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Posts Tagged ‘Brian McDonald’

“One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the colored man can be anything,”
Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951)

On Tuesday, the United States Postal Service released a stamp of producer, director, screenwriter Oscar Micheaux. This is significant for several reasons. First it shows that long before Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, and before even Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, there was Micheaux. Though probably less known than those other filmmakers, according to The Miami Herald, “Micheaux, who died in 1951, was the first African American to produce a feature-length film — The Homesteader, in 1920 — and a sound feature-length film — The Exile — in 1931.”

In all he is said to have made 40 films, though only all or part of 15 survive.

The USPS press release says, “Micheaux thrived at a time when African-American filmmakers were rare, venues for their work were scarce, and support from the industry did not exist. Micheaux’s entrepreneurial spirit and independent vision continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers and artists.”

On Wednesday, Film Life’s 14th Annual American Black Film Festival began (June 23-26, 2010) in Miami. (I’m not sure if honoring Oscar Micheaux is on the list this year, but if you’re in that area Spike Lee will be doing a Master Class on The Art of Filmmaking Saturday, June 26 at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.)

The second thing about Micheaux of significance to this Screenwriting from Iowa blog is that I like to point out writers and filmmakers who come from outside Los Angeles and Micheaux was born in 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois, grew up in Great Bend, Kansas and had a farm in South Dakota. It was in South Dakota when he began writing short stories. According to IMDB, “Micheaux lost his homestead in 1915 due to financial losses caused by a drought. He moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where he established the Western Book and Supply Co. He continued to write novels, selling them himself, door-to-door.”

In case you missed that, Micheaux lived in Iowa for spell. Wrote books and sold them himself.  (My new hero.) Micheaux moved to Chicago with hopes of making one of his novels a book. Again IMDB, fills in what happened;”Micheaux returned to the white businessmen and farmers around Sioux City, Iowa, where he still maintained an office, and sold them stock in his new company. In this way he was able to raise enough capital to begin filming his novel in Chicago, which was then a major film production center.” (I swear, I couldn’t make all this stuff up if I tried.)

His first feature, The Homesteader, was made in 1919. IMDB states, “His next film, Within Our Gates (1920), was his response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that had glorified the Ku Klux Klan.” These films were known as “Race Films” or “Race Movies” intended for black audiences. Wikipedia says, “During the height of their popularity, race films were shown in as many as 1,100 theaters around the country.”  It would not be until the 50s and the modern civil rights movement when Race Films were faded out.

And the third significance to Micheaux’s stamp is the artwork was created right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa by artist Gary Kelley. The same Gary Kelley I’ve mentioned many times on this blog and who I did a multi-media project with earlier this year (Kelley’s Blues).

Anyway to honor Oscar Micheaux, Gary Kelley, and my high school creative writing teacher Annye Refoe (who just happens to be black) I am going to give away one new copy of Seattle writer/teacher Brian McDonald’s screenwriting book Invisible Ink; A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate. I own way too many books on screenwriting than I’d like to admit, but I believe that Invisible Ink is the first and only screenwriting book I own written by an African-American. Perhaps not something that needs mentioning, but in the context of Micheaux, I thought it was worth pointing out.

Anyway, I’ll send the book via the USPS with Micheaux/Kelley stamps. But here’s how I’ll pick one winner. In the spirit of Micheaux, I am working on publishing parts of this blog as a book (or two or three) and what I need are some blurbs from people who can say two or three positive sentences about me and/or Screenwriting from Iowa. (Could be longer, but doesn’t need to be.)  Put them in the comment section or email to me at info@scottwsmith.com. I’ll print the names and put them in a hat and choose a winner on next Friday (July 2, 2010).

Related Posts:
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip #2)
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Off-Screen Quote #15 (Edgar Degas)

Scott W. Smith

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“Theme is the primary statement, the purpose of the story, the overall message, the truth behind the story.”
Writing the Picture
Robin U. Rissin & William Missouri Downs

I first became aware of Diane Frolov‘s writing back in the 90s when I saw her name come up on the credits for Northern Exposure. She and her writing partner and husband Andrew Schneider wrote and produced many episodes of the quirky show set in Cicely, Alaska. They won a Primetime Emmy for their episode “Seoul Mates.” (They also wrote the great “More Light” scene that I have mentioned before.)

But Frolov’s writing credits go back to Magnum P.I. and the TV program The Incredible Hulk. And in the days since Northern Exposure Frolov’s most memorable work has been as a writer and producer on The Sopranos. She was on the Sopranos team that won an Emmy in 2006 for Outstanding Drama Series.

Though I don’t watch much TV, I’ve always been a Northern Exposure fan and put it up there with The Twilight Zone as television at its best. And I’ve always thought part of the reason I ended up in Cedar Falls, Iowa was due in part for the fondness of quirky Cicely, Alaska. (And I’m fond of pointing out that John Falsey, co-creator of Northern Exposure, has an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.)

Twenty years ago Frolov was interviewed by William Froug, who she studied with at UCLA (MFA Playwriting), and was asked what was the most important thing to know before writing a screenplay;

“I would say theme. You really need to know what the piece is ‘about’ and you have to make sure that all plot turns and character arc elucidate and project that theme.”
Diane Frolov

Recently, Brian McDonald who wrote the book Invisible Ink and has a blog of the same name, sent me a link to The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling who wrote in a letter  basically the same thing as Frolov.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a story line or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt

Maybe that explains the connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone.

Now writers are not in agreement with the idea of starting from theme. Some goes as far as saying that the writer should never even be aware of the story’s theme. Many, like  Robert McKee, say that starting with theme before story puts the cart before the horse.

“The Story tells you its meaning, you do not dictate meaning to the story.”
Robert McKee
Story

The fear of starting with theme (or a controlling idea or moral premise as some call it) is that you fall into didacticism or a sermon. And there are plenty of examples where heavy handed themes weigh down stories. But perhaps that’s a matter of the talent and skill of the writer.

Just because a baseball pitcher has an ineffective fast ball or curve ball doesn’t mean fast balls or curve balls are bad. No those are the staple of every baseball pitcher. He will be judged (and his ERA will reflect) the skill in which he uses his fastball and curveball.

And in the case of Frolov and Serling their work has shown that starting from theme can be very effective. (And you can put Charles Dickens in the camp of starting with theme.)

Lastly, Froug ended his interview with Frolov by asking here is she had any thoughts that she’d like to express. (And keep in mind that her answer is before all her Emmy nominations and wins.)

“To have courage and really love what you do. But not to lose sight of the life around you. You’ll find, as you go through the (writing) process, there will be so many people who will tell you that it is impossible and that you can’t do it. You’ll have your heart-broken so many times, and you just have to sustain yourself with your vision. And, as I said, your love of what you do.”
Diane Frolov
The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter
Page 273

P.S. Even though the last new episode of Northern Exposure aired in 1995, there is still a group of people who gather yearly for Moosefeast, a Northern Exposure Fan Festival that takes place in Roslyn, Washington where the series was filmed. I also like to point out, that the final song of the final episode was written and performed by Iris DeMent who now lives in Iowa. Actually, in the same town where Northern Exposure co-creator, John Falsey, went to college. (Maybe there is more of a connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone than I thought.)

Related post: Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Scott W. Smith

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