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Posts Tagged ‘Erin Brockovich’

‘I love the script I wrote for Erin Brockovich. But even more, I love the movie. I love what it started as, and I love everything that was added to it by all the bright, talented people who came onto the project after me.”
Susannah Grant
Erin Brockovich: The Shooting Script (Newmarket Press)

“Film is, of course, a collaborative art and yes, sometimes those collaborations are like shotgun weddings of mismatched souls; the whole thing goes awry and everyone walks off in a huff vowing never to talk to each other. That can definitely happen.

“But what can also happen is that you end up working with enormously gifted collaborators whose input elevates your writing above and beyond what it would have been had you just been working on your own. Nora Ephron had a great analogy for this, and since I wouldn’t dream of trying to improve on Nora Ephron I’ll simply paraphrase her. She likened it to making a pizza.

“She said the screenwriter makes the dough, the sauce and the cheese and says ‘look I made a pizza’. The director comes along and says ‘hey that’s a great pizza, I wonder what it would be like if we added some pepperoni’. And you add the pepperoni. And then a couple of actors come along and they say ‘you know what else would be really good – some tomatoes and maybe some peppers’. And it goes on like that.

“I have been very lucky to have had some great condiments added to my pizza over the years. I want to share with you one of my favorites, it’s a scene from Erin Brockovich.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)
2013 BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series
(Below is the scene–from 0:00 to 2:21— Grant showed at her lecture. And the quote below is how she drove home her point.)

“Okay, arguably not a poorly written scene. However Aaron Eckhart’s falling to his knees and then on his face at the end, to me, is my favorite moment in the [movie] and that was all him. That is what you get when you work with [talented] people.”

I don’t know if the idea to have Eckhart fall forward came from Eckhart, the director Steven Soderbergh , Richard LaGravense who did uncredited work on the script, or someone else on the crew—but it was a super way to visually show how he’d been shot down by the no nonsense Brockovich. And a nice way to tie up the scene with a touch of humor.

BTW—I found this article where Nora Ephron talks about collaborating and pizza making and gives the flip side of the story, which is sometimes the ingredients added make the pizza worse.

P.S. Last year George Johnson writing in Slate reflected back on the now 20 year old events surrounding PG&E and Hinkley, California stating:

“The Erin Brockovich incident, one of the most famous, is among the many [environmental contaminants] that have been debunked. Hexavalent chromium in the water supply of a small California town was blamed for causing cancer, resulting in a $333 million legal settlement and a movie starring Julia Roberts. But an epidemiological study ultimately showed that the cancer rate was no greater than that of the general population. The rate was actually slightly less.”

The truth is out there somewhere.

Related posts:
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme “I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble.”
Writing ‘Erin Brockovich’
Emotional Autobiography (2.0)
Scriptshadow Secrets Touches on character introductions with Erin Brockovich as a good example.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Here’s a secret I have learned in 20 years as a screenwriter. Failure is constant for everyone. And I mean it, everybody fails at this all the time. Not just screenwriters, but I think anyone who tries to illuminate the human experience in an authentic way…I think everyone has the permission to fail a little. In fact I think that freefalling feeling you get right on the knife edge of total disaster may in fact be an essential ingredient to doing anything worthwhile at all. So the question then is: How do you reel yourself back from failure in a public way? How do you fall on the right side of that knife edge? And I guess what you need is a little bit of wisdom and honesty to look at something you’ve written that feels false, or boring or derivative, or in poor taste, or bullshitty, or inauthentic to you, and just plain not good enough. And say to yourself ‘I bet I can do better’.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)
2013 BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series

Related post:

Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Filmmaking Baby Steps “It’s  all baby steps. One foot in front of the other.”—Sidney Lumet
Commitment in the Face of Failure —Michael Arndt quote
‘The Lord of the Rings’ Failure
Spectacular Failures
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith

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“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Andy Defresne in The Shawshank Redemption

In light of quoting Secretariat screenwriter Mike Rich this week (Screenwriting Quote #145Mike Rick & Hobby Screenwriting) it would be hard to look at the list of films he’s written and not see that there is a thread of hope and redemption in all of them.

“It’s very, very hard to get a movie made. Quadruple or quintuple that degree of difficulty when your movie is about endless grim horribleness. If there is no spiritual uplift at the end , the reader is going to heave the script into the fireplace and cackle as it burns. Why should the audience suffer along with the character only for it to have been in vain?…Let the reader end on a note of hope or redemption.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks
page 15

The themes of hope and/or redemption aren’t limited to Disney films or more overtly spiritual films. Here is a short list in a mix of genres and old and new films that I’d put in the category;

The Shawshank Redemption
Casablanca
On the Waterfront
Seabiscuit
Juno

The African Queen
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Toy Story

Jaws
Tender Mercies
Field of Dreams
Erin Brockovich
Rocky

Rain Man
The Natural
Tootsie
Saving Private Ryan
An Officer & a Gentleman
Jerry Maguire
Pieces of April

It’s an easy list to come up with because those are some of my favorite films. It’s also a list shows that themes of hope & redemption are often popular with audiences, the Academy and critics. Sure getting a film made is hard, but what are the odds that your film resonates with audiences, the Academy and critics?(There are reasons universal themes are called universal.)

And on one level every screenwriter hopes the script they are working on will be produced and find an audience and will redeem the time spent working on their craft. (Even the edgy, indie, non-mainstream screenwriter working on the most nihilistic script ever written shares the same desire.) May hope & redemption fill your writing career and your life.

Scott W. Smith

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“I guess every form of refuge has its price.”
Lying Eyes/Eagles
Written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey

“This idea of possession seemed to be organic to both the foreground story, and all of Karen’s relationships, and this background story of Colonialism.”
Director Sydney Pollack on the spine of Out of Africa

There are movies like Erin Brockovich and An Officer and a Gentleman that in the hands of different filmmakers would be soap operas and not films that receive Academy Award nominations.  Out of Africa belongs in the same category. A woman is attracted to a man, but since the feeling is not mutual, she settles for marrying the brother of the man she loves. As an older single woman (for the times) it was a form of refuge. And from there the story unfolds.

The line between a classic tragic love story and a melodramatic soap opera is often very thin. But in the hands of director Sydney Pollack and his talented team the 1985 movie Out of Africa was nominated for eleven Oscars and won a total of seven. On the DVD director’s commentary Pollack explains the difficulties of bringing the story to the screen;

“I’d known about this book Out of Africa for years, as almost everyone in Hollywood had, and I was not the first director to try make it. Several directors had attempted it and there were several screenplays. When I first went and looked into the vaults at the studio there were at least five other screenplays that had been attempted. The difference we had was we had Judith Thurman’s extraordinary biography, Isak Dinesen The Life of a Storyteller to work with.  And that gave us something that none of the other filmmakers had the use of.

Kurt Luedtke who wrote the screenplay had written Absence of Malice, a film the two of us did earlier, and he always wanted to try this and I warned him that it had been attempted before. I think part of what helped him to lick it was the fact that he was new to the form and absolutely not intimidated by the fact that it had been tried so many times before.

And the combination of his grasp of the material and his perceptions and then the insights into her life that Judith Thurman gave us at least allowed us to get  a screenplay out of it.

The big problem in getting this book to the screen was the fact that there was no conventional narrative in her book. It’s really a pastoral.* A beautiful formed memoir that relies on her prose style and her sense of poetry and her ability to discover large truths in very small, specific details. So it’s very difficult and illusive material to base a screenplay on.”

To keep track of all of the writers and literary influences on Out of Africa here is an overview:

1) Karen Blixen, Lived the story and wrote the books (as Isak Dinesen) Out of Africa, Shadow’s on the Grass and Letters from Africa
2) Judith Thurman spent seven years writing and researching her book, Isak Dinesen The Life of a Storyteller
3) Erol Trzebinski, Silence Will Speak
4) Kurt Luedtke, Out of Africa script (working with Pollack), several screenplay drafts over several years
5) David Rayfiel, Who did credited screenwriting on Pollack’s
Three Days of the Condor, and uncredited work on Pollack’s The Electric Horseman and Absence of Malice, also did uncredited writing on Out of Africa

There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but the solo screenplay title card and the Oscar (Best Writing, Screenplay Based from Another Medium) went to Luedtke.

“We spent about two years trying to find what I always call a spine or an armature** of this piece. Sort of trying to distill the idea  down to one or two clear sentences that could be a guidepost. What is it really about? And we finally settled on possession. Freedom versus obligation. If I say I love you, what price am I expected to pay?… How much of myself do I have to give up? It’s always important for me to be able describe the heart of a film in some simple and evocative way so that I can sort of test each scene and character and development against that idea.”
Director Sydney Pollack

* Pastoral; Of, relating to, or being a literary or other artistic work that portrays or evokes rural life, usually in an idealized way
** Armature; framework


Scott W. Smith

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“I start by spending as much time as possible with the people involved. And I try to be as quiet as possible, and listen and observe.”
Susannah Grant  (on her writing research of real life people)

Screenwriter Susannah Grant graduated from Amhert College and the American Film Institute, and in 1992 won the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. She then spent several years working on the TV show Party of Five and writing scripts (28 Days, Ever After, andPochantas) which all paved the way for her biggest success to date, writing the script for Erin Brockovich. In the introduction to The Shooting Script book of the script Grant explains:

I set out trying to turn a huge, complicated five-year chunk of (Erin Brockovich’s) life and work into a 120 page cohesive screenplay. The question I’m asked most about this movie is how much of it is true. And my answer is, it’s almost entirely true, but it’s not the whole truth. Any life is complex, and Erin’s, especially in the years of the PG&E trial, was a labyrinth. Writing the script was a matter of figuring out which parts of that labyrinth were essential to the story I was telling; which were germane; which were expendable; and which were inessential. but so damn funny, you couldn’t possibly leave them out.

I holed up in my office and, several months later, emerged with a finished first draft. And let me tell you—handing over a first draft over to anyone is a nerve-wracking experience, but I promise you, nothing compares to the anxiety that comes with giving it to the person on whom it is based.

The real life Erin Brockovich liked the script.  Stephen Soderbergh liked the script. Julia Roberts liked the script. Audiences liked the movie. And the Academy liked Julie Roberts enough as Erin Brockovich to give her an Oscar as Best Actress in a Leading Role. Grant also received and Oscar nomination for her script.

In a Storylink interview with Debra Eckerling, Grant further explains her writing process:

I always have a road map. It is an outline that gets revised as I move along. I start with, “How does this movie start? What’s the first scene? What’s the scene after that?” And I bite off a little piece at a time. It’s like climbing a mountain. You can’t look at the mountain top, you just have to look at the ridge you’re on.

I start with a full outline. Not every beat will be hammered down and I rarely stick to the original file. I always over-outline. … As I write, I amend and revise and condense. I wouldn’t call it an outline, I’d call it a road map that I detour from.

PS. In total, Erin Brockovich received five Academy Award nominations including Albert Finney in his supporting role as Brockovich’s boss, Ed Masry.  Finney, by the way, happens to turn 74 today. Finney came from theater where he was known for his work on Shakespeare plays. If you’ve never seen his roles in Murder on the Orient Express, Under the Volcano, or Shoot the Moon, put them on your Netflix list. Happy Birthday Mr. Finney.

FYI: If you keep track of such things, Grant’s education at Amhert College and the American Film Institute would easily cost $200,000 in today’s dollars, and take a six year commitment.

Scott W. Smith

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Photograph by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“My bracket has Kansas winning the whole thing. Kansas is that big, fast, strong, deep, good, great, unbeatable.”
Gregg Dovel, CBSSports.com

President Obama was wrong. But he was not alone in picking the Kansas Jayhawks to win the NCAA National Championship in men’s basketball this year. In case you don’t follow such things, Kansas lost yesterday to that little known team from right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa—The University of Northern Iowa (UNI).

One sports writer said the upset victory, “could go down as the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.” Of course, that’s debatable. What is less debateable is this is the biggest victory in UNI’s history. This was the first time they have ever beaten a top ranked team. To do it in the NCAA Tournament before a national TV audience is all the sweeter.

The above photo of UNI player Ali Farokhmanesh celebrating says it all. It’s one frame that if it were the end of a movie the critics would be rolling their eyes calling it cliché. But movie audiences enjoy a good underdog story time after time. Why do we love underdog stories?

What is it about an underdog story that makes us feel so good? Perhaps it’s as simple as we all feel like underdogs. We can relate. Heck, I have a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa which might as well be called Screenwriting for Underdogs. But then again that would be redundant, wouldn’t it? (Tell me Joe “I’ve been in fights most of my life” Eszterhas hasn’t felt like an underdog his entire career?)

So screw the critics and keep writing underdog stories because the truth is cinematic history is full of great stories of underdog characters and underdog stories. From Rocky, Indiana Jones, and Norma Rae Webster to Hans Solo, Oskar Schindler, and Erin Brockovich they’re all underdogs that are greatly admired.

More recently, The Blind Side (based on the life of Michael Orr) found an audience to the tune of $250 million so far and landed Sandra Bullock her first Oscar. People still want to see Michael Orr stories. And, of course, an underdog doesn’t have to be an athlete.

Both James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic are the #1 & #2 box office champs—and both underdog stories.

What are some of your favorite underdog characters or stories?

P.S. The University of Northern Iowa is where Kurt Warner played college football before he became one of the greatest underdog stories in contemporary sports history. I should also give a shout out to the University of Iowa’s wrestling team who last night won the 2010 NCAA Division 1 wrestling championship. No underdogs there—it’s the third straight year they’ve won the championship and 23rd in school history.

Related post: Orphan Characters (Tip #31)

Scott W. Smith

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I’d hate to admit to how many books on screenwriting I’ve read. I tend to agree you need just one to get you on track and then start writing. (And this blog, of course. Just for a little inspiration.) But with that said, I just starting reading John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. 

Truby has been around a long time and has a lot of people who swear by his seminars. (Check out his website Truby’s Writers Studio.) I’m just a little slow coming to the table. But then again his book just came out in 2007. 

I think I’ll spend a few days pulling a few gems from his book. Here’s the first one.

“In the vast majority of stories, the hero’s overall change moves from slavery to freedom.”
                                                          John Truby 
                                                          The Anatomy of Story 
                                                          page 177 
Truby uses the word slavery to mean a way that life is out of balance. (Koyaaisqatsi, right?) Could be slavery to money, a career, an illness, an another person, a significant loss, a worldview, a prison, etc. The number 4 definition of The Free Dictionary reads, “The condition of being subject or addicted to a specified influence.” That’s a wide path.

That’s a simple thought but as I thought of several favorite films across many genres and I realized he’s right on track. Just off the top of my head I think these films would qualify the “slavery to freedom” concept:

Rocky
Good Will Hunting
Erin Brockovich
On the Waterfront
Big
Juno
Seabiscuit 
A Christmas Carol
Home Alone
Rain Man
Shawshank Redemption

Think about the script you’re writing now and ask how your main character is in slavery. That may help you if you’re having trouble finding an ending.

 

Scott W. Smith

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