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Posts Tagged ‘Phil Vischer’

“I adore Chicago. It is the pulse of America.”
Sarah Bernhardt

“You’re Abe Froman… the sausage king of Chicago?”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

“I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail.
H. L. Mencken

“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone!”
The Untouchables

Last week a 5.4 earthquake hit Illinois and was felt in Indiana and as far away as Iowa. Just one more way the Midwest is following those California trends. You know, I’m doing my part to export screenwriting from the Midwest and other unlikely places where people are writing so it makes sense to make another road trip and head over the Iowa state line to the east and travel into Illinois.

The epicenter of last week’s earthquake was West Salem, but from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective the epicenter for the Midwest is Chicago. It’s the third largest city in the United States and sits with a commanding view of Lake Michigan and can rightly be called The Third Coast.

Everyone should have the opportunity once in their life to have their own version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the windy city. Here’s my perfect Chicago day: The Art Institute in the morning, a walk and lunch at the Navy Pier, see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field, ride an architectural boat tour, a sunset dinner at the Signature Room high atop the John Hancock Center , a play at one of the zillions of theater options, a carriage ride around the Chicago Water Tower downtown and a nice room at The Drake Hotel on the Magnificent Mile with a room overlooking the Gold Coast (and where they welcome my golden retriever).

And if you have the weekend you can fit in a concert at Millennium Park and a list that just gets longer and longer. Chicago is a great city. And it alone has produced a wealth of creative talent that shines as bright as a city. (Maybe that’s why Dan Quayle once said, “It is wonderful to be in the great state of Chicago…”)  Here’s a list of writers from Illinois though I’m sure to leave out many people. (Feel free to email me additional writers with connections there.)

Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding)
Sam Shepard (True West)
David Mamet (The Verdict)
Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)
Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels)
Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan)
Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea)
Mark Brown (Barbershop)
John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix)
Harold Ramis  (Groundhog Day)
Bill Murray (The Razor’s Edge)
Greg Glienna (Meet the Parents)
Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness)
John Logan (Gladiator)
Jon Favreau (Swingers)
Tina Fey (Mean Girls)
Michael Mann (The Insider)
Phil Vischer (VeggieTales movies)
Roger Rueff (The Big Kahuna)
Robert Zemeckis,  (Back to the Future)
Edward Zwick, (The Last Samurai)
Diablo Cody (Juno)
John Logan (Hugo
Garry Marshall (The Odd Couple-TV)

From the odd connections category, Evangelist Billy Graham (who used to have a film studio in Burbank) and horror specialist Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) both graduated from Wheaton College about 30 miles from downtown Chicago. Blues Brother, and writer/actor John Belushi graduated from Wheaton High School.

Film critic and produced screenwriter Roger Ebert (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and screenwriter/Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman) are both are both graduates of the University of Illinois system.

Filmmaker and book publisher Michael Wiese is originally from Illinois. I have at least a dozen production books that Michael Wiese Productions has produced. If you’re not familiar with their books three to check out are Save the Cat (Blake Snyder) , Shot by Shot (Steven D. Katz) and The Hero’s Journey (Christopher Vogler).

A special mention must be made to two pillars of writing from Chicago: Pulitzer Prize winner Saul Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift) and Studs Terkel (Hard Times).

The list of well-known actors with Chicago ties is too long to list but here are a few;  Harrison Ford, Vince Vaugh, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, John and Joan Cusack, Virgina Madsen, Kim Novak, Bill Murray, Terrance Howard, Red Foxx, Bonnie Hunt, Patricia Arquette, Karl Malden and Gary Sinise.

Chicago is the kind of place where probably every night of the week you could attend a film related function between the various school, colleges and professional groups. There are plenty of ways to avoid writing if you live in the Chicago area.

But, of course, your goal is probably to write while living outside L.A., get sold and get produced. (I’ve said before you could live in West Africa or West Covina and feel like you’re far from the Hollywood system.)

Let me tell you about a fellow I just found out about via the DVXuser.com forum. Kyle is a radiologists living in the suburbs of Chicago. He owns a DV camera package and writes screenplays. In other words he was like every other writer with a dream…until a couple weeks ago.

He wrote a screenplay called The Lemon Tree and had a lawyer he met in Chicago rep him in L.A. and earlier this month sold the script for $300,000 against $600,000. He has no plans to quit his job and move to L.A. The next step is seeing if the film gets made and then if it finds an audience. But as far as a writer outside the system Kyle has hit the jackpot, and proves it can be done.

(You can read the entire thread and download a well-informed screenwriting document Kyle has put together at DVXuser.com. Look under filmmaking–screenplay/writing/Sold it! The DVXuser forum is a wealth of info for the independent filmmaker and a supportive community. Here’s a little poser shot of me with my DVX camera back in ’06 when I was shooting a documentary in Chicago.)

If you want further proof that screenplays can be sold by screenwriters outside L.A. here is a quote that screenwriter and author of Save the Cat! Blake Snyder sent me when I asked him about writers living outside L.A. selling their work:

“I have said often that geography is no longer an impediment to a career in screenwriting. I know of one woman who decided to be a screenwriter in Chicago, wrote 5 scripts, sold 2 and got an agent and manager, all while never leaving the confines of her condo.  It starts with a great concept! You have a great idea and a great poster, if you execute that well, you will get phone calls — and deals.  The key is: the great script!  And that starts with the step by step process I outline in Cat!  Go get ‘em!”

On the footsteps of The Dark Knight (Batman) being filmed last summer in Illinois, the current big movie being shot there is Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant starting Matt Damon with a funky mustache. The story takes place in Decatur and is based on Kurt Eichenwald’s book about a scandal at Archer Daniels Midland’s Company (ADM) that involved the FBI. Ultimately ADM was fined $100 million for a conspiracy involving replacing sugar with high fructose corn syrup. Shades of Soderbergh’s other film about corporate greed,Erin Brockovich?

Other helpful sites about the filmmaking scene in Illinois here are a few recommended sites:

Reel Chicago

Chicago Script Works

Midwest FIlm

Chicago Screenwriters

Illinois Film Biz


So come on, if Abraham Lincoln can go from a one room log cabin to become the 16th President of the United States (via Illinois) certainly that should give you some motivation to overcome a few obstacles in your life to get your scripts written and sold. Or maybe to buy a camera and make your own films. Even if you live in Springfield or Kankakee.

Speaking of Kankakee, if Screenwriting from Iowa had a theme song it might be Chicago native Stevie Goodman’s City of New Orleans because it captures a flavor of a life beyond Hollywood:

Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passin’ towns that have no names
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

Chorus
Good morning, America, how are you
Don’t you know me, I’m your native son
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

And if I can pick a B-side song I’ll go with, Jim Croce’s tribute to the South Side of ‘ole Chicago — Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.

Photographs & Text Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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jdpps.gif VS.      VeggieTales Pirate Do you think when Johnny Depp is home in France with his kids they sit around and watch VeggieTales videos? It’s possible. He may even like the videos more than the rest of his family.

But the real question is in a swashbuckling ultimate fight could Depp’s pirate character Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies take on Bob the Tomato of the recent release The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie?
That could remain one of life’s great mysteries –like could Rocky Graziano beat Ali? Or how did Marilyn Monroe really die?
Where better to find out how Bob the Tomato would fare against Jack Sparrow than to ask Phil Vischer, the creator of the animated VeggieTales and voice of Bob the Tomato? “Bob’s lack of hands certainly doesn’t help much in hand-to-hand combat situations, but I believe Bob could outwit Jack and confuse him using only his wit superior intellect,” said Vischer.
Vischer was raised in Muscatine, Iowa. Known as the former button capital of America. It’s the town that Mark Twain wrote about in Life on the Mississippi, “I remember Muscatine —still more pleasantly—for its summer sunsets. I have never seen any, on either side of the ocean, that equaled them.”
That quote alone should make you take stock of your perceptions of fly-over country in general and Iowa specifically. I’m serious when I say I hope to encourage writers and filmmakers outside of L.A. and I thought it would be good to talk to Vischer about his work and to plug his new film in theaters.
If you are not familiar with VeggieTales it’s important to know that Vischer lead a team that created the most successful direct-to-video series in history. More than 50 million units have been sold since 1993. In its prime Vischer turned down a $20 million offer for the animated vegetable franchise.
Vischer has had an amazing career since launching what would become Big Idea Productions at age 22. He’s been an actor, writer, composer and/or producer on more than 30 VeggieTales videos including the 2002 feature released nationally Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.
Jonah’s box-office numbers surprised some in a Hollywood because it was a faith-based kids film. Marketing guru Seth Godin wrote in his book Purple Cow, “As I write this…the number-two movie in America is a low-budget animated movie in which talking vegetables act out Bible stories.” (In Godin lingo Bob the Tomato is a good example of a purple cow, i.e. something different that gets people’s attention.)
Unfortunately, the film didn’t do well enough to offset some problems that would eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the company. You can read Vischer’s account in his book, Me, Myself, & Bob – A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Vischer Book
(Does anyone else think Vischer looks a little like Steven Jobs’ younger brother?)
Remember that not all your screenwriting has to be for the big screen. There are many avenues for your writing. Vischer started small and just got bigger and bigger and was well on his way to realizing his dream of becoming the next Walt Disney.
But like a scene out of a VH1 Behind the Scene special, (cue the music) “Then one day….”And just like that his dream was gone.
In his book he lists as the #5 thing he learned from that experience, “Bigger is no longer better.” Didn’t Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire say the same thing in his mission statement? Vischer had a painful front row seat to watch his dream fade away and the company eventually changed hands.
But when dreams die (as they are prone to do), new ones spring up from the ashes.
Vischer still lives in the Chicago area and continues to work on VeggieTales productions as well as having a multiple-vegetable personality doing the voices of several characters. He’s also started a new company Jellyfish and keeps a blog at PhilVischer.com.
I’ve had the privilege to talk with Phil at gatherings in Denver and Chicago and have even had the opportunity to work on a couple small projects for him. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for Screenwriting from Iowa.
Q. There used to be a Heinz ketchup factory in Muscatine, Iowa while you where growing up. Is there any connection there between that fact and your creating Bob the Tomato?
Vischer: “No, I don’t think so. I actually came up with Larry the Cucumber first, then was looking for a complimentary shape for a sidekick. Tomatoes and cucumbers seemed to go together like Laurel and Hardy.”
Q. Have you gone online to Rotten Tomatoes and seen how the film has done on the tomatometer?
Vischer: “But of course!”
Q. One tomatometer critic wrote: “I have to admit that this animated VeggieTales endeavor is far more entertaining and artistically competent than anything offered in the last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies.”
Vischer: “Yeah, that quote kind of surprised me. Overall, the reviews are pretty mixed, which is certainly more than you can say for the Alvin & the Chipmunks. Of course, most filmmakers would give up good reviews for $200 million at the box office!”
Q. Screenwriter/novelist Max Allan Collins (The Road to Perdition) lives in Muscatine, Iowa. What’s in the water there that would inspire Bob the Tomato’s creator and foster another writer known for pulp fiction and crime noir?
Vischer: “Um… I think it’s the tomato residue from the Heinz plant. Or perhaps the corn residue from the Kent Feed plant.”
Q. Any advice or encouragement for screenwriters living outside L.A.?
Vischer: “Screenwriting is a beautiful thing, in that you can live anywhere, and work on a project anywhere. And living in a non-Hollywood locale gives you the benefit of being able to write stories outside the Hollywood norm. The Coen brothers channeling their Minnesota childhoods into their film Fargo is a great example. It’s very hard to imagine a Los Angeleno writing that film with anywhere near the authenticity. Interesting stories come from interesting places!”
In the coming years you’ll hear a lot from Vischer. Support a fellow writer and take your little band of pirates to see The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie. And don’t forget to catch one of those Mississippi River sunsets in Muscatine.
© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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