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Posts Tagged ‘Gary Ross’

“There’s a quality that most first scripts share: fresh, surprising, and unspoiled.”
Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (The Sting)
Moviespeak

I was eighteen
Didn’t have a care
Working for peanuts
Not a dime to spare
But I was lean and
Solid everywhere
Like a rock
Lyrics by Bob Seger/Like a Rock

BreakingAway

The 1979 movie Breaking Away received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and Steve Tesich won the Oscar for his screenplay. It was his first produced feature film. Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates,  also landed at #8 on AFI’s list of 100 Most Inspirational Films of All Time.

If I ever put together a Hall of Fame list of Hollywood movies that represent well the world outside of Hollywood, Breaking Away would be there. But the aspect of the movie and screenplay I want to look at today is what could be called texture.

In my last post writer/director Gary Ross touched on the texture of Seabiscuit by including key elements (fishing pole, tackle box, keysin one pivotal scene of a young boy going fishing. In Breaking Away the texture—the limestone from the area— is a major motif of the entire film.

The opening shot and opening scene are of rocks and a rock quarry in Bloomington, Indiana. Stones that were cut out of the ground built many of the buildings at the Indiana University Bloomington.

IU-MaxwellHall

Tesich (who was born in Užice, Yugoslavia but raised in Indiana) uses those stones brilliantly in his script as he shows what unites the town is also what divides it. Working in the rock quarries and cutting the stones provided jobs for the locals—the townies known as Cutters. But the buildings they built for the local college were more preppy than blue collar friendly. (This may not be true in real life, but it worked for the movie.)

Tesich touched on that contrast in the script and in the scene below shows a beautiful synthesis of the two worlds colliding—then merging.

EXT. CAMPUS – NIGHT

The campus is deserted. Dave and Mr. Blasé are walking slowly outside a huge classroom building. Mr. Blase lights a cigarette.

                                                MR. BLASE
Just one.  Don’t tell mother.
(looking at the building)
You know, I do this every now and then. Come here at night and…I cut the stone for that building over there…

                                                DAVE
Yes, I know, Dad.

                                                MR. BLASE
I was one fine stonecutter…Mike’s dad…Moocher’s, Cyril’s…we all were. Well, Cyril’s dad…Ah, never mind. The thing is. I loved it. I was young, slim and strong and damn proud of my work…and the buildings went up…and when they were finished…damnest thing happened…It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. But we just felt uncomfortable. Even now. I’d like to be able to stroll through the campus and look at the limestone but I feel out of place. I suppose you guys still go swimming in the quarries.

                                                DAVE
Sure

                                                MR. BLASE
So, all you get from my twenty years of work is the holes we left behind.

                                                DAVE
I don’t mind.

                                                MR. BLASE
I didn’t either when I was your age. But…Eh, Cyril’s dad says he tool that college exam.

                                                DAVE
Yeah, both of us did.

                                                MR. BLASE
So, how did…how did both of you do?

                                                DAVE
Well, I think, eh, one of us…eh…I won’t go, Dad. The hell with them. I’m not ashamed of being a cutter. 

And that’s pretty much how the scene played out in the movie between Mr. Blase (Paul Dooley) and Dave (Dennis Christopher). It’s a scene that shows the evolution of  both characters. At the beginning of the film Dave is fascinated with being an Italian bike racer (even though he’s an American in Bloomington, Indiana) and the the dad (Mr. Blase)—now a used car salesman— doesn’t understand his son’s directionless life. Nor does he think his son should go to college because he didn’t. But in the end, Dave’s way to break away from his directionless friends is to attend college. And his dad now sees that as a good thing.

The synthesis is a Cutter’s son will be going to the very college that he helped build. Perhaps if we could magically follow those characters today we’d discover that Dave became a successful architect and continued the building motif. But his flaw is while his education and talent helped made him financially set it also made him materialistic.

And Dave’s son doesn’t want anything to do with his father’s money or to go into debt  going the four-year college route, but instead wants to be an artist working with stone from the local quarry tapping into working with the land as his grandfather did.

All that to say, dig deep into the world you’re creating in your stories and mine the riches that surround your characters.

H/T to Jim Mercurio for mentioning the limestone in his Complete Screenwriting course making me want to revisit Breaking Away and dig a little deeper.

P.S. While these days Breaking Away is not as revered as Rocky or Raging Bull in the  movie world it did make AFI’s top 10 sports films. Which along with Hoosiers gave the state of Indiana two films in that category.

P.P.S. One of Dave’s directionless friends in Breaking Away is the former jock character played by Dennis Quaid—who for what it’s worth in that movie is built like a rock.

Related posts:
Storytellers from Indiana
Postcard #15 (Seymour, Indiana)
Against the Wind  (More Seger)
Frank Gehry on Creativity Limestone from Iowa used in LA concert hall.
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) I started this blog as an offspring of a first script—Diablo Cody’s Juno.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I’m very lucky that I had a movie that allows me to do something as enormous as staging what at that point was the largest sporting event in American history. And at the same time investigate small emotional moments like when Howard loses his son.”  
Seabiscuit writer/director Gary Ross

ScriptSea

Recently I re-watched Seabiscuit (2003) again and found a great interview on the DVD extras where the director/screenwriter Gary Ross explains how he broke down an auto accident scene which becomes a “pivoital point” in the movie.

The movie set-up is about moving forward into the future. Americans at this time have moved into the age of the automobile. A young boy (around age 12) decides to have an adventure and take his father’s car down river to go fishing. The following quotes are all from Gary Ross and the sections in italic are from his notes:

“What I like to do when I develop a shooting plan for the movie is sort of take the early parts of the prep to do it privately.  And at that point I’m sort of pretending that someone else wrote the script and I’m interpreting it. The shooting plan can encompass a lot of things—it can be the way I see the lighting. It can be performance notes. It can be blocking notes. It isn’t just as dry and clinical as a shot list. When I make these notes I’m still connected to the emotional intentions”

(Sc#67.) SERIES OF INSERTS. Fishing pole insert. Rafters. INSERT loading the tackle box. Showing his purpose now- pleasing his father. Getting ready. (All the material that will be scattered across the river bottom later…

“I understand that I’m using these inserts to set up something for later on.”

Last insert is the key in the ignition. His hand fights with the gear shift. It should probably be up shift to emphasize his shortness, craning over the dashboard. 

SeabiscuitCar

(Sc#74.) Whizzing by on the road. His car one way. The Logging truck the other. Yeah. That would work great. 

“(Laughing) I don’t know that it will work great, but I’m sort of talking to myself saying, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea. Keep going with that.'”

Let’s not show the collision. Let’s allow that to stay in the imagination. Let’s show perspective—into Howard’s perspective at that moment. Getting a phone call [about his son being killed in an accident]. The moment of the accident is not as important as the news of the accident.

SeabiscuitRunning copy

Howard racing toward the camera. The world has gone quiet now.

“I think it’s important to say what you’re going to do with sound before you shoot something. Because the sound and picture are so completely fused. Sometimes the loudest things are a distant or silent scream…Those things obviously turn into a shot list, which is more dry or clinical, but when you have both things they enhance one another. One is almost the emotional roadmap to be able to read the other.

I did find a online version of the clip here but was not able to embed it into this post. Great to watch to understand the whole context. Consider it a solid free five-minute film school lesson that shows the intentionality of an Academy Award-nominated movie and screenplay.

And yet one more reminder of the importance of emotions in filmmaking.

Related posts:
Seabiscuit Revisited in 2008
Writing ‘Seabiscuit’ On writer who also wrote Unbroken.
Shelter from the Storm (‘Unbroken’)
Big’ Emotions (Another Gary Ross written screenplay.)
The Creature from… (Ross’ father—Arthur A. Ross—was also a screenwriter.)
‘It Take Guts To Be a Screenwriter’ (Gary Ross quote.)
40 Days of Emotions
Writing ‘The Godfather’ (Part 3) Includes a video showing the shooting book Coppola put together to shoot The Godfather. 

Scott W. Smith

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“Remember the old days, when movies were glorious, magical and mute? Neither do I. But the passing of the silent era from memory into myth is what ‘The Artist,’ Michel Hazanavicius’s dazzling cinematic objet d’art, is all about.”
A.O. Scott
New York Times article The Artist (2011) 

Yesterday I went to see The Artist for the third time in a movie theater. There have only been a few films in my life that have resonated with me enough to see the film three times in the theater. The last film I saw three times in a theater was Seabiscuit back in the summer of ’03.

I love everything about The Artist— Michael Hazanavicus’s writing and direction, the acting, the cinematography, the editing, the music, the sets, the dog, the costumes, etc., etc. All things which I appreciated more and more on repeated viewings. Heck, I just love the era of the 20s & 30s. And I was pleased when The Artist was awarded five Oscars including Best Motion Picture of the Year.

But as they touch on in The Artist— it’s out with the old in with the new.

When I left the theater yesterday I saw a line forming for the midnight showing of The Hunger Games. No, it wasn’t just a line, it looked more like some kind of protest mixed with a Justin Bieber concert. There was a line of teenage girls and tents. Tents—as in camping. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen tents outside a movie theater before. Granted it looked like it might rain little, and who wants to wait six hours in the rain? And my guess is that scene was repeated in theaters across the United States last night.

It will be showing this weekend in a staggering 10,000 theaters. According to The Washington Post, The Hunger Games set the record for advanced ticket sales of a non-sequel film. The midnight showing sold out 1,400 theaters and made $20 million just last night/this morning. I’m going to go way out on a limb and say that it’s going to be the box-office champ this weekend and pull in more than $100 million.

I don’t know the cultural phenomenon behind The Hunger Games other than the books have a diehard following. But I look forward to seeing the film because it  stars Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and was directed by Gary Ross. (Ross, if you recall, directed Seabiscuit.) He also credited as screenwriter along with Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins (who wrote the book that the movie is based on). Ross has been quoted as saying of his work on The Hunger Games, “I’m as proud of this as anything I’ve ever done in my life.”

So by the end of the weekend it’ll probably be The Artist 3—The Hunger Games 1.

P.S. Just realized that both The Artist and Seabiscuit both deal with the same time period in and around The Great Depression and address issues of loss, obsolescence and redemption. The past was rough, but judging from the previews of The Hunger Games, the future looks worse. (Are there any movies where the future looks positive?)

Related posts:

Writing “The Artist” (Part 1)

Writing “The Artist” (Part 2)

Writing “The Artist” (Part 3)

Seabiscuit Revisted in 2008

It Takes Guts to Be a Screenwriter (Gary Ross)

Writing “Seabiscuit”

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)

Related Links: Interesting article by Anne Thompson comparing why The Hunger Games killed it at the box office and why John Carter didn’t.

Scott W. Smith

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Big is one of those rare films that will tickle the funny bone and touch the heart.”
Movie critic Peter Travers (then with People magazine)

“(As a screenwriter) I’m in that emotional place where there is room for idealism. In Big (1988) and Dave (1993) there is a similar question being asked: Is innocence redemptive? And I want people to come away with renewed optimism.”
Four-time Oscar nominated producer/screenwriter Gary Ross (Seabiscuit)
1993 LA Times article 

The following exchange between screenwriters Anne Spielberg and Gary Ross can be seen on the second disc of the expanded edition of Big. The 1988 film brought the screenwriters an Oscar nomination, as well as landing Tom Hanks his first Academy Award nomination.

Gary: If there was a punch line on top of the situation where you could feel the writer—we’d yank it out.  If you were organically laughing at the situation, then than was great, that’s where the comedy should come from. If we went through pages and pages (in reading the script for Big) when you weren’t laughing, that was okay.

Anne: And that’s what gave the poignancy to it—that you’re always on that edge of being a kid on his own, and he can’t go home again. There’s always that little moment of sadness just right around the corner.

Gary: And under a lot of the movie there is a lot of sadness. A loss of childhood is a wonderful and sad thing, and I think we respected both of those emotions. And I think one of the things we did that was good was when the story wasn’t funny to us, but was true to the story—that was okay.

An interesting sidenote to the casting of big; Tom Hanks originally turned now the role in Big, and Anne and Gary (and director Penny Marshall) were working with Robert De Niro to play the role of the boy who wakes up a man. Imagine how different that film would be.

And way back in 1959 a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling called Walking Distance first aired. It’s the story of an ad man who mysteriously returns to his childhood town—and nothing has changed. Rod said it was one of his most personal episodes and the theme of returning to one’s youth was never far from his thoughts. You can read that script at rodserling.com. The small boy in the clip below from that episode was played by Ron Howard.

(Yes, Hollywood is one big family–Ron’s dad, Rance Howard, is an actor, Anne’s brother is Steven, and Gary’s dad, Arthur A. Ross, was a screenwriter —deal with it. Write a script as good as Big and you’ll be in the family as well. One more reason Diablo Cody should be your screenwriting hero—a total Hollywood outsider…until she had a hit film and won a Oscar.)

I think the Big commentary by Anne and Gary is the single best commentary I’ve ever heard on a movie from the perspective of a screenwriter, because it is the only one I know that has the original recordings of the creative process as they developed the story right out of the gate.

Related posts:

It Takes Guts to be a Screenwriter (Gary Ross quote)

Rod Serling’s Binghamton Roots

Writing “Seabiscuit”

The Juno—Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

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“There’s no such thing as a totally new concept, just reworking old ones to make them current and fresh.”
Adam Levenberg
The Starter Screenplay

We’ll start the new year by looking at an old trend in the movie business—Similiarities between films.

It’s not hard to look at Roger Corman’s Piranha (1978) and see how it was influenced by JAWS (1975). But it’s also not hard to see how JAWS was influenced by the classic 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. I’d like to think that a then eight year old Steven Spielberg saw Creature from the Black Lagoon when it first came out and thought, “Gee, when I grow up I think it would be fun to work at Universal Studios.”

—The creature and the shark both kill people
—The creature and the shark strand a boat that threatens all aboard
—Both stories have an element of greed on the part of the humans
—Both have quirky boat captains
—Both have scientists
—Similar music to announce impending danger of creature/shark (Da-Dum)
—Both are Universal Pictures
—The creature and the shark are killed at the end

I’m sure there are a few other similarities. Just as there are similarities between Creature and King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1946), Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). Of course Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein was published in 1818. And if we went back in time we have tales of creatures by the Greeks and Romans, and even in the Garden of Eden we have the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve.

To use Blake Snyder’s phrase, “monster in the house” stories have been with us a long time. (Even if the house is technically a lagoon or a small beach town.) Overall I think we put too much emphasis on the similarities of film instead of their differences. Earlier this week I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon and JAWS and found they each stand on their own.

I once had a teacher say that if you gave ten writers the basic concept of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and had them write a script you would have ten original stories. Heck, Scorsese has made a career out of lifting chunks of 1930s gangster films and giving them his own imprint.

So don’t be discouraged when people read your script and say, “Oh, it’s just like….” They’re just seeing patterns that are in every film. Last week I saw The Black Swan and I thought, “Oh, it’s The Wrestler meets The Fight Club.” Then I saw Mark Walhberg in The Fighter and even though it’s based on a true story, I still thought, “It’s part Rocky (1976) and part Fat City (1972).” Your originality will come from your own unique background.

And speaking of  Creature from the Black Lagoon, I saw where screenwriter Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) is remaking the film. Turns out that Ross’ father, Arthur A. Ross, was one of the screenwriters on the original film. The elder Ross was nominated for an Oscar for the 1980 film Brubaker which was just eight years before Gary received his first Oscar nomination for Big—shared with co-writer Anne Spielberg, who happens to be Steven’s sister. (One big happy family, right?)

And lastly, I can’t help but point out that the actress (Julie Adams) who the creature from the Black Lagoon was attracted to, in real life was born in Waterloo, Iowa. (Just a few miles from where I type this post in Cedar Falls, Iowa.)



P.S. If you’re a filmmaker near the Florida panhandle, the exterior shots for Creature from the Black Lagoon were shot in Wakulla Springs State Park. I’m not sure what the requirements are to shoot there, but it’s as untouched today as it was when then filmed Creature. Crystal clear water and beautiful natural light.

© 2011 Scott W. Smith


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Last week I had a meeting with an artist and he happened to bring a resume and headshot of an actor friend who recently moved back to Cedar Falls after some time in Los Angeles. One of the credits of the actors was as an extra on the film Seabiscuit which I just happen to have a poster of hanging in my office. Small world, huh? I’ll let you know if he shows up in a short film I’m making this weekend for the 48 Hour Film project out of Des Moines.

Seabiscuit was written and directed by Gary Ross and I’m a big fan of his work that includes Oscar nominations for writing the films  Seabiscuit, Dave, and Big.

“So many kids work backward methodically, calculatingly from a process instead of from the inside out in terms of what they want to express. All anybody really wants to find, (those) who take home stacks of scripts over the weekend, is an original voice that stirs them. Then they want to make you the same as everybody else, but for that first moment they want to see an original voice. It’s that method of calculation that I think hurt you. If you’re not going to have guts alone in a room, I mean when are you going to have guts?”
Writer/director Gary Ross

PS. I’m not sure the original source of the quote, but a big hat tip to Scott Myers at Go Into the Story for posting it. I kept returning to it time and time again because it’s such a strong quote.

Scott W. Smith

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Last night I watched the documentary Dreams on Spec which is a look at screenwriting from the perspective of those who’ve made it and those who are trying to make it. It’s reminiscent of Comedian which features Jerry Seinfeld’s behind the scene look of those trying to build a career as stand-up comedians. Both should be required viewing as they give a glimpse of the uphill battles, pitfalls, and realties of a creative career.

Dreams on Spec was written and directed by Daniel Snyder and in between profiling three screenwriters at various stages of trying to break into the industry he shows interviews with screenwriters Ed Solomon (Men in Black), James L. Brooks (As Good as it Gets), Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally) and others. I thought I’d pull some quotes for you this week, but I encourge you to watch the doc.

First up is writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit):

“I think that it’s very easy to kind of give it away—give the definition of success away—empower other people in determining whether or not you have talent. And here’s the catch-22, the more you do that the less you’ll be able to write. That’s the hard thing, because writing is all about preservation, and strength and authority in your own voice. So if you give that voice away by guessing (Ross points to others) what you think, or what you think, or what you think as you go, you’re gonna have less to say and less to be able to write about, and less of an authoritative voice and then it goes away.”

Each of the up and coming screenwriters featured in the doc represents three common  stages of writing. There is one who keeps plugging away despite year after year of rejection, one who has mild success in actually getting a low budget script produce (walking away with around $20,000 and keeping his day job), and one that appears to quit. That probably covers 99& of the writers who will write the tens of thousands of scripts this year.


Scott W. Smith

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