Posts Tagged ‘Elia Kazan’

Francis Ford Coppola‘s prompt book for The Godfather is several inches thick and contains Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather with note after note by Coppola as he details what parts he wants to extract and emphasize in the movie. The prompt book was the foundation for which he wrote the script.

Coppola explains that the prompt book is a tradition carried over from his theater days. (Before Coppola got a master’s in film at UCLA, he received a theater degree from Hofstra University.) Coppola also says he based his prompt book on one that Elia Kazan had done for A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan has written several books about his life and films including  Kazan on Directing and there are many other books that gleam insights from him that I’m sure was an encouragement to Coppola during his own difficult time of getting The Godfather made.

“When I started On the Waterfront, I was what they call unbankable. Nobody would put up money for me because I had had a series of box office failures…. One of my happiest moments was when I got the Academy Award for On the Waterfront.”
Elia Kazan
Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films Interviews with Elia Kazan
Jeff Young

In the below video, Coppola discusses part of the process that he went through in writing the script for The Godfather;

“On page 79 of the book we have the actual shooting of the Don. Whenever I felt there was a really important part of the book that was going to be in the movie I would sit there with my ruler and really underline—so this details the shooting. My margin notes are; THE SHOOTING! GREAT DETAIL. The Don is the main character of the movie, so as in Pyscho , we are totally thrown when he is shot. How would Hitchcock design this? Hitchcock was such a master about manipulating information for the audience, usually telling you things so that you were equipped to enjoy what you were seeing —rather than withholding information, he would give you information.”
Francis Ford Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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“Boris was a great artist. He did a beautiful job under difficult conditions. The weather was cold and overcast. We rushed to shoot the film in 35 days. Cheap is fast. Every day costs money. Spiegel, the producer, was on Kazan’s tail to go faster. We were pleased by the way the film turned out. Everybody was against it. We overcame all the obstacles.”
Screenwriter Budd Schulberg on Director of Photography Boris Kaufman who won an Oscar for shooting On the Waterfront which Schulberg won an Oscar for writing
on the waterfront

In the past year and a half I’ve been giving away boxes of my screenwriting and productions books to high schools and colleges. Last week I went through my bookshelves again and came up with two more boxes of books to give away and this batch includes William Froug’s Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade which was first published in 1992.

I flipped through my copy heavy with yellow highlighter marks looking for something I hadn’t covered on this blog before. Here’s the quote that jumped out at me:

“You are almost always better off if your scene is located outside in an interesting location with things happening in the background and all around the talkers. Keeping the characters moving helps. Movies are about moving pictures.”
Producer/writer/professor William Froug
Screenwritng Tricks of the Trade

Since this summer I’ve been calling these posts part of Screenwriting Summer School, it would be an interesting test to write down your all time favorite movie scenes and see if the majority of them are inside or outside. I know some screenwriters have a color coding index card system to see if they have a nice contrast of interior and exterior scenes. (Can’t recall anyone else saying you’re, “almost always better off if your scene is located outside.”)

The first exterior scene that jumped to my mind is the playground scene from On the Waterfronwritten by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. A simple walk and talk scene with Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando. It’s an understated scene and a bit of an exposition dump, but the good girl/bad boy scene (and their relationship) is important for the transformation of Brando’s character.

It’s a scene that does move the story forward and ties into the climax at the end of the story. I also like this scene because it’s an indie filmmaker-friendly kind of scene. It would be possible to shoot this scene with two actors and a four person crew. (How? Read The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns.)

The playground scene opens with a dolly shot* that runs a full two minutes without a cut. But it’s an elegant scene that’s not only well written and acted but watch it a couple of times and see how the direction and cinematography of this outdoor shot work to make the shot visually interesting. There’s the smoke from trashcan fires floating by, the swing set, the dropped glove, the stick of gum, the Manhattan skyline across the river, and the wrought iron fence—all of which to help make the three and a half-minutes visually interesting.

Van Gogh once said that he’d be content with water and a Rembrandt painting. I feel that way about On the Waterfront—a 1954 film that won 8 Oscars including Best Picture, and which the AFI lists as the #8 best movie of all time.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the climax of On the Waterfront is set outside. But the scene most played from the movie “I coulda been a contender” is set inside a car, and Karl Malden’s well-known speech is an interior scene. If someone’s expanded Froug’s outside comment please send me the link.

I’ve been watching the first season of The Sopranos (another Jersey-centered mob story like On the Waterfront) and I know cable TV—especially in the 90s before The Sopranos changed the face of TV—doesn’t have the budgets of an average Hollywood movie, but there’s a lot of sitting around and talking on The Sopranos. (Same for the #2 rated all-time TV show Seinfeld.)

Perhaps that’s the nature of the beast and it’s not fair to compare a top Tv show with a top movie.  Last year the Writer’s Guild of America named The Sopranos as the top show in television history. Created by David Chase it stands on it own and paved the way for one of the writers on The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner, to create Mad Men. And while Mad Men has its share of interior shots, the set design and set decorating of show set a new standard in Tv of how visually interesting an interior shot can be. And I’m sure there are plenty of Breaking Bad fans who would rather watch the compelling opening scene of the series a few times over the scene I chose from a black and white film that’s 60 years old.

This isn’t really about is TV more like theater than film, or a debate if TV writing is the best dramatic work being done today. It’s just three sentences by the one-time TV producer/writer and former UCLA professor Mr. Froug that I hopes helps you contemplate about your scene settings.

Here’s the second exterior scene that came to mind:

*A small indie crew couldn’t lay the tracks needed to do that On the Waterfront dolly shot with the large camera they used, but they could quickly set up and use a shorter dolly move using something like a Dana Dolly or what I have the Porta Jib Explorer. (I’ve even set my up in as little as 10 minutes shooting solo.) Or you could ditch the tracks altogether and using something like the MOVI.

Update: I learned that the studios wanted to shoot On the Waterfront on the lot in Los Angeles, but Kazan said it was an ‘East coast movie” and fought and won to shoot it in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Related posts:
The Source of ‘On the Waterfront’
Telling Our Own Shadow Stories
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
Kazan on Directing (Part 1) 

Scott W. Smith 

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“There’s a little bit of pink and blue coding that goes on in the film business in terms of material that you’re offered for sure. Every now and then I will feel in a meeting a little bit as though I’m out of place because there are so many men in the room. Certianly nothing that they’re trying to do, it’s not a harassment situation. But I’ll just have a sense that they’re looking at me like I’m a girl and that doesn’t come up for my husband (screenwriter Nick Kazan). We sort of have a lab thing going on at our house — he has one experience, I have another. There’s a certain amount of overlap, and the ways that they are different—some of them have to be put down to gender. I don’t let it bother me. I just go on doing my silly stuff…Statistically we know there aren’t as many women working in film as there should be. Having said that, I’ve had a wonderful career and I have many opportunities ahead of me and I have nothing to complain about.”
Screenwriter Robin Swicord
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters interview with Jay Fernandez  (Part 3)

P.S.   Having Nick Kazan as a husband means that Robin’s father-in-law was Elia Kazan, the Oscar-winning director of On the Waterfront.  Robin and Nick’s have two daughters in the entertainment business—  Zoe Kazan graduated from Yale with a theater degree, and Maya Kazan graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in film studies. This rounds out a nice run of posts taken from Robin’s interview on The Dialogue. Next week I’ll pull some quotes from Nick’s own interview on The Dialogue.

Related posts:

On What Makes a Director
Screenwriting Quote #143 (Elia Kazan)
Kazan on Directing (Part 1)
‘Unstoppable’ Wesleyan University
The Most Important Two Hours  “My life as a writer began in the theater…”—Nicholas Kazan
‘What it means to be a screenwriter’

Scott W. Smith

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“In a letter to Brando in which (director Elia Kazan) explores the differences between the Terry Malloy and Stanley Kowalski characters he argues as follows: ‘Marlon, this part is much closer to you and to myself too.’ Kazan also compares Terry’s ‘swagger’ early in the story with his own confidence and pride previously, as the ‘white-haired boy-director.’ At other points in the Notebook he compares Terry’s early relationship with Mickey (Johnny Friendly) with his own relationship with Harold Clurman and with ‘a Commie who regards Jack Lawson, or V. J. Jerome as the authority.’ While there is no distinctive visual style or mise-en-scene that ties this film to Kazan, the striving for autobiographical expression in Kazan’s work is arguably first strongly evidenced in On the Waterfront.” As a child of Stanislavsky, Kazan brings his own ‘affective memories’ to his direction of actors and of the emotional ‘beats’ of the drama.”
On the Waterfront
Joanna E. Rapf

Related posts: The Source of “On the Waterfront”

Screenwriting Quote #100 (Budd Schulberg)

The Priest in “On the Waterfront”

Kazan on Directing (Part 1)


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“The subject of writing for the theater or screen defies easily formulated rules. The best rule of screen and play writing was given to me by John Howard Lawson, a onetime friend. It’s simple unity from climax. Everything should build to the climax. But all I know about script preparation urges me to make no rules, although there are some hints, tools of the trade, that have been useful for me.

One of these is ‘Have your central character in every scene.’ This is a way of ensuring unity to the work and keeping the focus sharp. Another is; ‘Look for the contradictions in every character, especially in your heroes and villains. No one should be what they first seem to be. Surprise the audience.”
Elia Kazan (Two time Oscar-winner)
Kazan on Directing
page 260

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“I’ve never stopped trying to educate myself and to improve myself.”
Elia Kazan (1909-2003)
Oscar-winning director of On the Waterfront

In a day and age when almost everyone with a camera and an editing system calls themself a director I thought I’d give you what On the Waterfront director Elia Kazan told students at Wesleyan University  back in 1973 what he thought were the fields of knowledge that would best serve the role of a director. So while this is an abridged list, everything in bold is from Kazan’s speech as found in the book Kazan on Directing.

On What Makes a Director

Literature. All periods, all languages, all forms.
The craft of screen dramaturgy.
The film director knows beneath the surface of his screenplay there is a subtext. It’s what he directs.
Study Chaplin and other great two-reel comedy makers for what are called slight gags, nonverbal laughs.
The director should know opera. Acrobatics. Painting. Dance.
Music—All periods. And the social situations and currents the music came out of.
Collect clippings and photographs.
The film director must know costuming.
Lighting. Colors. Camera. Lens.
The city. The mountains. The plains. The Delta. The sea.
How to stimulate, even inspire the actor.
The film director must be up on the psychology of behavior.
Knowledge and training to handle neurotics. Why? Because most actors are. Perhaps all.
Various attitudes of lovemaking.
Economics a bore? Not to us.
He will not duck jury duty. (I wrote a post on that a while back.)
The best-directed shows on TV today are professional football games. Study them.
The subject the film director must know about most—Himself.

You don’t need to go to film school to be a director, but you need to be educated. Kazan followed this list with the qualities a director needed to go along with that knowledge.

A hunter leading a safari into dangerous and unknown country.
A construction gang foreman.
A psychoanalyst.
A hypnotist.
A poet.
An outfielder for his legs.
The cunning of a trader in a Baghdad bazaar.
The firmness of an animal trainer. Obvious. Tigers!
The kindness of an old-fashioned mother who forgives all.
The elusiveness of a jewel thief.
The blarney of a PR man.
A very thick skin.
A very sensitive soul.
The patience, the persistence, the fortitude of a saint.
Cheeriness, jokes, playfulness, alternating with sternness.
Above all—COURAGE.
The director must accept blame for everything.

As school is getting ready to start around the country this might be a good list to hand out with all those technical guides and workbooks.

Scott W. Smith

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“The ideal job of the storyteller is to involve the audience emotionally with something right off the bat, then get the chain of inevitable cause and effect rolling so that before the audience knows it, they are going through exactly what the character is going through. They feel with!! They are involved. They suffer and sigh with relief. They are actively and emotionally interested.” 
Elia Kazan
Kazan on Directing
page 23 

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