Archive for the ‘filmmaking’ Category

While Frank Capra is best known today for making It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), his three Oscar awards came from three films he directed during The Great Depression; It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take it with You (1938),

“From Mr. Deeds on my films were pretty much alike. I mean the same things kept cropping up. But they were not just escapist films. Love thy neighbor is a very deep-seated quality in the human race. It’s something that unless we can get more of that into our everyday lives we’re just going to go down the rat hole.”
Three-time Oscar-winning director Frank Capra (1897-1991)
1971 Interview

Since this is a political season in the United States, I’ll pick a clip to show from his 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (for which Brookfield, Missouri-born screenwriter Lewis R. Foster won an Oscar for writing). 

The origin of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was the short story The Gentleman from Montana also written by Foster. According to Life magazine that short story was loosely based on the early career of Burton K. Wheeler, a Senator from Butte, Montana “who was attacked and falsely indicted when as a freshman Senator in the 1920’s, he fought corruption in the Presidential administration of Warren G. Harding.”

P.S. Many years ago I saw a billboard—for I think the TV show Melrose Place— that read “Loving thy neighbor is cool.” While provocative, I don’t think that was quite what Jesus had in mind when giving the great commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and, “you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Related Posts:
Filmmaking Quote #27 “I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”—Capra
Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville
Earning Your Ending (Tip #76) Edward Burns on It’s a Wonderful Life
Writing from Theme
More Thoughts on Theme
It’s a Wonderful Prison 
(“Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Frank Darabont)

Related link:
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington article by Turner Classic Movies 

Scott W. Smith


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“One of the best films about American life that I have ever seen.”
Roger Ebert on Hoop Dreams

Tonight in Chicago Kartemquin Films has a public gala at the Harris Theater as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. Congratulations to the Kartemquin team and “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James for producing quality films and being a light upon the path.

The quote below is taken from a longer Q&A from The Criterion Collection:

TCC Question: Was there a particular reason you chose to make movies in Chicago, rather than New York or Los Angeles?

Steve James: When I was going to leave grad school, I was married—still am—and I floated the idea of maybe going to New York, and my wife just did not like that idea; it seemed too intimidating to go there. Los Angeles was a possibility, but I wasn’t particularly interested in L.A. I knew I wanted to do this Hoop Dreams idea, and I knew New York would be a good place, but I knew Chicago would also be a good place to do this story because of the tradition of basketball in this city. I liked the idea of coming to Chicago; I didn’t know much about Chicago, but a big part of my motivation for coming there was I needed to go some place where there was an industry and a way to make films.

Seeing Hoop Dreams at the Enzian Theater when it was first released in the mid-90s was one of the most moving experience I’ve eve had watching a movie. Steve James and his team spent 7 or 8 years making that documentary, so if you’ve never seen it I encourage you to see it and celebrate the work Kartemquin Films has been doing for 50 years.


Related posts:
Screenwriting da Chicago Way 
Friday Night Hoop Dreams

Scott W. Smith


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“I was really beginning to question if I’d ever catch my proverbial big break. I drifted away from film work and started applying for police jobs.”
Chris Sparling, Buried screenwriter

“(Chris Sparling) went directly from struggling indie director to successful Hollywood scribe when the screenplay for his horror thriller Buried was picked up, cast with a major up-and-coming star, and thrown before the cameras in just six months. And now it’s receiving its U.S. première at the Sundance Film Festival.
Melissa Silvstri
Filmmaker Magazine Winter 2010

You can’t get more minimalistic than Buried (2010). And while it was shot over 21 days with Rodrigo Cortés directing— it could have been shot in a 1 to 4 days. Granted it wouldn’t have been as good, but it could have been.

And from interviews back around the time Buried was purchased between three and four million, it sounded like an ultra low-budget film was what screenwriter Chris Sparling was originally after. (He had little success in distrubuting his short films and one low-budget indie film.)

“Stealing a page from Hitchcock’s playbook, I decided on writing a story that takes place entirely in one small location. In my case, this was inside an old, wooden coffin.”
Chris Sparling

Two of the most well-known films in Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook that embraced limitations were Rope and Lifeboat.

Sparling was asked in an interview with Carson Reeves at Script Shadow, “How many scripts had you written before Buried? Which script did you realize that maybe you were getting the hang of it?” Sparling said, “Before Buried, I think I’d written about nine or ten features and two TV specs. Truth be told, it didn’t start to click for me until about my seventh feature script.”

Ryan Reynolds plays a  U.S.  contract driver in Iraq who is attacked and placed in a coffin with a flashlight, a cell phone and a lighter and must find someone to pay a million dollar ransom or he’ll soon die. A primal survival story reminiscent of low-budget success stories of past years; The Blair Witch Project, Open Water and Paranormal Activity. 

If you’re interested in low-budget filmmaking with a contained story elements read the Buried screenplay and study he movie. A nice bookend to Buried is 127 Hours. 

Related posts:
Ticking Clock (#103)

Scott W. Smith

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Shooting a Feature Film Over Dinner

“I wrote [My Dinner with Andre] with a friend of mine, Andre Gregory—which was also set in the rubble of a decaying city. I played a writer who struggled to find a way to survive.”
Writer/Actor Wally Shawn

Okay, this one is a cheat. While My Dinner with Andre (1982) is a film that takes place over a dinner conversation, it certainly wasn’t simply shot over dinner one night.

My last three posts were about shooting feature films in 4 days, 2 days, and even a 1 day, so My Dinner with Andre crossed my mind. I didn’t recall how the Louis Malle directed film was shot so I did some reading and discovered that the actors performed the dinner conversation script 17 times in front of an audience. It was heavily rehearsed.

So it could have been shot over dinner. Especially in the digital age. Much like David Fincher and his team did for the opening of Social Network. Many takes with many cameras. In the case of My Dinner with Andre, I read where it was shot single camera film style over 16 days.

I couldn’t find a trailer of My Dinner with Andre, but I found this clip. It’s a dialogue driven film and worth discovering/re-discovering for filmmaker interested in making a film that is intellectual in nature.

The Criterion Collection of the film appears full of extra interviews so I imagine a great resource for those of you looking to write and make a film with extreme limitations.

P.S. An interesting aside that I’m not 100% sure about is while I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa I was told that back in the ’70s Wally Shawn lived in Cedar Falls for a time. I was told he played in the local symphony and dated a professor at the University of Iowa down in Iowa City. And that part of the original inspiration of My Dinner with Andre was either a downtown restaurant or the historic Black Hawk Hotel on Main Street. Again. I don’t know if any of that is true, but it made for good folklore.

Scott W. Smith

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“What appealed to me on a purely human level, was that this director respected everyone equally, regardless of their rank, status or role in the process.”
Cinematographer Tilman Büttner
(On Russian Ark director Alexander Sokurov)

The last two posts were about shooting a feature film in four days, making a feature film in two days, so why not follow that up with a film that was shot in one day?

It’s been done before. And not just as an exploitive low-budget horror film following the trap-a-group-of-friends-in-a-house model.  Roger Ebert said Russian Ark was, “one of the best-sustained ideas I have ever seen on the screen.”

Back in 2002, I was in Chicago on a production and got to see Russian Ark when it was first released. It was playing at the Music Box Theater (built in 1929) which made it all the more special.

It was shot at the Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia by cinematographer Tilman Büttner in one 90 minute take using a Sony 900 on a Steadicam and an external hard drive.

It was directed by Alexander Sokurov who reportedly had a total cast and crew of 4,500 people to pull off the amazing feat. So there was a lot of behind the scene work to pull off the one day shoot. But if ever there was a true “director’s cut” it Russian Ark.

Hitchcock did a similar idea on Rope (1948) but was limited to ten minute takes due to the limitations of shooting on film. He was inventive to attempt to hide the edits. And if Russian Ark was shot today they would easily be able to seamlessly digital stitch scenes together (which is what they did on Birdman).

Granted you may not have a place as grand as the Heritage to shoot in—or 4,500 people helping you—but you can make a feature film in a day. But to what you can, with what you have, wherever you are. You know, be creative.

Let me know if you pull that off.

And for a little extra inspiration here’s the entire documentary In One Breath about the making of Russian Ark.

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m probably a pretty good example of like, if I’m standing here, any idiot could be up here.”
Producer/Writer/Director Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies)
2016 SXSW Keynote talk

How do you direct seven feature films in one year? One film at a time.

That’s how Joe Swanberg did it. Well, technically it took him 14 months to do it—but still impressive, right?  Especially since I once heard back in the pre-digital filmmaking days that less than 1% of film school grads ever make one feature film—ever.

In the above video from his 2016 SXSW Keynote speech he unpacked how he was able to do it and here are some concepts that stood out to me:

  1. He wasn’t able to do it because he had a lot of money. (His least expensive feature was made for $3,000.) “Sometimes having no money is better than having some money.” Give actors/crew a piece of the film so if it makes money they make more money than a day rate.
  2. He didn’t do it because he lived in Los Angeles. Midwestern guy.
  3. He went to film school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and then moved to Chicago.
  4. He met filmmaker Adam Wingard at a film festival and Wingard invited him to Birmingham, Alabama where he was then based to act in one of his films. Wingard showed him how he shot feature films in four days. Yes, four—as in 4— days. In short, do a lot of editing in camera and only do one or two takes.
  5. Swanberg tried to make his next film in four days but failed–it took him six days.
  6. Sometimes he has no script and sometimes he has a full 80 page script.
  7. Swanberg edits his films as well and does so while shooting.
  8. His work landed him a CAA agent (David Kopple) which led to making the $750,000 film Drinking Buddies starring Oliva Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston. He didn’t really feel like a filmmaker until Drinking Buddies—his 15th feature.
  9. That same year he also directed Happy Christmas which featured Kendrick and Lena Dunham.  It was shot for $120,000 with a five person crew.
  10. Make your film even if you don’t show it to anyone. (Great learning experience. Your next one will be better.) If you enter it in film festivals and only get a low distribution offer, consider holding on to the rights because in five or ten years when you are better known, those film are going to bring in money. You can always put them on Vimeo pay and take them off anytime you want.

And it’s worth pointing out that screenwriter Simon Barrett, who wrote some of the scripts for Swanberg’s films, wrote The Woods which was directed by Wingard and will be coming out later this year.

Recommend books on low-bedget filmmaking:
How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime by Roger Corman (Who once made a feature in 2 days.)
Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez

Related posts:
Edward Burns’ ‘Newlyweds’ (Part 1)—Shot in 10 (non-consecutive) days
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
‘Don’t try and compete with Hollywood.’— Ed Burns
‘Who cares if it’s garbage?’—Edward Burns

Scott W. Smith





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“What can you do when you’re absolutely nowhere but feel like you are full of magic and ideas?”
Filmmaker Mark Duplass

“There’s one thing that keeps coming up to me over and over in my career–this very simple phrase—and I’m going to take a note from motivational speaker Tony Robbins for a second—and were going to have something to really focus in on and that is the simple words,  ‘The cavalry isn’t coming.’ And I’m looking around like Tony, and let it sit. Then Tony repeats it, ‘The cavalry is not coming.’ And I say this because we’ve all heard that amazing tale abut this 21-year-old kid who had a script and his cousin worked in the mail room at Warner Brothers and he gave it to him and the script got up to the head of Warner Brothers they loved it and bought it for a million dollars and got it made. That’s an exciting story, but a super dangerous one, because I don’t know anyone who that’s happened to —maybe that’s happened once—but I had a very different career trajectory.”
Producer/Director/Actor Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, The Mindy Project)
2015 SXSW Keynote talk

Somewhere between starting out as a filmmaker with little assets and selling the golden goose screenplay, Mark Duplass offered these points from his 2015 South by Southwest talk:

1) The $3 Film—One scene, two actors, five minutes in length. Aim for comedic because  film festivals are looking for humorous short-shorts. Shoot it on whatever camera you can get your hands on—including an iPhone. Don’t just make one, make one ever weekend. Don’t worry if the first ones suck, you’ll get better and find your voice.

Note: Mark and his brother Jay made the short This is John in one 20-minute take that they edited down to 7 minutes. The little experiment was the first film they made that was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival.

2) Once your short-short plays in some festivals and wins some awards an agent will approach you and tell you “The cavalry is coming”—but it’s not.

3) But you will have a handful of friends you’ve met along the way who will help you make a $1,000 feature film. (As in one thousand dollars.)  Between time at your day job, your 5-8 person crew put together a feature film that you may or may not have a script for using whatever’s available to use in your town. It takes you a year or two to finish this film but you get it into film festivals where you’ve made inroads with your short films.

A agent tells you the cavalry is coming—but it’s not.

4) You make another $1,000 film, but this time you have a rich but sad name TV actor who wants to do something creative with his talent and teams up with you because you are a rising indie filmmaker. You will sell this film to a video on demand (VOD) group for between $50,000-$100,000. You’ll finally pay your crew some money.

An agent will tell you “The cavalry is coming”—and they may be right if that means you will take meetings in Hollywood for the next year but nothing will come of it. You might even sell a TV pitch that will end up in turn around, which at least puts money in your pockets.

5) But instead you decide to take you name TV actor (and perhaps a second TV actor) and you shoot two episodes of a two-hander TV show and license it (and the season you’re going to produce) to a cable or online group for $500,000. Now you’re finally making money.

And an agent tells you, “The  cavalry is coming.” And they may be right, but as you look at the offers coming your way you realize that you may not want to be a part of that cavalry. You realize you are your own cavalry. You are your own studio. Your creating projects that you own and that are finding distribution.

6) You then help others became their own  cavalry, by investing in their $1,000 films.

So the bad and good news of Duplass’ talk is the cavalry is not coming, and you are the  cavalry.

Related posts:
Who cares if it’s garbage?—Edward Burns
The Ten Film Commandments of Edwards Burns
How to Shoot a Feature in Ten Days
It’s a Good Time to Be a Filmmaker
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood’
Freedom of Limitations

Scott W. Smith





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