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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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All week I’ve been working on a production in Sioux City, Iowa which happens to be where Ann Landers and her sister Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby) were born and educated. Long before Oprah and Dr. Phil were giving advice the identical twins had quite a following through their newspaper columns published across the country. 

In 2006 playwright (and CSI screenwriter) David Rambo wrote a play about Ann Landers called The Lady with All the Answers. 

I found an interview Rambo did with Cristin Kelly for the Florida Studio Theater and where the quote of the day comes from and which shows how you can find writing material in unusual places;

Cristin Kelly: What prompted you to start writing The Lady With All the Answers? 

David Rambo: When Ann Landers died, I read the obituary and remembered growing up and reading her column everyday. I’d wanted to write a show for one actor – I had never done that before. I thought she was theatrical enough to make it interesting. Plus, I really feel that every play is a dialogue between the audience and the play and Ann Landers ran a dialogue with her readers for 47 years, so it was kind of natural….Her voice is so distinct. Once you tap into it and know where it comes from, it just keeps talking to you. In fact, if I had a problem writing the play it was getting Ann Landers to shut up so I could get to sleep at night!

And how about one quote from Ann Landers herself:
“Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”

 

Scott W. Smith

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“Three years ago I was living in Vegas as the night manager of the Mirage Hotel tram line.”
                                                            Anthony Zuiker
                                                            C.S.I., Creator & Exec. Producer 
                                                            Creative Screenwriting Vol 9 No. 5 (2001) 

 

“I like to gamble. The way I have learned to play poker is by putting a lot of hours into it and learning from my mistakes.” 
                                                             Peter Eastgate          
                                                                                  

Professional gambler Peter Eastgate became a multi-millionaire at 5 AM yesterday morning when he won over 9 million dollars–and a gold watch–at the main event at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. The 22-years-old from Demark also became the youngest person to ever win the tournament.

Eastgate symbolizes to many the best of Vegas. The hope that you can parlay a little into a lot in a short amount of time. (Some would say that is also the problem with Vegas.)

But back in 2003 Chris Moneymaker (yes, his real name) won the same tournament and became the face of Internet gambling. He parlayed $39 into $2.7 million dollars. He had never played in a live professional tournament, but he had gotten so good playing online poker that he could beat all his friends. And he was inspired by the movie Rounders in which Matt Damon plays a poker player in the World Series of Poker.    

That’s one more example of movies reflecting the culture they help create. Now there is talk of a movie being produced on the life of Chris Moneymaker. Maybe Matt Damon can play the lead in that as well — just to keep the cycle going.

“I got lucky along the way. I also bluffed a lot during this tournament, but somehow got away with it.”
                                                             Chris Moneymaker

But what does all this have to do with screenwriting? Once again the key is learning a skill and using the Internet. Just like Diablo Cody (Juno) being discovered on the Internet, Chris Moneymaker refined his game on the Internet.  I don’t think Cody and Moneymaker were as lucky as they were prepared. (Moneymaker did earn a Masters degree in Accounting and had played cards since his youth.) They were prepared for the moment that came there way. 

The same is true for C.S.I. franchise creator Anthony Zuiker who was working at Vegas Hotel when he translated some experiences at work into an immensely popular TV franchise. He had graduated from University of Nevada Las Vegas with a BA in English.  He wasn’t sitting in a coffeeshop in L.A. talking about be a screenwriter. He was in fly-over country (fly-to country?) working a regular job to pay the bills and keeping his eyes open for story ideas.

“The police and I are in this motel room searching for evidence when an officer lifts up the bed skirt. All I see is a pair of eyes before she leaps from beneath the bed clawing at my face. And I thought, ‘There’s a show here.'” 
                                                               Anthony Zuiker

Las Vegas itself is an iconic and fascinating place that I have watched reinvent itself it few times over the last 20 years since I first drove through there in college when they still had $3.99 steak dinners. The last time I was there was four years ago for a video shoot and happened to catch them shooting Miss Congeniality 2 at the Venetian. Vegas may not be a hotbed for creating writers but the atmosphere itself is conducive to a wide array of storytelling.

Leaving Las Vegas
Honeymoon in Las Vegas
Casino
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 
Viva Las Vegas
Heat
Melvin & Howard
The Electric Horseman
21
What Happens in Vegas
Pay it Forward  
3000 Miles to Graceland
Oceans 11 
Bugsy
Indecent Proposal
Vegas Vacation
Showgirls
Swingers
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

If you have a screenplay set in Las Vegas then look into the Nevada Film Office Annual Screenwriting Competition. It’s open to all unsold writers, though 75% of the screenplay must be filmable in Nevada. 

And since we’ve touched a little more on the internet, I think the first book that touched on the web for screenwriters outside L.A. is Christopher Wehner’s Sceeenwriting on the Internet. Wehner also launched screenwritersutopia.com back in 1996 which is packed with helpful information.

“With the Internet you really do have a resource that can help you find a market for your writing. No longer can we sit back and say, “if only I had connections, I could a been a contender…” We’re all contenders now!”
                                                                  Christopher Wehner 

I don’t really know what goes on in the rest of the state of Nevada production-wise because the spotlight always seems to be on Las Vegas. But I do have restaurant recommendation I discovered years ago when I was heading up to Squaw Valley from L.A. for a shoot. On the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe there is a Chart House Restaurant that has one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen. (Life can’t be screenwriting, screenwriting, screenwriting.)

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“If you follow your passion, the money will follow. Success, in my opinion, involves sheer luck, hard work and humility.”
                                                           Anthony Zuiker, creator CSI TV programs

 

“I’m Zack Johnson and I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s about it, I’m a normal guy.”

                                                           Zach Johnson, professional golfer

Last year at this time Zach Johnson’s above quote caused laughter from the press corp in Augusta, Georgia as he spoke those words before a national TV audience after winning the prestigious Masters at Augusta National golf tournament.

But do normal guys come from seemingly nowhere to win their first major tournament against the greatest golfers in the world? Do normal guys fend off Tiger Woods, one of the greatest golfers in the history of the game?

Zach Johnson was sneaky long.

Sneaky long is a golf phrase which describes a golfer, a golf shot, or a particular hole that looks deceptively underrated. Think of it like an Adam Sandler/Bill Murray-like fellow in his goofiest outfit coming up to some serious golfers and saying, “You guys want to put a little money on who can hit the next ball the longest?” They take the bet thinking the guy doesn’t have a chance and he ends up taking their money.

Sneaky long is the underdog that causes snickers. Rocky, Seabiscuit, and Erin Brockovich were all sneaky long. Audiences love an underdog mainly because the underdog represents us and our deepest wishes.

When a 36-year-old writer broke into the TV business (in a business where 30 is old) with a script for an episode for the TV show Hunter (followed by scripts for even lesser remembered TV shows) few probably thought that within ten years this guy was going to write a movie that would win five Oscars. But that’s what happened after Randell Wallace wrote Braveheart.

Johnson’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa has had it’s share of sneaky long characters. NFL quarterback Kurt Warner not only grew up in Cedar Rapids but went to the same high school as Johnson. When no large schools offered him a football scholarship, he signed with the University of Northern Iowa, a Division II college right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

It wasn’t the big-time college football that he’d hoped for, but at least he thought he’d start all four years. However, he sat the bench for three years before making his marking mark his senior year by becoming the Gateway Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Following graduation, he worked as a grocery stocker at HyVee (where I shop these days to pick up the vibe) and then played arena football in Des Moines. Next was pro ball in Europe before joining the St. Louis Rams where he was booed in his first game. He went on to be twice voted the top player in the NFL and Super Bowl XXXIV MVP. Someday they’ll do a movie about his life.

One could even say that artist Grant Wood was sneaky long. He was a schoolteacher and artist who lived in a small apartment above a carriage house in (you guessed it) Cedar Rapids, where he eventually painted one of the most recognizable (and copied and parodied) paintings in the history of art—American Gothic.

Wood once said, “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.” He also coined the term regionalism to define his belief that an artist should “paint out of the land and the people he knows best.”

Isn’t that what Van Gogh did in Arles? Isn’t that what Winslow Homer did in Maine? Isn’t that what Faulkner did in Oxford, what Steinbeck did in Monterey, what O’Connor in Georgia, what Ibsen did in Norway, what Willa Cather did in Nebraska, and what Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) has done in Texas?

This is the heartbeat of Screenwriting from Iowa. Hollywood will always make its tent pole movies. Movies will always have a LA/New York thrust because that’s where the majority of studios, crews, and talent are located.

But if the writer’s strike signaled one thing it’s the times are changing. As the founder of The Geek Squad said recently, “What people don’t understand is the internet hasn’t yet started.” I believe new forms of distribution will fuel a revival in regionalism.

“What regional filmmaking means to me is not only utilizing the actors of your area, the musicians and the artists, but probing what it means to that region. And for me, the thing about Memphis that I’ve always responded to is its music scene, from Sam Phillips recording Howlin’ Wolf, Rudus Thomas, Elvis Presely, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich.”
Craig Brewer, writer/director Hustle & Flow

Audiences for years have been complaining about the lack of originality and seemingly endless repetition of remakes and sequels. (And again that’s why they flocked to Juno.) And writers have struggled with the pressure to write what they think will sell to the masses rather than writing what they know and really want to write.

While advertising dollars are shrinking along with the writing dollars for TV jobs, the advertising dollars are not going away. They’re heading to the internet. And audiences are no longer satisfied the the TV limitations they’ve had in the past. They like being their own Internet programers.

We don’t know what it will look like yet, but the writing jobs (and acting, producing, directing, editing, and shooting jobs) will follow. Like the era from silent movies to sound pictures the industry is shifting.

Hollywood is stocked with talent from all across the United States and Canada. We enjoy hearing stories of Katie Holmes being from Toledo, Ohio and Julia Roberts from Smyrna, Georgia. Even the greater Cedar Rapids area alone has its share of actors in recent films and TV programs.

Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings)
Eric Rouse (Superman Returns)
Michele Monaghan (Mission Impossible III)
Tom Arnold (The Final Season)
Michele Emerson (Lost)
Ron Livingston (Office Space)
Ashton Kutcher (The Guardian)

Did you know that Kutcher grew up in rural Homestead, Iowa and once had a job sweeping up Cheerio dust at the General Mills factory in Cedar Rapids? That was before he became a biochemical engineering student at the University of Iowa, New York model, film and TV actor, and husband of Demi Moore.

Kutcher had the looks, drive, talent, and quirky good fortune to make a name for himself that thousands of small town actors, writers, directors will never find in Hollywood. And what happens to those actors, writers and directors who don’t find fame or fortune in L.A.?

Do they embrace that hotel manager job? Have a career in sales for a health club or a real estate company in the valley? Move back home and unpack their suitcase full of broken dreams? Probably a little of all of that, but it’s going to become less necessary for talent to have to be in New York and LA.

This trend has already been seen in the advertising world as Crispin Porter in Miami was chosen to launch the Mini Cooper campaign years ago. (More recently they revamped VW’s image.) And Virginia’s Martin Agency has been doing the UPS Brown and quirky Geico cavemen & gecko ads. (At Martin they used to have a sign in the creative department that read, “Nobody comes to Richmond for the restaurants.”) Creativity Magazine has called Martin the “Third most creative agency in the world.” And they’re in Virginia! Changing times indeed.

But wherever the sneaky long actor, writer, or director lives they need to keep plugging away at the craft. Keep learning and keep creating.

I’ve said before in workshops I’ve given, “Don’t quit your day job, because you never know how that can serve your work.” (Not to mention it pays the biils.) Johnny Depp says he used to use different voices in the telemarketing job he had when he first moved to L.A. from Florida.

Then there is Anthony Zuiker’s story. After the show he created, CSI, became the top rated scripted show he told Creative Screenwriting magazine, “Three years ago I was living in Vegas as the night manager of the Mirage Hotel tram line.” (Zuiker whose creation has since grown into the hit shows CSI:New York and CSI:Miami has Chicago roots. How many years until CSI: Cedar Falls?)

But when Zuilker was a night manger he was also writing. It was while working at a motel when he actually found the inspiration for his first TV script. “The police and I are in this motel room searching for evidence when an officer lifts up the bed skirt. All I see is a pair of eyes before she leaps from beneath the bed clawing at my face. And I thought, ‘There’s a show here.'” (By the way if you’re interested in having Zuilker speak to a group of yours contact the Greater Talent Network.)

Certainly golfer Zach Johnson has followed Zuilker’s advice: “If you follow your passion, the money will follow. Success, in my opinion, involves sheer luck, hard work and humility.” Johnson was not the top golfer on his college team at Drake. (Congrats, by the way, to Drake men’s basketball coach Keno Davis for getting AP Coach of the Year last week.) Johnson even wasn’t the #1 golfer on his high school team.

But he had passion and kept improving his game until he got to slip on the famed green jacket at Augusta on his way to making $4 million dollars last year.

Whether you’re making music videos in Minneapolis, turning out B-grade cable scripts, teaching high school theater in Tulsa, a grocery store stock boy, a night tram manager in Vegas, a daytime tram operator in Orlando,  or someone sweeping up Cheerio dust in a factory you have to believe that you’re sneaky long and can surprise a lot of people with what you write. But you have to be writing to get there.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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