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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Redford’

Epiphany: A moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.
Merriam-Webster definition 

“Inside each and every one of us is our one, true authentic swing. Something we was born with. Something that’s ours and ours alone. Something that can’t be learned… something that’s got to be remembered.”
Bagger Vance (Will Smith)
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Screenplay by Indiana-born Jeremy Leven, from a novel by Trinidad-born Steve Pressfield

There’s a mystical side to golf where, along with various sand traps and water hazards, there are inner demons to battle. Since it’s Good Friday, I thought a scene from The Legend of Bagger Vance would be fitting*. (I think it was screenwriter Gary Ross who said Seabiscuit is not a sports film about victory but about life’s struggle. (Same could be said about Rocky and many other fine films)

In this Robert Redford directed scene, Will Smith helps golfer Matt Damon work through his inner and outer struggles.

P.S. Steve Pressfield who wrote the novel The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life is an avid golfer and counts screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Story) as his golfing buddy. He’s quoted as saying, “I’ve stolen concepts from Bob over and over and they’ve always worked. And he’s a pretty good golfer too.” He covers some of this ground in his book The War on Art. 

P.P.S. Bagger Vance screenwriter Jeremy Leven earned a graduate degree in Child Psychology from Harvard and was a fellow at Yale medical schools.

* In the book Gita on the Green: The Mystical Tradition Behind Bagger Vance by Steve Rosen (and a forward by Steve Pressfield) writes that Bagger Vance  was loosely based not  after the Christian tradition of light, but the ancient Hindu spiritual poem Bhagavad-Gita. But Pressfield is also Jewish so maybe we can say Bagger Vance, like The Shawshank Redemption and Groundhog Day, is more ecumenical than dogmatic.

Related posts:

Writing Quote #38 (Steve Pressfield)
“More Light”
‘Groundhog Day’ And Cheap Therapy
Screenwriting Quote #171 (Garry Marshall) Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”
Screenwriting and Slavery to Freedom

Scott W. Smith

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“I was a failure at everything I tried. I worked as a box boy at a supermarket and got fired. Then my dad got me a job at Standard Oil—fired again.”
Robert Redford
Success magazine

This year’s Sundance Film Festival began a few days ago and it’s a fitting time to look back at the man who started it all. By the time Robert Redford became a superstar with the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), he had already been acting for more than a decade. First on stage, then in TV programs, and then starring roles in features (This Property Condemned, Barefoot in the Park).

But his role as the Sundance Kid was the game changer. Many years ago I was at an AFI event in LA where someone attached to Butch Cassidy said that a producer or studio executive didn’t like the choise of Redford in the role of Sundance saying of the good looking actor, “Throw a stick at Malibu and you’ll hit ten Robert Redford’s.” But Redford turned out to be quite special.

Beginning with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid he had a ten-year run that has to be up there with the greats in film history. Just looking at a handful of films from that era would be a solid career for most actors.

Jeremiah Johnson
The Way We Were
The Sting
Three Days of the Condor
All the President’s Men

And he topped that all off by directing the 1980 film Ordinary People for which he took home the Oscar for Best Director. And it was in that wake that he began Sundance (along with Sterling Van Wagenen, John Earle and Cirina Hampton Catania)  as a way to attract films to be shot in Utah and to celebrate and encourage American filmmakers who were making regional films outside the Hollywood system. (This blog, to borrow Diablo Cody’s phrase, is a “spiritual cousin” to that original vision of Sundance.)

Of course, in the 30 plus years Sundance and grown and morphed but like everything else in life—you either grow or die. Sundance is still one of the key places for independent filmmakers to showcase their work and every year a few filmmakers get deals that give them an opportunity to pay back their investors and have their films shown to a wider audience. That’s a good thing.

Here’s how Redford recently reflected on starting Sundance.

‘I was turning 40 and I had worked really hard in the ’70s, doing movies back-to-back. I thought that if I kept doing that, I’d get stale and begin to repeat myself. Maybe I should take a year off, step back and revitalize—think about where I am and what I’d like to do.

That’s something I’ve done my whole life, I call it ‘returning to zero.’ You’re at a high point in your life and, rather than ride it too far, you jump off and start all over again, like it never happened. I came up with the idea to give something back to the industry that had been good to me.

Also, there were two other things happening then simultaneously: One was that video and cable were about to explode and that meant an explosion for distribution. But at the same time the Hollywood system was becoming more centralized, narrowing their focus to the youth market. That meant that we’d probably have a reduction in quality.

I saw a space in there that could be filled, and I thought about what I personally want to do with it.I thought it would be great to have a place where people could come and work and not be afraid of failing.”
Robert Redford
MovieMaker magazine issue #2011
The Sundance Kid by Julie Jacobs

After a few years with Sundance up and running Redford was back in the acting saddle in 1984 playing Roy Hobbs in The Natural (1984). It’s my favorite Redford film. From the characters and story, to the novel by Bernard Malamud* and the screenplay adaption by Robert Towne and Phil Dusenberry, to Barry Levinson’s direction, the other actors, and Celeb Deschanel’s cinematography, the film is a pure delight and I return to that film again and again. (It’s a film strong on theme.)

Redford may have “failed at everything” he tried starting out, but he’s sure made up for it since then.

* Like Redford, writer Malamud (The Natural) didn’t find early success— “I felt the years go by without accomplishment.” You can read that extended quote on my post Can Screenwriting be Taught?

Scott W. Smith

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“I really do believe that chance favours a prepared mind. Wallace Stegner, who was one of my teachers when I was at Stanford, preached that writing a novel is not something that can be done in a sprint. That it’s a marathon. You have to pace yourself. He himself wrote two pages every day and gave himself a day off at Christmas. His argument was at the end of a year, no matter what, you’d got 700 pages and that there’s got to be something worth keeping.”
Scott Turow
Writer of Presumed Innocent interview with Robert McCrum

“Much of Stegner’s writing grew out of his itinerant upbringing, a self-described ‘wandering childhood’ that took him to North Dakota, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, Utah, Nevada, and California.”
Honor Jones and Andrew Shelden
Wallace Stegner inVQR


Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972 (Angle of Repose) and has been called “The Dean of Western Writers.”  Though born on a farm in Iowa (and earned his Master’s and Doctorate degrees at the Iowa Writers Workshop) he really was a man of the country having lived in 20 different places (including Canada).

He taught at the University of Utah (where he did his undergraduate work), the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University before being the founder of the creative writing program at Stanford University. His students over the years included Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade), Ernest Gaines (A Lesson Before Dying),  Wendell Berry (The Unsettling of America), and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

Here is part of Stegner’s advice to a talented writer who had studied with him:

“I imagine you will always be pinched for money, for time, for a place to work. But I think you will do it. And believe me, it is not a new problem. You are in good company…Your touch is the uncommon touch; you will speak only to the thoughtful reader. And more times than once you will ask yourself whether such readers really exist at all and why you should go on projecting your words into silence like an old crazy actor playing the part of himself to an empty theater.”
Wallace Stegner
the Atlantic, To a Young Writer

And in case you are intimidated by Stegner’s academic pedigree, it may help you to know that Stegner spent part of his youth in an orphanage and once said that he didn’t grow up with any art, music (except for some folk music), or literature.  The only architecture around him was a grain elevator. In fact, he never saw a city of any kind until he was 12 years old. He once said, “Coming from nowhere. you have lots of places to go.”

In one talk, he also stressed the importance of having a sense of place and continuity, “You are members of a community—most of you. You are a members of a region, of a country, of a culture, of an ecology, a species, and if you find it as I do a ‘weed species,’ that isn’t any reason to belong to it less, or love it less, it’s only an excuse to mitigate its weediness.”

Robert Redford narrated the documentary Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life.

The Papers of Wallace Stegner can be found at the University of Iowa and are open for research.

*Back in the day, spending time in an orphanage didn’t always mean that your parents were dead, but perhaps they weren’t able to afford to raise and care for you properly. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m guessing that wasn’t too uncommon throughout the depression. By the way, orphanages find their way into stories because the place is so rich to explore from a perspective of the universal themes of home and belonging. And as I’ve pointed out before, orphans make for great protagonists. (See the post Orphan Characters.)

Scott W. Smith


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(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade


“I don’t know if you saw the parting of the Red Sea with the chariots on the horses, I did stuff like that.”
Richard Farnswort
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After I posted the above Goldman comment yesterday on the post titled Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” it jogged my memory of another story about a career transition—both fictional and real life. The Grey Fox was released in 1982 about a decade after Butch Cassidy, but there are some similarities, mostly the concept of change in the Old West.

Richard Farnsworth plays a former stagecoach robber who is released from San Quintin after serving 33 years for his crimes. When he gets out in 1903 it’s a new world—the stagescoaches are out and movies are in. His character, Bill Miner, goes to see The Great Train Robbery and is inspired to take up his old ways yet with a new fresh angle.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film so I’ll rely on Rodger Ebert’s account to bring us all up to speed:

“(The Great Train Robbery.) That famous movie is only eleven minutes long, but long enough to make everything absolutely clear to Miner, who realizes he has a new calling in life, as a train robber. All of this could, of course, be an innocuous Disney movie, but it’s well-written and directed, and what gives it zest and joy is the performance by Richard Farnsworth, who plays Miner. Maybe you’ll recognize Farnsworth when you see him on the screen. Maybe not. His life has been one of those careers that makes you realize Hollywood is a company town, where you can make a living for years and never be a star. Farnsworth has been in more than three hundred movies.”
Roget Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, The Grey Fox
January 1. 1982

Though Farnsworth had been in more than 300 films, they were mostly as a stuntman. He doubled for some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors; Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen. You think he might have picked up a thing or two about acting from those fellows because after 30 years as a stuntman he began acting.

And he did it well enough to receive a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1979 for his role in Comes a Horseman and another Oscar nomination for Lead Actor in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (that was filmed right here in Iowa). He was 79 at the time of the nomination making him the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor nomination.

You may also remember his roles in The Natural, The Two Jakes, and Misery. I had the good fortune to meet Richard Farnsworth at a movie theater in Burbank some time in the 80s. Nothing exciting, he was just standing in front of me waiting to buy popcorn or whatever.

“Are you Richard Farnsworth?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I appreciate your work.”
“Thank You.”

He smiled and we shook hands. This was in the days before IMDB so I didn’t know in that simple exchange I was shaking hands with a man who was a real life Forrest Gump in the film industry having been in some legendary Hollywood productions;   Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Ten Commandments, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Roots, Bonanza, The Wild One,  Blazing Saddles, Spartacus and many others.

That means to one degree or another he worked with John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Howard Hawks,  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Cecil B. DeMille.

I don’t know how long stuntman work on a regular basis in Hollywood, but it has to take its toll on your body.  Farnsworth’s last credit as a stuntman was 1975 when he would have been 55. He was almost 60 when his acting career took off. He changed with the times.

By the way, the screenwriter of The Grey Fox, John Hunter,  was no spring chicken himself and was 71 when the movie was released.

Oh yeah, Farnsworth did stunts in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, too.

Scott W. Smith


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“I don’t know if any studio would make Butch Cassidy today.”
William Goldman

When I was a kid there was a place in Florida called Six Gun Territory that was an old west theme park near Ocala. They had a rail road, a saloon complete with can-can dancers, old-time photo studio, and most importantly they staged bank robberies and shootouts in the street. I still remember being around 9-years-old and the feel and the sound of walking on the gravel streets wearing cowboy boots.

I have many fond memories of that place and even shot my first 16mm film there. I remember ending that film paying homage to The Great Train Robbery by ending with a shot of a gunfighter shooting into the camera for no other reason than I thought it looked cool.

Every time I watch the opening scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid I think of Six Gun Territory. I don’t know if that was the first movie I ever saw set in the old west but I know it’s the one I go back to the most. It’s also the second highest rated western (after High Noon) on AFI’s top 100 films (1997) joining just a handful of other  Westerns that  made the list (Shane, Stagecoach, The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven).

Paul Newman and Robert Redford speaking screenwriter William Goldman’s words—that’s great stuff.  It took Goldman eight years to write the script which paid him a record fee up to that date of $400,000.  He also took home the Oscar for the 1970 film.

I sometimes watch favorite films with the sound off to get a different perspective. The movie holds up well without the great banter (“Think you used enough dynamite there Butch?”) With the sound off you follow the story easily and it plays as a visually stunning action film. (Though personally I could do without the trendy zoom lens shots.)

On this viewing I also realized that it perfectly matches Goldman’s “stay with the money” theory. Studios pay actors a lot of money, because audiences pay money to see stars. How many scenes do you think there are in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that don’t include Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and/or the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford)? The grand total is…zero. In fact, there is one scene where the town’s men talk about what to do about these bank robbers, and it’s more humorous by having Butch and Sundance listening to the discussion from a hotel balcony. Stay with the money.

“The essential opening labor a screenwriter must execute is, of course, deciding what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing. And to do that, you have to know what is absolutely crucial in the telling of your story—what is its spine? Whatever it is, you must protect it to the death…(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman 

Adventures in the Screen Trade

If I recall my philosophy class correctly, it was Heraclitus who said a long, long time ago that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” I think the times are always changing and that’s a good thing to realize. It was true of the old west, and it’s true of the new west, the Midwest, Key West—wherever you live. “The times they are a-changin’.”

By the way, Six Gun Territory pre-dated Disney World but closed in 1984. The land where it sat is now a strip mall. If you want to survive….

Scott W. Smith

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“I was in great danger of being fired.”
Francis Ford Coppola (reflecting on the third week of shooting The Godfather)

One of the best things I learned in film school was from a professor who said in a nice Brooklyn accent, “Everybody on the set believes they can direct the picture better than you.” That’s true of student films, and it was no different for Francis Ford Coppola when he was directing The Godfather.

He overheard in a bathroom crews members saying things like, “Ah, what do you think of this director? Boy, he doesn’t know anything.” The studios didn’t like Coppola’s choice of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone. They preferred Robert Redford to Al Pacino as Michael. They didn’t like the lighting of the DP Gordon Willis. By the third week of shooting he thought he was going to be fired. So, in Mafia-like fashion, he fired four key crew members that he thought were “traitors” and conspiring against him, which forced the studio to keep him on the picture.

“I was very unhappy during (the shooting of) The Godfather, I had been told by everyone that my ideas for it were so bad— and I didn’t have a hell of a lot of confidence in myself—I was only about 30 years old or so. And I was just hanging on by my wits. You know I had no indication that this nightmare was going to turn into a successful film, much less a film that was to become a classic. So I always feel for young people working—remember that those times when you feel that your ideas aren’t good— or people are putting down your ideas, or you’re getting fired, that those are the same ideas that you’re going to be celebrated for 30 years later. So you almost have to have courage.”
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather DVD Commentary

It would probably be good to edit the words “almost have to have” from that last line and replace it with the word “must.” As in, “So you must have courage.”

The Godfather won three Academy Awards—Best Picture, Marlon Brando as Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Mario Puzo and Coppola won for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film was nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards and has been named by Entertainment Weekly and Empire Magazine as the greatest movie ever made.

Scott W. Smith

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safetylast-1

Does anybody really know what time it is?
                                                             Robert Lamm/Chicago

Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By
                                                             Humphrey Bogart
                                                             Casablanca 


Did you know that Three Days of the Condor was based on Six Days of the Condor?

That is the movie Three Days of the Condor was based on the novel Six Days of the Condor.

Why do you think the screenwriters Lorenzo Semple and David Rayfiel compressed the novel by James Grady? I haven’t read any comments by the writers, Robert Redford who was the star, or by director Syndey Pollack on why that was done, but I have a pretty good hunch.

Movies do not handle long passages of time well. More often than not films will compress time for the sake of moving the story forward and keeping your interest.

Screenwriters and producers often talk of a time-lock on a film. A specific set of time the story is set when something must happen by. (“If you don’t get the heck out of Dodge by sunset there will be hell to pay.”) It sets the parameters for the story. Here are some films that have a time-lock:
High Noon
Speed
48 Hours
Apollo 13

Lew Hunter in his book Screenwriting 434 says when you use a time-lock “you inject an urgency into your story that can give it additional drive to heighten audience involvement and anxiety.” Of course, the more organic to the story the better.

Some movie deal with time by placing them in a single day, in just a night, or even in real time in the length of the film:

American Graffiti
The Breakfast Club
Halloween
Phone Booth 
Before Sunrise
Rope 
Timecode 
Russian Ark 

In a talk I heard John Updike give at the University of Iowa earlier this year he spoke about the limitations that film has in showing the passing of time. When he’s writing a novel he can take a person from a baby to old age and it’s no problem for the reader, but in movies it doesn’t work as well. He explained that if your main character is a child for the first 30 minutes of the film they have a certain amount invested in that person and to switch to another person is a jolt.

This may be one of the problems Updike is having in bringing the story of Olympic wrestler/famed college coach Dan Gable to to screen. Gable had a great high school, college career before winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Then he went on to win 10 national championships as a head coach at the University of Iowa before retiring. Then he came back as an assistant coach last year to help Iowa win another national championship.

How do you show that in an hour and a half or two hour movie? And even if you found a way, can you really have the same person play Gable as a 15-year-old high school freshman and Gable as a 63-year-old coach? See the problem there? 

Maybe the digital world will help this in the future and it will be interesting to see the effect on Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button where he plays an man born in his eighties and ages backwards. If anyone can pull that off it’s David Fincher & Eric Roth. (Didn’t that once happen on a Star Trek episode?) But it’s still Brad Pitt we are investing in.

Of course there are other exceptions, and generally Hollywood has found some creative ways to deal with the passing of time when needed. For instance, in Forrest Gump we are introduced to Forrest (Tom Hanks) as an adult in the opening scene and while we see Forrest as a child the majority of the film is as an adult. We are invested in Tom Hanks.

In The Natural they chose to have Robert Redford play both the thirtysomething Roy Hobbs as well as the teenage Roy Hobbs. They used soft lighting, shadows (and Redford’s youthful look) to create believability for the audience. 

The remarkable TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won eight primetime Emmys including two for actress Cicely Tyson. Tyson playing a 110-year old woman reflecting on her life was amazing, and aided greatly by makeup and costume design (that both also won Emmys) as well as a whole creative team that brought the Ernest J. Gaines novel to life. (Leonard Maltin called it “One of TV’s all-time best,” so it’s worth renting of you’ve never seen it.)

One major problem with the passing of time is the amount of money it takes to create different eras. Think of the expense of the cars alone cover the time period of a story set in the 40s, 60s, 80s. Sure it’s been done, but if you are starting out it may be best to avoid that hurdle. (A short time frame also favors lower budget films since you have less continuity issues to worry about. Always good especially if you don’t have a script supervisor.) 

In my post Screenwriting by Numbers (tip #4) I point out some averages related to running time in movies such as most movies tend to be between 90-120 minutes in length and most scenes tend to run between 1-3 minutes long. And if all of this seems cold and artificial let me once again to the great quote by design guru Milton Glazer; “Limitation stimulates the imagination.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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