Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Calvin College’

Calvin College Bridge

I took the above photo at Calvin College after my screenwriting talks this week. It’s part of Calvin’s Crossing, a pedestrian bridge designed by architect Frank Gorman that spans a little over a football field in length connecting the main parts of campus with the DeVos Communications Center over one of the busiest roads in Grand Rapids.

While the bridge has a practical purpose for Calvin students, it’s a fitting metaphor for all writers, filmmakers, and video producers. Too often creative folks distance themselves from the other disciplines of life. (You could call it a superiority complex.) In fact, there is a growing trend for young filmmakers to just go to film schools that only teach film and digital video production. (Technical skills are always easier to develop than writing. Which is why there are many beautifully photographed movies with shallow stories.)

At Calvin the communication center is where the video and radio studios, the video and film theater, and the video editing suites are all located. But Calvin is a liberal arts school so students head over the bridge to fill their minds with art, literature, languages, philosophy, politics, history, mathematics, religion and science with an emphasis on knowledge and truth rather than livelihood.

The knock on a liberal arts education has always been in line with it doesn’t prepare you for any job except to maybe teach. But if you look at the info where liberal arts grads end up you might conclude that liberal arts majors are prepared for just about every job. Margaret W. Crane wrote in the article For the Love of Learning, “a liberal arts background prepares you to think, analyze, and contribute meaningfully to the world around you.” 
 


While speaking at Calvin this week one of the things I mentioned was when I was a student at the University of Miami a professor told us film school students that you don’t go to school to learn to make films, you go to school to learn what make films about.

Screenwriter/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) did go to UCLA for his Master’s work in film studies, but he did his undergraduate work with an emphasis in pre-seminary at Calvin College. While later rejecting the doctrine, he has credited Calvin College with teaching him to think.

When Suzanne O’Malley, who’s written for the TV show Law & Order, taught a seminar a couple years ago at Yale College called “Writing Hour Long Television Drama” where the class came together to write a 47-minute television program. Something a little different at the liberal arts college.

“We’re drawing from The New York Times, from Shakespeare, from Sun Tzu, from [John Lewis] Gaddis, one of the professors here, looking at all different kinds of serious work and blending that into our plot and story line,” she said in a Yale Daily News article by Andrew Bartholomew.

And just to connect all the dots. Yale is actually made up of 12 residential colleges and the one O’Malley taught at was Calhoun College, which is actually where actress Jodie Foster graduated from with a B.A. (with honors) in literature — after she was nominated for best supporting actress in Taxi Driver. She went on to win two Oscars after graduating from Yale. (Maybe a liberal arts degree should be a requirement for all child actors.)

So at least for Schrader and Foster their undergraduate liberal arts backgrounds haven’t hurt their now pushing 40 year careers in Hollywood.

Even if you’re out of school (or never went to school) read and study widely because it will add richness to your writing and your life.

Text and photo copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?”
                                         Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)
                                         Taxi Driver
                                         Written by Paul Schrader 

deniro500

No Bobby, I’m not talkin’ to you. But I did spend a couple days talking to students (and a few visitors) at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan the last couple days and the above photo was one of the movie posters hanging outside the video theater where I spoke.  Calvin’s most famous film alumni is Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader.

I would like to thank Prof. Bill Romanowski for the invite and and all the support staff, other professors, and students for the opportunity to speak, as well as the sponsorship by the Gainey Institute and Communication Arts & Sciences department. It sure is more fun to talk about this stuff than write about it.

I not only got to meet a lot of eager students, but had lunch yesterday with a New York actor who’s recently been on Law and Order and had a director from L.A. sit in on one of my seminars. (He was in town raising funds for a film that would take advantage of Michigan’s 40%-42% tax incentives.)

Those tax incentives are bringing a film called The Genesis Code not only to Michigan, but they will be shooting part of the film at the Calvin College campus. But Michigan is learning quickly about Hollywood’s ways as people have gotten excited about films starring people like Samuel L. Jackson, Joe Mantegna and Robert Duvall scheduled to shoot in Michigan only to see them postponed for one reason or another.

It was an interesting time to be in Michigan because not only is Detroit hurting because of the decline in auto sales, but the whole economy of the state is effected because many of the smaller cities are made up of manufacturing plants that produce parts for the  automobiles that people aren’t buying.

So people are both excited and skeptical about the possibilities of a film industry bringing jobs. Enrollment at schools and colleges that teach film and video is up. I saw people shooting footage around the Calvin campus including this young fellow that I snapped a picture of as he was in action. This kind of thing is happening all over the country. 

calvinstedicam1858

While at Calvin College I learned that they have a few other grads who are working in the film industry, but the most impressive to me is Jeannie Claudia Oppewall. She’s is a four time Oscar nominated production designer/art director who’s worked on two of my favorite films, Seabiscuit and Tender Mercies.

And for what it’s worth, she’s worked in Iowa twice on The Bridges of Madison County and the yet to be release Ellen Page film Peacock. And just to come full circle she was once married to Paul Schrader.

Schrader’s divorce played a part of his state of mind before writing Taxi Driver, as did Jean-Paul Sartre, “Before I sat down to write Taxi Driver, I reread Sartre’s Nausea, because I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero…and put him in an American context.” Schrader has also said that part of the inspiration for picking a taxi driver to represent loneliness was based on the  Harry Chapin song Taxi about a taxi driver who used to dream of being a pilot and one night gives a lift to his old girlfriend.

…And me, I’m flying in my taxi, 
Taking tips, and getting stoned, 
I go flying so high, when I’m stoned.

                                          Taxi
                                          Harry Chapin 

Before that song was a hit in 1972, Chapin had actually written and directed a documentary called Legendary Champions which was nominated for an Oscar in 1969.

And lastly, AFI lists “Are you talking to me?” as the 10th most popular movie quote of the last 100 years. So yes, it is possible to be born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan and to write a screenplay that leaves an imprint on film history. (Though it’s okay to start out with slightly lower aspirations.) 

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Movie storytelling is about redemption–the recovery of something lost or the attainment of something needed.”
                                                               Brian Godowa
                                                               screenwriter, To End All Wars 

“All main characters are wounded souls, and the stories we tell are merely an acting out of the healing process.”
                                                            
   Richard Krevolin 
                                                               Screenwriting From the Soul 

shaw

 

Director Martin Scorsese was once told by a priest friend that his films were “too much Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday.” In his films, characters like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) are wounded souls with no hint of redemption. No hope of resurrection. (Though the real life Jake LaMotta has said that the film changed his life.)

But there are plenty of films that somewhat mirror the Christ story of death and resurrection, of transformation or redemption, or even the concept of laying ones life down for another. Though one could argue there are similar themes throughout history (and Joseph Campbell does) it’s hard to miss the Christ metaphor in a film like Gran Tornio when Clint Eastwood is positioned in a Christ-like pose at the end of the film.

And it’s impossible to miss the Christ-like imagery of Tim Robbins on the poster of The Shawshank Redemption, taken from the climatic moment in the film when he emerges free from prison (death) on his way to paradise (life). 

Audiences never tire of stories of  transformation because I think that is one of the chief reasons we go to films. Yes, we want to be entertained, we want to eat popcorn, and we want to escape. But deep down inside we want to have purpose and meaning in our lives and art acts as a conduit to give structure to what often seems like a meaningless life. It points to the mysterious. 
                                    

 “Stories are equipment for living.”
                                          Kenneth Burke 

 “Stories are the language of the heart.”
                                          John Eldredge 

So while yesterday on Easter Sunday I pointed to the many films that actually portrayed Christ figures such as in The Greatest Story Ever Told, today I’ll point to films that show a Christ-like metaphor in their central characters, or have themes of transformation, sacrifice and/ or resurrection. (And like yesterday this is just a partial list, but the ones that seem to have lasting appeal.)

ET
The Lion King
Tron
On the Waterfront
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Sling Blade
Cool Hand Luke
Schindler’s List
The Natural
Babette’s Feast
Hoosiers
Cinderella
The Beauty & the Beast
An Officer and a Gentleman 
Tender Mercies 
Braveheart
Superman
Spiderman
Iron Man
The Matrix 

Roger Ebert has an interesting read called In search of redemption and talks about  the kind of films that made him want to be a film critic. He talks about films with “human generosity and goodness.” And he even closes with a nod to Juno.  

Now if you’d like to take a deeper look at spiritual side of films then Paul Schrader is your man and I recommend his book Transcendental Style in Film as he looks at the films of Ozu, Bresson and Dryer. Schrader is the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, The Mosquito Coast, and The Last Temptation of Christ. And he’s a graduate of Calvin College.

If you happen to be in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area tomorrow night (4/14/09) I will touch more on this in a talk I’m giving at Calvin College. Schrader is not Calvin’s only connection to Hollywood. Phil Oosrerhaus was an assistant to the Wachowski Brothers on The Matrix as well as an associate producer on the sequels. 

As I pointed out in Screenwriting from Michigan there is a lot going on there film-wise. There were 32 features shot there last year including Eastwood’s Gran Torino. I also look forward to giving a screenwriting talk there on Wednesday. 

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith


Read Full Post »

Over the weekend I saw the movie Taken and it made me think back to a few films that feature a son or daughter who disappears—The Searchers with John Wayne, Ransom with Mel Gibson, and Hardcore with George C. Scott. 

Hardcore was written by Paul Schrader who also wrote Taxi Driver, Ragging Bull, and The Mosquito Coast. Born and raised in a Dutch Reformed community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he didn’t see a movie until he was 17. Since Hardcore is about a daughter who runs away and gets caught up in the porn industry, Schrader’s religious upbringing may seem an odd fit as the writer of the screenplay. But if you read the book Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings (edited by Kevin Jackson) you understand better where he is coming from.

Though film has been called a Catholic medium because of its use of symbolism and emphasis on guilt and works (as well as its understanding of sin & redemption), Schrader is one of the few modern giants of cinema with a Protestant background. (Protestants, especially evangelicals, tend to favor didacticism—instructional—methods which doesn’t play as well on film. )

Schrader’s understanding of what’s known at the doctrine of total depravity allows him to tap into characters such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Schrader is also considered one of the greatest intellectuals in Hollywood and though he later walked away from the religious beliefs of his youth, he credits Calvin College with teaching him to think. (And a few years ago he returned to his alma mater  to speak, so maube they’ve made their peace.) 

“There’s also a delicious line in Hardcore that’s actually taken from one of my uncles, which is at the beginning, at the Christmas part. The kids are sitting around watching some innocuous TV special and the uncle walks in and turns off the set—this is something that actually happened to me—and he says, ‘Do you know who makes television? All the kids who couldn’t get along here go out to Hollywood and make TV and send it back here. Well, I didn’t like them when they were here and I don’t like them now they’re out there.’ And this struck me as absolutely true, That’s what we all do, you know; misfits from small towns across America go out to Hollywood, make TV and movies and pump it back into our parents homes and try to make them feel guilty.”
                                                       Paul Schrader
                                                       Schrader on Schrader
                                                       page 149 

 

Schrader’s website is paulschrader.com

 

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“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.
Arthur Miller
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.
Helen Zell

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 (SupermanBonnie & 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

Read Full Post »

The 2008  Sundance Film Festival ended Sunday with Josh Tickell’s Fields of Fuel winning The Audience Award: Documentary.  I haven’t seen the film so I don’t know if Tickell shot or wrote any of the film in Iowa, but anybody who drives a Veggie Van around the country has to have an Iowa connection. The vehicle looks like it should be a permanent fixture at the Iowa State Fair.

Even the title itself, Fields of Fuel, appears to be a play on the quintessential Iowa film Fields of Dreams. On Tickell’s personal website he does offer a link to Biodiesel Education at Iowa State University in Ames.

I drove three hours across Iowa Monday (and past at least one ethanol plant)  for a week of video production in Sioux City. Though the cornfields are barren this time of year, you just sense those farmers are ready to grow some ethanol and make some money… and, of course, bring down gas prices and lower our dependency on terrorist filled countries for oil.

The Field of Fuel website (www.fieldsoffuel.com) does list the co-editor of the documentary as Sarah Rose who graduated with honors from the University of Iowa. She was in the same media studies program that also produced recent Oscar-nominated screenwriter Diablo Cody. Last person to head to Iowa City please turn out the lights.

Congrats to Tickell, Rose and the entire Fields of Fuel production team on their award. I look forward to seeing the film.

Another film at Sundance that received good buzz this year and definitely has an Iowa connection is the film Sugar directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. It’s a story of a baseball player from a small town in the Dominican Republic who comes to the United States to play baseball and among other places ends up playing ball in a small town in Iowa.

Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman wrote, “There hasn’t been a sports movie this original in a while, as Sugar journeys to the strange land of Iowa, where he joins a single-A team and moves in with a genial farm family.”

The movie is also reported to have a Field of Dreams dream as the lead character named Sugar is motivated to play baseball in Iowa after seeing the movie staring Kevin Costner. That reminds me of a great quote by Bill Romanowski of Calvin College who said that “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.” A great example of this is the movie Top Gun which was inspired by a magazine article about a real life, small group of pilots in training. When the film was released the Navy had record number of young men joining to become jet pilots.

“Movies reflect the culture they help produce.” Sometimes the results are positive and sometimes they are negative. But make no mistake, movies make a powerful impact on our lives and culture.

The filmmakers of Sugar shot much of the film in Davenport, Iowa and the surrounding Quad Cities and were one of the first to take advantage of recent tax incentives for filmmakers who spend over $100,000 in the state.

Earlier this month Iowa Governor Chet Culver in speaking about Iowa’s commitment to helping filmmakers said, “Iowa has a lot to offer the film industry and, quite frankly, we want more movies filmed in our state. As a television or motion picture producer with the greatest of expectations, in Iowa, you can find it all. The new film tax credit and training award send a clear signal to Hollywood: Iowa is camera-ready and open for business.”

To learn about the The Iowa Film Office visit www.traveliowa.com/film.

One a closing note on the Sundance Film Festival, I spoke with a production friend from Iowa, Jon Van Allen, yesterday and he was brave enough to drive his grip truck into Park City a couple days ago. He was on his way to California for a shoot and just couldn’t pass the opportunity to make a slight detour off I-80 to catch part of the festival.

He said it was cold and snowing with some famous people walking around. That sounds just like Iowa – except for the famous people walking around.

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: