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Posts Tagged ‘Death of a Salesman’

“There’s no one working in television or theater today who’s not influenced by…the fountainhead of this whole thing, which is Death of a Salesman.”
Mad Men creator & 9-time Primetime Emmy winner Matthew Weiner

“Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman was like a mirror to the story I had written.”
Asgahar Farhadi on The Salesman
Empire
Q&A

Iranian filmmaker Asgahar Farhadi wrote and directed The Salesman which is up for an Oscar tonight. (The film under its original tile, Forushande, won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival last year. A film he wrote and directed (A Speparation) won an Best Foreign Language Oscar Film back in 2012. Also in 2012, he was named on the Time 100:The List by Time magazine.

In an interview with the Film Experience he talks about his starting point as a screenwriter:

Q. When you’re first starting a screenplay,  do you start with character studies, or a germ of a story and extrapolate from there?

Ashar Faradi: It never begins with a character. It never begins with a theme or the plot. I never start by saying ‘There’s this important thing I want to say and so know I have to look for a story for it!’  For me it always starts with a spark that leads to a succcinct story. For instance in A Separation the image I began with was a man bathing his elderly father. Little by little I expanded it and it became a story. And the story dictated to me how the characters would be. I am never able to have a character before the story because it’s the turbulent circumstances of these stories that reveal the characters. Once I’ve written ten pages of the story I reread it and I ask myself “What is this story talking about?” Prior to that I don’t really know what the subject or theme are.  For instance with The Salesman, once I’d written I realized the story was about humiliation and privacy. In the continuation of my writing I strive to create a harmony within the themes.

P.S. I’ve said this year that I’d like to do more posts about screenwriting/filmmaking outside the United States so if you have some suggests send them my way. Ideally, they’d be films where there is a decent about written about the filmmakers. I love Q&As.

Related Post:
Arthur Miller on Writing
Volcanic Emotions & Arthur Miller
Screenwriting Quote #175 Arthur Miller
What Would Miller Do?

Scott W. Smith

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“Baseball players say they don’t have to look to see if they hit a home run, they can feel it. So I wish for you a moment—a moment soon—when you really put the bat on the ball, when you really get a hold of one and drive it into the upper deck, when you feel it.”
Producer/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin
Syracuse University’s 2012 commencement speech 

Just today I learned that I share not only a birthday month with Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), but we were born the same year.  That’s about where the similarities end. (Well, he co-wrote Moneyball and I’ve seen that movie a bunch of times so we have that in common, too.)

One of the themes of Moneyball is how one can have incredible baseball talent in high school—even be a first round pick—and still not have an appreciable career in the major leagues. While I imagine the attrition rate is pretty high of writers, directors, and actors who hit the ground running with Sorkin after he graduated from Syracuse University in 1983, he’s been able to find tremendous and lasting success in both film and television.

In the great production pyramid today, Sorkin is tucked away somewhere in the little corner at the top. So when MasterClass announced last week it was soon releasing Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting, a 5 hour plus video workshop, I was pretty excited about the news.

I haven’t seen the MasterClass videos, but can’t imagine it not being worth the time and money ($90.) to gather a few takeaways on your way to becoming a better writer. Here’s a list of Aaron Sorkin-centered posts I’ve written over the years that give you a glimpse into what he could touch on:

Aaron Sorkin’s Survival Jobs
Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Sorkin’s Emotional Drive
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Movie Cloning (Aaron Sorkin)
Screenwriting Quote #43 (Aaron Sorkin)
Writing ‘The Social Network’ (Part 1)
Writing ‘The Social Network’ (Part 2)
Writing ‘A Few Good Men’
‘Moneyball’ & Coach Ferrell 

And since those Sorkin teaching videos won’t be released until later this month, here’s a story from his graduation speech where he talks about a lesson he learned while a student:

“As a freshman drama student, I had a play analysis class—it was part of my requirement.  The professor was Gerardine Clark. The play analysis class met for 90 minutes twice a week.  We read two plays a week and we took a 20-question true or false quiz at the beginning of the session that tested little more than whether or not we’d read the play.  The problem was that the class was at 8:30 in the morning, it met all the way down on East Genesee, I lived all the way up at Brewster/Boland, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but from time to time the city of Syracuse experiences inclement weather.  All this going to class and reading and walking through snow, wind chill that’s apparently powered by jet engines, was having a negative effect on my social life in general and my sleeping in particular.  At one point, being quizzed on Death of a Salesman, a play I had not read, I gave an answer that indicated that I wasn’t aware that at the end of the play the salesman dies.  And I failed the class.  I had to repeat it my sophomore year; it was depressing, frustrating and deeply embarrassing.    And it was without a doubt the single most significant event that occurred in my evolution as a writer.  I showed up my sophomore year and I went to class, and I paid attention, and we read plays and I paid attention, and we discussed structure and tempo and intention and obstacle, possible improbabilities, improbable impossibilities, and I paid attention, and by God when I got my grades at the end of the year, I’d turned that F into a D.  I’m joking: it was pass/fail.”
Aaron Sorkin

And just to make that lesson a It’s a Wonderful Life moment, years later Sorkin was asked by Arthur Miller if he could fill in as a guest lecturer at NYU where the subject was Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. (Cue the Walk of Life music.)

Related posts:
Can Screenwriting Be Taught?
Screenwriting Quote #175 (Arthur Miller) 
Murray, Miller & Mass Appeal (Tip #78)
Volcanic Emotions & Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller on Writing
What Would Miller Do?
The Best Film School 

Related Professor posts:
Professor Stephen King
Professor Jerry Lewis (The Total Filmmaker)
Professor/Pirate Steven Soderbergh

P.S. On a micro doc I made a couple of years ago, I started off a quote from Moneyball:

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“[Death of a Salesman] really seeps into why we’re here. What are we doing, family, work, friends, hopes, dreams, careers, what’s happiness, what’s success, what does it mean, is it important, how do you get it? It really does seep into all those areas. ”
Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote)
2012 NPR interview about his Broadway role playing Willy Loman 

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To blog daily is a monster beast to feed and I wish I had some great system to feed that monster. Instead it tends to be like manna I get just for the day. But when I find myself stuck for a post I don’t turn to the Internet to find something fresh, I turn to books I have read and reread over the years. And usually in some highlighted text and old friend jumps up and down saying, “use me, use me.”

And so it is today when I turned to the book Conversations with Arthur Miller (edited by Matthew C. Roudane) that I found the following quotes on writing by the great Death of a Salesman playwright:

“The very impulse to write springs from an inner chaos, a crying for order, for meaning and that meaning must be discovered in the process of writing or the work lies dead as it is finished.”
Arthur Miller interview with Chrisitan-Albrecht Gollub
Page 287

On being asked “What stimulates you into writing a play?”
“If I knew, I could probably control the inception of it better. I’m at the mercy of it; I don’t really know. I cannot write anything that I understand too well. If I know what something means to me, if I already have come to the end of it as an experience, I can’t write it because it seems like a twice-told story.”
Arthur Miller interview with Henry Brandon/1960

“Ibsen used to present answers. Despite the fashion that claims he never presented answers, he of course did. In the Doll’s House and even Hedda Gabler, we will find—and in Chekhov, too—we will find speeches toward the ends of these plays which suggest, if they don’t overtly state, what the alternative values are to those which are misled the heroes or heroines of the action shown…So far, I will admit, the bulk of literature, not only on the stage but elsewhere, is an exposition of man’s failure: his failure to assert his sense of civilized and moral life.”
Arthur Miller interview with Phillip Gelb/1958
Page 36

Note that Ibsen was a big influence on Miller’s early years as a writer. Miller even did an American translation of the Ibsen play An Enemy of the People.

Scott W. Smith


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“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Classic last line of Some Like it Hot

“In story terms, the main character’s persona is plagued with a flaw, and as this flaw is tested throughout the story, the main character integrates a greater understanding of overcoming the flaw through the lessons of life that are expressed by the story.”
Kate Wright
Screenwriting is Storytelling
page 114


The world recently learned that the great golfer Tiger Woods is not perfect. And if you read this post in a few months or a few years just fill in the blank…The world (or your local community) recently discovered that ____  ____ is not perfect.  The news of imperfection—of character flaws—still makes the news. Always has, always will.

Character flaws in movies are not always spelled out as clear as they are in The Wizard of Oz, but it’s hard not to have a flawed character in a film because the cornerstone of  drama is conflict. Flaws can be external and/or internal so they offer ample room for conflict.

I don’t need to explain a character flaw so I’ll just give you a list of some key flaws in some well-known movies. As you’ll see both protagonists and antagonists have flaws. The major difference tends to be the protagonist/hero generally must overcome his or her flaw for growth, whereas the antagonist are usually defeated due to their great flaw. (But even in tragic endings where lessons are not learned and character is not changed in the hero, and where evil not defeated (Death of a Salesman, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, Scarface), there is a warning shot felt in the heart of the viewer.

“Greek classical drama frequently afflicted the hero with a blind spot that prevented that character from seeing the error of his or her ways.  This strategy still shows in films that range from character studies (What’s Love Got to Do with It), to epics (The Bridge on the River Kwai), to action stories (Jurassic Park).”
Paul Lucey
Story Sense
page 159

The following list is not a conclusive list of flaws, just some of the most common ones that you’ll recognize when you get together with family this holiday season.

Pride/arrogance
Zack Mayo, An Officer & a Gentleman
Maverick
, Top Gun

Drugs/alcohol
Paul Newman character, The Verdict
Sandra Bullock character,28 Days
Nicolas Cage character, Leaving Las Vegas
Don Birnam
, The Lost Weekend

Greed/Power
Darth Vader,  Star Wars
Gordon Gekko & Budd Fox, Wall St.

Lie/Cheat/Steal/Corruption 101
Jim Carrey character, Liar! Liar!
Denzel Washington character
, Training Day

Delusional/Mentally ill
John Nash, A Beautiful Mind
Norman Bates, Psycho
Captain Queeg/ The Caine Mutiny
Blanche Dubois, A Streetcar Named Desire
Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
Glenn Close character/ Fatal Attraction

Unfaithful/Promiscuous
Fatal Attraction
Body Heat
A Place in the Sun

Obsessive
Jack Nicholson character, As Good as it Gets
Meg Ryan character, When Harry Met Sally
Tom Hanks character, Castaway

Flaws, by the way, are one of the chief dilemmas that both philosophy and religion have struggled to answer for at least the last few millenniums. Where do flaws come from and what do we do with them? The central question being if  man (as in mankind) is born good as some believe then why is everyone and every civilization since, uh—the beginning of time— so messed up? And if we’re born with original sin as other believe then what are the ramifications of that? I’m pretty sure we can agree on one thing, this is one messed up world with a whole cast of real life flawed characters.

We’re all trying to figure out why we’re wired the way we’re wired. And we go to the movies to get a piece of the puzzle. And the side benefit to writing great flawed characters is the audience not only identifies with the character, but actors love to to play flawed characters. Writing great flawed characters tend to be appreciated at the box office and at award time. It’s a win-win situation.

Who are some of your favorite flawed characters?

P.S. Marc Scott Zicree The Writer’s Wrench calls character flaws, “The hurt that needs healed.” Zicree also wrote The Twilight Zone Companion and Rod Serling understood a lot about writing about character flaws.

Scott W. Smith

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"I'm asked why people don't often see me and Elin in gossip magazines or tabloids. I think we've avoided a lot of media attention because we're kind of boring."

                                            Tiger Woods (pre car accident)  


"We felt if (Fatal Attraction) was to be successful it had to be about anybody sitting in the audience. It had to be about you."

                                                                                                                                Stanley Jaffe, producer
 

On Friday I was looking for a movie to go see and came across this synopsis of Wes Anderson’s new film The Fantastic Mr. Fox;

“After 12 years of bucolic bliss, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) breaks a promise to his wife (Meryl Streep) and raids the farms of their human neighbors, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Giving in to his animal instincts endangers not only his marriage but also the lives of his family and their animal friends. When the farmers force Mr. Fox and company deep underground, he has to resort to his natural craftiness to rise above the opposition.”

Uh…speaking of animals and movies, I don’t know if Tiger Woods has ever met Glenn Close. I’m guessing not because if she was ever a cocktail waitress before her acting career took off it was before Tiger was born. And I’m guessing he never saw her Oscar-nominated role as Alex in Fatal Attraction. He was only 12 when the film first came out in 1987 and he’s probably been too busy to catch up on old films.

But Fatal Attraction has to be one of the most powerful and memorable films that deals with adultery.  And the competition is strong. (The Scarlet Letter, Citizen Kane, Doctor Zhivago, The Bridges of Madison County, Jungle Fever, The Graduate, Blue Sky, The End of the Affair, The Apartment, Election, Unfaithful, Indecent Proposal, Death of a Salesman, American Beauty and ever other Woody Allen film are part of the string of films with adultery in the storyline.)

“Saul Bellow once compared a novel without adultery to ‘a circus without elephants.'”
Jody W. Pennington
The History of Sex in American Film

Since films center around conflict it should be no surprise that conflict among marital relationships are a common theme to wrestle with. Hitting a tree with your car at 30 mph is conflict, having an affair is meaningful conflict.

It’s interesting to note that though Hollywood is not the most pro-marriage place in the United States most of the films that deal with adultery put it in a negative light (except for The Bridges of Madison County and every Woody Allen film that deals with adultery). That is films often show the consequences of cheating on a spouse.

And whatever Tiger did it appears he also looks at adultery in a negative light. In his statement he used words like “values,” “far short of perfect,” “personal sins” “personal failings” and “transgressions.” It was reported that the most searched word on the Internet (according to Google Trends) the day Tiger gave his press conference was the word “transgression(s)”

I spent many years producing and directing videos for theologian Dr. R.C. Sproul so I know a lot of 25 cent words and didn’t need to take time to look that up. Just hearing the word transgression brings up in my mind the well-known passage in Isaiah (“He was wounded for our transgressions.”) as well as the old Westminster Shorter Catechism Question Number 14. What is sin? 
Answer: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.

Sproul, by the way, is the only contemporary theologian I know who has ever been quoted in a vampire film.  In the Abel Ferrara directed film The Addiction written by Nicholas St. John, the Annabella Sciorra character says, “Now, R.C. Sproul said we’re not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners.” (The film also stars Christopher Walken and Lili Taylor.)

We sin because we’re sinners is as good an explanation as any for Norman Bates (Pyscho), Annie Wilkes (Misery),  Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) as well as real life characters Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. As well as our own shortcomings.  Tiger is not the only non-perfect human being and the bible does say, “We all stumble in many ways.” (James 3:2) Or as speaker/author/radio host Steve Brown is fond of telling audiences, “Everyone in this room has at least one sin that if was made public would crawl out of here on their hands and knees.”

I think that the role drama has played for a couple thousand years is to show people struggle with life. Good old good versus evil stuff. Sometimes drama is inspirational and sometimes it offers a cautionary tale.

When we hear the word adultery, even for the non-religious, it tends to make us think of one of the ten commandments:
”Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery” (Exodus 20:14) Which is a long way from a billboard ad I once saw for the TV show Melrose Place proclaiming; “Loving thy neighbor is cool.”

There aren’t too many people that say adultery is a good thing for marriages, families and society (though some do) and we can look back over the last several thousand years and see successful men and women in every arena of life (politics, education, business, athletics, entertainment, religion, etc.) get tangled up in the web of adultery. Often painfully and publicly tangled up.

Which brings us back to Tiger and  Glenn Close. If “stories are equipment for living” as Edmund Burke wrote then I think Fatal Attraction shows us brilliantly the extremes of a cause and effect of an affair. Tomorrow we’ll look at one key scene from James Dearden’s Fatal Attraction script.

The film that Michael Douglas would later reflect back on the success of the film saying, “It hit a nerve around the world as a ‘what if?’ type scenario.” Fatal Attraction producer Stanely Jaffe added, “I think the world was ready for someone to examine the way we were living our lives.”

As Tiger has said he is examining his life. And don’t you think that husbands and wives around the world are examining text messages more closely? And perhaps some are examining where they store their golf clubs.

Scott W. Smith



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“Film makers can’t get enough of Adolf Hitler. I think it’s because he’s the perfect villain.” Arnold Pistorius

Once upon a time in Hollywood…1941-1976

So in a sweeping look at American film history today we’re going to clip off 35 years.  Again one of the reasons for this brief look back at film history is to see how change has been a constant throughout the business and to see how we are in another major shift.

Hollywood had enjoyed its greatest decade through the 1930s in the short history of the film industry. (Some still believe that era was the greatest movie decade of all-time.)

1940 & 1941 continued the Golden Era of cinema. But then on December 7, 1941 the world changed for Americans with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The United States was coming off The Great Depression which started with the crash of Wall Street in 1929.

Hollywood actors and directors lended a hand in making training and propaganda films . And then there were movies about the war and its lingering effects back in the states.

So Proudly We Hail, 1943
Best Years of Our Lives, 1946

But I think the biggest lingering effect of Hitler and the Nazi’s is it created a world of fear. I’m not sure we’ve ever recovered from the idea that one man could cause so much pain and destruction in the modern world.

“The motion pictures made during World War II deeply affected Steven Spielberg, and movies about the war remain fertile ground for numerous filmmakers during subsequent decades. One reason for the continued popularity of these sages, and for movies about different wars as well, is the panoply of visual pleasures such conflicts offer.” “Citizen Spielberg”: by Lester D. Friedman

Europe exported existential thought and a new wave of movies that we free morality standards in the American film industry.

Much has been written about the prosperity that followed World War II, but many films reflected a period of questioning human existence and sometimes landing on nihilism or some for of despair. And themes that followed from World War II were prevalent for at least the next 30 years—and maybe until the present day. (The names and fears have just changed over the years)

Look at some of the top films of the 50s:

Rebel Without a Cause
On the Waterfront
Sunset Boulevard
Rear Window
War of the Worlds
Death of a Salesman

Sci-Fi films with end of the world themes were popular:
It Came From Outer Space
The Thing
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Them

Hilter may have been gone but there were plenty of worries beyond wondering how Jerry Mathers was going to break in his baseball glove on Leave it to Beaver. (The Korean War, Soviets, the Bomb, communists, etc.)

And then into the 60s President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr were shot and killed, there were riots in Chicago,  L.A. and other cities. Viet Nam War.  And if things werem’t bad enough TIME Magazine’s cover on April 8, 1966 asked, “Is God Dead?”

Some of the more well known movies of the 60s were:

Dr, Strangelove; or how I stopped learning to Love the Bomb
They Don’t Shoot Horses Do They?
Easy Rider
Psycho
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Bonnie & Clyde
Cool-Hand Luke
Midnight Cowboy
2001 A Space Odyssey
The Wild Bunch
The Manchurian Candidate

The pessimistic trend  continued into the early 1970s in politics with Viet Nam & Watergate as well as at the movies:

M*A*S*H
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Deliverance
Five Easy Pieces
The Last Picture Show
The Godfather
Chinatown

Sure you had Disney movies and light musicals during all these years but these films represent much of the best films of the era.

Bruce became the catalyst for change. Bruce was a mechanical shark on the set of the 1975 film JAWS who didn’t work as well as desired.  But he worked well in the edit bay and the $7 million film went on to make over $400 million worldwide. Sure there was blood and guts, but it had a happy ending.

The tent pole movie was born (or maybe just perfected). And once that genie was out of the bottle everybody in Hollywood was shooting for the  $100 million boxoffice goal.  By this time Viet Nam was over and Americans were ready to get on with life and the bicentennial celebration of the United States in 1976.

And Rocky was there toward the end of the year to give audiences something to cheer about. I do believe the one-two punch of JAWS & Rocky had a huge impact on the future of the film business. More thills per minute and a somewhat happy ending that would make a lot of money.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Part 5)

Scott W. Smith

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