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This post originally ran in 2010 and I’m reposting it in light of Jim Harrison’s death last Saturday:

“Later that night the ocean again entered Tristan’s dreams…”
Legends of the Fall (Jim Harrison)

“So many nights I just dream of the ocean…”
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (Jimmy Buffett)

I’m not sure what the connection is between writer Jim Harrison and musician Jimmy Buffett, but I’m pretty sure there is one. Some secret Livingston/Key West handshake.

And somewhere in that connection is a spirit that resonates a longing not limited to the books, poems, and songs they’ve created but they’ve tapped into a desire to experience what it means to be alive. And to desire to not only live a life in full—or to use Hemingway’s phrase “all the way up”— but also to have “a good death.”

The 1994 movie Legends of the Fall, based on a novella by Harrisonis a movie I watch every couple of years. I don’t know if it’s the scenery where director Edward Zwick (Glory) picked to shoot the film in the beautiful Canadian Rockies. I don’t know if it’s the cinematography that captured that beauty—for which DP John Toll won an Oscar in 1995. I don’t know if it’s the actors—or simply Brad Pitt’s character Tristan or his Lawrence of Arabia/John Waynelike  introduction, or the James Horner music—whatever the reason, I find Legends of the Fall repeatedly enjoyable to watch.

Critics were spilt at the time of its release and it’s not hard to see why. It has one foot in being an epic story and one foot in melodrama. Tricky territory. And I think that was by design in an attempt for the movie to gain a large audience of both men and women.  Coming off the heals of a Dances with WolvesLegends of the Falls fell short at the box office & Academy Award-wise compared with Dances (which won Pest Picture and 7 total Oscars and made $184 million domestic). But Legends is the one I return to again and again.

Perhaps Legends the film split the vote more than the book did and paid the price. You have wild horses, guns and war for the men and beautiful western clothes, lawn tennis, and a romance normally associated with a romance novel or soap opera for the ladies. And if any men were on the fence, Pitt’s flowing hair (often perfectly backlit) kept them from going over. I’m never surprised when men tell me they’ve never seen the film. Perhaps a sweeping generalization and an oversimplification, but that’s my take. It’s too—to use Harrison’s word—pretty.

Pitt even jokes on the DVD commentary that the movie’s like a L.L. Bean catalog. This is what the original source writer had to say of the refined mountain life portrayed in the movie;

“I did have issues, as they say now, with certain parts of the film, because I thought, ‘Do they have a French dry cleaner right down the street or something like that?,’ ’cause everybody looked— pretty. But so many people seem to like it and I have no objections because it’s a director’s medium. When you accept your check you’re selling your kid.” 
Jim Harrison
NPR, All Things Considered, Feb. 08, 2007

The movie basically extracts the characters that Harrison created and somewhat places them in a new story. Col. Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), Alfred (Aidan Quinn), Samuel (Henry Thomas), Tristan (Pitt) and others are all there. Susannah’s role (Julia Ormond) is altered and beefed up. Heck, the book opens with the brothers going to the war where in the movie that doesn’t occur until the 32 minute mark. The book is more Tristan focused and covers more of his far away adventures. Like writer Walter Kirn (who also happens lives in Livingston, Montana where Harrison lives part of the year) said of the movie Up in the Air that was based on his book of the same name—the book is not the movie, and the movie is not the book, but they have the same DNA.

To director Zwick’s credit I think he and screenwriters Bill Wittliff and Susan Shiliday, as well as the talented cast & crew created a film that continues to have legs (and a heartbeat) more than 15 years after it was created and that’s not an easy accomplishment. (And something that I don’t think any of the other films based on Harrison’s work have achieved.)

As a side note, though Harrison has homes now in both Arizona and Montana, and has traveled widely, this is what he wrote a few years ago:

“I have several dear friends in Nebraska and the Niobrara River Valley in the Sandhills is my favorite beautiful spot on earth.” 
Jim Harrison

In my adventures over the years I have been fortunate to experience such things as witnessing a full solar eclipse in Salzburg, been free diving with large green turtles in Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, and flown in a seaplane over the Amazon River, but one of the most unbelievable and unexpected experiences I’ve ever had is watching thousands of Sandhill Cranes fill the sky on the edge of the Nebraska Sand Hills.

To beat the drum once again you don’t need to be in New York and L.A. to find adventures or stories worth telling. Certainly, even a somewhat remote place such as Nebraska has been fertile ground for writers from Harrison (Dalva), to Willa Cather (My Antonia) and screenwriter Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt).

“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pig pen 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

May you all have eyes to see.

Up in the Air—The Novel vs. The Film

Scott W. Smith

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“The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.”
Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt)

I’m breaking the first two rules of Fight Club today by talking about Fight Club. But it’s okay because it’s really Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk talking about where he got the original idea for his novel Fight Club. (I had never read or heard this account until a few days ago when I watched the movie version and listened to the commentary by Palahniuk and Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls.)

“I had gone on a vacation hiking and camping. I’d gotten into a really big fight with some people over noise at night in the woods. Some people who just had to camp right next to our camp—just had to bring some huge radio some 3,000 feet up the Pacific Crest Trail and have some big blow out party in the middle of the night. And I came back to work at the end of my vacation with my face just bashed—like Jack in the urinal next to his boss. My face was so awful, so trashed that nobody would acknowledge it, because to acknowledge it somehow they would have to find out something about my private life they just didn’t want to know. So for three months as my face slowly changed color and started coming back to white people would look at my chest, and they would talk to my Adam’s apple, and they would say, ‘So, how was your weekend? Did you do anything interesting?’ And I’d be looking at them with two huge black eyes and say, ‘No. How about you/’It just seemed so ludicrous that I thought if you looked bad enough no one would ever dare ask you what you did with your free time, and that was the genesis of Fight Club.”
Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk

The irony, of course, is people often go hiking and camping to disconnect from their everyday worlds and reconnect with nature and have a peaceful experience—unplugged from the everyday noise. Yet if Palahniuk has a peaceful hiking and camping experience he doesn’t end up getting in a fight and perhaps Fight Club never gets written.

P.S. A few days ago Jeff Goldsmith  (@yogoldsmith) tweeted this; “So @chuckpalahniuk told me he’s working with David Fincher & @trent_reznor to do a rock opera – an enhanced version of the film!”

P.P.S. Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls taught a class on CreativeLive called The Screenwriters Toolkit that is currently on sale for $41. I haven’t watched the class, but in general I love what the CreativeLive team produces. And since people often complain about the lack of teaching material by working screenwriters of well done produced films this would seem a good opportunity to fill that void.

Scott W. Smith

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“If you don’t think it can get worse, it can—and it will.” 
Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) in Fury

’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
Shelter From The Storm/Bob Dylan

“I’m a Veteran. I was in the Navy, in the submarine corps. I come from a military family. Both of my grandparents were in World War II and retired as officers. One fought in the Pacific and one fought in Europe. The whole family was in the war. I grew up exposed to it and hearing the stories, but the stories I heard weren’t kind of the whole ‘Rah, rah, rah! We saved the world!’ They were about the personal price and the emotional price. The pain and the loss are the shadows that sort of stalk my family. That was something that I wanted to communicate with people. Even though it was literally a fight of good against evil and it had an incredibly positive outcome, the individual man fighting it was just as tired, scared and freaked out as a guy operating a base in Afghanistan or a guy in the jungle in Vietnam.”
Fury writer/director David Ayer
Collier interview with Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

P.S. I think Brad Pitt’s line in Fury —”Ideals are peaceful, history is violent”—is the most profound movie line this year. A quote that you’d expect attributed to Patton or Lincoln. If AFI ever does the list 100 Years…100 Profound Movie Lines, I expect that line to be there. And if that line was ad libbed on the set by Pitt (as Ayer’s has said in interviews) then Pitt deserves an ad lib line of the year award.

Related posts:
Screenwriting from Hell “There are certain rules about a war, and rule number one is young men die.”
Filmmaking Quote #24 (Brad Pitt)
Brad Pitt and the Future of Journalism
Writing ‘Black Hawk Down’

Scott W. Smith

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“Entertainment is not frivolous; through entertainment you can actually make people aware of things. And throughout the ages art has always had a huge influence on history… It seemed to me like a kind of an obvious thing to do, to make a film about slavery—just like it’s an obvious thing to make a film about the Second World War or the Holocaust…There really aren’t too many films about slavery.”
Writer/director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Combined from interviews with Danielle Berrin and  Elvis Mitchell

Jeremy Kleiner at Plan B knew me and he knew Steve [McQueen]and he said, ‘look, we don’t really have any development money, we can’t really help you.’ This was not a standard development situation. It became a spec script. But he said, ‘if you guys can work out what you want to do and if you’re willing to go write a script and do it on spec and turn it into something that works and Steve is happy with it, we’ll find a way to put it together.’ At that point, Jeremy was one of those producers where if he says that we’ll put it together, you believe that he means it.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Ridley (12 years a Slave)
BuzzFeed interview with Adam B. Vary

12 Years a Slave received 9 Oscar nominations including Best Picture for producers Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen and Anthony Katagas. Pitt is the sole owner of Plan B Productions and it was just announced a few days ago that his group would be partnering with Oprah Winfrey on a film about Martin Luther King called Selma.

Related Posts:
25 Links Related to Blacks & Filmmaking
Filmmaking Quote #24 (Brad Pitt)
Brad Pitt & the Furture of Journalism
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriitng (Tip #7)

Scott W. Smith

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“At the end of the day, we all hope that what we’re doing will be of some value.”
Producer/actor Brad Pitt

On this repost Saturday I’m reaching back to a post I just wrote two years ago. I know many people in the sporting world are in a football state of mind this week since the 2013 college football season began this week.

But I’m in a baseball state of mind because I went to a memorial service yesterday for Coach Mike Ferrell. He was my JV baseball coach my freshman year of high school. Some people only come into your life for a season but still leave an impact. Coach Ferrell was one of those people in my life.

I can’t remember what our record was that year I played on his team. I can’t even remember a single game. But I remember Coach Ferrell. My defining memory of him was when I was going through a batting slump and he allowed me hit extra in batting practice. Next game I got two hits. Little things like a coaches confidence in you to do better and a lesson about perseverance go a long way in life.  (Passion, patience, practice and persistence are a great combination any endeavour.)

He was a good man. A fair man. And he loved the game of baseball–and it showed in his affections for his players and wanting them to play the game well. I learned at the memorial service that he “mowed his lawn every four days.” That made sense. He was a man of precision, of detail.

Looking back I realize that Coach Ferrell would have only been 25-26 years old when he was coaching that year.  Young, but every bit the leader.  And while mowing your lawn every four days won’t change the world, it does reveal a glimpse into the character of a man who would invest 37 years in the public school system teaching and coaching young men and women.

Character building stuff that impacts lives in positive ways. And there’s great value in that.

A special thanks to the teachers and coaches out there investing in the lives of others. And may peace be with Coach Ferrell’s wife and family.

Here’s the post that first ran September 30, 2011—then titled Filmmaking Quote #24 (Brad Pitt):

“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.”
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt)
Moneyball 

Today I saw Moneyball starring Brad Pitt and loved everything about it.* It completed a week where by happenstance I followed the Brad Pitt trail.

Last Saturday while on location shooting a video project I drove by Shawnee, Oklahoma where Brad was born. A few days later I drove through Springfield, Missouri where he was raised and went to high school. The next day I was on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia where he went to college.

The first time I recall seeing him act was in Thelma & Louise in 1991 and it was one of those scene stealing performances where I wondered, “Who the heck is this guy?” Within four years, and after his performances in A River Run Through It, Legends of the Fall, and Se7en—everyone knew who Brad Pitt was. And while he’s a tremendous actor, personally I haven’t appreciated many of the movies he’s been in the past 15 years.

Moneyball goes down in my book as the perfect Brad Pitt movie.  (I haven’t seen Tree of Life yet, but I’m guessing it’s going to be a solid film, but a solid Terrance Malick film.)  That’s not to take anything away from Moneyball’s director (Bennett Miller) or screenwriters (Steven Zillian and Aaron Sorkin), it’s just that their talents all came together to tell a great story that is driven by an actor in his prime. And my guess is that they’ll all be rewarded when the Oscar nominations are announced. (Update: Moneyball received six Oscar-nominations and won the AFI Award for Movie of the Year.)

“(Moneyball) is about how we value things. How we value each other; how we value ourselves; and how we decide who’s a winner based on those values.  The film questions the very idea of how to define success. It places great value on this quiet, personal victory, the victory that’s not splashed across the headlines or necessarily results in trophies, but that, for Beane, became a kind of personal Everest.  At the end of the day, we all hope that what we’re doing will be of some value, that it will mean something and I think that is this character’s quest.”
Brad Pitt
Moneyball: Interview with Brad Pitt

* I will admit that baseball was my first love which is part of what is so special to me about this movie. From rooting for Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine and to going to spring training games at Tinker Field in Orlando as a kid, to playing the game through high school, and as an adult going to games at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Yankee Stadium, the idea of baseball has been a constant companion even though I don’t follow the game much any more. But even if baseball is foreign to you, I think Moneyball works on so many levels you can enjoy the movie even if you’re not a fan of the game.

Related posts:

Brad Pitt & the Future of Journalism
Writing “Se7en”
Writer Jim Harrison (Part 1)
Writer Jim Harrison (Part 2)
Off-Screen Quote #20 (Rod Carew #29)

Scott W. Smith

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“We are languishing in a period without much direction and no shared body of ideas about what we and our society are all about. Now, as never before, we need people who have stories to tell that make sense and order out of the daily avalanche of sensation, news, events; the function of the artist in society is to reveal the order of the universe, to trace the grand design that others cannot see. That is what story is.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon)

That quote actually gives you a little glimpse into the roots of this blog. This is not a recent quote from the now 86-year-old Pierson lamenting how we’re lost in 2012 without any direction home. I actually don’t know how old that quote is—but it’s at least 20-years old. 

Earlier this week I pulled a notebook of mine off a shelf that’s about an inch thick of screenwriting notes and old articles. I flipped through the notebook looking for a little inspiration and came across an article from American Film Magazine. So while I don’t know the specific month or year of the article, I do know that American Film, a publication of AFI ceased printing in 1992—so it’s at least two decades old.  

The article is titled The Screenwriter: An Essential Element and was written by Jean Firsteneberg, who headed the American Film Institute in 1980—2007, and is now AFI’s President Emerita.

And since the article states that Pierson is the Writers Guild president, which he was between 1981-83*, that means that quote is closer to 30 years old. If Pierson thought we had a “daily avalanche of sensation, news, events” 30 years ago—what does he think now? (Love to interview him and ask if anyone has any connections to him.)

What does in think now that we’re bombarded with You Tube videos, Twitter feeds, 24-hour cable TV, Facebook updates, streaming Netflix and video on demand, email, cell phones with Internet access, and the Real Housewives of Wherever?

Perhaps he’d echo the words of Flight Club philosopher/theologian Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt); “Our great war is a spiritual war.” 

* The Harvard educated Pierson was also the Writers Guild president from 1993-95, but that was after the American Film magazine had already ceased publication.

P.S. Notice in right corner of my little iPhone photo the distinctive round sign of paper printed on a dot matrix printer. All waiting for the era of blogging so these words could have a new life.

Scott W. Smith

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“I think I wrote Legends of the Fall in about ten days.
Jim Harrison on his novella for which the movie* was based

Though Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall is less than 100 pages long and he said he wrote it in about ten days those numbers can be deceptive. In one interview he said it usually takes him about 10 years of thinking about things by the time he finishes writing his novellas.

Before Harrison became widely known as the writer of Legends of the Fall (which became a 1994 movie and helped cement Brad Pitt as a movie star) he had long been carving away at his craft in Michigan.

He was born in rural Grayling, Michigan in 1937. In Off to the Side: A Memoir, Harrison calls Reed City, Michigan where he lived between the ages of five and twelve his “golden years.”

“My background used to embarrass me. I’d think, I want to be like Lord Byron, or Vincent van Gogh. And then I’d realize, how can a boy from a little farm town do that? I think the years I spent at manual labor as a block layer, a carpenter, a digger of well pits, have given me more physical endurance for later in my life. And in an utterly corny Sherwood Anderson way, it makes you think those long thoughts. If you’re unloading fertilizer trucks for a dollar an hour all day long, and dreaming about New York City, it really means something. I remember a month before my first book of poems came out, I was working on a house foundation and the lumber truck couldn’t get close enough to the excavation, so I had to wheelbarrow 1,200 cement blocks for about seventy yards, load them and unload them. It was a cold, icy, early November day and it took me about nine hours to do it. That day I manually handled thirty-five tons worth of cement blocks, and that was for two and a half dollars an hour. When I got home I was hungry and tired, and what I had to show for it was right around twenty-five dollars. But you got a lot of thinking done. What it does do for you is, if you can hoe corn for fifty cents an hour, day after day, you can learn how to write a novel. You have absorbed the spirit of repetition.”
Jim Harrison
The Art of Fiction No. 104, Interview with Jim Fergus

It is interesting to note that Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade) and Harrison all spent time hunting and fishing in the same general northern area of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. All also came from religious families who put an emphasis on reading as well as an outdoor life. And while they all wrestled with their faith it impacted their writing. All three also gravitated to living at least part of the time in the northern U.S. region of the Rocky Mountains.

McGaune and Harrison also attended Michigan State at the same time as did fellow writer Richard Ford. In 2008, Esquire magazine listed The 75 Books Every Man Should Read and placed Legends of the Fall at #23 and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter #60.

Harrison went on to get his M.A. in comparative literature at Michigan State and then struggled to earn a living for well over a decade existing on fellowships, grants and publishing books of poetry while writing in Michigan. In interviews he has said that he never made over $10,000. a year for the first 17 years of his marriage. Then there were some tax problems, some drinking problems, cocaine, depression, followed by suicidal thoughts.

After a hunting injury he was encouraged by McGuane to try his hand at writing a novel. The result was Wolf; A False Memoir (1971). A few years later he published  A Good Day to Day and that would open the door to Hollywood where Harrison was paid well, but produced little as a screenwriter. He wrote his first screenplay in 1975 for filmmaker Frederick Weisman (though it was unproduced) and worked as a contract screenwriter though 1997.  A side benefit was hanging out with people like Orson Welles, John Huston, and Jack Nicholson.

He continued writing novels and eventually some of them found their way to getting produced as movies. Sometimes he was credited with working on the script and sometimes other screenwriters were brought in to write the scripts. Harrison’s credits include  Dalva, Carried Away, Revenge, and Wolf, along with Legends of the Fall. In 2007, Harrison was elected into the American Academy of the Arts.

These days Harrison splits his time between Montana and Arizona. When asked by The Paris Review if he had any advice for younger writers he replied:

“Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years?”

More on Harrison tomorrow and some of his thoughts on the movie Legends of the Fall.

*The screenplay for Legends of the Fall was written by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff.

Related post: Writer Jim Harrison (Part 2)

Screenwriting from Michigan

Scott W. Smith

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