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Peter Hedges once met an actress on a subway in New York City who eventually told him the story about how some friends went to cook a Thanksgiving dinner but their oven didn’t work so they had to go around the building to get other people to let them cook their meal. Hedges thought, “That is a great idea,” and made a bunch of notes and then forgot about it until a couple of years later when he found out his mom had cancer. (A woman that informed everything he did

“As [my mom] was dying—or fighting to live at that time—she would always ask me what I was working on. And I was always working on getting her better doctors and trying to get her better treatments that would save her life. But she said let’s talk about what you’re working on and I said, Mom I can’t write anything, there’s no point in writing. And she said, well, there’s no point in anything if you’re not making something—so what are you making? And I opened up files and I found this file about the girl cooking the turkey and I asked that question that you ask as you’re writing your scripts or you’re making your films, Why is she cooking the turkey? And I said, because it’s Thanksgiving, that’s why you cook the turkey. But so what? And my notes said the reason she’s cooking the turkey is because she’s estranged from her mother and her mother’s dying of cancer. And I gasped. I couldn’t believe it, and I called my mom and said listen to these notes. And she said, Oh Peter, this sounds like a story you’re supposed to tell.”
Writer/ Director Peter Hedges
Podcast interview The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

Hedges did tell that story—the classic indie film Pieces of April (2003). One of the early films shot on digital tape it was made for under $300K with a stellar cast. It’s a film I’ve written about from time to time on this blog. (It would be a good investment to get the Pieces of April DVD with Hedges director’s commentary to gather tips on indie filmmaking.)

P.S. A little bit of Screenwriting from Iowa trivia—Peter Hedges was born and raised in Iowa.

Related posts:

‘Pieces of April’ (Part 1) 
‘Pieces of April’ (Part 2) 
‘Pieces of April’ (Part 3) 
‘Pieces of April’ (Part 4) 
‘Pieces of April’ (Part 5) 
‘Pieces of April’ (Part 6) 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

My mother was tough.

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Sue Stautner doesn’t look tough in this photo. But she was tough.

She was born in the middle of the Great Depression and a chunk of her youth was taken up with the scarcity of the effects of a world at war. Those raised during the Depression and World War II were engrained with an exceptionally particular view that economic turmoil was always on the horizon and my mother was no different.

And despite my mother’s father having a job in advertising at National Cash Register (NCR) during those times of high unemployment he was an alcoholic. He died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 57. Having an alcoholic father is tougher than tough. It’s a wound.

Happy Mother’s Day, right?

But it is a happy Mother’s Day for me because I recall a woman who endured hardships and went on to have a productive life. I gave my mom her last Mother’s Day card a few days before she died last month.

Before she graduated from Fairview High School in Dayton, Ohio she had played field hockey, was a homecoming queen, and worked at the Dayton radio station WINK where she met comedian Jonathan Winters and humorist Erma Bombeck early in their careers. She also took classes at the Dayton Art Institute. 

 

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She met my father when she was a student at Ohio State University and part of the Delta Gamma Fraternity (Delta Gamma was formed in 1873 when what we commonly call sororities were called women’s fraternities). And to show how tough she really was—she taught art at South Seminole Middle School for 30 years.  Days before she died I saw a woman at Starbucks wearing a shirt that proclaimed “I ain’t scared—I’m a middle school teacher.”

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A student’s creation at South Seminole Middle School

She also raised two kids mostly as a single mother, and mostly on a teacher’s salary. Did I tell you my mom was tough? One year I gave her a Mother’s Day card featuring the iconic World War II art work of J. Howard Miller that originally encouraged women to roll up their sleeves and do wartime jobs in the defense industry.

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My mom was strong. And she was also loving, funny, and supportive. Looking back perhaps one of the toughest/loving/supportive things she did was sit through all of my football and baseball games. That’s part of her life spread over a decade just  standing or sitting in the Florida sun watching her son play sports.

My mom went to high school and college in the 1950s which was during the peak of cigarette smoking being cool. She started before the dangers of smoking were widely known, and unfortunately never stopped long after she knew the damage it was doing to her lungs.

 

 

I took the below photo sometime after she turned 80 and shortly before she was wearing oxygen full time due to having COPD. Living and dying with COPD has been called the long goodbye because it can be a long, slow process. For my mom it was a decline of six plus years from when she really began having difficulty breathing.

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Over those last six years my mother never missed a chance to tell me that this could be her last Mother’s Day. I knew one of these years she would be correct so I tried to maximize my time with her in person and on the phone.

My mom’s final act of toughness was enduring a month in various hospital rooms, an intensive care unit, and at a physical rehabilitation facility.  She always said she wanted to go peacefully in her sleep and she was able to do just that with her son and daughter on each side of her holding her hands as she took her final breath.

It was a sad and sweet moment. I’m thankful for my mom bringing me into this world and giving me the foundation to live a creative life. And I’m glad my sister and I had the opportunity to help her in the later stages of her life.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there. The definition of tough is to “endure a period of hardship or difficulty”—so I think all mothers are tough.

And another group of tough women were the nurses, med-techs, and care workers at the assisted living facility where my mother lived in her later years. They oversaw her medication, brought her food daily when she after she could not longer go to the dining hall for meals, made sure she got her daily paper, joked with her, often has extended conversations with her, and maybe put up with a complaint or two from my mother.

My mother was an avid reader of novels, enjoyed well-done witty Tv shows (Young Sheldon was her recent favorite), and I look forward to watching Cannery Row again because that was one of her all-time favorite films.

It was a tough but human process to watch my mother die. And it will forever shade how I live my life.

P.S. One of the fringe benefits of having someone close to you die is you get to hear stories you never heard before. I just received a phone message from Vivian Hurston Bowden (who is author Zora Neale Hurston’s niece) and she commented on how much she loved my mom and enjoyed working with her at the junior high/middle school.  She also let me that my mom did the decorating for her wedding in Sanford, Florida back in 1971. A long time neighbor of hers told me how my mom bought her little gifts when than woman went through treatment for cancer.  I love hearing those stories.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I learned a number of things [working on my first firm]. I remember there is a scene in the film [What’s Eating Gilbert Grape ] that I was so proud of—it was about seven pages too long.  [The director Lasse Hallström ] said the scene is about six and three quarters pages too long. I kept rewriting it and I got the scene down to nine words. So I learn economy. About that time I heard a great story about Peter Shaffer the great, wonderful playwright had adapted Amadeus for Milos Forman. And there’s a very famous monologue in the play where Salieri rages at God—there are still monologues in the film, but this was a particular speech that Peter Shaffer really wanted in the screenplay. He’s like if you’re going to adapt my play as a movie you must have this monologue in the film. Milos Forman said no. Shaffer said, no, no, no you need to understand something, this is the best piece of writing I’ve ever done. Salieri is angry at God—it has to be in the film. No. And they went back and forth, and finally Milos Forman said Salieri there is a cross on the wall, Salieri grabs the cross and he throws it in the fire. There’s your monologue. And that is a great example of learning that you can use image or you can use a cut to tell the story. Whereas I came from the theater where I was always trying to tell the story with dialogue. So I learned a lot there.” 
Writer Peter Hedges (Pieces of April, Ben is Back)
The Q&A Podcast with Jeff Goldsmith 

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Long ago I embraced grown the coninsidence that happens occationally on this blog. Yesterday’s post touched on the period in the 1970s and ’80s when there was an influx of Haitian and Cuban refugees to Miami. I even included a photo I took during that era in Hialeah, Florida.

Early this morning I happened to be listening to an interview with actor/director Vincent  D’Onofrio who’s life was changed as a ten-year old in Hialeah went he learned to do magic tricks from Cuban enterainers who’d immigrated to the United States and opened  a magic shop near D’Onofrio’s home. It was his introduction to the entertainment industry.

The above still frame features D’Onofrio as Pvt. Pyle in Full Metal Jacket in an iconic scene with Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). It was D‘Onofrio’s film debut and he spent 13 months on the shoot and this is one of the key take aways he learned from director Stanley Kubrick:

“Once you’ve worked with [Stanley Kubrick] it’s difficult to move a camera unless it’s helping tell the story. You don’t move the camera for the sake of moving it.”
Vincent D’Onofrio
Podcast interview on WTF with Marc Maron

In a day and age where moving the camera is pretty easy to do, it’s especially good to think through why you’re moving the camera. Here are some videos I found online of the photojournalist turned filmmaker Kubrick at work on various movies.

Scott W. Smith

“In the early ’80s Miami was not the place to be.”
Photographer Gary Monroe

Last week I watched the documentary The Last Resort on Netflix and I found it fascinating.  The focus of the documentary is on photographers Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe as Miami Beach transitions from a Jewish retirement haven, to home for Haitian and Cuba immigrants, to the trendy place it is known for today.

One of the reasons The Last Resort interested me is because I was in Miami in the early eighties. After I saw the doc I tracked down a photo I’d taken while I was in film school at the University of Miami that was my version of capturing that era for a photography class. This photo isn’t as good as the work Sweet and Monroe were doing, but hey, I was just 20 years old. (If I recall correctly, this shot was taken at the Hialeah Park Race Track in 1981 or 1982.)

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P.S. The video below on Gary Monroe was produced by Eric Breitenbach of Daytona State College. A talented photographer, filmmaker, and teacher who I met many years ago when I bought one of his photos to put on a set of a project I was directing.

Scott W. Smith

Now class, everyone thank Emily and Vanity Fair for making this video. (Virtual applause.)

Scott W. Smith

“One out of 21 black American males will be murdered in their lifetime. Most will die at the hands of another black male.”
Opening graphic in Boyz n the Hood

”Before I could do long division, I mastered which neighborhoods and housing projects to never step foot in. I can easily remember running full speed from the bullets indiscriminately spraying out of a red IROC-Z Camaro; and the face of the man who put a gun to my temple in high school is forever seared into my brain.”
Gerrick D. Kennedy/ L.A. Times
“How John Singleton’s ‘Boyz n the Hood’ shaped the life of one boy from the hood”

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John Singleton received Oscar nominations for both writing and directing Boyz n the Hood (1991) and it was one of those rare films that taps into the zeitgeist of the times. My last post was on the Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace which was filmed in 1972 at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts—which just happens to be located in the heart of South Central L.A. where the story of Boyz n the Hood takes place.

One of the reasons Boyz n the Hood hit me particularly hard when I saw it was just a few years before the movie I spent some time in South Central L.A. as a photographer. While I was going to film school in the early and mid-80s I worked for Yary Photography which at the time was located in Cerritos, California. They are best know for doing team sports photography throughout Southern California.

I remember clearly the cultural close-up I got driving and working in South Central L.A. Once my car broke down in the Lynwood (just north of Compton). This was the days before cell phones so I had to walk on foot to find a mechanic who could help. I was very well aware that I was an outsider in a land known for drive-by shootings. I eventually found a mechanic and my car got fixed with no incident, but I will never forget that walk.

Another time I was doing a photo shoot at Los Angeles Southwest College on Imperial Highway (where the 110 and 105 now meet) and I was taking photos of a football player and asked him if he wanted to take off something that didn’t match his uniform (I think it was a wrist band or bracelet) and his coach said he couldn’t because it was gang related. The player wasn’t in a gang, but he had to wear it for safety.

This was 1983-1986 and I remember thinking there are some stories to be told from here. John Singleton started his career with one of those stories and went on to have a long and successful career working on film and Tv projects.

That same year Lawrence Kasden‘s Grand Canyon touched on some of the same themes as Boyz n the Hood coming at it from a different angle.

Two Years later Menace II Society came out.

And in  2001 Training Day hit theaters.

And though Straight Outta Compton came out in 2015 it is a story set in South Central in the mid-’80s.

P.S. While I was planning on releasing my screenwriting book in April, the death of my mother last week took up much time. Look for it being released in May.

Related post: Filmmaking Quote #41 (John Singleton)

Scott W. Smith

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