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“I have 25 years of starving for praise. Just give me my week. That’s all I ask. Just give me my week. I’ll be back to self-loathing before you know it.”
Craig Mazin (joking about his writing success on the miniseries Chernobyl)
Scriptnotes podcast, “Live at the Ace Hotel”

I set out to tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is shocking.”
Tony & Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams
The Paris Review interview with Dotson Radar

Screenwriter Craig Mazin once joked on the Scriptnotes podcasts that films he works on never get nominated for major awards. But that all changed with the HBO/SKY production of Chernobylwhich Mazin wrote and executive produced as it earned 19 Emmy nominations including these categories:

Outstanding Limited Series
Chernobyl

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie
Jared Harris, Chernobyl

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie
Emily Watson, Chernobyl

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie
Stellan Skarsgard, Chernobyl

Chernobyl helped HBO set a record of 137 Emmy nominations.

I’ve listen to enough Scriptnotes podcasts (that Mazin co-hosts)  to think that Mazin had a North Exposure-like TV show in him at least once in his career, but I would never guessed he would reach down and create something like Chernobyl.

While Mazin’s career has been lucrative including box office hits (Hangover 2Identity Thief), his critical success is below par. And according to IMDB his only previous award nomination is the Stinker Award, Worst Screenplay for a Film Grossing More than $100 Million Using Hollywood Math, Scary Movie 3 (2003).

But with Chernobyl his swing was as pure as baseball great Ken Griffey Jr’s. Or to use a football metaphor it’s like watching Kurt Warner go from backup NFL quarterback to Super Bowl and League MVP in one season. (Warner had been an All Conference player of the year at the University of Northern Iowa and an arena football star, but I think he’s the only one that would have predicated his success at the highest level of pro football.)

Chernobyl is a little Shakespeare, a little Chekhov, and a little Battleship Potemkin. Mazin as the show’s creator has earned the right to being singing the county song, How Do You Like Me Now?! 

What writer Mazin and director Johan Renck  (and their cast and crew) pulled off with the mini-series  Chernobyl is remarkable. It’s a haunting version of the nuclear disaster that occurred in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

It’s not only  my favorite narrative film or TV show so far in 2019, but it reminds me of what I consider TV at its best. Personally the viewing experience was up there with watching Roots (1977), Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman (1985), Seinfeld (1989-1999), Temple Grandin (2010) and most recently Breaking Bad.

Here’s just a few thoughts on Mazin’s writing process and what I think makes the mini series work so well.

THEME/ UNIVERSAL RELEVANCE 

“The way I think of it is what is the relevance to everyone? Ultimately we can tell any particular story, but there needs to be some sort of universal relevance or it just becomes a story in and of itself about the event. Which at that point I refer to those things as homework. I’m not interested in making homework for people. The reason that I was compelled to write about Chernobyl was in part because it was filling in these large gaps of a story we all knew yet didn’t know. But primarily it’s because it’s a story about the cost of lies. This is the first line of the whole show and this is the theme we are going to continue with as people watch these episodes. That when people chose to lie, and when people chose to believe the lie, and when everyone engages in a very kind of passive conspiracy to promote the lie over the truth—we can get away from it for a very long time, but the truth just doesn’t care. And it will get you in the end.” 
Craig Mazin
The Chernobyl Podcast, episode 1:12:45

CONFLICT & STAKES 

The largest nuclear meltdown in history qualifies as conflict where the stakes are high. The actual number of people who died as as result of the accident are unknown, but it’s thought that tens of thousands of people died as the result of radiation poisoning. And if the meltdown had not been stopped some estimate that it would have impacted 100 million people.

THE WAY INTO THE STORY

Mazin didn’t start his script with a big Hollywood explosion, but with the theme stated (truth/lies) and a suicide. Great hook.

MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION
How did this accident happen and who is responsible?

CHARACTERS/ACTING

The arrogant scientist, the Russian bureaucrats, the conscience, the fixers, the whistleblower, the miners, the innocents, the heroes, the firefighter and his wife. It’s just a well orchestrated cast of characters that Mazin uses to tell the story. t

EMOTIONAL
The cement burial scene is just one of many emotionally charged scenes in Chernobyl.

DIRECTION
What’s perhaps as crazy as Mazin’s comedy background in writing a serious drama, is Swedish born Johan Renck’s early background in music videos, and that his degree is not in film but economics.  I would be surprised if his directing his style wasn’t influenced by Ingmar Bergman and Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski.

CINEMATOGRAPHY/EDITING
The camera lingers in places in the style of European filmmakers in what’s often called slow cinema. It greatly helps the gravity and emotional impact of the situation.

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Chernobyl is a visual feast and that was part cinematography but also a part production design, set design, art direction, and costume design. 

MUSIC & SOUND DESIGN
Where would this roof scene be without sound design?

PLACE
The Soviet Union/Russia has been linked to the United States in my mind since I was a child in the 60s and aware of the space race. From Olympic games to the Cold War to current politics the United States and the USSR/Russia seem to be forever in an awkward dance.

I’ve been to Russia twice (Moscow and Samara) and found the people there very friendly, but the country’s history with hardness and abusive leadership can’t be denied.  From Ivan the Terrible to Stalin are many stories of hardship and death.

The fact that Pripyat was meant to be a Soviet utopia yet is now a ghost town of dark tourism in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster is one of the set pieces that Mazin and Renck took full advantage of.

Solzhenitsyn once said something to the effect that every writer secretly wanted to write something so powerful that they’d be sent to the Gulag. I’m not sure Mazin would agree with that, but I imagine he takes much delight in being a writer who’s work is not greeted with indifference—but with 19 Emmy nominations. And, perhaps even better, with reports that Russia’s own state backed TV channel is now making their own version of the ‘truth’ of what happened that day at Chernobyl. (Spoiler alert: they blame an American spy.)

Additional material:

Chernobyl Prayers  Svetlana Alexievich 

Chernobyl scripts by Craig Mazin.

 

Scott W. Smith

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Kurosawa 101

“I really don’t feel like I’ve grasp the essence of cinema.”
Writer/director Akira Kurosawa
In 1990 upon receiving an honorary Oscar award after a 40+ year career

“One thing that distinguishes [Kurosawa] is that he didn’t make one masterpiece or two masterpieces. He made, you know, eight masterpieces.”
Writer/director Frances Ford Coppola

If you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, here are four essentials films of his to watch (followed by some related links):

Rashomon (1950)

Ikiru (1952)

Seven Samurai (1954)

Yojimbo (1961)

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“In the Sixties, each of the major Japanese studios—Toho, Shochiku, Toei and Nikkatsu—had their own theaters in Los Angeles, in which they played their films for Japanese audiences. An Autumn Afternoon was made in 1962 and Ozu died the following year, but the film played in 1969 at the Shochiku in Los Angeles. I saw it in the afternoon, and it took hold of me. It wouldn’t let go. I wasn’t sure why at the time.”
Writer/director Paul Schrader

This is how screenwriters Yasujirô Ozu  and  Kôgo Noda (according to Kogo’s widowed wife Shizu)  collaborated on scripts that became classic movies; Tokyo Story, Late Spring, An Autumn Afternoon and Late Autumn.  And while many of their most known work was made in 1950s and early ’60s, they first collaborated together on the 1927 lost silent film Sword of Penitence.

Their pre-writing routine seemed to daily include baths, naps, food, long walks, and a little bit of sake. They wrote scripts in about a month, after taking two months thinking through ideas. It appears that movies were Ozu’s life.

“You might also think that a director who made films with so much warmth, whose work is infused with such happiness and sorrow, must have had a contented life. The opposite was true. He was a chain-smoker, he was an alcoholic, he lived with his mother. His mother died about six months before he did. He never married, never had children. He lived for the cinema, and all he did was cinema. He didn’t really have any other life.”
Screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver)
Film Comment, On Yasujirô Ozu

Scott W. Smith

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This will be my last post from my recent trip out west. Yesterday I was reminded that July 2 is the anniversary of when Hemingway took his life in Ketchum, Idaho. A few days ago I wrote a post about his gravesite, but today I thought I’d show a couple of photos I took of the town that attracted Hemingway to live after he’d traveled the world.

IMG_4092.JPG

From what I can gather Hemingway first visited the area in 1939. While the small downtown has grown some since Hemingway died in 1961, there are a few establishments still in existence on the main drag that Hemingway used to frequent.

There’s Christiania (now Michael’s Christiania) restaurant where Hemingway’s had a regular table (table 5), the Casino Bar which until this year stayed in the same family for 82 years and said to be where Hemingway frequented.  The Pioneer Saloon has been a Ketchum fixture since the 1950s. 

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Earlier this week I had the opportunity to finally see Glacier National Park in Montana. I can’t limit it to just one picture so here are my three favorites that show glacier, lakes, and Jammers. 

mountainIMG_4636

Glacier1.jpg

JamerDSC_8485.jpg

 

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I did finish watching the HBO mini-series Chernobyl and plan to write a post about it tomorrow. In the meantime, yesterday I saw the trailer for Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood and it triggered a few things.

A few days ago a friend of mine was in outside his midcentury home in an Orlando suburb when a location scout started asking him some question. Turns out he was looking for homes for the TV program The Right Stuff. (The Tom Wolfe book of the same name was made into a remarkable movie back in 1983.)

I wasn’t even aware that they were doing a TV show on The Right Stuff—much less one right here in Central Florida. A quick Google search showed that Leonardo DiCaprio (recently starring in Once Upon a Time . . .  in Hollywood) is executive producing. And Emmy-winning director David Nutter is scheduled to direct the pilot.

I went to film school with Nutter at the University of Miami and our paths almost crossed again back in the early 90s when he was editing Superboy at Century III at Universal Studios Orlando and I was in the next bay editing a project. On a break I went over to say hello but he was already gone.

And he was soon gone from Florida and off to incredible success in Hollywood. His long list of directing credits include Band of Brothers, The X-Files, The West Wing, The Pacific, and The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones.

To show what an interconnected world production can be, the location scout for the new The Right Stuff studied film with Ralph Clemente at Valencia College, who Nutter studied with at Miami. (See the post The Perfect Ending).

And while I was editing projects at Century III (the top post house in Orlando back in the day) I worked with Mike Elias (in the pre-AVID/non-linear days) using a video editing technique that used rows of VHS machines to assemble an edit. (I forget what machine was called, but it would be great for production students to see in action to appreciate non-linear editing). Elias was a good friend of Nutters (and also worked on Superboy) and for the last few years has been an editor on Family Guy.  If I recall correctly, Mike’s father is the writer Michael Elias who co-wrote The Jerk starring Steve Martin and The Frisco Kid starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford.

The thing that brought David Nutter and Mike Elias to Orlando in the late 80s and early 90s was this thing called Hollywood East—a marking ploy to position Florida as a major player in film and TV production. Disney and Universal Studio opened working film studios at that time. Panavision opened and office and for a decade it appeared to be working.  Parenthood (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990),  Passenger 57 (1992), Marvin’s Room brought some of the biggest names in Hollywood to Florida including Ron Howard, Steve Martin, Johnny Depp, Wesley Snipes, Meryl Streep and DiCaprio.

And then Hollywood East was gone. Not gone-gone…it just relocated from Florida to its currently home in Georgia. But now at least DiCaprio is coming back to shoot at least part of The Right Stuff in Central Florida.

Another  fun connection I just learned yesterday is I edited a video two months ago on sustainability (and learned about things like hyrdroponics) and the person I did that video for was hired to work full time as the Sustainability Lead on The Right Stuff. The goal of the DiCaprio’s production company and Nat Geo is to “become the most sustainable TV production ever.”

I’m not sure this will jumpstart a new wave of film and TV production in Florida but it’s a nice addition to Florida’s production history that goes way back to the early days of cinema. If you’re every in Jacksonville, Florida check out touring Norman Studios which began making silent films in 1916 and produced movies with exclusively African American cast in the 1920s.

P.S. I first arrived in L.A. in the early 1980s and felt like I got a glimpse of the old a fading Hollywood that Tarantino appears to capture in Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood, which is set in 1969.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

 

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“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”
Opening lines of HBO’s Chernobyl

I’m going to finish watching the five-part series Chernobly in the next day or two and will write about it more extensively. But today I thought I’d pull a quote from the writer of the HBO/Sky miniseries about the 1986 nuclear disaster.

“In thematic structure, the purpose of the story—listen carefully now—the purpose of the story is to take a character, the protagonist,  from the place ignorance of the truth (or the true side of the argument you’re making) and take them all the way where they become the very embodiment of that argument. And they do it through action.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin (Chernobyl)
Scriptnotes

In Craig Mazin’s talk How to Write a Movie he likes to refer a few times to Shrek and Pixar’s Finding Nemo as being great at thematic structure, but two personal favorites I like to return to again and again is Rain Man and The Verdict where the Tom Cruise character and the Paul Newman characters start out in one place in the opening scenes and are both changed and transformed by the end of those movies.

Mazin says if you just took the opening and closing scenes of movies with strong thematic structure you would see the anthesis and the synthesis of the theme played out. Two films that jumped to my mind are Erin Brockovich and Flight that show how that plays out on screen in dramatic fashion.

But not everyone agrees on the use of theme in screenwriting, and here are 10 writers and directors giving conflicting views on the topic:

“. . . I’m quite sure that I never thought much about theme before getting roadblocked on [writing] The Stand. I suppose I thought such things were for Better Minds and Bigger Thinkers. I’m not sure I would have gotten to it as soon as I did, had I not been desperate to save my story. I was astounded at how really useful ‘thematic thinking’ turned out to be.”
Stephen King
On Writing, pages 206-207

“I’m not sure I know what themes are. I know English departments care about themes. So it’s possible to look at my work, as I guess anybody’s work, and infer a theme, but it’s not something which concerns me.”
Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet
MasterClass

“I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along.”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks)
Go Into the Story Interview with Scott Myers

“So usually, for me, I have a thematic idea—an inspiration —and then I build everything around that.”
Writer/director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up)
Masterclass/Writing the First Draft

“If somebody asks me about the themes of something I’m working on, I never have any idea what the themes are…. Somebody tells me the themes later. I sort of try to avoid developing themes.”
Writer/director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom)
Elvis Mitchell interview on KCRW’s The Treatment

From the book Script Tease by Dylan Callaghan:
Question: What guides you through a story if you don’t outline? is it character or a certain voice?
Diablo Cody: “I like to pick a theme. I know that sounds stupid. It’s not a super advanced technique. They pick a theme on Laverne and Shirley. I think about what the emotional core of the story is, what’s something I can play on across multiple story lines, and I go from there.”

“The most important decision I have to make: What is this movie about? I’m not talking about plot, although in certain very good melodramas the plot is all they’re about. A good, rousing, scary story can be a hell of a lot of fun. But what is it about emotionally? What is the theme of the movie, the spine, the arc? What does the movie mean to me?”
Sidney Lumet
Making Movies

“Every great work has something that’s thematic about it. Not a message, because I don’t think movies do messages very well. They fall flat. Socially, I mean, some great films were made back in the ’30s and ’40s and you can see that they were placed in the time they were made, but their themes are for all time. The biggest thing is the story, but within that you need some thematic element that gets the audience going, that reaches out to them.”
Writer/director John Carpenter
Creative Screenwriting, Volume 6, #1

“I try not to think about theme until later. If I’m adapting a book I’ll extract a theme if I can from something that’s already written, but if I’m writing something I don’t say, ‘oh, here’s the theme.’ I feel like the movie feels – this word I keep using – it feels ‘built’ if you start with the theme ahead of time. If you arrive at a theme that’s great. If there are themes you know you love, that’s great. But for me, if I start writing it seems it doesn’t matter to me early on. I know there are certain themes I automatically always go to, but it’s not anything conscious.”
Screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, Marley & Me)
2012 BAFTA Lecture

“The theme rarely is mentioned in the story; it is never rubbed in. The audience may not put it in words at all, but will recognize the theme and the fact that the story keeps in line with it. Suppose that you have taken for your theme the slogan, ‘It pays to advertise.’ These words may never be mentioned in the story, but the story itself will demonstrate the truth of that statement.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (The Big HouseThe Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories  (1937)
pages 106-107

“I will say like any time that we’ve gone off and written things where we haven’t really honed in on any theme whatsoever, that’s where you start getting into the weeds and you start losing your sight.”
A Quiet Place screenwriter Scott Beck (on how he and Bryan Woods work)

“Sometimes you never really quite understand what the movie’s about until you go into a matinée screening at the Oriental Theater on a Thursday afternoon.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434

Related posts:
Writing from Theme
Writing Grace Notes (via James L. Brooks & Judd Apatow)
Ryan Coogler on the Theme of Black Panther
Michael Arndt on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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