Archive for May, 2011

The Birds

“I have never known birds of different species to flock together.”
Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies)
The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Daphane Du Mauier (story), Evan Hunter (screenplay)

Today I saw something that I had never seen before. Last week I mentioned in passing the we had a bird nesting two feet from our back door. Well, today I saw one of them fly for the first time in its short life.  On Sunday we noticed that the sleeping quarters for three baby robins was getting tight. Monday morning there were only two in the nest with no sign of the third. This morning around 6:45 AM bird #2 was out of the nest and perched on a ledge getting the courage to fly (sort of like mama bird is doing in the above photo I took yesterday).

Bird #2 would lean forward and then back up. He or she would then flap their wings a little and I just knew I was going to see history in the making. I kept looking in the yard to see if any cats had wandered into the area. The coast looked clear. I wondered if the bird would just quickly fall on the deck and then struggle to get off the ground before any predators came. To my amazement after a 15 minute debate the bird finally jumped, dipped down a little but then soared upward and was gone.  Later I heard that the third bird flew away as well.

Like an indie film, the success rates of these birds surviving through the next year are not great. But I was glad to see this drama played out and—at least for this part of the story— all appears to have gone well. The nest got built, the eggs were laid, successfully guarded from danger, the birds were hatched, and now they’ve learned to fly. Since this kind of thing has happened everyday for thousands of years, it’s not exactly and epic story—but then again since it’s the first time (and perhaps the last time) I’ve watched that sort of drama unfold before my eyes I thought it was pretty cool.

My wife and I even went to see the new animated film Rio that just happens to center around a domesticated exotic bird in a small town in Minnesota who never learned to fly and ends up on an adventure in Rio de Janerio.  It’s a fun film with the voices of  Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hatheway, Jamie Foxx, and George Lopez.

And to check out a visually stunning documentary check out the 2002 Academy-nominated film Winged Migration (shot on seven continents over three years).

Scott W. Smith

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It’s been a windy Memorial Day here in Cedar Falls, Iowa and I couldn’t help but stop and take a picture of the American flags blowing at the local AMVET Post this morning.

“Heroes are something we create, something we need. It’s a way for us to understand what’s almost incomprehensible, how people could sacrifice so much for us, but for my dad and these men, the risks they took, the wounds they suffered, they did that for their buddies. They may have fought for their country but they died for their friends. For the man in front, for the man beside him, and if we wish to truly honor these men we should remember them the way they really were, the way my dad remembered them.”
Author James Bradley
Flags of Our Fathers

Photo ©2011 Scott W. Smith

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Six days ago I shot an interview and B-roll footage with Nevada Morrison in Waverly, Iowa. Yesterday Morrison had a monster day winning the 400-meter dash at the Division III national track meet in Delaware, Ohio. According to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier she also “placed second in the 200, anchored the 4X400 meter relay to its sixth consecutive national crown and ran on the third-place 4X100 meter squad.” She helped her school, Wartburg College, place second in the nation.

The above photo of Morrison is a screen grab from the Panasonic AF 100 using the Olympus 14-140 lens.  This is not a retouched photo from a still camera, just a frame taken from the video and tweaked a little for color correction. What should stand out from a production standpoint is the shallow depth of field—the blurred background.

That is part of the film look that has been so elusive in the past with the lower chip video cameras. When the Canon 5D hit the streets a couple years ago it raised the bar for sub-$5,000 cameras. Without getting too technical, the AF 100 has a sensor roughly the size of the Canon 7D making these kinds of shots possible.

I’ve had this camera for almost two months and love it. It’s not uncommon to see it reviewed at the bottom of the list of new cameras. But as the expression goes, “A number without a reference is meaningless.” After this year’s NAB the list that the AF 100 was being compared to was the RED Epic camera, the Arri Alexa, and the Sony F3. (See Vincent Laforet’s blog.)

Those cameras are all great. Problem #1 is two of those cameras really aren’t widely available, and #2 they are quite a bit more expensive than the AF100—about three to fifteen times higher in costs. So if price (and availability) are an issue for you—and you’re in the market for a camera then take a good look at the AF100.

Of course, I’ll admit that I should be the poster child for these smaller Panasonic cameras. I jumped on board the DVX 100 back in 2003 really excited about its 24P film look. And over the years I migrated up the food chain buying and shooting well over 1000 hours of footage (and six shorts films) with the Panasonic HVX 200 and the HPX 170. (The DVX camera opened the door to a couple overseas shoots and the regional Emmy I won in 2009 was shot with the HPX 170 recording to P2.)

I’m comfortable not only with the price and look of the AF 100, but I very familiar with the menu layout. And as a long time Nikon shooter I am able with an inexpensive converter to use my old Nikon Ai lens. Sure, there are limitations to this camera, but I do prefer shooting with it than the DSLR cameras (I’ve shoot with the D90, 5D & 7D). The four biggest reasons for that are:
1) No need for external audio recording system
2) Built-in ND filters, vectorscope, waveform
3) Ability to check focus while shooting (and I’m not a big auto focus guy, but the auto-focus on the Olympus lens really can save your butt in certain situations—because manual focus can be tricky).
4) I’m old school—started shooting 16mm with the Arri SR and an Eclair NPR— so I simply like looking down a traditional viewfinder when shooting. 

When you’re shooting productions as a one-man band (as I’ve often done since moving to Iowa years ago) those four factors are very important. So I’ll concede that the AF 100 can’t match the quality of a RED, F3 or Alexa…but at a street price of under $5,000—forgetaboutit. The AF 100 rocks. 

I’m sure Panasonic is pleased just to see it mentioned in the same breath as those more expensive cameras. Think of  it as a Division III school competing against a Division I school. It’s not going to win, but its nice just to be in the same race with the big dogs.

Congrats to Nevada Morrison on her fine performances yesterday. Earlier this month Morrison and her 3 other running mates set an all-time Division three record at the Drake relays. Like I keep saying there’s a lot of talent in these fly-over states.

Scott W. Smith


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“One lesson I’ve learned in Hollywood is that right out of the gate a screenplay will be judged solely on its concept or premise…I test the market every time by pitching my premise to a group of trusted friends. If these friends seem confused or even lukewarm, then it’s back to the drawing board.”
Screenwriter Chandus Jackson
Howard University grad & University of Michigan (MBA)
2007  Walt Disney/ABC Writing Fellow
(And former finance manager, investment banker, Army Captain)
Quote pulled from Now Write! Screenwriting
Edited by Sherry Ellis & Laurie Lamson 

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Milieu (Tip #49)

Milieu is one of those words where you just feel smarter tossing it around. And since the word has its origins in French it rolls off the tongue nicely and can give the typical American a bit of international flair.

Of course, it can also come across as pompous and make you sound like a goofy Peter Sellers character. But it’s a great word that according to Merriam-Webster means, “The physical or social setting in which something occurs or develops.” One thing that fascinates me about Facebook photographs (new and old) is the stuff in the background; the cars, the buildings, the books on the shelf, the neighborhood, the stuff on the walls, etc. There is so much information there to learn about the milieu of our Facebook friends.

Here is how the director of The Caine Mutiny used the word milieu 26 years ago in relationship to screenwriting;

“Most people accept what they see much more readily than what they hear. Attention to class mannerisms and the style of dress can be of more value in establishing a character’s background than taking the easy way—through dialogue or flashback. And actors will welcome the challenge and the opportunity to enrich their roles.

“Another rich vein which rewards working is the description of a character’s immediate milieu. The kind of quarters a person lives in, its state of order or disorder, the quality and taste of its adornment, are all signs which carry cinematic potential. Does your protagonist hang classics on his walls, or center-folds? If he is rich and can afford to display originals, are they good or are they tripe, avant-garde or traditional? If he is poor and can afford only magazine reproductions, what is their content quality? As you can see, the milieu can indicate character and financial state without a word of dialogue.”
Edward Dmytrk
On Screen Writing  

Can you think of a favorite scene that uses milieu well?

Related posts:

Show, Don’t Tell (Tip #46)

Show, Don’t Tell (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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“Just what does ‘four-quadrant’ mean? It’s a movie that appeals to all four main demographic groups—young and old, male and female.”
Jim Cinile
Meet the Four Quadrents

“Brief definition of a 4Q Film: The film that appeals to all four quadrants, or demographic groups. They’re broad and will be enjoyed by males over 25, males under 25, woman over 25, and woman under 25. These are the four target marketing groups. They’re universally themed and marketed internationally. Titantic, Harry Potter, The Incredibles, and Juno, are examples of 4Q films.” 
Kriss Perras Running Water
The Four Quadrant Film vs. New Media 

“It’s a gobbledygook term that means the same thing as ‘appeals to everyone.'”
Found on an Internet forum at Done Deal Pro 

The ABC’s of 4Q filmmaking are:
A) Any Pixar film  
B) Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean)
C) Cameron (Titanic & Avatar)

And for good measure here are the DEF’s:
D) Disney
E) E.T. —The Extra-Terrestrial
F) Forrest Gump

Scott W. Smith

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As I approach my 1,000th post on Screenwriting from Iowa, I find myself wondering if I should just stop at 1,000. But then I stumble upon something fresh, new and different and it inspires me to take my car a little further down the road. See what’s in the next village.

Today that comes in the form of a quote from the director Darren Lynn Bousman, who made many of the SAW movies. Darren was born and raised in Kansas, and after making several short films at Full Sail in Orlando he spent a few years kicking around L.A. before things fell into place for him:

“I was fired from every job I had in Los Angeles… I became Tara Reid’s assistant (on the movie Van Wilder).  And it was always like ‘Darrell, Derrick, Devin,’ — she never knew my name, and my job was to like hold her cigarettes and Pepsi at all times. Eventually I was fired from that job.  I was at the point when I had no money. I took a side job at J-Crew doing sh*t—I hated my life. I’m like, ‘you know what, I’m going to write a script and I’m not going to stop until this thing gets made.’  And so I wrote this script called The Desperate.  I sent it out, no one would read it.  Because you get in that Catch 22 in Hollywood, where you have to have an agent or no one’s going to read it.

“My way to circumvent that catch 22 was, I made up a fake management company. I had letterhead made, and I had a friend of mine answer the phones. And so, I was an assistant at the time at an agency, and my job was to read the scripts that came in.  And what I did was change the title of my screenplay and made it by a different person.  Then I had it come through this fake agency that I had created and I put a message out to all the other assistants, ‘This is the best f*cking thing I’ve ever read…’

“And by that point, I had heat, because all the other people were like, ‘Oh, Darren read this thing, he thinks it’s great.’ And long story short, this screenplay ended up getting bought by the people who made the Saw film.”
Darren Lynn Bousman 
(Director of Saw II, III & IV)
Adam Carolla’s podscast
Via FilmDrunk
via a Tweet by UNKScreenwriter        

Note: The Desperate didn’t get made, but it opened the door for Darren to talk his way into directing SAW II.

Scott W. Smith 

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“It’s what real movies are supposed to be.  The whole family can like it. There’s a big idea behind it that I think is interesting to think about—about what control do we really have over our own lives. And it’s very uplifting and satisfying, and fun, and I really couldn’t stop reading it when I picked it up to read, and those are the things you look for when you’re going to go out and try to make a movie.”
Producer Chris Moore
Speaking on the script & movie Adjustment Bureau 

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“The Battle of Shaker Heights is more like the war of subplots.”
Review by Scott Hollerman 

The Project Greenlight 2 movie The Battle of Shaker Heights shows that an experienced crew, talented actors, and even inexperienced co-directors can make just as mediocre a movie for a million dollars as Hollywood typically does for $50 million. The movie looks good, Shia LaBeouf shines, the real battle is there’s no substantial story.

You literally sit there for 10, 15 minutes wondering what the story is about. Then 20, 30 minutes go by and you realize this isn’t really going to be a movie that’s strong on plot. When the movie ends at a total run time of under 80 minutes,  perhaps the most polite thing you can say is, “I think that was better than Stolen Summer.” (The fist Project Greenlight movie.)

I imagine screenwriter Erica Beeney would say that the directors Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankln ruined her script. I imagine she’ll always wonder what the film could have been if Jessica Landow had been chosen to direct. On the Project Greenlight 2 DVD set they do show the films selected by various directors, and in my book Landow’s film did stand out above the others.  But I’m not sure the film would have been that much better.

What this coming of age film needed at some point was someone to step up to the plate and say to the filmmakers, “Look, you have some nice moments in this script, but you need something the audience can hang their hat on.” Here are three examples found in classic coming of age movies:

In Stand by Me, it’s as simple as the four boys going to see a dead body. A lot of thing happen in that movie, but that is their goal. In Big, Tom Hanks doesn’t want to be a short kid anymore so he makes a wish to the Zoltar carnival machine and is a kid in an adult-sized body. Cool at first, but then he just wants to be a normal kid again. The goal is to find the Zoltar machine and reverse the wish. In the movie Sandlot, a baseball signed by Babe Ruth goes over the fence that has a mean guard dog and a mysterious man. The goal of the young boys for the entire movie is to find a way to get the ball back. It’s a simple thing, but it’s the glue that holds many a movie together. Of course, there’s more to it than that and I have 900+ posts here that goes into depth of the finer nuances of screenwriting.

I didn’t read the original script for The Battle of Shaker Heights, but I’m amazed that it was chosen above thousands of others submitted.

Maybe all the short-lived Project Greenlight concept was was a good idea to use the foundation of filmmaking to be the basis for a reality TV program. If the film worked great, but the real gold was if the show found a TV audience. Afterall, when Survivor or The Apprentice finish their TV runs, that’s it. People don’t rush to the movie theaters to see another version of it or buy the DVDs.

If that was the case, then they needed to not just look at scripts and reels, but think more in terms of who would be a more interesting character to watch for 13 episodes on TV. In that case, Pete Jones the writer/director of the first Project Greenlight was more interesting to watch than those in Project Greenlight 2. Audiences could connect with this seemingly Midwestern common man who was plucked from seemingly nowhere to make a movie. Pete could be a pain, but I don’t remember him being a whiner.

In the end, both the TV show and the movie didn’t succeed in finding a broad audiences leading producer Chris Moore to speculates to executive producer Ben Affleck in episode 12 of Project Greenlight 2, “Maybe the last image of the show this year is you, me and Matt, just sitting around a table going, ‘You know what? ‘All the talented people are in Hollywood’ the system the Hollywood system works.'” Followed by this Affleck sound bite, “If (Project Greenlight) doesn’t work twice then (the studios) would say, ‘Nope, no talented people outside of Hollywood. System works. Keeps out the bad, keeps in the good. Why f#@k around looking for guys on the internet?”

But back in 2002-03 when they made Project Greenlight  2 there was a young woman who had just graduated from the University of Iowa named Brook Busey who would move to Minneapolis and who would eventually write a little screenplay. She would, in fact, be discovered by a Hollywood manager via the Internet.  Her script had a simple plot. Girl gets pregnant, what’s she going to do? It got made into a movie, found a large audience, and she won a little gold statue called an Oscar.

Somewhere along the way Brook changed her name to Diablo Cody and moved to Hollywood.

P.S. Interesting sidenote, both Project Greenlight movies were written by writers from the Midwest and set in the Midwest (Ohio and Illinois). Also read where The Battle of Shaker Heights screenwriter Erica Beeney  went on to get her MFA from The Ohio State University a few years after her movie was released. In the big picture of screenwriting, Erica hit a home run. Percentage wise not many screenwriters ever see their ferature script made and released in theaters with their name as writer on a single title card.

A big thanks to Affleck, Damon, Moore, LivePlanet, Miramax, HBO and everyone else involved with Project Greenlight for giving a detailed glimpse into the world of filmmaking.

Scott W. Smith

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“I just want this movie to have a chance. That’s what you hope for—You hope for lightning in the bottle.”
Rick Schwartz
Miramax Senior VP Production
(Quoted in 2003 in regard to the movie The Battle of Shaker Heights)

“I really hope this works. I hope people go see this movie. That would be the perfect ending for this.”

Chris Moore
(On the movie he produced, The Battle of Shaker Heights.)

The Battle of Shaker Heights did not have a perfect ending. Not even close.

But back in 2003, the second Project Greenlight film did something that most low-budget films don’t see—it got released in theaters. Not a wide release, but it did open in New York and LA in a total of four theaters. (Contrast that with this weekend’s box office winner, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which opened in 4,155 locations.)

The second week of its release The Battle of Shaker Heights added eight more major markets. Then the battle was over. According to BoxOfficeMojo, the film’s widest release was 13 theaters and had a total run of 28 days and made just $280,351. (I’ll write about the film itself tomorrow on my last post on Project Greenlight 2.)

While the film was not a success and it would be the last Project Greenlight to air on HBO, I believe both Project Greenlight 1 & 2 were successful in showing the creative process of filmmaking. In one of the last TV episodes, Ben Affleck states, “I’m really am proud of how we were able to accurately show how hard it is to make a good movie.”

And the box office records show how hard it is to find an audience in theaters even if you have Affleck and Matt Damon behind the project, even if Affleck and actor Shia LaBeouf go on The Tonight Show promoting the film, even if HBO runs 13 episodes on the making of the film leading up to the release, and even if you have a well orchestrated press junket and a well-designed movie poster.

But while most low-budgets films (hundreds every year) are released direct to video and soon forgotten, here we are still talking about Project Greenlight 2 and The Battle for Shaker Heights eight years after the movie had its limited released. And, dang, not only in one post, but it will be a total of seven posts which I rarely do on any one subject.

Who knows, maybe five—ten—fifteen—twenty years from now some hotshot successful director will point to one of those Project Greenlights as inspiring them to become a filmmaker. I think Affleck, Damon and Moore would accept that as a perfect ending.

Scott W. Smith 

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