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Archive for February, 2011

“At first the screenplay (Good Will Hunting) seemed perhaps a little wordy. As Matt (Damon) joked on the set when we shot the movie, the Good Will staging was usually two people sitting in chairs across from each other and talking. Only the backgrounds and the characters changed, and usually only one of the characters changed since Will is in virtually every scene. “
Director Gus Van Sant
Introduction to Good Will Hunting; A Screenplay

Perhaps the reason that Good Will Hunting has so many scenes of two people talking is that its writers (and co-stars), Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (then in their early 20s), wrote much of the screenplay with just the two of them driving a car across the country between Boston and LA.

“A lot of Good Will was written on such cross-county road trips. We tell each other stories while in a particular character, usually to make each other laugh or to make sure that Ben doesn’t nod off…So it sort of ups the ante as far as the story goes. When we both get into an improv that we both like, that we both think is going well and dialogue we are relatively excited by, I will open up the glove compartment where I keep a notebook and write down a few notes that we will use later to recall the entire improvisation.”
Matt Damon

Damon and Affleck won an Oscar in 1998 for their script. Best Writing. Check out this video as Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau present the award to the childhood friends turned actors/writers and eventually Hollywood superstars. Because over the years since then Damon and Affleck haven’t written another script together some speculated if they really wrote the script. Writers and directors from William Goldman, Kevin Smith to Rob Reiner have been mentioned at one time or another. But since Damon and Affleck’s careers took off after their early success, they probably haven’t had much time together for many cross-country roads trips. More recently Damon as mentioned a little help from an Oscar nominated director.

“We just asked if we could have a meeting with (Terrence Malick) . We went to Boston to see him. And we had it in the script that my character and Minnie’s left together at the end of the movie. Terry didn’t read the script but we explained the whole story to him, and in the middle of the dinner, he said, ‘I think it would be better if she left and he went after her.’ And Ben and I looked at each other. It was one of those things where you go: of course that ‘s better. He said it and he probably doesn’t even remember that he said it. He started talking about Antonioni. ‘In Italian movies a guy just leaves town at the end and that’s enough.’ And we said of course that’s enough. That’s where we come from. If you just leave that’s a big enough deal. It doesn’t have to build up to anything more.”
Matt Damon
Interview with Tom Shone

So you can add writer/director  Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up) to those said to have had a hand (a finger?) in making Good Will Hunting work. But there are only two names on that Oscar—Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. How does the expression go? Success has many fathers, but failure has no mother.

P.S. Four years after Good Will Hunting’s Oscar win, another story about another math genius with ties to Boston (A Beautiful Mind) won four Oscars including Best Screenplay and Best Picture. More movie cloning?

Related post: Writing “A Beautiful Mind”

Scott W. Smith

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“Movies are about heroes trapped in extreme situations. They are forced to do outrageous things and overcome impossible odds to achieve a specific goal. It’s much easier to create ideas of value by appealing to the audience’s desire to revel in the sensational.”
Adam Levenberg
The Starter Screenplay

Related posts:
Writing “Black Hawk Down”

Filmmaking Quote #12 (Hitchcock) 
Writing “A Beautiful Mind” (Extreme situations don’t have to be action-adventures)

Scott W. Smith

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“My grandma really said I should, so I did.”
Cassey Herkelman on her decision to become a wrestler

“Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip…”
Casey at the Bat
Ernest Thayer, poem first published in 1888

By default yesterday Cedar Falls, Iowa was back in the national news with an intriguing story. It’s not your typical boy meets girl story, but instead a girl beats boy story. (At least in the history books it goes down as a “W.”)

Remember Cedar Falls is the town where Robert Waller wrote The Bridges of Madison Country and where Nancy Price wrote Sleeping with the Enemy. It’s where quarterback Kurt Warner played college ball and bagged groceries before becoming a Super Bowl MVP, and it’s where Ali Frarokhmanesh made a name for himself last year playing for the University of Northern Iowa and making a clutch 3-point shot that defeated the #1 ranked team in the country and landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

And of course, Cedar Falls is the international headquarters for Screenwriting from Iowa. There is something about this place that makes this town of 36,145 people special.

This week the spotlight has been shinning just on one resident, Cassey Herkelman—a 112 pound freshman at Cedar Falls High School who became the first female wrestler to win at the State tournament level. The story went national because of a mini-controversy when a male wrestler decided to withdrawal from competition citing “a matter of conviction and religious beliefs” against physically wrestling a girl in the potentially violent sport. (The same decision, by the way, he made a few years ago when he faced Herkelman in a youth tournament. His pre-tournament record this year was 34-4.)

The student wrestler’s father, Jamie Northrup, is a pastor and had this statement,”We believe in the elevation and respect of woman and we don’t think that wrestling a woman is the right thing to do. Body slamming and takedowns, that full contact sport is not how to do that.” Fair enough. (I think most people ideally wish there were separate divisions for guys and girls, but there are not enough female wrestlers in Iowa as there is in other states.)

Herkelman just wants to wrestle. It’s something she’s been doing competitively since she was in second grade. Sometimes competing in 40 tournaments a year. (Her father Bill qualified for state his senior year of high school.) Herkelman has made enough of a name for herself that last year she was listed in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd:

Cassandra Herkelman

CEDAR FALLS, IOWA > Wrestling

Cassandra, an eighth-grader at Peet Junior High, won the 105-pound class in the middle school division at the U.S. Girls’ Wrestling Association national championships on April 4. The week before, she won at 103 pounds in the 6th- to 8th-grade division at the Girls Folkstyle Nationals. She was Iowa’s 105-pound middle school champion in 2010 and 111-pound titlist in ’09.

So with the forfeit yesterday of her male opponent  Herkelman became the first female wrestler to win an Iowa state tournament match.

Herkelman plans to go to national competitions where she will wrestle against other girls and dreams of being on Team USA and wrestling in the Olympics in 2012 (London) or Rio de Janeiro (2016).

But the road that leads to England or Brazil starts back here in Cedar Falls where she will continue to train—mostly away from the spotlight. But you can follow the journey on her website cassandraherkelman.com.

The take away once again is little successes often lead to larger successes. And your job as a storyteller is to bring to light those unusual stories in unusual places. Tell them as 2-minute You Tube videos or as a feature film.

By the way, there aren’t many movies about wrestling but if you want taste of what it entails, check out the 1985 film Vision Quest starring Matthew Modine.


 

Scott W. Smith


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“I literally thought I might get fired at lunch.”
Ron Howard
Speaking about the first day of shooting his first feature film at age 23.
(Grand Theft Auto for Roger Corman. A film Ron co-wrote with his actor father, Rance Howard.)

Ron Howard has had one of the most amazing careers in entertainment history. First, as a youth and a young man he was an actor in several iconic TV shows and movies; The Andy Griffith Show, The Music Man, Happy Days and American Graffiti. He played Huck Finn, met Walt Disney and had cameo parts on Gunsmoke, Lassie, M*A*S*H, The Waltons, and The Twilight Zone. He acted alongside Hollywood legends John Wayne and Lauren Bacall in The Shootist where he earned a Golden Globe nomination.

Then as he shifted to directing he started his education at USC and finished it directing a feature for Roger Corman. From there he’s gone on to make over 30 more films including and as varied as Apollo 13, Cocoon, Slash, Backdraft, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Da Vinci Code. In 2002, he won two Oscars for his role as producer and director on A Beautiful Mind. Howard has also won a few Emmys as one of the producers of Arrested Development and From Earth to the Moon.

He comes from a perspective few, if any, can match— accomplish actor, low-budget filmmaker, Oscar-winning Hollywood producer/director. So just maybe he’d be a good person to listen to as the film business transitions to actually not having anything to do with literal film strips. A time when people are asking, “Will there even be movie theaters in the future?”

“It can be unsettlingAny time you go through a period when technology and delivery systems and distribution systems broaden and change, when there are generational shifts—all that influences what filmmakers do, the decisions they make, the kinds of projects they can work on. But I sometimes think about this 96-year-old guy, named Charles Rainsbury, who had a tiny speaking part in Cocoon. He’d been an actor and a film crew member when Fort Lee, New Jersey, was the center of the film world. He hadn’t been on a set since 1915, 1916. When I asked him how movies had changed since then, he said, ‘We didn’t have to shut up when they were shooting then; otherwise, it’s the same, hurry up and wait.’ And I find that comforting. As we go through this period of transition and worry about whether people are seeing our movies in multiplexes or on cell phones—or seeing them at all—I’m reminded that the thing I love is this process that hasn’t changed so much: You try to tell a story that’s meaningful, and share it with people. What really gets me out of bed in the morning is this lifestyle that I’ve always been a part of: the creative problem-solving, the collaboration.”
Ron Howard
DGA Quarterly/Fall 2009

See it’s not really the film biz after all—it’s the story biz. Go tell some meaningful stories.

Link to Ron Howard’s Oscar Acceptance Speech.

Scott W. Smith

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“Under no condition can you teach curiosity.”
Producer 
Brian Grazer
(Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind)

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Albert Einstein

“I believe in disrupting my comfort zone.”
Brian Grazer

Producer Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment has put up some pretty good numbers; More than 50 films for a box office total over $1 billion, five Emmys and an Oscar. (And one funky haircut.)

In the last few days I’ve written about Akiva Goldsman writing the script for A Beautiful Mind, and Sylvia Nasar first uncovering John Nash’s story, and a shout out to the movie’s director Ron Howard, but the connector of the entire project was Grazer. He reportedly had been looking for the right project for years that was an intriguing story about the brain.

A Beautiful Mind was an impossible movie to get made. Brian (Grazer) got it made. For a time, I wasn’t even going to direct it. But it was going to be a movie. Brian made sure of that. Brian nurtured this difficult project to fruition. He was responsible for A Beautiful Mind.”
Ron Howard
Esquire magazine

One of the ways that Grazer is said to keep information and ideas flowing in the pipeline is to work with a “cultural attaché.” A person who can keep up with cultural trends and help direct Grazer to meet some of the most interesting people alive. A couple of years ago in The New Yorker, Lizzie Widdicombe published an unofficial email that entailed just what a cultural attaché was expected to do working for Mr. Grazer:

This person would be responsible for keeping Brian abreast of everything that’s going on in the world; politically, culturally, musically. . . . They’re also responsible for finding an interesting person for Brian to meet with every week . . . an astronaut, a journalist, a philosopher, a buddhist monk. . . . There is LOTS of reading for this position! Grazer may ask you to read any book he’s interested in. You’ll probably get to read about 4 or 5 books a week and you may be required to travel with him on his private plane to Hawaii, New York, Europe—teaching him anything he asks you about along the way. . . . You will also be provided with an assistant. . . . Salary is around $150,000 a year. . . . You will be to Grazer what Karl Rove was to Bush.

Not a bad gig if you can land it. (Not sure if you’re paid overtime, but it doesn’t sound like a 40 hour a week job.) But if you can’t work for Brian Grazer—or be Brian Grazer (and I don’t think they’re currently taking applications for that position either)—you can at least learn from Brain Grazer.

“When I started out in the entertainment business, I made a list of people I thought it would be good to meet. Not people who could give me a job or a deal, but people who could shake me up, teach me something, challenge my ideas about myself and the world. So I started calling up experts in all kinds of fields: trial lawyers, neurosurgeons, CIA agents, embryologists, firewalkers, police chiefs, hypnotists, forensic anthropologists, and even presidents.”
Brian Grazer
Disrupting My Comfort Zone
NPR June 6, 2006

P.S. If you happen to be Brian Grazer’s cultural attaché, I am available next Wednesday for lunch if Mr. Grazer happens to be traveling through Iowa—or more likely flying over.(We do actually have one small connection. Back in the late ’80s when his film Parenthood was being shot in Orlando, my wife and son were extras. Our red Toyota van even got a cameo for a few seconds—a few frames?— in the alley scene where Steve Matin & Mary Steenburgen digging through trash. Almost famous.)

Update 2/17/11: Found a interview where Grazer was ask if he still has a cultural attaché, and he said, “That was sort of a joke title. I’ve been out meeting different people, I have a record, for 24 years, of meeting someone every two weeks. It helps inform your filter and hopefully informs your taste. I don’t have anyone that’s doing that for me right now. I use a couple of my assistants and I just say ‘hey, can I meet so-and-so’ and then we work on it or I’ll call them myself, but I don’t have a person that does that any longer.”

Related post: Jack Kerouac in Orlando

Genius, Madness & a Genuine Third Act

Scott W. Smith



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“Literature abounds with stories about meteoric rises followed by catastrophic falls. There are very few stories, much less true stories, with a genuine third act. But John Nash’s life had such a third act. In fact, it was that amazing third act that drew me to his story in the first place.”
Sylvia Nasar

On the DVD commentary of A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard mentions that mathematicians on the level of John Nash don’t think it terms of numbers but of patterns.  I’m no mathematician (and certainly no genius), but in doing this blog for the past three years I’ve seen a number of patterns emerge. Today it happens to be journalists and Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Just as there was a great trail of talented people that led to the making of the classic film On the Waterfront , there was also a lot of talented people who were behind the success of A Beautiful Mind. And though both of those films were made over 45 years apart there are some common denominators between them.

Important parts of both stories take place in New Jersey. On the Waterfront in Hoboken and A Beautiful Mind in Princeton. I have been to both places, and though they are only 50 miles apart, culturally they are a worlds away from each other. (At least they were years ago.) Both stories center around a man facing great odds with a strong woman helping them endure. Both movies won Best Picture Oscars: On the Waterfront (1955), A Beautiful Mind (2002). Wait, both titles also have three words—this is getting scary.

And both stories were first brought to light by journalists. On the Waterfront flowed from 26 front page articles written by Malcolm Johnson. They first appeared in 1947-48 in The New York Sun and later in book form. For his work in exposing organized crime Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize.

A Beautiful Mind was the brainchild of Sylvia Nasar.  She was working as an economics reporter for the New York Times when she heard that John Nash would be sharing the Nobel Prize for his doctoral dissertation that was over 40 years old.

What had become of John Nash? Was he even still alive? He was alive, but he didn’t  understand why anyone would want to write a story on his life and did not give Nasar a formal interview. His friends and peers also were reluctant to speak to Nasar. She knows why, “There had not been a paragraph written on Nash, and no one who knew him wanted to put schizophrenia on the record because he had already suffered so much.” In 1994, The New York Times published Nasar’s article, The Lost Years of a Nobel Laureate.

One person who did talk to Nasar was Nash’s sister and that was enough to get started going deeper into the story. Nasar was also able to interview and talk with John’s wife, Alicia.

“In many ways these were the first prints in the snow, and the greatest thing that could happen to a reporter. It was an extremely rewarding experience not just telling a rise and fall story, but the fall and rise of an intellectual giant.”
Sylvia Nasar

Nasar took leave from the Times and spent two and a half years writing the book A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash. In 1998 the book won the National Book Critics Award for Biography and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Nash had a great (though not perfect) first act as a rising academic in the cold war era when some mathematicians were rock stars. He earned his Ph.D. at the age of 21. He married a physics major who also happened to be a cheerleader and was said to resembled Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Butterfield 8

Act 2 is when things got rough. He failed to accomplish the great things he thought he would in his field. He began hearing voices and having delusions. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in an era where the treatment was brutal. He ended up divorced, living in poverty and obscurity.

Five years after their divorce John called Alicia from a mental hospital  in West Virginia and asked her to help him. She did. And a mere 25-years-later he was honored with the Nobel Prize, and later the film A Beautiful Mind. He had finally found the success and fame that he hungered for as a young man.

“I dedicated my biography of John Nash to his wife Alicia. A Beautiful Mind is a drama about the mystery of the human mind, but it’s also very much a love story. It is very much an exploration of what Wordsworth called “the tenderness, joys, and fears of the human heart”...Without Alicia, Nash would have perished. There would be no recovery, no Nobel, no second take on life or the marriage.
Sylvia Nasar
Talk at MIT & Interview

So what does all of this have to do with Yellow Springs, Ohio? That is where Sylvia Nasar received her undergraduate degree in literature at Anitoch College. A place I have mentioned before since it is where Rod Serling graduated from on the road to creating The Twilight Zone.

We’ve all heard the horror stories from authors of books who’ve been less than pleased with the movie results based on their writings. Nasar’s Hollywood experience is on the other end of the spectrum.

“Was I happy with the movie? Well, look….when Ron Howard screened the movie for us I had read many drafts of the screenplay. I visited the set, I talked with Ron Howard—nothing prepared me for how good it was. I was really blown away. To me this movie captured what was truley— yes, in a fictional way— what was truly unique and meaningful about this story, and did something that I have never seen any movie do by this very cleaver device it put the audience in the shoes of someone who can’t distinguish between delusion and reality…To be able to translate a story about two states of mind, mathematics and schizophrenia, that are pretty remote from most people’s experience and to communicate that to audiences in many different cultures  and countries around the world I think is extraordinary. So, I was very happy with it.”
Sylvia Nasar
MIT Talk

Nasar is the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

Related Posts:
Writing “A Beautiful Mind”
A Beautiful Heart
Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany

Scott W. Smith

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“I was the worst writer in my seventh grade class. And when I went to college I was the worst writer in my college class. But each time somebody told me to stop writing, I never stopped…When I went to graduate school and tried to get  a degree in creative writing they told me to stop because I wasn’t that good. And I didn’t stop writing.”
Akiva Goldsman
2007 WGA Rally

It seems every step of the way Akiva Goldsman has had someone tell him that he wasn’t that good of a writer. It’s a good thing that he has an Oscar to remind himself otherwise. But perhaps it was Goldsman’s naysayers that best prepared him to write the screenplay for A Beautiful Mind (2001).

As he told the story based on the life of John Nash and Sylvia Nasar’s bio of the mathematician who suffers from schizophrenia, Goldsman had to know he was also telling his story. A story of a man who knew that he could achieve something greater than what he had accomplished up to that point in his life. (By the way, that story or theme will resonate with every man, woman, and child that’s ever walked on this earth.)

Goldsman was raised in a group house where his mother, a child psychologist, lived and worked with children diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia.

“I am no expert on mental illness, but I am sure of one thing: the children who shared my home were not without reason. Their behavior made sense to them. They had reasons for everything they did. We just couldn’t understand their reasons. So, the idea of writing a screenplay about John’s life and the way he saw the world was tremendously exciting to me.”
Akiva Goldsman
A Beautiful Mind, The Shooting Script

An the team at Imagine Films (Brian Grazer, Karen Kehela, Ron Howard) got behind Goldsman’s vision of writing the story from the perspective of someone who has schizophrenia. Much of the time we see the world as Nash saw the world.

“It’s not a literal telling of Nash’s life. I tried to take the architecture of his life—his genius, his schizophrenia, his Nobel Prize—and construct a semi-fictional story.”
Akiva Goldsman

One of the pieces of the Nash’s life that became an anchor for the story was the relationship with his wife Alicia.

“It’s kind of a grown-up romance. The relationship was intensely complex, as where the challenges that Alicia and John faced together. John Nash’s story is incredibly heroic, but so is Alicia’s.”
Ron Howard
Director, A Beautiful Mind

One of the ways that Goldsman visually showed that bond comes at the 40 minute mark of the movie when Alicia puts a handkerchief in Nash’s tuxedo pocket just before he has his picture taken. On the DVD commentary this is how Goldsman explains the importance of that moment :

“Here’s where we set up the handkerchief. The sort of talisman, the ‘objective correlative’ as Wallace Stevens said. The object that represents emotion—in this case the handkerchief is the object that represents their love and will carry throughout the piece.”
Akiva Goldsman

The handkerchief becomes a motif throughout the film. And in the closing speech at the end of the film, John Nash is wearing the same handkerchief that she gave him—a symbol of their love and endurance.

And speaking of endurance. Goldsman not only endured the years in school where he was discouraged from continuing to write, but he was by his own admission a “failed novelist for ten years” before turning his hand to screenwriting. And screenwriting is where he started winning awards, unfortunately his first award was a Razzie which honors bad acting, writing and filmmaking. And he actually won two; the 1997 Batman & Robin (Worst Screenplay) and the 1996 A Time to Kill (Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 million.) It must have good felt five years later to walk up and receive his Oscar for A Beautiful Mind.

And Goldsman has gone to write many other screenplays that have made him one of the highest paid screenwriters in the history of motion pictures.

P.S. I’m going to start throwing that phrase”objective correlative” around, because that really makes it sound like you know what you’re talking about. Not to mention that T.S. Eliot used it as well.

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
T.S. Eliot/Hamlet and His Problems

Objective correlative. Hence the presence of some outward object, predetermined to correspond to the preexisting idea in its living power, is essential to the evolution of its proper end, — the pleasurable emotion.
Washington Allston around 1840 in the “Introductory Discourse” of his Lectures on Art

A few “objective correlative” examples off the top of my head are the volleyball from Cast Away (WILSON!), the fish from Jerry Maguire, and the Heart of the Ocean necklace from Titantic. Can you think of others?

Scott W. Smith

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