Posts Tagged ‘Denzel Washington’

“You will fail at some point in your life, accept it. You will lose, you will embarrass yourself, you will suck at something…And when you fall throughout life, remember this, fall forward.”
Denzel Washington

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“If you’re looking for an excuse, you’ll find one.”
Actor/Director Denzel Washington 
60 Minutes interview December 18, 2016

“I’m particularly proud and happy about the young filmmakers, actors, singers, writers, producers that are coming up behind my generation. In particular Barry Jenkins. Young people, understand, this young man made 10-15-20 short films before he got the opportunity to make Moonlight. So never give up. Without commitment, you’ll never start. But more importantly without consistency you’ll never finish. It’s not easy.  If it was easy, there’d be no Kerry Washington. If it was easy, there’d be no Taraji P. Henson. If it were easy there’d be no Octavia Spencer. But not only that, if it were easy, there’d be no Viola Davis. If it were there’d be no Mykelti Williamson, no Stephen McKinley, no Russell Hornsby. If it were easy , there’d be no Denzel Washington. So keep working, keep striving, never give up. Fall down seven times, get up eight. Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship.Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardshipSo keep moving, keep growing, keep learning—see ya at work.”
Denzel Washington
Image Awards
February 11, 2017 /Pasadena, California

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Stephen J. Cannell Work Ethic 

Scott W. Smith



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“I would never write about a character who is not at the end of his rope.”
Stanley Elkin

On Saturday I watched the movie Flight starring Denzel Washington and couldn’t help think about the last two posts I wrote quoting WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart. Mainly because the Robert Zemeckis directed film from a script by John Gatins (Real Steal, Hardball) follows the two central concepts Lockhart hit on:
1) Writing a role that would attract a star actor (Writing Actor Bait)
2) Twisting story elements a little bit to make it fresh (Screenwriting Quote #172)

In an interview with The Root Washington said of his pilot role in Flight, “The complexity was wonderful to play…this was an adventure. Starting with the screenplay and the collaboration with the filmmaker, getting a chance to fly around in flight simulators, hanging upside down in a plane and playing a drunk.” Yes, actors the caliber of Washington pick roles partly based on the “chance to fly flight simulators.” But the character Gatins created also has layers of complexity and goes through a transformational arc.

And if you have a good grasp of basic film history you’ll notice that Gatins didn’t create a totally original story (Lockhart basically says there aren’t any), but he twisted what we’ve already seen before. We’ve seen planes crash before—Fearless, Hero, The Gray, United 93, The Flight of the Phoenix, Alive, Lost, and of course, Cast Away also directed by Zemeckis. Plane crashes are primal with built-in conflict and life or death stakes.

And we’ve seen alcoholics on-screen before—Leaving Las Vegas, The Lost Weekend, The Verdict, 28 Dyas, Barfly, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Days of Wine and Roses, Pollack, Affliction, Tender Mercies, Crazy Heart.  (Note there are quite a few Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning performances in there.) Again built-in conflict with life or death stakes.

What Gatins did was combine the plane crash with an alcoholic pilot, plus add a few lines of cocaine and the twist of a heroic act. Fresh.

It’s as if he took the headlines of the occasional pilot who is escorted off a plane because he shows up for work drunk and mashed it together with the pilot who safely landed a plane in the Hudson River saving all of the lives on board. Of course, that oversimplifies what Gatins accomplished in writing the script, but that is exactly how you start the process of making something familiar seem fresh. For the record, Gatins said he began writing Flight on spec in 1999—that’s a 13 year journey from idea to screen. It takes a little time sometimes.

“With something like Flight, I didn’t have a boss. I didn’t have a studio. It wasn’t an assignment. It wasn’t a rewrite. It wasn’t a pitch that I sold, that I had to sit down and write. There was none of that. It was literally…Interior, Hotel Room, Night…I started there. And I could go. If I am writing a sports drama, I have to limit myself. Which are movies that I love. I grew up watching them, and I have worked on a fair amount of them. Its like, they have a specific structure to an extent. You have to find your moments inside that, and be creative. You have to create those movie moments, and invest your audience in different characters, and themes, and the things that happen. But that is a specific thing. In a sports movie, you wouldn’t have a seven page monologue from the gaunt young man, who is smoking a cigarette, and you have three people close to death, and he is talking about God. That doesn’t happen. That scene doesn’t survive many movies. It just doesn’t. Its one of my favorite moments in this movie, because of the fact that we take a right turn. It serves a great purpose, because our two characters meet. But you could argue that the movie would exist without it. Or even a much shorter version of that scene. We shot it exactly as I wrote it, and there it is in the movie.”
John Gatins
LA Times article by Nicole Sperling

The movie Flight is also a great example of emotional screenwriting mixing a simple concept and a complex character.

Lastly, coming full circle with those Lockhart posts, I should point out that Flight was one of the last projects Washington’s agent Ed Limato gave him before he passed away. Limato’s client list at one time or another included Russell Crowe, Meryl Streep, Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Marlon Brando—so he had a long track record of picking the right roles for his stars. Lockhart worked with Limato for more than a decade.

November 6 update: I missed in the credits where the movie Flight was dedicated to Ed Limato. Check out the link Paramount Taking Box Office Success ‘Flight’ Directly To Academy Voters; Film Is Dedicated To Ed Limato written by Pete Hammond.

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40 Days of Emotions
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What’s at Stake (tip# 9)

Remembering Ed Limato by Christopher Lockhart

Scott W. Smith

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“Find what gave you emotion: what the action was that gave you excitement. Then write it down making it clear the reader can see it too.”
Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea)

“For me, it’s about setup and payoff. I try to set things up so that they pay off in a way I hope evokes a strong reaction,”
Eric Roth (Forrest Gump)

“What you are doing is feeling the emotions that your characters are feeling, and finding the best way to express those emotions in the most powerfully felt, truthful, effective, moving way to yourself.”
Ron Bass (Rain Man)

The title 40 Days of Emotions sounds epic and Biblical, so I brought out the big guns (Hemingway, Roth, Bass) to lead off this post that marks the end of 40 consecutive days writing about emotions in regard to screenwriting and filmmaking.

I didn’t start out with this 40-day goal in mind. I was inspired by the book Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias (all the above quotes above were pulled from that book or his other book, The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters) and I got on the emotion train and it just kept going.

What make emotions so powerful in screenwriting and movie making is they are closely connected to conflict and theme—two areas that are crucial in connecting with an audience. If you wonder how a film can have a good plot, solid structure, and interesting characters, and be totally unremarkable I’d blame it on the writers and filmmakers failing to make an emotional connection with the audience.

Over the years I’ve written about writers who start with plot, character, theme, or a situation.  But I had never heard about a writer starting from emotion until I read that’s how Tennessee Williams started his plays.

“Some screenwriters, and many playwrights, begin with the emotional story, or inner story…They layer key dramatic moments between the protagonist and antagonist in conflict with each other, creating heightened emotional moments that serve as climaxes and story beats. By intuiting  the depth of character conflict, without emphasizing plot and structure, they work through the unconscious movement of the story by way of external character, revealing ‘story’ as a by-product. Tennessee Williams worked this way.”
Kate Wright
Storytelling is Screenwriting

Recently I listened to an old CD (circa 1951) recording of The Glass Menagerie written by Tennessee and featuring Montgomery Clift as Tom. The emotional symbolism Tennessee uses is powerful stuff. Four actors, one apartment, one mediocre recording, and it still has plenty of emotional impact.

It’s fitting that I close this post with what I consider the most emotional scene I personally have ever scene on film. It’s from the film Glory that I saw in the theaters when it opened in 1989. While it’s the film where Denzel Washington won his first Oscar, it’s the first time I recalled ever seeing him on screen. Part of what gave the scene below its impact on me was I wasn’t watching a movie star or even an actor. It was like I was in that moment. That’s an emotional connection.

(This You Tube clip doesn’t compare to the experience of seeing it on the big screen. You don’t really see the scars, the twitch, the tear or know the backstory that leads to this powerful moment—but here it is just the same.)

When we use terms like head and heart to separate intellect and emotions it’s really a metaphor. Because emotion really does flow from the brain as well. Perhaps a different part than the logic part, but emotion is not anti-intellectual. Part of what gives that scene from Glory its emotion impact is knowing the history of slavery in the United States and the resulting racism that overflowed into our culture.

“I was called a nigger almost every day in Texas.”
Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx (Ray) born in 1967
O, The Oprah Magazine

In ’65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights between the black and white

There was nothing you could do…
Bruce Springsteen (Graduated in 1967 from Freehold High School in New Jersey.)
My Hometown 

Personally it’s growing up in Florida in the 60s & 70s and being well aware of racial tensions. I was aware of the Ku Klux Klan. I remember what a cultural event it was in the pre-internet, pre-cable Tv days of 1977 when Alex Haley’s Roots first aired. It was said that 85% of the homes in the United States saw some of the eight part series and the final episode was watched 100 million viewers. (The Roots finale is still the number #3 watched Tv program in U.S. history.)  It won eight Emmy Awards including Best Writing in a Drama Series—Ernest Kinoy and William Blinn (for part II).

I doubt that if Roots aired today that it would be anywhere near the cultural phenomenon it was back in 1977.  We live a world a way from there. (Not perfect, but a long way from 1977.) I remember back in the late 70s when the debate around Tampa Bay QB Doug Williams was whether blacks could really be successful playing quarterback. Seriously. Williams went on to be the MVP of Super Bowl XXII with Washington. And also since 1977 we’ve seen the rise of successful and visable African-American leaders like Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and President Obama.

All that to say that emotion is not void of thinking—it’s not disconnected from cognitive knowledge. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was emotional for me even though I was never in the military. But I imagine if you were in the military during World War II, or Korea, or Viet Nam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan or Iraq—or really any war in any country—that that scene would have even a deeper emotional impact because of your personal life experiences and the memories and knowledge you have of watching those around you die in battle.

Lastly, the screenplay for Glory was written by Detroit-born Kevin Jarre (who passed away earlier this year) and the movie was directed by Edward Zwick.  The script was nominated for a WGA award, but lost to Alfred Uhry/Driving Miss Daisy. Jarre told the L.A. Times of Glory, “I never thought I could interest anybody in it. A Civil War epic, about black people. But I’d got really attached to the story….I’d end up in tears when I got through writing.”

Notice in the scene above how many words it takes for Denzel to communicate a wide range of emotions—zero. There have been enough people over the years pounding “structure-structure-structure” that I think it’s time to balance that with “write visual stories full of emotional meaning.”

So there you have it—from Hitchcock to Hemingway and beyond—40 days on the importance of emotion. For good measure let’s memorize one sentence written by Karl Iglesias; “Emotion is your screenplay’s lifeblood.” 

P.S. From the odd connection department—Screenwriter Craig Mazin (The Hangover II) also graduated from Freehold High School where Springteen attended.

Scott W. Smith

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Once again I want to be fair and say not every writer needs to write five or ten screenplays to see their first one produced. Though that is more the norm the exception. Of course, the current jackpot winner of first scripts produced is Diablo Cody who wrote  Juno which won an Oscar. More recently, Mark Boal was nominated for an Oscar for his first script, The Hurt Locker. So it happens.  But I should also point out that both Cody and Boal were well-educated in writing and both had over a decade of regular writing behind them in other forms before they turned to screenwriting.

And I just learned of a 37-year-old writer who is more known as a game designer and video games journalist who had his first script attract the attention of the Hughes Brothers and Denzel Washington. The result, The Book of Eli is currently in theaters.

“In the case of (The Book of) Eli, the fact that it was a very simple plot and that the characters in my mind made it come together very quickly. Like I said, I was writing probably like sixteen or eighteen hours a day. I was just so into the idea that I couldn’t stop writing it and that’s why the first draft came together in six days.”
Gary Whitta
The Film Stage

No matter how you do the math, either the first time screenwriter or the person who wrote 10 or 15 scripts before they broke through, there are a lot of years and a lot of pages behind them.

Scott W. Smith

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When I was in high school there was a guy who was cut from a different mold and I always wondered what happened to him. I thought of him after seeing The Hurt Locker because to be on a bomb squad one has to come from a different mold.

Daws only weighed 135 pounds and he not only played football, he was a nose guard. (Not the place for little guys.) But he was tough. His helmet actually had the paint scratched off the front of it from hitting other helmets so hard. After one game which we lost we could hear him on the practice field in the dark hitting the blocking sled–which would not have the pads on it. Daws was a warrior and I’d be very surprised if he didn’t end up in the military.

One of the things I like best about The Hurt Locker is it isn’t about the war, but about the warrior. The kind of person that is more comfortable disarming a bomb than grocery shopping or updating his Facebook status.

Movies made in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom, Brothers , Redacted ,  A Mighty Heart, The Messenger) have one thing in common–they don’t find much of an audience. Unfortunately, The Hurt Locker joins the club.

Unfortunately, because it’s a great film. Time magazine called it “A near-perfect movie” and recently it tied Avatar with nine Academy Award nominations. Perhaps it will find a life on DVD.

While audiences have supported many films about war (including the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, & Viet Nam) Iraq appears to be a different monster. I’m not sure why this is the case, but I can speculate. Time would seem to be the first factor. I seem to recall an interview where screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart said that one of the troubles with getting An Officer and a Gentleman made was the lingering effect of the Viet Nam War.

Keep in mind that An Officer and a Gentleman was not a movie about Viet Nam, just military centered. The movie got made and was a box office hit, but it came out in 1982–eight years after US involvement ended. Granted The Green Berets was released in 1968 (during the war in Viet Nam) but that was because it was a film John Wayne wanted to make. But generally, the war in Viet Nam was avoided by Hollywood at first.

Certainly, The Deer Hunter (1978) dealt with the lingering effects of returning home from Viet Nam, but that is still four years removed from the conflict.  Apocalypse Now is almost its own genre that transcended Viet Nam, but still didn’t come out until 1979.

I think Platoon was the first movie that was a hard look at Viet Nam that found an audience, but that was 1986– a full 12 years after the war.  Then Viet Nam was in vogue in Hollywood, Good Morning Viet Nam (1987), Full Metal Jacket. (1987) , The Hanoi Hilton (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Casualties of War (1989) and Born on the Fourth of July(1989).

So I think time is needed for audiences to be comfortable reflecting on Iraq. When I last checked, we were still in Iraq. We’re still in Afghanistan.  And I think we now realize we will always be in a war with terrorism.

The second reason I think audiences aren’t fond of movies about Iraq is the shear politics of the matter. It’s hard for the word propaganda not to come up. People generally don’t like to heavy-handed arguments from either side. (Though I should point out that that Michael Moore’s documnetary Fahrenheit 9/11 made $119 million domestic/$222 million worldwide (on a $6 million budget.)

And thirdly, movies are largely about entertainment. Definitions usually include the words amusement, diversion, and pleasure. That doesn’t mean we don’t make difficult films–just pointing out that it is hard for those films to find an audience no matter how well they are made. We’ll see how Buried does this spring (about a an American contractor in Iraq) –sounds like an interesting twist and was well-received at Sundance.

The Gulf War was short lives and out of that came Three Kings and Jarhead that did find audiences but the expenses were so high that the domestic box office was below their budgets. Courage Under Fire (1996) had a solid cast Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, and a newcomer named Matt Damon and the budget was estimated to be below $50. million and made $60 million domestic and topped $100 million worldwide.

But with all those statistics there are said to be over  100 Iraq/Afghanistan-centered war movies in development.

How has Dear John been able to have a big box office run? I haven’t seen the film, but words that reviewers are fond of using are “syrupy,” “sentimental” and “schmaltzy.” Not the kind of film my high school friend Daws would be interested in seeing, but enough people were for it to double its money in just two weeks.

Related post: Screenwriting from Hell

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The only thing wrong with Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays that Sell is that it was first printed in 1991 so the film references are all old.    (At least that’s true of the version I have, and I don’t think it has been updated in the  30+ reprintings of the book.) But the tend to be modern day classics, or at least ones that are still popular today so don’t let that hinder you from tracking down a used copy on Amazon even if you weren’t born in 1991.

“Teach the audience how to do something, vicariously. Often a story will be more emotionally involving if the hero must learn some particular skill, which the audience can ‘learn’ through the character. In The Color Money, we learn the skills and philosophy of the pool circuit just as the Tom Cruise character does. Similarly, the karate training in The Karate Kid, the boxing training in Rocky, the military training in Uncommon Valor and the The Dirty Dozen, serve to involve the audience in the story.
Michael Hauge
Writing the Screenplays that Sell
page 101

I’ve watched this happen time and time again since first reading those words many years ago. A more recent example that jumps to mind (though a remake) is The Taking of Pelham 123 starring Denzel Washington (script by Brian Heleland) that gave us a fascinating tour of what goes on behind the scene in making the New York City subways run. (Not sure if that was in the John Godey novel that the movie was based on or not.) Can you think of other examples of where you’ve learned something through a movie?

Scott W. Smith

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There are two performances by actors that stick in my mind as transcending acting. In both performances I had not see the actors before which helped bring a sense of heightened reality to the roles they played. And both come down to a single scene that burned into my memory. One was Denzel Washington and his role in Glory when he was being whipped, and the other was Scott Glenn’s role in Urban Cowboy when he drinks from a bottle of tequilla and eats the worm.

Glenn had actually been kicking around Hollywood for 15 years by the time he played the tough ex-con in Urban Cowboy.  But as he approached 40 he had given up on Hollywood and moved to Idaho with his wife and family. His agent talked him into auditioning for the role and the rest is history. From then on the former Marine was a Hollywood movie star.

What I remember when I watched his performance is that I thought, “This guy isn’t an actor, he’s a real bad ass.” Glenn has said he picks roles not for the story but whether or not the character interests him as something he wants to spend four months doing. But there is a Glenn quote I remembered reading years ago that I thought would be a fitting quote of the day.

I couldn’t find the original quote but did find one in the same vein where in speaking about his decision to move to Ketchum, Idaho back in 1978 Glenn said:

My plan was to get a job as a bartender and apprentice myself out as a cross-country ski guide for hunting and fishing and do Shakespeare in the park in Boise during the summer until the kids were older.”

That’s a spirit I can appreciate.


Scott W. Smith

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