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Archive for July, 2012

“What I react against in other people’s work, as a filmgoer, is when I see something in a movie that I feel is supposed to make me feel emotional, but I don’t believe the filmmaker shares that emotion. They just think the audience will.  And I think you can feel that separation. So any time I find myself writing something that I don’t really respond to, but I’m telling myself, ‘Oh yes, but the audience is going to like this,’ then I know I’m on the wrong track and I just throw it out.”
Writer/director Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises)
Interview with Jeff Goldsmith
Best of Creative Screenwriting Volume 2

Related post: 40 Days of Emotion

Scott W. Smith

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Christopher Nolan’s Influences

I had a couple of big influences. When I was 16 I read a Graham Swift novel, Waterland, that did incredible things with parallel timelines, and told a story in different dimensions that was extremely coherent. Around the same time, I remember Alan Parker’s The Wall on television, which does a very similar thing purely with imagery, using memories and dreams crossing over to other dreams and so forth. Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and Performance were also influential. Those stuck in my head, as did a lot of crime fiction—James Ellroy, Jim Thompson—and film noirs like Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, which was just staggering. Then, somehow, I got hold of a script to Pulp Fiction before the film came out and was fascinated with what Tarantino had done.”
Writer/Director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Night Rises, Inception, Batman Begins)
DGA Quartlerly article The Traditionalist by Jeffrey Ressner

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“I’ve always made films and I never really stopped, starting with little stop-motion experiments using my dad’s Super 8 camera. In my mind, it’s all one big continuum of filmmaking and I’ve never changed. I used to noodle around with the camera but I didn’t go to film school. I studied English literature at college and pursued a straight academic qualification, all the while making my own films and wanting to make more. I paid for my first feature, Following, myself and made it with friends. We were all working full-time jobs, so we’d get together on weekends for a year, shooting about 15 minutes of raw stock every Saturday, one or two takes of everything, and getting maybe five minutes of finished film out of that. We went to the San Francisco Film Festival with it [in 1998] and Zeitgeist Films picked up distribution, which really helped me get Memento going. I got paid to direct it, I had millions of dollars in trucks and hundreds of people and everything, and I haven’t looked back since.”
Writer/director Chris Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Memento)
DGA article The Traditionalist by Jeffrey Ressner

Scott W. Smith

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“Montage is conflict.”
Sergei Eisenstein

It’s not always easy to comprehend a Russian book of essays more than 50 years old and translated into English (and reduced to a blog post), but that doesn’t mean we should totally shy away from something more than a traditional sound bite. So here’s some meat to chew on today from someone that Entertainment Weekly listed as the #29 greatest director of all time (between Preston Sturges and Fritz Lang).

“These are the ‘cinematographic’ conflicts within the frame:
Conflict of scales.
Conflict of volumes.
Conflict of masses.
(Volumes filled with various intensities of light)
Conflicts of depths.
And following conflicts, requiring only one further impulse of intensification before flying into antagonistic pairs of pieces:

Close shots and long shots.
Pieces of graphically varied directions. Pieces resolved in volume, with pieces resolved in area.
Pieces resolved in volume, with pieces of lightness.
And, lastly, there are such unexpected conflicts as:
Conflicts between an object and its dimesnsion—and conflicts between an event and its duration.
These may sound strange , but both are familiar to us. The first is accomplished by an optically distorted lens, and the second by stop-motion or slow-motion.”

Writer/Director/Editor Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin)
Film Form

Here’s a classic example of visual conflict from the opening of The Graduate (1967): 

P.S. Eisenstein worked as an engineer for the Red Army before becoming a filmmaker (which explains the technical & theoretical angle his thoughts come from. And according to IMDB, he once considered Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) as the single greatest film ever made.  So watch that film again and see how visual conflict is handled. (Fittingly, here’s a Russian translation of the poisoned apple scene from Snow White.)

Related post: Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)

Scott W. Smith

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“I was the world’s worst student. I hated it with a passion.”
Woody Allen

“I am plagued by doubts. What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”
Woody Allen

Over the weekend I stumbled upon Woody Allen: A Documentary on Netflix and was surprised how little I knew about writer/director Woody Allen. That led me to flip through a couple of books Woody Allen has written and read various articles about him and interviews with him. I’ve condensed the making of Woody Allen down to 10 simple steps:

1) Start with a Jewish kid born in Brooklyn named Allen Stewart Konigsberg in 1935, and raise him in a strict home where Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope movies offer a humorous relief.

2) Add coming face to face with the deep existential questions as a child; “I didn’t like my own mortality. What do you mean, this [life] ends? This doesn’t go on like this? Deal Me out I don’t want to play in this game.” (As Allen got older he added Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment and Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal into his mental & philosophical blender.)

3) At 17 begin sending jokes to the newspaper using the pen name Woody Allen; “A Hypocrite is a guy who writes a book on atheism, and prays that it will sell.”

4) Turn that unpaid newspaper gig into a paid gig writing 50 jokes a day for radio.

5) Turn the radio gig into a well paid TV gigs that end up paying you well working on The Sid Caesar Show and learning from the best of that era; Larry Gilbert, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Danny Simon (whose brother Neil Simon credits him with teaching him to write), and Sid Caesar.

6) Take the style of black rim glasses from comedian Mike Merrick and wear them your entire life making them your trademark.

7) At 26, though shy, begin a stand up comedy career in New York City in 1961 just as Greenwich Village just started to take off creatively and become a household name on TV. (He once boxed a kangaroo on TV. A feat you’re—understandbly for a couple of reasons—never likely to see repeated on national TV in the United States. Other than the PBS documentary  produced and directed by Robert B. Weide that I mentioned at the start of this post.)

8) Start writing movies (What’s New Pussycat) which gets you a WGA nomination, but quickly move into writing and directing (Take the Money and Run) because you want more control.

9) At 42 win your first two Oscars for writing and directing Annie Hall (co-written with Marshall Brickman) in 1977, which is eventually named on #35 on AFI’s “100 Best Movies” and the #4 AFI “100 Best Comedies.”

10) Don’t ride off into the sunset after reaching the top of the mountain with Annie Hall. Continue making films—some good, some not so good— and win your fourth Oscar in 2012 for writing Midnight in Paris. 

Of course, that’s just the quick ten step overview of his creative journey. There were other people that helped Allen along the way. He was influenced by Mort Sahl, and he was encouraged by his managers Jack Rollins and Charlie Joffe. He learned from cinematographer Gordon Willis and editor Ralph Rosenblum, and no doubt other comedians, actors and production people.

And while no one could follow that exact path Allen has taken, he has in turn inspired and influenced a whole new generation of creative people including Larry David, Chris Rock, Edward Burns, and Nora Ephron. You could say his voice (and neuroses) paved the way for their voices.

“I never cared about commercial success, and as a result I rarely achieved it.”  
Woody Allen

Yet, over his unusally long career, Allen has been able to write and and control the kind of films he’s wanted to make. And his films (including Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhatten, Zelig, and Radio Days) have grossed over $500 million., and he’s personally collected 17 Oscar-nominations along the way.

What about Woody Allen’s failures? I think of that ending line in Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like it Hot— “Nobody’s perfect.” (A film by the way, Allen doesn’t care for.)

Related Post: Screenwriting Quote #102 (Woody Allen)

Scott W. Smith


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“The American dream is raising way up above what you started with…”
From the promo trailer The Queen of Versailles

You know, it’s common to think that the great stories to be found are out there somewhere —”out there,” places far from where we live.

I remember taking a photography class my first year of college in Central Florida and a teacher asking a student where his assignment was and the student said he hadn’t done it yet but he was going up to St. Augustine that weekend and was going to get some great shots there. You could understand his theory. A good deal of the Orlando area in the 80s was a balance of strip malls and strip clubs, sprawling suburban subdivisions and mobile home parks, Sea World and Disney World, while St. Augustine was a historic European-like waterfront city that was centuries old with a mix of architecture from the countries where seven flags have flow over the years.

But the photography teacher went into this diatribe about how you didn’t take interesting photographs just because you went to an interesting place. He talked about the fine art photographer Jerry Uelsman and others who made the common uncommon. He then gave us an assignment to photograph only in and around our homes. It obviously had an impact on me to remember it all these decades later.  And he was right, there are things in your own backyard that are worth exploring.

And while he was talking about our literal backyards, from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective I’d like to expand that backyard to mean the general vicinity of where you live. That worked for Faulkner, Steinbeck, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty and hundreds of other writers who’ve told stories from unlikely places.

I was reminded of all of this back in January when the documentary The Queen of Versailles made a splash at Sundance. The film’s director, Lauren Greenfield, picked up Best Director of a Feature Film–Documentary Competition at Sundance. And she did it with a film that was shot in my former backyard so to speak in Central Florida. The film centers around David & Jackie Siegal and the 90,000 square foot home they were building in the Orlando area. No typo there, 90,000 square feet.

I remember living in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park when Orlando Magic basketball player Horace Grant was building a massive 20,000 square foot home. But as I would drive by it every couple of days while it was being built, I never once thought, “I bet that would make an interesting documentary.” Maybe it would have and maybe it wouldn’t have, but the point I’m making here is to have your story antenna up. That’s what took Errol Morris did for his first documentary,

“In 1978 [Morris] was inspired to direct his first nonfiction feature after discovering a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘450 Dead Pets To Go To Napa.’ The resulting documentary, Gates of Heaven, follows the surreal startup story of two entrepreneurs—through the launch of two competing pet cemeteries—and makes for an entertaining, rich, and wry commentary on American culture and capitalism.”
Megan Cunningham
The Art of the Documentary 

From the trailer I’ve seen of The Queen of Versailles—which will be released in theaters next week— it looks as if it too is, “an entertaining, rich, and wry commentary on American culture and capitalism.”

P.S. A couple of weeks ago I got to meet Megan Cunningham when I was in New York City for a shoot. She heads up Magnet Media who I’ve done some field producing and shooting for in the past year. Check out her book, The Art of the Documentary, which has wonderful interviews with Ken Burns, D A Pennenaker, Albert Maysles and others.

Scott W. Smith

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“For the love of money is the roots of all sorts of evil.”
1 Timothy 6:10

“Great broker! Would recommend them. They’ve started TV Advertising which I think is always a sign of confidence from a broker looking for new wealth to manage.”
Online user review for PFGBest April 16, 2012
(Less than three months before that company filed for bankruptcy)

It’s not every day that Cedar Falls, Iowa makes the front page of The Wall Street Journal—but sadly, yesterday was one of those days. When Russ Wasendorf Sr., the founder and chairman of PFGBest, a locally-based international futures trading business, attempted suicide on Monday and the FBI began a fraud investigation into $215 million in customer money allegedly missing, it had a way of attracting national news.

Back in February, I did a video shoot inside the company’s building and all looked right in the world. In fact, the 50,000 square foot state of the art building of the business—now shut down and under scrutiny—is one of the nicest in Iowa. European in design, eco-friendly, and three stories of glass fill the offices with natural light.

During the shoot I briefly met Wasendorf and the word that I ‘d use to describe his outward appearance would be “successful.” He supported local charities and in 2009 pledged $2 million to the University of Northern Iowa. He also opened a terrific Italian restaurant on Main Street and brought his chef here from Chicago. In fact, my wife and I ate at his restaurant Saturday night.

And though I’d only seen Wasendorf a handful of times since he moved here, I saw him walking out of his restaurant Sunday afternoon just as I was driving by. I even had the thought, “That dude’s got it made.” About 8 hours later he drove to his company’s headquarters and drank a bottle of vodka and at some point hooked up a hose from the tail pipe of the car to its interior. Later that morning he was found unconscious and a suicide note was found.

“I have committed fraud. For this I feel constant and intense guilt. I am very remorseful that my greatest transgressions have been to my fellow man. Through a scheme of using false bank statements I have been able to embezzle millions of dollars from customer accounts at Peregrine Financial Group, Inc.”
Part of Wasendorf’s suicide note

The fact that he got married in Las Vegas nine days before his attempted suicide adds more bizarreness to the situation.

Amid the headlines, gossip, and speculation my thoughts and prayers go out to all of the employees and their families that appear to have lost their jobs, to the defrauded customers, and to Wasendorf and his family. You always hope that wrongs can be made right. But I’ve also been thinking about a poem written over 100 years ago by a poet raised in Gardiner, Maine, educated at Harvard, and well versed in the works of Shakespeare, small town life and “the American dream gone awry.”

Richard Cory
By Edwin Arlington Robinson
(Poem written in 1887)

Whenever Richard Cory went down to town,
We people on the payment looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Related articles:
The Wall Street Journal/Online—July 11, 2012, In Two Communities, Esteem Turns to Shock as Details Become Known
Cedar Valley Business/Online—July 11, 2012, Peregrine files for bankruptcy, feds seek to freeze assets
P.S. Oddly enough, someone has done a mash-up of a Simon & Garfunkel version of Richard Cory and the movie The Shawshank Redemption.

P.P.S. And on a more positive note, The Wall Street Journal also reported this week that fixed home mortgages in the U.S. are at a 30-year all-time low. So it’s a good time to buy or refinance.

Update 7/13/12: Peregrine CEO Arrested

Scott W. Smith

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