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Posts Tagged ‘Dustin Hoffman’

“I love finding the worst things happening at the best moments of a person’s life. So trying to have a scene that embodies those disparate elements of joy and agony when you keep pushing and pulling the characters like that—that’s fun writing.”
Two-time Oscar-winning producer/director/writer Paul Haggis (Crash)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

When I heard the above Haggis quote about “the worst things happening at the best moments of a person’s life” I thought of the movie Kramer vs. Kramer where near the start of the film Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is put in charge of a large advertising account that if he succeeds will land him a nice promotion. He comes home to his family excited at this opportunity only to have his wife (Meryl Streep) tell him that’s she’s leaving him.

Hoffman’s character summarizes his wife leaving saying, “she’s ruined one of the five best days of my life.” Super example of “the worst things happening at the best moments of a person’s life.”

Robert Benton won Oscars for both writing and directing Kramer vs. Kramer, as did Hoffman and Streep for their roles. The film based on the novel Kramer vs. Kramer by Avery Corman also won best picture. The 35-year-old film holds up well today, and even though it was released four years before actress Emily Blunt (The Devil Wear Prada, Edge of Tomorrow) was born this is what she had to say about the movie:

Kramer vs. Kramer makes me weep. I love that offset of the dynamic, of the father being the main caretaker and his life being put into uproar in trying adapt and take care of this little boy. I love the perseverance of that film, and it makes me bawl my eyes out.”
Emily Blunt
Five Favorite Films with Emily Blunt

And if that’s not enough for you to go back and check out the movie, screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) says the Kramer vs. Kramer script is one of five you need to study in order to understand screenwriting structure.  It’s one full of meaningful conflict and emotions.

What movie scenes jump to your mind that mix joy and agony?

Related Posts:
Filmmaking Quote #14 ((Robert Benton)
Screenwriting Quote #104 (Robert Benton)
Starting Your Screenplay
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith 

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“Although the storyline of Tootsie was simple and straightforward enough, the script history of the film was anything but.”
Susan Dworkin
Making Toostie

Tootsie is the kind of Movie with a capital M that they used to make in the 1940s, when they weren’t afraid to mix up absurdity with seriousness, social comment with farce, and a little heartfelt tenderness right in there with the laughs.”
Roger Ebert

Thirty years ago this month Tootise was released into the world and finished number one in the box office Christmas weekend of December 17-19, 1982. It went on to be nominated for nine Oscars including Dustin Hoffman as lead actor, Sydney Pollack’s directing, and best picture. Jessica Lange won the Oscar for her supporting role.

And if you would have asked me before I read Making Tootsie written by Susan Dworkin who wrote the Tootsie screenplay I would have answered Larry Gelbart. But like most films there were a few hands in the pie. In fact, Toostie is another great example of the collaborative process of filmmaking really working well. The Tootise screenplay was also nominated for its screenplay, but along with Gelbart on the nomination were Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire. (But there were at least three more writers who had a hand in rewrites.)

makingtootsie

Dworkin does an excellent job in her book of showing how the script and movie can together. The original seed for Tootsie was a screenplay titled Would I Lie to You? written by McGuire. McGuire was born in Chicago in 1919 and according to IMDB had come to Hollywood in the 40s and had a background a in journalism and worked as a press agent and an actor. In the 50s he started writing film scripts and his credits include Bad Day at Black Rock starring Spencer Tracy and Meet Danny Wilson starring Frank Sinatra. Many changes were made in his script Would I Lie to You? and he ended up with a story credit on Toostie—and it would be his last film credit.  He died in 1999.

McGuire’s script attracted the attention of Buddy Hackett in 1978 who took it to his friend Charles Evans. The rights to the script were owned by Henry Plitt and two other and Evans had to buy the property from them and even negotiate a different deal with McGuire. In 1979 Evans hired Bob Kaufman to do a rewrite of Would I Lie to You?

“I put Kaufman is a hotel room and  harassed him into writing and we cracked each other up.”
Tootsie producer Dick Richards

According to Dworkin, “Finally they had a new script. It was an out-of-work actor who gets a job playing a nurse on a soap opera.” Kaufman then departed the picture and the script landed in the hands of Dustin Hoffman, who was interested in playing a gender-switch role, and brought on playwright Murray Schisgal to rewrite the script. With Hoffman on board Evans was able to get a deal with Columbia and Hal Ashby was brought on to direct. Ashby would be replaced by director Sydney Pollack. And finally Larry Gilbart was brought on to do another rewrite of the script.

There will be a test on this later. According to IMDB Robert Garland, Barry Levinson, and Elaine May did uncredited work on the screenplay. And both Pollack and Hoffman also spent much time at Pollack’s beach house crafting the story. And that doesn’t even touch on what the other supporting actors (Terri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Bill Murray, Charles Durning, Lange and others) brought to their roles. I bet more than a dozon people could lay claim to at least some part of the script.

And the results? A film that made $177 million, is listed on the National Film Registry, and in 2000 was named by AFI as #2 funniest American film in the last 100 years. (Some Like it Hot was #1. Also, a gender-switch film.)

A fitting end to looking back at Toostie is to remember a key scene between Hoffman (as Dorothy) and Charles Durning (who just passed away a few days ago).

P.S. Speaking of Christmas 1982, I recently came across a picture of my studio apartment in Burbank when I was a film school student in 1982. Man, I was living large. (I don’t have that TV or the box it sits on, but I do still have that director’s chair.) Toostie still looks great after 30 years, but my that apartment at 1200 Riverside Dr. really got a major facelift in recent years. Probably more than a couple film & TV people living there. I always loved the location—just down the road from Disney Studios.

BurbandApr

Scott W. Smith

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One of my all-time favorite quotes about screenwriting comes from Richard Walter at UCLA; “Planes that land safely do not make the headlines and nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.” When things are normal there is no conflict, and conflict is central to drama. (See the post Everything I learned in Film School.)

“Comedies live and die by the first 40 minutes. For starters, comedies are funniest in the first half, before the main characters start to arc and get all normal, so that’s when you decide if it’s funny. But more important is the fact that the potential energy of a comedy is wound up entirely in the spring of the protagonist’s misery when we first meet him. Sandra Bullock starts off very lonely in While You Were Sleeping. Dustin Hoffman has a flaw for every situation in Tootise. Bill Murray is a such a jerk in Ground Hogs Day. Will Ferrell is so egotistical. The Judd Apatow Players are so crude, immature, female-repellent, etc.”
Wesley Rowe
Script magazine
Volume 15/Number 2

Scott W. Smith

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This week I watch Last Chance Harvey on DVD and really enjoyed it and wondered who wrote the script that attracted the acting talents of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Turns out it was Joel Hopkins who also directed the film.

Though I know little of his life story, what I do know shows the difficulties of this business. Hopkins was born in London in 1970 and attended NYU where his student film Jorge won NYU’s Wasserman Award which provided him with funds to make his first feature film in 2001, Jump Tomorrow. In 2002 he was named the Most Promising Newcomer by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

So just a few years ago Hopkins was an award winning filmmaker from NYU with a feature film that was well received at the Sundance Film Festival. Many filmmakers would sell their souls to be in that position. So why did it take Hopkins another seven years before he released another film?

“Quite often the second one is sometimes harder than the first…For whatever reason, I’d been attached to films that haven’t happened, as a director. I’ve had scripts I’ve written that have almost happened, but you make your first feature and you just assume the next one will be easier, but it’s kind of not, unless you have an absolute blow-out success and someone will write a check for pretty much whatever you want to do. And it’s not the case. You kind of have to start from scratch really.”
                                        Joel Hopkins
                                       ComingSoon.net interview with Edward Douglas 

 

Last Chance Harvey is not a great film, but it is well written and has some wonderful moments in it and it gives two fine actors a chance to do something you don’t see enough of these days—a chance to act. I hope it’s not another seven years before Hopkins makes another film.

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“A man’s got to know his limitations.”
                                  Clint Eastwood (as Harry Callahan in Magnum Force)

 

John Grisham didn’t get to see his dream come true. His childhood dream was to play professional baseball and he made it all the way to playing junior college ball before he realized his limitations. So at 20 years old he shifted his focus to school and becoming a lawyer.

Once he graduated from law school at Old Miss he saw his new dream come true and then he got an itch to write. While he didn’t have instant success with his writings, according to CNN, he sold 60 million books in the 90s alone.  His books translated to film well and attracted a talented group of actors over the years including Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Susan Saradon, Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Matt Damon, John Cusack, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman.

From a box office standpoint Grisham had a dream year in 1993 when two films made from his books (A Time to Kill & The Firm) both made over $100 million. Not bad for an old jock from Mississippi.

“The writing has come fairly late in life. I never dreamed of being a writer when I was a kid, even a student, even in college. In fact. I’d been practicing law for about three or four years in the early ’80s, when I decided to make a stab at writing a story that I’d been thinking about. And the story eventually became A Time to Kill.

It took three years to write, and I was very disciplined about doing it. It was very much a hobby. By the time I finished it, I had developed a routine of writing every day. When I finished it, I went to the next book, which was The Firm. Once that was written, everything started changing. I wouldn’t use the word ‘accident,’ but it certainly wasn’t planned. I never dream it….

A Time to Kill and The Firm, those books were written over a five-year period, back-to-back, from about 1984 to about 1989. The bulk was written at five o’clock in the morning, from five ’til seven in the morning. I’d get up and go to the office that early. And again, it wasn’t any fun, but it was a habit. It got to be part of the daily routine. And I remember several times being in court at nine o’clock in the morning, really tired, because writing takes a lot out of you. It’s draining.”
                                                           John Grisham 
                                                           Academy of Achievement website

 

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
                                                         Gordon Gekko
                                                         Wall St. 

“Our entire economy is in danger.”
                                                         President George W. Bush
                                                         September 2008    

“When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod?”
                                                        
 Doc Hudson (voice of Paul Newman)
                                                          Cars       

                                                    

This is a look at two Hollywood icons. One fictitious, one real. One that’s alive and well and one that just died. 

But before we get to our heavyweight match-up let’s look at why I’ve put them in the ring together.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase made popular during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid. It’s always about the economy. Well, usually. Understanding economics can help your screenwriting greatly.  

First let me clarify that if you’re looking for “The Economics of Screenwriting” (how much you can get paid for screenwriting)  then check out Craig Mazin’s article at The Artful Writer

Few things are as primal in our lives as the economy. Wall Street’s recent shake-up joins a long list of economic upheaval throughout history. Just so we’re on the same page, the word economy flows down from the Greek meaning “house-hold management.” I mean it to include how people, businesses, villages, towns, cities and countries manage resources such as money, materials and natural resources. 

That is a wide path indeed. It’s why college football coach Nick Saban is on the cover of the September 1, 2008 issue of Forbes magazine as they explain why he is worth $32 million dollars to the University of Alabama. Why is the economy center stage once again in the most recent presidential election? Because… it’s always the economy, stupid.

Looking back you’ll see economics at the core issue of not only Enron, Iraq, 911 and the great depression but world wars, famines, and even the Reformation. I’m not sure how much further we can look back than Adam and Eve, but that whole apple/fruit thing in the garden had huge economic (as well as theological) ramifications. (In fact, it’s been said that there is more written in the Bible about money than about salvation.)    

There is no question that economics plays a key role in films as well — in production as well as content. On some level it’s almost always about the economy. This first dawned on me when I saw Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” for the first time and I realized the thread of money in it. Then I read Ibsen’s play  “An Enemy of the People” and noticed the economic theme there. They I started noticing it everywhere in plays, novels and movies.

From the mayor’s perspective the real danger of Bruce the shark in Jaws is he threatens the whole economy of the island town. In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney takes the boat back out because money is tight. Dustin Hoffman auditions as a women in Tootsie because he can’t get work as a male actor. Once you see this you see it everywhere in movies. 

Here is a quick random list where money, need to pay bills, lack of a job, greed and/or some form of economics play a key part in the story:

Chinatown
Scarface
Titanic
Sunset Blvd.
Tootsie
On the Waterfront
Wall St.
Cinderella 
Cinderella Man
Ragging Bull
Rocky 
Jaws
Jerry Maguire
It’s a Wonderful Life
Field of Dreams
Big
Greed
Body Heat
Falling Down
The Godfather
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 
The Jerk
Gone with the Wind
The Verdict 
Gone with the Wind 
The Grapes of Wrath
Risky Business
Do the Right Thing
Hoop Dreams 
Rain Man
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Gold Rush
Home Alone
Babette’s Feast
The Incredibles
Castway
Ocean’s Eleven
The Perfect Storm
Pretty Women
Trading Places
Indecent Proposal 
The Firm
American Ganster 
Rollover 

And it’s not limited to dramatic films. It’s hard to watch Hoops Dreams, Ken Burns’ The West, or any Michael Moore documentary and not connect it to economics.

So if you’re struggling with a story or struggling what to write, open up that door that explores economics. You don’t have to write The Wealth of Nations, but at least explore some aspect of it.  Join Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and other great writers who tackled that monster.

One thing living in the Midwest the past five years has done is help me understand how the world works economically. Because on a small level you see when John Deere is selling tractors locally, nationally and globally it helps the housing market here as the standard of living increases. The Midwest was the only place to to see homes appreciate last quarter. (Other parts of the country saw a 2 to 36% drop.)  But that wasn’t always the case.

When the farming crisis hit in the mid-eighties and John Deere (Cedar Valley’s largest employer) laid off 10,000 of it’s 15,000 employees and people were walking away from their homes. A film that came out of that era was the 1984 Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange film Country filmed right here in Black Hawk County. (By the way John Deere the company celebrates today 90 years being in this area. If you’ve ever eaten food they’ve had some role in it along the way.)

Three years later Oliver Stone’s film Wall St. came out the same year Black Monday occurred as stock markets around the world crashed. It was the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history since the great depression. (It only ranks #5 now.)  So here we are 20 years later still trying to figure it all out as two of the top ten largest stock market drops have been in the last two weeks. (Sept 29 update: Make that three of the top ten stock market drops have occurred in the last two weeks.)

(I’m sure Stone felt good when Wall St. first came out, kinda of like “I told you so.” But on the DVD commentary Michael Douglas said that he often told by stock brokers that they got into the business because of the Gekko character he played. Douglas said he doesn’t understand because he was the bad guy. But how many of those guys now in positions of leadership in the financial crisis had Gekko as their hero? To quote writer/professor Bill Romanowski one more time, “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”

The news will tell us what happened, critics will tell us why it happened, and it’s up to writers to tell us what it means. For years now I have noticed in many different states that more often than not when I go into a convenience store I see someone buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets and I ask myself, “What does this say about about the direction we are heading?”

Screenwriting is a place where we can pose those questions –and the playwright Ibsen said it was enough to ask the question.  So get busy asking questions. And if the economy gets worse remember this Carlos Stevens quote:

”Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”

On the opposite end of Hollywood from Gordon Gekko is Paul Newman. If there ever was an example of a talented actor/director and giving businessman/ social entrepreneur it was Ohio-born and raised Newman who passed away last night. Newman’s films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict will always be favorites of mine.

“I had no natural gift to be anything–not an athlete, not an actor, not a writer, not a director, a painter of garden porches–not anything. So I’ve worked really hard, because nothing ever came easily to me.”
                                                                                            Paul Newman 

 

(Newman’s Midwest roots extend to performing in summer stock theaters in Wisconsin and Illinois. And an Iowa connection is his last Academy Award nomination was for his role in The Road to Perdition which was based on the graphic novel by Iowa writer Max Allen Collins. And don’t forget that the Newman’s Own label was inspired by Cedar Rapids artist Grant Woods’ American Gothic.

I find it interesting that the three largest legendary film actors coming up in the 50s were all from the Midwest; Marlon Brando (Nebraska), James Dean (Indiana) along with Newman.)

Gavin the lawyer Newman played in the David Mamet scripted The Verdict says words that are just as relevant today as when they we spoken a couple decades ago: “You know, so much of the time we’re lost. We say, ‘Please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless…’ We become tired of hearing people lie.”

The world is upside down when we pay executives millions in golden parachutes when they drive a company into the ground. And that’s after they lied about the about the companies financial record along with their hand picked spineless board of directors. And after they’ve cashed in their own inflated stocks while the stockholders and employees are shortchanged.

But how nice to see a company like Newman’s Own whose entire profits from salad dressing and all natural food products are donated to charities. The company motto is “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.” To date Newman and his company have generated more than $250 million to thousands of charities worldwide. 

“What could be better than to hold out your hand to people who are less fortunate than you are?
                                                                                                      Paul Newman

P.S. Robert Redford had hoped he and Newman would be able to make one last film together and had bought the rights to Des Moines, Iowa born and raised Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods

“I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn’t decide if we were too old to do it,” said Redford. “The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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Years ago, philosophers Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a serious book called How to Read a Book. In it, they mentioned that unless you’d read a book three times, you really hadn’t read the book. That is, you hadn’t digested the book. I wonder how many of the estimated 1.7 billion DVDs sold last year were viewed more than once (not counting Finding Nemo).

The best way to watch a movie in order to grow as a screenwriter and filmmaker is to watch it over an over again. Writer/director Frank Darabont admits that, on his days off while making The Shawshank Redemption, “I would just watch Goodfellows again and again…just for inspiration.”

Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch George Stevens’ classic, A Place in the Sun 50 times. In fact, the single best class I had in film school was taught by a professor who showed us A Place in the Sun and afterwards asked us questions like “what sounds and visuals do you associate with the Shelly Winters’ character?” and “What music is playing whenever Elizabeth Taylors’ character appears?” It was the first time I really saw the intentionality of a filmmaker.

Film school was also the first time I was challenged to watch a film with the sound turned off and then just listening to the audio. Just out of school as VHS machines finally became affordable is when I began to break down movies scene for scene and to time the length of scenes as well.

Repeated viewing take you to a deeper understanding and appreciation of film. And now with DVDs and the like you can easily locate a single memorable scene, allowing you insights on how lighting, editing, pacing, economy of writing, direction, music sound effects and performance all come together for maximum impact.

While many DVDs come with extras, the real gold is in the commentaries. I’m not talking about the ones with film professors and critics, but the real nuggets that come from the writers and directors who made the film.

One DVD that I recommend you invest your time studying is the 15th Anniversary edition of Rain Man. The film, winner of “Best Picture” Oscar in 1988, has been out long enough to stand the test of time and be considered a modern-day classic. One aspect that separates it from the DVD pack is its three commentaries.

The director, Barry Levinson, the original writer Barry Marrow, and the rewrite writer, Ron Bass, offer more than six hours of insights that warrant repeated listening as well as the film itself.

The commentaries on Rain Man expose the collaborative process at its best. At one point, Steven Spielberg was set to direct, and had spent many months working with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise on their characters and mulling over script ideas with Bass. You learn how difficult it was to get the film made even with top talent attached.

Levinson explains how he sought to shoot in a way that would give the audience glimpses of how Hoffman’s autistic savant character saw patterns in the world. And he notes that his direction was designed to show that Cruise was as handicapped (relationally) as his brother, making the film a journey of two broken people connecting.

Rain Man works on so many levels (psychologically, visually, emotionally, and performance-wise) that you can begin to appreciate its depth only by repeated viewings.

So don’t concern yourself with watching films just to check them off your AFI Greatest Films list. Invest in couple DVDs of your favorite movies that you’ve heard good things about the commentary and watch those–study those–repeatedly. And like Van Gogh studying a Rembrandt painting, you will be partaking in a timeless creative tradition.

Here is a short list of my favorite DVD commentaries:

The Godfather; Francis Ford Coppola commentary

Stand by Me; Directing inexperienced actors and using improvisation

Seabiscuit; On adapting a film from a best-selling book

The Shawshank Redemption (15th Anniversary Edition); Frank Darabont and “Happy Accidents”

Pieces of April: On funding falling through and finally making the low-budget movie in 16 days.

Big: Commentary with writers Gary Ross and Annie Spielberg which has original excerpts of when they were writing the original script before they had ever had a script produced. Great stuff.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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