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Archive for the ‘Screenwriters’ Category

Note: This post originally ran in 2014 as Finding Authentic Emotions (Part 1). On Monday I will do an update on Alex Blumberg and Gimlet Media which has been on a podcasting tear the last couple of years.

“What is a story, exactly?”
Alex Blumberg

What were you doing at 4:16 this morning? I was watching a story unfold  about a woman who married the hunk who lived next door to her in Dayton, Ohio and moved west to live the California dream.  She found her dream, but not until she went through years of despair.

“Everyone wants to find a way out of pain.”
Alex Blumberg

It wasn’t a movie, a TV show, or even a radio program, but the CreativeLive online class Power Your Podcast with Storytelling with Alex Blumberg. It was intriguing because you were able to watch how Blumberg takes a person out of the audience and shows how he would learn and tell her story for a program like This American Life (the NPR program where Blumberg was once a producer). Great stuff for anybody wanting to develop and tell better stories.

You can watch part two of the class for free today (and the rebroadcast tonight), or buy both days today for $79 (or $99 after today). I don’t recommend a lot of things to buy, but what I caught of Blumberg’s talk yesterday (and again early this morning) it’s solid material that you’ll find helpful and engaging if your storytelling is for features, TV, documentaries, radio, corporate videos, non-profit/NGO, or podcasts.

“Go where the medium lets you go.”
Alex Blumberg

He covers aspects like finding the core of the story, what hooks the audience into the narrative, what details do you need to tell, what surprises can you find, and what areas need explored. With the woman in the audience some of those areas were her dream of living in San Francisco turned into living in a suburb outside of Davis,CA. Her marriage and plans of 2.5 kids turned into a divorce and no kids. But there is a revelation and discovery on her way to finally living her California dream life—being a painter in San Francisco. If there’s a theme to her story it could be, “The road to happiness travels through many unhappy places.” (How’s that for a universal theme that would resonate with a few people worldwide?)

A few thoughts that I’ll pass on from Blumberg are his formula for nailing the thumbnail version of the story is, “This is a story about X, and it’s interesting because of Y.” When you tell people this framework for your story it must hit them at the gut level—they want to hear the story. It’s instantly intriguing.

This wasn’t an example from the workshop but I think works:”This is a story about ordinary people with the same name as famous people.” I’m flying from memory here, but I think that was the basic concept from a This American Life broadcast a few years ago. One of the ordinary people name was Willie Nelson and he lived in Texas where the more famous Mr. Nelson lived. Ordinary Willie Nelson kept voice mails left on his answering machine but obviously left for the famous Willie Nelson lived. It was an engaging program in the radio medium.

“Boredom is the enemy.”
Alex Blumberg

In telling your story look for the unexpected twists, contrasts, We like to hear about the pain, the a-ha moments, and the resolution/triumph.For true stories he looks for someone with direct experience rather than just an expert in the field.

Blumberg also said what he’s looking for when interviewing people is “authentic emotions.” Finding someone who went bankrupt because of a subprime loan they couldn’t afford to pay will tend to have more authentic emotion versus an expert on the topic. (Boots on the ground stuff, versus the view from afar.)

While it was a risk to interview an audience member in front of a live Internet audience, he certainly found “authentic emotions.”

Related post:
Finding Authentic Emotions (Part 2) 
40 Days of Emotions
Ira Glass on Storytelling
Creative Learning 2.0
Chase Jarvis—A Creative Force one of the co-founders of CreativeLive
The End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14) The California dreamer story belongs in the end of the rope club.

Scott W. Smith

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Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

When I heard that Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme died yesterday I thought of his films, but I also remember going to hear him speak at AFI’s Director on Directing series in the 80s.

During his talk or interview he mentioned that he went to school at the University of Florida. I was around 24 years old and during the audience Q&A time I asked him about his time in Gainesville so I could try to connect with someone in L.A. with a Florida connection.

I don’t remember my exact question or his entire answer, but one thing he said that night that did stick with me— “Directors direct.”  It was to the age old question of how do you find a path to directing.

And that’s certainly easier today in the digital age then the pure film era in which he was speaking. He made some reference to production assistants (P.A.’s) not becoming directors. And while that may not be the most common path, there are directors who were once P.A.’s on at least one or two productions.

Two names that come to mind are Oscar-winner Quentin Tarantino and recent Oscar-winning Moonlight co-writer/director Barry Jenkins. So I don’t know how common it is, but it happens.  By working long hours for low pay as a P.A. there’s a lot you can pick up about how films and TV programs are shot.

Demme’s own path to the director’s chair was certainly unusual. First he dropped out of the Veterinarian program at UF after one year and began working as a movie critic in Miami. That opportunity lead him to meeting Roger Corman, which eventually led to Demme directing several low-budget features for Corman including his writer/director debut Caged Heat (1971).

At the time of the talk he was an up and coming director who was mostly known for Melvin and Howard and the doc Don’t Stop the Music with the Talking Heads.

By the time The Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991 he’d had 20 solid years of feature writing and directing, TV directing, and documentary work behind him.

One was a lesson Jodie taught me in the first of the three times we met to talk about the possibility of her playing Clarice. Jodie taught me that this is a story of a young woman trying to save the life of another young woman. Maybe it’s a thriller. Maybe it’s a horror movie, but you have to honor that core story. [production designer] Kristi Zea and [cinematographer] Tak Fujimoto and I worked so intensely together, planning what that picture was going to look like. I think we wanted to take as high a road as possible. We wanted to welcome as many moviegoers as we could, and we just didn’t see it as a splatter movie, or a gory movie, or a crazy killer movie. It was a story of this young woman. I was very concerned about turning people off, and of the idea that people would hear, ‘Oh, no, there’s a scene that’s so gross, you shouldn’t go…’ I really wanted to make sure this great story reached as many people as it was capable of. So we were trusting the imagination of viewers to set the path as much as possible.”
Jonathan Demme on making The Silence of the Lambs
Deadline

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“I find violence very disturbing on screen. I hate Tarantino’s films … I hope people will challenge this more. It’s totally unacceptable to be making such films.”
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert (speaking after the release of Django Unchained)
Evening Standard 2013

British screenwriter Guy Hibbert began working on the script for Eye in the Sky in 2008—meaning it was an eight year journey to get the script written, the film produced and released.

The movie isn’t going to set any box office records, but I can’t imagine it getting some love come award season. Hibbert has won BAFTAs: No Child of Mine, Omagh, Complicit, and Five Minutes of Heaven. In 2009, he also won the World Cinema Dramatic screenwriting award at Sundance for Five Minutes of Heaven.

Born in Oxford, England in 1950, he dropped out of school at 15,  and at age 20  started a career in theater as a stage hand and a tour manager. And he began writing plays.  In his words, “I got a couple plays put on—couldn’t make a living out of it, and then moved into television.”

There he’s been able to make a living. And fast forward a little more than 20 years since his writing career took off and I imagine you’ll hear his name mentioned come award season for his script for Eye in the Sky.

Here’s some advice (from the above interview) to writers just starting out :
“Work hard. Learn everything. And go out and experience life—as a writer you have to have a story worth telling. So you have to live your life.”
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert

Related post:
‘Eye in the Sky’
‘Art is work’—Milton Glaser

 

 

 

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“I’m telling you Iowa is incredible. We should all move to Iowa and start the revolution.”
Hannah (Lena Dunham) in Girls, Season 4 episode 2

It’s been a busy month for Lena Dunham as she’s been prominently featured in the press near the center of the film & political world in January 2016. She’s been at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah where her documentary Suited premiers tonight and she’s been stumping in Iowa for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.   

“This is my second time in Iowa, but before I came to Iowa, I was pretending to be in Iowa. We filmed all our Girls stuff not in Iowa. I had seen tons of pictures of Iowa City, we had a location scout from Iowa and a writer from Iowa, so we had our experts in check, but I hadn’t, myself, had an opportunity to come. It was amazing when I came to Iowa City last year on my book tour because I had already had the experience of existing in fake Iowa and I was like, wow, we didn’t do that bad a job.”
Lena Dunham
The Des Moines Register 
January 11, 2016

Dunham, the creator of the HBO show Girls, is the perfect person to follow up my last post (Diablo Cody Day) about Diablo Cody winning an Oscar in 2008 for writing the Juno screenplay.  (And since I was living in Iowa at the time, the fact that Cody graduated from the University of Iowa served as inspiration for me starting this blog.)

Well, back in 2008 Dunham graduated with a degree in creative writing from Oberlin College in Ohio. While in college, in the infant days of You Tube, she was also creating short films that went viral.

“I didn’t go to film school. Instead I went to liberal arts school and self-imposed a curriculum of creating tiny flawed video sketches, brief meditations on comic conundrums, and slapping them on the Internet.”
Lena Dunham

In 2010, just two years out of college she won the SXSW Award in Narrative Fiction for her film Tiny Furniture. The film made for just $45,000 also earned Dunham Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards. (The same award Cody won back in 2008.)

That led to the opportunity to create Girls which has been on the air since 2012, and has won two Golden Globe Awards (Best Television Series—Comedy or Musical, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series—Comedy or Musical).

That’s right, she acts, too. And she was paid $3.6 million to write her 2014 memoir Not That Kind of Girl. I don’t exactly fit the demographics of watching/reading Dunham’s work, and haven’t actually never seen a full episode of Girls, and have been out of the loop of the controversies of her work.  But I enjoyed the quirkiness of Tiny Furniture (which is currently available on Netflix), and it’s hard not to appreciate what she’s achieved creatively and financially before she’s even turned 30. 

And I was curious what Cody thought of Dunham and found this quote:

“I absolutely love Lena Dunham. I don’t know her personally, but I’m completely obsessed with the show. I cannot believe what she has accomplished at 26. I think she is like our new Woody Allen.”
Diablo Cody
Huffington Post interview with Lori Fradkin

P.S. Last year, Dunham’s character in Girls began attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City so I thought I’d give some links that give a glimpse to the real place.

BTW—Diablo Cody got her undergraduate degree in Media Studies from the University of Iowa and when asked why she didn’t attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop she said it was easier to win an Oscar than to get into Iowa’s competitive graduate program.

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)
The Making of Woody Allen in 10 Simple Steps
The Juno-Iowa Connection
Oberlin to Oscars (Screenwriters William Goldman and Mark Boal also both graduated from Oberlin.)

Scott W. Smith

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“I had this kind of 1930s childhood because my dad was really into radio serials, and my parents were also very, very anti-TV… It certainly was helpful having grown up with my dad as a film professor, and I studied movies and worked at EW for 10 years…If you’re wondering if I’ve always written dark stories—yes. Starting at age 8.”
Author Gillian Flynn (Dark Places, Sharp Objects) who was born in 1971
(Pieced together from three different articles.)

I’m always curious where writers come from and since Gillian Flynn went from being unemployed just a few years ago to be a multimillionaire, NY Times best selling author and screenwriter (Gone Girl) I thought I would show that she may have come out of the Midwest—but she didn’t exactly come from nowhere.

She was raised in Kansas City, Missouri and both of her parents taught at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley Community College. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Kansas and graduate work at Northwestern University—not far from where the 43-year-old writer lives now in Chicago.

“I was a Missouri kid in New York working at my dream magazine (Entertainment Weekly) and got laid off and had to figure out what to do with my life next. I did have more time to write; [Gone Girl] was the first of the three books that I wrote while I didn’t have a day job. I think it let me overwrite — I probably wrote two books and had to chop it back to one. I had done journalism school at KU and gotten my master’s at Northwestern, and I thought I wanted to be a crime reporter. Very quickly, I discovered I did not have what it takes to be a good crime reporter: I was too unassertive and a little bit wimpy. It was very clear that was not what I was going to do, but I loved journalism, and I’m the daughter of a film professor, and my mom taught reading. I grew up in a house full of books. So I applied straight to EW right out of Northwestern.”
Gone Girl author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn
Hollywood Reporter article by Kimberly Nordyke

In other words, she followed a similar (yet different) path of fellow Northwestern University grad, screenwriter John Logan. She wrote a lot. If she was writing stories when she was eight, then it was a about a 30 year journey before her literary success.

Related posts:
How to Be a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) “I graduated from Northwestern. I had no money. No one had any money. So I got a day job, shelving books at the Northwestern University Law Library. Every morning I would work from nine to five and shelve books, for ten years. Every single day for ten years. “—Three-times Oscar nominated John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo, Aviator)
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70)
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Scott W. Smith

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“To make a good film, to write a screenplay, is surprisingly hard. It shouldn’t be that hard. You’re really creating a diversion for people for two hours. But because of the length—it’s almost like writing a villanelle, or one of those forms that has so many requirements, that to hit the marks you need to hit and to express something is incredibly hard. And the result is there are a handful of people who know how to do it.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco, Quiz Show)
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriter Paul Attanasio, like screenwriter Sheldon Turner, came into the film world not through film school but through law school.  He also says he was not “one of those clerk in a video store” kind of guys, but that his writing is based in literature. After graduating from Harvard Law School he turned an internship with the Washington Post into a four-year stint as a film critic.

I’m not sure how he made the jump onto the filmmaking side, but he had the advantage of being mentored by Oscar-winning writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve). His first produced screenplay (Quiz Show) was directed by Robert Redford, his second film Disclosure was directed by Barry Levinson and starred Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, and his third film (Donnie Brasco) starred Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. He had two Oscar-nominations right out of the gate. A pretty good start, huh?

In the ’90s Attanasio also made his mark in TV when he created Homicide:Life on the Street (based on the book by David Simon) and from 2002-2012 he’s credited as executive producer on House M.D.

Here’s a glimpse into his writing process:

“I’m a late convert to outlining. I used to really try to know where I was going to end up and feel my way through it. And [Steven] Soderbergh when we did The Good German said, ‘no, why don’t you outline.’ And I was at the point where my process had gotten so amorphous—it wasn’t quite as amorphous as my friend Alvin Sargent—but it was semi-amorphous. And I said, “Okay, I’ll try that.” And it’s good. It’s like having a road map on a family trip. What happens is the kids have to go to the bathroom, you leave the road, you see something interesting, you go to it, then they’re hungry and you go there. But then when you have to get back to the highway, you know where the highway is, or at least you have a general direction to find your way back to the highway. Writers who stick rigidly to an outline, and never go up those blind alleys aren’t real writers. But on the other side of it is if you’re collecting scraps of paper you can take a long time to write a screenplay.”
Paul Attanasio
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

P.S. Here’s part of Attanasio’s 1987 review of the movie Hoosiers;
“In Hoosiers, director David Anspaugh and screen writer Angelo Pizzo have taken the tired ‘go for it!’ dramatics of a David-and-Goliath story and revived it with the fervor of real experience. Hoosiers demonstrates that it’s not the tale but the telling, for beneath the cliche’s lies a rich and detailed portrait of a time, a place and a way of life.” (I’m pretty sure that should be “beneath the cliches” or “beneath the cliche” but who am I to correct the Washington Post or Attanasio? Anyway, you get the idea of what he was saying. My guess is his years reviewing films was Attanasio’s substitute film school.)

P.P.S. Paul’s brother, Mark Attanasio, is the principle owner of the Milwaukee Brewers Major League Baseball team. Talented family.

Scott W. Smith

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“I believe in the affirmation of life. If we lose that hope, if we lose the possibility of it, we’ve lost an awful lot.”
Writer/Director Paul Mazursky
Film Comment 1978 Interview

“I never thought, I’m going against the grain, I’m going to inform America about the problem of women, about society, about the bums on the street. I just thought, is this a good story, and can I make it work? The European directors I love really showed me that. You make the movie you want to make, that engages you, the movie that you have to make. They got away with it for a long time. And I guess I did too.”
Paul Mazursky
TheWrap

Oscar and Emmy nominated Paul Mazursky’s died a couple of weeks ago.  The  career of the producer, director, writer and actor spanned seven decades. I was in film school when his 1982 film Tempest came out and once remember seeing Mazursky walking across W. Olive Ave. in Burbank as I waited at the stoplight next to Warner Bros. Studios. (When you’re 21-years-old and from outside L.A. you don’t forget those Forrest Gump-like moments.)

At that time in his career he already had two Primetime Emmy nominations (The Danny Kaye Show) and  four  Oscar-nominations (writing Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,  Harry & Tonto, An Unmarried Woman— the later also was nominated for Best Picture). But some of his more popular films were still to come including Moscow on the Hudson,  Enemies, A Love Story, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

“[Down and Out in Beverly Hillsmade me laugh and harder and more delight than any movie I’ve seen since Lost in America.”
Roget Ebert
1986 movie review on Siskel and Ebert

As an actor he also worked on a wide variety of  films and TV programs; Blackboard Jungle, The Twilight Zone, Antz, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Kung Fu Panda 2.

But when I think of Mazursky, Tempest is what comes to mind first. He directed the film from a script he wrote with Leon Capetanos based on the Shakespeare play.  It won the audience award at the 1982 Toronto International Film Festival.

The reason I link Mazursky to that film is not even the film itself that starred John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands and Susan Sarandon (and which just happens to be Molly Ringwald’s big screen debut), but because  Mazursky wrote a making of book on the film–fittingly called Paul Mazursky’s Tempest.

Keep in mind that in 1982 there was no Internet so behind the scene books were a key place to get a glimpse into the filmmaking process. I still have my copy of that book. Here’s a couple of shots from the book that may help you in scheduling your film.

photo-4

photo-3

The Director’s Guild of America has a video interview of Mazursky online. And here are a couple of videos interviews the Writers Guild of America did with Mazursky did last year.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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