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Archive for May, 2020

“We were making industrials and commericals and all that, and of course, our passion was to make a feature film. So ten of us got together, the four of us from our company, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman who are  two of the actors in Night of the Living Dead  (1968)—they played Helen and Harry Cooper—and they had an audio production company in Pittsburgh, and another friend of ours who was a lawyer, and two of the outside people were lighting guys. Basically 10 of us kick in $600 a piece, bought a couple of cases of film. Black and white, 35 mm Plus-X, and some  Tri-X  for the night stuff, and rented that film house [featured in Night of the Living Dead]. And we went around to all the Goodwill stories, and got cans of paint, and we shot for two weeks and then had to break because we had no more money. Took the footage and brought it home, and cut whatever sequences that we complete enough to cut. And showed that to people and a couple of guys said it looks like you might actually be making a movie. And we said, we told you that’s what we were doing. And we were able to raise $5,000 here, $10,000 there. In the end there were 26 people that had $70,000 invested total and that finished the film. And we owed another $44,000 to people we promised would be paid some day. And luckily they did get paid. The film didn’t return a lot of money but it certainly went on and made careers for all of the people that wanted to go in the business.”
—Producer/director/writer George A. Romero
From a 1995 talk he gave in Orlando, Florida

P.S. The script did not indicate that the character Ben would be a black man, but Romero said Duane Jones was simply the best actor he could find. The ending mixed with Martin Luther King Jr. being killed in 1968  turned Night of the Living Dead into a social commentary.

Related links:
The Lingering Horror of ’Night of the Living Dead,’ The Hollywood Reporter (2018)

Scott W. Smith

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“While there have been better-made horror movies in the 50 years since, some even directed by Romero himself, and there have been bigger budgets, better actors and more scares, there may not be any single denouement and message more frightening than the one George Romero leaves us with at the end of Night of the Living Dead.”
Richard Newby
The Hollywood Reporter, Sept. 28, 2018

“I went to Pittsburgh to go to college at Carnegie Mellon University and met some people. I‘d always loved movies – I was always a fan – but I never imagined I’d be able to work professionally in film; I thought you had to be born royalty or something.”
George Romero
BFI interview

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One of the projects I’m working on at home the movement during this lockdown is archiving old tapes. I game across a talk that producer/writer/ director George Romero did in 1995 that was sponsored in part by the Florida Motion Picture & Television Association, Metro Orlando Film & Television Office, Valencia College, the Enzian Theater.

Years before Flashdance, Silence of the Lambs, and Hoffa made Pittsburgh a production hub, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead set the early stage for Pittsburgh’s feature film production in 1968. Lesser known is who provided the unusual assist in Pittsburgh became a hub for horror films.

Part of the answer is Mr. Rogers—at least according to Romero.  The public television station WQED in Pittsburgh is where Fred Rogers began working in 1953 on children’s shows.  In the early ’60s Rogers  developed a show called Misterogers in Toronto, but returned to Pittsburgh in 1967 and started taping Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood beginning in 1968. Except for a five year hiatus starting in 1979,  it ran until 2001.

Here’s a snapshot of what Romero said in 1995 about what made Pittsburgh a production-friendly town.

“There’s a community in Pittsburgh that started around  the time I did and we were just tenacious about wanting to work in this medium.  Luckily Pittsburgh had a very active PBS station which was originating some programing. And I think Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, is responsible for a lot of the crew people that work in Pittsburgh. Though he probably wouldn’t admit it when he sees some of the movies out there.  Because of things like that and KDKA was a very active station doing it’s own production as a Group W station there. And we were starting to make features. We had a production company there that initially was making commericals and industrial films and the like. And there were also big corporations there like Westinghouse, GE, US Steel that had in house production service arms, so there was a lot of hardware and equipment. Much of it left over from a time that immediately predated videotape when film was being used for everything from news broadcasts to commericals. So for me, I was sort of at the right place at the right time.”
—George Romero

But Romero said success did not come quickly, and until his commercial/industrial business took off he worked on productions where “he got people coffee, brought their cars around, and worked for free basically….and it was rough for several years.”

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A Not So Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

The odds are good that anyone working in production  on any level for more than six months has an eclectic mix of projects on their resume.  So it’s not unusual to think that some of the same PAs, grips, gaffers, set builders, camera assistants, and camera operators who helped put together iconic children’s programing in the Pittsburgh, were some of the same crew that helped put together iconic zombie films. Here’s a partial list of Romero’s films:

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
There’s Always Vanilla (1971)
Season of the Witch (1972)
The Crazies (1973)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Day of the Dead (1985)
Monkey Shines (1988)

Other Hollywood films shot in Mr. Rogers’ general Pittsburgh neighborhood:
Flashdance (1983) 
All the Right Moves (1983)
RoboCop (1987)
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Hoffa (1992)
Wonderboys (2000)
Rock Star (2001)

And the Hollywood—Pittsburgh connection continues to this day. Here are some more recent films shot there:
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
Concussion (2015)
Southpaw (2015)
Fences (2016)
Last Flag Flying (2017)
Sweet Girl (2019)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2019)

Romero attended Carnegie Mellon University, but his archives were acquired by the University of Pittsburgh.  The same school where Rogers  did some extra graduate studies work in child development with child psychologist Margaret McFarland,  According to Wikipedia, McFarland “was his consultant for most of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhoods scripts and songs for 30 years.”

And it’s worth pointing out that there were actually films shot in Pittsburgh before either Romero or Rogers were born— even before there was a film industry in Hollywood. Visit the website for Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904.  

Some of those were shot by Billy Bitzer who went on to work with “the father of film” D. W. Griffith. 

P.S. Back around 1999-2000 I did a three day video shoot in Pittsburgh and actually worked with a cameraman who was related to George Romero. I didn’t have the insight back then to asked if he’d worked on any of the Dead movies or on any of Mr. Rogers’ 895 programs shot there. And I did cross paths twice with Mr. Rogers himself on the campus at his alma mater Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

Scott W. Smith 

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Don’t get scared away by the privacy settings on the below video, just click the “Watch on Vimeo” button and you‘ll be rewarded with a terrific DIY video where ASC cinematographer Lawrence Sher (Joker, The Hangover) walks you through how he recreates a shot from E.T. by using only things in his house and an iPhone. This is one way to use you quarantine time in creative ways. (Heck, this would be a good way to do a whole college class.)

Shot Craft — Staying Creative in Quarantine from American Cinematographer on Vimeo.

You can check out a matching article on the American Cinematography blog written by Jay Holben. Sher also created a website called Shotdeck that is full of movie images that can  serve as inspiration for your own ideas.  And you can follow Sher on Instagram (@lawrencesherdp) where he shares his recreations of famous movie scenes.

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Related posts:

The Best Film School 
10 Low-Budget Filmmaking Quotes 
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
Shooting a Feature Film in 4 Days
Shooting a Feature Film in 1 Day
Shooting a Feature Film Over Dinner
Shooting a Feature Film in a Coffin

Scott W. Smith

 

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When I heard yesterday that actor Jerry Stiller died, I didn’t immediately think of his Emmy winning performance on Seinfeld, I went to Broadway and Chekhov. It was 1997 and my first trip to New York City and seeing my first Broadway play. And it was magical.

I don’t have anything to add to the many obituaries on Stiller, but as a way to celebrate his life in theater, I’ve scanned the Playbill from his performance as one of the actors in Three Sisters.  

Stiller was joined by an incredible cast that included  Robert Bogue, Billy Crudup, Calista Flockhart, Paul Giamatti, David Marshall Grant, Ben Hammer, Amy Irving, Betty Miller, Eric Stoltz, David Strathairn, Lili Taylor, Justin Theroux, and Jeanne Tripplehorn.

Never before or since have I seen more talented people on stage in the same play. And since it was a matinee performance they did a Q&A with some of the actors afterwards and I snuck in a question.

It was a weekend of not only connecting with actors, and the writings of the great Russian playwright, the crew, the Roundabout Theatre Company, and a Times Square building that was built in 1895, but it was a whirlwind weekend of being fully alive.

We celebrated my wife’s birthday weekend and Valentine’s Day by with a horse carriage ride through central park, ate at an Italian restaurant, went to a concert at Carnegie Hall, made a stop at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, did a boat tour with glorious views of the Stature of Liberty and the Twin Towers, toured Ellis Island and went to the top of the Empire State Building and somehow found time to sleep at Waldorf Astoria.

I was 36-years-old and had dreamed of a trip like that for probably 10 or 15 years. I was a long way from my youth of playing football barefoot on a dead-end street in Central Florida.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen or read Three Sisters, but I remember it as a play about spiritual longings for hope the the midst of despair. A time when all of the mysteries of life will disappear. At the end of the play Irina is comforted by her older sister who says, “It seems as if a little while more we shall know why we live, why we suffer … If we only knew, if we only knew.”

And that is why Chekhov’s writings from the late 1800s could resonate on Broadway in 1997, today, or a hundred years from now.

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P.S. It appears that Stiller’s 1997 performance in Three Sisters was his last stage play performance and the same year he won an Emmy for his role on Seinfeld. 

Scott W. Smith

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“I do take a personal approach first. I’m not so much market-based. In a place like Amazon, where everyone is employed verses as opposed to self-employed, does have certain business mandates you’re trying to fill and address. But on a much more personal level, the first question is, How do I feel?What kind of response does it elicit in me? And there’s a handful of things that we immediately look for. I’m asking myself, am I going to be as excited about unlocking the mysteries that are contained within three to five years down the road as I am at this moment? Like the longevity— almost like a relationship. You have to look at the movie and interrogate it;  Is there enough to keep you hungry for a long time to unlock those pleasures?  For me, that often comes down to— I’m a very thematic-based individual— I look for what is in this? Whether it’s a design for living, or an overall philosophy. My team at Amazon sometimes teases me that I get fixated on certain themes, and I’m starting to see it. I very much like stories where’s it’s about me seeing you and you seeing me. When do we know that we’re actually recognized? How do we find our authentic self? I like stories about that. I like questions about the transformative power of love. I like that as a theme in movies.  Really what I’m getting at is I’m looking at something that is going to keep me leaning forward, engaged with the film, my mind spinning, my emotions stimulated, and I know that when it’s over I’m going to be compelled to talk about it with my friends that I’ve seen it with. I want to be heavily engaged and get a bit of a workout —whether it’s emotional, intellectual,  or visceral.”
Producer Ted Hope (Manchester by the Sea, Cold War)
Woodstock FilmFest, “Virtual Films & Conversations” 

Related posts:

Define What You Love & Ted Hope’s List of ‘32 Qualities of a Better Films’ 
‘Helping Others Rarely Hurts Anyone, Particularly Yourself’— Ted Hope 
Ted Hope on Finding a Safe Harbor from Liars and Cheats
40 Days of Emotions 
‘My Formula for the Perfect Sundance Film’—Producer Ted Hope
Ted Hope on Finding a Film’s Theme
‘A new and vibrant cinema’—Ted Hope
‘If I ran a film school…’—Ted Hope

Scott W. Smith 

 

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“Chasing greatness is a forever thing. I don’t know if you ever achieve it, you just continue chasing it and hope that one day you get a fistful of it.”
—Tim Howard

Since there aren’t any sports being played at this time, the above video on soccer goalie great Tim Howard is a good follow-up to my last post on football coach Don Shula.

If you’ve followed this blog for years you may remember a 2011 post I wrote called How to Get Started Working in Production. 

It’s about how cameraman/editor Josh McCabe started working for me when I had a production company in Iowa and he was still in college. He went on to do some work for TBW/Chiat/Day and Smashbox in LA, before moving to Denver, Colorado to work for TransAmerica. He edited the above video and shot some of the footage.

He’s got a nice corporate production job with a large company in the Midwest that has an an annual revenue of $10 billion.  (A secure job in production where he can work from home is a valuable thing at the moment.)  And he continues to do freelance shooting and editing for various national brands such as NBC, Vail Resorts, and Red Bull.

I write a lot on this blog about using your production skills in ways beyond just narrative fiction. There are only so many of those jobs at any given time (and even fewer right now with the lockdown due to the coronavirus).

In the last chapter of my book (more info coming soon, I promise) I talk about people like directors Sean Baker (The Florida Project) and Lulu Wang (The Farewell) who paid the bills and picked up production experience doing everything from wedding videos to insurance interview videos for lawyers.

No one starts at the top of the pyramid. And, honestly, few get actually get to the very top of the pyramid. Tim Howard has had his share of individual accomplishments—even fistfuls of greatness—including his record 16 saved shots (a World Cup record) against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. But they didn’t make it to the pinnacle losing to Belgium 2-1. Sports are full of those kind of gut-wrenching losses. Quarterback Dan Marino had 40 NFL records when he retired, yet he never played on a Super Bowl winning team. Two-time Super Bowl winning coach Shula once said he greatest regret as a coach was not winning a Super Bowl with Marino.

All that to say, aim for the pinnacle—reach out for a fistful or two of greatness—but know that there are lots of fulfilling opportunities on the pyramid.

Book by Tim Howard:  The Keeper: A Life of Saving Goals and Achieving Them 

Scott W. Smith 

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“You know it’s only 50 miles from Grand River to Canton, but it took me 67 years to travel that distance.”
—Don Shula (on the area where he was raised in north east Ohio to being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

 

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If you’re fortunate in life, you get a few chances to meet greatness. One of my opportunities came in 1989 I went to grand opening of the Shula’s Steak House at Disney World with the intent of securing Hall of Fame football coach Don Shula’s  autograph (which is in the above photograph). Shula is not only the winningest football coach in NFL history, a two time Super Bowl winner, but the only head coach to lead his team in the NFL to an undefeated season—the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

Shula died today and left behind quite a legacy. Part of which is the Shula Chair of Philosophy at his alma mater John Carroll University in Ohio. But football is where he made his name. CBS Sports stated that “Don Shula’s coaching tree is one the most impressive in NFL history. ” The coaching tree is sports lingo for assistants who worked under Shula who went on to head coaching careers themselves. (And then their assistants when on to be head coaches.)

In Shula’s case that list includes Don McCafferty who went on to be a Super Bowl winning coach with the Baltimore Colts, Chuck Noll who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Stealers, and by extension, a branch of the Shula tree includes Super Bowl winning head coach Tony Dungy (who coached under Chuck Noll.)

Howard Schnellenberger, an assistant for Shula during the Dolphins perfect season.  was the head coach of the Miami Hurricanes when they won their first of five National Championships (and was the original architect of the most dominate college football program from 1983 to  2001).

Don Shula’s life story is about a man of character having a positive impact on the world of sports and beyond.

P.S. Yes, my football does need some air.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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“For more than a century, movie theaters have been a refuge, a communal escape, a place for popcorn-chomping-dreaming-with-your-eyes-open transportation away from everything else.”
—Jake Coyle
In coronavirus shutdown, a glimpse of life without movie theaters

Major League baseball stadiums are unusually quiet for this time of year. Theme parks are quiet. And movie theaters, night after night, are indeed a quiet place, too.

Today is May 1, 2020. One thing that means is I did not see a single movie in theaters for the entire month of April because of COVID-19. I can’t think of a single month in my adult life where I didn’t go to at least one movie in theaters in any given month. And even if there was a month here or there, there haven’t been many.

Because the weather is warm here in Florida I thought about going to one of the drive-ins within a two hour drive that are still operating;  Ocala Drive-In , Silver Moon in Lakeland (playing Stand By Me and Field of Dreams tonight), or the Ruskin Family Drive-In south of Tampa (that allows dogs).

I don’t know how many of the 300 drive-in theaters in the United States are currently open, but it seems like a cool retro thing to do now—especially if you’ve never watched an outdoor movie in your car.

The Washington  Post reported that The Family Drive-In in Virginia sold out  tonight and tomorrow. (I wondered when the last time that happened.) But it still wouldn’t qualify as going to a movie in a theater. Even as some movie theaters open in May, (Today, after being closed for 43 days, Santikos theaters in Texas is opening at 24% capacity.)  I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to see anything. (Others say don’t expect most movie theaters to open until at least July.) 

“MGM and Universal led the pack in the decision to move the latest James Bond pic, No Time to Die, from early April to late November. Paramount Pictures pulled A Quiet Place Part II just a week before it was set to land in theaters.”
Variety, “Hollywood Braces for Coronavirus Financial Hit That Could Change the Industry Forever“ (March 18, 2020)

I can’t imagine going three or four months without seeing a movie in a movie theater, but it’s a possibility.  Back on April 8, Variety published the article After Entertainment Venues Reopen, When Will the Public Feel Safe Enough to Return?That’s a big question.

I hope it is safe to see A Quiet Place Part II soon. Writer/director John Krasinski says the movie is one that should be experienced with a big audience. Who knows when that will be? At first he wasn’t interested in doing a second film based on the successful 2018 film A Quiet Place. But then he had an idea.

“[Emily Blunt] was like, ‘No way, don’t do a second one,’ and then I pitched her my idea and she was like, ‘So you’re definitely doing that.’ She said, ‘But it’s not a sequel. It’s the second book in a series,’ she said, ‘It sounds [like] semantics but it’s true, it really is—you’re not doing anything that’s like, alright I’m gonna take all the things you love and just kinda repeat them but in a different way.’ It’s not A Quieter Place, it’s sort of an exploration of getting to live in the circumstances, and that’s really fun.”
—John Krasinski
The Big Picture Podcast via Collider

P.S. After extensive edits to my book based on my blog, my new goal is to have it available before A Quiet Place Part II is in theaters. So the coronavirus at least bought me a little time to hit that goal. I now think I could write a book about writing a book based on a blog. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be to condense 3,000+ posts (based on hundreds of quotes from screenwriters and filmmakers) into a concise 250 page book.

Scott W. Smith

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