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Posts Tagged ‘Chicago Sun-Times’

Pearl Harbor is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle.”
Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times

“I’ve always said that you should have different critics like in the music press – you don’t have an expert on opera reviewing Kid Rock.”
Jerry Bruckheimer
Producer, Pearl Harbor (domestic gross $198 million)


What is it about Jerry Bruckheimer that has allowed him to tap into films and TV programs that people want to see? Here’s just a partial list of some of the films that he has produced:

Beverly Hills Cop
Top Gun
Flashdance
Crimson Tide
Bad Boys
Black Hawk Down
National Treasure
Pirates of the Caribbean
(All of them)

And just this past weekend Bruckheimer’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opened with $37.8 milion. (And his soon to be released The Sorcerer’s Apprentice will probably make a dollar or two this summer.)

Which means he’s been able to work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood; Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Sean Connery, and Johnny Depp. And for good measure he produces for TV as well. (CSI, CSI Miami, Cold Case, The Amazing Race)

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s box office secret is really no secret at all, he simply says, “I just make movies I want to see.” Simple, right?

CSI creator Anthony Zuiker says Bruckeimer is “ferociously commercial.” He makes the kinds of films that a large group of people want to see on any given Friday and Saturday night. Of course, it’s his ferociously commercial spirit that brings more than a few critics to his work. But he is called Mr. Blockbuster not Mr. Small Contemplative Art House Producer.

“If I made films for the critics, or for someone else, I’d probably be living in some small Hollywood studio apartment.”
Jerry Bruckheimer

And here are two more quotes that some would scoff at if Bruckheimer himself would have said them.

“No artist—notably no film or television writer—need apologize for entertaining an assembled mass of people.”
Richard Walter (UCLA screenwriting professor)
Screenwriting, page 12

“I like (audiences) to enjoy the film. It’s an arcade amusement; it’s not penicillin. It’s an arcade amuesment—take people’s minds off their troubles and give’em a little bit of fun. And sell some popcorn.”
David Mamet
Conversations with Screenwriters
Interview with Susan Bullington Katz, page 200

And while Bruckheimer’s films have allowed him to own nice digs (slightly nicer than a studio apartment) in Los Angeles and Ojai, California, as well as a horse ranch in Kentucky, he grew up in humble circumstances with Jewish-German immigrant parents in Detroit, Michigan. At a young age Bruckheimer developed a love for photography and movies.

“I’m a big fan of David Lean. Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago are movies that were seminal films for me when I was growing up. I admire the filmmaking and the storytelling ability of Lean and [screenwriter] Robert Bolt, so that’s what I look toward for inspiration.”
Jerry Bruckheimer
Barnes & Noble Interview

Many people also overlook that Bruckheimer has also produced the more down-to-earth and inspirational films Glory Road, Remember the Titans, and Dangerous Minds.

He went to college at the University of Arizona where he didn’t major in film but psychology. He returned to Detroit where he began making automotive commercials. He did that well enough to take his talents to New York while still in his early and mid-twenties, but left the lucrative world of commercial work to try to make his mark in Hollywood.

And for the last 30 years that’s what Bruckheimer has done. To the tune of four billion plus box office dollars. (Yes, $4 billion.) An average $110 million per picture on over 40 films. A couple of weeks ago Bruckheimer got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Tom Cruise was on hand to add his sentiments:

“We’re here to celebrate the greatest producer in modern history. He certainly stands very tall in the pantheon of producers in Hollywood. He’s not only a hard-working, dedicated filmmaker but he’s a loyal friend to everyone within our industry and to all the fans around the world.”

And even though Bruckheimer is as connected to Hollywood as you can get, he’s still connected to the world outside of Hollywood.

Bruckheimer’s wife Linda (who is a novelist and producer) has bought and restored several buildings in her hometown of Bloomfield, Kentucky where she and her husband own a house. Last year Jerry & Linda gave the commencement address to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Jerry told the class, “God has given everybody a gift, and your task is to find yours, develop it, and dream beyond your ability. Look to your past and preserve what’s most valuable for your future…just as the next generation will look to you for guidance.”

Tomorrow I’ll look at two screenwriters also from Detroit that Bruckheimer has recently worked with.

PS. Interesting Kentucky connection—Johnny Depp (who Bruckheimer has made a film or two with) is from Owensboro, Kentucky. Tom Cruise, who moved a lot as a youth, lived (and was a paperboy) in Louisville, Kentucky for a short time, not far from Bloomfield. (Toss in that George Clooney was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky and it’s fun to think that at one time in the late sixties or early seventies Depp, Cruise, and Clooney all lived— at the same time— in the state of Kentucky.)

Related post: Screenwriting from Michigan

Scott W. Smith

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(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade


“I don’t know if you saw the parting of the Red Sea with the chariots on the horses, I did stuff like that.”
Richard Farnswort
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After I posted the above Goldman comment yesterday on the post titled Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” it jogged my memory of another story about a career transition—both fictional and real life. The Grey Fox was released in 1982 about a decade after Butch Cassidy, but there are some similarities, mostly the concept of change in the Old West.

Richard Farnsworth plays a former stagecoach robber who is released from San Quintin after serving 33 years for his crimes. When he gets out in 1903 it’s a new world—the stagescoaches are out and movies are in. His character, Bill Miner, goes to see The Great Train Robbery and is inspired to take up his old ways yet with a new fresh angle.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film so I’ll rely on Rodger Ebert’s account to bring us all up to speed:

“(The Great Train Robbery.) That famous movie is only eleven minutes long, but long enough to make everything absolutely clear to Miner, who realizes he has a new calling in life, as a train robber. All of this could, of course, be an innocuous Disney movie, but it’s well-written and directed, and what gives it zest and joy is the performance by Richard Farnsworth, who plays Miner. Maybe you’ll recognize Farnsworth when you see him on the screen. Maybe not. His life has been one of those careers that makes you realize Hollywood is a company town, where you can make a living for years and never be a star. Farnsworth has been in more than three hundred movies.”
Roget Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, The Grey Fox
January 1. 1982

Though Farnsworth had been in more than 300 films, they were mostly as a stuntman. He doubled for some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors; Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen. You think he might have picked up a thing or two about acting from those fellows because after 30 years as a stuntman he began acting.

And he did it well enough to receive a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1979 for his role in Comes a Horseman and another Oscar nomination for Lead Actor in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (that was filmed right here in Iowa). He was 79 at the time of the nomination making him the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor nomination.

You may also remember his roles in The Natural, The Two Jakes, and Misery. I had the good fortune to meet Richard Farnsworth at a movie theater in Burbank some time in the 80s. Nothing exciting, he was just standing in front of me waiting to buy popcorn or whatever.

“Are you Richard Farnsworth?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I appreciate your work.”
“Thank You.”

He smiled and we shook hands. This was in the days before IMDB so I didn’t know in that simple exchange I was shaking hands with a man who was a real life Forrest Gump in the film industry having been in some legendary Hollywood productions;   Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Ten Commandments, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Roots, Bonanza, The Wild One,  Blazing Saddles, Spartacus and many others.

That means to one degree or another he worked with John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Howard Hawks,  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Cecil B. DeMille.

I don’t know how long stuntman work on a regular basis in Hollywood, but it has to take its toll on your body.  Farnsworth’s last credit as a stuntman was 1975 when he would have been 55. He was almost 60 when his acting career took off. He changed with the times.

By the way, the screenwriter of The Grey Fox, John Hunter,  was no spring chicken himself and was 71 when the movie was released.

Oh yeah, Farnsworth did stunts in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, too.

Scott W. Smith


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“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a reminder of what movies are for. Most movies are not for any one thing, of course. Some are to make us think, some to make us feel, some to take us away from our problems, some to help us examine them. What is enchanting about E.T. is that, in some measure, it does all of those things.”
Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun Times

“The image of E.T. emerging from his mobile tomb summons a storehouse of symbols that mark the presence of God and divine miracle.”
Roy M Anker
Catching Light

Hollywood has had an interesting dance with religious films over the years with various degrees of successes, failures and controversy. An abridged list includes The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, Seven Years in Tibet, King David, Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ.

The biggest game changer being The Passion of the Christ. Oddly, the violent retelling of the crucifixion of Christ became the all time R-rated box office champ. Mel Gibson’s $30 million dollar gamble eventually  paid a dividend of $600 million at the world-wide box office. Despite it’s predicted failure at the box office, in the year it was released (2004) it became the seventh highest grossing movie ever. (With the audience it found some would say it paved the way for films like The Book of Eli and The Blind Side.)

Speaking of The Passion, did you ever see the humorous studio notes Steve Martin wrote for the The New Yorker?:

Dear Mel,
We love,
love the script! The ending works great. You’ll be getting a call from us to start negotiations for the book rights…Possible title change: “Lethal Passion.” Kinda works. The more I say it out loud the more I like it.

But in general Hollywood has had much more luck dealing with stories that would be considered spiritual allegories. They tend to me less didactic, less overtly religious and less controversal, and generally better stories.  And the box office responds much better to them. Films I would put in this category are Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia,  Star Wars, and The Matrix. (Though it’s fair to say that not everyone is in one accord with the meanings of these films. But then again, how many different religions are there? Focus on something like separate protestant denominations and you’ll see the numbers climb into the the thousands. Getting people to agree is not that easy.)

In the spirit of Easter, one film that has been closely identified with the death and resurrection of Christ is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the movie,”essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the filmmaker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination.”

Written by Melissa Mathison (a self-described “ex-Catholic’) and directed by Steven Spielberg (raised Jewish in Anglo-Saxon suburbs) there has been much written about the spiritual aspects of E.T., but Spielberg has said (in Take 22; Moviemakers on Moviemaking) that, “If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles.”

So much detail went into the technical aspects of E.T. it would be hard to believe that Spielberg and Mathison were not at least aware of the spiritual parallels they were drawing on. (At least kicking around somewhere in Mathison’s Catholic-schooled subconscious in the eight weeks she took writing the first draft.) But I don’t think they were pandering to a Christian audience, in fact, when the movie first came out some Christian leaders were calling the film “new age.”

Spielberg and Mathison were simply trying to tell a story that would make a good movie, and in doing so tapped into their own upbringing (Spielberg has talked about his parents divorce and his longing for an imaginary friend), their spiritual upbringing, mixed with creative imagination, as well as a powerful death and resurrection theme that many associate with the cornerstone of the Christian faith. (Of course, Joseph Campbell would make the case that death and resurrection themes pre-date Christ, but that opens up a whole different can of worms.)

But in making E.T. the filmmakers made one of the most uplifting films ever and the one that the American Film Institute currently lists as the 25th greatest American film. Sitting nicely between Raging Bull and Dr. Strangelove.

© 2010 Scott W. Smith



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“When film came to Japan,  the country had only allowed foreign imports for a few decades. The nation’s culture—which means its way of accounting for, of constructing, of assuming—was still its own.”
Donald Richie
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film

It’s been a while since I took a screenwriting road trip and today seems like a good day to do so. Yesterday I mentioned Louie Psihoyos and his Oscar-winning documentary The Cove which was shot in Japan so that seems like a fitting place to head.

My knowledge of Japanese cinema is limited but I know enough to say they have a long eclectic love affair with movies. From Godzilla to Kurosawa covers a lot of ground.

I imagine as a kid the Godzilla films were the first I ever saw that were made in Japan. Kurosawa I starting watching while in film school. In fact, Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Rashomon are pretty much the go to films that he made that are considered all-time cinema classics. Later via Paul Schrader’s book Transcendental Style in Film I became familiar with Yasujiro Ozu (Toyko Story, An Autumn Afternoon).

More recently (though I confess to never having seen any of his film) Academy Award-winner Hayo Miyazaki (Porco Rosso, Princess MonokeSpirited Away) is considered by some Japan’s top director and his anime the best ever. (These days more than half of the films produced in Japan are anime.)  I’m sure I’m leaving out many of the top filmmakers in Japan, but this is just meant as an overview to show films and screenwriting done far from Hollywood.

One film I did see just over the weekend that I would consider one of the best films I’ve seen in the last 10 years is Okuribito (Departures) directed by Yojiro Takita and staring Masahiro Motoki. At the Academy Awards in 2009 it won best foreign film. The script was the first feature film written by Kundo Koyama (known for his work as a TV writer) loosely based on Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician by Aoki Shinmon.

If I know little about Japanese cinema, I know even less about Buddhism and its rituals. (And I don’t know if the traditions in the movie were even rooted in Buddhism, but I know they were foreign to me.) But as an American and a Christian I found that Departures deals with the passage of physical death in a beautiful way that I wish was practiced here.

In western cultures we sterilize death. We’re told someone has died a few days later there is a service and that’s it. In fact, when my father died years ago I was at a TV studio in Florida getting ready to direct a program when I was informed of the news. To the man I had known a lifetime, had visited two weeks prior, and spoken to on the phone the day before–that was it, he was gone. I never saw his body, he was cremated, and then a while later there was a service at a military cemetery in Clearwater. Like most funerals or memorial services I’ve been to the whole thing seems like an abrupt ending to life, and impersonal.

The film Departures shows a culture and a tradition that I have never seen before in Western culture. A tradition rooted in respect and honor which seems to be the basis for many Japanese films. It’s a film that shows a tradition where time is stopped to reflect on the passing of a life in a way that is personal and meaningful. A time to say goodbye. A time to reflect on your own life.

And for all I know it may be a passing tradition in Japan itself as families become more fragmented, hurried and westernized.

So I was curious to find out a little more about this film and found this quote by the director;

“Because it deals with the very tricky subject of death he and the producers at the time weren’t sure how to go about making a film out of this. It probably took about 15 years since the idea was first conceived to the completion of the film. It was a producer at an independent production company who felt strongly that this film should be made. Many of us are around the same age, and we got to a certain point in our lives when death was slowly creeping up to become a factor around us with the people that we knew. And death, of course, is something that many of us around the world, of course, tend to avoid as a subject matter altogether.  We don’t like to think about it. But we felt at this point, we really should face it head-on and do something with that subject matter…But in the process of making the film, and looking at how we honor those who’ve passed I came to realize that the film is ultimately about the value of life and how we honor those who’ve passed and how we look at and confront out own lives and the act of living.”
Yojiro Takita
From an interview on the  Departures DVD

If you haven’t seen the film, here are a couple quotes from critics;
“The ultimate beauty of the film rests in its symbolic details that bridge the abyss between the living and the dead.”
Andrew Sarris, New York Observer

The music is lush and sentimental in a subdued way, the cinematography is perfectly framed and evocative, and the movie is uncommonly absorbing.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

As it turns out, I have read that the topic of death is somewhat taboo in Japan so the filmmakers didn’t know if anyone would want to see this film. But it did very well in the box office in Japan and then won an Academy Award here in the states which were nice payoffs for the 15 year journey they took to get the film made.

So yeah, there is some good stuff happening east of L.A….even far-east of L.A.

P.S. In the forward of A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Paul Schrader (screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Yakuza) writes of the book’s author, “Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie.” (And for what it’s worth Richie—this expert on Japanese films who has lived in Japan since 1947— is originally from Lima, Ohio.) His commentaries can be found on the The Criterion Collection of many DVDs of Ozu and Kurosawa’s films.
Scott W. Smith


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