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Posts Tagged ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

On this repost Saturday I’m going to actually do a mash-up of two posts I wrote years ago. This was inspired after I visited the first boyhood home of Tennessee Williams in Columbus, Mississippi earlier this week and learned that when he was in his early 20s his shoe salesman father had Tennessee drop out of college and work a 9 to 5 job at the International Shoe Company factory in St. Louis. (The city used to be known for its “shoes, booze, and blues.”)

Tennessee hated the routine so much that it pushed him to write one story a week, writing at night and on weekends.

“Tom would go to his room with black coffee and cigarettes and I would hear the typewriter clicking away at night in the silent house. Some mornings when I walked in to wake him for work, I would find him sprawled fully dressed across the bed, too tired to remove his clothes.”
Edwina Williams (mother of Tennessee Williams who she called by his given name Tom)

Of course, I should mention that while working at the shoe factory drove him to write it was also said to drive him toward a nervous breakdown. But I doubt you can really blame his day job for his depression—or the drug and alcohol addiction that he battled for decades until he died—because those things for whatever reason seem to be pretty common traits in writers (and many artists in general) through the ages. One could even argue the greater the demons, the greater the writing. (Link to Top 15 Great Alcoholic Writers.)

But that’s another post for another day. It is worth pointing out that that day job Williams hated helped not only inspire him to write, but helped give him writing material.

Here’s my mash-up for the day. The first part is from the post Keeping Sane and Solvent (Part 3—Interview with Richard Walter, author of Essentials of Screenwriting);

SS: A while back I discovered that the Stanley Kowalski character from A Streetcar Named Desire was based on a person that Tennessee Williams had worked with in a factory.  Over and over again I seem to discover more proof, that as you say, “the day job is the writer’s friend.”

Richard Walter: That’s a perfect example. Your day job keeps you in touch with the source of your writing which is the humanity around you.  The writer’s dream is that you’re so self-sufficient you can just be in a cabin in the woods or a cottage at the beach—well,  when I have too much time on my hand I’ll call for a ski report, even in August,  just to avoid what I’m supposed to be working on.

Your day job is your friend. The writer’s day job is the friend of the writer. It keeps him solvent  and sane, which are two closely related enterprises.

Screenwriter Nick Schenk based characters in his script Gran Torino on people he had worked with in various places in the Minneapolis area and had met in bars. Anyone else happen to notice that the Clint Eastwood character is also named Kowalski? Perhaps influenced by Tennessee Williams in more than one way.

And part two of the mash-up is from a 2010 post title Don’t Quit Your Day Job;

“I was a city health inspector in Boston. Do the necessary work to pay your bills and take care of your family, and you’ll get there. Talent has a way of workin’ itself out. Hollywood will find you. Eventually.”
Screenwriter James L. White (Ray)

Workin 9 to 5
What a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin by
It’s all takin’
And no givin’

9 to 5
Grammy-winning, number one song written by Dolly Parton

Before screenwriter Colin Higgins bought a house in Beverly Hills, he once had a job cleaning pools there. Higgins had a great run in the 70s & 80s writing Silver Streak, Foul Play, Nine to Five, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

But in the book Tales from the Script, UCLA professor Richard Walter tells the story of how Higgins once hoped to win a Goldwyn screenwriting competition so he could quit his day job and write full-time for a year. He ended up getting second in the competition so he had to keep his day job which in turned launched his career. Here’s how Walter’s tell the story;

“(Colin Higgins) went to work for a swimming pool cleaning company. And the very first pool that he’s cleaning is in the flats in Beverly Hills–great big, fancy house. As he’s vacuuming the pool, sitting under a beach umbrella at the pool is a guy who clearly owns the house and he’s reading a screenplay. They get to chatting , and Colin tells him about this script that won the Goldwyn prize. And this producer agrees to read it, and ends up producing it. It’s Harold and Maude. So you just have to stay open to the surprises.”

Now keep in mind that when Higgins was cleaning pools he had already served in the United States Merchant Marines, had an English degree from Stanford and an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. In fact, he wrote Harold and Maude as his thesis. So don’t think he was just a pool guy who BS’ed his way into a screenwriting career. But once again, another story to add to my “bump-in factor” file.

And, now back to November 9, 2013,  here’s a related bonus video from The Ellen Show a couple of days ago :
“Go work until you can get the kind of job you want to have.”
Ashton Kutcher

Update 11/10/13: Found this Paris Review interview where Williams talks about life before the success of The Glass Menagerie:

“Before the success of Menagerie I’d reached the very, very bottom. I would have died without the money. I couldn’t have gone on any further, baby, without money, when suddenly, providentially, The Glass Menagerie made it when I was thirty-four. I couldn’t have gone on with these hand-to-mouth jobs, these jobs for which I had no aptitude, like waiting on tables, running elevators, and even being a teletype operator. None of this stuff was anything I could have held for long. I started writing at twelve, as I said. By the time I was in my late teens I was writing every day, I guess, even after I was in the shoe business for three years. I wrecked my health, what there was of it. I drank black coffee so much, so I could stay up nearly all night and write, that it exhausted me physically and nervously. So if I suddenly hadn’t had this dispensation from Providence with Menagerie, I couldn’t have made it for another year, I don’t think.”
Tennessee Williams

Related post:
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)
Screenwriting Quote #10 (Nick Schenk)
Emotional Autobiography Includes the quote from Art & Fear, “Tennessee Williams observed, even works of demonstrable fiction or fantasy remain emotionally autobiographical.”
Why You Should Move to L.A.
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.
Writers: Don’t Skip Jury Duty
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
What’s it Like Being a Struggling Writer in L.A.?

Scott W. Smith

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(Part 3—Interview with Richard Walter, author of Essentials of Screenwriting,)

SS: A while back I discovered that the Stanley Kowalski character from A Streetcar Named Desire was based on a person that Tennessee Williams had worked with in a factory.  Over and over again I seem to discover more proof, that as you say, “the day job is the writer’s friend.”

Richard Walter: That’s a perfect example. Your day job keeps you in touch with the source of your writing which is the humanity around you.  The writer’s dream is that you’re so self-sufficient you can just be in a cabin in the woods or a cottage at the beach—well,  when I have too much time on my hand I’ll call for a ski report, even in August,  just to avoid what I’m supposed to be working on.

Your day job is your friend. The writer’s day job is the friend of the writer. It keeps him solvent  and sane, which are two closely related enterprises.

Screenwriter Nick Schenk based characters in his script Gran Torino on people he had worked with in various places in the Minneapolis area and had met in bars. Anyone else happen to notice that the Clint Eastwood character is also named Kowalski? Perhaps influenced by Tennessee Williams in more than one way.

Related post:

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Screenwriting Quote #10 (Nick Schenk)

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“It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done. I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those people who have not. I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London.”
T.S. Eliot

The St. Louis Walk of Fame on The Loop honors those who have ties to St. Louis who have made a name for themselves in various fields. It’s a long eclectic mix from Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Berry, and Yogi Berra to Miles Davis, Bob Gibson, and William T. Sherman.

And, of course, there are those with ties to film, TV and theater including Vincent Price (House of Usher), Redd Foxx (Sanford & Son), Shelly Winters (A Patch of Blue),  Harold Ramis (Ghost Busters),  William Inge (Picnic), and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire).

We often don’t connect Williams with St. Louis but that is where he moved as a youth and lived for 24 years, and where he is buried. His feeling of being an outsider (which dominate many of his plays) was developed growing up poor in St. Louis. (Or at least he felt poor compared to the rich people he saw.)  His play The Glass Menagerie is set in St. Louis. The character of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire is said to have been based on a man he worked with in a shoe factory in St. Louis.

Just another reminder that talent (and inspiration) comes from all over. It also reminded me of a few post I’ve done in the past touching on Missouri.

Screenwriting from Missouri

The Spirit of St. Louis & Screenwriting

Screenwriting Quote of the Day #54 (Walt Disney)

Scott W. Smith

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“A good title should be like a good metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or two obvious.”
Walker Percy

I’m staying on the Up in the Air gravy train (gravy plane?)  just a little bit longer. Not only did I love the film but I love the title. It’s a title that has a literal meaning since it’s a film that deals with traveling via airplanes. But it’s also a common phrase in our culture meaning undecided or uncertain.

Up in the Air is a pretty good description of the Up in the Air main character Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney.  A character whose only real purpose appears to collecting frequent flyer miles. Everything else is up in the air.

Many writers talk about starting with a title and build from there and others say they can’t even decide on a title even after they’ve written the script or book.  Can a movie succeed without a great title? Sure, look at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Looking at the AFI list of top 100 films and you’ll see a mixture of great, good, and bland titles. A title doesn’t make a film, but in a day and age of the importance of the opening weekend, a great title is desired to help attract an audience.

The most common titles seem to focus a main character or being, place or thing, or an event.

Character or being:
Citizen Kane
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
King Kong
Rocky
Forrest Gump
Spartacus
Bonnie and Clyde
The Godfather
Tootsie
Jaws
Psycho
Raging Bull

A place or thing:
Titanic
The African Queen
Bridge on the River Kwai
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On the Waterfront
Chinatown
Sunset Blvd.
The Maltese Falcon
The Apartment
Casablanca

An event:
High Noon
Apocalypse Now
Star Wars
2001: A Space Odyssey
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
Sophie’s Choice

And while not a hard and fast rule, great titles tend to be short (three words or less). Just look at the above list.  And my favorites of those listed are Jaws and Psycho. Each one a simple word, but both hit you at a gut level.

Titles like Avatar, Batman, The Matrix are easier to discuss around the water cooler.  Even longer titles (especially sequels) tend to get edited around the water cooler and just called  Harry Potter, Narnia, Pirates, Star Wars, Twilight, Spider-Man.

Up in the Air falls into that minority category of a title that’s a little more obtuse, in line with The Last Picture Show, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Silence of the Lambs, or Gone with the Wind. (All of which happened to have been books or plays first which tend to favor a more intellectual audience.) If you go with a metaphor, it doesn’t hurt to have a movie star in the lead role. As I talk up the film Up in the Air, I find myself calling it “The George Clooney Film.”

What are some of your favorite titles (even if they aren’t one of your favorite films)? Or some of your favorite bad titles.
I love the title of the lesser known 50s film Them. And I like titles such as Black Hawk Down, Meet the Parents, Witness, The Hunt for Red October, Collateral and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly because they all have built in conflict, mystery and intrigue. And the worst titles off the top of my head goes to Ishtar and Valkyrie, neither of which leave me with a visceral reaction.

Of course, the most bland title ever might just be…Movie Titles (tip #32). (But at least it’s twitter friendly.)

Update: I decided to do a Google search to see what others thought were the best and worst movie titles ever and found one blogger who had a post called Top 10 Worst Movie Titles Ever and the writer put Surf Nazis Must Die at #10. That film was written and directed by Peter George who I happened to go to film school with. (I was always a little upset I didn’t get a small role in the film.) If anyone knows where Mr. George is these days tell him I want my watch back. The one that I left at his Hollywood apartment after I crashed on his sofa one night back before he was making top ten lists.

Scott W. Smith


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“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Classic last line of Some Like it Hot

“In story terms, the main character’s persona is plagued with a flaw, and as this flaw is tested throughout the story, the main character integrates a greater understanding of overcoming the flaw through the lessons of life that are expressed by the story.”
Kate Wright
Screenwriting is Storytelling
page 114


The world recently learned that the great golfer Tiger Woods is not perfect. And if you read this post in a few months or a few years just fill in the blank…The world (or your local community) recently discovered that ____  ____ is not perfect.  The news of imperfection—of character flaws—still makes the news. Always has, always will.

Character flaws in movies are not always spelled out as clear as they are in The Wizard of Oz, but it’s hard not to have a flawed character in a film because the cornerstone of  drama is conflict. Flaws can be external and/or internal so they offer ample room for conflict.

I don’t need to explain a character flaw so I’ll just give you a list of some key flaws in some well-known movies. As you’ll see both protagonists and antagonists have flaws. The major difference tends to be the protagonist/hero generally must overcome his or her flaw for growth, whereas the antagonist are usually defeated due to their great flaw. (But even in tragic endings where lessons are not learned and character is not changed in the hero, and where evil not defeated (Death of a Salesman, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, Scarface), there is a warning shot felt in the heart of the viewer.

“Greek classical drama frequently afflicted the hero with a blind spot that prevented that character from seeing the error of his or her ways.  This strategy still shows in films that range from character studies (What’s Love Got to Do with It), to epics (The Bridge on the River Kwai), to action stories (Jurassic Park).”
Paul Lucey
Story Sense
page 159

The following list is not a conclusive list of flaws, just some of the most common ones that you’ll recognize when you get together with family this holiday season.

Pride/arrogance
Zack Mayo, An Officer & a Gentleman
Maverick
, Top Gun

Drugs/alcohol
Paul Newman character, The Verdict
Sandra Bullock character,28 Days
Nicolas Cage character, Leaving Las Vegas
Don Birnam
, The Lost Weekend

Greed/Power
Darth Vader,  Star Wars
Gordon Gekko & Budd Fox, Wall St.

Lie/Cheat/Steal/Corruption 101
Jim Carrey character, Liar! Liar!
Denzel Washington character
, Training Day

Delusional/Mentally ill
John Nash, A Beautiful Mind
Norman Bates, Psycho
Captain Queeg/ The Caine Mutiny
Blanche Dubois, A Streetcar Named Desire
Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
Glenn Close character/ Fatal Attraction

Unfaithful/Promiscuous
Fatal Attraction
Body Heat
A Place in the Sun

Obsessive
Jack Nicholson character, As Good as it Gets
Meg Ryan character, When Harry Met Sally
Tom Hanks character, Castaway

Flaws, by the way, are one of the chief dilemmas that both philosophy and religion have struggled to answer for at least the last few millenniums. Where do flaws come from and what do we do with them? The central question being if  man (as in mankind) is born good as some believe then why is everyone and every civilization since, uh—the beginning of time— so messed up? And if we’re born with original sin as other believe then what are the ramifications of that? I’m pretty sure we can agree on one thing, this is one messed up world with a whole cast of real life flawed characters.

We’re all trying to figure out why we’re wired the way we’re wired. And we go to the movies to get a piece of the puzzle. And the side benefit to writing great flawed characters is the audience not only identifies with the character, but actors love to to play flawed characters. Writing great flawed characters tend to be appreciated at the box office and at award time. It’s a win-win situation.

Who are some of your favorite flawed characters?

P.S. Marc Scott Zicree The Writer’s Wrench calls character flaws, “The hurt that needs healed.” Zicree also wrote The Twilight Zone Companion and Rod Serling understood a lot about writing about character flaws.

Scott W. Smith

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“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
                                    Blanche DuBois’ character in A Streetcar Named Desire
                                    written by Tennessee Williams (Univ. of Iowa grad)
 

Last Friday after my shoot in New York I asked an actress what was the must see play in New York and she said Ruined. I was unfamiliar with the play written by Lynn Nottage despite it winning the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year.  So it was time I got up to speed. In pervious trips to New York I had seen Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Chekhov’s Three Sisters and was game for a drama as they appeal to me more than the large musicals.

I was told tickets were $75 so I was hoping to score some discounted tickets. Then I found out the show was closing its run on Sunday which meant that getting tickets to see one of the last three performances Ruined might be a challenge. I found out that all three performances were in fact sold out, but that I could come to the box office and see if there were any returns.

So here is the short story of how I relied on the kindness of strangers.

The first stranger to help told me which subway to take to get to the City Center where Ruined was being performed. The second stranger to help asked me if I wanted to use her subway ticket that was still good for another hour. I arrived at the City Center box office half an hour before the window even opened and an hour and a half before the performance. And there was already a line of 13 people.

As the line grew longer we were told that only a handful of people would probably get in. At least one couple toward the back of the line sent one person into the street and the eventually got tickets which was a little frustrating. It was turning into its own little drama. As it got closer to the time for the start of the play the line in front of me got smaller but it the odds didn’t look good. Would I be best to try my luck on people walking in who had an extra ticket?

Since I had waited in line so long I decided to try my luck staying in line. The was only one person in front of me when the lady at the box office told the group in line that there were no more tickets. Sorry. Thanks for playing. A few of us lamented about how close we came. The women in front of me said she came half an hour before me and somehow that made me feel better. The guy behind me was from L.A. was flying back and this was the only performance he could try and see. I at least could come back for the show that night and try my luck again.

But I’m also not prone to giving up. And this is where persistence and providence met. I also factored into it that there might be one person running late who had an extra ticket. So all alone now to scrap for tickets I asked a couple people running a little late if they had an extra ticket. I got that knowing smirk that says, “Sorry beggar.” 

Then my third stranger of the day, Renee from Brooklyn, showed up. “Do you happen to have an extra ticket?” Without stopping she said, “I sure do. Follow me.” And a few minutes later I was sitting down watching Ruined. I’ll write about the play itself tomorrow, but what makes my story all the better is when I tried to pay Renee from Brooklyn for the tickets she said, “No, just enjoy the play. And pay it forward.”

I haven’t always depended on the kindness of strangers, but it’s nice to see it played out in real life every once in a while.

The whole experience made me think back a couple years ago when I was freelance producing for a company in Orlando and the owner of the company gave me a couple tickets to an Orlando Magic game just a couple hours before the game started. I couldn’t find anyone to go so planned to give the ticket away to whoever asked. I walked around for a few minutes before this little boy about 10 years old said, “Do you have an extra ticket?” I did.

He was savvy enough to notice I was giving him a valuable lower bowl ticket and his eyes lit up. Made my day.

Remember the old saying, “You have not because you asked not.”

 

Scott W. Smith 

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