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“I’m telling an old myth in a new way. That’s how you pass down the meat and potatoes of your society to the next generation.”
George Lucas on creating Star Wars

Related Posts:
Star Wars & The Four Functions of Mythology
Screenwriting Structure, Snake Oil, & Star Wars
Before Star Wars (Screenwriter Kasdan)
Jim Mercurio on Theme/Star Wars
Star Wars—The Logline

Scott W. Smith

 

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Tender Mercies in La La Land

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”
Jesus

I met my wife in an elevator in Burbank. (A line that’s more humorous if you’re aware how Johnny Carson said the line “beautiful downtown Burbank” when he was the king of late night TV.)

My wife to be was obviously moving into the large apartment complex where I lived but turned down my request to help. But later she did say she could use assistance getting a TV up to her apartment. I’ve often thought if it wasn’t for that TV my whole life would be different. In some ways the movie La La Land is an echo of our story. I was a photographer/film school student from Florida and she was a model/actress/pianist from Colorado. Our studio apartments just happened to be in the same building on the same floor. A different version of that is played out everyday in Los Angeles.

To make a long story short—my wife and I have been married 31 years. If you knew us then you probably wouldn’t have bet on that relationship lasting a year. This is my Christmas story.

My favorite Christmas movie isn’t a Christmas movie— but it’s one I watch every a year or two, usually around Christmas time. In fact, I watched it in the pre-dawn hours this Christmas morning. Tender Mercies just hits me in the heart.  It always has. I saw it three times in the theaters when it first came out in 1983. I was in film school at the time and I couldn’t tell you then why that film resonated so much with me. And I’m not sure I can now.

I’m very comfortable with the mysteries of the heart. I do know that in a world of cookie cutter Hollywood filmmaking Tender Mercies shines today just as it did over 30 years ago. Robert Duvall won his sole Academy Award for his role and Horton Foote won an Oscar for his screenplay. (Tender Mercies also earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Song, and for Bruce Beresford’s directing.)

The acting (Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin, Allan Hubbard, and,of course, Duvall), the cinematography of Oscar-winner Russell Boyd, the art direction of Jeannine Oppewall, the editing of William M. Anderson—and probably 100 other talented people— create a feast of understated and authentic filmmaking. It’s also a study in minimalism. 

How this movie is not on the AFI top 100 list is beyond me. It’s easily one of my top ten all-time favorite movies, right up there with On the Waterfront.  But beyond the performance praise there is a redemptive theme that runs through the story.

So Tender Mercies came into my life in 1983, my wife in 1984 in that elevator in Burbank, and then in 1985 I had another encounter, also in Burbank. After two years and through many relational ups and downs with my future wife we walked into Emmauel Church where Steve Goold was the pastor.

This is where the story takes a major twist. You could call subtitle this A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Hollywood. It wasn’t as dramatic as Moses and the burning bush, Jacob wrestling with the angel, or Paul on the road to Tarsus, but it was life changing.

Like Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies I had a transformation. Culturally I was raised in the Christian tradition, loved Christmas like most kids, but you wouldn’t have looked at my life and seen a spiritual heartbeat. What you would find was a life that to say it politely was messy. (Just like that Duvall character in Tender Mercies.)

Pastor Steve (as we called him) was the key person in my life to change that. He was around 40 years old at the time and had Hollywood good looks, but much more importantly he was full of wisdom and grace. No man has had a greater impact for good on my life.

And while I moved from California two years after I met him, our paths crossed with his wife Pam for dinners and conversations in Florida, Iowa, and Minneapolis. And over the years we also talked on the phone and traded emails. Pastor Steve weighed in on some of the biggest decisions of my life and gave me direction.

“The goal of our instructions is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
The Apostle Paul

Sometimes people come into your life sometimes only for a short season, but leave a lasting ripple effect. Pastor Steve was that person for my wife and I. When I heard that he died in September I felt a mixture of grief and gratitude.

I will always be thankful that Pastor Steve showed us tender mercies. And if you encounter one person like that in your life consider yourself fortunate. And on this Christmas day, I do not say this lightly, but Pastor Steve exemplified what it meant to be the hands and feet of Christ as he ministered to lost and broken people.

Merry Christmas.

P.S. Let me add that over the years I’ve visited a wide variety of churches including Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Brethren, Spanish Pentecostal, Congregational, African-American, Lutheran, charismatic, Evangelical Free, community/non-denominational, conservative, liberal, and the one thing I can say is you won’t find uniformity in the Christian faith, but you will find unity. And that unity centers on why people around the world still celebrate Christmas day—about finding “a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

Two days ago the New York Times published an Op-Ed piece titled Am I a Christian Timothy Keller? Keller (@timkellernyc) is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhatten (“A church where skeptics are welcomed.”) As a video producer I’ve had the good fortune to work with Keller a couple of times. If your life is messy and you’re looking for some tender mercies I’d recommend checking out his books (Hidden Christmas) and/or podcasts. 

Related posts:
Horton Foote (1916-2009)
Screenwriting Quote #56 (Horton Foote)
Postcard #6 (Waxachacie, TX) Area where Tender Mercies was shot)
New Hope “Hope is a dangerous thing.”—Red in The Shawshank Redemption

Scott W. Smith

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Producer Perspective

“Most producers go years in between producing movies; in fact, most of our time is spent not making movies.”
Producer Rick Schwartz (The Departed, Black Swan)

This is a fitting echo post to my last post where writer John Grisham said, “It’s very, very difficult to get a movie made.” This one from the perspective of a Hollywood producer on the difficulties of getting a movie made. Rick Schwartz says that his process is to read “hundreds of scripts, articles and books, watch countless films for remake possibilities, listen to tons of ideas – and most of them are crap. It’s like a beauty pageant where everyone has either a unibrow or two noses.” But this is what happens when he finally finds the one that he’s willing to dedicate the time, money and efforts to get produced:

“Nobody in town would finance the movie, because they claimed it had literally no appeal overseas. My weak protests – wouldn’t people go if it were actually a good movie? – were met with laughter. What does a “good movie” have to do with anything?…It’s now been 6 years since I last produced a movie, and the [script I purchased] sits prominently on my desk, taunting me daily. Help me, it pleads, get me to the screen where I belong. Then there are the other voices: Heed the signs, people tell me, this one just wasn’t meant to be. And still I carry on, for some unknown reason. Passion? Stubbornness? Desire? Stupidity? Who knows – it’s probably a combination of all of the above, but mainly the latter. For these are the tools of my trade. I’m a producer.”
Rick Schwartz
What It’s Like To Be A: Producer 

 

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Novelist John Grisham (The Firm, The Pelican Brief ) had a great ten year starting in 1993 where films made based on his writings attracted some of the finest talent in Hollywood: Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Matt Damon,  Sandra BullockMatthew McConaughey, Susan Sarandon,  Joel Schumacher, Samuel L. Jackson , Gene Hackman, Claire Danes, Francis Ford Coppola, Sydney Pollack. But here’s how he explains why you haven’t seen his name on a big Hollywood film in the last decade or so.

“I think it’s been 10 or 12 years since the last movie. It is very, very difficult to get a movie made today. I don’t know — well, why. Okay, first of all, Hollywood does not make too many smart, adult dramas. That’s just not what they do these days. They’d rather spend $200 million making a, you know, cartoon for the Chinese audience than spend $50 million making a good, smart, adult drama based on a good book. It doesn’t happen. And looking back, we talked about the movies a while ago. Those first four or five movies that came out 20 years ago, they all had — “A Time to Kill,” “Rainmaker,” “Runaway Jury,” they all had big casts, they all had big box office draws. Everybody made money, okay. And the movie were made fairly quickly after the book came out. The book was fresh, the paperback was fresh, the adaptation worked, the movie came out, and it was so easy. And why that model doesn’t work today I really don’t know. The studio model is fairly broken, I think. They want to make the big adventure flicks, the cartoons, “Spiderman” for 15-year-old boys. That’s what they make, and it’s just — it’s very difficult to get one of these movies adapted.”
John Grisham
Interview on The Diane Rehm Show

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“Routine is what it’s all about. You’ve got to get into a [writing] routine that is second nature. Something you love. I wrote the first two books real early in the morning because I didn’t have any extra time. Now it’s about 7:30. Same small office behind the house where I’ve been writing for the last 22 years. Same desk, same computer, same cup of coffee. It’s dark. I love it. There’s no phones, faxes, or internet—I work offline. So I’m in a cocoon for the first three hours, and I just love that. I’ll write for a couple of hours, take a break…then get back into the novel. On a good day I’ll write 2,000 words. A slow day is 1,000. But you do that five days a week for six months and that’s a lot of pages, and that’s how the books are written.”
John Grisham (The Firm, The Client, The Pelican Brief)
Interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman

Related posts:
Breakfast Club for Writers (2.0)
T.S. Eliot’s 3 Hour Writing Schedule
Mark Twain
Stephen King’s Doublewide Trailer “I wrote my first two novels, Carrie and Salem’s Lot in the laundry room of a doublewide trailer, pounding away on my wife’s portable Olivetti typewriter and balancing a child’s desk on my thighs.”–Stephen King (It took Grisham, then a working lawyer in Mississippi, three years to write his first novel.)

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m doing the outline [of my story] upfront so I always know where I’m going. I work on the outline for weeks, months, sometimes even years if I can’t get it right. But when I start the book on January the first to finish by July the first I’ve got a clear outline—I know exactly where the story’s going— I know how it’s going to end. I love John Irving books, and John Irving says he writes the last sentence before he writes the first. I’m not that smart, but I know what the last scene is before I write the first scene….It’s important to outline because if you don’t know where you’re going you can waste huge amounts of time.”
John Grisham (The Firm, The Client, The Pelican Brief)
Interview with Brian Koppelman

P.S. Grisham does say in that interview that he does have some “freedom and flexibility” to change his outline, but the reason “he can’t take a left turn for no reason” is he’s on a deadline to publish a book once a year. He didn’t outline his first book (A Time to Kill) and it took him three years to write and came it at 1,000 words (his editor cut that book by a third). And because his outlines sometimes take an extended time to complete, he can have multiple stories in play to make sure he gets one book done a year.

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #93 (John Grisham)
John Irving, Iowa & Writing
Postcard #48 (Oxford)
Analytical vs. Intuitive Writing
Stuart Beattie’s 5-Page Outline
Story Plotting the Harry Potter Way (It’s worth noting until J.K. Rowling came along, I believe John Grisham was the most financially successful living writer. Maybe ever. But when you look at the combined success of Grisham and Rowling and realize they both outline their stories you have to at least take notice. On the flip side, Stephen King doesn’t outline and Quentin Tarantino says “Basically, my writing’s like a journey.” )

Scott W. Smith

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Thanksgiving Drama

“The last thing I want to be remembered as is an annoying blabbermouth.”
Del (John Candy)
Planes, Trains & Automobiles

It’s Thanksgiving here in the United States and one globally universal thing about holidays is the potential for conflict (drama) as family and friends get together. (At least one crazy family member per get together has probably been the standard since the beginning of the human race.)

This week I heard a great description of a destructive family member on the rebroadcast of This American Life:

“Like some kind of super villain who can’t control her super powers, my mother somehow leaves an accidental trail of carnage wherever she goes.”
Josh Bearman
Duty Calls

Earlier this year I wrote seven posts about Pieces of April (2003)—my favorite Thanksgiving time-related film. (Edging out Planes, Trains and Automobiles.) And it that Peter Hedges film, it is the mother who would basically agree that her daughter (Katie Holmes) is the one who “leaves an accidental trail of carnage wherever she goes.”

Here’s a simple exchange from the movie where the daughter April talks about her mother (Joy) and a Thanksgiving memory:

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-11-09-39-am

May those of you celebrating Thanksgiving today have a conflict free day.

Pieces of April (Part 1)
Pieces of April (Part 2)
Pieces of April (Part 3)
Pieces of April (Part 4)
Pieces of April (Part 5)
Pieces of April (Part 6)
Pieces of April (Part 7)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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