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How did we end up here?
Riggan (Michael Keaton) in Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 1.56.26 PM

By his own admission filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu was a “terrible student,” a college dropout, and a street musician who knew he wasn’t good enough to have career in music. So what road did he take to become the three-time Oscar-winner of Birdman (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay)? He worked for a radio station in Mexico for five years where for three hours everyday he entertained listeners with stories, characters, and political satire between songs. At age 21 he was the director of the radio station. He then moved into television where he made “terrible things that I will never show.” But he got hands on experience producing, directing, editing and “failing.”

In one of his failures was the seeds to his Oscar awards. With another writer he began writing a screenplay about a silent film director who is beginning to lose his image when he looks in the mirror. It was a battle between his evil self, but Iñárritu said, “I could never really nail it right.”

He also studied acting for three years, directed shorts films and TV programs along the way. By the time he started working on Amore Perros (2000) he already had “10 years of commercial directing” (and don’t forget the five years of working on the radio program). It also took a three years for Amore Perros to get produced.

Two projects on the internet reflecting  Iñárritu’s non-feature work are The Things That Connect Us he directed for Facebook, and Naran Ja basically non-stop, cutting in camera experimental project shot “with a video camera from the 80s.”

An early Birdman influence was the book El túnel (The Tunnel) by Argentina writer Ernesto Sabato about a deranged painter that was first published in 1948.

“[The Tunnel] was written with no dots or commas and I read it maybe thirty years ago and I remember that it always impressed me. And I always had this idea to make something like that—a non-stop ride…I have been meditating the last four years and by meditate you observe much more clearly the mechanics of your own voice—which we all have. Basically to observe, not to change. Mediate is just that, to observe what’s going on. And I thought it would be interesting to take all these things and in the moment I got that first idea I remember truly by some thing the first image that I took and the first meeting I had with [co-writers Nicolás Giacobone and Alexander Dinelaris] in New York, I said guys, ‘Interior, Dressing Room, Day— a middle age man is floating in his underpants’…I knew it was about him getting in that state of mind battling with his evil that will become this voice…The process was one of those magical, very lucky strikes in a way that I have worked with Nicolás and [Armando Bo—the fourth screenwriter on Birdman] on Biutiful so we knew eachother. And then I invited Alexander, so I thought that the the three of them would be the best worse idea to make a comedy, because if you know the work of Alexander, Nicolás or me you will never think that we will be able to work in a comedy because our work doesn’t show humor at all. But because of that I thought this was a perfect bad idea.”
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
The Q&A Interview podcast with Jeff Goldsmith

Note: Iñárritu mentions on the podcast that Birdman was not ha-ha comedy, but tragic-comedy.

P.S. You can follow Jeff Goldsmith on twitter @yogoldsmith and subscribe to his iPad magazine Backstory, The Art and Business of Storytelling at backstory.net .

Related posts:
Where Do Ideas Come From (A+B=C)
Failing—Learning—Succeeding
Filmmaking Quote #42 (Iñárritu)
‘Keep Your Head Down’ Jeff Goldsmith interview with Diablo Cody
Hollywood=Factory Town
Legacy Filmmaking (& Your Bank Account) “They’re never going to talk about your bank account when you’re dead, but they will talk about maybe the movies you left behind if you really cared about what you did.”—Franl Darabont
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76) Jeff Goldsmith interview with Edward Burns

Scott W. Smith

“When you can have a positive effect on people’s lives and help them reach their dreams, that is the best reward a teacher can have.”
Ralph Clemente

“A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.”
Goethe

ralph-in-his-office-pano

Ralph Clemente in his Valencia College office/Photo by Don Burlinson

Earlier this month filmmaker and educator Ralph Clemente died only three weeks after finding out he had  pancreatic cancer. He was a professor of mine at the University of Miami and known for his infectious inspiration—and Arnold Schwarzenegger-like accent.

In the late eighties he helped start the film program at Valencia College in Orlando where he and his students would have a hand in producing 47 feature films. Over the years the program allowed students to work with Oscar-nominated actresses Julie Harris and Ruby Dee, and Oscar-winning director Robert Wise (who also edited Citizen Kane). Steven Spielberg once called the program, “one of the best film schools in the county.”

Clemente actually had the distinction of being part of the inspiration for a couple of the filmmakers who would go on to make The Blair Witch Project, as well as just this past November having a small part playing a woodman in Game of Thrones

That Game of Thrones episode was directed by David Nutter who was also Clemente’s student at Miami. Clemente produced Nutter’s first feature Cease Fire (which starred an up and coming actor named Don Johnson) which helped launch Nutter’s career that’s included directing gigs on The Sopranos, The X-Files, Entourage, and Band of Brothers. Clemente and Nutter remained friends over the decades so I wasn’t surprised that he hired Clemente as an extra on the set of Game of Thrones shot in Ireland.

(Note: For the younger DSLR crowd, and those totally unfamiliar with Nutter or Clemente, as Vincent Lafort continues making the transition from photographer to filmmaker he’s recently been shadowing the Primetime Emmy-winning Nutter on production sets. It’s all one big interconnected tribe.)

Clemente was born in Germany and actually had his first acting role at the age of two. He moved to Florida as a teenager, studied acting, ending up serving in the Army, before going on to work in TV and film and landing at the University of Miami as filmmaker-in-residence for ten years.

What a life, right? But his legacy is the film program at Valencia which just earlier this year had a 20th Anniversary film festival to celebrate some of the films he and the school helped get made including Sealed with a Kiss which he directed from a script written by his wife Emily.

What sets the Valencia program apart is its early vision. In the late 80s, Disney and Universal built film studios in Orlando, and enough features and TV shows were being shot here (Parenthood, From Earth to the Moon, Passenger 57) that it looked like the promises of central Florida becoming Hollywood East were more than hype. But what there wasn’t a lot of was support personnel grounded in the area— grips, gaffers, camera assistance, etc.

Greg Hale, one of the producers of The Blair Witch project, went through the Valencia film program and more recently worked as an assistant director on The Avengers and Django Unchained. Producer/Director Ben Rock was also a student of Clemente’s:

“One of the best lessons 
Ralph teaches is that production should be fun…My best memories of Valencia are of Ralph, working the set, joking around, telling stories, keeping everybody’s morale up.”
Ben Rock
Vitae Magazine

Clemente always encouraged his students to take chances and I remember editing a student project at Miami where I risked using a Willie Nelson song (Nelson wasn’t quite as hip in Miami in the 80s as he would be with hipsters in Miami today) and it turned out Ralph loved Nelson’s music and would later use one of his songs in a feature he produced.

In college I also remember going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans with a couple of friends on one long weekend road trip but made it back in time for his class on Monday. When I told him I was just off a 12-hour drive to make the class he laughed and told me my grade just went up.

I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of people Clemente touched in his life, but he was one of the good guys. In fact, Ralph also had students work on public awareness projects including Make-a-Wish, Health Care for the Homeless, and His House Children’s Home (for abused and neglected kids) which helped raised awareness, donations, and resulted in some adoptions.

This blog is the overflowing of the good influences in my life and part of that DNA is my time spent with Clemente in Miami. And just to come full-circle, since January of this year I’ve been producing projects at Valencia College and while my tools are not film and Moviola’s anymore, what I learned from Ralph Clemente transferred well to digital cameras and non-linear editing. But beyond the technical aspects and production tips you commonly learn in school, Clemente had an upbeat spirit that was less common.

Related Links:
Ralph Clemente: Valencia film pro inspired good stories, Orlando Sentinel
Filmmaking is a Team Art  Friend Oliver Peters who edited four of Clemente’s features remembers working with him.
Valencia Mourns Loss of Filmmaking Legend Ralph Clemente 

P.S. “Ralph R. Clemente Scholarship” at Valencia Foundation, 1768 Park Center Drive, Orlando, FL 32835 or complete online donation form by selecting the Designation “Ralph R. Clemente Scholarship” at donate.valencia.org.

Scott W. Smith

“And don’t forget to punch the clock, shorty.”
Well-known scene from Oscar-winning Breaking Away screenplay written by Steve Tesich

Metropolis

Scene from “Metropolis” (1927), screenplay by Thea von Harbou based on his novel

Have you ever had a job where you punched a time clock? You know, a place where you punch-in with a time card when you start work and you punch-out whenever you stop working. It’s an accurate way to keep track of your work hours.

I punched a clock in my first job in high school at a grocery store, and punched another one summer in college as a driver at a factory that made boat windshields. (Punch in late three times there and you were fired.) Maybe you’ve never had such a job and maybe you have one now (or all they all digital these days?)— but have you ever punched a clock to keep track of your writing?

Screenwriter John Jarrell thinks it’s a good idea.

“Start keeping a time card. Check out the big brain on me, right? Keepin’ it way old-school — straight out of the 18th Century.

“I created a Word Doc called (wait for it) ‘Time Card’, and whenever I sit down to begin writing I type in the Date and my Start Time. Whenever I break for lunch (or any other extended and/or unexpected absence), I put down however long that took. Lastly, after a hard day’s work, usually distraught and balled up in the fetal position, I enter my Finishing Time.

“Tallying it up is simple math. Total hours spent – break time = actual hours worked on any given day.

“…Committing to keeping a time card forces me to be one-hundred percent honest with myself. About my writing. About how real my effort is. About how real I am.”
Screenwriter John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal from a Twenty-Year Pro
page 218

For what it’s worth, years ago when I toured the Hemingway Home in Key West they said Hemingway when working on a novel wrote everyday between the hours of 8AM and noon. (Even if he’d been up drinking the night before—which, between you and me, I think he did more than a time or two.) Hemingway also used a typewriter to write his stories and swam laps regularly—just like Oscar-winning screenwriter Quentin Taratino does these days.

P.S. The great thing about artists is they can make art out of anything—even an employee time clock.

Related post:
‘Art is Work’—Milton Glaser
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic
Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic
Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic (Take 2)
The Breakfast Club for Writers (2.0)
‘Breaking Away’—Like a Rock

Scott W. Smith

“When analyzing any film, two specific questions need to be asked of each beat — 1) What is the ultimate purpose of each scene? 2) What does it accomplish structurally?…There are no random beats in a great screenplay.”
Screenwriter John Jarrell (Romeo Must Die)
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal from a Twenty-Year Pro
Page 164

This ends posts the past two weeks centered around Jarrell’s book, and as a bonus, below is how he answers those two questions regarding the second scene of the David Ayer written movie Training Day.

A) Alonzo (Denzel Washington) immediately establishes the balance of power between them — veteran/new guy, strong/weak, big dog/little dog, top/bottom. This keeps Hoyt’s character off-balance from the very start.

B) Hoyt’s lackluster drunk-stop tale fails to impress. Why is this seemingly innocent exchange of special note? Because this normal, first day on the job meet-and-greet actually confirms Hoyt’s lack of experience for Alonzo.

Think Big Picture. As we’ll later learn, Alonzo has plotted out the entirety of this training day well in advance. But to make it all work, he needs a young, green cop he can fully manipulate and control.
John Jarrell

Related posts:
‘Tough Love Screenwriting’
‘Learn from the very best’
Five Must-Read Screenplays If for some ridiculous reason you haven’t seen or read Training Day, put this book down RIGHT NOW and go do it.”—Jarrell
Screenwriting with Brilliant Simplicity
‘Little Green Envelopes of Love’

Scott W. Smith

The single thing that mostly sets apart screenwriter John Jarrell’s book Tough Love Screenwriting is the more than 70 pages he spends on WGA Credit Arbitration. (With a nod to producer Joel Silver for giving him his own “Cliff Notes on Arbitration.”)

He points out that while not common, it’s not unheard of to have 50 drafts of a screenplay worked on before it goes into production and as many as 15 writers having worked on the script to one degree or another. Who are the 1-3 writers who will get credit? If contested that’s where arbitration comes into play.

(Note: Read ‘Jurassic World’ Writing Credits Dispute Goes to Another Appeal to read about an up-to-date battle.)

You can download a PDF of the WGA Screen Credits Manuel to give you an understanding of the process.

I won’t even try to compress Jarrell’s thoughts here, but he mentions in his book that he’s had three wins and zero losses over his 20 year career—and here’s why it’s so important:

“Each writer’s contract contains a credit bonus figure — the amount of additional money you’re owed above and beyond your writing fee if the project ultimately gets produced. Here’s where the plot thickens — studios and production companies only pay credit bonuses to the writers who wind up with their names officially on the film. In a nutshell, no screen credit, no bonus. Simple as that.

“These bonuses can involve mad cashish, ranging anywhere from say $5,000 to well over $1,000,000. Intense right? Keep in mind, this is ‘passive income’ — payments you get without ever having to lift a finger or write another word. The studios just fire off a fat check with your name on it.”
John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal from a Twenty-Year Pro

Jarrell calls those fat checks with your name on it,”Little green envelopes of love.”

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Related Links:
Screen Credit Procedures PDF
Behind the Lines with DR: Writers Guild Arbitration Fight or Flight, Script Mag
Barry Levinson Quits WGA Over Sloppy Credit Arbitration, Deadline
The Bitter Script Reader: An introduction to the WGA arbitration for determining credit

Update 4/18/15: Just read the transcript from the most recent Scriptnotes podcast where screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin unpack How writing credits work.  Good stuff.

Scott W. Smith

“I did a million drafts. And then I did the thing everybody does—I read Syd Field and I used my index cards.”
Producer/writer/actress Tina Fey

The note card/index card method of plotting out your story has been covered a couple of times on this blog in the posts Screenwriting Via Index Cards and Dustin Lance Black Screenwriting Tutorial (with video), but the “brilliant simplicity” of the technique is worth re-visiting from time to time. Today, screenwriter and instructor John Jarrell puts his spin on using notecards which he says Syd Field made mainstream popular with the 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting.

Jarrell deviates from Field in that he prefers 4″X6″ cards rather than the 3″X5″ cards Field wrote about. (More writing real estate.) Jarrell says notecards are the first thing students dive into in his workshops. He goes into more detail in his book, but here’s a quick snapshot of his notecard method:

“In the most general sense, I end up with anywhere between 45 and 55 cards when cooking up a feature. Most commonly, I’ve got approximately twelve cards for Act One, twenty-four for Act Two and a final (you guessed it) twelve for Act Three. If I recall, Syd Field recommends fourteen/twenty-eight/fourteen. But since every writer fills in their cards differently, there aren’t any hard numbers to reference. I’ve heard as few as twelve cards total and as many as a hundred.

“For example, I may count ‘CAR CHASE SEQUENCE’ as just one beat, but another writer may have, say, three cards which fully flesh it out — ‘EXT. TOWN SQUARE — CARS RACE DOWN STREET’ then ‘EXT. RAILYARD — CARS SLALOM ONTO TRAIN TRACKS’ then ‘EXT. DOCKS — CARS CRASH AND SINK INTO BAY’. Whatever floats your creative boats while properly building structure is your correct method.

“…The Notecard Method hasn’t survived for over a century now because it doesn’t work. There simply isn’t a better diagnostic tool in the craft of screenwriting as far as I’m concerned.”
Screenwriter John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro

You can pick up a pack of 100 4X6 cards for under four bucks at any Office Depot, Staples, CVS or Walgreens. A pretty cheap investment. (The 3X5 cards that Fields preferred are under two bucks per 100.)

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Related post: Syd Field (1935-2013)

Related links: Index cards and 10 hints for index cards by screenwriter John August

Scott W. Smith

“For screenwriters hungry for an even deeper education, reading the actual scripts is about as good as it gets.”
John Jarrell

Why single out just five screenplays to read? Because it’s more doable than climbing WGA’s mountain of 101 Greatest Screenplays. I bet you can track the five screenplays below online and read them by the end of this weekend. (Bird by Bird to borrow Anne Lamott’s phrase.)

The list below is gleaned from screenwriter John Jarrell in his book Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro and his Scriptshadow interview. He didn’t call them Five Must Read Screenplays, but what follows in bold are his insights.

Paddy Chayefsky’s Network — Pretty much the Holy Grail for screenwriting as far as I’m concerned.

Oliver Stone’s Scarface — Damn-near EVERY LINE in the film is right there on the page as Stone intended it. As badass a screenplay as you’ll ever read. 

Hampton Fancher’s early draft of Blade Runner — For pure writing’s sake, I much prefer this to the Peoples’ rewrite. It’s just more textural and evocative to me, with some slight differences that I really enjoy. A magical script in my opinion.

Kevin Walker’s Seven — The greatest serial killer movie ever written, and one that’ll never be equaled.

David Ayer’s tour de force Training Day offers us a world-class example of plotting… From Page One/Line One, there’s a jaw-dropping level of screenplay awesomeness taking place here. Exactly what makes Mr. Ayer’s script so outstanding?
—The world is thrilling, fresh and unique.
—The villain is exceptional.
—The plotting is wicked sharp.

If for some ridiculous reason you haven’t seen or read Training Day, put this book down RIGHT NOW and go do it.

Have a good weekend.

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Update: Ambrose Chapel just made your search for those five screenplays easier by posting all five scripts at this ScriptDrive link. (Though you have to signup to be able to download scripts.)

Related posts:
‘Tough Love Screenwriting’
‘Learn from the very best’
‘Network’ Notes by Paddy Chayefsky
Writing Good Bad Guys
‘What it means to be a screenwriter’ —Robin Swicord

Scott W. Smith

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