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“The main thing in writing a movie is to have a good ending.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects)

Thelma & Louise

Thelma & Louise

In terms of the Academy Awards, the morning of the Oscar-nominations in January and the night of the Oscar Awards in March make fitting Hollywood bookends. And it’s a time where the drama isn’t left on the big screen as the debating begins about which movies and people will win alongside speculation on why other movies and people were snubbed.

And some of the best writing happens the night of the Academy Awards like when Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri said holding her Oscar statue, “For everyone who wanted to see a happy ending for Thelma and Louise, to me this is it.”

Yesterday after a long conversation with Jason McKinnon of Screenwriting Spark I decided to pull together 50 screenwriting posts that feature Oscar-winners (in no particular order).

By the way, to download some of the most recent Oscar-nominated screenplays check out the links at Screencraft and Go Into The Story.

1) The Shakespeare of Hollywood (And the first screenwriter to win an Oscar)

2) Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie

3) Writing Quote #9 (Chayefsky)

4) Screenwriting Quote #110 (Paul Haggis)

5)  Screenwriting Quote #143 (Elia Kazan) “Have your central character in every scene…”

6) Screenwriting Quote #173 (Akiva Goldsman)

7) Screenwriter Ernest R. Tidyman

8) Screenwriter/Director Richard Brooks

9) Screenwriting Quote #44 (John Patrick Shanley)

10) Screenwriting Quote #38 (John Huston)

11) Screenwriting Quote #3 (Charlie Kaufman)

12) Screenwriting Quote #179 (Chris Terrio) 

13) Screenwriting Quote #148 (Edward Zwick)

14) Screenwriting Quote #161 (Frank Pierson)

15) Screenwriting Quote #54 (Walt Disney) Who’s won more Oscars than anyone.

16) Screenwriting Quote #139 (Stephen Gaghan)

17) Writer Budd Schulberg (1914-2009)

18) Horton Foote (1916-2009)

19) Screenwriting “To Kill A Mockingbird”

20) Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid”

21) Filmmaking Quote #19 (Robert Towne) “Filmmaking is dictated by fear…”

22) Filmmaking Quote #14 (Robert Benton)

23) Writing Quote #33 (Tom Stoppard)

24) The Making of Woody Allen in 10 Simple Steps

25) James L. Brooks on Chayefsky

26) Writing Quote #26 (Waldo Salt)

27) Woman of Steel (Diablo Cody)

28) Insanely Great Endings 

29) Tarantino on Leonard

30) Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness

31) Sorkin’s Emotional Drive

32) Filmmaking Quote #27 (Frank Capra) “I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.” 

33) Writing “Thelma & Louise”

34) Writing “Good Will Hunting”

35) Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl in Ohio (Francis Ford Coppola)

36) “Network” Notes by Paddy Chayefsky

37) First screenplay, Oscar—Precious

38) Filmmaking Quote #34 (Ben Affleck)

39) 4 Weeks + 8 Years = 1 Oscar ” “Once you start writing, go like hell—but don’t fire till you’re ready.”—William Goldman

40) Preparing for an Oscar Speech (David  Seidler-Style)

41) The Oscars & Screenwriting East of L.A.

42) First Screenplay= 9 Oscar Nominations

43) Jailbait, Rejection & Screenwriter Mark Boal’s Start

44) The Oscars Minnesota-Style

45) The Job of Writing Quote by Oscar-winner Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List)

46) Writing and Directing “Out of Africa”

47) The First Academy Awards

48) Writing “A Beautiful Mind” “I was the worst writer in my seventh grade class.”—Akiva Goldsman

49) Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)

50) How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)—Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine)

Related links:
Best Screenplay Oscar Winners A to Z at Biography.com
Oscar Winning Screenplays 1928 to present at SimplyScripts

Scott W. Smith

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It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess 
And that’s enough reason to go for me
It’s My Job/Mac McAnally

“I kind of like the ring of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” I’m thinking about naming everything after Lee Daniels.”
Danny Strong screenwriter of Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Huffington Post article by Christopher Rosen

Following yesterday’s post about Ashton Kutcher’s quote on work, it seems fitting to give a shout-out to Lee Daniels’ The Butler which hits theaters today. Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a character based somewhat on Eugene Allen who worked at the White house for eight presidential terms between 1952—1986. The original seed for the movie was inspired by the Wil Haygood 2008 Washington Post article A Butler Well Served by This White House and the screenplay written by two-time Primetime Emmy winner Danny Strong (Game Change).

“I knew pretty early that if we stuck to the absolute truth there would be no movie, because butlers are pretty tight-lipped. I didn’t know how to tell the story. Then I started researching, reading memoirs of people who worked at the White House. I interviewed butlers, house men, engineers, former chief ushers, family members of the first family. Through the course of these interviews, I realized I could create a composite character through which I could utilize different stories from different people. And that’s basically how the Gaines family came to be….There were two big breakthroughs. It was a story that took place over many administrations. As soon as I realized that this was going to be a story about the Civil Rights movement, and that was going to be the spine of the film, that was the first breakthrough. In all these administrations, there will be a common theme going on as we travel through the eras. And then the second breakthrough was [creating] a son who was a Civil Rights activist so that we could actually be in the center of the action while those events were happening. That created this really great triangle of the butler trying to get his son out of the Civil Rights movement and the presidents dealing with the crises that his son is in the middle of as the butler is serving those presidents. It made the story emotional even when the butler wasn’t speaking in the White House, and it created what I thought would be a very interesting generational story between father and son. It keeps everything personal and emotional as opposed to a history lesson.”
Screenwriter Danny Strong (Lee Daniels’ The Butler)
Fact, Fiction, and ‘The Butler’: A Q&A with Danny Strong by Jay Fernandez

Strong says other books that were helpful in giving a glimpse to working in the White House and of the times were My 21 Years in the White House by Alonzo Fields, Upstairs at the White House by J. B. West, Walking With the Wind by John Lewis,  How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life by Peter Robinson, Kennedy by Ted Sorense, and The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro.

Look for the Lee Daniels’ directed film and screenwriter Strong (and maybe Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey) to pop up again when Oscars are announced next year.

P.S. Love to hear writers talk about characters, theme, and emotions because I think those are the keys of the best writers in command of their craft. Oh, and speaking of great writers and work—Strong became friends with Quentin Tarantino when Tarantino worked as a video clerk at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, CA.  More on that Monday.

Related Posts:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
40 Days of Emotions
Filmmaking Quote #10 (Lee Daniels)
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (Tip #7)

Scott W. Smith 

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2012 Oscars: World Cinema Road Trip

I thought it would be interesting to take all the 2012 Oscar-nominated live action films and see where their stories take place.

Best Picture

The Artist—Hollywood, California 
The Descendants—Honolulu, Hawaii 
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close —New York, New York
The Help—Jackson, Mississippi
Hugo-Paris, France
Midnight in Paris—Paris, France
Moneyball—Oakland, California 
The Tree of Life—Waco, Texas
War Horse— England & France

Documentary Feature

Hell and Back Again—Afghanistan & North Carolina
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front—NYC & Washington state
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory—West Memphis, Arkansas
Pina—Germany
Undeafeated—North Memphis, Tennessee

Documentary Short Subject

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement—Birmingham, Alabama
God Is the Bigger Elvis—Connecticut
Incident in New Baghdad—Baghdad, Iraq
Saving Face—Pakistan
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom —Japan

Short Film (Live Action)

Penecost-Ireland
Raju—India
The Shore—Ireland
Time Freak—Ancient Rome
Tuba Atlantic—Norway

From that perspective I’d have to say that France came out on top, especially when you factor in the the writer/director (as well as lead actors) of the Oscar-winning film The Artist are from France. But in the United States, the region of The South did pretty well. Pretty amazing that the entire Southern California area only came up with one film in this batch. The Artist, a period piece set in the 1920s-30s of greater Los Angeles took advantage of many old landmarks including the Bradbury Building.

I haven’t seen all of these films, but what do you think the most unlikely place was to set an Oscar-nominated film from this batch?

Scott W. Smith

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Think I can segue from two previous posts about Bridesmaids to one about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close?

No problem. In Bridesmaids there is a scene where the lead character’s life is falling a part and her mother tells her to watch the movie Cast Away saying, “It’s like Forrest Gump on a deserted island.” Forrest Gump was written by Eric Roth, the same writer as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

I think I’ve written something about every Academy Award-nominated Best Picture and/or its writers except for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. So I’m cramming for finals before the Oscars Sunday night. Here’s an exchange found in the article, ‘Extremely Loud’ Screenwriter On Turning The Novel Into A Film;

Eric Herschthal: A common trope is that no one can capture the tragedy of the Holocaust in art. Do you see something similar happening with Sept. 11 works of art?

Eric Roth: “First off, I don’t like to compare anything to the Holocaust. [Director Stanley] Kubrick. said you can’t make a movie out of the Holocaust; it’s too visceral to capture on film. I think he’s right. But I think you can make stories about grief, about loss, and how you deal with them. That’s what I tried to do.”

Roth received and Oscar-nominated for his script. He’s had a three other screenplay Oscar-nominations:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (shared with Robin Swicord)
Munich (shared with Tony Kushner)
The Insider (Shared with Michael Mann)
Forrest Gump (Sole screenwriting credit and an his sole Oscar win)

A few days ago Roth received the 2012 Laurel Award for Screen, lifetime achievement in outstanding writing for motion pictures, from the  Writers Guild of America, West.

“In a career that spans over four decades, Eric Roth’s work – from Forrest Gump to The Insider, Ali, The Good Shepard, Benjamin Button, and this year’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – has traced the larger span of our history and the smaller, individual arcs of the human life. With poetry and humor, he has illuminated time and love and moral responsibility. He has made going to the movies both a stirring emotional education and a true joy.”
WGAW President Christopher Keyser

Quirky facts about Roth: According to IMDB, he wrote one of Kurosawa‘s last films (Rhapsody in August), and his daughter, Vanessa Roth, won an Academy Award (Best Documentary Short) in 2008 for her film Freeheld.

Related posts:
Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness
Change the Weather (Tip #44)

Scott W. Smith

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“Criticism is often wrong, as we know through history. Carmen, which is now the most popular opera in the repertoire, was a tremendous flop [when it premiered]. Why did they hate it?”
Francis Ford Coppola

“What I look for with critics is more that they’re going to write about something I did and I’m gonna read it and not make those mistakes again, I’m gonna learn something from it. Often, though, they don’t do that: they say, “It’s a muddled mess.” “It’s pretentious.” I can’t learn a lot from someone saying “It’s pretentious.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Movieline interview with Kyle Buchann

Being a big name film writer/director must feel somewhat like being the head of a Mafia family.Someone is always gunning for you. I don’t know if they have a class in film school these days to equipment young people with the down side of success, but they should. After a week of blogging about the movie The Godfather and Francis Ford Coppola I’ve learned a lot about Coppola and his 40 year career.

And perhaps the thing I’ve learned most is my conformation that if you’re looking for respect, the Internet isn’t the best place to look for it. (Even if you have a handful of Oscars.) Since Saturday’s are my slowest days, I’ve decided to try something a little different and write a little Internet drama loosely based on some of the conversations I’ve read as people discussed Coppola and his work.

Blogger Post: Francis Ford Coppola is the greatest writer/director in the history of cinema.

Reply 1: Really? Are you nuts? Take away The Godfather I & II and what did Coppola really do over the last forty years?

Reply 2: REALLY? R U SERIOUS?

Reply 3: Yeah, it’s like that Orson Wells guy who everyone makes a big deal about just because of Citizen Kane.

Reply 4: Coppola is exactly like Orson Wells, fat and hocking wine in his later years.

Reply 5: Shut up.  Coppola rocks.

Reply 6: Coppola isn’t even the greatest writer/director in the greater Bay area.

Reply 7: The Godfather Part II is really just self-indulgent crap. The Godfather is his only masterpiece.

Reply 8: Yeah, and what did Neil Armstrong really do after he walked on the moon?

Reply 9: Aren’t you guys forgetting Coppola did Apocalypse Now?

Reply 10: Overrated.

Reply 11: Rumblefish, The Outsiders, The Conversation?

Reply 12: Overrated, overrated, overrated.

Reply 13: Who cares? (And for the record it’s Rumble Fish)

Reply 14: I loved Dracula.

Reply 15: Dracula bites.

Reply 16: U SUCK

Reply 17: Are you guys forgetting that Coppola has won five Oscars?

Reply 18: Yeah, but what has he done this week?

Reply 19: Besides the Oscars are meaningless and just the product of  a misogynistic, racist, capitalistic society.

Reply 20: Still The Godfather is pretty good.

Reply 21: The Godfather would have been better with Danny Thomas instead of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone.

Reply 22: Who’s Danny Thomas?

Reply 23: Who’s Francis Ford Coppola?

Spend five minutes on the Internet and you’ll find that kind of uplifting conversation. Better to spend five minutes working on your script. But all that to say that if you’re looking to write the great American screenplay so that the world will love you and your work, think again. If you’re looking for unconditional love get a golden retriever.

From a perspective of increasing views The Godfather posts this week have been popular and I’ll compare them tomorrow with the spike I got from writing out Kevin Smith a while back. Coppola vs. Smith, tomorrow on Screenwriting from Iowa. And Monday we’ll look at Coppola, Castro and Capitalism.

Scott W. Smith



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Last week I was asked by Debra Eckerling to do my first ever guest blogging on her excellent Write On Online website. I appreciated the opportunity and wrote the following post after making the observation that there was a heavy dose of films made beyond what is known as the thirty mile zone in L.A. (As a side note, though Eckerling lives in L.A. these days she is part of the Midwest tribe invading Southern California, having been raised in the Chicago area and college educated in Wisconsin and Nebraska.)

The Oscars & Screenwriting East of L.A.

On my blog Screenwriting from Iowa I enjoy writing about screenwriters who come from outside L.A., not because I have anything against L.A., but because I think there are wonderful stories to tell from all over the world. The famous painter Grant Wood (American Gothic) was fond of talking about regionalism in painting. I’d like to think there is a regionalism brewing from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective.

One thing that jumps out at me about this year’s Oscar nominations in both the original and adapted screenplay categories is every single one of the stories is set outside Los Angeles.

I haven’t seen all of the films, but after a little research I’m not even sure that of the 10 films nominated in the screenplay categories that there is a single scene even set in the state of California. Those are pretty staggering statistics considering that L.A. is the center of the film industry.

Original Screenplay Nominees:

District 9
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; set in Johannesburg, South Africa,

An Education
Screenplay by Nick Hornby; set in England

In the Loop
Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche; set in England and Washington, D.C.

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher; set in New York City

Up in the Air
Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner; set in various airports & airplanes around the county with key scenes set in Nebraska, Wisconsin and in the air over Iowa

Adapted Screenplay

The Hurt Locker
Written by Mark Boal; set primarily in Iraq

Inglourious Basterds
Written by Quentin Tarantino; set in France

The Messenger
Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman; set in and around New Jersey

A Serious Man
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; set in Minneapolis

Up
Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter. Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy; set in South America

Just taking a cursory glance at all the films in every single Academy Award category and I don’t notice a single movie set in Los Angeles. There are films set in places like Michigan, Memphis, China, and of course, Pandora. This year’s films represent a global cinema.

Novelist and musicians have always been able to ply their trade in far away places that over the centuries has brought an original and rich texture to their work. It’s exposed readers and listeners to new worlds and experiences.

But because feature films usually take large crews and a good deal of equipment it has traditionally resulted over the decades in a good amount of stories that are L.A.-centered. And because of that screenwriters from all over have always been drawn to Los Angeles and end up writing more stories about L.A. (Or had their stories changed to be able to be shot in California.)

Perhaps we’re witnessing the end of a cycle that began 100 years ago when the movie industry moved from New York and Chicago to Hollywood. In 2008-2009 there was a lot of talk about L.A.’s runaway production and what to do about the shrinking number of films being shot on the streets of Los Angeles.

People can argue and blame it on the economy, unions, the high cost of shooting in L.A., tax incentives that are available all over the world, reality TV, the fact that people are tired of seeing the Santa Monica Pier, or the downsizing & democratization as the result of digital production, but the one thing this year’s crop of Oscars prove is that the door is wide open (slightly cracked?) for screenwriters who have stories that take place beyond the shadow of the Hollywood sign.

We may not be at that place where Francis Ford Coppola prophesied 20 years ago when he said that, “One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart” by making a film on her father’s videocamera. But things are getting very interesting.

Mark Boal who wrote The Hurt Locker is a good example of a screenwriter who did not take a traditional route to break into Hollywood. Though neither fat or a girl he did go to a small college in Ohio where he majored in philosophy. As a journalist embedded in Iraq it led to writing the story that became the film In The Valley of Elah.Then he took the next step by writing his first screenplay (The Hurt Locker) which not only got produced, but has been nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards.

* * *

In a related note, this year’s Oscars will be doing a John Hughes tribute. Hughes was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan until his family moved to the Chicago suburbs when he was a teenager.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more successful mainstream Hollywood writer/director who was as much of an Hollywood outsider. Hughes, whose films include Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink. Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Christmas Vacation, and of course Home Alone, once told film critic Roger Ebert:

“I’m going to do all my movies here in Chicago. The (Chicago) Tribune referred to me as a ‘former Chicagoan.’ As if, to do anything, I had to leave Chicago. I never left. I worked until I was 29 at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, and then I quit to do this. This is a working city, where people go to their jobs and raise their kids and live their lives. In Hollywood, I’d be hanging around with a lot of people who don’t have to pay when they go to the movies.”

Scott W. Smith

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In her book Advanced Screenwriting Linda Seger talks about “the ever-present identity theme.” She explains that some examples would be be finding one’s identity (Dead Poets Society), holding on to one’s identity despite oppression (Erin Brockovich), and finding one’s identity within a sport (Rocky).  

“If we look at some of the Academy Award winners of the 80s and 90s, we can see an identity theme shimmering through many philosophical, theological, and/or psychological ideas.
                  Linda Seger 
                  Advanced Screenwriting,
                  Raising Your Script to the Academy Award Level
                  Page 99

Certainly this years Oscar nominations, including The Wrestler and  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, has its share of films that deal with the theme of identity. 

Related and much more in-depth look at  the theme of identity: Writing Beyond the Numbers (tip #8)

 

Scott W. Smith 

 


                                                                      

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