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“Who is this Ben Foster guy? And where did he come from?” That’s how my search started.

Every once in a while an actor comes around and kind of stops you in your tracks. It happens when you’ve never seen them in a film before and they don’t even appear to be acting. To use a directors phrase, they are in the moment. They make you ask, “Where did this actor come from?” I’ve only experienced that a half-dozen times in my life. A few performances I can think of are Denzel Washington in Glory, Scott Glenn in Urban Cowboy, Brad Pitt in Thema & Lousie, and Edward Norton in Primal Fear. And it happened last week when I saw Ben Foster in The Messenger.

So I wanted to know where Ben Foster came from and I was surprised to find that he was raised in a Fairfield, Iowa. (A town Mother Earth in 2006 listed first of “great places you’ve never heard of.”)  I was also surprised that, though Foster’s only 29, he’s been acting in films and TV for the past 14 years. I don’t recall ever seeing him before. Never saw him in Six Feet Under, 3:10 to Yuma, or Alpha Dog. And before he started acting in films and TV he was doing community theater in Iowa. And doing it well.

One article said he started doing theater when he was eight. According to IMBD he, “wrote, directed, and starred in his own play at the age of 12, a play that won second place in an international competition.As an actor friend once told me the important thing for an actor to do is “get stage time.” Apparently, Foster got a lot of that in Fairfield, a small town of less than 10,000 people that had four community theaters in it.* Fairfield is an unusual small town that I’ve called the San Francisco of Iowa. There is no shortage of art galleries and vegetarian restaurants thanks in part to Maharishi University that is based there. (I saw David Lynch speak there a couple of years ago.) Interesting place.

Foster attended the Interlochen Theater Arts Summer program in Interlochen, Michigan when he was 14, and at 16 dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles and began working on TV and movies right away. But keep in mind, by that time he had already been acting for eight years. I imagine he had more stage time that most 16 year olds in L.A.

In 2003 he won a Daytime Emmy for his role in Bang Bang You’re Dead. And before that break through performance in The Messenger he had been in over 80 TV episodes or movies, and in total, acting for 2o years. It all kinda goes back to the 10,000 rule again, doesn’t it?

As a related side note, last week here in Iowa I happened to go a community theater performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was an entertaining and great performance by at the Waterloo Community Playhouse. I’ve been to theaters of all kinds all over this country and one thing that impressed me about this performance was the worked showed. I mean that in a good way. The work they did showed in the set and costume design, the blocking, the performances, the lighting, the music, everything.

At the dress rehearsal I saw the director, Chuck Stiwill, said before the show that there was a cast of just over 50 people and twice that working behind the scenes. (Who knew it sometimes takes 150 people to put on a show in community theater?) Some of the people had been working on the show for two months. Rehearsals were nightly, and yes, there were several children in the show. Perhaps future Ben Foster’s getting in their stage time.

Dream big, but always remember to be faithful in the small things that come your way. And keep in mind that there are also writing opportunites in community and regional theaters around the country as well as summer stock shows.

P.S. And if you know of an 8-12 year olds who are interested in learning filmmaking check out Apple Camp.

*Today Fairfield is home to the 522-seat Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts.

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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