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Archive for August, 2020

“Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is, and how you need to fight it. . . . The struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”
—Actor Chadwick Boseman
2018 Howard University Commencement Speech

Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
”The World Was Wide Enough” from Hamilton

This morning I woke up and heard that actor Chadwick Boseman died of cancer at age 43. Known for his lead role in the Black Panther and as Jackie Robinson in 42. 

Here’s a scene from 42 with Boseman and Harrison Ford as (Branch Rickey) dealing with the struggles of being the first black baseball player in Major League Baseball. Followed by an old Jackie Robinson interview (from the 1970s shortly before he died).

Earlier this week I was editing a video project on Renaissance art for a humanities professor. It was a talk that connected in my mind a few dots. Dot that went all the way back to ancient Greece and extended into our present times.

At the same time I was editing, and only about 10 miles away here in Central Florida the Milwaukee Bucks  boycotted playing a basketball game against the Orlando Magic. They were protesting a shooting by police of Jacob Blake (a 29-year-old black man) a few days ago in Kenosha, Wisconsin,

By the end of the day several teams in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer joined the boycott. I don’t think anything of that magnitude has ever happened in professional sports.

On Wednesday of this week I finished the last episode of the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War which I hadn’t seen in entirety since it first aired on PBS 30 years ago. It also connected a lot of dots. In some ways, The Civil War doc plays better in 2020 than it even did in 1990. It’s not hard to connect the dots back a few hundred years to when the first slaves were brought to the new world in 1619, and connect them to our present time.

Much has changed for the good, and much has not changed. What led me to rewatching The Civil War was watching Hamilton on Disney+.  A musical that not only was unique for telling the story of the founding fathers with a multi-multi-rational cast, but one that touched on how dealing with slavery was a part of the debate in 1776 of what it meant for “all men created equal.” It would take almost another 100 years—and the loss of 600,000+ soldiers in the Civil War—for the freeing of slaves.

Now here we are almost 160 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation. And  still, as The Constitution if the U.S.A.states,, working on forming “a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility.”

In a year that has brought about more than its share of struggles, here’s some encouraging words from 2018 commencement speech by Chadwick Boseman as he received and honorary doctorate from his alma mater Howard University. (Keep in mind that he was already diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer when he gave this talk.)

Book update: I’ll have some news here on Tuesday, September 1 about finally releasing my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles into the world in a couple of weeks.

Scott W. Smith

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“All creative work is mystical. How dare they demystify it? How dare they think they can demystify it? . . . I was never conscious of my screenplays having any acts. I didn’t know what a character arc was.”
—Screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Big Wednesday)
2015 Creative Screenwriting interview with Erik Bauer

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“These things I call the DOLTS; death, order, love, transformation, sovereignty—these things you’ll find in the classics.”
—Greg Robin Smith
Stealing from Shakespeare

Here are 23 examples of how Lin-Manual Miranda keeps the life or death stakes (or at least conflict) in the foreground of the first act of Hamilton. And has a healthy dose of foreshadowing in the background that will pay off in act two.:

  1. Aaron Burr in the second song:
    “Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”
  2. Alexander Hamilton in the third song:
    “I am not throwing away my shot” 
    (One line that actually packs into it foreshadowing, double meaning/irony, and stakes)
  3. Hamilton in the fourth song:
    “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.”
  4. Lafayette/Mulligan/Laurens sing together in the fourth song:
    “I may not live to see our glory!”
  5. Peggy Schulyer in the fifth song:
    “It’s bad enough there’ll be violence on our shore.”
  6. Samuel Seabury in the sixth song:
    “Chaos and bloodshed are not A solution.”
  7. King George in the seventh song:
    “Cuz when push comes to shove, I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”
  8. George Washington in the eight song:
    “We are outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned.”
  9. Burr in the ninth song:
    “Washington hires Hamilton right on sight, But Hamilton still wants to fight.”  
  10. Hamilton in the tenth song:
    “Eliza, I don’t have a dollar to my name, an acre of land, a troop to command, a dollop of fame.”
  11. Angelica Schulyer in the eleventh song:
    “He will never be satisfied. I will never be satisfied.” 
  12. Laurens in the twelfth song:
    “Well, well, I heard you’ve got someone on the side, Burr.”
  13. Burr in the thirteenth song:
    “Hamilton faces an endless uphill climb.”
  14. George Washington in the fourteenth song:
    “Stay alive ’til this horror show is past. We’re gonna fly a lot of flags half-mast.”
  15. Company sings in the fifteenth song:
    “Pick a place to die where it’s high and dry.”
  16. Hamilton in the sixteenth song:
    “I’m more than willing to die—”
  17. Eliza Schulyer in the seventieth song:
    ”The fact that you’re alive is a miracle. Just stay alive, that would be enough.”
  18. Burr sings in the eighteenth song:
    ”How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower, somehow defeat a global superpower?”
  19. Washington in the ninetieth song:
    ”I led my men straight into a massacre, I witnessed their deaths first hand.”
  20. Hamilton in the twentieth song:
    “If this is the end of me, at least I have a friend with me, weapon in my hand, a command, and my men with me.”
  21. King George in the twenty-first song:
    “Oceans rise. Empires fall. It’s much harder when it’s all your call.”
  22. Burr/Hamilton in he twenty-second song:
    ”We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you.”
  23. Burr in the twenty-third song:
    “Ev’ry proclamation guarantees ammunition for your enemies!”

These 23 songs take us to the intermission of Hamilton, and I’m going to pause my run of posts on the musical. I’ll switch gears in tomorrow’s post, and pick up with Hamilton later in the year.

Related post:
What’s at Stake? 
What’s at Stake? (David Wain)
Setups & Payoffs

Scott W. Smith

 

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Let me tell you what I wished I’d known
when I was young and dream of glory
“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”
Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

One (of the many) remarkable things about the storytelling of Hamilton is how the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, compressed the story down to 2 hours and 40 minutes. Personally, the story flies by. And it is that compression that makes the story stand up to repeated viewing.

Plus, the more I listen to the soundtrack while driving the more layers I find. In the song “Stay Alive” there are these lines:

Congress writes, ‘George, attack the British forces.’ I shoot back, we have resorted to eating our horses.
Local Merchants deny use equipment, assistance, they only take the British money, so sing a song of sixpence.

Miranda compresses into 35 words what could be told in a 10 part miniseries. The is the struggle General George Washington and his army face during the American Revolution.

Whether it’s a brief mention of the “Battle of Monmouth” or a passing remark by Aaron Burr about his grandfather being “a fire and brimstone preacher” are each places you could pause Hamilton and spend hours doing research on the internet.

In a later post, I will write about Burr’s grandfather and the spiritually saturated storytelling used throughout Hamilton.  I doubt that one in 100,000 viewers of Hamilton could name Burr’s grandfather —Jonathan Edwards— and far fewer ever read Edwards’ most famous sermon.  The layers are so deep in Hamilton. 

I’m sure part of that is due to Miranda compressing Ron Chernow’s book on Hamilton into a musical, but it takes a creative genius to make history entertaining, informative, educational, dramatic—and singable all at the same time. Here are two songs, sung near the end of act 1, that are examples of contrast in storytelling.

Another thing that worked for me on the storytelling front is how Miranda contrasted the big events of the American Revolution with the small events such as Hamilton and Eliza meeting, and the birth of their son Phillip.

There is much spectacle throughout Hamilton, and gigantic events that helped shape the United States of America. But at the end of the day, it is the smaller moments with Alexander, Eliza and Phillip that pack the big emotional punch at the end.

In that I am reminded of producer Lindsay Doran’s TED Talk, “Saving the World vs. Kissing the Girl,”where she said of movie characters, “Positive relationships trump positive accomplishments.”

My guess is that rings true in movies because it rings true in life. But we forget that sometimes and need art to remind us.

P.S. Over my lifetime I have watched plenty of men and women reach the top of the mountain only to be left with an “empire of dust” at the end of their lives. If you’ve never seen the Johnny Cash version of Trent Reznor’s song Hurtit’s one you should watch at least once a year to give you a perspective on life.

Related post:
It’s the Relationships, Stupid!

Scott W. Smith 

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His rival, it seems, had broken his dreams
By stealing the girl of his fancy
Rocky Raccoon, lyrics by Paul McCartney and John Lennon

After Lin-Manuel Miranda introduces the audience to Alexander Hamilton and his band of brothers in Hamilton, he then introduces and/or develops four additional characters.

One thing I noticed that they all have in common is they are different versions of a love triangle.  Each triangle is full of conflict with varying degrees of stakes.  The first triangle involves two of the Schuyler sisters (Angelica and Eliza) who head downtown looking for “minds and work.”

They both are drawn to the rising star Hamilton, but Angelica being older and wiser decides Hamilton would be better for her sister. But it’s clear that when Hamilton and Eliza get married that Angelica has second thoughts.

Laughin’ at my sister, ’cause she wants to form a harem
I’m just sayin’, if you really loved me
You would share him
Helpless, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

If I tell her that I love him she’d be silently resigned
Satisfied, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Another triangle is between Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and General George Washington. Both want the be the right hand man of the grand leader in the fight for freedom. Burr is disappointed in Washington’s choice, and as Hamilton’s influence grows, Burr jealousy burns.  But Washington sees something in Hamilton he likes—himself.

It’s alright, you want to fight, you’ve got a hunger
I was just like you when I was younger
Head full of fantasies of dyin’ like a martyr?
Right Hand Man, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Aaron Burr has his own love triangle in the he is seeing a woman who is married to a British officer. It just gets a quick mention in the song The Story of Tonight. 

And there is yet one more triangle in Act One of Hamilton. Colonial America had to make a choice between its allegiance to the British Empire or what would become the United States of America.

Way back in the early 1600s, King James I of England gave his blessing to establish permanent settlements in the new world.  What started in New England and Virginia grew into the Thirteen Colonies. 

At the risk of ineffectively reducing a 150 year history into a few words; The British Empire drove out the native Indians, brought in slavery, harvested tobacco and cotton in the South, and built grand industrial cities in the north. In short, it was a financial success.  The Thirteen Colonies were a fine little chess piece in the British Empire.

But in the mid-1700s some in the Colonies started eyeing lady liberty—and got tired of paying taxes to the British Parliament. Around 100 American colonists had a little tea party on December 16, 1773 that led to a nasty breakup. But people break up and get back together all the time.

Obviously, back in England, King George was hopeful that things could be patched up. And in Hamilton, that leads to the song You’ll Be Back.

Remember we made an arrangement when you went away
Now you’re making me mad
Remember, despite our estrangement, I’m your man
You’ll Be Back, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda

That break up lead to bloodshed and the founding of the United States of America in 1776. It took a while (and there was more bloodshed) but slavey was eventually abolished. The Thirteen Colonies grew into 50 States. Great Britain and the United States never got back together, but they agreed to be friends. The U.S. welcomed the Beatles in 1964 (and the whole British Invasion) and London welcomed Hamilton in 2017. (Albeit at a slightly lower decibel  level than when the Beatles played Shea Stadium in New York.)

P.S. All the above “love triangles” of sorts happen in act one. There is a big love triangle (passion triangle?)  in act two that alters the whole course of Hamilton’s career path. And we’ll get to that in a post next week.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
My Shot written by Lin-Manuel Miranda

There’s a scene in Once Upon a Time  … in Hollywood where a young actress asks an older and fading actor who is reading a book,  “Where are you in the story?” It’s a question with a double meaning. There’s the literal meaning of what page are you on/where are you in the story’s timeline, and there’s the metaphorical meaning of which character are you in the story.

In Hamilton, where are you in the story? Most people at least have a rooting interest in Alexander Hamilton. He’s a similar but different character that uses the time tested literary device: the underdog. He’s the immigrant who’s young, scrappy and hungry.

It’s obvious that as Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing the role of Hamilton (that he would play on Broadway) that he had a special connection with the founding father. Of the line in the “My Shot” song,”I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory,” Miranda writes “This verse took the better part of a year to write. It’s the Rosetta Stone of Hamilton’s brain, and the first line of it is the most autobiographical thing I’ve written.”

It’s a line that feels like it was pulled from a Tennessee Williams play. So it’s not surprising that that verse took almost a year to write. There are no short cuts. The song “My Shot” is one of those specific, yet universal songs. It’s like Rocky running up the steps. Even if you’ve never trained for a fight, you know what it’s like to face obstacles in life. (Heck, 2020 is one big obstacles for everyone in the world.)

“My Shot”, is, in the lingo of music theater, an “I want” song. These are the numbers that appear early in a show, when the hero steps downstage and tells the audience about the fierce desire that will propel the plot. Think of West Side Story, when Tony sings “Something’s Coming,” or My Fair Lady, when Eliza sings “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’ Without a song like this, you wouldn’t get very far in a musical: A character needs to want something pretty badly to sing about it for two and a half hours. And you wouldn’t get anywhere at all in hip-hop. For all it’s variety of style and subject, rap is, at bottom, the music of ambition, the soundtrack of defiance, whether the force that must be defied is poverty, cops, racism, rival rappers, or all of the above. Think of Nas’s “The World Is Yours,” 2Pac’s “Picture Me Rollin’,” or Eminem’s ”8 Mile.” Like the Rappers who performed those songs, Alexander Hamilton lived hard, wrote fast, and hustled his ass off.
Hamilton the Revolution
A book that’s a backstage look at creating Hamilton written by
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

“My Shot” not only helps us connect and relate to Alexander Hamilton, and shows us his ambition, hopes and desires, but it is a great transformation scene. The previous song (Aaron Burr, Sir) ends with Hamilton kind of calling out Aaron Burr, “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?” and the reaction of Burr’s friends is:

Ooh, who are you?
Who are you
Who are you?
Ooh, who is this kid, what’s he gonna do?

Hamilton answers with “My Shot” and before that scene ends, Burr’s friends are getting behind Hamilton saying:

Let’s get this guy in front of a crowd

(See the post What’s Changed? to see why it’s such a valuable question to ask of every scene you write.)

And there is yet another double meaning in the words “I’m not going to miss my shot” in Hamilton firing his gun in the air in his well known duel with Aaron Burr. There are so many wonderful layers throughout Hamilton. Another line in Hamilton’s/Miranda I want song is “Don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me.” Mission accomplished on both accounts.

P.S.
In Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Rick Dalton (the older fading actor played by Leonardo DiCaprio ) can early relate to the character Easy Breezy in the book he’s reading—a fading rodeo star “who coming to grips with not being the best anymore.”

Related posts:
Before Hamilton (The Successes and Failures That Paved the Way)
‘Hamilton’ as an Emotional Journey 
Finally Getting on the Hamilton Soul Train 
The ’Hamilton’ Hook

Scott W. Smith 

 

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“There’s no movie that can’t be told through its emotions. And there’s no movie that succeeds that is told any other way. In my opinion.” 
—Billy Ray

I want to sneak in one more post before stepping back into a run of posts on Hamilton (and the emotional “I want” song My Shot.) This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post What is the simple emotional journey?—Screenwriter Billy Ray’s Mantra

Normally Ray is given exclusive assignments where he has a week (or a weekend) to decide if he wants to take on a film project. But Captain Phillips was what he calls a “beauty pageant” where many screenwriters went in to pitch their angle on the story. This is how Ray arrived at his pitch and landed the assignment (and for which he received an Oscar nomination):

“I thought, what’s the movie about? Narratively, Captain Phillips is a white guy gets kidnapped by four black guys and three of them get their heads blown off. And not only was that not a movie I wanted to write, that was not even a movie I wanted to see. So I had to think, okay, where is the story in there that has an emotion that I want to write? And so I thought, well, you can just twist the reality of that. The narrative reality of that just a little bit. Look at it from a slightly different perspective and it becomes a story that would be moving.  The pitch was, this is a movie about leadership. This is the story about two captain wake up on opposite sides of the globe and they get up in the morning and get dressed and go to work. And their work is going to put them on a collision course. And once they meet we’re going to realize that one of these captains is would sacrifice himself to save his men, and the other captain would sacrifice his men to save himself. And their collision is the story. That I could write. And that’s the movie. That’s what Captain Phillips is, but told in a visceral, emotional way.”
—Screenwriter Billy Ray
UCLA’s Story Break podcast interview with Simon Herbert and Chris Kyle

Tucked inside Ray’s pitch (and the trailer below) is conflict, character, stakes, emotions—core storytelling traits that helped attract Tom Hanks to the role. And also helped the other captained, played by Barkhad Abdi, to get an Oscar nomination and win a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor. (When AFI does a great movie quote list for this century, I expect Abdi’s line “Look at me, I’m the captain now” to be on that list. )

P.S. The very first line of Ray’s pitch for The Comey Rule (The TV mini series on James Comey) was the emotional idea, “This is a love story between a man in love with an institution, and everything he does is in defense of that institution.”

Related post:
Screenwriting Battlefield  (How Billy Ray beat out more experienced writers when starting out. And what he learned from Robert McKee’s seminar.)
‘Hamilton’ as an Emotional Journey 

Scott W. Smith 

 

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“[When I was in my early 20s] my father told me to read a book called Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. . . . It was just so insightful about how screenwriting actually works. And I think I imitated Goldman’s style in a pretty thief kind of way. Reading his screenplays really taught me about making scripts readable. Making them feel kind of  breezy. Taking your reader inside the emotional experience of a movie.  That was a huge influence for me. . . .  On the computer monitor on which I’m seeing your face right now, in big block letter across the top, it says WHAT IS THE SIMPLE EMOTIONAL JOURNEY? That’s always the mantra for me. That‘s always the true north. Screenwriting is an intellectual exercise that’s designed to illicit and emotional response.”
—Oscar nominated screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
UCLA’s Story Break podcast interview with Simon Herbert and Chris Kyle

If you missed the movie Richard Jewell last year check it out. It was written by Billy Ray and directed by Clint Eastwood and for various reasons got lost in the shuffle and did not have a good box office run. But it is one finely crafted film including Paul Walter Hauser‘s performance in the lead role which was quite an emotional journey.

”The best advice I ever heard about screenwriting . . . ” —Billy Ray
Billy Ray’s Directing Advice 
Screenwriting Quote #162 (Billy Ray)
Information is the Death of Emotion — Christopher McQuarrie 
40 Days of Emotions 

Scott W. Smith 

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Here’s some quirky short videos featuring actress Winona Ryder in Winona, Minnesota. (Winona was actually born in Winona.) When I lived in Iowa I made occasional trips through Winona, MN which sits on the Mississippi River across from Wisconsin. These were part of a commercial for Squarespace that aired during the Super Bowl this year and featured the website WelcomeToWinona.com.

Scott W. Smith 

 

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I’ll continue my run of posts on Hamilton Monday. But today I want to post a couple videos that Apple just dropped featuring writer/director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash).

A couple of years ago I did a presentation at a college and was asked what camera I was excited about most. I knew they were to hear me say one of the Arri or Red camera but I said the iPhone. I had just shot a multimedia project that included everything from a traditional video camera, a Nikon DSLR, a Go Pro, and an iPhone7+.

I loved the simplicity of shooting stills and videos on the fly with the iPhone. (Plus I was using the DJI OSMO stabilizer and the FilMic Pro app so I was pretty blown away by the imagine.

Judging from the looks in the room back in 2007, I had just made a filmmaking faux pas. But I feel vindicated by what’s transpired over the last three years. Chazelle’s videos are just the latest to get some attention. But one more reminder that it’s the filmmaker with vision that’s more important than the camera used.

Twenty years ago I saw these changes coming when I was doing a shoot in Pennsylvania. The year before I had done a traditional DigiBeta SP shoot hiring a three person crew out of Pittsburgh. But because of budget restrictions I was working as a one-man band on this shoot and had rented a Sony PD-150 for a couple hundred dollars. I remember reading the camera manuel on the flight, and trying to wrap my head around the menu. Most film and videos cameras up until then were pretty straight forward.

But the year before, The Blair Witch Project came out and helped change expectations. There were a whole bunch of indie films that were hitting around then shot on digital video cameras. One of my favorites (that I’ve written about several times over the years) is Pieces of April (2003). That film still holds up well today because of the writing and performances.

When the Panasonic DVX 100 camera out one of my cameraman friends couldn’t stop talking about the 24P film look he was getting out of it. In 2003, I purchased a DVX100 and slowing watched as others adopted a new way of doing things. A few years later the switch to HD footage took over. Around 2009/2010 DSLR cameras became an indie favorite, and in 2015 Sean Baker released Tangerine and really showed the world what could be done with an iPhone,

Inspired by what Baker did, Steven Soderbergh shot Unsane (2018) and High Flying Bird (2019) on an iPhone.. I’m not saying that the iPhone is the greatest camera in the world—and neither Baker or Soderbergh used one on their latest films—but it’s earned a seat at the table.

And film school should be the last place to snub their noses at iPhones. What better way to have students cranking out footage than using an iPhone? Make a one minute film day one. Fail, learn, and then make another film.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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