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Posts Tagged ‘Billy Wilder’

It was hard for me not to notice that the last couple days I have quoted some of the heavy hitters of screenwriting (Orson Welles, John Huston, Billy Wilder) and it made me wonder what screenwriter has won the most Academy Awards for writing. Turns out there are three writers who each have three Oscars for screenwriting (Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Francis Ford Coppola, and Paddy Chayefsky).

But there is one writer who tops the Oscar nomination list with 14, Woody Allen. Allen,73, did not get an Oscar nominated this year for Vicky Christina Barcelona, but Penelope Cruz did win an Oscar for supporting role in the film. ( And Allen’s  script was nominated for WGA Award.)

His first writing credit was back in 1950 on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows. And his first Oscar was 27 years later in 1977 for Annie Hall (for which he also received an Oscar for directing). He began his career as a teenager writing gags and by the age of 19 was a full time writer. In his mid-twenties he began doing stand-up comedy and was successful. He also began writing short stories for The New Yorker and found success on broadway writing Don’t Drink the Water and Play it Again, Sam.

He’s recorded jazz albums and published books and, of course, acted in many of his movies. His personal life is as mixed up as some of the characters he’s created but we’ll focus on his writing here. Today’s quote come from Time magazine’s 10 Questions with Woody Allen when he was asked, “Do you agree with Picasso’s quote: ‘Good artists copy, but great artists steal’—and if so, who have you stolen from?”

“Oh, I’ve stolen from the best. I mean I’ve stolen from Bergman. I’ve stolen from Groucho, I’ve stolen from Chaplin, I’ve stolen from Keaton, from Martha Graham, from Fellini. I mean I’m a shameless thief.”


Scott W. Smith


 

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“You see, I have this little problem with my apartment.”
                                                          Jack Lemmon’s character
                                                          The Apartment 

One of the sad things about the invention of DVDs is it came too late because many of the great old writers and directors are long gone, so most old films won’t have their added insights and commentaries. But last week I came across a commentary on Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment that caught my eye. The commentary is by Bruce Block who was a teacher of mine in film school.

Block was great at explaining visual design and went on to write the book  The Visual Story; Seeing the Structure of Film, TV and New Media. (I will have to give Block some credit for opening my eyes to visual design which has resulted in three cinematography awards in the last three short films I’ve shot. As well as the sweeping farm photograph that I took and use as a header for this blog and that I searched for days to find.)

The DVD lists him as a film historian, but he also has a 30 year career as a film producer and visual consultant and has worked on such films as As Good As It Gets, What Women Want, and Father of the Bride. (I should have kept in contact with him, right?) He is also currently an Adjunct Faculty member at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

What I didn’t know until I started to write this post is Block is a native of Cincinnati and received his Associates Degree from Lincoln College in Lincoln, Illinois and earned a best actor award there in 1968. (Everyone in Hollywood doesn’t have a Midwest connection, but it feels like it at times. And for the record, Lincoln is just a little over 100 miles from the Iowa state line.) Block went on to get his BA from Carnegie Mellon University and his MFA from USC Film School.

His commentary is excellent and  well worth your time. (And if you’ve never seen The Apartment, a good start would be to watch the movie, then watch the movie with Block’s commentary, and then watch the movie again. I think for any writer/filmmaker it’s as required viewing as Casablanca and Citizen Kane.

Block, of course, addresses the visual design of The Apartment, but it’s his comment about the impetus of the story that I want to pass on to you, because writers have a special curiosity when it comes to where story ideas come from;

“The story for The Apartment is from a David Lean movie called The Encounter (Brief Encounter) which was based on an old (Noel) Coward play. Billy Wilder actually saw the movie in 1945 and the plot is a married man and a married woman are having an affair in a friend’s apartment and the friend only had a scene or two and Wilder thought to himself—he said in an interview—‘Who was that guy who owned that flat where those lovers meet? Who is the friend who would let himself be exploited that way?’

And so Wilder put that aside back in 1945 and didn’t bring it back to the top of the table until 1958-59 when he wrote The Apartment (with I.A.L. Diamond). Diamond said, ‘Although we had the character and the situation we didn’t have a plot until we heard about a local Hollywood scandal.”

The agent Jennings Lang was having an affair with Joan Bennett, who was his client, who was married to Walter Wanger.  Lang had been using the apartment of an underling at the agency—a lowly employee at a big company—to have his rendezvous, so he said, ‘What if the lending was not an act of friendship, but rather but rather a career promotion tactic?’ He said, “What would it take to get ahead in the corporate world?” And so they now had a plot.

It was now about a guy who was going to lend his apartment to his boss so that he could go up the corporate ladder.”
                                         Bruce Block
                                         Film Historian
                                         The Apartment  2008 Special Edition DVD Commentary   

Related post: Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)

 

Scott W. Smith

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Most people would point to Syd Field’s book Screenplay as the book that started a modern day trend in screenwriting theory. It was in fact the first book I ever read on screenwriting, but it is not the oldest book I own on screenwriting. That honor goes to The Technique of Screenplay Writing by Eugene Vale.

While Field’s book was first published in 1979, Vale’s book was first published in 1944. Vale’s book came out 65 years ago. The book is so old that it has a plug from Billy Wilder on the back, “I congratulate you on your clear analysis of the vast field, and wish for your book the great success it so richly deserves.” That alone should make you track down this book to read.

I picked up the book for three dollars in a used bookstore in Baltimore, Maryland ten years ago. And it’s where I found the screenwriting quote for today.

“A story without a struggle can never be a dramatic story…there are millions of different kinds of struggles, but in all this variety the dramatic struggle has its definite requirements. It is a struggle to eliminate the disturbance.”
                                               Eugene Vale
                                               The Technique of Screenplay Writing
                                               Page 129

That’s bare bones simplicity. Look no further than Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment to see this fleshed out. Jack Lemon struggles to climb the corporate ladder and has to deal with executives who want to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs.

Not being able to use your own apartment has its conflicts and Lemon’s main struggle throughout the film is to “eliminate the disturbance”—and still climb the corporate ladder. It ended up winning five Oscars including Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen, for Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pigpen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.”
Willa Cather
My Antonia

In other posts we’ve looked at screenwriters from Iowa and some of the surrounding states—Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota—but today let’s head to the west and take a look at Nebraska.

Before we get to the screenwriting part of that state let me say that Nebraska has produced four giants of cinema on the performing end of feature films; Henry Ford, Fred Astaire, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.

Toss in producer Darryle F. Zanuck, TV personalities Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett as well as other actors James Coburn, Nick Nolte, Janine Turner and most recently Hilary Swank and you have a nice roster of entertainment talent from this Midwest state.

But no list of creatives from Nebraska is complete without mentioning Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Willa Cather whose novels O Pioneers! & My Antonia have had lasting success.

As we look at screenwriting from Nebraska there is one name that stands out in bold, Alexander Payne. The Academy-Award winning writer of Sideways grew up just over the Iowa border in Omaha, reportedly on the same street as Warren Buffett. His films Election, About Schmidt, and Citizen Ruth were all shot in Nebraska.

Payne earned his master’s degree at the UCLA where one of his teachers was Lew Hunter. Lew’s also from Nebraska and his resume is more of a creative journey. He earned two master’s degrees, worked as a radio DJ, an NBC page, story executive and wrote the Emmy-nominated script Fallen Angel, before going on to be the co-founder of the M.F.A. screenwriting program at UCLA. His book Screenwriting 434 flowed out of that class.

A couple years ago I was reading a screenwriting book by Skip Press and saw that Lew Hunter now lived part of the year in Superior, Nebraska. Since I was heading from Cedar Falls, Iowa in a few days for a shoot in Colorado Springs, I found Superior on a map and decided I could make a slight detour and pass through there. (Superior, by the way,  is called the “Victorian Capital of the Midwest.”)

I tracked down Lew’s email and sent him a note. He was in town and welcomed me to not only stop by but to stay the night in his writer’s house that he uses for workshops. So I was able to not only spend some time talking with him about his various experiences in the industry but stayed up at night watching old videotapes from his UCLA days with  various people like Billy Wilder talking to his classes.

I later interviewed him for this article that appeared in Create Magazine.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a farm outside the small, 392-person village of Guide Rock, Nebraska.

How did growing up on a farm prepare you for a career in Hollywood?
I was given a sense of a work ethic when I was five years old. I did all the things kids do on a farm.

Was there any expression of the arts or creativity in your home?
My mother was quite a different farmwomen. She was a graduate of the University of Nebraska, in music generally and violin specifically.And she went to the New England Conservatory of Music. My mother had me doing piano lessons when I was 3 years old. And she read Shakespere, “Beowulf” and Greek legends with me on her knee. My father was sort of a Will Rogers character in terms of humor and style.

What lead to your Hollywood writing career?
I went over to the story department at Disney Studios. After two years of reading scripts and books trying to get the material into the studio, I was having lunch with Ray Bradbury about doing the “Martin Chronicles,” and we were talking and I said, Ray I’m really thinking about being a writer, and I’ve read about 2,000 scripts and about 90 % are feces. And I think I can be in that top 10 percent of feces. And he gave me two books to read, One was “The Wisdom of Insecurity” by Alan Watts and the other was Dorothea Brande, “Becoming a Writer.”

So how did you actually make that transition to becoming a writer?
I had saved up enough money to focus on writing for a year and wrote six feature-length scripts. The more ponies you pick in the race, the greater your chances of winning. After the year was up my money had run out and I needed a job. My agent called and said that ABC and Aaron Spelling wanted my script, “If Tomorrow Comes” (about Japanese/Americans held captive in California during WWll) and that started my writing career.

The American Screenwriters Association awarded you with a Lifetime Achievment Award a few years ago. But you paid your dues. That’s a valuable lesson for young writers.
Everyone pays their dues to become successful. I’ll give you a perfect example. Screenwriter Brian Price is sitting in my UCLA graduate 434 class and I hold up a Variety (magazine). And on the front page it says first-time writer sells script to Universal. And I said to Brian, “How many scripts did you write before you became a first-time screenwriter?” and he says, “Ten.” I joined WGA (Writers Guild of America) in 1969 and came to Hollywood in 1956.

It seems like more people than ever are writing screenplays. What is your advice anyone wanting to be a screenwriter?
The most important thing I would tell anyone in terms of writing of any kind is when I was at Northwestern, John Steinbeck came and gave a talk and afterwards I went up to him and asked, “What must I do to become a wonderful writer?” Mr. Steinbeck twitched his beard a little with his thumb and forefinger and he said, “Write.” And turned and walked away.

Graduates in the UCLA M.F.A. program are required to write between six and eight screenplays before they graduate. That’s a lot of writing.
It astonishes me when someone telling me they’re a writer and I ask how many screenplays they’ve written and they say, “One.” You’ve got to do the process. Somewhere between four and six scripts is the equivalent of getting up on water skies.

Is it simply talent that separates UCLA Alumni writers David Ward, Francis Ford Coppola, Eric Roth, Alan Ball, David Capthem and former student of yours Alexander Payne from other writers?
It’s three things. Tenacity, focus, and there is an element of luck involved. Of course, there is the street phrase, “The harder I work the luckier I get.” I don’t think they’re smarter than anyone reading this transcript. I believe everyone has the opportunity to be a wonderful screenwriter.

Do you think with the digital technology there is going to be a new style of writing emerging or a revolution in storytelling outside of New York and LA?
I don’t think there will be a new style of writing, but I think it will be easier opportunities for people to knock people off their socks if they have a good story. It will always come doen to story and character and character and story. With a computer editing bay, a DV camera, very little money, and some talented friends and a good script, you’re going to be able to come up with something that’s going to knock people’s socks off. It’s very exciting to think of some boy or girl in some ghetto around the world will get ahold of a computer and tell a story like “Salaam Bombay.” 

Twice a year (June & September) Lew hosts 14-day workshops patterned after the UCLA M.F.A. screenwriting program.  Learn more about Lew and his workshop at lewhunter.com. Lew and his wife Pamela are gracious hosts and I think any screenwriter would benefit from spending a couple weeks in Nebraska learning from Lew.

Copyright 2008 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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