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Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Miller’

“Our stories, our books, our films are how we cope with the random trauma-inducing chaos of life as it plays out.”
—Musician Bruce Springsteen

“I wrote to explain my own life to myself, stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself.”
—Novelist Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides)

I’ll continue my run of James Bond posts, but thought I’d take a break to show a stack of notes I recently went through. It’s what my posts look like before they hit this blog. Just note after note scribbled here and there when I’m listening to a podcast in the car or on a walk.

About the only thing I can make out from my scrawl is this David Mamet quote, “There is no such thing as character. Character doesn’t exist.” (Somehow notes like these have fueled over 3,000 posts in the past 13 years.)

On top of hundreds of handwritten notes there are thousands of similar notes in my Notes app on my cell phone. Today I heard writer/director Paul Greengrass talking on the radio about his new film News of the World and when asked if his creative process is a common method said, “I don’t know how other filmmakers do it.” So I just voice recorded that sentence into Notes. It was the only direct quote that I captured from the interview.

One of the things I’ve tried to do over the years is to show how a diverse group of people work in different ways to accomplish the same goal. When I last counted I’d quoted over 700 writers, filmmakers, and film industry leaders. I’ve consumed plenty of interviews, books, and podcast featuring writers who explain their process. It’s what works for them, but may not be helpful for you.

For instance, more than one writer has said it’s a mistake to start writing from theme. Yet, would they change their mind if they knew that was exactly how Rod Serling wrote? That may not be how they work, but it worked out okay for the prolific Twilight Zone creator.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a story line or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
—Rod Serling

Anyway, I’m always on the hunt for a fresh perspective to the creative process. I think all writing is organized chaos, and playwright and screenwriter Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) said something to that effect.

“The very impulse to write springs from an inner chaos, a crying for order, for meaning and that meaning must be discovered in the process of writing or the work lies dead as it is finished.”
—Arthur Miller interview with Chrisitan-Albrecht Gollub
Conversations with Arthur Miller, Page 287

“I begin in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and experiences. Even now I do not consider myself a writer, in the ordinary sense of the word.
—Novelist Henry Miller
 Reflections on Writing

There’s no shortage of chaos in the world right now. But as I think back on history—and the history of movies—chaos is having a long run. And the best writers help us make sense of the world we live in. When you organize the right words in the right order (as Tom Stoppard wrote) “you might nudge the world a little.”

Here’s the trailer from News of the World (screenplay by Greengrass and Luke Davies, from the novel by Paulette Jiles) where Tom Hanks’ character appears to seek to bring order out of chaos.

P.S. I’ve yet to read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, but now may be a good time. Bill Gates said the 2011 book was “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.”

P.P.S. The first 30 seconds of this clip is kinda what my wife looks like when she walks into my home office—not that I have A Beautiful Mind.


Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Walker Percy once stated that every writer secretly wanted to be Aleksandr Solzhistsyn. That they would write something so powerful that it would tick off the Soviet government to the point that they would be arrested and sent to the Gulag. A life of forced labor until you died.

But the Gulag and the Soviet Union are a part of the past so writers will have to find other ways to impact the culture.

Producer/screenwriter Craig Mazin angered the Russians leaders enough with his HBO mini-series Chernobyl last year that a month after the five-part series aired it was announced that Russian State TV was producing its own version of what really happened. That’s not as good as going to the Gulag, but maybe better than all the Emmys the HBO version won.

But if I was Mazin, I wouldn’t plan on taking any vacations soon to Moscow, and I’d be aware of anyone walking behind me carrying an umbrella—especially in sunny Los Angeles.

Apparently, the Russian backed version will correct all the lies of Mazin’s version. Mainly their version of the disaster was caused by a CIA agent.

Back in July, in my post ‘Chernobyl’: Craig Mazin’s Real Life Scary Movie Lands 19 Emmy Nominations, I said that I not only thought it was Tv’s best show of the year, but stood with the best throughout TV history. (I was glad to hear Tom Hanks just say something to that effect a few days ago.)

Apparently, a few months after the airing of Chernobyl is when COVID-19 appeared on the scene leaving a tremendous impact on the world. (The cost so far is 1.7 million lives globally.) We may never even know the truth of where and how this virus started and spread. But the shot clearly heard in Chernobyl is we need to be careful of leaders who tell lies.

Chernobyl even plays better now than it did last year. And with that mini-series Mazin joins Euripides, Shakespeare, and Arthur Miller in being a social critic.

“We’ve lost the technique of grappling with the world that Homer had, that Aschylus had, that Euripides had. And Shakespeare. How amazing it is that people who adore the Greek drama fail to see that these great works are works of a man confronting his society, the illusions of the society, the faiths of the society. They’re social documents, not little private conversations. We just got educated into thinking this is all ‘a story,’ a myth for its own sake. [There will be a return to social drama] if theater is to survive. Look at Moliere. You can’t conceive of him except as a social playwright. He’s a social critic. Bathes up to his neck in what’s going on around him.”
—Arthur Miller
Interview in 1966 with Olga Carlise and Rose Styron found in Playwrights at Work

Here are the links to the scripts of all five episodes.

Script | Episode 1, “1 : 23 : 45”
Script | Episode 2: “Please Remain Calm”
Script | Episode 3: “Open Wide, O Earth”
Script | Episode 4: “The Happiness Of All Mankind”
Script | Episode 5: “Vichnaya Pamyat”

P.S. With my junior Photoshop skills I’ve created my first meme based on the terrific Chernobyl poster with a COVID-19 twist. An idea I had kicking around in my head for a few months.

Related post: ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’—Emily Dickinson

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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The following comments are from five time Oscar-nominated writer/director Sidney Lumet (The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City,  12 Angry Men, Network):

“When I first meet with the screenwriter, I never tell him anything, even if I feel there’s a lot to be done. Instead I ask him the same question I’ve asked myself: What is the story about? What did you see? What was your intention? Ideally, if we do this well, what do you hope the audience will feel, think, sense? In what mood do you want them to leave the theater? 

“We are two different people trying to combine our talents, so it’s critical that we agree on the intention of the screenplay. Under the best circumstances, what will emerge is a third intention, which neither of us saw at the beginning….[Arthur Miller] said that he loved seeing what his work evoked in others. The result could contain revelations, feelings, and ideas that he never knew existed when he wrote the play. It’s what we all hope for.

“…Of course, the original intent is present. But all of the individual contributions from all the different departments add up to a total far greater than their individual parts. Moviemaking works very much like an orchestra: the addition of various harmonies can change, enlarge, and clarify the nature of the theme.”
Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Making Movies 
Pages 29-30, 46

Related post:
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Sidney Lumet on Theme
Arthur Miller on Writing
Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)

Scott W. Smith

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“Baseball players say they don’t have to look to see if they hit a home run, they can feel it. So I wish for you a moment—a moment soon—when you really put the bat on the ball, when you really get a hold of one and drive it into the upper deck, when you feel it.”
Producer/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin
Syracuse University’s 2012 commencement speech 

Just today I learned that I share not only a birthday month with Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), but we were born the same year.  That’s about where the similarities end. (Well, he co-wrote Moneyball and I’ve seen that movie a bunch of times so we have that in common, too.)

One of the themes of Moneyball is how one can have incredible baseball talent in high school—even be a first round pick—and still not have an appreciable career in the major leagues. While I imagine the attrition rate is pretty high of writers, directors, and actors who hit the ground running with Sorkin after he graduated from Syracuse University in 1983, he’s been able to find tremendous and lasting success in both film and television.

In the great production pyramid today, Sorkin is tucked away somewhere in the little corner at the top. So when MasterClass announced last week it was soon releasing Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting, a 5 hour plus video workshop, I was pretty excited about the news.

I haven’t seen the MasterClass videos, but can’t imagine it not being worth the time and money ($90.) to gather a few takeaways on your way to becoming a better writer. Here’s a list of Aaron Sorkin-centered posts I’ve written over the years that give you a glimpse into what he could touch on:

Aaron Sorkin’s Survival Jobs
Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Sorkin’s Emotional Drive
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Movie Cloning (Aaron Sorkin)
Screenwriting Quote #43 (Aaron Sorkin)
Writing ‘The Social Network’ (Part 1)
Writing ‘The Social Network’ (Part 2)
Writing ‘A Few Good Men’
‘Moneyball’ & Coach Ferrell 

And since those Sorkin teaching videos won’t be released until later this month, here’s a story from his graduation speech where he talks about a lesson he learned while a student:

“As a freshman drama student, I had a play analysis class—it was part of my requirement.  The professor was Gerardine Clark. The play analysis class met for 90 minutes twice a week.  We read two plays a week and we took a 20-question true or false quiz at the beginning of the session that tested little more than whether or not we’d read the play.  The problem was that the class was at 8:30 in the morning, it met all the way down on East Genesee, I lived all the way up at Brewster/Boland, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but from time to time the city of Syracuse experiences inclement weather.  All this going to class and reading and walking through snow, wind chill that’s apparently powered by jet engines, was having a negative effect on my social life in general and my sleeping in particular.  At one point, being quizzed on Death of a Salesman, a play I had not read, I gave an answer that indicated that I wasn’t aware that at the end of the play the salesman dies.  And I failed the class.  I had to repeat it my sophomore year; it was depressing, frustrating and deeply embarrassing.    And it was without a doubt the single most significant event that occurred in my evolution as a writer.  I showed up my sophomore year and I went to class, and I paid attention, and we read plays and I paid attention, and we discussed structure and tempo and intention and obstacle, possible improbabilities, improbable impossibilities, and I paid attention, and by God when I got my grades at the end of the year, I’d turned that F into a D.  I’m joking: it was pass/fail.”
Aaron Sorkin

And just to make that lesson a It’s a Wonderful Life moment, years later Sorkin was asked by Arthur Miller if he could fill in as a guest lecturer at NYU where the subject was Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. (Cue the Walk of Life music.)

Related posts:
Can Screenwriting Be Taught?
Screenwriting Quote #175 (Arthur Miller) 
Murray, Miller & Mass Appeal (Tip #78)
Volcanic Emotions & Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller on Writing
What Would Miller Do?
The Best Film School 

Related Professor posts:
Professor Stephen King
Professor Jerry Lewis (The Total Filmmaker)
Professor/Pirate Steven Soderbergh

P.S. On a micro doc I made a couple of years ago, I started off a quote from Moneyball:

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“I wish I had a theater that was only open when it rained…I like it when people come up to me the next day or a week later and they say, ‘I saw your play—what happened?'”
Bill Murray as the playwright Jeff in Tootsie

“You can’t have a theater based upon anything other than a mass audience if it’s going to succeed. The larger the better. It’s the law of the theater. In the Greek audience fourteen thousand people sat down at the same time, to see a play. Fourteen thousand people! And nobody can tell me that those people were all readers of The New York Review of Books! Even Shakespeare was smashed around in his time by university people….because he was reaching for those parts of man’s makeup which respond to melodrama, broad comedy, violence, dirty words, and blood. Plenty of blood, murder, and not very well motivated at that.”
Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman)
Playwrights at Work, Page 171

Related Posts:

Screenwriting Quote #175 (Arthur Miller)
Volcanic Emotions & Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller on Writing
What Would Arthur Miller Do?
“Tootsie” at 30
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) “The reason that I am a writer today is Shakespeare.”—John Logan
There’s Something About Jerry“No artist—notably no film or television writer—need apologize for entertaining an assembled mass of people.” Richard Walter (UCLA screenwriting professor)

Scott W. Smith

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 “You’d be hard pressed to remember dialogue in some of the great pictures that you’ve seen. That’s why pictures are so international. You don’t have to hear the dialogue in an Italian movie or a French movie. We’re watching the film so that the vehicle is not the ear or the word, it’s the eye. The director of a play is nailed to the words. He can interpret them a little differently, but he has his limits: you can only inflect a sentence in two or three different ways, but you can inflect an image on the screen in an infinite number of ways. You can make one character practically fall out of the frame; you can shoot it where you don’t even see his face. Two people can be talking, and the man talking cannot be seen, so the emphasis is on the reaction to the speech rather than on the speech itself.”
Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, The Crucible)
Playwrights at Work

Page 163

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“When I write a script, I am telling a story that comes from my heart.”
Matthew Weiner, 9-time Emmy winning writer/producer (The Sopranos, Mad Men)

“He had a home,
The love of a girl,
But men get lost sometimes,
As years unfurl”
New York Minute
Lyrics by Don Henley, Danny Korthchmar, Jai L. Winding

I’m on a steady Mad Men diet. No, I didn’t see the season premiere of the Emmy-winning AMC TV program earlier this week. Not being a regular TV watcher it takes me a little time to commit to watching a show. But once I’m in, I’m all in. This week alone I’ve watched 9 episodes. (All which aired originally in 2007.)

It’s really more of a workout—literally. At the gym I set either a stationary bike or an elliptical machine for 47 minutes. (The length of an episode.) And I’ve even switched machines and watched shows back to back. So if you had a sedate winter give that Mad Men diet and workout a try. (Results vary.)

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”— but it sure can make for good drama. It worked for Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman and it works for Matthew Weiner and his writing team for Mad Men. In fact, the subtitle of Man Men could borrow words from Thoreau; “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Mad Men is everything that television usually isn’t; intelligent, philosophical, contemplative, and even spiritual. (Along with a good deal of smoking, drinking, and philandering.) And its use of subtext and visual storytelling* exceeds what you’ll find in the typical Hollywood feature film.

So I thought I’d find a little inspiration today for you from the Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

“Writers were idolized in my home. My parents had a big poster picture of Ernest Hemingway on a wall in a hallway in our house. I thought I was going to be a poet and that I would find some other profession, teaching or something, to support me. After I graduated from film school at the University of Southern California, it was about 10 years before I got a paying job in the industry, but I never gave myself a time limit. I wrote the pilot episode for Mad Men in 1999 at night while I already had a job, and finally got it produced in 2006.”
Matthew Weiner
A Conversation with Matthew Weiner by Bob Fisher 

Don’t gloss over that 10 year deal. It was 10 years after Weiner earned his MFA from USC that he got “a paying job in the industry.” He also did his undergraduate work at Wesleyan University where he was in “a Great Books program with philosophy, literature and history mixed together.” Smart cookie, with educated and affluent parents, but it still took him 10 years to get a paying job in the industry. Say he’s 24 when he gets his Master’s degree, that puts him at 34 before his career started to take off.

I don’t know what he did in that ten-year period, but I bet he was cranking out pages. (He did have some scripts optioned for free.)

“I’ve learned that tenacity is a common part of the personalities of successful writers whom I have met. Now, maybe because I have had some success, I can say that the struggling  for the 10 years or so before I got a paying  job, made me a better writer.”
Matthew Weiner

Looking for a word today to put on a 3X5 card to place on the wall behind your computer? Try tenacity. Meaning persistent, relentless—like a dog on a bone.

P.S. From the quirky connection category. Weiner is four years younger than me an attended the all-boys prep school Harvard in Los Angeles (Now the co-ed Harvard-Westlake School). When I was in film school I worked for Yary Photography taking pictures of sports groups throughout Southern California. I did several shoots at the Harvard School when I was 21/22-years-old. Weiner would have been a 17/18-year-old student meaning if he played sports our paths could have crossed for a fleeting moment.

And for what it’s worth, writer-director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) is also an alumni of the Harvard-Westlake School where the tuition for this school year is $30,000.

P.P.S. Care for a Midwest angle on Mad Men? Jon Hamm, who plays creative director Don Draper was born in St. Louis, Missouri and graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Missouri. Same school Brad Pitt attended. Ironically, neither of the future stars and Sexist Men Alive were theater majors at the Columbia, MO college. And January Jones (who plays Don’s wife Betty) was born and raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (about 10 miles from the Iowa border).

* Visual storytelling Mad Men example: In the episode Long Weekend, the number #2 man at the advertising agency Sterling-Cooper calls a secretary into his office (who is having an affair with) and just before she closes the door to his office she decides to leave it ajar about a foot. Nothing said, but so much implied. As the scene plays on it turns out she has seen Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and  sympathizes with the Shirley MacLaine character and wonders if she herself is just being used.

Related posts:

Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
“Unstoppable” Wesleyan University
Screenwriting Quote #32 (Mad Men)
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) John Logan’s (Hugo, Rango) 10 year struggle as a writer.

Scott W. Smith

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Here are several quotes pulled from the Ralph Keyes book The Courage to Write:

“I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”
E.B White 

“The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”
Arthur Miller 

“If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.”
Cynthia Ozick 

“When an interviewer asked Anne Sexton what a writing class could offer students, Sexton replied, ‘Courage, of course. That’s the most important ingredient.’ Writing programs can provide a safe haven, a sparsely filled theater in which to practice lines before facing the trauma of an audience.”
Ralph Keyes

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Today I started reading Kazan on Directing, which is based on the notes of director Elia Kazan. Kazan who directed the classic (and Oscar-winning) On the Waterfront. Kazan has been called by Martin Scorsese as, “one of the most important figures in the history of movies. It’s that simple.”

Of course, Kazan first may inroads in the theater first where he was an actor in Clifford Odets plays, before going on to work on Broadway with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

He went on to be nominated for a total of seven Academy Awards, winning two and also an Honorary Oscar Award in 1999.

For the next few days I’ll be pulling quotes and sections from his book.

“The first problem of the director then is to determine what his direction is to be. And as this direction is to give organic unity to the whole production, his first job is to find a ‘center’ or ‘core’ for the work and for production. Once it is established the base decision has been made. All else devolves from this.

The director has to restate succinctly the play, its meaning and form, in his own terms; he has to reconceive it as if he had created it. What does it mean to him? What does it arouse in him? how does the manuscript affect his soul? In short, what is his relationship as an artist to this document, this manuscript?

It is not necessary that the director’s reaction match the author’s intention. Different periods have different values and meanings. And a director might want to produce a work for reasons other than the writer’s. Examples abound; the clearest is Shakespearean productions from Shakespeare’s time to ours.

Therefore, the director’s first question in approaching the script is not what the author intended, but what is his own response as an independent artist.”
Elia Kazan

Now you know why there are creative differences in theater and film productions.

Scott W. Smith

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This week I spent four days in New York City shooting a video in a location that overlooked the Hudson River into Hoboken, New Jersey. I knew that was where Frank Sinatra was from but I didn’t realize until today that that is On the Waterfront territory.

The 1954 film that AFI listed as the #8 American film of all time and which I would list as one of my top films ever. And while I have written about it before I discovered sonething today that gives some reasons for its lasting appeal.

Before the film won 8 Oscars the events that lead to the movie were published in a 24 part series in the New York Sun back in 1948 by Malcolm Johnson. The series titled Crime on the Waterfront won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. (The articles are now in book form called On the Waterfront: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Articles That Inspired the classic film and Transformed the New York Harbor.)

There is a book version of Johnson’s articles that has been published and I look forward to trying read it. Here’s how the book starts.

And I also read that the famed Death of a Salesman writer Arthur Miller also wrote a draft of the script. Though he is not credited on the movie, I find it hard to believe that they didn’t use any of his work.

Scott W. Smith

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