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Archive for October, 2018

John Carpenter had only shot and scored two semi-obscure features when the executive producer Irwin Yablans came to him with a proposal: make a low-budget movie about babysitters being murdered. ‘It was a horrible idea,’ Mr. Carpenter said in a recent telephone interview. “But I wanted to make more movies, so I said, ‘Great!’ . . . My job, plain and simple, was to scare the audience. It didn’t need to be anything more than that. The movie was a thrill ride.”
‘Halloween’ at 40 by Bruce Fretts/NY Times

That little $300,000 film that John Carpenter wrote and directed was released in 1978 and is still being talked about today.

And one of the people talking about it is the Jamie Lee Curtis; “It’s the greatest experience I’ve ever had professionally. It gave me everything in my creative life.” And that includes a chance to star in the latest version of Halloween. 

Scott W. Smith

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“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of American had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game and do it by watching first some high-school or small town teams.”
French-born American historian Jacques Barzun

It was a Muncy mash that ended the longest game in World Series history early this morning.  The drama of the baseball game climaxed when Max Muncy hit a solo home run in the 18th inning to give the Los Angeles Dodgers a 3-2 win over the Boston Red Sox.

Everyone has a story.

Muncy played college ball at Baylor and was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in 2012. He played his first professional game in Iowa with the Burlington Bees. He kicked around a few years with minor league teams in Stockton, Midland, Nashville on his way to making it to the big leagues in Oakland in 2015. But after an unspectacular start, he was released from the team after the 2017 spring training.

He was now 26 and unemployed. He went back to his hometown in Keller, Texas where his dad helped him take batting practice at his old high school. He was hoping to get a call from another team, but he was also thinking it might be time to go back to school and finish his business degree.

Dark night of the soul stuff that makes the reversal so rewarding at the end of the story.

“It’s been a whirlwind of emotions, a whirlwind of talks, not knowing if I was ever going to play baseball again. Was a team going to give me a chance? Was I ever going to make it back to the major leagues?”
Max Muncy
How Max Muncy Rose from  .195-Hitting Castoff to MLB’s Hottest Slugger

Then he got the call. The Dodgers signed him in April of 2017 and he had a solid year playing for their minor league team in Oklahoma City. A year later they called him up to play in Los Angeles and here he is six months later—World Series hero.

It’s a real-life Field of Dreams/The Natural-type story. I was glad I stayed up past until 3:30 am (EST) to watch the drama unfold. First baseball game I’ve watched all year. Might be a decade before I see one as good.

P.S. If you’re into baseball stories and good writing, check out the Dan Barry book Bottom of the 33rd; Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game.  The booked centers around a game between the Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox in the International League that was actually played over three days in 1981.  There were 1,740 in attendance in Pawtucket, Rhode Island when the game started on April 18th and just 19 when the game was postponed in the 32nd inning at 4:07 am (on April 19th). They finished the game on June 23 (the 33rd inning) making the total length of the game 8 hours and 25 minutes.

Related posts:
The Night Baseball Got Born Again
Burns, Baseball, and Character Flaws
George Springer MVP
‘Moneyball’ & Coach Ferrell
Screenwriting, Baseball & Underdogs

Scott W. Smith

 

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A production friend sent me this video this week and how could I not share in on this blog? BTW—My favorite University of Iowa story related to the dramatic arts is UI is where a guy named Tom Williams got his nickname. The story goes that when Tom was a student in Iowa City a guy in his fraternity knew he was from somewhere in the south with a long name and called him Tennessee. The only problem was Tom was actually from Mississippi. But Mississippi Williams doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like Tennessee Williams does.

Postcard #65 (Tennessee Williams)
‘A Quiet Place’ Meets ‘Screenwriting from Iowa’
Diablo Cody Day

Scott W. Smith

 

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‘First Man’ vs. ‘Free Solo’

“Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.”
Mountain climber Alex Honnold

The movies First Man and Free Solo really aren’t competing against each other, but there are similarities between the two. They are stories about accomplishing things that had never been done before.

First Man is about Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to ever walk on the moon, and Free Solo is about Alex Honnold becoming the first person to ever solo climb (meaning without ropes and safety equipment) El Capitan in Yosemite.

Both of the human achievements are magnificent. I think NASA’s engineers helping astronauts landing on the moon signaled a change in the history of what’s possible. It’s one of the top all-time great feats.  But as a film achievement, First Solo is the better film.

Why?

Well, before I suggest why let me preface it by saying that First Man director Damien Chazelle is brilliant. Whiplash earned all of its praise, and I thought La La Land deserved the best picture Oscar.

So what’s wrong with First Man? Why the steep dropoff in the box office after its first week? Well . . . it’s— perhaps the Vanity Fair headline said it most tactfully, “First Man is Technically Dazzling and Dramatically Dull.”

As interesting as Ryan Gosling is to look at, it’s hard to engage his melancholy stare for 2  hours and 18 minutes. They tried to internalize the external experience which I’m not sure is the movie audiences wanted to see.

Gosling as an actor may have captured Neil Armstrong well, it’s just not a character that plays well on screen. Armstrong isn’t what you particularly call an active protagonist. He’s more of a diligent protagonist. He’s an honorable Boy Scout in the purest sense. He’s efficient.  He’s stoic. A solid as a rock kind of guy. He went to the moon and then became a professor.

Perhaps it’s why there hasn’t been a Neil Armstrong-centered movie almost 50 years after his great achievement. Neil Armstrong seemed like the methodical engineer type that you want flying your plane, but not necessarily one you want driving your film.

It’s the same reason that there hasn’t been a great film made on the Wright Brothers. I enjoyed David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers, but Orville and Wilber were good, solid, nose to the grindstone Midwestern men from Ohio with engineering minds who were single focused on being the first to achieve a sustained, manned flight of an airplane.

They are great inspirational figures, but no one has yet to figure out how to make them interesting film characters yet. Ohio born and raised Armstrong was from a small town just an hour north of Dayton, Ohio where the famed Wright Brothers did test flights of their Dayton flyer and appeared cut of the same mold as the Wright Brothers.

Go back and watch The Right Stuff (1983) and see how writer/director Philip Kaufman pulled us into the story with the Chuck Yeager character.  I don’t know how many times I’ve watched that opening sequence with Sam Sheperd (as Yeager) and Barbara Hersey— but that’s electrifying stuff.

Then Kaufman gets rid of Yeager as our protagonist and brings on the first generation of astronauts. A cast of dynamic characters played by Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, and Dennis Quaid that matched the dynamics of the visuals showing the trials and failures of the early stages of the NASA space program.

Perhaps I just couldn’t get past comparing First Man to The Right Stuff (and From the Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13).  Perhaps it’s because The Right Stuff came out in an age before the Internet and moviegoers had a thousand other distractions. Maybe Hurricane Michael hitting Florida days before I saw First Man threw me off.  Perhaps—like The Right StuffFirst Man will age better with time. Or not.

“[T]hroughout the film’s 138 minutes, the message I kept receiving was probably not the one Chazelle intended: Neil Armstrong was just a regular guy.”
Christopher Hooton/ The Independent
“The First Man Problem: What to do when your film’s real-life hero is not that interesting?”

I’m sure First Man will be remembered at Oscar time, and I’ll watch it again after I recalibrate my mindset.

The documentary Free Solo directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin and produced by National Geographic is a classic man vs. mountain story, but they give it a fresh wrapping complete with stunning drone footage as Honnold attempts to do something no one has ever done before.

The goal is clear, the stakes are high. The doc touches on what it means to mountain climb without ropes or safety gear and how there’s no room for mistakes. Several well-known climbers have died over the years.

Honnold has a little bit of Armstrong’s stoic and engineering mindset. But they are able to pull back veneer a little bit and gives us a glimpse of what makes him tick. It’s almost a character study. Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, brings a spark of life and perspective to the story that is often lacking in adventure stories.

Without McCandless, Free Solo would be like one of those surf films where another great surfer catches another great wave. In Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, the author himself a mountain climber, asks the question why he and others risk their lives to climb Mt. Everest.

I think Free Solo stepped into that philosophical, contemplative and transcendent realm naturally and hit emotional notes that I found missing in First Man.

P.S. I know First Man was based on the book by James R. Hanson but I really wished Chazelle had of chosen to give us something we’d never seen before—a film on Dr. Wernher Von Braun. The former member of the Nazi Party who eventually fled Germany and ended up in Huntsville, Alabama. Ten years before President Kennedy made that speech about landing on the moon by the end of the decade of the ’60s, Von Braun had stated that as a goal. Von Braun had been involved in the German Society for Space Travel since the 1920s and earned his doctorate in physics back in 1934. But if not showing the American flag planted on the moon’s surface was controversial in First Man, can you imagine the uproar if a filmmaker showed that one of America’s greatest achievements had roots in Hitler’s evil plan to rule the world?

But that’s the film someone needs to make. And any film that combined Dr. Wernher Von Braun and Alabama football coach Bear Bryant together in the deep south of the ’50s & ’60s could not be boring. As Tennessee Williams once said, “I set out to tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is shocking.”

Someone forward this New York Times article to Steven Spielberg— When the Germans, and Rockets, Came to Town. What makes a story like this so timely is just today NPR did a report on what’s known as “hypersonic weapons” that puts missiles on the edge of space and will change the arms race between the USA, Russia, and China. All rooted back to the work the Germans did with the development of the V-2 rocket during World War II.

Scott W. Smith

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Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light…
Casey at the Bat poem by Ernest Thayer

A little glimpse into the drama of college football, and the humbling power of sports.

A year ago at this time, UCF head coach Scott Frost was past the halfway mark on the way to leading his team to a 13-0 record and a win in the Peach Bowl.  It was quite a reversal from the team he took over—the one that finished the 2015 season 0-12. It was the worst season in the school’s history.

Frost was offered the head coaching job at his alma mater the University of Nebraska.  The hope being that Frost could bring that school back to its former glory when it won national championships—like the one they did when Frost was a quarterback in 1997. That team finished 13-0 and number 1 in the Coaches’ Poll.

So the hope at the beginning of this season was that Frost would work his magic and get Nebraska back on track. That’s still the hope, but it’s going to take a little time. This year the team is 0-6.

To put that into a broader perspective, that is the worst start Nebraska has ever had in their 129-year history. That’s 1890 for those keeping score. Not the kind of record books Nebraska was aiming for at the beginning of the season.

But Frost won as a player, he won big as a coach at UCF, and he’ll win again at Nebraska. It may only be a game or two this year, but you have to start somewhere. He’s got a great freshman QB and in three years he’ll have a team full of his recruits and I expect they’ll be back in the top 20 again.

Sports—and movies—are replete with dramatic reversals. Everyone loves a comeback story.

“If you’re not willing to look at who you are, you’re not willing to fix who you are. . . . We’re going to look back on these days with a little bit of a smile.”
Scott Frost (after his team was 0-5)

10/21/18 Update: That didn’t take long . . . about five hours after I wrote this post, Nebraska beat Minnesota 58-28. They looked so good they might win 3 or 4 games this year. There is joy in Nebraska once again.

Related posts:

Screenwriting from Nebraska
Writing Quote #56 Willia Cather 
Screenwriting Quote #195 (Bob Nelson)
‘Nebraska’ Take 4—The Nebraska Mafia in L.A.)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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Sears

SEARS

Last week I went to a mall that I’ve been going to since I was a teenager and I noticed there was a major change. One of the anchor stores that had been there from the start was blocked off from the interior mall entrance. There was no familiar Sears sign.

On Monday, I heard on NPR that Sears had filed for bankruptcy and was trying to keep some stores open. The news wasn’t a total surprise as I’ve watched many iconic brands fade or disappear in the age of Walmart and Amazon.

Once upon a time, Sears was one of those iconic brands that symbolized American success. Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck started the first version of the company in the late 1800s as a mail ordering catalog company based in Chicago. Especially for rural people who were a long way from stores, and transportation limited, Sears catalogs were a way of life. It was like the Internet 100 years ago where you could order clothes and household items and have them shipped to your house. Heck, at one time you could even order a house.

The first Sears & Roebuck store opened in Evansville, Indiana in 1925. The stores spread throughout Main Street America and then eventually grew into malls when those became the new thing. Sears became the largest retailer in the U.S. with thousands of stores and hundreds of thousands of employees.

Perhaps the symbolic pinnacle of the success for Sears is when the Sears Tower was completed in 1974. At that time, the 110-story building was the tallest in the world. And it was their headquarters. Now, like Kodak, it’s fighting to keep a foothold in the world.

One more not so subtle reminder that one day you can be on top of the world, and the next day the world is on top of you.

SURFING

Surfing is not a sport on the decline. It’s going to be an Olympic sport in 2020. And I don’t think it’s a bold prediction to say someday there’s going to be a champion surfer from Oklahoma, Minnesota, or another unlikely place in the world someday. Right now I’m sure there are some solid young surfers out there in the middle of the U.S. who’ve never even seen an ocean. How?

Wave pools. Like this one.

While artificial wave pools will have their share of critics from purists it’s going to open up surfing opportunities for people who’ve never had the opportunity to surf. That will add to a larger global surf industry as a whole and eventually foster a champion who grew up far from the ocean but was able to hone their skills on wave machines.

Surfer Today lists several places where wave pools have been built or are being built including one in Waco, Texas. Like any new business venture finding the right business plan that makes wave pools financially feasible is the only thing limiting their growth.

But my guess is that within ten years wave pools will be sprinkled throughout the country. Definitely ones in Las Vegas, Dallas, and Atlanta, and probably even an indoor one in Minneapolis eventually.

Actually, Disney’s Typoon Lagoon in Orlando for years has opened their wave pool before and after normal business hours for surfing. To borrow a phrase from the acting world, surfers in the future will get better quicker because they will get more stage time. Less flat or choppy days, more consistent waves.

And all those kids that used to play tackle football and spend hours doing gymnastics—look for their moms taking them to the wave pools. And that’s where the future champions are going to be coming from.

STORYTELLING

“While everyone was busy complaining about slow sales at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, something remarkable happened: The festival saw its first major VR acquisition.”
Kim Voynar, Virtual Reality Finally Sold Big at Sundance

That same day I saw the Sears store shuttered, I noticed Barnes and Noble was doing something with their DVD/CD section. I’m not sure what yet, but it looked less like a reorganization and more like a plan to get rid of the DVD area. Time will tell. But it’s no secret that DVD/Blu-Ray sales are down and not coming back. Barnes and Noble itself is trying not to go the way of Border Books—or Sears.

But storytelling is alive and well. And it’s evolving. Virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, and AI are the new frontiers. The 2018 Sundance Film Festival showcased some experimental media.   Indiewire reported that seven-figure deals were made for virtual reality films at Sundance so there are going to be opportunities there that weren’t even a dream for filmmakers and storytellers of the past.

Here’s a glimpse into the future; Spheres is a short film/high concept CGI project written and directed by Eliza McNitt. It was one of the films that found success at Sundance and “was the first and only virtual reality to screen at the Telluride Film Festival this year.” (Darren Aronofsky is the executive producer.)

“Science is a form of storytelling. Instead of a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, you have a hypothesis, a process, and a conclusion.”
Eliza McNitt

Back in the ’80s when EPCOT first opened in Orlando I remember a ride they had (and may still have) where it simulated being on an airboat in the everglades. I remember clearing feeling like I was zipping through the water at a high speed and looking down at the ground as we were moving at a walking pace. I believe that was my first virtual reality experience. Now virtual reality rides are common at theme parks.

Here’s a deeper look at virtual reality from a Ted Talk by Chris Milk.

Related post:

Spreading the Aloha Spirit
Surfing in a Snowstorm
Postcard #22 (Kelly Slater)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“I will never forget one day [Lucille Ball] sort of walked out of the studio and then came back, and came up to me and said, ‘you’re very good,’ and then walked on. That was the greatest gift I ever received in this business. I don’t think I have another moment that compares with the impact of those words.”
Mary Tyler Moore
Archive of American Television interview in 1997

Since Oct 15 is National I Love Lucy Day, I thought I would round up some Lucille Ball interviews, shows, and tributes for the occasion.

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