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Posts Tagged ‘Sunset Boulevard.’

Yesterday I was on the phone with an actor from Minneapolis for a project I am shooting next week. It’s not an elaborate shoot, but I am casting three actors for a shoot I am doing in Des Moines which is doubling for San Francisco. (Not as hard as you think since many of  the older San Francisco Victorian houses were built by Midwesterners for relocated Midwesterners.)  No matter your budget, you always have schedule and budget issues when casting a project. It’s the nature of the beast when you try to bring a group of people (cast & crew) together for a production.

And it’s easy to think when producing lower-budget projects that more money and time would solve your problems. But listen to difficulties and last-minute solutions that the great director Billy Wilder had in casting the classic Sunset Boulevard:

“I wanted to make things a little harder for myself, I wanted to do that thing which never quite works—a picture about Hollywood. Originally it was a comedy, possibly for Mae West. The picture became about a silent star and a writer. And we could not find the person to play the great silent star. Mae West did not want to do it. Mary Pickford, no. We were about to sign or not sign Pola Negri for the movie. Then we came upon the idea of Gloria Swanson. She had already been abandoned; she was a death knell—she had lost a lot of money on the Paramount lot. But I insisted on her. A wonderful idea, that carried with it the great value that she had been a silent star, and had made a picture with Erich von Stroheim called Queen Kelly, which we could also use on the projection screen in her home. We did a screen test, she did a few lines, where an angry Swanson maintains that she’s still the greatest. Now we had a picture.

Montgomery Cliff was to play the writer. Three days before, he pulled out. It so happened Mr. Clift had had an affair with an older woman in New York. And he did not want to make his first big picture, playing the lead, the story os a man being kept by a very rich woman twice his age…Leading men at that time we all under contract to the studios. And I had to start shooting on Monday, right? So I went through the list Paramount had at that time. And they had a young actor named William Holden. Beedle was his name really, and he had changed it. He made a picture I enjoyed, it was very good, Golden Boy, I gave Holden the script to Holden at one o-clock, and at three he was at my house, and he said, “Absolutely, I want to do it.”‘
Billy Wilder
Conversations with Wilder (interviews with screenwriter Cameron Crowe)
Pages 47-48

Scott W. Smith

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“Film makers can’t get enough of Adolf Hitler. I think it’s because he’s the perfect villain.” Arnold Pistorius

Once upon a time in Hollywood…1941-1976

So in a sweeping look at American film history today we’re going to clip off 35 years.  Again one of the reasons for this brief look back at film history is to see how change has been a constant throughout the business and to see how we are in another major shift.

Hollywood had enjoyed its greatest decade through the 1930s in the short history of the film industry. (Some still believe that era was the greatest movie decade of all-time.)

1940 & 1941 continued the Golden Era of cinema. But then on December 7, 1941 the world changed for Americans with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The United States was coming off The Great Depression which started with the crash of Wall Street in 1929.

Hollywood actors and directors lended a hand in making training and propaganda films . And then there were movies about the war and its lingering effects back in the states.

So Proudly We Hail, 1943
Best Years of Our Lives, 1946

But I think the biggest lingering effect of Hitler and the Nazi’s is it created a world of fear. I’m not sure we’ve ever recovered from the idea that one man could cause so much pain and destruction in the modern world.

“The motion pictures made during World War II deeply affected Steven Spielberg, and movies about the war remain fertile ground for numerous filmmakers during subsequent decades. One reason for the continued popularity of these sages, and for movies about different wars as well, is the panoply of visual pleasures such conflicts offer.” “Citizen Spielberg”: by Lester D. Friedman

Europe exported existential thought and a new wave of movies that we free morality standards in the American film industry.

Much has been written about the prosperity that followed World War II, but many films reflected a period of questioning human existence and sometimes landing on nihilism or some for of despair. And themes that followed from World War II were prevalent for at least the next 30 years—and maybe until the present day. (The names and fears have just changed over the years)

Look at some of the top films of the 50s:

Rebel Without a Cause
On the Waterfront
Sunset Boulevard
Rear Window
War of the Worlds
Death of a Salesman

Sci-Fi films with end of the world themes were popular:
It Came From Outer Space
The Thing
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Them

Hilter may have been gone but there were plenty of worries beyond wondering how Jerry Mathers was going to break in his baseball glove on Leave it to Beaver. (The Korean War, Soviets, the Bomb, communists, etc.)

And then into the 60s President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr were shot and killed, there were riots in Chicago,  L.A. and other cities. Viet Nam War.  And if things werem’t bad enough TIME Magazine’s cover on April 8, 1966 asked, “Is God Dead?”

Some of the more well known movies of the 60s were:

Dr, Strangelove; or how I stopped learning to Love the Bomb
They Don’t Shoot Horses Do They?
Easy Rider
Psycho
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Bonnie & Clyde
Cool-Hand Luke
Midnight Cowboy
2001 A Space Odyssey
The Wild Bunch
The Manchurian Candidate

The pessimistic trend  continued into the early 1970s in politics with Viet Nam & Watergate as well as at the movies:

M*A*S*H
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Deliverance
Five Easy Pieces
The Last Picture Show
The Godfather
Chinatown

Sure you had Disney movies and light musicals during all these years but these films represent much of the best films of the era.

Bruce became the catalyst for change. Bruce was a mechanical shark on the set of the 1975 film JAWS who didn’t work as well as desired.  But he worked well in the edit bay and the $7 million film went on to make over $400 million worldwide. Sure there was blood and guts, but it had a happy ending.

The tent pole movie was born (or maybe just perfected). And once that genie was out of the bottle everybody in Hollywood was shooting for the  $100 million boxoffice goal.  By this time Viet Nam was over and Americans were ready to get on with life and the bicentennial celebration of the United States in 1976.

And Rocky was there toward the end of the year to give audiences something to cheer about. I do believe the one-two punch of JAWS & Rocky had a huge impact on the future of the film business. More thills per minute and a somewhat happy ending that would make a lot of money.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Part 5)

Scott W. Smith

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“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
                                  Woody Allen 

“It ought to be the business of every day to prepare for our last day.”
                                  Matthew Henry

 

There have been many high profile celebrity deaths in the last two weeks. It’s been kind of hard to miss that fact. A lot of people have been asking, “What’s going on?”

While the concentration of celebrity deaths in a short time is unusually high I don’t think anything is going on beyond what occurs 5,500 times everyday in the United States. That’s the number of people according to the New England Journal of Medicine who die everyday in this country. It’s just not something we tend to dwell on everyday.

Celebrity deaths from Marilyn Monroe, to James Dean, to Elvis, to Princess Diana, to Michael Jackson seem to grab our attention and provide never-ending discussions.  Death scenes in movies also grab our attention. Some of the all-time most memorable scenes in movie history are centered around death. Here are a few examples:

The shower scene in Psycho, the opening scene in Jaws, the closing scene in Braveheart, the vast number of bodies spread out on the field of battle in Gone with the Wind, and William Holden floating in a pool in Sunset Boulevard. The list goes on and on. (Tim Dirks’ filmsite.org has a whole list called Greatest Movie Death Scenes.) 

Since a major part of movies center around conflict then it’s natural that death would be at the center of some of our most memorable movie experiences.  Here’s some solid advise on how to write a death scene:

“In The Godfather, Don Corleone falls and has a fatal heart attack while entertaining his grandson. The physical life of the scene is superb: Brando slices an orange and places the peel against his teeth, pretending to be a monster. It not only adds an interesting texture but also breaks the stasis of the scene when the child bursts into tears and forces Corleone to comfort him. The physical life created a flow and opened the door for a very specific and interesting character revel. It is a very original way to write a death scene by juxtaposing play with death.” 
                              James Ryan  
                              Screenwriting from the Heart
                              page 150 

 

Scott W. Smith

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She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast
He was a Midwestern boy on his own
She looked at him with those soft eyes,
So innocent and blue
He knew right then he was too far from home he was too far from home

                                           Bob Seger
                                           Hollywood Nights 

 

Though I’ve said that Diablo Cody was the inspiration for me to start the Screenwriting from Iowa blog, it was an event that happened three years after she was born that probably planted the seed that eventually led me to Iowa.

When William Holden the lead actor of Sunset Boulevard died November 12, 1981 it made a huge impact on me. I had just moved to L.A. a few months prior from Orlando and was attending film school and studying acting. I was already familiar with his work on the movies Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, and Network. I knew that he was an Oscar winner and one of the biggest stars of the 1950s.

But it wasn’t his films and life that made the news of his death leaving such an impression on me. It was the way he died. The news in L.A. at that time played up the fact that he apparently fell while drunk in his Santa Monica apartment and had hit his head on a table and bled to death. And he laid there dead in his apartment overlooking the Pacific Ocean for several days before anyone missed him. He died alone. 

I remember thinking at that time, “How is that possible?” How is it possible for a guy that’s achieved everything I could ever hope to achieve in the movie business to lay in his condo for several days before any one missed him? This is the original Golden Boy, who was linked romantically to Audrey Hepburn, Shelly Winters, Grace Kelly and at the end with Stefanie Powers,. He had a six decade career including heavyweight the films The Bridge on the River Kawi, Sabrina, and The Wild Bunch.

He was rich and famous and he is now #25 on AFI’s list of top movie stars. But he died alone.

Two weeks later actress Natalie Wood died in a mysterious late-night accident involving a boat off Santa Catalina Island in Southern California.

A few miles away from where Holden died, and just four months later actor/comedian John Belushi died of a heroin overdose at the Chateau Marmont which just happens to be on Sunset Boulevard.  Much of my misspent youth as a teenager was spent laughing at Belushi’s antics on Saturday Night Live (Cheezebuger, Cheezburger), Animal House and The Blues Brothers so I didn’t find anything funny about his death.

I was only 20 years old and hadn’t even been in L.A. a year and I knew something was wrong with the place. While I was an intern on a cable TV show called Alive and Well that was taped in Marina del Rey I remember talking to L.A. Dodger Steve Yeager who was a guest on the show about L.A. and he told me something I never forgot. (Yeager, by the way, went to high school in Dayton, Ohio which just happened to be where William Holden’s character was from in Sunset Boulevard.) I asked Yeager if he thought L.A. was a plastic town and he said, “Yes, but if you live here long enough you don’t see the plastic.”

I only lived there five years so I could still see the plastic when I headed back to Florida. I still love much about L.A, but maybe it wasn’t so crazy to eventually move to Iowa. 

Yesterday I read that Forbes listed nearby Iowa City, Iowa as the #9 best small metro places to live and work (Waterloo-Cedar Falls was #33) and not too far away Des Moines was listed as the #7 best metro places to live and work.  How did California fare? According to Forbes writer Kurt Badenhausen “Bringing up the rear of our rankings are the troubled spots in California. The Golden State had its worst showing ever in our tally.” Los Angeles ranked #180.

I hope as the digital revolution continues that the William Holden’s and John Belushi’s of the future (if they aren’t big enough to live in Montana or France) can do their thing in their home states and avoid some of the L.A. trappings. Holden and Belushi weren’t the first do die in excess in L.A. and they won’t be the last. (And it’s also true that every part of the country has its problems with drugs and alcohol. But L.A. seems to have a special gift for leading actors and musicians—and in some cases actors turned musicians—toward a path of destruction.)

Do you wonder if William Holden when he was all alone in his apartment did he ever fire up a projector and watch Sunset Boulevard?  He was a respected (and still working actor) but faded movie star that Susanne Vega referenced in her song Tom’s Diner;

I open
Up the paper
There’s a story
Of an actor

Who had died
While he was drinking
It was no one
I had heard of

  

Certainly as Holden wandered alone in his large apartment at least once had to see some parallels between his life and Norma Desmond’s. 

And right now a 20 year old actor is pulling into Hollywood for the first time and he’s never heard of Norma Desmond, William Holden…or even Susanne Vega.

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

 


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“The Wilder message is don’t bore – don’t bore people.”
                                                    Billy Wilder

 

By the time Billy Wilder directed Sunset Boulevard he had already worked on over 40 feature films. He had already been nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two for his work on The Lost Weekend. It’s safe to say that Wilder knew what he was doing when he made Sunset Boulevard which would bring him another Oscar as one of the movie’s three writers.  A few years ago when the Writer’s Guild of America picked the best 101 screenplays of all-time they listed Sunset Boulevard at #7.

So just in case you aren’t that familiar with the film I wanted you to know the importance of the script and film. If you’ve read the post Screenwriting by the Numbers you’ll see how Sunset Boulevard perfectly fits the classic three-act structure. Heck, Wilder even fades to black so the audience doesn’t miss the act breaks. (A nod to the theater when the curtain would go down at act breaks.) 

Here’s my breakdown of the movie and how it measures up with some things I’ve written about in the past. (It’s best read if you’ve seen the film because there are some spoilers mentioned. And this is a film that every writer should watch multiple times.)

Sunset Boulevard has 57 scenes. (40-60 is average for most feature films.)

Sunset Boulevard runs 110 minutes. Which averages around 2 minutes a scene. (Most features tend to run 90-120 minutes.)

Only three scenes are over three minutes in length and they are saved for key moments. (If characters move from one part of the house to the next and it’s a different camera set-up I mark that as a scene break.) 

There are two main characters (Norma Desmond & Joe Gillis). 

William Holden, who plays Gillis, is in almost every scene in the film. (“Stay with the money” is the old Hollywood saying.)

There are three reoccurring supporting characters  (Max, Nancy, Artie).

Except for the long voice-overs of Joe Gillis, most dialogue is three lines or less. 

There are three acts. Act 1 ends at 26:51, Act 2 ends at 75:48 min., and Act 3 ends, of course, at the end of the film 110 minutes. (Though the script does indicate they worked in five different sequences marking them “A,” “B”, “C”, “D” and “E.” so one could argue a five-act structure.)

There is one main story (Gillis writing Norma’s script and becoming a boy toy in the process) and three subplots. The subplot with Nancy ties directly to the main plot and the climax of the film. The youthful Nancy new to Hollywood also offers a contrast to Norma, the aging movie star.

Almost every scene has conversation with three people or less. 

A good amount of the scenes are just two people talking.

Norma’s house is one giant set piece and where most of the story takes place.

The film is a mix of drama, comedy, action, satire, melodrama and film noir.

Gillis’ lack of work and money sets the story in motion. (Read the post Gordon Gekko vs. Paul Newman)

The title is literal and metaphorical as it is the name of a street in L.A. where Norma lives and sunset also represents her fading career/life. “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”

Contrasts is used throughout the film;  interior/exterior scenes, day/night scenes, theme of rich/poor, old/young, small apartment/huge mansion.

Coincidence is used early in the film to put Gillis at Norma’s house.

Exposition is sprinkled throughout the film with Max’s little secret coming when toward the end of the film when it would have most impact.

The ending is ironic. Gillis gets his pool and Norma gets back in the spotlight. Though what they get is not in the way they thought they’d get it.  He’s dead and she’s off to jail. (On top of that her desired close-up is out of focus.)

Of course, it was the solid writing during the 110 minutes that sets the film a part. That is the hard part. But I did want to show you the simplicity of limiting characters and locations as the writers Charles Brackett, D.M Marshman, Jr, and Wilder did on their way to creating screen magic. 

The bottom line is study the masters.

Bonus low-budget production tip; To get the famous shot of Joe Gillis floating face down dead in the pool with the police looking down on him was shot by placing a mirror in the pool under the floating body and shooting down into the mirror.  They found that having a water temp of 40 degrees added the right mix of visual clarity with a hint of distortion. 

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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The thing that often gets lost when we talk about the outstanding career of writer/director Billy Wilder is the contribution of screenwriter Charles Brackett who wrote 13 films together with Wilder. Brackett won three Oscar awards over the years, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Academy in 1959. 

Brackett was 14 years older than Wilder and brought a considerable amount of clout to the writing table. He had graduated from Williams College and Harvard Law School, he wrote short stories, novels, and was a drama critic for the The New Yorker from 1924-29, and Hollywood took notice buying some of his stories in the 1920s until he finally moved to L.A. when he was 34 years old. 

But according to Sam Staggs the results were less than grand.  “Like many writers from the East, he distained the studio assemble line approach to writing. So he went home. Soon, however, Paramount’s blandisments lurned him to Hollywood again, and in 1932 he signed a contract with that studio as a staff writer. Some half dozen scripts followed, not one of them noteworthy, until someone at Paramount had the crazy-brilliant idea of caging Brackett with Wilder.”

The refined, educated Brackett mixed with the street smart Jewish immigrant from Europe made for an interesting mix, lots of fights and they wrote a heck of a lot of great movies including The Lost Weekend, A Foreign Affair, Ninotchka along with Sunset Boulevard. For whatever reason Sunset Boulevard was the last script they wrote together. After the break-up Brackett won another Oscar as one of the writers on 1954 film version of Titanic.

In 1938-39 Brackett was the president of the Screen Writers Guild and from 1949-1955 he was the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He died in 1969 in Beverly Hills and was buried in Saratoga Springs, New York where he was born in 1892.

Brackett’s grandson, Jim Moore, has a website dedicated to his grandfather called The Charles Brackett Project.

Scott W. Smith

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Did you know the Midwest had a big part in the success of Sunset Boulevard? Not only was Gloria Swanson born in Chicago and William Holden born in O’Fallon, Illinois (just east of St. Louis) but Nancy Olson who received and Academy Award nomination in her supporting role in the film was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But it was a preview screening just north of the city of Chicago that first signaled there was a problem with the opening scene.

While few have seen the original opening of the movie since 1949 there are scripts kicking around with the original open. The opening scene takes place in a morgue where William Holden’s character Joe Gillis lies dead with other dead bodies of men, women and children. Then things get funky when the voices of the dead people begin to talk.

                                                           A MAN”S VOICE
                                             Don’t be scared. There’s a lot of us here.
                                             It’s all right.
                      
                                                             GILLIS
                                             I’m not scared.

And then they all continue talking about how they died and one asks if “Satchel Paige beat the White Sox yesterday?” to which the Gillis voice-over replies, “No I wouldn’t. I died before the morning paper came.” The tone Wilder was after was missed by that first audience in the Midwest.

“Because of the touchy subject matter. Paramount sought a venue far from Hollywood to preview the picture. Evanston, Illinois, seemed distant enough. After the opening credits, when the story moved down Sunset Boulevard and into the L.A County Morgue, the audience stunned Billy Wilder. Years later he recalled, ‘When the morgue label was tied on Mr. Holden’s toe, they started to scream with laughter. In the mood of hilarity I walked out of the preview, very depressed.’”
                                                    Sam Staggs
                                                    Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard
                                                    Page 151

Paramount got the same negative reviews in Poughkeepsie, New York  and Great Neck on Long Island. The release was delayed as Wilder took six months to make changes.  When the film was released with changes in 1950 it was generally well received in the larger cities with some reviews having a clear understanding of the lasting value of the film. But the film was not a blockbuster hit. But it would go on to become what many have called the greatest film about Hollywood and in 1998 AFI would list Sunset Boulevard  as #12 on its top 100 film list.

 

Scott W. Smith

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