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Archive for January, 2014

“I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble. Those are the key elements I look for. And they have to have a very specific world they’re in, as in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. They’re a sort of community and they’re having to reinvent themselves. So they’re in trouble of some kind, but their world also has some enchantment in it that they love. There’s love and passion and compassion in it. And then there must be a sizable theme, and in [American Hustle] it’s not just about conning people, but reinvention.
Oscar-winning writer/director David O. Russell
Post magazine Interview with Iain Blair/ January 2014

P.S. American Hustle tied Gravity for the most Oscar nominations (10) and shows the important of execution. I can’t imagine too many screenwriters pitching a film based on the ’70s scandal Abscam getting a request for the script. Now, David O. Russell wanting to do a film on Abscam—that’s an easier sell.  By the way, Oscar-nominated Best Picture Nebraska, would be a hard pitch as well. No matter how you dressed it up it’s still a story about a son who drives his elderly dad from Montana to Omaha. But say that Oscar-winner Alexander Payne wants to make that film and it’s an easier sell to investors and audiences.  Execution trumps concept in those cases. Though it still took Nebraska 10 years to get made after Bob Nelson’s script was first optioned. Here’s how that script got early traction:

“I was working at a Seattle show called The Eyes of Nye. Producer Julie Thompson came up. I had written a screenplay to try and get a TV job. Julie got the script to Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who have a company called Bona Fide Productions.  They decided to send it to Alexander [Payne], not with the intention to direct it but just to produce it and raise money. I was very fortunate, very lucky, and it doesn’t happen a lot. The one take-away is that even though I was in Seattle, I was still working in the business.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Bob Nelson
Indiewire Interview with Meredith Alloway

Especially if you live outside of LA you have to be creative in finding find alternative ways of getting people excited about your screenplay. And while not the norm, Nelson—and Diablo Cody— show that you can not only capture the magic while living in Seattle or Minnespolis, but that it can even lead to an Oscar trip.  In fact, there are film people living in LA that say you have to live in LA to be taken seriously yet will never see the critical success of Nelson or Cody.

Related posts:
Broken Wings and Silver Linings
Screenwriting Quote #177 (David O. Russell)
Screenwriting from Nebraska
The 20 Year Journey of Craig Borten The Dallas Buyers Club took two decades to make it to theaters,  but joins American Hustle and Nebraska in the Oscar race for Best Picture.
Writing from Theme (tip#20)
Jailbait, Rejection & Screenwriter Mark Boal’s Start Another Oscar-winning screenwriter (The Hurt Locker) who was living outside of LA when his journalist writing opened doors.
Screenwriting Quote #145 (Mike Rich) Rich (The Rookie) launched his screenwriting from Portland by being awarded a Nicholl Fellowship.

Scott W. Smith

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“My recipe for making movies has always been to give an audience two or three really top-notch scenes in every film and to try not to annoy them the rest of the time. If you can do that you will have made an entertaining picture.”
Producer/director Howard Hawks (Red River, Sergeant York, His Girl Friday)
Talk at Chicago Film Festival
via The Movie Makers: Artists in an Industry by Gene D. Phillips

Here are two memorable scenes with Howard Hawks connections. The first is from the film The Big Sky (1952) which Hawks directed, and the second film is Scarface (1983) directed by Brian DePalma from a script by Oliver Stone.  After seeing the original Scarface (1932) which Hawks directed, Al Pacino set theings in motion to star in a modern retelling of the story.

Scott W. Smith

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“So they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. Swimmin’ pools, movie stars.”
The Ballad of Jed Clampett by Paul Henning

Yesterday the city of Beverly Hills, California celebrated its 100th anniversary.They had a concert last night at the Saban Theater where they performed works by some of the city’s famous past residents (George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter) and Betty White sang the Beverly Hills High School fight song.

A song they probably didn’t sing unless someone poured moonshine into the punch bowl is the most well-known song ever where the city is mentioned—the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Beverly Hills isn’t the wealthiest community in the United States, but it has a long history of being associated with rich and famous celebrities, as well as top Hollywood movers and shakers. While selling housing lots 100 years ago was difficult, there’s a reason it’s more well-known around the world than nearby Brentwood, Bel Air, and Pacific Palisades—movie, music,  and TV references.

Beverly Hills is not only iconic, it is a feeding ground for dramatic irony. Just mix something that you don’t normally associate with Beverly Hills and there’s conflict, contrast, and comedy. Three fish out of water scenarios that quickly come to mind are 1) the low rent prostitute on a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive (Pretty Women), 2) the Detroit cop with a beat up Chevy on “vacation” in California (Beverly Hills Cop), and 3) a suicidal homeless man taken in by a bored rich couple (Down and Out in Beverly Hills).

But you can’t beat the story about a man name Jed, a poor mountaineer who barely kept his family fed—yet by a strange twist of fate ends up a millionaire living in Beverly Hills. The creator of The Beverly Hillbillies, Paul Henning, was actually a trained lawyer and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Love Come Back).

Henning was born in Independence, Missouri and raised on a farm there, and later attended Kansas City School of Law. But it was camping trips in Missouri as a youth shape that laid the groundwork for one of the longest lasting and most endearing shows in TV history.

“I’d always had a great affection for hillbillies. And I think that started when I was a Boy Scout. I went to camp in the Ozarks at a place called Nole, Missouri. It was right on the border of Arkansas and we’d take 14 mile hikes, and when you go seven miles into the woods….
Paul Henning interview on Emmy TV Legends
(And it’s obvious from Henning’s tone that he doesn’t use hillbilly in a derogatory way.)

Henning’s thoughts drifted off at that point in the interview, but what he alluded to is once you get off the beaten path you met some interesting people. And that’s no different today. Later in that interview Henning talked about taking a driving trip in 1959 through Civil War areas here in the States and coming up with the idea for The Beverly Hillbillies.

If you like hearing how stories originate, this is well worth reading:

“I remember as we were driving along the highway I said, ‘Imagine someone from that Civil War era sitting here in this car with us, going 60 miles an hour down a modern highway.’ You know, what an experience that would be—how unbeliveable that would be. And that got me to thinking about transplanting someone from an era like that into the modern-day world. And I think that’s where the idea [for The Beverly Hillbillies] came from because in my experience as a Boy Scout in the Ozarks I found there were pockets of historical places where people resisted modernization. They resisted roads being built. So this was the germ of the idea. If you could find someone from a remote, protected spot—you know, they didn’t have radio, they didn’t have television, telephone, anything—to transplant them by some means into a modern world and that was the beginning of The Beverly Hillbillies...My first thought was New York. And I thought this would mean expensive location trips and why not transplant them to Beverly Hills were you have the same sophestication—maybe more. And to make that possible they somehow had to become affluent and that’s how Jed was out shooting at some food and up from the ground came a bubbling crude. And all of a sudden they are millionaires. There had been a musical group called The Beverly Hill Billies and I didn’t know any of them personally but this title stayed with me and it seemed so apt. And I thought The Beverly Hillbillies is perfect.”
Paul Henning Interview. Archive of American Television

That simple idea turned into the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies which ran from 1962 to 1971 for a total of 274 episodes. Though not a critic’s favorite, it was the top rated show on TV in its first two seasons.  Some rural themed programs followed including Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.

And there are echoes of the story/concept/theme found more recently in the Oscar-winning Best Picture Slumdog Millionaire and on the all-time top rated non-scripted TV program Duck Dynasty. Two movies that come to mind that preceded The Beverly Hillbillies, but could be seen as kin, are Tobacco Road (1941) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Just in case you’ve never seen The Beverly Hillbillies, below is the episode The Giant Jackrabbit (written by Henning and Mark Tuttle) which was the single most watch sitcom episode of its day and still ranks as one of the most watched 30-minute sitcom programs of all time.

P.S. A nice Iowa-Beverly Hills connection; The largest talent agency in the world WME with headquarters in Beverly Hills has as its co-CEO Patrick Whitsell from the rural community of Iowa Falls, Iowa (population 5,146). In fact, Whitesell and his father made news recently when they bought and restored a historic movie theater/opera house in Iowa Falls and Hugh Jackman arrived for a screening of his movie Prisoners. See the post The Iowa Falls—Hollywood Connection.

P.P.S. By the way,  the largest home is Beverly Hills is well below half the square footage as the 90,000 sq. foot house in Orlando, Florida featured in the documentary The Queen of Versailles. But in Orlando you won’t have movie stars and other Hollywood movers and shakers as neighbors. Location. Location. Location. (Though Shaq, Tiger, and Arnold Palmer have homes in the area.)

Related Posts:
“Winter’s Bone” (Debra Granik)
Screenwriting from Arkansas
Screenwriting from Missouri
The Serious Side to Gilligan’s Island

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s a difficult time in the [film] industry at the moment. There’s a lot of changing over that’s happening, and there are a lot of very bright young people who want to get into it.”
Director John Schlesinger in 1969
Same year Midnight Cowboy was released for which Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director
Quote from the video below titled The Secrets of Legendary Film Directors (includes Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini)

Remember that 1969 is the same year that Easy Rider hit movie theaters.

Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (and the Kenneth Bower doc of the same name) recounts how many of those very bright young people (including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Francis Ford Coppola) changed the film industry–and makes the case for them saving the industry.

Now 45 years later Lucas and Spielberg are the old guard and just last year spoke publicly to film students at USC about the difficult and changing times of the film industry.  Lucas said, “The pathway to get into theaters is really getting smaller and smaller.” And Spielberg went as far as saying there could be an “implosion” or “meltdown” in the film business due to megabudget movies failing at the box-office simultaneously. Steven Soderbergh in his State of Cinema Talk last year added that cinema was under “assault” by studios (with the support of audiences).

In the late ’20 with the advent of sync sound in movies, along with the depression, there was a lot of concern in the movie industry about the changing times and technology. In the late ’40s and early ’50s with the spreading growth of television in homes there was much concern in the film industry about the changing times and technology. In the ’80s it was cable TV and VHS tapes that people feared would keep people away from movie theaters.  Most recently concerns have shifted to the Internet, videos games, and pirating. Changing times have a way of, well, changing. Constantly.

So here we are back to the future—difficult and changing times. And yet, you can still copy and paste Schlesinger’s 1969 words—”there are a lot of very bright young people who want to get into it”—and drop them in 2014.

And Soderbergh understands that some new young filmmakers (and new visions of old filmmakers) are going to emerge and find an audience.

“So whenever I despair I think, OK, somebody out there somewhere, while we’re sitting right here, somebody out there somewhere is making something cool that we’re going to love, and that keeps me going.”
Steven Soderbergh
Keynote address at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival

At that moment somewhere in Teaxs someone was working on something cool. As Soderbergh was giving that talk Richard Linklater was editing his newest film Boyhood that premiered at Sundance Film Festival last week.  Indiewire called the film ‘groundbreaking” and making “cinematic history” because the movie was shot with the same young actors 3 or 4 days a year—over the course of 12 years.

And winning the Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic and the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance this year was the personal film  Whiplash written and directed by Damien Chazelle. A film that explores dedication to one’s art.  Whiplash’s executive producer Jason Reitman called it,  “Shine meets Full Metal Jacket.”

Whiplash—the word, as in severe head jerk—is a good metaphor for the difficult and changes times following the digital revolution. Changes that have transformed the film industry (if I can still use the word “film” ), but changes that have also brought new opportunities.

Scott W. Smith

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“I think ultimately, when broadband comes. that there’s going to be a lot of entertainment that will be run through the Internet, and I think that’s going to be a big factor in the near future.”
George Lucas in April 2001
Interview with Joe Rice

Over the weekend I was preparing to pare down my film library and flipped through the book Digital Cinema: The Revolution in Cinematography, Post Production, and Distribution by Brian McKeran and found that Lucas quote.  It’s amazing what’s happened in less than ten years since that book was published in 2005.  In fact, when Lucas made that comment about entertainment running through the Internet You Tube was still a few years away from being launched, there were Blockbuster video stores all over the United States, and Netflix was still a decade away from announcing it was getting into the original content business with House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey.

Makes me wonder what what the world will look like in ten years. Just maybe it will look a little like this nugget I used in Screenwriting Outside L.A. 101:

“I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”
Steven Spielberg to Katie Couric on the NBC today show in 1999

We’re not there yet, but there are things happening in unlikely places all over the world. I’ve been saying for years that an unlikely place could be West Des Moines, West Africa, or just east of the Hollywood sign in West Covina. But since Spielberg mentioned Des Moines let me give you two examples of what I’ve seen happening there.

When I lived in Iowa I was DP on a short film where I worked with actor Brendan Dunphy. One of the sharpest, smartest, most talented, nicest and best looking people I’ve ever worked with. Check out his website if you looking an actor who looks like Tom Cruise did around age 30.  And if his looks and my praise don’t intrigue you, how about knowing that he’s a trained entomologist who when not acting or writing plays works with bugs at Iowa State University in Ames. (See article Acting Bug by Carole Gieseke.) You’re going to see more of Dunphy in the future either in Hollywood or on the Science Channel—if not from some Internet show in Des Moines that Steven Spielberg produces. (Never bet against a guy from a small town in Iowa, with Hollywood looks,  who’s also performed Hamlet on stage.)

Brendan Dunphy

Brendan Dunphy

Dunphy was also part of the team (along with Paul David Benedict, Scott Siepker) that produced Iowa Nice that received over a million views on You Tube. (It also helped them land gigs with ESPN producing videos with the same snarky–but less profane– humor.)

And back in 2005, a group of filmmakers in Des Moines did win in 2005 Best Film at the 48 House Film Festival for their short Mimes of the Prairie. (Second place was a film from San Francisco and third place was a film from Paris.)

P.S. Greatest missed opportunity in Internet entertainment?  “ [In 2000] We offered to sell a forty-nine-per-cent stake and take the name Blockbuster.com. We’d be their online service.”  Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix in The New Yorker article Outside the Box, Netflix and the Future of Television by Ken Auletta. At peak in 2004 Blockbuster had 9,000 stores, at the end of last year closed all but 50 franchisee owned stores (in Texas and Alaska), and shut down their mail-order service. The reason ?

“Blockbuster ran through a series of owners, investors and managers as it struggled to compete with Netflix’s mail-order DVDs, cable’s video-on-demand, Redbox’s vending machines and streaming services online. Blockbuster not only failed to reinvent itself; it also neglected its stores, which grew shabby and increasingly reliant upon sneaky late fees.”
Al Lewis, Wall Street Journal 2013 

Recommended reading at least once a year: Who Moved the Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. Especially for anyone in the film/video/photography business.

Related Posts:

The Prophet Ben Hecht
New Cinema screenwriting (part 2)
Putting the Bust in Blockbuster (written in 2010)
Screenwriting and the Little Fat Girl in Ohio (2.0) The prophet Francis Ford Coppola

Related Links:
Des Moines, where regular folks can live the rich life, NBC Today
The Best Places for Business and Careers, Forbes
(Des Moines tops the list in 2013)

Scott W. Smith

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“My top ten tips for tilting your film. 1. The shorter the better…”
Chris Jones (Co-author of The Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook)
Top Ten Tips For tilting Your Movie

“A good title should be like a good metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or two obvious.”
Novelist/essayist Walker Percy (The Moviegoer)

Gravity-1

There’s no “rule” that says movie titles have to be short, but it’s a pretty good proven principle to follow.

I noticed this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees followed a trend I began to see clearly back in 1998 with the release of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list. The vast majority of great movies titles are three words or less.

The original AFI list sits right about 75% with titles with three words or less. (Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather set the tone right out of the gate.) Best Picture nominees this year have only one of the nine pictures with more than three words in it. And 66% have two or less words including four with only a single word; Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena.

Historically, going all the way back to very first Academy Award ceremony (1929), more than 60% Best Picture winners have titles with three words or less, but ever since Rocky won Best Picture in 1977, only three winners (out of 37) had titles of more than three words.  (And each of those three was a novel first.)

That’s a pretty good case for picking short titles. One reason is it’s easier to recommend  Gladiator or Platoon than it is The Bridge on the River Kwai or All Quiet on the Western Front. Hitchcock’s best films had short titles including Vertigo, Psycho, and Notorious. Even a list of breakthrough indie films (filmmakers who seek to be unconventional from the Hollywood norm) has its share of short titles: Memento, Clerks, Reservoir Dogs, Before Sunset, El Mariachi, Slacker, Metropolitan, Rushmore.

Shakespeare at his best? Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Henry V, and Macbeth. 

Woody Allen’s most referenced films these days? Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors,  Midnight in Paris, and Blue Jasmine. 

Chapin? City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and The Gold Rush.

And if I haven’t made the case for picking a short title clear enough consider Pixar’s titles; Toy Story, Cars, Up, Wall-E, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life, Brave, Monsters, Inc., and Trains. In fact, Pixar has never had a feature film title with more than three words.

up_

That doesn’t mean bland and slightly long title (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)—or even a bland short title (The Shawshank Redemption)— can’t find an audience. Or that Up in the Air isn’t the perfect metaphor for George Clooney’s character. (A character whose only real purpose appears to be collecting frequent flyer miles—everything else is up in the air.) Or even that it’s unheard of to have a very long title like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. (Although, when that last film came out in 1984 I remember people referred to it as Buckaroo Banzai.)

The point is short titles rule. Why fight an uphill battle?

Movie titles are important. How do you pick a good one?

Some writers talk about starting with a title and going from there, and others talk about struggling to land on a title even after they’ve finished their book or screenplay.

But the most common titles seem to focus a main character or being, place or thing, or an event. Of the non-sequel films (or non-comic based films) at the top of the all-time box office include Avatar, Titanic, Skyfall, and Jurassic Park. (And audiences tend to abbreviate sequels/comic-based movies around the water cooler calling them Batman, Star Wars, Pirates, Spider-Man, Twilight, Iron Man and Harry Potter.)

CHARACTER(S) OR BEING:
Citizen Kane
Lincoln
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
King Kong
Rocky
Alien
Erin Brockovich
Patton
Forrest Gump
Spartacus
Bonnie and Clyde
The Godfather
Tootsie
Norma Rae
Jaws
Psycho
Raging Bull
Bridesmaids
The Artist
Annie Hall

A PLACE OR THING:
Titanic
The African Queen
Bridge on the River Kwai
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On the Waterfront
Chinatown
Sunset Blvd.
The Bridges of Madison County
Pearl Harbor
The Maltese Falcon
The Apartment
Casablanca
Fargo
Oklahoma
Wall St.
Philadelphia

AN EVENT:
12 Years a Slave
High Noon
Apocalypse Now
Star Wars
3:10 to Yuma
Flight
2001: A Space Odyssey
This is 40
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
Sophie’s Choice
Mutiny on the Bounty
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

(Or a person, place, & event: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)

Up in the Air falls into that minority category of a title that’s a little more obtuse, in line with The Last Picture Show, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Silence of the Lambs, or Gone with the Wind. (Again all were books or plays first which tend to favor a more intellectual audience, and gives them the advantage of a built-in audience when the movies hit theaters.If you go with a metaphor, it doesn’t hurt if the title is a common phrase like “up in the air.” Even still, I heard people called Up in the Air,  “The new George Clooney movie.” (More words than the actual title but easier to explain to a friend when picking a movie.)

What are some of your favorite titles (even if they aren’t one of your favorite films)? What are some of your favorite bad titles?

Some of my favorite titles are the lesser remembered movies Them! (1954) and  Zulu (1964).  And I like titles such as Psycho, Black Hawk Down, Meet the Parents, Witness, The Hunt for Red October, Collateral and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly because they all have built-in conflict, mystery and intrigue. They hit you at a gut level.

When I think of bad movie titles it tends to be because I think the movies are bad. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the movies listed at The 100 Worst Movie Title are longish; The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

I should add in closing that just because you have a short title doesn’t guarantee success as Ishtar and Gigli prove. But even in an internet driven age where viral reviews may trump movie titles, short titles still seem to work best because word counts are as important as ever.

P.S.  One blogger wrote a post called Top 10 Worst Movie Titles Ever and put Surf Nazis Must Die at #10. That film was written and directed by Peter George who I happened to go to film school with. (I was always a little upset I didn’t get a small role in the film.) If anyone knows where Mr. George is these days tell him I want my watch back. The one that I left at his Hollywood apartment after I crashed on his sofa one night back in the day.

P.P.S. My own longest and worst title for a script I’ve written—When the Cold Winds Blows. More novel-friendly, but I should really be forced to write an apology letter to James Taylor for sampling the lyrics from his classic Fire and Rain. And in case you think I’m kidding—here’s the tattered title page from over a decade ago.

photo-2

Updated from the post: Movie Titles (tip #32) published in 2010.

Related posts:
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (part 2)
Irony in Movies (Tip #79)
Average Length of Movie Scenes (#21)
Choosing a Title for Your Script  “A good title could get your script moved up from the bottom of the stack of to-read scripts to the top — and change your life.”—Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek)

Related links from others:

Choosing a Great Title “Will the title look good on a poster and will it intrigue passersby?”—Julie Gray
Screenplay Tip #6: Title  “Sometimes dramas will have a lengthy title like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but this seems less now and I certainly can’t remember the last time I saw such a long title for a drama in the spec pile.”—Lucy V. Hay
Reader mail—titles “You know what does stick with me? The clever titles, the unique ones.”—The Bitter Script Reader
The Ultimate Guild To Screenwriting Titles

Scott W. Smith

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My January 1 post Write 2 or 3 Scripts This Year was based on a quote by Christopher Lockhart on how to improve your craft. Today is a nice bookend to that post adding a little advice on one way to chip away at that goal.

“I have a rule: I try to open my script file daily, I say to myself, I must write at least one line. It doesn’t feel hard or overwhelming. And, strangely, when I do open my file, my brain will often find itself dictating a stew of words or concepts that I had no previous conscious sense would come out of me.”
Producer/writer/director Pen Densham (Moll Flanders)
Riding the Alligator

Here’s the trailer to Moll Flanders, a movie based on the Daniel Defoe novel, that Densham wrote and directed. It stars Robin Wright and Morgan Freeman.

P.S. A couple of years ago I did an interview with Densham but never got around to transcribing it. So I’ll make that a point to do this year along with the interview I did with writer.director Dale Lautner (My Cousin Vinny). I’m looking at using something like Dragon Diction to help with those interviews and ones in the future. If you have a system for streamlining an audio interview into a text please pass that info on to me.

Scott W. Smith

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