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A Quiet Place hit $150 million at the worldwide box office over the weekend. Not bad for a movie that just cost $17 million to produce and has only been in theaters 10 days. You may be surprised to learn that it started as an idea that could be made on a micro-budget.

We started thinking what can we write that could be made. Again, this was almost ten years ago—it’s been a long journey.  But we started pivoting our point of view to what films that could be producible? 

Kind of a lesson we learned growing up in Iowa, we would write things for resources that we had in front of us. Something that could be produced, could be made, and hopefully be an interesting story, too. That’s a long way of saying that’s somewhat the genesis of The Quiet Place. It’s like The Quiet Place was written for us to shoot back in Iowa for $50,000 if everyone passed on it. It would have been a very, very different version without Emily Blunt and John Kraninski. But it was something we just had a passion for, and we knew worst case senerio that could be plan B.
Scott Beck on writing the original script for A Quiet Place with Bryan Woods
H/T Christopher Lockhart via a Q&A video at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills

I saw the film over the weekend and could see the DNA of their Iowa roots in the movie (even though the film was shot in rural New York):

Farm/farmhouse
Cornfield
Silo full of corn
Old truck
Pitchfork and hatchet
Bridge
Woods
Small town Main Street.

And I also saw the DNA of some popular movies scattered throughout A Quiet Place:
Alien
Birds
Signs

Jaws 
Them

P.S. Scott Beck and Bryan Woods are originally from Bettendorf, Iowa and graduated from the University of Iowa in 2007, both less than 2 hours from where I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa when I started this blog. (Our only connection that I know of is we both used Iowa-based gaffer/jib-operator Jon Van Allen on our films and other productions.)  I don’t know if Beck or Woods ever read a single post of Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places—but they’re example A of what’s possible if you have a movie idea and live in an unlikely place.

Related post:
The Best Film School

Scott W. Smith

 

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“The key advice I’d give [any filmmaker] is when you’re starting out make things as cheaply as possible. There is a path for making things so cheaply that the minimal value that most independent films get can still help you to recoup your budget. And that’s a path that the Duplass brothers took really well, and I think it will always be a path. There’s always going to be an appetite for movies of a certain sort and if you can achieve quality with a very low budget you can find a path with an independent film.”
Indie film producer Keith Calder 
Interview with John August on Scriptnotes, Episode #342

Note: The keyword in the title of today’s post is “a.” This is a path, not the only path. But, as I mentioned yesterday, before Scott Beck and Bryan Woods had their names attached to the current #1 box office Hollywood hit (The Quiet Place), they made a bunch of low-budget films in Iowa.

“Throughout high school and our college years we just keep making movies and feature films for practically no budget.”
Writer/director Scott Beck
#AlwaysAHawkeye video 

Related posts:

How to Shoot a Film in Ten Days
The Ten Film Commandments of Edward Burns
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood

P.S. Yesterday I went to see the documentary film Long Time Coming at the Florida Film Festival. It’s the debut feature film of Orlando-based filmmaker Jon Strong. It was the second showing of the festival because the first one sold out hours after tickets went on sale.

I don’t know the budget of the film and Strong did say during the Q&A that the film was in the works for two years. But my guess is it’s an example of a film that was made without a large budget and one that will find a distribution path at ESPN or Netflix. Production-wise Long Time Coming reminded me of another baseball-centered film No, No: A Dockumentary (on picture Dock Ellis) which I saw at the Florida Film Festival a few years ago.

No, No was also very heavy on interviews of past players. And if my memory is correct,  the director said the bulk of the interviews with former Pittsburgh Pirates players was shot over a reunion weekend. Shaping those interviews into a story, finding archival photos and videos (and securing rights and funding to use them) is what can take months and years.

But No, No is a good example of a film that had a niche audience and found distribution.  It’s not a bad idea to find a film in your genre that you like and find out as much as you can about how it got funded and found distribution.

IMG_5841.jpg

Scott W. Smith

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“Growing up in Ohio was just planning to get out.”
Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (who grew up in Akron)

At the end of Ted Hope’s book Hope  for Film he has an appendix that lists 141 Problems and Opportunities for the Independent World. The list flowed from a blog post he wrote back in 2010.  You can find the entire list here, but I’m just going to highlight one problem today.

124. Artists cannot afford to live in our cultural centers. It’s a real Catch-22. Artists make cultural centers, but these places become too pricey for their creators to live in. If you are in the middle class, you can only afford 14 percent of the currently available homes in San Francisco. The number drops to only 2.5 percent in New York City. I love both cities, but can’t see my future in either of them as a result. And I don’t really want to move to Akron, Ohio, either (no offense intended, Akron!).
Ted Hope
Hope for Film: From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions (p. 285)

If you don’t have wealthy parents or a trust fund to support you for a few years until you get some traction in New York or L.A. what is one to do? Many articles over the years have talked about the struggle of creative people trying to pay their bills in the big cities. And if you tack on a large film school debt, forgetaboutit.

It makes me wonder where people like Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise) would go today if they were starting out in 2018 instead of the 1970s.

I started writing this blog in 2008 after seeing Diablo Cody’s Juno and learning that she went to school in Iowa City and wrote the Juno screenplay in the suburbs of Minneapolis. She went on to move to L.A. and win an Oscar for that script. A Midwest success story.

As of this weekend, we have another Midwest success story. And, yes, one also with Iowa roots.

‘A Quiet Place’ Delivers a Not So Quiet $50 Million Opening
Box Office Mojo headline
April 8, 2018

The original screenplay for The Quiet Place was written by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. After the script sold to Paramount in 2016,  John Kraninski came on board to further develop the script, and direct and star in the finished version that this past weekend finished at top of the box office.

So which “cultural center” did these guys develop their filmmaking chops? I’m glad you asked.

“Scott Beck and Bryan Woods are two screenwriters you may not have heard of yet but surely will very soon. Scott and Bryan first met as sixth-graders in their hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa. After discovering a shared interest in cinema, the duo began making stop-motion movies together with their Star Wars action figures. This collaboration continued into high school, where they directed numerous shorts and their first feature films.”
Mike Sargent
Script mag

Like Diablo Cody they also attended the University of Iowa, which is where they first came up with the idea for The Quiet Place. Just this morning both Woods and Beck were back in Iowa City giving a talk on “Exploring Careers in Cinema.” 

They’re based in L.A. now but made their first short films and Nightlight (2015) back in Iowa.

Of course, this doesn’t exactly address Ted Hope’s question that I started off this blog addressing. But the drum I’ve been hitting for the past decade is there are filmmakers rising up all over the world finding support and inspiration from their communities.

Scott W. Smith 

John

 

 

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“I think one of the best things you can do as a filmmaker (or an artist in general) is to define what you love.”
Ted Hope

The above quote and list below of “32 Qualities of a Better Film” came from a Facebook post @tedhope.fanpage earlier this month. Click here to see how Ted Hope unpacks this list in more detail.

1. Ambition

2. Originality

3. Innovation

4. Integrity To The Concept

5. Discipline

6. Truthfulness

7. Joy Of Doing

8. Singularity

9. Communication Of Themes

10. Clarity of Intent

11. Synthesis of Style & Themes

12. Application Of Techniques

13. Reality Of Actors

14. Pleasure

15. A Good Story Well Told

16. Accomplishment Within The Means

17. Awareness & Appreciation Of The World

18. Acknowledgement Of The Limits Of Feature Film Form

19. Consideration Of Effects Of Representation

20. Recognition Of Film History

21. Subversive To The Status Quo

22. Provocation Of The Audience

23. Respect For The Audience

24. Confidence In The Filmmaking

25. Restraint

26. Awareness Or Avoidance Of Pretension

27. Access To The Subconscious

28. Differentiation Among Characters & Environments

29. Leaving Some Things Unexplained

30. Emotional Use Of Technique

31. Depth Of Character / Depth of Characters

32. Impassioned Point Of View

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I’m reading through Ted Hope’s book Hope for Film, From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions (the Kindle version which I recommend) and came along this passage that he calls “My formula for the perfect Sundance Film.” I hope you find it helpful. (From pages 78-79.)

 

1. The protagonist: Center the story around an everyday person, someone the audience can identify with (not a wealthy or an evil type).

2. The plot: The protagonist needs to go through a serious arc, suffer hardship, and then come to some understanding that the audience didn’t expect.

3. Be bold: Show risk-taking in the filmmaking. Make it feel like it may all fall apart, but then save it at the last moment: People should say, “It’s bold.”

4. Be disciplined: If you can’t be bold, be disciplined. If it doesn’t fit the form, cut it out.

5. Own your aesthetic: Embrace, even flaunt, your aesthetic and the limits of your aesthetic. Don’t be ashamed of your limitations. Own your choices.

6. Engage bigger issues: The story has to be bigger than the movie itself and should deal with issues of either class conflict, gender conflict, sexual conflict, or other political issues. How do you comment on the world at large while still examining the minute and particular?

7. Cast: You need to cast a few stars or soon-to-be stars, so it should be an ensemble piece that covers generational conflict. You have the old-name actor you’re bringing back and the up-and-comer whom no one had seen yet, along with actors who can move from TV into feature films.

8. Shock value: It needs some moment of audacity, the kind of thing that people will talk about and that might even shock the uninitiated.

9. The right mix: Have a sense of humor about great tragedy— or find the tragedy in the hilarious. Embrace the cocktail; make it at least feel fresh.

10. Leave them wanting more: Shorter is better; 90 minutes is the new 120 (today, 80 is the new 90). No one ever says, “I wish it had been longer” when they leave the theater.

 

 

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As an independent-film producer and an avid fan of ambitious and diverse work in all forms— and as a citizen of the world— I am always excited to keep up with the changing times. But nothing has prepared me for the onslaught of the last few years. 

…The Internet has transformed the business of the arts and how we connect with each other, well beyond our imagination. If Hollywood suits and corporate media higher-ups once determined the majority of our choices (simply by limiting them), we— the audience— are now the curators and the programmers, recommending films and other cultural pleasures to our friends, exchanging playlists, and sharing our opinions on social networks. We can now reach out online and mobilize others to vote both with their feet and their dollars, to act not on impulse, but on the knowledge and experience that comes with a highly connected, digital universe.

…Low-cost digital cameras as well as distribution avenues like YouTube and iTunes are available to nearly everyone, and you can be exposed to the history of cinema or music or just about any art form at any time you want— all for free, or virtually so. So why aren’t we making better creative work? And why can’t we come up with better ways to support the work and help it progress? We can. And by doing it together, we can build it better. With fewer barriers, fewer rules, and fewer conventions, filmmakers— and creators of all sorts— are freer to focus on developing new art forms, expanding beyond current modes, and discovering new ways of accessing and sharing content. We are on the verge of opening up which stories can be told, how they are told, and to whom and where we deliver them. Our ability to interact with films in different environments and in new social multi-user ways keeps changing. Cinema is not a single form or experience, but almost as varied as the artists who create it.

…Independence is the only choice when you’re not necessarily interested in a mass audience, and for the first time ever, we can effectively work outside that structure and specifically address the niches. We are right around the corner of an incredible blossoming of a new and vibrant cinema.
Film producer Ted Hope (in 2014) shortly before becoming the head of Motion Picture Production at Amazon
Hope for Film: From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions (pp. 22-24).

Related posts:

In light of today’s post it was fun to revisit two posts that I wrote ten years ago. I was writing in 2008 about a shift in the kinds of ways filmmakers were making films—including SMS Sugarman (2008) by South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof.

New Cinema Screenwriting (Part 1)
New Cinema Screenwriting (Part 2) 
Cocaine Cowboys & the Future of Film (A post I wrote in November 2009 after watching my first film online.)

Scott W. Smith

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This morning I started reading Ted Hope’s book Hope for Film: From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions.  I’ll pull some excepts from it this week. One of his first credits was as an associate producer on Doom Asylum (1987)—a film that he actually left off his resume for years, but one where he learned valuable lessons.

The film used many techniques that my directors and I applied to many of our first passion projects and still use today: Find a core location that could serve as a base for the entire story and production; write scenes for different times of day, so that the sun is your main lighting instrument; cast friends and acquaintances who want to be there as much as you; and make sure that people enjoyed being there despite horrible conditions. Doom Asylum was an exercise in how to get a movie made with as little available as possible. If I ran a film school, I would require the students to make a feature film for just a thousand dollars. They’d learn tricks that they could apply for the rest of their lives, no matter how poorly the movie turned out.
Ted Hope
Hope for Film, page 15

 

Related posts:
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
How to Shoot a Feature Film in 10 Days
Don’t Wait for Hollywood
‘Don’t try and compete with Hollywood’

Scott W. Smith

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