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Archive for July, 2016

“Kindness is free.”
Garry Marshall

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When I learned Hollywood legend Garry Marshall died yesterday, I recalled fondly his career in film, theatre, and TV. The producer, writer, director and actor has a special place on this blog as he’s the only person I’ve ever blogged about for 31 days in a row. In fact, I called last October Garry Marshall Month where I re-posted previous wisdom that Marshall passed on through his books and interviews.

What follows are quotes by Marshall (unless otherwise noted):

Garry Marshall’s ‘Gentle Hilarity ’ “I wanted to make films that celebrated the human spirit and high lighted the good in human beings through both comedy and drama.”

Writing and Rewriting ‘Pretty Woman’ (Part You just have to believe that the more you write, the greater the chances are that you can write something that will sell.”

Writing and Rewriting ‘Pretty Woman’ (Part 2) “When Disney first sent me the script for Pretty Woman, it was a dark tale about a cold and heartless corporate raider and a drug-addicted prostitute.

‘The Power of Gentleness’ “Directing is about more than just the nuts and bolts and technological process. That can be learned. It’s also about the people, which is much more difficult to master.”

Screenwriting Quote #171 (Garry Marshall) “It is true that I look for the Cinderella aspect when I am making a film. Most good stories are Cinderella. Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 1) “If you want to be adored on a movie set, don’t be a director, be the caterer. Everyone loves lunch.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 2) “A director has to be part psychiatrist, part teacher, and part parent to everyone on the set.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 3) “The truth is that there are a few stars who are just one taco short of a combo platter. The director’s job is to deal with it all.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 4)  “Yes, I’m a filmmaker and I chart menstrual cycles.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 5) “One of the best characteristics a director can have is the ability to compromise wisely.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 6) “A brief but important moment for me as an actor was when I needed an angle on the character Barnard Thompson, the hotel manager in Pretty Woman. I went to Garry. He paused for a moment and said, ‘Just create the guy you’d like to work for.’ Simple as that. No long discussion. No deep analysis. A slight suggestion and I made it my own. We’ve done 17 movies that way.”—Hector Elizondo

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 7)  “To have a great line is nice, but to have a strong and memorable reaction is even better.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 8) “For the sake of the story, you never want to mislead the audience, unless it’s intentional.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 9) “Film directors should jump at any chance to direct a play because it can improve their relationship with actors.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 10) “I will always protect the actor.”

Garry Marshall’s Chicago Detour “Academically, Northwestern opened many new doors for me. It was the first place I learned that words mattered and could lead to a real job.”

Jumping the Shark “People come up and ask me all the time about the phrase jumping the shark and if I find it offensive…”

Happy Days in Hollywood  “Happy Days was for me the quintessential television success story. I had followed my instincts, and they had turned out to be right.”

Wanted: Writers with No Lives “When you hire actors or actresses for a series, you look for people who have well-rounded-lives with supportive friends and family. But when hiring writers…”

The ‘Stuckinna’ Plot “in which the main characters would get ‘stuck in’ something because it helped reduced the number of sets and kept production values down.”

Garry Marshall—Survivor “The truth is that I always wanted a more stable life than my intellectual idols had…. I wanted to come home to a wife, children, and a sane family dinner hour.”

Offensive & Defensive Screenwriting “The biggest lesson a screenwriter can learn is how to master a rewrite of his own script, or someone else’s, and make the change a studio wants without destroying the story.”

Telling the Truth=Humor “[Phil Foster] encouraged us to abandon our sophomoric gag humor and said, ‘Look at people and pick up on their mistakes and inadequacies. Watch human behavior. Telling the truth about people will make them laugh.’”

Tasting & Smelling Comedy Buddy Hackett held up a matchbook and said, ‘What jokes can you write about this?…”

Flaming Rejection “Be prepared at all times for rejection, even after you break in.”

Scott W. Smith

 

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Screenwriter Rick Ramage (Stigmata) has had a career which includes some interesting peaks; he had his first script optioned while he was still a student at AFI, developed projects with Steven Spielberg and Sydney Pollack, had a number one hit movie the week it opened, has sold many spec scripts—and been based in Denver, Colorado for most of his career. Now he’s launching The Screenplay Show to pass on what he’s learned over the years to new and/or unproduced writers. Here’s a Q&A I did with Ramage just two weeks ago that I hope you find helpful in your own journey.

Scott W. Smith: I read you were born in Fargo, North Dakota, what road did you take to get to Hollywood, California?

Rick Ramage: I moved to Denver when I was in fifth grade and my parents split up almost right away. My mom married a guy who owned a tractor dealership. I worked for him my entire adolescents through high school and I went to university for a year, but I was making way too much selling tractors and college didn’t interest me. I thought, “What’s the point? I’m going to go into the family business anyway.” I thought that was going to be my life. But when I quit school I wanted to be read and well-spoken so what I did is promise myself that I’d read 100 of the classic books. I was about 15 novels into that promise when I realized I wasn’t just reading stories but I was following the ways different writers were presenting their tales and working the elements. 

SWS: Did you buy the leather bound The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written you used to see advertised in magazines?

RR:No, I was haunting this place called the Tattered Cover. I was a bookstore stalker. I would just roam up and down the aisles and if I recognized it as a classic, I’d shift my weight in front of it, and then I’d buy three or four books I found. I didn’t expect anything except to get an informal education. All my friends pretty much went away to college. By the time they got back I was already daydreaming about being a writer. 

SWS: My wife is from Denver so I’m familiar with a the Tattered Cover Book Store that once had many more locations in the pre-Internet days than they do now. Which one did you frequent?

RR: The Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek was the one I was going to. It was a department store for books, a really fun place. They had a great atmosphere. And they had a great attitude about book lovers. I would hang out there for hours. 

SWS: That was a cool vibe.

RR: Totally. I would stop by on my lunches, or on the way home. It was a staple for me. It really gave me—and this will sound corny— a longing to be a part of that world. After daydreaming about being a writer I decided, “I’m going to write a book.” And I thought for sure it was going to be the great American classic. And for the next seven or eight months I worked on it at night when I got home. It was more of a novella, and I sent it to someone I trusted. And the story kind of ends with him saying it wasn’t a very good novel and I was crushed. I felt like I’d been hit with a gut punch. But he was kind enough to say, “But you’re a really good writer. You’re really visual, you should consider writing screenplays.” I had never seen a screenplay presented; I’d never read one. So I went to the Tattered Cover and bought Brian’s Song.

SWS: The first movie I ever cried watching. In fact, I think for a lot of men that’s the first movie they ever cried watching.

RR: I know! Let’s not talk about it or I might start crying again. But the formatting appealed to me. And so I turned my bad book into a bad screenplay, but I was hooked. I could see a definite structure into how screenplays were written. It appealed to me. 

SWS. What did you learn from those novels you were reading? And how did it inform your screenwriting?

RR:. I think the thing I began to identify quickly when I picked up a novel was a distinctive voice. An author with a very distinct delivery and style would really pull me in quickly. That really stuck with me and I worked very hard at developing the correct voice for one of stories. By that I mean the tonal quality of it. Great writers have this tonal quality to their writing that’s very distinctive. You can tell Dickens from Flaubert. I think that was very conscious with me. 

I’ll never forget The Scarlet Letter was one of my favorite books because I think it has one of the greatest antagonists ever written. Because Chillingworth didn’t just want to kill Dimmesdale, that was too easy, he wanted to ruin his soul. And I thought, “That’s a bad guy,” you know? Later when I told my agent I wanted to be known as a guy who could adapt books, I think it helped get me a lot of jobs. They knew I wasn’t going down to Blockbuster to get my next idea. 

SWS: When you were reading all those great novels and started writing your first screenplay you would have been in your mid-twenties, were you still working in the tractor business all that time?

RR: You bet. Full time. 

SWS: Well, since my blog is called Screenwriting from Iowa, I have to ask—what kind of tractors did you sell?

RR: I love it. We sold Allis-Chalmers, Owatonna, and Kubota. I was in Denver and my territory was the Front Range. I was selling to a lot of industrial places, rail yards and construction companies. My specialty was Kubotas, and forklifts and backhoes and stuff like that. 

SWS:. Screenwriter Dale Launer (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) told me he sold stereos in LA before he sold a screenplay, and I’ve pointed out before the great job former insurance salesman, Pete Jones, did on selling his screenplay on the first Project Greenlight. Do you think being a salesman helped you to become a screenwriter?

RR: It did teach me to sell. How to conduct myself in a room when there is a buyer in front of you. I never lost sight of that. I never went in and reduced myself to just explaining to a producer what my dream was. I knew I was in there to sell a product called a script. 

SWS. Sales is a transferable skill.

RR: I really think so. I wasn’t Rico Sauvé. My very first pitch I pretty much got thrown out of Hutch Parker‘s office because I forgot the title of the script. I’m not kidding. I went in there with two producers. They said, “You sure you don’t want to pitch it to us?” I’m like, “No, I’m fine, I’ll be good.” I walked into Hutch’s office at Orion at the time. He said, “Hi Rick, how are you?” You could tell he was busy. We sat down and he said “Go.” And it was like someone fired a gun at my temple. There was no preamble. This was no foreplay. He was very cordial, but “go.” And the producers where like “The Masterpiece.” They actually reminded me of the title and I just looked at them and I started to laugh, and I said I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to do this. And Hutch clapped his hands and said thanks for coming in and out the door I went. And I didn’t pitch again for like three years. It rattled my cage. 

SWS: Let’s back up a few steps. There must have been a step between being a tractor salesman in Denver and pitching a project to a Hollywood executive.

RR: I decided, “If I’m really going to do this, I’m going to go to film school.” I didn’t have a degree and here I was applying to AFI, which is a master program. All of my friends who had degrees at this time said I was chasing rainbows—“Don’t waste your registration fee.” I wrote David Shaw at the AFI a letter and said if it’s about a pedigree I get it, I don’t have a degree. But if it’s about the writing, here’s a sample of my work. And I sent him 5-6 pages of a script I was working on. And sure enough I got a letter that I’d been accepted. And I thought, “there you go, I’m going to be a screenwriter.” So I sold my house, I had a little boy at the time, and talked my wife into going out there. We had two cars and I sold one of those. I needed loans and stuff, but we bit the bullet and moved to L.A. Couldn’t afford to live in Hollywood where AFI was located so we lived way out in Rancho Cucamonga. It was about two, two and a half hours a day one-way. We could get a two-bedroom apartment out there for a reasonable price.

This ends Part 1 of my Q&A with Ramage. But just like in a good screenplay the goals, obstacles, and stakes are clear. He desires to be a screenwriter, but he (A) Didn’t go to college, (B) Didn’t start writing until he was in his mid-twenties, (C) Was told his first writing effort wasn’t a very good novella, (D) Lives and works in Colorado, (E) Decides to uproot his wife and child and go to film school in California, and (F) Ends up renting a place that means he will have a significant commute to school.

Who’s betting on that guy? Reminds me of this screenwriting adage:

“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.”
— William Froug

Part 2 of this interview will continue Ramage’s own personal Hero’s Journey and discover how he found success in a competitive field.

Related posts:
Spielberg on Good Drama
Screenwriting Quote #29 (William Blinn writer of Brian’s Song)
Flaming Rejection
Do You Have To Live in L.A. to Make It as a Screenwriter?
What’s it Like Being a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.
Why You Should Move to L.A.
Screenwriter/Salesman Pete Jones 

Scott W. Smith

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Today I’ll round out my recent run of Aaron Sorkin related posts with a little bit of a twist of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The twist being an oh so loose connection I have to Aaron Sorkin that I just discovered.

Over the weekend I flipping through an old notebook gathered from my L.A. days and discovered some notes from an acting workshop I attended given by actor/director Lou Antonio.

What a career 82-year-old Mr. Antonio has had. He was born in Oklahoma City and began studying acting at the University of Oklahoma. He performed in theaters throughout the Midwest before landing in New York City where he became part of the The Actors Studio studying with Lee Strasberg.

He performed in off-Broadway plays and on Broadway before moving to California in the ’60s where be acted in classic TV shows including Gunsmoke, Mission Impossible, Star Trek and The Fugitive. He also racked up an impressive list of directing projects over five decades; everything from The Flying Nun, The Rockford Files, and The Partridge Family in the 60s & 70s to Chicago Hope, Dawson Creek, and Boston Legal in the 90s & 2000s.

He also was cast in Elia Kazan‘s America, America. (Kazan was a co-founder of The Actors Studio and won an Oscar for directing On the Waterfront.)  And Antonio also happened to have a role in the Cool Hand Luke. What a career, right?

So what’s all this have to do with Aaron Sorkin? Well, Antonio also directed a episode of The West Wing which Sorkin created. And since Sorkin wrote A Few Good Men—there’s the quick connection between both Antonio and Kevin Bacon.

The acting workshop I was a part of was at Tracy Roberts Acting Studio back in the 80s. (My acting career peaked somewhere between playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie and doing a Domino’s Pizza commercial.)  Roberts was also a part of The Actors Studio in its early heyday with Clifford Odets and Stella Adler. (She was an encouragement to me in my L.A. years.)

She was sometime credited as Tracey Roberts and when I put that in The Oracle of Kevin Bacon it says that she was in the movie Actor’s & Sin (1952) with Eddie Albert, and that Albert was in The Big Picture which starred Kevin Bacon. (The Big Picture, by the way, was co-written by Gary Kroeger who I got to know when I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Never forget that it is a small, small world.)

Here’s a couple of quotes from my workshop with Antonio:

“Actors get me out of trouble more than they get me into it.”

“If you know where you are going you’re okay. There are lots of ways to get there.”

“Shape the performance you want, don’t try to change the actor. Work with their training, not against it.”

“Kazan once told me to bring 100 ideas and he may use one. It keeps the actor alive and thinking.”

And lastly, one bit of advice I was actually given at Tracy Roberts Acting Studio after I was disappointed with a scene I did, was from a teacher I can’t remember who told me, “Just because you can’t be Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you you can’t play baseball.”

Not every actor or actress is going to Paul Newman or Meryl Streep, not every writer is going to be Aaron Sorkin, or director Steven Spielberg, but there are many actors, writers, and directors who are less than household names who have had solid careers in the entertainment business.

In fact, tomorrow I’ll begin a series of posts on a screenwriter you may not know much about, but he optioned his first script while still in film school, developed a project with Steven Spielberg, had one film debut number one at the box office, and had a seven digit spec sale. And for most of his career he’s been based outside of Hollywood. Come back tomorrow to learn from his career journey.

Update: Found this Gunsmoke clip that features Lou Antonio (who along with Bruce Dern) torture a town drunk. (For what it’s worth, Bruce’s daughter Laura Dern studied acting with Tracy Roberts.)

Related posts:
Jerry Seinfeld (Part 5) Has Gary Kroger/Larry David clip
The Shakespeare of Hollywood Ben Hecht who wrote Actor’s & Sin
Postcard #49 (Yazoo City) 
Kevin Bacon’s connection to a small Mississippi town

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

Scott W. Smith

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 “I put no organization to the writing process. The writing is done on the fly.”
Oscar & Emmy-winner Aaron Sorkin (on writing teleplays for The West Wing)
The West Wing Script Book

page 151

P.S. While Sorkin may have been writing on the fly for The West Wing because he knew the characters and there is the regular TV grind of cranking out work, for his feature film scripts he does have at least one tried and true organizational way to add to his writing process:

“There are index cards everywhere in Aaron Sorkin’s office. Index cards for scenes from films going back to 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War. The writer likes to use those cards, tacked to a large corkboard, to keep track of key elements. Social Network’s pivotal scenes are still up there, with notes that read, ‘Mark and Erica in bar,’ ‘Mark walks back to dormitory’ and ‘Mark begins drinking, blogging, hacking.'”
Inside Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Process by Christy Grosz
The Hollywood Reporter, 1/8/2011

Related posts:
Screenwriting Via Index Cards 

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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“I know when I write a line that I like. When musically it feels right. What the words sound like are as important to me as what they mean….I don’t know [while writing] we’re going to be saying ‘You can’t handle the truth,’ however many years later.”
Aaron Sorkin
Interview with David Brooks

“I’m not writing something that’s meant to be read; I’m writing something that’s meant to be performed. Just having written a screenplay is no more satisfying to me than if a songwriter handed out pieces of sheet music.”
Aaron Sorkin
Inside Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Process
by Christy Groaz, Variety  

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is one of those exceptions to the rule. Movies are a visual medium so there is much emphasis to write visually. (Visual Conflict, Visual Subtext, George Miller Masterclass in Visual Storytelling, Show Don’t Tell.) Which explains these quotes found on the ScreenCraft website.

“A good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue.”
Screenwriter/playwright David Mamet (The Verdict)

“Dialogue is a necessary evil.”
4-time Oscar-winning producer/director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon)

And this one from a Timeout interview:

‘I’m not one of those people who writes long soliloquies… And I just think that visual storytelling, for me, is more interesting. So if I can show something rather than say it, I will. And to have a character who almost says nothing is perfect for me, I love that.’
Oscar-winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List)

But Sorkin wasn’t a hyper movie buff growing up, his parents took him to plays and he developed an ear and appreciation for dialogue. He majored in musical theatre. And so one of the things that set Sorkin apart was his knack for writing sharp dialogue.

P.S. Ironically the two credited screenwriters on Moneyball are Sorkin and Zaillian. A film which happens to have some moments that play out visually and others that play out with dialogue that flows like music. Sorkin & Zaillan—yin & yang.

Related posts:
‘Everyone wants to say cool dialogue.’
‘Storytelling Without Dialogue’
Writing Actor Bait (Tip #64)
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich  “Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”—Peter Bogdanovich
The Four Functions of Dialogue 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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“It’s both surprising and fascinating to learn that people are more creative in the shower than they are at work….The relaxing, solitary and non-judgmental shower environment may afford creative thinking by allowing the mind to wander freely, and causing people to be more open to their inner stream of consciousness and daydreams.”
Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.
Co-author, Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of Creative Mind Psycho

You’ve tried everything, right? Everything to improve your writing. Your creativity.

Well, maybe not EVERYTHING.

“I’ve got plenty of quirks. I go to an office early in the morning. Early in the morning is really good writing time. I take anywhere between six to eight showers a day. I’m not exaggerating. I’m not a germaphobe. It has nothing to do with germs. I’m writing, writing—it’s not going well. Writing, writing—it’s going badly. Take a shower. Put on different clothes and you’ll feel refueled and start again.”
Oscar & Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin
Bloomberg interview with Emily Chang

So while sure concept,  conflict, interesting characters, that Mamet stuff on drama, and an insanely great ending are all important, give that six to eight showers a day a try.

Let me know how it goes.

P.S. If I recall correctly, in one of Julia Cameron’s book (The Artist’s Way or The Right to Write) she mentioned how water (either showers or swimming), walking, and driving all seemed to been means of improving the creative thought process. It not only works for Sorkin, because two time Oscar-winning screenwriter Quentin Tarantino talks about how swimming is part of his creative process (and how instead of spending money on drugs, he has a heated pool at his home). And two time Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was known to actually write screenplays while sitting in a bathtub.

Dalton-Trumbo-Bathtub-1100x1390

P.P.S. “In the shower, with the hot water coming down, you’ve left the real world behind, and very frequently things open up for you. It’s the change of venue, the unblocking the attempt to force the ideas that’s crippling you when you’re trying to write.”
Four time Oscar-winning writer/director Woody Allen
Esquire 

Related post:
Professor Aaron Sorkin
Aaron Sorkin on Good vs. Great
Sorkin on Revealing Character 
‘Bird by Bird’

Scott W. Smith

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Aaron Sorkin is that rare breed of dramatic writers who has had success with Broadway theatre, Hollywood feature films, and broadcast television. But did you know part of his start was in small southern towns?

After he graduated from Syracuse University in 1983 with a degree in musical theater he moved to New York City, but he got work as an actor not off-Broadway, or off-off Broadway, but way the hell off Broadway.

“When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I traveled the South with a touring children’s theater company called The Traveling Playhouse. When I say the South, we weren’t playing in Atlanta, we were playing Jasper, Alabama. We’d do six or seven shows in elementary school gymnasiums at about ten o’clock in the morning, then pile into a station wagon, and a van carrying the costumes and sets. We did The Wizard of OzRip Van Winkle, and Greensleeves. We were paid thirty dollars a performance.”
Aaron Sorkin
Zen and the Art of Screenwriting
Interview with William Froug
Page 31

Sorkin says he had no interest in writing until one day at a “Motel Six or something” somewhere in Georgia when, “I don’t know why, I all of a sudden felt like Sam Shepard. I felt like I ought to be writing something. That’s the first time that thought went into my head, and it just kept nagging at me and I just felt like a writer without ever having written anything.”

His first completed play was Hidden in This Picture, a single-scene one act play involving four characters. A few years later he found breakthrough success.

“His older sister, a naval lawyer, told him about a 1986 incident at the U.S. Marine base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when an informal disciplinary action had gotten out of hand, resulting in the death of a young soldier. Sorkin immediately recognized the possibilities of a courtroom drama based on the event. In November, 1989, his play, ‘A Few Good Men,’ about two naval lawyers defending two Marines accused of murdering a fellow corpsman, began a 14-month run on Broadway.”
Patrick Pacheco
1992 Los Angeles Times article 

That led to Sorkin writing the film version of A Few Good Men (1992) with a star cast that included Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, and Demi Moore. He would go on to win an Oscar award for writing The Social Network, and multiple Emmys for his work on The West Wing.

Now to come full circle, earlier this year NBC announced plans to stage a live version of A Few Good Men in early 2017.

I’m not saying all that wouldn’t have happened if Sorkin career path didn’t take to Jasper, Alabama and who knows where Georgia, but magical things can happen on the road—even in a Motel Six.

Dream big, start small.

P.S. Jasper, Alabama is also where stage and film actress Tallulah Bankhead spent some of her childhood, and where SciFy channels docuseries Town of the Living Dead was shot.

Related posts:
(Because I love writing about a sense of place, here’s some love I’ve written over the years centered around Alabama and Georgia.)

Alabama:
Tuscumbia to Hollywood
Muscle Shoals Music & Movie
Shooting a Feature Film in 4 Days
Postcard #82 (Selma)
Postcard #46 (Huntsville)
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisted’
Bama, Bobby & The U
Screenwriting from Huntsville, AL
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting 

Georgia:
25 Links Related to Blacks & Filmmaking
Postcard #43 (Savannah)
Postcard #35 (Villa Rica)
‘Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus’
Writing Quote #40 (Harry Crews)
Writing from Rural Georgia…to Dreamworks
Screenwriting, Baseball & Underdogs
Truett Cathy–Bird by Bird
Screenwriting Quote #70 (James Dickey)
Writing Quote #39 (Writing in Paris)
Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry
‘Super-Serving Your Niche’

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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