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Archive for December, 2013

“Everyone has a big but. Simone, let’s talk about your big but…You can’t just wish for something to come true—you have to make it happen.”
Pee Wee Herman
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

“The reason why most [comedy screenplays] don’t work is they’re not about anything.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)

The screwball comedy (living cartoon?) Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is a guilty pleasure for many. I just recently saw the Tim Burton directed film for the first time and think I know why it has such a strong following even though it was released back in 1985. It not only addresses everyone’s “big but”—which I’ll look at in a minute— but it’s a simple story well told.

1) The opening scene begins with Pee Wee doing what he loves to do best—ride his bike.
2) In the first 10 minutes we are introduced to the quirky hero and his colorful world.
3) In the set-up we understand that Pee Wee’s bike is special to him and he wouldn’t sell it for any amount of money.
4) At the 19 minute mark he learns of his stolen bike. A clear inciting incident.
5) Pee Wee’s goal is simple “To find my bike.”
6) He begins a quest to get back what was taken. (Just like John Wayne in The Searchers and Liam Neeson in Taken.  Active hero=Thumbs up.)
7) Along his journey he meets many bizarre characters, including Large Marge—an 18-wheeler truck driving ghost.
8) There are as many roadblocks as there are set-pieces (Western, Biker, James Bond, Godzilla, Beach, etc.).
9) It has a clear ending and Pee Wee returns from his journey a better man.

When the answer to “What’s at stake?” is just a stolen bike, they get by with it because;  A) It’s a comedy, and B) Pee Wee really loves his bike.  And to show his emotional attachment to his bike they have several dream/nightmare sequences that actually gets mentioned in one book.

“Anxiety is a particularly frequent subject of dreams, both in real life and in films. The anxiety dream sequence is typically portrayed as a state of paranoia, in which everyone and everything is menacing and destructive, and the dreamer is confronted by his deepest fear. In Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee Wee is plagued by terrible nightmares in which his bicycle is destroyed. The dreams cue the audience in to the emotional intensity behind Pee Wee’s anxiety over his beloved bike. “
Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick

For Pee Wee to lose his bike for good would be a sort of death.

But where the screenwriters Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, and Michael Varhol really nailed it is in theme. Three different places in the film, by three different people, the words “I’m a loner… A rebel” are spoken. I won’t totally spoil it for those who never seen (or heard of) the movie, but by the end of the film Pee Wee is “humbled” and sees the need for community.

Kind of like the movie 127 HoursSay what? Am I the only one to make that connection?  James Franco starts out riding his bike and boldly proclaims, “I can do everything on my own.”

It you want your movie to be remembered 30 years from now it better be about something.

“Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives.”
Joseph Campbell
Pathways to Bliss

“Stories are equipment for living”
Kenneth Burke

Which brings us back to the big but.

When I was first told about Pee Wee’s Big Adventure it was a friend paraphrasing Pee Wee— “Everyone has a big but—what’s yours.” Not as in big butt of the Sir Mix-A-Lot variety, rather what’s the “big but” that’s stopping you from doing that thing you’ve always wanted to do. (“I want to _______, but ________.”)  For Simone it was leaving her jealous boyfriend and living in Paris.

For you it’s something else. What’s the “big but” that’s stopping you? Simone was inspired to live her dream and my guess is that audiences over the decades have been inspired by Pee Wee’s words of encouragement: “You can’t just wish for something to come true—you have to make it happen.”

Or as the German writer Goethe put it, “In action there is power, grace, and magic.”

Speaking of magic and bicycles—and if Pee Wee is too silly for you—check out the classic Italian film The Bicycle Thief.  

Happy New Year. And thanks for being a part of this journey. A journey that at times is like a bike ride in country with Pee Wee Herman, Joseph Campbell , Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and  John Wayne riding along side us.  Hope these posts help you and your writing. Here’s a little related JB quote and song to finish out the year.

“I bought a red bike shortly after I decided to stay in Key West, and it served me well. Key West has changed drastically from the days when you didn’t have to lock up your bike, but it’s still the best place I know to ride.”
Jimmy Buffett

 

P.S. If you ever kicked around Burbank, California back in the ’80s you may get nostalgic when you watch Pee Wee’s Big Adventure because they shot some scenes there. Places like the former Golden Mall (“Beautiful downtown Burbank”) and the old drive-in (also used for shooting Grease). And there are many other interesting layers to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure including Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman composing the music, and cameos by Milton Berle, Morgan Fairchild and Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (The Sting).

Related Post:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) Just learned yesterday via my WordPress annual report that this now almost 3 year old post was the most viewed post this year.
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6)  “As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.”—David Mamet (The Verdict)

Related links: Did you know there is a Bicycle Film Festival. (I once made an award-winning short film called Bicycle Dreams that I wanted to submit to that festival, but I forgot. One of my big buts.)

Get A New Story: What’s Your Story About Not Writing? by Jenna Avery at Script

Scott W. Smith

 

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The Secret Life of Steve Conrad

“Life is about courage and going into the unknown.”
Cheryl Merhoff  (Kristen Wiig)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) written by Steve Conrad

“I never left [Chicago]. I just feel good here. Ever since I got off the (“L”) train for my interview at college, it felt right to me…It’s an easy city to write in; half the year you’re inside. My friends are here. I’ve made working relationships in other places that have proved really vital to me. I don’t think you can hide away here and hope that you’ll just be served by the quality of your writing.”
Screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
Chicago Tribune article by Nina Metz
(Conrad does spend 15-20 weeks away from home on business.)

Conrad is scheduled to direct a biopic he wrote on John Belushi—who was from the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, IL.

P.S. Live outside L.A.? “Try to contact reputable managers who are open to new writers. A scribe who lives in Colorado needs a mouthpiece here [Los Angeles] in town who can work on her behalf.”Christopher Lockhart

Related Posts:

Screenwriting da Chicago Way (2.0)
Before John Hughes was John Hughes (Part 3) “The Tribune referred to me as a ‘former Chicagoan.’ As if, to do anything, I had to leave Chicago. I never left.” Writer/director John Hughes
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) About John Logan, who like Conrad went to Northwestern University, and spent 10 years living in Chicago working a day job, living in a studio apartment, and honed his writing on the way to becoming an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.
Screenwriting Quote #40 (Valentine’s Special)“I think the lesson in everything that happened to me, for people, is don’t listen to the odds, not to listen to the naysayers, to listen to the odds of you getting hit by lighting and getting kidnapped by terrorist are greater than your screenplay being done–if you have a story to tell just write it.” Screenwriter Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) who spent time in Chicago doing comedy with Second City.
Four Year Annivesary Includes this quote from an Oscar-winning screenwriter who was born and raised the Chicago area: “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

Scott W. Smith

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Main Street Madoff

“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)

On this repost Saturday it seems fitting to revisit a post that’s only a year and a half old but follows nicely my recent posts on the movies The Wolf of Wall Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Wall Street. Because while Wall Street has had its share of scoundrels, just because a broker is in a quintessential small town like the one in It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t mean he can’t be a scoundrel too.  Remember even Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life had Henry F. Potter—”The richest and meanest man in the county!” (Mr. Potter even made it to #6 on AFI list of villains—that’s 18 slots ahead of Gordan Gekko.)

Well, back in Cedar Falls, Iowa just last year they had a fellow who some newspapers dubbed “The Midwest Madoff.” But I actually think that title originally went to Tim Durham who defrauded 5,000 investors for more than $200 million. Last year he was sentenced in Indianapolis to 50 years in prison. Up in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Tom Petters orchestrated what CNN/Money called “a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme — one of the largest in U.S. history second only to Bernie Madoff.” Back in 2010 he was also sentenced to a 50 year prison sentence.

That’s why I prefer the Main Street Madoff title for this fellow in Iowa. (Technically his offices weren’t on Main Street, but he did own a restaurant on Main Street. It was a good one, too. )

It’s not every day that Cedar Falls, Iowa makes the front page of The Wall Street Journal—but sadly, July 11, 2012 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 that day 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 of 2012, 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.

And though I’d only seen Wasendorf a handful of times since he moved here,  the Sunday afternoon before his suicide attempt I saw him walking out of his restaurant 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 added more bizarreness to the situation. An annulment was filed for, the restaurant closed, contents of the offices auctioned off, and even Wasendorf son who worked for him—but was not a part of the embezzlement— said of his father, “As far as I am concerned, he died that day.”

Earlier this year Wasendorf was sentenced to 50 years in prison for defrauding thousands of innocent investors out of a $215,000,000 over a 20 year period. Bloomberg News quoted the acting U.S. Attorney’s statement, “The lengthy prison sentence imposed today is just punishment for a con man who built a business on smoke and mirrors.”

All of this fraud has got me 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 posts:
 
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.

Update 7/13/12: Peregrine CEO Arrested

Scott W. Smith

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“Now that all the decay is over, things are going to get better.”
Adam (Brendan Frazier) in Blast from the Past
Written by Billy Kelly and Hugh Wilson

Who knows how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far, so fast
The End of the Innocence
Bruce Hornsby/Don Henley

Watching It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street back to back made me think of the 1999 film Blast from the PastKind of what would happen if George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) of the 1940s showed up in Martin Scorsese’s modern version of Pottersville? (Pottersville is the Girls-Girls-Girls flip side nightmare world to the Norman Rockwell—like Bedford Falls in the Frank Capra classic.)

But Pottersville in Scorsese’s hands comes across like a perpetual party paradise.  An echo of Gary Kamiya’s All hail Pottersville! article— “Pottersville rocks!” Boring vs. Fun.

Perhaps the Wolf of Wall Street himself had a clearer view of the world he created at the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont:

“It should have been Sodom and Gomorrah. After all, it wasn’t every firm that sported hookers in the basement, drug dealers in the parking lot, exotic animals in the boardroom, and midget-tossing competitions on Fridays.”
Jordan Belfort

Earlier this month, a former worker at Stratton Oakmont who once idolized Belfort gave his perspective:

“But eventually, the blindness from the drugs, the girls and the cars, the clothes and the money, wore off. These people were some of the worst people that I have ever met in my life — they would sell their own grandmother in a second….I’m still going to see the [The Wolf of Wall Street]. My parents want to go with me. I would hope people would try to keep some morality while still trying to achieve success — but I’m not sure the movie is going to show that. Just the wild ride.”
Josh Shapiro
My life working for the real life ‘Wolf of Wall Street’

The movie is a three-hour fantasy wild ride that—well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it—but it’s an upside down world. One that Scorsese celebrates more than he condemns. Actress Hope Holiday was quoted in The Wrap saying a screen writer at an Academy screening for The Wolf of Wall Street screamed at Scorsese “Shame on you.” But if you’ve seen Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or GoodFellas you know the director has a fondness for depravity over redemption.

The Wolf of Wall Street is not Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment (1960) on steroids…or cocaine, quaaludes or even viagra. The stated theme seems to want to be “When the chickens come home to roost,” but comes across more like “Crime pays, and it pays well.” Maybe Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (Boradwalk Empire, The Sopranos) were just being faithful to Belfort’s book that the movie was based on.

It’s hard to say the 3 hour movie (okay, technically 2 hours and 59 minutes) is missing anything but constraints, but I think TIME’s Richard Corliss says it best—”What’s missing is the broker’s acknowledgement of a wasted life — if not his, then his victims.”

Scorsese said he knows the The Wolf of Wall Street is not for “everyone’s taste” and added, “It’s not made for 14 year olds.”

But I believe that 14-year-olds are going to see this film. And for some The Wolf of Wall Street will be their ideal—their goal. Just as young Jordan Belfort said Gordon Gekko in Wall Street became his ideal, his goal after watching Wall Street. (And Wall Street was not the upside down, amoral world of The Wolf of Wall Street.)

Gordon (“Greed… is good”) Gekko is the #24 Villain on AFI’s 100 Year…100 Heroes & Villains. Ranked just ahead of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining (Here’s Johnny!). But the Gekko character may rank as the #1 villain that most people want to be like. Actor Michael Douglas said he was surprised at how many people over the years have told him they became stock brokers because of his Oscar-winning performance of what he called “the bad guy.” (And how many of those Gekko followers became players in the banking collapse of 2008? Movies reflect the culture they help produce.)

“As the years have gone by, it’s heartening to see how popular the film has remained. But what I find strange and oddly disturbing is that Gordon Gekko has been mythologized and elevated from the role of villain to that of hero.”
Wall Street co-screenwriter Stanley Weiser
Repeat After Me: Greed Is Not Good, 2008 LA Times

“I’d just say anyone who took away that greed is good has missed the point. The movie speaks for itself. People who walk out of the movie and think ‘[Gekko’s] such a great guy,’ they need to think and ask themselves on what terms am I willing to do that?”
Oliver Stone, Wall Street director and co-screenwriter
Oliver Stone: Life after Wall Street by Telos Demos/ CNNMoney

Wall Street was closer in ideals to It’s a Wonderful Life than The Wolf of Wall Street. More Bedford Falls than Pottersville. More the ’80s Miami of Scarface than the ancient Roman orgies of Caligula.

Perhaps the ongoing battle is the way the world is versus the way we want it to be. But what do I know? Well, I do know one thing—that Jordan Belfort’s speaking fee just went up.

P.S. A movie that’s said to have influenced Stone’s Wall Street was Executive Suite (1954) directed by Robert Wise from a script by Ernest Lehman from a novel by Cameron Hawley.

Related Posts:

Raging Bull vs. Martin Scorsese
“Study the Old Master.”—Martin  Scorsese
The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 1)
The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 2)
Hugo & The Artist
Writing Good Bad Guys (Tip #85)

Scott W. Smith

 

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Ooh, Superman where are you now
When everything’s gone wrong somehow
Land of Confusion

Money, Money, Money—across film genres as diverse as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,  Pretty Woman, Toostie, Babette’s Feast, The Gold Rush, A Perfect Storm,  Some Like It Hot, The Verdict, Double Indemnity, JAWS and, of course, Wall Street, money plays a key role. That should be no surprise since money plays such a key role in civilization—in survival.

As I watched It’s a Wonderful Life again late Christmas Eve, with an eye toward seeing The Wolf of Wall Street this week it didn’t take much to make an economic connection between the two. Then I saw how Chicago-based filmmaker Owen Weber took that connection up a notch by actually making a trailer mash-up of It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street. Very well done.

P.S. As several people have pointed out over the years, the United States today represents—for better or worse—  Pottersville much more than Bedford Falls. I think Richard Walter’s is right, “No audience wants to see The Villiage of the Happy Nice Peoplebut I’d sure like to live there someday.

Related links: All Hail Pottersville!  Gary Kamiya’s 2001 pro-Pottersville article

Scott W. Smith

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“I like characters that are struggling, and they’re gonna die or they want to die, they’ve never prayed in their life, but they say, ‘Help me, God, I’m at the end of my rope!’ And then something happens… I always loved that Wonderful Life scene where Jimmy Stewart is praying in the bar, and then he gets punched in the face — that’s how God responds.”
Director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club)
The Hollywood Reporter 

“[It’s a Wonderful Life] movie works like a strong and fundamental fable, sort of a ‘Christmas Carol’ in reverse: Instead of a mean old man being shown scenes of happiness, we have a hero who plunges into despair.”
Roger Ebert 

It’s interesting that a largely dark film that deals with a suicidal man is such a beloved Christmas classic. It’s also interesting that the town of Bedford Falls was actually a 4 acre set—complete with 300 foot Main St.— built in Encino, California. It was partly shot in the summer of 1946 during a record heat wave in Encino, so keep that in mind when you watch those snow scenes. Hot was made cold, and darkness made light; The power and magic of filmmaking.

Merry Christmas—

And in case you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life here is the entire movie on You Tube:

Related posts:

It’s a Wonderful Prison— “Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Frank Darabont
“The Greatest Gift”—The original 4,000 word self published story that became It’s a Wonderful Life.
Writing “Flight”—Post begins with the quote, “I would never write about a character who is not at the end of his rope.”—Stanley Elkin

Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I saw Saving Mr. Banks and enjoyed it immensely. And there is a line in the film—that I don’t think is a spoiler—that seems to be what the film was about.

“In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Saving Mr. Banks

That sounds like a pretty strong theme. And I’m fascinated by the topic of theme because I’ve read successful screenwriters and directors say these contradictory things:

A) I never think in terms of theme
B) I usually start with theme
C) The theme reveals itself somewhere in the writing
D) Theme is something the audience sees when the film hits the theaters
E) I avoid writing from theme to avoid the story being message driven
F) I have no clue what the word theme means

So one thing we can learn from Rod Serling, Alexander Payne, Francis Ford Coppola, and others is the process of screenwriting varies from writer to writer.  Which is why you have visually strong writers and dialogue driven writers.

Now I don’t think that Disney line is a direct quote from the Mickey Mouse creator, but from the imagination of the Saving Mr. Banks screenwriter Kelly Marcel.  I don’t know at what point she wrote Disney’s monologue—or if she even thinks that was the theme of the movie—but I do know she in facts does think in terms of theme.

“I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along. It allows for much more intricate storytelling, ways of speaking to the theme and letting your theme to speak to you, even unconsciously. I said ‘theme’ four times in that last paragraph. I shouldn’t be allowed to be a writer.”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey)
Go Into the Story Interview with Scott Myers

Related Posts (and a ping pong of views on theme):

Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Diablo Cody on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Wes Anderson on Theme
Lawrence Konner on Theme
Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness
William Froug on Theme
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Diane Frolov & The Theme Zone
Theme vs. Story
“Network” Notes by Paddy Chayefsky
Writing and Directing “Out of Africa”
Serling vs. Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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