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Archive for January, 2019

“In all this darkness, is there anybody who can make out the truth?”
The Twilight Zone/ episode I Am the Night —Color Me Black (1964)  

Writer/director Sean Baker spoke at Rollins College yesterday and asked the question, “Can cinema change the world?” He talked about the filmmakers and their films that have inspired him over the years.

As with his own films (The Florida Project, Tangerine), Baker is drawn to films that are “passports to the underrepresented,” and ones that shine a light on a specific subject or problem, and have potential to have a positive impact on society.

Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake)

Nicholas Meyer (The American TV movie The Day After Tomorrow, with and a nod to the BBC TV movie Threads—both movies sparked a debate about the fallout of a nuclear holocaust.)

Robert Kenner (Food, Inc)

Those films—as well as An Inconvenient Truth, JFK, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel— give you some insights on why he would be interested in doing a film about the hidden homeless or about an illegal Chinese immigrant.

Starting with an issue or a theme can be a dubious beginning as it can be seen as didactic and stepping into the murky waters of propaganda. Baker acknowledged that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he is committed to asking the hard questions.  He’s working toward change knowing that change takes time. Sometimes years or even a generation.

As a side note, Rod Serling began with a theme on The Twilight Zone episodes yet eventually found a universal audience with timeless truths.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a storyline or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt

Read Serling’s 1968 Moorpark College speech and you’ll see where he stood ideologically. But in the early ’60s he couldn’t overtly write about racism and other social concerns, so he used metaphors.  He could address xenophobia by writing about space aliens, as he did on The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.  

“[Rod Serling’s] optimism about the human condition led to stories that made one feel good about the race and its chances for emotional triumph. That, well told, will always sell.”
Producer Buck Houghton (The Twilight Zone)
What a Producer Does 

I wrote many positive posts on this blog about The Florida Project, but one thing it wasn’t was a film that gave us hope for an emotional triumph. I think that is why it had a limited audience. Audiences like to see a character change for the better, even if it’s just one tiny step forward. Halley (Bria Vinaite’s character) took (at least) two giant steps backward and devolved (taking her daughter with her) making it difficult for some to even finish watching the film.

Baker’s a bold filmmaker. It takes him three years to make a film so he made the film he wanted to make.  And maybe the change—the emotional triumph that he wanted to see was not one that happened on the screen, but one that happened to those that watched the film. Personally, no film resonated and haunted me more in 2017 than The Florida Project. 

Baker said last night that “the true success of The Florida Project” was that Rollins College has promised a full four-year scholarship to Christopher Rivera, the child actor who plays Scooty in the film. Rivera was living in a hotel in Kissimmee, Florida when he was cast to be in the film alongside Brooklynn Prince. (According to the Orlando Sentinel, with room and board at Rollins that offer is “roughly $250,000 at current prices.”)

As Baker pointed out, change can be on a micro level. One life changed because The Florida Project co-writer Chris Bergoch learned via news outlets about the hidden homeless living in hotels in the shadow of Disney World.

P.S. I know one of the conventions of indie filmmakers is unconventionality. Offbeat (even unlikeable) main characters, mini or non-plot stories, and downbeat endings. But if you want to nudge the world a little—to borrow Tom Stoppard’s phrase once again—please revisit On the Waterfront. It’s Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. (Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg, Eva Marie Saint, Leonard Berstein) And it’s based on articles by Malcolm Johnson (see the book On the Waterfront) based on corruption that was common on the New York Harbor.

It’s a film that’s very specific to New York City/Hoboken, New Jersey in the ’40s & ’50s, and yet a timeless story that’s played out in one form or another throughout the world, throughout history.  Considered a great American film—by some—and an anti-American film by others. Nothing like a controversy to keep the conversation going. It’s number eight on AFI’s 100 Films…100 Years list, and one of my favorites that I return to again and again.

On the Waterfront won eight Acadamy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Here’s the screenplay. The film is available on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection.

Not all writers agree on the role they have in plying their trade. Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet writes in On Film Directing, “People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people’s lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn’t work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn’t. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.”

On the other hand, when Charles Dickens wanted to address child labor laws and other poor social conditions in London, he didn’t write a pamphlet encouraging reforms—he wrote Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and A Christmas Carol.

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
Bruce Springsteen/My Hometown

Musician Bruce Springsteen walks that line of entertaining large crowds, yet at the same time writing and recording songs with a social consciousness. Youngstown is one of my favorite Springsteen songs because it connects me to a grandfather I never met who spent over 30 years working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mill.

I’ll write more about Springsteen and his Broadway special later, but one of the reasons his songs are both gritty and hopeful is he mixes blues with gospel music over and over again in his songs.

“If you look at all my songs – ‘Badlands,’ ‘Promised Land’ – it’s the way I sing ‘Badlands;’ it’s the verse of ‘Promised Land;’ it’s the chorus of ‘Born in the USA.’ The spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I got from gospel music in the church, and then the blues and what the song is — the details of what the song is moving to transcend are almost always contained in the verses.”
Bruce Springsteen
NPR interview with Terry Gross

Related posts:

The Florida Project Revisited 

The Florida Project

The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of The Florid Project

Sean Baker Aiming for Someplace Different…and Striking Gold

The Rusty Gears of Three Acts and Blurring the Lines of Traditional Screenplay Structure with The Florida Project

The Florida Project and Shining a Light

The Eye Candy of The Florida Project

Thanksgiving with The Florida Project and Pieces of April

The Florida Project—Margaritaville or Bust

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“I wanted to explore what it means to be African.”
Writer/director Ryan Coogler (Black Panther)
Rolling Stone

ritz1404

Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of this blog and I’m committing to blogging for another year —and posting daily. Because I’ve been on the tail end of finishing the book version of this blog it’s made posting in the last two months difficult. More on the book and coming days.

Since Black Panther, The Green Book, and BlacKkKlansman received best picture Academy Award nominations yesterday it seems fitting to mention the woman I dedicated my book to—Annye Refoe.

Monday was Martin Luther King Day and I happened to eat dinner in Sanford, Florida that evening. After dinner, I walked by the Ritz Theatre in downtown Sanford and it reminded me of a day I spent driving around Sanford with Annye last year.

Annye grew up in Sanford where as a child and teenager in the ’50s and ’60s she went to the Ritz Theatre every Saturday and saw films like The Ten Commandments, Pyscho, “and all the Elvis movies.” A routine American experience, except after buying her tickets she walked up the stairs on the side of the building and watched the movies in the balcony where black people were allowed to sit. (Not the stairs in this photo, but stairs on the inside accessed via what is now the stage entrance.)

When The Great White Hope starring James Earl Jones came out in 1970 Annye was in college and no longer had to watch the movie in the balcony. Segregation was coming to a close. (Keep in mind we’re talking less than 50 years ago.)

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James Earl Jones in the pre-Darth Vader days

Annye drove me around for three hours last year and I recorded her audio for a future project on Sanford. She showed me where Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson stayed during Spring Training, and where Zora Neale Hurston once went to a party. We drove by the area where her father was a principal at a black school and talked about her attending Seminole High School in the early days of integration. And we talked about Trayvon Martin who was shot and killed in Sanford.

It was a mesmerizing three-hour cultural conversation that I’ve yet to unpack.  Sanford, Florida is many places all rolled into one. It’s a little Old South with brick streets and Victorian homes and a little of the microbrewery scene complete with hipsters. It’s a city in transition.

Its downtown is about a 30-minute drive east of downtown Orlando and sits on beautiful Lake Monore. Across the lake, which is part of the St. Johns River,  is where Winslow Homer used to fish and paint in the winter.

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The White Rowboat, St. Johns River/ Winslow Homer

Sanford is one of those places that has many faces depending on which angle of the prism you are looking. There are rundown shacks with bars on the windows and not far away will be a gated community with million dollar homes.

Annye has many fond memories of growing up there and how it shaped her to be the person she is and the teacher she was before retiring. She began teaching at Lake Howell High School in 1974 and I walked into her creative writing class just a few years later.

She showed a class full of white students A Raisin in the Sun and opened my eyes to a world of possibilities. And it set me on the path of being a content creator. And when I worked on productions in Cape Town, South Africa, or Compton, Californa, or near Cabrini-Green in Chicago I especially remembered sitting in Annye’s classes and gaining a new perspective on various battles people face around the world. And the power of stories to nudge the world a little. (To borrow Tom Stoppard’s phrase.)

Here’s a short excerpt from my conversation with Annye when I asked here about going to the movies at the Ritz and watching Black Panther.

“The expectation was you knew you weren’t going to see any black people [when you watched movies], and if you were you going to see any black people they were going to be cooking the food, serving the food, shining shoes—that’s just the way it was.  I didn’t expect to see myself. . . . I’m not a comic fan, but I knew I had to go see [Black Panther]. And I didn’t go with a lot of expectations because I had not heard that it was a good movie. But when I went I was very, very, very pleasantly surprised. The idea that young black kids can now see themselves not only as thugs, or rappers, or athletes but this man is a king. And he’s in charge. And he’s articulate and smart and respectful of women and all of those things. And young black girls can see themselves as those guards—I mean those women were off the chain! It’s like night and day.”
Annye Refoe, Ph.D.

Screen Shot 2019-01-23 at 9.49.09 AM.png

P.S. Looking forward to hearing filmmaker Sean Baker (The Florida Project) speak at Rollins College tonight.

Related link:

The First Black Feature Filmmaker
25 Links Related to Black Filmmakers
Martin Luther King Jr. and Screenwriting 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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Statistically, in my own case, I suppose half of the screenplays I’ve written have actually seen production. And I am being dead honest when I tell you this: I have absolutely no more idea as to why some of them happened than why some of them didn’t. Of course it’s more than possible that my work wasn’t much good. But remember, executives are not necessarily in pursuit of quality.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade

Screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, Get Shorty), in an interview with Brian Koppelman, said there was a five year period between 2007 and 2012 where “one script after another” that he spent up to a year and a half on that didn’t get made.  A process he found “agonizing” and said of those experiences, “It makes me feel that I’ve just wasted a year and a half of my life.” But part of the process that led Frank to get Oscar and Emmy nominations in 2018 for his work on Logan and Godless. 

Scott W. Smith

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As a writer I believe that all the basic human truths are known. And what we try to do as best we can is come at those truths from our own unique angle, to reilluminate those truths in a hopefully different way.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade

 

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Screenwriting & Carpentry

Writing a screenplay is in many ways similar to executing a piece of carpentry. If you take some wood and nails and glue and make a bookcase, only it topples over when you try to stand it upright, you may have created something, but it won’t work as a bookcase.”
Screenwriter William Goldman (Misery, The Princess Bride)
Adventures in the Screen Trade

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“[William Goldman]was the dean of American screenwriters and still is.”
Aaron Sorkin (after learning of Goldman dying in November)
LA Times

Where were you in 1983? Some of you weren’t even born yet. But that’s when William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade came out. I was in film school in 1983 and had never lived in a house or apartment that had cable TV, had never used a personal computer, was still a year away from owning a VCR to rent VHS movies, and more than a decade away from using the Internet for the first time.

Yes, 1983 was a different world. Movies for a large number of people were still the chief form of entertainment. Like many Americans then, my high school and college years were full of weekly movie going. Often multiple movies in the same week. And I even remember once going to three different movies on the same day.

I remember movie lines that wrapped around the theater when ET came out in 1982.

Contrasts that with high school and college students today who tell me they rarely go to movie theaters, and when they do stream movies they do it in spirts (often in the background while playing video games).

So the movie-going experience has evolved greatly from the world that Goldman wrote about in 1983. But Adventures holds up well and it’s well worth your time to read, or re-read.

It’s the book that Aaron Sorkin read when he was learning to learn and write screenplays. The original book version included the screenplay for Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (back when you couldn’t just go to the Internet and find screenplays) which proved instructional to Sorkin because it was “an incredibly readable screenplay” (as opposed to the screenplays as just a blueprint idea of screenwriting).

“Bill wanted you to have the movie experience while writing screenplays. . . . So now when I’m writing a screenplay I want whoever is reading it, the studio, a director, an actor, I want to come as close to the experience that you’re going to feel in the theatre as possible, I want to put that on the page.“
Aaron Sorkin
TIFF Masterclass via Mentorless

Goldman later actually became a personal mentor to not only Sorkin, but others including Scott Frank, Tony Gilroy, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

If you’re just starting your screenwriting journey consider cutting through all the clutter out there a read Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and his book Four Screenplays with Essays—which include his scripts for Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, and Misery.  

Then watch those movie versions as well.

That’s a pretty solid education from the dean of American screenwriting.

You’ll be learning from a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter who was born during the Great Depression, was enthralled by the classic movies of the 30s and 40s, who after college and a stint in the Army became a novelist in the 1950s, a screenwriter beginning in the 1960s, and when he’s screenwriting career slow in his fifties he became known for his non-fiction writing including Which Lie Did I Tell?, Hype & Glory, and The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood.  

William Goldman lived a full life of 85 years and lived to write about it, and be apart of Q&As at various film festivals in his closing years.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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“Silicon Valley has already won. It’s just that Hollywood hasn’t quite figured it out yet.”
Nick Bilton

Later this month I’m going to hit my 11th anniversary of writing this blog. A blog that I initially thought I’d do for one year. The first blog post was on January 22, 2008 so I’m hoping by this January 22 I’m going to have some big information about the release of my book.

Every year I wonder if I’ll have material to keep the blog fresh for another year. Then things just happen. Like when 2018 ended with Netflix announcing that its original film Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock, had 41 million Netflix account views in just its first 7 days. Things are getting interesting.

In 2018, Netflix paid a lot of money to A-list writers and locked down some accomplished emerging writers are well. With more companies jumping into streaming content this year, 2019 promises to get more interesting for both viewers and content creators.

All the major tech companies are competing viciously for the same thing: your attention. Four years after the debut of House of Cards, Netflix, which earned an astounding 54 Emmy nominations in 2016, is spending $6 billion a year on original content. Amazon isn’t far behind. Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are all experimenting with original content of their own.
Nick Bilton
“WHY HOLLYWOOD WE KNOW IT IS ALREADY OVER”
Vanity Fair, 2017

No need to get into the blending of Hollywood and Silicon Valley here, but did you know a key player in laying the foundation for Silicon Valley was born, raised and educated in Iowa? Robert Noyce was born in Burlington, Iowa in 1927 and a graduate of Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. (The same college that actor Gary Cooper and writer/director/actor Kumail Nanjiani attended.)

Noyce went on to earn his doctorate in physics from MIT and become a physicist who co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor, and the Intel Corporation. Wikipedia states Noyce is  “credited (along with Jack Kilby) with the realization of the first integrated circuit or microchip that fueled the personal computer revolution  and gave Silicon Valley its name.”

That earned Noyce the nickname “The Mayor of Silicon Valley.”  I only learned about Noyce and his Iowa connection a few days ago when I read Tom Wolfe’s essay “Two Young Men Who Went West” in his book Hooking Up (Wolfe called Noyce “the father of Silicon Valley.”)

Just why was it that small-town boys form the Middle West dominated the engineering frontiers? Noyce concluded it was because in a small town you became a technician, a tinker, an engineer, and an inventor, by necessity. ‘In a small town,’ Noyce liked to say, ‘when something breaks, you don’t wait around for a new part, because it’s not coming. You make it yourself.’”
Tom Wolfe
“Two Young Men Who Went West”

You can also learn more about Noyce and the key role he played in the early days of Silicon Valley by watching the documentary Silicon Valley: Where the Future was Born.

And in the spirit of Robert Noyce, 2018 brought another story of two young men who went west—and actually from Iowa—and found success in California. Screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods after years of making low-budget films in Hollywood had a box office and critical hit with A Quiet Place. 

The majority of posts this month will be centered around another Midwesterner who found success in Hollywood. William Goldman’s was born and raised in Chicago and did his undergraduate work in Ohio before eventually going on to write the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and The Princess Bride.

After Goldman died last November, Aaron Sorkin called him “The dean of American Screenwriting.” Seems like a good way to start 2019. Oh, another good way to for you to start 2019 is to look at the open script submission for Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaws Productions. 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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