Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Star Wars’

“Here’s the beautiful thing about theme, it’s the underlying message that kind of unifies the story…Even if you don’t write from theme I know the reason why a lot of you are sitting down and putting the time into [screenwriting] is you have a way of looking at the world that you want to communicate to people…Just like dialogue needs to have subtext and not be on the nose, you never want to be on the nose thematically. You don’t want to be didactic, you don’t want to be preachy, it’ll put people to sleep. It’s not what people expect from drama. Drama is about emotion…In Star Wars Luke has to shoot the Death Star, he has to shoot something down a little hole—blow up the Death Star. And he’s got a chose in front of him, he’s got the force—’Use the force, Luke’—or he has a computer. Now the computer technology isn’t just like [basic] computer technology, it’s the technology that built the Death Star—which is pretty powerful stuff. So when he chooses the force and he’s successful, you get this theme; ‘Humans, intuition is more important than technology.’”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme
Obligatory Scene=Story’s Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Sheldon Turner on Theme
Theme=Story’s Heart and Soul
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sideny Lumet on Theme
More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

“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

Read Full Post »

“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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

“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



Read Full Post »

“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


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: