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Since this is a blog on screenwriting and filmmaking, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the coronavirus in my posts. But it looks like it’s going to be with us a while—and potentially alter our lives into a new normal—so I’m going to roll with it as best I can.

If you have some extended time off from your regular job—or worse, were laid off— and want to finally tackle writing that play or screenplay you always dreamed about, here’s some good advice that worked for a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (You Can’t Take It With You) and screenwriter (A Star Is Born—the 1934 version with Judy Garland):

“I do not believe that play-writing can be taught any more than acting can be taught, and I am quite certain that I did not consciously think of play-writing seriously in relation to myself, for all during that time it never occurred to me to read a book on how plays are written. I simply read the plays themselves, I read the published version of plays that I had seen and then plays that I had never seen, sitting there day after day like a bacteriologist trying to isolate a strange germ under the beam of a new more powerful microscope. . . . I began to perceive and place proper perspective the distinction between plot and character, the difference between tricks of the trade and honest craftsmanship, and though I was hardly aware of it, I began to discern the gradual steps by which a play is built and, in the really good plays, the wonderful economy with which each salient point is made and not a moment on the stage is wasted.”
—Moss Hart
Act One, page 125

P.S. And if you’ve bought every other book on screenwriting, attended screenwriting workshops, taken college writing classes, listened to a zillion podcasts on screenwriting, and even written a couple of screenplays—Hart’s advice is one way to hit the reset button. Maybe start with King Lear—since it’s believed Shakespeare wrote that while quarantined from the plague of 1606. It’s actually possible he wrote Macbeth and two or three additional plays during that time.

Scott W. Smith

“The first Mickey Mouse was made by twelve people.”
Walt Disney
(It is debated whether Disney or Ub Iwerks drew the first Mickey)

“According to market research, Mickey Mouse has a 97% name recognition in the United States, which is even higher than Santa Claus.”
Elizabeth Segran
Fast Company article 4.01.19

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“The original Mickey was rattier and leaner. He also had clawed feet.”        — Garry Apger

As original a thinker as Walt Disney was, he didn’t create things out of thin air. And the creation of Mickey Mouse was no exception. The inception was probably somewhere between Aesop’s Fables (that Disney enjoyed reading)  that often featured mice and real life mice that were around the Hyperion Studios where Disney and his team created their short animations, and  drawings of a character named Johnny Mouse drawn by Clifton Meek.

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Johnny Mouse by Clifton Meek

Looking for a character to animate, Walt drew a picture of a mouse. With Disney’s team of artist, that mouse would evolve into the character Mickey Mouse and first appear in the 1928 short Plane Crazy.

It’s impossible to watch Plane Crazy today and not see that first iteration of Mickey as devious —after all, he does try to scare Minnie into giving him a kiss. She not only refuses but jumps out of the plane that Mickey is piloting. Spoiler alert;  Fortunately, Minnie does have a parachute and lands safely.

Mickey’s second film Barn Dance was his first film that showed that Disney and annimator Ub Iwerks had hit something special as it played in more theaters.

Over the years, both Mickey’s movement—and morals—improved, and he  found a wide audience. Mickey Mouse offered cheap escapist entertainment to audiences that had just experienced the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the start of The Great Depression.) By 1930, Mickey was getting 30,000 fan mail letters a month.  But his relationship with Minnie was still complicated.

Disney did not hide his admiration for Charlie Chaplin, calling him “the greatest of them all.” In Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney, he quotes animator Ward Kimball as saying, “Walt kept the feeling of this little droll kind of pathetic little character who was always being picked on. But cleverly coming out on top anyway.”

“We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin—a little fellow trying to do the best he could.”
Walt Disney

Another influence on Mickey Mouse was the actor Douglas Fairbanks, who was known for his action movies The Thief of Bagdad, Robin Hood, and The Mark of Zorro. Disney animator Ub Iwerks  said of Fairbanks, He was the superhero of his day, always winning, gallant and swashbuckling.”

Iwerks was the one who took Disney ‘s early rough drawings of Mickey and brought him to life in the early films. Though Iwerks and Disney had worked together since their Kansas City days, and on Silly Symphonies  together, the two had a falling out and parted ways in 1930.

But Disney and Iwerks—with a little Chaplin and Fairbanks—created one of the great and most loved characters in film history.  One whose popularity that moved from silent films to talkies,  and as a brand has moved all the way into the current digital era—almost 100 years after his first film.

But every mouse has his day, and as a movie star Mickey seemed to be peak somewhere in the late—1930s. In 1935 there were 500 million paid admissions to see a Mickey Mouse movie.  (To put that in perspective, Gone with the Wind has sold more tickets than any single movie—202,286,100 .) Granted the releases over ten movies that year, but 500 million admissions is a big number. At Mickey is the character that kicked off the whole merchandising thing in Hollywood, and Walt ended up making more on shirts, dolls, toys, etc. than on Mickey movies.

Gabler points out that Mickey was the victim of his own success. As animation got more realistic, Mickey had an identity crisis. Was he more mischievous like Chaplin, or more a hero like Fairbanks? Was he man, boy, or animal? His body movement changed, as did his hands and feet change in this new style of animation. He became nicer—and more boring.  Then, like all stars sooner or later, he got upstaged by a rising star—the wacky, brash Donald Duck.

If you have Disney+ you can see in high quality how sound, color, and animation techniques transformed both Mickey Mouse and Disney Studios over the years.

Related links:
Stealing for Screenwriters (According to Paul Schrader)
Stealing from Shakespeare
Fueling Your Imagination (Jarmusch Style) “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”
Creating Under the Influence “Oh, I’ve stolen from the best. I mean I’ve stolen from Bergman. I’ve stolen from Groucho, I’ve stolen from Chaplin, I’ve stolen from Keaton, from Martha Graham, from Fellini. I mean I’m a shameless thief.”Woody Allen
Movie Cloning (Part 2) “I think it’s fine for young [filmmakers] to out and out rip off people who come before them because you always make it your own.” Francis Ford Coppola

P.S. I had this photo taken with Mickey about five years ago when I did a shoot at Walt Disney World. Mickey has aged better than most.

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Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

“There are things we can all do to get through this by following the advice of experts and taking care of ourselves and each other, no? Remember, despite all the current events, there is no crying in baseball. Hanx”
Tom Hanks tweet today
(Tom and his wife Rita have been diagnosed with Covid-19)

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I took the above photo of The Old State House in Boston on the first day of this month. Just 11 days ago—but it seems like a year of events have transpired in that time.

At least in New England life seemed relatively normal.  I went to a documentary workshop in Rockport, Maine the last week of February knowing that there were concerns of the COVID-19 virus overseas and limited places in the United States. But overall, it was business as usual.

I walked around some of the key historical sites in Boston on the afternoon of March 1, and flew back to Orlando later in the day.  The next night in Boston state health officials announced they’d identified “the first presumptive positive case of the coronavirus in Massachusetts.”

And that situation was duplicated in various parts of the country, and before you know it SXSW canceled their upcoming conference in Austin, movie premieres were pushed back, the stock market took a big hit, NBA suspended their season, MLB canceled spring training, Disneyland and Disney World announced they would be closing for the month of March, and colleges began making plans to finish the semester via online education.

A lot can happen in a little over a week. We’ve sadly seen the damage done and the loss of lives in in China, Iran Italy, and radical steps throughout the world have been taken to stop the spread of the virus.

I doubt I’ll write much about the virus and will plan on continuing to blog about movies, screenwriting, and filmmaking for anyone looking for a healthy creative distraction from the regular news.  But I do pray for those suffering and hope that the world can get back to normal in the coming months. (And since a pandemic has built in goals, stakes, and urgency I might be writing about it from a dramatic perspective more than I think I will.)

The symbolic thing about The Old State House is back on July 18, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed by Col. Thomas Crafts from the east facing balcony to a crowd gathered below.

It’s reassuring knowing that this country has weathered a lot of storms for the past 200+ years and will hopefully weather this one without too much damage. I didn’t care for history when I was in school, but I love it now for the perspective it gives.

P.S. My next post will touch on how Walt Disney helped entertain people through one of the toughest decades in U.S. history.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

“The things that you are fired for are often the things in later life that you are celebrated and given lifetime achievements for.’
Oscar-winning writer/director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Patton)

Scott W. Smith 

“I wanted to move to a place where I could live for nothing, and I moved to New Hampshire . . . The best professional decision I have made was deciding to stay here once [Brooklyn Bridge] was nominated for an Oscar.”
Filmmaker Ken Burns (on leaving New York City)
After the Fact podcast interview

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Covered bridge in Gilford, NH

One of the shots that I saw as a film school student that influenced my photographic aesthetic was the tilt-up shot of the sunrise in the On Golden Pond (1981) title sequence.  They shot that enduring movie at Squam Lake, New Hampshire. I was in that area of the White Mountains over the weekend and delighted in the scenery even though it was winter, and the temperature was zero degrees (and my app said “feels like -20”) on Sunday morning.

On Saturday, I briefly stopped at the Omni Mt. Washington Resort, visited  America’s oldest ski shopLahouts, ate lobster at Gordi’s Fish & Steak House (whose two owners were both on the U.S. Ski team), and stayed the night in the Waterville Valley (not far from where they shot On Golden Pond).  I took the above photo of the covered bridge near Gunstock Ski resort, a day after taking the photos below in Bretton Woods and Lincoln.

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Omni Mt. Washington, “#1 Best Ski Resort on the East Coast”
—Condé Nast Traveler

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Gordi’s—The perfect place for lobster at Loon Mountain

I didn’t have time to make it two hours southeast to Walpole, New Hampshire where one of the most accomplished modern filmmakers has lived and worked for the past four decades.

“I thought I had just taken a vow of anonymity and poverty, if I was going to be a documentary filmmaker concentrating in American history for PBS.”
Ken Burns (who ironically became rich and famous making historical docs)
New York Times 

One hundred years from now documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (along with Steven Spielberg) will be remember as one of two giant American filmmakers of this era that will not only be well revered—but whose films will still be watched and appreciated. His films have covered a wide range of topics, including the Civil War, Jazz music, baseball, and his most recent 8-part PBS series on country music.

I don’t know the overall extent of filmmaking in New Hampshire, but just On Golden Pond being filmed there, and Ken Burns (and his team)—and filmmaker Dayton Duncan— living there is a rich enough history to impress me.  Here’s an illustration—with roots in New Hampshire— about the subtractive nature of filmmaking:

We live in New Hampshire. We make maple syrup here, and it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. And it’s very much like our process of 40- to 50- to 60- to 75-to-1 shooting ratio. So, it’s distillation. It’s subtraction. It’s what doesn’t fit. At the same time, you are also not trying to simplify it to the place where it no longer resonates with the complexities that the thing has. Now, filmmakers are notorious for saying, ‘Well, that’s a good scene. Let’s not touch it. It’s working. That scene’s working.’ And I’ve got a neon sign in my editing room that says, ‘It’s complicated.’”
Ken Burns

I’m going through Burns’ Masterclass on documentary filmmaking now and will write some posts on it later this month. But here’s one last quote from Burns about rejection that everyone needs to understand.

“There’s never been a moment where I haven’t, on any given day of the year, been actively pursuing the raising of money to pay for these [films]. It didn’t get any easier as my success grew or the popularity of the films grew.”
Ken Burns
The Art of the Documentary by Megan Cunningham

And next time I go to New Hampshire, I hope to make it to Walpole where Burns happens to owns a restaurant—Burdick’s— and grocery store . (Read about it in Travel + Leisure.)  And I hope to one day stay at The Manor Inn On Golden Pond that is linked to the classic movie which starred Henry Fonda,  Katharine Hepburn,  Jane Fonda…and the loons.

Lastly, here are some creative people from New Hampshire; Writer/director Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), his screenwriter brother Max,  and National Geographic VP of Production Matt Renner (The Cave) all grew up in the Oyster River area of New Hampshire. Novelist and screenwriter John Irving (The Hotel New Hampshire) grew up in Essex, NH. Actress/writer Sarah Silverman was born and raised in New Hampshire.

P.S. Ken’s daughter, Sarah Burns—who was raised in Walpole and now lives in Brooklyn—and her filmmaker husband, David McMahon, co-wrote & directed  East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story, that will begin airing on PBS March 24, 2020.

P.P.S. I drove through New Hampshire after my weeklong class on Writing and Directing the Documentary at the Maine Workshops in Rockport, Maine. Until today (when I found the below video) I didn’t know that cinematographer Billy Williams—who was the director of photography for On Golden Pond) taught workshops in Maine in the past. Williams won an Oscar for Gandhi (1982) and is 91 years old. One of his workshop students was DP Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave).

Filmmaking nitpick: On that sunrise (sunset?) tilt up shot from On Golden Pond they should have cut about 30 frames out to avoid the shake at the end of the shot. (It’s at the 1:13 mark of the video at the top of the post.) Always bugs me. I’m sure it bugs whoever was operating camera that it was left in.

Related quotes:
Emotional Archaeology
Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns) 
Ken Burns on 1+1=3
Burns, Baseball, and Character Flaws

Related links:
The Cabin from On Golden Pond 
Florentine Films/Sherman Pictures 
Film in New Hampshire 

Scott W. Smith

“We were able to show some early footage [of Crip Camp] to Priya Swaminathan and Tonia Davis, who run Higher Ground, and they were really intrigued by this kind of reel that we’ve cut together.”
Crip Camp co-director Nicole Newnham
No Film School interview with Oakley Anderson-Moore
(On a turning point for getting the film completed and distributed.)

Last Friday, I went to see the documentary Crip Camp which won an audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  The film was part of the Cabin Fever film fest held at the Opera House in Camden, Maine. A bonus was some of the filmmakers (in person and via Skype) held a Q&A after the showing.

Documentary filmmaking is hard on many levels. In one sense, Crip Camp was five years in the making. But since much of the found footage was shot back in the early ’70s, you could say this documentary was 40+ years in the making.

The movie was picked up by Netflix and will find a wider audience starting later this month.

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Scott W. Smith 

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Today I completed a five-day workshop on Writing and Developing The Documentary at the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport. It was led by former Time magazine reporter Emmy Jack McDonald, whose writing and directing credits include working with Discovery, National Geographic, and PBS.

I watched and discussed more documentaries than I have in any single week of my life—probably more than in most months, and some years. I can’t breakdown what I learned from watching all or part of 15+ documentaries, or the many proposals we looked at, but I can share with you the core of the class in one photo. (It’s no surprise there is much crossover in structuring a documentary, and structuring a narrative story. And both are deceptively hard to do well.)

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Scott W. Smith

 

 

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