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Posts Tagged ‘Benicio Del Toro’

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Yesterday I picked up the Blu-Ray of A Quiet Place. I haven’t bought a movie on the day of its release in years. I wanted to fit in another post about it and landed on this first frame from the movie—DAY 89.

That’s minimalistic exposition at its best. It hooks the audience and forces them to wonder, “Day 89 of what?” And the mysterious part is we’re not given the answer. No tired voice-over of someone explaining what happened. Just “DAY 89.” It pulls the audience into the story and makes them put together the puzzle.

The opening scene of an abandoned town and a family of five having an unorthodox shopping spree would work without DAY 89—but I don’t think near as well. Don’t know if that came from writer/director John Krasinski, the other credited screenwriters Scott Beck & Bryan Woods, or someone else, but good choice.

It reminds me of another minimal bit of exposition from Sicario (2015) where a fellow tells Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), “Sorry for your loss.” But were not told what that loss is until much later in the film, where that information will have it’s most impact.

Until then we just have Del Toro’s face and body language to tell us that this is a man who has had a hard life. At the 2:29 mark of the video below, you’ll find Taylor Sheridan’s writing, Denis Villeneuve’s direction, and Emily Blunt’s acting—before her role in A Quiet Place—keeping us intrigued about what mystery man Alejandro lost.

“You’re asking me how a watch works.”= Mysterious Minimal Exposition

Related posts:
Screenwriting & Exposition (an oldie from 2008 post)
“Exposition is BORING unless…”
10 Solid Exposition Examples
‘A Quiet Place’ Meets ‘Screenwriting from Iowa’

Scott W. Smith

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“The main thing in writing a movie is to have a good ending.”
Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects)

For five bucks I recently bought The Usual Suspects DVD. You can buy the book of the screenplay on Amazon for another five bucks. Considering the Writers Guild of America’s 101 Greatest Screenplays list placed The Usual Suspects at #35 there are worse ways to spend ten dollars. (Or to save money see if your local library has the movie and track down an online version of the script.) Both the movie and the screenplay are a worthwhile investment of your time.

It doesn’t appear that The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie set out to be an Academy Award winning screenwriter—or even a screenwriter— and perhaps that’s his secret. According to Wikipedia, after high school he spent time hitchhiking around Australia and also worked there as an assistant teacher at a boarding school. He returned to the United States where he worked for a detective agency for four years. He was in the process of joining the New York Police Department when high school classmate Bryan Singer called with an opportunity to write Public Access.

Public Access won the 1993 Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize. Two years later the $400,000. film The Usual Suspects was released and would go on to win McQuarrie an Academy Award. Since then he’s done rewrites on various Hollywood films including X-Men, wrote Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise, and wrote and directed The Way of the Gun starring Benicio del Toro. More recently he is writing or has written Wolverine 2 and a retelling of the Jack and the Beanstock fairy tale in a script called Jack the Giant Killer (which will be directed by Singer).

For independent film fans who don’t understand how McQuarrie went from Sundance and The Usual Suspects to working on Hollywood blockbusters, a German war film and then a fairy tale— maybe this will help;

“(Winning an Oscar) doesn’t make the studios want to make your movie any more than before. It just means they want you to make their movies. I found that rather than sacrificing the story, I was sacrificing something else. At every meeting I was taking less money and less back end, and giving up casting, just so I could have control of the story. And they said no. For a long time I resented those people, and saw them as fearful and ignorant, but in reality, all they’re doing is trying to reduce risk. It was the same thing I was doing: they’re trying to protect money and I’m trying to protect the story. The place that I’ve come to after all of this is, there are stories I want to make that will have to remain in a budget under $25 million, depending on what actors I can cast. And then there are those stories that the studios want to make, and that’s how you make your living. Is that selling out? Well, you’ve got to eat.”
Christopher McQuarrie
Interview with Cynthia Fuchs

At some point McQuarrie decided to move to Seattle (where I believe he still resides) and is on the Advisory Board of The Film School. An interesting sidenote is McQuarrie not only went to high school with director Bryan Singer, but also actor and filmmaker Ethan Hawke.

Sometimes it’s fun to make connections like this; In 2002, I was in Berlin for a couple days doing a shoot which happened to be the same year McQuarrie was on a tour in Berlin when he stumbled upon the idea of doing what became Valkyrie. Of course, the connection doesn’t mean anything, but it keeps the synapses firing. And creativity is all out connections. (Where Do Ideas Come From? A+B=C)

At some point before his screenwriting breakthrough McQuarrie also worked as a bodyguard for a jewelry dealer in downtown LA. That info not only provided him with a key event in The Usual Suspects, but is also where he saw a bulletin board that was made in Skokie, Illinois which provided McQuarrie with the impetus for the entire film. (Don’t Quit Your Day Job)

And for what it’s worth, Skokie is no stranger to Hollywood. The Chicago suburb over the years has provided shooting locations to many memorable films, including Blue Brothers, Risky Business, The Breakfast Club, Home Alone 3, and Sixteen Candles.

Scott W. Smith

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“The Tennessee Williams we know and admire cannot be imagined without his long relationship with the Midwest.”  
                                                                                                                                            David Radavich

“I’m only really alive when I’m writing.”
Tennessee
 Williams

When you think of St. Louis the chances are good that you think of the iconic St. Louis Arch. (I took this picture on one of those perfect clear windy mornings one day when I was driving through town and it is majestic to see up close.) What’s probably lower on your St. Louis list is that writer Tennessee Williams grew up there.

Before I address the writers from Missouri let me first say that there would not be a Tennessee Williams without Iowa. Oh, there probably would still be a great American playwright but he might just be called him by his given name Tom. Tom Williams isn’t quite as memorable.  “I got the name of Tennessee,” said Williams, “when I was going to the State University of Iowa because the fellows in my class could only remember that I was from a Southern state with a long name.”

He was actually born in Columbus, Mississippi but Mississippi Williams doesn’t quite have the proper ring to it either so it’s a good thing his classmates got it wrong. Much of his early childhood was lived with his grandfather at the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

According to David Radavich, Williams said his childhood there was happy and carefree, but “this sense of belonging and comfort were lost, however, when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, and to write— ‘because I found life unsatisfactory.'” Williams struggled with depression and took comfort in his daily writing as well as the bottle.

“Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence.”
 Tennessee Williams

The is no doubt that the Mississippi Delta shaped his imagination as it has so many others. Clarksdale is known as the birthplace of the blues and the location of the Crossroads intersection of Highways 61 and 49 where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar like he did.

Clarksdale’s where musicians Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and  W.C. Handy were born and where The Delta Blues Museum lives today.  If you’re anywhere in the Memphis area it’s worth a trip out of your way to visit.

But from the age of seven through the college years Williams lived in the Midwest mostly in St. Louis. Radavich writes, “In 1931, Williams was admitted to the University of Missouri where he saw a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and decided to become a playwright. His journalism program was interrupted however, when his father forced him to withdraw from college to work at the International Shoe Company.”

Even though Williams is mostly remembered for his time in New Orleans, Key West, and New York, Missouri is where he would return to again and again, visiting his mother until she died in 1980. Williams died three years later and is buried in St. Louis.

Saturday night I went to see Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here it Cedar Falls just a little over an hour away from where Williams studied playwriting at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 1938. The play brought back many memories.

When I lived in LA I studied acting for three years mostly at Tracey Roberts Actors Studio. Roberts was a talented actress in her day but never became a star. She was a wonderful teacher and encourager and herself had studied and performed with the greats of the Actors Studio – Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan. (Sharon Stone and Laura Dern both studied with Roberts.)

It was at her studio that I began to appreciate good writing. In a scene study class I had with Arthur Mendoza we spent three months working on just the opening monologue of “The Glass Menagerie”:

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion….”

And so it began. There was much to learn in three months just beyond getting the words down. Place, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology wrapped in Williams’ poetic style. Mendoza also stressed learning about the playwrights background so we studied that as well. It would do every writer good to take at least one acting class in their life. You’ll meet some actors and learn the process they go through in approaching your text.

As I did my scene the final day of class it was the one true moment I ever had as an actor where I felt totally in sync. We sometimes look back on any success big or small with regret but I look back on that day with satisfaction. (It was the highlight of my brief acting career, even bigger than the Dominos Pizza commercial I was in later. Though for the record, Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan’s two-story office in Ann Arbor, Michigan still holds the record for the largest office I’ve ever been in.)

Mendoza studied with Stellar Adler for 10 years and became the principal acting instructor at Stella Adler’s Studio where Benicio Del Toro studied with him. (Del Toro won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Traffic.) Mendoza eventually formed the Actors Theater Circle in Hollywood where he still teaches today. He was the first to open my eyes to the classic playwrights. He threw out names of writers I had never heard of and said as actors we needed to be able to flip our pancakes and do them all.

During that time I found three books at a used bookstore on Main Street in Seal Beach, California that caused a shift in my thinking about the power of writing. For one dollar each I picked up the best plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg. Best three dollars I ever spent.

Strindberg did not stay with me but Ibsen and Chekhov have been lifelong friends. Only recently did I find out Ibsen’s Ghost influence on Williams. Which makes perfect sense given Williams fascination of dealing with the sins of the father being visited on the son. Williams tapped into the southern-family-with-hidden-problems theme.

Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie had a Midwest beginning as it premiered in Chicago. He wrote fragile characters who were on the brink of hysteria. And he was rewarded well for such characters winning two Pulitzer Prizes along with two Oscar nominations.

Two other creative writing giants where also raised in Missouri, Mark Twain in Hannibal and Walt Disney in Marceline and Kansas City. (Both Hannibal and Marceline are less than an hour south of the Iowa border.) Marceline is said to be the inspiration behind Main Street USA at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Orlando has Tom Sawyer’s Island. Exporting the Midwest for all the world to enjoy.

Other screenwriters born in  Missouri include William Rose who won an Oscar in 1968 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, John Milius (Apocalypse Now), Langston Hughes (screenwriter & playwright), Dan O’bannon  (Alien), Honorary Academy Award Director/Screenwriter Robert Altman, and Oscar-winning director/writer John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). That’s a deep rich heritage.

So Missouri joins the areas we’ve already looked at, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin as more than capable of producing talented writers.

“Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.
Walt Disney

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain

“I’m an airmail pilot. St. Louis to Springfield to Peoria to Chicago. The ocean can’t be any worse than snow, sleet and fog.” (Charles A. Lindbergh the night before his historic flight across the Atlantic ocean.)

The Spirit of St. Louis
Screenplay Billy Wilder
& Wendell Mayes
based on Lindbergh’s book

Photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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