Posts Tagged ‘Errol Morris’

I come out of a background — I was a private detective for years after I started as a filmmaker. I like to think, of course I could be completely wrong, that there’s this detective element in everything I do. My movies start from interviews. Everything that I’ve really done —The Thin Blue Line started from  bizarre, odd interviews. But interviews that are investigative. … The element of spontaneity is not knowing what someone is going to say in front of the camera, having really no idea, of being surprised. I know that there’s this moment in all of the interviews that I’ve loved where something happens. I had this three-minute rule that if you just shut up and let someone talk, within three minutes they will show you how crazy they really are. And it has happened time and time again.”
Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War)
The Believer — Errol Morris talks with Werner Herzog


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“Vernon, Florida”

“After twenty years of reviewing films, I haven’t found another filmmaker who intrigues me more…Errol Morris is like a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.”
Roger Ebert

You know what’s most quirky about The Black List (2013)? Yes, screenwriter Elijah Bynum is the only writer with two scripts on the list, but that’s more phenomenal than quirky. Certainly the fact that there are two scripts on the list about making the movie JAWS and two scripts about Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) is quite odd. But as far as most quirky, I’m going to go with the Andrew Sodroski’s thriller script Holland, Michigan having Errol Morris attached to direct.

Morris is an Academy Award-winner who’s been making films for 35 years. Mostly documentaries (The Fog of War, Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line) but the only narrative feature he directed,  The Dark Wind (1991), was an experience he called “remarkably distasteful.”

“I’ve ‘undervalued’ The Dark Wind for a number of reasons, because it could have been a very different kind of movie, a good movie. I hate to go on about it, but, for me, it was devastating and, for a while, I even thought about giving up filmmaking altogether…I wasn’t allowed to shoot what I wanted to shoot. And not only wasn’t I allowed to edit the film, I wasn’t involved in any way with the editing. So I feel so disconnected from the end result, so divorced from it, that it’s hard for me to really think of it as one of my films.”
Errol Morris
2001 Errol Morris Interview with Tom Ryan 

So I find it interesting that he’s set to direct a narrative film that was the most highly ranked script on this year’s Black List. It’ll be interesting to see how that deal all worked out. And isn’t it quirky that he’s making a film titled Holland, Michigan when was the title of one of his early documentaries is  Is there any other filmmaker in the history of cinema who’s made two films named after a city and a state? If you’ve never see it— and want to see something really quirky—check out the doc Vernon, Florida.

P.S. Back in the ’90s  I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Rodgers at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Long before he recorded his first of 895 episodes of the Emmy-winning Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he earned a BA in Musical Composition from Rollins. He and his wife occasionally returned to the campus for various reasons and he actually came to a piano recital my wife gave. I’ll never forget after the recital he told my wife in that perfect Mr. Rodgers voice, “I really enjoyed your music.” Mr. Rogers was one of the good guys. And now that I think about it, having just one Mr. Rogers script on The Black List would have been quirky, I don’t even know what you call two Mr. Rogers scripts being hot properties in Hollywood. (In fact, if you told me Errol Morris was directing one of the Mr. Rogers scripts I would have thought that made perfect sense.)

Related Post: What’s in Your Backyard? Touches on Errrol Morris doc Gates of Heaven after he read headline, ‘450 Dead Pets To Go To Napa.’

Scott W. Smith


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I couldn’t help but smile yesterday when I saw The Hollywood Reporter headline:

‘Holland, Michigan’ Tops 2013 Black List 

The Holland, Michigan script written by Andrew Sodroski received 46 mentions from film executives placing it at the top of the pile of the best unproduced scripts kicking around Hollywood.

While I know more about the town of Holland, Michigan (it’s a lovely place in Western Michigan with heated sidewalks downtown) than the script of the same name, here’s the story’s logline:

When a traditional Midwestern woman suspects her husband of infidelity, an amateur investigation unravels. 

Not a killer logline, so the script must be killer.

Collider reported that Holland, Michigan “will be directed by Errol Morris and stars Naomi Watts.” Deadline stated that the screenwriter Sodroski is a Boston native who has a MFA in screenwriting from Columbia University and repped by CAA And the LA Times added Sodroski is “a former Harvard medieval history major who now lives in Kosovo.”

Kosovo? Talk about screenwriting in unlikely places….

(Though honestly, both Harvard and Columbia are well-traveled paths to Hollywood—see update below. Having degrees from both is a good sign that Sodroski is a smart cookie. But that Kosovo is a curveball.)

On days like this it’s really fun to have this little niche in the screenwriting world. Cheers to Sodroski, and all the screenwriters who made the 2013 Black List.

I’m sure we’ll all be learning more about Holland, Michigan the movie and Andrew Sordroski in coming months. Until them feel free to learn more about the town Holland, Michigan via the Internet and enjoy the Sufjan Stevens song Holland from his album Michigan. Brooklyn-based Stevens was born in Detroit and attended Hope College in Holland, MI. (H/T to Indiewire for pointing out the Holland song.)

P.S. Holland, Michigan’s Tulip Time Festival held each year in May has been called by Readers Digest as the “Best Small Town Festival.”  A couple of years ago the town of 35,000  was listed as the second (behind Boulder, CO) Healthiest and Happiest Places in America.  And you may be surprised to know that Holland, Michigan (which sits across Lake Michigan from Chicago) is known for sailing. My Holland, Michigan based production friend John Grooters directed the documentary American Sailors.

Update: Found a link to the 2011 Harvardwood Writers’ Competition where Sodroski, along with co-writer Raven Burnett, were runner-ups for their feature script Dark Ops. Here’s the logline for the action thriller that reads better than the logline for Holland, Michigan:

When a team of American soldiers occupies a mysterious Afghani monastery, they suddenly find themselves battling enemies beyond their comprehension. 

Harvardwood helps connect Harvard Alumni and students to those established in the arts, media and entertainment. A nice perk if you’re connected to Harvard. Hollywood may be a small town (or a big high school) but it has more than a few Ivy Leaguers in general, and former Harvard students specifically; Darren Aronofsky, Matt Damon, Ron Bass and Terrence Malick just to name a few. Here’s a list of Darthmouth Alumni in Entertianment in Media, and you can follow the Yalies in entertainment at Yale in Hollywood. Oh, and Princeton University (Ethan Coen, David E. Kelly, Bo Goldman) has Princeton in Hollywood. 

Even if you can’t or didn’t attend an Ivy League school, if you live near Cambridge, New Haven, Hanover or Princeton you can still make friends at those schools. Work on student films, go see guest lectures they bring in, and get creative being a part of the culture there. In the case of Harvard, you can become a Friend of Harvardwood if referred by a current member.

Related posts (Note; Michigan and Boston come up time and time again on this blog):

Michigan related posts:

Screenwriting from Michigan
Michigan’s Sam Raimi & the Guy with Greasy Hair
Rejection Before Raiders
Saul Bellow & Unlikely Places
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Elmore Leonard
From Ann Arbor to Smallville (David S. Goyer)
“Life of Pi” Screenwriter David Magee
Kalamafrickin’zoo’s Talent Pool
Screenwriting from Grand Rapids (near Holland)
Writer/Director Paul Schrader

Boston related posts:

Screenwriting from Massachusetts
Will Simmons’ Road to Hollywood
Writing “Good Will Hunting”
Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg
(Yawn)…Another Pulitzer Prize
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
Screenwriting Quote #42 (Brad Anderson)
Screenwriting Quote #3 (Charlie Kaufman)
Screenwriting Quote #179 (Chris Terrio)
Screenwriting Quote #148 (Edward Zwick)
Writing “Edward Scissorhands”
Writer Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

Scott W. Smith

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“The American dream is raising way up above what you started with…”
From the promo trailer The Queen of Versailles

You know, it’s common to think that the great stories to be found are out there somewhere —”out there,” places far from where we live.

I remember taking a photography class my first year of college in Central Florida and a teacher asking a student where his assignment was and the student said he hadn’t done it yet but he was going up to St. Augustine that weekend and was going to get some great shots there. You could understand his theory. A good deal of the Orlando area in the 80s was a balance of strip malls and strip clubs, sprawling suburban subdivisions and mobile home parks, Sea World and Disney World, while St. Augustine was a historic European-like waterfront city that was centuries old with a mix of architecture from the countries where seven flags have flow over the years.

But the photography teacher went into this diatribe about how you didn’t take interesting photographs just because you went to an interesting place. He talked about the fine art photographer Jerry Uelsman and others who made the common uncommon. He then gave us an assignment to photograph only in and around our homes. It obviously had an impact on me to remember it all these decades later.  And he was right, there are things in your own backyard that are worth exploring.

And while he was talking about our literal backyards, from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective I’d like to expand that backyard to mean the general vicinity of where you live. That worked for Faulkner, Steinbeck, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty and hundreds of other writers who’ve told stories from unlikely places.

I was reminded of all of this back in January when the documentary The Queen of Versailles made a splash at Sundance. The film’s director, Lauren Greenfield, picked up Best Director of a Feature Film–Documentary Competition at Sundance. And she did it with a film that was shot in my former backyard so to speak in Central Florida. The film centers around David & Jackie Siegal and the 90,000 square foot home they were building in the Orlando area. No typo there, 90,000 square feet.

I remember living in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park when Orlando Magic basketball player Horace Grant was building a massive 20,000 square foot home. But as I would drive by it every couple of days while it was being built, I never once thought, “I bet that would make an interesting documentary.” Maybe it would have and maybe it wouldn’t have, but the point I’m making here is to have your story antenna up. That’s what took Errol Morris did for his first documentary,

“In 1978 [Morris] was inspired to direct his first nonfiction feature after discovering a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘450 Dead Pets To Go To Napa.’ The resulting documentary, Gates of Heaven, follows the surreal startup story of two entrepreneurs—through the launch of two competing pet cemeteries—and makes for an entertaining, rich, and wry commentary on American culture and capitalism.”
Megan Cunningham
The Art of the Documentary 

From the trailer I’ve seen of The Queen of Versailles—which will be released in theaters next week— it looks as if it too is, “an entertaining, rich, and wry commentary on American culture and capitalism.”

P.S. A couple of weeks ago I got to meet Megan Cunningham when I was in New York City for a shoot. She heads up Magnet Media who I’ve done some field producing and shooting for in the past year. Check out her book, The Art of the Documentary, which has wonderful interviews with Ken Burns, D A Pennenaker, Albert Maysles and others.

Scott W. Smith

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