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story.”

“I lived in Dallas for a couple of years in the mid ’80s, Dallas cops were in the news round then, busting heads. I had a tough time in Dallas, that hard-scrabble existence, it can be a really hard city for the have-nots. I lived in a trailer myself when I was a kid, for a while, and I was familiar with certain aspects of the lifestyle. The original story this was based on was about a Florida family, but I found it transposed to Dallas quite easily. I’m a big fan of Jim Thompson, the great alcoholic crime writer from Oklahoma, he wrote ‘The Grifters’ and ‘The Killer Inside Me,’ he was some of the inspiration of this. It seemed to fit with Dallas well, they behaved in a way that I thought people from Dallas could recognize. I think it helps that Matthew’s from Texas, and brings a real authenticity to this.”
Tracy Letts
Indiewire interview with Oliver Lyttelton

P.S. Just found this link to a Steppenwolf article where Letts writes about his inspiration for writing August: Osage County. Which happens to involve “reviewing the biographies of the actors who comprise Steppenwolf, I was struck by the nearly common denominator: place of birth.  From Lincoln, Illinois to Council Bluff, Iowa, from Mankato, Minnesota to my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the majority of ensemble members are small-town Midwestern people.”

Scott W. Smith

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“I can trace so much of what I do every day, when I’m writing, to what I was taught back then by my teachers at Syracuse.”
Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men)

“I didn’t have a lot of talent, so I tried to make up for it with spit and vinegar. I spent more time arguing with umpires than I spent on the bases,”
Sparky Anderson

Yesterday, I learned that the great baseball coach Sparky Anderson died and that brought back a flood of memories. And it light of the recent controversy regarding the teaching of screenwriting it seemed like a fitting time to look at what makes a teacher (or coach) good at what they do.

The first major league baseball game I ever saw was in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. In fact, on the drive over from Dayton we passed the old Crosley Field. A sacred time for a nine-year old. I grew up a fan of The Big Red Machine in which Sparky Anderson was the coach. I named first dog Sparky—and my second one, too. It’s safe to say I was a Spark Anderson fan.

Long before Anderson found his way into the Baseball Hall of Fame he was born and spent his early youth in Bridgewater, South Dakota. Years ago I remember driving through the small town of Bridgewater on one of my trips and I saw a sign that said something like, “birthplace of Sparky Anderson.” People really do come from unusual places and go on to accomplish amazing things. (I should add that catcher Johnny Bench, who played for Anderson and who many consider the greatest catcher to ever play the game, was from Binger, Oklahoma (pop. 500 when he was growing up).

Anderson was born during the Great Depression, and according to a USA Today article he was,”one of five children who lived in a house without an indoor toilet or sufficient heat. In the winter, Anderson’s father put cardboard over the windows to block the cold.” When he was ten his family moved to Los Angeles and he would become a good enough ball player to make it to the major league—for one season. The reason he lasted just one year was his batting average was only .218.

So at the age of 30 he became a minor league coach and worked his way up until he was named the manager of the Cincinnati Reds where he lead the team into the World Series in his first year (1970). Then in 1975 and 1976 he and the Reds won back to back World Series. (The ’75 series against Boston is the one Matt Damon and Robin Williams discuss in the film Good Will Hunting.)

Anderson would go on to win another World Series in 1984, managing the Detroit Tigers to become the first manager to win the World Series in both the National and American Leagues. We was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.

So while he got to live his dream and play in the major leagues, he did not have a successful career as a player. But as a coach? Forgetabouit. He knocked it out the park. But they say he never forgot his humble background, and as a manager he knew it was standing on a rocky ground. He kept a sign Detroit office that read; “Every 24 hours the world turns over on someone who was sitting on top of it.” That’s good for us all to remember.

“Being nice to people is the only thing in life that will never cost you a dime. Treat them nice and they’ll treat you the same.”
Sparky Anderson

The whole idea of most of the great coaches not being great players at the highest levels interests me.  Recently I came across some quotes from Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy on what makes a good coach. (Dungy had a brief career as an NFL player, but like Anderson made his mark as a coach) :

“A mark of a good coach is being able to energize others by showing them their potential.”

“A good coach usually believes in the players more than they believe in themselves.”

“A good coach understands the personality of individuals in order to know how to help them.”

And Gordie Gillespie may not be a household name, but he is the all-time winningest coach in college baseball. Here’s part of his list of what makes a good coach.

You have to like young people
“Your primary reason for coaching should be to watch young people grow, mature and develop. Sure, everybody likes to win, but if winning is the only thing that counts, you’ll never get that deep feeling of pride and satisfaction that comes from watching your kids succeed at life.”

Organized
“You won’t accomplish half of what you set out to do without a concrete, workable plan.”

Enthusiasm
“It would be a complete contradiction if you were not enthusiastic about teaching them the game.”

Patience
“One of the greatest joys of coaching is to see the least talented suddenly blossom, and all because you never gave up on him or her.”

Persistance
“The beautiful aspect about defeat is that it is a powerful learning experience.”

Sincerity and concern
“Being truly concerned, to listen as well as teach, is not an easy virtue to acquire.”

I think those qualities translate well for coaches of all sports and any kind of teacher. And those are qualities that not everyone possess. Which explains why great players don’t usually make great coaches. So the next time you hear someone make a blanket statement like, “Those who can’t do, teach” know that there is some truth in that, just as there is, “Those who can do, can’t teach.”

A great athlete who recounts great moments in his or her career, and tells anecdote after anecdote, may make for an engaging after dinner speech—but it does not make one a good teacher.

And just to bring to tie this back to screenwriting,  every once in a while someone who has taught screenwriting for years breaks though and gets a feature script produced. And at least once in the history of mankind a teacher/writer has won an Oscar after they were a teacher. Don’t believe me? Check out the post First Screenplay, Oscar—Precious, and read about the journey of screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher who taught screenwriting at Columbia University.

“I devoted myself to writing for years without representation or a promise of anything. And there were times when I felt quite down about my prospects.”
Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious)

I think Fletcher was 39 when he won the Academy Award for his first produced feature script. Other than film school, his sole credit was one short film that played at Sundance.

Screenwriting Quote of the Day #43 (Aaron Sorkin)

Scott W. Smith

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Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.
Ya Got Trouble. lyrics from The Music Man

There’s an Iowa kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
Iowa Stubborn, lyrics from The Music Man

This weekend I went to see the Cedar Falls Community Theatre production of The Music Man. I had watched the movie before but had never seen the play. It was an overall great experience.

The story takes place in fictitious River City, Iowa which was inspired by Mason City, Iowa where the author of The Music Man, Meredith Willson, was raised. The Music Man first opened on Broadway in 1957 and won five Tony Awards and went on to be performed 1,375 times on its first Broadway run. (There have been two revivals of the play on Broadway, 1980 & 2000.) The film premiered in Mason City and today if you go there you can tour Willson’s boyhood home and visit The Music Man Square museum which celebrates Mason City’s musical tradition.

(As a sidenote, Mason City had a part in what Don McLean called “the day the music died.” In 1959, Buddy Holly and three others took off from the Mason City airport and shortly afterwards during a snow storm their plane crashed in a field eight miles away killing all four.)

Willson was actually nominated for two Oscar awards in his career, though neither were for his work on The Music Man, but rather for The Little Foxes (Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture) and the classic Chaplin film, The Great Dictator (Best Music, Original Score.) In 1958, the music from The Music Man beat out West Side Story to win a Grammy  Award (Best Original Cast Album).

The original play The Music Man starred Robert Preston as con man Professor Harold Hill. He won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and also starred in the 1962 movie. The local production here starred Gary Kroeger who was a writer/performer on Saturday Night Live between 1982-1985. I agree with the people who saw the play and know Kroeger (who lives here now)— it was a role made for him. Some people even remember when he had the lead in the same play back when he went to high school here. His co-star in the play is Kristin Teig Torres, who can be seen on the demo reel at RiverRun.tv from a project we shot a couple years ago.

And while I’ve been to plays in large theaters in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles there is something special to walking eight blocks from your home to downtown Cedar Falls to have dinner, and then watch a play in a restored 100 year old theatre. It’s nice to sit close enough to see the faces of actors you know who are performing words and songs written by someone who was raised an hour and a half away, knowing that that play has been performed and entertained people all over the world for more than 50 years.

So before the Field of Dreams, The Bridges of Madison Country, and Sleeping with the Enemy there was The Music Man to pave the way for future stories set in the quintessential heartland.

By the way, Nancy Price, who wrote the novel Sleeping with the Enemy, was at the performance Friday night which added a little extra reminder that every once in a while something other than corn comes out of the state of Iowa.

So wherever you live check out the community theater in your area. There’s magic and talent in community theaters all over this country. (I hear even Charlie Sheen is getting into the community theatre spirit by volunteering his time to work with a quaint small town in Colorado.) I think as films become less and less expensive to make you will not only see a growing regional film movement, but one that is the equivalent of community theater. Keep in mind that our local community theater raised $1.2 million to renovate a historic theater a few years ago, so there are people and businesses ready and willing to invest in the local arts community.

Oh, and speaking of The Music Man, remember a little kid named Ronny who played Winthrop Paroo in the 1962 movie? Hard to forget him singing, “O the wells Fargo wagon is a’comin’ down the road, O please let be for me.” He went on to act in a few more productions such as The Andy Griffith Show, American Graffiti and Happy Days. These days that young Oklahoma-born actor  is more well-known as the director Ron Howard.

On Saturday in Chicago he’ll be honored for a Career Achievement Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. And what a career it’s been—Apollo 13, Cocoon, Parenthood,  Splash, Frost/Nixon (Oscar Nomination), and two-Oscars wins for A Beautiful Mind (Best Director, Best Picture).

* The Music Man photo taken by Bill Sikula. More shots at www.facebook.com/osterregent

Scott W. Smith


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Big college football game tonight between Oklahoma and Florida. That eventually got me thinking about the writer S.E. Hinton. She’s from Oklahoma and pals around with hoods like Mickey Rourke, Matt Dillion, and Dennis Hopper. At least she did back in 1983 when Francis Ford Coppola made her book Rumble Fish into a movie. 

The cast also included  Diane Lane, Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Tom Waits and Sofia Coppola. Hinton herself picked up a little money on the side playing a hooker in the movie, as well as writing the screenplay with Coppola.

Her other books The Outsiders, Tex, That Was Then…This is Now not only became movies but virtually were training grounds for a generation of actors including the above actors as well as Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, Meg Tilly and Emilio Estevez. (I didn’t realize until I looked on IMDB that Morgan Freeman was also in That was Then…This is Now.)

So Hinton, who started writing The Outsiders when she was 15, has done well considering that it was reported that her first royalty check was only $10 and that the book almost went out of print before going on to sell more than 13 million copies.

Our quote today comes from Hinton and it’s a reminder to all writers to get the words written and to take advantage of every networking opportunity (especially if you live in fly-over country);

At school one day I mentioned to a friend that I wrote, and she mentioned to me that her mother wrote children’s books. She said, “Why don’t you let my mother read your stuff?” I gave her a copy of The Outsiders, and this woman showed it to a friend of hers who had a New York agent. She said, “Send this to my agent. Maybe she can get it published for you.” I didn’t believe that was going to happen, but I mailed it to her. She has been my agent ever since.
                                                                        
S.E. Hinton
                                                                        A Conversation at Penguin.com 

S.E. Hinton lives in Tulsa and has a horse, a dog, and her own website – www.sehinton.com.

 

Scott W. Smith

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Auntie Em: “Why don’t you find a place where there isn’t any trouble?” 
Dorothy:
“A place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place Toto? There must be.”
                                                                               The Wizard of Oz

Melissa: “Is there an F5?… What would that be like?”
Jason ‘Preacher’ Rowe
: ”The finger of God.” 
                                                                               Twister
 

Chances are if you think back to where you were in 1996 it may seem like 100 years ago. A lot can happen in 12 years.

1996 is on my radar today because it’s the release date of a two-disc special edition of the movie Twister that was made that year. Iowa was not on my radar back then and neither were storm chasers.  Those strange people who in the name of science roam the region known as tornado alley chasing monster-sized tornados looking for data to improve warning systems and hopefully save lives. (And also a good excuse to have an exciting day at the office.)

Twister was shot in Oklahoma and Iowa and according to some reports it was one of the most demanding films ever made. It earned every penny of its almost $500 million worldwide gross. According to Box Office Mojo Twister is #50 in all-time domestic box office draw.

It was everything that you expect from a big Hollywood tent pole movie. Special effects and more special effects. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in the Twister screenplay the story is basically there to bridge one spectacular special effect with the next. The filmmakers and the studios told us what kind of film they were making and delivered on their promise.

I look forward to seeing the special edition DVD just to see the behind the scene footage and listen to the added commentary material. In fact, the commentary material may be the only way I watch some films from now on. I did that for the first time with the movie Cloverfield. I just rented it to listen to the director’s commentary. (I love learning little things like one phrase producer J.J. Abrams is fond of saying to keep the budget down is “We can make this whole movie with a ball of yarn.” Abrams and director Matt Reeves did an amazing job with special effects on Cloverfield given their budget was only a third of Twisters.)

A couple weeks ago I was meandering in a used book store next to the University of Northern Iowa looking for something different and came across a book called Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie by Keay Davidson.

I flipped through it and found this quote:

“If you want a spiritual experience, you should go spend April to June in the Midwest, because you have never seen cloud formations like this! You watch everything in the sky happening in front of you as if you were watching time-lapse photography. We would literally watch cloud towers shoot into the sky and within fifteen minutes one little cloud would rise to become one 30,000 feet high.” 
                                                                     Producer (Twister) Kathleen Kennedy

Now when Kathleen Kennedy talks you should listen. She has flat out had an amazing career in Hollywood and has had a hand in producing some of my favorite films: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Seabiscuit (the only movie poster I own), and most recently The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. If you’re still not impressed, she also produced the upcoming Indiana Jones film being released later this month. (Not bad for starting out as a secretary/production assistant for Steven Spielberg.)

To top it off Kennedy is married to Frank Marshall who produced Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Bourne Ultimatum and a whole lot in between. Together the Kennedy/Marshall duo have produced films that have made over 5 billion dollars. 

Here’s another passage from Davidson’s book:

Twister’s setting is as grandiose as its subject: the Midwest. A terrain as rich in myth for Americans as the Aegean is for Greeks…What makes the Midwestern sky “so interesting is that the terrain is so flat—more than half of what you’re seeing is sky! So you tend to pay a lot of attention to it, said (Twister) director of photography Jack Green. “They’ve got these incredible cloud patterns passing through—clouds that contrast against a clear, intense blue and nearly unpolluted sky.”

The blue sky here in Iowa can be mesmerizing. (Especially if you’ve ever been on the Disney lot in Burbank and not been able to see the Verdugo Mountains just a few miles away because of the smog.) And while some Hollywood producers only know that blue sky as they’re flying over this part of the country, there are stories to be told from here. And I hope you’re doing your part to write them down wherever you live.

On a closing note the first week of May is not even over and already around 100 tornados have been spotted in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Iowa. Unfortunately it’s cost hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damages and claimed several lives.

And even more tragic, in Myanmar (next to Thailand) they report over 20,000 deaths due to a cyclone this week.

None of us know where we’ll be 12 years from now. But one thing we can be sure of is there will be more disasters like Hurricane Katrina, 911, and the Tsunami that killed over 200,000 in Asia.  There will be many prayers said and much relief work done. But remember that stories can also bring healing power and help give us perspective on life.

“Today is Father’s Day. Until my stroke, we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar. But today we spend the whole of the symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.”
                                                                       The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
                                                                        Jean-Dominique Bauby 

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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