Archive for January, 2012

“To watch (D.W. Griffith’s) work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.”
James Agee

“Despite every valid attack on the biased history presented by The Birth of A Nation, there also can be no denying the unsurpassed artistic impact it had on virtually all subsequent pictures.”
Peter Bogdanovich

This is a difficult post to write because it’s like sticking your hand in a bag of snakes to separate the poisonous ones from the non-poisonous ones.

While many filmmakers from many countries laid the ground work of the early years of cinema, it was D.W. Griffith who laid the axe at the root of the tree—and when he was done, everyone knew that things were going to be different. It was offical that movies had matured beyond the cheap entertainment of the Nickelodeon Theater.

The road Griffith took was paved by making 450 short films before arriving at the epic film The Birth of a Nation. The film is as controversial as it is long. I’m not sure what the longest film to date was at that point, but in the states one and two-reelers were still common place. (Under 30 minutes total.) (Update: The 1913 Italian film Quo Vadias? was the first film to surpass the two-hour mark. No original print is known to exist.)

Back in 1906 Charles Tait directed the Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang, which around 60 minutes in length and is considered the first feature film. Over the years other filmmaker in Europe followed and I think they too had running times in the 40-60 minute range.  When Cecil B. DeMille made the first feature in Hollywood, The Squaw Man (74 minutes), it was 1914.

Some people at that time thought that human eyes could not endure viewing a film much longer than an hour. (Reminds me of those early quotes by some that thought television wouldn’t catch on because people wouldn’t stop working around the house and just sit and watch t.v.) So just telling a long story was a risk for Griffith. It would also not only be the longest film, but the most expensive up until that time. In Frank E. Beaver’s film history book On Film he writes of The Birth of a Nation, “In compelxity of story structure, in technical assimilation, in mere magnitude, audiences had never been exposed to anything like it.”

The original title for Birth of a Nation was The Clansman, the name of the book by the Reverend Thomas Dixon, on which the movie was based (along with another Dixon book, The Leopard’s Spot.) I have never read the books and it’s been many years since I watched The Birth of a Nation so I’ll depend on others to give a clearer view on the lay of the land. The script was written by Griffith with Frank E. Woods.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, the film does give a favorable view of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). After the Civil War, the south went through a long and major reconstruction. Families had lost sons in the war, buildings had been destroyed, the economy was in shambles, and a way of life was forever changed. Griffith experienced this first hand when as a teenager his mother sold the family farm in Kentucky.

After the Civil War ended, there was much lawlessness in the South and the KKK was seen by some as a way to restore order. Out of that perspective and history was born The Birth of a Nation. Keep in mind that between 1776 and 1865 (ending just ten years before Griffith was born) slavery was legal in the United States of America.

In general, what film critics and historians do with Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is the same thing they do with the pro-Nazi film Triumph of the Will—that is separate the film from the message. Director Peter Bogdanovich has called Griffith “a flawed genius.” He also goes on to explain the times;

“Remember, in 1915, the First World War having just begun, women—-black or white—-still didn’t have the right to vote. Do we no longer revere Washington or Jefferson because they kept slaves? In his brilliant documentary on the black heavyweight Jack Johnson of the 1910s, Unforgivable Blackness, Ken Burns quotes lengthy, virulently racist passages from such contemporary newspapers as The New York TimesLos Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune. As Robert Graves has pointed out, it is impossible not to be a part of your times, even if you are against them.”
Peter Bogdanovich

And so over the years, the filmmaking influence of Griffith was felt on a wave of filmmakers ranging from John Ford to Alfred Hitchcock. (And there is no question that part of what set Griffith a part was the great cinematographer Billy Bitzer, who had 18 years of camera experience before he shot The Birth of a Nation.)

Now imagine a young Spike Lee—fresh from his undergraduate work at the historically all male & black Morehouse College— walking into classes at NYU film school and being shown The Birth of a Nation for the first time and being taught about the all the glorious film techniques of the great D.W. Griffith.

“They taught that D.W. Griffith is the father of cinema.  They talk about all the ‘innovations’—which he did. But they never really talked about the implications of Birth of a Nation, never really talked about how that film was used as a recruiting took for the K.K.K.
Spike Lee
The New Yorker article by John Colapinto

Even back in 1915 there were theaters and cities that refused to show the film. And in some cities where the film was shown, riots did break out. (Riots also occurred when the play The Clansman toured the country in 1908.)  Motion pictures could no longer be seen as a simple entertainment. And Griffith proved that people could watch a 3 hour movie—and they would pay top dollar for it as well.

“Appalling as its message might seem now, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was the blockbuster of its day.  Grossing pre-inflationary $18 million, it was the second biggest blockbuster office success of the silent film era.  Immediately perceived as a classic, it was re-released in 1921, 1922, and 1930. Some 200 million people saw it before 1946.”
Ann-Marie Nurnberger 

It’s been a while since I’ve repeated one of my favorite quotes that “Movies reflect the culture they help create.” In the case of Birth of a Nation, I saw one old photo that showed a person holding a sign outside a movie theater that read; “Birth of a Nation Revives KKK—N.A.A.C.P.” The KKK did experience a revival in the 20s that would last into the 60s.

In The Father of Film (Part 3) we’ll look at how Griffith addressed the charges of racism, how he created more classic films (even one about an interracial marriage), and how he was abandoned by the industry he helped create.

“Racism pervades Americam film because it is a basic strain in American history. It is one of the ugly facts of film history that the landmark The Birth of a Nation (1915) can be generally hailed as classic despite its essential racism.”
James Monaco
How to Read a Film 

P.S. For what it’s worth (and lest you think the film’s success was just a southern thing) when The Birth of a Nation (then called The Clansman) was first shown at the Clune Auditorium in Los Angeles—according to Frank E. Beaver in On Film—it “resulted in a standing ovation by audiences who first saw the film during its initial run.” The title was changed to The Birth of a Nation when it first played in New York—to sold out crowds at a then record $2 per ticket. The film reportedly made its money back in the first three months of its New York run.

A link to a list of some of the film techniques Griffith established making The Birth of a Nation.

Update 2/3/12:

After the success of the The Birth of a Nation, Thomas Dixon (former politician, turned minister, turned writer of The Clansman) went on to becoming a screenwriter. Included in his IMDB credits are the 1937 film Nation Aflame about the organizing of the Ku Klux Klan.

The full title of his book that inspired Griffth (linked here as an ebook) is The Clansman, A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.

Dixon writes in his 1904 introduction:

“In the darkest hour of the life of the South, when her wounded people lay helpless amid rags and ashes under the beak and talon of the Vulture, suddenly from the mists of the mountains appeared a white cloud the size of a man’s hand. It grew until its mantle of mystery enfolded the stricken earth and sky. An “Invisible Empire” had risen from the field of Death and challenged the Visible to mortal combat.

How the young South, led by the reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of Old Scotland, went forth under this cover and against overwhelming odds, daring exile, imprisonment, and a felon’s death, and saved the life of a people, forms one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Aryan race.”

Update 2/4/12:

“The most depressing fact to emerge from the tumult (surround The release of The Birth of a Nation) was the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. This organization, which Griffith himself admitted had spilt more blood than at Gettysburg, had disbanded in 1869. The modern Klan began its clandestine cruelty on Thanksgiving Night, 1915, on Stone Mountain in Atlanta, where in June 25,000 former Klansmen had marched down Peachtree Avenue to celebrate the opening of the film.”
Kevin Brownlow
Hollywood, The Pioneers


Scott W. Smith

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“No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.”
Orson Welles on D.W. Griffith & Griffith’s relationship to Hollywood

The Father of Film was born in Kentucky. Surprised? Don’t be.

After all, Johnny Depp—recently named by GQ as the world’s coolest actor—is from Owensboro, Kentucky. And in a 2010 post, I pointed out how not only Depp, but George Clooney, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Tom Cruise all have roots in the Bluegrass State. That’s some serious box-office mojo.*

The story of D.W. Griffith is a quintessential Hollywood story—and it all started before Hollywood was really Hollywood.

Back in 1875 motion pictures as we know them had not even been invented when D. W. Griffith was born on a family farm near La Grange/Crestwood, Kentucky. The silent movie star Lillian Gish is the one who called Griffith “the father of film,” and Charlie Chaplin called him “the teacher of us all,” so who are we to disagree? And just because he’s the father of film doesn’t mean that he was universally liked then or now.

Griffith’s own tragedy began early when the family farm never recovered the downward spiral that occurred  after the Civil War (1861-1865) His father, who was a colonel in the Confederate Army, died when Griffith was seven years old. When Griffith was 14, his family was forced to sell the farm and he went to live in Louisville. (No surprise that Griffith was a fan of the writings of Charles Dickens.)

At the age of 20 he joined a traveling theater group and eventually went to New York in hopes of becoming a playwright and then a screenwriter, but instead got work as an actor. His first film was in 1907 when he played the Woodsman in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest—a five minute short where the cameraman was Edwin S. Porter— famous for his work on The Great Train Robbery.

The next year Griffith made his own film with the Biograph Company, The Adventures Of Dollie (1908)—a 12-minute black and white silent film.  (It’s interesting to note that both Dollie and Rescued from the Eagles Nest center around a child being abducted. Meaningful conflict right out of the gate. Never forget when writing your script the important question “What’s at Stake? Also, a good example of emotional filmmaking.)

Griffith made 29 films in 1908, and that was just a warm up for 1909 when he would make 141 films. Albeit one and two-reelers, but still 141 films in one year is stunning. Here’s one of Griffith’s most famous films of 1909—basically the equivalent of “no cell phones/texting” commercial in theaters today (and a good example of a film done with one shot—embrace your limitations).

Another well-known Griffith film from 1909 was the more ambitious A Corner of Wheat.

Griffith would go on to make over 400 film in five years including this landmark 17-minute film Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), which was not only one of the first gangster films, but united him with two talented people who would help Griffith with his greatest successes—actress Lillian Gish and cameraman Billy Bitzer.

How was Griffith able to make so many pictures?

“The records of the Biograph Company, (Griffith’s) employer from 1908 through 1913, give some sense of his early pace. On Tuesday, July 21, 1908—to take one random date—he managed to shoot all For Love of Gold (adapted from a Jack London story), with time left over for interiors on the more complexly The Fatal Hour. The astonishing fact about this output, however, is its survival rate. From an era in which no more than perhaps a fifth of the films produced survive, Griffith’s work comes down to us essentially complete. Currently only 10 of those 495 titles are lost.”
Scott Simmon
The Films of D. W. Griffith 

So if Griffith really is the Father of Film, a good deal of that is due to so many of his babies are still alive.

Feature films in the early days were said to be over 40 minutes long and were made in Europe beginning in 1906. And though Griffith make the first film in Hollywood, In Old California (1910), it was Cecil B. DeMille who made the the first feature The Squaw Man (1912). Griffith not to be outdone shot Judith of Bethulia in 1913 and it was released in 1914. (Though the film was 100 percent over budget and ended Griffith’s relationship with Biograph.)

Before he would be laid to rest in Kentucky after he died in 1948, Griffith was credited with not only film phrases such as “Lights, camera, action!” but a whole lexicon of filmmaking that is used today. In his lifetime he would be exalted, forgotten, struggle with alcoholism, and fight claims of racism, but his landmark work that can not be disputed was the 1915 epic, Birth of a Nation, which we’ll look at in Part 2.

P.S. My grandmother was from Cynthiana, Kentucky where her father was a horse trainer, so I have a soft spot in my heart for Kentucky. (Cynthiana also happens to be where most of the Post-It Notes in the world are made.)

* Part of Kentucky’s legacy is the famous Hatfield and McCoys family field. (Like a mountain version of Bloods and Crips.) The story has been told many times (or at least inspired other stories) including A Kentucky Feud (1905) and the Buster Keaton film Our Hospitality (1923), and more recently there has been talk of Scott Cooper (Get Low) directing Brad Pitt and Robert Duvall in The Hatfields and the McCoys from a script written by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump).

Related posts:

The Founder of Hollywood

Scott W. Smith


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The first 20 years of motion picture history had more in common with You Tube than Star Wars.The early films were often under a minute long and seldom over ten minutes. They featured animals, people kissing, people doing menial tasks—or just someone sneezing. Film was more of a novelty than business or an art form.

Like many You Tube producers the early filmmakers often were the director, the cameraman, the writer (if anything was written), the editor, and even the talent. The early movies were silent and black and white films (with occasional tinting). The earliest film scenes were a static one shot, but between 1895-1908 film shooting, editing and storytelling began to become more complex. Like You Tube the quality was all over the place, and like You Tube some filmmakers gathered a following.

And thankfully because of You Tube you can get a sweeping overview of film history in a little over 30 minutes.

Multiple still photographs of galloping horse (1878), Eadweard Muybridge

Fred Ott’s Sneaze (1884),William K.L. Dickson

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895) Louis Lumiere

The Kiss (1896), William Helse

A Trip to the Moon (1902), Georges Melies

The Great Train Robbery (1903), Edwin S. Porter

Life of an American Fireman (1903), Edwin S. Porter

Resuced by Rover (1905), Cecil Hepworth

The Black Hand (1906), Billy Bitzer

The first film made in Hollywood was In Old California (1910), a 17-minute film directed by D.W. Griffith. Charlie Chaplin called Griffith “The teacher of us all”— more on that giant of a filmmaker on Monday.

Scott W. Smith

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“Hollywood was established in 1853, with a single adobe hut on land outside Los Angeles, California. Growing crops was so successful there that by 1870, Hollywood became a thriving agricultural community.”
History of Hollywood 

Hollywood Hotel in 1910

In the early ’80s I remember driving north on the 101 freeway in Southern California, exiting at  Santa Monica Blvd., turning left and driving into Hollywood for the first time. I was 21-years-old and not prepared for what I saw.

Sure the sun was shinning, but all it did was expose a town well past its glamorous prime. Buildings seemed ready to fall, while groups of shirtless young male prostitutes stood on corners waiting for rides. (Fresh from Florida the whole concept of “Chickens” had to be explained to me by someone at film school.) The glory had departed. (Rent Pretty Woman to get a glimpse of that era of Hollywood.)

But just as there was a time after Hollywood’s Golden Era, there was a time before Hollywood was really Hollywood.

The early films in the late 1800s and early 1900s were shot mostly in New York, New Jersey, Chicago or in Europe. Hollywood, California at the turn of the 20th Century was a five day train ride from New York. Not ideal for actors coming from New York—especially since movies were not only in the shadow of Broadway, but were short little films meant to be cheap entertainment shown in storefront theaters to working class people—many who were immigrants.

But the perception of Hollywood—and the movies—would change over time.

“Why Hollywood? The Pioneers were drawn to Southern California by the promise of cheap labor, spectacular locations, and a benign climate…The pioneers were a tough breed, unfazed by physical hardship, rattlesnakes, and gun-toting rivals.

Crude studios and outdoor sets were thrown up over a 300-square-mile area from 1908 on. Hollywood—then a bucolic settlement of 5,000—became the principle focus. It was conveniently close to the hills and to downtown L.A., but its first settlers—staid Midwesterners who had outlawed saloons and theaters—were unfriendly. Recalled pioneer director Allan Dwan: ‘We were beneath them. If we walked in the streets with out cameras, they hid their girls under their beds, closed doors and windows, and shied away.’ ‘No dogs, no actors,’ read a sign at the Hollywood Hotel.”
Hollywood: Legend And Reality
Edited by Michael Webb

Of course, the perception of Hollywood—the town and the movies—continues to change as it moves into the 21th century.

Update 1/27/12: “Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, Hollywood was pretty much a shambles. But the neighborhood has undergone a major overhaul of late—along the lines of the reinvention of New York’s Times Square— that has turned the seedy area back into tourism central. It’s also where many of the hippest clubs in the city are found. The re-gentrification is ongoing, but I still don’t recommend heading down dark alleys on moonless nights. That said, Hollywood is definitely cleaner and safer than it has been in decades.”
Frommer’s Los Angeles by Tara de Lis 

Scott W. Smith

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“The reason that I am a writer today is Shakespeare.”
Three-time Oscar nominated screenwriter John Logan (Hugo)

Unlock the Secret

Here it is, in just under 1,000 words, the secret of being a successful screenwriter. (From the lips of a bona fide and currently successful screenwriter.)

There was some disappointment yesterday when the Oscar nominations were announced. (Isn’t there always?) While there were some new faces, in general, many felt it was a lot of the usual suspects; Scorsese, Spielberg, Sorkin, etc.

It’s a little bit like the Super Bowl this year— The Patriots verses the Giants. Brady verses Manning. Haven’t we seen that before? In fact, we have—Super Bowl XLII back in 2008 when the New York Giants and Manning defeated a then undefeated New England Patriot team led by Brady. There is one simple reason why these those two quarterbacks are in facing each other in the Super Bowl again—they are two of the best quarterbacks in professional football.

Ditto that from a filmmaking perspective for Scorsese, Spielberg, Sorkin…Clooney, Pitt, Streep, Malick, Alexander Payne, and Woody Allen.

But there is one screenwriter that is not a household name outside of Hollywood (as someone like, say, Diablo Cody) who had a killer year in 2011—John Logan. Though a top A-list Hollywood screenwriter, I think by design, he flies a little under the radar for even the average moviegoer.

He’s nominated for writing the film Hugo. A film that led the field for the 2012 Oscars with a total of  11 nominations. But wait, there’s more! He also wrote Rango (featuring Johnny Depp) which received an Oscar nomination for Animated Feature Film. But wait there’s still more! He also wrote Coriolanus which was released in 2011 and picked up a BAFTA nomination for its director Ralph Fiennes. Yes, 2011 was a very good year for John Logan.

And it’s not like he’s a newcomer. He’s fifty-years-old and has been nominated for an Academy Award twice before; The Aviator (2004) and Gladiator (2000). On top of that his credits also include Any Given Sunday, The Last Samurai, and Sweeney Todd.

So here’s the really important question? What’s his secret? Glad you asked. John Logan has the answer;

“I graduated from Northwestern. I had no money. No one had any money. So I got a day job, shelving books at the Northwestern University Law Library. Every morning I would work from nine to five and shelve books, for ten years. Every single day for ten years. 

I lived in a tiny studio apartment where you could practically touch the walls. Outside the window was a place that installed car alarms, so at all hours it was car alarms. I lived on tuna fish, which I still will not eat to this day. I learned to de-bone a chicken because it was cheaper. And it was hard. And it was the greatest time of my life because I had no expectations of anything but learning how to do my job, which was to be a playwright….And my plays were put on in teeny little church basements or in back allies, in theaters that were condemned while the play was going on. It was fantastic. It was a very vibrant time in Chicago theater, and I loved it. I spent ten years learning how to do my job and it was fantastic.”

His writing eventually got noticed and he landed an agent in L.A., Brian Siberell at CAA. He didn’t have any assignments, but moved to L.A. and took nine months to write his first screenplay, which eventually became the movie Any Given Sunday. But not, according to Logan, until he and Oliver Stone did a few re-writes;

“We did 26 drafts of Any Given Sunday, one right after another, so I learned everything about the form from him. He was patient. I’d go to his house, he’d say, ‘Pick up that Oscar, hold it, it’ll feel good, you’ll enjoy it.’ And then we’d work. Any Given Sunday, like all these monstrous big movies,  was hard to get made.”

In case you missed it—26 drafts. That’s after his spending nine months writing and re-writing it on his own. 26.

Still with me? Still want to be a screenwriter? If so, here’s the bomb. From the lips of John Logan, here’s the most powerful, and potentially life-changing advice as you’ll ever find for being a screenwriter;

“If you want to be a screenwriter—a successful screenwriter—here’s the secret…This is what you have to do, it’s great—don’t tell anyone. You have to read Hamlet, and you have to read it again, and you have to read it until you understand every word. And then you move onto King Lear. And then maybe treat yourself to Troilus and Cressida

And then you know what? Then you’re going to go back and read Aristotle’s Poetics until you can quote it. And then you’re going to read Sophocles, and then you’re going to read Ibsen, and then you’re going to read Tony Kushner, and then you’re going to read Chekhov.  You’re going to understand the continuum of what it is to be a dramatist, so you have respect for the form in which you are trying to function. So you understand what comes before you. Then, if you chose, watch a couple of movies.”

On Monday I was a guest speaker at a college and asked, “Is screenwriting hard?” I think Mr. Logan answers that question quite well.

Here are the CliffsNotes on John Logan’s path to successful screenwriting:
* Study acting and playwriting in well-established Midwestern college that has a alumni history of successful writers/actors
* Devour Shakespeare
* 10 years of starving and learning his craft (while working a non-creative day job)
* Writings (finally) get him an L.A. agent
* Sells script to Oliver Stone and then does 26 drafts
* Becomes a wealthy and in demand writer complete with a house in Malibu
* Receives several Oscar nominations

The above quotes from Logan are from his BAFTA talk on September 20, 2011. Below is the You Tube 2-minute teaser which as of this writing only has 339 views. (Link to PDF of full talk.) Seriously, if there is one post I’ve ever written that I think you should pass on to fellow writers via Twitter, Facebook, text, email, or whatever— it’s this post.

Special thanks to BAFTA and the BFI Screenwriters Lecture Series in association with the JJ Charitable Trust for the work they do.

Tomorrow we’ll be back looking at the continuum of film history. (Inspired by my seeing Hugo and The Artist earlier this year.)

P.S. As big a year as Logan has had in 2011, 2012 doesn’t look like it’s going to be bad for him either. On top of possibly winning his first Oscar, he’s credited on the soon to be released Lincoln directed by Spielberg, and is also credited on the new James Bond film Skyfall which is currently being filmed.

Update 1/26/11: Found this nice little nugget about Logan:

“What I value most of all is his extraordinary knowledge of everything under the sun — film, theater, painting, literature, world history, you name it. I can tell you he’s absolutely unique is that sense and it gives him a real advantage as a writer.”
Martin Scorsese
LA Times article

Related posts: Screenwriting da Chicago Way
Sam Shepard’s Start
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Screenwriting Quote # 43 (Aaron Sorkin)
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)
Screenwriting Quote #82 (John Logan)

Scott W. Smith

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Inspired by seeing the silent film The Artist (2011) I’ve spent most of the past week or so reflecting on the early days of motion pictures, and since the Academy Award nominations are today it seems fitting to look back on the first Academy Awards on May 18, 1929.

One of the most significant things about that date is it was just five months before the Stock Market Crash in October of 1929, which began the Great Depression. Another interesting fact is the award ceremony only last 15 minutes—a far cry from the marathon 3 hour plus modern ceremonies. It also reflected not on one year of films as done today, but on a two-year period of 1927 & 1928.

So the first Academy Awards really represent a shift from the early silent era into what is known as “The Golden Age of Hollywood.” The beginning of syncretized sound pictures in 1927 through sometime around 1930 when detailed attendance records began being kept, film going attendance in the USA was at an all time high of 90 million moviegoers per week (which was around 60% of the population). Just as a comparison, these days in the United States the weekly movie going attendance is less that 30 million people (or 10% of the population).

Back in 1929, the First Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story went to Underworld by Ben Hecht, beating out The Last Command by Lajos Biro. (Ironically, a movie titled Underword happened to be the box office winner this past weekend).  And Best Writing, Adapted Story went to Benjamin Glaser for Seventh Heaven (beating out Glorious Betsy by Anthony Coldway and The Jazz Singer by Alfred A. Cohn.). The best picture was the silent film Wings. 

And you know those title cards that sometimes popped up on silent movies? They had an Oscar for that in 1929. (The only year it was given.) Best Writing, Title Writing went to George Marion Jr. (for No Specific Film) beating out The Private Life of Helen of Troy by Gerald Duffy.

What’s interesting about the Best Writing, Original Story for Underworld and Ben Hecht is look at the other people who are listed on credits who did not partake in Oscar victory; Adaptation by Charles Furhmann, Screen play by Rober N. Lee and Titles by George Marion, Jr.

Related Post: The Shakespeare of Hollywood (Ben Hecht)

Hugo & The Artist (Both of these films lead the 2012 Oscar nominations with a combined total of 21.)

Scott W. Smith

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Four Year Anniversary

“Here’s my unsolicited advice to any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition.  No one else is capable of doing what you do.”
Diablo Cody (Oscar-winning screenwriter—and Univ. of Iowa grad—who gave me the inspirational jolt to start this blog.)
Introduction/Juno: The Shooting Script

Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of this Screenwriting from Iowa blog. If you’ve followed this blog much, you may know that I started in 2008 with what I thought was a fairly ambitious goal to write 50,000 words in a year. The first year I surpassed that goal easily and by the end of 2011 I had written over 500,000 words.

The full  title of this blog is Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. Specifically Iowa because it happens to be where I live and it generally is seen as a mythically middle-of-nowhere kind of place. Of course, over the past four years I’ve highlighted a lot of work and writers from many unlikely places.

And for the fourth anniversary, I wanted to point out four recent inspirational stories from more unlikely places.

1)  Kalamazoo, Michigan definitely qualifies as an unlikely place to find filmmaking success, yet just a couple of weeks ago Cindy Gustafson finished shooting most of her first feature film there in her home state. She completed the script A Chance of Rain last year and it turned into her directorial debut. Cindy is not only a frequent commenter on this blog, but credits it with encouraging her to continue pursuing her screenwriting career even though she lives far from Los Angeles.  I will be doing an interview with Cindy this week.

Cindy Gustafson on set the first day of her directorial debut

2) James Erwin from Des Moines, Iowa is not only a two-time “Jeopardy!” champ, but in the Fall of 2011 he sold a high-concept pitch via the website Reddit.com. According to Variety, His pitch Rome, Sweet Rome caught the attention of Madhouse Entertainment’s Adam Kolbrenner who helped develop the concept and sell it to WB. Last week I was in Des Moines for an edit session and traded emails with James and plan on doing an interview with him this week as well for this blog.

3) On the website for Warner Bros. Writers’ Workshop agent Tom Wellingtom (WME) was asked ,”What is the most interesting way you’ve signed a client?”

Tom: “I campaigned for Obama in Iowa and every night we’d hang out in this bar in Des Moines. It was sort of the hot spot for reporters and upper level staff so I made a lot of relationships that way. There I met and became good friends with a young filmmaker named Amy Rice who was working on a documentary. Out of our friendship and getting to know her work, I ended up signing her as a client. Edward Norton ended up producing her documentary (By the People) and we sold it to HBO for quite a bit of money. She’s now developing new projects outside of that. So for me that would be the most interesting way I’ve signed a client.”

4) LA. The other LA. Louisiana. In a swampwater place called ‘The Bathtub.’ The film Beasts of the Southern Wild was written by Benh Zeitlin (who also directed the film) and Lucy Alibar (based on her play Juicy and Delicious) and is part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it’s gather a lot of buzz in the last couple of days.

“One of the most striking films ever to debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a poetic evocation of an endangered way of life and a surging paean to human resilence and self-reliance. Shot along the southern most fringes of Louisiana, cast with nonactors and absolutley teeming with creativity in ever aspect of his being, Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut could serve as a poster child for everything American independent cinema aspires to be but so seldom is.”
Todd McCarthy
The Hollywood Reporter 1/21/12 

According to the THR, as of yesterday, there were “five distributors vying for the pic; Fox Searchlight, the Weinstein Co., Sony Pictures Classics, Oscillocope Films and IFC Films.”

And since I’m now technically in the fifth year of this blog I’ll toss in a bonus story:

5) Snohomish, Washington. Oscar-winning Alexander Payne (Sideways) is fresh of his latest film The Desecendants (which is soon to be nominated for an Oscar) and the next film he is planning on directing is Nebraska. He told Film School Rejects that, “It’s a father/son road trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. but gets waylaid at a crappy town in central Nebraska where the father grew up and where he has some old scores to settle.” When Collider.com  asked Payne if it was an original script he said, “Nebraska is an original script, by some guy Snobomish, Washington.” That some guy is screenwriter Robert Nelson. Robert was born in Yankton, South Dakota and back in 2006 Variety named him as on of the top 10 screenwriters to watch.

Steve Kotler at Variety wrote, “For Nelson, much of that craft was honed during the decade he spent working on Seattle-based sketch comedy show ‘Almost Live’ It was there that he turned his early childhood love of Bob Newhart, Woody Allen and Billy Wilder into his own brand of humor. It was through ‘Almost Live!’ that he met Bill Nye (who developed his Science Guy persona for that show). Through a roundabout series of steps, it was Nye who helped launch the scribes’s big screen career.”

So there you have it everywhere from Kalamazoo to Des Moines, from Snohomish to central Nebraska, all the way down to the backwaters of Louisiana prove there are still many stories to be told in unlikely places.

Thanks again for reading these posts and I look forward to hearing more stories from readers like Cindy who were inspired enough by something I wrote her to make her own feature. Thanks again to TomCruise.com for that plug back in 2010—still getting hits from that site. (Congrats as well for Ghost Protocol crossing the $500 million mark recently.)

And thanks to Adam Levenberg (author of The Starter Screenplay) —someone I met through doing this blog—for his taking the time to give me detailed notes on one of my scripts at the end of last year. Because views tend to go way down during the holidays, if you missed my post Screenwriter Gift Ideas check it out because Adam gave me the most detailed notes I’d ever received. (I’ll write more about what I learned about this process in the coming weeks.)

Another post that may have gotten lost at the end of the year was Edward Burns’ “Newlyweds” (Part 5) on his lates feature that he shot for $9,000. And my favorite theme for in the last year was on emotion in screenwriting. Starting with Filmmaking Quote #25 (David Fincher) all the way thorough the post 40 Days of Emotions almost a month later.

And thanks especially to the people who have signed up to recieve this blog post via a WordPress feed or email. That really does keep my feet to the fire to strive to write posts that will be worth your time.

Here’s to another year…may I finally get those 500,000 words into a concise book form in that 50,000 word range I was originally seeking when I started this blog.


H/T to Scott Myers and his blog Go Into the Story where I first learned about James Erwin’s sale and the Sundance buzz around Beasts of the Southern Wild.

P.S. Here’s the first post back on January 22, 2008—Life Beyond Hollywood. 

Scott W. Smith

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Mr. Silent Films

“The only genius to come out of the movie industry.”
George Bernard Shaw (on Charlie Chaplin) 

“(Chaplin) is the only person to have gone down into cinematic history without any shadow of doubt. The films he left behind can never grow old.”
Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky

When most people think of silent movies they think of Charlie Chaplin. He’s kind of Mr. Silent Films because his movies were not only popular in his day, but they play well today, and will play well into the future. His 1931 film, City Lights (at #11) is the highest listed silent film on AFI’s list of The 100 Greatest American Movies. 

According to one website, some of the greatest directors ever listed City Lights in their personal 10 ten film list; Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert Bresson, David Lean, King Vidor, Milos Forman, and Stanley Kubrick. And to top it off—City Lights was Orson Welles’ #1 favorite film.

And while the actor Chaplin is well-known as The Tramp character from City Lights, fewer realize that he also produced and directed the film…and edited the film…and composed the music…and wrote the script. (How many people think of Charlie Chaplin as a screenwriter?)

Director Ella Kazan (On the Waterfront) actually lists two other films of Chaplin on his top ten: The Gold Rush and Shoulder Arms. And still favorites of others are Modern Times, The Great Dictator and The Kid—all written by Chaplin. But here’s a little known fact about Chaplin the writer—before he wrote all of those great feature films, over a period of five years (1914-1919) he wrote more than 65 short films.

So while Chaplin may have said, “All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl”—that was also rooted in years of honing his writing skills working on those one and two-reelers that Hollywood was cranking out in its early years. 

P.S. In writing and directing The Artist (2011) Michel Hazanavicius while wanting to create a silent movie set in the 1920s wanted to avoid that long shadow of Chaplin. And in an interview with Ethan Alter said,  “When you speak of silent movies, everyone thinks of Charlie Chaplin first. And Chaplin was a genius, but he played a clown onscreen. I took the opposite tack — I wrote the script with a powerful man at the very beginning, but then the arc of the character has him becoming a kind of tramp at the end of the movie, like Chaplin. I showed Jean silent films like Sunrise and The Crowd and he understood quickly that he could act very naturally. I tried to tell the story with images and that way I didn’t have to ask the actors to pantomime. I wanted them to act as naturally as possible.”

Related post: Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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The Founder of Hollywood

“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd. 

The perfect segue from a post on Gloria Swanson is one on Cecil B. DeMille. He not only had a cameo performance (as a director of  Swanson) in the 1950 movie Sunset Blvd.—but he’s been called “the founder of Hollywood.” His first film as a director was Squaw Man in 1914 and his last as a producer was the 1958 film The Buccaneer. But it was the films he produced in directed in between that was his legacy; The Ten Commandments, Union Pacific, Samson and Delilah, Cleopatra, and The Greatest Show on Earth (for which won Best Picture in 1953).

Like many, especially those in the early days of film, DeMille started out in theater as an actor. His parents were playwrights and he performed on Broadway in beginning in 1900. DeMille went to California just as the Hollywood film business was beginning to mature. The short films of the 1890s and early 1900s set the stage for feature films. One of the main reasons DeMille is held in such high regard is he brought higher production values to the film he made.

He made his share of flops and then and now he had his share of critics of even his film that succeed, but DeMillle understood spectacle. In 1923 his version of The Ten Commandments was the most financially successful film up to that point in movie history. He remade the film in 1956 and today when adjusted for inflation that film is listed as #5 on the all-time domestic box-office gross (ahead of Titanic).

DeMille’s abilty to make films that made money also allowed him to work with the greatest actors of his day— Claudette Colbert, Hedy Lamarr, Gary Cooper, Dorothy Lamour, Charlton Heston, and, of course, Swanson.

On the downside he was known as a tyrannical director and his film The Crusades was the greatest financial flop up until that time in Hollywood history. Maybe it was DeMille’a failures as well as his successes that help set the tone for the Hollywood we have today.

Regardless of what you think of the man or his films he was a giant. He helped lay the foundation for Hollywood, survived the transition from silent films to the talkies, and worked up until he died in 1959—the same time television had become the dominant form of entertainment in American households depleting the movie going audiences of the past.

I really should end this post with a little inspiration from Mr. DeMille: “Most of us serve out ideals by fits and starts. The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. That is dedication.”

P.S. DeMille’s connection to the mostly silent film The Artist currently in theaters? DeMille, in not wanting congress to govern Hollywood, helped set up The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (The Hays Code). Since The Artist writer/director Michel Hazanavicius was making a film set in the 1920s he decided to abide by the Hays Code which is why you won’t see “excessive and lustful kissing.” (Though, of course, the Hays Code didn’t become official until 1930 I imagine there must have been some agreed upon standards before it was formally adopted.) According to Wikipedia, The Hays Code was abandoned in 1968 in favor of the MPAA film rating system.

Scott W. Smith

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“I am big— it’s the pictures that got small.”
The faded from glory silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Blvd. 

“We didn’t need dialogue—we had faces.”
Norma Desmond (Sunset Blvd.

Yesterday it was announced that (mostly) silent film The Artist lead the race for the British Academy Film Awards with a total of 12 nominations. 

So in it seems fitting to continue to glance back at the silent film era. In real life around the time that the fictional story The Artist takes place, the highest paid actress was Gloria Swanson. In a 1957 interview Mike Wallace called her, “One of Hollywood’s most spectacular links with its glamorous heyday.” My introduction to her in film school was not her silent films, but her Oscar-nominated performance in Sunset Blvd. (1950) where she played a faded and forgotten film star.

The Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett/D.M Marshman Jr. written film is one of my all-time favorites. (It’s also #12 on AFI’s list of America’s Greatest Movies.) It’s also one of those film that gets richer over time as I appreciate another layer of the film. Even that line “I am big—it’s the pictures that got small” has a new meaning today as people watch movies on computers, iPads and cell phones. 

A silent movie clip in Sunset Blvd. that is supposed to be a Norma Desmond in her big screen glory days directed by her now butler is actually the 1929 film Queen Kelly staring Swanson and directed by Erich von Stroheim (who plays the butler in Sunset Blvd). If Norma Desmond was a real person and alive today she may at least appreciate that though pictures haven gotten even smaller Queen Kelly has its own Facebook page. Another memorable line in Sunset Blvd. is when von Stroheim tells Norma, “Madame is the greatest star of them all.” A line that newspapers headlines play off of when Swanson died in 1983.

It was wondered if Swanson would make the transition from the silent era to the talkies. Her first speaking role was The Trespasser (1929) for which she earned an Oscar nomination. (And a film the was reportedly written in three weeks by Edmund Goulding who also directed the movie.) 

The backlash for The Artist has already started. I’m glad I saw the film in an art house theater with little expectations. Despite whatever awards it wins, perhaps the greatest value of The Artist is reintroducing people to silent movies. To giving a nod to the creative people of the past whose work is often not simply forgotten, but not even known about in the first place. 

Here is a scene from Sunset Blvd. that featured several silent movie stars that hadn’t been seen on screen in years. It’s been said that this scene made audience gaps when first seen. (Imagine a movie scene in 20 years featuring Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Will Smith and Angelina Jolie—a few years past their prime— sitting around passing time playing cards.)

And as nod to show you how dangerous they kicked it back in the ole’ days here is a Gloria Swanson interview recounting a scene from the 1919 film Male and Female.

Oh, and for what it’s worth—Gloria Swanson was born in Chicago.

Related post: Screenwriting from Sunset Blvd. (Show what happens sometimes to screenwriters from Ohio who struggle in Hollywood.)

Scott W. Smith

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