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“One of those lines from the how-to-write-movies books finally became real to me: The script is only a blueprint. During filming, last-minute decisions have to be made because of weather or budget, an individual’s availability or the director’s flash of insight. Pushing for greater naturalism, [director Lenny Abrahamson] often got the actors to improvise within a scene and I was startled by how much I liked the results.

“…A novelist shouldn’t write the screenplay unless she embraces the chance to change everything, to try to make the same magic over again, out of different ingredients. (For instance, ‘Room’ the novel gives him an expressive child’s body. The book is one boy’s story, and his mother is only shown in flashes, through his limited perspective; the film is a two-hander, with Brie Larson’s extraordinary performance bringing Ma right into the spotlight.)

“Adapting fiction for the screen is an act of mysterious translation, and working on ‘Room’ taught me much about both forms that I’d never known.”
Novelist/screenwriter Emma Donoghue (Room)
Novel Ideas for a Script/LA Times

Related post:
Good in a Room—Literally
Up in the Air—The Book vs. The Film
Up in the Air—The Book vs. The Film (part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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“Screenwriting’s one unbreakable rule: Don’t be boring.”
Richard Walter
Essentials of Screenwriting

“One of the essential components of drama is tension…Drama, so said drama critic William Archer, is almost always the effect of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty.’”
Writer/Director Alexander Mackendrick (1912-1994)

There are many challenges involved when discussing current films from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective. There’s the danger of giving away spoilers, it’s not a film that everyone has seen, it’s not an award winner, it hasn’t stood the test of time, there aren’t writer and director commentaries to glean information from, and it hasn’t yet been explored about in books.

So I won’t say much about Eye in the Sky—except that it’s one great example of superior filmmaking. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that it’s one of my favorite films of this decade.

I won’t say any more about it until a few months down the line, but kudos to screenwriter Guy Hibbert, director Gavin Hood, the producers, actors, and production team for hitting a grand slam. For creating that rare movie that is compelling, engaging, and thought provoking—even after you’ve left the theater.

I can’t remember ever feeling more like I was a hidden character in the film, wondering what the right decision in that situation would be. And Helen Muran and Aaron Paul—brilliant.

So while I won’t give away any spoilers on the film, I will provide 10 links to past posts that are buttons that I think the movie hits in terms of screenwriting, filmmaking & life.

Conflict-Conflict-Conflict
Tension=Attention
The Major or Central Dramatic Question
The Bomb Under the Table
What’s Changed?
40 Days of Emotion
What’s at Stake?
Earn Your Ending
Happy, Sad, Ironic & Ambiguous Endings
Screenwriting from Hell

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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You must remember this 
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. 
The fundamental things apply 
As time goes by
Music & Lyrics by Herman Hupfeld
Featured in Casablanca (1942)

Last week I did a podcast binge of Karina Longworth’s  You Must Remember This—which is as its website proclaims—”a podcast dedicated to exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.”

Great stuff.

When I first stepped foot into Hollywood—the actual city in Southern California—at age 21 I’d had exactly one film history class. I knew very little about the history of Hollywood—that almost mythical place known around the world as HOLLYWOOD in greater Los Angeles where movies were produced that have entertained people around the world for over 100 years.

Keep in mind that my first time there was in 1982, not only long before you could stream movies on the internet, but even before cable TV and VHS were ubiquitous. The most common ways to watch old movies was to catch them on late night TV or at revival movie house (only found in larger cities).

Via film school and revival houses, books—and later video rentals—I quickly got a sweeping overview of film history and its cast of characters. Within two or three years I also found my way onto the lots at Disney Studios and Warner Bros. in Burbank and Paramount in Hollywood.

I once worked on a film project at Rudy Vallee’s Hollywood Hills house (with its secret passageways) while Vallee was still alive and living there. His older housekeeper told me that back in the day Errol Flynn would ride his horse over from his house and entertain women in the playroom—sometimes on the pool table. (I’m not sure how comfortable that was—or how good that was for the felt—but that’s what I was told.)

And that’s a good a segue to the You Must Remember This podcast. Because a study of Hollywood history is one full of debauchery.  In the past week I’ve listed to I’ve listened to podcasts on Lana Turner, (podcast #5) Judy Garland,  Humphrey Bogart, (#14) Lauren Bacall, (#63) Eddie Mannix and George Reeves, (#61) Jean Harlow , (#59) John Gilbert, and (#66)  David O. Selznick & Jennifer Jones, each one a different variation of the core life in Hollywood themes; drug and alcohol abuse, nervous breakdowns, suicides and suicide attempts, sexual and physical abuse, gambling problems, extramarital affairs & divorce, dirty studio & governmental politics, personal grudges, paranoia, the rise and decline of careers, and the occasional mysterious death.

And, of course, a trail of great movies.

Longworth is a storyteller in her own right, and each podcast reveals a good deal of research she’s done to provide insights into the golden era of Hollywood. And it’s not all about hedonism, Longworth offers insights into the film business, including aspects like what separated the studios and the kinds of movies they produced:

“Of all of the studios that produced films and stars during the first half of the 20th century, MGM was in many ways the gold standard. For many years their movies were the biggest, their stars the starriest. MGM didn’t always make the best or most innovative movies, in fact, they intentionally targeted a sweet spot supporting productions that were neither highbrow or low, which guaranteed escapist entertainment that was never vulgar or insulting, that promoted no political point of view or message—other than a general endorsement of family life. That was proud to conform to the internal censorship of the production code. That transcended class difference, while always staying classy. Nearly ever movie that MGM made was engineered to be a movie that everyone everywhere would want to see. Or, at the very least, that no one anywhere would have any objection to.” 
Karina Longworth
MGM Stories Part 1: Louis B. Mayer vs. Irving Thalberg
You Must Remember This (#56)

At least from the You Must Remember This podcasts I’ve listened to so far, it’s a reminder that happy endings are more common in Hollywood movies than in lives of Hollywood greats.

P.S. An example of an MGM movie that everyone everywhere wanted to see was Gone with the Wind (1939). A film that still has more paid admissions than any film to date. Actually, more than 100 million tickets sold than Avatar. I don’t know if that fact is more shocking—or Errol Flynn and that pool table revelation. (I’m sure Longworth will get around to Mr. Flynn sooner or later, but his Hollywood demise, financial & physical decline, excessive use of drugs and alcohol, and eventual death at age 50 seems like a Hollywood cliche.)

Related posts:
You Tube Film School (Early Film History)
Roger Ebert on Old Films
The Father of Film (Part 1)
Writing ‘The Artist’ (Part 1)

Scott W. Smith

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“Despite its flaws, Pieces of April has a lot of joy and quirkiness; it’s well-intentioned in its screwy way, with flashes of human insight, and actors who can take a moment and make it glow.”
Roger Ebert 

Pieces of April is not a perfect film, but it’s the perfect film for low-budget indie-filmmakers to study. It’s a great example of writing a script good enough to attract some great actors, and embracing your limitations and getting the film made. And getting it distributed.

That’s why I’ve spent the first two weeks of April writing about a film shot on standard def video cameras 14 years ago.

Let’s pick-up where we left off in the last post

So after April (Katie Holmes) realizes her oven is not working as she starts preparing Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family, and after she found a small repreive from a couple who let her use their oven for two hours—now April has to find someone else in her apartment building to have mercy on her to continue cooking her turkey.

That’s when she has a ray of hope from Wayne (Sean Hayes), the man who proudly has the newest and nicest oven in the whole building. But even though he’s willing to help doesn’t mean that writer/director Peter Hedges didn’t find a way to add obstacles in April’s path and fill the “Tick-tock” sequence with conflict, and continue to push April toward the end of her rope.

Related post:
Conflict-Conflict-Conflict
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
The End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14)

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s that new girl in #13, says she’s got a problem…She white, she got her youth, her whole privileged life ahead of her. Oh, I am looking forward to hearing about her problems!”
Evette in Pieces of April script written by Peter Hedges

One of the things I love about Pieces of April is it was one of the first (maybe the first) feature films that I ever saw that was shot exclusively with a small video camera. I believe  it was a Sony PD-150. (A standard def camera you can pick up these days on eBay for under $500.)

Prices of April came out 2003, just four years after The Blair Witch Project hit theaters—a film shot on multiple formats including standard def video and film. For decades before that independent low budget feature films had a long running tradition of being shot on 16mm, including the somewhat contemporary sub-$25,000 films The Brothers McMullen (1995) and Clerks (1994).

My favorite scenes/sequences in Pieces of April show where solid writing and acting were enhanced by the camera technology, and I’ll explain why after the clip.  They start after April (Katie Holmes) discovers her oven not working the morning she starts preparing Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family. As she begins seeking out another apartments in her building where she can cook her turkey it leads her to meeting Evette (Lillias White) and Eugene (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).

The scene does what you want a scene to do (fulfilling the What’s changed? question) and  moves the story forward. The scene starts and it appears that it’s going to be another dead end for April with characters not interested in helping her. But by the end of the scene she has hope. It starts out negative and ends positive.

According to Hedges on the director’s commentary White and Whitlock only had one day to shoot all their scenes—five or six total—and they had never worked together.  Most of the scenes take place in a small kitchen where the small camera (which recorded to mini DV tapes) helped improve the scene two-fold:

1) Because it was tape verses film being used it allowed cinematographer Tami Reiker to shoot the day of rehearsals/blocking. This allowed the editor Mark Livolsi to steal reaction shots. Back in the film only days, to keep film costs down, many measures were used by low budget filmmakers to keep film usage down, including limiting shooting coverage (wide, medium, close, reversal shots, etc.)  and hiring actors who could nail each set-up in one or two takes. (Time is still money, so one of the dangers of shooting digitally these days is thinking that because you’re not shooting film—or even tape— you can do as many takes as needed.)

2) Because they were shooting in a real life small apartment the small size of the cameras (sometimes they used two) allowed them to shoot in tight spaces where a larger cameras wouldn’t have fit, and flying the walls out wasn’t an option.

Of course, though the technical quality of digital cameras 15+ years ago (with 1/3 sensors) lacked image quality, Pieces of April is a great example of doing what you can with what you have. It’s a movie that on the strength of the talent involved holds its own against movies today using state of the art equipment with budgets of 20, 50 or even over 100 million dollars.

P.S. Other movies reported to be shot on the PD-150 were David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me (2004), and Open Water.  I remember renting a PD-150 for a shoot back in 2000 for a project because it was a big money saver verses hiring a 2-man Beta SP crew. On the flight for the shoot in the Pittsburgh/Ligonier Valley area I remember reading the PD-150 manual since I was going to be operating as well as directing. My first thought was that there sure were a lot of menu options. There were other differences from it an shooting 16mm— being very light and quiet were two big differences.

I went to film shoot back when students only used film and so I felt the PD-150 still looked too TV/video-like. But I saw the possibilities and in 2004 ended up buying the Panasonic DVX 100 (also a standard def camera, but had a nice 24p look) which eventually replaced the PD-150 as the darling of indie filmmakers for a season.

Small HD cameras started hitting the scene a couple years later and had a good run until the Canon 5D came out, and since then there has been an explosion of relatively low-priced/high quality cameras. But despite the onslaught of 4K and 6K technology, it’s still about the story—Pieces of April proves that.

Related Posts:
Bob Dylan & Your Filmmaking Career “Now you can buy a consumer-model digital camera and the image looks great.” Edward Burns
How to Shoot a Film in Ten Days
Off Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)
Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl from Ohio
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
“Don’t try and compete with Hollywood.”—Ed Burns
A New Kind of Filmmaker   “One of the benefits of being outside of Hollywood…”

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“Most of us have some old pain or hurt that we don’t think about all the time, but which is always vulnerable on some level of awareness…To humanize a hero or any character, give her a wound, a visible, physical injury or deep emotional wound.”
Christopher Volger
The Writer’s Journey

April

Because it’s probably never been done before, allow me to compare the 2003 indie film Pieces of April to the 1982 classic blockbuster E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. I’ll flesh that out in a moment.

I’ve heard it said that everyone has a personal wound—and it’s usually a wound from a  mother or father. In Pieces of April the wound is from the mother. But the prodigal child April (Katie Holmes) decides that she wants to cook Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment —perhaps due to the fact that her mother Joy has cancer.

We don’t know exactly how that arrangement went down since the movie starts Thanksgiving morning with the plans already in place. And at the 15 minute mark April realizes she has a problem—a dilemma. Her oven isn’t working.

This is how writer/director Peter Hedges writes the key conflict scene in half a page:

INT. APRIL’S APARTMENT – KITCHEN AREA

April finishes writing “Mom” on the Thanksgiving-themed name card she has decorated. Beat as she looks at it. She tears it in two. Then writes “Joy” on the Thanksgiving-themed name card.

She glances up at…

A small clock on her dinning room table which reads 8:00.

April crosses to the turkey pan sitting on the counter, lifts the pan and carries it to the oven. She opens the oven.

She’s about to slide the turkey in when she stops. Beat. She reaches in, feels for heat. Her hands touch the sides of the oven. Her hands touch the metal roasting rack.

She checks the temperature knob. It’s been turned to 375.

She stares in confusion, then it hits.

                                        APRIL
                     Oh, no. No –

A nice simple scene about a broken oven. Normally it wouldn’t be that big a deal, but Hedges raises the stakes by adding that it’s Thanksgiving morning, that April’s mother has cancer, and her family is expecting her to let them down. As I said it Part 1 it’s the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.

Now what could that possibly have in common with E.T.? Well, the Steven Spielberg directed movie (written by Melissia Mathison) opens with space aliens already on earth. Their space ship planted firmly in the San Fernando Valley. But that’s not the inciting incident, that comes at the seven minute mark when E.T. gets left behind when the space ship leaves without him.

If E.T.’s on that ship Spielberg & Mathison would have to tell a different story. And on the same note, if April’s oven works then Hedges has to tell a different story.

I labor the point because script readers say one of the common problems in screenplays they read is a lack of a clear inciting incident. Something active that sets the story in motion and ties into the ending.

I know indie films like to be less conventional, but I think Pieces of April is an indie film that works well following this basic screenwriting principle. (Winter’s Bone does as well.) If you’ve ever read 30 pages of a screenplay or watched 30 minutes of a movie and not been sure what the movie is about—it’s probably missing an inciting incident.

P.S. I couldn’t find that oven scene online, so if you have a link please send it my way.

Related posts:

Starting Your Screenplay
What’s Your Problem?
Protagonist=Struggle
One Clear Dilemma
Telling Smaller Stories
What’s at Stake?
There are no rules, but…
The Major or Central Dramatic Question

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“I’m often asked how much Pieces of April cost to make. A simple answer is difficult because it doesn’t fully represent the truth. In dollars, maybe not so much. But, you see, for every person who worked on Pieces of April, there’s a story of sacrifice. So I don’t know how to answer the question other than to say, ‘It cost a great deal.'”
Writer/director Peter Hedges
(Reported costs put the film between $150,000 and $300,000)

Before we get to the critical conflict oven scene in Pieces of April let’s step back a second and see the conflict before the film even got made. Writer/director Peter Hedges said the seed of the idea passed his mind in the late ’80s and then again around a decade later in the ’90s when he began writing the screenplay.

I’m not sure how long it took Hedges to write the screenplay, but I do know it was released in 2003. Here is some of the drama that took place behind the scenes to get the film made.

“Getting Pieces of April made was its own particular adventure…On three different occasions, we were about to start production with a budget anywhere from 4-7 million. Each time it fell apart. In our third incarnation, we were even setting up production offices in Toronto, hiring production designers and crew. I returned to Brooklyn for a few days to pack for the eight weeks of prep and the five week shoot. That’s when we got the call came. The number crunchers at the studio were shutting us down. We were back at the beginning, but for me felt like the end. Fortunately, John Lyons, my stellar producer, suggested we call Gary Winick and Alexis Alexanian at InDigEnt, a company that makes digital films on a shoestring budget. They spoke to their partners, Caroline Kaplan and Jonathan Sehring at IFC Productions, and the irrepressible John Sloss, and in less than twenty-four hours, we were, as the say ‘green lit.'”
Peter Hedges
Introduction in Pieces of April: The Shooting Script

Throughout the budget adjustments Hedges was able to retain top-notch actors (including Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, and Oliver Platt) who committed to seeing the film finally get made. And here we are almost 15 years after the film was produced still talking about that little gem of a film that hopefully can provide some light along the way for other filmmakers today.

And as a nice bookend to Hedges experience having difficulties with fundraising (as well as a quality script ultimately attracting financial partners (and quality actors) here’s screenwriter Nick Hornby talking about his experience working on the Oscar-nominated Brooklyn (2015):

“[The budget] was ten million pounds and it took the producers four years [to raise the money]…The drama in making Brooklyn was in fundraising, and what my wife [producer Amanda Posey] does and what [producer Finola Dwyer] does is way more difficult than [screenwriting]. They have their hearts broken ever single day. Rejection after rejection after rejection. And a bad writing day is, ‘ah, I couldn’t work out where these characters go when they come out’—it’s not that problematic really.”
Nick Hornby
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

“The thing I’ve discovered the most about writing screenplays—it’s a wonderful dovetailing of art and commerce—is if you make your minor characters as interesting as you possibly can in the space that you’ve got, better actors will play them. And your film has more chance commercially…When you’re making an independent movie you need all the commercial help you can get, especially when you’re working with a young cast, because they’re not going to be the biggest stars in the world.”
Nick Hornby (An Education, Brooklyn)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

P.S. And that Brooklyn connection—happy accident. Didn’t realize it until after I wrote the post.

Scott W. Smith

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