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Posts Tagged ‘Star Wars’

Star Wars is one of those films — old films — that was designed for the big screen. It makes a big difference to see it on the big screen with the overwhelming sound, the picture and now 3D. We’ve had two generations be able to see it on the big screen and it was great. Now kids who have never seen it on the big screen, who have no idea how powerful it was — because all they had was DVD — have that chance.”
George Lucas
The Hollywood Reporter article by Alex Ben Rock

It’s been a Star Wars week for me. Wednesday night I had to drive two hours to pick-up a crew member flying into Des Moines Airport from Los Angeles. Because he was coming in around midnight I decided to make a stop at the Apple Store and catch a late showing of Star Wars: Episode 1 -The Phantom Menace 3D at the West Jordan Mall. I know this will be heresy to diehard Star Wars fans, but I had never seen the film. I was a teenager when the first Star Wars came out and eventually when I found out who Darth Vader was I was satisfied with the series.

Which means I hadn’t seen a Star Wars movie in the theaters since seeing Return of the Jedi in 1983. That’s almost 30 years! But I remember that night well, because I was in film school where about 70% of the people were there because of the original Star Wars. A bunch of us went to a midnight showing in Hollywood and it was great.

So there I was Wednesday night (with just one other person in a massive theater) hitting the reset button experiencing Star Wars again like I was seven years old. And remembering that through all of the pros and cons that’s been said of various Star Wars characters and movies over the years—that George Lucas is a genius. Forget almost everything else he’s done and just judge him Star Wars, American Graffiti and the story for Indiana Jones is proof enough.

Yesterday (the day after seeing The Phantom Menace) I went to a shoot at a company here in Cedar Falls called Phantom EFX where among others things in their creative environment was a handmade R2D2 so I couldn’t pass up having my picture taken with the little fellow. I was interviewing Aaron Schurman, Phantom EFX CEO and designer of the Darkest of Days video game. It turns out that Aaron has been out to LA to meet with CAA and develop one of his games into a feature film.) Boy, you never know what’s going on in the outskirts of the cornfields here in Iowa.

All of this reminds me of an opportunity I had back in 2006 to visit ILM in San Francisco where I was greeted by the statue below of Yoda before entering the building.

Good memories, and great movie memories. Thanks Mr. George Lucas.

Maybe the force still be with you—and all of us—all the of days of our lives.

Scott W. Smith

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“I try to make films that move people when they are in the theater and make them think only after they leave.”
Claude Berri
Oscar-winning French filmmaker (Le poulet, Jean de Florette)

“I’ve always chosen to work on films that are more than entertainment. I believe film can also be provocative and send audiences home thinking.”
Cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, True Grit)

A few years ago I was producing a promotional video for a seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. As I was shooting b-roll footage of a professor teaching, I experienced one of those wonderful moments that happens from time to time—I learned something. And it was so simple I remembered it: “Think. Feel. Do.”

Turns out that the concept of think, feel, do is not limited to preachers explaining Biblical passages to their congregants, but is used by everyone from marketing professionals to psychologists—and since screenwriters and storytellers fall somewhere between preachers and psychologist it’s worthwhile to toss it into your tool box.

Though for screenwriters it’s best to think in terms of feel, think, do. And just when I think I’ve reinvented the wheel, a quick Google search tells me there’s already a business book titled See, Feel, Think, Do.

Let’s use the pre-Super Bowl VW commercial that went viral this week as an example. I saw the Stars Wars influenced spot called The Force when it merely had 500,000 views a couple of days ago. As of this writing it’s passed the 10 million view mark. (Though I think roughly 25,000 views of those are mine.) I love the simplicity of the spot and from Volkswagen’s perspective they want you to Feel, Think, Do.

Ideally the team behind that spot wants you to feel a connection with the little kid striving to find his superforce powers. (And they’ve spent a galactic amount of money to make sure plenty of viewers do make that connection.) You empathize with the kid’s situation. You think about all those good feelings you had for the Star Wars movies. Maybe you even remember where you were when you first heard the words, “Luke, I am your….” Maybe you identify with the situation because you are a mother or father who currently have a son or daughter running around the house in Star Wars garb. Maybe your kids are now college age and you remember when they did the same. A mix of thinking & feeling stirring all kinds of emotions in viewers.

Then comes the do part—”You know, my car is looking a little ratty.” “A new car would be nice.” “That new Passat is a sharp-looking car.” “Honey, you want to go looking at cars today?”

Think. Feel. Do./Feel. Think. Do.

That’s what people who gives sermons try to do, that’s what people who make commercials try to do, and that’s what many great films do.

I can tell you first hand, that watching Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in On the Waterfront stand up to injustice has helped me a few times to think, feel, and do in a few instances and stand up to injustices I’ve seen. (And like Malloy, I’ve got the scars to prove it.)

But I must add, that films work best when they are subversive. When they sneak up on you. When the theme grows on you long after you’ve left the theater. The biggest problem that pure propaganda filmmakers make is hitting you over the head with a message like “pay it forward,” “save the environment, “war is bad.”drugs are bad,” “have faith in God” and “wear clean underwear.” They tend not to make audiences think, feel or do—nor do they tend to be very entertaining. (Except in the case of Avatar.)

Show don’t tell. Total word count of that VW commercial…zero.

P.S. Using Darth Vader to sell cars…evil has never been so cute.

P.P.S. If you haven’t seen On the Waterfront or Jean de Florette...Netflix.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“They drew first blood, not me.”
John Rambo

“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.”
Joseph Campbell

The road to the first Rambo movie being released in 1982 was a long journey. The novel First Blood was published in 1972 and reports are that the property went through three studios, 16 scripts, and a lot of high-profile actors and directors before it became Sylvester Stallone’s second franchise character (after Rocky). And though Stallone had become a superstar after the 1976 release of Rocky his other non-Rocky films (F.I.S.T., Nighthawks & Paradise Alley) hadn’t faired so well. Nor was the topic of Vietnam a popular one in ’82—the last U.S. troops pulled out of Saigon in ’75. There weren’t strong indicators that First Blood was going to be a hit film.

But producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, and director Ted Kotcheff, put together a team that would defy the odds, and created not only a film that would open #1 at the box office, but one that would go on to make $125 million worldwide, followed by three sequels—all creating the rare international iconic character, John Rambo.

The movie was based on the David Morrell novel First Blood that actually had Rambo as more of a killing machine. (The first movie while having plenty of actions, explosions and injuries, actually only has a few people dying.) The changes were made to make the character more sympathetic. Morrell was a professor of English at the University of Iowa between 1970-1986, which means the chances are good that the novel was written in the vicinity Iowa City. (Just learned that today as I was doing research on Morrell.)

“My intent in writing (First Blood) started back in 1968 when I was a graduate student at Penn State and I was watching TV one night when I was struck by the news by two reports that followed back to back. One which was of a Vietnam fire-fight with soldiers screaming, and shooting and bullets kicking up dust, and the other was about riots going on in American cities. That summer and the summer before there were many, many riots and many of them had to do with off-shoots of the Vietnam war. And I got to thinking what if we had a novel in which the Vietnam war came home to the United States and we sort of had a taste of what it would be like in our own back yard. Basically what the intent was was to write an anit-war novel about how I was not in favor of the Vietnam war. It was about how the establishment abused young men and took them over and made killing machines and then took them back and never retrained them.
David Morrell
First Blood Blu-ray commentary

His key model for the Rambo character was World War II hero Audie Murphy. Morrell has gone on to have a long successful career as a novelist. He received his undergraduate degree at the St. Jerome University (a Roman Catholic university in Canada), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Penn State. He said on the DVD commentary that he always thought of First Blood as being a western and lists The Sheepman (1958) as a film that was a sort of parallel to First Blood.

Here is a summary of The Sheepsman found on IMDB:

A stranger in a Western cattle-town behaves with remarkable self-assurance, establishing himself as a man to be reckoned with. The reason appears with his stock: a herd of sheep, which he intends to graze on the range. The horrified inhabitants decide to run him out at all costs.

Morrell also was influenced by Joesph Campbell’s work on mythology in developing his character and story for First Blood. (Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was also key to George Lucas years later as he would develop the Star Wars movies.) It’s not hard to read Campbell and understand the primal aspects that Morrell drew upon in creating First Blood. There’s the warrior fleeing into the woods, descending into the mine, starting a fire, and surviving swimming with rats, and ascending the ladder into the light. Morrell called it a “Hunter hunted story,” while Stallone has made references is to Rambo being a Frankenstein-like character.

First Blood was also a film that dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and while not giving any answers, Morrell says that he heard reports that many Vietnam vets wept for the first time since the war as the film somewhat depicted how hard it was to make the transition from solider to civilian in a country where they were often despised and rejected.

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son don’t you understand”
Bruce Springsteen
Born in the USA 

You may be also interested to know that Morrell picked the name John Rambo as a combination of the poet Arthur Rimbaud (A Season in Hell) and a type of apples called Rambo that his wife brought home one day while he was writing. Credited on the First Blood screenplay are Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone.

You can find out more about Morell, and the 30+ novels and books he’s written, on his website davidmorrell.net.

P.S. For the person who has everything…the survival knife that Rambo uses in First Blood was designed by the late Jimmy Lile who was known as the Arkansas Knifesmith. For $3,500 you can have a knife like Rambo—it’s called the New Lile First Blood.

Scott W. Smith

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Judging from the Christmas list (or Cristmis list) that my wife and I received recently from a seven-year-old, LEGOs are a little different then when I was a kid. (And, yes, this list is 100% authentic.) And if this is a common list this Christmas, and every kid gets one or two Star Wars LEGOs this year, then it will be a very good year for George Lucas. The total of this list comes to $1,384.91.

Star Wars, the movie that just keeps on earning.

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“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a reminder of what movies are for. Most movies are not for any one thing, of course. Some are to make us think, some to make us feel, some to take us away from our problems, some to help us examine them. What is enchanting about E.T. is that, in some measure, it does all of those things.”
Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun Times

“The image of E.T. emerging from his mobile tomb summons a storehouse of symbols that mark the presence of God and divine miracle.”
Roy M Anker
Catching Light

Hollywood has had an interesting dance with religious films over the years with various degrees of successes, failures and controversy. An abridged list includes The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, Seven Years in Tibet, King David, Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ.

The biggest game changer being The Passion of the Christ. Oddly, the violent retelling of the crucifixion of Christ became the all time R-rated box office champ. Mel Gibson’s $30 million dollar gamble eventually  paid a dividend of $600 million at the world-wide box office. Despite it’s predicted failure at the box office, in the year it was released (2004) it became the seventh highest grossing movie ever. (With the audience it found some would say it paved the way for films like The Book of Eli and The Blind Side.)

Speaking of The Passion, did you ever see the humorous studio notes Steve Martin wrote for the The New Yorker?:

Dear Mel,
We love,
love the script! The ending works great. You’ll be getting a call from us to start negotiations for the book rights…Possible title change: “Lethal Passion.” Kinda works. The more I say it out loud the more I like it.

But in general Hollywood has had much more luck dealing with stories that would be considered spiritual allegories. They tend to me less didactic, less overtly religious and less controversal, and generally better stories.  And the box office responds much better to them. Films I would put in this category are Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia,  Star Wars, and The Matrix. (Though it’s fair to say that not everyone is in one accord with the meanings of these films. But then again, how many different religions are there? Focus on something like separate protestant denominations and you’ll see the numbers climb into the the thousands. Getting people to agree is not that easy.)

In the spirit of Easter, one film that has been closely identified with the death and resurrection of Christ is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the movie,”essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the filmmaker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination.”

Written by Melissa Mathison (a self-described “ex-Catholic’) and directed by Steven Spielberg (raised Jewish in Anglo-Saxon suburbs) there has been much written about the spiritual aspects of E.T., but Spielberg has said (in Take 22; Moviemakers on Moviemaking) that, “If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles.”

So much detail went into the technical aspects of E.T. it would be hard to believe that Spielberg and Mathison were not at least aware of the spiritual parallels they were drawing on. (At least kicking around somewhere in Mathison’s Catholic-schooled subconscious in the eight weeks she took writing the first draft.) But I don’t think they were pandering to a Christian audience, in fact, when the movie first came out some Christian leaders were calling the film “new age.”

Spielberg and Mathison were simply trying to tell a story that would make a good movie, and in doing so tapped into their own upbringing (Spielberg has talked about his parents divorce and his longing for an imaginary friend), their spiritual upbringing, mixed with creative imagination, as well as a powerful death and resurrection theme that many associate with the cornerstone of the Christian faith. (Of course, Joseph Campbell would make the case that death and resurrection themes pre-date Christ, but that opens up a whole different can of worms.)

But in making E.T. the filmmakers made one of the most uplifting films ever and the one that the American Film Institute currently lists as the 25th greatest American film. Sitting nicely between Raging Bull and Dr. Strangelove.

© 2010 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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“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Classic last line of Some Like it Hot

“In story terms, the main character’s persona is plagued with a flaw, and as this flaw is tested throughout the story, the main character integrates a greater understanding of overcoming the flaw through the lessons of life that are expressed by the story.”
Kate Wright
Screenwriting is Storytelling
page 114


The world recently learned that the great golfer Tiger Woods is not perfect. And if you read this post in a few months or a few years just fill in the blank…The world (or your local community) recently discovered that ____  ____ is not perfect.  The news of imperfection—of character flaws—still makes the news. Always has, always will.

Character flaws in movies are not always spelled out as clear as they are in The Wizard of Oz, but it’s hard not to have a flawed character in a film because the cornerstone of  drama is conflict. Flaws can be external and/or internal so they offer ample room for conflict.

I don’t need to explain a character flaw so I’ll just give you a list of some key flaws in some well-known movies. As you’ll see both protagonists and antagonists have flaws. The major difference tends to be the protagonist/hero generally must overcome his or her flaw for growth, whereas the antagonist are usually defeated due to their great flaw. (But even in tragic endings where lessons are not learned and character is not changed in the hero, and where evil not defeated (Death of a Salesman, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, Scarface), there is a warning shot felt in the heart of the viewer.

“Greek classical drama frequently afflicted the hero with a blind spot that prevented that character from seeing the error of his or her ways.  This strategy still shows in films that range from character studies (What’s Love Got to Do with It), to epics (The Bridge on the River Kwai), to action stories (Jurassic Park).”
Paul Lucey
Story Sense
page 159

The following list is not a conclusive list of flaws, just some of the most common ones that you’ll recognize when you get together with family this holiday season.

Pride/arrogance
Zack Mayo, An Officer & a Gentleman
Maverick
, Top Gun

Drugs/alcohol
Paul Newman character, The Verdict
Sandra Bullock character,28 Days
Nicolas Cage character, Leaving Las Vegas
Don Birnam
, The Lost Weekend

Greed/Power
Darth Vader,  Star Wars
Gordon Gekko & Budd Fox, Wall St.

Lie/Cheat/Steal/Corruption 101
Jim Carrey character, Liar! Liar!
Denzel Washington character
, Training Day

Delusional/Mentally ill
John Nash, A Beautiful Mind
Norman Bates, Psycho
Captain Queeg/ The Caine Mutiny
Blanche Dubois, A Streetcar Named Desire
Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
Glenn Close character/ Fatal Attraction

Unfaithful/Promiscuous
Fatal Attraction
Body Heat
A Place in the Sun

Obsessive
Jack Nicholson character, As Good as it Gets
Meg Ryan character, When Harry Met Sally
Tom Hanks character, Castaway

Flaws, by the way, are one of the chief dilemmas that both philosophy and religion have struggled to answer for at least the last few millenniums. Where do flaws come from and what do we do with them? The central question being if  man (as in mankind) is born good as some believe then why is everyone and every civilization since, uh—the beginning of time— so messed up? And if we’re born with original sin as other believe then what are the ramifications of that? I’m pretty sure we can agree on one thing, this is one messed up world with a whole cast of real life flawed characters.

We’re all trying to figure out why we’re wired the way we’re wired. And we go to the movies to get a piece of the puzzle. And the side benefit to writing great flawed characters is the audience not only identifies with the character, but actors love to to play flawed characters. Writing great flawed characters tend to be appreciated at the box office and at award time. It’s a win-win situation.

Who are some of your favorite flawed characters?

P.S. Marc Scott Zicree The Writer’s Wrench calls character flaws, “The hurt that needs healed.” Zicree also wrote The Twilight Zone Companion and Rod Serling understood a lot about writing about character flaws.

Scott W. Smith

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It’s funny when you pick an area to focus on what you can uncover.

First I learned that screenwriter/producer/director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Night at the Museum, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) was from the Youngstown, Ohio area.

Then I learned that the producer Paula Wagner (Mission Impossible, Vanilla Sky, Valkyrie)  was born and raised in the Youngstown area.

Now I learn that E.T. was from Youngstown. Okay, technically E.T. was from space, but one of the key  personnel responsible for being inside one of the E.T.’s was 2’10″ Pat Bilon of Youngstown, Ohio. There were many people (and actually several E.T.’s) responsible for E.T.’s movements depending on what was needed. Tamara De Treaux and Matthew De Meritt also wore E.T. suits, but according to Fred Skidmore, spokensman of Universal Studios, “Pat did do the majority of the movie.”

Bilon worked as dispatcher for the Mahoning Country Sheriff’s Department when he was discovered by a casting director at a Little People of America conference. He first appeared in Under the Rainbow that starred Chevy Chase. Upon auditioning for Steven Spielberg he was reportedly cast within a day.

His role in making E.T. move required him to wear the E.T. suit up to six hours a day with no ventilation. After the movie was released Bilon told Roma Sochan Hadzewycz that his favorite scene to play was a chase scene on a bike, “I was in a yoga position in the basket of Elliot’s bike, and a truck with a camera was pulling the bike. I couldn’t see how fast we were going, but I could feel the breeze and I could tell it was very fast.”

E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial was released in 1982 and in January 1983 it passed Star Wars at the #1 all-time box office champ. (It is currently #5 domestically.) Sadly, also in January of 1983 Pat Bilon died. But what a journey he must of had.

So while you’re dreaming (in between your writing), why not shoot for the moon?

Scott W. Smith

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“When I used to look out at the world, all I could see was its edges, its boundaries, its rules and controls, its leaders and laws. But now, I see another world. A different world where all things are possible. A world of hope. Of peace.”
Neo
The Maxtrix

“It’s all for nothing if you don’t have freedom.”
William Wallace
Braveheart

“You cannot tell a meaningful story without the potential for loss.”
                                                                                      Robert McKee

“A good point of attack is where something vital is at stake at the very beginning of the play.”
Lajos Egri
The Art of Dramatic Writing

I don’t know if Monday’s immigration raid in Postville, Iowa made it on your radar but it was the largest single site raid in the history of this nation. Federal immigration agents arrested 390 people from Mexico, Guatemala, Israel and the Ukraine.

Let’s put the politics aside and look at this from a Screenwriting from Iowa  perspective. How you answer the question  “What’s at Stake?” has a big impact on your writing.

Recently I wrote about David Lynch being in a small town in Iowa known as a haven for transcendental meditators and I find Postville just as intriguing. The community was founded by those of German and Norwegian decent and they make up half of the town’s 2,500 people. The other half are mostly Hispanics who work for the Hasidic Jews who moved there from New York, so the place is a little surreal.

Yesterday I drove to Postville to shoot some footage and interviews for Univision, the Hispanic Network in Miami,  and the first two people I met to were a couple Jewish young men. We talked a little about the town and had a common connection talking about B&H Camera in New York.

The Hasidic Jews are in Postville because they own and run Agriprocessors the world’s largest kosher meatpacking plant and where Monday’s raid occurred. (As a side note, did you know that Coca-Cola makes a kosher Coke available for the Jewish Passover?  No high-fructose corn syrup used.)   The Mexicans and other immigrants are there to work in the meat packing plant. The Germans and the Norwegians are still in the area running the farms they and their families have been tending for over 100 years.

Stephen Bloom, author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America writes, “I look at Postville as a social laboratory to test the limits of diversity, tolerance, and acceptance.”

When I first pulled into Postville it looked like many small Midwest towns you drive through. But then you notice the Guatemalan restaurant and the Mexican clothing and convenience stores and know that there is something unique about this area. Then you wonder how the Hasidic Jews have adjusted to moving there from New York.

Bloom writes, “When the Hasidic community moved to Postville, they moved their entire ethos with them from Brooklyn to northeastern Iowa. They created immediately a shul or synagogue. They made two mikvehs, or ceremonial bath houses, as well as a yeshiva, or school for their children. They replicated in northeastern Iowa the community they had established in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. So in my mind, they were not suffering any degree of cultural deprivation. They moved their world, lock, stock, and barrel, one thousand miles westward.”

Am I the only one who thinks that setting would be more a fascinating and original setting for a movie than say…”What Happens in Vegas”? In fact, What Happens in Postville sounds like a fine title. Witness meets La Bamba meets The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg with a dash of Ibsen and Wim Wenders. 

But what I really want to talk about is the concept in your screenplay of “What’s at Stake?” That is a key question of the stories you tell. Investors and studios long ago learned the secret of that question. Because at the core of the question “What’s at stake?” is the concept of what holds an audiences attention.

Writers are sometimes slow learners and can get caught up in the story, characters and dialogue they are writing. But “What’s at Stake?” is vital to ask when what’s at stake financially is a lot of money. “What’s at stake?” is related to the level of conflict I wrote about in tip #1.

If you take a long look ar AFI’s top 100 films you’ll notice that 70% of the films deal with life or death, or at least significant life and career blows. Great conflict.

Citizen Kane
Casablanca
The Godfather
Gone with the Wind
Lawrence of Arabia
The Wizard of Oz
On the Waterfront
Schindler’s List

When you talk about life and death a lot is at stake.

 “I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of last track myself. Being how this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you have to ask yourself one question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’
                                                                                                         Dirty Harry

If you look at the all time box office hits you’ll find a majority also have life or death, or significant life or career blows.

Titanic
Star Wars
Spider-Man

E.T. (the immigrant from outerspace)
Lord of the Rings
Jurassic Park
Pirates of the Caribbean

No one said all successful movies had or needed to have this element but obviously it increases your odds of having an award winning film as well as one that finds a large audience.

Maybe that’s the simple secret to horror films and super hero films usually doing well at the box office.

As I made the hour and a half drove home from Postville yesterday I thought of all lives involved in Monday’s raid. Certainly surrounded by agents with guns and helicopters overhead was a dramatic and traumatic situation. Now many are separated from family members and facing deportation. Others face charges of identification tampering.

It made me recall my days in Miami when Haitians would risk their lives to come to the United States on overcrowded and poorly constructed boats. And sometimes they died in the process.

The mayor of Postville said if the meat packing plant closed then his town could become a ghost town. There is a lot at stake from many angles in Monday’s raid.

What’s at stake in the script you are now writing?

“What’s at stake?” is a significant question in life as well as drama.

copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world? “
                                                                                                        The Maxtrix

“Life is very, very complicated and so films should be allowed to be too.”
                                                                                                      
 David Lynch 

 

Yesterday I drove two and a half hours to hear David Lynch speak for an hour. Or “the great David Lynch” as he was introduced. I don’t pretend to understand writer/director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) or his films. But I felt compelled to hear what he had to say since he is considered “one of the true originals of world cinema.” Plus he is notorious for not doing DVD commentaries so you grab bits and pieces when you can.

Of course, there’s a good chance that David Lynch doesn’t understand many of his films so doing a commentary could be tricky territory. I feel with Lynch what Ingmar Bergman said of Godard, “I have a feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have a feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me.”

Lynch said this in the Focal Press book screencraft; directing: “I refuse to give explanations of any film I make. Films can be abstract and abstractions exist in everyday life and they give us a feeling, and our intuition goes to work, and we make sense of it for ourselves…Watching a film is like standing in front of a painting. It’s talking to you and it’s about a circle from the screen to the viewer to the screen to the viewer. Once that circle starts rolling, the same films can be seen 100 different ways by 100 different people. That’s why I refuse to explain my films.”

I became familiar with Lynch in 1980 with his film The Elephant Man that he directed and co-wrote. It’s the story of John Merrick who is heavily deformed and mistreated. I was a teenager and it may have been the first black and white film I ever saw in the theater. I knew I was watching something different. And when the deformed Merrick shouts, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” I knew I was experiencing something profound.

Oddly enough that film was produced by Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) who is known a little more for his humor than his profundity. The Montana born Lynch started out as a painter studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. That may explain some of the abstractness in his films. He made short films and went on to study at the American Film Institute.

Many of his films (Wild at Heart, Lost HighwayIsland Empire, Mullholland Drive) have left me shaking my head and wondering why I am watching a foreign film in English. But then there is The Straight Story about Alvin Straight who, unable to drive a car, decides to take his riding mower 240 miles across Iowa to see his brother who had a stoke.

Jerry Bruckheimer it’s not. The Straight Story is the antithesis of high concept. But it’s a film totally that captivated me long before I moved to Iowa. As a side note, I did meet actor Richard Farnsworth (who played the lead character Alvin Straight) in a movie theater in Burbank back in the 80′s. Here was a guy who was a stuntman and long before he rode a riding lawn mower in a movie rode one of the chariots in Ben Hur. And there he was just waiting in the snack line in front of me. How fun is that? 

Someone said The Straight Story  was not so much a film but a meditation. Which makes perfect sense since Lynch has been a long time proponent of transcendental meditation (TM). In fact, his talk was part of the David Lynch Weekend at the Maharishi University of School of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. 

 

Not technically connected to Trancendentalism that emerged in 19th century New England that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who were in search of Utopia. Though there is a connection in Vedic teachings from Ancient India. I don’t pretend to understand this way for thinking except that Thoreau’s Walden does tap into a universal theme of wanting to live in harmony.

In the Jewish faith there is the concept of Shalom, meaning peace or nothing missing. The Buddhist through meditation seeks awakening or enlightenment. In the Christian tradition Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives you peace do I give you.” I imagine all religions have some understanding of peace and harmony.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’ll leave the differences of these religions for someone else to discuss, but whatever you believe you can probably agree with Danny Glover’s character in the movie Grand Canyon as he reflects on the world he lives in, “Man, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” So we seek a sanctuary – a holy place.

Catholic’s have sought a higher spiritual plane though building beautiful cathedrals, and using candles and music such as the hymns of St. Francis of Assisi and Gregorian chants. In fact the mystical film Koyaanisqatsi was made by a filmmaker (Godfrey Reggio) who spent 14 training to be a monk years in a New Orleans Monastery before turning to film. 

I have been to Protestant black churches where the uplifting music mixed with somber spirituals alone last longer than most non-black services I’ve attended. Both John Calvin and Thomas Edison said that people were “Incurably religious.”

At this point we’re a long way from Beavis and Butt-Head as well as “Dude, Where’s My Car?” but there’s room on the screen for a few spiritually significant films. There is a reason some films resonate with people and are discussed endlessly: The Seventh Seal, Star Wars, The Shawshank Redemption, The Matrix, The Qatsi Triliogy, Babette’s Feast, Grand CanyonTender Mercies, Crimes and Misdemeanors.

I think at least Lynch’s films The Elephant Man and The Straight Story fit in that catagory. So a little out of my comfort zone I went to hear Lynch speak on “Exploring the Frontiers of Creativity.” Here are some sound bites:

“Intuition is the number one tool of the artist.”

“Negativity blocks creativity.”

“Cinema is sound and picture moving in time.”

When someone asked him for some obstacles to make a film (in the spirit of Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions) Lynch responded with a handful including these gems; “A bowling ball in space filled with red ants” and “A Buick with fifteen 16-year old girls.” 

When asked how he chose which ideas to make a film on he said, “I get ideas all the time and every once in a while I fall in love with one.” He said he is surprised as anyone when they come along and added, “I translate ideas that I fall in love with.”

So if you have trouble understanding Lynch’s films know that it’s like listening to someone explain the dream they had last night. You sit there nodding your head having no real way to process what they are telling you.

Lynch spoke of a new cinema. The first time I saw a photo of Lynch holding a DV camera it made perfect sense. He once said, “I started working in DV for my Web site, and I fell in love with the medium. It’s unbelievable, the freedom and the incredible different possibilities it affords, in shooting and in post-production.” 

Lynch told Videography Magazine, “With DV, experimenting is something you can do on your own. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It’s really a freedom thing.” 

By the way, if Fairfield, Iowa rings any bells in your head that probably means your a gamer. On July 13, 2007 Billy Mitchell set a verified world record high score on the classic Donkey Kong arcade game. Mitchell has recently been featured in two documentaries on gaming King of Kong and Chasing Ghosts. Right there is Fairfield, a small town most people in Iowa would have trouble placing on a map.

On my two and a half (plus) hour ride home I had to time to reflect on the day. One of the things that stuck with me was Lynch talked about the importance of the process. And actually, just driving down there was beneficial as I enjoyed the blue sky and wide open scenery, and worked through ideas for a screenplay I am working on. While driving back from Fairfield I stopped in a Iowa City and while in a bookstore read the intro to Juno: The Shooting Script by Diablo Cody. Cody writes:

 “And here’s my unsolicited advice to aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition. No one is capable of doing what you do.”

Mr. Lynch echos those sediments: “In cinema, if everybody was true to their stories and themselves, then there would be many unique voices.” Love or hate his films, David Lynch is a unique voice. 

 

“Water the root and enjoy the fruit.” 
                                                                    David Lynch 

“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.” 
                                                                    Peter Seller’s character in Being There   

 

Photos and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

 

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