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Archive for July, 2019

“The Hollywood we were driving to that fall of ‘63 was in limbo. The Old Hollywood was finished and the New Hollywood hadn’t started yet.”
Andy Warhol
Popism

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a strange mixtape (with alternative tracks) of the ups and downs of the movie industry. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino could have picked any era in the past 100 years and told a different version of the same story. Only the names change. He chose 1969 which was a memorable year in so many ways.

The movies True Grit and The Wild Bunch were the old guard and Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy were the new guard and they well represented the changes going on in Hollywood. And in the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the famous old west bank robbers are told,It’s over don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is chose where.”

Tarantino wraps his fictitious story around the true events of the Manson cult killings in Los Angeles in the summer of ’69 that for many signaled the end of the peace and love hippy movement.

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.”
Joan Didion

But Tarantino actually made a buddy love story of sorts between fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) that is full of his high brow, low brow approach to filmmaking. Some of Tarantino’s favorite movies are male bonding stories (Big Wednesday, Fandango, Rio Bravo).

Burt Reynolds would have loved this movie as his influence on Tarantino is unmistakable. (Reynolds was originally cast in the movie but unfortunately died before the movie was shot.)

Reynolds was one of those actors that did what movies and television shows he could in the ’50s and ’60s until he was able to become a movie star  with release of Deliverance in 1972. (After becoming the biggest box office star in Hollywood for several years he would eventually have his own Rick Dalton moment of falling off the Hollywood radar. But he was able to bounce back an earn his sole Oscar nomination for his role in Boogie Nights.)

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“Navajo Joe” (1966) starring Burt Reynolds and directed by Sergio Corbucci

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Quentin Tarantino was named after the character Quint (Burt Renyolds on the right) from the classic Tv show Gunsmoke. Hal Needham performed the stunts for Reynolds on Gunsmoke.

“I’ll tell you one of the greatest moments I’ve had in these however many years we’ve been at it in this town: getting to spend two days with Burt Reynolds on this film.”
Brad Pitt (on doing table reads and spending time with Reynolds)
Esquire interview with Michael Hainey

Watch the 2016 documentary The Bandit centered around Reynolds and his stuntman (turned Smokey and the Bandit director) Hal Needham either before or after watching Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and it will only enhance your appreciation of Tarantino’s creative gift of making old things new.

“Needham, if ever I’m in a fight, I want you on my side.”
John Wayne to the former Army paratrooper turned stuntman Hal Needham
Stuntman! by Hal Needham

And while the Reynolds/Needham close actor/stuntman relationship may have shaded Once Upon a Time… , Tarantino says it was a lesser known (and less successful)  actor/stuntman combo that was his way into starting the develop the story.

“Cliff (Brad Pitt) is based on two things – it’s when I worked with an actor, I can’t say his name, who had once had a long-time stunt double. And we really didn’t have anything for that stunt double to do. But there was one thing he could do and so the actor would ask, ‘Can my guy do that? I haven’t bugged you about him because there haven’t been many things for him to do, but that’s something he could do, and if I could throw my guy that thing, that would be really great.’ [I say,] ‘Yeah, sure, OK, bring your guy in.’ And so, this guy shows up and it’s like they’ve been working together for a long, long, long, long time. But you could tell, OK, this is the end. Because everyone’s gotten older.”
Quentin Tarantino
Interview with Kim Morgan

And the second part was another stuntman who Tarantino said “scared everybody. Men who pride themselves on not being intimidated by other men were intimidated by this guy because he was just dangerous. If he wanted to kill you, he could have, and he was just a little off enough.”

This post isn’t a review of the movie but more what the movie stirred in me with the hopes that it will help provide you a roadmap wherever you are on your filmmaking journey.

Tarantino is two years younger than me and I imagine we have many of the same cultural references growing up; watching Batman, Kung Fu, The Lone Ranger, Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet reruns and old westerns and war movies on TV, and Billy Jack and Willard in theaters. Before learning to drive a whole generation was exposed to its share of fist fights and gun battles. As it’s been said—movies reflect the culture they help produce. Heck, that could be the theme of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as one of the Manson family cult members says as much.

Inspired by many great films of the ’70s I found my way to Hollywood, California in 1981. If Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood captures the glorious fading light of old Hollywood, I found a decade later that the glory had all but departed. Seedy would be the best way to describe Hollywood at that time. I quickly landed a studio apartment in safe and quiet Burbank.

I finished film school at Columbia College Hollywood which at that time was on North La Brea which meant everyday I drove past Disney Studios, The Burbank Studios, and the back of Universal Studios as I made my way over the hill from the San Fernando Valley on Barham Blvd in Burbank to Cahuenga into Hollywood and usually down Sunset Blvd. or Hollywood Blvd., and past the studio that Charlie Chaplin built all in a 20 minute drive to school.

My first job while in school there was as a driver for BERC (Broadcast Equipment Rental Company) in Hollywood and that was my ticket to getting into NBC, CBS, and ABC studios delivering equipment. Other jobs led getting on the Paramount lot in Hollywood and Twentieth Century Fox in Culver City.

Back in the ’80s I bought books and scripts at Larry Edmonds Cinema and Theatre Bookshop, ate at The Musso & Frank Grill and the Formosa Cafe, saw movies at the Egyptian Theatre, the Cinerama Dome, and the Chinese Theatre, and went to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, drove through Beverly Hills, rented equipment from Birns and Sawyer, and of course, walked many times down the Hollywood Walk of Fame. All things that you can still do today if you want to experience old Hollywood.

And if you really want to be trippy go see Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood at the Bruin Theatre in Westwood Village which is featured in the movie when Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) goes to see the movie she’s in (The Wrecking Crew).  And if you want to go full Tarantino you can go watch Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood again at the New Beverly Cinema owned by Tarantino.  (Which is just one block off La Brea and around the corner from Pink’s Hot Dogs and where I went to film school—because all things are connected in Tarantino’s universe.)

Here’s another odd connection. When I was a fresh out of film school 16mm camera operator/editor for Motivational Media I once shot an interview with Kirk Cameron at the lesser known Warner Bros. Ranch in Burbank which is 32 acres full of Hollywood history dating back to the 1930s. That shoot was in 1987 when Cameron was a teenager and one of the stars of the TV show Growing Pains. Also appearing in episodes of Growing Pains was not only an up and coming actor named Leonardo DiCaprio, but a then unknown actor named Brad Pitt.

While living in Burbank director Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) once walked in front of my car and at crosswalk by the Warner Bros. lot, I walked on the set on The Johnny Carson Show (thanks to a security guard on one of my deliveries), and I saw director John Huston (The Searchers) in a wheelchair outside of FotoKem a few months before he died in 1987. (Actually the same facility where some of the post-production work was done on Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.)

And one final touch of Hollywood history I experienced in Burbank was meeting Richard Farnsworth standing in line at a movie concession stand in the mid-’80s. He was best known then as an actor in The Grey Fox and The Natural, but he first spent 30 years as a Hollywood stuntman working on films like Red River, Gunga Din, Spartacus, Ben Hur and a whole bunch of TV westerns. (Farnsworth’s Oscar nomination for The Straight Story at age 79 and 167 days is still the record for the oldest Oscar nominee for Best Actor.)

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Because all things are connected in Quentin Tarantino’s world, notice that  the character Farnsworth plays just got released from San Quentin.

I think Farnsworth would have gotten a kick out of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. When I asked him if he was Richard Farnsworth he genuinely seemed pleased that I recognized him. I’m sure he saw plenty of Rick Dalton’s in his days—and probably felt like Rick Dalton when he was no longer needed to fall off a horse or drive a chariot.

P.S. Just last week I was watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid again and did a couple of screen grabs because I thought I could use them on a post about lighting. But Robert Redford and Paul Newman seem to fit in right here along side Pitt and DiCaprio.

“The theme [of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid] is times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade

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Related posts:
Tarantino Gumbo Soup Film School
Star Wars Vs. Smokey and the Bandit (Remembering Burt Reynolds)
Sacred Land, Moving Pictures (post ends with a clip from Billy Jack) 
Writing ‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’
‘The way I wrote…’ —Tarantino

 

Scott W. Smith

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Moon

I’ve been preoccupied for the past few days so I missed writing a post for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 mission.  But watching the lunar landing and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon was transformative for me as an 8-year-old growing up just an hour away from where the rocket launched from in Central Florida.

A staple of my youth was watching NASA rockets launches from the Kennedy Space Center on television and then running outside to watch a glow rising up into the sky just 60 miles away. I had a model of a Saturn rocket in my room that opened up to reveal a lunar capsule that allowed me to practice my own moon landings on bed sheets. And I had a telescope that allowed me to see the craters on the moon.

In many ways it was a magical time to grow up. I remember the discussions that man would never land on the moon, and it wasn’t until I was older when I fully appreciated the technological feat that was accomplished on July 20, 1969. And when you think that the first sustained flight by the Wright Brothers was just 66 years prior to the lunar landing you realize how much technological progress was made in a relative short amount of time.

In my home I have a framed New York Times front page that my father bought me after the launch. It’s one of the first things I see at the start of every day. It reminds me of my father and what humans using their full capacity can accomplish.

And space travel has been fertile ground for movies and TV over the years. There’s drama inherently built in the subject (conflict, stakes, goals, quests, emotions, etc). Here’s just a short list over the years that followed the 1902 George Méliès movie A Trip to the Moon:

Apollo 13
Star Trek
Star Wars 
Gravity
The Martian
Interstellar
The Right Stuff 
Guardians of the Galaxy 
Hidden Figures
2001 A Space Odyssey
Alien
Solaris 
Babylon 5
Lost in Space
Battlestar Galactica

Of those, the one that I return to again and again is The Right Stuff. A movie that when it was first released back in 1983 failed to find an audience, but has endured as a timeless classic.

Scott W. Smith

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“I have 25 years of starving for praise. Just give me my week. That’s all I ask. Just give me my week. I’ll be back to self-loathing before you know it.”
Craig Mazin (joking about his writing success on the miniseries Chernobyl)
Scriptnotes podcast, “Live at the Ace Hotel”

I set out to tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is shocking.”
Tony & Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams
The Paris Review interview with Dotson Radar

Screenwriter Craig Mazin once joked on the Scriptnotes podcasts that films he works on never get nominated for major awards. But that all changed with the HBO/SKY production of Chernobylwhich Mazin wrote and executive produced as it earned 19 Emmy nominations including these categories:

Outstanding Limited Series
Chernobyl

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie
Jared Harris, Chernobyl

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie
Emily Watson, Chernobyl

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie
Stellan Skarsgard, Chernobyl

Chernobyl helped HBO set a record of 137 Emmy nominations.

I’ve listen to enough Scriptnotes podcasts (that Mazin co-hosts)  to think that Mazin had a North Exposure-like TV show in him at least once in his career, but I would never guessed he would reach down and create something like Chernobyl.

While Mazin’s career has been lucrative including box office hits (Hangover 2Identity Thief), his critical success is below par. And according to IMDB his only previous award nomination is the Stinker Award, Worst Screenplay for a Film Grossing More than $100 Million Using Hollywood Math, Scary Movie 3 (2003).

But with Chernobyl his swing was as pure as baseball great Ken Griffey Jr’s. Or to use a football metaphor it’s like watching Kurt Warner go from backup NFL quarterback to Super Bowl and League MVP in one season. (Warner had been an All Conference player of the year at the University of Northern Iowa and an arena football star, but I think he’s the only one that would have predicated his success at the highest level of pro football.)

Chernobyl is a little Shakespeare, a little Chekhov, and a little Battleship Potemkin. Mazin as the show’s creator has earned the right to being singing the county song, How Do You Like Me Now?! 

What writer Mazin and director Johan Renck  (and their cast and crew) pulled off with the mini-series  Chernobyl is remarkable. It’s a haunting version of the nuclear disaster that occurred in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

It’s not only  my favorite narrative film or TV show so far in 2019, but it reminds me of what I consider TV at its best. Personally the viewing experience was up there with watching Roots (1977), Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman (1985), Seinfeld (1989-1999), Temple Grandin (2010) and most recently Breaking Bad.

Here’s just a few thoughts on Mazin’s writing process and what I think makes the mini series work so well.

THEME/ UNIVERSAL RELEVANCE 

“The way I think of it is what is the relevance to everyone? Ultimately we can tell any particular story, but there needs to be some sort of universal relevance or it just becomes a story in and of itself about the event. Which at that point I refer to those things as homework. I’m not interested in making homework for people. The reason that I was compelled to write about Chernobyl was in part because it was filling in these large gaps of a story we all knew yet didn’t know. But primarily it’s because it’s a story about the cost of lies. This is the first line of the whole show and this is the theme we are going to continue with as people watch these episodes. That when people chose to lie, and when people chose to believe the lie, and when everyone engages in a very kind of passive conspiracy to promote the lie over the truth—we can get away from it for a very long time, but the truth just doesn’t care. And it will get you in the end.” 
Craig Mazin
The Chernobyl Podcast, episode 1:12:45

CONFLICT & STAKES 

The largest nuclear meltdown in history qualifies as conflict where the stakes are high. The actual number of people who died as as result of the accident are unknown, but it’s thought that tens of thousands of people died as the result of radiation poisoning. And if the meltdown had not been stopped some estimate that it would have impacted 100 million people.

THE WAY INTO THE STORY

Mazin didn’t start his script with a big Hollywood explosion, but with the theme stated (truth/lies) and a suicide. Great hook.

MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION
How did this accident happen and who is responsible?

CHARACTERS/ACTING

The arrogant scientist, the Russian bureaucrats, the conscience, the fixers, the whistleblower, the miners, the innocents, the heroes, the firefighter and his wife. It’s just a well orchestrated cast of characters that Mazin uses to tell the story. t

EMOTIONAL
The cement burial scene is just one of many emotionally charged scenes in Chernobyl.

DIRECTION
What’s perhaps as crazy as Mazin’s comedy background in writing a serious drama, is Swedish born Johan Renck’s early background in music videos, and that his degree is not in film but economics.  I would be surprised if his directing his style wasn’t influenced by Ingmar Bergman and Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski.

CINEMATOGRAPHY/EDITING
The camera lingers in places in the style of European filmmakers in what’s often called slow cinema. It greatly helps the gravity and emotional impact of the situation.

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Chernobyl is a visual feast and that was part cinematography but also a part production design, set design, art direction, and costume design. 

MUSIC & SOUND DESIGN
Where would this roof scene be without sound design?

PLACE
The Soviet Union/Russia has been linked to the United States in my mind since I was a child in the 60s and aware of the space race. From Olympic games to the Cold War to current politics the United States and the USSR/Russia seem to be forever in an awkward dance.

I’ve been to Russia twice (Moscow and Samara) and found the people there very friendly, but the country’s history with hardness and abusive leadership can’t be denied.  From Ivan the Terrible to Stalin are many stories of hardship and death.

The fact that Pripyat was meant to be a Soviet utopia yet is now a ghost town of dark tourism in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster is one of the set pieces that Mazin and Renck took full advantage of.

Solzhenitsyn once said something to the effect that every writer secretly wanted to write something so powerful that they’d be sent to the Gulag. I’m not sure Mazin would agree with that, but I imagine he takes much delight in being a writer who’s work is not greeted with indifference—but with 19 Emmy nominations. And, perhaps even better, with reports that Russia’s own state backed TV channel is now making their own version of the ‘truth’ of what happened that day at Chernobyl. (Spoiler alert: they blame an American spy.)

Additional material:

Chernobyl Prayers  Svetlana Alexievich 

Chernobyl scripts by Craig Mazin.

 

Scott W. Smith

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Kurosawa 101

“I really don’t feel like I’ve grasp the essence of cinema.”
Writer/director Akira Kurosawa
In 1990 upon receiving an honorary Oscar award after a 40+ year career

“One thing that distinguishes [Kurosawa] is that he didn’t make one masterpiece or two masterpieces. He made, you know, eight masterpieces.”
Writer/director Frances Ford Coppola

If you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, here are four essentials films of his to watch (followed by some related links):

Rashomon (1950)

Ikiru (1952)

Seven Samurai (1954)

Yojimbo (1961)

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“In the Sixties, each of the major Japanese studios—Toho, Shochiku, Toei and Nikkatsu—had their own theaters in Los Angeles, in which they played their films for Japanese audiences. An Autumn Afternoon was made in 1962 and Ozu died the following year, but the film played in 1969 at the Shochiku in Los Angeles. I saw it in the afternoon, and it took hold of me. It wouldn’t let go. I wasn’t sure why at the time.”
Writer/director Paul Schrader

This is how screenwriters Yasujirô Ozu  and  Kôgo Noda (according to Kogo’s widowed wife Shizu)  collaborated on scripts that became classic movies; Tokyo Story, Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon and Late Autumn.  And while many of their most known work was made in 1950s and early ’60s, they first collaborated together on the 1927 lost silent film Sword of Penitence.

Their pre-writing routine seemed to daily include baths, naps, food, long walks, and a little bit of sake. They wrote scripts in about a month, after taking two months thinking through ideas. It appears that movies were Ozu’s life.

“You might also think that a director who made films with so much warmth, whose work is infused with such happiness and sorrow, must have had a contented life. The opposite was true. He was a chain-smoker, he was an alcoholic, he lived with his mother. His mother died about six months before he did. He never married, never had children. He lived for the cinema, and all he did was cinema. He didn’t really have any other life.”
Screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver)
Film Comment, On Yasujirô Ozu

Scott W. Smith

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“If you polled the world’s film critics, asking them who was the most universal and beloved of all directors, Ozu would rank at or near the top of the list, along with Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock.”
Roger Ebert (in 1993)
Saluting a Master of the Cinema, Yasujiro Ozu

Over the weekend I watched Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story on the Criterion Channel.

It’s a simple story but a profound and emotional one that touches on universal truths. It made me think of two other great Japanese films that deal with death and dying, Kurosawa’s Ikiru and the more recent Departures (written by Kundô Koyama and directed by Yôjirô Takita)

If you you are unaware of Tokyo Story (or even Ozu) consider today’s post as a good primer for one of the greatest directors in cinematic history.

Suggested reading:
Transcendental Film Style: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader
Ozu: His Life and Films by Donald Richie

Scott W. Smith

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This will be my last post from my recent trip out west. Yesterday I was reminded that July 2 is the anniversary of when Hemingway took his life in Ketchum, Idaho. A few days ago I wrote a post about his gravesite, but today I thought I’d show a couple of photos I took of the town that attracted Hemingway to live after he’d traveled the world.

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From what I can gather Hemingway first visited the area in 1939. While the small downtown has grown some since Hemingway died in 1961, there are a few establishments still in existence on the main drag that Hemingway used to frequent.

There’s Christiania (now Michael’s Christiania) restaurant where Hemingway’s had a regular table (table 5), the Casino Bar which until this year stayed in the same family for 82 years and said to be where Hemingway frequented.  The Pioneer Saloon has been a Ketchum fixture since the 1950s. 

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