Archive for December, 2013

“My little town blues are melting away.”
New York, New York

 “It’s not a musical; it’s a film with music. I got that definition from Billy Wilder, who said you can’t call it a musical unless the people sing in situations where you don’t expect them to. It’ll be about their marriage breaking up, about their problems in relating to one another…”
Martin Scorsese talking with Roger Ebert about New York, New York (1977) before its release

Just saying New York, New York instantly conjures up the Frank Sinatra standard New York, New York.  But did you know that’s actually a cover song? John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the song for the 1977 Martin  Scorsese directed movie New York, New York  where Liza Minnelli sings the song. But the neither the film or the original song were an instant success. Three different versions of the film were made (153 minutes, 137 minutes, and 164 minutes) trying to find an audience, and the New York, New York song was not even nominated for an Oscar.

And even the Sinatra version recorded in 1979 wasn’t a number one hit—or even make it into the top 10. It peaked at number 32 on the charts and lost out on the Grammy song of the year to Christopher Cross’ Sailing. But in the 30 years since then the song has become ubiquitous and as recognizable (and as copied) as the “I (heart) New York” logo.

If you need a smile today here’s a version where Frank and Liza sing an impromptu duet of New York, New York. 

But since this is a screenwriting blog…Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin wrote the screenplay for New York, New York from a story by Rauch.

“Martin Scorcesse’s New York, New York never pulls itself together into a coherent whole, but if we forgive the movie its confusions we’re left with a good time. In other words: Abandon your expectations of an orderly plot, and you’ll end up humming the title song. The movie’s a vast, rambling, nostalgic expedition back into the big band era, and a celebration of the considerable talents of Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro.”
Roger Ebert

Looking forward to seeing Scorsese’s latest New York state of mind movie—The Wolf of Wall Street—which hits theaters next week.

Scott W. Smith

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“Paris, Texas is a heartbreaking character study of longing and lacerations of the heart.”
Hillary Weston 

When you blog daily you have to find ways to try to keep it fresh. So the journey that started with Holland, Michigan—The Screenplay, and continued on to  Vernon, Florida yesterday, now leads us to Paris, Texas. The Wim Wender’s directed film from a script by Sam Shepard with L.M. Kit Carson doing some re-writing came out in 1984. Like Tender Mercies that came out the prior year, it was a film that captivated me and moved me in a way that’s hard to explain.

If say 80% of Hollywood movies follow a somewhat similar narrative flow, we can be thankful for filmmakers who fill in some of the other 20% with words and images that defy our normal movie going experience.

“What makes Paris, Texas and all of Wim’s work so special is that it is filled with so much yearning and so much restlessness; people aching so badly to find what it is they’re looking for. They’re all so hungry for love and connection and something to make them feel alive.”
Hillary Weston
Cinematic Panic: Longing Endlessly With Wim Wenders

If you’re drawn to writing less traditional screenplays the one blessing you have is often times actors get tired of being in traditional Hollywood roles and enjoy opportunities that allow them to do something that flexes some of their acting muscles they sometimes don’t use. Harry Dean Stanton acted in more than 100 films before he made Paris, Texas and The Observer quoted him saying of the film , “After all these years, I finally got the part I wanted to play. If I never did another film after Paris, Texas I’d be happy.”

Paris, Texas won the Palme d’Or at 1984 Cannes Film Festival, and the film is now part of The Criterion Collection.

I found a link at the excellent Cinephilla and Beyond that includes an old article by L.M. Kit Carson subtitled Postcards from the Old Man on Paris, Texas that contains this nugget called The Wim Movie Making Method:

“When you make a movie you actually make two movies at the same time. 1) the movie you write and think you’re supposed to make; 2) the movie that comes up, you can’t write it ahead of time, it only comes up from the people gathered when you shoot. The second movie is the true movie, you watch for it and make it.”

Though it’s been a long time since I last saw Paris, Texas,  I do rememeber being impressed with the cinematography of Robby Müller and the music of Ry Cooter.

P.S. Yes, there really is a Paris, Texas  ( “Second Largest Paris in the World.”) and they even have a 70-foot Eiffel Tower replica—which a cowboy hat on top of it.

Scott W. Smith


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“Vernon, Florida”

“After twenty years of reviewing films, I haven’t found another filmmaker who intrigues me more…Errol Morris is like a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.”
Roger Ebert

You know what’s most quirky about The Black List (2013)? Yes, screenwriter Elijah Bynum is the only writer with two scripts on the list, but that’s more phenomenal than quirky. Certainly the fact that there are two scripts on the list about making the movie JAWS and two scripts about Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) is quite odd. But as far as most quirky, I’m going to go with the Andrew Sodroski’s thriller script Holland, Michigan having Errol Morris attached to direct.

Morris is an Academy Award-winner who’s been making films for 35 years. Mostly documentaries (The Fog of War, Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line) but the only narrative feature he directed,  The Dark Wind (1991), was an experience he called “remarkably distasteful.”

“I’ve ‘undervalued’ The Dark Wind for a number of reasons, because it could have been a very different kind of movie, a good movie. I hate to go on about it, but, for me, it was devastating and, for a while, I even thought about giving up filmmaking altogether…I wasn’t allowed to shoot what I wanted to shoot. And not only wasn’t I allowed to edit the film, I wasn’t involved in any way with the editing. So I feel so disconnected from the end result, so divorced from it, that it’s hard for me to really think of it as one of my films.”
Errol Morris
2001 Errol Morris Interview with Tom Ryan 

So I find it interesting that he’s set to direct a narrative film that was the most highly ranked script on this year’s Black List. It’ll be interesting to see how that deal all worked out. And isn’t it quirky that he’s making a film titled Holland, Michigan when was the title of one of his early documentaries is  Is there any other filmmaker in the history of cinema who’s made two films named after a city and a state? If you’ve never see it— and want to see something really quirky—check out the doc Vernon, Florida.

P.S. Back in the ’90s  I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Rodgers at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Long before he recorded his first of 895 episodes of the Emmy-winning Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he earned a BA in Musical Composition from Rollins. He and his wife occasionally returned to the campus for various reasons and he actually came to a piano recital my wife gave. I’ll never forget after the recital he told my wife in that perfect Mr. Rodgers voice, “I really enjoyed your music.” Mr. Rogers was one of the good guys. And now that I think about it, having just one Mr. Rogers script on The Black List would have been quirky, I don’t even know what you call two Mr. Rogers scripts being hot properties in Hollywood. (In fact, if you told me Errol Morris was directing one of the Mr. Rogers scripts I would have thought that made perfect sense.)

Related Post: What’s in Your Backyard? Touches on Errrol Morris doc Gates of Heaven after he read headline, ‘450 Dead Pets To Go To Napa.’

Scott W. Smith


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I couldn’t help but smile yesterday when I saw The Hollywood Reporter headline:

‘Holland, Michigan’ Tops 2013 Black List 

The Holland, Michigan script written by Andrew Sodroski received 46 mentions from film executives placing it at the top of the pile of the best unproduced scripts kicking around Hollywood.

While I know more about the town of Holland, Michigan (it’s a lovely place in Western Michigan with heated sidewalks downtown) than the script of the same name, here’s the story’s logline:

When a traditional Midwestern woman suspects her husband of infidelity, an amateur investigation unravels. 

Not a killer logline, so the script must be killer.

Collider reported that Holland, Michigan “will be directed by Errol Morris and stars Naomi Watts.” Deadline stated that the screenwriter Sodroski is a Boston native who has a MFA in screenwriting from Columbia University and repped by CAA And the LA Times added Sodroski is “a former Harvard medieval history major who now lives in Kosovo.”

Kosovo? Talk about screenwriting in unlikely places….

(Though honestly, both Harvard and Columbia are well-traveled paths to Hollywood—see update below. Having degrees from both is a good sign that Sodroski is a smart cookie. But that Kosovo is a curveball.)

On days like this it’s really fun to have this little niche in the screenwriting world. Cheers to Sodroski, and all the screenwriters who made the 2013 Black List.

I’m sure we’ll all be learning more about Holland, Michigan the movie and Andrew Sordroski in coming months. Until them feel free to learn more about the town Holland, Michigan via the Internet and enjoy the Sufjan Stevens song Holland from his album Michigan. Brooklyn-based Stevens was born in Detroit and attended Hope College in Holland, MI. (H/T to Indiewire for pointing out the Holland song.)

P.S. Holland, Michigan’s Tulip Time Festival held each year in May has been called by Readers Digest as the “Best Small Town Festival.”  A couple of years ago the town of 35,000  was listed as the second (behind Boulder, CO) Healthiest and Happiest Places in America.  And you may be surprised to know that Holland, Michigan (which sits across Lake Michigan from Chicago) is known for sailing. My Holland, Michigan based production friend John Grooters directed the documentary American Sailors.

Update: Found a link to the 2011 Harvardwood Writers’ Competition where Sodroski, along with co-writer Raven Burnett, were runner-ups for their feature script Dark Ops. Here’s the logline for the action thriller that reads better than the logline for Holland, Michigan:

When a team of American soldiers occupies a mysterious Afghani monastery, they suddenly find themselves battling enemies beyond their comprehension. 

Harvardwood helps connect Harvard Alumni and students to those established in the arts, media and entertainment. A nice perk if you’re connected to Harvard. Hollywood may be a small town (or a big high school) but it has more than a few Ivy Leaguers in general, and former Harvard students specifically; Darren Aronofsky, Matt Damon, Ron Bass and Terrence Malick just to name a few. Here’s a list of Darthmouth Alumni in Entertianment in Media, and you can follow the Yalies in entertainment at Yale in Hollywood. Oh, and Princeton University (Ethan Coen, David E. Kelly, Bo Goldman) has Princeton in Hollywood. 

Even if you can’t or didn’t attend an Ivy League school, if you live near Cambridge, New Haven, Hanover or Princeton you can still make friends at those schools. Work on student films, go see guest lectures they bring in, and get creative being a part of the culture there. In the case of Harvard, you can become a Friend of Harvardwood if referred by a current member.

Related posts (Note; Michigan and Boston come up time and time again on this blog):

Michigan related posts:

Screenwriting from Michigan
Michigan’s Sam Raimi & the Guy with Greasy Hair
Rejection Before Raiders
Saul Bellow & Unlikely Places
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Elmore Leonard
From Ann Arbor to Smallville (David S. Goyer)
“Life of Pi” Screenwriter David Magee
Kalamafrickin’zoo’s Talent Pool
Screenwriting from Grand Rapids (near Holland)
Writer/Director Paul Schrader

Boston related posts:

Screenwriting from Massachusetts
Will Simmons’ Road to Hollywood
Writing “Good Will Hunting”
Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg
(Yawn)…Another Pulitzer Prize
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
Screenwriting Quote #42 (Brad Anderson)
Screenwriting Quote #3 (Charlie Kaufman)
Screenwriting Quote #179 (Chris Terrio)
Screenwriting Quote #148 (Edward Zwick)
Writing “Edward Scissorhands”
Writer Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

Scott W. Smith

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Steven R. Covey
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Habit #2)

After I wrote the last screenwriting tip, Writing Good Bad Guys (Tip #85), I discovered a Facebook thread over at The Inside Pitch where WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart listed some of his favorite bad characters in movies. (I’ve added his list to that post.) The first character mentioned was Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth) in Rob Roy. I’d never seen that 1995 movie before and caught it on Netflix over the week.

Tom Roth’s character is in fact a bad guy of the highest caliber. No question there. It made me want to find a screenwriting quote from Scottish born writer Alan Sharp (Rob Roy, Night Moves, My Talks with Dean Spanley) who just died earlier this year.

“I try to get the story to tell itself from front to back. It’s very helpful to have a final scene in mind, a sort of destination, if you like, but often that doesn’t reveal itself until you’ve taken a number of false turns. Re-writing is the key and the ability to view previous drafts as material to be changed, cut and shaped. Start thick and end up thin.”
Screenwriter Alan Sharp
RT Burns Club Interview with Scottish Screen Writer Alan Sharp 

Here’s a scene from Rob Roy where actors Jessica Lange, Brian Cox, and Tim Roth, under the direction of Michael Canton-Jones, and the cinematography of Karl Walter Lindenlaub bring to life Sharp’s words. (Semi-spolier note: It’s a powerful scene that does foreshadow the wonderful Rob Roy ending.)

P.S. Rob Roy was overshadowed at the box office in 1995 by that other Scottish-centered movie Braveheart. Both films stand on their own as well made movies, and I’m sure more than one person has done an analysis of the similarities and differences of both films. Both Liam Neeson and Mel Gibson are characters at the end of their rope.  One has a theme of intergity and the other about freedom. But from my limited knowledge Rob Roy MacGregor (even by Sharp’s admission) was a minor character in Scottish history. William Wallace was a major leader in the War of Scottish Independence. Given the choice to pick a major or minor character in writing an epic film—go with the major character.

But I think what really separated the two films is Rob Roy had a good ending and Braveheart (to use Michael Arndt’s words) had an insanley great ending. Braveheart’s highly emotional scene hit audiences hard.

Braveheart walked away with five Oscars including best picture and is listed at #80 on the IMDB Top 250 chart. Rob Roy is unfortunately still known more as a cocktail.

Related Posts:
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (Part 2)
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76) Writer/director Edward Burns on It’s a Wonderful Life
Coppola and Rewriting
Screenwriting Quote #177 David O. Russell quote about rewriting Silver Linings Playbook “over 20 times.”

Scott W. Smith

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“Odd lead performances be damned, [Bubble] is not only an underrated gem, but yet another masterpiece found within Soderbergh’s historic filmography.”
Joshua Brunsting, Criterioncast 

Today on re-post Saturday I decided on one where Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) talked about directing non-professional actors because it’s a nice match for the post earlier this month where Alexander Payne’s talked about working with non-professional actors in all his films—“Nebraska”—Take 1 (Casting Farmers)— and because I finally got around to seeing Bubble last night—the movie Soderbergh referenced. (The 2005 offbeat film has never been easy to find, but it’s currently available on Netflix.)

Here’s the original post from October 2011 on one of the early HD features released in theaters:

It’s not usual for directors to use non-professional actors from time to time, but Steven Soderbergh took it to extreme for his 2006 film Bubble—the entire cast was non-professionals actors. I was reminded of that film today when I drove through Parkerburgh, West Virginia & Belpre, Ohio were Soderbergh shot Bubble. Soderbergh, who directed and shot the film, said that he found that non-professionals tend to do their best work in the first or second take before they start becoming self-conscious of their performance. Here are some other thoughts he had on the experience to help you in working with non-professional actors:

“I didn’t ever want to be in a situation of giving non-professional actors marks, you know, and be in a situation where they had to repeat a precise physical activity to accommodate where the camera was.

“So I was always working from the performance out and making sure that I had the camera in a place that could capture what they were doing without me having to tell them, ‘Hey, don’t lean over here. I need you to walk up to this mark. Don’t sit in that chair.’ I wanted them to do whatever they were going to do, and then I would find a way to have it play out in the frame.

“One of the things I like in the film is this guy, this detective, who’s a real detective who works in Ohio, he just had a quality that I thought was really fascinating, you know. It’s just impossible to fake, and especially in the interrogation scene, that was a single take, two cameras running, and watching the two of them as this scene developed was really interesting, watching his cadence slowly start to shift as, you know, the wheel starts to turn a little bit and watching her start to get more and more upset and more nervous. It was really fascinating.

“What we did was we just gave him the factual information that he would have from that alleged murder scene. I didn’t tell him what to say. I didn’t tell him how to question her. I didn’t tell him when to, you know, pull the trump card. I just said, ‘Do this the way you would do it,’ and she had no idea of what he was going to do, and so it was really interesting to watch.”
Steven Soderbergh
ABC Interview  

Colemon Hough wrote the screenplay for Bubble (with a large amount of improv from the non-professional actors).

Scott W. Smith

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Billy Ray’s Directing Advice

“I read a phenomenal book called Directing Actors by Judith Weston, which I would recommend to anybody who wants to direct anything. And then I called up a bunch of young directors and said, ‘You don’t know me, my name is Billy Ray, I’m about to go direct a movie. Could I take you to lunch and ask you some questions?’ And they all said yes. They were very generous with me. And I called people that had produced scripts that I had written and took them to lunch. And said, ‘Okay, what about me makes you think I’d be a good director? What about me makes you think I’d be a bad director?’Just tried to learn. And then decided it was time.”
Writer/Director Billy Ray
Reelz interview with Heather Huntington

Ray is coming off writing two highly successful films in the last two years; Captain Phillips and The Hunger Games, but below is the trailer for his 2003 directorial debut Shattered Glass. The origins of Ray’s script was the Vanity Fair article Shattered Glass written by Buzz Bissinger who wrote the book Friday Night Lights.

Scott W. Smith

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