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“[The Little Rascals] were basically comic shorts set against the Great Depression. Most of the characters in The Little Rascals were actually living in poverty, but the focus was the joy of childhood, and the humor that comes from watching and hearing children.”
Writer/director Sean Baker
The Hollywood Reporter

After watching The Florida Project on Friday I understood why critics championed the film and expect it to be remembered at Oscar time. I also understand why some people walked out of theaters before the movie was over.

Sean Baker is a bold filmmaker and The Florida Project is an unflinching, non-sugarcoated look at a marginalized group of people–that’s somehow also filled with humor. I could write about this film and its ramifications for a month. I don’t think I have the time to do the research necessary for that so I’ll just start with this post on the roots of the film, and what I think are some movies that are related to The Florida Project. 

I’ll start with a quote from Baker himself (who co-wrote the film with Chris Bergoch;

Well, I’ve always been a fan of The Little Rascals and Our Gang, which I grew up watching on local television. They’ve influenced pretty much every film I’ve made. Not Four Letter Words and Take Out, but Prince of Broadway, definitely, and Starlet and Tangerine. They’re really some of the best comic shorts that I’ve ever seen, and they still hold up. And then, my co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, brought me this topic of families living in budget motels outside of the parks down in Kissimmee and Orlando, Florida.

His mother happened to live in Orlando, and he himself is Disney obsessed. These motels are the last step before homelessness for families who aren’t able to get a lease and can no longer rent for multiple reasons. They have to pay week to week, sometimes night to night, at these budget motels. It’s actually a nationwide phenomenon, but, obviously, there is also an irony with little children living outside of what’s considered the most magical place on earth for children. So, it seemed ripe.”
Sean Baker
Filmmaker Magazine

I’m guessing that Baker meant the Hal Roach version of The Little Rascals/Our Gang  which ran from 1922 to 1944 featuring poor kids navigating life as best they could.

I don’t know what articles Baker and Bergoch read on homeless families in Central Florida, but journalism tends to take a ground up approach. A small newspaper spotlights an issue and it brings attention to a larger regional newspaper (like the Orlando Sentinel) and then local TV reporters may pick up on the trend. That’s when it gets on the radar of national newspapers, magazine, and TV programs. Back in 2010 and 2011 both HBO and 60 Minutes reported on family homelessness in the shadow of Disney theme parks. (One outside Disneyland in California and the other on the outskirts of Disney World in Florida.)

That’s how creativity works. A filmmaker takes in all of these influences going on in culture and mixes them with films that resonate with them and they come up with something similar, but different.

There is an echo in the book Driftless (2007) by photographer Danny Wilcox Fraizer. (Which is an echo of the gritty work done by legendary photographers Dorothea Lange and Arnold Newman.) And toss in Photographer Gordon Parks as well.

Driftless-cover

Gordon Parks

Now I don’t know what films influenced Baker, but three films I feel are connected to The Florida Project are:

Paper Moon (In which Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar.) 

Life is Beautiful (The Oscar-winning film about trying to make the best of a horrible situation.)

City of God

And even scenes from as ecelectic mix of Precious, Straight Out of Compton, and Stand By Me come to mind.

More in the coming days…

P.S. After I wrote this post I came across a video that features some of Arnold Newman’s photos from early in his career that he shot in West Palm Beach. The extreme wealth of the Kennedy family and Donald Trump associated with Palm Beach is a world away from West Palm Beach when Newman was talking photos back in the 1940s. I met Newman at the Maine Workshops 15+ years ago and he told me the local police threaten to arrest him if he didn’t leave the black section of West Palm Beach were he was talking photos. Photos he took in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and West Palm Beach are featured in the book Arnold Newman: The Early Work.

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m telling you Iowa is incredible. We should all move to Iowa and start the revolution.”
Hannah (Lena Dunham) in Girls, Season 4 episode 2

It’s been a busy month for Lena Dunham as she’s been prominently featured in the press near the center of the film & political world in January 2016. She’s been at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah where her documentary Suited premiers tonight and she’s been stumping in Iowa for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.   

“This is my second time in Iowa, but before I came to Iowa, I was pretending to be in Iowa. We filmed all our Girls stuff not in Iowa. I had seen tons of pictures of Iowa City, we had a location scout from Iowa and a writer from Iowa, so we had our experts in check, but I hadn’t, myself, had an opportunity to come. It was amazing when I came to Iowa City last year on my book tour because I had already had the experience of existing in fake Iowa and I was like, wow, we didn’t do that bad a job.”
Lena Dunham
The Des Moines Register 
January 11, 2016

Dunham, the creator of the HBO show Girls, is the perfect person to follow up my last post (Diablo Cody Day) about Diablo Cody winning an Oscar in 2008 for writing the Juno screenplay.  (And since I was living in Iowa at the time, the fact that Cody graduated from the University of Iowa served as inspiration for me starting this blog.)

Well, back in 2008 Dunham graduated with a degree in creative writing from Oberlin College in Ohio. While in college, in the infant days of You Tube, she was also creating short films that went viral.

“I didn’t go to film school. Instead I went to liberal arts school and self-imposed a curriculum of creating tiny flawed video sketches, brief meditations on comic conundrums, and slapping them on the Internet.”
Lena Dunham

In 2010, just two years out of college she won the SXSW Award in Narrative Fiction for her film Tiny Furniture. The film made for just $45,000 also earned Dunham Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards. (The same award Cody won back in 2008.)

That led to the opportunity to create Girls which has been on the air since 2012, and has won two Golden Globe Awards (Best Television Series—Comedy or Musical, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series—Comedy or Musical).

That’s right, she acts, too. And she was paid $3.6 million to write her 2014 memoir Not That Kind of Girl. I don’t exactly fit the demographics of watching/reading Dunham’s work, and haven’t actually never seen a full episode of Girls, and have been out of the loop of the controversies of her work.  But I enjoyed the quirkiness of Tiny Furniture (which is currently available on Netflix), and it’s hard not to appreciate what she’s achieved creatively and financially before she’s even turned 30. 

And I was curious what Cody thought of Dunham and found this quote:

“I absolutely love Lena Dunham. I don’t know her personally, but I’m completely obsessed with the show. I cannot believe what she has accomplished at 26. I think she is like our new Woody Allen.”
Diablo Cody
Huffington Post interview with Lori Fradkin

P.S. Last year, Dunham’s character in Girls began attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City so I thought I’d give some links that give a glimpse to the real place.

BTW—Diablo Cody got her undergraduate degree in Media Studies from the University of Iowa and when asked why she didn’t attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop she said it was easier to win an Oscar than to get into Iowa’s competitive graduate program.

Related Posts:
John Irving, Iowa & Writing (My visit to the Iowa Workshop)
(Yawn) Another Pulitzer Prize (for a Workshop graduate)
Postcard #55 (Iowa Writers’ Workshop)
The Making of Woody Allen in 10 Simple Steps
The Juno-Iowa Connection
Oberlin to Oscars (Screenwriters William Goldman and Mark Boal also both graduated from Oberlin.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Most of the stuff that I’m looking forward to seeing is on TV now. Almost exclusively due to The Sopranos, there’s been a resurgence in long-form television. That’s great for someone like me, the ability to play out a narrative with a very long arc and explore complicated characters and have the audience be happy about that, it’s very enticing…We, the filmmakers, have got to start thinking differently….I never said I was done directing. I said I was going to stop making movies. I’m hopefully going to be doing a play this fall that Scott Burns wrote.”
Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh(Traffic)
May 2013 LA Times Article by Meredith Blake

P.S. Soderbergh’s film Behind the Candelabra starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon premieres Sunday on HBO, and he’s also exploring a whole different creative platform—painting.

Related posts:
Filmmaking Quote #36 (Being Platformagnostic)
Kevin Smith is Platformagnostic
Sex, Lies, & Mr. Bill (Screenwriting from Louisiana)

Scott W. Smith

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“A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing.”
Blake (Alec Baldwin) in Glengarry Glen Ross


Do you remember Pete Jones? He’s the guy who was the first writer/director picked by Project Greenlight to have a movie made. He has a new movie out today called Hall Pass starring Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis. (Jones is credited as co-writer with Kevin Barnett, along with the Farrelly bothers from There’s Something About Mary fame.)

Ten years ago Jones was this guy in Chicago selling insurance and hoping to be one of the lucky ones chosen by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to have their script plucked from the Internet to be made into a movie. The result was the movie Stolen Summer. It was far from a blockbuster film, but it launched Jones’ career.

Back in ’03 or ’04 I met Jones in West Hollywood. I was in LA for a TV program I was producing and the cameraman on that shoot was Pete Biagi. Biagi is well-known in indie circles in Chicago and was the director of photography on Stolen Summer. So when we wrapped our shooting after a of couple of days Biagi called up Jones and a small group of us had dinner at the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.

The Formosa is one of those classic old Hollywood restaurants that’s been around since the ‘30s and whose guests over the years have included Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp and so on. The Formosa was also featured in the movies L.A. Confidential and The Majestic.

So I’m at this restaurant with this Chicago-connected gang and I’m the outsider from Orlando. So I don’t say much but I learned something important that night.

I asked Jones how many screenplays he had written before he got discovered on Project Greenlight. He said six. If you remember the HBO special made on the making of Stolen Summer you may recall how they played up the fact that Jones was an average Joe insurance salesman who wrote a script. I know people who call themselves screenwriters who haven’t written six scripts—I don’t know any average Joe salesmen who have written six screenplays.

Playing up that Jones was a salesman is called PR. Because everyone wants to think, “I could probably do that if I tried.” The fact is Jones was an insurance salesman, but he had also graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. (That school has turned out a lot of accomplished writers.) Keep in mind that he was in his early thirties when he was chosen for Project Greenlight. His sales training played a critical part of his success. Graduating from J-School couldn’t have hurt. But he still wrote six dang screenplays before being discovered.

You can pick up a used DVD set of the complete first season of Project Greenlight for under $10 on Amazon, and that’s a solid investment in getting a foundation of what it takes to make a film. I’ll go as far as to say that I think it’s the single best example on DVD I’ve ever seen of watching the entire filmmaking process unfold.

But my favorite part of Project Greenlight is when Affleck, Damon, producer Chris Jones and others have narrowed their selection down to three screenwriters. It’s late at night and after six hours of deliberations the producers have to finally make the call on what film they are going to spend a million dollars to make.

In desperation Affleck asked the sound guy working on shooting the HBO special who they should choose, and he says, “Pete. Pete’s the guy that’ll never get the chance unless you do it.” Miramax VP Jon Gordon jokes that they should just have the screenwriters wrestle for it.

What they do is bring the three finalists back individually to have them make a final pitch on why their script should be chosen.

That’s when Jones’ insurance sales background kicks in. Where the others talk about their story, Jones hits the producers emotions. He tells the group;

“It’s about making the best film. And I’m getting a little emotional and I shouldn’t be, but it’s about making the best film…and the HBO thing is great—I would personally love it. Call me narcissistic, but I enjoy that. That’s not what it’s about, it’s about you guys screwing the studio system and saying let’s make the best film. Market the film? F*#K you. Who cares? We’re making the best film, we’re putting out a million bucks. I don’t have a million bucks, but studios have some money and a million dollar budget is not going to crush them. So he’s let’s make the best film that we can make. And, obviously, I’m biased, I think my movie’s the best film to make. I think my film probably wouldn’t get made by a studio—by a big studio, you know? I think that Greenlight is the kind of project  that would make a film like this.  I’m not a Hollywood expert, so I don’t know—I’m just going on a stereotype here.”

You can tell by the faces of those in the room that it’s a done deal. Sold.  Damon and Affleck are either dead tired, stoned or mesmerized. Chris Jones says, “I don’t have any other questions after that answer. “ Remember people invest in passion. And the part where Jones says, “F*#K you. Who cares? —I’m pretty sure Jones was channeling Mamet/Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross. “Coffee’s for closers only.” Jones was a closer that day.

And that was the turning point in Pete Jones’ career. The man was good in a room. He understood the basic sales principles of features and benefits and hitting human emotions. Next thing you know Jones was directing Aidan Quinn and Bonnie Hunt.

The movie Stolen Summer had a limited theatrical release making only $140,000.  But Jones got to make another film. Oddly he chose to follow a kid film with the gay-themed movie Outing Riley (2004) which went direct to DVD. And the next year he sold the spec script Hall Pass for high six figures and it eventually, six years later, became the movie that opens in theaters today.

Everyone’s got a story, right? (Even if you haven’t seen Jones’ movies or like the ones you have seen, you have to appreciate his journey.)

The common recurring theme on this blog is Pete Jones did the leg work before he got a shot. He wrote six screenplays before he was discovered. Just like fellow Chicagoan screenwriter Diablo Cody, Jones had been writing for over a decade before his big break.  And he used that sales experience from his day job to sell Hollywood producers and actors that he was the right person to be chosen for Project Greenlight.

Related posts:

Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Learning to be “Good in a Room.” (part 1)

Screenwriting Quote #87 (Ray Bradbury)

Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic

Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Writing “Good Will Hunting

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m a visual thinker. I think totally in pictures. My mind works like Google images.”
Temple Grandin

“HBO’s Temple Grandin: The Best Telemovie in Years.”
TV Critic David Bianculli

About half way through the HBO movie Temple Grandin, Grandin is told by her high school teacher (played by David Strathairn), “Temple, you have a very special mind, do you know that? You see the world in ways that others can’t, and it’s quite an advantage. You know something,  if you weren’t such a goof and you developed this talent you could easily go on to college.”

Just finishing high school was a battle because Grandin is autistic. In fact, her mother was told when her daughter was diagnosed at age four that it would be best if Temple was institutionalized. But her Harvard-educated mother worked with her daughter and fought for her to not only to not to be institutionalized, but to attend school.

Grandin not only went to college, but…well, you really should see the movie to see all the things she’s accomplished. The movie really is extraordinary. Kinda of mix between Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind and Erin Brockovich. TV Critic David Bianculli wrote that, “Temple Grandin isn’t just a great telemovie. It’s the best one in years, and a reminder about just how good television can be when all elements of a production are absolutely perfect.”  I think it holds its own with any movie made in the last ten years.

It was nominated for 15 Emmy’s earlier this year and won seven including actress Claire Danes as Grandin and Strathairn as her teacher, and Julia Ormond as Temple’s mother. All under the fine direction of Mick Jackson, Temple Grandin won the Emmy for Outstanding Made for TV Movie. Screenwriters Christopher Monger & Merritt Johnson were nominated for their script based in part on the book Emergence by Grandin & Margret Scariano, and Thinking in Pictures; My Life with Autism by Grandin.

On the movie’s DVD commentary there is this exchange between Grandin, the screenwriter and the director;

Temple Grandin:”My science teacher absolutely got me turned around academically…I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a mentor teacher.”

Christopher Monger (screenwriter): “Almost anyone I know whose had any success in life is because there’s been a mentor somewhere along the way.”

Mick Jackson (director): “Some gifted teacher who took the necessary interest in you in just the right way and right time in your life.”

You’re fortunate if you have one or two truly impactful teacher/mentors in your life.  And the crazy thing is when never know quite when those people are going to come in our life. For me it was Annye Refoe, who I had a creative writing class with for two years of high school and one year of college.  It’s where I wrote my first script and directed my first video.

My entire career is grounded in Annye’s classes. And the foundation of this blog goes all the way back to her encouragement for a young man to think beyond just sports and girls. That and my art teacher mom who first taught me to think in pictures.

For those of you in Iowa, Grandin will be speaking in Des Moines November 19, 2010 for the Iowa Society of Autism.

Scott W. Smith

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Between many of the screenwriting books and seminars that border and thrive on infomercial-like hype, there is a quiet realty that doesn’t help sell books and seminars. And that is that writing a script, selling a script, seeing that script get produced, that movie finding an audience, and it winning a major award doesn’t happen to very many people. It’s hard work that involve a lot of factors to come together at the right time.

And those it does happen to are usually very talented people who have worked very hard to have their moment in the spotlight. For screenwriter Adam Mazer that moment came last Sunday night at the Emmy Awards when he walked with the award for outstanding writing for a mini-series, movie, or dramatic special, for his work on the HBO movie You Don’t Know Jack.

But before he worked on the film which was directed by Barry Levinson and starred Al Pacino (who also won the Emmy for outstanding male actor for his role as Jack Kevorkian) Mazer grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from George Washington High School in 1985. Twelve years later in 1997 he sold his first script, but it would be another 10 years before one of his scripts got made (Breach).

So even though Mazer is around 43-years-old and had just films made he’s not complaining.

“I’m happy that it didn’t happen too soon. I got to learn what the drive was, how you have to persevere. . . . The last week, last couple of days, I can really appreciate it. I’ve been happy to make a living as a writer. There is a sizable cohort of comfortable screenwriters who have never had one of their works produced. People outside of Hollywood don’t understand how things work. I do make a nice living.
Adam Mazer quotes pulled from
Jonathan Storms article, he Philadelphia Inquirer Television Critic

I hope the Emmy helps Mazer see more of his scripts produced.

And for what it’s worth, Mazer graduated from Syracuse University where writers Rod Serling and Aaron Sorkin also attended.

Scott W. Smith

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“It was kind of a Cinderella night.”
Emmy-Winning Producer Cherylanne Martin
August 29, 2010

Why should you move to L.A.?—You might win an Emmy and get your picture taken with Tom Hanks. I’ll explain producer Cherylanne Martin’s journey in a moment.

Yesterday, I wrote a post titled Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A. which was geared toward screenwriters starting out and based on a quote from an interview with the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Rain Man, Barry Morrow. And even as I wrote that post I was thinking about the opposite view, which is why you should move to L.A.

And soon after I published my post a Hollywood assistant made this comment:

I moved to LA with no money or connections and got a low-paying job which barely pays my rent (granted, I’m not waiting tables – I’m working in development for a production company). Between my job, my girlfriend, and life in general, I don’t have very much time to write.

But you know what? Being in this town and in my particular line of work has allowed me to meet agents, managers, producers, and many many friends in very high places.

The main reason to move to Hollywood is simple….that’s where the film industry is based. That’s where the majority of jobs are located.  And there will always be room in Hollywood for interns and entry-level assistants who are willing to work long hours (12-16 on regular basis) for little or no pay. And every once in a while one of those interns or assistants finds a way to turn that opportunity and those contacts into a successful career.

Enter Cherylanne Martin. Before she collected a Primetime Emmy Sunday night along with Tom Hanks for producing the HBO drama The Pacific, she grew up in Maitland, Florida about two miles from where I grew-up. She is a year older than me and we both graduated from different high schools in Winter Park, Florida. She went to Florida State and I went to film school at the University of Miami. (I believe her major was advertising and she didn’t originally have her sights set on the film industry at all.)

In the early 80s I moved to L.A. and she worked as a production assistant in Orlando on Jaws 3-D (her first IMDB credit). I forget all the details but she ended up in L.A. working on features including being a second second assistant director (no not a typo) on Rain Man. (You knew I’d work in a Tom Cruise angle, right?) She also worked as a second assistant director on Far and Away which also starred Cruise.

By pure coincidence I met Cherylanne’s father after I moved back to Central Florida. He told me he was proud of his daughter because she worked as an assistant director on Forrest Gump. I was kind of stunned by this revelation because our meeting was not an industry meeting and this was 1994 when Forrest Gump was the biggest thing around.

He gave me Cherylanne’s address and she read a script of mine and wrote a nice note back. Since that time I’ve followed her career as she’s work with an amazing group of people including Rob Reiner, Michael Douglas, Michael J. Fox, Martin Sheen, Robert Zemeckis, Jodie Foster, Robin Williams, Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Pfeiffer, and several times with Tom Hanks.  She worked her way up from production assistant, to assistant director, to unit production manager, to associate producer, and then to producer working on films like Cast Away, Road to Perdition, and Nancy Drew.

So if you are looking for a reason why you should move to L.A. Cherylanne’s story is a pretty sweet one. She’s had opportunities in L.A. that she never would have had staying in Orlando. Perhaps not the norm for PA’s, but it’s nice to read a “Once Upon a Time…” story every now and again. Congrats on her success. I’m sure her dad is more proud than ever.

But Morrow’s comments yesterday were geared for screenwriters and really a charge for writers to get five scripts written so you have a command of the craft of screenwriting before you set your sights on moving to Los Angeles. Just remember that nothing magical happens when you first arrive in California. Whatever talents you have back home or acquired where you went to school are all you have. Earlier this summer I wrote a post where I mentioned that starting out Tom Hanks got serious stage experience working for a couple years in Cleveland, Ohio and has said,  “[I have] an artistic bent, almost a philosophy, which I learned for the first time onstage in Cleveland.”

The bottom line is both Tom Hanks and Cherylanne Martin (pictured above) are talented people who came from outside L.A., worked very hard at their craft, and found great success.

P.S.— Los Angeles will always will a great place to bump into people. Heck there are around 10 million more people in L.A. than live in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Check out my posts The Bump-In FactorThe Bump-In Factor (Part 2). But with that said, the Internet these days can change how you bump into people. How else did Screenwriting from Iowa pop up a few days ago on TomCruise.com in a post titled Guide for Aspiring Screenwriters?

Related post from other blogs: WHAT DO I NEED TO MOVE TO LA? YOU TELL ME RIGHT NOW! by Geloff LaTulippe

Scott W. Smith

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