Archive for December, 2016

Writer Richard Adams (1920-2016)

“His writing career happened almost by chance. [Richard] Adams had children late in life and liked to entertain them with stories. In 1966, driving from London to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, he began telling them about two rabbits named Fiver and Hazel who traveled to the real-life Watership Down, five miles from his childhood home.

“Two weeks later, when he had finished his improvised tale, his daughters urged him to write it down. He completed the book over the next two years.”
Harrison Smith
Washington Post

Adams, who died the day before Christmas this year, began writing Watership Down when he was 46 year old. It took him two years to write, and after initial rejection it was finally published years after he completed it,  before going on to sell 50 million copies.

It was made into the movie Watership Down in 1978.

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m telling an old myth in a new way. That’s how you pass down the meat and potatoes of your society to the next generation.”
George Lucas on creating Star Wars

Related Posts:
Star Wars & The Four Functions of Mythology
Screenwriting Structure, Snake Oil, & Star Wars
Before Star Wars (Screenwriter Kasdan)
Jim Mercurio on Theme/Star Wars
Star Wars—The Logline

Scott W. Smith


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Scorsese’s ‘Silence’

“Speaking personally, Martin Scorsese is one of my absolute favorite directors, and I will watch anything he makes. Where he leads, I will follow. His new ‘Silence,’ is ready-made for this time of year, a tale of religious faith and deep spiritual questioning.”
Mark Olsen, LA Times
December 25, 2016

“With the religious historical drama Silence, Martin Scorsese proves he’s as masterful a filmmaker with men of God as he is with gangsters.”
Brian Truitt , USA TODAY
December 19, 2016

You may not even have heard of Scorsese’s latest movie Silence since it does not get a wide release until next month. But the movie which began a limited release three days ago is already listed on AFI’s Movie of the Year list of the top ten films of 2016.  And the screenplay written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks won Best Adapted Screenplay by the National Board of Review, USA.

This is the movie that Scorsese waited 26 years to make.

“I knew he had a this script and was terribly disappointed that he couldn’t get it made. And I thought, ‘What a sad state Hollywood is in when Matin Scorsese, with all his success, with all the honors he’s gotten, can’t get a movie made.’”
Producer Irwin Winkler (Raging Bull, Goodfellas)
As quoted by Paul Elie in his The New York Times Magazine article
The Passion of Matin Scorsese

But even if Scorsese has mixed faith and films since his youth, and had financial and critical success as a filmmaker, the story of Silence is of a 17th century Jesuit priest sent to Japan to minister to persecuted Catholics. It doesn’t exactly have box office gold written all over it. Oscar nominations, yes.

From interviews with Scorsese you sense he wanted to not only capture on film Shûsaku Endô’s novel, but he stayed committed to the project over the years because it was sort of a spiritual pilgrimage.  

“I believe in the tenets of Catholicism. I’m not a doctor of the church. I’m not a theologian who could argue the Trinity. I’m certainly not interested in the politics of the institution. But the idea of the Resurrection, the idea of the Incarnation, the powerful message of compassion and love — that’s the key. The sacraments, if you are allowed to take them, to experience them, help you stay close to God.”
Oscar winning director Martin Scorsese

Related Posts:
Raging Bull vs. Martin Scorsese
‘Study the old masters’—Martin Scorsese
The Director as Smuggler
Filmmaking Quote #30 (Martin Scorsese)
Writer/Director Paul Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver)

Scott W. Smith

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Tender Mercies in La La Land

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

I met my wife in an elevator in Burbank. (A line that’s more humorous if you’re aware of how Johnny Carson said the line “beautiful downtown Burbank” when he was the king of late night TV.)

My wife to be was obviously moving into the large apartment complex where I lived but turned down my request to help. But later she did say she could use assistance getting a TV up to her apartment. I’ve often thought if it wasn’t for that TV my whole life would be different. In some ways the movie La La Land is an echo of our story. I was a photographer/film school student from Florida and she was a model/actress/pianist from Colorado. Our studio apartments just happened to be in the same building on the same floor. A different version of that is played out everyday in Los Angeles.

To make a long story short—my wife and I have been married 31 years. If you knew us then you probably wouldn’t have bet on that relationship lasting a year. This is my Christmas story.

My favorite Christmas movie isn’t a Christmas movie— but it’s one I watch every year or two, usually around Christmas time. In fact, I watched it in the pre-dawn hours this Christmas morning. Tender Mercies just hits me in the heart.  It always has. I saw it three times in the theaters when it first came out in 1983. I was in film school at the time and I couldn’t tell you then why that film resonated so much with me. And I’m not sure I can now.

I’m very comfortable with the mysteries of the heart. I do know that in a world of cookie cutter Hollywood filmmaking Tender Mercies shines today just as it did over 30 years ago. Robert Duvall won his sole Academy Award for his role and Horton Foote won an Oscar for his screenplay. (Tender Mercies also earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Song, and for Bruce Beresford’s directing.)

The acting (Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin, Allan Hubbard, and, of course, Duvall), the cinematography of Oscar-winner Russell Boyd, the art direction of Jeannine Oppewall, the editing of William M. Anderson—and probably 100+ other talented people— created a feast of authentic filmmaking. It’s also a study in minimalism. 

How this movie is not on the AFI top 100 list is beyond me. It’s easily one of my top ten all-time favorite movies, right up there with On the Waterfront.  But beyond the performance praise there is a redemptive theme that runs through the story.

So Tender Mercies came into my life in 1983, my wife in 1984 in that elevator in Burbank, and then in 1985 I had another encounter, also in Burbank. After two years and through many relational ups and downs with my future wife we walked into Emmauel Church where Steve Goold was the pastor.

This is where the story takes a major twist. You could subtitle this A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Hollywood. It wasn’t as dramatic as Moses and the burning bush, Jacob wrestling with the angel, or Paul on the road to Tarsus, but it was life changing.

Like Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies I had a transformation. Culturally I was raised in the Christian tradition, loved Christmas like most kids, but you wouldn’t have looked at my life and seen a spiritual heartbeat. What you would find was a life that to say it politely was messy. (Just like that Duvall character in Tender Mercies.)

Pastor Steve (as we called him) was the key person in my life to change that. He was around 40 years old at the time and had Hollywood good looks, but much more importantly he was full of wisdom and grace. No man has had a greater impact for good on my life.

And while I moved from California two years after I met him, our paths crossed with his wife Pam for dinners and conversations in Florida, Iowa, and Minneapolis. And over the years we also talked on the phone and traded emails. Pastor Steve weighed in on some of the biggest decisions of my life and gave me direction.

“The goal of our instructions is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
The Apostle Paul

Sometimes people come into your life sometimes only for a short season, but leave a lasting ripple effect. Pastor Steve was that person for my wife and I. When I heard that he died in September I felt a mixture of grief and gratitude.

I will always be thankful that Pastor Steve showed us tender mercies. And if you encounter one person like that in your life consider yourself fortunate. And on this Christmas day, I do not say this lightly, but Pastor Steve exemplified what it meant to be the hands and feet of Christ as he ministered to lost and broken people.

Merry Christmas.

P.S. Let me add that over the years I’ve visited a wide variety of churches including Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Brethren, Spanish Pentecostal, Congregational, African-American, Lutheran, charismatic, Evangelical Free, community/non-denominational, conservative, liberal, and the one thing I can say is you won’t find uniformity in Christian doctrine, but you will find unity. NAnd that unity centers on why people around the world still celebrate Christmas day—about finding “a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

Two days ago the New York Times published an Op-Ed piece titled Am I a Christian Timothy Keller? Keller (@timkellernyc) is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhatten (“A church where skeptics are welcomed.”) As a video producer I’ve had the good fortune to work with Keller a couple of times. If your life is messy and you’re looking for some tender mercies I’d recommend checking out his books (Hidden Christmas) and/or podcasts. 

Related posts:
Horton Foote (1916-2009)
Screenwriting Quote #56 (Horton Foote)
Postcard #6 (Waxachacie, TX) Area where Tender Mercies was shot)
New Hope “Hope is a dangerous thing.”—Red in The Shawshank Redemption

Scott W. Smith

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John wanted to be a screenwriter. He was born to public school teachers in Longview, Texas and raised in Texas City, Texas. Eventually he earned an English degree from Baylor in Waco. Then after graduating from law school he became a lawyer in Houston.

What are the odds of John making it as a Hollywood screenwriter?

[Dramatic pause]

The odds are against him, right? Well, if you’ve seen The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks, The Rookie, or A Perfect World then you’ve seen movies where John from Texas (John Lee Hancock) is credited as writer and/or director.

In an interview with Craig Mazin on Scriptnotes, Episode 27 John unpacked how he made the initial transition from a lawyer/actor in Houston to Hollywood writer/director:

“I really fell in love with movies. Not when I was a kid, but when I was in college and I would go to movies a lot. And so I started thinking hard about kind of movie stories, and how they looked on the page, and — this was back in the days before you could walk into a bookstore and get, like, 17,000 books on how to write a screenplay.They didn’t exist. I mean, and you were lucky, you could — there was no online at that time.”

Hancock just turned 60-years-old so I’m guessing this was the late 70s or early 80s. Not only before the internet, but possibly even before Syd Fields’ book Screenwriting: The Foundations of Screenwriting was originally published in 1979.

So he found a place in the San Fernando Valley (probably Burbank) where he could order a few scripts. After learning the format of a screenplay he wrote his first script on the side while practicing law.

But even before tackling a feature script Hancock was studying acting with a teacher who had been a working actor in Los Angeles. It was there where he first started writing monologues and short scenes. Writing that provided “instant gratification.” (A similar experience that Tarantino had in acting classes. Read the post ‘The way I write’—Tarantino)

Hancock said that first feature script (“a story about a guy in his 20s in Houston, Texas who’s angst-ridden and doesn’t know what to do with his life”) was awful. But that “awful” script changed his life.

He sent it to the newly formed Sundance Institute that was doing a workshop in Austin with John Sayles and Bill Wittliff and others and Hancock thought that would be a great opportunity because he’d “never even met anybody who writes screenplays.” (To keep this in perspective he was probably in his mid-twenties at this time.)

“And I signed up, and it also had a thing that said you could — they were going to select, I think, eight screenwriters to go through an intensive four-day worship with Frank Daniel (who had been the head of Columbia Film School and USC).”

I don’t recall if Hancock says on that interview how he started to get traction and work in L.A. (or when he moved there), but that initial thrust began like many others—a desire to write, then writing a screenplay and sending it to some people, and that writing getting him some recognition and eventually leading to his becoming a working Hollywood screenwriting.

Hancock’s experiece in Houston is an echo of what Diablo Cody did in Minneapolis a decade ago and served as the inspiration for starting this blog. (Read the post Juno Has Another Baby). He may not happen everyday, but it happens.

P.S. Keep in mind that Hancock made that transition began over 30 years ago. If he were a lawyer in Houston today he might connect with some filmmakers in Austin, write something that gets on The Black List, or perhaps fund his own low-budget filmmaking. He would find a different path because times and opportunites change.

Related post:
The 99% Focus Rule (via screenwriter Michael Arndt)
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Starting Small
Screenwriting from Texas

Scott W. Smith


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Writing Quote #63 (Anne Rice)

“I write about outsiders seeking redemption in one form or another and always will.”
Novelist Anne Rice  (The Vampire Chronicles)
2016 Billboard interview with Alice Cooper

Related posts:
Hope & Redemption
Storytelling Soul Game
Fear, Pity, Catharsis (Tip #69)
Broken Wings & Silver Lining
‘The Verdict’ Revisited

Scott W. Smith

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Looking for an Excuse?

“If you’re looking for an excuse, you’ll find one.”
Actor/Director Denzel Washington 
60 Minutes interview December 18, 2016

I’m not sure where this quote originated, but hearing it from Denzel Washington was the first time I’ve heard it. While you can apply that thought to many areas of life, he said it in reference to diversity in Hollywood. Washington, a two-time Oscar winner, answer to #OscarSoWhite was not to protest or quit the business, but to make a film that comes out this month based on the play/screenplay Fences by August Wilson.

Me thinks Denzel won’t be absent at the 2017 Oscars.

Related posts:
25 Links Related to Blacks & Filmmaking
18 Hours X Six Days=Denzel Washington
Rocky Mountain Oscars
Writing ‘Flight’
Writing Quite #23 (August Wilson)
August Wilson’s St. Paul Roots

Scott W. Smith


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Producer Perspective

“Most producers go years in between producing movies; in fact, most of our time is spent not making movies.”
Producer Rick Schwartz (The Departed, Black Swan)

This is a fitting echo post to my last post where writer John Grisham said, “It’s very, very difficult to get a movie made.” This one from the perspective of a Hollywood producer on the difficulties of getting a movie made. Rick Schwartz says that his process is to read “hundreds of scripts, articles and books, watch countless films for remake possibilities, listen to tons of ideas – and most of them are crap. It’s like a beauty pageant where everyone has either a unibrow or two noses.” But this is what happens when he finally finds the one that he’s willing to dedicate the time, money and efforts to get produced:

“Nobody in town would finance the movie, because they claimed it had literally no appeal overseas. My weak protests – wouldn’t people go if it were actually a good movie? – were met with laughter. What does a “good movie” have to do with anything?…It’s now been 6 years since I last produced a movie, and the [script I purchased] sits prominently on my desk, taunting me daily. Help me, it pleads, get me to the screen where I belong. Then there are the other voices: Heed the signs, people tell me, this one just wasn’t meant to be. And still I carry on, for some unknown reason. Passion? Stubbornness? Desire? Stupidity? Who knows – it’s probably a combination of all of the above, but mainly the latter. For these are the tools of my trade. I’m a producer.”
Rick Schwartz
What It’s Like To Be A: Producer 


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Novelist John Grisham (The Firm, The Pelican Brief ) had a great ten year starting in 1993 where films made based on his writings attracted some of the finest talent in Hollywood: Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Matt Damon,  Sandra BullockMatthew McConaughey, Susan Sarandon,  Joel Schumacher, Samuel L. Jackson , Gene Hackman, Claire Danes, Francis Ford Coppola, Sydney Pollack. But here’s how he explains why you haven’t seen his name on a big Hollywood film in the last decade or so.

“I think it’s been 10 or 12 years since the last movie. It is very, very difficult to get a movie made today. I don’t know — well, why. Okay, first of all, Hollywood does not make too many smart, adult dramas. That’s just not what they do these days. They’d rather spend $200 million making a, you know, cartoon for the Chinese audience than spend $50 million making a good, smart, adult drama based on a good book. It doesn’t happen. And looking back, we talked about the movies a while ago. Those first four or five movies that came out 20 years ago, they all had — “A Time to Kill,” “Rainmaker,” “Runaway Jury,” they all had big casts, they all had big box office draws. Everybody made money, okay. And the movie were made fairly quickly after the book came out. The book was fresh, the paperback was fresh, the adaptation worked, the movie came out, and it was so easy. And why that model doesn’t work today I really don’t know. The studio model is fairly broken, I think. They want to make the big adventure flicks, the cartoons, “Spiderman” for 15-year-old boys. That’s what they make, and it’s just — it’s very difficult to get one of these movies adapted.”
John Grisham
Interview on The Diane Rehm Show

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