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Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Payne.’

“It could have been much worse. That was the grateful mantra on the lips of many on Monday, even as an estimated 12 million Floridians prepared for a dark night without air conditioning in the muggy post-storm swelter.”
The Washington Post on Hurricane Irma 9.11.17

Courtesy of Hurricane Irma I spent 40 hours this week living off the grid in Orlando. There are much worse things than losing your power for two days in a hot and humid climate—say, like losing your entire house or having it partially submerged underwater like others in Florida, Texas, and the Caribbean recently.

I’ll share some photos and thoughts in the coming days, but with my electricity on hiatus I went through a mental purge. I can’t think of a time in the past decade where I was away from a phone, computer,  TV, etc. for so long.

It’s common during those unplugged moments to ask yourself questions like, “What’s really important to me?” and “What do I really need?” The Bible talks about being “content with food and clothing,” but we don’t live in a culture where that’s promoted or honored.

“Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.”
Comedian C.K. Louis

Be grateful for the little things. Senator Cory Booker’s dad grew up in poverty and told his son growing up, “If you were just born in America, you already won the lottery.”

And so despite learning about the new Apple iPhone X while I was off the grid, I’ve decided to try and be content with food and clothing—and my iPhone7 Plus.

It’s a start.

Well, food, clothing, my iPhone 7 Plus…and air-conditioning—that’s all I need.

So it was fitting that the first movie trailer I saw post-Hurricane Irma was for Alexander Payne’s new movie Downsizing. After being consumed with images and news reports of natural disasters for the past couple of weeks, seeing the trailer for that satire starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig looks to be the perfect synthesis of humor and philosophy needed for our times.

P.S. Downsizing screenwriters Payne and Jim Taylor seem to be tapping into that time honored Hollywood concept of “Give me the same thing, only different.” (Or, “I want something original, but familiar.”)  A fresh spin on a proven concept of miniaturizing people. Swimming in the same water as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1959),  Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989), The Borrowers (1997), Innerspace (1997), The Tooth Fairy (“Shrinking paste”) and Steve Martin’s 1974 comedy album Let’s Get Small. The fresh spin appears to be mixing it with themes of consumerism/materialism.

Scott. W. Smith

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“I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble. Those are the key elements I look for. And they have to have a very specific world they’re in, as in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. They’re a sort of community and they’re having to reinvent themselves. So they’re in trouble of some kind, but their world also has some enchantment in it that they love. There’s love and passion and compassion in it. And then there must be a sizable theme, and in [American Hustle] it’s not just about conning people, but reinvention.
Oscar-winning writer/director David O. Russell
Post magazine Interview with Iain Blair/ January 2014

P.S. American Hustle tied Gravity for the most Oscar nominations (10) and shows the important of execution. I can’t imagine too many screenwriters pitching a film based on the ’70s scandal Abscam getting a request for the script. Now, David O. Russell wanting to do a film on Abscam—that’s an easier sell.  By the way, Oscar-nominated Best Picture Nebraska, would be a hard pitch as well. No matter how you dressed it up it’s still a story about a son who drives his elderly dad from Montana to Omaha. But say that Oscar-winner Alexander Payne wants to make that film and it’s an easier sell to investors and audiences.  Execution trumps concept in those cases. Though it still took Nebraska 10 years to get made after Bob Nelson’s script was first optioned. Here’s how that script got early traction:

“I was working at a Seattle show called The Eyes of Nye. Producer Julie Thompson came up. I had written a screenplay to try and get a TV job. Julie got the script to Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who have a company called Bona Fide Productions.  They decided to send it to Alexander [Payne], not with the intention to direct it but just to produce it and raise money. I was very fortunate, very lucky, and it doesn’t happen a lot. The one take-away is that even though I was in Seattle, I was still working in the business.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Bob Nelson
Indiewire Interview with Meredith Alloway

Especially if you live outside of LA you have to be creative in finding find alternative ways of getting people excited about your screenplay. And while not the norm, Nelson—and Diablo Cody— show that you can not only capture the magic while living in Seattle or Minnespolis, but that it can even lead to an Oscar trip.  In fact, there are film people living in LA that say you have to live in LA to be taken seriously yet will never see the critical success of Nelson or Cody.

Related posts:
Broken Wings and Silver Linings
Screenwriting Quote #177 (David O. Russell)
Screenwriting from Nebraska
The 20 Year Journey of Craig Borten The Dallas Buyers Club took two decades to make it to theaters,  but joins American Hustle and Nebraska in the Oscar race for Best Picture.
Writing from Theme (tip#20)
Jailbait, Rejection & Screenwriter Mark Boal’s Start Another Oscar-winning screenwriter (The Hurt Locker) who was living outside of LA when his journalist writing opened doors.
Screenwriting Quote #145 (Mike Rich) Rich (The Rookie) launched his screenwriting from Portland by being awarded a Nicholl Fellowship.

Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I saw Saving Mr. Banks and enjoyed it immensely. And there is a line in the film—that I don’t think is a spoiler—that seems to be what the film was about.

“In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Saving Mr. Banks

That sounds like a pretty strong theme. And I’m fascinated by the topic of theme because I’ve read successful screenwriters and directors say these contradictory things:

A) I never think in terms of theme
B) I usually start with theme
C) The theme reveals itself somewhere in the writing
D) Theme is something the audience sees when the film hits the theaters
E) I avoid writing from theme to avoid the story being message driven
F) I have no clue what the word theme means

So one thing we can learn from Rod Serling, Alexander Payne, Francis Ford Coppola, and others is the process of screenwriting varies from writer to writer.  Which is why you have visually strong writers and dialogue driven writers.

Now I don’t think that Disney line is a direct quote from the Mickey Mouse creator, but from the imagination of the Saving Mr. Banks screenwriter Kelly Marcel.  I don’t know at what point she wrote Disney’s monologue—or if she even thinks that was the theme of the movie—but I do know she in facts does think in terms of theme.

“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. It allows for much more intricate storytelling, ways of speaking to the theme and letting your theme to speak to you, even unconsciously. I said ‘theme’ four times in that last paragraph. I shouldn’t be allowed to be a writer.”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey)
Go Into the Story Interview with Scott Myers

Related Posts (and a ping pong of views on theme):

Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Diablo Cody on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Wes Anderson on Theme
Lawrence Konner on Theme
Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness
William Froug on Theme
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Diane Frolov & The Theme Zone
Theme vs. Story
“Network” Notes by Paddy Chayefsky
Writing and Directing “Out of Africa”
Serling vs. Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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“I say about myself that I make comedies the way John Ford might have said ‘I make westerns.’ That might be true. That might also be cloaking something. Scorsese in his survey of American cinema, talks about the American director as smuggler. You work within a given genre and smuggle your honest, artistic concerns in those film. John Ford with westerns, Hitchcock with thrillers, Scorsese with gangster pictures. You kind of declare that you make a certain kind of film because that helps them get made, get marketed, makes them more palatable to an American film going public, so I make comedies.

“That’s helped me, the fact that I can get laughs in these dramatic films. The fact that I make them funny, charming, keep them nimble, has helped me sell them to financiers and later to audiences and forge a career that way. One reason it’s great to do comedy is that it’s such a rush when the audience laughs. ‘We love you! We love you!’ When you make a drama, the only feedback you get from the audience is no walkouts.”
Writer/director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska)
WGAW article Paynefully Funny by Denis Faye

P.S. I believe the survey Payne referenced is A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) 

Scott W. Smith

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“Omaha, where I grew up, is the Paris of Nebraska.”
Alexander Payne
The Guardian

“I think I’m lucky I’m from Neb. and that I have a virgin territory to show in movies.”
Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne’s Local Color by Leo Adam Biga

Back in September Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne did a Q&A with the Nebraska Coast Connection in California. Todd Nelson founded NCC (nicknamed The Nebraska Mafia) in 1992 as a networking group in Los Angeles for Nebraskans working in film and television. “A bridge to each other in all areas of The Biz, and a link to those back home. An alliance of dreamers making their dreams come true.”

Producer/screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp (Taking Lives), originally from Kearney, Nebraska, credits meeting Nelson and the NCC with giving him an early boost in his career. He is the creator of the NBC show The Blacklist.

Omaha-based author and journalist Leo Adam Biga attended the Payne Q&A promoting his book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. He also complied an edited transcript of the Q&A which you can read in full on his blog. But here’s an extended passage that Biga kindly gave me permission to published here.

“I’ve always written out of desperation. I never imagined in film school, ‘Oh, I need to write and direct all my films.’ Who wants to write? Writing is awful. I had to do it because I never found anything other than Nebraska.  Soon after film school I wanted to direct Wilder Napalm, which was written by Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad. That’s the only thing I wanted to direct was the Vince Gilligan script and I didn’t get the job. And then they made an unwatchable film out of it. They should have hired me. But yeah I open every screenplay with a prayer, ‘Please Lord let me want to direct it.’ But we’re not in that age of literate film scripts. I don’t have a Robert Riskin or Jules Furthman or Waldo Salt or Robert Towne and if they’re around they’re working for TV, they’re not doing movies.

“Movies suck. American movies in general suck except those done by writer-directors nowadays. We don’t have screenwriters writing for the movies. Like the big overdone, overwritten kind of crap…we don’t even have that anymore…We have nothing. In general. So I’ve got to write it myself.  I’ve never gotten one from my agent. They’ve never sent me one fucking script (that he directed) in 23 years of being out of film school, not one. The ones I’ve done which have come from outside of me: Election, unpublished manuscript; Sideways, unpublished manuscript; Nebraska, from [Bob Nelson] out of Snohomish, Wash.; The Descendants was on its way to being published – I think we had the galleys.

“I hope there are exceptions, I want there to be exceptions, but in my experience in almost a quarter century it’s dismal.”
Writer/director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways)

More than 1,000 people are connected  to NCC and around 60 people attend the monthly meetings.

“So much of show business is networking, so when you have a group that has a common bond, it’s fantastic.  I’ve certainly recommended people for casting that I’ve met through [Nebraska Coast] Connection and keep people in mind for future projects.”
Producer/writer (and Nebraska native) Tim Schlattmann (Dexter)
The Hollywood Salon

I can’t imagine being a Nebraskan in the industry in L.A. and not being at least aware of the Nebraska Coast Connection. But just in case you aren’t (and you don’t have to have been raised on a farm or even from Nebraska to join) you may want to attend their annual Christmas party Monday, December 9 at The Culver Hotel. Their regular meetings are always on the 2nd Monday of every month.

P.S. The historical significance of their meetings being held at The Culver Hotel is that the historic hotel was built by real estate developer Harry Culver—who was born in Milford, Nebraska. The hotel originally opened in 1924 and according to the NCC website Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Buster Keaton “maintained part time residence” at the hotel. It was restored in 1990s.  And yes, Culver City was named after Harry.

Scott W. Smith

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“I like dissolves. A dissolve is a film technique, usually a transition from scene to scene where image A begins to fade out, overlapped with the fade in of image B….Nowadays you don’t see too many dissolves in movies. And I never paid attention to when they went out of fashion. And Kevin Tent, my editor, and I think they’re beautiful. I happen to be a big fan of Hal Ashby films in the ’70s and to my mind, he an ex-editor, was a master of dissolves, and particularly long dissolves. For me, they lend emotion to a film and there’s a kind of a melancholy that comes from them….One thing is going away, another thing is coming in. And I can’t explain it, but there’s something poetic and melancholy about it.”
Producer, writer, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election)
NPR/Fresh Air Interview with Terry Gross

I think I’ve shown all the clips out there of Payne’s new film Nebraska, so today I think it’s fitting to show a video that’s a nod to Hal Ashby (1929-1988). While Ashby is best known for directing Coming Home (for which Nebraska star Bruce Dern received an Oscar nomination), Being There, The Last Detail and Harold and Maude, his sole Oscar win was for editing the 1967  film In the Heat of the Night.

I’ll have to do a run of posts on Ashby next year after I read Nick Dawson’s (@thatnickdawson) book Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel. While his acclaim did not reach the heights of many of his Easy Rider and Raging Bulls fellow filmmakers, Ashby’s influence today may be greater. Not only on Alexander but on Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell and I imagine a whole list of others.

P.S. And since I like to point out origins of filmmakers from unlikely places…Hal Ashby was born in Ogden, Utah and raised in a Mormon home where his father was a dairy farmer. Remember the wise words of Anton Ego in Ratatouille, “Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Good ones, too.

Related Post:

Editing for Emotion
40 Days of Emotions ‘I try to set things up so that they pay off in a way I hope evokes a strong reaction.” Eric Roth (Forrest Gump)
Cinematography & Emotions
Cinematography & Emotions (Part 2)

Related Blog:

Check out Oliver Peters’ blog post on a case study of editing Alexander Payne’s film The Descendants.

Scott W. Smith

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“I  never tailor a screenplay to fit the actor. I always demand the actor come to the script – even if it’s Nicholson or Clooney.”
Alexander Payne
Nebraska Coast Connection Q & A

“I’m not there to give an acting class. I’m there to make a movie. And I often don’t know, nor do I often care to know, really, what the actor is thinking about….My basic direction is: please hit your mark and recite your dialogue exactly as written. And you think I mean that somewhat facetiously. But actually, my job I feel is basically done – not done, but on the way to being done when I’ve cast them. And that old cliche is very true, 90 percent of directing is casting, not just the actors, but the technicians, everyone involved in making a film. So in the moment we’re doing a scene, and I work with intelligent actors, they know what the heck the scene’s about, so – and they know what, without being too result-oriented in their thinking, they know what emotional state the character is in. Sometimes I think that if I get too personal with a direction, you know, try doing this or think about that, I may mar what they’re already thinking about.”
Two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne
NPR/Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross

Some of the fruit of Payne’s casting and directing:

George Clooney (The Descendants) Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Feature
Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) Golden Globe Award Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture–Drama
Cast (Sideways) Screen Actors Guild  winner Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
Bruce Dern (Nebraska) Cannes Award for Best Actor

Related posts:
Directing “Chinatown”
Directing “Mud”
Writing & Directing “Rush”
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 1) Follow the thread for a total of ten tips from Marshall.
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich
Kazan on Directing (Part 1) Follow the thread for ten tips from Kazan

Scott W. Smith

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