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Posts Tagged ‘Grand Rapids’

Calvin College Bridge

I took the above photo at Calvin College after my screenwriting talks this week. It’s part of Calvin’s Crossing, a pedestrian bridge designed by architect Frank Gorman that spans a little over a football field in length connecting the main parts of campus with the DeVos Communications Center over one of the busiest roads in Grand Rapids.

While the bridge has a practical purpose for Calvin students, it’s a fitting metaphor for all writers, filmmakers, and video producers. Too often creative folks distance themselves from the other disciplines of life. (You could call it a superiority complex.) In fact, there is a growing trend for young filmmakers to just go to film schools that only teach film and digital video production. (Technical skills are always easier to develop than writing. Which is why there are many beautifully photographed movies with shallow stories.)

At Calvin the communication center is where the video and radio studios, the video and film theater, and the video editing suites are all located. But Calvin is a liberal arts school so students head over the bridge to fill their minds with art, literature, languages, philosophy, politics, history, mathematics, religion and science with an emphasis on knowledge and truth rather than livelihood.

The knock on a liberal arts education has always been in line with it doesn’t prepare you for any job except to maybe teach. But if you look at the info where liberal arts grads end up you might conclude that liberal arts majors are prepared for just about every job. Margaret W. Crane wrote in the article For the Love of Learning, “a liberal arts background prepares you to think, analyze, and contribute meaningfully to the world around you.” 
 


While speaking at Calvin this week one of the things I mentioned was when I was a student at the University of Miami a professor told us film school students that you don’t go to school to learn to make films, you go to school to learn what make films about.

Screenwriter/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) did go to UCLA for his Master’s work in film studies, but he did his undergraduate work with an emphasis in pre-seminary at Calvin College. While later rejecting the doctrine, he has credited Calvin College with teaching him to think.

When Suzanne O’Malley, who’s written for the TV show Law & Order, taught a seminar a couple years ago at Yale College called “Writing Hour Long Television Drama” where the class came together to write a 47-minute television program. Something a little different at the liberal arts college.

“We’re drawing from The New York Times, from Shakespeare, from Sun Tzu, from [John Lewis] Gaddis, one of the professors here, looking at all different kinds of serious work and blending that into our plot and story line,” she said in a Yale Daily News article by Andrew Bartholomew.

And just to connect all the dots. Yale is actually made up of 12 residential colleges and the one O’Malley taught at was Calhoun College, which is actually where actress Jodie Foster graduated from with a B.A. (with honors) in literature — after she was nominated for best supporting actress in Taxi Driver. She went on to win two Oscars after graduating from Yale. (Maybe a liberal arts degree should be a requirement for all child actors.)

So at least for Schrader and Foster their undergraduate liberal arts backgrounds haven’t hurt their now pushing 40 year careers in Hollywood.

Even if you’re out of school (or never went to school) read and study widely because it will add richness to your writing and your life.

Text and photo copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?”
                                         Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)
                                         Taxi Driver
                                         Written by Paul Schrader 

deniro500

No Bobby, I’m not talkin’ to you. But I did spend a couple days talking to students (and a few visitors) at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan the last couple days and the above photo was one of the movie posters hanging outside the video theater where I spoke.  Calvin’s most famous film alumni is Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader.

I would like to thank Prof. Bill Romanowski for the invite and and all the support staff, other professors, and students for the opportunity to speak, as well as the sponsorship by the Gainey Institute and Communication Arts & Sciences department. It sure is more fun to talk about this stuff than write about it.

I not only got to meet a lot of eager students, but had lunch yesterday with a New York actor who’s recently been on Law and Order and had a director from L.A. sit in on one of my seminars. (He was in town raising funds for a film that would take advantage of Michigan’s 40%-42% tax incentives.)

Those tax incentives are bringing a film called The Genesis Code not only to Michigan, but they will be shooting part of the film at the Calvin College campus. But Michigan is learning quickly about Hollywood’s ways as people have gotten excited about films starring people like Samuel L. Jackson, Joe Mantegna and Robert Duvall scheduled to shoot in Michigan only to see them postponed for one reason or another.

It was an interesting time to be in Michigan because not only is Detroit hurting because of the decline in auto sales, but the whole economy of the state is effected because many of the smaller cities are made up of manufacturing plants that produce parts for the  automobiles that people aren’t buying.

So people are both excited and skeptical about the possibilities of a film industry bringing jobs. Enrollment at schools and colleges that teach film and video is up. I saw people shooting footage around the Calvin campus including this young fellow that I snapped a picture of as he was in action. This kind of thing is happening all over the country. 

calvinstedicam1858

While at Calvin College I learned that they have a few other grads who are working in the film industry, but the most impressive to me is Jeannie Claudia Oppewall. She’s is a four time Oscar nominated production designer/art director who’s worked on two of my favorite films, Seabiscuit and Tender Mercies.

And for what it’s worth, she’s worked in Iowa twice on The Bridges of Madison County and the yet to be release Ellen Page film Peacock. And just to come full circle she was once married to Paul Schrader.

Schrader’s divorce played a part of his state of mind before writing Taxi Driver, as did Jean-Paul Sartre, “Before I sat down to write Taxi Driver, I reread Sartre’s Nausea, because I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero…and put him in an American context.” Schrader has also said that part of the inspiration for picking a taxi driver to represent loneliness was based on the  Harry Chapin song Taxi about a taxi driver who used to dream of being a pilot and one night gives a lift to his old girlfriend.

…And me, I’m flying in my taxi, 
Taking tips, and getting stoned, 
I go flying so high, when I’m stoned.

                                          Taxi
                                          Harry Chapin 

Before that song was a hit in 1972, Chapin had actually written and directed a documentary called Legendary Champions which was nominated for an Oscar in 1969.

And lastly, AFI lists “Are you talking to me?” as the 10th most popular movie quote of the last 100 years. So yes, it is possible to be born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan and to write a screenplay that leaves an imprint on film history. (Though it’s okay to start out with slightly lower aspirations.) 

Scott W. Smith

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