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Posts Tagged ‘Barry Levinson’

“When I started writing Donnie Brasco—first of all, it was right at the beginning of my career so I was just really grateful to have a job. It was the first thing I did with Barry Levinson, and really that experience with Barry—you know Quiz Show came out of that, Homicide came out of that—it was fundamental to my development as a writer because all I’d been hearing up to that point was a lot of that kind of Syd Field, Robert McKee kind of [story structure]. And Barry basically, if you wrote a funny scene—that’s what he was looking for. It was really like the Howard Hawks’ apothegm that a good movie is five or six scenes and something in-between. If you have the five or six scenes the structure would announce itself. That was eye-opening for me. And when found that I could do that, that was the experience of [writing] Donnie Brasco.

It was really zeroing in on this character Lefty (Al Pacino). And what was great with that too is there is a lot of tape because they were eavesdropped on by the feds all the time. You could understand Lefty through how he sounded. And there was just all of this tape. And it was that relationship. The basic spine of it was clear to me early on which was at the end he [Donnie Brasco/Johnny Depp] either had to betray himself or betray his friend. That’s all you really need to find the structure.”
Screenwriter Paul Attanasio on writing Donnie Brasco
The Dialogue interview with Mike DeLuca (part 1)

Donnie Brasco originated from the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joseph D. Pistone with Richard Woodley.

“What [Levinson] got from the book was that mob life was really about guys in coffee shops scheming and bullsh*#ing, so that spoke to Diner, and Tin Men (other Barry Levinson films). Perception about people that he has mined for a while, and it wasn’t The Godfather and the beautiful Gordon Willis lighting, and the dignity of those guys. It was low life. And what I found in there is the relationship that gave it some heart and emotion.”
Paul Attanasio

P.S. Several years ago I interviewed former capo in the Columbo family Michael Franzese in Santa Monica for a TV program I was producing. I asked him what his favorite mafia film was and he said that he preferred the term “the family” and singled out Donnie Brasco. Fortune magazine once listed Franzese as number 18 of the “Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses.”

Related post:
Filmmaking Quote #39 (Howard Hawks)
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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“To make a good film, to write a screenplay, is surprisingly hard. It shouldn’t be that hard. You’re really creating a diversion for people for two hours. But because of the length—it’s almost like writing a villanelle, or one of those forms that has so many requirements, that to hit the marks you need to hit and to express something is incredibly hard. And the result is there are a handful of people who know how to do it.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco, Quiz Show)
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriter Paul Attanasio, like screenwriter Sheldon Turner, came into the film world not through film school but through law school.  He also says he was not “one of those clerk in a video store” kind of guys, but that his writing is based in literature. After graduating from Harvard Law School he turned an internship with the Washington Post into a four-year stint as a film critic.

I’m not sure how he made the jump onto the filmmaking side, but he had the advantage of being mentored by Oscar-winning writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve). His first produced screenplay (Quiz Show) was directed by Robert Redford, his second film Disclosure was directed by Barry Levinson and starred Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, and his third film (Donnie Brasco) starred Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. He had two Oscar-nominations right out of the gate. A pretty good start, huh?

In the ’90s Attanasio also made his mark in TV when he created Homicide:Life on the Street (based on the book by David Simon) and from 2002-2012 he’s credited as executive producer on House M.D.

Here’s a glimpse into his writing process:

“I’m a late convert to outlining. I used to really try to know where I was going to end up and feel my way through it. And [Steven] Soderbergh when we did The Good German said, ‘no, why don’t you outline.’ And I was at the point where my process had gotten so amorphous—it wasn’t quite as amorphous as my friend Alvin Sargent—but it was semi-amorphous. And I said, “Okay, I’ll try that.” And it’s good. It’s like having a road map on a family trip. What happens is the kids have to go to the bathroom, you leave the road, you see something interesting, you go to it, then they’re hungry and you go there. But then when you have to get back to the highway, you know where the highway is, or at least you have a general direction to find your way back to the highway. Writers who stick rigidly to an outline, and never go up those blind alleys aren’t real writers. But on the other side of it is if you’re collecting scraps of paper you can take a long time to write a screenplay.”
Paul Attanasio
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

P.S. Here’s part of Attanasio’s 1987 review of the movie Hoosiers;
“In Hoosiers, director David Anspaugh and screen writer Angelo Pizzo have taken the tired ‘go for it!’ dramatics of a David-and-Goliath story and revived it with the fervor of real experience. Hoosiers demonstrates that it’s not the tale but the telling, for beneath the cliche’s lies a rich and detailed portrait of a time, a place and a way of life.” (I’m pretty sure that should be “beneath the cliches” or “beneath the cliche” but who am I to correct the Washington Post or Attanasio? Anyway, you get the idea of what he was saying. My guess is his years reviewing films was Attanasio’s substitute film school.)

P.P.S. Paul’s brother, Mark Attanasio, is the principle owner of the Milwaukee Brewers Major League Baseball team. Talented family.

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s very hard to live up to an image.”
Elvis Presley

Last night at the Sundance Film Festival Sam Levinson won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Another Happy Day. Unfamiliar with Levinson, I was curious to see the path that the 25-year-old writer/director took to make his first feature.

“I guess it goes back to what I said about fanatically watching films since I was very young. I began to see to the film in my head and then as a reference point, I watched certain films, each of them for different reasons, but all of them had aspects of the way I wanted to shoot this film. There was nothing haphazard here, and this is not a criticism of any other style of filmmaking but I never had any thoughts of shooting this film in a verité style. I always saw this film as somehow, ‘formally informal.’ I am in no way comparing my film to these, but I went back again and again, to three extremely different types of films. I watched. ‘Who’ s afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ directed by Mike Nichols, ‘Hannah and her Sisters,’ directed by Woody Allen and ‘Carnal Knowledge,’ again Nichols.”
Sam Levinson
indieWire

I haven’t seen Another Happy Day, but since it’s an emotional drama surrounding an upper-class wedding and a dysfunctional family, it’s hard at first glance to not connect it to Rachel Getting Married. (Written by director Sidney Lumet’s daughter, Jenny.)

Turns out that Sam is the son of director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, The Natural). I’m sure Sam picked up a thing or two from his brilliant father at the dinner table.

Add Oscar-winning screenwriter Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) into the mix and you definitely see a trend emerging. So if you happen to be looking for an alternative to USC/UCLA/AFI film school, don’t have a Minneapolis background (Coen Brothers, Diablo Cody, Nick Shenk), and are looking for a way to break into screenwriting— then having a father who is a gifted and talented director can help. And I hate to complicate matters, but the elder Lumet, Coppola and Levinson are Oscar-winners, as well. (Plus I’m not sure if adoption counts.)

Truth is statistically very few sons and daughters of Hollywood’s successful producers, directors, writers, and actors make it as big as their mother or father. There’s a special burden attached to the situation. Think of the pressures of being, say, the daughter of Elvis and wanting to have a musical career. If  you don’t need the money—it’s really not worth the all the pain of constantly being compared to the king. You don’t get the luxury of failing and of taking the time to find your own voice.

So congrats to Sam Levinson (and Sofia and Jenny) for stepping up to the plate. (And keep in mind Jenny Lumet was working as a school teacher when she sold Rachel Getting Married.)

“I was driving a truck and studying to be an electrician.”
21-year-old Elvis Presley talking in 1956 about what he did before his musical career took off.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a truck driver (or a son or daughter of a truck driver)  living in a two-room house in, say, Tupelo, Mississippi and you’re writing screenplays and don’t have a single contact in Hollywood—just keep writing and making connections. Who knows, maybe you’ll hook-up with a filmmaker in Memphis and bigger things will happen for both of you. It’s happened before. Dream big, but take little steps.

“What regional filmmaking means to me is not only utilizing the actors of your area, the musicians and the artists, but probing what it means to that region. And for me, the thing about Memphis that I’ve always responded to is its music scene, from Sam Phillips recording Howlin’ Wolf, Rudus Thomas, Elvis Presely, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich.”
Memphis-based Craig Brewer,
writer/director Hustle & Flow

If there’s ever an Elvis of screenwriting I’d put my money on that person not being someone who comes from Hollywood royalty, but from a background that looks more like this…

Update 1/31/11: As far as the current crop of Hollywood sons & daughters, I’d put Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman’s son, Jason (Juno, Up in the Air), as the top candidate to top his father’s legacy.

Scott W. Smith

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“Many careers have been launched by new media that was discovered on the web.”
Shelly Mellott
Editor in Chief, Script magazine

Were you one of the first people to get rid of your landline in favor of just having a cell phone? If so then you may have already cut your cable TV cord in favor of getting your traditional television entertainment not on a television, but via the Internet.  “Is television dead?” ask Robert Gustafson & Alec McNayer in an article in Script magazine (Sept./Oct. 2010) titled The Branding of Online Entertainment.

But it’s not only that you can watch your favorite TV shows on the Internet with sponsors  putting a tag and the beginning and end of the show, now sponsors are creating their own shows. The brand produces the entertainment, hence the phrase branding entertainment.  If you aren’t familiar with what that looks like check out the Ikea sponsored show Easy to Assemble.

“(Branding Entertainment) has to become about the actual experience with the brand. It’s not about trying to sell a product, it’s about making the audience feel good about the brand and its message.”
Dominik Rauch
Producer, Easy to Assemble

I’m not sure when this all started but in its modern form I’d point to the Superman webisodes that Jerry Seinfeld did for American Express in 2004-2005 that were directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man, The Natural).

Of course, if actors, writers and filmmakers are uncomfortable with product placement they sure aren’t going to like branding entertainment. But it is a trend that is going to grow and provide a lot of creative opportunities for actors, writers and filmmakers. And since the majority of actors, writers and filmmakers are unemployed at any given time it seems like a positive thing. Sure it’s a dance between art and commerce, but what isn’t?

Two weeks ago I shot my first project that I would call branding entertainment. It’s for an economic development group and has been a great opportunity to work on the project as a producer, director, cameraman, editor as well as write the script and work with the actors. Even if the idea of branding entertainment doesn’t thrill you think of the experience you can gain. Writing words one week, and seeing actors say those words the next week, and people watching them  online soon afterwards has its own benefits in a field where you can go years without seeing any fruit to your work.

“Like with television, we’re always looking for strong writers with a point of view and fresh concepts that offer some sort of ‘wow’ factor.”
Ryan Noggle
Supervising producer, NBC’s In Gayle We Trust (sponsored by American Family Trust)

In the article by Gusafson and McNayer they point out a Orbit gum sponsored online show called “Orbit Dirty Shoes” featuring Jason Bateman; “The writing is superb, the acting is excellent, and the gum itself was successfully incorporated in the story.”

Not every writer’s cup of tea, but as I think of all the businesses and groups out there and the potential for branding entertainment— for the first time in my life I can honestly say I don’t think there are enough qualified producers and writers to handle all the work that I see coming down the pike.

Scott W. Smith



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“From Iowa to Pennsylvania, the presidential campaign has provided its share of made-for-Hollywood moments.”
                                                                                  All Things Considered
                                                                                  April 18, 2008


“It’s not until Iowa when people say this is how the American people are feeling. … So it ends up shaping how people view the race in subsequent states.”
                                                                                  Barack Obama
                                                                                  USA Today
                                                                                  July 17,2007 

obama300

Did you catch the Texas–Texas Tech game last Saturday? That was high drama. And everything I love about college football. A close game down to the last second.

Did you happen to follow the 2008 presidential election results last night? Not quite as close a game. But there was still plenty of drama in the last year and a half race to the White House including a full lineup of sideshows acts; Joe the plumber, The Obama girl (not to be confused with the John Edward’s girl), Super Tuesday, Sarah “Barracuda” Palin’s troopergate, Biden’s blunders, Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s preaching, Huckabee’s humor, Hillary Clinton and her 18 million cracks in the ceiling, and even Oprah coming to Iowa.

Congratulations to President elect Barack Obama. I was able to see 13 presidential candidates as they came through Iowa and I really never thought Obama would get past Hillary. But there he was last night showing that Dylan, Springsteen, Louis Farrakhan, Pamala Anderson, Colin Powell, Jimmy Buffett and Warren Buffett were all on the eclectic winning team.

Obama overcame his lack of experience with his message of change along with the storytelling abilities of Ronald Reagan and the inspirational chants (“Fired Up–Ready to Go!”) of a motivational speaker. So 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed we have an moment in history that represents symbolic healing. 

Congratulations to John McCain and his team for their hard fought battle. He’s served his country well and had over 55 million people pulling for him. And like many politicians who face defeat, the chances are good that Palin will do her homework and be back stronger with many lessons learned and popularity gained. (Though she’d have more fun and make more money doing the speaker/author circuit and having her own TV talk show.)

It really has been amazing to be a part of democracy in action at such an in-depth level. Who knew Iowa would play such an important role in history?

 

Never did I think when I moved to Iowa from Central Florida five years ago that I’d be close to such a dynamic election. So close in fact that I was within a couple feet of the future president of the United States of America several times in 2007 taking photos and shooting video on assignment.    

I took the photos on this blog at gatherings in Iowa a wee bit smaller than the huge crowd that showed up in Chicago last night to hear Obama’s acceptance speech. (I haven’t seen a celebration like last night’s since…well, Saturday when the Texas Tech students and fans stormed the field after upsetting the number one team in the country.)

Watching the gazed faces on TV at Grant Park kinda looked like that old footage you see of when The Beatles played at Shea Stadium. But America didn’t elected a rock star.  No, from the looks on the faces he’s bigger than that. More like a mix of Bono/JFK/MLK/Michael Jordon/Muhammad Ali/Billy Graham/Tiger Woods and Oprah –all in their prime.

Why is this man smiling?

Iowa State Fair August 2007

Last night I couldn’t help but think back to my creative writing teacher in high school where I wrote my first scripts and directed my first videos. Dr. Annye Refoe, who happens to be African-American, took this sports and girl obsessed teenager and added color to his world beyond the athletic endeavors of Paul Warfield and Joe Morgan. All these years later, she was one of the first people I contacted when I won the Emmy last week.

I also thought back to when I was a 19-year-old journalist and photographer and I interviewed then Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Doug Williams for the Sanford Evening Herald. Williams went on to become the first African-American to be a winning Super Bowl quarterback (while playing for the Washington Redskins).

Obama was born a month after I was and the arc of racial change that has occurred since then is stunning. But we have a long way to go to realize Martin Luther King’s dream that one day the color of our skin won’t matter.  This election gets us over one hump but I am reminded of the saying that every problem has a solution and every solution has a problem.  We have not reached the finish line.

Anyway — speaking of Washington D.C. –this is a blog about screenwriting so let’s look at the inspiration and movies that has come out of that rather small area of land. The political scene and the drama surrounding it is a natural fit for Hollywood. The quintessential Washington film is Frank Capria’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring Jimmy Stewart. The film earned an Oscar nomination for screenwriter Sidney Buchman who happened to be born in Duluth, Minnesota.

Between 1941-42 he served as the president of the Writers Guild of America, but was later backlisted for his refusal to name names of those in the American Communist Party to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  

Washington D.C. is also home to Georgetown University that has educated some fine talent:
Jonathan Nolan (Memento and co-writer The Dark Knight.) 
Carl Reiner (Writer/director/actor and seven time primetime Emmy winner)
Michael J. Winship (current president, Writers Guild of America East)
William Peter Blatty (writer of The Exorcist)  
John Guare (screenwriter of Atlantic City and Tony Winning playwright)
Blake Snyder (screenwriter and author of the screenwriting book Save the Cat)
 

And coming out of the historically black Howard University in D.C. are writers Zora Hurston Neal (Their Eyes Were Watching God), screenwriter and Oscar-nominated director Dianne Houston, director Ernest Dickerson who has also been the cinematographer on many Spike Lee films, Richard Wesley (Let’s Do It Again, which was directed by Sidney Poitier), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson (Wit), poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as well as a host of actors and actresses including Ossie Davis, Phylicia Rashad, and Sean (P. Diddy) Combs. 

And American University is not only home to one of the best film programs in the country, but where the top box-office female film director, Nancy  Shyer, graduated from college. Shyer not only directed Mel Gibson in What Women Want  but also co-wrote Father of the Bride, Baby Boom  along with being nominated for an Academy Award back in 1981 for co-writing Private Benjamin.

“I remember driving on the Ventura Freeway when I was about 27, to run an errand, when I thought, ‘What if a girl joined the Army to escape her problems?'”
                                                              Nancy Shyer
                                                              (On the inspiration for Private Benjamin
                                                              Hollywood Reporter 

The Oscar winning director of Rain Man and screenwriter of Diner Barry Levinson also attended Washington University. As did actors Jude law and Jack Black. 

The Washington D.C. political scene itself has provided an compelling background for many excellent films. Mainly because films work on conflict and that never seems to be in short supply there. In fact The White House may be the single most popular home featured in movies and TV shows. Here is a partial list of movies that feature Washington D.C.:

A Few Good Me
Air Force One
All the President’s Men
An American President
Being There 
Dave
Enemy of the State
First Kid
Forrest Gump
The Hunt for Red October
Independence Day
JFK
Minority Report
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 
Nixon
No Way Out
Three Days of the Condor
Thirteen Days
Traffic
Wag the Dog
West Wing
W.

 

There are also probably a few screenplays in the works on Obama’s life. (I bet Spike Lee and Tyler Perry are racing each other to be first.) Even if you didn’t vote for Obama you have to appreciate the journey–or at least the narrative or the significance. 

Of course there will be plenty of conflict in President Obama’s office. (Probably beginning day one at three in the morning — if not before he even takes office.) I’m sure before the final ballot was cast that Iran, Russia, and North Korea were moving chess pieces around preparing to welcome our new president. January of ’09 will be a hard time to take over the role as president  and Obama’s leadership skills will be tested early.

We quickly forget the pattern of almost every election, hope on the promise of change, harsh realities followed by blame of prior administration, and a plea for four more years to finally get things on track. Obama simply cannot do all the things he’s promised and people tend to become disillusioned quickly.

I just hope the criticism (and the joking from comedians) is not confused with racism or it’s one step forward and two steps back. If Powell is right about Obama being a transformational candidate, I just hope that transformation is for the good.  

I personally enjoy college football more than Washington politics and look forward to the Alabama-LSU game this weekend. Of course there are politics in college football, but at the end of the year the match-up for the title is usually the two best qualified, winning and prepared teams in the national. (Okay, maybe two out of the best three.)

And college football teaches us lessons in perspective.  Like the much hyped Matt Leinhart who had a stacked resume when he was the Arizona Cardinals’ first round draft pick in the 2006 NFL draft: Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback of two national championship teams at USC, and AP All-American.  Stats half-way through the 2008 season: 1 completed pass. (Only five more years on his 7 year 50 million dollar contract.)

Meanwhile the thought to be washed-up old-timer (and Iowa native) Kurt Warner is the starting QB for the Cardinals and who Sports Illustrated said is the clear choice for MVP at this point in the season.

Related Post: Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (tip #7)

 

photos and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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Years ago, philosophers Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a serious book called How to Read a Book. In it, they mentioned that unless you’d read a book three times, you really hadn’t read the book. That is, you hadn’t digested the book. I wonder how many of the estimated 1.7 billion DVDs sold last year were viewed more than once (not counting Finding Nemo).

The best way to watch a movie in order to grow as a screenwriter and filmmaker is to watch it over an over again. Writer/director Frank Darabont admits that, on his days off while making The Shawshank Redemption, “I would just watch Goodfellows again and again…just for inspiration.”

Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch George Stevens’ classic, A Place in the Sun 50 times. In fact, the single best class I had in film school was taught by a professor who showed us A Place in the Sun and afterwards asked us questions like “what sounds and visuals do you associate with the Shelly Winters’ character?” and “What music is playing whenever Elizabeth Taylors’ character appears?” It was the first time I really saw the intentionality of a filmmaker.

Film school was also the first time I was challenged to watch a film with the sound turned off and then just listening to the audio. Just out of school as VHS machines finally became affordable is when I began to break down movies scene for scene and to time the length of scenes as well.

Repeated viewing take you to a deeper understanding and appreciation of film. And now with DVDs and the like you can easily locate a single memorable scene, allowing you insights on how lighting, editing, pacing, economy of writing, direction, music sound effects and performance all come together for maximum impact.

While many DVDs come with extras, the real gold is in the commentaries. I’m not talking about the ones with film professors and critics, but the real nuggets that come from the writers and directors who made the film.

One DVD that I recommend you invest your time studying is the 15th Anniversary edition of Rain Man. The film, winner of “Best Picture” Oscar in 1988, has been out long enough to stand the test of time and be considered a modern-day classic. One aspect that separates it from the DVD pack is its three commentaries.

The director, Barry Levinson, the original writer Barry Marrow, and the rewrite writer, Ron Bass, offer more than six hours of insights that warrant repeated listening as well as the film itself.

The commentaries on Rain Man expose the collaborative process at its best. At one point, Steven Spielberg was set to direct, and had spent many months working with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise on their characters and mulling over script ideas with Bass. You learn how difficult it was to get the film made even with top talent attached.

Levinson explains how he sought to shoot in a way that would give the audience glimpses of how Hoffman’s autistic savant character saw patterns in the world. And he notes that his direction was designed to show that Cruise was as handicapped (relationally) as his brother, making the film a journey of two broken people connecting.

Rain Man works on so many levels (psychologically, visually, emotionally, and performance-wise) that you can begin to appreciate its depth only by repeated viewings.

So don’t concern yourself with watching films just to check them off your AFI Greatest Films list. Invest in couple DVDs of your favorite movies that you’ve heard good things about the commentary and watch those–study those–repeatedly. And like Van Gogh studying a Rembrandt painting, you will be partaking in a timeless creative tradition.

Here is a short list of my favorite DVD commentaries:

The Godfather; Francis Ford Coppola commentary

Stand by Me; Directing inexperienced actors and using improvisation

Seabiscuit; On adapting a film from a best-selling book

The Shawshank Redemption (15th Anniversary Edition); Frank Darabont and “Happy Accidents”

Pieces of April: On funding falling through and finally making the low-budget movie in 16 days.

Big: Commentary with writers Gary Ross and Annie Spielberg which has original excerpts of when they were writing the original script before they had ever had a script produced. Great stuff.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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