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Posts Tagged ‘American Beauty.’

” A solid principle is to employ expository dialogue as the reaction to the events that take place before the lens (remember: show and then tell). Invent action or incidents as the provocation for dialogue, because exposition in film is much more interesting after the dramatic event as a comment (or perhaps an explanation) on it.”
Alexander Macindrick


“The senior writers at the film studios in London where I worked for many years used to delight in collecting examples of bad dialogue in screenplays. One of their favorites was ‘Look, Highland cattle!’ This was a quote from a particularly amateurish travelogue in which a character pointed off-screen, said this line, and the film cut to guess what? Those three words became shorthand for a piece of wholly unnecessary and redundant exposition used when the story was being told perfectly well solely through visual means. A good director will go out of his way, often in the editing process when he has both words and images in front of him, to gradually eliminate all lines that are absolutely not necessary.”
Alexander Mackindrick
On Film-making
Page 7

Here’s the opening scene (Spanish translation version) from the Breaking Bad pilot written by the show’s creator Vince Gilligan, and it’s a great example of visual and compleing storytelling with limited dialogue. You may not know what’s going on but it makes you want to know what happend and what will happen next. Much better than, “Look, Highland cattle!”—or even “Look, a meth lab!”

P.S. An interesting editing concept I picked up from Sam Mendes on the DVD commentary of American Beauty is looking at cutting the first line or two of the opening of the scene and doing the same at the end of the scene. American Beautywas Mendes’ first film and he discovered in editing that often times those lines weren’t needed. It’s an interesting exercise to read your script again from page one asking yourself— “If the opening and closing lines were edited out, would it make any difference?”

I’ve found that in reading many unpublished screenplays it’s not just cutting the opening or closing line or two in a scene that works, but often a line or two of dialogue within regular ongoing conversation in scene after scene.

Related post:

Is 110 the New 120?
The Four Functions of Dialogue (Tip #45)

Scott W. Smith

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Since in the past few days I’ve written about two Hollywood screenplays that not only featured mathematical geniuses (A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting) but both happened to win Oscars for their screenwriters.

So I thought it appropriate to crunch some numbers and look at the going script length of screenplays in the marketplace today.

This week I’m on the third rewrite of a script I’ve co-written. Some scenes were recently cut, some scenes were added. The script at the end of the second rewrite was at 110 pages, but like a diet gone bad on the third pass it actually started ballooning up to 118-119. Which would be okay if this was 1983. So radical steps were taken and the script got down to 109, then 105. Is it really necessary to obsess about page numbers like a John Nash nightmare? If you’re Aaron Sorkin, no, just keep writing. But if you’re not  Mr. Sorkin you may what to reconsider sending out that 120 page screenplay.

“Is 110 the new 120? – Up In The Air may clock in at 124 pages but that’s because Jason Reitman only has to impress himself. I have been seeing so many 100-110 page spec scripts lately. It’s so rare that one of the chunkier ones sneaks through that you begin to wonder if 120 is becoming the screenplay equivalent of standard definition. Of course, thrillers and comedies are naturally shorter. If you’re writing a drama, you can eek into 110+ territory. But I’d still look to keep it under 110. Readers are just used to it. And after being yelled at and ridiculed for 9 hours, these poor souls have to go home and read 3 professional scripts before they reach yours – the unknown writer – the one script they’ve been dreading and the one they know if they don’t like by page 20, they’re getting some shuteye. So don’t give them a reason to tune out before they’ve tuned in.”
SCRIPTSHADOW July 13. 2009

An interesting editing concept I picked up from Sam Mendes on the DVD commentary of American Beauty is looking at cutting the first line or two of the opening of the scene and doing the same at the end of the scene. American Beauty was Mendes’ first film and he discovered in editing that often times those lines weren’t needed. It’s an interesting exercise to read your script again from page one asking yourself— “If the opening and closing lines were edited out, would it make any difference?”

Obviously that simple concept didn’t hurt American Beauty as Mendes won the Oscar for Best Directing, screenwriter Alan Ball walked away with an Oscar for his script, and the movie won the Oscar for Best Picture.

P.S. If you’re planning on making your own film and are on a limited budget then the best reason to aim for a 9o pages is 90 pages is a legitimate length for a feature and the less pages you have to shoot, the less the film cost to make.

Screenwriting by Numbers (Tip #4)

Meet Your First Audience

Scott W. Smith

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"I'm asked why people don't often see me and Elin in gossip magazines or tabloids. I think we've avoided a lot of media attention because we're kind of boring."

                                            Tiger Woods (pre car accident)  


"We felt if (Fatal Attraction) was to be successful it had to be about anybody sitting in the audience. It had to be about you."

                                                                                                                                Stanley Jaffe, producer
 

On Friday I was looking for a movie to go see and came across this synopsis of Wes Anderson’s new film The Fantastic Mr. Fox;

“After 12 years of bucolic bliss, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) breaks a promise to his wife (Meryl Streep) and raids the farms of their human neighbors, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Giving in to his animal instincts endangers not only his marriage but also the lives of his family and their animal friends. When the farmers force Mr. Fox and company deep underground, he has to resort to his natural craftiness to rise above the opposition.”

Uh…speaking of animals and movies, I don’t know if Tiger Woods has ever met Glenn Close. I’m guessing not because if she was ever a cocktail waitress before her acting career took off it was before Tiger was born. And I’m guessing he never saw her Oscar-nominated role as Alex in Fatal Attraction. He was only 12 when the film first came out in 1987 and he’s probably been too busy to catch up on old films.

But Fatal Attraction has to be one of the most powerful and memorable films that deals with adultery.  And the competition is strong. (The Scarlet Letter, Citizen Kane, Doctor Zhivago, The Bridges of Madison County, Jungle Fever, The Graduate, Blue Sky, The End of the Affair, The Apartment, Election, Unfaithful, Indecent Proposal, Death of a Salesman, American Beauty and ever other Woody Allen film are part of the string of films with adultery in the storyline.)

“Saul Bellow once compared a novel without adultery to ‘a circus without elephants.'”
Jody W. Pennington
The History of Sex in American Film

Since films center around conflict it should be no surprise that conflict among marital relationships are a common theme to wrestle with. Hitting a tree with your car at 30 mph is conflict, having an affair is meaningful conflict.

It’s interesting to note that though Hollywood is not the most pro-marriage place in the United States most of the films that deal with adultery put it in a negative light (except for The Bridges of Madison County and every Woody Allen film that deals with adultery). That is films often show the consequences of cheating on a spouse.

And whatever Tiger did it appears he also looks at adultery in a negative light. In his statement he used words like “values,” “far short of perfect,” “personal sins” “personal failings” and “transgressions.” It was reported that the most searched word on the Internet (according to Google Trends) the day Tiger gave his press conference was the word “transgression(s)”

I spent many years producing and directing videos for theologian Dr. R.C. Sproul so I know a lot of 25 cent words and didn’t need to take time to look that up. Just hearing the word transgression brings up in my mind the well-known passage in Isaiah (“He was wounded for our transgressions.”) as well as the old Westminster Shorter Catechism Question Number 14. What is sin? 
Answer: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.

Sproul, by the way, is the only contemporary theologian I know who has ever been quoted in a vampire film.  In the Abel Ferrara directed film The Addiction written by Nicholas St. John, the Annabella Sciorra character says, “Now, R.C. Sproul said we’re not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners.” (The film also stars Christopher Walken and Lili Taylor.)

We sin because we’re sinners is as good an explanation as any for Norman Bates (Pyscho), Annie Wilkes (Misery),  Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) as well as real life characters Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. As well as our own shortcomings.  Tiger is not the only non-perfect human being and the bible does say, “We all stumble in many ways.” (James 3:2) Or as speaker/author/radio host Steve Brown is fond of telling audiences, “Everyone in this room has at least one sin that if was made public would crawl out of here on their hands and knees.”

I think that the role drama has played for a couple thousand years is to show people struggle with life. Good old good versus evil stuff. Sometimes drama is inspirational and sometimes it offers a cautionary tale.

When we hear the word adultery, even for the non-religious, it tends to make us think of one of the ten commandments:
”Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery” (Exodus 20:14) Which is a long way from a billboard ad I once saw for the TV show Melrose Place proclaiming; “Loving thy neighbor is cool.”

There aren’t too many people that say adultery is a good thing for marriages, families and society (though some do) and we can look back over the last several thousand years and see successful men and women in every arena of life (politics, education, business, athletics, entertainment, religion, etc.) get tangled up in the web of adultery. Often painfully and publicly tangled up.

Which brings us back to Tiger and  Glenn Close. If “stories are equipment for living” as Edmund Burke wrote then I think Fatal Attraction shows us brilliantly the extremes of a cause and effect of an affair. Tomorrow we’ll look at one key scene from James Dearden’s Fatal Attraction script.

The film that Michael Douglas would later reflect back on the success of the film saying, “It hit a nerve around the world as a ‘what if?’ type scenario.” Fatal Attraction producer Stanely Jaffe added, “I think the world was ready for someone to examine the way we were living our lives.”

As Tiger has said he is examining his life. And don’t you think that husbands and wives around the world are examining text messages more closely? And perhaps some are examining where they store their golf clubs.

Scott W. Smith



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“There’s enough land here (Florida) to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.”
Walt Disney

Florida has had an awkward dance with movies for the past 100 years. While it’s had its share of feature films and TV programs filmed there over the years it’s almost as if the industry there is a façade. (Just like the above New York façade I shot on the Universal Studios Florida back lot last week.)

It looks real, but upon further investigation you see that it’s not–but stick with me there is a silver lining. You may recall in the 80s & 90s when Florida was calling itself “Hollywood East” as Disney and Universal were building studios. Some believe the studios were built for tourism from the start and word was that Disney even once hired people to push movie lights around when a tram went by.

But for a while it seemed to be working. Ron Howard and Steve Martin came to Orlando to make Parenthood, Wesley Snipes made Passenger 57, Nickelodeon was busy on the Universal lot, TV programs The Mickey Mouse Club, Superboy and Sea Quest were also shooting around Orlando.

Adam Sandler went to Central Florida to make The Waterboy, Director John Singleton to make Rosewood, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to make Edward Scissorhands, Michael J. Fox to become Doc Hollywood, and Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro to make Marvin’s Room. Then it seemed like every other state and country got into the tax incentives for filmmakers game.

And then like a crew wrapping a production on location and returning home “Hollywood East” disappeared.  Around the same time a handful of filmmakers educated in Orlando colleges made one of the biggest splashes in independent film history making The Blair Witch Project landing two of the filmmakers on the cover of Time Magazine. Then they all but disappeared as well.

Perhaps the greatest illusion of Florida is the fact that two of the greatest films ever made are set in Florida but neither were shot in the Sunshine State. Both Citizen Kane (listed as AFI’s top film) and Some Like it Hot (AFI’s top comedy film) were shot in California adding to the irony of the Florida film industry.

And most of Scarface, with a story set in Miami, was shot in California. But if you want to see what Miami’s South Beach looked like 25 years ago (gritty) then Scarface is the film to see because they captured well those great art deco exteriors. Even the classic Lauren Bacall & Humphrey Bogart film Key Largo was filmed mostly in California. See what I mean about Florida’s strange dance with the movie industry? But while movies about Florida are not always shot in Florida, Florida did doubled for the Amazon underwater scenes in the cult favorite Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The film industry first came to Florida at the turn of twentieth century and it looked like Jacksonville in North Florida would be a major player in film production. Dozens of films were made there and studios began to pop up to take advantage of the warm sunny days. But eventually the film industry chose Hollywood as it’s go to place to film around the year.

The greater Ft. Lauderdale-Miami -Palm Beach area has seemed positioned over the years to be a leader in the film industry and some fine films and TV programs have been made down there: Body HeatThe Jackie Gleanson Show, Flipper, Gentle Ben, Miami Vice, and most recently CSI Miami, Burn Notice, and Marley & Me written by South Florida reporter and author John Grogan.

And some iconic stars and well know have made films in Florida including Elvis Presley (Follow that Dream), Gary Cooper (Distant Drums), Frank Sinatra (Lady in Cement) and Paul Newman (Absence of Malice). Not to mention a cast of more recent movie stars including John Travolta, Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, and Demi Moore, as well as Florida’s own legend Burt Reynolds have made movies in Florida.

On the surface when  you step back from the picture what you see emerge in Florida’s 100 year movie history is that Florida doesn’t so much have a unified film industry –it’s one giant back lot. A great place for New York & California filmmakers to come and make movies and commercials. And they have made a lot of them over the years.

But when you look beyond the smoke and mirrors of “Hollywood East” you begin to a deeper foundation.  Since I like to talk about screenwriting and regionalism you can’t get any more regional in Florida than The Yearling written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize Novel in 1939 and it became a great  film in 1947 and also was made as a TV film in 1994.

In a similar vein is Minneapolis born writer Theodore Pratt who after a time freelancing in New York spent most of the last 35 years of his life living in Florida and writing more than thirty novels that were set in Florida. His most well-known novel The Barefoot Mailman was made into a movie in 1951.

Zora Neale Hurtson was part of the Harlem Renaissance movement  in the 20s & 30s and used her hometown of Eatonville, Florida as the backdrop for her most well-known novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Oprah Windfrey produced the TV version of that book in 2005 starring Halle Berry.

As a quirky side note my high school and college creative writing/English teacher  (and Zora Neale Hurston scholar) Annye Refore got me interested in Hurston’s work back in the early 80s and when I was in film school in California I talked to an actress named Cyndi James-Reece who I was taking an acting class with saying she’d be great in the role that Berry eventually played. (Reece went on to win Star Search one year and married Lou Gossett Jr.)

And of course there are a whole list of writers who have called Florida home over the years some whose work has become movies; Ernest Hemingway, James Michener, E.B. White, Harry Crews, John D. McDonald, Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry to name a few.

But what about…screenwriters from Florida? Yes. Let’s see what we can find. Let’s start with writer/director Victor Nunez who though a UCLA film school graduate is known for his un-Hollywood films. In fact, he could be the poster child for regional filmmakers. The first film I saw of his was A Flash of Green that not only introduced me to his talent but also that of a young actor named Ed Harris. His next film Ruby in Paradise was Ashely Judd’s first film as a lead actress.

Nunez’s Ulee’s Gold starred Peter Fonda (who received an Oscar nomination) and was just the second film for a young actress named Jessica Biel. Nunez continues to make films but his day job is currently teaching film at Florida State University.

Which leads us to Tallahassee where FSU is and where screenwriter Robin Swicord graduated from. She recently got a screen story credit on The Curious Case of Behjamin Button, the David Fincher and Brad Pitt film that just opened yesterday. She also wrote the scripts for The Jane Austen Book Club, Memiors of a Geisha, and Little Women.

We are Marshall screenwriter Jamie Linden is also an FSU grad and Fort Lauderdale native Steve Conrad briefly attended FSU before going to Northwestern and eventually writing the script The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith.

And while famed FSU football coach Bobby Bowden may not be a screenwriter I heard or read many memorable one liners come from him while growing up in Orlando. My favorite was when he talked about one player, “He doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear, in fact, looking at his grades he doesn’t know the meaning of a lot of words.

Screenwriter Melissa Carter who wrote Little Black Book starring Brittany Murphey and Kathy Bates is an FSU alum.

And while not a screenwriter (and who actually was an advertising-marketing major at FSU)  I must give Cherylanne Martin a special mention because she has worked on a magic carpet ride list of feature films (about 30 total). Beginning as a production assistant in 1983 on Jaws 3-D (shot in Orlando), she worked her way up to second assistant director on Rain Man, first assistant director on Forrest Gump, unit production manager on Castaway, and more recently was one of the producers of Nancy Drew. Quite a career, right?  (Years ago I crossed paths with Cherylanne when in a happy accident I met her father and he kindly past a script of mine on to her.)

And lastly (but the most  highly rewarded FSU grad) is Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty. (From the theater school where Burt Reynolds graduated from back in the day.)

I know there are many colleges in Florida doing media and theater training but none that have the fruit of the FSU program. (This coming from a Miami Hurricane mind you. Though it is worth mentioning that Sylvester Stallone did attend a few semesters at the University of Miami and later went back using his script for Rocky to finally earn his degree. It’s good to see that writing a film that wins an Academy Award for best picture is worth a few college credits.)

Native Floridian writer Connie May Fowler wrote the book and script Before Women Had Wings (BTW–I love that title) that became an Emmy winning movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Barkin.

Florida will always be place to shoot films and TV programs like the classic Sea Hunt starring Loyd Bridges, because of the local and weather. But I also believe there is a remnant left over from “Hollywood East” made up of actors and production people who will keep turning out independent features from time to time.

While I was in Orlando last week I stopped by and visited some old haunts; Building 22-A at Universal, Panavison Florida and some friends who now work at Full Sail (which does have the most amazing sound stages I’ve ever seen for students). The good news is Universal has had a solid run of booking their sound stages for the past 18 months with a variety of productions and we’ll have to see what this new economy brings.

The talent, studios, desire, film commission offices, and other infrastructures are in place for things to take off in Florida. But for whatever reason it seems like Florida as a whole as been in rehearsals for 100 years. I believe Florida is ready for its close-up beyond just attractive people running around on the beach. And that’s where screenwriters from Florida come into the picture.

Producer's Building-22A Producer’s Building-22A
Panavision Florida

Panavision Florida

Full Sail Stage

Full Sail Stage

Florida is fertile ground for writers. It has an eclectic multi-cultural mix of characters and a large transient culture. (Heck, Jimmy Buffett’s had a long career writing songs about such people. And if you haven’t seen Errol Morris’ early documentary Vernon, Florida I’d recommend checking that out.)   There are stories to be told from there and there  just needs to be some screenwriters who can tap into the real Florida rather than Hollywood’s version of Florida.

Sidenotes: Orlando-based editor Oliver Peters who has edited features and documentaries (and a heck of a lot of corporate and commercials) has a helpful and informative blog called Digitalfilms for those of you interested in filmmaking. And to find out  about production news in Florida (including tax incentives) contact Film in Florida. Florida also has over 50 film festivals including the Florida Film Festival hosted by the wonderful Enzian Theater in Maitland, Florida.

Text & Photos Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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