Posts Tagged ‘Hal Holbrook’

One of the reoccurring themes of this blog is that big things can come from small places. Most people don’t normally connect Granville, Ohio to Hollywood because…well, because they’ve never heard of Granville, Ohio. But there is a small liberal arts school there that was founded in 1831 and is now known as Denison University and it has produced a surprising amount of entertainment talent. (As well as legendary Ohio St. football coach Woody Hayes.)

Denison University is located in a rural area 27 miles east of Columbus, Ohio and happens to include as its alumni actress Jennifer Garner (AliasJuno) , actor Steve Carell (The Office, The 40 Year old Virgin)  Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries), Emmy and Tony-winning actor Hal Holbrook (Wall Street, Into the Wild) and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

Since I’ve been writing about webisodes the last few days I’d like to focus on Eisner today. He graduated from Denison in 1964 with a degree in English and worked his way up to become president and CEO of Paramount Pictures in 1984. He moved over to Disney in 1984 and remained CEO until he resigned in 2005. (As a quirky side note my wife worked as a temp secretary for Eisner and Disney executive Frank Wells back in the mid-eighties. Part of my so close–so far away story.)

Since leaving Disney, Eisner has been busy with various entertainment ventures including the independent media studio Vuguru. Here’s been an early innovator of bringing web-based scripted programs not only to the internet but also working a deal with Verizon Wireless for V CAST video-enabled phones. One of the online programs he is connected to is The-All-For-Nots about an indie rock band.

A while back Eisner was asked by NewTeeVee what specifically attracted him about web content:

“I don’t look at it as web content. It is being distributed in a different mode. Hopefully [people] will forget whether it’s sitting on their lap or on a screen or on a desk, they’ll just be engaged in what the characters are saying. I don’t care about the technology, except that it opens up eyes to content.”
                                                                                               Michael Eisner 


Related posts: Screenwriting and the Little Fat Girl from Ohio 
                       Screenwriting and Liberal Arts
                       Screenwriting from Sunset Blvd.

Updates: Just last week Steve Carrell retuned to Denison University to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Burpee’s Seedy Theatrical Company — an improvisational group he was a part of as a student.

Denison University also has a Department of Cinema. 


Scott W. Smith

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“I think what makes a film stick to the brain is the theme.”
William C. Martell

“There’s no place like home.”
The Wizard of Oz

There are many ways to attack writing your story and if you read enough of how writers ply their trade you will find quality writers who come from all kinds of angles; plot, character, situation. Another angle  is writing from theme. And even those who don’t start with theme have one emerge somewhere in the process.

Talking about theme can can get a little tricky but I like to say that it is not your story, but is what your story is really about. (Some also call this the controlling idea.) The story of Oliver Stone’s Scarface is a Cuban emigrant who rises from tent city to become a drug lord in Miami.  The theme of Scarface is the old standard crime doesn’t pay, or you could say, a life of excess and ruthless ambition will destroy you. Theme wise, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is in the same family as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Variations of theme can pop up anywhere in the story. At the beginning of another Stone film Wall St., the first words out of Bud Fox’s (Charlie Sheen) mouth when he’s asked how he’s doing is, “Any better and it’d be a sin.” Bud Fox does much better and it’s not only a sin but he has to go to prison.

Stone uses the wiser, older Lou (Hal Holbrook) to be the voice of reason as he tells Bud, “that’s the problem with money — it makes you do things you don’t want to do.” Another time he tells Bud, “Enjoy it while it last — cause it never does.” (That film takes place in ’85 but they would have been fitting words for all of us in ’05, and probably will be twenty years from now. Good themes are timeless and universal.)

Again the theme of Wall St. is crime doesn’t pay, or a life of excess will destroy you, or even “the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.” (Anyone working on a script for the Bernie Madoff story?)  The big difference between Scarface and Wall St. is Bud Fox doesn’t get killed at the end like Tony Montana. No, it’s more hopeful and Bud seems to have learned his lesson.

Speaking of hope … The Shawshank Redemption is all about hope and screenwriter & director Frank Darabont finds many ways to express that theme. On page 63 of the script Andy says while in prison “…there’s a small place inside of us they never lock away, and that place is called hope.”  Then there’s the most often quoted line from the film,”Get busy living, or get busy dying.” (Usually meant to get busy living.)

Some writers post the theme on the wall where they write to as a way to keep them centered and focused. On the front page of The Shawshank Redemption script are the words, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies…” — words that echo throughout the film. Words that stick with us long after we leave the theater.

The theme of hope is one of the major reasons people watch The Shawshank Redemption again and again. We may not ever have been in a state prison but we can identify with the situation as we all at times know what it’s like to live in our own personal prisons or at least know what it’s like to almost lose hope in difficult situations.

Theme pops up at the end of Braveheart as the last word that William Wallace (Mel Gibson) yells is “Freedom!” Or as the screenplay says, “FREEEEE-DOMMMMMM!” Throughout the film the fleshed out theme “Live free or die” is clear and that resonates here in the United States of America. (Heck,”Live Free or Die” is even the official motto of New Hampshire.)

Paul Schrader has said he wrote Taxi Driver by recognizing “a rip in the moral fabric of society” and used the metaphor of a taxi driver to represent loneliness.

Of course the danger with theme is writers can become heavy handed with it and audiences don’t like being beaten over the head with it. Films work best not as an intellectual exercise but as an emotional experience. (At least that’s traditionally been true in American cinema.) Audiences want to be sweep away by your story. They want to discover the theme not have it handed to them.

Theme is powerful stuff. So remember as you write, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Related posts: More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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