Archive for February, 2009

The Wrestler is the first movie that made me wake up sore the next day. Watching Mickey Rourke on screen had some kind of psychosomatic effect on me where I felt the pain of a lifetime of wrestling. Just as pro wrestling sometimes blurs the lines of fake and reality (even staged body slams have to take a toll on one’s body) this movie blurs the lines between Mickey Rourke the actor and Mickey Rourke the person. 

The fact that Rourke has been out of the limelight for many years made his transformation all that more amazing. Was this really the good looking young actor of the 80s films Diner, Body Heat, Rumble Fish, and The Pope of Greewnich Village? I’ve never been to a pro wrestling event, but know enough about the culture to think that Rourke’s performance rang true. 

When I was youngster I used to go to boxing matches and hang out at the Orlando Sports Stadium gym which in many ways was the boxing equivalent of some of the mid-level wrestling shown in The Wrestler. The most bruised and beaten face I ever saw was that of boxer Mike Quarry the day after a fight. Quarry once had a title shot that he lost to Bob Foster and continued to fight ten years after that loss.

He died at age 55 and the cause of death was pugilistic dementia which is also known commonly known as punch-drunk caused by traumatic blows to the head. Mike’s brother Jerry, also a boxer, died two years before him and also suffered from pugilistic dementia. Mike’s swollen and beaten face that I saw when I was 12-years-old stays with me to this day.

The Wrestler is a look at one character’s life and why he puts his body through the abuse he does. It doesn’t preach, but it does show that there is a cause and effect to the choices we make in life.

It was not an easy film to watch. It was also not an easy film to get made.  

“It’s always been hard for me to make my films. I’ve always had to make them with incredible financial limitations because it’s the only way to get them made. After Pi everyone was like, “What do you want to do?” and I showed them the book to Requiem and no one returned my calls. After Requiem it took six years to make The Fountain. Then when we tried to put this movie (The Wrestler) together , because I cast Mickey Rourke, it took two years to finance it. No one believed that Mickey could be sympathetic. It’s always a tough road for some reason. I end up choosing things that are not obvious.”
                                                                Darren Aronifsky
                                                                film.com interview with Laremy Legel

Related posts: Screenwriting & Brass Knuckles
                      Screenwriting Quote of the Day #17 (Robert Siegel)



Scott W. Smith

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Genevieve Jolliffe & Chris Jones have written several books packed full of useful information for filmmakers including The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook which weighs in at 720 pages. Here’s one little Q&A  from the book.

Q-What single piece of advice would you offer?

Dov S. S. Simens: Read 200 scripts this year. If you don’t you will fail. If you read lots, you will be in a better position to go forward to write a screenplay, or to hire someone to write for you. 

Years ago when I lived in LA in the days before the Internet if I wanted to read a script I used to stop by AFI’s library, pay $15 to buy one, or see what the Burbank library had.

These days it is much easier to read scripts since there are many places that offer them online (Drew’s Script-O-Rama). So the lesson for the day is less TV, less video gaming and Internet, and more script reading.

Scott W. Smith

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Maybe I should have said “How to increase your odds of winning an Academy Award.” But who wants to read an article on that? Regardless, I think I have the secret to winning an Academy Award. (Not that I would know first hand—though I did win an Addy Award last week for a commercial I shot and produced.) This is not even really a secret, it’s more basic number crunching.

Simply pick a best-selling book. Or perhaps just a book you like. In fact, of the 81 Oscars, Slumdog Millionaire became the 44th film based on a book to win best picture. That’s more than 50%. Interesting, huh?

According to Tim Dirks over at filmsite only one film based on a TV show (Marty)  and only one film based on an article (On the Waterfront) have ever won best picture. Original screenplays make up 22 of the Academy Award best pictures which, of course, is a 50% drop from those based on a book.

So how do you go about optioning a book? You get the rights to a book you like or you find one in the public domain. If you want to use a Charles Dickens book, knock yourself out—it’s free. If you want the rights to a John Grisham novel —stand in line. But in between those in public domain and best-selling authors there are an estimated 300,000+ books published every year worldwide.

Certainly, the majority of the millions of books published over the last few years have not been optioned for film. So there are opportunities out there if you’d like to pursue them. Talk to a lawyer or search the web for more information on how to draw up a bidding contract and then approach the author. All they can say is no, and they may be flattered enough that you believe enough in their book to invest time in a screenplay that you get the rights fairly cheap, with more coming if the screenplay is sold.

Stephen King used to have a $1 option deal that worked something like that. You’re creative, so be creative in finding a way to option a book you like. And persistence pays off in this regard as well. Follow the journey that Frank Darabont took to get the rights to The Shawshank Redemption which he first read in novella form in 1982 (That’s 22-years before the movie’s release).

First he started doing various jobs on low-budget films and in 1983 made a short film called The Women in the Room based on a Stephen King short story. Least you think he was rich at that time, Darabont has said that he made about $7,000 the year he made that short and he spent most of it on the film. The Woman in the Room made the short list for the semi-final nomination for Academy Award consideration in 1983. 

That opened other doors and eventually lead to him securing the rights to what would become The Shawshank Redemption. 

“So I got  the rights and didn’t do anything with them for five years, for a number of reasons…I think on a certain level I was waiting for my abilities as a writer to catch up with my ambitions for the script. I don’t think I could have written it nearly as well when I first optioned it. But the day came when I felt like I was ready to try it. So I sat down and wrote it in eight weeks, and two weeks later we had a deal with Castle Rock.”
                                                                Frank Darabont
                                                                Conversations with Screenwriters
                                                                by Susan Bullington Katz 

Granted Darabont didn’t win an Oscar for all his efforts but he did get an nomination (the film had a total of seven nominations) and the film is one of the best loved films in cinematic history.

Related post: Screenwriters Work Ethic (tip #3)

Scott W. Smith



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I thought Taken was quite a good film and I wondered how the screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen worked as a pair. They come from different backgrounds. Kamen an American who is best known for writing The Karate Kid lives in New York and owns a winery in California. Besson the Frenchman who wrote The Transporter (with Kamen) grew up in places like Greece and Bulgaria because his parents were scuba instructors with Club Med.

Somewhere along the way the two met and now have worked together on several films. 

“Here’s how this works. Luc and I write scripts together. We conceptualize them together, then I write them, and then he does his Luc Besson things to them, then he goes off, and he produces them. So how Taken came about was Luc came to me and said, ‘I met this cop, and he told me this amazing story about an auction of women in a chateau outside of Paris; that they broke up this ring. I think this is amazing, so let’s make up a story.’ And then we made up the story of Taken.”
                                         Robert Mark Kamen
                                         WGA  Interview with Shira Gotsshalk

In that same interview Kamen offers this advice for those who want to be screenwriters, “Don’t read Variety. Don’t listen to gossip. Don’t live in L.A., and write. I write original screenplays every year besides the movies I get made, and I just put them away. Write what makes you excited, and if it makes you excited, and you’re any good  it will excite somebody else.”


Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I saw the movie Taken and it made me think back to a few films that feature a son or daughter who disappears—The Searchers with John Wayne, Ransom with Mel Gibson, and Hardcore with George C. Scott. 

Hardcore was written by Paul Schrader who also wrote Taxi Driver, Ragging Bull, and The Mosquito Coast. Born and raised in a Dutch Reformed community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he didn’t see a movie until he was 17. Since Hardcore is about a daughter who runs away and gets caught up in the porn industry, Schrader’s religious upbringing may seem an odd fit as the writer of the screenplay. But if you read the book Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings (edited by Kevin Jackson) you understand better where he is coming from.

Though film has been called a Catholic medium because of its use of symbolism and emphasis on guilt and works (as well as its understanding of sin & redemption), Schrader is one of the few modern giants of cinema with a Protestant background. (Protestants, especially evangelicals, tend to favor didacticism—instructional—methods which doesn’t play as well on film. )

Schrader’s understanding of what’s known at the doctrine of total depravity allows him to tap into characters such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Schrader is also considered one of the greatest intellectuals in Hollywood and though he later walked away from the religious beliefs of his youth, he credits Calvin College with teaching him to think. (And a few years ago he returned to his alma mater  to speak, so maube they’ve made their peace.) 

“There’s also a delicious line in Hardcore that’s actually taken from one of my uncles, which is at the beginning, at the Christmas part. The kids are sitting around watching some innocuous TV special and the uncle walks in and turns off the set—this is something that actually happened to me—and he says, ‘Do you know who makes television? All the kids who couldn’t get along here go out to Hollywood and make TV and send it back here. Well, I didn’t like them when they were here and I don’t like them now they’re out there.’ And this struck me as absolutely true, That’s what we all do, you know; misfits from small towns across America go out to Hollywood, make TV and movies and pump it back into our parents homes and try to make them feel guilty.”
                                                       Paul Schrader
                                                       Schrader on Schrader
                                                       page 149 


Schrader’s website is paulschrader.com


Scott W. Smith

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It would be hard to find more of a contrast to the slums of Mumbi, India than the wealth and beauty of Telluride, Colorado. But that is part of the ride that Danny Boyle has been on the last year or so. And last night in Hollywood he collected an Academy Award for best director. I’m sure at some part in the evening Boyle had to contemplate how life would have been different if Slumdog Millionaire would have been released directly on DVD as it almost was. 

How does a film go from almost being released directly to DVD to making over $100 million and winning eight Academy Awards? Because nobody really knows what’s a hit or a miss.

Today’s quote comes from an interview Boyle did at the Telluride Film Festival in 2008.

“My favorite is Apocalypse Now, absolute 100% favorite film, because the thing that bedevils us all the time is this battle between commerce and art, and it’s between– can you open the Cannes Film Festival or can you get your film seen by a big mainstream audience? And it’s maybe the only film that does that, that rides both those horses, without apologizing to anybody on the way. And it’s not perfect, which I also love about it, because I think perfect would be terrible; it is a bit of a mess at times, but it’s made by a madman with an extraordinarily kind of poetic coherence somehow. And I love that.”
                                                                 Danny Boyle   
                                                                 Interview with Alex Billington 


Scott W. Smith

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It only takes about 13 seconds to make an Oscar. Make, not win.

And the 13 1/2 inch tall and 8 1/2 pound statuettes are made in Chicago.   And just in case you wondered, they’re made of a gold-plated  high-grade pewter alloy known as britannia. It only takes about 2 days to make the 50 or so Oscars that will be handed out tonight in Hollywood.

The place that’s been making the Oscar statuettes since 1983 is R.S. Owens & Company. The company was founded in 1938 by Owen Sigel and they now employ 175 employees and have a 82,000 square foot manufacturing facility. They also make the Emmy Awards, the MTV Music Video Awards, the NACAR Nextel Cup,  and the AP College Football National Championship Trophy.

If any of the filmmakers of Slumdog Millionaire leave with any Oscars tonight it will be almost as odd as the protagonist in the story. The book that the movie is based on, Q & A,  was written by 47-year-old Vikas Swarup who has a 22-year career as a civil servant. Today he is India’s deputy high commissioner to South Africa.

But tonight he will be in Hollywood for the Academy Awards, though he has no plans of being a full time writer. “Writing is a hobby, it’s not a career for me, I prefer the security of my day job.’ (Must be nice to write something on the side and have it be the birth of what would result in 10 Oscar nominations.)

 Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 1987 script The Full Monty was hired to write the script that became Slumdog Millionaire.

“You probably know it’s (Q&A)  effectively a series of short stories some of which link up, some of which don’t,  which you can’t really do in a film. You have to have a kind of narrative running like a train driving through a film, whereas Vikas’ book goes off into all sorts of different directions….I kept the central core, the central idea of a slum kid getting on the show, winning it, and getting arrested, and explaining his life’s story through the answers to the questions. So I kept that because that core is very good, but everything around it I had to reinvent. So it’s true if someone says the book’s not really like the movie, it’s kinda true because I had to invent a love story—I felt I had to override this game show narrative, ’cause I don’t think getting rich at the end of the film is nessecarily a great way to end a film.”
                                                       Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire
                                                       Interview on The Angry Critics Corner 

Screenwriting from India is what Screenwriting from Iowa is all about. Showing a world beyond L.A.


Scott W. Smith

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In her book Advanced Screenwriting Linda Seger talks about “the ever-present identity theme.” She explains that some examples would be be finding one’s identity (Dead Poets Society), holding on to one’s identity despite oppression (Erin Brockovich), and finding one’s identity within a sport (Rocky).  

“If we look at some of the Academy Award winners of the 80s and 90s, we can see an identity theme shimmering through many philosophical, theological, and/or psychological ideas.
                  Linda Seger 
                  Advanced Screenwriting,
                  Raising Your Script to the Academy Award Level
                  Page 99

Certainly this years Oscar nominations, including The Wrestler and  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, has its share of films that deal with the theme of identity. 

Related and much more in-depth look at  the theme of identity: Writing Beyond the Numbers (tip #8)


Scott W. Smith 



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Since the 81st Oscars are this Sunday I thought I’d mention the only screenwriting books I am aware of that come from the perspective of screenplays that are Oscar winners. Dr. Linda Seger is a much respected script consultant and the author of several books on screenwriting including Academy Awards Advanced Screenwriting: Raising Your Script to the Academy Award Level and also And the Best Screenplay Goes to: Learning from the Winners—Sideways, Shakespare in Love, Crash. 

“I’ve used Linda’s concepts from Making a Good Script Great on all my films starting with Apollo 13.” 
              Ron Howard 
              Academy Award-winning Director (A Beautiful Mind)

“A bold new approach to screenwriting. Dr. Seger humanizes the process by acknowledging the role that psychology, our personal stories, and our personal spirituality play in our creative work.”  
              Linda Woolverton 
              Screenwriter (The Lion KingBeauty and the Beast) 

Back in the 80s I took a class from Seger that was held to the American Film Institute campus but open to the public. She knew her stuff then and has continued to build her reputation and influence over the years. For a more detailed information about Seger and the services she offers contact her website at www.lindaseger.com.

But the quote from today doesn’t come from one of Seger’s many books but an interview that she did with Emon Hassan for Shooting People.

SP: How much should a writer be aware of in terms of character, structure, theme, and story when a burst of inspiration hits and (s)he is writing the first draft?

LS: The first draft, do the work to figure out where you’re going, but let it flow and don’t evaluate too quickly. Write as it comes to you, while still following somewhat of an outline, but be prepared to let the Muse take you other places. Remember, there is the creative process and the analytical process, and although there are places where they come together, you want to favor the creative process in the early stages. But, if you’ve learned structure, concepts about character and theme, then they will have been digested and still be informing your creative process.


Related post: Screenwriting, Infomercials, and Gurus


Scott W. Smith

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Every once in a while on a shoot I get to meet some cool people. Even in Iowa.

Such was the case yesterday in Moravia, Iowa (pop. 713)  when I walked into a 110 year-old barn where Jim & Shaun (pictured) Wubben make custom choppers. PB Choppers manufactures motorcycles from the frame to the finished product and in 2006 they won the “Biker Build-off” at Sturgis (the western version of Daytona’s bike week in South Dakota).

By their own account their shop is a mixture of Easy Rider & Field of Dreams. A couple additional movie references came up when we were talking about Mickey Rouke and The Wreslter. That’s when I learned that if you want to work at PB Choppers one requirement is you “pretty much have to love Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man ” (which starred Rouke and Don Johnson in a script written by Don Michael Paul).

Movies & motorcycles are often a good combination such as Easy RiderElectra Glide in Blue, Fastest Indian, and The Wild One. Even today The Wild One movie poster with Marlon Brando sitting on his motorcycle is a popular seller.  And sometimes motorcycles help define a character like Tom Cruise in Top Gun and Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman.

And perhaps the single best motorcycle scene is Steve McQueen in The Great Escape though Angelina Jolie’s ride in Lara Croft: Tomb Raiders beat it in one poll. Matrix Reloaded and Terminator also are favoritesAnd I’m sure some would argue for the newcomer, Batman’s two wheeler in The Dark Knight. 

Even Batman wants to be a bad boy.

All this reminds me of  a quote from a Harley-Davidson exec: 

“What we sell is the ability for a 43-year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him.”

Whether we’re talking about Harley’s, lifestyles or movies, it’s all storytelling. And as Robert McKee reminds us, “no story is innocent. All coherent tales express an idea inside an emotional spell.” 


Scott W.  Smith

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