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Archive for January, 2022

”Storytelling needs a sense of place.”
—Robert Redford

The road to Sundance is difficult. Especially in a two-wheel drive car at wintertime. Because of snow, chains on your tires are often required if you’re not in an all-wheel drive or four wheel drive vehicle.

I’m speaking of the literal road to Sundance, Utah. Of course, the Sundance Film Festival (which starts today) is a difficult place for filmmakers to get their films shown. Because of the high volume of films submitted for relatively few spots, the acceptance rate I’ve read is less than 2%. But we’re going back to the roots today. Long before I started this blog Screenwriting from Iowa …and Other Unlikely Places in 2008, and before what would become known as the Sundance Film Festival, and I think even before there was a place known as Sundance, Utah. Back to the early ’60s when actor/director Robert Redford took a drive into Provo Canyon and up Route 92 toward Mount Timpanogos and ended up buying two acres of land (because that’s all he could afford).

But in 1969, on the success of his roles in Barefoot in the Park and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford was able to purchase an additional 500 acres. That is where the Sundance Mountain Resort is located. I’m actually not 100% sure, but I think the seeds of the Sundance Film Festival were birthed at the Sundance Institute started in Sundance in 1981. I think back then, Utah would officially have qualifed as an unlikely place to be a future Mecca for independent filmmakers. This year due to COVID the festival is online (and select theaters around the country), but Park City is normally the main hub for the festival (with many of the films shown in Salt Lake City). Both of those areas are about an hour north of Sundance.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to make a stop at the Sundance Resort in December. I took the photos on this post and soaked in what drew Redford to the area. I’ve been a fan of Redford’s since I was ten years old and saw a re-release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in theaters. “Think you used enough dynamite there Butch?” In high school I did a report on old west ghost towns and remember reading a book by Redford called The Outlaw Trail. For a kid growing up in a cement block home in the suburbs of Orlando, that old west stuff was (and still is) fascinating.

I always thought of the Old West as places like Colorado, Wyoming and Montana—but Utah is where many of the great old westerns were shot including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Stagecoach. The book When Hollywood Came to Utah by James D’Arc covers that history well. After I graduated from film school back in the ’80s one of my stops was the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. It only took me a few more decades to make it up the road to Sundance. Hope I can make it in person to the Sundance Film Festival one of these days. But, hey, this is a reminder that there are all kinds of things happening in unlikely places.

P.S. Even if you can’t make it Utah—and even if you don’t have a car—there are online ways for you to learn from the Sundance Institute through their Sundance co//ab website where you can pay for classes and even watch some free videos on the filmmaking process.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“[John Wayne’s] visual legacy has defined him as the archetypal man of the American West—bold, innocent, profane, idealistic, wrongheaded, good-hearted, single-minded, quick to action, not given to pretension, essentially alone, ready for any adventure—no matter how grand or daring; larger, finally, than life or death.”
—Peter Bogdanovich in Who the Hell’s in It

As a way to tie in my recent post about writer/director Peter Bogdanovich with my recent holiday trip out west here are a couple of photos from Arches National Park in Utah. I took these two days after Christmas on a quick stop between Grand Junction, Colorado and Provo, Utah. If you’re not from this part of the country and are a cinephile this place just screams old westerns.

Back in the ’60s, when Bogdanovich was still a journalist he met director John Ford when he was shooting Cheyenne Autumn. I’m not sure which location in Utah he was able to observe Ford direct, but part of Cheyenne Autumn was shot in Arches National Park. As were parts of many other films including Thelma & Louise, Indiana Johns and the Last Crusade, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and another John Ford film Fort Apache (which starred John Wayne).

It’s a mesmerizing part of the country.

Ground central for classic Hollywood western films (with its classic buttes) is Monument Valley directly south of Arches about 3 hours. But to show how vast this terrain is, I took the photo below about an hour northwest of Arches just off Interstate 70 near Green River, Utah. I couldn’t pass up the way the light was hitting the mesa. Since the Sundance Film Festival starts tomorrow I’ll talk about the road to Sundance in Utah in my next post.

P.S. I imagine I’ll write more about this later, but if you’re interested in the history of films made in Utah—from The Searchers to 127 Hours to Footloose—check out the excellent book When Hollywood Came to Utah by James D’Arc.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

—Langston Hughes poem ”Harlem”

”He was the beam we all followed.”
—Denzel Washington on Sidney Poitier

On this Martin Luther King Day I decided to revisit the classic movie A Raisin in the Sun. The movie came out in 1961, two years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and three years before the Civil Rights Act passed. The movie is based on the 1959 Broadway play of the same name written by Lorraine Hansberry, who also wrote the screenplay. It is playwriting and screenwriting with brass knuckles.

My book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles is dedicated to Annye Refoe who was my creative writing teacher my junior and senior year of high school. She was a recent graduated of Fisk University (a historic black school) and showed A Place in the Sun to her all white class. This was long before the Internet, and even before cable and VCRs were ubiquitous. There were no revival art houses in Orlando to discover classic films. You can say that that single showing of A Raisin in the Sun was my first film class.

The pivotal character in the film is Walter Lee Younger played by Sidney Poitier. When Poitier died last week, his role in A Raisin in the Sun was the one I thought of first. He was the first African-American actor to be nominated for a best actor Oscar (The Defiant Ones, 1958), and the first African-American actor to win a best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963).

A Raisin in the Sun was not a big award winning film (or even award-nominated film) but the real win was that it got made. And despite having a 500+ run on Broadway, from what I’ve read the film version wouldn’t have gotten made without Sidney Poitier. I don’t believe you can accurately teach film history without talking about the 1915 film Birth of a Nation (a film based on the book The Clansman), but don’t think you should pass up the role of A Raisin in the Sun in unpacking American cinema.

P.S. And as a bonus to the many other fine performances in A Raisin in the Sun, you get the screen debut of Oscar-Winning actor Louis Gossett Jr (An Officer and a Gentleman). And to show what a small world it is, I once studied acting with Gossett’s second wife Cyndi James Gossett. (If my memory is correct, it was a scene study class on Chekhov’s Three Sisters.)

Related posts:https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001283/

Lorraine Hansberry and the Seeds of ’A Raisin in the Sun’

Nudge the World a Little

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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To remember writer/director Peter Bogdanovich I’m going to reach back into a couple of posts I wrote about him in 2012 called The Making of Peter Bogdanovich and The Breaking of Peter Bogdanovich.

The Making of Peter Bogdanovich

There’s a lot to learn from looking back at the journeys that filmmakers take on their way to being a part of film history. In the case of writer/director/actor Peter Bogdanovich, one of the things that jumps out is his education. Not his formal education—he didn’t attend college—but his film & theater education. An education that began as a child. (All of the quotes below are from Bogdanovich himself and pulled from various sources. Marc Maron’s interview with Bogdanovich is excellent.)

Here’s a compressed timeline leading up to Bogdanvich’s film The Last Picture Show. (A film which sits at 95 on AFI’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all time.)

1) Born in Kingston, New York in 1939 & raised in Manhattan.
2) His father took him to see silent films at revival house theaters in New York City. (Developed an early appreciate of visual storytelling.)
3) “At the age of 10 I remember my favorite films were She Wore a Yellow RibbonRed River, and The Ghost Goes West.”
4) “I started keeping a card file of everything I saw from the age of twelve, twelve and a half.” (He did that for 18 years and had between 5,000—6,000 cards.)

5) His parents didn’t get a television until he moved out of the house.
6) At age 15 he got his first job with a professional theater company in Traverse City, Michigan. “That was a great experience, we did 10 plays in 10 weeks.”)
7) At age 16 started studying acting with Stella Adler. (Continued for 4 years.)
8) At age 19 he got the rights to a Clifford Odets play and took 9 months raising $15,000. to direct The Big Knife. (The play was not a financial success.)
9) When he was 20 he met New York Times film critics Andrew Sarris and Eugene Archer. “They would come over to my apartment in Manhattan and talk movies into the wee hours. I learned a great deal from both of them.”
10) Started writing about plays and films for newspapers to earn some money.”It was a way of getting on screening lists and seeing movies for nothing. And getting books and seeing plays for nothing. It was totally motivated by not wanting to spend my own money because I didn’t have any.”
11) At 24, he did a retrospect on Orson Welles at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $50.
12) Started writing freelance articles on film for Esquire magazine.
13) Had his second theatrical flop in New York and moved to LA with his wife Polly Platt to try to get into the movies.
14) “A little less than a year after we’d gotten to Hollywood I met Roger Cormanby accident…he said, ‘you’re a writer, I read your stuff in Esquire. Would you like to write a movie?’ Yeah, I’d like to write a movie.”
15) He did a rewrite on one of Corman’s scripts for $300 and no credit. “The Wild Angels (1966) as it was known as— it was the most successful film of [Corman’s] career.”—Bogdanovich
16) Bogdanovich also found most of the locations and shot second unit on The Wild Angels. And suggested Peter Fonda for the lead.
17) Just before turning 30 he directed and co-wrote a feature film for Corman called Targets starring Boris Karloff.
18) His next film was The Last Picture Show (1971) which he directed, edited and co-wrote. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and comparisons were made between a young Bogdanovich and Orson Welles after he made Citizen Kane.

The Last Picture Show was a financial and critical success making Bogdanovich as hot as a young director can be. Stars of the day were having meetings with him in hopes of getting to work with the rising star. Professionally, that was Bogdanovich’s mountain top experience. He was 32 years-old. What a journey. It’s not a journey you can duplicate as a filmmaker. But you can appreciate the work and the years (even the failures) that led up to his breakout success.

It’s another prime example of the 10,000 hour rule in effect. What you can take away from Bogdanovich is he took small steps and moved forward. He was serious about the craft. From his film index card system that he started when he was 12, to working at a regional theater in Michigan as a teenager, to hanging out with New York film critics in his early 20s, directing off-broadway plays, writing articles, jumping into Roger Corman’s B-film world, to writing and directing The Last Picture Show was basically a 20 year journey.

P.S. Here’s a little bit of odd film trivia I just discovered. Bogdanovich’s first wife, Polly Platt (who had her own distinguished career in Hollywood) was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois—the same city where actor/writer Sam Shepard was born. And just 4 years apart. Fort Sheridan is a Chicago suburb on the North Shore of Lake Michigan and just 30 miles from where Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The Breaking of Peter Bogdanovich

“If you’re not hot in Los Angeles, it’s a very lonely town…It’s a lonely town even if you are hot.”
Peter Bogdanovich

“I’m not bitter. I ask for it myself. Success is very hard. Nobody prepares you for it. You think you’re infallible. You pretend you know more than you do. Pride goeth before the fall.”
Peter Bogdanovich
New York Times article: Older, Sadder, Maybe Wiser
April 07,2002

In the post The Making of Peter Bogdanovich I wrote about his rise from an early love of movies as a child, to being a teenage actor, to being a writer in his early twenties, to directing The Last Picture Show in his early thirties. After that film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, he would direct two more winners—What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon. At least professionally, at that moment in time, Bogdanovich had the kind of success that few filmmakers experience. But then what happened?

“What happened? Three-in-a-row struck back. Mr. Bogdanovich’s three successes were followed with Daisy Miller (1974), At Long last Love(1975), and Nickelodeon (1976)–three flops.”
David Thomson

Professionally he was in a tail spin. It probably didn’t help his psyche that he turned down opportunitees to direct The Godfather and Chinatown. His private life was no picnic either. During The Last Picture Show he began an affair with Cybill Shepherd which ended his marriage to Polly Platt. After his three failed films, his relationship  ended with Shepherd and in 1979, at age 39, he began a relationship with 19-year-old Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, who he cast in his film They All Laughed. Tragically Stratten was killed in 1980 by her  estranged husband who then killed himself. Bogdanovich retreated by writing a book about Stratten.

He also created a controversy when his compassion for Stratten’s 13-year-old half-sister turned into a romantic relationship sometime in her later teens. When Bogdanovich was 49 he married the 20-year-old.  They would later divorce, and along the way he’s filed for bankruptcy twice, reportedly went through psychiatric treatment, and eventually left California and returned to New York’s Upper West Side, not far from where he was raised.

“If you do not stay visible, you’re forgotten. It’s somewhat like riding a tiger. If you fall off, you get eaten, and if you stay on it’s a rough ride.”
Paul S. Sigelman (An attorney of Peter Bogdanovich’s at the time of his bankruptcy trials)

 “[Hollywood’s] an easy place to get fooled. There are no real seasons and you’re not aware of time going. Orson had this line: ‘The terrible thing about LA is that you sit down when you’re 25 and when you stand up you’re 62.’ He was not wrong.”
Peter Bogdanovich

The Bel-Air hacienda, the Rolls-Royce, and the servants of his past life are gone. Like John Wayne, John Ford, and Cary Grant—all just a faded remnants of Bogdanovich’s past.

But well into the future, filmmakers will learn from Bogdanovich—even if just via his writings and commentaries—about filmmaking, old Hollywood, and maybe a life lesson or two along the way.

THE REBOUND OF PETER BOGDANOVICH

Bogdanovich was a survivor in an industry that’s difficult to have a long career. Bogdanovich was fortunate enough to have a second act in the ’80 and ’90s when he made Mask and They All Laughed (a Tarantino favorite), Noises Off, recorded DVD commentaries, and wrote some books (Who the Devil Made It? , Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week, Who the Hell’s in It?) But even more impressive he had a third act. Starting in 2000 he had a reoccurring role in The Sopranos and continued picking up acting gigs here and there until he died. He taught at University of North Carolina School for the Arts. In 2009 he won a Grammy for the video Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream. And with his film knowledge he was also a popular speaker on the film festival circuit and write many articles and blog posts.

Scott W. Smith

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Just two weeks ago on my cross country driving trip I drove through Wichita Falls. That north Texas town has been on my radar for decades because it’s near where director and screenwriter Peter Bogdanovich shot The Last Picture Show (1971). I believe Archer City was the stand-in for the small dying oil town based on Larry McMurtry’s novel. You don’t need to be too far out of Dallas heading north on Route 287 to be transported back in time in the mesmerizing wide open spaces of Texas. But the majestic blue sky I witnessed is a stark contrast to the black and white vision Bogdanovich used in The Last Picture Show. (One said to be encouraged by Orson Welles.)

When I heard yesterday that Bogdanovich died, the film of his I thought of was The Last Picture Show. When I heard today that Sidney Poitier died the film I thought about was A Raisin in the Sun (1961). Next week I’ll re-visit posts I’ve written on both films. But today I’ll leave you with a photo I took in downtown Wichita Falls of what was originally The Wichita Theater built in 1908. The renovated theatre is now the Wichita Theatre Performing Arts Centre. It was originally an opera house, but in 1939 it opened as a renovated movie theater. I’d like to think that both A Raisin in the Sun and The Last Picture Show once played there. And perhaps it’s where the cast and crew hung out during downtime while making The Last Picture Show.

P.S. Because part of this blog is about places as well as screenwriting and filmmaking, you can get a great snap shot of American history and culture by watching The Last Picture Show and A Raisin in the Sun back to back.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Back in 1984, after graduating from film school in Los Angeles, I decided to finally take the solo cross-country trip I always wanted to take. While working as a freelance assistant photographer in school, another assistant told me that if I didn’t do it after I graduated I’d probably never do it. It was great advice because life (and bills) have a way of quickly altering your life.

So I put my stuff from my Burbank studio apartment into a small storage unit in June knowing I had some freelance photography opportunities to come back at the end of August. It was a wonderful trip that took me to the east coast and back over a six week period. One of the great stops was in Ketchum, Idaho. I remember looking up at the Sun Valley ski area and saying that someday I wanted to return and ski the area that was a favorite of Hollywood elite going back to the 1930s.

Keep in mind this was 1984. That some day finally happened on the last day of 2021. That’s 37 years in the making. I was only able to get a half-day in skiing, but it was a glorious blue ski day after a light snowfall the night before. On the first ski lift I met a man in his forties who been coming to Sun Valley every year since he was five because his family had a home there. I was content to get in basically 24-hours total in Ketchum/Sun Valley.

My wife was able to see the New Year’s eve fireworks from our hotel room, but I was fast sleep after my few hours on Bald Mountain and a trout dinner at The Sawtooth Club where Hemingway used to hangout in his later years. On New Year’s Day, we had breakfast at Gretchen’s at the Sun Valley Resort and walked around a bit to get a teaspoon taste of the world that’s attracted John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Demi Moore, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Lucille Ball, and many others over the years.

The bottom line is some hopes and dreams take a little longer than others to fulfill.

Happy New Year.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Driving down Main Street in Grand Junction, Colorado last week I didn’t expect to see a screenwriter sitting in a bathtub. But that’s what happened.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, The Brave One) was born in Montrose, Colorado and raised in nearby Grand Junction. He wrote for the school newspaper before graduating from Grand Junction High School in 1924. According to Wikipedia, ”Trumbo worked the night shift wrapping bread at a Los Angeles bakery, and attended the University of California, Los Angeles (1926) and the University of Southern California (1928–1930). During this time, he wrote movie reviews, 88 short stories, and six novels, all of which were rejected for publication.”

Right out of the gate there wasn’t much to indicate that by the 1940s he would be one of the most in demand and highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. But he got some stories published in magazines, had his first novel (Eclipse) published in 1935, worked as a reader for Warner Bros., and earned his first film screenwriting credit in 1936. But at the peak of his success he was named with other screenwriters and others in the film industry as a Communist sympathizer. In 1947 he was brought by House Un-American Activities Committee to testify before congress. Dalton refused to give information and was held in contempt of Congress. This resulted i Trumbo serving 11 months time in federal penitentiary in Kentucky in 1950, and the Hollywood Ten being blackballed from the film industry.

Afterwards he moved his family to Mexico City, wrote scripts for B-movies for low-pay, but also wrote Hollywood movies under a pseudonym. He wasn’t recognized for writing some of his films until after his death in 1976. That’s the sweeping timeline of a screenwriter from definitely from an unlikely place.

I can think of no other screenwriter who rose so high, fell so low, had books and movies made about his life, and has statue of himself back in his hometown. But as someone from Grand Junction once told me, “Western slope people are different.” Look no further than Dalton Trumbo—a man known for writing screenplays in a bathtub—as proof of that statement. (Artist: J. Michael Wilson)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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