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Posts Tagged ‘Billy Wilder’

Did you know the Midwest had a big part in the success of Sunset Boulevard? Not only was Gloria Swanson born in Chicago and William Holden born in O’Fallon, Illinois (just east of St. Louis) but Nancy Olson who received and Academy Award nomination in her supporting role in the film was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But it was a preview screening just north of the city of Chicago that first signaled there was a problem with the opening scene.

While few have seen the original opening of the movie since 1949 there are scripts kicking around with the original open. The opening scene takes place in a morgue where William Holden’s character Joe Gillis lies dead with other dead bodies of men, women and children. Then things get funky when the voices of the dead people begin to talk.

                                                           A MAN”S VOICE
                                             Don’t be scared. There’s a lot of us here.
                                             It’s all right.
                      
                                                             GILLIS
                                             I’m not scared.

And then they all continue talking about how they died and one asks if “Satchel Paige beat the White Sox yesterday?” to which the Gillis voice-over replies, “No I wouldn’t. I died before the morning paper came.” The tone Wilder was after was missed by that first audience in the Midwest.

“Because of the touchy subject matter. Paramount sought a venue far from Hollywood to preview the picture. Evanston, Illinois, seemed distant enough. After the opening credits, when the story moved down Sunset Boulevard and into the L.A County Morgue, the audience stunned Billy Wilder. Years later he recalled, ‘When the morgue label was tied on Mr. Holden’s toe, they started to scream with laughter. In the mood of hilarity I walked out of the preview, very depressed.’”
                                                    Sam Staggs
                                                    Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard
                                                    Page 151

Paramount got the same negative reviews in Poughkeepsie, New York  and Great Neck on Long Island. The release was delayed as Wilder took six months to make changes.  When the film was released with changes in 1950 it was generally well received in the larger cities with some reviews having a clear understanding of the lasting value of the film. But the film was not a blockbuster hit. But it would go on to become what many have called the greatest film about Hollywood and in 1998 AFI would list Sunset Boulevard  as #12 on its top 100 film list.

 

Scott W. Smith

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It’s been many years since I watched the classic Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard. I don’t recall seeing it in the over five years since I moved to Iowa. What I realized seeing it recently is that perhaps the most famous on-screen screeenwriter had Midwest roots.

“As I drove back into town I added up my prospects and they added up to exactly zero. Apparently I just didn’t have what it takes. The time had come to wrap up the whole Hollywood deal and go home. Maybe if I hawked all my junk there’d be enough for a bus ticket back to Ohio. Back to that $35 a week job behind the copy desk at the Dayton Evening Post if it was still open. Back to the smirking delight of the whole office. ‘Alright you wise guys, why don’t you go out and take a crack at Hollywood.'”
Joe Gillis (William Holden)
Sunset Boulevard 

A modern day Joe Gillis hopefully wouldn’t end up floating dead in a pool in a mansion on Sunset Boulevard but would return to Dayton and hook up with some actors from there and Yellow Springs, as well as some creative folks from nearby Cincinnati and that little fat girl in Ohio with her digital camera and they’d made their own films.

(By the way… I’ll be one state over from Ohio in Michigan next month speaking on screenwriting and production and will fill you in as I know more details in case anyone in the area is interested in attending.)

Re-write 101:
The script version I have of Sunset Boulevard is dated March 21, 1949 and here is what the writers (Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman, Jr.) had written originally:

“So, I started back towards Hollywood. All the way down Sunset Boulevard I was composing a letter: ‘To W.W. Agree, Managing Editor, the Dayton Evening Post, Dayton, Ohio.  Dear Mr. Halitosis: I am in a terrible predicament. I have just been offered a writer-producer-director contract at seven thousand a week for seven years straight. Shall I do it? Shall I subject myself to the corruption and sham of this tinsel town with its terrible people, or is my place back home where there are no people —just plain folks? In other words, how’s about that thirty-five-dollar-a-week job behind the rewrite desk?’”

Scott W. Smith

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“What kind of man would live where there is no danger? I don’t believe in taking foolish chances. But nothing can be accomplished by not taking a chance at all.”
                         Charles Lindbergh 
                         As quoted in Lindbergh: Flight’s Enigmatic Hero by Von Hardesty


Last night I watched for the first time the old Billy Wilder film The Spirit of St. Louis which starred Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh. I’m not sure why I hadn’t connected it to this blog earlier. After all Screenwriting from Iowa is all about the fly-over states. About great stories coming from unusual places. (The kind of places Lindbergh used to fly-over and deliver mail to in the early days of flight.) 

It’s worth noting that the Orville and Wilbur Wright Wright lived for a time in Cedar Rapids, Iowa during their childhood before their 1903 historic flight in North Carolina. Just a year prior to that Lindbergh was born in Detroit and raised on a farm in Little Falls, Minnesota where he would graduate from high school in 1918 (though he also spent time in Washington, D.C. because his father was a congressman from Minnesota). He studied for a time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before dropping out of the engineering program and heading to Lincoln, Nebraska to learn how to fly and become a barnstorming performer.

He didn’t fly solo until 1923 and it was just four years later that he accomplished the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.

The film The Spirit of St. Louis didn’t do well in the box office back in 1957, but it did launch the feature film writing career of Wendell Mayes. Mayes was an actor turned writer when Billy Wilder liked an episode he wrote for Kraft Television Theatre and hired him to co-write the Lindbergh picture with him. 

Mayes was born in the small town of Hayti, Missouri and would go on to have a career as a screenwriter until he died in 1992. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1959 for his script Anatomy of a Murder. 

Mayes and Lindbergh once again prove that great things can be accomplished even if you come from a small town in fly-over county. 

 

Scott W. Smith


 



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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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