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Posts Tagged ‘Film School’

“I didn’t go to film school—I went to films.”
Quentin Tarantino

Note: I’ll start The Unofficial Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Film School with a list of 10, and then add and update this post from time to time. There will be spoilers. And I’m sure some of these notes will make it into the final draft of my almost finished book.

It’s unusual for me to write much about movies while they are still in theaters because there hasn’t been enough time to reflect on them. It’s not in the general collective consciousness yet.

But I think Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is an instant classic. And while I don’t know how many $90 million original stories are going to be made in the future, I think there are things to take away from Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film that can help a filmmaker of any budget.

Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch the George Stevens classic A Place in the Sun 50 times. The thing about watching a single film 50 times—verses say, 50 films—is you get a deep understanding of how the film was made.

I have seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood seven times in theaters in the first seven weeks of its release. (Apparently, I’m on the once a week as needed plan.) Here are some things I’ve observed. Please feel free to comment on or send me an email so I can continue to make this a valuable resource for others.

  1. Embrace Limitations
    “It’s difficult to have a lot of characters.”—Francis Ford Coppola
    Though Once Upon a Time runs two hours and 41 minutes it centers around just three characters: Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).  While there is a great supporting cast those are the three characters whose point of views Tarantino focused on. And along with those three characters there are three stories lines. A) Rick’s career and buddy relationship with Cliff. B) Cliff’s dog and excursion to Spahn Ranch where the Mason cult lives. C) A few days in the life of actress Sharon Tate. These three stories are connected in the climax and resolution at the end of the story.  Essentially the movie takes place over just three days in 1969, and is limited to a few locations. Rick’s western film set, Rick’s house and Sharon’s house (just one crane shot away), Spahn Ranch (an run down exterior movie set used on old westerns), and the streets of L.A. Cliff’s trailer, three restaurants, LAX airport and insert shots are sprinkled in, but the main story takes place on just a handful of locations. (Not that it matters as much on a $90 million budget, but using limited characters for limited days cuts down on wardrobe costs. I imagine they could have dressed Cliff for under $1,000 for the entire shoot—including rental of that 1960s era scuba outfit.)
  2. Ticking clock/Bomb Under the Table 
    “As you explore some of the great classics of stage and screen, you will see that most have a ‘bomb under the table.’”
    —Director Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success)
    On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director
    Hitchcock explained that if the audience saw a bomb under the table as two characters talk that the most mundane conversation is riveting because there is built in suspense because of the danger involved. At some point we expect that bomb to go off. Tarantino doesn’t even show the bomb under the table—because of the horrific events of August 9, 1969 you’re expected to know that going in to the theaters. The clock is ticking before the movie starts.
    The Bomb Under the Table
    Ticking Clock (Tip #103)
  3. Major Dramatic Question
    The the first major dramatic question was set up in the second scene when Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) lays out Rick’s career options. Keep doing bad guy guest appearances on TV and watch his career die, or go to Italy and star in spaghetti westerns. After that meeting Rick sees Sharon and her director husband Roman Polanski in passing and says to Cliff that he’s, “One pool party away from staring in a Polanski movie.” The other major question is just how is this film going to end? How do Sharon Tate, Cliff, Rick, and the Mason cult collide at Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon?
    The Major or Central Dramatic Question 
  4. Characters/Casting
    Tarantino said he could do five movies just on Cliff Booth’s time in World War II. That’s indicative of the layers of reserves that Tarantino had for the characters he was writing. So he wrote some fascinating characters you want to hang out with and in doing so attracted an incredible cast of actors working at the highest level of craft.
    Writing Actor Bait
  5. Conflict
    The story is full of conflict on every level. Rick with his career. Rick and his alcohol. Rick and his lines of dialogue. Cliff and the gang at Spahn Ranch. Cliff getting kicked off a movie lot. Cliff underemployed as a stuntman. Cliff confronted by someone with a gun telling him, “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s work.” Even Sharon Tate as a ray of sunshine has a cloud of conflict over her as we the audience know what happened to her in real life.
    Conflict-Conflict-Conflict
  6. Theme
    Rick tells the 8-year-old Trudi that he’s reading a book about a character named Easy Breezy, and she asks him, “Where are you in it?” It’s a line of double meaning. He’s technically on page so and so, but where he’s really in it is the main character Easy Breezy who as Rick explains, “He’s not the best anymore. Far from it. Coming to terms with being slightly more useless everyday.” It’s an echo of that other cowboy named Woody who is coming to the end of the line at the start of Toy Story 3. Perhaps one time movie star/singer Tad Hunter said it best in the doc Tad Hunter Confidential, “Products of Hollywood are interchangeable, and ultimately replaceable.” (Hunter was so big in the 1950s that he once got a role over Paul Newman and James Dean, and had a record knock Elvis out of the #1 position on the charts. But he didn’t make the transitiona smoothly into the new Hollywood of the late ’60s.)
    Writing from Theme
  7. Restraint 
    Tarantino is a fan of the exploitation films—the low budget ones that played on double bills at drive in theaters. Films that often centered around prisons, bikers, stock car races, and teenagers. They came with titles like Switchblade Sisters, Caged Heat, Werewolves on Wheels, and Revenge of the Cheerleaders. They usually had a mix of gratuitous sex and violence.  Knowing that Spahn Ranch was a place where Charlie Mason attracted teenage girls (as young as 15) for sex and drugs (along with his racist rants), Tarantino could have easily exploited a situation where young girls were dropping acid and running around naked. He could have shown the charismatic side of Manson that allowed him to befriend record producer Terry Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson—both who visited Manson and the girls at Spahn Ranch. But he didn’t. And by Cliff simply turning down Pussycat’s sexual offer sure seemed like a post-Weinstein/Epstein era touch. And once upon a time, producers would have see shooting at the Playboy Mansion an excuse to show at least one topless female in the pool.
  8. Setups and payoffs
    The three big payoffs are A) Brad Pitt is a likable who is also dangerous. He’s a war hero who is rumored to have killed his wife and can hold his own with Bruce Lee, and doesn’t like people messing with his bosses car. B) Brady is a pit bull who eats “Good food for mean dogs” and is under Cliff’s control. C) Rick spent two weeks learning how to use a flamethrower on the set of The 14 Fists of McClusky. Cliff, Brandy, Rick (and his flame thrower) are all set up early in the story and paid off when the impact would be most felt.
    Setups & Payoffs
  9. Climax
    “Finish the story as soon as possible after the ‘big’ scene.”–  Francis Marion
    What can I say? There was a pit bull, a can of dog food, and a flamethrower all set in action to stop evil (all to the tune of Vanilla Fudge’s version of You Keep Me Hangin’ On”). Depending on how you count it the movie ends one or two scenes after the climax. 
    Francis Marion on Movie Endings (80 Year Old Advice)

  10. Catharsis -—For those that thought the climax was excessively brutal perhaps didn’t carry around four decades of memories of knowing that six people were shot, strangled, stabbed, and mutilated—including Sharon Tate who was 8 1/2 months pregnant when the Manson cult killed her. There have been worst murders before and since then, but for whatever reason the Tate/Labianca murders went down as some of the most shocking of the 20th century. (Polish filmmaker Wojciech Frykowski was stabbed 51 times at the Tate home.) Tarantino’s reworking of history was a cleansing of sorts. I thought he earned his ending.
    Pity, Fear, Catharsis (Tip #69)
  11. Resolution
    In the final scene Rick gets invited up to Sharon’s house to meet her and her friends and while it took an unusual “pool party” it is a nice bookend to what was setup early in the movie. Who knows, maybe Rick will land Jack Nicholson’s role in Chinatown and have a career in movies that mirrors the transition that Clint Eastwood and Burt Renyolds made going from TV cowboy actors to movie stars.
    Earn Your Ending
  12. Selling the shot
    One of the challenges of shooting Once Upon a Time was making Los Angeles look like it did in 1969. Old western movie sets and midcentury modern houses helped do some of the heavy lifting. The exterior driving shots in L.A. had to be a challenge. In interviews Tarantino said the key was to find two or three blocks that are somewhat generic and then you dress (or in some cases build facades) to help sell the shots as 1969. Often times these changes are done digitally, but Tarantino likes to do it old school. One simple thing the design team did was rent a large Greyhound bus. It’s in at least four different scenes. I imagine those are not hard to rent and because they are long can block a lot of modern signs and buildings.  Sometimes low tech is the easy fix.
  13. Two characters talking
    Tarantino, like Aaron Sorkin, is a verbal writer. So it’s no surprise that he leans into dialogue quite a bit in Once Upon a Time. But one of the secrets of writing great dialogue scenes is they are often reduced to two people talking. The simplicity of it just makes it easier to follow. So in Once Upon a Time you these scenes:
    Rick talking to Cliff
    Cliff talking to Marvin
    Cliff talking to his dog Brandy
    Sharon talking to Jay
    Rick talking to Sam Wannamaker
    Rick talking to Jim Stacy
    Cliff talking to Pussycat
    Cliff talking to Squeaky
    Cliff talking to George Spahn
    Rick talking to Trudi
    Rick talking to Johnny Madrid (the perfect old west cowboy name)
    Cliff talking (and fighting) to Bruce Lee
    Cliff talking (and beating up) Clem
    Rick talking to Randy
    Cliff talking to Randy
    While there are some great visuals throughout Once Upon a Time (and Sharon’s persona is largely communicated non-verbally),  I’d estimate 90% of the movie is essentially two characters talking.
  14. Emotions
    “Everything I write is an emotional catharsis. It’s my way of exercising demons.”—Diablo Cody
    Tarantino exercises some demons in Once Upon a Time and spreads a healthy dose of emotions throughout the movie. And the music and cinematography heighten those emotions. There’s anger (Rick’s outrage in trailer), fear (when Cliff walking down the hallway toward George’s room), joy (Sharon enjoying people enjoying the movie she’s in), and the list goes on.
    Emotion—Emotion—Emotion
  15. Tapping into what audiences want
    Aaron Sorkin says two things that always fascinate audiences are times of transition and a look behind the curtain.  In Once Upon a Time Tarantino does both. He sets in story in 1969 was one of the height of one of the biggest transitional periods in modern American history, and he shows a behind the scene look of how movies are made lives of those who work in the film industry.
  16. Begin with the end in mind
    While beginning with the end in mind is common advice in everything from building a business to building a house, it has not been the way that Tarantino has traditionally worked. Usually he says he knows about the midway part of his script before he starts writing, then the character lead the way to the end. But with Once Upon a Time he knew the ending at the start.
  17. Relationships
    “Positive relationships trump positive accomplishments.”—Lindsay Doran
    At the end of Once Upon a Time Rick makes a point to tell Cliff (just before the ambulance takes Cliff to the hospital) that he’s a good friend and Cliff simply responds, “I try.” We sense that though Cliff may not be working for Rick anymore that they are forever friends. After that Rick starts a new relationship with his next door neighbor Sharon and there’s hope that it could change the direction of his career.
    It’s the Relationships Stupid!
  18. Coincidence
    “Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.”
—Alexander Mackendrick
    There’s a fair amount of coincidence at play in Once Upon a Time:  Rick living next door to Sharon, Cliff picking up a hitchhiker who happens to be a part of the Manson cult, Cliff working on the roof when Charles Manson visits Tate’s house, and the Manson family deciding to kill all the people in Rick’s house instead of Sharon’s, and Cliff’s dog Brandy at Rick’s house at the end. Perhaps the key lesson here is to tell a story where coincidence is used to get your protagonists into trouble, or at least is so embedded in the story that the audience won’t notice.
  19. Stakes
    Potential loss of career/income and life & death. (Though intellectually if Rick cashed in and invested his money wisely and bought a condo in Toluca Lake in 1969 and held on to it and were alive today (and avoided costly divorces) he’d be worth millions today. And professionally he could do the dinner theater thing, an indie film here and there, and guest slots on the Hollywood Squares.)
    What’s at stake?
  20. Let the actors act/ Let the camera roll
    There are several extended scenes where there is no editing. The filmmakers just let the scene (or parts of the scene) play out. This includes Rick and Cliff outside the Musso & Franks Grill, Rick and Cliff driving, Cliff and Bruce Lee interaction (from the start of the scene until Cliff gets knocked down), Rick and Trudi talking, and the Rick and Jim Stacy scene where Rick is forgetting his lines. Along with the great direction, acting, and editing is some tremendous camerawork in those scenes.
  21. Crane shots
    There are two incredible Technocrane (or a Technocrane-like crane) shots in the film. The first is early in the movie when the camera is above Rick as he floats in his pool and then cranes over the trees into the front of the Tate/Polanski house just as they are walking out the door and getting into their little sports car and driving away. And the second is a shot at the end when Rick starts walking up the driveway of the Tate/Polanski home and again cranes over the tress and sits above the drive way and Rick is welcomed by Sharon Tate and her friends. Even on big budget shoots you have to limited your days with specialty equipment. I don’t know if Director of Photography Robert Richardson and his team shot both those in one day, but they could have. The first shot was a dusk and the second was was a night shot. In fact, if the were really ambitious they could have shot the sequence with Cliff on the roof in the late afternoon light (doubling for early morning light) and then grabbed the dusk shot, and then the night shots. They probably didn’t, but they theoretically could have. And if you have a production where you have two or three money shots in one general locations you want to try to bundle them together so you limit your rental days with specialty equipment.
  22. Keep the background interesting
    The truth is the exteriors of movie studios often look like plain warehouses, but in Once Upon a Time they keep it visually interesting. In a scene with Cliff and the stuntman (Kurt Russell) several space aliens walk by in the background. As  Rick walks to the Lancer set a several horses and a wrangler walk pass in the background. As Rick and the 8-year-old Trudi talk during a lunch break on the Lancer set there is a camera on a dolly and lights in the background. The aliens, the horses, and the film equipment add visual interest (and sometime movement) to an otherwise pedestrian background. The same is true for the Spahn Ranch sequence were they utilize dogs, horses, and dust being blow to add a subtle action to background action.
  23. Magical movie moments
    Once Upon a Time has what I consider many magical moments.  Little things that just give a film that little something extra. It’s the sequence when the lights come on wth all the signage, when Pussycat does her little spin before catching a ride with Cliff and later when she jumps on the car at Spahn Ranch and yells “George isn’t blind, you are,” when Rick has his meltdown, and when Cliff makes himself comfortable on the roof revealing his scars and movie star glory.
  24. Music and Sound Design
    There are so many layers to this sound track I could sit in the dark and just listen to this movie—it’s that good. In film school we were taught that you could learn a lot by watching a movie with the sound off. But I’ve never just listened to a whole movie without the picture. But when the Once Upon a Time DVD comes out, I’m going to try that. There is one particular sound cue that I didn’t notice until Tarantino pointed out in an interview. It’s just as Cliff makes his way down the hallway to see George and Squeaky changes the channel on the TV from commercials or whatever TV show to a suspenseful movie we don’t see. The eerie track is a Bernard Herrmann composition for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. But Hitchcock didn’t like the score and not only didn’t use the music, but fired Herrmann. The two never spoke together after that breakup.
  25. Poetic Justice (with a touch of irony)
    The opening scene of Once Upon a Time is an old black and white industry news-style interview that introduces Rick as the star of the Tv show Bounty Law and his stunt double Cliff. In traditional western genre they are the good guys who catch the bad guys—with Cliff doing the dangerous stunt work so Rick doesn’t get hurt.  And at the end of the movie it is the real life of the characters that put an end to the bad guys—again with Cliff doing the dangerous work. Cliff ends up going to the hospital, and Rick gets invited to enter the gates to walk up the driveway of the Tate/Polanski house perhaps on his way to a career boost. Order has been restored in the new west. All it took was an unusual “pool party” with some uninvited guests.

More to come…

Related posts:

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is Film School Worth It?

“When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, no, I went to films.”
Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino

Ang Lee and I were in the same class. Also, another person instrumental in my development as a filmmaker was the great cinematographer Ernest Dickerson.” 
Spike Lee on the benefits going to NYU film school with talented classmates
(As a DP, Dickerson not only shot Spike’s student films but Do the Right Thing, She’s Got to Have It, and Mo’ Better Blues for Spike. He then became a director himself.)

NOTE: Like my post How Much Do Screenwriters Make?, I will continue to update this post because it’s a common question.

“Is film school worth it?” is a simple question, but a complicated one to answer. But it’s best to ask another question first. What does the “it” in “Is film school worth it” mean? There are many layers there.

If you got into a top tier film school on a full scholarship, then the “it”could be just four years of your life for an undergraduate degree or 2 to 3 years for a graduate degree. In that scenario, I’d say yes it’s worth it. Ditto that if your parents are paying for school.

But if the “it” means going into going into debt for $330,000 (as I wrote about yesterday) then my answer is no. I’m sure there are exceptions, but why stack the odds against you in a field where the odds are already stacked against you? (Compounded interest can even make your student loan grow despite your making monthly payments.)

For everyone between getting a full scholarship and having $300K+ of student loans my answer is—It depends.

Over the years I’ve noticed that there are four major ways that writers, filmmakers, and content creators at the top of the pyramid got their education.

Top Film Schools: USC (George Lucas), UCLA (Francis Ford Coppola), AFI (Darren Aronofsky), NYU (Spike Lee), Columbia University (Kathryn Bigelow), University of Texas, Austin (Robert Rodriguez), Columbia College—Chicago (Jansuz Kaminski), Florida State University (Barry Jenkins)

Elite Private Schools: Harvard University (Damien Chazelle) , Stanford University (Alexander Payne), Wesleyan University (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Oberlin College (Lena Dunham), Northwestern University (Garry Marshall), Drake University (Jim Uhls), Carnegie Mellon University (Steven Bochco), Dartmouth College (Shonda Rhimes), Emerson College (Norman Lear), Syracuse University (Aaron Sorkin)

Miscellaneous Public Schools: Iowa (Diablo Cody), Michigan (Arthur Miller)

Little or No College/Self-education: Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Gordon Parks, Frank Darabont, Casey Neistat, Tyler Perry (net worth $800 million), Clint Eastwood, Sam Shepard, Steven Soderbergh 

People come from everywhere. But those above schools have a higher headcount in Hollywood than most places. Some of this has to do with established pipelines to the industry. Many Hollywood executives come from Ivy League schools where Harvard and Dartmouth have deep ties in Hollywood making it easier to get introduced to the business.

It’s also true that the educational standards at most of those places are high— matching smart, talented, and driven people with a solid and proven education. But scholarships and grants aside, some of those colleges and universities are $50,000+ a year so it’s obviously not for everyone.

Of course, some people on that list went to film schools back in the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s which was a different era. Back then it wasn’t as common for students coming out of school to have insurmountable student loans as it is today.

“The greatest obstacles to making films was getting access to equipment. And so my generation went to film school.”
Spike Lee on going to film school in the late ’70s & early ’80s.
American Black Film Festival

In the era before digital technology, it was expensive and complicated to get your hands on film equipment. In the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s VCR machines were either non-existent or too expensive for the masses—and there was no internet—so film schools were the best place to get caught up on film history.

The film school question today is a totally different question than it was 20 years ago. The film business is different than it was 20 years ago. I’ve heard it said for all the film school grads to have a job out of school, everyone working in the film industry today would have to quit. I can’t quote the source, but it should cause you to at least pause before you rush into film school.

The average 15-year-old in the United States today has so many resources available—for basically nothing. From blogs, YouTube tutorials, and streaming movies and TV shows to DVD/Blu-Ray discs with director’s commentaries. Toss in an iPhone and iMovie and you’re off to the races.

Let Scott Beck and Bryan Woods be your heroes. They met in middle school in Iowa and had a common love for movies and started creating things. In high school they made features that they showed at local movie theaters for friends and family. They both went to the University of Iowa where they majored in communications.

After graduating in 2007 they kept writing and making low budget films until one of their scripts found its way to producer Michael Bay and last year became the hit film A Quiet Place. Just last night Emily Blunt won the SAG Award for best supporting actress in that movie. Here she is thanking her husband John Krasinski for directing the film.

Now Beck and Woods are working on a script from a Stephen King book. Not everyone gets a Hollywood ending like that. In fact, most don’t. (One top film school professor reportedly said, “I prepare students for unemployment.”)  That’s why I don’t think you go $300K in debt for film school. To paraphrase financial radio host Dave Ramsey—if you have $300K in student loans you better be able to operate on people. (You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to be a filmmaker, but you may need to be a brain surgeon to pay off a $300K loan.  An indie filmmaker might not do that in his or her lifetime.)

I won’t give you a cut-off dollar wise but anything over $25,000 for film school should give you pause to ask—is there a better way of doing this? Be creative looking for alternative ways to pay for school without having a large debt. Look into scholarships, grants, and diversity programs.

The main pluses for going to film school is you can compress your learning curve by benefiting from knowledgable professors who inspire you. Sometimes the right professor can pass on your work to the right person in the industry. You’ll work alongside talented and passionate classmates. They will push you to be better. (Both Ryan Coogler and Barry Jenkins built their core teams at USC and FSU.) You may have alumni connections through your school that open doors for you years down the road.

And a college degree (in anything) comes in handy outside of Hollywood. It’s kind of the threshold that human resources use at companies to sort out people looking for jobs. It shows that you’re well rounded and have studied a variety of disciplines. One of my professors told me when I was questioning my education, “You don’t go to college to learn how to make films, you go to learn what to make films about.”

That answer by Professor George Capewell is even a better answer today than it was when it was given to me back in the 1980s. College is a great place to do a deep dive into humanities, history, literature, business, psychology, sociology, biology, religion, etc. Black Panther writer/director Ryan Coogler’s undergraduate degree is in finance.  (I’m sure that helps him count all that money he’s making.) But it was a creative writing teacher in college that changed his life.

“She said, you should consider being a writer. . . .  You should maybe even consider going to Hollywood and writing screenplays. I thought she was crazy.  I didn’t even know what a screenplay was.”

Ryan Coogler on novelist Rosemary Graham who teaches at St. Mary’s College
2017 interview 

Let me default back to Beck and Woods who in an interview talked about getting the roots of the idea for A Quiet Place while students at the University of Iowa.

Beck: As a filmmaker—as important as it is to study film—it is also important to get enough life experiences. For instance, we took this nonverbal communication course. So much of [A Quiet Place] is about the nonverbal or what’s being said behind the dialogue. That was a really interesting study into human nature and applying that to writing and directing. There were a lot of foreign cinema classes that we took that exposed us to different cinema experiences around the world. Those exposed us to new forms of storytelling.

Woods: We always felt it would be advantageous for us to get a well-rounded education. It never felt like we were making movies outside of class. It was all one thing. Class was informing us as people—how you are as people impacts how you are as writers.

So while I am anti-$300K debt, I am pro-college. Even pro-film school . . . if the conditions are right.

But . . .

You’ll find established filmmaker after established filmmaker—from Spike Lee to Sean Baker— today just encouraging you to make films with whatever digital camera you can find. Even if that’s with the phone in your pocket. No film school needed. Just talent, guts, drive—and an incredible work ethic. But don’t just take my word for it . . .

P.S. I did my undergraduate work in Cinema and have a graduate degree in Digital Journalism. It didn’t make me the next Steven Speilberg—though I do have a signed certificate from him for my work on the Shoah Project—but working in production in one form or other has paid my bills for over 30 years. It’s been a good ride.

This is a great time to be a content creator. Colleges all over the country are offering degrees in film, digital production, multimedia journalism, electronic arts, and the like.  And those grads are working on corporate productions,  in broadcast and cable TV, in education, with internet companies, and their own start-up production companies. But most of them are not pulling in salaries that could make a dent on $300K.

As I think back over the people that I’ve personally worked with in production over my career and I’d estimate that 85% of them do have college degrees—and studied film or television. So I imagine they’d all say it was worth it. But I don’t think any of them have student loans over $40,000. But not everyone is built for college and if you look at the above list of people who have little or no college you’ll find some incredibly accomplished people.

Related articles to check out:

“$182,000 in Student Debt for a Film Major?!”/Money

Credit Risk: Student Debt’s Impact on Post-University Film Careers”/ Filmmaker mag

“My Film School Degree Ruined My Life”

Is it worth it to go to USC Film School for $200K?

“10 Reasons to Not Go To Film School”/No Film School

“Despite Expense, Film School Remains the Best Option for Cineastes”/Variety

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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drivemissdaisy.jpg
Here’s everything I learned in film school (and in screenwriting workshops and books)…boiled down to one word. But before I get to that one word let me say that I went to film school so long ago that Orson Welles was in my class. Okay, not that long ago, but back when film schools only used film.

I mention that because I think the average film school student today (heck, high school student) is much more film savvy then when I was in school. Because of DVDs and the Internet students today generally can converse about film directors and writers on a pretty sophisticated level. (The Tarantino factor?)

At least in Florida in the early 80s film school was a little off the chart. After I told a high school friend I was going to film school he asked, “What do you do with that?” (I’m still trying to answer that question.)

Before everyone wanted to be a film director young people just wanted to be rock stars. I knew nobody who had any connection to the film industry when I decided to go to film school.

I mention all of this because the one word I’m going to tell you is so basic. But it is the single most important thing I learned in film school. It may not be a revelation to you, but it’s important nonetheless.

And as professor and writer CS Lewis said, “We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught.”

The most important thing I learned in film school was the importance of (here it comes) conflict. Not just any conflict, but meaningful conflict.

A few years ago I went to a writing workshop with Alfred Uhry, the writer of Driving Miss Daisy. I believe he’s the only writer to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award. I thought that it was sure to be a wealth of writing information.

This was when I lived in Orlando (Anyone remember Hollywood East?) when a theater group was performing Driving Miss Daisy that he was coming to see and agreed to do a master class on writing.

One of the first things he said was something to the effect of — I’m not sure why I’m here. I’m not sure why they asked me to speak on writing. I’m not sure there are any rules to follow.

This is what I paid money to hear?

I raised my hand and asked, “What about conflict?”

He agreed conflict was important and he began to talk and we were off to the races. He didn’t have a prepackaged seminar, but it was a wonderful day of hearing his antidotes and experiences in the film business.  He said something that has stuck with me all these years and that I think would be helpful for all writers to hear. It was about his expectations after writing Driving Miss Daisy. He had little expectations.

He was in early fifties and he just wrote the 62 page play as a tribute to his grandmother. That’s all. He wasn’t trying to change the world. He wasn’t trying to get rich and famous. He wasn’t trying to write the great American screenplay and win an Academy Award. His starting place was small–almost obscure.

When he found out it would have a six-week run at a theater in New York so far off-Broadway that you had to walk up three flights of stairs to see the play, he was thrilled. He was glad it would have a long enough run that all his relatives could see the play.

Kind of reminds me of Sam Shepard’s early plays that were performed in a church basement in Manhattan. (Speaking of Shepard, let me get in an Iowa plug. The movie Country, about the farm crisis in the 80’s, starring Shepard and Jessica Lange was filmed right here in Black Hawk County.)

Uhry didn’t know that his story of an elderly Jewish woman and her black driver would strike a chord like it did. (It certainly wasn’t a high concept story.) But the play became a Broadway hit and then it was off to Hollywood.

To borrow the words of Jimmy Buffett, Uhry “captured the magic.” May we all be fortunate enough in our life to have that experience one time. Driving Miss Daisy was Uhry’s equivalent of Don McClean’s song American Pie. It’s become a part of the fabric of our culture.

Uhry captured the magic with a story that was small in Hollywood terms, but one full of conflict as well as meaning.

From the opening scene when she had an accident while backing her car out…until Miss Daisy died it is a story full of meaningful conflict.

If real estate’s mantra is location, location, location, then for screenwriters it’s conflict, conflict, conflict. The lack of conflict in screenplays is why studio readers say that you can cut out the first 30 pages of many screenplays and nothing would be lost. Start your story as late as you can and start it with conflict. (Rocky loses his locker, in Sounder the boy’s dad is hauled away, Nemo’s mother, brothers and sisters are all killed, Juno is pregnant, all in the first few scenes of the story. And it’s hard to beat the first line in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, “Gregor Samsa woke one morning and found he had changed overnight into a gigantic insect.” When you wake up and you’re a bug, that’s meaningful conflict.)

What are your favorite movies scenes? Good chance they’re full of meaningful conflict. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small (Sunset Boulevard). “She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Chinatown)—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict.

“Plays are about conflict. Plays are about people not getting along.”
Edward Albee

“Nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.”
Richard Walter

“Never put two people in a room who agree on anything.”
Lew Hunter

Look AFI’s list of heroes and villains. All full of conflict.

AFI’s100 Years…100 Movie Quotes is full of meaningful conflict. (“Houston we have a problem.” Apollo 13)

So there you have everything I learned in film school boiled down into one word — conflict.

I just saved you tens of thousands of dollars. (I hope you’ll buy my book when it’s published.)

Now all you have to do is sit down and write a story full of meaningful conflict. That’s the hard part.

In every scene you write there should be some level of conflict. It could be rising conflict (the calm before the storm) or resolution afterwards. But conflict is at the core of your story. Conflict with self, conflict with society, conflict friends and family, conflict with nature…but have conflict with something.

Meaningful conflict usually is conflict on at least two levels. The town has conflict with the shark eating people, and an economic conflict if tourist are kept away which leads to conflict in society with leads to conflict within the family. And to top it off the sheriff has his own conflict because he is afraid of the water. Jaws was not just a run-of-the-mill special effects movie. In fact, the special effects weren’t all that special.

The reason conflict is such a powerful piece of filmmaking is because we can relate to that in our own lives. Mike Tyson said that, “Everyone has a plan, until they are punched in the face.” Country music singer Deana Carter has a song titled, “Did I shave my legs for this?” We can relate to conflict. Every day we have to deal with conflict on many levels. It’s part of living east of Eden.   

Driving Miss Daisy wasn’t written in Iowa, but it takes place far from Hollywood in a small town in Georgia.  And that’s at the heart of Screenwriting from Iowa.

The state of Georgia is no stranger to conflict. (I’m not just talking about the Civil War or the Florida Gator’s football team.) Read the sermons from Ebenezer Baptist church by its former pastor Dr. Martin Luther King.  And think of these songs and stories rooted in Georgia history.

Gone with the Wind

Forrest Gump

Glory

Deliverance

The Color Purple

Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil

The Devil went Down to Georgia

The Night the Lights went out in Georgia

Rainy Night in Georgia

Midnight Train to Georgia

Any short story by Flannery O’Connor.

Write stories about where you live. And like Alfred Uhry don’t set out to write the great American screenplay. Just write screenplays full of meaningful conflict. 

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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