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Postcard #84 (Lucy)

Lucy

Yesterday was one of the saddest yet sweetest days of my life. Had to say goodbye to our 15-year-old golden retriever Lucy. Can’t remember when I’ve cried so hard. But also very thankful to have her in our life for so long.

Back in January 2000 my wife and I weren’t looking for a dog when we were driving home one day and saw a simple hand-painted sign that I think is the most effective advertising line ever written: “Golden Retriever Puppies 4 Sale.” We stopped and our hearts were captivated by this one dog that was hiding in the bushes.

So today’s postcard comes from not being on the road, but close to home. Actually in our backyard a few years ago when we lived in Iowa. It’s my favorite photo of Lucy, followed closely the photo below soon after we brought her into our life.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Scott W. Smith

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“In this screenplay, I imagined a deadbeat father who had bailed on his kids years earlier, looking to return home to make amends.”
Writer/director Edward Burns on The Fitzgerald Family Christmas 

“It’s a good thing our father left—we needed the space.”
Sharon (Kerry Bishe) one of nine Fitzgerald children raised in a 3 bedroom house in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas 

One of the things most (all?) Catholic and Protestant theologians agree on in is that Jesus was not born on December 25. Some scholars even speculate that Christ’s birth account 2000 years ago wasn’t even during wintertime, but in the springtime because that’s when shepherds watch over their fields. (“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Luke 2:8)

So it’s actually not that bizarre to talk about Christmas in May.  And I’ll do so by mentioning what I think is Edward Burns’ tightest script and best film, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas. (It’s currently on Netflix if you’d like to get in the Christmas spirit this spring day.)

“I knew I didn’t want to make the sappy, goofy, funny Christmas comedy. My favorite Christmas film has always been It’s a Wonderful Life, another film that has the perfect blend of light and dark, comedy and drama. George Baily has to cover a lot of tough ground to get that payoff. I also wanted my characters to go on a tough journey so that when the Fitzgerald family got together in the end, it felt earned. As I started to work on the screenplay, a theme of forgiveness started to present itself. Given that it’s one of the themes of Christmas, it tied together nicely. The script poured out of me and within four weeks, I had a first draft.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns (Sidewalks of New York)
Independent Ed; Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life
page 212

If you just happen to be in the mood for Christmas music today, check out The Fitzgerald Family Christmas Album largely featuring the music of long-time Burns collaborator P.T. Walkley.

P.S. And if you want to add an indie companion Thanksgiving film to your May viewing watch Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April starring Katie Holmes. Fitzmas (2012) and Pieces (2003) cost less than $600,000 to produce—combined. And one connection between both films that I know of is John Sloss was an executive producer on Pieces and received a special thanks credit on Fitzmas (Sloss, a University of Michigan law school grad, also provided legal service on Burns’ first film The Brothers McMullen.)

P.P.S. Yes, that is the talented Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, American Crime Story) in the screen grab above. She fit in time between shooting the Nashville TV series for the small (but wonderful performance) in Fitzmas as nod/thank you to Burns for casting her in her debut movie The Brothers McMullen (1995).

Related Posts:
The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Prison “Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Frank Darabont
Merry Silver Linings Christmas
Christmas & Cancer (Connected because the father in Fitzmas has cancer.)
Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)
Merry Christmas (2012) Same year as Fitzmas release and my last Christmas in Iowa.
Writing from Theme
Hope & Redemption
Filmmaking Quote #27 (Frank Capra)
Filmmaking Quote # 15 (Edward Burns)

Scott W. Smith

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“[The Brothers McMullen] won the Grand Prize at Sundance, scored at the box office, and got me labeled as one of Hollywood’s hottest young independent filmmakers. A few years later, I couldn’t get a movie made.”
Edward Burns
Introduction to Independent Ed, Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life

Though writer/director/actor Edward Burns fell a few credits shy of earning his degree at Hunter College, his career has been a master class in the ups and downs—and survival—of being an independent filmmaker.

Fortunately Burns has written a super book, Independent Ed, concisely re-telling his journey. Between that book and his interview with screenwriter Brian Koppelman (first podcast interview I’ve ever listened to three times), and toss in the 2011 podcast interview with Jeff Goldsmith, and you have enough filmmaking insights that I’d put up against any college class on the subject.

The initital success of Burns was textbook indie filmmaking. He spent three years writing the script for The Brother’s McMullen, borrowed $10,000 from his dad, got credit from a film lab, put together a three person crew, endured the director of photography wanting to quit (over not making money), and finally got the film shot, developed, and edited, only to be rejected by every film festival where he applied. Undeterred and working as a production assistant at Entertainment Tonight he personally handed a video copy of The Brothers McMullen to Robert Redford who was then doing press interviews for Quiz Show.

Redford liked The Brothers McMullen and after all of those film festival rejections, he was not only accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, but ended up winning the Grand Prize.

Home run.

By the time he left Sundance, he sold McMullen and also had a deal on his next screenplay.

Grand Slam.

He went on to have a string of films where as a director or actor he was able to work with some giant talent including Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston, Connie Britton, Cameron Diaz, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Kingsley, Angelina Jolie, and Steven Spielberg.

He tells the story in his book that after he shot his second film he found himself at Tom Petty’s home who played him songs he wanted Burns to consider putting in his newest movie—he was 27-years-old and just two years removed from being a production assistant. A few years later he married supermodel Christy Turlington.

But after three of his films weren’t moneymakers he said he was put in “Director’s Jail.” Acting jobs were few. At around age 40 he had what amounted to a three year professional downfall. After a meeting went south with a potential investor who was at the bottom of the barrel, Burns felt the prospects of making another film weren’t looking good.

“Now I’m scared…Now I have been knocked back down. I said (to producing partner Aaron Lubin), ‘I don’t understand this—1995, I’m ‘Brothers McMullen,’ now we’re dead.’ Like, the career is over. So we gotta to rethink this whole thing. It’s scary—kids, mortgages and the whole deal—you still have to earn. And I’m probably on year three now of no work. You lose all your heat. If you go look at my IMDB page and you see that movie I made in Bulgaria— it probably happened right about this time. Nice people, I was happy for the paycheck, but not what you dream of when you were a kid in film school.

“So the first thought is over the years why don’t you just forget about the indie thing, just be a director for hire. Go direct a Hollywood romantic comedy, for years the agents have been saying that’s a no-brainer. You’re a nice guy, you know how to make movies, you’ll make yourself a nice paycheck, so just do some schlocky rom-com for the studios. So I called up my agents and said maybe I should consider that. And I had looked at some scripts and there was one where maybe I could get my head around making this. I was kind of on the fence. I’m thinking mortgages. And I think, well if I do this once, who’s really keeping score? If the movie works maybe I can parlay that back into getting one of my films made. But rather than do that we sit down and we’re talking Brothers McMullen and the absurdity of 12-years later here it is and it’s over.

“I said, you know what’s nuts about [when I was making] McMullen? At that time I don’t know anyone in Hollywood, I don’t know how to make a movie, I have no money, my dad has no money, I don’t know a single person who owns a camera, I went to Hunter College which had no film department—they had on old CP-16, that was the one camera they had, but somehow I was able to make that movie and to this day it’s still my most successful film. So I said, ‘Why don’t we just go and do that again?’ So on a napkin there at the bar we wrote down—we called it McMullen 2.0— and wrote down what we were going to do. It had to be $25,000 to get the can. Twelve days of shooting , actors had to do their own hair and make-up, wear their own clothes, three-man crew, all the locations for free, we had to shoot one scene on my parents house, so we wrote down all of these things.”

So Burns ended up making three micro-budget, and low-budget films (Nice Guy Johnny, Newlyweds, and The Fitzgeralds Family Christmas) and he was not only back on the set directing scripts he wrote, but his acting gigs picked up including an opportunity to play Bugsy Segel in the Frank Darabont created TV show Mob City. That connected him with executives at TNT eventually leading him to create Public Morals that will debut this summer on TNT.

A lesson in talent, persistence (including writing a bunch of scripts that never sold or were produced) and risk taking.

P.S. I was inspired enough by Burns’ book that over the weekend, before I even finished reading Independent Ed, I wrote 15 pages of a new script centered around two 18-year-olds that I could shoot the majority of with a 1-3 person crew.

Related posts:
Edward Burns ‘Newyweds’ (Part 1)
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
‘Don’t try and complete with Hollywood.’— Ed Burns

Scott W. Smith 

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“Prior to creating my first television show, Public Morals, I made eleven movies in twenty years, and half were considered failures…If you allow yourself to get crippled by the possibility of failure, you’re going to rob yourself of a lot of great experiences. There are very few great films, but something great, be it a new relationship or learning a new technology, has always come from my experiences making films even if the film itself was disappointing.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns (Sidewalks of New York)
Independent Ed, Inside a career of big dreams, little movies, and the twelve best says of my life

In his book (which I highly recommend), Burns points out that several of his key filmmaking partners to this day came from his less than successful movie Looking for Kitty (2004).

P.S. Burns’ first Tv show, Public Morals, debuts in August on TNT. Steven Spielberg (who directed Burns in Saving Private Ryan) is the executive producer.

Related posts:
Tennessee Williams on ‘Apparent Failure’
Who to Blame for Your Failures
‘Failure is an option.’
Commitment in the Face of Failure
Failing—Learning—Succeeding
Hollywood Failure—Robert Altman
Susannah Grant on Failure
Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Spectacular Failures
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith

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“I remember when we were doing the press for The Brothers McMullen somebody in Fox Searchlight’s press department kept talking about the thing that’s going to help this movie—it’s the movie, but it’s [also] the story of the movie. They said any time you make a movie you should think about that—the other story you can tell. That way you can get two articles in the New York Times. You can get the review of the film, but then the ‘oh, Brothers McMullen—he made it for $25,000.’ There the other story so you can maybe end up in the business section, or the fashion section, or the sports section.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns
Podcast interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman 3/17/15

Example of indie movies over the years with other stories include:

Hollywood Shuffle (1987) where Robert Townsend said he used credit cards to fund his movie.
El mariachi (1992) where Robert Rodriguez was said to sell his blood and/or undergo medical experiments to fund his film.
Clerks (1994) Kevin Smith sold a chunk of his comic book collection to fund his first film.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) Here the filmmakers had story after story that helped the movie become the biggest box office hit to date for what it cost to make.
Purple Violets (2007) The first film to be released exclusively on iTunes.
Paranormal Activity (2007) The story of Oren Peli’s self-funded almost no-budget thriller was the film that dethroned Blair Witch at the top movie in the ratio of cost to make and profits.

Oscar-winning screenwriters Quentin Tarantino and Diablo Cody both brought interesting personal backstories to their debut films.

I’m sure there are many other examples, but keep in mind your story’s story as you work on your movie. And you can work on your story’s story before you finish making your film.  While it worked out for him, Burns made the mistake of not arranging any still photos during the filming of The Brothers McMullen. (Maybe because he was acting and directing and the 3 to 5 person crew had their hands full.)

Related links:
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
“Don’t try and compete with Hollywood”—Ed Burns
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)
A New Kind of Filmmaker 

Scott W. Smith 

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“My thing has always been—and I’m lucky—in that I like to write. Everyday, it’s not a problem. I do the same routine every morning; 9:30 I sit down and open the laptop until 1:30 I’m going.  Doesn’t matter if I think it’s sh*t. If I’m in a groove, or it’s like pushing the boulder up the hill. Even when it’s garbage, I don’t stop to re-read it. I don’t really stop to think about it. My dad always used to say, ‘Head down, ass up, and just keep moving forward’—and that was it. Then I’d discover—you do that for four hours you think it’s garbage, but I made a commitment to myself a long time ago—who cares if it’s garbage? I’m not going to share this with anyone. No one is ever going to see this if it’s garbage…So then the next day I’ll go back and I’ll re-read the garbage I wrote before, and let’s say it’s four pages of what I thought was garbage—somewhere in the middle when the story took over, it’s like, I’ve got two scenes in the middle that are pretty good. I can build off of that. And that’s the process everyday.
Filmmaker Edward Burns
The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast interview

Related quote: “The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”—Arthur Miller

Related Posts:
The Ten Film Commandments of Edwards Burns
How to Shoot a Feature in Ten Days
It’s a Good Time to Be a Filmmaker
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood’

Scott W. Smith

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‘Move Me’

WME story editor Christopher Lockhart estimates that over his career he’s read more than 50,000 scripts. No typo—50,000 scripts. So when he tosses out a piece of advice consider taking it to heart:

“Writing scripts is really, really, really hard. Get that right first. Do that right first before you start thinking about everything else. Because the truth is your script probably sucks, so all this other stuff that you’re dreaming about is a pipe dream …I’m always about just do the work. Find a great idea that’s a movie. Write it dramatically, write it cinematically, make it intriguing. Make it emotional. Move me. Make me feel differently at the end of the script than I did at the beginning of the script. Try to do that. Try to do that. If you can really, really do that then all of those other things will eventually come your way.”
Christopher Lockhart
Scripts and Scribes podcast #77

P.S. Lockhart has his own podcast The Inside Pitch, and heads up the Facebook group also called The Inside Pitch.

Related posts: 
The 99% Rule 
Insights from an Oscar-winning writer
40 Days of Emotions
Your Screenplay Sucks!
Christopher Lockhart Q & A An interview I did with Lockhart a few years ago where he talked about writing not a great script, but “the right script.”
“I can’t keep handling this rejection” Screenwriter Graham Moore before he won an Oscar for writing The Imitation Game.
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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