“Why does New York have a monopoly on theater?”…I have no vested interest in New York, I don’t live there anymore. It’s all the same to me. But that is where the talent is collected, and if it doesn’t happen there, generally it doesn’t happen anywhere else. I wish it would happen in Ann Arbor, when you get a new theater.
February 28, 1967
The University of Michigan
Writing is core to everything we do. Yet good writing is becoming a lost art, and a lost value. I am looking forward to watching Michigan invest in what it takes to create the best writing program in the country.
As I’ve said many times before Screenwriting from Iowa is not limited to screenwriting or Iowa — but it represents movies and people coming from a place beyond Los Angeles. Today we’re going to take a look at talent from another Midwest state as I turn the spotlight on Michigan.
It was no mistake that the great New York born writer Arthur Miller got his college education at the University of Michigan. Even in the 1930s UM was already know for its high literary output and in the 1920s playwright Avery Hopwood created an endowment for UM writers. Miller was an early recipient of the Avery Hopwood Award award in 1937. It was just the first step of recognition for the writer that would go on and write Death of Salesman and The Crucible as well as many other plays, screenplays, short stories and novels in a career that would span 70 years until his death in 2005.
He is considered one of the greatest American dramatists and supported the University of Michigan his entire life. Last year the Arthur Miller Theater opened on the UM campus keeping his wishes as being the only theater bearing his name. That was a tribute to the education he received in Ann Arbor.
But even before Miller became famous the University of Michigan had tradition in Hollywood. Dudley Nichols, a UM alumni wrote the 1939 John Ford and John Wayne classic Stagecoach. The long train that followed include:
Valentine Davies (Miracle on 34th Street)
John Briley’s (Ghandi)
David Newman’s (Superman, Bonnie & Clyde)
Kurt Luedtke (Absence of Malice, Out of Africa),
Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It)
Adam Herz (American Pie)
Josh Greenfield, (Harry and Tonto)
Roger Lowenstein (TV’s L.A. Law)
Judith Guest (Ordinary People)
Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Grand Canyon, Body Heat)
Laura Kaisischke (The Life Before Her Eyes)
Jim Burnstein (D3: The Mighty Ducks)
Burnstein who also wrote Ruffian starring Sam Shepherd has taught at the University of Michigan and gave a presentation this year titled “Wolverines in Hollywood.”
I’m not sure where this Michigan writing legacy started but chances are famed Hollywood screenwriting teacher (and Detroit native) Robert McKee does know. He also attended the University of Michigan where he earned his undergraduate, masters and Ph.D. degrees. Studying under Kenneth Thorpe Rowe where he learned a good deal about story structure that he promotes in his famed three-day screenwriting seminar and book Story.
Rowe wrote Write that Play and also hooked former student Arthur Miller up in New York that helped Miller start his career.
And though not a writer where would Hollywood be without the talent of former UM pre-med student James Earl Jones? A big voice (“Luke, I am your father”) who was born in a small town of Arkabutla, Mississippi, raised in a couple small towns in Michigan where he overcame a stuttering problem that caused him to be a functionally mute from grade school until high school.
In an interview with Michael J. Bandler Jones mentions Donald Crouch as the teacher that helped him overcome stuttering and find his voice. “I credit him with being the father of my voice. He said, ‘You have a man’s voice now, an impressive bass, but don’t let that impress you. If you start listening to your voice, no one else will.’ It was a good lesson in general. I [try] to be devoid of self-consciousness.”
According to Wikipedia his career in theater began at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan where he was a stage carpenter before his role in Shakespeare’s Othello. Again to quote to old expression; “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” (And no, I won’t pass up the opportunity to mention that Jones brought his booming voice to Iowa in Field of Dreams.)
And just so we don’t leave out UM rival Michigan St. — that’s where Top Gun screenwriters Jack Epps Jr. and Jim Cash first teamed up. The academy-award nominated screenwriter of Finding Neverland and 48 hr director Walter Hill also graduated from Michigan State. Peter Gent was an athlete at MSU and went on to write the novel & screenplay for North Dallas Forty which impacted me greatly when I saw it as a high school football player. Spiderman director Sam Raimi also attended the school in East Lansing. And lastly writer/director David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) is also a Spartan.
Grand Rapids is where Paul Schrader was raised and attended Calvin College to become a minister before eventually writing Taxi Driver and having a long career in Hollywood.
Flint, Michigan native and current resident of Traverse City, Michigan is Academy-Award winning filmmaker Michael Moore who has made three of the top five grossing documentaries of all time. In 2005 he started the annual Traverse City Film Festival.
Michigan native Mike Binder was the writer/director of The Upside of Anger. In a talk he gave in Ann Arbor Binder told students, “If you’re looking for respect don’t become a screenwriter.”
And batting clean-up is a writer who has been called “the Dickens of Detroit” – Elmore Leonard. His novels and short stories often find their way to the big screen with big talent: Get Shorty (John Travolta), Jackie Brown (Robert De Niro) 3:10 to Yuma (Russell Crowe), Hombre (Paul Newman), and the upcoming Killshot starring Diane Lane. He graduated from University of Detroit Jesuit High School and the University of Detroit.
Back in 2001 Leonard had an essay published in The New York Times called Writers on Writing where he offered ten rules for writing. It’s well worth a read. Though geared toward writing novels most apply to screenwriting such as rule number 9: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”
“Oh, I love Elmore Leonard. In fact, to me True Romance is basically like an Elmore Leonard movie… I actually owe a big debt to like kind of figuring out my style from Elmore Leonard because, you know, he was the first writer I’d ever read.”
Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction)
The Charlie Rose Show 1994
Leonard lives in Michigan these days, and though in his 80s has a website (www.elmoreleonard.com) complete with a blog and podcasts. From the man who inspired Tarantino, here’s Leonard’s advice on how to get an agent: “My advice is to learn how to write and the agent will find you.”
Of course, Michigan also has a long history of real life characters who were interesting enough to have movies made about their lives (Ty Cobb, Jimmy Hoffa, Eminem, and most recently the intermittent windshield wiper guy Robert Kearns). Then there is the storytelling history through music from Michigan which is way too long to list but covers probably every form of American music; Jazz, blues, soul, gospel, rock, country, hip hop, rap, punk, techno.)
The rock and roll hall of fame has a little space taken up with artists from Michigan including Aretha Franklin, Bill Haley, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Glenn Frey, and Bob Seger.
I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to connect Michigan’s creative success to one man — Henry Ford. With his cars and factory line he brought prosperity to the area. Some of the people coming to Detroit were from the Mississippi Delta and they brought their music with them. That’s the short history of the Model T to Motown. But again you can’t ignore the part economics plays in its connection to the arts.
These days are lean times for those in Detroit. (Heck, these days they are even lean times for Toyota and Honda.) As the Michigan prophet Kid Rock sings; “Now nothing seems as strange as when leaves began to change, or how we thought those days would never end.” (All Summer Long)
One thing Michigan has recently done to rejuvenate the area economically is to pass one of the largest tax incentives for the film industry. Late this past spring I did some location scouting for Mandate Pictures for Whip It!, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. But Iowa lost out to Michigan and I’m sure the incentives played a part. The roller derby film staring Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis began shooting in Southeast Michigan in July.
The WNEM TV station reported this on their website: In April, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation aimed at giving Michigan a bigger role in the film industry. The key bill in the package gave film studios a refundable credit of up to 42 percent on production expenses in the state. The bills also cover commercials, TV shows, documentaries, video games and other film work.
Landing the Barrymore film is a nice start out of the gate for Michigan and there is talk of three film studios being built. It would seem like a good time to be writing Michigan-centered screenplays. If you don’t have any ideas you can start here: A popular mayor in Detroit has an affair…
P.S. If you are interesting in shooting in Michigan or in learning more about their incentives contact Janet Lockwood at the Film in Michigan office.
Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith
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