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”One of the things about the movie that makes it work, rather than just this weird patchwork of various scenes—this movie actually is one of the more realistic movies about a drug deal gone wrong I think I’ve ever seen.”
—Quentin Tarantino on the 1979 movie Cocaine Cowboys
The Video Archives Podcast

Until I listened to The Video Archives Podcast last week, I didn’t even know there was a 1979 movie titled Cocaine Cowboys. But after listening to Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary discuss the movie, I tracked down the movie on YouTube and watched it. Between the movie and the podcast I realized there was enough there to have a mini-film school. Let’s call it a ten point takeaway class.

Back in 2009, I wrote a post called Cocaine Cowboys and the Future of Film. I wrote it the day after I watched my first streaming movie—the 2006 doc Cocaine Cowboys. It was a fascinating look about how Miami became the cocaine capital in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Point #1: The film business is always changing.

The first Blockbuster store opened in 1985 to take part in the booming business of VHS movie rentals. In 2004 there were over 9,000 Blockbuster stores, but in 2010 (just a year after I watching that first streaming movie) Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy and began closing stores. Today there is only one Blockbuster store still open.

Point #2: Giants often have feet of clay.

The lead actor in the feature Cocaine Cowboys was a fellow named Tom Sullivan. He also co-wrote the film, composed the music, sang lead vocals, and self-financed the film in part or in whole with money he thought to have made as a drug dealer.

Point 3: Movies get made with money. And while John Sayles made the indie classic Return of the Secaucus 7 around the same time for only $60,000, Tarantino said he heard the budget for Cocaine Cowboys was as high as a million dollars.

When Avary called the movie a vanity project, Tarantino replied, “Absolutely.” The movie failed at the box-office, and it failed to launch an acting or singing career for Sullivan. But Sullivan does emerge as a charismatic and multi-talented guy. And if he didn’t live to be a rock star, he certainly died like one. After making quite a stir on the New York City party scene, he died in 1981 at age 26 under mysterious circumstances. Here’s his obituary from the Tampa Tribune in June 1981.

Between 1979 and 1981, I was in finishing high school and starting college and spent most of time in either Orlando, Tampa, or Miami. I never heard of Tom Sullivan, but I met a few Tom Sullivan-like characters. He would have fit in at any country and western bar in Florida in the wake of the movie Urban Cowboy (1980), and here he is—snake skin boots and all—at Studio 54 dancing with none other that Margaret Trudeau (former wife of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau).

They knew all the right people, they took all the right pills
They threw outrageous parties, they paid heavenly bills

Life in the Fast Lane

Point #4: Interesting characters make interesting movies.

Tom Sullivan in “Cocaine Cowboys”

And to top that off, Sullivan was a part of artist Andy Warhol’s inner circle. How he went from being a teenager in Tampa, Florida to the New York social scene and starring in a movie in just a few years sounds like a compelling story by itself. One musician I think had to influence Sullivan was Gram Parsons. Parsons was born in Winter Haven, Florida (an hour east of Tampa) and went on to play and sing on The Byrds 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. His love of the country/rock influenced the Eagles, he hung-out with The Rolling Stones for an extended time in England, and in 1973 he too died at age 26 (from an overdose of morphine and alcohol). And while he didn’t reach commercial success, his relationship with Emmylou Harris resulted in the hauntingly beautiful song Bolder to Birmingham (which Harris co-wrote with Bill Danoff as a tribute to Parsons).

Another musician that probably influenced Sullivan was Jimmy Buffett who arrived in Key West, Florida in 1971 and carved out a niche with his unique blend of folk/country/rock, and stories of pirates and drug smugglers. Buffett did find commercial in 1974 with Come Monday and then in 1977 with Margaritaville. I saw Buffett open for the Eagles in Tampa Stadium in 1980. (Still have my ticket stub from that one. The best $12.50 I ever spent—and free parking if I recall correctly.)

I’ve done a bit of smuggling, I’ve run my share of grass
I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast
Never meant to last, never meant to last

A Pirate Looks at Forty written by Jimmy Buffett (about a colorful character he met in Key West)

Cocaine Cowboys is not a great film, but it’s an interesting one. I found Sullivan’s singing, smuggling, horse-back riding character compelling. But, again, maybe more compelling is how he pulled off a movie that included a small part for legendary actor Jack Palance,and a cameo with Warhol. And they used Warhol’s Montauk estate as the primary location.

Point #5: A proven way to keep your budget low is to shoot primarily in one location. Cocaine Cowboys was shot in Montauk on the far eastern section of Long Island. Closer to Martha’s Vineyard that New York City. I imagine the alternative locations in the film—marina, airport— are not far from Warhol’s place. Even a section meant to be NYC could have been shot in a luxury home or hotel on Long Island, with just an establishing insert shot of the city. By keeping cast and crew staying in homes or hotels in one place prevents downtime doing a company move.

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Spike Lee’s Joe’s Bed-Stay Barbershop: We Cut Heads, and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (co-written with Avary) kept their budgets low by maximizing scenes in minimal locations.

Point #6: Always nice to have one or two name actors or personalities in your film. Jack Palance and Andy Warhol fit the bill there. This whole movie could have been shot in three weeks, but they could have shot scenes with Palance and Warhol in a few days each. Actors take on roles for various reasons. An older Palance may have taken the role for the script, the paycheck, a chance to hangout on Montauk, a favor, or even just to meet Andy Warhol.

Point #7: Establish main conflict/plot early. Around nine minutes into Cocaine Cowboys, some drug smugglers abort landing their small plane with 20 kilos of coke because they see a cop car at the small airport. At around the 10 1/2 minute mark they decide to drop the cocaine near the shoreline of the house. Problem is no one appears to know where the drugs are. They goal is to find the missing drugs they’re on the hook for.

Point #8: Stakes
“These people have connections literally everywhere. I mean, they aren’t many places to hide when you owe these individuals two million dollars.”

Point #9: Cinematography & Music
Cinematographer Jochen Breitenstein did a wonderful job utilizing everything he could to capture the beauty of the area. “Embrace your limitations” is the mantra of filmmakers of every budget. Perhaps another reason that Cocaine Cowboys didn’t look like your run of the mill 70s low-budget feature is the director was Ulli Lommel who was apart of the New German Cinema. Credited for the music on the film is Elliot Goldenthal who would go on and win an Oscar for his work on Frida. While he also was orchestrator on Heat, Batman Forever, and Drugstore Cowboy, his first credit was score arranger on Cocaine Cowboys.

Point #10 End Strong
Cocaine Cowboys had a satisfying ending. It was an ending that was setup in act one. And it even was a twist on a twist.

Here’s the whole movie:

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

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Yesterday was the release of the first episode of The Video Archives Podcast featuring Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary. About a decade before they won an Oscar award writing Pulp Fiction, both Tarantino and Avary worked together at the Video Archives store in Manhattan Beach. Tarantino has said before that the years he spent working at the video rental store were his college. A place full of camaraderie with staff and customers as they shared their love for movies in an era when VHS rentals were new. And many years before the internet would be ubiquitous and movies could be streamed on a phone.

To put that in context, I graduated from film school in 1984 and I had never seen a movie on VHS before. There was a war of technology between laserdiscs, Beta decks, and VHS machines. They were all expensive as were movies to buy. You didn’t want to pay $1,000 on a machine that lost that battle. I think it was at the end of ’84 or the beginning of ’85 when the price of a VHS machine dropped to $500 and I bought one. VHS tapes listed for around $69, but when An Officer and a Gentleman had a price drop down to $29 that was the first one I bought.

The summer after I graduated I drove around the country for six glorious weeks without a plan and retuned to Southern California to resume a freelance photography job with a company in Cerritos. I rented a studio apartment in Seal Beach, California and found a place there called One Dollar Video where I rented a movie every night. For a brief time, my routine was wake up, surf, go do a photo shoot somewhere in Southern California, and then watch a movie each night. And I’d breakdown each movie scene by scene on a yellow pad. Once a week I’d take a acting class in Beverly Hills. And I kept in contact with people I went to school with. (One was Peter George who directed the cult film Surf Nazi’s Must Die (1987)—which I hope Tarantino and Avary cover on one of their podcasts as they go through Tarantino’s VHS collection which he bought when Video Archives closed.)

I smile when I think back to the mid-’80s knowing that just 25 miles north west of Seal Beach that Tarantino and Avery were gaining notoriety with their film knowledge working at Video Archives. And they were dreaming of making their own films. I wished that store had of gotten on my radar at that time. In 1987, I landed a 16mm cinematographer/editor job in Burbank and rented a place there. Later I learn that that was around the same time that Tarantino was spending time in Burbank/Glendale. You’d think that like-mined people around the same age would cross paths at some point, but in the age before the internet those connections weren’t made as easily as they are today.

Anyway, Tarantino and Avary have returned to their roots with the Video Archives podcast where they will discuss some of the movies that they recommended when they worked there. The first two movies in the inaugural podcast were two that I was unfamiliar with; Dark Star (1974) and Cocaine Cowboys (the 1979 feature, not the documentary).

Here’s what Tarantino had to say about Dark Star —a movie that started as a USC student film directed by John Carpenter (before directed and co-wrote Halloween), and co-written with (and starring) Dan O’Bannon (before he wrote Alien).

”I’m practically trepidations about how I feel about the movie now. For the simple fact that the thing I don’t want to do on this podcast is throw around the M-word. I want the M-word to mean something. The M-word is masterpiece. I want the M-word to mean something. I don’t want to throw it around. And I don’t want to use the M-word on the very first movie we talk about, but I think actually think it applies to Dark Star. It’s a science fiction masterpiece. It’s a counter-culture, anti-establishment, hippy filmmaking masterpiece. It’s an early 70s masterpiece.” 
—Quentin Tarantino
Video Archives podcast

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

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Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk to you again

The Sound of Silence
Paul Simon

”As the writer, you need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big scary world — and make sure they can never get back.”
—Screenwriter John August
Burn it Down

“Sometimes your strength is a double weakness” is a saying I first heard more than three decades ago. That could be said of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) in Nightmare Alley as well as the 2021 version of that film directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Stanton got lost in Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro got lost in Nightmare Alley. And I got lost in Nightmare Alley.

Spoiler alert: This is not a lost and found story. (As a side note, I’d rather a movie be swimming around the culture for a few years before I write about it. But here we go.)

Stanton got lost in his own abilities.

Guillermo del Toro got lost at the carnival.

And I got lost in del Toro’s vision.

Now getting lost is not always a bad thing. If Stanton doesn’t get lost in Nightmare Alley there isn’t a movie. If he gets married, quits the carnival, is successful selling life insurance, buys a house in Cincinnati, and raises two above average kids, and lives a normal life there isn’t a movie. As former UCLA professor Richard Walter once wrote, “People do not go to the theater to see The Village of the Happy Nice People.

You won’t find many happy nice people in Nightmare Alley.

And if del Toro had of gotten just a little more lost at the carnival he might of had two movies instead of one. The opening carnival sequence in the first hour is its own spectacle. To borrow a question from the film, “Did I oversell it?” I think so. I think del Toro created a world he didn’t want to leave. I actually thought he or someone else could make a limited series on that world, then I realized HBO already had—Carnivale (2003—2005).

The Nightmare Alley carnival was more fantasy than Tod Browning’s 1931 classic Freaks. But these attractions have been around forever for a reason.

And an additional 20-25 minutes of the carnival to Nightmare Alley and they had feature film one in the can. Then the second film would start with the Stanton’s mentalist show in Buffalo with Molly (Rooney Mara), then jumping into Bradley Copper and Cate Blanchett sizzling on screen through to his downfall. It still would have made for an hour and a half movie. Yet, even as a single 150 minute film, I got still lost in del Toro’s vision. The film actually reminded me of how I felt after first watching Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Scorsese’s’ Raging Bull. Movies I still ponder over from time to time—though both are hard to grasp even after multiple viewings.

I bought a ticket and enjoyed the ride to Nightmare Alley. But not enough people did, and so the $60 million movie was a box office disappointment. Martin Scorsese even wrote a LA Times piece in January encouraging people to see the movie. The COVID pandemic was no doubt part of reason people didn’t show up. (And how amazing it is that a film of this scale got made during the pandemic?) But a 2 1/2 hour run time with dark themes, released at Christmas time, didn’t help. Nor did the heavy doses of exposition. Just show the magic tricks without explaining how they were done. When I did my little writing experiment of breaking down the book into a three act structure, I had the carnival sequence ending at the end of act one. That would have streamlined it down to a manageable two hour movie.

Here’s what I mean about the movie’s strength being double weakness. Nightmare Alley is a visual feast. I was lost in the wonder of it all. The set design, the cinematography, the wardrobes, the acting, and the overall production value was spellbinding. It was a delight to take it all in. The problem is I was lost in the filmmaking aspects of the movie rather than the movie itself.

But this is a screenwriting blog, so let’s talk about that aspect. I thought a nice opening scene was the way the book opened with Stanton seeing the geek—the man/beast act and wondering how you could get someone to bite the head off a live chicken or a snake. The major dramatic question being “How does one become a geek?”

I thought the best use of the first act would be showing Stanton finding his place in this world by joining the circus and moving up the ranks.He’s ambitious and resourceful, but not a bad guy. A guy who wants to make a name for himself. My arc was Act 1: Good guy, Act 2: Wrestling with good/evil, Act 3: Evil wins. The anti-hero’s journey. Del Toro opens with the the Stanton dragging a corpse and burning down a house. ”I needed a big question mark,” was what del Toro said about opening with the burning corpse scene. I guess to have the audience wondering who did he burn and why?

But I thought that burning house scene, and the continual flashbacks to it, took away from keeping the story movie forward. Plus it sets Stanton up as a bad guy at the start of the movie, so he doesn’t have much trajectory throughout the whole film.

In the book on the production (Nightmare Alley: The Rise and Fall of Stanton Carlisle) by Gina McIntyre, she writes that the novel and concept first got on del Toro’s radar back in the 1990s when he was making Cronos. So this film has been in the works for 30 years. Perhaps giving del Toro extra time to think about his vision for the film.

“The pre-production and scouting took longer than they have on most projects I’ve ever tackled: We needed to find the perfect doorway, the perfect street, the perfect street, the perfect field for every frame.”
—Guillermo del Toro

The only thing they didn’t find was the perfect script. (But how many of those have there been?) Or maybe I just yearned for that Rod Serling touch, where at the end of the film I recognized myself in Stanton Carlisle. (But how many Rod Serlings have there been?)

But I think where del Toro and Morgan exceeded the book and the 1947 movie version was the whole Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) sequence through to the ending. The book was too convoluted and the ’47 movie too unbelievable. Cooper does a brilliant job of showing Stanton’s emotional breakdown at the end. I hope I get to see the black and white version of Nightmare Alley in a theater some time.

P.S. After I wrote this post, I looked at some reviews of the film. I think Rex Reed said what I wanted to—but he did it in just 33 words:
”It’s too long, too uneven in some places, too slow in others, and too flawed to be a masterpiece, but even with its drawbacks I could not take my eyes off the screen.”

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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“In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between.” 
—Alfred Hitchcock

Nothing quite ushers in the holidays like the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I’m a big fan of The Criterion Channel and this month they are running 21 Hitchcock movies. While this includes some classics (Vertigo, Rope, Lifeboat) it also includes some of his lesser known silent film work (The Lodger, Downhill).

It’s easy to look at a masterpiece like North by Northwest (1959) and miss that Hitchcock was 60 when that film was released. Like everyone else had to learn to be a filmmaker. If you look back on his early 20s you begin to see how he evolved as a filmmaker. He loved watching movies as a kid, but being a filmmaker wasn’t on his radar. He studied engineering and through his skills as a draftsman, started doing some side work title design work and art directing on two reeler silent movies.

It was while working with the Famous Players—Lasky in London where he says he learned screenwriting from ”some middle-aged ladies.” Mix that with his appreciation of the silent films by Chaplin, Keaton, and D.W. Griffith and he was prepared to start directing himself. Perhaps the real take away for the young filmmaker/content creator today watching Hitchcock’s British-era films is to see how he engineered his shot selection. Working with film and lower budgets in his early days forced him to think though where he was going to place the camera for maximum impact.

Oscar-winning writer/ director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) was greatly influenced by Hitchcock and only started his featuring film directing career after a three year study of the films by the master of suspense. Here’s what he had to say about The Man Who Knew Too Much (which is also available on The Criterion Channel this month).

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

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“People will come to Iowa, for reasons they can’t even fathom.”
—Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams

All eyes in the baseball world were on Iowa on Thursday night for MLB’s Field of Dreams game between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. And Iowa did not disappoint.”
—Aaron Marner
Des Moines Register

There are a lot of grand movie entrances. Two that come to mind are Rose (Kate Winslet) and her giant hat in Titanic and the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) twirling his rifle in Stagecoach. But on some list of 100 great film entrances has to be the entrance of the baseball players emerging from a cornfield in Iowa in Field of Dreams.

Last night in Dyersville, Iowa, Kevin Costner got to make his own grand entrance emerging from an Iowa corn field—followed by the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees. As a lifestyle baseball fan, I can’t say that Major League Baseball ever fully recovered from the double black eye of the strike back in the 90s, followed by the MLB steroid scandal.

But they took steps yesterday to add to baseball folklore by having the Yankees and the White Sox play a game near where they shot Field of Dreams movies back in the 1980s. (I think it was the first MLB game ever played in Iowa.) The TV announcers keep talking about a magical vibe the place had.

I’ve visited the Field of Dreams site a couple of times when I lived in Iowa. When I started the Screenwriting from Iowa … and Other Unlikely Places in Ceder Falls, Iowa 13 years ago, the mythology of Field of Dreams (screenplay by writer/director Phil Alden Robinson from a book by W.P. Kinsella) was definitely on my mind. What may get lost in the backstory of Field of Dreams is that Kinsella had an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. A pretty good foundation for Robinson, Costner and the others to build upon.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) and Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) also graduated from Iowa and it’s been fun all these years to go back to that well from time to time. People may forget that in 2008 just the idea of screenwriting (and filmmaking) from Iowa and other unlikely places was a radical (or tongue in cheek) concept. But fast forward to 2021 in a post-COVID world and you see that it’s no longer so bizarre. Your favorite movie or streaming show is more likely to come from the state of Georgia than Los Angeles.

The cost of living and quality of life in LA is causing more than a few creatives to trade LA for Austin, Texas. Which, of course, has its own established film community. Vancouver has proven to be a film hot spot. Zoom calls have allowed established writers to retreat to states throughout the US. If I wanted to call it a day for this blog and say “my work is done” this would be a good day to do it.

But … I think I have a few more posts in me. And I still have to get on the ball and get my podcast rolling. I don’t know what the future of movies will be—or how many movie theaters will survive these odd times—or if people even will return to the movie going business as we once knew it—but I’m pretty sure people will still want to be entertained as they have throughout the history of civilization.

In recent posts, I’ve been recounting some places I visited on my vacation back in June and July. It’s fitting that my next post will be about going to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY on my birthday. It was a trip I’d been planning since I was 10 years old.

For those of you who missed the game last night, here’s all the drama of the final dream ending (at least for Tim Anderson). Hollywood couldn’t have done it better.

P.S. Whoever came up with that idea to play the game in Iowa last night deserves a nice bonus.

P.P.S. Just realized after I wrote this post the Iowa-connection of two of the movies I referenced. Rose in Titanic (as a 103 woman) lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and John Wayne was born in Winterset, Iowa.

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

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In Stephen King’s short story The Body (on which the 1986 movie Stand By Me was based) the protagonist in the story is reminiscing a trip to New York he took after he sold his first novel. Toward the end of a grand three day tour of the city given by Keith, his editor, there is an awkward moment between the two men and King writes:

“[I wanted to tell Keith]: The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality; that’s why all the verbs in stories have -ed endings, Keith my good man, even the ones that sell millions of paperbacks. The only two useful art forms are religion and stories.

I was pretty drunk that night, as you may have guessed.

What I did tell him was: ‘I was thinking of something else, that’s all.’ The most important things are the hardest things to say.”

The Body is available as a stand alone book or part of the original collection of short stories called Different Seasons. In that book you’ll also find the story Rita Hayworth and the Shank Redemption, which became the movie The Shawshank Redemption. And the short story Apt Pulpil became the 1998 movie Apt Pupil.

P.S. If you’ve never seen Stand By Me put it on your list to watch this week. And for extra credit read the Stephen King short story then the script by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans. And then watch with Rob Reiner director’s commentary, and then the movie one more time. (The 25th anniversary Blu-Ray of the movie has a commentary by Reiner, Corey Feldman, and Wil Wheaton and I imagine that’s solid as well.) There’s a whole film school worthy class you could build around King’s short story becoming a modern day classic movie.

Scott W. Smith wrote the book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“One day in August a man disappeared. He had simply set out for the seashore on a holiday, scarcely half a day by train, and nothing more was ever heard of him.”
The opening words from the novel The Woman in the Dunes by Kôbô Abe

Last night I was able to close the gap one more notch in my knowledge of global cinema by watching the 1964 Japanese film Woman in the Dunes. (I saw it on the The Criterion Channel, but you can also rent it through Amazon.) I’ve watched a lot of movies this year because of the pandemic, and Woman in the Dunes is my favorite—perhaps because I saw it during a pandemic.

It’s that rare film that transports you to another world, then when it’s over it returns you to your world with fresh eyes and a lot to ponder. When I started to explain the film to someone today I realized it sounded like an extended episode from The Twilight Zone.

That Rod Serling classic TV program ran from 1959—1964, and the novel The Woman in the Dunes by Kôbô Abe was published in 1962 and according to Wikipedia won the 1962 Yomiuri Prize for literature. Abe wrote the screenplay (with Eiko Yoshida credited as scriptor, though I am not sure what that means) and was directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

This is not a review of the film, just a few words to say that it is a great film to watch during a pandemic—especially if you’re in any kind of lockdown. The basic set up is the protagonist of the story is so caught up collecting and photographing bugs and insects that he misses the last bus back into town where he is staying.

Arrangements are made by local villagers for him to stay the night in a home that’s basically in a sandpit. Conflict ensues. As the Eagles sing in Hotel California, “You can check out, but you can never leave.” I’ll leave it at that. But when the movie was over I didn’t feel as confined by my world where much of my freedoms have been removed for the past seven or eight months.

Woman in the Dunes received two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign picture, Best Director), and was on filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky‘s handwritten list of his ten favorite movies.

P.S. This film is mostly a two actors in one location. It’s a fascinating study for low-budget filmmakers because of it embraces its limitations. But it packs in much of the stuff I’ve covered over and over again on this blog and in my book.
Inciting incident√
Major Dramatic Question √
Goals—Stakes—Urgency√
Clear intentions and obstacles√
Conflict (on multiple levels)√
Compelling characters√
Active protagonist√
You want to know “what happens next?”√
Builds toward a climax√
Change and transformation√
The ending is surprising and inevitable√

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
Harlem 

 

When playwright/screenwriter Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was a 17-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin—Madison she walked into a rehearsal of Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, and the struggles she saw onstage in the tenements of Dublin, Ireland resonated with the struggles she saw growing up in the rougher parts of South Side of Chicago.

And a scene where a mother laments the loss of her son in the Irish Civil War left Hannsberry stunned. That theatrical experience combined with her childhood experience of moving into an unwelcomed white neighborhood (that started with windows being broken, and ended in the landmark Hansberry v. Lee lawsuit) provided the seeds for her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959). The film version was released in 1961.

 

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Here’s a Vanity Fair clip of director Randel Kleiser walking through a scene from the timeless Grease featuring the song You’re the One That I Want sung by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta.

You’re the One That I Want is one of the top 20 selling singles of all time. 

Back in 1978 Travolta was over-the-top successful. He’d just come off an Oscar-nomination for Saturday Night Fever, was starring in the hit TV show Welcome Back Kotter, and had a hot song with Let Her In. Lesser remembered is a TV movie he did in 1976.

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble  was also directed by Randel Kleiser from a script by Douglas Day Stewart (screenwriter of An Officer and a Gentleman). I remember being a teenager and seeing The Boy in the Plastic Bubble when it came out on TV. I never saw it again and haven’t thought about it in a decade—or two. Until recently,  when the coronavirus started to take over the news.

And speaking of the coronavirus— and the other half of singing You’re the One That I Want…

Olivia Newton-John may have been my first celebrity crush. I bought her If you love me , let me know album when I was 13. That was 1974, a couple of years before the Farrah Fawsett poster came out. (Maureen McCormick, Marcia on The Brady Bunch, was in the mix around that time.)  I spent a lot of time listening to Olivia Newton-John’s music.

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Olivia Newton-John’s battle with cancerhave been well documented over the years, and she recently relayed a stay at home message on her Instagram from some of the staff at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Australia.

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If you need a smile today to break through the global news, here’s a video of Olivia Newton-John singing Bob Dylan’s If Not For You when she was in her early 20s.  That smile. That voice. Those eyes.

Scott W. Smith

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