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Posts Tagged ‘Cameron Crowe’

“Even in my own life, after 35 years, I feel that I have never done that one thing, that noble thing that defines a life.”
Jerry Maguire’s Mission Statement

“I came here to fire you Jerry.”
Bob Sugar (Jay Mohr) in Jerry Maguire
Written by Cameron Crowe

The now ledgendary 1991 Disney memo written by Jeffrey Katzenberg is said to have inspired Cameron Crowe to write the Jerry Maguire mission statement.  Couldn’t find confirmation of that but both memos stress passion for improving their businesses. Here’s the  entire Jerry Maguire Mission Statement, and below is the abridged version from the film.

“The event you’re writing about should be the most important moment of your hero’s life. If your movie isn’t about the most important moment in your hero’s life don’t write it. Write about whatever WAS the most important moment in his life, because that’s  likely to be more interesting. When we meet Jerry Maguire, his entire life has been derailed. He’s lost his job, his confidence, his financee, and his future. It’s never been worse for him than at this moment, which is excatly why this moment is worthy of a movie.”
Carson Reeves
Scriptshadow Secrets Tip 282

I just realized I haven’t written about the new book Scriptshadow’s Secrets yet so I’ll do that tomorrow. In the meantime here’s another Jerry Maguire nugget from that book:

“Every scene you write, the characters in that scene should have a goal. When Jerry Maguire gets fired by his rival, Bob Sugar, he has a clear goal: keep all his clients. So he starts calling every athlete on his client list to make sure they stay with him. Bob Sugar also has a goal: to STEAL all of Jerry Maguire’s clients. Sometimes goals will be big and sometimes they’ll be small. But in most good screenplays, goals are what keep the energy up and the story alive. ”
Carson Reeves
Scriptshadow Secrets

P.S. “Original idea [for Jerry Magauire] was inspired by a magazine photo (of late agent Gary) Wichard and The Boz (Brian Bosworth).”
Cameron Crowe
CNBC article by Darren Rovell

Related Articles:
Where Do Ideas Come From?
Hope & Redemption
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6)
Orphan Characters (Tip #31)
The Idea Is King
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO: “DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.”—David Mamet

 

Scott W. Smith

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“Truth is not found in the sunshine, truth is found in the shadows.”
Novelist Paul Lieberman (Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles)
Interview with Jessy Williams

“With journalism and with detective work, you’re searching for the narrative. You’re sort of hunting around for the truth of it. It’s really the same whether you’re writing about Batman and Superman or these cops in 1949. You’re searching for something that’s true.”
Journalist turned cop turned screenwriter Will Beall (Gangster Squad)
 The San Diego Union-Tribune 

After revisiting the modern classic Chinatown the last three days on this blog (writing, directing, shooting) , it’s fitting to segue into the movie Gangster Squad which opens in 3,500 theaters today. While the film appears more LA Confidential/Scarface (1932)/The Untouchables than Chinatown at least one key scene takes place in Chinatown. And Gangster Squad is set the glamorous L.A. of the 40’s, close to the glamorous L.A. of the 30s seen in Chinatown so it’s easy to make the connection.

But one creative difference between the films is Chinatown was written by Robert Towne who would have been forty years old when the film was released in 1974, and had almost 15 years of writing credits behind him. Gangster Squad screenwriter Will Beall also happens to 40 years old as Gangster Squad hits the theaters, but this is his first film credit. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been long preparing for a writing career in Hollywood, but just five years he was a veteran cop with the L.A. Police Department.

Beall attended San Diego State University where he was an English major and editor of The Daily Aztec. After reporting on a campus murder in which the murder suspect hung himself, Beall decided that journalism may not be the right career path for him. He graduated in 1996 and two years later was on a new and different career path.

“Will Beall became a Los Angeles officer in 1998, he wrote only police reports. The exception: He kept a journal during his decade with the force and turned it into the novel “L.A. Rex” in 2007, which led him to Joseph Wambaugh and others who knew police work and writing.”
Matthew T. Hall
‘Gangster Squad’ writer’s best story? His Own

It was the cop turned novelist/screenwriter  Joseph Wambaugh (The Onion Field) who encouraged Beall to leave the department. And when producer Scott Rudin bought the rights to L.A. Rex doors began to open. Beall began writing for the TV show Castle and is now well positioned within the film industry attached at this point to write (or has written) Logan’s Run, Lethal Weapon 5, and Justice League. Hard to believe just five years ago he was working for the Los Angeles Police Department.

But as I wrote in the post Don’t Quit Your Day Job and Writers: Don’t Skip Jury Duty some fresh story ideas and experiences come from those places. In fact, one of the memorable lines in the Gangster Squad came from one of Beall’s sergeants:

“There’s two things you can’t take back on this job, pal: bullets out of your gun and words out of your mouth.”
Since one of the main focuses on this blog is to focus on where writers come from, it’s worth noting that in the five years of writing about screenwriting and screenwriters I can only think of two credited screenwriters from San Diego way (Cameron Crowe and Kem Nunn). I’m sure there are others, but I’d bet there are more writers from the Chicago area than there are from San Diego. (And technically, before Beall went to college in San Diego, he grew up in Walnut Creek—so he s really more of a San Francisco Bay-area guy.)
Having spent a little bit of time in both areas over the years I think I can make a sweeping generalization that a Chicago writer is surrounded by a rich literary tradition of journalism, novelist, playwrights, improv, and screenwriters, and a San Diego writer is surrounded by beaches and sunshine. The extreme weather in Chicago is more conducive to reading and writing, the weather in San Diego is more conducive to surfing and bike riding.Chicagoans also have a chip on their shoulder being in the shadow of New York in L.A.—so they tend eventually gravitate to either coast in order to really prove their worth. To make it. People who live in San Diego believe they have already made it. They get to live in San Diego. Paradise. I remember driving along the beaches in La Jolla as a 21-year-old and never wanting to leave.
In fact, perhaps the only reason to leave La Jolla’s paradise is to drive over the bridge into Coronado to get a different angle on paradise. (But I’m open to being proven wrong.) But if you want to be a screenwriter from San Diego, Beall is a good example to follow. He stepped into a world full of conflict and crime, and hung out with police officers who had been around since the Watts Riots of the 60s. Now in the past five years of writing Beall’s probably made enough money writing that he could afford a beach front house in San Deigo. Good thing for him to, because if he’d have stuck with journalism he not only wouldn’t be in a position to look at beachfront property, but he may not even have a job in the shrinking world of print reporting.
P.S. Gangster Squad’s novelist Paul Lieberman is a native New Yorker who spent 24-years as a reporter and editor for the LA Times, but his book—though an L.A. story— does begin smack dab in the Midwest:
Fred Whalen learned to scam along the Mississippi, the river that divides America, at pool halls and revivals. He was born in 1898 in Alton, Illinois, just upriver from St. Louis, and by the time he was a teenager he had figured out the traveling evangelists who set up shop in tents, barns, and occasionally, even, in real churches. He saw the people writhing in divine ecstasy out in their congregations and sensed immediately what was up: they were phonies, plants, shills for the preachers. Little Freddie was barely able to see over the pews but he knew they were fakers, those folks writhing in the aisles. So he’d take his coat and cover them up and spoil the show … until the preachers began paying him $5 to stay away.
Update 1/12/13: Just learned that novelist/screenwriter Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep) actually died in La Jolla. So even through he was born in Chicago, raised partly in England, and became the quintessential L.A. writer, I’ll still put him down as the most famous screenwriter connected to San Diego.  The La Jolla house he lived in until he died in 1959 recently sold for $6 million.
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Screenwriting the Chicago Way

Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I was on the phone with an actor from Minneapolis for a project I am shooting next week. It’s not an elaborate shoot, but I am casting three actors for a shoot I am doing in Des Moines which is doubling for San Francisco. (Not as hard as you think since many of  the older San Francisco Victorian houses were built by Midwesterners for relocated Midwesterners.)  No matter your budget, you always have schedule and budget issues when casting a project. It’s the nature of the beast when you try to bring a group of people (cast & crew) together for a production.

And it’s easy to think when producing lower-budget projects that more money and time would solve your problems. But listen to difficulties and last-minute solutions that the great director Billy Wilder had in casting the classic Sunset Boulevard:

“I wanted to make things a little harder for myself, I wanted to do that thing which never quite works—a picture about Hollywood. Originally it was a comedy, possibly for Mae West. The picture became about a silent star and a writer. And we could not find the person to play the great silent star. Mae West did not want to do it. Mary Pickford, no. We were about to sign or not sign Pola Negri for the movie. Then we came upon the idea of Gloria Swanson. She had already been abandoned; she was a death knell—she had lost a lot of money on the Paramount lot. But I insisted on her. A wonderful idea, that carried with it the great value that she had been a silent star, and had made a picture with Erich von Stroheim called Queen Kelly, which we could also use on the projection screen in her home. We did a screen test, she did a few lines, where an angry Swanson maintains that she’s still the greatest. Now we had a picture.

Montgomery Cliff was to play the writer. Three days before, he pulled out. It so happened Mr. Clift had had an affair with an older woman in New York. And he did not want to make his first big picture, playing the lead, the story os a man being kept by a very rich woman twice his age…Leading men at that time we all under contract to the studios. And I had to start shooting on Monday, right? So I went through the list Paramount had at that time. And they had a young actor named William Holden. Beedle was his name really, and he had changed it. He made a picture I enjoyed, it was very good, Golden Boy, I gave Holden the script to Holden at one o-clock, and at three he was at my house, and he said, “Absolutely, I want to do it.”‘
Billy Wilder
Conversations with Wilder (interviews with screenwriter Cameron Crowe)
Pages 47-48

Scott W. Smith

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“God help you if you use voice-over in your work my friends. God help you! That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of the character.”
Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) in Adaptation

“You see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion – with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of ‘B’ pictures to his credit.”
William Holden VO in Sunset Blvd.

Last night I watched The Holiday listening to the director’s commentary by writer/director Nancy Meyers and she mentioned that while writing The Holiday that she watched Billy Wilder’s The Apartment three times. I haven’t quoted Wilder in a while so now is as good a time as any unearth another one from the great six-time Oscar winner.

In some circles having voice-over narration is taboo, but Wilder didn’t shy away from it. Heck, Wilder (and additional writers  Charles Brackett & D.M. Marshman, Jr.) in Sunset Blvd. even had a dead guy give VO. And the writers won an Oscar for the story. Granted that was 60 years ago, but is voice-over narration really sloppy writing?

What about these films?

The Shawshank Redemption
Forrest Gump
Days of Heaven
Taxi Driver
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Big Lebowski
Election
A Christmas Story
Goodfellas
Stand by Me
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Fight Club
The Usual Suspects
American Beauty
The Princess Bride
Double Indemnity

 

Unless someone changed the definition of sloppy writing there isn’t a whole lot of fat in those films. And just for good measure, Nancy Meyers is fond of using voice-over narration and she’s the most successful female box office money-making director. And she takes her lead in the voice-over department from Wilder.

“In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.”
Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s sreenwriting tips as told to Cameron Crowe

Scott W. Smith

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“Primary exposition is telling and showing to the audience the time and place of the story, the names and relationships of the characters, and the nature of the conflict.”
Irwin R. Blacker
The Elements of Screenwriting

“Within the first pages of a screenplay a reader can judge the relative skill of the writer simply by noting how he handles exposition.”
Robert McKee
Story

Dramatically speaking exposition is simply the way you convey information.

Consider these facts:

I share a birthday with Slim Pickens.

I was born the same year as George Clooney, Meg Ryan, Michael J. Fox, Melissa Etheridge, Peter Jackson, Heather Locklear, Enya and Barack Obama.

I graduated from high school the same year and just a few miles away from the high school Wesley Snipes graduated from.

Not that I lump myself in with those well known people (okay, I just did — but let’s just say I’m not well-known or as accomplished like those mentioned) but I want to show you a form of exposition. I wasn’t totally on the nose with the above exposition but it gives you a ballpark of how old I am. (Old, but not that old. Come on, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Sheryl Crow and Jon Bon Jovi are just a year or two behind me.) If you wanted to, with a little research you could put all the pieces together.

Exposition works best in films when sprinkled here and there and doesn’t feel like exposition.

Think of exposition like exposure in photography. It reveals a subject. When you take a picture of someone on film you expose a part of them. Every angle gives you a little different exposure or insight into the person. In a close up you might see a small scar on their face, from the side you may see a tattoo on their arm, and from behind you might see their hair is thinning.

In compelling portrait photos you’re exposing someone and giving little glimpses of who the person is. In your screenwriting it’s best if your exposition is almost invisible so the audience doesn’t feel they are being spoon-feed info.

In real life people are constantly giving us exposition. Two pieces of real life expo that come to mind were in the form of a warning about other people. The first one came years ago when I was young and began a job wide-eyed and excited. A fellow who had been at the company a few years warned me about the president of the company; “Be careful there is a trail of broken relationships behind him.”

That was a great bit of exposition given in a way that was fresh and allowed me to fill in the blanks without knowing the details. Another person I worked with said of someone we knew, “I know there is a good person in there wanting to come out.” Great line.

And a fellow I once interviewed for a video told me, “The memories of my father could be put on the back of a postage stamp.” That one lines says lot more than a typical movie scene than dumping a two-minute monologue on what a bad a father he had.

This week keep track of how exposition is given to you in real life and in movies and TV shows you watch. Detective shows on TV are some of the worst at dumping exposition on an audience because they have to front load so much information because they need to grab your attention early so you know what’s going on before you change the channel. 
”Okay, we think Joe did this because his girlfriend just broke up with him and he lost his job at the factory where he works and he has a hunting rifle that uses the same caliber bullet that was used in the murder.” Then they often dump more exposition right at the end to explain all the details of why such and such happened.

Consider these great lines from movies that convey exposition in an excellent way:

“What was your Childhood like?”
“Short.”
Escape from Alcatraz

“What do you do with a girl when you’re through with her?”
“I’ve never had a girl.”
An Officer and a Gentleman

“Are you something else I’m going to have to live through?”
Erin Brockovich

In one sentence we get a glimpse that Erin’s been through some crap.

A key to writing good exposition is to only reveal what you have to reveal. We do this in real life. It’s the guy who says after the fifth date when things are getting more serious, “Have I told you I have a kid?”

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid timely exposition comes just before there is going to be a shootout and Butch says to Sundance: “Kid, I think there’s something I ought to tell you. I never shot anybody before. ” Sundance replies, “One hell of a time to tell me.” And at 90 minutes into the film it is one hell of a time to tell the audience this little bit of exposition. Butch is an outlaw and a bank robber and the admission catches Sundance and the audience off guard.

Films often use exposition early in the film to set the stage as in Jerry Maguire where the Tom Cruise character explains what a sports agent does. (Speaking of Jerry Maguire, I loved how screenwriter Cameron Crowe actually used exposition to avoid the usual spill-your-guts exposition moment when Dorothy tells Jerry, “Let’s not tell all our sad stories.”)

The stuff you have to get out to set up you story is what Blake Snyder calls “laying pipe” and warns that audiences can only stand so much of that before they get bored with the technical jargon.

“Laying Pipe,” is about how much screen time you must use to set up your story. In my opinion, audiences will only stand for so much of that. A good example of “too much pipe” is Minority Report, which does not get going until Minute 40. Why? Because this adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story requires A LOT of pipe! And to me, it torques the whole movie out of shape. So we must be careful. Just because we can lean on the built-in audiences that a beloved novel brings, we have to make sure we create a movie-going experience that resonates for everyone — even those who aren’t familiar with the book.
Blake Snyder

See how well exposition is handled in Man in Black: “What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the more deadlier poisons known to man.” Mystery Man on Film says of this line of exposition: “Perfect.  The pipe is laid, the audience knows the name of the poison, its properties, and how it works.  More important, the audience knows how this scene is going to work — one of the men will die from ingesting the poison.”

One reason flashbacks in general are frowned upon in screenplays is because they are often put there to simply be an info dump rather than being integral to the story. But flashbacks and life recaps can be handled well.

In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character says, “Dad was a Yankees fan then so, of course, I rooted for Brooklyn. But in ’58 the Dodgers moved away so we had to find other things to fight about.” Two lines that sums up his relationship with his father.

“But you have to be careful that your characters are not talking only in order to get information out. If you need to give the audience a bit of information, make sure to give the character his own reason to tell us about it. That’s called making the dialogue organic to the character.”
Alex Epstein
Crafty Screenwriting

“Always ask yourself: Would the character actually say this, or is he only saying it because you need the audience to know some fact or detail? If the answer is the latter, you’re writing exposition and not dialogue. That’s not good.”
John August
Big Fish

Save the best exposition for last. Of course, one of the best examples of this is when Darth Vader says, “Luke, I am your father.” I was at midnight showing in Hollywood when I first heard that line uttered and it was a personal great movie moment. Other great memorable lines of powerful expo are “I see dead people” (The Sixth Sense) and “She’s my sister and my daughter” (Chinatown).

Good exposition doesn’t need to be spoken either. “Show don’t tell” is a popular Hollywood phrase. Films are visual. When Jack Nickelson’s character continually washes his hands in As Good as it Gets we get a hint that he’s a obsessive compulsive neurotic. We don’t need to have him explain to a character why he washes his hands. We don’t need to see a flashback of him growing up in a dirty household where his mother didn’t let him wash his hands in order to save on the water bill.

In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character reads books in a room filled with books. We get a clue that he reads a lot. Simple visual exposition.

Sometimes you can use false exposition to lead the characters and audience astray as Norman Bates does in Psycho. Just because someone tells you something (and even believes it themselves) doesn’t mean it’s true.

Subtext is another way of masking exposition. Actors love to talk about playing subtext. That is what is being said beyond the words. Think of the many ways someone can say “I love You” and have it mean so many different things including “I hate you.”

As you’re writing and rewriting your script be aware of how exposition is being conveyed. Make ever effort to make the exposition seamless and is there for a good reason.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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Thanks in part to the plethora of new books and seminars on screenwriting, a new phenomenon is taking over Hollywood: Major scripts are skillfully, seductively shaped, yet they are soulless. They tend to be shiny but superficial.”

                            Richard Walter
UCLA Screenwriting Professor

 “Where do we go to solves life’s problems? We go to the movies… Stories are the language of the heart.”

John Eldredge

In my post “Screenwriting by Numbers” I pointed out some basic numbers common to the majority of produced screenplays. But now we’re going to go beyond mere numbers and talk about what make movies work beyond the level of entertainment.

The only time I watch cable TV is when I’m on the road. And it seems like every trip I take The Shawshank Redemption is on some channel. Maybe they should just dedicate a channel to that movie.  The Shawshank Channel. The simple reason that film is on so much is people love that film. It trades places with The Godfather on IMDB.com as fans’ favorite film.

It’s the highest rated film by Yahoo! Movies and by the 2006 the readers of Empire magazine.

The Shawshank Redepmtion is a movie people identify with. Not because they were once in a prison in Ohio back in the day, but because through all of life’s danger, toils and snares — we need hope. We can sympathize with Andy Dufresne and his predicament. An early Jimmy Buffett song comes to mind, “There’s nothing soft about hard times.”

For any writer looking for excuses don’t look to Stephen King. Long before he wrote the novella that would become The Shawshank Redemption he was an unpublished writer with a stack of rejections, teaching high school English in Hampden, Maine and living in a trailer with his wife and kid and having trouble making ends meet. He wrote his first novel (Carrie) in a laundry room balancing a typewriter on his knees. (Please read the February 12 post Screenwriters Head Back-to-Work (Tip #2) if you want to get rid of the “artist” monkey on your back.)

Once King had success then he had to deal with a drug and alcohol addiction as well as getting hit by a van while the driver was reaching for “one of those Mars bars.” A collapsed lung, a broken leg in nine places, a shattered hip and after who knows how much physical therapy and pain, he is still writing away.

Stephen King understands hard times.

We understand hard times. That’s a universal theme that doesn’t need explaining.

“Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
                 Forrest Gump, (While Jenny throws rocks at the house she grew up in.)

“Are you going to be something else I have to survive?”
                                                                                          Erin Brockovich
“I coulda been somebody.”
                                                                                          On the Waterfront 

“You don’t throw a whole life away just cause it’s banged up a little.”
 Seabiscuit 

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
William Butler Yeats
poem, The Second Coming 

“You’re breaking up with me?! I thought you were proposing.”
                                                                                          Legally Blonde

“I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that, but prison is no fairy-tale world.”
                                                                             The Shawshank Redemption 


I think Shawshank’s ongoing popularity is because the story simply transcends film. Director Frank Darabont talks about getting many letters from people thanking him for making that film because it helped them through a difficult time in their life.

It’s doubtful that when King wrote the Shawshank story or when Darabont wrote the script that either were thinking that this male dominated prison story would bring comfort to a woman going through a divorce. But good stories have a way of creeping into our lives in unexpected ways.

In seminars I’ve given it’s amazing to see how the same films pop up when I ask what films people watch over and over again:

The Wizard of Oz
Forrest Gump
Apollo 13
Star Wars
Casablanca
When Harry Met Sally
Princess Bride
Good Will Hunting
Rain Man
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Sound of Music
Braveheart

Something resonates in those films with large groups of people. I heard director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) recently say on a DVD commentary that his films were a mixture of spectacle and humanity. I think that would be true of most of the above films.

When we write we are writing about ourselves. A good part of writing is self-discovery. The odds are good that in the films you see over and over again you are identifying with a character or a situation.

This is where we tap into writing beyond the numbers. It’s the reason that films that don’t fit the typical Hollywood mold find an audience.

Have you ever walked into a show home and been impressed at first only to feel that it’s well decorated but impersonal? The house I grew up in had a place in our kitchen where we had a growth chart on a wall. It was fun to look back over the years and see how you had grown. I’ve never seen a growth chart in a show home. No worn out carpet, no stacks of paper, no drawings by the kids on the refrigerator. Nothing authentic. No sign of life.

Just as your home should be full of stories and memories- and life- so should your screenplays.

“There should be something in the writing that indicates that it was written by a person.”

William Zinsser
On Writing Well

What sets your writing apart? The same thing that sets you apart from the crowd.

Your vision, your life experiences, and your worldview. It is why first time writers (like Diablo Cody) sometimes break in with an original story. (By the way, speaking of Cody, the Juno DVD is out this week.) This is also where Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside LA comes into play big time. Here is why I think writers from outside LA, or writers in LA that keep their hometown non-LA roots, have a better chance of showing audiences something new.

“If you try to write honestly about yourself, you’re writing about every single individual in the world.”
                                                                 Walter Brown Newman
Oscar & Emmy nominated Screenwriter

I heard a speaker once say that basically we all grew up in the same neighborhood. I took that to mean we all long for the same basic things; Food, shelter, love, dignity, purpose.

Primal needs as Blake Snyder would say.

You don’t have to be a salesman to identify with Willy Loman’s need for significance in Death of a Salesman.

Sometimes as writers we jump through all kinds of strange hoops trying to guess what will sell. We err on one side by trying to write the sensational story that everyone will love and on the other side by writing the small personal story where nothing really happens.

“It’s all one story, really, the story of who we are and how we relate and how we get it wrong.”
                                                                                                Ron Bass
Rain Man

“We spend much of our lives trying to reconcile these two halves of our spirit and soul — call it identity –as we struggle to figure out just what and who we genuinely are…The reason we go to movies is precisely to explore these perpetually unanswerable questions regarding our identity.”

                                                                                                   Richard Walter

Think how these films deal with the theme of identity (who am I?):

Babe
Big
Toy Story
Shriek
Stand By Me
Fight Club
Elf
Lion King
Finding Nemo
Seabiscuit
An Officer and a Gentleman
Sense and Sensibility
Office Space
The Incredibles

They’re all about identity. Yes, we can identify with not only people, but pigs, orges, fish, and horses.

“Each film tells a story in which the central character seeks only to discover his own true identity.”

     Richard Walter

We never know how high we are, until we are called to rise and then if we are true to form, our statues touch the skies.”

Emily Dickinson

“I finally became the man I always wanted to be.”

Jerry Maguire, mission statement
written by Cameron Crowe


“Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.”

                 Anne Lamont 

“Stories are equipment for living”

Kenneth Burke

One of the female writers at a seminar I once gave said movies were cheap therapy. Perhaps you’ve seen the book Cinematherapy which develops with that concept. And cinematherapy is not just a chick thing. Once when I was at Blockbuster I saw a guy pick up Braveheart to rent and his girlfriend said, “You’ve watched that 100 times,” to which he said, “And I’ll watch it 100 more times.”

We want to be the hero of our story and we are inspired by heroes of stories we read and watch. We identify with them. We identify with William Wallace, Hans Solo, Erin Brockovich and Cinderella.

Not all films have identity themes but those that do tend to not only have a long following, but they tend to do well at award time as Linda Seger points out in her book Advanced Screenwriting, “If we look at some Academy Award winners of the 1980s and 1990s, we can see an identity theme shimmering though the philosophical, theological, and/or psychological ideas.”

That trend hasn’t stopped in the 2000s, nor is it likely to as longs as human beings roam the earth.

 “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

                                                                                 The Shawshank Redemption

Get busy writing, too.

Related posts:
Broken Wings & Silver Linings
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
Diablo Cody on Theme
Theme=What Yor Movie is Really About

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” Grant Wood (Iowa painter, American Gothic)


ideas.jpg

“The way to have a great idea is to have lots of ideas.”
Linus Pauling
1901-1994
Nobel Prize Winning American Scientist

Where do creative ideas come from?

Katie Couric once asked Jerry Seinfeld where his funny ideas came from and he said, “That’s like asking where trees come from.”

 

I hate to disagree with Seinfeld, but I think a better answer is ideas come from everywhere.

Here’s the formula that I’ve come up with; A+B = C.  There doesn’t that help? (Can someone pass that along to Jerry?) This is how Seinfeld connects things: “Now why does moisture ruin leather? I don’t get this. Aren’t cows outside most of the time?” Basic, funny and original.

People that are a lot smarter than me call it dialectical logic. That’s when you connect two unrelated things. A+B= C is simply the result of something new after we’ve connect two unrelated things.

When I was a kid there was this commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups where a guy comes around the corner eating peanut butter from a jar (like we all walk around doing) and another guys from around the other corner eating chocolate and they run into each other. The one guys say, “Your chocolate is in my peanut butter” and the other guy says, “Your peanut butter is in my chocolate.” But they try the PB/Chocolate mix and both decide it’s good.

A (peanut butter) + B (chocolate) = Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. (By the way, that’s why these blogs are so long because I keep making connections.) My goal is make them shorter.

Illustrator Gary Kelley says, “Creativity is connecting influences.” If you go into his studio you’ll find a menagerie of art books and torn out photos from magazines that are there to inspire him. Sometimes he tapes them to his easel.

Creativity is not something that only a few mystical souls can tap into. (Granted the quality of the Seinfeld’s creative ideas is what sets him apart.) Nor is it just limited to the arts.

The story goes that back in the 60’s when a couple guys bolted a sail to a door and made the first windsurfer and became very wealthy from their new invention. Thomas Edison’s inventions were the results of lots of creativity–as well as a lot of trail and error.

Another story goes that the founder of the zillion selling “Dummies” books was in a bookstore and overheard a guy ask a salesperson, “Do you have a basic book on computers? Like computers for dummies.”

(This story has been disputed. As they say, success has many fathers.)

Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Many of us are guilty of saying, “if I could just head to the beach or the mountains and just get a little place without all the day-to-day distractions then I could really get some ideas down on paper. No kids, no work issues. No people problems. Just a place of nirvana were the my creativity would be free-flowing.”

There’s a word for that—fantasy. And being from Orlando originally I can tell you that’s not Fantasyland. Ask anyone who’s ever worked at Disney World about kids, work issues and people problems. (Speaking of Fantasyland, does anyone else miss Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride?)

There was an episode on The Andy Griffith Show were Andy wants to be a writer and he get the typewriter and the cabin in the woods and he’s ready to go. As soon as he tidies up the place. It’s easy for writers to find reasons not to write.

After I go to this seminar…

When I get a new computer…

When I get that new software…

Then I’m really going to start writing. I’ve done all those things. I also used to buy pants a little tight because I was going to lose a few pounds. As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

You need to go at inspiration with a club? Okay, but how do you do that?

“In action, there is power, grace and magic.” Goethe

You simply start writing. It may just be notes on a paper, but it’s a start. (I like Vicki King’s book How to Write A Screenplay in 20 Days because she pushes you to write.) It may not be any good. It probably won’t sell. (Though Stallone says he wrote Rocky in less than a week.) But you will learn a ton about writing and yourself. And it will give you confidence for the next script.

Musician Jimmy Buffett said on a 60 Minutes interview, “I’m not an every note kind of guy, I’m a capture the magic kind of guy.”

When you start writing you are taking those first steps toward capturing the magic.

The creative process is hard to explain and hard to show on film. But the movie Pollack with Ed Harris has a wonderful scene where we see the spark of creativity that became Pollack’s signature style. He’s in the process of painting when he accidentally spills some paint on the canvas and he does it again and then again. He has an epiphany, and it happens not while he’s reading a book on painting, but while he’s painting.

Creativity is a messy process. You’re going to get paint on your shoes. But you will make discoveries in the process.

A great example in the photography world is Ansel Adams. Adams was a brilliant photographer though it took decades of photographs before the world came to understand that. He would often go into the mountains with a donkey carrying his large format cameras and would often camp out to watch what the light would do.

He is known particularly for his early photographs in Yosemite National Park, but one of his most famous photographs is called Moon Over Hernandez.  He captured that photograph late one afternoon while driving in New Mexico. By the time he pulled over and set up his 8X10 camera the light was fading fast and he couldn’t find his light meter so he had to guess on the exposure. His experience paid off but he was only able to take one shot before the light was gone on the cross that grabbed his eye. It is one of his most recognizable photographs.

He had a firm understand of his craft so he could recognize and opportunity when he saw it. He captured the magic.

Stephen King says that a writer he is like a paleontologist. He sees something interesting buried in the dirt and he goes over and brushes away the dirt. He’s unearthing stories.

What is important is to write down what you find. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield was asked how he came up with so much material and he said that three funny things happen to everybody everyday, he just writes them down.

One real estate expert says the secret to his success is “Always be looking.” When you need to find a deal on a house over the weekend it’s difficult. But if you’re always looking there’s a good chance you’ll find a good investment.

You need to cultivate looking for ideas. It may come in an article you read, a person you meet, or seemingly out of no where. Think of it like filling a blender with things that interest you. You mix it all together and out of the overflow comes your original ideas.

It is all about discovery.  Recently I heard on the radio a fellow talk about what it’s like to re-enter the world after being in prison for years. He said when you first get out you’re in sensory overload. Colors are more vibrant; you hear sounds more clearly. He said when he first got out he wanted to run to people and say, “Do you see those colors?” His senses were alive.

Keeping your senses alive to the world around you heightens your experiences and makes you feel alive.  And when our sense are alive we are more likely to be creative (idea-prone) because we are making new connections.

“ An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” James Webb Young

Or A + B = C

“An idea is a feat of association.” Poet Robert Frost

A + B = C

Arthur Koestler: wrote a whole book on the creative process and says this: “The Creative act…uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.”

 

Stephen King writes, “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

The more you have in your brain to select and reshuffle, the more creative you will be. My favorite quote in regards to this comes from a creative giant of our day Apple & Pixar’s Steven Jobs:

“Expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you are doing.”

Paul Schrader who wrote Taxidriver once thought he could write a screenplay with Bob Dylan but realized he couldn’t because while most people think in terms of one, two, three, A, B, C and Dylan thinks in terms of One, blue, banana. ( So in Dylan’s case it may be 1 + Blue + Banana = The Times They Are a-Changin’.)

Just a different way of connecting the dots. Like that fellow in A Beautiful Mind with his string connecting letters in newspapers. Although that’s a result where the mind goes into the realm of bizarre in making connections that aren’t healthy.

But I love the scene in Jerry Maguire after Jerry has been fired and he stands before the entire office and asked who is coming with him on his new venture. No one moves. His secretary says she’s close to another pay raise. Total embarrassment for the Tom Cruise character. He’s humiliated so what does he do? He turns to the fish tank and says “The fish are coming with me.”

And the fish become a motif throughout the film.

Chances are if you asked the screenwriter Cameron Crowe how he came up with that scene he wouldn’t know. But he captured the magic.

Pieces of April was written by Peter Hedges (who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa by the way) and is a story about a wayward young girl who wants to make amends with her family as her mother is dying of cancer and she wants to cook dinner for everyone at her small New York City apartment.

As her family drives in from the suburbs her oven breaks and her single goal in life is to find away to get the turkey cooked so it doesn’t turn into another family disaster. It’s a wonder film. Hedges said he heard a similar true story years ago and connected it with his mother dying of cancer.

So when you hear a story or have a thought that strikes your fancy write it down. Your own background and twist on life will give it originality. Juno was not the first unplanned pregnancy movie in history or even of 2007. But Diablo Cody’s slant gave it originality and that originality was what earned her an Academy Award. (Though I must add that just because your ideas is original don’t expect it to always be that well received.)

Cody has said in interviews that she doesn’t know where the idea for Juno came from. You can control the influences you put in your life, trying to force results is moving beyond the veil of mystery.

If Grant Wood really did get his best ideas while milking cows it could have been the regular, mundane, repetitive work that was the key.

Julia Cameron writes about this in The Artist’s Way. She quotes Einstein as having asked, “Why do I get my best ideas in the shower?” She said Steven Spielberg claims some of his best ideas come while driving on freeways. Many writers, (like Hemingway) have been regular swimmers and others (Stephen King) have been walkers. All activities that seem to stimulate creative ideas.

Musician Jack Johnson hits the waves as he told Rolling Stone magazine (March 8, 2008), “You’ve got to fill up your mind. When I get home from a tour, I put away the guitar and surf a lot. After awhile, the songs just start comin’.”

One person who often tops many people’s “most creative” list is comedian Robin Williams who is an avid bicyclist. That is an artist brain activity that fills the brain with images. One of the things that makes Williams fun to watch as he does improv is the rapid fire way his brain makes connections. (He is not only unusually gifted, but many people forget that he was trained at Julliard.)

An excellent book on ideas is How To Get Ideas by former advertising art director Jack Foster. And the documentary Comedian with Jerry Seinfeld shows the hard work of making funny connections as we watch him develop fresh comedy material.

Your creativity comes out of the overflow of the people, places, and things you pour into your life. So be curious and connected. Fill your blender with influences and the next time you need a creative surge remember the simple formula A+B=C.

If that doesn’t work try milking a cow.

Photo & Text Copyright @2008 Scott W. Smith

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