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“Is there a confrontation scene? In a well-constructed story the audience is held in expectation of what is called an obligatory scene brought about by a reversal (or indeed, a series of reversals). Note that the obligatory scene, usually the denouement of a story, classically expresses the theme. It is an expression of the story’s central moral, the point expressed as a generalisation as seen in character-in-action. (A good way of defining this moment, in fact many moments in a dramatic narrative, is to ask: ‘Who does what with which to whom and why?’)”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
p
age 21

P.S. Rocky’s a movie that has a natural confrontation scene with the fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed. It may be the longest obligatory scenes in cinema since it lasts basically the entire third act. The reversal scene of Rocky realizing he can’t beat the champ is one of the key things that separates Rocky from most films about sports. Robert McKee says that, “Rocky redefined winning.” Rocky decides that if he can just go the distance with the champ—be on his feet when the fight is over—that he will have an internal victory.

“All I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”

Rocky written by Sylvester Stallone

And that personal victory, that personal redemption is the theme of Rocky. A theme by the way that never gets old.

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme (tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Writing “Rocky”  “I was obsessed with the idea of personal redemption…” Stallone
Insanely Great Endings

Scott W. Smith

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“Rocky’s this story of the underdog. The person who always wanted something and was never quite able to achieve that.”
Theater director Alex Timbers

It just so happens that my last post mentioned Sylvester Stallone and his screenplay for Rocky. Then yesterday I saw a full-page ad in the New York Times for the Broadway version of Rocky. I didn’t even know that was in the works.  And it’s a musical. Really. Rocky’s come a long way from the tough streets of Philadelphia.

 “I’m aware that ‘Rocky’ might be perceived as an odd choice for a musical, and there will be some raised eyebrows, but I think what people see will not be what they are expecting.”
Producer Bill Taylor

Turns out the stage version debuted in Hamburg, Germany at the end of last year. The Broadway show begins previews in February 2014 at the Winter Garden Theatre.  I’m a Rocky fan so if I’m in New York during its run I imagine I’ll check it out.  (But the real question is can On the Waterfront—The Musical be far behind?)

P.S. And Rocky isn’t the only movie to be turned into a Broadway musical. Big Fish just began its run at the Neil Simon Theater.

Related Posts:
Writing “Rocky”
Why Do We Love Underdog Stories?
Screenwriting Quote #100 (Budd Schulberg)
The Source of “On the Waterfront”
Screenwriting Quote#70 (James Dickey) The original source for the musical Big Fish was the novel of the same name written by  Daniel Wallace, but the character of the father always stuck me of having a lot of similarities to the real life of writer James Dickey. I just learned today that Wallace wrote an essay called Dueling Banjos—and Dickey, of course,  wrote Deliverance…interesting.

Scott W. Smith

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“You always want to start your story with the characters doing what’s essential to them. The most important thing to them.”
Michael Arndt
Little Miss Sunshine DVD Commentary

Examples of this are Rocky opens with Rocky boxing and  Arndt’s story Little Miss Sunshine opening shot of Olive being enthralled watching a beauty pageant on TV. What are some of your favorite and/or most effective scenes of introductions to characters from movies? (If there’s a You Tube link shoot it my way as I’d like to include a few of them in this post.)

Related Post: Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6) Includes this quote: “Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?”—Paddy Chayefsky (Network), Three-time Oscar winner

Scott W. Smith

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What in the hell is an “objective correlative”? And why do so many movies and plays have one?

There are things in your life that you’ve attached meaning to. When you see them they conjure up memories of people, places and events. If I give my wife Toblerone chocolate it’s a fond reminder of a train trip we took in Switzerland years ago. My office is full of things that remind me of special productions I’ve worked on over the years—a soccer shirt from Brazil, a bottle of wine from South Africa, a poster from Aspen. Just glancing at those objects reminds me of positive life experiences.

I have an emotional connection to those items that is not intrinsic to their being. And it’s not materialistic (total cost of those items was under $50.) but rather symbolic. The chocolate, the shirt, the wine, the poster all point to something beyond the common material itself. (Sometimes items of meaning are free. I have a matchbook from a place called the Beehive, a coffeehouse in Pittsburgh, where I did a video shoot 20 years ago.* I smile everytime I see that matchbook.)

Writers of books, plays and movies tap into that emotion when they give meaning to certain places and objects. It’s what T.S. Eliot called the “objective correlative.”

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
T.S. Eliot/Hamlet and His Problems

In the movie Forrest Gump, when the older Jenny comes upon her childhood home an emotion is immediately evoked—upset, she begins throwing rocks at the house. And in the voice-over Forrest says, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.” The double whammy there is Jenny not only feels that emotion of remembering an abusive childhood, but the audience feels it as well. There’s a connection. An emotion that we feel for Jenny, but also an emotion that we personally know that, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.”

One of my favorite examples of an objective correlative is the volleyball in (another Tom Hanks movie) Cast Away. Hanks’ character, stranded on a deserted island, befriends a volleyball, paints a face on it, names it Wilson and it becomes his companion. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. and director Robert Zemeckis knew exactly the emotional impact it would have when Wilson is tragically lost at sea. (Another tragedy is Wilson the Volleyball is uncredited in the film.)

Now audiences don’t look at Jenny’s childhood house or Wilson and say, “Oh, look, an objective correlative.” It’s an emotional reaction. Objective correlative is just the technical phrase of something that’s useful to have in your writer’s tool kit.

“Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie. Objective correlative: the glass unicorn whose horn gets broken in the second act by the gentleman caller. Yes, a fragile sensitive little glass unicorn figurine. Fanciful? Beautiful? Tragic? Poignant? Phallic? Call it what you will, but baby, it brings with it a host of emotions. When it happens on stage, it’s damn powerful.”
Richard W. Krevolin
Screenwriting from the Soul
page 71

The more a writer is fond of symbolism (as Tennessee Williams was) the more likely you are to find a objective correlatives in their work. I’m sure there are other writers who’ve gone their entire career without giving a second thought to the concept of  a objective correlative. (Though they probably instinctively had them sprinkled throughout their work.) But if even the basic concept of an objective correlative turns you off as a writer, consider that one of the mostly highly regarded movies in the history of cinema, Citizen Kane, is filled with objective correlatives; the puzzle, the snow globe, and, of course, Rosebud.

It’s the cherry orchard in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, it’s the Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s the compressed air and cattle gun in No Country for Old Men, and the list goes on and on and on. You get the point. Now if you really dig this kind of thing here are some additional thoughts and quotes on the matter:

“I had never understood what Eliot meant by the curious phrase ‘objective correlative’ until the scene in Gatsby where the almost comically sinister Meyer Wolfshiem, who has just been introduced, displays his cuff links and explains that they are ‘the finest specimens of human molars.’ Get it? Got it. That’s what Eliot meant.”
Richard Yate
Some Very Good Masters
New York Times Book Review, April 19,1981

“I borrow the term Objective Correlative from T. S. Eliot and adapt it to mean an external object that represents a character or a state of mind. Rocky’s locker is Rocky’s manhood. When it is taken from him, it is like a castration. In Truly Madly Deeply, the cello is Jamie. In About Schmidt (by Louis Begley and Alexander Payne), when he sees his carefully prepared reports in the garbage, it represents the entirety of his life’s work.”
Hal Ackerman
Write Screenplays That Sell
Page 207

In one episode of the great TV program Northern Exposure Chris (John Corbett) defends his master’s thesis and actually uses the term  ‘objective correlative’ and identifies T. S. Eliot as the source. Which led David Lavery to write,  “Though I cannot be absolutely certain, I would venture to say that this may have been the first, and perhaps the only, time ‘objective correlative’ was ever discussed in prime-time.”

*Quirky fact: The cameraman for that shoot I did in Pittsburgh 20 years ago was related to Geroge Romero who directed the original Night of the Living Dead.
Quirky fact 2: Just went to the Beehive website and learned that according to one of the owners Scott Kramer, “The name Beehive came from a place in France where all the artists were living in the 1930s. Artists can come here and ideas can flow.” Check it out if you’re in Pittsburgh, or the next time you go there.

Update 5/15/13: According to the The Writing Barn post Craft Talk Tuesday with Carol Brender, “Term [objective  correlative] first coined prior to 1850 by Washington Allston , but later given its more literary meaning by T.S. Eliot in an essay about why Hamlet is a failed play.”

Scott W. Smith

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“I think boxing’s pretty dumb, and I’ve never been a boxing fan.”
John G. Avildsen
Oscar winning director of Rocky


AFI lists the character Rocky Balboa on their all-time movie hero list at #7 and the film Rocky as the #4 most inspiring film of all time. Writer/actor Sylvester Stallone has understandably gotten plenty of honor for the 1976 film. But the other side of Rocky is director John G. Avildsen.

Though we may never know Avildsen’s role in guiding Stallone in the re-writing process, it’s clear his vision and direction helped Rocky win three Oscar Awards; Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Picture.  Avildson’s had just released his first film just seven years before Rocky. A film shot in just seven days that he said in one interview, “It was pretty bad, but it got me my next job and my next job.” It was also a film that he not only directed, but shot and edited as well.

While digital filmmaking and non-union work has made writing, directing, and shooting more common on short films, it’s still pretty uncommon in the feature film world outside of Robert Rodriguez.  But I thought you’d find it interesting to learn where Avildsen honed his skills as a director, cameraman and editor long before he took home the Oscar Award:

“When I first started doing this I was doing industrial films for an advertising agency that did industrial shows and so forth. So I’d make this movie that ran anywhere from a few minutes to an hour for IBM or Clairol or Shell Oil to get their salesmen excited about whatever it was they were trying to get them excited about. So I was hired to direct these things and I hired myself as the cameraman and as the editor and did the things myself and it was a great learning process. It was fun to do. There was very little supervision and you could use whatever music you wanted and that’s how I started. And I figured I was a more attractive commodity to the buyer if for the same eight bucks you got three jobs instead of  one. “
John G. Avildsen
John A. Gallagher Interview

Avildsen also directed the 1984 version of The Karate Kid in which Pat Morita was nominated for an Oscar.

P.S. In regard to that opening quote about Avildsen not being a boxing fan, it’s interesting to point out that Martin Scorsese originally told Robert De Niro that he was not interested in directing Raging Bull because he was not a fan of boxing. 

Scott W. Smith

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“Do you believe that America is the land of opportunity?”
Boxing promoter in Rocky

At the time that the New York Times interviewed Sylvester Stallone in 1976 he was living in a 1 1/2 bedroom apartment in LA with his wife and 6 month old baby. Rocky was about to be released and as the Times reported, United Artists was optimistic that the movie (which cost $1 million to make) was going to pull in more that $40 million. (They were right, too. Rocky made $117 million domestic.)

If you weren’t even born in 1976, one thing to keep in mind is when Rocky was released Hollywood was under a wave of nihilism, pessimism and grit.  The anti-hero had been in vogue for years.  (Bonnie & ClydeMidnight Cowboy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Deliverance, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, M*A*S*H, Serpico, The Last Picture Show, Being There, They Don’t Shoot Horses Do They?,  Dog Day Afternoon, Chinatown.) Perhaps the movies were just a reflection of the times in the United States. The Vietnam War and Watergate set the tone for the first half of the 70s.

But by 1976 America was ready for a change. There was a huge bicentennial push leading up to celebrating the 200th anniversary of the country on July 4, 1976. I recall a spirit of optimism in the air. Stallone and director John Avildsen tapped into that spirit. And while Rocky may not be a traditional hero, I’ve always seen him as the anti—antihero.

Now Stallone from a spec screenwriting perspective is a hero’s hero. On the mythic hero level with Rocky.

“You know, if nothing else comes out of that film (Rocky) in the way of awards and accolades, it will still show that an unknown quantity, a totally unremarkable person, can produce a diamond in the rough.”
Sylvester Stallone
NY Times November 1, 1976

The awards and accolades did come. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and won for Best Picture, Best Director , and Best Editing. And even if many critics at the time thought that Stallone had written a warmed over Frank Capra 1930s film, it did make the AFI list as one of the top 100 American films of all-time. (And many forget that Stallone avoided the total fairy tale ending by having Rocky lose the fight at the end.)

And the money came as well. The Rocky franchise would go on to make more than a billion dollars at the box office. Films that Stallone has starred in have made over $4 billion. Not bad for a “totally unremarkable person.”

It’s fun to imagine Stallone back in 1976 thinking that no matter how well that Rocky did that he’d already proven himself a winner.

P.S. Just to show the contrast between the two spirits doing battle in ’75-’76 check out the trailers below for The Day of the Locust and Rocky.

Related post: Writing “Rocky”

Scott W. Smith



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“If you want to go toe to toe with any foe, you’ve got to be fearless.”
Boxer Chuck Wepner


Much has been written about Sylvester Stallone writing the first version of the Rocky script in just a few days, but little is mentioned about Rocky actually being his 8th script. (The other seven were never produced.)  Stallone has also said that only about 10 % of that first Rocky script remained in the finished version of the film that would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar.

“Since I was obsessed with the idea of personal redemption, I kept saying to myself, ‘Redemption, redemption, redemption…but whose redemption?’ So I considered a gangster, then a cowboy, then an actor, all kinds of people, until I finally came back to the Wepner* fight. Why not a loser, an over-the-hill boxer? I loved the visuals, and the warrior aspect, and the grand symbolism. Bang! It all crystallized. I said, ‘That’s it,’ and I went to work immediately…I was young, and I wrote it in a fury…The original draft was only about 89 pages long, and it was rather hastily thrown together.”
Sylvester Stallone
Going the Distance article by Bill Baer
Creative Screenwriting magazine
January/February 2003

Since Stallone started with “redemption, redemption. redemption” in mind I’ll put him down as starting from theme. 

* Chuck Wepner was working as a liquor salesman in New Jersey back in 1975 when fought Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali. With some odds 30-1 against Wepner, he lasted until the fifteenth round before Ali won the fight on a technical knocked out . In 2003, Wepner sued Stallone for his name and story being used without his permission in the marketing of the Rocky franchise. (Lawsuit.) In 2006 there were reports that the case was settled out of court. 

Related post: Writing from Theme


Scott W. Smith

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Photograph by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“My bracket has Kansas winning the whole thing. Kansas is that big, fast, strong, deep, good, great, unbeatable.”
Gregg Dovel, CBSSports.com

President Obama was wrong. But he was not alone in picking the Kansas Jayhawks to win the NCAA National Championship in men’s basketball this year. In case you don’t follow such things, Kansas lost yesterday to that little known team from right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa—The University of Northern Iowa (UNI).

One sports writer said the upset victory, “could go down as the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.” Of course, that’s debatable. What is less debateable is this is the biggest victory in UNI’s history. This was the first time they have ever beaten a top ranked team. To do it in the NCAA Tournament before a national TV audience is all the sweeter.

The above photo of UNI player Ali Farokhmanesh celebrating says it all. It’s one frame that if it were the end of a movie the critics would be rolling their eyes calling it cliché. But movie audiences enjoy a good underdog story time after time. Why do we love underdog stories?

What is it about an underdog story that makes us feel so good? Perhaps it’s as simple as we all feel like underdogs. We can relate. Heck, I have a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa which might as well be called Screenwriting for Underdogs. But then again that would be redundant, wouldn’t it? (Tell me Joe “I’ve been in fights most of my life” Eszterhas hasn’t felt like an underdog his entire career?)

So screw the critics and keep writing underdog stories because the truth is cinematic history is full of great stories of underdog characters and underdog stories. From Rocky, Indiana Jones, and Norma Rae Webster to Hans Solo, Oskar Schindler, and Erin Brockovich they’re all underdogs that are greatly admired.

More recently, The Blind Side (based on the life of Michael Orr) found an audience to the tune of $250 million so far and landed Sandra Bullock her first Oscar. People still want to see Michael Orr stories. And, of course, an underdog doesn’t have to be an athlete.

Both James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic are the #1 & #2 box office champs—and both underdog stories.

What are some of your favorite underdog characters or stories?

P.S. The University of Northern Iowa is where Kurt Warner played college football before he became one of the greatest underdog stories in contemporary sports history. I should also give a shout out to the University of Iowa’s wrestling team who last night won the 2010 NCAA Division 1 wrestling championship. No underdogs there—it’s the third straight year they’ve won the championship and 23rd in school history.

Related post: Orphan Characters (Tip #31)

Scott W. Smith

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“A good title should be like a good metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or two obvious.”
Walker Percy

I’m staying on the Up in the Air gravy train (gravy plane?)  just a little bit longer. Not only did I love the film but I love the title. It’s a title that has a literal meaning since it’s a film that deals with traveling via airplanes. But it’s also a common phrase in our culture meaning undecided or uncertain.

Up in the Air is a pretty good description of the Up in the Air main character Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney.  A character whose only real purpose appears to collecting frequent flyer miles. Everything else is up in the air.

Many writers talk about starting with a title and build from there and others say they can’t even decide on a title even after they’ve written the script or book.  Can a movie succeed without a great title? Sure, look at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Looking at the AFI list of top 100 films and you’ll see a mixture of great, good, and bland titles. A title doesn’t make a film, but in a day and age of the importance of the opening weekend, a great title is desired to help attract an audience.

The most common titles seem to focus a main character or being, place or thing, or an event.

Character or being:
Citizen Kane
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
King Kong
Rocky
Forrest Gump
Spartacus
Bonnie and Clyde
The Godfather
Tootsie
Jaws
Psycho
Raging Bull

A place or thing:
Titanic
The African Queen
Bridge on the River Kwai
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On the Waterfront
Chinatown
Sunset Blvd.
The Maltese Falcon
The Apartment
Casablanca

An event:
High Noon
Apocalypse Now
Star Wars
2001: A Space Odyssey
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
Sophie’s Choice

And while not a hard and fast rule, great titles tend to be short (three words or less). Just look at the above list.  And my favorites of those listed are Jaws and Psycho. Each one a simple word, but both hit you at a gut level.

Titles like Avatar, Batman, The Matrix are easier to discuss around the water cooler.  Even longer titles (especially sequels) tend to get edited around the water cooler and just called  Harry Potter, Narnia, Pirates, Star Wars, Twilight, Spider-Man.

Up in the Air falls into that minority category of a title that’s a little more obtuse, in line with The Last Picture Show, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Silence of the Lambs, or Gone with the Wind. (All of which happened to have been books or plays first which tend to favor a more intellectual audience.) If you go with a metaphor, it doesn’t hurt to have a movie star in the lead role. As I talk up the film Up in the Air, I find myself calling it “The George Clooney Film.”

What are some of your favorite titles (even if they aren’t one of your favorite films)? Or some of your favorite bad titles.
I love the title of the lesser known 50s film Them. And I like titles such as Black Hawk Down, Meet the Parents, Witness, The Hunt for Red October, Collateral and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly because they all have built in conflict, mystery and intrigue. And the worst titles off the top of my head goes to Ishtar and Valkyrie, neither of which leave me with a visceral reaction.

Of course, the most bland title ever might just be…Movie Titles (tip #32). (But at least it’s twitter friendly.)

Update: I decided to do a Google search to see what others thought were the best and worst movie titles ever and found one blogger who had a post called Top 10 Worst Movie Titles Ever and the writer put Surf Nazis Must Die at #10. That film was written and directed by Peter George who I happened to go to film school with. (I was always a little upset I didn’t get a small role in the film.) If anyone knows where Mr. George is these days tell him I want my watch back. The one that I left at his Hollywood apartment after I crashed on his sofa one night back before he was making top ten lists.

Scott W. Smith


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In his book Movie Speak, Tony Bill (who directed My Bodyguard) mentions that in his 35 years or so of producing and directing films that almost all of them were either  the first scripts written, or the first script produced by the writer. Bill speculated why that has so often been the case:

“There’s a quality that most first scripts share: fresh, surprising, and unspoiled. Recently, it was Juno. Little Miss Sunshine was a first-time script, as was My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Good Will Hunting, Rocky, Sling Blade, and Taxi Driver were all first scripts. So was My Bodyguard. None of these came out of a how-to-do book or a weekend seminar in screenwriting. First scripts usually come from a need to write something (or, sometimes, a need to eat and pay the rent.) But with rare exceptions, they don’t come out of  a need to score big, to write a hit, to make a splash. And they don’t follow in the footsteps of pervious successes; They’re invariably ‘surprises’ flying in the face of what’s considered commercial. Whatever the genres, they come from the heart.”
Tony Bill (Oscar-winning producer. The Sting)
Movie Speak
page 197 

And I should add that every single movie, except for Little Miss Sunshine (which was really a road movie), that Bill mentioned took place outside Los Angeles. And while Taxi Driver was New York the majority of films he mentioned took place in Chicago, Minnesota, Boston, Philadelphia, Arizona, and rural Arkansas.

Do you think that might have had something to do with the fresh perspective of those films?

Scott W. Smith


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