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“This is not the kind of music that comes from Minneapolis, Minnesota.”
Dick Clark
(After Prince’s appearance on American Bandstand in 1980)

“When you’re coming from the middle of the country…I think it’s easy to be more original.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody

He was born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis, but the world knew him as just Prince—or as the artist formally known as Prince.

And before Prince won Grammys and an Oscar Award (Best Song, Purple Rain), and before he was called the Prince of First Avenue (a nightclub in downtown Minneapolis), and before he sold 100 million records, and long before he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—he was just another little boy struggling to survive in North Minneapolis.

He was born at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis in 1958. That was just seven years after the hospital opened during time of anti-Semitism, and was a place that offered Jewish physicians opportunities that weren’t always possible at other area hospitals. It was, according to the Twin Cities Daily Planet, “a gift from the Twin Cities Jewish community to serve and employ, among others, those not accepted elsewhere because of their race or religion.”

He grew up on the North Side inner-city of Minneapolis. His father was the leader of the Prince Rogers jazz trio and his mother—who was said by Rolling Stone magazine to have “traces of Billy Holiday in her pipes” sang for the group. They divorced when Prince was 10.

“I didn’t have any money, so I’d just stand outside [McDonald’s on Plymouth Ave.] and smell stuff. Poverty makes people angry, brings out their worst side. I was very bitter when I was young. I was insecure and I’d attack anybody. I couldn’t keep a girlfriend for two weeks. We’d argue about anything.”
Prince
Rolling Stone interview by Neal Karlen in 1985

He went to John Hay Elementary school and in 1976 graduated from Central High School in Minneapolis. He cut his musical teeth performing at various venues in the Minneapolis area and recorded his first album in 1978. A decade later he was a worldwide music legend.

Though he spent time in other places like L.A. and Toronto,  Minneapolis was his home. He eventually opened Paisley Park  in Chanhassen south of Minneapolis, which is where he died this morning.

Plenty will be written about his musical genius, some about the controversies, but since I have a little blog called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places I’d like to just point out that a sense of place did play part in his success. From his early musical teachers, to the soul (and pain) of his childhood neigborhood, to those who supported his musical rise in the Twin Cities.

Prince was unique in his talent and his success, but Minneapolis has a long musical history. Back in the early ’60s Bob Dylan began his musical rise living and performing there. On Prince’s setlist for his 2007 Super Bowl half-time show he performed All Along the Watchtower written by Dylan. (Prince said in one interview that the Jimi Hendrix version of that song was an early influence.)

When I was living in the Midwest I did several video shoots in Minneapolis and worked with crew members who worked with Prince and enjoyed hearing their stories. There’s no question that Prince was talented—and eccentric. I heard stories that Prince would sometimes do a mini-concert at Paisley Park for the crew after a production wrapped.

I also have a feeling that Prince produced a lot of videos and music that will only see the light of day now that he’s dead.

And just to come full circle…I started this blog back in 2008 after seeing Juno written by Diablo Cody and learning she went to school at the University of Iowa and wrote the Juno screenplay while living and working Minneapolis.

One of the things that drew Cody to Minneapolis was a graphic designer/musician. (I don’t know if she ever crossed paths with Prince in Minneapolis—but I’d bet the she would have loved the opportunity.) Anyway she wrote for City Pages and blogged until then-agent, now producer Mason Novick encouraged her to try her hand at screenwriting.

Which she did in the Minneapolis suburbs of Robinsdale and Crystal just a few miles north of where Prince grew up. (I’m all about seemingly unlikely places for talent to rise up.)  But where Prince grew up is still a tough place. Here’s a quote from a commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune just a few days ago.

“North Minneapolis is a war zone. We are afraid. We are losing our young people to gun violence.”
Mickey Cook
April 16, 2016

It reminds me of one of my all time favorite lines in any movie—in the documentary Hoop Dreams the young rising basketball star is asked if he’ll remember them when he’s famous, and the young basketball player says, “You going to remember me if I’m not [famous]?”

Prince is going to be remember for long time. He’ll probably always be the most famous person from North Minneapolis. President Obama tweeted about Prince, “Today we lost an icon.” And while that’s true, Prince lived a very full life before he even turned 30—much less the 57 years he spent on this planet. It would be nice to do something in Prince’s memory that assures young people in North Minneapolis that they may not be famous—but they’ll be allowed to grow up.

Make a statue of Prince—but build up and protect some lives, too.

Related post:
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) “When you’re coming from the middle of the country…I think it’s easy to be more original.”—Diablo Cody
Screenwriting Postcard from Minneapolis
The Oscars Minnesota-Style
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“A late February 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item speculated that, in cities where it had played, [The Outlaw] had been seen by about sixty-five percent of the total population.”
Turner Classic Movies

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 3.26.53 PM

When 19-year-old actress  Jane Russell was shooting her first movie (The Outlaw) she complained to her director about feeling uncomfortable posing for some photos that a publicity photographer suggested.

According to Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This the advice her director gave her is just as fitting today as it was over 75 years ago:

“You’ve got to protect yourself. If anyone asks you to do anything against your better judgment, say no, loud and clear. You’re in charge of you. No one else.”
Director Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby)

And it will remain solid advice for as long as 19-year-olds continue pursuing acting careers. Way back when I studied acting I remember a young actress in my class being invited to the home of a “busy” producer for an “audition.” When she arrived the producer wanted to know why she brought her boyfriend.

And you don’t have to have Russell’s 38-22-36 measurements, or even be an actress, or even work in Hollywood for that matter, to be put in an uncomfortable situation. So feel free to copy & paste the above quote and send it to whoever you think needs some direction from Howard Hawks.

Howard Hughes eventually replaced Hawks as the director of The Outlaw. Though Hughes had plenty of critics, and though it took him five years to eventually finish the film and get a wide release, The Outlaw became a box office hit.

Russell went on to co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) with Marilyn Monroe, and not only survived Hollywood—but lived to tell about it in her book Jane Russell, My Path & My Detours. She died in 2011 at the age of 89.

P.S. A few side notes to The Outlaw is Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) starred as Doc Holiday, and Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) was the cinematographer for the Hughes directed parts of the movie. Jules Furthman (Rio Bravo, Mutiny on the Bounty) wrote the screenplay.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“When you map your life in retrospect there’s a bit of a blind cartographer at work.”
Jim Harrison
Off to the Side: A Memoir

This is a screenwriting blog that strays off the reservation (the reservation being Hollywood). Or as the official blog of Tom Cruise said a few years ago, “For a more off-beat look at writing, the Screenwriting from Iowa blog provides screenwriters with a slightly removed take from the Hollywood norm.”

We’ve been remembering writer Jim Harrison who died last Saturday so I thought we’d take a little trip today down to Key West and introduce you to a little off-beat film— Tarpon (1973)—that featured Jim Harrison and the music of Jimmy Buffett.

There’s been plenty written and said about Superman v Batman in the last few days since its release but for some reason here’s the only thing I could find recently said about the obscure 40+ year old documentary on tarpon fishing:

“[Director] Guy de la Valdene had all the money and sent a crew that was all French. I speak French now, but I didn’t at the time, so there was a huge communication issue. So we’re in the Keys and taking out boats with [poet] Richard Brautigan and [novelist] Tom McGuane. It really captured the Key West of the ‘70s. It’s sort of a treasure today. But we didn’t really get paid for it. I wrote the music and Harrison was going to do the narration.”
Jimmy Buffett
Men’s Journal

And here’s another memory of Harrison that Buffett tells in the Men’s Journal that rounds out well this round of posts on Harrison:

“One time Jim and I drove his Ford Cortina from Montana to Michigan together. Just the two of us. We seemed to have all these road trips that we did together that were kind of, kind of hilarious. I loved to hear Jim’s view of the world. I don’t know how much he cared about mine. On another trip in Florida, we talked about Cuba a lot. I told him about my grandfather, who was a ship captain who took his family on board in those days, back in the early 1920s. My father spent his first birthday in Havana Harbor, and there’s a family story that my grandfather put up a signal flag to celebrate my dad’s first birthday, and all of the other ships in the harbor started signaling back. So all the sailing ships in Havana Harbor had their flags up for my dad’s first birthday. And he loved that story. Well, the next thing I knew, he told me to look at Legends of The Fall when it came out. The opening of one chapter it says Tristan took a ship to somewhere, and there’s this passage about it. And he told me later, he said ‘Yeah, I did that for your grandpa and your dad.’ He put it in the book.”

P.S. “Jim [Harrison] became famous for his fiction, celebrated internationally as a storyteller of genius, but through all the years, and the novels and novellas and films that came with them, he remained a poet, his life syncopated with contrapuntal complexities and the chromatic cadences of rural landscapes.”
Terry McDonell
The New Yorker, Jim Harrison, Mozart of the Prairie

P.P.S. In 2008 Tarpon became available on DVD. Here are a couple of quotes about the doc:

“Tarpon is a timeless and beautifully executed film about life, sport and culture. You’ll be moved, amused, outraged and, most of all, entertained.” 
Tom Brokaw, Journalist and Author

“This long-lost gem of a film has acquired cult status in the fly fishing world, and with good reason. It has the most breathtaking footage of the tarpon-stalking experience that you’ll ever see. Like the fish itself, this is a work of art.” 
Carl Hiaasen, Author

Related posts:
Writer Jim Harrison
Pat Conroy & Rehearsing for Death
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 2)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 3)
Havana Daydreamin’

Scott W. Smith

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This post originally ran in 2010 and I’m reposting it in light of Jim Harrison’s death last Saturday:

“Later that night the ocean again entered Tristan’s dreams…”
Legends of the Fall (Jim Harrison)

“So many nights I just dream of the ocean…”
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (Jimmy Buffett)

I’m not sure what the connection is between writer Jim Harrison and musician Jimmy Buffett, but I’m pretty sure there is one. Some secret Livingston/Key West handshake.

And somewhere in that connection is a spirit that resonates a longing not limited to the books, poems, and songs they’ve created but they’ve tapped into a desire to experience what it means to be alive. And to desire to not only live a life in full—or to use Hemingway’s phrase “all the way up”— but also to have “a good death.”

The 1994 movie Legends of the Fall, based on a novella by Harrisonis a movie I watch every couple of years. I don’t know if it’s the scenery where director Edward Zwick (Glory) picked to shoot the film in the beautiful Canadian Rockies. I don’t know if it’s the cinematography that captured that beauty—for which DP John Toll won an Oscar in 1995. I don’t know if it’s the actors—or simply Brad Pitt’s character Tristan or his Lawrence of Arabia/John Waynelike  introduction, or the James Horner music—whatever the reason, I find Legends of the Fall repeatedly enjoyable to watch.

Critics were spilt at the time of its release and it’s not hard to see why. It has one foot in being an epic story and one foot in melodrama. Tricky territory. And I think that was by design in an attempt for the movie to gain a large audience of both men and women.  Coming off the heals of a Dances with WolvesLegends of the Falls fell short at the box office & Academy Award-wise compared with Dances (which won Pest Picture and 7 total Oscars and made $184 million domestic). But Legends is the one I return to again and again.

Perhaps Legends the film split the vote more than the book did and paid the price. You have wild horses, guns and war for the men and beautiful western clothes, lawn tennis, and a romance normally associated with a romance novel or soap opera for the ladies. And if any men were on the fence, Pitt’s flowing hair (often perfectly backlit) kept them from going over. I’m never surprised when men tell me they’ve never seen the film. Perhaps a sweeping generalization and an oversimplification, but that’s my take. It’s too—to use Harrison’s word—pretty.

Pitt even jokes on the DVD commentary that the movie’s like a L.L. Bean catalog. This is what the original source writer had to say of the refined mountain life portrayed in the movie;

“I did have issues, as they say now, with certain parts of the film, because I thought, ‘Do they have a French dry cleaner right down the street or something like that?,’ ’cause everybody looked— pretty. But so many people seem to like it and I have no objections because it’s a director’s medium. When you accept your check you’re selling your kid.” 
Jim Harrison
NPR, All Things Considered, Feb. 08, 2007

The movie basically extracts the characters that Harrison created and somewhat places them in a new story. Col. Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), Alfred (Aidan Quinn), Samuel (Henry Thomas), Tristan (Pitt) and others are all there. Susannah’s role (Julia Ormond) is altered and beefed up. Heck, the book opens with the brothers going to the war where in the movie that doesn’t occur until the 32 minute mark. The book is more Tristan focused and covers more of his far away adventures. Like writer Walter Kirn (who also happens lives in Livingston, Montana where Harrison lives part of the year) said of the movie Up in the Air that was based on his book of the same name—the book is not the movie, and the movie is not the book, but they have the same DNA.

To director Zwick’s credit I think he and screenwriters Bill Wittliff and Susan Shiliday, as well as the talented cast & crew created a film that continues to have legs (and a heartbeat) more than 15 years after it was created and that’s not an easy accomplishment. (And something that I don’t think any of the other films based on Harrison’s work have achieved.)

As a side note, though Harrison has homes now in both Arizona and Montana, and has traveled widely, this is what he wrote a few years ago:

“I have several dear friends in Nebraska and the Niobrara River Valley in the Sandhills is my favorite beautiful spot on earth.” 
Jim Harrison

In my adventures over the years I have been fortunate to experience such things as witnessing a full solar eclipse in Salzburg, been free diving with large green turtles in Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, and flown in a seaplane over the Amazon River, but one of the most unbelievable and unexpected experiences I’ve ever had is watching thousands of Sandhill Cranes fill the sky on the edge of the Nebraska Sand Hills.

To beat the drum once again you don’t need to be in New York and L.A. to find adventures or stories worth telling. Certainly, even a somewhat remote place such as Nebraska has been fertile ground for writers from Harrison (Dalva), to Willa Cather (My Antonia) and screenwriter Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt).

“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pig pen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.”
Willa Cather
My Antonia

May you all have eyes to see.

Up in the Air—The Novel vs. The Film

Scott W. Smith

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I learned today that writer Jim Harrison died this past Saturday, so it seems fitting to repost this week something I wrote about him back in 2010:

“I think I wrote Legends of the Fall in about ten days.
Jim Harrison on his novella for which the movie* was based

Though Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall is less than 100 pages long and he said he wrote it in about ten days those numbers can be deceptive. In one interview he said it usually takes him about 10 years of thinking about things by the time he finishes writing his novellas.

Before Harrison became widely known as the writer of Legends of the Fall (which became a 1994 movie and helped cement Brad Pitt as a movie star) he had long been carving away at his craft in Michigan.

He was born in rural Grayling, Michigan in 1937. In Off to the Side: A Memoir, Harrison calls Reed City, Michigan where he lived between the ages of five and twelve his “golden years.”

“My background used to embarrass me. I’d think, I want to be like Lord Byron, or Vincent van Gogh. And then I’d realize, how can a boy from a little farm town do that? I think the years I spent at manual labor as a block layer, a carpenter, a digger of well pits, have given me more physical endurance for later in my life. And in an utterly corny Sherwood Anderson way, it makes you think those long thoughts. If you’re unloading fertilizer trucks for a dollar an hour all day long, and dreaming about New York City, it really means something. I remember a month before my first book of poems came out, I was working on a house foundation and the lumber truck couldn’t get close enough to the excavation, so I had to wheelbarrow 1,200 cement blocks for about seventy yards, load them and unload them. It was a cold, icy, early November day and it took me about nine hours to do it. That day I manually handled thirty-five tons worth of cement blocks, and that was for two and a half dollars an hour. When I got home I was hungry and tired, and what I had to show for it was right around twenty-five dollars. But you got a lot of thinking done. What it does do for you is, if you can hoe corn for fifty cents an hour, day after day, you can learn how to write a novel. You have absorbed the spirit of repetition.”
Jim Harrison
The Art of Fiction No. 104, Interview with Jim Fergus

It is interesting to note that Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade) and Harrison all spent time hunting and fishing in the same general northern area of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. All also came from religious families who put an emphasis on reading as well as an outdoor life. And while they all wrestled with their faith it impacted their writing. All three also gravitated to living at least part of the time in the northern U.S. region of the Rocky Mountains.

McGaune and Harrison also attended Michigan State at the same time as did fellow writer Richard Ford. In 2008, Esquire magazine listed The 75 Books Every Man Should Read and placed Legends of the Fall at #23 and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter #60.

Harrison went on to get his M.A. in comparative literature at Michigan State and then struggled to earn a living for well over a decade existing on fellowships, grants and publishing books of poetry while writing in Michigan. In interviews he has said that he never made over $10,000. a year for the first 17 years of his marriage. Then there were some tax problems, some drinking problems, cocaine, depression, followed by suicidal thoughts.

After a hunting injury he was encouraged by McGuane to try his hand at writing a novel. The result was Wolf; A False Memoir (1971). A few years later he published  A Good Day to Day and that would open the door to Hollywood where Harrison was paid well, but produced little as a screenwriter. He wrote his first screenplay in 1975 for filmmaker Frederick Weisman (though it was unproduced) and worked as a contract screenwriter though 1997.  A side benefit was hanging out with people like Orson Welles, John Huston, and Jack Nicholson. 

He continued writing novels and eventually some of them found their way to getting produced as movies. Sometimes he was credited with working on the script and sometimes other screenwriters were brought in to write the scripts. Harrison’s credits include  Dalva, Carried Away, Revenge, and Wolf, along with Legends of the Fall. In 2007, Harrison was elected into the American Academy of the Arts.

These days Harrison splits his time between Montana and Arizona. When asked by The Paris Review if he had any advice for younger writers he replied:

“Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years?”

More on Harrison tomorrow and some of his thoughts on the movie Legends of the Fall.

*The screenplay for Legends of the Fall was written by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff.

Related post: Writer Jim Harrison (Part 2)

Screenwriting from Michigan

Scott W. Smith

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“I get swept away by the sincerity. I do not get swept away by what people call pyrotechnics & prose. I do not get swept away by wit. I think wit is in a lot of ways damaging to fiction. I just feel like I’m listening to a writer and not the character. When I read the writers I really love like Philip Roth and Alice Munro—and their prose is beautiful—they’re more interested in truth than in fancy clothes for their prose.”
Author Ethan Canin (Emperor of the Air, A Doubter’s Almanac)
Interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman

Related posts:
The Shocking Truth  (Tennessee Williams quote)
Blending Truth, Spectacle & Serving the Story
Mike Nichols on Comedy, Tragedy & Truth
Hunting for Truth
Telling the Truth=Humor

Scott W. Smith

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“I’ve lived in New York before. Everybody says it helps with publicity and awards and stuff like that. I’d rather have my nice life, for example, in Iowa.”
Ethan Canin

“With this extraordinary novel [A Doubter’s Almanac], Ethan Canin now takes his place on the high wire with the best writers of his time.”
Pat Conroy

Have you ever wondered what professors at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop teach their students? Well, today you’ll find at least one bit of advice.

On Brian Koppelman’s The Moment podcast interview with author Ethan Canin,  Koppelman said that Canin was was “hyper-intelligent.” Canin, you see, dislikes being called an intellectual because he doesn’t like what intellectuals have done with literature.

But a quick glance over Canin’s resume and you can tell that—to paraphrase the great football coach Bobby Bowden—Canin may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in, it doesn’t take long to do the roll call.

Canin attended Stanford University where he studied mechanical engineering and graduated with an English degree, received an MFA from the University of Iowa, graduated from Harvard Medical School, became a published author (his short story The Palace Thief  become the movie The Emperor’s Club), and now he’s a professor at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“I think life is a struggle for every human being…Life has its difficulties. Everybody’s got a story. One of the things I tell students is nobody’s boring. That’s such a misunderstanding to think somebody’s leading a boring life.”
Ethan Canin
Brian Koppelman’s The Moment podcast February 2016 

Some people live quiet lives, but not a boring one. And every once in a while—like I wrote in my post Good Wil Hunting—a writer comes along late in someone’s life and shows the extraordinary within the ordinary.

P.S. I’ve listen to that Brian Koppelman podcast with Ethan Canin four times all the way through. Stimulating stuff and made me go to the library after the first time I heard it and check out books by Saul Bellow, Tobias Wolff, and John Cheever. Next will be books/short stories by Mark Halprin, Raymond Carver, Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro, and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.

Related posts:
John Irving, Iowa & Writing (My visit to the Iowa Workshop)
(Yawn) Another Pulitzer Prize (for a Workshop graduate)
Postcard #55 (Iowa Writers’ Workshop)
Lena Dunham, Sundance & Iowa
The Juno-Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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