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Everything is Awesome!!!

Have you heard the news, everyone’s talking
Life is good ’cause everything’s awesome
Everything is Awesome!!! from The Lego Movie

Okay, maybe not everything is awesome. In fact, if we just look at a few of last night’s Academy Award-winning films we’ll see a lot of the harder aspects of life represented; Birdman, Still Alice, American Sniper, Whiplash, Ida, Selma.

(The same was true of last year’s films—12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, Gravity— and the year before that, and throughout the 100+ years of the history of movies.)

Congrats to last night’s winners and nominees. And best wishes in your own writing, filmmaking and life as you deal with the less awesome times of your life—the ones full of strife and conflict.

Capture the magic.

Scott W. Smith

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“[Foxcatcher] was kind of an orphan movie for a while. There was no financing. There were no actors, and we were just trying to get the script right.”
Foxcatcher co-screenwriter Dan Futterman
The Wall Street Journal 

In the post Wrestling for an Oscar Nomination I wrote about screenwriter Jason Hall physically wrestling with someone while he was researching the story that would become the movie American Sniper.

While Foxcatcher is a story actually centered around wrestling—and up for 5 Oscars this year—I didn’t find any physical wrestling the filmmakers had to endure while bringing the story to film life, but director Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman had plenty of metaphorical wrestling along the eight-year journey to get the film made.

“In spring 2006, a total stranger handed me an envelope at an event at Tower Video that contained newspaper clippings about the story. That was my first exposure.”
Bennett Miller on the early seeds for Foxcatcher

Frye and Futterman worked on the screenplay seperatley—Frye before the 2007/2008 writers’ strike and Futterman afterwards.

“Bennett… became obsessed with it, and I think for, oh, six months at least, began to really do a lot of research and compile a lot of articles and public domain material and histories of the du Pont family, etc., etc. But he also did another really important thing, which was he went around and he interviewed and videotaped a lot of wrestlers who knew the Schultz brothers and/or were at Foxcatcher during that time period. And for me that was really essential to understand the world. I’m an ex-jock but I’m a basketball player and not a wrestler. So wrestling is a very, very particular kind of person and personality that becomes involved in it, in the sport, and it was really interesting for me to…I feel like that’s what I really…my research, you know, aside from the nuts and bolts and the facts and how to crack the story, my research really involved getting to know wrestling in a way and really understanding the mentality of people that wrestle, because that was, certainly for Mark and Dave, that was essential to understanding their characters.
E. Max Fry
Final Draft interview with Pete D’Alessandro

Apart from nailing the script, finding the right actors and securing financing were the major battles in getting the film made.  Miller set the project aside and made Moneyball (2011) before things finally fell in place to get Foxcatcher made.

The payoff is Miller received an Oscar-nomination for directing Foxcatcher, and both Fry and Futterman were nominated for writing the screenplay. A win-win even if they don’t win.

P.S. To see how Miller launched his career go back and watch the documentary The Cruise (1998). Dream big, start small.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“When anyone challenges this story or thinks that I didn’t try to put the whole story out there, I’m like, ‘You know what? I bled for this thing,’”
Jason Hall on a wrestling confrontation with a Navy SEAL while researching American Sniper
Time magazine article by Eliana Dockterman

Here’s a little background on screenwriter Jason Hall on his road to writing American Sniper which to date has made over $375 million at the worldwide box office and earned six Oscar nominations including best screenplay.

“I sought out Hall because I find it instructive to see how a guy with one screen credit (2009’s Spread) and another coming (an adaption of the Joseph Finder novel Paranoia) gets white-hot so quickly. Every writer’s trajectory is different, but there’s a common thread: there is no such thing as an overnight success screenwriter. It’s years of struggle to find a voice, and then maybe a lucky break. Hall came to Hollywood to be an actor, and only found his way to screenwriting because things were going so badly. ‘I did TV parts in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and other shows, playing the bad guy or the MacGuffin bad guy, with the half-baked mustache,’ Hall told me. ‘I would read these terrible movie scripts, and I couldn’t get auditions. I thought, maybe I could write a terrible script for myself.'”
Mike Fleming Jr.
Deadline article How Jason Hall Went From Struggling Actor To Hot Screenwriter With American Sniper And Two More Deals Coming

P.S. If you read the whole Deadline article you’ll discover that Hall actually got into  a second physical confrontation while doing fact-finding on Chris Kyle’s life. It helps that Hall is 6’3″ and wrestled in his youth because I don’t think any film schools or writing workshops include wrestling as part of their curriculum. It’s also worth noting that Hall wrestled with the story for three years before turning in the American Sniper script. And since Hall is 42-years-old, I’d guess that his journey to wild Hollywood success took about 20 years.

Related posts:
Screenwriting & Brass Knuckles
Screenwriting Quote #52 (Darren Aronofsky)The Wrestler
John Irving, Iowa & Writing (Irving was a high school wrestler and coach.)
Screenwriter Thomas McCarthy (On the high school wrestling film Win-Win.)

Scott W. Smith  

 

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‘Whiplash’ is astounding. Believe the hype. My heart was still pounding 10 minutes after the credits rolled.”
Diablo Cody
November 26, 2014 Tweet by @diablocody

Damien Chazelle has a few things in common with Diabo Cody. Both are screenwriter/directors, both have cool names with the initials D.C., and both were 29-years-old when they received their first Oscar nominations for solo credited screenplays with single world titles. (She for Juno and he for Whiplash).

A film critic after interviewing Cody said she was ‘wicked smart,” and Chazelle graduated from Harvard (and his father—a Yale graduate— is a professor a Princeton). We’ll know in a couple of weeks if Chazelle walks away with an Oscar like Cody did seven years ago.

But there is one more similarity that I’d like to point out—they both had a long creative history before their breakthrough Hollywood success. Cody said she’d written everyday (short stories, poems, etc.) since she was 12-years-old, and Chazelle had even an earlier start by making films when he was elementary school age.

“I always wanted to make movies. Basically, there’s nothing else I ever wanted to do. So it just became a matter early on of figuring out how I was gonna do that. You and I were talking last night about some of my early masterpieces with my dad’s shitty camcorder, just making little movies with friends in my house…. I was too young to know how to actually operate the camera, so I would just stage stuff and have my dad shoot it. My dad got sick of that really quickly. He never really liked it to begin with, and he started messing up the shots and at a certain point I realized, as a lot of actors actually often do, that I’d be better off getting behind the camera. So, I was in fourth or fifth grade when I started actually getting behind the camera.”
Damien Chazelle
Issue Magazine interview with Whiplash actor Miles Teller

P.S. While in college Chazelle spent two years making his first feature film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.

Related posts:
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic
Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic
Screenwriting Quote #87 (Ray Bradbury)
Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcuts’
Differentiate Yourself

Scott W. Smith

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If you check out the Whiplash screenplay currently on the Sony Pictures website this is how screenwriter/director Damien Chazelle starts the opening scene— followed by a New York Times video of Chazelle explaining what he was after beginning the now Oscar-nominated Best Picture:

BLACK…
We hear a HIT. A drumstick against a drum head. Crisp, sharp.

Then a second hit. Then a third and a fourth. The hits growing so fast they start to blur together. Like gunfire…

INT.NASSAU BAND REHEARSAL STUDIO – GEHRING HALL – NIGHT 

A cavernous space. Sound-proofed walls. And in the center, a DRUM SET. Seated at it, in a sweat-marked white T, eyes zeroed on his single-stroke roll, is ANDREW NEIMAN.

He’s 19, slight, honors-student-skinny — except for his arms, which have been built from years and years of drumming.

Suddenly — a MAN enters the practice room. Stopping, rising–

                                           ANDREW
Sorry… I’m — I’m sorry–

                                           MAN
It’s ok. Stay there.

The MAN steps forward, removes his coat. He’s tall. Late fifties. Black T-shirt, black slacks, black shoes. We’ll know him as FLETCHER.

Related Posts:
Damien Chazelle on Pushing Yourself
Screenwriting Straight Outta Harvard
‘The Visitor’
Different Dummer from Linden, Texas

Scott W. Smith

 

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Screenwriter Damien Chazelle didn’t really write Whiplash straight out of Harvard University—he’d actually sold a few spec scripts after he graduated with a degree Visual & Environmental Sciences. He’d even had a couple of features produced from his scripts. But it wasn’t until after he tapped into his own experience as competitive jazz ensemble drummer in high school that he became an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.

“[Whiplash] was the most personal thing I’d ever written—the most embarrassing in that sense as well. It sounds very cliche to say this but it was that kind of pouring out on the page sort of thing. And wrote it very quickly and kinda put it in a drawer, and was too embarrassed to show it to anyone for a while because I didn’t like what it said about myself. And then tinkered with it a little bit and finally got up the courage to show it to a few people and then it sort of became, ‘okay, let’s try to actually make this.’ But it started out more as just a, ‘This [other script’s] not working I need to just do something completely different, I’m going to write what happened to me as a drummer.”
Screenwriter Damien Chazelle on his screenplay Whiplash
DP/30 Interview

P.S. The day after the New England Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl it seems fitting to have a Boston/Cambridge related post. If you go back to 2008 post Screenwriting from Massachusetts you’ll find that Chazelle joins of list of at least 20 writers who attended Harvard and had their work end up as movies. 

Other Massachusetts related posts:

‘The Verdict’ Revisited
Tony C
Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (‘Prisoners’)
Will Simmons’ Road to Hollywood
Mad Men (and Women) Writers
Screenwriter Thomas McCarthy
Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg
Writing ‘Good Will Hunting’
(Yawn)…Another Pulitzer Prize
Screenwriting Quote #3 (Charlie Kaufman)

Scott W. Smith

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“I grew up in the Compton/Lynwood area of Los Angeles. My family has no connection with the entertainment industry at all except that I had a very beloved aunt named Denise who was a lover of the arts, of film and music and theater and literature. She gifted me with an appreciation for it all. But she was truly a ferocious movie watcher and fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of film. How she got it is really just through the atmosphere, because there was no one ahead of her to introduce her to the arts, but luckily she was there for me. I spent many an afternoon, getting picked up from school going straight to a movie. Long conversations about film and books and art. It was really all a gift from my aunt to me.”
Director Ava DuVernay (Selma)
Interview with Scott Myers/Go Into The Story

P.S. I’ve said before that you can live not far from the Hollywood sign in West Covina, California and feel like you’re in West Des Moines, Iowa. The Compton/Lynwood area only about 20 miles south of the Hollywood sign would be low on the list for places in Los Angeles County where you would bet on someone rising to a filmmaking career in Hollywood. (Though an abundance of rappers and professional athletes are from the area. NWA/Straight Outta Compton.  NFL great Richard Sherman playing for Seattle in the Super Bowl this Sunday was born in Compton.)  I spent some time in and around Compton/Lynwood in the early 80s while working as a photographer in nearby Cerritos. Gritty would be a word to describe it then. At least back then—and when DuVernay was in high school— the area was known for it’s heavy presence of African-American and Hispanic gangs.

I’m guessing the area was different in the 1940-50s from what I saw in the 1980s, because actor/director Kevin Costner was born in Lynwood in 1955 and future Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush lived in Compton briefly in 1949.

I hope Ava DuVernay’s (@AVAETCfilmmaking success is an inspiration to all of you who come from or live in “unlikely places.” But make sure you read the full interview at the Go Into the Story blog  (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) to see the many steps she took to write and direct movies.

Related posts:
Postcard #82 (Selma)
25 Links Related to Blacks & Filmmaking
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting 

Related LA Times Article: WME talent agents go from A-List to ABCs in Compton mentors program. Very cool.

Scott W. Smith

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