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“Every cell of your body has to be aligned so that you’re making the best possible image.”
Photographer and Oscar-winning filmmaker Louie Psihoyos

His name is Louie Psihoyos. He won an Oscar Sunday. And he’s originally from Iowa.

That’s the short version.

If Louie Psihoyos doesn’t sound like a traditional Midwestern German Lutheran name to you, you’d be correct.  A little over fifty years before he accepted his best documentary Oscar for The Cove, he was born to Greek immigrants and raised in Dubuque, Iowa.

And it was in Dubuque were he first got turned on to art, eventually focusing on photography. In perhaps an odd connection you’ll probably only find on a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa, Psihoyos had an interesting experience with an Oscar-nominated screenwriter in of all places Dubuque, Iowa.

In the 1970s, the movie F.I.S.T. was filmed in Dubuque starring Sylvester Stallone.  F.I.S.T. was Stallone’s first film after the Oscar-winning best picture Rocky. Rocky, of course, put Stallone on the map as he was nominated for an Oscar as best actor and for best original screenplay. (F.I.S.T. also just happens to be the first script that Joe Eszterhas ever had produced.)

Psihoyos was a teenager at the time F.I.S.T. was being filmmed but was already an accomplished photographer having won some contests and somehow was able to met and photograph Stallone. (Update: Photographer Brian Smith actually said Psihoyos appeared in the film so I looked into it and found on Psihoyos’ website the Stallone photograph and this account by Psihoyos: “As a photographic intern for the local newspaper, I was sent to stake out Stallone at the local hotel where the crew was staying. He came in from the airport dressed in costume and I took the photograph in a hotel elevator. Stallone loved the photograph and invited me to stay on the set… He put me in the movie F.I.S.T. as his wedding photographer. I have one speaking line, ‘smile now!'”)

Psihoyos went on to graduate from the highly esteemed journalism school at the University of Missouri and won the National Geographic annual College Photographer of the Year contest. That helped him launch into a long career as a photographer for National Geographic.

A couple years ago he decided to turn his talent and resources into his vision of what became the documentary The Cove.

So once again while Psihoyos appears to be another filmmaker who won an Oscar with his first film—there is a 30+ year accomplished creative career behind him. Here’s some advice from him;

“What I like to tell newcomers is that there’re about 30,000 working photographers in Manhattan. Those are people who, by their IRS statements, are making a living and are profitable, and a lot of them are pretty damn good. You have to give of yourself 200 percent in everything you do; then the right people find you like a beacon.”
Louie Psihoyos
2006 Interview with Ted Fry
—–

Psihoyo’s acceptance speech was cut off during the Oscars broadcast so here is what he intended to say;

“We made this film to give the oceans a voice.

We told the story of The Cove because we witnessed a crime. Not just a crime against nature, but a crime against humanity.

We made this movie because through plundering, pollution and acidification from burning fossil fuels, ALL ocean life is in peril from the great whales to plankton which incidentally is responsible for half the oxygen in this theater.

Thank you, Black OPS Team for risking your lives in Japan — and thank You Academy for shining the brightest lights in the world on THE COVE……

Japan, please see this movie for yourselves!  Domo Arigato!”

Psihoyos is based in Boulder these days. I don’t know if he has reasons to come to Iowa anymore, but I’d thought it interesting that he got his start here. Much in the spirit of screenwriter Diablo Cody who graduated from college in Iowa where she developed her skills on her way to writing the Oscar-winning script for Juno. (Which I should mention to any new readers is who inspired me to start blogging two years ago.)

Scott W. Smith

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Reading departure signs in some big airport
Reminds me of the places I’ve been.
Visions of good times that brought so much pleasure
Makes me want to go back again.
Jimmy Buffett
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes

“A zip code is something I’d rather do without.”
George Bingham
Up in the Air
Written by Walter Kirn

Over the weekend I decided to read Walter Kirn’s novel Up in the Air to see how it’s different from the new movie starring George Clooney.  It’s actually quite different. I read somewhere that Kirn said that the movie was not the book, and the book was not the movie, but that they had the same “genetic code.”

But I was surprised how little connection there was between the two story-wise. I remember reading the book Seabiscuit after seeing the movie and it was remarkable how similar the two were. In that case several hundred pages had to be pared down, meaning that huge chunks the story had to be left out. In other case things were added to streamline the story. But the two worked as almost a mirror of each other.

Not so with Up in the Air. The core is there. A man named Ryan Bingham flies around the country living in hotel rooms and chalking up frequent flyer miles in between his job as a career transition consultant—he fires people. Yet though he is connected to the entire United States, he’s disconnected from just about everything and everyone else.

And he does motivational speaking on the side. Though in the movie it’s a seminar called “What’s in Your Backpack?” and in the book it’s a business parable called The Garage. They are similar, yet different.

Here are some other differences:

In the book Bingham is 35-years-old (which explains why Leonardo DiCaprio was attached at one time), Clooney is closer to 50.

In the book Bingham’s base is Denver and in the movie it’s Omaha. (Perhaps because Omaha represents more the middle of the country. Perhaps as a tribute to writer/director Alexander Payne (Sidesways, Election) who Up in the Air director Jason Reitman is said to be a fan of his work.

Bingham’s sister lives in Minnesota and that’s where a family wedding is planned, whereas the movie has the wedding taking place in Wisconsin. (Perhaps simply to remove it from the same state where Reitman’s Juno takes place.)

Only fragments of dialogue overlap between the book and the movie. (“You’re awfully isolated, the way you live.”)

The plot of the book is more about Bingham getting a million frequent flyer miles where in the movie it’s more about Bingham keeping his way of life on the road alive. The story and supporting characters are probably the biggest differences between the book and the film.

Perhaps the biggest additions to the movie that are not in the book are Bingham has a young female traveling companion and there is an online technological change to the film.  Both of these help the film. One gives Bingham a chance to explain his way of life and the other help make the story contemporary.

Things like discussions about Mormonism and Binghams’s preference for listening to Christian rock music are left out of the movie, but the movie has its own spiritual undertones–albeit subtle. In the book, Bingham likes to do his paperwork in the small worship places that are found in most large airports. Simply because they are quiet and usually empty. That would have been a nice touch for the film. Perhaps fitting of Bingham’s character if he would have met a lady friend there.)

Both stories have a good twist in them, but the twists are different.

One thing that stays consistent is a key event in Bingham’s life takes place in Iowa. In the movie it’s Dubuque and in the book it’s Fort Dodge. “I like the name,” Bingham says about Fort Dodge. (A place just about an hour to the west of Cedar Falls where I’m typing this post. Just did a shoot there a month or so ago.)

The worst thing about the original hardback book is the cover artwork. It lacks the simple, elegant design of the movie poster. It’s cartoonish clouds could be taken as an explosion and there is a burning person falling to the ground. (Of course, it didn’t help this book that it came out just two months before September 11, 2001.)

But the theme of people losing their jobs is much more timely in 2009/2010 than it was when the book was first released.

One thing the movie can’t capture is Kirn great ability at turning a phrase and his descriptive writing;

“Dwight is my age but with an air of elegance, as though he grew up abroad, in grand hotels.”

“I suppose that it’s time to explain about women. There are lots of them. I credit my looks.”

“The car, a new model I’ve never driven before, smells of a fruity industrial deodorant that’s worse than any odor it might be masking.”

“Our clothes and papers strewn across the room like wreckage from a trailer-park tornado.”

And a fitting place to end this post is with this Iowa-friendly section from the book:

“My mother has developed a sense of place; her mental map of the country is zoned and shaded according to her ideas about each region’s moral tenor and general demographic…If I’m in Iowa, sensible, pleasant Iowa, I’m eating well, thinking clearly, and making friends.”

His mother’s right, you know? Sensible, pleasant, clear thinking. (Except for the meth labs and some of the people I’ve interviewed when producing segments for The Montel Williams Show & The Doctors.)

Update: You can follow Walter Kirn on Twitter @walterkirn.

Scott W. Smith

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Today is show and tell at Screenwriting from Iowa and I brought one of my Christmas gifts—a signed picture of Mark Steines from Entertainment Tonight. It was given to me by an editor I work with, Josh McCabe, who did an internship with Entertainment Tonight over the summer.

Having just mentioned that Jason Reitman’s new film Up in the Air features Dubuque, Iowa in a key scene you may be interested to know that Steines was born and raised in Dubuque. But before he became the co-anchor of Entertainment Tonight and started hanging out with Hollywood celebrities, he got his on-camera start in the Cedar Falls/Waterloo area. A football scholarship brought him to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) where he graduated with a degree in Radio and Television.

He started as a cameraman here at KWWL and eventually found his in front of the camera as a sports reporter. That lead to opportunities at KSPR-TV is Springfield, Missouri and then to KCAL-TV in Los Angeles where he picked up two Emmy Awards. In 1995 he began work as a correspondent on Entertainment Tonight and since 2004 has been the host of the show along with Mary Hart.

While Steines paid his dues, learned his craft, and worked his way up the ladder like everyone else—it didn’t hurt that when he was starting out that he looked like Tom Cruise.

After Steines arrived in LA he also began studying acting that has provided various acting opportunities on TV programs. He also has a photography book out from pictures he took on a trip to Sierra Leone with Lighthouse Medical Missions earlier this year. Steines is one more example that even if you come from a place far from Hollywood (like Dubuque, Iowa) you can still make an impact in Hollywood. But like all that have gone down that road before, he was faithful in doing the little things.

Visit www.marksteines.com to learn more about his photobook, work & life.

Thanks Josh and Mark for the photo.

Scott W. Smith


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“I just happen to find life funny. Everywhere I look I see comedy…often where it’s inappropriate. “
Jason Reitman
Director Juno/Up in the Air

After the success of Juno Jason Reitman’s had the clout to make a film like Avatar. A big budget extravaganza. Instead he made Up in the Air. A film that not only works on many levels, but that was also shot in an area dear to my heart—flyover country. Granted some of it is literally  in the air in the vast stretch of land between New York and L.A., but the are plenty of Midwest moments including George Clooney’s business headquarters and what he has of a home both being located in Omaha, Nebraska.

And this won’t be a spoiler, but there is even a nice little moment tied into Dubuque, Iowa.

Somehow Reitman directed a film (co-written with Sheldon Turner) that deals with contemporary issues of the economy and yet gave it a timeless feel of a classic film. Somehow he made a film that touches on psychology, sociology, and even the meaning of life and along the way entertains us and makes us laugh.

I don’t know specifically which states the movie was actually shot in but I do know that Reitman did location scouting in Michigan and Missouri that impacted the making of the film:

“At a certain point during scouting, I realized that the scenes that I had written of people getting fired were just inauthentic. We needed something that spoke to the times and what was really happening. I cut out all the firing scenes in the movie and we put ads out in the paper, both in Detroit and St. Louis, saying that we were making a documentary about job loss.”
Jason Reitman
Free Press article by Julie Hinds

Twenty of those people where chosen to be film. To paraphrase Clooney’s character who fires people for a living, being fired brings new opportunities.

But the authentic ground work for the movie is rooted in the book Up in the Air written by Walter Kirn. And though there are many differences to the movie, the heart of the story came from Kirn’s own travel experiences:

I wrote this book in [Earl], Montana of all places, in a snowbound winter on a ranch thinking about airports and airplanes and thinking about a particular conversation I’d had that had startled me. I sat down in a first class cabin – somebody else must have been paying – and you know, I’m the guy you don’t want to sit next to on an airplane because I want to know your story and want to tell you mine and I asked him where he was from this line is in the movie. He said, “I’m from right here” and I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “Well, I used to have an apartment in Atlanta but I never used it. It just collected dust and then I got a storage locker, I stay in hotels and am on the road 300 days a year. So this is where I’m from and this is my family.” He pointed to a flight attendant and said, “I know her. I know her name. I know her kids’ names.” And I thought, this is a new creature. I felt like an ornithologist discovering a new bird and when you’re a novelist and you discover a new creature and you discover a sort of new environment in which this creature is possible, you have to write the book.
Walter Kirn
CinemaBlend. com article by Perru Nemiroff

So far Up in the Air has been named the best picture of 2009 by the National Board of Review and the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association. Personally, it will be the only film in 2009 I will see multiple times in the theaters. Actually, the first one since Juno. In case I’ve understated myself—if you like fine writing, go see this film.

12/28 Update: Found out that Walter Kirn was born in Akron, Ohio and raised in Marine on Saint Croix, Minnesota (just outside the greater suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul). For some reason that doesn’t surprise me. How many times have writers from Minnesota come up in this blog?

Related posts: Filmmaking Quote #6 (Jason Reitman)
Screenwriting Quote of the Day #117 (Jason Reitman)

Scott W. Smith

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