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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 handn’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 (relationaly) 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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“Primary exposition is telling and showing to the audience the time and place of the story, the names and relationships of the characters, and the nature of the conflict.”
Irwin R. Blacker
The Elements of Screenwriting

“Within the first pages of a screenplay a reader can judge the relative skill of the writer simply by noting how he handles exposition.”
Robert McKee
Story

Dramatically speaking exposition is simply the way you convey information.

Consider these facts:

I share a birthday with Slim Pickens.

I was born the same year as George Clooney, Meg Ryan, Michael J. Fox, Melissa Etheridge, Peter Jackson, Heather Locklear, Enya and Barack Obama.

I graduated from high school the same year and just a few miles away from the high school Wesley Snipes graduated from.

Not that I lump myself in with those well known people (okay, I just did — but let’s just say I’m not well-known or as accomplished like those mentioned) but I want to show you a form of exposition. I wasn’t totally on the nose with the above exposition but it gives you a ballpark of how old I am. (Old, but not that old. Come on, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Sheryl Crow and Jon Bon Jovi are just a year or two behind me.) If you wanted to, with a little research you could put all the pieces together.

Exposition works best in films when sprinkled here and there and doesn’t feel like exposition.

Think of exposition like exposure in photography. It reveals a subject. When you take a picture of someone on film you expose a part of them. Every angle gives you a little different exposure or insight into the person. In a close up you might see a small scar on their face, from the side you may see a tattoo on their arm, and from behind you might see their hair is thinning.

In compelling portrait photos you’re exposing someone and giving little glimpses of who the person is. In your screenwriting it’s best if your exposition is almost invisible so the audience doesn’t feel they are being spoon-feed info.

In real life people are constantly giving us exposition. Two pieces of real life expo that come to mind were in the form of a warning about other people. The first one came years ago when I was young and began a job wide-eyed and excited. A fellow who had been at the company a few years warned me about the president of the company; “Be careful there is a trail of broken relationships behind him.”

That was a great bit of exposition given in a way that was fresh and allowed me to fill in the blanks without knowing the details. Another person I worked with said of someone we knew, “I know there is a good person in there wanting to come out.” Great line.

And a fellow I once interviewed for a video told me, “The memories of my father could be put on the back of a postage stamp.” That one lines says lot more than a typical movie scene than dumping a two-minute monologue on what a bad a father he had.

This week keep track of how exposition is given to you in real life and in movies and TV shows you watch. Detective shows on TV are some of the worst at dumping exposition on an audience because they have to front load so much information because they need to grab your attention early so you know what’s going on before you change the channel. 
”Okay, we think Joe did this because his girlfriend just broke up with him and he lost his job at the factory where he works and he has a hunting rifle that uses the same caliber bullet that was used in the murder.” Then they often dump more exposition right at the end to explain all the details of why such and such happened.

Consider these great lines from movies that convey exposition in an excellent way:

“What was your Childhood like?”
“Short.”
Escape from Alcatraz

“What do you do with a girl when you’re through with her?”
“I’ve never had a girl.”
An Officer and a Gentleman

“Are you something else I’m going to have to live through?”
Erin Brockovich

In one sentence we get a glimpse that Erin’s been through some crap.

A key to writing good exposition is to only reveal what you have to reveal. We do this in real life. It’s the guy who says after the fifth date when things are getting more serious, “Have I told you I have a kid?”

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid timely exposition comes just before there is going to be a shootout and Butch says to Sundance: “Kid, I think there’s something I ought to tell you. I never shot anybody before. ” Sundance replies, “One hell of a time to tell me.” And at 90 minutes into the film it is one hell of a time to tell the audience this little bit of exposition. Butch is an outlaw and a bank robber and the admission catches Sundance and the audience off guard.

Films often use exposition early in the film to set the stage as in Jerry Maguire where the Tom Cruise character explains what a sports agent does. (Speaking of Jerry Maguire, I loved how screenwriter Cameron Crowe actually used exposition to avoid the usual spill-your-guts exposition moment when Dorothy tells Jerry, “Let’s not tell all our sad stories.”)

The stuff you have to get out to set up you story is what Blake Snyder calls “laying pipe” and warns that audiences can only stand so much of that before they get bored with the technical jargon.

“Laying Pipe,” is about how much screen time you must use to set up your story. In my opinion, audiences will only stand for so much of that. A good example of “too much pipe” is Minority Report, which does not get going until Minute 40. Why? Because this adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story requires A LOT of pipe! And to me, it torques the whole movie out of shape. So we must be careful. Just because we can lean on the built-in audiences that a beloved novel brings, we have to make sure we create a movie-going experience that resonates for everyone — even those who aren’t familiar with the book.
Blake Snyder

See how well exposition is handled in Man in Black: “What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the more deadlier poisons known to man.” Mystery Man on Film says of this line of exposition: “Perfect.  The pipe is laid, the audience knows the name of the poison, its properties, and how it works.  More important, the audience knows how this scene is going to work — one of the men will die from ingesting the poison.”

One reason flashbacks in general are frowned upon in screenplays is because they are often put there to simply be an info dump rather than being integral to the story. But flashbacks and life recaps can be handled well.

In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character says, “Dad was a Yankees fan then so, of course, I rooted for Brooklyn. But in ’58 the Dodgers moved away so we had to find other things to fight about.” Two lines that sums up his relationship with his father.

“But you have to be careful that your characters are not talking only in order to get information out. If you need to give the audience a bit of information, make sure to give the character his own reason to tell us about it. That’s called making the dialogue organic to the character.”
Alex Epstein
Crafty Screenwriting

“Always ask yourself: Would the character actually say this, or is he only saying it because you need the audience to know some fact or detail? If the answer is the latter, you’re writing exposition and not dialogue. That’s not good.”
John August
Big Fish

Save the best exposition for last. Of course, one of the best examples of this is when Darth Vader says, “Luke, I am your father.” I was at midnight showing in Hollywood when I first heard that line uttered and it was a personal great movie moment. Other great memorable lines of powerful expo are “I see dead people” (The Sixth Sense) and “She’s my sister and my daughter” (Chinatown).

Good exposition doesn’t need to be spoken either. “Show don’t tell” is a popular Hollywood phrase. Films are visual. When Jack Nickelson’s character continually washes his hands in As Good as it Gets we get a hint that he’s a obsessive compulsive neurotic. We don’t need to have him explain to a character why he washes his hands. We don’t need to see a flashback of him growing up in a dirty household where his mother didn’t let him wash his hands in order to save on the water bill.

In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character reads books in a room filled with books. We get a clue that he reads a lot. Simple visual exposition.

Sometimes you can use false exposition to lead the characters and audience astray as Norman Bates does in Psycho. Just because someone tells you something (and even believes it themselves) doesn’t mean it’s true.

Subtext is another way of masking exposition. Actors love to talk about playing subtext. That is what is being said beyond the words. Think of the many ways someone can say “I love You” and have it mean so many different things including “I hate you.”

As you’re writing and rewriting your script be aware of how exposition is being conveyed. Make ever effort to make the exposition seamless and is there for a good reason.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“I’d wake up at night with the smell of the ball park in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet… The thrill of the grass.”
Field of Dreams
Shoeless Joe Jackson

Yesterday I wandered over the Iowa state line into Omaha, Nebraska to watch the final game of the 2008 College World Series. The Georgia Bulldogs played the Fresno State Bulldogs.

That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen two teams play that have the same mascot. What are the odds?Probably a little worse than getting a script you’ve written made. Since every screenwriter is an underdog there are a few things every screenwriter can learn from the game of baseball.

In the end the Bulldogs from California won the school’s first ever baseball national championship. One sports announcer proclaimed it “one of the greatest stories in sports history.” I don’t know about that but those Fresno St. ‘dawgs were true underdogs. They lost 12 of their first 20 games and finished the regular season only 32-27 but somehow won when they needed to and ended up in the College World Series where they were ranked dead last.

No team had ever come from the last ranked team to win a national championship…until last night. As I said about this year’s Super Bowl, if it had of been a movie you would have said it was full of cliches. But everyone has a dream.

Before we get to screenwriting I want to go back to 2003 where Chris Moneymaker changed the face of poker playing when playing in his first tournament he began as an unknown and turned $39 into a $2.5 million winning purse.

“I got lucky along the way. I also bluffed a lot during this tournament, but somehow I got away with it.” 
Chris Moneymaker

The screenwriting equivalent may be Diablo Cody who won an Oscar for her first film script Juno. These are rare cases, and it is important to have a real understanding of how difficult it is to have a screenwriting career or even get one of your scripts made. But it’s also important to know that Hollywood needs good scripts because the Hollywood system needs good movies.

I found this little nugget of information in Joe Eszterhas’ The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood:
Director Phillip Noyce: “I realized that the Hollywood system–based as it is on the employment of branch offices all over the world promoting and selling movies–is totally dependent on a continual flow of product, and it’s been set up to promote that product into the hearts and minds of people all over the world. In essence, movies represent marketing opportunities for Hollywood.” 

That should encourage you in your writing. And keep in mind:

“The only essential requirement to launch a successful screenwriting career is a terrific script.”
                                                                                     Cynthia Whitcomb

The Fresno St. baseball team, Chris Moneymaker, and Diablo Cody are a group of talented people who were all considered underachivers before their breakthroughs. And what do you do until that breakthrough? You keep dreaming and you write scripts and continue to find key people to read your scripts.

When former baseball players Logan Miller and Noah Miller dream to play professional baseball failed they turned their attention to screenwriting and filmmaking. Once they wrote their first script they cornered actor Ed Harris at a film festival where he was receiving an award and he agreed to read the script. Last year that film, Touching Home (which they also directed and star in) was completed with Ed Harris playing the Logan brothers father.

Editor Walter Murch said this about the film:  “With its crisp photography, concise editing and excellent use of sound, I found Touching Home to be a thoughtful and emotional exploration of the forgotten corners of the American Dream.”

Driving back home today I made a slight detour to Winterset, Iowa which is where The Bridges of Madison County was shot and where John Wayne was born in a house not far from where Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep did scenes together in downtown Winterset.

And if that’s not enough, George Washington Carver lived in Winterset for a while where the former slave was encouraged to attend college which he did, both Simpson College and Iowa State Agricultural College where in 1891 he became their first black student and would go one to earn a Master’s degree before going on with many agricultural discoveries.

George Washington Carver and John Wayne are two more examples of coming from a small town before finding global success.

P.S. I noticed on TV’s at the stadium that Orel Hershiser was calling the game on ESPN. In my Cedar Falls office I have a signed baseball from Hershiser for a project I helped produce for his retirement celebration. It’s also worth noting, before Hershiser became a World Series MVP he played minor league ball in Clinton, Iowa and when he played for the LA Dodgers manger Tommy Lasorda gave him the nickname “Bulldog.”

I really don’t make this stuff up, you know?

 

Word and Photos ©2008 Copyright Scott W. Smith

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Indiana’s been in the news the last couple weeks. First there’s the new Indiana Jones film that’s on top at the box office, there was the Indy 500 this past weekend, and then I saw the front page of New York Times yesterday morning and learned that director and Indiana native Sydney Pollack died Monday.

It seems like a fitting time to take a road trip to the Hoosier State. Though Pollack was not a screenwriter it’s worth paying tribute to this giant of a filmmaker who knew how to tell a story.

Before he headed to New York after high school in South Bend to study acting with Sanford Meisner he had spent his life in Indiana.  From acting in theater, to directing TV shows, to directing over 40 feature films Pollack was unusually gifted. I was a long time fan of Pollack’s and he directed some of my favorite films:

They Don’t Shoot Horses, Do They? The Way We Were Jeremiah Johnson Three Days of the Condor The Electric Horseman Absence of Malice Tootsie Out of Africa The Firm Sketches of Frank Gehry 

He was a two time Oscar winner (Out of Africa & Tootsie) both of which films also won Best Picture Oscars.  Another Indiana native producer/director Robert Wise also had won two best director Oscars for his films West Side Story & The Sound of Music. He also won two more Best Picture Oscars for producing both movies.

And to challenge Nebraska’s cool actor category (which produced both Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando), Indiana lays claim to Steve McQueen and James Dean. The list of entertainment icons from Indiana also includes Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), comedian Red Skelton, song writer Cole Porter, and TV host David Letterman.

Moving to the writing side, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis. Glenn Berggoetz writes, “It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis that Vonnegut gained his first writing experience. During his last two years there he wrote for and was one of the editors of the Shortridge Daily Echo, which was the first high school daily newspaper in the country. At this young age Vonnegut learned to write for a wide audience that would give him immediate feedback, rather than just writing for an audience of one in the form of a teacher.” (Note also that Vonnegut also honed his skills at the Iowa Writers Workshop.) 

Theodore Dreiser from Terre Haute wrote the novel An American Tragedy that was made twice made into a film including the 1951 George Stevens’ version (A Place in the Sun) staring Elizabeth Taylor that won 6 Academy Awards. It is a film that Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) said if you wanted to learn how to direct you should watch 50 times.

To counter Dreiser’s somber look at the dark side of America let’s look at another film with Indiana roots. Playwright and screenwriter Steve Tesich was born in Yugoslavia, raised in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University. He won an Oscar for his screenplay Breaking Away based and filmed in Bloomington, Indiana and that became the 1979 sleeper hit staring Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Chrisopher Plummer and James Earle Haley.

Tesich’s script came at a time before we were jaded by sports stories and was released just three years after Rocky. The film captures much of what I’m trying to write about in Screenwriting from Iowa. That is that there are stories to tell beyond Hollywood, and people all over the world need encouragement to tell those stories.

Frank Deford reviewed Breaking Away for Sports Illustrated in 1979:

“It is the rare film that has understood the essence of sport so well as Breaking Away; or understood summer or growing up; or, for that matter, America and Americana. This joyous story about four young A&P cowboys and a bicycle race in Bloomington, Ind. cost a measly $2.4 million to make but it is better by far than all the ballyhooed, star-studded epics. Steve Teisch’s screenplay is impeccable; Peter Yates’ direction is nearly magic in its command and sensitivity; and the cast is perfectly chosen, an ensemble always in character. And if all this were not enough, Breaking Away also evokes a spirit these times yearn for.

“I’m sure that Teisch and Yates didn’t set out to wave the flag, but there is something special here… the wonderful thing about Breaking Away is that you leave the theater very proud that America has both an Indiana and a Hollywood.”

TV and film director David Anspaugh was born in Decatur, Indiana and also studied at Indiana University before going on to win two Emmy’s producing and directing Hill Street Blues and the quintessential Indiana film Hoosiers.

Matt Williams from Evansville, Indiana is best known as the creator and executive producer of Roseanne and co-creator of Home Improvement. But he also wrote for The Cosby Show and produced the Mel Gibson film What Women Want. He graduated with a theater degree from the University of Evansville and was awarded an honorary doctorate from there in 2003.

And the newest up and coming writer/ director from Indiana is James C. Strouse (from Goshen, Indiana) whose latest film Grace is Gone won the critics awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. His first film Lonesome Jim starred Casey Affleck and was directed by Steve Busemi. 

But I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana who seems to embody a Midwestern spirit in everything he does. Going way back into the early 80’s with prefect sing-a-long songs Jack & Diana (“Two American kids growing up in the Heartland”), Pink Houses and Small Town to his classic thought-provoking album Scarecrow that addressed the farm crisis in the 80’s, to his more recent Our Country. Mellencamp embraced his Midwestern roots and we were better for it.

While his film connections are usually on the soundtracks of films he did star and direct the 1992 film Falling from Grace. Mellencamp was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Indiana University awarded him an honorary doctorate of Musical Arts.

On Sunday I spent a several hours driving on the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinenental highway in the country. (It goes through both Iowa and Indiana. And paid my first ever $4.+ per gallon for gas.) It’s hard for me to make that kind of trip and not think of Mellencamp’s lyrics, “Ain’t that America Something to See.”

It’s something to write about, too.

P.S. Did you know that in the original Indy script that it was Indiana Smith? Doesn’t have the same ring does it?  (Spielberg thought it sounded to much like Nevada Smith, a 1966 Steve McQueen film.) And isn’t it hard to see Tom Selleck as Indy, who Spielberg originally wanted but couldn’t get because of Selleck’s commitment to Magnum P.I.?

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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“When I used to look out at the world, all I could see was its edges, its boundaries, its rules and controls, its leaders and laws. But now, I see another world. A different world where all things are possible. A world of hope. Of peace.”
Neo
The Maxtrix

“It’s all for nothing if you don’t have freedom.”
William Wallace
Braveheart

“You cannot tell a meaningful story without the potential for loss.”
                                                                                      Robert McKee

“A good point of attack is where something vital is at stake at the very beginning of the play.”
Lajos Egri
The Art of Dramatic Writing

I don’t know if Monday’s immigration raid in Postville, Iowa made it on your radar but it was the largest single site raid in the history of this nation. Federal immigration agents arrested 390 people from Mexico, Guatemala, Israel and the Ukraine.

Let’s put the politics aside and look at this from a Screenwriting from Iowa  perspective. How you answer the question  “What’s at Stake?” has a big impact on your writing.

Recently I wrote about David Lynch being in a small town in Iowa known as a haven for transcendental meditators and I find Postville just as intriguing. The community was founded by those of German and Norwegian decent and they make up half of the town’s 2,500 people. The other half are mostly Hispanics who work for the Hasidic Jews who moved there from New York, so the place is a little surreal.

Yesterday I drove to Postville to shoot some footage and interviews for Univision, the Hispanic Network in Miami,  and the first two people I met to were a couple Jewish young men. We talked a little about the town and had a common connection talking about B&H Camera in New York.

The Hasidic Jews are in Postville because they own and run Agriprocessors the world’s largest kosher meatpacking plant and where Monday’s raid occurred. (As a side note, did you know that Coca-Cola makes a kosher Coke available for the Jewish Passover?  No high-fructose corn syrup used.)   The Mexicans and other immigrants are there to work in the meat packing plant. The Germans and the Norwegians are still in the area running the farms they and their families have been tending for over 100 years.

Stephen Bloom, author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America writes, “I look at Postville as a social laboratory to test the limits of diversity, tolerance, and acceptance.”

When I first pulled into Postville it looked like many small Midwest towns you drive through. But then you notice the Guatemalan restaurant and the Mexican clothing and convenience stores and know that there is something unique about this area. Then you wonder how the Hasidic Jews have adjusted to moving there from New York.

Bloom writes, “When the Hasidic community moved to Postville, they moved their entire ethos with them from Brooklyn to northeastern Iowa. They created immediately a shul or synagogue. They made two mikvehs, or ceremonial bath houses, as well as a yeshiva, or school for their children. They replicated in northeastern Iowa the community they had established in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. So in my mind, they were not suffering any degree of cultural deprivation. They moved their world, lock, stock, and barrel, one thousand miles westward.”

Am I the only one who thinks that setting would be more a fascinating and original setting for a movie than say…”What Happens in Vegas”? In fact, What Happens in Postville sounds like a fine title. Witness meets La Bamba meets The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg with a dash of Ibsen and Wim Wenders. 

But what I really want to talk about is the concept in your screenplay of “What’s at Stake?” That is a key question of the stories you tell. Investors and studios long ago learned the secret of that question. Because at the core of the question “What’s at stake?” is the concept of what holds an audiences attention.

Writers are sometimes slow learners and can get caught up in the story, characters and dialogue they are writing. But “What’s at Stake?” is vital to ask when what’s at stake financially is a lot of money. “What’s at stake?” is related to the level of conflict I wrote about in tip #1.

If you take a long look ar AFI’s top 100 films you’ll notice that 70% of the films deal with life or death, or at least significant life and career blows. Great conflict.

Citizen Kane
Casablanca
The Godfather
Gone with the Wind
Lawrence of Arabia
The Wizard of Oz
On the Waterfront
Schindler’s List

When you talk about life and death a lot is at stake.

 “I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of last track myself. Being how this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you have to ask yourself one question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’
                                                                                                         Dirty Harry

If you look at the all time box office hits you’ll find a majority also have life or death, or significant life or career blows.

Titanic
Star Wars
Spider-Man

E.T. (the immigrant from outerspace)
Lord of the Rings
Jurassic Park
Pirates of the Caribbean

No one said all successful movies had or needed to have this element but obviously it increases your odds of having an award winning film as well as one that finds a large audience.

Maybe that’s the simple secret to horror films and super hero films usually doing well at the box office.

As I made the hour and a half drove home from Postville yesterday I thought of all lives involved in Monday’s raid. Certainly surrounded by agents with guns and helicopters overhead was a dramatic and traumatic situation. Now many are separated from family members and facing deportation. Others face charges of identification tampering.

It made me recall my days in Miami when Haitians would risk their lives to come to the United States on overcrowded and poorly constructed boats. And sometimes they died in the process.

The mayor of Postville said if the meat packing plant closed then his town could become a ghost town. There is a lot at stake from many angles in Monday’s raid.

What’s at stake in the script you are now writing?

“What’s at stake?” is a significant question in life as well as drama.

copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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 “Looking back, I can’t believe that I—a housewife in Cedar Falls, Iowa–saw my poems and short stories appear in magazines, newspapers and books.”
                                                                                   Nancy Price
                                                                                   Sleeping with the Enemy 

How would you like to have something you’ve written be made into a movie, starring a major Hollywood actor, and see that film make over $100 million at the box office?

Sure that happened recently with University of Iowa graduate Diablo Cody and her Juno script, but it also happened to a writer with deeper Iowa roots when Nancy Price’s novel was turned into the Julia Roberts’ film “Sleeping with the Enemy.”

In case you’ve forgotten, the sleepy little town that Roberts’ character ran away to in order to escape from her abusive husband was Cedar Falls, Iowa. Price wrote the book in Cedar Falls where she has spent a good deal of her life.

I heard Price speak this week at the Waterloo Public Library and I thought her story would encourage you in your writing. But beware her story is one of not only talent, but one of patience.

From the time she won a poetry contest at age 14 to when Sleeping with the Enemy was released 50 years elapsed. As in five decades.  While the movie differs from her novel she is thankful that it brought many people to her book, and that has resulted in the book being translated into 18 languages.

Her book is actually a more complex look at spousal abuse and in her words “really about people helping people.”  She still gets letters from women who say the book “changed their lives.” “It’s wonderful to get those letters,” said Price.

Price, who also does illustrations,  understood the Hollywood game and their desire for more of a blockbuster film. She said she had nothing to do with writing the script. 

Her book was published the same year Fatal Attraction was a huge hit and she also had the good fortune of having Julia Roberts commit to the project before Pretty Women was released which pushed Roberts to the top of the pack. “She really did help me out,” said Price.

Though as is often the case many people feel the book is better than the movie but she was also fortunate to have Ron Bass write the screenplay fresh off his Oscar as one of the screenwriters of Rain Man.

The strength of novels is you can reveal what characters are thinking which is hard to translate onto film. I found this quote from Bass explaining his process of adapting a novel into a screenplay: “My basic view of film is that, literature is about what happens within people, while film is more about what happens between people. So the basic tool for me is the two-shot, a scene between two people interacting in a way that illuminates for them and for us who they are, what they want, and where they’re going.”

Of course the strength of movies is visual story telling. So while Price could write 30 pages on how abused the wife has been over the years the movie can condense that into two shots. One where we see the obsessive-compulsive husband upset that the bath towels aren’t lined up correctly and another where the wife flinches at dinner table like an abused puppy does when you try to pet them. With those two shots the audience gets a strong glimpse of what she is going through.

The movie as a thriller is a melodrama but its theme of abuse is just as meaningful and relevant to address today. If you’re looking for a story to write here’s a challenge, take the abusive situation in Sleeping with the Enemy and add a couple kids to a story. That will amp up the conflict and choices the wife has to make. (And that is what many women face today and the core reason why they stay in those relationships.) Show that women’s strength emerge and you’ll be on your way to getting letters from women thanking you as well.  

And if you write that as a book first you increase your odds of getting the movie made. Not only because women buy 68% of books (according to Publisher Weekly) but because there are over 150,000 books published every year verses less than a thousand feature movies made each year. If your novel is good it may get bought by a producer even before the book is published.

But getting a book published is no slam dunk to getting a movie made. Price said that only 1 in 800 books get made into a movie and that she was fortunate her agent became the head of 20th Century Fox. “It’s just a matter of luck, it really is.”

I think it was Samuel Goldwyn who once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Price paid her dues. Between writing as a child to when the movie got made in 1991 she earned a B.A. in English and art from Cornell College and a Master’s Degree at the University of Northern Iowa, studied writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop, raised three children, had her work rejected by the New York Times 75 times, had a string of 60 short stories and poetry published, and had three novels published.

She was 53-years-old when her first novel was published and 62 when Sleeping with the Enemy was published so she was far from an overnight success. The idea for that book came to her as she thought, “If you’re going to be chased by someone, who would be the worst—someone who knows you.”

The book took three years to write and she usually rewrites the first few pages of her books 30-40 times because “that is where you need to make it clear what the story is about and who it’s about.”

Price explained that one of the biggest differences in the movie from the book is “all the characters in the book are poor and in the movie they’re rich.” So in the movie when Julia Roberts’ character gets caught by her neighbor plucking apples it’s because she had a late night desire to bake a pie, where in the book she steals the apples because she is broke and hungry. Maybe another concession to Fatal Attraction where everyone is also rich.

 

Price is still writing. She laments the lack of places for new writers to have their writings published because magazines no longer buy and publish short stories like they did back in the day and most of the major book publishers are looking for the blockbuster sellers from a small list of writers. (Many of who have ghostwriters writing their books.)

Price is self-published through Malmarie Press. You can purchase her books and learn more about Price at her website Nancy Price Books. On her site you’ll find some writing tricks she shares:

Do you stare in despair at the blank first page of your new novel? Don’t. Find some 4 X 6 cards and begin to put down scenes from the new book that you’ve imagined…characters that have seemed real to you…places you have wanted to describe…conversations you’ve heard in your head…each on a new card. When you have a collection of these, put them on the floor and push them around with your toe. Do some of them seem to clump together and act friendly? Can you imagine putting some new writing between this one and that one? You’re on your way.
                                                                                                           Nancy Price

And perhaps you can help solve a little mystery for Nancy Price. Remember that poetry contest she won when she was 14? Well, part of the prize was she got to attend a Detroit Tigers baseball game and meet one of the players. If you know who the player was email me (or Nancy via the email on her website) and she can put that mystery to rest. (There is a photo I’ll try to track down that would be a key clue.)

 

Words and Photos Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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Auntie Em: “Why don’t you find a place where there isn’t any trouble?” 
Dorothy:
“A place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place Toto? There must be.”
                                                                               The Wizard of Oz

Melissa: “Is there an F5?… What would that be like?”
Jason ‘Preacher’ Rowe
: ”The finger of God.” 
                                                                               Twister
 

Chances are if you think back to where you were in 1996 it may seem like 100 years ago. A lot can happen in 12 years.

1996 is on my radar today because it’s the release date of a two-disc special edition of the movie Twister that was made that year. Iowa was not on my radar back then and neither were storm chasers.  Those strange people who in the name of science roam the region known as tornado alley chasing monster-sized tornados looking for data to improve warning systems and hopefully save lives. (And also a good excuse to have an exciting day at the office.)

Twister was shot in Oklahoma and Iowa and according to some reports it was one of the most demanding films ever made. It earned every penny of its almost $500 million worldwide gross. According to Box Office Mojo Twister is #50 in all-time domestic box office draw.

It was everything that you expect from a big Hollywood tent pole movie. Special effects and more special effects. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in the Twister screenplay the story is basically there to bridge one spectacular special effect with the next. The filmmakers and the studios told us what kind of film they were making and delivered on their promise.

I look forward to seeing the special edition DVD just to see the behind the scene footage and listen to the added commentary material. In fact, the commentary material may be the only way I watch some films from now on. I did that for the first time with the movie Cloverfield. I just rented it to listen to the director’s commentary. (I love learning little things like one phrase producer J.J. Abrams is fond of saying to keep the budget down is “We can make this whole movie with a ball of yarn.” Abrams and director Matt Reeves did an amazing job with special effects on Cloverfield given their budget was only a third of Twisters.)

A couple weeks ago I was meandering in a used book store next to the University of Northern Iowa looking for something different and came across a book called Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie by Keay Davidson.

I flipped through it and found this quote:

“If you want a spiritual experience, you should go spend April to June in the Midwest, because you have never seen cloud formations like this! You watch everything in the sky happening in front of you as if you were watching time-lapse photography. We would literally watch cloud towers shoot into the sky and within fifteen minutes one little cloud would rise to become one 30,000 feet high.” 
                                                                     Producer (Twister) Kathleen Kennedy

Now when Kathleen Kennedy talks you should listen. She has flat out had an amazing career in Hollywood and has had a hand in producing some of my favorite films: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Seabiscuit (the only movie poster I own), and most recently The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. If you’re still not impressed, she also produced the upcoming Indiana Jones film being released later this month. (Not bad for starting out as a secretary/production assistant for Steven Spielberg.)

To top it off Kennedy is married to Frank Marshall who produced Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Bourne Ultimatum and a whole lot in between. Together the Kennedy/Marshall duo have produced films that have made over 5 billion dollars. 

Here’s another passage from Davidson’s book:

Twister’s setting is as grandiose as its subject: the Midwest. A terrain as rich in myth for Americans as the Aegean is for Greeks…What makes the Midwestern sky “so interesting is that the terrain is so flat—more than half of what you’re seeing is sky! So you tend to pay a lot of attention to it, said (Twister) director of photography Jack Green. “They’ve got these incredible cloud patterns passing through—clouds that contrast against a clear, intense blue and nearly unpolluted sky.”

The blue sky here in Iowa can be mesmerizing. (Especially if you’ve ever been on the Disney lot in Burbank and not been able to see the Verdugo Mountains just a few miles away because of the smog.) And while some Hollywood producers only know that blue sky as they’re flying over this part of the country, there are stories to be told from here. And I hope you’re doing your part to write them down wherever you live.

On a closing note the first week of May is not even over and already around 100 tornados have been spotted in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Iowa. Unfortunately it’s cost hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damages and claimed several lives.

And even more tragic, in Myanmar (next to Thailand) they report over 20,000 deaths due to a cyclone this week.

None of us know where we’ll be 12 years from now. But one thing we can be sure of is there will be more disasters like Hurricane Katrina, 911, and the Tsunami that killed over 200,000 in Asia.  There will be many prayers said and much relief work done. But remember that stories can also bring healing power and help give us perspective on life.

“Today is Father’s Day. Until my stroke, we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar. But today we spend the whole of the symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.”
                                                                       The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
                                                                        Jean-Dominique Bauby 

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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