Archive for April, 2010

“There’s no excuse for arrogance, especially in a business where the odds of success are so razor thin.”
William M. Akers

As I read more of William M. Akers’ book Your Screenplay Sucks!, and read more about Akers himself, it’s obvious that he’s well read and well-educated (an MFA from USC). His academic credentials include currently teaching screenwriting at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His standards for great scripts are The Apartment, Lawrence of Arabia, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

He’s written network TV shows and feature films that have had theatrical releases. All of those put him in the top percentile of people writing on screenwriting with a some produced work behind him. But to show you what a crazy business this is…one of Akers produced credits is for Ernest Rides Again. A $7 million kids film that made $1.5 million at the box office and the few reviews on Rotten Tomato score it in the vicinity of  the average temperature Iowa in February. (Though Akers points out that the Boston Globe said it was “Best of the Series.”)

This isn’t to take anything away from Akers or his book. But to show you that just because you have a lot of knowledge and talent (and an MFA from USC) doesn’t mean that producers are going to be asking to do an updated big screen version of The Old Man and the Sea. Sometimes you have to get the get the credits, experience, contacts, and paychecks from a few rungs below where you were aiming. (Remember Coppola and James Cameron started working on low-budget films with Roger Corman.)

Akers has other scripts currently in development and I hope that his time  in Nashville is profitable and that he meets some filmmakers who can produce those scripts in his computer that are a little less Ernest P. Worrell and a little more Ernest Hemingway. Or maybe somewhere in-between like the life story of Ernest Tubbs or others stories that tap into the people and myths that surround him in Tennessee.

One nice thing that came out of Akers working on Ernest Rides Again is a concept that he got from the director of that film John Cherry;

“I learned a lot from John Cherry…He told me, ‘If it’s not about world domination, it’s not about anything at all.’ What do you think that means? And why should something that applies to a goofy comedy created for little kids to watch with babysitters apply to your magnum opus? In a James Bond film, world domination means just that. In Ordinary People, they’re fighting for control of the house. It’s still world domination. If your characters aren’t playing for all the marbles, the reader is going to pack up and go home. If the stakes in your story are small, ratchet them up.”
William Akers

Related post: What’s at Stake? (Tip #9)

Scott W. Smith

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Not my title but it is an attention getter isn’t it? Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 ways to make it great is a fairly new book by screenwriter William M. Akers. I finally picked up a copy this week and have been enjoying it. It’s hard to say new stuff on screenwriting— or present proven thoughts from a new perspective— but Akers is able to do both.

Akers’ book was up to the task of ending my 10 day Coppolablogfest. I won’t cover all the reason your screenplay sucks (you can buy the book for that), but I’ll toss a few your way this week beginning with:

#19. You worried about structure when you came up with your story.

Screw Structure. Have fun.

Structure is for later. For now, just let your incredibly creative mind run free. Make notes about character and plot and story and funny moments and locations you’d like to visit. Tape record dialogue for your characters…Free associate…Make stuff up. Make more stuff up. Steal from real life and make it your own. Steal from other people’s lives….Make more notes. Enjoy this part of the process. It’s easier to think up cool material if you don’t have to worry if it fits…Creativity sells. Worrying about rules and page numbers will only cloud your mind.
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks!
pages 43-44

Of course, structure is important.  Some would put it at or near the top of screenwriting importance. I wouldn’t disagree, but it has been hammered home so much in books, blogs, and seminars that many writers feel like they can’t take step one unless they have their plot points in place. Akers says just put it later in the process. (Eventually they more you read and write the more intuitive and organic structure will become .)

Akers also has a website at www.yourscreenplaysucks.com

Related post: Screenwriting and Structure (tip#5)

Scott W. Smith

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Coppola and Rewriting

Okay, after ten straight days of blogging about Coppola and/or his Godfather films I promise this will be the last one…for a little while.

James Lipton: “(Production designer) Dean Tavoularis says, ‘with Francis the script is like the newspaper, a new one comes out  everyday.'”

Francis Ford Coppola: “It’s true I rewrite a lot. You know, I don’t have that kind of talent that, you know,  I saw of kids who could draw beautiful pictures…my talent is I just try and try, and try and try again, and little by little it comes to something that I think is okay.”

It’s always interesting to see people who win Academy Awards for their writings be modest about their skills while people who have written films you’ve never heard of (or who have never been produced) talk as if their work is a combination Shakespeare and Billy Wilder.

As a fitting sidenote, the above quote by Coppola comes from a video shot at the Inside The Actor’s Studio. Since I like to touch on Midwest roots of many industry people I should point out that both Coppola and Lipton were born in Detroit. (Joining Elmore Leonard and Robert McKee from Detroit, Paul Schrader from a few hours away in Grand Rapids, and Lawrence Kasden and Arthur Miller who attended school the University of Michigan, as some of the film industry people from Michigan. For a longer list check out the post Screenwriting from Michigan.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Of all films I ever directed, the one that survived the longest as a genuine ‘cult classic’ is the one I did the fastest and the cheapest. It only took two days on a leftover soundstage to shoot the principal photography for The Little Shop of Horrors.”
Roger Corman

After Francis Ford Coppola earned his Master’s in film at UCLA, but before he won his first of five Oscars for writing the screenplay for Patton, he worked for Roger Corman. Corman is known as The King of B-Movies for his exploitation films in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but also had his share of more respected films in the 70s and 80s through his company New World Cinema. (This included releases by Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut and Kurosawa.)

While he directed 50 films himself, he had a hand in producing or distributing close to 400 films.  The majority, Corman will point out, made money. He also had an early hand in developing some fine film filmmakers and actors, giving many of them their first shot at directing. A list that includes Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, and king of the box office James Cameron.

In his book, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood, And Never Lost a Dime (written Jim Jerome) Corman recalls working with Coppola;

“I needed a non-union director. So I went to my ace assistant, a young man I had hired months earlier just out of the UCLA film school. His name was Francis Coppola. France’s background was largely in theater production at UCLA but he had also won the $2,500 Samuel Goldwyn prize for screenwriting.

His first assignment involved a Russian science fiction space picture I had acquired rather inexpensively. I asked him to edit, write, and loop the English dialogue so it made sense to an American audience and then shoot post production inserts with special effects. That movie came out as Battle Beyond the Sun.”

Let’s see a show of hands of people who have seen that film. Anyone? Anyone?

But Corman says he made money on that picture as he usually does on his films. That lead to Corman backing Coppola’s first feature Dementia 13. Coppola says of his experience working with Corman;

“Roger, having heard about my theater experience and good work with actors, which was rare for cinema type, took me on as an assistant for $90 a week. He was very proud that the winner of the Goldwyn prize was in his employ. He also made sure to tell me he once worked for $45 a week. Of course I’d have worked for him for nothing, except that I needed a meal once in a while.”

Who knows what the equivalent of that $90 a month week is today? But it isn’t much. But it was enough to turn into what Coppola called “a fabulous opportunity.” Keep that in mind when odd opportunites come your way.

Scott W. Smith

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“As a schoolgirl, my suspiciousness about those who attack American ‘materialism’ was first aroused by the refugees from Hitler who so often contrasted their ‘culture’ with our ‘vulgar materialism’ when I discovered that their ‘culture’ consisted of their having servants in Europe…”
Pauline Kael
For Keeps, 30 years at the Movies

One of the interesting things about visiting your favorite films over the years is how different the films feels because you have changed over the years. A film that meant so much to you when you were nine might seem meaningless 25 years later when you sit down and watch it with your own nine-year old child.

It’s probably been 25 years since I first saw The Godfather. While I can’t recall my exact original impressions of seeing the film I’m sure they were in line with being impressed by the acting and the production values. (After all, I was in film school and in acting workshops at this time). I also remember wishing I were Italian.

Having the name Smith seemed rather bland in school compared to my Italian friends. Even before I saw The Godfather movies its impression was felt—all Italians were cool, and some how connected to the Mafia. Over the years I discovered those both weren’t true. That’s what time does. It allows you to add data and experience as you form your own views of life.

One thing I know I didn’t think about The Godfather on that first viewing is that it was a critical look at capitalism and materialism in the United States. But apparently that was what Coppola had in mind when he made The Godfather movies;

“Ultimately it’s all about money in the end. But ultimately so much of America is about money in the end so that theme is of the Mafia really finding fertile soil when it came to America. Both the Mafia and America have, you know, the earning of money as the main purpose.”
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather Part II DVD Commentary

That’s an interesting thought when you piece that together with the letter Coppola reportedly wrote to Fidel Castro when he wanted to shoot Apocalypse Now in Cuba, “Dear Fidel, I love you…. We have the same initials. We both have beards. We both have power and want to use it for good purposes….” I don’t know the context of the letter so I’ll try not read too much into it. (Maybe Coppola was just being a director hustling a dictator for a location where he wanted to shoot his film.)

But Hollywood does have a long history of creatives who are not only critical of America and capitalism at times, but step over the line into at least flirting with socialism and communism. The United States is not perfect and, yes, we have a love affair with materialism. But let’s not lose site of what a great country this is.

To paraphrase film critic Pauline Kael, I am suspicious of those Hollywood-types who question American materialism while they are not only living in grand homes, but often have second and third homes. I can speak all day about the problems of American capitalism/materialism and the souless lives that it can produce, but history tells me that socialism and communism are not the answer.

Perhaps my views are shaded from spending a year in Miami and hearing the stories of exiled Cubans talk about Castro. (Yes, Castro helped raise the literacy rate and provided universal health care, but food, free speech and economic opportunity are harder to come by.) Dissenters either escaped the country (sometimes with pennies in their pockets), are in jail, or were executed. (Where does that leave most artists who enjoy questioning authority?)

Perhaps my views are shaded by the fact that I grew up in a house in Florida without air conditioning.(Working hard for a better life seemed like a good trade off.)  But I always find it interesting that some of the wealthiest people in this county are the most outspoken about the system that made them wealthy. Surley they could give all their money and property to the poor and move to a socialist or communist country—but for some reason they never do.

I don’t know what Coppola at age 70 thinks of Castro, Cuba, socialism, communism or materialism, but I do know that he has turned into quite a successful entrepreneur and capitalist with his winery. He’s increased his land ownership & wealth, created jobs, raised a family and along the way had the freedom to create art. He’s lived the American dream.

I’m thankful that when both Coppola and Mario Puzo were talented and struggling artists that they set out to make a commercial success. Because in writing and making The Godfather they not only became wealthy men, they created an artistic masterpiece.

PS. A fun fact about Detroit born Francis Ford Coppola is the Ford part of his name came from the respect his father had for uber-capitalist Henry Ford.

Scott W. Smith

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Coppola vs. Smith

In March/April of ’09 I quoted writer/director Kevin Smith four days in a row because I found some good quotes by him. Quoting him also doubled my daily views, something I mentioned (Screenwriting Quote of the Day #63) that quoting Orson Wells or Diablo Cody hadn’t done.

This past week I ended up doing five posts on Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather which also brought a spike in views. So in the big showdown between Francis Ford Coppola and Kevin Smith who won?

Technically, The Godfather/Coppola got more views, but Smith had the greatest percentage increase from prior months. So I’m going to put it down as a draw. It’s safe to say the both have a solid and active fan base.

And both have had major rolls in the independent film movement over the years.  You don’t usually see them lumped together, but wouldn’t it be an interesting night to have Coppola & Smith on stage for 2 hours talking about filmmaking?

While Coppola is the older, more educated and refined filmmaker you may be interested in knowing that at a website called Rate That Commentary; 100 Best DVD Commentary Tracks they list The Godfather/ Coppola at #14,  Mallrats/Smith #34, Clerks/Smith (10th Anniversary Edition) #52, and The Godfather Part II #70. 

And if you’ve ever wondered if someone like Smith who made Clerks could ever make an Oscar-winning film like The Godfather, keep in mind that before Coppola started assisting and then directing b-grade low-budget films for Roger Corman (Dementia 13), he made what he calls a “nudie” film titled The Playgirls and the Playboy.

And on the web, at many sites where people list their favorite directors you’ll see both Coppola and Smith listed close to each other near the top. Right now Smith is taking heat from some of his fans for directing the mainstream film Cop Out, and accused of selling out and just taking a paycheck— just like Coppola was back when he directed The Rainmaker.

Gotta make a living, right? Now that Coppola is making money with his winery he is back making smaller, more personal films that he says he’s always wanted to do (Youth Without Youth). Anybody see Smith looking for property in the Napa Valley?

I couldn’t find anything that showed if their paths have ever crossed. If they in fact haven’t maybe their mutual buddy Matt Damon can pull together an event at AFI. Talk about selling out, that would be a coveted ticket. Until that day comes here are a couple quotes from the two directors.   

“(The Dark Knight) is an epic film. It’s the Godfather II of comic book films… Easily the most adult comic book film ever made.”
Kevin Smith 
The Real Kevin Smith My Space Blog
Sunday, June 29, 2008

“So many of my pictures…are on the brink of disasters all the time  it takes a gigantic leap of faith, you know, when you really look at the script and stuff to think that we’re going to pull off these projects. Some we do, I suppose, some we don’t. But they’re all a leap of faith.”
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather Part II DVD commentary

Scott W. Smith

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“Criticism is often wrong, as we know through history. Carmen, which is now the most popular opera in the repertoire, was a tremendous flop [when it premiered]. Why did they hate it?”
Francis Ford Coppola

“What I look for with critics is more that they’re going to write about something I did and I’m gonna read it and not make those mistakes again, I’m gonna learn something from it. Often, though, they don’t do that: they say, “It’s a muddled mess.” “It’s pretentious.” I can’t learn a lot from someone saying “It’s pretentious.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Movieline interview with Kyle Buchann

Being a big name film writer/director must feel somewhat like being the head of a Mafia family.Someone is always gunning for you. I don’t know if they have a class in film school these days to equipment young people with the down side of success, but they should. After a week of blogging about the movie The Godfather and Francis Ford Coppola I’ve learned a lot about Coppola and his 40 year career.

And perhaps the thing I’ve learned most is my conformation that if you’re looking for respect, the Internet isn’t the best place to look for it. (Even if you have a handful of Oscars.) Since Saturday’s are my slowest days, I’ve decided to try something a little different and write a little Internet drama loosely based on some of the conversations I’ve read as people discussed Coppola and his work.

Blogger Post: Francis Ford Coppola is the greatest writer/director in the history of cinema.

Reply 1: Really? Are you nuts? Take away The Godfather I & II and what did Coppola really do over the last forty years?


Reply 3: Yeah, it’s like that Orson Wells guy who everyone makes a big deal about just because of Citizen Kane.

Reply 4: Coppola is exactly like Orson Wells, fat and hocking wine in his later years.

Reply 5: Shut up.  Coppola rocks.

Reply 6: Coppola isn’t even the greatest writer/director in the greater Bay area.

Reply 7: The Godfather Part II is really just self-indulgent crap. The Godfather is his only masterpiece.

Reply 8: Yeah, and what did Neil Armstrong really do after he walked on the moon?

Reply 9: Aren’t you guys forgetting Coppola did Apocalypse Now?

Reply 10: Overrated.

Reply 11: Rumblefish, The Outsiders, The Conversation?

Reply 12: Overrated, overrated, overrated.

Reply 13: Who cares? (And for the record it’s Rumble Fish)

Reply 14: I loved Dracula.

Reply 15: Dracula bites.

Reply 16: U SUCK

Reply 17: Are you guys forgetting that Coppola has won five Oscars?

Reply 18: Yeah, but what has he done this week?

Reply 19: Besides the Oscars are meaningless and just the product of  a misogynistic, racist, capitalistic society.

Reply 20: Still The Godfather is pretty good.

Reply 21: The Godfather would have been better with Danny Thomas instead of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone.

Reply 22: Who’s Danny Thomas?

Reply 23: Who’s Francis Ford Coppola?

Spend five minutes on the Internet and you’ll find that kind of uplifting conversation. Better to spend five minutes working on your script. But all that to say that if you’re looking to write the great American screenplay so that the world will love you and your work, think again. If you’re looking for unconditional love get a golden retriever.

From a perspective of increasing views The Godfather posts this week have been popular and I’ll compare them tomorrow with the spike I got from writing out Kevin Smith a while back. Coppola vs. Smith, tomorrow on Screenwriting from Iowa. And Monday we’ll look at Coppola, Castro and Capitalism.

Scott W. Smith

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“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) quoting fatherly advice
Ranked #58 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes

After the screen success of The Godfather the studios were interested in making a sequel. Wrtier/director Francis Ford Coppola, who did not enjoy the process of making The Godfather, was not as thrilled with repeating the experience and turned down their offer. The studios told him they couldn’t  believe he had found the secret formula but was not interested in making more of the product. Eventually Coppola agreed to produce the film finding a new director and then circumstances changed and once again he was leading The Godfather family, writing and directing the sequel.

“The Godfather Part II had taken upon itself a very ambitious structure  which was that it was going to tell its story in two entirely different time periods basically going back and forth in a kind of parallel structure between them. Actually, this was an idea before I knew I was making this Godfather Part II, I wanted to write a screenplay about a man and his son but both at the same age—like let’s say 30 years old— and tell the parallel story. Finally, I found myself doing The Godfather Part II—I basically just took that notion and conceived of Part II as having two time periods told against each other.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Part II DVD Commentary

Coppola basically wrote the contemporary parts that were set in Miami, Lake Tahoe and Cuba while the older sections in Italy and New York were taken from Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. The Godfather Part II was nominated for 11 Academy Award winning 6, including Best Screenplay from Adapted Material for both Coppola and Puzo. The Godfather Part II is listed #32  on AFI’s !00 Years…100 Movies—1oth Anniversay Edition. And Michael Corleone is listed as the #11 top villian in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villians. Not bad for a film Coppola didn’t initially want to make.

(Though personally, I must add that I think Pacino as Tony Montana—Scarface— could take Pacino as Michael Corleone any day of the week. Unless Montana was all coked-up.)

Scott W. Smith

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“In both of my Mafia books (The Godfather, The Last Don), I’ve wanted to show the parallel between the normal business world and the Mafia. Both operate with power. They crush their opposition. Hollywood can be as ruthless as the Mafia and just as clannish.
Mario Puzo
Interview by Robert Fleming

Though we usually refer to The Godfather movie as simply The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola was very gracious to have the opening title card be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. While the film is identified with the many giants that helped create the trilogy including Brando, Pacino, De Niro and Coppola himself, the creative process all started with Puzo and his novel.

Puzo was born to a poor immigrant family from Italy in New York City back in 1920. He was raised in Hell’s Kitchen, served in the Air Force during World War II, and used the G.I. bill to attend night classes at New York’s New School for Social Justice. He published his first short story when he was 30 and his first novel when he was 35. He worked for an extended time in pulp journalism where he heard various anecdotes about the Mafia and hoped to write a book on the subject.

“The reason I wrote The Godfather was to make money… I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks, and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. It was time to grow up and sell out, as Lenny Bruce once advised.”
Mario Puzo

Puzo got a $5,000 advance and it took him three years to write The Godfather. It was published in 1969 and became a number one New York Times Bestseller. He worked as a screenwriter on three Godfather movies with Coppola and won two Oscar awards. He wrote other novels and screenplays after The Godfather, but The Godfather proved to be his day in the sun.

But before the Godfather movies were made, before the paperback rights sold for $410,000, before 10 million copies of the book were sold, and before the book was even written Puzo was just another writer that needed to make a little more than he was making.

“I’d published two novels for which I’d received very fine reviews—especially the second one, The Fortunate Pilgrim, and I didn’t make any money (both books netted him a total of just $6,500.) …and I looked around and said, ‘Gee. I’ve got’—you know, I was working as a government clerk, and then I was working on the magazine…’I have five kids and I thought, I’d better make some money.'”
Mario Puzo
Larry King Live
August 2, 1996

Puzo also wrote an autobiography The Godfather Papers & Other Confessions. He died in 1999.

Scott W. Smith

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I first became aware of Francis Ford Coppola’s prompt book for The Godfather at Scott Myers’ blog Go Into The Story. The book is several inches thick and contains Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather with note after note by Coppola as he details what parts he wants to extract and emphasize in the movie. The prompt book was the foundation for which he wrote the script.

Coppola explains that the prompt book is a tradition carried over from his theater days. (Before Coppola got a master’s in film at UCLA, he received a theater degree from Hofstra University.) Coppola also says he based his prompt book on one that Elia Kazan had done for A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan has written several books about his life and films including  Kazan on Directing and there are many other books that gleam insights from him that I’m sure was an encouragement to Coppola during his own difficult time of getting The Godfather made.

“When I started On the Waterfront, I was what they call unbankable. Nobody would put up money for me because I had had a series of box office failures…. One of my happiest moments was when I got the Academy Award for On the Waterfront.”
Elia Kazan
Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films Interviews with Elia Kazan
Jeff Young

In the below video, Coppola discusses part of the process that he went through in writing the script for The Godfather;

“On page 79 of the book we have the actual shooting of the Don. Whenever I felt there was a really important part of the book that was going to be in the movie I would sit there with my ruler and really underline—so this details the shooting. My margin notes are; THE SHOOTING! GREAT DETAIL. The Don is the main character of the movie, so as in Pyscho , we are totally thrown when he is shot. How would Hitchcock design this? Hitchcock was such a master about manipulating information for the audience, usually telling you things so that you were equipped to enjoy what you were seeing —rather than withholding information, he would give you information.”
Francis Ford Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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