Archive for April, 2017

I never took a [screenwriting] course, what I did was read every screenplay I could get my hands on. And I tell people go find the crappy screenplays because they are abundant man. And that was what my inspiration was to a degree. So I wrote 12 screenplays before I gave one to anybody. Literally I was writing a like script a month–editing was not a huge priority at that point, and I just put them on the shelf. And then the 12th one–actually the 13th one I finally felt like I hit it. I felt good enough about it to give it out to people and that was, of course, the one I went out and sold. But I knew I had to get that training.”
Screenwriter Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air, The Longest Yard)
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

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Chris Columbus on Theme

My biggest fear in my life would be to lose my family. So I’ve always been drawn to that theme. I mean, it’s odd. I never really talked or thought about it much, but if you look at the films I’ve done, particularly the films I’m really most happy with, and even the films that weren’t that successful, I think there is a thematic link. Most of them are about someone potentially losing their family.”
Director Chris Columbus (Home Alone)
DGA Magazine January 2003

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Today I’m going to the premiere of the doc This Cold Life at the Florida Film Festival. It will be anything but cold today in Maitland/Orlando, Florida as the mid-90 degree temps are some of the hottest in the United States.

Much of This Cold Life was shot in Longyeabyen, Norway, “the world’s northernmost town.” Darren Mann directed the doc and is someone I did camera work for years ago for TV programs he shot in Minnesota and Iowa. I look forward to seeing him at the premiere and seeing a part of the world I don’t recall ever seeing before.

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Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

When I heard that Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme died yesterday I thought of his films, but I also remember going to hear him speak at AFI’s Director on Directing series in the 80s.

During his talk or interview he mentioned that he went to school at the University of Florida. I was around 24 years old and during the audience Q&A time I asked him about his time in Gainesville so I could try to connect with someone in L.A. with a Florida connection.

I don’t remember my exact question or his entire answer, but one thing he said that night that did stick with me— “Directors direct.”  It was to the age old question of how do you find a path to directing.

And that’s certainly easier today in the digital age then the pure film era in which he was speaking. He made some reference to production assistants (P.A.’s) not becoming directors. And while that may not be the most common path, there are directors who were once P.A.’s on at least one or two productions.

Two names that come to mind are Oscar-winner Quentin Tarantino and recent Oscar-winning Moonlight co-writer/director Barry Jenkins. So I don’t know how common it is, but it happens.  By working long hours for low pay as a P.A. there’s a lot you can pick up about how films and TV programs are shot.

Demme’s own path to the director’s chair was certainly unusual. First he dropped out of the Veterinarian program at UF after one year and began working as a movie critic in Miami. That opportunity lead him to meeting Roger Corman, which eventually led to Demme directing several low-budget features for Corman including his writer/director debut Caged Heat (1971).

At the time of the talk he was an up and coming director who was mostly known for Melvin and Howard and the doc Don’t Stop the Music with the Talking Heads.

By the time The Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991 he’d had 20 solid years of feature writing and directing, TV directing, and documentary work behind him.

One was a lesson Jodie taught me in the first of the three times we met to talk about the possibility of her playing Clarice. Jodie taught me that this is a story of a young woman trying to save the life of another young woman. Maybe it’s a thriller. Maybe it’s a horror movie, but you have to honor that core story. [production designer] Kristi Zea and [cinematographer] Tak Fujimoto and I worked so intensely together, planning what that picture was going to look like. I think we wanted to take as high a road as possible. We wanted to welcome as many moviegoers as we could, and we just didn’t see it as a splatter movie, or a gory movie, or a crazy killer movie. It was a story of this young woman. I was very concerned about turning people off, and of the idea that people would hear, ‘Oh, no, there’s a scene that’s so gross, you shouldn’t go…’ I really wanted to make sure this great story reached as many people as it was capable of. So we were trusting the imagination of viewers to set the path as much as possible.”
Jonathan Demme on making The Silence of the Lambs

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The Drama of Survival

“Sometimes bad things happen…”
Simba in The Lion King

Anyone who thinks nature is peaceful doesn’t spend too much time in nature. It can be brutal. Spend a little time around beaches, lakes, and woods and you’ll see the fight for survival up close. Today I captured a video clip of something I’d never seen in my life—a hawk carrying a squirrel. The iPhone video happens so fast you can’t really tell what’s happening, so I grabbed a few frames to show the drama unfold. (Spoiler: Yes, squirrels were harmed in this video—but I was just a witness to cycle of life in nature.)



Scott W. Smith

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“In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind we’ve gone to far.”
The Buggles/Who Killed the Radio Star

I thought it would be fun to revisit a post I wrote way back on November 15, 2009 called Cocaine Cowboys & the Future of Film. I wrote it the day after I watched my first Netflix movie online.

Before that most DVDs were mailed to you, or you went to a video store. I remember after viewing that film thinking, how long until Blockbuster video stores are out of business? According to Wikipedia, in 2010 Blockbuster had 4,000 videos stores in the U.S. and 2,500 international stores.  That year Blockbuster went through a world of change. They filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy production in September of 2010 with $900 of debt.

After that Blockbusters began closing stores and I think there are a few stores scattered around the world. There still is a Blockbuster website with a link of some kind of deal they have with dish.

But its retail store days of being a regular part of American pop culture are long gone. Like record stores before them, just a reminder of how the times keep changing.

Cocaine Cowboys & the Future of Film
(blog post from 11/15/2009)

Yesterday was an important day personally. I got a glimpse into the future. And, yes, it did involve illegal drugs.

I watched the documentary Cocaine Cowboys on immediate viewing online through Netflix. The movie has been out for few years but I had never seen it before. Having attended the University of Miami in 1981-1982 the topic alone was of great interest to me. It was impossible to live in Dade County in the 80s and not be acutely aware of the drug trade and the murders that followed in its wake.

In 1981 there were 621 murders in Dade County. (A record that still stands there.)  I distinctly remember the news at that time where each murder seemed more bizarre than the next.  One official on the documentary called Miami at that time, “the most dangerous place in the world.”  (In reality, I think Medellin, Colombia, as in the Medellin drug cartel, in the 80s  technically had the highest rate of murder per capita in the world.)

I personally didn’t see any of the crime (I was safely editing my first 8mm film in my Mahoney-Pearson dorm room) though it was hard miss all the Ferraris & Porsches kicking around Cocount Grove.  And it didn’t take much for a film professor to show us A Clockwork Orange and connect it to Miami. Stanley Kubrick’s futuristic look at a chaotic culture full of brutal violence and murder without remorse was a daily realty in Miami.

But as fascinating as that era was it’s not what caused my mini glimpse into the future. It was simply because I could watch the movie immediately online. Legally. While I have watched LOST online before this was the first movie I have ever watched online.

It was an epiphany of sorts. I had a flashback to standing in line to see the movie ET, 15 years of renting VHS tapes (and paying all those Blockbuster late fees & rewind fees), to marveling how Netflix revolutionized things by having DVDs delivered to your home. Supply & demand and distribution channels seem to be changing quicker than ever.

Now I’m a mid-level tech savvy guy and try to somewhat keep up with where things are heading. I edit every day on Final Cut Pro. I Twitter, blog, and use Facebook yet I just learned yesterday that the push this Christmas will be TVs that are interconnected to the web. This will make your TV more like a computer, stereo, photo gallery and movie theater all in one.  There you’ll link to You Tube, Twitter, Facebook and the like.

Just as people are dropping their land phone lines you have to wonder what internet connected TV will do to regular cable TV. If all you do is push a button and watch the movie of your choice, what will it do to DVD sales that have been in decline for a while? There’s talk of streaming videos the same day they open in theaters.

The battle is on. And some would say its getting bloody. On production as well as distribution.

Anne Thompson wrote a post on indieWIRE called Toronto Wrap: Indie Bloodbathwere she said this year’s Toronto Film Festival marked the end of the old independent market.

There were few sales made at the festival leading producer Jonathan Dana to say, “It’s a massacre.”

Thompson explains, “Fox Searchlight, Overture, Summit, Focus Features, Lionsgate, Sony Picture Classics and Miramax all wanted to buy in Toronto. While they may buy later, at fest’s end, they walked away empty handed.”

It’s one thing for independents to raise the money to get a film made and to get it into the key festivals (Telluride, Venice, Tornoto & New York) but what happens to those films if they don’t get a distribution deal?

Thompson explains, “Most of the 145 films on sale at Toronto will wind up streamed, downloaded, and viewed on a small TV or computer or mobile screen.”

At the end of Cocaine Cowboys one of the ex-girlfriends of one of the drug runners asks, “What I want to know is what happened to all that money?” That’s what filmmakers are wondering these days.

Actually, Cocaine Cowboys may be a good template for the small and micro-budget films made outside L.A. It was produced by rakontur in Miami, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006, got picked up by Magnolia Films and had a limited theater release ($150,000 domestic), then a cable run, good DVD sales, and eventually streamed onto my computer last night. Don’t know if anybody made any money along the way but I have read rumors that  HBO television is developing a dramatic series based on the players in the doc.

Hollywood in 2009 is not a more dangerous place than Miami in 1981, it just feels that way. I imagine the film industry is going to follow the path that Miami took after the city was declared DOA. It emerged as a thriving city and a land of new opportunity to those who embraced the change.

Update 4/25/17:  Cocaine Cowboys director Billy Corben (a University of Miami grad) of Rakontur has a new film coming out this year (or next) called Cocaine Cowboys: Los Muchachos.  He also is active and interesting on Twitter @BillyCorban.

And just yesterday, the Orlando Sentinel reported that former Cocaine Cowboy Gustavo Falcon was arrested in Central Florida where he’d been living the last five years under an assumed name. He evaded authorities for over 25 years. He’s now in a Federal Detention Center in Miami and I’m sure Corban and he’s team would love to interview him. But regardless, the new press helps keep Cocaine Cowboys in the news. And as Bill Murray says in Scrooged, “You can’t buy this kind of publicity!”

Related Posts:
Postcard #24 (Coral Gables) Billy Corben also directed The U doc
La La Liberty City
Postcard #25 (Miami Beach)
Miami vs. Florida 

Scott W. Smith

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Original style arises out of personality and the freak accident of the artist’s particular aesthetic experience—the fortuitous combination, during a writer’s childhood of (let us say) Tolstoy, Roy Rogers, and the chimpanzee act at the St. Louis  Zoo. Only after the style has begun to assert itself does the writer’s intellect make sense of it, discover or impose some purpose and develop the style further, this time in full consciousness of what it portends…Out of the artist’s imagination, as out of nature’s inexhaustible well, pours one thing after another. The artist composes, writes, or paints just as he dreams, seizing whatever swims close to the net. This shimmering mess of loves and hates—fishing trips taken long ago with Uncle Ralph, a 1940 green Chevrolet, a war, a vague sense of what makes a novel, a symphony, a photograph—this is the clay the artist must shape into an object worthy of our attention; that is, our tears, our laughter, our thought.”
John Gardner
On Moral Fiction

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The Myth of Total Creative Freedom

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”
Poet and Playwright T.S. Eliot 

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I was eighteen and an aunt gave me a copy of Mixed Company, a book of his (Irwin Shaw) collected stories. I’d never read a word by him, never heard his name. But I remember the lead story in the book was The Girls in Their Summer Dresses. About a guy who looked at women.

Followed by The Eighty Yard Run… Well, The Eighty Yard Run is about a football player. Shit, I remember thinking, you can do that? You can write about stuff I care about?…At eighteen, I began writing stories. Not a whole lot of acclaim. I took a creative writing class at Oberlin.  Everyone took it because it was a gut course. I wanted a career. Everyone got A’s and B’s, I got the only C…. I have, somewhere, hundreds of rejection slips…My confidence is not building through these years. I hope you get that.”
Two-time Oscar Winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men)
The First Time I Got Paid for It, Writers’ Tales from the Hollywood Trenches edited by Peter Lefcourt and Laura J. Shapiro


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Reversal, Reversal, Reversal

“It’s like a good news, bad news joke. The bad news is, you get thrown out of an airplane. The good news is, you’re wearing a parachute. the bad news is, your rip cord breaks. The good news is, you have a back up ‘chute. The bad news is you can’t reach the cord. Back and forth, just like that, until the character reaches the ground. He’s gonna die…no he’s not…Reversal, reversal, reversal.”
Screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3)
As quoted in The Secrets of Action Screenwriting by William C. Martell

P.S. And it’s worth noting, reversals work in any genre. Last night I watched A Separation the Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi (which won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2012) and it’s full of reversals.

Related post:
Pirates, Raiders & Reversals
Sharks, Ghosts & Reversals
Reversals, Roadblocks & Complications

Scott W. Smith

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