Archive for November, 2012

“I was reminded of how badly television used to suck. And you will be reminded if you go buy like a DVD set of any show that was popular prior to, I don’t know 1990-something. And you take your favorite show from the 80s—I promise you it sucks. They’re simpleminded, they’re stupid, television used to be a wasteland. It started to change in some measure with Hill Street Blues, and then suddenly television started getting smarter and movies started getting dumber. And suddenly there were these men who drive Maseratis, and wear Gucci loafers to their offices who realized they could spend 200 million dollars making one movie that has not one thought in it, and nothing for an actor to do, but lots of special effects, and they can make a billion dollars. Interesting thing that’s happened in our business is that the middle class has disappeared. It’s like the middle class in society has disappeared. The middle-class of movies have disappeared.

And that’s why I finally have come around to believing that the 70s were a golden era because filmmakers often got to make their movies. There is no middle class of film’s today. You notice they’re not making A Few Good Men now. Tom Cruise gets to make big action movies, or something on a very small-scale of course he could. But they’re not making movies like that. They’re not making Network, they’re not making Dog Day Afternoon—this would be a good cable movie perhaps. If Sidney Lumet were starting today he’d be doing what he did back then which was working in television, that’s where all the good writing has gone. So much of the writing has fled movies because it doesn’t take any wit, or intelligence, to write ‘more shit blows up…only bigger.’ They don’t want Paddy Chayefsky.”
Frank Darabont (L.A. Noir, The Walking Dead)
Frank Darabont at Zürich Film Festival 2012
(At the 1:20:28 mark of the Q&A)

P.S. I don’t normally post on weekends, but I have one more Darabont quote from that Q&A I’ll run tomorrow with is a perfect lead into a post on the writer of The Life of Pi I’ll run on Monday.

Related posts:

Sidney Lumet on Theme
Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Paddy Chayefsky Interview
Screenwriting Quote #134 (Paddy Chayefsky)
James L. Brooks on Chayefsky
Writing Quote #9 (Chayefsky)
John from Cincinnati
Television Vs. Movies

Scott W. Smith

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“I learned a lot of my values growing up watching movies. Of course, they made a lot more movies like that then than they are currently.”
Frank Darabont

In the Q&A with Frank Darabont at the Zürich Film Festival he was asked if the DVD sales from The Shawshank Redemption were his safe security in old age and he replied, “It’s so not.” He went on to explain as a young screenwriter and new director he made a deal that wasn’t meant to make him rich in his old age. (Keep in mind he was offered a lot of money to let Rob Reiner direct the film. Reiner had just directed A Few Good Men, and Darabont had never directed a feature film.) Money was not the bottom line for Darabont, and he expounded on that fact that safe security in old age is ultimately not the point of making a film.

“It’s not what happens when I’m old, it’s what happens after I’m gone. Do people still hear the voice of that story being told a hundred years after I’m dead. I mean, that’s really what cinema is for—I don’t care what Frank Capra’s bank account was when he died. I care that It’s a Wonderful Life moves the shit out of me. They’re never going to talk about your bank account when you’re dead, but they will talk about maybe the movies you left behind if you really cared about what you did.”
Frank Darabont

File that one in the folder marked, “You can’t take it with you.”

 P.S. I first learn of this video from Scott Myers last week at Go Into the Story and it’s hard to believe that a masterclass with Frank Darabont speaking about his movies for an hour an a half has less than 1,000 views after being on-line for over a month. Check it out. (Oh yeah, ignore the “Fred Darabont” graphic at the open of the video. Maybe Fred means Frank in Switzerland.)

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“Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”
Frank Darabont, Writer/director of The Shawshank Redemption

That observation by Darabont came during a Q&A at the Zurich Film Festival where he also made this comment:

“To me, aside from I really dig movies and a good story well told, I think there is sort of a nobler aspiration to film. And I felt this very keenly when I was the kid. I remember intellectualizing this at the age of 12. I saw a movie when I was 12-years-old that struck me as being very, very profound and I realized for the first time intellectually that there is a storyteller. Not just a storyteller but that there was a world view, a philosophy, an imprint of somebody’s intellect and heart on the screen. And I remember having the thought that if I could put my head through the screen I would be able to look off the edge of the camera and see that person standing there.  And I thought, ‘I want to be that guy.'”
Frank Darabont

Related posts:

Descriptive Writing (Frank Darabont)
The Real & Creepy Shawshank Redemption
Self-Study Screenwriting
Movie Cloning (Part 1)
Prison Food

Scott W. Smith

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James Bond, Spy/Orphan

“Orphans always make the best recruits.”
M (Judi Dench), Skyfall

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the on-screen debut of Agent 007 (Sean Connery in Dr. No), and those six words above spoken by actress Judi Dench pack many layers of meaning. Back in ’09 I wrote the post Orphan Characters (Tip# 31) and looked at a long list of film characters who are orphans.

When a hero starts his life as an orphan, it is to show he has nothing to lose. He is unattached and unencumbered by family ties and social obligations, so he is usually portrayed as an orphan to indicate that he is not saddled with the normal attachments the rest of us have. This sense of not belonging is a part of all of us.”
Michael Chase Walker
Power Screenwriting

Last night I found a list on Wikipedia of 380 orphan characters in film, theater, novels, and comic books. Here are some memorable names that jumped out at me:

Little Orphan Annie
Vito Corleone
Jane Eyre
Huckleberry Finn
Lone Ranger
Tom Sawyer
Snow White

Who’s your favorite orphan character?

Scott W. Smith

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Insanely Great Endings

Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) for years has given a talk called Endings:The Good, The Bad, & The Insanely Great. You’d think a talk like that would blaze a trail through the internet, but I’ve yet to see an audio or video link. So we’re at the mercy of others who’ve heard the talk somewhere who can pass along some notes and quotes.

Here’s what Shelley Matsutani wrote six years ago after seeing Arndt give the talk in Los Angeles at the Screenwriting Expo 2006.


Bad = positive & predictable
Good = positive & surprising
Insanely Great = positive & surprising and meaningful

*Emotion is supercharged with meaning. Meaning = emotion.

Keep in mind that this was year’s before the 2010 release of Toy Story 3 (which Arndt received another Oscar-nomination) which has an insanely great ending.

In recent years at the Austin Film Festival Arndt has given the talk or been on panels twice giving examples of insanely great endings which include:
Star Wars 
The Graduate
Little Miss Sunshine

Jessee Ferreras heard Arndt’s talk this year at the Vancouver International Film Festival and quotes Arndt saying:

“An ending has to wrap not only the narrative logic of the story —it also has to be emotionally fulfilling. It has to wrap up the emotional logic of the story…What you want to do is to make the story’s ending meaningful but in a surprising way.”

Scott Myers at Go Into the Story said there may be a PDF on one of Arndt’s talk but I have yet to find it. So let me put out a request for any link that gives the full context of Arndt’s talk Endings:The Good, The Bad, & The Insanely Great. 

Related posts:

Screenwriting Quote #135 (Michael Arndt)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41) Several Arndt quotes
40 Days of Emotions
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)

Scott W. Smith

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The Face of Adversity

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”
Dorothea Lange on her photo of 32-year-old mother of seven Florence Owens Thompson inside a pea-picker’s camp in Nipomo, CA

Though parts of Dorothea’s account were disputed decades by Florence, there is no disputing the power of the photograph now knows simply as Migrant Mother. It’s a photo of dignity and humanity in the face of hardship during The Great Depression. It is an image that defined an era. An era so well cover in the PBS Ken Burns documentary The Dust Bowl.

Whether this Thanksgiving day is a feast or famine for you an your family I hope you have much to be thankful for.

Scott W. Smith

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“I think filmmaking is obstacles. In fact, every film is a set of millions, literally—no exaggeration—millions of problems. But I use the word problems not so much pejoratively as if it’s just resistances, friction that you have to overcome. I’m fifty-six right now and have been making films for over 30 years—I don’t look fifty-six— you can imagine what I looked like when I started off. The first film I wanted to do was tell the story of the Brooklyn Bridge. So people would slam the door and say, ‘This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. No.’ And for many years I kept two thick binders, three-ring binders of literally hundreds of rejections. So I guess the biggest sort of outer resistance was just finding the money to be able to produce these films I wanted to produce.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (The Dust Bowl, The Civil War, Baseball)
Big Think Interview

Scott W. Smith

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“The real genuine stories are one and one equalling three.”
Ken Burns

My entrance into the world of Ken Burns was his film The Civil War which first aired back in 1990. Though that was 22-years ago, and in a world before YouTube, Facebook, and smart phones, there were plenty of distractions in modern Amercia to be amazed that 40 million people would watch a PBS documentary consisting mostly of black and white photos and interviews—that ran 608 minutes.

As I watched his latest film The Dust Bowl on Monday and Tuesday, I thought I’d glance back at the educational foundation that prepared Burns to do his life’s work. One that would bring him two Oscar nominations (Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty) and several Primetime Emmys (Jazz, The National Parks, Baseball, Unforgivable Blackness, The Civil War).

“‘Ken was well steeped in film history,’ remembers Morgan Wesson, who was a year ahead of Burns at Hampshire [College in Amherst, Massachusettes] and later worked with him on Empire of the Air; ‘he could quote you chapter and verse about the French New Wave, various documentary movements, whatever style had impact,’ In characterizing Jerom Liebing’s influence on them all. Wesson adds, ‘Though he might respect the craftsmanship of Hollywood films, he wasn’t about to give an inch. He was trying to convert us all to a private vision, to get us thinking on our own track. Ken took the lead from Jerry and started making documentaries.’

Burns worked part-time at the college bookstore during his four years at Hampshire (1971-1975) to help finance his education and subsidize several student film projects while earning a degree in film studies and design. Liebling, moreover encouraged his students to establish their own nonprofit company called Hampshire Films so that they would be in a position to hire themselves out at no wage to area companies and public institutions who would utilize their maturing talents while underwriting the entire cost of these commissioned productions. Clients were thus able to secure competently made informational films which they could not afford in any other way; and the students, more importantly, obtained a significant amount of much needed real-world experience. As Burns recalls, ‘it made it possible to leave Hampshire and have the confidence to start my own company and not spend years mired in someone else’s vision of things.”
Gary R. Edgerton
Ken Burns’s America
pages 31-32

There you have it—entrepreneurial filmmaking from an unlikely place. These days Burns and the Florentine Films team are based in Haydenville, Massachusetts (just north of Northampton). Impacting the world from a town with a population of just over 1,000.

P.S. It’s worth noting that Burns’s student film subjects included documentaries on decaying mill towns, a study on child abuse, and working in rural New England. Follow your own vision.

P.P.S. How many films over the years equate to 1+1=0?

Scott W. Smith

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I’m paring down some of my film books, but flipping through them again before I give them away and looking for some less known quotes I can post at the same time. You can file this one under “embrace your limitations.”

“Warners insisted I cut the budget [on Deliverance] before they would go ahead with the film. Slashing my fee was not enough. I had wanted to use Appalachian music as an element, but the nature of the film seemed to call for a dramatic orchestral score. This fiscal pressure forced me into a decision. I had $65,000 in the budget for the orchestra and composer. I decided to do the whole score with a banjo and guitar playing variations on a single traditional folk piece called ‘Duelling Banjos.’ We recorded it with two musicians in an afternoon. There were no royalties to pay since there was no composer. The total cost was $1,500. The $63,500 savings brought the budget down to the figure Warners were demanding. Against their better judgement I forced Warner Records to release the music. It became a number one hit and Warner’s royalties for the record paid for the whole cost of making the movie.”
5-tim Oscar-nominated writer/director John Boorman (Hope and Glory, Deliverance)
The Emerald Forest Diary; A Filmmakers Odyssey
Pages 219—220

“Duelling Banjos” not only saved money, made money, and worked for the film Deliverance—it became one of the most recognizable themes of any movie in the 70s. Maybe in the history of cinema.

P.S. Most of Boorman’s book is about making The Emerald Forest, the 1985 film that became one of the reference films for James Cameron’s Avatar.

Related Post:
Screenwriting Quote #69 (John Boorman)
Screenwriting Quote #70 (James Dickey)
Movie Cloning (part 2) —James Cameron links themes in Avatar and The Emerald Forest.

Scott W. Smith

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“If graphic design has a grand master, then Milton Glaser is Michelangelo.”
Chip Kidd Talks With Milton Glaser

“I started out copying Walt Disney, very early, and then invented comic strips.”
Milton Glaser
Author of Art is Work and designer of the “I ‘Heart/Love’ New York”  logo

Related posts:

Frank Gehry on Creativity (Second all-time read post on this blog.)
Stephen King’s Double Wide Trailer (Could be subtitled “Writing is Work.”)
Billy Wilder on Writing “(Writing) is blood, sweat, and tears, believe me. ”
Art & Fear
Off-Screen Quote #15 (Edgar Degas)
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip #2)

Scott W. Smith

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