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Archive for April, 2019

John Singleton (1968—2019)

“One out of 21 black American males will be murdered in their lifetime. Most will die at the hands of another black male.”
Opening graphic in Boyz n the Hood

”Before I could do long division, I mastered which neighborhoods and housing projects to never step foot in. I can easily remember running full speed from the bullets indiscriminately spraying out of a red IROC-Z Camaro; and the face of the man who put a gun to my temple in high school is forever seared into my brain.”
Gerrick D. Kennedy/ L.A. Times
“How John Singleton’s ‘Boyz n the Hood’ shaped the life of one boy from the hood”

Screen Shot 2019-04-30 at 10.00.19 AM

John Singleton received Oscar nominations for both writing and directing Boyz n the Hood (1991) and it was one of those rare films that taps into the zeitgeist of the times. My last post was on the Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace which was filmed in 1972 at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts—which just happens to be located in the heart of South Central L.A. where the story of Boyz n the Hood takes place.

One of the reasons Boyz n the Hood hit me particularly hard when I saw it was just a few years before the movie I spent some time in South Central L.A. as a photographer. While I was going to film school in the early and mid-80s I worked for Yary Photography which at the time was located in Cerritos, California. They are best know for doing team sports photography throughout Southern California.

I remember clearly the cultural close-up I got driving and working in South Central L.A. Once my car broke down in the Lynwood (just north of Compton). This was the days before cell phones so I had to walk on foot to find a mechanic who could help. I was very well aware that I was an outsider in a land known for drive-by shootings. I eventually found a mechanic and my car got fixed with no incident, but I will never forget that walk.

Another time I was doing a photo shoot at Los Angeles Southwest College on Imperial Highway (where the 110 and 105 now meet) and I was taking photos of a football player and asked him if he wanted to take off something that didn’t match his uniform (I think it was a wrist band or bracelet) and his coach said he couldn’t because it was gang related. The player wasn’t in a gang, but he had to wear it for safety.

This was 1983-1986 and I remember thinking there are some stories to be told from here. John Singleton started his career with one of those stories and went on to have a long and successful career working on film and Tv projects.

That same year Lawrence Kasden‘s Grand Canyon touched on some of the same themes as Boyz n the Hood coming at it from a different angle.

Two Years later Menace II Society came out.

And in  2001 Training Day hit theaters.

And though Straight Outta Compton came out in 2015 it is a story set in South Central in the mid-’80s.

P.S. While I was planning on releasing my screenwriting book in April, the death of my mother last week took up much time. Look for it being released in May.

Related post: Filmmaking Quote #41 (John Singleton)

Scott W. Smith

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“***** (5-Stars!) A miracle. Amazing Grace doesn’t have a plot—just a voice touched by God. (An) indispensable gift. Aretha… in all her thrilling glory.”
– Peter Travers, ROLLING STONE

Sometimes these things just line up in the right order. In yesterday’s post I mentioned playing the Judy Collins version of “Amazing Grace” in the hour before my mom took her last breath at the end of a long life. A few minutes ago I learned that the documentary Amazing Grace featuring Aretha Franklin begins playing today at the Enzian Theatre in Maitland, Florida—less than three miles away from where my mother died.

Looking forward to seeing this over the weekend.

Scott W. Smith 

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My mother died yesterday and it was a peaceful end to her 85 years on this earth. She took her last breath at 1:05 PM with both her kids at her side which is as good as it gets. I’ll write about my mother (she graduated from Ohio State and was a middle school art teacher for 31 years) and her influence on me in a later post—perhaps on Mother’s Day, but for today I’ll just leave some photos I took in her assisted living room after she died. IMG_2579.jpg

 

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One of the songs we played in her final hour was the Judy Collins version of Amazing Grace. 

Scott W. Smith

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Sad and Sweet Moments

On Sunday I went to a sunrise Easter service that was held in a cemetery.  Over the years I’ve been to big churches and little chapels. I’ve been to weddings, funerals, and church services across a wide range of denominations. (I’ve even been to a foot washing service.) But a church service in a cemetery—that was a first.

After the service I learned about the gut-wrenching news about the bombings in Sri Lanka where more than 300 people were killed in churches and hotels. Then I drove to visit my mom who was put on hospice a few days ago. An unusual morning to be faced with life and death issues.

But those are times that are good for your soul.  Moments that force you to pause and ponder life’s great mysteries.

I’ve never seen the dying process up-close so it’s been a sad yet sweet time. My mom has late stages COPD so this has been a long and slow landing. After seeing her struggle and be anxious for the past month in the hospital and other medical faculties it’s actually nice to see her in a calm place.

I’m not 100% sure she knows I’m there when I visit, but her eyes do open wide occasionally for a moment or two when I talk to her. This morning she wan’t able to swallow a few drops of water the nurse gave her from a syringe, meaning she’s most likely in her closing days.

My mom likes acoustical music and the hymn “How Great Thou Art” so I searched YouTube this morning and found this version by Lauren Daigle. I played it from my phone with one EarPod in my mom’s ear and one in mine. That won’t be a moment I forget anytime soon.

When the song was over I glanced at a TV in the background that had a report of a young girl who died in a church on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. That’s the first time I’ve cried in a long time.

P.S. My mom starting smoking cigarettes as a teenager in the fifties and continued until she was 80 years old when she started using oxygen to assist her breathing. COPD is a horrible way to die because it’s slowly taking your breath away. Recently I heard separate interviews with screenwriters Paul Schrader and Joe Eszterhas who I assume where smokers because they have signs of COPD in slight gasping for breaths as they speak. That’s what I first noticed in my mom seven years ago. Stephen King once said something like Smoking in great for the synapses—the problem is it’s killing you at the same time.

Scott W. Smith

 

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To paraphrase Carlyle, ‘A writer who could only sit in a chair and write stories would never write any stories worth the reading.’ Your story material naturally will be influenced in quality and quantity by the richness of your own life experience; by your own loving, fearing, suffering, struggling, and achieving. Therefore, as a writer, you are justified in seeking as rich and varied a life as possible. In any event, you need sufficient experience of your own so that you have some basis for understanding the feelings of persons undergoing experiences that suggest dramatic situations. If you have limited range of interests in life, you will be able to comprehend and will be susceptible to only limited lines of experience. By widening the range of your own interests, you will be enabled at least to comprehend additional varieties of experience.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 167

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Poor plot construction is the bane of many a beginner. When a story lacks continuity, that is, breaks into parts that have no close relation, the plot needs additional building up. While I have known those who built up complications and plot tangles so knotted that neither they nor anyone else could unravel them reasonably, a more usual defect is a too weak conflict which, of course, results in a weak climax. The struggles recounted are not important enough, the difficulties are not impressive, and to overcome them requires no interesting activity on the part of the plot actors. It seems almost as if some writers are afraid to hurt their characters, are afraid to make them suffer, or to get them into distressing situations from which they must fight their way out. Yet one of the very first things any fiction writer must learn is that where there is no struggle there is no drama.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)

P.S. If you want a mental image of a character in a distressing situation…

Related post:

Conflict-Conflict-Conflict 

Scott W. Smith

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Every once in a while I’ll hear on a podcast or read someone saying about movie endings “the end should be implied in the beginning.” It’s sound advice, but it’s advice that’s been kicking around the movie industry for over 80 years. Oscar winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ) bridged the gap between the silent film era and the Hollywood heyday of the ’30s and ’40s, and was once the highest paid screenwriter.

And that exact quote—”the end should be implied in the beginning”—is in her screenwriting book first published in 1937.

It is possible to start a novel without having a specific ending in mind, but both purpose and ending of the film story should be clearly in the mind of the writer before it is written because the story naturally ends when its theme is proved. The ending should not suggest that the story has stopped at a certain scene merely because someone cut the film at that point.

Theoretically the end of a story cannot be altered without changing the story because the end should be implied in the beginning; but in one sense all endings are artificial. Life presents few moments, if any, when all a person’s hopes and aims are achieved and the ends of his and others’ affairs neatly tied up as a story ending demands. The ending, then, is merely a cutting off and a tidying up at the most satisfactory point. Finish the story as soon as possible after the ‘big’ scene, as soon as the main problem is solved, the difficulty overcome.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 85

To reinforce knowing your ending before starting your screenplay, both Paul Schrader (First Reformed) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) said recently that they can’t start writing their screenplay ideas unless they know their ending.

And if you’ve never seen it before, check out Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt’s video Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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