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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 it is sprinkled here and there and it 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. And 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 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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New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)

“The future of cinema lies in the power of the pixel. The injection of fresh ideas and methodologies will only serve to mix up the metaphorical gene pool and empower a new generation of filmmakers.
                                                                                           Roger Corman

“The comeback of documentaries is strictly linked to the arrival of digital technology. We only see the tip of the iceberg. The whole the notion of distribution will be changed in the next decade.”
                                                                                          Wim Wenders

“I wanted this movement to be like the French New Wave, in which directors told different types of stories and used the language of cinema a little differently, with smaller cameras on real locations.”
                                                                                           Gary Winick

“Cinema has always been marriage of technology and human talent.”
                                                                                           Francis Ford Coppola 

 

Francis Ford Coppola is a prophet. As he gets older he even starts to look like a Moses-like figure. (Well, at least Charlton Heston-like.)  He’s every screenwriters friend and should be an inspiration to you.

He’s made great films (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), he’s made money and lost money, he’s won five Oscars, he even has a daughter who’s won an Oscar for screenwriting, he’s been a visionary, an artist, “a idea machine,” he own a resort in Belize and a home in Buenos Aires, and he makes a good bottle of wine there in Northern California.

A few months ago I was doing a shoot in the San Francisco Bay area and had an opportunity to make a quick stop in Napa Valley. I had not been there in over a decade and one of the things that struck me was it reminded me of Iowa. Then I realized why, it’s farm land with many Victorian homes scattered around.

Granted those homes in California are five times more expensive than the ones in Iowa. But the area has a similar feel.  In fact if you head west on Interstate 80 from Iowa after a couple days you will end up in California which is essentially what Midwest people did years ago on the first transcontinetal highway looking for new opportunities (and before that looking for gold). Which is why the street names in Napa include, Iowa St., Illinois St., Omaha Ct. and Kansas Ave.

I won’t get into Coppola being born in Michigan because there’s too much room to cover already. Toward the end of part 1 of this post I mentioned Coppola using video on The Outsiders back in 1982.  But before that film he also used video according to ASC cinematographer Russ Alsobrook:

“In 1982 Francis Ford Coppola directed One from the Heart from inside his 28-foot Airstream trailer designed as a complete “Image and Sound Control Center” complete with editing suite, kitchen and Jacuzzi. Aside from the Jacuzzi, the most unusual new piece of equipment that found its way into virtually every aspect of production on One from the Heart was the computer. From word processors in the script phase to budgeting, scheduling, storyboarding, sophisticated video tapes with playback and instant editing, the newest in silicon technology was being integrated into the Hollywood system.”

Coppola and those working with him 25 years ago showed where the technology was heading and helped pave the way. Earlier this year his first film in ten years, Youth Without Youth was released. It was shot on with a high end HD video camera and edited on Final Cut Pro. With five Oscars behind him I’m pulling for Coppola himself to do some of his best work ever in this new cinema.

I’m pulling for you too which is why this is a monster length post, even after being broken up into two parts. It’s important for you to grasp where all the technology is heading. 

What happened between Coppola’s Airstream video center in 1982 and today that makes it an exciting time to be a screenwriter and filmmaker?

Let’s start with 1997. That was the year that digital video arrived on the scene with the Sony VX1000. It was a leap in image quality, portability, and cost and independent filmmakers jumped on board. Lars von Trier’s was one of the first to shoot a feature with the Sony VX1000. He did the camera work as well as direct The Idiots, which was in competition at Cannes in 1998.

In 2000 Van Trier released Dancer in the Dark which was also shot on video, but in one scene he used 100 DV cameras.  Let it be stated that the critics have be far apart on judging his films. Rodger Ebert wrote, “It smashes down the walls of habit that surround so many movies. It returns to the wellsprings. It is a bold, reckless gesture.” Another reviewer called it “A 2 ½ hour demo of auteurist self-importance that’s artistically bankrupt on almost every level.” (Derek Elly, Variety) But another reviewer said of the same film, “An exhilarating and original work of cinema. A triumph of form, content, and artistic integrity. Astonishing!” (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)

Dancer in the Dark went on to win the top award at the Cannes film festival.

In 2000, Spike Lee chose to shoot most of his $10 million dollar film Bamboozled with the Sony VX1000. In that same year Academy-award winning director Michael Figgis released a DV feature Timecode.

Another film first happened in 2002 with Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark that was shot digitally in one take.  Impossible to do with film due to limitations of film loads. (Though Hitchcock did his best to make Rope look like one take.) Russian Ark was shot not with a DV camera but a Sony HD camera. That same year Academy –award winning director Steven Soderbergh shot a DV feature Full Frontal.

Jerry Seinfeld was executive producer and featured performer for the DV documentary Comedian (2002) that covered his return to stand-up comedy after his successful run on the TV hit Seinfeld. It was made with a small crew, is raw in production values, but offers a unique behind the scene look at the work of a comedian.

In 1999 a company called InDigEnt was formed by director/producer Gary Winick, John Sloss, Jonathan Sehring, and Caroline Kaplan. 

“I got inspired by the Dogme 95 movement because I felt they were starting to tell the types of stories and tell stories in a different way, and I was hoping at InDigEnt we would do that.”
                                                                                                   Gary Winick

Winick directed Tadpole, shot with a Sony PD-150 DV camera, and won the Best Director Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

InDigEnt also made my personal favorite DV feature Pieces of April in 2003. It won many awards at film festivals and actress Patricia Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar.  It written and directed by Peter Hedges (who also wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?)

In an Interview with Indie Wire Winick told Matthew Ross:

“I could have shot Tadpole on 35mm, and would it have been a better film? I don’t know. Would I have gotten that cast? I don’t know. Part of the reasons for the cast wanting to be in the film, besides the material, was that they were all interested in working in DV, which I presented it to them as this hybrid between the theater and film. And also, I only need you for two weeks and not two months.”

Ross: I’ve never heard DV described as a hybrid of theater and film.

Winick: Actually it was Sigourney Weaver who inspired me to phrase it that way. But I think it’s well-put for a couple of reasons. One is that you can let the scene keep rolling; you can let the scene unfold like you would in theater. The actors can just perform…Digital cameras can be portable enough that if you suddenly come up with a new approach, you can just back up and redo your scene….Charlie Chaplin used to make films that way… These days, studios just aren’t going to give directors permission to play around that way in 35mm — on DV, you can.

And in 2004 the InDigEnt produced November starring Courteney Cox and shot with a $4,000. Panasonic DVX 100 DV camera by director of photography Nancy Schreiber who won best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival.

That same year at Sundance Morgan Spurlock earned the Directing Award for Super Size Me and the documentary Born into Brothels won an audience award, both of which were shot on digital video cameras. Brothels beat Super at the Academy Awards.

So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences.

You can sit around and argue all day about how film is superior to digital video, but folks the train has left the station. And it’s going to get wilder.  I really don’t think most audiences watching the above films or other DV features such as Trainspotting, Murderball, The Buena Vista Social Club, Inland Empire, and Grizzly Man really care what the film was shot on. They want to be entertained, engaged and get a glimpse into the world they live in. Dare I say films with meaning?

All of this means there are going to be more opportunities for films made and distributed outside the Hollywood system.  People have been dreaming about this time since at least 1955 when Daily Variety’s headline read “Film is Dead” with the invention of the first Ampex video tape recording machine. That bold declaration, and those like it, have caused much laughter. Hollywood is slow to change.

It’s always fun to look back at past predictions and read things like, “The radio will never replace TV because people have to stop and sit down to watch TV” and that Manhattan would never have more than 1 million people living there because there wouldn’t be enough room for all the horses.” 

I remember when a trailer for Silkwood came out in ’83 and Cher’s name appeared on screen. People in the theater laughed. Apparently they missed her excellent film acting debut performance in Robert Altman’s Welcome Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean that came out in 1982.

To the people laughing, Cher was only known as part of the kitchy TV program The Sonny and Cher Show that ran from 1976-1977. She had had a few hit songs, but no one (except Altman perhaps) took her as a serious actress. They weren’t laughing after they saw her performance in Silkwood or the next year for her roll in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, or her academy-award winning performance in Moonstruck.

But that’s the same laughter that I heard when my boyhood friends learned the motorcycle company Honda was going to make cars. It’s the same laughter that Ted Turner heard when he said he was going to start a 24 Hour News channel. When told by a reporter that he lost 10 million dollars in his first year of operation, in true maverick spirit he said, “And I plan on losing 10 million dollars every year until this works.”

No one’s laughing at CNN now and behind Tunrer’s wake are many channels dedicated to sports, weather, history, pets and home improvement. (Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dreams touches on the spirit of the entrepreneur.) The entrepreneur and the artist often share a stubborn vision of what is possible.

Artists have always taken the tools at hand and created art; Be it an old Polaroid camera or a cheap Russian made Holga camera. For years filmmakers have been using a plastic video camera designed by Fisher-Price in the 1970’s for children called PixelVision. It originally shot onto cassettes but now is commonly adapted for DV use and there are now PixelVision film festivals as well. 

Now that iTunes is selling short films from the Sundance Film Festival and Academy Award Nominated films it allows a revenue stream never seen before for short filmmakers. With a few clicks on your computer you can be watching The Last Farm shot in Iceland.

Most books on screenwriting are geared toward the traditional Hollywood feature film route and I’m indebted to those books for there I learned classic storytelling structure, but there are many alternative routes for you these days due to the increased bandwidth of the Internet.

Keep in mind that You Tube was just launched in 2005. And already it’s had success (Lonely Girl 15 and We Need Girlfriends) launching careers. The later now being developed by Sex in the City creator Darren Star, who is working on a CBS pilot with the original creators who made the videos in off hours from their day jobs.

And don’t forget the potential for screenwriting for videos games that have become more and more story orientated. Video game sales a couple years ago surpassed movie revenue. And every year more and more businesses will be using video on the Internet to tell their stories.

The digital genie is way out of the bottle. It may be digital but someone still has to write the screenplays. On the high end there will continue to be films shot digitally like Sin City and 300 that were shot on blue screens on sound stages, and this years’ $30 million Cloverfield which was shot mostly with the Panasonic HVX 200 digital camera that sells new for under $6,000. shooting onto digital P2 cards.

There will continually be upgrades to smaller high def DV cameras and films made from them, and there are films now being made being shot directly to hard drives and edited as they’re being shot, and even those older cameras like the Sony VX1000 will filter down to someone who decides its time to make a little film.

And let’s not forget those cell phone cameras I wrote about in New Cinema Screenwriting (Part 1).

This is filmmaking and screenwriting in the 21 century;  A screen is any screen available. Embrace it. That’s new cinema screenwriting.

So pick up a bottle of Coppola wine today a give a toast to Mr. Francis Ford Coppola, prophet, pioneer, and godfather of new cinema.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

“Film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.”
Jean Cocteau

“The future of filmmaking is changing and mobile-generated art is fast becoming the next medium for film. In five years, I believe we will be watching films in movie theaters that have been shot on a mobile phone.”
Spike Lee
(April 2008)

I stopped laughing years ago.

Back in 1995 I had a friend tell me she was getting married to someone she had met on the Internet. That was uncharted territory back then and fodder for many jokes.

Four years later when the creative team behind The Blair Witch Project stunned Hollywood with the use of their unusual marketing on the Internet it got everyone’s attention.

Now almost ten years later it seems as if the whole world has jumped on the Internet bandwagon. Video for the web is exploding and it’s hard to be surprised by the technological breakthrough of the month.

There is a new cinema coming and for the screenwriter that means new opportunities. So in two parts I’ll attempt to give a sweeping overview of this new world.

In May of 2005, I was on a shoot in Cape Town, South Africa when I read an article about a director in the United States who was making a national commercial with a cell phone. That’s when I thought to myself, “Someday, someone’s going to make a feature film with a cell phone.” In December of 2005 in Johannesburg, South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof, shot the first dramatic feature film, SMS Sugar Man, entirely with a cell phone. A cell phone.

Kaganof, an accomplished filmmaker, told Ryan Fortune of Johannesburg’s Sunday Times’, “We are re-writing the book on cinema here…things will never be the same…from now onwards, all you’ll need (to make a film) is a good idea, a cellphone, a laptop and you’re off. It opens up a whole world of possibilities….” Fortune commented that the film is a perfect example of leap-frogging meaning a technological leap had occurred much like it had ten years previously with the advent of DV cameras and non-linear editing systems.

But also in 2005, the first feature documentary shot entirely with a cell phone was being shot. Italian directors Marcelo Mencarini and Barbara Seghezzi co-directed the 93-minute film, New Love Meetings. “With the widespread availability of cell phones equipped with cameras, anybody could do this,’’ Mencarini said, “If you want to say something nowadays, thanks to the new media, you can.”

Within a year of the cell phone feature breakthroughs, cell phone film festivals began popping up around the world. For the naysayers out there who question the quality of the equipment or films being made need to view the first copyrighted film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze. It was made in 1894 and features, well, Fred Ott sneezing. Yes, I paid a lot of money in film school to learn that, but you can see it free on You Tube.

In fact, you can see quite a lot on You Tube. Not just silly videos of teenagers lip-syncing pop songs, but there’s a mini film school hidden in there. Classic clips from Charlie Chaplin films, the opening tracking shot in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho are available for you to study.

And you have to admit Judson Laipply’s The Evolution of Dance is original and funny. You have to take notice of a video that gets viewed 10 million times in its first two weeks and a year later as I write this is still the number one all-time viewed video on You Tube with more than 83 million views.

Things have evolved very quickly in digital filmmaking and distribution. I don’t know if there are more people making money in the digital world but there is a heck of lot more content. And that is a start and gives us a taste of what is to come. We know that the Internet is shaking up the industry as more and more people spend time on the Internet and less time watching TV programs and going to movies.

We know that in a few years video stores will probably revert back to the small mom and pop stores that sprang up in the 80′s with the demand for video rental. Stores like Blockbuster will have to diversify what they do to survive. I don’t think the need for people renting movies will ever totally go away, they’ll just become more like those funky retro record stores. (Heck, people still collect 8-track tapes.)

One of the good things that may come out of this is the rebirth of the filmmaker as artist. Because of the high costs of making films, filmmakers have always had an uneasy agreement with commerce. Only certain type of films could be made. Ones that could find a large audience. The goal was a high return on investment.

With the rise of the super blockbuster it was once believed that the studios would then make more smaller, less sensational films. That didn’t happen. Once studios got a taste of 100 million dollar box offices then that became the goal for every film. Bruce the shark in Jaws killed more than people.

Over the years I’ve read article after article where actors, directors, writers, and cinematographers lament over not making the kind of films they really want to make. Part of the problem is they too are caught up in the machine. But every once in a while a flower breaks through the concrete and gets made for the joy of it. Because the writer and or director have a vision beyond simply the box office. The real exciting part is when those films make money.

Not all digital films will turn out as well as Sketches of Frank Gehry, but that is part of the process. Remember, before Francis Ford Coppola made The Godfather he cut his teeth on Roger Corman films. Ditto that for Titanic writer/director James Cameron and many other filmmakers. Let’s look back and how far we’ve come in a short time.

I remember in the late 90′s when a filmmaker from New York told an audience at the Florida Film Festival, “I am a filmmaker, I make films with film—I’m not interested in video.” Many film festivals didn’t even allow films shot on video. Looking back it reminds me of the days when snow boarding was outlawed at ski resorts in Colorado. (Snow boarding now represents more than half the revenue at some resorts.) Things change. And these days they change rapidly.

When I was in film school in the early 80’s there was a line drawn between the film and video world. The film students looked down on the video and TV students,  just as did film actors looked down on TV work.

As the 80’s progressed both the VHS videotape market and cable TV opened new opportunities for filmmakers and the lines between film and video became blurred. The year 1994 was the year that I gave up being a film snob. That was the year that Hoop Dreams was released.

I didn’t care what it was shot on it was simply a great film—even if it was shot on video.

Film critic Rodger Ebert would later call it the best film of the 1990’s.  Up until that point there had been a lot of dabbling with video in Hollywood. Jerry Lewis was the first to use video assist on a film for his directorial debut The Bellboy. The first feature film shot on video was 200 Motels, co-directed by Frank Zappa in 1971. Coppola explored with video on The Outsiders back in 1982 mostly for a reference point while working with young actors.

This is a good place to end part one of New Cinema Screenwriting. My last post touched on David Lynch shooting Island Empire on DV and swearing not to return to shooting film. Whether that is another one of Lynch’s bizarre dreams or in fact reality time will tell.

“I think there’s a slight trend toward embracing new cinema, non-Hollywood blockbuster cinema. It’s not erupting, but because of the Internet, I think people have more of a chance to get buzz going on alternative cinema, so I think it’s hopeful out there.”
David Lynch

Granted this is all in the beginning stages which reminds me of an interview I saw last year with the founder of the Geek Squad who said, “What people don’t realize is the internet has not yet started.” Keep in mind that it wasn’t too long ago when Bill Gates dismissed the power and future of the Internet.

There is nothing wrong with having Big Budget Technicolor Hollywood Dreams but keep in mind that today in little towns and villages all over the world there are people experimenting with little digital cameras (even cell phones) and making movies. Writing words and making movies. And tomorrow we’re going to be watching some of those films.

It’s kind of like the golden age of Hollywood when they cranked out film after film to hungry audiences in a pre-television era. Films were sometimes made start to finish in a couple weeks. That’s how some directors directed over 100 films.   Most of those films are forgotten but the ones that survived shine brightly.

The first John Ford film that most people have heard of and perhaps even seen is Stagecoach which he made in 1939. (Though he did win acclaim for Arrowsmith and The Informer in ’31 & ’35)  Before he directed Stagecoach Ford had made 94 films in 22 years. (Think about the learning that went into the simple process of making that many films.)  There is a reason that Orson Welles’ is reported to have watched Stagecoach 40 times before he directed Citizen Kane.

He was in his 40′s when his career got rolling and making the films that we remember him for making. And he directed into his 80′s. There are some great older directors and screenwriters out there that the Hollywood system has forgotten even though they have some films still in them. Maybe if they pick up a digital camera they can make their best films yet.

Speaking of 1939, has there ever been a single better year for movies than 1939?

Maybe this new cinema is a return back to the future.

“I’m ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world? “
                                                                                                        The Maxtrix

“Life is very, very complicated and so films should be allowed to be too.”
                                                                                                      
 David Lynch 

 

Yesterday I drove two and a half hours to hear David Lynch speak for an hour. Or “the great David Lynch” as he was introduced. I don’t pretend to understand writer/director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) or his films. But I felt compelled to hear what he had to say since he is considered “one of the true originals of world cinema.” Plus he is notorious for not doing DVD commentaries so you grab bits and pieces when you can.

Of course, there’s a good chance that David Lynch doesn’t understand many of his films so doing a commentary could be tricky territory. I feel with Lynch what Ingmar Bergman said of Godard, “I have a feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have a feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me.”

Lynch said this in the Focal Press book screencraft; directing: “I refuse to give explanations of any film I make. Films can be abstract and abstractions exist in everyday life and they give us a feeling, and our intuition goes to work, and we make sense of it for ourselves…Watching a film is like standing in front of a painting. It’s talking to you and it’s about a circle from the screen to the viewer to the screen to the viewer. Once that circle starts rolling, the same films can be seen 100 different ways by 100 different people. That’s why I refuse to explain my films.”

I became familiar with Lynch in 1980 with his film The Elephant Man that he directed and co-wrote. It’s the story of John Merrick who is heavily deformed and mistreated. I was a teenager and it may have been the first black and white film I ever saw in the theater. I knew I was watching something different. And when the deformed Merrick shouts, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” I knew I was experiencing something profound.

Oddly enough that film was produced by Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) who is known a little more for his humor than his profundity. The Montana born Lynch started out as a painter studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. That may explain some of the abstractness in his films. He made short films and went on to study at the American Film Institute.

Many of his films (Wild at Heart, Lost HighwayIsland Empire, Mullholland Drive) have left me shaking my head and wondering why I am watching a foreign film in English. But then there is The Straight Story about Alvin Straight who, unable to drive a car, decides to take his riding mower 240 miles across Iowa to see his brother who had a stoke.

Jerry Bruckheimer it’s not. The Straight Story is the antithesis of high concept. But it’s a film totally that captivated me long before I moved to Iowa. As a side note, I did meet actor Richard Farnsworth (who played the lead character Alvin Straight) in a movie theater in Burbank back in the 80′s. Here was a guy who was a stuntman and long before he rode a riding lawn mower in a movie rode one of the chariots in Ben Hur. And there he was just waiting in the snack line in front of me. How fun is that? 

Someone said The Straight Story  was not so much a film but a meditation. Which makes perfect sense since Lynch has been a long time proponent of transcendental meditation (TM). In fact, his talk was part of the David Lynch Weekend at the Maharishi University of School of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. 

 

Not technically connected to Trancendentalism that emerged in 19th century New England that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who were in search of Utopia. Though there is a connection in Vedic teachings from Ancient India. I don’t pretend to understand this way for thinking except that Thoreau’s Walden does tap into a universal theme of wanting to live in harmony.

In the Jewish faith there is the concept of Shalom, meaning peace or nothing missing. The Buddhist through meditation seeks awakening or enlightenment. In the Christian tradition Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives you peace do I give you.” I imagine all religions have some understanding of peace and harmony.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’ll leave the differences of these religions for someone else to discuss, but whatever you believe you can probably agree with Danny Glover’s character in the movie Grand Canyon as he reflects on the world he lives in, “Man, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” So we seek a sanctuary – a holy place.

Catholic’s have sought a higher spiritual plane though building beautiful cathedrals, and using candles and music such as the hymns of St. Francis of Assisi and Gregorian chants. In fact the mystical film Koyaanisqatsi was made by a filmmaker (Godfrey Reggio) who spent 14 training to be a monk years in a New Orleans Monastery before turning to film. 

I have been to Protestant black churches where the uplifting music mixed with somber spirituals alone last longer than most non-black services I’ve attended. Both John Calvin and Thomas Edison said that people were “Incurably religious.”

At this point we’re a long way from Beavis and Butt-Head as well as “Dude, Where’s My Car?” but there’s room on the screen for a few spiritually significant films. There is a reason some films resonate with people and are discussed endlessly: The Seventh Seal, Star Wars, The Shawshank Redemption, The Matrix, The Qatsi Triliogy, Babette’s Feast, Grand CanyonTender Mercies, Crimes and Misdemeanors.

I think at least Lynch’s films The Elephant Man and The Straight Story fit in that catagory. So a little out of my comfort zone I went to hear Lynch speak on “Exploring the Frontiers of Creativity.” Here are some sound bites:

“Intuition is the number one tool of the artist.”

“Negativity blocks creativity.”

“Cinema is sound and picture moving in time.”

When someone asked him for some obstacles to make a film (in the spirit of Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions) Lynch responded with a handful including these gems; “A bowling ball in space filled with red ants” and “A Buick with fifteen 16-year old girls.” 

When asked how he chose which ideas to make a film on he said, “I get ideas all the time and every once in a while I fall in love with one.” He said he is surprised as anyone when they come along and added, “I translate ideas that I fall in love with.”

So if you have trouble understanding Lynch’s films know that it’s like listening to someone explain the dream they had last night. You sit there nodding your head having no real way to process what they are telling you.

Lynch spoke of a new cinema. The first time I saw a photo of Lynch holding a DV camera it made perfect sense. He once said, “I started working in DV for my Web site, and I fell in love with the medium. It’s unbelievable, the freedom and the incredible different possibilities it affords, in shooting and in post-production.” 

Lynch told Videography Magazine, “With DV, experimenting is something you can do on your own. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It’s really a freedom thing.” 

By the way, if Fairfield, Iowa rings any bells in your head that probably means your a gamer. On July 13, 2007 Billy Mitchell set a verified world record high score on the classic Donkey Kong arcade game. Mitchell has recently been featured in two documentaries on gaming King of Kong and Chasing Ghosts. Right there is Fairfield, a small town most people in Iowa would have trouble placing on a map.

On my two and a half (plus) hour ride home I had to time to reflect on the day. One of the things that stuck with me was Lynch talked about the importance of the process. And actually, just driving down there was beneficial as I enjoyed the blue sky and wide open scenery, and worked through ideas for a screenplay I am working on. While driving back from Fairfield I stopped in a Iowa City and while in a bookstore read the intro to Juno: The Shooting Script by Diablo Cody. Cody writes:

 “And here’s my unsolicited advice to aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition. No one is capable of doing what you do.”

Mr. Lynch echos those sediments: “In cinema, if everybody was true to their stories and themselves, then there would be many unique voices.” Love or hate his films, David Lynch is a unique voice. 

 

“Water the root and enjoy the fruit.” 
                                                                    David Lynch 

“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.” 
                                                                    Peter Seller’s character in Being There   

 

Photos and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

 

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