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Posts Tagged ‘Quentin Tarantino’

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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“Charlie don’t surf.”
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in Apocalypse Now
Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius

Hightower Beach
©2013 Scott W. Smith

This morning I took the above photo and decided to make it a challenge to use it as a springboard for a new post. How could I take a sunrise surfer shot and tie it into something useful about screenwriting? Well, to make a long story short I found an interview with Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius talking about Apocalypse Now that they collaborated on together.  I found the You Tube video on a website that is somewhat new to me called Cinephilia and Beyond . The site is a tremendous resource and I believe originates from a filmmaker in Zagreb, Croatia. On Twitter @LaFamiliaFilm. (I see a “Screenwriting from Croatia” post forming.)

So all the way from Croatia via a turn in Satellite Beach, Florida here’s an interview between the filmmaker who made the quintessential Mafia film (The Godfather) and the one who made the quintessential surfer film (Big Wednesday) talking about how they made Apocalypse Now, how George Lucas was the original director on the project, and how the now classic film had a rocky start out of the gate.

“When the movie first came out it was very dicey which way it was going to go. And I really had my life realy based on it— I’d financed it, and it was starting to get a negative buzz. It had gotten horrible reviews. I remember the reviewer Frank Rich wrote in his review, ‘This is the greatest disaster in all of fifty years of Hollywood’..my feelings were so hurt by this pronouncement.”
Francis Ford Coppola

If you’ve never seen Apocalypse Now, definitely put it on your list of films to watch/study. (Will it help add emphasis if I you knew that last year Quentin Tarantino put it on his list of Top 12 Films of All Time?)

“[Robert Duvall] came to me and he wanted to know what all those surfing terms were. Exactly what they were. He wanted to go down to Malibu and look at surfers—see how they walked around, what they did. He wanted to know when he talked about a cutback that he knew what a cutback was.”
John Milius

P.S. File this one under odd connections: In the interview Coppola talks about going to UCLA at the same time as did Jim Morrison of The Doors. Music from the Doors is played in Apocalypse Now. Morrison was born in Melbourne, Florida just a few miles from where I took the above photo of the surfer that started this post in the first place. Apocalypse Now came out when I was a senior in high school and it was by far the most transformational movie experience of my then 18 year existence. And the scene where The Doors’ song The End plays is still mesmerizing (even on You Tube).

Related Posts:
Writing “The Godfather (take 1)
Postcard #22 (Kelly Slater Statue)
Jack Kerouac in Orlando
Surf Movie History 101
Kelly Slater on the Digital Revolution
Off Screen Quote #12 (Kelly Slater)
“Take a Risk”—Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.”
William Froug

“START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. IT MUST START BECAUSE THE HERO HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.”
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO?

Last week I did something I’ve never done before, I read a screenplay of a film that was just released and then a couple of days later went to the movie. It was a great experience.

The script and movie was Silver Linings Playbook written and directed by David O. Russell from a book by Matthew Quick. Earlier this month the movie, director  and screenplay all received Oscar nominations, along with being the first film in 31 years to be nominated in all for acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress). I’ll write more about the movie Monday, but the great thing about reading the PDF official screenplay at the website of The Weinstein Company who produced the film is regardless of how well the actors performed—the script totally worked on the page.

Of course, you kind of expect that, but we’ve all read scripts where we think “those actors really made that movie better than the script.” Not to take anything away from Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jackie Weaver, but I believe several top actors would have made an equally compelling movie because the script is so dang strong. I look forward to reading Quick’s novel to see how different it is from Russell’s script.

You can also find the screenplay of other Oscar-nominated film produced by  The Weinstein Company, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained online.  I happened to see Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained back to back last weekend and noticed that while they are different genres and take places in different eras, the core stories are the same—men who want to reconnect with their wives. A pretty simple through-line or story spine.

But read both screenplays and watch each movie to see how the filmmakers develop their stories. The originality come from taking a simple (and shared) concept and mixing it with familiar yet unique settings , along with complex characters surrounded by conflict with much at stake.

My writer friend Matthew sent me this link at Film Buff Online that actually has 30 recently Oscar-nominated scripts offered by the studios. I’m not sure  how long these links will be live so if you’re interested check them out before the Oscar ceremonies.

P.S. Anyone else remember the days when you had to save up $15 and head down to Hollywood to buy a script or go to AFI where you had to hand over your driver’s licence to read a script in their library?

Related Posts:
What’s at Stake? (Tip#9)
Descriptive Writing—Characters

Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (Tip#7)
“Goal. Stakes. Urgency.” (Tip #60)

Scott W. Smith

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“My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.”
Cowboy, humorist, actor, Cherokee Will Rogers

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
1776 USA Declaration of Independence


Chief Kandiyohi 17-foot tall statue by artist Eben E. Lawson 
Shot while on location in Willmar, Minnesota

What do the following U.S. cities and states have in common?

Minnesota, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Michigan, North & South Dakota, Utah, Kentucky, Connecticut, Cheyenne, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Tallahassee, Lake Tahoe, Roanoke, Saratoga, Seattle, Chicago, Malibu and Manhattan.

Those are just a few places whose names are rooted (or believed to be rooted) in American Indian culture.  It was in in the movie Wayne’s World that many learned from the great historian (and rocker) Alice Cooper that the city of Milwaukee was an Indian word; “It’s pronounced ‘mill-e-wah-que’ which is Algonquin for ‘the good land.’”(I even don’t know if that’s true, but if it’s in the movies it must be, correct?)

What I do know is one of the great things about America is it is indeed a melting pot of cultures and traditions.  And Native American Indian culture is a huge part of that melting pot.

In some ways, if you grew up in America—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, whatever—your story is probably similar to mine in some ways. Today I live in Black Hawk County in Iowa, the town I grew up in the South was Seminole County, one of the colleges I attended was the University of Miami, I was born in Ohio—again all names rooted in American Indian culture. You can’t escape it and the mythology that surrounds it.

I grew up seeing old cowboy and Indian westerns on TV and enjoyed playing the Indian as much as the cowboy. What little boy doesn’t want their face painted? (One American Indian actor said he like pretending he was Gary Cooper in old West. Two way street, I guess.)  I liked Tonto as much as the Lone Ranger. But the big American Indian event of my youth was seeing Billy Jack when I was 12.

Forget John Wayne oe Bruce Wayne. I wanted to be Billy Jack. Tom Laughlin played a kind of a peace loving half-Cherokee Indian who could kick ass if needed. And if you couldn’t be Billy Jack you at least wanted him to show up when you were in dire straits, because you knew he could take care of business. Then as Bob Marley sang in Three Little Birds, “every little thing gonna be all right.”

I watched Billy Jack a couple of nights ago to see if it holds up. It does. Low budget to be sure—message driven with some meandering improv scenes— but the emotional theme of standing up to injustice is there along with a Messianic-like Billy Jack to lay down his life for his people. (Like America, the movie is isn’t perfect, but Billy Jack is definitely worth looking today from a filmmaking perspective asking the question why it was such a tremendous box office success and still resonates with people today. I’ll do a post on this later because long before The Blair Witch Project that little indie film helped change the industry.)

I started to put together a list of movies featuring American Indians, but those waters are too deep for me to navigate at this time. (But I welcome you listing your favorite American Indian related films in the comment section—especially if you’re an American Indian. And please tell me what you think is good about the film.) Let me just make this blanket statement for now— that on this land, some incredibly moving pictures have been made. (I feel like I’m running for some political office.)

Since this is a blog on screenwriting let me end this week-long run on about American Indians talking about some high-profile screenwriters with at least some Indian blood.

Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglorius Basterds) was reportedly not only named after the Indian character Quint on the TV show Gunsmoke (played by Burt Renyold’s (how perfect is that in Tarantino’s legacy?), but Tarantino himself has Cherokee blood on his mother’s side.

Billy Bob Thorton (Sling Blade) is quoted as saying, “Ethically, I was screwed from the beginning, being Italian, Cherokee, and Irish.”

Even this blog as some Cherokee blood running through it. When I did a video shoot last year of a Cherokee artist in Okalahoma (Bill Rabbit, who just past away this year), I told him my grandmother’s grandmother from Kentucky was part-Cherokee, (“way down the line” as Johnny Deep says of his Cherokee roots) the Indian artist told me I was Indian and it didn’t matter what percent or what they looked like. He said he was half-Indian but he knew a blond lady who was more Indian than him. (James Earl Jones is said to be African, Irish, Cherokee.) I have a friend in Florida who also has Cherokee roots in Kentucky whose last name is Rainwater. I told him that Rainwater was a much cooler name than Smith and joked about changing my name to Scott Rainwater, He said “welcome to the Rainwater tribe.”

So there you go— a couple Academy Award winning-screenwriters, a couple of the finest American Actors (Depp & Jones), and the great Will Roger (and even the writer of an Emmy-Award winning screenwriting blog) all with at least a little Cherokee blood.

It may be an unlikely place to end this post, but I just get a kick out of imagining a ten-year old Quentin Tarantino sitting in a movie theater watching the following scene from Billy Jack where he stands up for some American Indian kids from the local reservation who’ve just been bullied trying to buy some ice cream in town. ( A scene that I also believe influenced the “I do not want to fight you” scene in An Officer and a Gentleman.) If Tarantino never saw Billy Jack, I don’t want to know it—it’d ruin my mythology.

P.S. I have a sudden urge to track down one of those hats Billy Jack wore and finally visit Monument Valley in Navajo Indian Nation. (Ouch, just learned those replica Billy Jack hats cost over $500—better start saving for that. Caliqo.com says the hatbands are handmade on a loom at the Kahnawake Indian Reservation and take 30 hours to reproduce.)

P.P.S. By the way, if you’re in the Santa Fe area this week (though August 19, 2012) you can catch the Native Cinema Showcase at the Santa Fe Market which is showing shorts, features, and documentaries that are dedicated “towards advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures in the Western Hemisphere.

Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I watched the movie Mask for the first time since it was released in 1985. It’s a terrific film. Mask is not to be confused with the Jim Carrey comedy The Mask (1994), it’s more in line with David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980).

Mask is based on the life of Rocky Dennis who suffered from craniodiaphyseal disease which gave him a severe skull deformity. In the film, Eric Stoltz is Rocky and Cher is his mother and both of them are 100% believable. Part of what’s so amazing about that is they both had limited feature film acting experience.

Cher won the Best Actress Awards at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival for her performance. She would later win an Academy Award for her role in Moonstruck, but when Peter Bogdanovich cast her in Mask it was a gamble. Though she had solid performances in Silkwood (1983) and the Robert Altman film Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), she was still best know for the TV show Sonny & Cher (71-74) and her hit songs. Against Bogdanovich’s wishes, the studios made Cher test for the part.

Though Stoltz was around 24-years-old when he made Mask, he had been acting for ten years in theater, TV, and in films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Wild Life. Bogdonovich cast him out of 300 people he saw for the part of Rocky.

So all that leads us to the first tip we can learn from Peter Bogdanovich.

Tip #1: Cast the right actors in the right parts.
Bogdanovich seems to follow the old Hollywood axiom, “casting is 90% of directing.” (I’ve seen that quote attributed to everyone from John Ford, to John Huston, to Elia Kazan, to Hitchcock, but don’t if any of them actually said that—only that it’s often repeated. (On the director’s commedtary on Mask, Bogdanovich says that of all of the actresses being consider for the role, Cher was the only one he thought would be believable as a druggie/biker chick.)

Watch Bogdanvich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and you’ll also see a wonderful cast.

Tip #2: “If you have two good actors there’s no reason to cut around a lot. Just let the audiences get into the story.”
Peter Bogdanovich

Cast the right actors for the part and let them act. Simple, right? Bogdanovich was an actor first—he studied with Stella Adler—so it would make sense that he would be concerned with performances. One trick that he used frequently in the past is to not complicate the production with lots of set-ups. Here’s how he explains a shot in Mask where two character have a conversation on a picnic bench with the scene staring with a close up of some baseball trading cards before settling on a two shot:

“This close-up pulls back into a two shot and then the whole scene plays in one piece. I’ll point that out a number of times in this picture where you had a whole scene play without any cutting, it’s a way of giving the actors a tremendous amount of fluidity. Good actors always love that if you can do.”
Peter Bogdanovich
Mask director’s commentary

Tip #3: Forget about shallow depth of field.

“I like everything in focus because that’s the way the eye sees. Orson Welles had that done in Citizen Kane and other films.”
Peter Bogdanovich
Paper Moon Director’s commentary

Bogdanovich has been a long time fan of the films of John Ford and Orson Welles. And while today shallow depth of field is all the rage with many filmmakers where the background is out of focus, both Ford and Welles were notorious for shots where everything is in focus. (Watch Citizen Kane and The Searchers.) Bogdanovich seems follow their lead. Bogdanovich describes one scene in Mask where two actors walk and talk on a long tracking shot with horses riding and jumping in the background and a freeway with cars beyond that;

“We have the horses behind them and the traffic way in the distance. That’s my idea of a good scene. Two good actors, no cutting, and a lot of movement in the background. It isn’t distracting. It gives you the feeling of life going on. This therefore becomes more real.”

Every actor knows the frustration of  what it’s like having to do a good take over because an assistant didn’t nail a focus pull. Having a large depth of field allows a greater chance of having technical problems. Every great performance is captured. Bogdonovich and his crew tended to favor wide angle lens and fast film to achieve that look. These days because digital cameras can really jack up the ISO without adding too much grain that’s easier to achieve than ever. Though most shy away from it because it’s too reminiscent of the smaller senor video cameras which made everything look it focus. Shallow depth-of-field is now considered the “film look,” yet film history is full of other kinds of styles.

Tip #4“Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”
Peter Bogdanovich

Great acting isn’t just saying words.

There’s a scene in Mask where Cher’s father playfully tosses a baseball to Cher. She playfully tosses it back to him. There seems to be a connection made, and he tosses it back to her. Then Cher’s countenance changes and she fires it back to her father. He catches it but seems stunned. He puts the ball down, and walks out of the house. Not a word is spoken, but so much is conveyed. In fact, you can read into it their entire relationship. Silence is powerful stuff. (I should mention that Mask screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan received a WGA for the script.)

Tip #5:The best kind of movie acting is with the eyes.”
Peter Bogdanovich

This is more of an extension of tip #4, showing how to maximize silent looks. In The Last Picture Show where the Timothy Bottom’s character is in the back of a movie theater making out with his girlfriend yet at the same time is glancing up at actress Elizabeth Taylor on the big screen, and then glancing down in front of him at Cybill Shepard who is kissing Jeff Bridges. His eyes say everything about his relationship with his girlfriend.

P.S. In case Bogdanovich is off your radar, or you only know him as an actor on The Spranos, his film The Last Picture Show was nominated for eight Oscars including two for him for Best Director and Best Writing Based on Material from Another Medium (shared with Larry McMurty). (He also edited The Last Picture Show, though didn’t take a credit for it since he thought his name would be on screen too much.) The documentary he directed, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream, won a Grammy. And if that’s not enough clout, Quentin Tarantino once said that They All Laughed (a 1981 film directed and co-written by Bogdanovich) was one of the top ten films ever made. Wes Anderson called it a “masterpiece.”

Related Posts:
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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“By 1995 I was literally down to my last dollar. I called dad to ask for money, which was like pulling teeth. He wanted to know when I was going to get a real job. My car was stolen, so I was riding a bike. I thought I’d end up working in Starbuck’s.”
Screenwriter Ken Nolan

If you looked up screenwriter Ken Nolan on IMDB it’s possible you’d be underwhelmed. He has one lone feature film writing credit. But it’s a one big —Black Hawk Down. The 2001 film got solid reviews (74% at Rotten Tomatoes), made $172 million world-wide, and earned Nolan a WGA nomination.

But if you’re an inquisitive type you might ask,”Why does Ken Nolan have only one feature film writing credit?” Good question and I think the answer gives a nice mini-history of screenwriting in America.

Nolan was born in Detroit and grew up in Buffalo and Portland. He applied to UCLA Film School twice and was turned down twice. He ended up getting an English degree at the University of Oregon. While in school he wrote short stories and as soon as he graduated in 1990 he moved to LA. He got a job as an assistant at Richard Dreyfuss’s company and started to write scripts, “using Syd Field’s Screenwriter’s Workbook as my guide. ” By his own admission he learned to write by writing six bad scripts. His seventh script was sent out and some liked it, but no one liked it enough to buy it.

He read good scripts and bad scripts and decided to write his own version of a Die Hard/ Speed rip-off and sold it for $100,000. He had an agent and thought he was on his way,  but the film never got made. Then he wrote what he thought was a very commercial natural catastrophe script  but it didn’t sell putting him in a financial bind.

So if you’re keeping score:

1) Rejected from UCLA film school—twice
2) Writes seven scripts that don’t sell
3) Finally sells a script, but it doesn’t get produced
4) Next script doesn’t sell and he ends up broke

Inspired by an interview he read about Quentin Tarantino he decided to focus not on what he thought people wanted but on what he was interested in. He wrote a character driven script that sold for $600,000, but when a similar movie came out it killed the production of his script. But at least he had a little coin in the bank, right?

He then sold another script for $850,000 that also didn’t get made.

“I was starting to realize that I had a nice career, a car and could afford a house, but I had no movies made. I was very worried about my career.”
Ken Nolan

Through a little persistence by Nolan and his agent he landed on the Black Hawk Down project based on the book by Mark Bowden. He ended up writing a 60-page treatment and eight drafts over a year’s time before Ridley Scott was attached to direct. He did two more drafts before the project was green lit and eventually becoming his first credited (and to date, only) feature film credit.

And while other writers (including Steve Zallian) were brought on the project, Nolan retained sole screenwriting credit. In an interview with Alan Waldman for wga.org Nolan said of writing Black Hawk Down;

“One challenge was that Mark’s book had about 60 characters, so I had to figure out who our main characters were while maintaining the ensemble feeling and staying true to the story. Another challenge was that I had to track and balance several story lines, while eliminating others. I had to distill a book that dealt with the families of the servicemen who were killed, the political situation, the Somali side of the story and the repercussions after the venture. I thought that this movie should be about the soldiers only and put the viewers—to a greater degree than any movie in the past—into the boots of the soldiers and thrust the audience into modern urban warfare.

Jerry (Bruckheimer) kept hammering that we had to care about the characters, but I felt we had so much story to cover that we didn’t have time to develop characters. But as I went along in the drafts I realized it was important for the audience to care for the characters, lest it become a cold, distance movie that lacks gut punch. Mark’s book touches on the characters, but a big challenge was to invent the barracks scenes and hanging-around scenes before the battle, without making it seem expository or exploitative…Also the story is very confusing and complex, because, as I said, it is several stories. There’s the Delta Force capturing the bad guys story, the helicopter pilot crashing story, the two guys left on the corner story, the incredibly complicated lost Humvee column story, the General Garrison story at the joint operations center and what ties them together: the story of our Ranger Platoon who are the first on the scene of the first downed helicopter and who get pinned down there. So it was really hard to decide how much time to spend on each story and how to effectively weave them together. That took 11 drafts and 14 months of development.”

I imagine these days Nolan keeps busy working on various writing projects that, while not credited, I’m sure pay him quite well.

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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