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Archive for June, 2018

“Wile E. Coyote is always trying again. When he fails, he tries again. His one goal in life is to catch the Road Runner. Nothing will force him to give up.”
David Mamet
Masterclass

“Stanislavski said something great. He said the most interesting thing in the world is a guy trying to get a knot out of his shoelace. So that’s what you’re watching in Glengarry Glen Ross. Another name for that is an objective.”
David Mamet

Wile E. Coyote wants to catch the Road Runner, and the guy trying to untie the knot out of his shoelace both have a goal met with conflict.

The goal is The Major or Central Dramatic QuestionWill Wile E. Coyote catch the Road Runner? If he does the story is over. If he doesn’t that’s Conflict-Conflict-Conflict. Ole Wile E. he must find another way to achieve his goal. While he keeps coming up with many creative ways to attempt to catch the Road Runner, he’s single focused on his goal.

Another way to think of the goal/conflict is what screenwriter Aaron Sorkin calls intention and obstacle.

“What I need before I can do anything is an intention and obstacle. Somebody wants something. Something’s standing in their way of getting it. They want the money. They want the girl. They want to get to Philadelphia. It doesn’t matter. But they’ve got to really want it bad and whatever is standing in their way has got to be formidable. I need those things, and I need them to be really solid, or else I will slip into my old habit, back when I was 21 with the electric typewriter, of just writing snappy dialogue that doesn’t add up to anything.”
Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men)
Masterclass

Are your protagonists and antagonists in the stories your telling as single focused as Wile E. Coyote?

P.S. The original Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoons were created in 1949 by animator Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese and have entertained who knows how many millions of people with a simple reworking of the old cat and mouse idea. TV guide listed Wile E. Coyote as one of The 60 Nastiest Villains of All Time.

Scott W. Smith

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“Never put two people in a room who agree on anything.”
Lew Hunter

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In this corner, weighing in at‚..okay, I don’t know what any of these guys weigh. But they’re all heavyweights. Giants in contemporary film and/or theater. But the one thing I’ve learned over the years from the 700+ writers and filmmakers I’ve quoted on this blog is they don’t always agree on writing and filmmaking concepts. Theme seems to be one of the major soccer balls kicked around a lot.

I did a major blitz the last few days of some Masterclass videos taking advantage of their free 7-day trial and this was one of my takeaways from four different writers and filmmakers:

“People talk about themes, and I’m very fortunate that I never opened a school book, and I went to this hippy-dippy college where they didn’t have any classes, so I never got much of an education other than washing windows and driving a cab, and all that stuff I was privileged to do. So I never learned about themes. I’m not sure I know what themes are. I know English departments care about themes. So it’s possible to look at my work, as I guess anybody’s work, and infer a theme, but it’s not something which concerns me. I’m interested in telling a story. I mean, to me, it’s—personally, it’s as pointless as talking about the theme of the joke. A joke is to make you laugh. A drama’s there to keep you interested for an hour and a half. I mean nobody ever left a great play humming the theme.”
Screenwriter/playwright David Mamet (The Verdict, Glenngarry Glen Ross)
Masterclass/Story Idea

“There are some great opening scenes that, without you realizing it, lay out the theme for the entire movie. Go to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is always a great lesson in everything. Opening scene, Paul Newman goes into a bank, and he looks around and sees new modern—modern being late 19th century, new, modern security systems. A safe with a heavy iron door and a big lock, a grate coming down over it. Things being closed. And he says to the security guard, what happened to the old bank it was beautiful. The security guard says ‘People kept robbing it.’ And Paul Newman says ‘It’s a small price to pay for beauty’ and walks out. Three lines in that opening scene and it lays out the theme of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which is that their best days are over. This is the end of the wild west.”
Screenwriter/playwright Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
Masterclass/Writing Scenes (Part 2)

“So usually, for me, I have a thematic idea—an inspiration —and then I build everything around that.”
Writer/director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up)
Masterclass/Writing the First Draft

“[Taxi Driver] became a passion project. When something happens like that—and it’s a script you did not write—then it has to have a point of view. It has to have more than a point of view, the theme itself has to be very close to you. In my case, I keep looking at questions of sin, the concept of sin, good and evil, sin and redemption, weakness and strength, from new angles and new perspectives if I can.

And exploring it constantly which is really part of the human condition. ..I don’t think I’ve ever set out to make a film with this moral theme. Maybe I did, but not in those words. And I do think that often those themes are always there. And what I mean by that is that they attract me to the story. Moral choices are certainly there every day of our lives. As we get older I think that, of course, our sense of a moral conflict and choice changes and deepens.”
Writer. Director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino)
Masterclass

P.S. The single film that I’ve seen the most from all of those filmmakers is The Verdict from a screenplay by David Mamet. It seems to me to be a film heavy on a redemption/second chance theme. There’s even the line in the film where the alcoholic lawyer played by Paul Newman says of possibly settling the case against his conscience, “If I take the money I’m lost.” Perhaps that theme was embedded by Barry Reed who wrote the novel. Or maybe it was put there by the film’s director, Sidney Lumet, who did believe in theme.

“The most important decision I have to make: What is this movie about? I’m not talking about plot, although in certain very good melodramas the plot is all they’re about. A good, rousing, scary story can be a hell of a lot of fun. But what is it about emotionally? What is the theme of the movie, the spine, the arc? What does the movie mean to me?
Sidney Lumet
Making Movies

The Verdict came out in 1982 when I was in film school and here we are 35 years later and that film still resonates with me. Not because of a simple story of a down and out lawyer trying to get back on his feet, not because of the great acting or direction, not because it was simply entertaining— but because of the film’s theme.

Related posts:

Writing from Theme 
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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“Drama has rules. We’re given a premise. The hero wants something. To find the cause of the plague on Thebes, or to free the Jews, or to establish civil rights, or to fly the Atlantic. We get it. We are going to follow his or her journey until the end. And the end is going to be surprising—and inevitable. Just like in a great football game.”
Screenwriter/ Playwright David Mamet 
Masterclass/Purpose of Drama

Mamet (like Aaron Sorkin) points to Aristotle’s Poetics for direction and says, “The rules are pretty simple. Start at the beginning. Go on until you get to the end. Don’t stop. Be interesting. Make sure everything is on the line.”

And by “on the line,” Mamet means that if the story is about a character who needs to go from NY to LA that you must stay on that through line or plot line.

Scott W. Smith

 

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There is a tendency to think that art is finally the place where there are no rules, where you have complete freedom. I’m going to sit down at the keyboard and it’s just going to flow out of me onto the paper, and it’s going to be pure art. No. What you’re describing is finger painting. Rules are what makes art beautiful. Rules are what makes sports beautiful…Think about the rules to baseball. Abner Doubleday was a freaking genius. That’s a great game. Football is a great game. It’s the rules that makes sports beautiful, and it’s the rules that make art not finger painting. Think about music and all the rules that music has. Anyone who studied music for a year or two when they were in elementary school, anyone who picked up a flute or a trumpet, knows that at the beginning of every piece of music, there’s a time signature and a key signature. If you’re in 4/4 time, it means there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note gets one beat. There can’t be five beats in a measure. There can’t be three beats in a measure. If you’re in the key of C, it means that there are no sharps and no flats. There can’t be a sharp. There can’t be a flat. These rules also apply to writing. The rulebook is The Poetics by Aristotle. All the rules are there.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
Masterclass/ Rules of Story

Link to Poetics. (S.H. Butcher version on The Project Gutenberg site.)

P.S. Tomorrow I’ll follow this post with David Mamet taking the torch from Sorkin and driving this point home. You can believe what you want to believe about rules, but if Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet agree on something then you might want at least pause before you embrace the “there are no rule” viewpoint.

But Sorkin is also clear that the “The only rules there are are the rules of drama.”

Related posts:

Trying to Understand the Mysterious Process of Writing 
“There are no rules.” (Tip #92)
There are no rules, but…(Tip #93+)
Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule
Rules, Breaking Rules, No Rules
Screenwriting & Structure 

Scott W. Smith

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Here’s the difference between an idea and a premise; An idea is ‘what if I wrote a show about gangsters?’ A premise is really filling that out. It’s ‘what if I wrote a show about modern day gangsters who lived in New jersey, and that gangster went to see a therapist on a weekly basis because they had problems?’ —The Sopranos…You should be able to tell someone your premise in a couple of sentences. And have it be clearly stated so that they can understand it. ‘I want to do a show about competitive surgical interns at which the center is Meridith Grey, a woman who is hiding the fact that her mother has Alzheimers.’ (Grey’s Anatomy). You really want to be concise so that when you’re telling your story you know what you’re talking about. If you don’t know what you’re talking about no one else will either. “
Writer/Producer/Creator Shonda Rhimes 
(Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal)
Masterclass

 Related post: TV vs. Film (10 Differences)

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Is there a thematic narrative question that’s being asked? And is it answered? Because without that it’s not very fulfilling storytelling.”
Director Ron Howard
(On one of the questions he asks when considering a screenplay.)

The screenplay for the 1984 film Splash received an Acadamy Award nomination (Bruce Jay Friedman, Lowell Ganz, Brian Grazer, Babaloo Mandel).  Splash director Ron Howard, fresh off directing Solo: A Star Wars Story, explains an angle he brought to the fish out of water story that he directed early in his career.

Splash is an example of basically a 30s romantic comedy. It makes all the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, all the obstacles—they’re right out of the screwball comedies. Which I always adored. Even in the 80s when we made Splash it was already too tired to do it in a literal way, yet adding the fantasy element of her being a mermaid it made all of that okay. So sort of the traditional idea, the sort of quaint idea, was suddenly fresh, visual, funnier, and more interesting. Along the way, I also came up with this other theme that love is not perfect. I actually got the John Candy character to say that line. And it became really important to me. It was the idea that you’re going to have that initial rush of romance and excitement and then may discover there’s some complications, there’s some problems—yet what are you going to do with that love? Is that going to be the thing that chases you away or are you going to accept it?”
Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind)
Masterclass

It’s hard to hear John Candy say, “Nobody said love’s perfect” and miss the echo of the line “Well, nobody’s perfect” from the end of the 1959 movie Some Like It Hot. And to show what’s old is new again, check out the video below to show the connection between Splash and the 2018 Best Picture Oscar-winner The Shape of Water. 

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of literal fish out of water stories. A couple of years ago there was a reboot of Splash in development with Channing Tatum and Jillian Bell attached with this twist—Tatum as the mermaid.

Related posts:

Writing from Theme 
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme

 

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me. ”
Fred Rogers

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If you time it right next Tuesday you can catch the unusual double feature of Mr. Rogers  (Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Full Metal Jacket at the Enzian Theater in Maitland, Florida.  Catch the documentary on Fred Rogers at 6:30, grab a food and a drink at Eden Bar, and then catch the Stanley Kubrick war classic at 9:30. (Therapy afterward optional.)

How many times will you get to do that in your life?

I had the opportunity to cross paths with Fred Rogers twice in my life. The first time was in 1997 when my wife was playing a piano duet in the music building at Rollins College.  As my wife and I were talking after the recital Mr. Rogers came up and said to my wide in his super nice and friendly manner, “I really enjoyed your music.”

Mr. Rogers also played the piano and went to Rollins College where he met his musician wife. She later received a book from him with a nice note.

FredBookCover_7508FredSign_7506

 

My second Mr. Rogers encounter was when I was taking photos at the Rollins Chapel carrying equipment and he opened the door for me. It was like having Forrest Gump open the door for you. (Speaking of…Tom Hanks will be playing Mr. Rogers in the movie You Are My Friend coming out next year from a script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and  Noah Harpster. )

Fred Rogers received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998 and may have taken one of the more unusual routes to Hollywood Blvd. He born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania (where golfing legend Arnold Palmer was also born) and after Rollins attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and became an ordained Presbyterian minister before launching his TV class show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. 

Here’s a little Mr. Rogers inspiration for you today.

FredStrength_7507

P.S. In the early 60s (1961/1962) author and theologian R.C. Sproul was starting his training at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary just as Fred Rogers was finishing his education there. In 1971 Sproul started the Ligonier Valley Study Center in Stahlstown, PA. (Stahstown, Ligonier, and Latrobe are all neighboring towns within a ten-mile radius of each other.)

Sproul later moved to Orlando and in the 90s when I was just a few years out of film school and looking for “Hollywood East” I produced many videos and a radio program with Sproul and he told me he’d gone to seminary with Fred Rogers.

Proving once again that it’s a small, small world with many surprising twists and turns.

P.P.S.

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Won’t you be my neighbor? (“Full Metal Jacket” version.)

Related post:
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Hollywood East (written after R.C. Sproul died last year)

Scott W. Smith

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