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Archive for January, 2010

“Part of a songwriter’s job is to be a scout… to go ahead and come back with a report of the good or the danger that lies ahead.”
Charlie Peacock

If you can avoid Farmville and Mafia Wars on Facebook you can occasionally stumble upon some good stuff on the social network.

About fifteen years ago I met musician and record producer Charlie Peacock at a conference and have followed his career ever since. He’s had an interesting and diverse creative career producing, writing and recording everything from pop & jazz, to gospel & Christian.

Perhaps his biggest pop success was as one of the writers of the Amy Grant song Every Heartbeat, which peaked at #2 on the Billboard Charts back in the 90s.  Arc of The Circle that he produced was #2 on the CMJ Jazz Charts a few years ago. As a producer, he is a Grammy-winner and is listed by Billboard’s Encyclopedia of Record Producers as one of the 500 most important record producers in music history.

Most recently Peacock, who is based in Nashville, has worked on a couple films. Last year he was executive producer of the feature-length documentary Any Day Now. He was also a music supervisor on the film To Save a Life that is being released in a few days.He also produced The Civil Wars’ (Joy Williams/John Paul White) song Poison & Wine that was featured last year on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

If you spend five minutes with him you’ll know he has an artist’s soul. He’s concerned about the good, the true, and the beautiful. Somewhere in the last year or so I reconnected with him on Facebook, and last night I followed a thread he had posted about his new blog (recordproducer.typepad.com)  and that led me to a use a Christmas gift card to buy all the songs on an iTunes iMix of songs produced by Charlie Peacock.

It features the song Poison & Wine as well nine other songs that are simply beautiful songs that somehow transform you to that otherworldly place that music can sometimes take you.

Good writing and producing can do that.

Scott W. Smith

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“For me the act of taking a picture, and the making of pictures … it’s about telling stories, sharing stories.”
Vincent Laforet

Photographer /Filmmaker Vincent Laforet may have been born in Switzerland, cut his photography chops in New York, and currently live in L.A., but where do you think he went to college to lay the foundation for the work he’s doing now? That’s right, he headed to the good ole’ Midwest and got his degree in print  journalism  from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern in Chicago.

So before you think he just picked up a camera and became famous, think again. He started out like everyone else knocking on doors. “As a freshman in college, I was rejected by about eight or nine internships in a row.” But he finally landed an internship at Reuters the summer after his freshman year. He says that opened the door for an internship the next year at the L.A. Times, and the next year with the Miami Herald.

During the school year, back in Chicago he had an opportunity to shoot for AP where he was encouraged to get images “that not everyone else had.” He took full advantage of those opportunities,”I was skipping out on finals and midterms to photograph Jordan’s final game with the Chicago Bulls.”  Seeing how he’s a leader in the HD-DSLR revolution Laforet appears to me a little like Neo in The Matrix. The chosen one.  (Is it just coincidence that The Matrix writers & directors, the Wachowski brothers, are from Chicago?)

So Laforet  has been on the fast track, but he’s also paid he’s dues.  He learned to take pictures from his professional photographer father, entered his first photography contest when he was 15 and 12 years later shared in the 2002 Pulitzer Prize (Feature Photography) as part of The New York Times staff.

“The one reason I did succeed early on in my career was that I was so technical.  I was 16, 17 years old with very little experience and knowledge, but all of my images were tack-sharp and perfectly exposed.   I used to give my father my 30 best slides for the month and he would sort them out, 10 on one side and 20 on the other, pull his scissors out of his drawer and hammer through the 20.  ‘They’re poorly exposed; they’re out of focus.  I don’t want to see them.’  He’s a very, very nice person.  He was just adamant about certain things, so I came from that background.”
Vincent Laforet

You can follow his blog as he helps build the bridge between photographers and filmmakers at blog.vicentlaforet.com. Just a few days ago he wrote about a film contest sponsored by Canon & Viemo called The Story Beyond the Still and I challenge any screenwriter who has never made a short film to submit a video. (February 11, 2010 deadline.) You can read Laforet commets about the contest on his post Canon & Vimeo Contest is Open. I look foward to seeing more of his work in the future.

But keep in mind as you look at equipment, that as the saying goes—‘it’s the violinist, not the violin.” Laforet is one more example of The 10,000 Hour Rule.

(As another Chicago sidenote, check out the webisodes called FilmFellas that Steve Weiss and the gang at Zacuto are producing. Good stuff that I’ll write about later.)

Scott W. Smith

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“The next few years will see photography and filmmaking redefined by technology.   While there is no substitute for exquisite lighting – artists will now be able to explore areas once thought impossible to photograph.”
Vincent Laforet (writing in 2008)

Modern technology, with the Internet leading the charge, has in recent years forever changed the music business, the photography business, the newspaper business and the movie business. This, as I and many other people have written before, has and will cost people jobs—but at the same time it has, and will continue, to offer many creative opportunities for those willing to make the leap.

One of the more recent changes is the advent of HD video being able to be shot on HD-DSLR cameras. (Just think in terms of the old 35mm film camera like the Canon AE-1 on steroids.) These are relatively  inexpensive with the lower end Nikon and Canon cameras coming in between $900.—2,000. without lenses. (Even the high end ones are only in the $5,000-6,000. range, which is in the ballpark of a lot of HDDV cameras out there.) They are still not in a place to replace traditional film and video cameras altogether, but they are producing some pretty high end results as Vincent Laforet and others are showing.

Last year I began to implement select footage from my Nikon D90 into my video productions and I think that will continue to increase in the future. Since this is a blog on screenwriting I won’t get too technical, but a couple things that makes these cameras special is that they are small and portable, have a larger sensor than most sub-$10,000. video cameras, and can record at high ISO speeds. Which basically means they don’t need a large crew and lots of lights to create amazing images. (The RED camera can’t touch these cameras in low-light conditions.)

Below is a short film that was directed by Vincent Laforet, Stu Maschwitz, David Nelson which they shot with a Canon 1D MKIV. Here is what Laforet wrote a couple months ago about the production on a post entitled Lights, Camera, Action:

“Here is the main point that I hope you take into account: the short film you are about to watch was shot in pretty much the very worst light that I could possibly find in an evening urban landscape.  I did not chose ‘pretty lighting’ in a mall or under neon signs.  That would have been cheating in my book.

The short was shot near East 6th and Mateo St. in Los Angeles – in an industrial part of the city.   If you live in the area – go check out the area – you won’t believe the video you see below came from the poor lighting in that area.   Sodium and mercury vapor lights.   That’s it.  Really awful lighting.

Not a single external light source was used / added.  In other words I did not use a single flashlight, LightPanel, flood light – nothing.”

If you’re a writer think of the possibilities. If you’re not interested in picking up a camera, fine–I understand–but at least start aligning yourself with shooters and editors out there who can help bring your words to life in new and exciting ways.

Scott W. Smith

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“The truth is – our way of doing things – not only the way we gather our content, but also the way we package, deliver and the way we expect to be remunerated for that work – is being shattered by a variety of internal and external forces that simply aren’t going to go away.”
Photographer/Filmmaker  Vincent Laforet

If you’ve never heard the name Vincent Laforet—welcome to the future. Three years ago Laforet walked away from a staff photographer position at the New York Times. He says that, “One colleague actually called me ‘stupid.'” But he walked away because he saw the writing on the wall. The newspaper and magazine business was being forever changed. As newspapers began to fold and downsize jobs, Laforet decided the answer was to diversify.

“There is ABSOLUTELY no doubt that every photographer out there should be actively developing their video shooting and editing skills today and learning it at their schools/universities.”
Vincent Laforet

Laforet continued to do contract work with the New York times, but was also able to begin doing commercial work. With one advertising agency he was working with as a photographer, he wanted to be considered for some interactive content they were producing, but he had no film or video demo reel. Having connections at Canon he was able to borrow a prototypes of the Canon 5D Mark II for a weekend in hopes of creating a demo reel. He had 12 hours to shoot what became Reverie. (What he later called, “a bad cologne commercial.” )

He posted the Reverie video online and within 3 days passed the million view mark and by the end of the first week it had passed the 2 million mark. He not only got his demo reel, but it spun his whole career into a new direction.

PDN magazine said, “Seven hours after he posted Reverie, a representative from photo sharing site SmugMug offered to sponsor his next video. Two days later the manager for surfer Jamie O’Brien contacted Lafort about shooting a project together.” Calls from Disney, Industrial Light & Magic, and other big names followed.

In the coming days, I’ll unpack what this means to writers and filmmakers. The video to Reverie is linked below, but the important thing to remember here is this video was made on a 35 mm digital camera that shoots still photos as well as HD video. It was shot in less than a day by a photographer who was hoping to build a video demo reel. (To watch an HD version of the video check out Vincent Laforet’s website. You can also connect to his blog there.)


Scott W. Smith


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“I was sort of stuck in a quandary when I left college because I thought I was going to end up a writer. I found that my work wasn’t as great as I thought it was. So I ended up doing what people from West Philly end up doing–hustling.”
Lee Daniels
Blackfilm.com

Producer/Director Lee Daniels spent two-years at Lindenwood University in the St. Louis area before setting his sights on Hollywood. He ended up working as a nurse, then started a successful company in the nursing industry, all before transitioning to a casting director and manager. Eventually he broke into producing in 2001 with Monster’s Ball, which earned Halle Berry an Academy Award in her leading role.

Most recently he produced and directed Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. At the 2009 Sundance Film Festival it won the Audience Award, Grand Jury Prize and a Special Jury Prize for actress Mo’Nique. It’s won or been nominated at many other festivals and award groups and is sure to get some Academy Award nods.

Somehow Daniels cast an inexperienced actress in the lead role, convinced Mariah Carey to not wear make-up and Lenny Kravitz to wear scrubs. He made a film that is a harsh look at the realities of life in Harlem back in the 80s. Though Harlem today is going through gentrification, is there any doubt issues that Daniels’ film addresses is still a part of the fabric of this country in certain areas?

The film is having an excellent run in the theaters, one that matches the awards it’s won and been nominated for. Though it doesn’t sound like the five weeks of production were conflict free. According to an IMDB post, “Over the course of the shoot the production lost an editor, a cinematographer, three continuity people, three locations managers, two producers, two assistant directors, two sound people, two video playback people, and two caterers.”

Daniels believes that’s part of doing business.

“It’s not a movie if it’s not a horror on the set. If you’re dealing with talent…that are passionate…they are going to be opinionated. And there are bound to be differences. And that’s when magic happens.”
Precious director Lee Daniels
Independent Film interview with Corey Boutilier

1/18/09 Update: Precious actress,Mo’Nique, won the Golden Globe award for best supporting actress, and The Blind Side actress Sandra Bullock won for best actress. What is interesting there is both Precious and The Blind Side both address a similar theme. Though the films are worlds away in style and content. The Blind Side is based on a true story and takes place in Memphis, where a conservative Christian family takes in a young, homeless, male  African-American high school student with an elementary school reading level, and prepares him for college and for life. The film is motivational and inspirational in tone.

Precious takes place in Harlem, but as a film has elements of the raw aspects of the Memphis-based film Hustle & Flow. Precious plays more like a documentary on the harsh realities of life in the inner-city. Precious is aboutan illiterate teenage African-American  girl who has a child and is pregnant again. She lives with her abusive mother (played by Mo’Nique), who also abuses the welfare system. Precious’ abusive father is long gone. An alternative school teacher and social worker help show her the way, though most wouldn’t bet on Precious going far.

Mo’Nique & Bullock both gave outstanding performances and are deserving of their awards. But both The Blind Side and Precious ultimately ask many disturbing questions about our culture and where we are heading.

Scott W. Smith

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There are many ways in which the Internet today is like nickelodeons of 100 years ago.

“You have to understand what was happening in this country to see why movies were catching on. From 1900 to 1910, about nine or ten million immigrants poured in, and because nickelodeon movies were new, cheap, silent, and set up no language difficulties, they because a popular pastime.”
Adolph Zukor

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Earlier this week I watched the movie Speed that I hadn’t seen in quite a few years—maybe a decade. Hard to believe that movie came out more than 15 years ago. It holds up well.

Speaking of holding up well, how about Sandra Bullock? (The 45-year-old actress was named by the Quigley Publishing Company list as the top box office star of 2009.)  Before her soon-to-be greatly nominated roll in The Blind Side (which has already made $200. million at the box office), her breakout role was in the blockbuster hit movie Speed.

I thought I’d track down a quote from Graham Yost,  the screenwriter of Speed. Yost is from Ontario, Canada where his now retired dad was a TV host in Canada on several programs including Saturday Night at the Movies.  It was the elder Yost, who told his son about an Akira Kurosawa screenplay The Runaway Train* that provided the seed of inspiration for Speed. (Are you allowed to use seed and speed in the same sentence?)

“When I moved to New York at the age of 22, my plan of action was to write anything that anyone would pay me to write. I wrote jacket-flap copy for Doubleday, I got a job with The Encyclopedia Britannica, I wrote everything. But I always wanted to write for movies and television. After four, five years in New York, I moved to LA and started developing story ideas on a Nickelodeon show called Hey Dude. After that show finished, I had some extra time and wrote Speed.”
Graham Yost
Creative Screenwriting 3/22/04
Edited by David Konow

Yost went on to be nominated for an Emmy as one of the writers of Band of Brothers and won a Primetime Emmy as one of the producers of From the Earth to the Moon. Currently he is the creator and executive producer on the TV series Justified that will première on FX in March 2010. (Justified is based on the Elmore Leonard novella Fire in the Hole.)

*The 1985 American film Runaway Train was based on Kurosawa’s script.

Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday, I was over at illustrator Gary Kelley’s studio doing some pre-production for a multi-media production we’re producing that will premeire at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony next month. I noticed he had a quote taped to his easel that I thought translated to writing as well:

“If painting weren’t so difficult, it wouldn’t be fun.”
Edgar Degas

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“As a script reader, I noticed that every variation of Die Hard had sold. Not all of them got made, but they all sold.”
Michael France (On what led him to write Cliffhanger on spec)

One of the fun things about doing a small niche blog like this is making all kinds of odd connections, which I believe is what creativity is all about. (See the post Where Do Ideas Come From?)

For instance, as I mentioned yesterday I flew out of the Tampa airport and learned that the first commercial flight ever was between St. Pete and Tampa. That led me to learn that screenwriter Michael France (Cliffhanger, Hulk) was not only born in St. Pete Beach, but lives there today. Not only that, but he owns an old movie theater there which is currently playing the Jason Reitman/George Clooney film Up in the Air that I spent several days blogging about recently. In one of those posts I mentioned that Walter Kirn, who wrote the novel Up in the Air, was once married to and has two kids with the daughter of Thomas McGuane. Well, it turns out that I found an interview with Michael France where he said his favorite book is The Buchwacked Piano by Thomas McGuane.

One big interconnected world.

In an interview with Stax at ING, France was asked, “What do you feel has been your most important professional accomplishment to date?

“I took this question a couple of different ways. My first response to this is, managing my writing career so that I’m able to live where I want – which is waaaaay out of L.A. – and spend my off hours with my wife and kids on the beach. That’s not an easy balance to pull off, and it allows me to live the way I want to, so…that’s important to me personally. But I think you probably mean artistically, so I’ll take my head out of the beach for a minute. When I was writing Hulk, I wanted to make Bruce Banner an extremely complex, emotionally sealed off character, and to make his relationship with Betty romantic but still tragic. Those dynamics are difficult to make credible even when you’re not bringing in large science fiction ideas – but I tried to make that work in balance with the large scale action scenes that you have to have with Hulk.”
Michael France

To be fair, France did do time in New York & L.A., but a screenwriter “waaaaay out of L.A.”—huh, what an interesting concept. (Of course, to pull that off, it doesn’t hurt to have a few blockbuster films to your name and Marvel’s Stan Lee in your address book.)

Though I’ve never met France, I bet in that funky, creative way our paths have crossed somewhere. We’re the same age so it may have been that Jimmy Buffett concert I went to at the University of Florida campus (where France went to school) in the early 80s (Coconut Telegraph tour if I remember correctly), maybe somewhere in L.A., but most likely it would have been St. Pete Beach where I’ve spent much time visiting over the last 30 years. In fact, I shot part of a commercial there last summer.

One thing is sure, the next time I’m down that way, I’m going to catch a movie at France’s Beach Theater after my regular fried grouper stop at The Hurricane.

Scott W. Smith

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When you think of fly-over country, Tampa Bay is probably not the first thing that comes to your mind. But as far as commercial flights are concerned, that’s the original fly-over territory. It wasn’t until I flew out of the Tampa Airport yesterday that I learned that the first commercial flight back in 1914 was from St. Petersburg to Tampa.

So I thought I’d find a screenwriter from St. Pete and came up with Michael France who was born there in 1962. France graduated from the University of Florida before breaking into the movie business in 1991 when his spec script Cliffhanger was sold. In 1993 it became a hit film starring Sylvester Stallone. He was credited for the story on the James Bond film Goldeneye, as well as co-screenwriter of Hulk and Fantastic Four.

According to IMDB, “Movies made from Michael France’s screenplays have earned well over one billion dollars in worldwide theatrical admissions, and at least another billion dollars in home video revenues.”

France lives in the Pass-a-Grille section on the southern tip of St. Pete Beach and in 2007 he purchased the local Film Paradiso Beach Theatre . (How many screenwriters and filmmakers dream of buying an old theater? France is the only one I know who ever followed that dream to the finish line.) And because I’m a big fan of the film, I should point out the Up in the Air is playing this week at the Beach Theater. On Saturday nights’ they play The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Laurel & Hardy pictures on Saturday mornings. Something for everybody. (Heck, this past Sunday they even held a tribute for the librarian at the St. Pete Library and who passed away in December.)  A community movie theater at its best.

This is the same theater that France’s parents and grandparents took him to movies as a child. Don’t you love happy endings?

Scott W. Smith

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