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Posts Tagged ‘Spike Lee’

“We’re a great country. We’ve got great stories. And for the most part, the great stories of people of color have not been told.”
Spike Lee
(at the NYC Premier of Red Tails)

“Americans trust black people when we sing, dance or tell jokes. It’s when we stop laughing that people get itchy.”
Author Charles Fuller (A Soldier’s Story)

As a response of the release of The Birth of a Nation (1915) plans were set in place by black leaders to give a response to stereotypes portrayed in D.W. Griffith’s widely praised film. Plans to film Booker T. Washington’s book Up from Slavery fell apart, the start of World War I didn’t help with film funding, but eventually The Birth of a Race did get produced and was released in 1918. According to the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance the film “was considered a critical and popular failure, and it was a financial fiasco.”

But the one thing it did do was inspire Oscar Micheaux to become the first Africa-American to write and direct a feature film—The Homesteader in 1919.  (On IMDB, Jerry Mills is also listed a co-director.) He would go on to make 41 films over the next 29 years. But his direct response to The Birth of a Nation was the film Within Our Gates (1920).

Now here’s the great thing about technology—there was no known copy of Within Out Gates until 1990 when one was found in Paris. Now the whole version pf the film is available for free on You Tube.

While it’s generally accepted that Micheaux is the first African-American to make a feature film, back in 1910 William D. Foster of Chicago founded the Foster Photoplay Company—the first independent African-American film company. He was a sports writer from Chicago and his first film was The Railroad Porter, a short film made in 1912 and starred William D. Foster.

And back when Jacksonville, Florida was known as “winter film capital of the world,” writer/director Richard Norman (also an African-American) made several features in the 1920s. Long before Tyler Perry opened his film studio in Atlanta, Norman owned the Norman Studios. A studio which is still around today as a museum.  And before Red Tails (currently in theaters as I write this) Norman was the producer, director and writer on The Flying Ace (1926)—about a World War I pilot— with an “ALL COLORED CAST” as one old advertisement promised.

That movie is part of the Library of Congress. Here’s the trailer for The Flying Aces (with a little updated music):

Related posts:
The First Black Feature Filmmaker
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting
Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry

Scott W. Smith

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“One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the colored man can be anything,”
Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951)

On Tuesday, the United States Postal Service released a stamp of producer, director, screenwriter Oscar Micheaux. This is significant for several reasons. First it shows that long before Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, and before even Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, there was Micheaux. Though probably less known than those other filmmakers, according to The Miami Herald, “Micheaux, who died in 1951, was the first African American to produce a feature-length film – The Homesteader, in 1920 — and a sound feature-length film – The Exile — in 1931.”

In all he is said to have made 40 films, though only all or part of 15 survive.

The USPS press release says, “Micheaux thrived at a time when African-American filmmakers were rare, venues for their work were scarce, and support from the industry did not exist. Micheaux’s entrepreneurial spirit and independent vision continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers and artists.”

On Wednesday, Film Life’s 14th Annual American Black Film Festival began (June 23-26, 2010) in Miami. (I’m not sure if honoring Oscar Micheaux is on the list this year, but if you’re in that area Spike Lee will be doing a Master Class on The Art of Filmmaking Saturday, June 26 at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.)

The second thing about Micheaux of significance to this Screenwriting from Iowa blog is that I like to point out writers and filmmakers who come from outside Los Angeles and Micheaux was born in 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois, grew up in Great Bend, Kansas and had a farm in South Dakota. It was in South Dakota when he began writing short stories. According to IMDB, “Micheaux lost his homestead in 1915 due to financial losses caused by a drought. He moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where he established the Western Book and Supply Co. He continued to write novels, selling them himself, door-to-door.”

In case you missed that, Micheaux lived in Iowa for spell. Wrote books and sold them himself.  (My new hero.) Micheaux moved to Chicago with hopes of making one of his novels a book. Again IMDB, fills in what happened;”Micheaux returned to the white businessmen and farmers around Sioux City, Iowa, where he still maintained an office, and sold them stock in his new company. In this way he was able to raise enough capital to begin filming his novel in Chicago, which was then a major film production center.” (I swear, I couldn’t make all this stuff up if I tried.)

His first feature, The Homesteader, was made in 1919. IMDB states, “His next film, Within Our Gates (1920), was his response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that had glorified the Ku Klux Klan.” These films were known as “Race Films” or “Race Movies” intended for black audiences. Wikipedia says, “During the height of their popularity, race films were shown in as many as 1,100 theaters around the country.”  It would not be until the 50s and the modern civil rights movement when Race Films were faded out.

And the third significance to Micheaux’s stamp is the artwork was created right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa by artist Gary Kelley. The same Gary Kelley I’ve mentioned many times on this blog and who I did a multi-media project with earlier this year (Kelley’s Blues).

Anyway to honor Oscar Micheaux, Gary Kelley, and my high school creative writing teacher Annye Refoe (who just happens to be black) I am going to give away one new copy of Seattle writer/teacher Brian McDonald’s screenwriting book Invisible Ink; A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate. I own way too many books on screenwriting than I’d like to admit, but I believe that Invisible Ink is the first and only screenwriting book I own written by an African-American. Perhaps not something that needs mentioning, but in the context of Micheaux, I thought it was worth pointing out.

Anyway, I’ll send the book via the USPS with Micheaux/Kelley stamps. But here’s how I’ll pick one winner. In the spirit of Micheaux, I am working on publishing parts of this blog as a book (or two or three) and what I need are some blurbs from people who can say two or three positive sentences about me and/or Screenwriting from Iowa. (Could be longer, but doesn’t need to be.)  Put them in the comment section or email to me at info@scottwsmith.com. I’ll print the names and put them in a hat and choose a winner on next Friday (July 2, 2010).

Related Posts:
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip #2)
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Off-Screen Quote #15 (Edgar Degas)

Scott W. Smith

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“Growing up in Ohio was just planning to get out.”
Jim Jarmusch

Have you ever put together a top ten list of films that you’ve walked away from feeling stunned? I haven’t but one film that I think would be on that list is Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise. The 1984 film is credited with giving a fresh take on independent filmmaking. The low-budget, black and white film is still the only movie I’ve ever watched where each scene is done in single master shots.

Stranger than Paradise won Camera d’Or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival. Empire magazine’s The 50 Greatest Independent Films listed the film #14, just ahead of Memento.

I haven’t seen the film is a long time. Actually, because it has a special place in my memory I’m a little hesitant to watch it again for fear it won’t measure up to the fondness I have it. But I’m sure I’ll check out The Criterion Collection version in the near future.

Most filmmakers struggle to one degree or another with a balance between artistic freedom and commercial success.   A look at Jarmusch’s career shows how one filmmaker has walked that balance. Even if you haven’t seen his films (Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Dead Man, Down by Law) know that any writer/director who can attract the acting talents of Forest Whitaker, Bill Murray, Roberto Benigni, and Johnny Depp, on top of a 25-year career is doing something right.

Born in Cuyahoha Falls, Ohio (just north of Akron)  in 1953 Jarmusch went to New York and received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University and worked on an MFA in film at NYU where Spike Lee was a fellow student. He also gained valuable experience working as an assistant for directors Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray.

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’”
Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules
MovieMaker 2004

The Akron-Cleveland has changed a lot since Jarmusch was a kid (and even when he shot part of Stranger in Paradise there in the 80s) and I’d like to think that the next Jim Jarmusch from the area, like current NBA MVP LeBron James, stays in their hometown and does their thing for the world to see.

Scott W. Smith

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“I devoted myself to writing for years without representation or a promise of anything. And there were times when I felt quite down about my prospects.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher

Geoffrey Fletcher walked away with an Oscar for his first produced feature screenplay, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. That part is true.

But what is also true is that he’s been at it for 25 years. The 39 year-old writer first began making films when he was 14. He later graduated from Harvard and earned a master’s degree from NYU. He was able to learn first hand from other NYU grads Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, he made short films (and even had one shown at Sundance in ’96), he worked temp jobs to pay the bills, and eventually became an adjunct film professor at Columbia and NYU. And by his account the script count of unproduced pages he has written runs into the thousands. Thousands.

“I often felt like Precious — out of the picture and invisible. I was within reach of my dream of filmmaking but also a million miles away. I kept trying. But it’s tough to get people to listen to what I had to say. It’s the nature of the industry — there are so many people trying to get in. All the doors in the industry seemed to close, and I couldn’t seem to do anything right….While working on this project, I felt resurrected and reinvigorated. I poured every ounce of myself into the script. Looking back, it seemed to require every bit of it.”
Geoffrey Fletcher
Combined quote from LA Times article by John Horn and Take Part article by Wendy Cohen

Perhaps the one thing I’ve leaned most about doing this blog for more than two years is Fletcher has followed the time-honored path of every successful screenwriter I have read about– and that is he wrote, and wrote, and wrote. So when you hear “First time screenwriter wins Oscar,” don’t forget the thousands of unproduced pages he wrote before that first script got produced.

Scott W. Smith


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“I have not failed. I have just found 1,000 ways that did not work.”
Thomas Edison (And one of screenwriter Chris Sparling’s favorite quotes.)

Los Angles is full of screenwriters who came from outside L.A.

Of course, most of them broke in the old-fashioned way. They moved there. That’s been going on for 100 years ever since L.A. replaced New York and Chicago as the go to place to make movies.

And that may be true for the next 100 years, because that is still the heart of the film industry. It’s where the majority of studios, executives and film talent are based. It’s the main place for deals to happen and for movies to be made.

But what keeps that heart pumping is the fresh talent that movies through it. And that talent often comes from outside L.A.

And I’ve spent two years giving accounts of talented writers who come from all over the U.S. (and sometimes other countries) to make an impact on the film business. Occasionally, writers have enough clout to stay in their hometowns (John Hughes/ Chicago) and sometimes they move back to their hometown (Mike France/St. Pete Beach) or move to their ideal creative place (George Lucas/Skywalker Ranch). But those are exceptions to the rule.

The big question now is has the technology and the business evolved to the point where it is becoming more common for screenwriters and filmmakers to not only launch a career outside L.A., but sustain one from wherever they want live? In the 70s & 80s Francis Ford Coppola & Lucas fled to Northern California to do their thing. In the 90s & 2000s, we’ve see places like Austin, Atlanta & Portland become places where filmmakers live and work. I think that is a trend that is going to continue to spread throughout the country.

Let me throw out a quote that point to where things are heading:

“I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.”
(Steven Spielberg in interview with Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show in 1999)

Have you noticed that the phrase “I think that the Internet…” has become a very popular? As in I think that the Internet…helped Diablo Cody become a screenwriting rock star.

But I think that it is fair to point out that Diablo Cody moved from Minneapolis to L.A. soon after her script for Juno sold. My guess is newcomer Chris Sparling will be moving from Rhode Island to L.A. soon (if he hasn’t already done so). I think Sparling is a recent and great example of how to launch a screenwriting career from outside L.A.

At this point he’s just a few days removed from the stir that was created at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival where the film he wrote, Buried, sold for $3 million plus. So there is not a lot written about him, but I’ve pieced together a few things I could from the internet.

Since he’s said he is roughly the same age as Ryan Reynolds (who stars in Buried), I’m guessing that he has been writing for ten years (maybe even 15 if he started as a teenager). He made some short films and in 2005 made a low-budget feature called An Uzi at the Alamo where he was the producer, director, writer and lead actor. The film can be viewed on Netflicks.

But as is often pointed out, getting a film made and paying the bills are not always the same thing. In one interview he said he recently “started applying for police jobs.”

From what I can gather Sparling earned money as a personal trainer and a freelance writer for magazines and blogs such as Maximum Fitness Magazine, Sunrise Helpers, Indie Slate and Imagine Magazine,The Diabetes Blog, The Cardio Blog, FitBuff,  America Online’s That’s Fit and Exist Magazine. He also taught screenwriting at Emerson College and I found an ad from just a year ago where he would read scripts for people and help them write query letters for extra money.

In an interview with Emerson College, Sparling was asked how one gets an agent and he said,“You have to cultivate relationships. You have to nurture them. You may meet an agent and send him a script. Odds are it will be a pass if he or she reads it at all, but you keep that relationship open and get recommended to others, and maybe on the fourth or fifth script you send to an agent…that’s the one they love and want to rep.”

Did you catch that? He said “maybe the fourth of fifth script.” Good writing is a process. It takes time. Sparling has said that it took him seven scripts before it “clicked” for him and that he wrote 9 or 10 scripts before Buried sold. Then he was on the fast track as it went into production, was edited, and shown and sold at Sundance all within the last year. It will be released in the spring of 2010. He’s a hot writer in Hollywood now as he’s sold other scripts and picked up other assignments. But don’t forget the many years and many scripts that paved the way for his recent success.

Living in Providence, Rhode Island he would also make occasional trips to L.A. to make contacts in the film industry.

“The first time I flew into LA, I had 15 meetings in five days. The next time it was 20 meetings.”
Chris Sparling

So did Chris Sparling just get lucky? I don’t think so. His is not the only way to break into Hollywood, but it follows a pretty common path that I would condense as:

1) Read a lot of scripts
2) Write a lot of scripts
3) Meet a lot of people

And if you want to read most of the good, logical reasons on why you should live in L.A., check out Ashley Scott Meyers’ post Do you have to live in Los Angeles to be a screenwriter?

© 2010 Scott W. Smith 
 

 

 

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“From Iowa to Pennsylvania, the presidential campaign has provided its share of made-for-Hollywood moments.”
                                                                                  All Things Considered
                                                                                  April 18, 2008


“It’s not until Iowa when people say this is how the American people are feeling. … So it ends up shaping how people view the race in subsequent states.”
                                                                                  Barack Obama
                                                                                  USA Today
                                                                                  July 17,2007 

obama300

Did you catch the Texas–Texas Tech game last Saturday? That was high drama. And everything I love about college football. A close game down to the last second.

Did you happen to follow the 2008 presidential election results last night? Not quite as close a game. But there was still plenty of drama in the last year and a half race to the White House including a full lineup of sideshows acts; Joe the plumber, The Obama girl (not to be confused with the John Edward’s girl), Super Tuesday, Sarah “Barracuda” Palin’s troopergate, Biden’s blunders, Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s preaching, Huckabee’s humor, Hillary Clinton and her 18 million cracks in the ceiling, and even Oprah coming to Iowa.

Congratulations to President elect Barack Obama. I was able to see 13 presidential candidates as they came through Iowa and I really never thought Obama would get past Hillary. But there he was last night showing that Dylan, Springsteen, Louis Farrakhan, Pamala Anderson, Colin Powell, Jimmy Buffett and Warren Buffett were all on the eclectic winning team.

Obama overcame his lack of experience with his message of change along with the storytelling abilities of Ronald Reagan and the inspirational chants (“Fired Up–Ready to Go!”) of a motivational speaker. So 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed we have an moment in history that represents symbolic healing. 

Congratulations to John McCain and his team for their hard fought battle. He’s served his country well and had over 55 million people pulling for him. And like many politicians who face defeat, the chances are good that Palin will do her homework and be back stronger with many lessons learned and popularity gained. (Though she’d have more fun and make more money doing the speaker/author circuit and having her own TV talk show.)

It really has been amazing to be a part of democracy in action at such an in-depth level. Who knew Iowa would play such an important role in history?

 

Never did I think when I moved to Iowa from Central Florida five years ago that I’d be close to such a dynamic election. So close in fact that I was within a couple feet of the future president of the United States of America several times in 2007 taking photos and shooting video on assignment.    

I took the photos on this blog at gatherings in Iowa a wee bit smaller than the huge crowd that showed up in Chicago last night to hear Obama’s acceptance speech. (I haven’t seen a celebration like last night’s since…well, Saturday when the Texas Tech students and fans stormed the field after upsetting the number one team in the country.)

Watching the gazed faces on TV at Grant Park kinda looked like that old footage you see of when The Beatles played at Shea Stadium. But America didn’t elected a rock star.  No, from the looks on the faces he’s bigger than that. More like a mix of Bono/JFK/MLK/Michael Jordon/Muhammad Ali/Billy Graham/Tiger Woods and Oprah –all in their prime.

Why is this man smiling?

Iowa State Fair August 2007

Last night I couldn’t help but think back to my creative writing teacher in high school where I wrote my first scripts and directed my first videos. Dr. Annye Refoe, who happens to be African-American, took this sports and girl obsessed teenager and added color to his world beyond the athletic endeavors of Paul Warfield and Joe Morgan. All these years later, she was one of the first people I contacted when I won the Emmy last week.

I also thought back to when I was a 19-year-old journalist and photographer and I interviewed then Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Doug Williams for the Sanford Evening Herald. Williams went on to become the first African-American to be a winning Super Bowl quarterback (while playing for the Washington Redskins).

Obama was born a month after I was and the arc of racial change that has occurred since then is stunning. But we have a long way to go to realize Martin Luther King’s dream that one day the color of our skin won’t matter.  This election gets us over one hump but I am reminded of the saying that every problem has a solution and every solution has a problem.  We have not reached the finish line.

Anyway — speaking of Washington D.C. –this is a blog about screenwriting so let’s look at the inspiration and movies that has come out of that rather small area of land. The political scene and the drama surrounding it is a natural fit for Hollywood. The quintessential Washington film is Frank Capria’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring Jimmy Stewart. The film earned an Oscar nomination for screenwriter Sidney Buchman who happened to be born in Duluth, Minnesota.

Between 1941-42 he served as the president of the Writers Guild of America, but was later backlisted for his refusal to name names of those in the American Communist Party to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  

Washington D.C. is also home to Georgetown University that has educated some fine talent:
Jonathan Nolan (Memento and co-writer The Dark Knight.) 
Carl Reiner (Writer/director/actor and seven time primetime Emmy winner)
Michael J. Winship (current president, Writers Guild of America East)
William Peter Blatty (writer of The Exorcist)  
John Guare (screenwriter of Atlantic City and Tony Winning playwright)
Blake Snyder (screenwriter and author of the screenwriting book Save the Cat)
 

And coming out of the historically black Howard University in D.C. are writers Zora Hurston Neal (Their Eyes Were Watching God), screenwriter and Oscar-nominated director Dianne Houston, director Ernest Dickerson who has also been the cinematographer on many Spike Lee films, Richard Wesley (Let’s Do It Again, which was directed by Sidney Poitier), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson (Wit), poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as well as a host of actors and actresses including Ossie Davis, Phylicia Rashad, and Sean (P. Diddy) Combs. 

And American University is not only home to one of the best film programs in the country, but where the top box-office female film director, Nancy  Shyer, graduated from college. Shyer not only directed Mel Gibson in What Women Want  but also co-wrote Father of the Bride, Baby Boom  along with being nominated for an Academy Award back in 1981 for co-writing Private Benjamin.

“I remember driving on the Ventura Freeway when I was about 27, to run an errand, when I thought, ‘What if a girl joined the Army to escape her problems?’”
                                                              Nancy Shyer
                                                              (On the inspiration for Private Benjamin
                                                              Hollywood Reporter 

The Oscar winning director of Rain Man and screenwriter of Diner Barry Levinson also attended Washington University. As did actors Jude law and Jack Black. 

The Washington D.C. political scene itself has provided an compelling background for many excellent films. Mainly because films work on conflict and that never seems to be in short supply there. In fact The White House may be the single most popular home featured in movies and TV shows. Here is a partial list of movies that feature Washington D.C.:

A Few Good Me
Air Force One
All the President’s Men
An American President
Being There 
Dave
Enemy of the State
First Kid
Forrest Gump
The Hunt for Red October
Independence Day
JFK
Minority Report
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 
Nixon
No Way Out
Three Days of the Condor
Thirteen Days
Traffic
Wag the Dog
West Wing
W.

 

There are also probably a few screenplays in the works on Obama’s life. (I bet Spike Lee and Tyler Perry are racing each other to be first.) Even if you didn’t vote for Obama you have to appreciate the journey–or at least the narrative or the significance. 

Of course there will be plenty of conflict in President Obama’s office. (Probably beginning day one at three in the morning — if not before he even takes office.) I’m sure before the final ballot was cast that Iran, Russia, and North Korea were moving chess pieces around preparing to welcome our new president. January of ’09 will be a hard time to take over the role as president  and Obama’s leadership skills will be tested early.

We quickly forget the pattern of almost every election, hope on the promise of change, harsh realities followed by blame of prior administration, and a plea for four more years to finally get things on track. Obama simply cannot do all the things he’s promised and people tend to become disillusioned quickly.

I just hope the criticism (and the joking from comedians) is not confused with racism or it’s one step forward and two steps back. If Powell is right about Obama being a transformational candidate, I just hope that transformation is for the good.  

I personally enjoy college football more than Washington politics and look forward to the Alabama-LSU game this weekend. Of course there are politics in college football, but at the end of the year the match-up for the title is usually the two best qualified, winning and prepared teams in the national. (Okay, maybe two out of the best three.)

And college football teaches us lessons in perspective.  Like the much hyped Matt Leinhart who had a stacked resume when he was the Arizona Cardinals’ first round draft pick in the 2006 NFL draft: Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback of two national championship teams at USC, and AP All-American.  Stats half-way through the 2008 season: 1 completed pass. (Only five more years on his 7 year 50 million dollar contract.)

Meanwhile the thought to be washed-up old-timer (and Iowa native) Kurt Warner is the starting QB for the Cardinals and who Sports Illustrated said is the clear choice for MVP at this point in the season.

Related Post: Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (tip #7)

 

photos and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)

“The future of cinema lies in the power of the pixel. The injection of fresh ideas and methodologies will only serve to mix up the metaphorical gene pool and empower a new generation of filmmakers.
                                                                                           Roger Corman

“The comeback of documentaries is strictly linked to the arrival of digital technology. We only see the tip of the iceberg. The whole the notion of distribution will be changed in the next decade.”
                                                                                          Wim Wenders

“I wanted this movement to be like the French New Wave, in which directors told different types of stories and used the language of cinema a little differently, with smaller cameras on real locations.”
                                                                                           Gary Winick

“Cinema has always been marriage of technology and human talent.”
                                                                                           Francis Ford Coppola 

 

Francis Ford Coppola is a prophet. As he gets older he even starts to look like a Moses-like figure. (Well, at least Charlton Heston-like.)  He’s every screenwriters friend and should be an inspiration to you.

He’s made great films (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), he’s made money and lost money, he’s won five Oscars, he even has a daughter who’s won an Oscar for screenwriting, he’s been a visionary, an artist, “a idea machine,” he own a resort in Belize and a home in Buenos Aires, and he makes a good bottle of wine there in Northern California.

A few months ago I was doing a shoot in the San Francisco Bay area and had an opportunity to make a quick stop in Napa Valley. I had not been there in over a decade and one of the things that struck me was it reminded me of Iowa. Then I realized why, it’s farm land with many Victorian homes scattered around.

Granted those homes in California are five times more expensive than the ones in Iowa. But the area has a similar feel.  In fact if you head west on Interstate 80 from Iowa after a couple days you will end up in California which is essentially what Midwest people did years ago on the first transcontinetal highway looking for new opportunities (and before that looking for gold). Which is why the street names in Napa include, Iowa St., Illinois St., Omaha Ct. and Kansas Ave.

I won’t get into Coppola being born in Michigan because there’s too much room to cover already. Toward the end of part 1 of this post I mentioned Coppola using video on The Outsiders back in 1982.  But before that film he also used video according to ASC cinematographer Russ Alsobrook:

“In 1982 Francis Ford Coppola directed One from the Heart from inside his 28-foot Airstream trailer designed as a complete “Image and Sound Control Center” complete with editing suite, kitchen and Jacuzzi. Aside from the Jacuzzi, the most unusual new piece of equipment that found its way into virtually every aspect of production on One from the Heart was the computer. From word processors in the script phase to budgeting, scheduling, storyboarding, sophisticated video tapes with playback and instant editing, the newest in silicon technology was being integrated into the Hollywood system.”

Coppola and those working with him 25 years ago showed where the technology was heading and helped pave the way. Earlier this year his first film in ten years, Youth Without Youth was released. It was shot on with a high end HD video camera and edited on Final Cut Pro. With five Oscars behind him I’m pulling for Coppola himself to do some of his best work ever in this new cinema.

I’m pulling for you too which is why this is a monster length post, even after being broken up into two parts. It’s important for you to grasp where all the technology is heading. 

What happened between Coppola’s Airstream video center in 1982 and today that makes it an exciting time to be a screenwriter and filmmaker?

Let’s start with 1997. That was the year that digital video arrived on the scene with the Sony VX1000. It was a leap in image quality, portability, and cost and independent filmmakers jumped on board. Lars von Trier’s was one of the first to shoot a feature with the Sony VX1000. He did the camera work as well as direct The Idiots, which was in competition at Cannes in 1998.

In 2000 Van Trier released Dancer in the Dark which was also shot on video, but in one scene he used 100 DV cameras.  Let it be stated that the critics have be far apart on judging his films. Rodger Ebert wrote, “It smashes down the walls of habit that surround so many movies. It returns to the wellsprings. It is a bold, reckless gesture.” Another reviewer called it “A 2 ½ hour demo of auteurist self-importance that’s artistically bankrupt on almost every level.” (Derek Elly, Variety) But another reviewer said of the same film, “An exhilarating and original work of cinema. A triumph of form, content, and artistic integrity. Astonishing!” (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)

Dancer in the Dark went on to win the top award at the Cannes film festival.

In 2000, Spike Lee chose to shoot most of his $10 million dollar film Bamboozled with the Sony VX1000. In that same year Academy-award winning director Michael Figgis released a DV feature Timecode.

Another film first happened in 2002 with Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark that was shot digitally in one take.  Impossible to do with film due to limitations of film loads. (Though Hitchcock did his best to make Rope look like one take.) Russian Ark was shot not with a DV camera but a Sony HD camera. That same year Academy –award winning director Steven Soderbergh shot a DV feature Full Frontal.

Jerry Seinfeld was executive producer and featured performer for the DV documentary Comedian (2002) that covered his return to stand-up comedy after his successful run on the TV hit Seinfeld. It was made with a small crew, is raw in production values, but offers a unique behind the scene look at the work of a comedian.

In 1999 a company called InDigEnt was formed by director/producer Gary Winick, John Sloss, Jonathan Sehring, and Caroline Kaplan. 

“I got inspired by the Dogme 95 movement because I felt they were starting to tell the types of stories and tell stories in a different way, and I was hoping at InDigEnt we would do that.”
                                                                                                   Gary Winick

Winick directed Tadpole, shot with a Sony PD-150 DV camera, and won the Best Director Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

InDigEnt also made my personal favorite DV feature Pieces of April in 2003. It won many awards at film festivals and actress Patricia Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar.  It written and directed by Peter Hedges (who also wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?)

In an Interview with Indie Wire Winick told Matthew Ross:

“I could have shot Tadpole on 35mm, and would it have been a better film? I don’t know. Would I have gotten that cast? I don’t know. Part of the reasons for the cast wanting to be in the film, besides the material, was that they were all interested in working in DV, which I presented it to them as this hybrid between the theater and film. And also, I only need you for two weeks and not two months.”

Ross: I’ve never heard DV described as a hybrid of theater and film.

Winick: Actually it was Sigourney Weaver who inspired me to phrase it that way. But I think it’s well-put for a couple of reasons. One is that you can let the scene keep rolling; you can let the scene unfold like you would in theater. The actors can just perform…Digital cameras can be portable enough that if you suddenly come up with a new approach, you can just back up and redo your scene….Charlie Chaplin used to make films that way… These days, studios just aren’t going to give directors permission to play around that way in 35mm — on DV, you can.

And in 2004 the InDigEnt produced November starring Courteney Cox and shot with a $4,000. Panasonic DVX 100 DV camera by director of photography Nancy Schreiber who won best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival.

That same year at Sundance Morgan Spurlock earned the Directing Award for Super Size Me and the documentary Born into Brothels won an audience award, both of which were shot on digital video cameras. Brothels beat Super at the Academy Awards.

So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences.

You can sit around and argue all day about how film is superior to digital video, but folks the train has left the station. And it’s going to get wilder.  I really don’t think most audiences watching the above films or other DV features such as Trainspotting, Murderball, The Buena Vista Social Club, Inland Empire, and Grizzly Man really care what the film was shot on. They want to be entertained, engaged and get a glimpse into the world they live in. Dare I say films with meaning?

All of this means there are going to be more opportunities for films made and distributed outside the Hollywood system.  People have been dreaming about this time since at least 1955 when Daily Variety’s headline read “Film is Dead” with the invention of the first Ampex video tape recording machine. That bold declaration, and those like it, have caused much laughter. Hollywood is slow to change.

It’s always fun to look back at past predictions and read things like, “The radio will never replace TV because people have to stop and sit down to watch TV” and that Manhattan would never have more than 1 million people living there because there wouldn’t be enough room for all the horses.” 

I remember when a trailer for Silkwood came out in ’83 and Cher’s name appeared on screen. People in the theater laughed. Apparently they missed her excellent film acting debut performance in Robert Altman’s Welcome Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean that came out in 1982.

To the people laughing, Cher was only known as part of the kitchy TV program The Sonny and Cher Show that ran from 1976-1977. She had had a few hit songs, but no one (except Altman perhaps) took her as a serious actress. They weren’t laughing after they saw her performance in Silkwood or the next year for her roll in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, or her academy-award winning performance in Moonstruck.

But that’s the same laughter that I heard when my boyhood friends learned the motorcycle company Honda was going to make cars. It’s the same laughter that Ted Turner heard when he said he was going to start a 24 Hour News channel. When told by a reporter that he lost 10 million dollars in his first year of operation, in true maverick spirit he said, “And I plan on losing 10 million dollars every year until this works.”

No one’s laughing at CNN now and behind Tunrer’s wake are many channels dedicated to sports, weather, history, pets and home improvement. (Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dreams touches on the spirit of the entrepreneur.) The entrepreneur and the artist often share a stubborn vision of what is possible.

Artists have always taken the tools at hand and created art; Be it an old Polaroid camera or a cheap Russian made Holga camera. For years filmmakers have been using a plastic video camera designed by Fisher-Price in the 1970’s for children called PixelVision. It originally shot onto cassettes but now is commonly adapted for DV use and there are now PixelVision film festivals as well. 

Now that iTunes is selling short films from the Sundance Film Festival and Academy Award Nominated films it allows a revenue stream never seen before for short filmmakers. With a few clicks on your computer you can be watching The Last Farm shot in Iceland.

Most books on screenwriting are geared toward the traditional Hollywood feature film route and I’m indebted to those books for there I learned classic storytelling structure, but there are many alternative routes for you these days due to the increased bandwidth of the Internet.

Keep in mind that You Tube was just launched in 2005. And already it’s had success (Lonely Girl 15 and We Need Girlfriends) launching careers. The later now being developed by Sex in the City creator Darren Star, who is working on a CBS pilot with the original creators who made the videos in off hours from their day jobs.

And don’t forget the potential for screenwriting for videos games that have become more and more story orientated. Video game sales a couple years ago surpassed movie revenue. And every year more and more businesses will be using video on the Internet to tell their stories.

The digital genie is way out of the bottle. It may be digital but someone still has to write the screenplays. On the high end there will continue to be films shot digitally like Sin City and 300 that were shot on blue screens on sound stages, and this years’ $30 million Cloverfield which was shot mostly with the Panasonic HVX 200 digital camera that sells new for under $6,000. shooting onto digital P2 cards.

There will continually be upgrades to smaller high def DV cameras and films made from them, and there are films now being made being shot directly to hard drives and edited as they’re being shot, and even those older cameras like the Sony VX1000 will filter down to someone who decides its time to make a little film.

And let’s not forget those cell phone cameras I wrote about in New Cinema Screenwriting (Part 1).

This is filmmaking and screenwriting in the 21 century;  A screen is any screen available. Embrace it. That’s new cinema screenwriting.

So pick up a bottle of Coppola wine today a give a toast to Mr. Francis Ford Coppola, prophet, pioneer, and godfather of new cinema.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart.”
Francis Ford Coppola

It’s hard to mark the beginning of the modern independent film movement. Certainly one could make the cases for the films of John Sayles, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino, but I mark the year of 1999 as the point when things really changed in the film industry.

That’s when a group of young guys in Orlando, Florida, created The Blair Witch Project. The graduates from the University of Central Florida shot with a mixture of 16mm film and consumer video cameras and made history. It is still the film with the highest ratio of profit to production cost of any film ever made.

One huge reason is that the filmmakers used the Internet to market their concept in a way that Hollywood easily could have afforded to do if they only had the vision. (They weren’t the only ones to miss the early boat. Bill Gates was not a cheerleader of the Internet at the start.) Hollywood caught the vision soon after the success of The Blair Witch Project, but they’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

I moved back to Orlando from L.A. at the end of 1988 just as the marketing campaign for Hollywood East was heating up. Disney and Universal were building production studios and Chapman-Leonard would follow suit.

Britney, Justin and Christina began doing their thing at Disney, and Nickelodeon found a new use for slime at Universal. Ron Howard’s Parenthood, Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57, and the building that blew up in the opening of Lethal Weapon III- were all shot in Orlando.

I wrote and directed a national radio drama at Century III (known as C-III) at Universal and received my first paycheck writing from Rick Eldridge who would go on to produce Bobby Jones Story; Stroke of Genius. I once was editing a video project at one of the suites at C-III while David Nutter (who I went to school with at the University of Miami) was editing a Super Boy episode he directed in the edit bay next to me. (Nutter went on to direct a Band of Brothers episode as well as some X-Files and has had quite a career in TV.)

Matchbox Twenty, Creed, and yes, The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync were on the Orlando music scene in the 90′s, Shaq was in command for the Orlando Magic, and Tiger Woods moved to town.

It was an exciting time to be in Orlando. But perhaps the biggest underrated event in that era was under most people’s radar. Valencia Community College lured film professor Ralph Clemente away from the University of Miami. (He still runs the film program at VCC that Steven Spielberg said was, “One of the best film schools in the country.”)

I had an editing class with Clemente at Miami and had gotten a good grade in part because I edited a montage of found rodeo footage with a Willie Nelson song. Who knew the German born Clemente whose accent sounds remarkably like Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s would be a Willie Nelson fan? Clemente enjoyed telling student to try new things.

Years later a couple of students would be inspired by Clemente to make a mockumentary that hit the Sundance Jackpot. Most people forget that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t even an official entrant. It was a special midnight showing that created the buzz that hasn’t really gone away.

It was as a giant step toward to prophetic words that Francis Ford Coppola said on the 1991 documentary Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse:

“To me the great hope is that now that these little 8mm video recorder and stuff now, some–just people who normally wouldnt make movies are going to be making them. And, you know, suddenly one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, and you know, and make a beautiful film with her father’s little camera-corder and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever and it will become an art form. That’s my opinion.”


I hope you’ve never been exposed to that quote before. It’s legendary in the micro-budget film world. If I was a fat girl in Ohio who wanted to make films I’d have that quote gold-plated and framed above my iMac.

I don’t know why Coppola picked Ohio as his frame of reference. Maybe he chose it for the same reason I titled this blog Screenwriting from Iowa. Ohio, like Iowa, represents the heartland of America and is more known for farms than film. And since I’m throwing around f-words, Ohio is quintessential flyover country.

But Ohio rocks. In part because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. LeBron James does his magic in Cleveland. The kings of high-flying dreams, Orville and Wilber Wright worked out of a bicycle shop in Dayton. The list goes on. (Did you know that the Wright Brothers lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa at one time?)

And Ohio, like Iowa, has some interesting history connected to screenwriting and movie making: Sundance winner American SplendorMajor League, and the classic family film A Christmas Story. At the time of this writing the ever resourceful Internet Movie Date Base (IMDb) lists a tie for the top rated film ever by its voters as Coppola’s The Godfather and Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption.

The later having been shot in Mansfield, Ohio. That site is a character in the film. And you can still take tours there during the summer. (Mansfield State Reformatory in Ohio)

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Antioch College in funky Yellow Springs can lay claim to helping to educate Rod Serling before he became an advertising copywriter in Cincinnati before becoming the famous writer & host of The Twilight Zone.

Speaking of Cincinnati, though its influence is probably small, it’s worth nothing that Tom Cruise (who Premiere Mag ranked as the #3 Greatest Movie Star of All Time) attended school briefly in Cincinnati and the highest box office money-making director of all-time (over $3.5 Billion) Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati. (And just to pile on George Clooney was raised just over the river in Kentucky.)

The former reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Joe Eszterhas, has returned to his Ohio roots but not before making his mark in Hollywood where he made as much as four million dollars a script. While no one would accuse the writer of Basic Instinct and Showgirls with writing regional Midwestern stories that doesn’t mean he hasn’t written any. In his book Hollywood Animal, Eszterhas mentions a distinctly Midwestern film he wrote that never got made because he was told, “Dirt don’t sell.” Most of the film F.I.S.T. written by Eszterhas (directed by Norman Jewison and staring Sylvester Stallone) was filmed in Dubuque, Iowa.

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In his book “The Devils Guide to Hollywood,” Eszterhas offers advice to screenwriters such as “Move to the Midwest.” Talk about counter-culture? (And from a guy who once owed homes in Malibu, the San Francisco Bay area, and Hawaii–at the same time.)

Why would he give such advice? “You won’t be able to write real people if you stay in L.A. too long. L.A. has nothing to do with the rest of America. It is a place whose values are shaped by the movie business. It is my contention that it is not just a separate city, or even a separate state, but a separate country located within America. Real people live in Bainbridge Township, Ohio.”

(Perhaps that’s part of the success of Diablo Cody’s Minnesota-based Juno? Maybe she should write a tell all book and call it, Diablo’s Guide to Hollywood.)

But what does Mr. Eszterhas think about what that does for your odds of selling a screenplay? Glad you asked. These are the words every writer outside L.A. wants to hear:

If you write a script anywhere and send it to an agent in Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever…and if that agent sends it to an agent in Hollywood who loves it…you can sell your script. You don’t need to have any connections, you don’t need to have an agent, you don’t need to live in L.A. All you have to do is send your finished script to an agent anywhere. That agent will know another agent in Hollywood and you’ll be in business.”

Joe Eszterhas

Keep in mind Eszterhas is talking about the conventional Hollywood agent route, not the additional opportunities wherever you live by various production people who will be attracted to your script.

While not being fat or from Ohio, Zana Briski took a giant step toward Coppola’s vision when the English photographer picked up a handheld DV camera for the first time and made a film in Calcutta’s red light district. Co-directed and shot with Ross Kauman, Born into Brothels, won Best Documentary Feature at the 2005 Academy Awards.

Some people have been asking “Where’s that little fat girl in Ohio?” I think he may have meant Iowa. People get those confused a lot, you know?

But wherever she is she’s on her way. Although she may not make her film using her father’s camera-corder as Coppola suggested, but using her cell phone camera and posting it on the Internet.

Rewind back to 1999 when Steven Spielberg told Katie Couric on the NBC today show, “I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”

As in Des Moines, I-O-W-A. I don’t just make this stuff up, you know? When Couric remarked, “Great, I’m gonna lose my job” (No comment.), ” Spielberg interjected, “We’re all gonna lose our jobs. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.” (Speaking of the Internet, to see a fun and original five-minute film actually made in Des Moines view Mimes of the Prairie, which won the 2005 National 48 Hour Film Project.

As Morgan Freeman’s famous character Red says, “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

Cheers to the new Mozarts in Ohio and beyond.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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