Archive for February, 2014

Harold Ramis was one of the co-screenwriters of Back to School so I dug around on the internet to find the most class like talk Ramis gave and this is what I found:

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Harold Ramis Earned His ‘Stripes’

 “I’m a writer-director-actor, which I’ve always kind of enjoyed. I compared it to the Olympic biathlon. “Not only can he cross-country ski, but he’s a terrific marksman as well.”
Writer-director-actor Harold Ramis

“Harold Ramis and I together did the ‘National Lampoon Show’ off Broadway, ‘Meatballs,’ ‘Stripes,’ ‘Caddyshack,’ ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Groundhog Day.’ He earned his keep on this planet. God bless him.”
Bill Murray on the death of Harold Ramis
New York Daily News

When you look at the run Harold Ramis had between 1978 and 1984 it’s a rather prolific string as a writer (Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbuster).  But don’t forget to add that to that his longer career (including Back to School, Groundhog Day, Analyze This) and a career which also included his wearing the hats of producer, director and actor. For someone with such a grasp of writing humor it may seem odd that he took a serious approach to writing movies.

“I have a great respect for the moviegoing experience. It’s such a unique thing. You’re not getting up and walking around the house or flipping channels during the dull parts. You’re in a dark space, and the movie fills most of your field of vision. You’re surrounded by sound, and the colors are deeply saturated, and faces are fifteen feet high. If it’s done well, you’re really going to feel some big emotions or have some big belly laughs. That’s why I’ve tried to stay away from mild satire. I want an audience to feel something more powerful for their ten bucks. If they’re going to spend two hours with me, I’d like to take them someplace special. I’m thinking of doing a marital comedy for one of the studios, but I want it to be so painful that it’ll have a profound effect on married couples who see it together. I want husbands to cringe, and their wives to glare at them, and couples to talk about it later and ask, ‘Do you feel that way?’ ‘What? No, no, of course not.’ I want to explore marriage without the usual Hallmark-card platitudes. Life is difficult, and I like movies that acknowledge that.”
Harold Ramis
The Believer interview in 2008

Scott W. Smith

Harold Ramis 

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Harold Ramis & ‘Ghostbusters’

“More than anyone else, Harold Ramis has shaped this generation’s ideas of what is funny.”
Paul Weingarten
The Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1983

When it was announced a few days ago that Harold Ramis died I wondered how many people first thought of Ghostbusters which he co-wrote and co-starred in. The film came in second at the box office in 1984 just behind Beverly Hills Cop, but ahead of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, and The Karate Kid.

Ramis earned an English degree from Washington University in St. Louis, but was born and raised in Chicago and cut his improv/comedy teeth at Chicago’s Second City along with John Belushi and Bill Murray. This is what he said about the characters he specialized in at Second City TV:

“I played a lot of weasels, a lot of cowards; sweating cowards was my thing. I used to play like hippies and, like, counterculture guys, and [John] Belushi kind of took that over, so I moved into the coward role. … The other thing I would always play was the character called “specs” or “the professor.” I’d play the brainy guy, which I ended up doing, of course, in Ghostbusters.”
Writer/Director/Actor Harold Ramis 
NPR Interview

Related Posts:

Second City at 50
Tennessee Williams’ Start (The great playwright studied at Washington University)
Dan O’Bannon 1946-2009 (The Alien, Total Recall screenwriter also studied at Washington University)

Scott W. Smith

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“I like to say a prayer and drink to world peace.”
Phil (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day
Written by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin

If you’ve never seen Groundhog Day, all you need to know to appreciate the scene above is Bill Murray’s character is an unhappy SOB who magically is reliving the same day over and over again until he can get it his life together. The story fits the concepts I’ve touched on in past posts of “transformation,” “slavery to freedom”“cheap therapy” and the Garry Marshall’s idea that, “Most good stories are Cinderella. Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”

“I remembered an idea I had about a guy repeating the same day and I realized that having a person repeat the same day turns an eternity into a circle and that’s when all the dramatic possibilities came and the comedic possibilities and all the resonances with repetition… The very first thing I thought of was the date scene, being able to use your superior knowledge to pick up women.  As soon as I thought of that I knew I had a movie.”
Screenwriter Danny Rubin on coming up with the idea for Groundhog Day
Big Think Interview 

Groundhog Day was directed by Harold Ramis and listed as the #8 fantasy film by AFI, and #34 of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs.

“Frank Capra said a great thing, he said if you’re gonna have the privilege of talking to an audience for two hours in the dark you have to take it as a great responsibility. And I take it that way whether it’s comedy, or tragedy, or anything. So I think there is a responsible kind of comedy that enlightens us to some extent, makes us think, exposes real hypocrisy, and the real contrictions in society.”
Harold Ramis speaking at Columbia College Chicago 

Related Posts:
Before ‘Groundhog Day’
Movies from Main Street

Scott W. Smith

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“I can barely watch [Caddyshack]. All I see are a bunch of compromises and things that could have been better. Like, it bothers me that nobody except Michael O’Keefe can swing a golf club. A movie about golf with the worst bunch of golf swings you’ve ever seen! It doesn’t bother golfers, though.”
Caddyshack director and co-writer Harold Ramis
GQ/Harold Ramis Gets the Last Laugh

When I heard the news that writer/director/actor Harold Ramis died in Chicago this morning there was a cacophony of movie quotes that went off in my head from some of his most watched films.   It was like a party for the characters from Ghoastbusters, Goundhog’s Day, Animal House, Back to School, Stripes and Caddyshack.

So this week I thought I’d take time to explore Ramis and his work. Today will be Caddyshack’s moment in the spotlight.

Scott W. Smith

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What turns you on?

“Find out what attracted you to the story. Try to find out the essential theme and forget everything else. Try to place the theme in another context with the situations and characters. Many of the best directors really only make one story over and over again, they find new circumstances into which to set their original theme or fable, and the story is rediscovered in new contexts. So try to discover what it is that turns you on, the thing than makes your hair stand on end.”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick
1977 talk at AFI
Published in On Film-making

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Though more of a directing rather than a screenwriting device, “sweeping the floor” is a phrase used to describe an  action given to an actor so their lines appear more natural. Sometimes an actor with a short scene or just one line wants to give more importance to their small part so they put too much emphasis on their small role. “Sweeping the floor” helps the actor concentrate on the activity (and, of course, it doesn’t have to be a literal sweeping the floor action) and the result is often a more natural performance. This works for better actors in bigger roles as well.

When Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) first meets Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street director Oliver Stone uses many variations of “sweeping the floor” in that one scene. Gekko talks on the phone (a couple of times), lights  a cigarette, checks his blood pressure, flips through his mail/messages, and ends the scene hopping on a treadmill in his office. It’s an important five-minute scene and all of those activities help push the scene forward.

“For a more ingenious example of the same device look at one of the love scenes between Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront. It is reasonably well written, but might have seemed over saturated if the actors had played it while looking at each other directly. Instead Brando uses a couple of props, one of which is a child’s swing in the playground of the park where the scene takes place. Incongruously he sits in the swing, giving a slightly self-depreciation tone to his performance. The other prop is the glove the girl has dropped. Brando picks it up and does not return it, absent-mindedly trying it on his own much larger hand. This purely incidental activity means that for much of the dialogue he avoids eye contact with her. Because of this the scene is less sentimental and creates an impression of unpretentious and natural screen presence (though it is, needless to say, just as contrived and premeditated as any other piece of acting).
Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of Directing

Once you become aware of the “sweeping the floor” device you see it everywhere. People sitting down talking eye to eye the whole time happens more in low-budget indie films than in real life. That’s why experienced directors have actors doing things even if the scene isn’t written that way.

What’s your favorite “sweeping the floor” movie example?

Scott W. Smith

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“How does one persuade an audience to put aside its normally critical approach to subject matter and willingly collaborate with the storyteller in accepting as logical what is plainly incredible, nonsensical and/or absurd? The phrase ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ comes to mind.”
Alexander Mackendrick

Them!, a 1954 American science-fiction film, is absolute and unashamed hokum. It is simple-minded to the point of absurdity, and nobody is likely to regard it as a work of serious cinema. It is also, at another level, a classic. If there had been an attempt to treat its subject matter with any subtlety, the result would have been a certain disaster. But Them! us worth some study, I suggest, because it demonstrates how our ‘disbelief’ can easily, ‘suspend’ with some degree of ‘willingness’. One of the easiest ways to learn the carpentry of solid, simple plot mechanisms of any kind of cinema is by careful dismantling and re-assembly of a piece of nonsense like Them!…It is sound practice when devising an incredible story to do a great deal of research on all other associated aspects of the situation. Them! actually devotes quite a lot of footage to earnestly real, and entirely accurate, explanations of how ant colonies function. Everything except the initial premise is logical and real.”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
(And in his book Mackendrick does spend a couple of paragraphs expounding on Them!)

P.S. I saw Them! on Tv when I was a little kid and it’s always been a guilty pleasure of mine, but I’ve never once heard anybody but Mackendrick bring the movie up in a filmmaking or screenwriting book. For The Shawshank Redemption fans the bonus of Them! is it stars James Whitmore.

Scott W. Smith 

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“Remember that scripts are not so much written as rewritten and rewritten and rewritten (Mark Twain’s rule for writing: ‘Apply seat of pants to chair’). During a period of nearly ten years when I was under contract to a British studio, first as a contract screenwriter, then later as a writer/director, a pattern emerged. Every screenplay that finally became a film was rewritten a minimum of five and a maximum of seven times. There was no explicit rule about this, nobody could explain why it became standard practice—it just worked out that way. Another noticeable pattern was that many subjects did not even reach screenplay form at all and were scrapped after the first draft (while a script that required too many re-writes was usually abandoned after the seventh draft.) So plunge ahead regardless. Don’t wait to get it right, just get it written.”
Writer/Director Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success)
On Film-making edited by Paul Cronin

Related links:
Writing & Rewriting “Pretty Woman” (Part 1)
Writing & Rewriting “Pretty Woman” (Part 2)
Coppola and Rewriting
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m gonna to do something really outragous—I’m gonna tell the truth.”
Presidential candidate Gov. Jack Stanton (John Travolta) in Primary Colors


I try to not post on holidays but this Presidents’ Day I thought a nice way to break up the series of posts I’ve been doing on writer/director turned film professor Alexander Mackendrick is to show a photo that’s—in a round about way—related to this Holiday. (And you know, I’m all about unlikely things in unlikely places.)

On Saturday I had a meeting in the Ocala, Florida area and between touring a home owned by a former drug dealer and grabbing lunch at the Blue Wagyu (had the Yasufuku Jr. burger) I drove by John Travolta and Kelly Preston’s Florida house. Yeah, the one with the 707 jumbo jet in front of it. I first learn about the home in when it was featured years ago in Architectural Digest. 

Some of John Travolta’s most well-known films include Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy, Get Shorty and Pulp Fiction—but it was in Primary Colors were he plays a Governor on the road to the Presidency. In real life Travolta is also an experienced pilot, but if he ever became President of the United States he’d be the first President who could not only fly Air Force One, but would be the first President where the White House might be considered a step down in living quarters.

Just took the above photo with by iPhone, but if you want to see better shots (and the Gulfstream parked in front) check out stunning photos Duston Saylor did for Architectural Digest.

Happy Presidents’ Day—

Scott W. Smith

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