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Archive for August, 2009

“I never spent less than two years on the text of one of my picture books, even though each of them is approximately 380 words long. Only when the text is finished … do I begin the pictures.”
                                                              Maurice Sendak
                                                              author of Where the Wild Things Are 

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This week I watch Last Chance Harvey on DVD and really enjoyed it and wondered who wrote the script that attracted the acting talents of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Turns out it was Joel Hopkins who also directed the film.

Though I know little of his life story, what I do know shows the difficulties of this business. Hopkins was born in London in 1970 and attended NYU where his student film Jorge won NYU’s Wasserman Award which provided him with funds to make his first feature film in 2001, Jump Tomorrow. In 2002 he was named the Most Promising Newcomer by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

So just a few years ago Hopkins was an award winning filmmaker from NYU with a feature film that was well received at the Sundance Film Festival. Many filmmakers would sell their souls to be in that position. So why did it take Hopkins another seven years before he released another film?

“Quite often the second one is sometimes harder than the first…For whatever reason, I’d been attached to films that haven’t happened, as a director. I’ve had scripts I’ve written that have almost happened, but you make your first feature and you just assume the next one will be easier, but it’s kind of not, unless you have an absolute blow-out success and someone will write a check for pretty much whatever you want to do. And it’s not the case. You kind of have to start from scratch really.”
                                        Joel Hopkins
                                       ComingSoon.net interview with Edward Douglas 

 

Last Chance Harvey is not a great film, but it is well written and has some wonderful moments in it and it gives two fine actors a chance to do something you don’t see enough of these days—a chance to act. I hope it’s not another seven years before Hopkins makes another film.

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This is no question that journalism is changing these days. But between whatever it was and whatever it will be there was a 50+ year span where producer Don Hewitt was in the center of the mix. Hewitt, who died yesterday, was many things in his career—but at the core he was a master storyteller.

After a start at the New York Herald Tribune he began working for CBS news in 1948. He worked on See it Now with Edward Murrow and in 1960 was the director of the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate. That’s a pretty solid career right there. But Hewitt went on to be the executive producer for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite before starting 60 Minutes in 1968 and served as its executive producer until 2004.

I was a big fan of 60 Minutes growing up and have read a couple of Hewitt’s books that gave some behind the scene glimpes of how he lasted so long in the business. He had great instincts of what would attract both intellectuals and common folks. So what was his secret?

“When people ask me, as they do, ‘How long in advanced do you produce the show?’ I usually tell them, ‘You don’t understand. we don’t produce a show. We produce stories, and once a week we assemble three of them into a show.’”
                                                                               Don Hewitt

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Hewitt helped assemble an incrediable staff of producers and on-camera talent that included Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer, Harry Reasonser and others. 

Great producers find great stories and great storytellers to help tell those stories. And where did Hewitt first get the idea to work in the media business? That happened in his childhood growing up in the depression.

“Other kids went to the movies and they either wanted to be Tom Mix, the cowboy, or they wanted to be Tarzan. I wanted to be either be Hildy Johnson from The Front Page (1931) or a guy named Julian Marsh who was the producer in a musical called 42 Street” (1933).”
                                         Don Hewitt
                                         TVLEGENDS

That’s the power and influence of movies.

Scott W. Smith

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I know William C. Martell’s book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting is out of print but you can really track down a copy if you want one (and want to spend a little money) so this will be the last post from Martell’s book. I’ll leave you with some encouraging words:

“Now, it’s time for YOU to swing into action, and get to work on your script. Set aside a couple hours a day to work on your computer. Remember, it’s only one page a day at a time. If you write only one page a day, seven days a week, you’ll have a completed first draft in about three months. THREE MONTHS! You can write a page a day, right? So start tomorrow, and three months from now, you’ll have a new, exciting, action script…Maybe the next Face/Off or Die Hard!”
William C. Martell
The Secrets of Action Screenwriting
Page 208

Scott W. Smith

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Right now there is a hurricane out in the Atlantic Ocean and there is speculation on whether or not it will hit the eastern coast of the United States. A couple days ago was the five year anniversary of hurricane Charlie. Charlie made landfall in Fort Myers, moved directly over Orlando where I happened to be staying at the time, and headed back out to sea at Daytona Beach.

It’s estimated that hurricane Charlie caused $7.5 billion in damage and claimed 23 lives. There is a lot of suspense in tracking hurricanes because they can do so much damage.

Suspense is also a key element to action screenwriting as William C. Martell points out in his book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting:

“Keeping the audience on the edge of their seat is the function of SUSPENSE. Suspense is not the same things as action, nor is it the same as surprise. Suspense is the ANTICIPATION of action. The longer you draw out the anticipation, the great the suspense.
           Hitchcock explained; ‘Two men are having an innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath the table between them. Nothing happens, then all of the sudden, BOOM! There is an explosion. The audience is surprised, it has been an absolutely  ordinary scene, of no special consequence.
           Now let us take a SUSPENSE situation. The bomb is underneath the table, bu tthe audience knows it…Probably because they have seen the villain place it there. The audience is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one O’clock, and there is a clock in the decor. It is a quarter to one. In this situation, the same innocuous conversation becomes faccinating, because the audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen; There’s a bomb beneath you, and it’s about to explode!”

That’s suspence.

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“REVERSALS are little twists which occur within a scene. If the twists takes the STORY in another direction, it’s a ‘plot twist.’ The most common criticism of beginner’s scripts is that they’re too predictable. The reader KNOWS what’s going to happen next, so why read on?
      Already, you’re up against the genre in making your script unpredictable; We KNOW the hero will win and the villain will be vanquished. So our job as action writers is to make sure the story DOESN’T take a direct path from beginning to end, but corkscrew a little.”

                                                                William C. Martell
                                                                The Secrets of Action Screenwriting
                                                                Page 77

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“The key to a good action scene is reversals.”
                                           Shane Black
                                           Lethal Weapon 

William C. Martell says that action films have to be filled with action. But it has to be more than car chases and things exploding, right? In his book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting, Martell poses this question and then answers it; “How do you write exciting action passages?  Use reversals, suspense, ticking clock, rug pulls, and twists!” So what is a reversal? Martell defers to someone who as made millions writing action screenplays:

“It’s like a good news, bad news joke. The bad news is, you get thrown out of an airplane. The good news is, you’re wearing a parachute. the bad news is, your rip cord breaks. The good news is, you have a back up ‘chute. The bad news is you can’t reach the cord. Back and forth, just like that, until the character reaches the ground. He’s gonna die…no he’s not…Reversal, reversal, reversal.”
                                                                          Shane Black 

We’ll look at some of the other ways to write action in Part 6.

 

Scott W. Smith


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Les Paul (1915-2009)

As far as I know Les Paul never wrote a screenplay. Though he does have an impressive list of IMDB credits including working on the soundtracks for Casino, Mona Lisa Smiles and last year’s Speed Racer. How many people rack up film credits when they are in their 90s?

A lot has been written and said about the innovative Les Paul who recently died. That he played with several big band singers including Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. That he developed multi-channel recording. And, of course, that he changed the sound of music in what would become the Gibson Les Paul guitar.

But there are two reasons to mention him in association with this blog. 

#1) That this giant of the music industry was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin. I’m not sure where it is but it sounds a little remote. In fact one of his nicknames was the “Wizard of Waukesha.” One theme I love is people from unusual places who achieve much.

#2) People did not embrace his new guitar invention right away. Paul told CNN, “For ten years, I was a laugh. (But I) kept pounding at them saying hey, here’s where it’s at. Here’s tomorrow, this is it. You can drown out anybody with it. And you can make all these different sounds that you can’t do with a regular guitar.”

That’s another theme I like to kick around that it takes a little time sometimes. Especially if you’re from a place like Waukesha. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a wizard.

 

Scott W. Smith 

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When you think of classic actions films a few of these might pop into your mind; Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs., The Last Boy Scout, The Matrix. Those films all have at least on thing in common —they were produced by Joel Silver. Orphan currently in theater was also produced by Silver.  His first producing credit was back in 1976, so what’s his box-office secret?

Let’s once again turn to the book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting for part of the answer:

Action film producer Joel Silver says, ‘You’ve got to have a ‘whammo’ every ten minutes; an explosion, a car chase, a fight scene, to keep the audience interested.’ Silver believes this is the most important thing in action films, and he’s probably right. Silver has made the most successful action films ever, and launched Schwarenegger as an Action Lead in the low budget Commando. 
    
    Pacing and Timing are critical to action films.
         Long dead spots and an abundance of talk scenes will sink your script before it ever gets made. Action scripts contain action scenes and you’ve got to keep those car chases and shoot outs coming, or the audience will get up and leave.”
                                                                                          William C. Martell 

Of course, Martell’s book came out in 1998 and I don’t know how old the Joel Silver quote is but it seems like the whammo factor has been bumped up to every ten seconds in some action movies these days.

Scott W. Smith

 



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“Grab the script to Die Hard. Sometimes the script goes as long as three pages without a single line of dialogue. It’s all action.”
                                                           William C. Martell 

You have a villain who has a horrible plan and a hero (Superman or Everyman) who is out to stop the villain, so what more do we need for an action movie? Maybe a little action?  We return to Martell’s book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting to see what he says about action:

“Action films have to be filled with action. That’s what the ARE. Action scripts aren’t dialogue scripts. You can’t write: ‘There is a big car chase, and the villain’s car explodes.’ That’s boring. The trick of writing a good action script, is to fully describe your action scenes in ways that are exciting to read. Action scenes need to be thrill a minute page turners, where the reader can’t wait to find out what happens next. The average studio reader comes to a block of action and wants to skim it. Your job as a writer is to make them read every single word, then skim your dialogue to get your next action scene…Just like what YOU do in the theater.”
                                                                            William C. Martell

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