Posts Tagged ‘Billy Ray’

“There’s no movie that can’t be told through its emotions. And there’s no movie that succeeds that is told any other way. In my opinion.” 
—Billy Ray

I want to sneak in one more post before stepping back into a run of posts on Hamilton (and the emotional “I want” song My Shot.) This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post What is the simple emotional journey?—Screenwriter Billy Ray’s Mantra

Normally Ray is given exclusive assignments where he has a week (or a weekend) to decide if he wants to take on a film project. But Captain Phillips was what he calls a “beauty pageant” where many screenwriters went in to pitch their angle on the story. This is how Ray arrived at his pitch and landed the assignment (and for which he received an Oscar nomination):

“I thought, what’s the movie about? Narratively, Captain Phillips is a white guy gets kidnapped by four black guys and three of them get their heads blown off. And not only was that not a movie I wanted to write, that was not even a movie I wanted to see. So I had to think, okay, where is the story in there that has an emotion that I want to write? And so I thought, well, you can just twist the reality of that. The narrative reality of that just a little bit. Look at it from a slightly different perspective and it becomes a story that would be moving.  The pitch was, this is a movie about leadership. This is the story about two captain wake up on opposite sides of the globe and they get up in the morning and get dressed and go to work. And their work is going to put them on a collision course. And once they meet we’re going to realize that one of these captains is would sacrifice himself to save his men, and the other captain would sacrifice his men to save himself. And their collision is the story. That I could write. And that’s the movie. That’s what Captain Phillips is, but told in a visceral, emotional way.”
—Screenwriter Billy Ray
UCLA’s Story Break podcast interview with Simon Herbert and Chris Kyle

Tucked inside Ray’s pitch (and the trailer below) is conflict, character, stakes, emotions—core storytelling traits that helped attract Tom Hanks to the role. And also helped the other captained, played by Barkhad Abdi, to get an Oscar nomination and win a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor. (When AFI does a great movie quote list for this century, I expect Abdi’s line “Look at me, I’m the captain now” to be on that list. )

P.S. The very first line of Ray’s pitch for The Comey Rule (The TV mini series on James Comey) was the emotional idea, “This is a love story between a man in love with an institution, and everything he does is in defense of that institution.”

Related post:
Screenwriting Battlefield  (How Billy Ray beat out more experienced writers when starting out. And what he learned from Robert McKee’s seminar.)
‘Hamilton’ as an Emotional Journey 

Scott W. Smith 


Read Full Post »

“[When I was in my early 20s] my father told me to read a book called Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. . . . It was just so insightful about how screenwriting actually works. And I think I imitated Goldman’s style in a pretty thief kind of way. Reading his screenplays really taught me about making scripts readable. Making them feel kind of  breezy. Taking your reader inside the emotional experience of a movie.  That was a huge influence for me. . . .  On the computer monitor on which I’m seeing your face right now, in big block letter across the top, it says WHAT IS THE SIMPLE EMOTIONAL JOURNEY? That’s always the mantra for me. That‘s always the true north. Screenwriting is an intellectual exercise that’s designed to illicit and emotional response.”
—Oscar nominated screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
UCLA’s Story Break podcast interview with Simon Herbert and Chris Kyle

If you missed the movie Richard Jewell last year check it out. It was written by Billy Ray and directed by Clint Eastwood and for various reasons got lost in the shuffle and did not have a good box office run. But it is one finely crafted film including Paul Walter Hauser‘s performance in the lead role which was quite an emotional journey.

”The best advice I ever heard about screenwriting . . . ” —Billy Ray
Billy Ray’s Directing Advice 
Screenwriting Quote #162 (Billy Ray)
Information is the Death of Emotion — Christopher McQuarrie 
40 Days of Emotions 

Scott W. Smith 

Read Full Post »

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
“It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Screen Shot 2020-08-01 at 3.55.46 PM
Today I’ll start a run of posts on Hamilton that began running on Disney+ last month. I was not fortunate enough to see the Broadway or touring versions of the musical, so glad to finally see the 2016 filmed Broadway version. Since I avoided reading much about the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning (Best Musical) creation by Lin-Manuel Miranda I came at it fresh last week and it blew me away.

Ii also brought tears to my eyes in a couple of places. Repeated viewings, and listening to the CD on continue loop while driving, have enriched my understanding of history and deepened my appreciation for the dramatic experience.

The craft of storytelling is on full display. I’m not sure how many posts I’ll write, but starting Monday I’ll unpack why I think Hamilton is an instant classic.

Eventually, I’ll get around to seeing what Miranda, fans, critics, and podcaster have to say about the musical. But today I just want to mention that Hamilton is that rare emotional journey that audiences crave.

“‘What is the single emotional journey?’—That’s always the mantra for me. That’s the true north. Screenwriting is an intellectual exercise that’s designed to illicit an emotional response.  If I write a script and somebody calls me and says ‘this is the smartest script I’ve ever read’ that means I have failed 100%. Because I’m not reaching that reader on an emotional level. When you write a script that works, you do the thinking so your reader can do the feeling.”
Billy Ray (Captain Phillips, Shattered Glass, Richard Jewel) 
UCLA Story Break podcast

Last night on the Facebook group for The Rewatchables (based on the Bill Simmons podcast dedicated to movies that people find rewatchable) Jimmy Mak asked the question “What movie made you cry the hardest?” Iin less than 24 hours there were 300 responses. Many of the movies were repeated, but here is a partial list of movies that made people cry. (And, yes, Hamilton made the list.)

12 Years a Slave
American Sniper
Apollo 13

Big Fish
Boyz N the Hood
Brian’s Song
The Champ
Cinema Paradiso

Dancer in the Dark
The Elephant Man
Field of Dreams
For the Love of the Game
Forrest Gump
Friday Night Lights
Fruitvale Station
Green Mile
Home Alone
Inside Out
It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It’s a Wonderful Life
Joy Luck Club
Just Mercy
Kissed By God
Kramer vs. Kramer
La Bamba

Marley and Me
Marriage Story
Me & Earl and the Dying Girl
Million Dollar Baby
Mr.Holland’s Opus

My Dog Skip
My Girl
Old Yeller 

On Golden Pond
Ordinary People
The Patriot
A River Runs Through It
Rocky 2
Saving Private Ryan
Short Circuit
Sling Blade 

Stand By Me
A Star is Born
Terms of Endearment
Toy Story 3
Where the Red Fern Grows

P.S. Personally, Hamilton has proven to be an instant rewatch. But what’s interesting about listening to Bill Simmons and his team talk about movies they’ve see 10, 20, 50, 100 times is you get an audiences understanding (verses an academic one) of the verceral level at which movies can hit people. Often times the filmmakers and actors/actresses are mystified by the depths that some of the movies they worked on impact others. (More than one actor has said they can’t watch movies they’re in because they only see room for improving their performances. Audiences come at movies from a different perspective. They’re not looking for perfection, but to have an emotional journey. But Hamilton is that rare production that achieved both.

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions
Aim for the Heart
Movies as an Emotional Journey 
Frances Marion on Emotion

Scott W. Smith 

Read Full Post »

“Sometimes I think we have to rescue the business from the very people who own it.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
2012 Academy Nicholl Fellowship Keynote Speech

“Try to sell Kramer vs. Kramer today, which was a big hit [in 1979].You just can’t do it…I don’t know if there are executives that listen to this, but I believe that 15 years from now, 20 years from now I think there’s going to be some sort of semi-Nuremberg kind of trial where all the executives of today are going to be standing on a docket and someone like you is going to ‘Where were you when the art of movies just went down the sewer? When this uniquely American art form was completely sacrificed? What were you doing about that?’ And I don’t think any of them will have an answer. And that’s a sad thing…And the problem with [CGI-heavy] movies that are generated inside a computer is that when any image is possible, no image is that impressive anymore. And I think we are raising the bar for what it’s going to take to dazzle people to such a degree that eventually you’re just going to have a movie that’s just an hour and 20 minutes of explosions, because I don’t know what else you can do if it’s not going to be about character, story, and theme.”
Writer/director Billy Ray
Scriptnotes podcast interview with John August

Like a lot of feature writers, Ray has a reverence for great TV (Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men) and appreciates the Kramer vs. Kramer-like dramatic opportunities that can be found there these days. Just a few days ago his pilot for The Last Tycoon, which Ray wrote and directed and based on old Hollywoodbecame available on Amazon.  

“As I was writing the pilot I had a rule for myself which was if I had written a line that I didn’t think was good enough to be in a Mad Men episode I had to come up with another line.”
Billy Ray

Related posts:
Billy Ray’s Directing Advice
Screenwriting Quote #162 (Billy Ray)
Is TV the Best Place to Tell Your Story?

Writer/director Robert Benton-related posts (He won two of his three Oscars for his work on Kramer vs. Kramer):
Filmmaking Quote #14 (Robert Benton)
Screenwriting Quote #104 (Robert Benton)
Joy vs. Agony = Fun Writing 

P.S. To modern Hollywood’s credit the just a handful of Kramer vs. Kramer-like dramatic films at the ’16 Oscars were Bridge of Spies, Room, Brooklyn, Carol and the Best Picture winner Spotlight. To paraphrase what David Mamet once said of theater in America—movies are always dying, and always being reborn.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

The best advice I ever heard about writing came from Paddy Chayefsky — he, of Network and The Hospital. He also wrote Marty. (That’s three Oscars.)

Chayefsky’s advice to writers was simple: Don’t think of it as art, think of it as work.

Because when a writer is stuck and he or she calls in another writer for help, that second writer doesn’t say, ‘What’s the art problem?’

That second writer says, ‘What’s not working?’ And they get under the hood and fix it together.

That’s most of what you’ll do in your career — work, problem solving. Approach it in that way and then at the end of every day, you’ll at least be able to say, ‘I did my job today.’

If you’re an artist, it’ll come out as art anyway.

…I take my son to his bus stop every morning at 7:30. I’m at my desk working by 8:00. Somebody feeds me at 1:00 and I’m back at my desk by 1:30, working until 6:00.

I don’t surf the web. I don’t gamble online. I don’t go to the local Starbucks for two hours. I don’t try to seek out old girlfriends on Facebook.

I don’t do anything that requires time. I just work.
Oscar-nominated Screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
2012 Academy Nicholl Fellowship awards via Medium.com

Related Posts:
“Art is Work”—Milton Glaser
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic
Writing Quote #34 (Achievable Goals)I told myself that I would only write for 15 minutes a day….”
Time Card Screenwriting
Screenwriting Quote #134 (Paddy Chayefsky)
Paddy Chayefsky Interview
Screenwriting Quote #162 (Billy Ray)
Billy Ray’s Directing Advice

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“One of the things I’d like to pass on to any aspiring writers out there— very simple litmus test about what you should be writing or what you shouldn’t be writing; Never ever write a movie that you yourself wouldn’t pay to see.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

“We’re all really lucky if we can make a living in this business, and we’re all overpaid. And it’s really hard to get paid as a screenwriter and to do well. But I’ve never once sat down at the computer because I was being paid. Never. It’s just not enough reason to write. Writing’s just too hard. You gotta have something that inspires you more than the money. Something has to speak to your spirit.”
Billy Ray

P.S. Here we are on day four of the Screenwriting Summer School and one interesting thing I learned from The Dialogue interviews is that both Billy Ray and Susannah Grant, before they became working screenwriters, had early connections with Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Julia). Grant’s aunt was married to Alvin’s brother (Herb Sargent) who was a six-time Emmy-winning writer with Saturday Night Live.  Ray’s father was actually Sargent’s agent. I’m not saying that connection helped their careers—but I’d bet it sure didn’t hurt either career. (Sargent’s first credit was in 1957 and his last one was in 2012 —The Amazing Spider-Man.

Summer School homework: If you can meet a living screenwriter whose career has spanned 50+ years—do it.

Related post: How Much Do Screenwriters Make?

 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I took a great class taught by Robert McKee—sort of a cliché in Hollywood— but I learned things in there that I use and apply on every script. And even if I’m breaking the rules, it’s helpful to me to know what those rules are. The McKee class taught me a way of thinking about writing, and thinking about structure that has never left me.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)

“For [the screenplay] 102 Minutes, it was the adaptation of a book (102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers—best book I ever read. And this was a case where it was a job I had to have. My agent called me one day and said, ‘Here’s this book you ought to take a look at it, but it’s not coming to you exclusively, if you want this job you’re going to have to go battle with some big time guys to get this job.’ And the second I read it I said OK it doesn’t matter how hard I have to work no one is going to out work me I going to get this job. And when I went in to pitch that story I had a 38 page outline. I had every single scene of that movie laid out…I had respect that there were better known writers who had better credits than mine who wanted that job, too. And the goal was to make the studio feel that they’d be missing out if they hired anyone else.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Shattered Glass)
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriting Summer School Homework: Read the five screenplays and watch the five movies that Billy Ray says you need to study in order to understand structure—Broadcast News, Rocky, Ordinary People, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Wizard of Oz. (All stories Ray says in which the main characters are all in horrible situations.) Extra credit: Read McKee’s Story, and 102 Minutes written by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

P.S. As far as I know, the script for 102 Minutes hasn’t been produced. If anyone has an update on the status of that project let me know.

P.P.S. Ray’s quote about the McKee class being a cliche is because so many people have taken it over the years. Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman credits McKee’s class in helping him transition from failed novelist to successful screenwriter. But there has been plenty of backlash over the years because of McKee’s popularity. Several working screenwriters have downplayed McKee’s knowledge and/ or influence, one even wrote,To read his [marketing] brochure you’d think that everyone in Hollywood has taken McKee’s course, but the truth is, I don’t know anyone who has.” Guess that writer doesn’t know Goldsman or Ray—perhaps many working screenwriters just don’t admit to taking McKee’s class. I took what I believe was McKee’s first story stucture class in LA (back in, I think, 1984) and he was the first film teacher who showed me how deep the well went. Every writer takes his or her own path, and while McKee may be  too acedemic for some creative people, there is no doubt–because of comments by  Ray and Goldsman–that there are people who benefit from McKee’s teachings.

Related posts:

Writing ‘Rocky’
Art is Work (Milton Glaser)
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)
Billy Ray’s Directing Advice
Screenwriting & Structure (tip #5) Some notes from McKee.

Scott W. Smith


Read Full Post »

“When I was 18 I said, ‘Dad I think I want to be a screenwriter.’ He said OK and took me in his office…and pulled out the screenplay for Ordinary People and he said, ‘OK, do this.’ He was saying to me that’s where we’re going to set the bar.”
Billy Ray

“I think UCLA [film school] was helpful. I think there’s no actual substitute for actually writing. And UCLA was helpful in that it encouraged me to start. I was not one of those kids in college who was going out and getting wasted with my fraternity buddies. That always seemed kind of boring to me. I was just in a hurry to hit that mountain top. To write something like Ordinary People, or All the Presidents Men—something that great. And I knew that I was not going to write a screenplay like that sitting at the bar face down in my own vomit.”
Oscar-nominated Screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriting Summer School homework assignment: Read Alvin Sargent’s screenplay for Ordinary People. For extra credit go back and read the book by Judith Guest.

Related posts:
The 99% Focus Rule
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)

Scott W. Smith


Read Full Post »

Billy Ray’s Directing Advice

“I read a phenomenal book called Directing Actors by Judith Weston, which I would recommend to anybody who wants to direct anything. And then I called up a bunch of young directors and said, ‘You don’t know me, my name is Billy Ray, I’m about to go direct a movie. Could I take you to lunch and ask you some questions?’ And they all said yes. They were very generous with me. And I called people that had produced scripts that I had written and took them to lunch. And said, ‘Okay, what about me makes you think I’d be a good director? What about me makes you think I’d be a bad director?’Just tried to learn. And then decided it was time.”
Writer/Director Billy Ray
Reelz interview with Heather Huntington

Ray is coming off writing two highly successful films in the last two years; Captain Phillips and The Hunger Games, but below is the trailer for his 2003 directorial debut Shattered Glass. The origins of Ray’s script was the Vanity Fair article Shattered Glass written by Buzz Bissinger who wrote the book Friday Night Lights.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Every villain is the hero of his own story.”
Actor Tom Hiddleston

“This was my first time acting, or even thinking about acting.”
Actor Barkhad Abdi (Lead freighter hijacker in Captain Phillips)
NPR Interview, October 20, 2013

The thing that surprised me most when I first visited Minnesota more than 15 years ago was how many Somalians lived there. (Today there are more Somalians living in the Twin Cities than any other place in the United States.) So it’s no surprise that Hollywood went to Minneapolis when it was looking for Somalians to cast in the movie Captain Phillips.

Barkhad Abdi was one of more than 700 people who showed up for an open audition in Minneapolis and I bet he was surprised when he walked away with the lead Somalian hijacker role (Muse) acting opposite two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips). And maybe even more suprised when he recieved a SAG nomination yesterday. Not a bad first acting gig.

“I hope people understand the culture clash between these very, very different characters, Capt. Phillips and Muse. One had just, the normal life, you know, he went to school, college, graduated, family, and now he [has] a job. And the other one is just someone that grew up in a war-torn country, that had no hope, no school, no job, no government, nothing…A ruthless man who has nothing to lose. A man who has nothing to lose is dangerous. So, that’s how I became his character.”
Barkhad Abdi
NPR Interview

I remember seeing the trailer for Captain Phillips (“Look at me. I’m the captain now.”) thinking of Abdi “that dude looks real.” Film is about illusion so it’s no surprise that he had no acting experience. That’s not uncharted territory. Remember last year when Quvenzhane Wallis received an Oscar-nomination for her first role in Beasts of the Southern Wild? There’s also the trained Cambodian physician Haing S. Ngor who came to the U.S. with no formal acting experience and won an Oscar in his first film, The Killing Fields. (Bruce Robinson also recieved an Oscar-nomination for his script of that 1984 film.)

But good filmmaking is also about experienced, skilled people working together—and the Captain Phillips cast and crew had that in abundance. They were led by documentary trained director Paul Greengrass known for his work directing The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, and United 93 (for which he received an Oscar nomination).

And there was screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) to bring his more than 20 years of experience writing the script based on the book A Captain’s Duty by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty.

“From the beginning we were very determined that we didn’t want cardboard bad guys. That’s just not good writing. You always want to dimentionalize your characters whenever possible, whether they’re good guys or bad guys. You always want them to look like full, actualized human beings. Not so much that audiences can sympathize, but so that audiences can understand and maybe recognize a piece of human behavior in those characters and that was very important to me.”
Billy Ray
Interview with Captain Phillips screenplay writer Billy Ray at NYFF premiere

P.S. A clip that always come to mind of an evil character is from Schindler’s List. (And an example of no dialogue needed.)

Update 12/16/13:

From a Facebook thread on The Inside Pitch here’s a list (off the top of his head) of good bad guys by WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart:
Rob Roy/ Archibald Cunningham  (Tim Roth)
In the Line of Fire/Mitch Leary (John Malkovich
Working Girl/Kathrine Parker(Sigourney Weaver)
Bravehart/ Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan)
RoboCop (1987)/ Clarence J. Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith)
Schindler’s List/ Amon Goeth (Ralph Finnes)
The Wizard of Oz/ Miss Gulch/The Wicker Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton)
Kiss of Death (1947)/ Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark)
White Heat/ Cody Jarrett  (James Cagney)
Training Day/ Det. Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington)
Also noting that Gary Oldman (JFK, Bram Stroker’s Dracula, True Romance, Murder in the First) , Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, The Iceman, Man of Steel) and Kevin Spacey (Se7en) “all play good bad guys when they play them.”

And I found this video on evil characters as well:

P.S. Can anybody  recommend a Solmalian-made film that can give those outside Africa a different view of the country and its people? I did find a Wikipedia link to the Cinema of Somalia—but I’d love to learn about screenwriting from Somalia and the country’s filmmakers.

Related posts:

Screenwriting Quote #172 (Christopher Lockhart) “You just have to ask yourself, “Okay I’ve seen this a million times, so what can I do to make it a little different?” (I think Captain Phillips fits the “unique, but familiar” mold.)
“To Live or Die?” “The best drama for me is one which shows a man in danger. There is no action when there is no danger. To live or die? What drama is greater?”—Howard Hawks / “I would never write about a character who is not at the end of his rope.”—Stanley Elkin
Don’t Bore the Audience! Can Tennesee Williams and UCLA’s Richard Walter both be wrong?
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6) “Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?”—Paddy Chayefsky
Writing “Black Hawk Down” Another Somalia-based story

Related links:
The Screenwriter’s Guide To Movie Villains Screenwriting Spark as gather more than 40 links related to movie villains
BBC News Somalia Profile
AFI’s 100 Heroes & Villains (
And in this racially sensitive culture we still live in I feel the need to point out that the top villains are all white—except for Bruce the shark in JAWS and the Alien in Alien—and the first film black villain on AFI’s list is #50 Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) in Training Day. (Okay, #3 villain Darth Vader did have James Earl Jones’ voice—but Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, the Wicked Witch of the West and the rest of the AFI list are all crazy white people. So please hold off on the emails.)

Scott W. Smith


Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: