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A production friend sent me this video this week and how could I not share in on this blog? BTW—My favorite University of Iowa story related to the dramatic arts is UI is where a guy named Tom Williams got his nickname. The story goes that when Tom was a student in Iowa City a guy in his fraternity knew he was from somewhere in the south with a long name and called him Tennessee. The only problem was Tom was actually from Mississippi. But Mississippi Williams doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like Tennessee Williams does.

Postcard #65 (Tennessee Williams)
‘A Quiet Place’ Meets ‘Screenwriting from Iowa’
Diablo Cody Day

Scott W. Smith

 

“Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.”
Mountain climber Alex Honnold

The movies First Man and Free Solo really aren’t competing against each other, but there are similarities between the two. They are stories about accomplishing things that had never been done before.

First Man is about Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to ever walk on the moon, and Free Solo is about Alex Honnold becoming the first person to ever solo climb (meaning without ropes and safety equipment) El Capitan in Yosemite.

Both of the human achievements are magnificent. I think NASA’s engineers helping astronauts landing on the moon signaled a change in the history of what’s possible. It’s one of the top all-time great feats.  But as a film achievement, First Solo is the better film.

Why?

Well, before I suggest why let me preface it by saying that First Man director Damien Chazelle is brilliant. Whiplash earned all of its praise, and I thought La La Land deserved the best picture Oscar.

So what’s wrong with First Man? Why the steep dropoff in the box office after its first week? Well . . . it’s— perhaps the Vanity Fair headline said it most tactfully, “First Man is Technically Dazzling and Dramatically Dull.”

As interesting as Ryan Gosling is to look at, it’s hard to engage his melancholy stare for 2  hours and 18 minutes. They tried to internalize the external experience which I’m not sure is the movie audiences wanted to see.

Gosling as an actor may have captured Neil Armstrong well, it’s just not a character that plays well on screen. Armstrong isn’t what you particularly call an active protagonist. He’s more of a diligent protagonist. He’s an honorable Boy Scout in the purest sense. He’s efficient.  He’s stoic. A solid as a rock kind of guy. He went to the moon and then became a professor.

Perhaps it’s why there hasn’t been a Neil Armstrong-centered movie almost 50 years after his great achievement. Neil Armstrong seemed like the methodical engineer type that you want flying your plane, but not necessarily one you want driving your film.

It’s the same reason that there hasn’t been a great film made on the Wright Brothers. I enjoyed David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers, but Orville and Wilber were good, solid, nose to the grindstone Midwestern men from Ohio with engineering minds who were single focused on being the first to achieve a sustained, manned flight of an airplane.

They are great inspirational figures, but no one has yet to figure out how to make them interesting film characters yet. Ohio born and raised Armstrong was from a small town just an hour north of Dayton, Ohio where the famed Wright Brothers did test flights of their Dayton flyer and appeared cut of the same mold as the Wright Brothers.

Go back and watch The Right Stuff (1983) and see how writer/director Philip Kaufman pulled us into the story with the Chuck Yeager character.  I don’t know how many times I’ve watched that opening sequence with Sam Sheperd (as Yeager) and Barbara Hersey— but that’s electrifying stuff.

Then Kaufman gets rid of Yeager as our protagonist and brings on the first generation of astronauts. A cast of dynamic characters played by Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, and Dennis Quaid that matched the dynamics of the visuals showing the trials and failures of the early stages of the NASA space program.

Perhaps I just couldn’t get past comparing First Man to The Right Stuff (and From the Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13).  Perhaps it’s because The Right Stuff came out in an age before the Internet and moviegoers had a thousand other distractions. Maybe Hurricane Michael hitting Florida days before I saw First Man threw me off.  Perhaps—like The Right StuffFirst Man will age better with time. Or not.

“[T]hroughout the film’s 138 minutes, the message I kept receiving was probably not the one Chazelle intended: Neil Armstrong was just a regular guy.”
Christopher Hooton/ The Independent
“The First Man Problem: What to do when your film’s real-life hero is not that interesting?”

I’m sure First Man will be remembered at Oscar time, and I’ll watch it again after I recalibrate my mindset.

The documentary Free Solo directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin and produced by National Geographic is a classic man vs. mountain story, but they give it a fresh wrapping complete with stunning drone footage as Honnold attempts to do something no one has ever done before.

The goal is clear, the stakes are high. The doc touches on what it means to mountain climb without ropes or safety gear and how there’s no room for mistakes. Several well-known climbers have died over the years.

Honnold has a little bit of Armstrong’s stoic and engineering mindset. But they are able to pull back veneer a little bit and gives us a glimpse of what makes him tick. It’s almost a character study. Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, brings a spark of life and perspective to the story that is often lacking in adventure stories.

Without McCandless, Free Solo would be like one of those surf films where another great surfer catches another great wave. In Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, the author himself a mountain climber, asks the question why he and others risk their lives to climb Mt. Everest.

I think Free Solo stepped into that philosophical, contemplative and transcendent realm naturally and hit emotional notes that I found missing in First Man.

P.S. I know First Man was based on the book by James R. Hanson but I really wished Chazelle had of chosen to give us something we’d never seen before—a film on Dr. Wernher Von Braun. The former member of the Nazi Party who eventually fled Germany and ended up in Huntsville, Alabama. Ten years before President Kennedy made that speech about landing on the moon by the end of the decade of the ’60s, Von Braun had stated that as a goal. Von Braun had been involved in the German Society for Space Travel since the 1920s and earned his doctorate in physics back in 1934. But if not showing the American flag planted on the moon’s surface was controversial in First Man, can you imagine the uproar if a filmmaker showed that one of America’s greatest achievements had roots in Hitler’s evil plan to rule the world?

But that’s the film someone needs to make. And any film that combined Dr. Wernher Von Braun and Alabama football coach Bear Bryant together in the deep south of the ’50s & ’60s could not be boring. As Tennessee Williams once said, “I set out to tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is shocking.”

Someone forward this New York Times article to Steven Spielberg— When the Germans, and Rockets, Came to Town. What makes a story like this so timely is just today NPR did a report on what’s known as “hypersonic weapons” that puts missiles on the edge of space and will change the arms race between the USA, Russia, and China. All rooted back to the work the Germans did with the development of the V-2 rocket during World War II.

Scott W. Smith

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light…
Casey at the Bat poem by Ernest Thayer

A little glimpse into the drama of college football, and the humbling power of sports.

A year ago at this time, UCF head coach Scott Frost was past the halfway mark on the way to leading his team to a 13-0 record and a win in the Peach Bowl.  It was quite a reversal from the team he took over—the one that finished the 2015 season 0-12. It was the worst season in the school’s history.

Frost was offered the head coaching job at his alma mater the University of Nebraska.  The hope being that Frost could bring that school back to its former glory when it won national championships—like the one they did when Frost was a quarterback in 1997. That team finished 13-0 and number 1 in the Coaches’ Poll.

So the hope at the beginning of this season was that Frost would work his magic and get Nebraska back on track. That’s still the hope, but it’s going to take a little time. This year the team is 0-6.

To put that into a broader perspective, that is the worst start Nebraska has ever had in their 129-year history. That’s 1890 for those keeping score. Not the kind of record books Nebraska was aiming for at the beginning of the season.

But Frost won as a player, he won big as a coach at UCF, and he’ll win again at Nebraska. It may only be a game or two this year, but you have to start somewhere. He’s got a great freshman QB and in three years he’ll have a team full of his recruits and I expect they’ll be back in the top 20 again.

Sports—and movies—are replete with dramatic reversals. Everyone loves a comeback story.

“If you’re not willing to look at who you are, you’re not willing to fix who you are. . . . We’re going to look back on these days with a little bit of a smile.”
Scott Frost (after his team was 0-5)

10/21/18 Update: That didn’t take long . . . about five hours after I wrote this post, Nebraska beat Minnesota 58-28. They looked so good they might win 3 or 4 games this year. There is joy in Nebraska once again.

Related posts:

Screenwriting from Nebraska
Writing Quote #56 Willia Cather 
Screenwriting Quote #195 (Bob Nelson)
‘Nebraska’ Take 4—The Nebraska Mafia in L.A.)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

Sears

SEARS

Last week I went to a mall that I’ve been going to since I was a teenager and I noticed there was a major change. One of the anchor stores that had been there from the start was blocked off from the interior mall entrance. There was no familiar Sears sign.

On Monday, I heard on NPR that Sears had filed for bankruptcy and was trying to keep some stores open. The news wasn’t a total surprise as I’ve watched many iconic brands fade or disappear in the age of Walmart and Amazon.

Once upon a time, Sears was one of those iconic brands that symbolized American success. Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck started the first version of the company in the late 1800s as a mail ordering catalog company based in Chicago. Especially for rural people who were a long way from stores, and transportation limited, Sears catalogs were a way of life. It was like the Internet 100 years ago where you could order clothes and household items and have them shipped to your house. Heck, at one time you could even order a house.

The first Sears & Roebuck store opened in Evansville, Indiana in 1925. The stores spread throughout Main Street America and then eventually grew into malls when those became the new thing. Sears became the largest retailer in the U.S. with thousands of stores and hundreds of thousands of employees.

Perhaps the symbolic pinnacle of the success for Sears is when the Sears Tower was completed in 1974. At that time, the 110-story building was the tallest in the world. And it was their headquarters. Now, like Kodak, it’s fighting to keep a foothold in the world.

One more not so subtle reminder that one day you can be on top of the world, and the next day the world is on top of you.

SURFING

Surfing is not a sport on the decline. It’s going to be an Olympic sport in 2020. And I don’t think it’s a bold prediction to say someday there’s going to be a champion surfer from Oklahoma, Minnesota, or another unlikely place in the world someday. Right now I’m sure there are some solid young surfers out there in the middle of the U.S. who’ve never even seen an ocean. How?

Wave pools. Like this one.

While artificial wave pools will have their share of critics from purists it’s going to open up surfing opportunities for people who’ve never had the opportunity to surf. That will add to a larger global surf industry as a whole and eventually foster a champion who grew up far from the ocean but was able to hone their skills on wave machines.

Surfer Today lists several places where wave pools have been built or are being built including one in Waco, Texas. Like any new business venture finding the right business plan that makes wave pools financially feasible is the only thing limiting their growth.

But my guess is that within ten years wave pools will be sprinkled throughout the country. Definitely ones in Las Vegas, Dallas, and Atlanta, and probably even an indoor one in Minneapolis eventually.

Actually, Disney’s Typoon Lagoon in Orlando for years has opened their wave pool before and after normal business hours for surfing. To borrow a phrase from the acting world, surfers in the future will get better quicker because they will get more stage time. Less flat or choppy days, more consistent waves.

And all those kids that used to play tackle football and spend hours doing gymnastics—look for their moms taking them to the wave pools. And that’s where the future champions are going to be coming from.

STORYTELLING

“While everyone was busy complaining about slow sales at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, something remarkable happened: The festival saw its first major VR acquisition.”
Kim Voynar, Virtual Reality Finally Sold Big at Sundance

That same day I saw the Sears store shuttered, I noticed Barnes and Noble was doing something with their DVD/CD section. I’m not sure what yet, but it looked less like a reorganization and more like a plan to get rid of the DVD area. Time will tell. But it’s no secret that DVD/Blu-Ray sales are down and not coming back. Barnes and Noble itself is trying not to go the way of Border Books—or Sears.

But storytelling is alive and well. And it’s evolving. Virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, and AI are the new frontiers. The 2018 Sundance Film Festival showcased some experimental media.   Indiewire reported that seven-figure deals were made for virtual reality films at Sundance so there are going to be opportunities there that weren’t even a dream for filmmakers and storytellers of the past.

Here’s a glimpse into the future; Spheres is a short film/high concept CGI project written and directed by Eliza McNitt. It was one of the films that found success at Sundance and “was the first and only virtual reality to screen at the Telluride Film Festival this year.” (Darren Aronofsky is the executive producer.)

“Science is a form of storytelling. Instead of a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, you have a hypothesis, a process, and a conclusion.”
Eliza McNitt

Back in the ’80s when EPCOT first opened in Orlando I remember a ride they had (and may still have) where it simulated being on an airboat in the everglades. I remember clearing feeling like I was zipping through the water at a high speed and looking down at the ground as we were moving at a walking pace. I believe that was my first virtual reality experience. Now virtual reality rides are common at theme parks.

Here’s a deeper look at virtual reality from a Ted Talk by Chris Milk.

Related post:

Spreading the Aloha Spirit
Surfing in a Snowstorm
Postcard #22 (Kelly Slater)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

“I will never forget one day [Lucille Ball] sort of walked out of the studio and then came back, and came up to me and said, ‘you’re very good,’ and then walked on. That was the greatest gift I ever received in this business. I don’t think I have another moment that compares with the impact of those words.”
Mary Tyler Moore
Archive of American Television interview in 1997

Since Oct 15 is National I Love Lucy Day, I thought I would round up some Lucille Ball interviews, shows, and tributes for the occasion.

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 11.29.00 AM.png

As I type this, Hurricane Michael is hours from landfall in the Florida Panhandle. Early this morning it became a category 4, and the National Hurricane Center said a category 4 hurricane has never hit the panhandle (at least since they’ve been keeping records since 1851).

Living in Orlando, Florida (and actually far from the storm) I find it interesting that I didn’t see any local or national press on this storm until Saturday afternoon. Then Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday the coverage grew.

But I did know about this storm at the middle of last week from an outlier. Because my wife was flying out of town last Friday and supposed to return today she wanted to know if there were storms on the horizon that would impede her travels.  So days before the press was covering Hurricane Michael—even before it was a hurricane—she was telling me about storm via Mike’s Weather Page on Facebook (also the website www.spaghettimodels.com).

Mike is an amateur weather guy from Tampa, Florida who has a large following and a knack for guessing weather patterns of storms. He acquired the nickname Drunk Donkey from a professional meteorologist who basically was said people shouldn’t be listening to this guy.

I don’t know what his track record is against the big meteorologist, but he has been consistent since I’ve been following him since Hurricane Irma last year. And from what I saw in the past week,  he was days ahead of the national press (and government) in his concerns about Hurricane Michael.

If you’ve ever seen the pilot episode of The Newsroom written by Aaron Sorkin you get a glimpse of how the national press works. It has to make choices on what it’s going to put the spotlight on. Last week it was all about Brett Kavanaugh and the issues over his confirmation or not to the supreme court. The attentional was understandable since it was of national importance.

That and college football filled the news cycle until later Saturday afternoon. Hurricane Michael was still a tropical storm then and Sunday TV viewing is centered around pro football. I wouldn’t say there was much of a concern until Monday or Tuesday.

On NPR this morning they reported about a hurricane party last at a bar just two miles from the beach near where the storm is supposed to make landfall. Now I’m reading that the storm is approaching wind speeds of Hurricane Andrew in 1992—the last category 5 hurricane to hit the continental United States.

I’m also hearing the experts say how this one snuck up on them. But I’m remembering Mike’s concerns a week ago when this storm’s speeds were just 50 mph but potentially heading this way. Just some guy with a passion for tracking hurricanes and reading of the computer data.

This storm certainly gives great street cred (storm cred?) to Mike’s Weather Page. Perhaps we need to listen to the Drunk Donkey more often. I hope after this Mike’s new nickname becomes Hurricane Mike.

It would almost be funny—if lives weren’t at stake.

8:10 PM Update:

Scott W. Smith

 

 

“On the wall behind [Vince] Gilligan was a large corkboard. Across the top were pinned 13 index cards representing the 13 episodes of the season. . . . Under 413, the final episode of the season, there was only one single, fluttering card. It read in bold, matter-of-fact Magic Marker ink, “BOOM.”
Inside the Breaking Bad writers’ room: How Vince Gilligan Runs the show

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 3.28.33 PM.png

“Sometimes bad ideas lead to good ideas.”
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan on the need to crank out ideas in the writer’s room

Yesterday The New York Times had an article titled ‘Better Call Saul‘ Season 4 Finale Recap: Suckers! which includes an embedded video How T Write the Perfect Con. It’s a look inside the Better Call Saul writer’s room and its a solid example of multimedia storytelling, as well as a glimpse into how they create storylines for Saul Goodman.

It also made we want to look around and see what I could find on Breaking Bad— the show that ran from 2008-2013 and spawned Better Call Saul. Here’s what I found:

Additional Links:
Photos inside the Breaking Bad Writers’ room (and what one could call mood boards)
Take a Look Inside the Writers’ Room of AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’

Scott W. Smith

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