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Archive for November, 2012

“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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“You write your first draft with your heart. And you rewrite with your head.”
William Forrester (Sean Connery) in Finding Forrester
Written by Mike Rich and directed by Gus Van Sant (both who are based in Portland, Oregon)

“It helps to live in LA, but it’s not imperative.  I was living in Portland, Oregon when I got my first break (“Finding Forrester”), and given the fact we had three kids, my wife and I really wanted to stay here.  We’ve made it work ever since, though it’s certainly a double-edged knife.  On the plus side, we get to live in Portland, a city I’ve loved since my college days.  On the minus side of things, general meetings and pitch sessions require a trip to LA; sometimes lasting several days.  Oftentimes, the general meetings outnumber the pitches, simply because there’s so much turnover within the industry.  Familiar faces you’ve worked with in the past don’t always stick around, and I find myself constantly meeting new folks who will make the decision on whether a project moves forward.
Screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, Secretariat)
Do You Have To Live In L.A. To Make It As A Screenwriter? by Alfredo

P.S. That Mike Rich quote is the perfect way to celebrate the 1,400th post today on Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. As I’ve said before on this blog, Iowa is a metaphor. A place far from the core. It could be Iowa or Ojai . West Des Moines, West Africa, West Covina—or West Portland. Most importantly, it’s not where you live but what you write. Rich got his first break when he won a Nichol Fellowship in 1998 for his script Finding Forrester. 

Below is a WordPress summary map that shows where readers of this blog are located. And while I only have one view in places like Kyrgyzstan, Mozambique, and Gambia—it almost covers the globe. And these are just the 2012 numbers. Thanks for reading, and may you keep on writing wherever you live.

Related Post:

Mike Rich & Hobby Screenwriting
Screenwriting Quote #145 (Mike Rich)
Why You Should Move to L.A.
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.

Scott W. Smith

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“Portland is a city where young people go to retire.”Portlandia
(TV series created by Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein. Johnathan Krisel)

P.S. Still looking for the perfect quote from Portland filmmaker Gus Van Sant to finish out my Oregon focused week, so I’m open to any quotes you have from him—or links to interviews with him. I’ve read a lot so far but nothing has struck the right cord yet.

Scott W. Smith

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“For those of you who have seen Living in Oblivion (the best movie about making a movie), there is a wonderful scene that’s repeated throughout the film of various crew members sniffing the milk container on the craft services table after they’ve poured themselves a cup of coffee. Everyone makes a face, puts it down and walks away. That’s just one little jab pointed at all those filmmakers who don’t take care of their crew in the simplest ways.

Living in Oblivion is a great film that should be required viewing for anyone who wants to make a feature. You will laugh at the stuff that goes on, but just about every low-budget shoot I have ever worked on had at least one of those elements happen. I think the movie is a documentary. It’s a good way to avoid pitfalls. I walked out of the theater feeling like I had worked with half of the crew portrayed in the movie. If you want to make movies, see it.”
Kelley Baker
The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide; Making The Extreme No-Budget Film (part 1)
Page 149-150

P.S. Living in Oblivion was written and directed by Tom DiCillo, who was the cinematographer on Stranger Than Paradise. If you haven’t seen that film, check it out because it’s a great example of “embracing your limitations.” Each scene in the black & white film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch was shot in one-take master shots.

Related Post:

Fueling Your Imagination (Jarmusch Style)

Scott W. Smith

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In light of the Friday post on Portland filmmaker Edd Blott, and the University of Oregon football team stepping up to #1 ranking in the AP poll over the weekend (how can you not pull for a team whose mascot is a duck?), I’m feeling in a very Oregon state of mind. So I went over to Portland filmmaker Kelley Baker’s website—Angry Filmmaker— to see what he was up to and found this video just posted a few days ago that shows the power of sound design.

Baker’s excercise is very effective in showing how sound works in the mind of the audience. And it’s a bit of a play of how Hitchcock explained the impact editing visuals can have on an audience.

Related posts:
The Angry Filmmaker (Part 1)
The Angry Filmmaker (Part 2)
The Angry Filmmaker & Four Eyed Monsters

Scott W. Smith

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