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Archive for July, 2014

“I never studied writing. I never studied screenwriting. I just hear voices and I see visions, and instead of being locked up I’m a screenwriter.”
Nick Kazan
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters (Part 1) interview with Mike De Luca

“I don’t like roller coasters.”
Kevin Hart

In the first part of screenwriter Nick Kazan’s interview on The Dialogue he mentioned he liked roller coasters. Kazan’s latest script set to be produced is a good example of how much of a roller coaster the film business can be. The Whole Truth was set to be shot earlier this year in Boston starring Daniel Craig, but The Hollywood Reporter said Craig pulled out at the 11th hour—”days before filming.” Part of what that means is an entire crew who had blocked out x-amount of months for work on that project now had to scramble for new opportunities. It also means a loss of millions of dollars in hotels, meals, rentals, etc. in the Boston area.

Fast forward a few months and I’ve read reports that instead of the story being about a lawyer in Boston, it will now be a southern lawyer as production has shifted to New Orleans. Keanu Reeves to replace Craig with Renee Zellweger co-starring and Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) directing. While one article said the changing of locations was a “slight shift in the story” think about what that means from Kazan’s perspective.

Boston and New Orleans are two different cultures. Perhaps the plot stays the same, you could even change the setting of a historic building in Copley Square to a historic building in the French Quarter. A downtown waterfront scene set in Boston Harbor can be shot on the Mississippi River.  But the whole background and mindset of a lawyer from New Orleans and a lawyer from Boston can be as different as their accents. Worlds apart.

I guess they could cheat and make it a Boston lawyer in New Orleans. I’m sure there’s more than one Harvard-educated lawyer kicking around Louisiana. Kind of a fun contrast to think about. Image a lawyer from a wealthy  Boston family who when thinking of heading south, thinks of Martha’s Vineyard. Give that man a shrimp po’boy and toss him into the mix of a post-Katrina New Orleans.

But Kazan’s a writer and so he’ll make it work–new visions and new voices.

And just in case you’re wondering why producers would make such a major shift in locations so late in the game the answer is simple—money. Louisiana has been aggressive in the last few years in courting film production via film incentives. In fact, at this year’s Oscar awards “four of the six highest-profile Academy Awards went to New Orleans-shot films.” (Including the Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave.)  You may be surprised that one report said that in 2013 Louisiana overtook California in film production.

“We have been on a steady upward trajectory since Louisiana adopted its incentive program in 2002… 2013 was our biggest year.”
Chris Stelly, executive director of Louisiana Entertainment
Move over Hollywood! Louisiana is top for film production, CNN Money

When I started this blog Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places in 2008 it was meant to have built-in irony. My Purple Cow to borrow Seth Godin’s phrase. But with the change in the economy since ’08—plus changes in digital filmmaking— and seeing Louisiana become a major player and Atlanta being called The New Hollywood—somehow filmmaking outside New York and L.A. seems less ironic.

I’ll write more about that later, but it would be interesting to read an interview where Kazan unpacked how his voices and visions changed as he had to transpose his script from Boston to New Orleans.

BTW—That roller coaster of change happens at every level of production. I have a DP friend who was booked on a big broadcast shoot recently who invested $3,000 in new equipment for the shoot only to have it cancel. That roller coaster effect is probably one of the top five reasons crew people leave the production business. It’s hard enough if you live in LA and are booked on a 2 or 3 month shoot away from your family, but harder when that shoot cancels and you end up not landing another gig quickly. The whole truth is roller coasters can be fun, you just don’t want to live on one.

Related post:
Nick Kazan’s Chainsaw Inspiration
Sex, Lies & Mr. Bill (Screenwriting from Louisiana)
Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry

Scott W. Smith

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“[The Texas Chainsaw Massacre] captures the syntax and structure of a nightmare with astonishing fidelity. The quality of the images, the texture of the sound, the illogic by which one incident follows another —all confirm to the way we dream. No one’s done that before, at least not in a commercial, mass market movie…What makes Chainsaw interesting is that since we are watching it with our eyes open, it’s a nightmare which we can’t wake up.”
Michael Goodwin/ Village Voice 
Celluloid Mavericks: The History of American Independent Film by Greg Merritt

Before Nick Kazan became an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Reversal of Fortune)—or even a working screenwriter—he was a playwright in Berkeley, California with a fondness for the writings of Harold Pinter—but he also found early inspiration from an unlikely place.

“Eventually I moved to Los Angeles and I was writing movie scripts—some with friends—I wrote a great many of them; 10, 15, 20—I don’t know how many I wrote before I had any success. Then one day I read an article by Michael Goodwin in the Village Voice about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Well, I grew-up in New York City—I went to a high-toned college (Swarthmore College) so I can be a little bit of a snob.  So Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not a film I normally would have gone to see. But I read this article where he talked about how film functions like dream. About how this movie was very scary and very funny the way dreams are, and I had to go out and see the movie. I saw the movie and I came home and I had an idea. And in four or five days I wrote a script which had the same feeling, the same ethos, as Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Well I read it over and thought, ‘This is horrifying,’ and I put it in my drawer. And I went about working on other things, and about a month later I said, ‘You know, maybe I should take a look at that script, maybe it wasn’t quite as terrible as I thought. And it was a script with very little dialogue in it—it was mostly visual. And what dialogue it had was peculiar, Pinter-esque in a kind of way, but also Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque in a way…I sold that script and that’s how I became a screenwriter.”
Screenwriter Nick Kazan (At Close Range)
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

That film actually got made but Kazan felt it was so poorly done he had his name taken off the movie. And while a time or two I’ve been accused launching a screenwriting career difficult— consider Kazan’s path:
1) Swarthmore College—4 year degree in today’s dollars $57,000 per year=A $228,000 education
2)
Became a produced playwright
3)
Wrote “10-15- 20” scripts before launching his career

Kazan earned his keep in the same way I’ve pointed out in past posts the paths that John Logan (Hugo) and Michael Ardnt took—which is a lot of writing before they were discovered. And though Kazan downplays it in interviews, it should be mentioned that his father was Elia Kazan—the Oscar-winning director On the Waterfront (of one of my all-time favorite films). And one of the reasons he downplays who his dad was I imagine, is because when he was writing those 10-15-20 scripts without success his dad’s legacy wasn’t helping much.

P.S. Tobe Hopper directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a small cast and crew made up of college teachers and students. He also wrote the script with Kim Henkel.

Related posts:
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich  “Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”—Bogdanovich
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO? “IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.”—Mamet
Write 2 or 3 Screenplays this Year (If you can write a screenplay in a few days like Kazan did, this shouldn’t be a problem)

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche.”
Harold Pinter (1930-2008)

Today I planned to start a run of posts on screenwriter Nick Kazan today but as I was listening to part one of his interview with Mike De Luca Kazan pulls out a sheet of paper and starts reading part of playwright Harold Pinter’s speech for being awarded The Noble Prize in Literature 2005. Kazan who started out as a playwright as well, and without knowing it came to writing in the same organic, perhaps unorthodox manner as Pinter laid out in his Noble Prize speech.

“I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’

In each case I had no further information.

In the first case someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn’t give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either, for that matter.

‘Dark’ I took to be a description of someone’s hair, the hair of a woman, and was the answer to a question. In each case I found myself compelled to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade, through shadow into light.

I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.

In the play that became The Homecoming I saw a man enter a stark room and ask his question of a younger man sitting on an ugly sofa reading a racing paper. I somehow suspected that A was a father and that B was his son, but I had no proof. This was however confirmed a short time later when B (later to become Lenny) says to A (later to become Max), ‘Dad, do you mind if I change the subject? I want to ask you something. The dinner we had before, what was the name of it? What do you call it? Why don’t you buy a dog? You’re a dog cook. Honest. You think you’re cooking for a lot of dogs.’ So since B calls A ‘Dad’ it seemed to me reasonable to assume that they were father and son. A was also clearly the cook and his cooking did not seem to be held in high regard. Did this mean that there was no mother? I didn’t know. But, as I told myself at the time, our beginnings never know our ends.”
Harold Pinter
Art, Truth & Politics 

The great thing about finding insights like this from a highly accomplished writer is you see how mystical the writing process can be. More than once I’ve read in books and articles things like, “Know your characters inside and out before you start” —yet Pinter says, “I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.” Forget starting with writing character bios, Pinter doesn’t even know his character’s names when he starts writing.

Another common concept I’ve heard is “Know your ending before you start–you don’t take a trip without knowing where you’re going,” yet here’s Pinter saying he starts with “no further information” than a “word or an image.” It’s like he’s pulling a big vine in the grass in his backyard and just keeps pulling it.

People are all wired differently—find what works for you and just tell your stories.

Pinter’s entire 46 minute talk (which is heavy on politics) was pre-recorded and shown in Stockholm on December 7, 2005, and available free online.  There is also a PDF of the lecture.

P.S. Many of Pinter’s plays (including The Homecoming for which he also wrote the screenplay) made it to the big screen.  In total, Pinter had a run of work in film and TV beginning in 1960 and that spanned six decades.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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After LeBron James announced in a letter to Sports Illustrated he was returning to play basketball in Cleveland, comedian Frank Caliendo read the letter on ESPN’s Mike & Mike show in the voice of Morgan Freeman. I decided it would make a nice mash-up to combine all of those elements with a few scenes from The Shawshank Redemption and create the parody The LeBron James Redemption.

I’ve mentioned in the past about personally transitioning from editing on Final Cut Pro to Adobe Premiere—little projects like this are great in forcing you to learn a new platform. And a break (and more fun than) tutorials.

P.S. My ties to Northeast Ohio include my grandfather spending 30 years working for the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company. (Struthers for those in the know. I have a YS&T Zippo lighter given to my grandfather for his 30 years of service.)

Related Posts:

The LeBron James Spotlight on Northeast Ohio
The Real & Creepy Shawshank Prison
Youngstown’s Hollywood Connection
Screenwriting and the Little Fat Girl from Ohio (2.0)
The Superman from Cleveland
The Lucky Slob from Ohio
Toy Story 3’s Ohio Connection 

Scott W. Smith

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“Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately connect us.”
Robert Redford, Sundance Institute President and Founder

“It seemed like an age old story made new.”
Director Jessee Moss (on not Hercules, but his doc The Overnighters)

It’s really not a fair fight. The tag team of  Hercules and Lucy will be playing today in 6,762 theaters in the United States and The Overnighters (as far as I know) will be playing in just one theater—and a small one at that. It’s actually playing at a microcinema—or minima—in Pepin, Wisconsin.

Pipin’s where I wish I could be tonight or tomorrow as The Overnighters plays in a theater that holds just 40 people. The Jessee Moss documentary on Williston, North Dakota won the  U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

How’s this for a logline? “Desperate, broken men chase their dreams and run from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields. A local Pastor risks everything to help them.”

Okay, maybe not a logline that wouldn’t excite WME Story Editor Christopher (The Inside Pitch) Lockhart and result in a movie that would open in 3,000+ theaters and find an international audience, but I look forward to seeing it eventually. You do know this blog is called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, don’t you? Williston, North Dakota qualifies as an unlikely place to make a film.

“Jesse Moss’ verite documentary about the impact of the oil boom in Williston, North Dakota on the local job market, and the controversial priest supporting the lives of the newcomers it attracts, contains one of the most remarkable examples of layered non-fiction storytelling to come along in some time.”
Eric Kohn, Indiewire review of The Overnighters after the movies Sundance viewing

The Overnighters really isn’t competing tonight against Hercules and Lucy (and I’m sure some talented screenwriters worked on both of those movies), I just wanted to give a shout-out to the Flyway Film Festival gang and its Executive Director Rick Vaicius as they celebrate the opening of their Flyway Minima tonight in a former ice cream shop near the banks of Lake Pepin. The only thing better than being at the opening night would be eating at the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin before going to the movie.

P.S. Don’t be surprised if Lucy beats Hercules at the box office this weekend. Remember that post I wrote earlier this week (‘What it means to be a screenwriter’) and how “Young Women Are The Hottest Box Office Demographic.” Showdown—Who will win at the box office—A female driven action film or a male driven action film? What are the chances they both do well and Dwayne Johnson and Scarlet Johansson end up in a film together next year?

Related posts:
Postcard #17 (Lake Pepin)
The Perfect Logline
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 1)
Screenwriting Quote #172 (Christopher Lockhart) 

Scott W. Smith

 

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“There’s a little bit of pink and blue coding that goes on in the film business in terms of material that you’re offered for sure. Every now and then I will feel in a meeting a little bit as though I’m out of place because there are so many men in the room. Certianly nothing that they’re trying to do, it’s not a harassment situation. But I’ll just have a sense that they’re looking at me like I’m a girl and that doesn’t come up for my husband (screenwriter Nick Kazan). We sort of have a lab thing going on at our house — he has one experience, I have another. There’s a certain amount of overlap, and the ways that they are different—some of them have to be put down to gender. I don’t let it bother me. I just go on doing my silly stuff…Statistically we know there aren’t as many women working in film as there should be. Having said that, I’ve had a wonderful career and I have many opportunities ahead of me and I have nothing to complain about.”
Screenwriter Robin Swicord
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters interview with Jay Fernandez  (Part 3)

P.S.   Having Nick Kazan as a husband means that Robin’s father-in-law was Elia Kazan, the Oscar-winning director of On the Waterfront.  Robin and Nick’s have two daughters in the entertainment business—  Zoe Kazan graduated from Yale with a theater degree, and Maya Kazan graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in film studies. This rounds out a nice run of posts taken from Robin’s interview on The Dialogue. Next week I’ll pull some quotes from Nick’s own interview on The Dialogue.

Related posts:

On What Makes a Director
Screenwriting Quote #143 (Elia Kazan)
Kazan on Directing (Part 1)
‘Unstoppable’ Wesleyan University
The Most Important Two Hours  “My life as a writer began in the theater…”—Nicholas Kazan
‘What it means to be a screenwriter’

Scott W. Smith

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“I see the movie very clearly when I’m writing. I try to put down what I see and let other people in on the joke, and hope they are seeing the movie that’s in my head. It’s important to do that whether you’re writing so that another director will take it and interpret your work, or whether you’re trying to get financing and get actors attached to it. They need to know what the movie is and so I try to put as much on the page as I know how.

“…If you’re writing visually you’re seeing so much, and there’s a tendency to see every bit of behavior and everything that’s in the room and so forth because it’s vivid to you if you’re seeing the movie in your head. But part of the craft of screenwriting is to write in such a pity way—it’s almost like being  a combination of a poet and a journalist. You’re trying to get the important information out there, but you’re trying to do it with enough concision and accuracy that you’re almost like a poet describing something in as few words as possible, but as vividly as possible. You don’t want there to be a lot of confusion because it is the blueprint of the film.

“Later you will have prop people, working with set dressers, working with art directors, and production designers and they will be looking at that little piece of description and they’ll be saying ‘Is it this or is it that?’ So you do have to help them out a little bit by trying to write precisely… I don’t think there’s any screenwriter working—that’s getting their films produced— that doesn’t try to direct a little bit on the page. Because if you know this is a sad moment at the end of something you’re going to try to write a transition that allows that sadness to sit there for a moment. And you don’t want to just bluntly go to the next scene, you want to describe something—but that’s technically direction.

“If you’re saying what the character looks like or emotion that they’ve making or even if they’re sitting still for a moment, you are providing direction. But if you don’t put that there, the scene isn’t going to land in quite the same way and allow the reader to have that moment to experience it before you move on to the next scene. So slowly you learn to hide this direction so that it’s not intrusive, it doesn’t become the point of the scene, and it allows the director room to interpret and say I know they wrote them sitting still here but instead I’m going to go to leaves outside of a window for instance. As long as they are giving something that allows a resting places it doesn’t matter. You’re just giving one version of it.”
Screenwriter Robin Swicord
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters interview with Jay Fernandez  (Part 3)

Related posts:

Descriptive Writing (Frank Darabont)
Descriptive Writing (Stephen King)
Postcard #65 (Tennessee Williams)  “The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks! The world thirsts after sympathy, compassion, love.”—T.W.
Descriptive Writing—Part 1 (Tip #22) “The future always looks good in the golden land because no one remembers the past.”—Joan Didion
Descriptive Writing—Part 2 (Tip #23)
Descriptive Writing—Part 3 (Tip #24)
Descriptive Writing—Pt. 4, Action (Tip #25)
Descriptive Writing—Pt. 5, Setting (Tip #26)

Scott W. Smith

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