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Posts Tagged ‘American Graffiti’

“I saw the beginning of the sixties as a real transition in the culture, because of the Vietnam war and the things we were going through, and I wanted to make a movie about it.”
Director George Lucas on American Graffiti

“References to Modesto abound in American Graffiti, right down to the Ramona Avenue address where Carol lives and where Lucas grew up. The cruising loop, Mel’s Drive-In, Burger City  … the radio station—all have real-life antecedents in the crowded nighttime streets of Modesto in the late 1950s and early ’60s.”
Dale Pollack
Skywalking:The Life and Films of George Lucas
(American Graffiti was shot primarily in San Rafael north of San Francisco)

“I wasn’t thinking about [American Graffiti] when I was writing [Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood] but when I made the decision that I can use these [1960s KHJ] commercials—I can use this DJ stuff, we created a really interesting thing in the movie and I can kind of duplicate big chunks of that on the sound track album. And then that brought to mind American Graffiti— we can definitely do this. And then upon realizing that I realized how much the film had actually been influenced by American Graffiti between like characters in cars driving around all day seemingly aimlessly. Right down to the fact that Margaret Qualley’s Mason character Pussycat could be Suszanne Summers in the T-Bird. The girl [Richard Dreyfuss’ character] keeps seeing all over town. …But the thing is that ended up being a seminal album for me when I got it because I had just really started listening to oldies radio—that was during the 50s revival in the 70s—so I’m only like 13. I hadn’t even seen the movie. So  I’m loving the American Graffiti soundtrack on its own. I didn’t see the movie until it was re-released after Star Wars which was like ‘78.
Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino
Soundtracking, Episode 155, podcast interview with Edith Bowman 

You could also argue that the Margaret Qualley character in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is closer Mackenzie Phillips’ character in American Graffiti. The underage girl  that ends up driving the Modesto, California strip in cool guy Paul Le Mat’s hot rod.

P.S. The layers of Once Upon a Time go on and on. Mackenzie Phillips is the daughter of John Phillips  who wrote the songs on the  Once Upon a Time … soundtrack.Twelve Thirty recorded by the Mama’s and the Papa’s which he was a part of, and California Dreamin’ with Michelle Phillips (the Jose Feliciano version was used in the movie).

This isn’t the place to dive deep into the connections between John Phillips, Terry Melcher, Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, but let’s just say there’s no prince in shining armour in that group. I prefer Tarantino’s “fable”—as he calls his movie.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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“As a teacher what I do is I combine passion with the subjects I teach.”
Jaime Escalante (1930-2010)
Inspiration behind the movie Stand and Deliver

“I can’t think of a better way to spend a life than pursuing the imagination.”
Richard Walter
Writer & screenwriting professor

(Richard Walter Interview Part 1)

Today begins a several part series taken from an interview I did with Richard Walter, Chairman of the UCLA screenwriting program. Early in his screenwriting career he wrote the first draft of American Graffiti for George Lucas. He’s taught at UCLA since 1977, where his students have included David Koepp (Spiderman) Audrey Wells (Under the Tuscan Sun), and Alexander Payne (Sideways). He’s also the author of Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing.

SS: In the last 30 years there has been an explosion of screenwriting training in books, schools, CDs/DVDs, blogs, and seminars, yet you say that you’ve seen that many writers are merely writing scripts that are “shiny, superficial and soulless.” So what’s the problem that writers today are technically better, but that hasn’t translated into better scripts?

Richard Walter: “They’ve gotten intellectual. I think the downside to some of the books on screenwriting is they do tend to make people become self-conscious and intellectual—’Uh, let’s see is this the inciting incident? Or is it a plot point? On page 17 this is supposed to happen, and that’s supposed to happen.’ How can that do anything other than straight-jacket people?

I do believe in outlining, but at some point you have to let go of that outline and stay open to surprises and live with the uncertainty.

I’ve seen people who have shaped the script correctly, yet it just doesn’t move me. It just doesn’t reach audiences in the solar plexus. It’s too complete in the old spelling of the word C-O-M-P-L-E-T. It’s a little too well made.

One of my favorite movies ever, but certainly my favorite of those that came out of UCLA, was a real UCLA film school Mafia film called Stand and Deliver, the story of Jaime Escalante. He was a dedicated teacher and decided to teach calculus to these Latino kids who live in the barrio in East LA and go to Garfield High. And he succeeded in doing that.

The first thing a teacher has to have is high expectations. And indeed Escalante succeeded in teaching these kids calculus. And indeed they take the Educational Testing Services national test in calculus and they all pass it. Well, back in New Jersey where the ETS is located they get back these results and say, ‘This can’t be true. These Latino kids in East LA could not have passed this calculus exam, they must of cheated,’ and so they make them take the test again. This is the true story upon which the movie is based. So the kids take the test again and pass and demonstrate they indeed were capable of learning calculus.

Now I want you to imagine Tom Musca, who was the producer and co-writer of that movie, saying to me, ‘Now , Richie, imagine me pitching this picture to the town. The climax is these kids take a math test—twice.’ It sounds idiotic, it sounds very stupid. But it works so well. So I would say that the worst mistake that writers make is we outsmart ourselves, and that’s sometimes what happens with these (screenwriting) books, they make us a little too self-observing and that is the enemy of all creative expression. “

Related Posts: Robert McKee Vs. Richard Walter

Screenwriting Quote #16 (Richard Walter)

Scott W. Smith

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safetylast-1

Does anybody really know what time it is?
                                                             Robert Lamm/Chicago

Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By
                                                             Humphrey Bogart
                                                             Casablanca 


Did you know that Three Days of the Condor was based on Six Days of the Condor?

That is the movie Three Days of the Condor was based on the novel Six Days of the Condor.

Why do you think the screenwriters Lorenzo Semple and David Rayfiel compressed the novel by James Grady? I haven’t read any comments by the writers, Robert Redford who was the star, or by director Syndey Pollack on why that was done, but I have a pretty good hunch.

Movies do not handle long passages of time well. More often than not films will compress time for the sake of moving the story forward and keeping your interest.

Screenwriters and producers often talk of a time-lock on a film. A specific set of time the story is set when something must happen by. (“If you don’t get the heck out of Dodge by sunset there will be hell to pay.”) It sets the parameters for the story. Here are some films that have a time-lock:
High Noon
Speed
48 Hours
Apollo 13

Lew Hunter in his book Screenwriting 434 says when you use a time-lock “you inject an urgency into your story that can give it additional drive to heighten audience involvement and anxiety.” Of course, the more organic to the story the better.

Some movie deal with time by placing them in a single day, in just a night, or even in real time in the length of the film:

American Graffiti
The Breakfast Club
Halloween
Phone Booth 
Before Sunrise
Rope 
Timecode 
Russian Ark 

In a talk I heard John Updike give at the University of Iowa earlier this year he spoke about the limitations that film has in showing the passing of time. When he’s writing a novel he can take a person from a baby to old age and it’s no problem for the reader, but in movies it doesn’t work as well. He explained that if your main character is a child for the first 30 minutes of the film they have a certain amount invested in that person and to switch to another person is a jolt.

This may be one of the problems Updike is having in bringing the story of Olympic wrestler/famed college coach Dan Gable to to screen. Gable had a great high school, college career before winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Then he went on to win 10 national championships as a head coach at the University of Iowa before retiring. Then he came back as an assistant coach last year to help Iowa win another national championship.

How do you show that in an hour and a half or two hour movie? And even if you found a way, can you really have the same person play Gable as a 15-year-old high school freshman and Gable as a 63-year-old coach? See the problem there? 

Maybe the digital world will help this in the future and it will be interesting to see the effect on Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button where he plays an man born in his eighties and ages backwards. If anyone can pull that off it’s David Fincher & Eric Roth. (Didn’t that once happen on a Star Trek episode?) But it’s still Brad Pitt we are investing in.

Of course there are other exceptions, and generally Hollywood has found some creative ways to deal with the passing of time when needed. For instance, in Forrest Gump we are introduced to Forrest (Tom Hanks) as an adult in the opening scene and while we see Forrest as a child the majority of the film is as an adult. We are invested in Tom Hanks.

In The Natural they chose to have Robert Redford play both the thirtysomething Roy Hobbs as well as the teenage Roy Hobbs. They used soft lighting, shadows (and Redford’s youthful look) to create believability for the audience. 

The remarkable TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won eight primetime Emmys including two for actress Cicely Tyson. Tyson playing a 110-year old woman reflecting on her life was amazing, and aided greatly by makeup and costume design (that both also won Emmys) as well as a whole creative team that brought the Ernest J. Gaines novel to life. (Leonard Maltin called it “One of TV’s all-time best,” so it’s worth renting of you’ve never seen it.)

One major problem with the passing of time is the amount of money it takes to create different eras. Think of the expense of the cars alone cover the time period of a story set in the 40s, 60s, 80s. Sure it’s been done, but if you are starting out it may be best to avoid that hurdle. (A short time frame also favors lower budget films since you have less continuity issues to worry about. Always good especially if you don’t have a script supervisor.) 

In my post Screenwriting by Numbers (tip #4) I point out some averages related to running time in movies such as most movies tend to be between 90-120 minutes in length and most scenes tend to run between 1-3 minutes long. And if all of this seems cold and artificial let me once again to the great quote by design guru Milton Glazer; “Limitation stimulates the imagination.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Small town people are more real, more down to earth.”
                                                             Groundhog Day 
                                                             Phil (Bill Murray) 

 

“A growing number of Americans are seeking a larger life in a smaller place. Many are finding it.” 
                                                                                      Life 2.0
                                                                                      Richard Karlgaard 

You hear a lot about Main St. these days and I thought I’d explore what that means from a screenwriting & filmmaking  perspective. A couple days ago my travels took me to northern Illinois and to the town of Woodstock which happens to be where much of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray was filmed.

The above photo is the corner where Ned confronts Bill Murray’s character again and again and where Murray steps off the curb into the puddle of water. The town, which is about an hour north east of Chicago, has improved much over the last 15 years and continues to embrace the fact that Groundhog Day was filmed there.

 

That’s right, Woodstock doubled for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Director Harold Ramis thought the town square there worked better as a location than the real deal. I wonder how many people go out of their way to go to Punxutawney and are disappointed that it doesn’t look like the town in the movie? That’s showbiz.

In fact, the town even has a life-imitating-art groundhog day celebration and a nice map you can follow to see the various filming locations of the Danny Rubin and Ramos screenplay. The bar scene where Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell drink to world peace is now the Courtyard Grill and has a signed script on the wall by where they sat.

 

Certainly, if you’re in the area it’s worth it to stop to see where one of the great comedy films (#34 on the AFI Greatest American Comedy list) was filmed. If you’re there at the beginning of February you can even take part in the groundhog days celebration. 

From my home where I am typing this I can see Main St. here in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It’s just a block to the west and is quite a lively Main St. USA. Shops, a playhouse, art galleries, several bars and restaurants (a new one opening next month will feature a respected Chicago chef) and even a comedy club. It’s also worth a stop if you are ever driving the Avenue of the Saints between St. Louis and St. Paul.

There’s something endearing about Main Streets in general. Of course, sometimes they aren’t even called Main St., but they are the historic main road through the heart of smaller towns. It’s not hard for me to think back at some of my favorite main drags (Telluride, Colorado, Winter Park, Florida., Franklin, Tennessee,, Holland, Michigan, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Seal Beach, California, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania  and Galena, Illinois).

Places that for the most part that have been around for 100 years. Places with history and character. Perhaps in a response to sprawling suburbs there has been an architectural movement to design areas that look a little like small towns complete with a Main St. (Some even have a small movie theaters.)

I first became aware of this while a student at the University of Miami in the ’80s when two Miami architects (Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) began to design the beach community of Seaside, Florida. (Seaside is so idyllic, it is where they filmed The Truman Show.) The success of Seaside has been well documented.

On the Seaside website you’ll find the history and the philosophy of what they set out to create after doing extensive research:
“Most of the buildings were studied in the context of small towns, and gradually the idea evolved that the small town was the appropriate model to use in thinking about laying out streets and squares and locating the various elements of the community. 

Seaside is a great place and today you can go throughout the country and find other areas that were designed in its wake; Celebration, FL,  Baldwin Park, FL, Harmony, FL, Prospect New Town in Boulder County, Colorado, and Kentlands in Gaitherburg, Maryland. 

That is not to say that this new urbanist master planned communities idea doesn’t have its critics. The most common charge is they say the towns are more like film sets or some kind of fantasyland — sentimental and far removed from reality.  Some felt it a little strange when Thomas Kinkade (The Painter of Light) got into the act outside the San Francisco Bay area by inspiring a development called The Village at Hiddenbrook that feature homes that would be at home in one of his glowing paintings. Where are the Rod Serling/Twight Zone inspired writers on that one?

But for many (including Walt Disney, and perhaps Kinkade) small towns represent the ideal. (Community, honesty, fullness of life, etc.) The way life ought to be, or the way it was.  Many movies and TV programs tap into this mystique: It’s a Wonderful Life, American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show, My Dog Skip, The Andy Griffith Show, Cars, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Truman Show, Northern Exposure, Places in the Heart, and Hoosiers.

(And some books, films and songs are critiques and satires of small town living such as Pleasantville, Harper Valley PTA, and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street.

Either way Main St. (and all that it represents) is a part of Americanna and will continue to be probably forever and is fertile ground for you to explore in your screenwriting, and perhaps even in your life. As Don Henley (who was raised in the small town of Linden, Texas) sings in The End of the Innocence:
Who know how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far so fast
But somewhere back there in the dust,
that same small town in each of us

On a closing note, I remember when I lived in L.A. there was a popular radio host named Dr. Toni Grant who used to encourage her callers/listeners to write the script of their life. I always thought that was an interesting concept and worth exploring as you take a few more trips around the sun. 

Come to think of it, isn’t that what Bill Murray’s character did in Groundhog Day? He rewrote the script of his life and became a better person — and got the girl to boot. It is a wonderful life…

 

Photos and text 2008 copyright Scott W. Smith

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