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Posts Tagged ‘Hitchcock’

The photo that’s been at the top of this blog all these years is a quintessential farm shot I took one morning outside of Decorah, Iowa where I was shooting a short film.  The anchor in the shot is the barn and silo in the left part of the photo.

That’s classic Iowa. And I hadn’t thought about that photo in years until today when I read this quote about the silo used in A Quiet Place. 

“Where we grew up [in Iowa] was a healthy mixture of city life and farm life. We lived in the city, but you would hear about grain silos being one of the most dangerous things you can fall into. It’s basically like drowning, but in dry grain. It was terrifying to drive by them on country roads. Early in the writing process we said, ‘That has to be part of the setpieces.’”
Screenwriter Scott Beck (A Quiet Place)
Filmmaker Magazine interview with Matt Mulcahey 

Here’s a clip where the young actors Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jope discuss shooting that scene inside a silo surrounded by corn.

Here’s what part of that scene looked like on the page of the original screenplay.

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 11.49.08 PM.png

That silo scene reminds me a little of the Mt. Rushmore scene in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. 

P.S. You want to know an odd connection between North By Northwest and A Quiet Place. Cary Grant, who starred in North By Northwest, died in Davenport, Iowa.  Where did A Quiet Place screenwriters  (Beck and Bryan Woods) grow up and begin making movies? Davenport/Bettendorf, Iowa. (Part of what’s known as the Quad Cities.) Check out my 2010 post Cary Grant and T. Bone…”somewhere in Iowa.” I don’t just make this stuff up. Check out Cary Grant’s IMDB page and see where he died. Then look up Bryan Woods IMDB page and see where he was born.

It’s a small, small world.

Scott W. Smith

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“IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.”
Screenwriter David Mamet
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO?

Everything looks worse
In black and white
Kodachrome by Paul Simon
(I love this song, but everything doesn’t look worse in black and white)

Today wraps up a series of posts taken from Jerry Lewis’s book, The Total Film-Maker. These insights are from chapter 14—OTHER FILM-MAKERS, OTHER FILMS.

“I’m convinced that the best example of a total film­ maker was Chaplin. He was totally in, on, and all over his films. He created them in the fullest sense of the word: ex­perimented to see how widely, how cleverly and skillfully he could work.

“Chaplin also had a powerful family of fine comic people who worked with him picture after picture. He often used one actor for three different roles within the same film, changing costume and make-up to change characters. Ford Sterling played three completely different roles in City Lights.

“…Older men like Chaplin and Hitchcock were masters of their craft during their prime years. They were great artists with people and with the tools of their art. George Stevens, in directing A Place in the Sun, Giant and The Greatest Story Ever Told, shows mastery in almost every frame.

“…The work of a Fred Zinnemann comes from knowledge, care and lots of sweat. Films like High Noon, The Sun­downers and A Man for All Seasons are the product of a master craftsman. Any young director can learn quite a lesson by watching what he did with the camera, how he handled the actors and treated the subject matter as the result of both.”
Actor, writer, director (and one time USC professor) Jerry Lewis
The Total Film-Maker (1971)

P.S. Those first 30 seconds of the clip from the 6-time Oscar-winning film A Place in the Sun (including Best Picture) where Liz and Monty meet and greet is a great example of fine filmmaking. So much subtext in each other’s “Hello” and great exposition in her line, “I see you had a misspent youth.” In fact, that line covers about 100 pages of the Theodore Dreiser novel— An American Tragedy (1925)— from which the Michael Wilson (a two-time Oscar winner from  McAlester, Oklahoma whose credits include Lawrence of Arabia) and Harry Brown based their screenplay. BTW–Patrick Kearney wrote play on the book that premiered on Broadway in 1926. And to come full circle, I have read that Russian Sergei Eisenstein spent some time in Hollywood wrote a screenplay on the book in 1920 that he hoped Charlie Chaplin would produce. If anyone has a link to Eisenstein’s version I’d love to read it. Josef von Sternberg directed the 1931 version of An American Tragedy from a script by Samuel Hoffenstein. If there was ever a timeless title in our 24-7 newscyle era it’s An American Tragedy.

Related Posts:

Comedy, Cruelty, Chaplin
Chaplin on Embracing Cliches

Scott W. Smith

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“My top ten tips for tilting your film. 1. The shorter the better…”
Chris Jones (Co-author of The Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook)
Top Ten Tips For tilting Your Movie

“A good title should be like a good metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or two obvious.”
Novelist/essayist Walker Percy (The Moviegoer)

Gravity-1

There’s no “rule” that says movie titles have to be short, but it’s a pretty good proven principle to follow.

I noticed this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees followed a trend I began to see clearly back in 1998 with the release of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list. The vast majority of great movies titles are three words or less.

The original AFI list sits right about 75% with titles with three words or less. (Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather set the tone right out of the gate.) Best Picture nominees this year have only one of the nine pictures with more than three words in it. And 66% have two or less words including four with only a single word; Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena.

Historically, going all the way back to very first Academy Award ceremony (1929), more than 60% Best Picture winners have titles with three words or less, but ever since Rocky won Best Picture in 1977, only three winners (out of 37) had titles of more than three words.  (And each of those three was a novel first.)

That’s a pretty good case for picking short titles. One reason is it’s easier to recommend  Gladiator or Platoon than it is The Bridge on the River Kwai or All Quiet on the Western Front. Hitchcock’s best films had short titles including Vertigo, Psycho, and Notorious. Even a list of breakthrough indie films (filmmakers who seek to be unconventional from the Hollywood norm) has its share of short titles: Memento, Clerks, Reservoir Dogs, Before Sunset, El Mariachi, Slacker, Metropolitan, Rushmore.

Shakespeare at his best? Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Henry V, and Macbeth. 

Woody Allen’s most referenced films these days? Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors,  Midnight in Paris, and Blue Jasmine. 

Chapin? City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and The Gold Rush.

And if I haven’t made the case for picking a short title clear enough consider Pixar’s titles; Toy Story, Cars, Up, Wall-E, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life, Brave, Monsters, Inc., and Trains. In fact, Pixar has never had a feature film title with more than three words.

up_

That doesn’t mean bland and slightly long title (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)—or even a bland short title (The Shawshank Redemption)— can’t find an audience. Or that Up in the Air isn’t the perfect metaphor for George Clooney’s character. (A character whose only real purpose appears to be collecting frequent flyer miles—everything else is up in the air.) Or even that it’s unheard of to have a very long title like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. (Although, when that last film came out in 1984 I remember people referred to it as Buckaroo Banzai.)

The point is short titles rule. Why fight an uphill battle?

Movie titles are important. How do you pick a good one?

Some writers talk about starting with a title and going from there, and others talk about struggling to land on a title even after they’ve finished their book or screenplay.

But the most common titles seem to focus a main character or being, place or thing, or an event. Of the non-sequel films (or non-comic based films) at the top of the all-time box office include Avatar, Titanic, Skyfall, and Jurassic Park. (And audiences tend to abbreviate sequels/comic-based movies around the water cooler calling them Batman, Star Wars, Pirates, Spider-Man, Twilight, Iron Man and Harry Potter.)

CHARACTER(S) OR BEING:
Citizen Kane
Lincoln
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
King Kong
Rocky
Alien
Erin Brockovich
Patton
Forrest Gump
Spartacus
Bonnie and Clyde
The Godfather
Tootsie
Norma Rae
Jaws
Psycho
Raging Bull
Bridesmaids
The Artist
Annie Hall

A PLACE OR THING:
Titanic
The African Queen
Bridge on the River Kwai
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On the Waterfront
Chinatown
Sunset Blvd.
The Bridges of Madison County
Pearl Harbor
The Maltese Falcon
The Apartment
Casablanca
Fargo
Oklahoma
Wall St.
Philadelphia

AN EVENT:
12 Years a Slave
High Noon
Apocalypse Now
Star Wars
3:10 to Yuma
Flight
2001: A Space Odyssey
This is 40
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
Sophie’s Choice
Mutiny on the Bounty
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

(Or a person, place, & event: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)

Up in the Air falls into that minority category of a title that’s a little more obtuse, in line with The Last Picture Show, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Silence of the Lambs, or Gone with the Wind. (Again all were books or plays first which tend to favor a more intellectual audience, and gives them the advantage of a built-in audience when the movies hit theaters.If you go with a metaphor, it doesn’t hurt if the title is a common phrase like “up in the air.” Even still, I heard people called Up in the Air,  “The new George Clooney movie.” (More words than the actual title but easier to explain to a friend when picking a movie.)

What are some of your favorite titles (even if they aren’t one of your favorite films)? What are some of your favorite bad titles?

Some of my favorite titles are the lesser remembered movies Them! (1954) and  Zulu (1964).  And I like titles such as Psycho, Black Hawk Down, Meet the Parents, Witness, The Hunt for Red October, Collateral and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly because they all have built-in conflict, mystery and intrigue. They hit you at a gut level.

When I think of bad movie titles it tends to be because I think the movies are bad. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the movies listed at The 100 Worst Movie Title are longish; The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

I should add in closing that just because you have a short title doesn’t guarantee success as Ishtar and Gigli prove. But even in an internet driven age where viral reviews may trump movie titles, short titles still seem to work best because word counts are as important as ever.

P.S.  One blogger wrote a post called Top 10 Worst Movie Titles Ever and put Surf Nazis Must Die at #10. That film was written and directed by Peter George who I happened to go to film school with. (I was always a little upset I didn’t get a small role in the film.) If anyone knows where Mr. George is these days tell him I want my watch back. The one that I left at his Hollywood apartment after I crashed on his sofa one night back in the day.

P.P.S. My own longest and worst title for a script I’ve written—When the Cold Winds Blows. More novel-friendly, but I should really be forced to write an apology letter to James Taylor for sampling the lyrics from his classic Fire and Rain. And in case you think I’m kidding—here’s the tattered title page from over a decade ago.

photo-2

Updated from the post: Movie Titles (tip #32) published in 2010.

Related posts:
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (part 2)
Irony in Movies (Tip #79)
Average Length of Movie Scenes (#21)
Choosing a Title for Your Script  “A good title could get your script moved up from the bottom of the stack of to-read scripts to the top — and change your life.”—Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek)

Related links from others:

Choosing a Great Title “Will the title look good on a poster and will it intrigue passersby?”—Julie Gray
Screenplay Tip #6: Title  “Sometimes dramas will have a lengthy title like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but this seems less now and I certainly can’t remember the last time I saw such a long title for a drama in the spec pile.”—Lucy V. Hay
Reader mail—titles “You know what does stick with me? The clever titles, the unique ones.”—The Bitter Script Reader
The Ultimate Guild To Screenwriting Titles

Scott W. Smith

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I didn’t intend to spend several days exploring movie cloning, but it’s turned into quite a rabbit hole of information. On top of the words that I listed in part 1 that explain why some movies remind you of other movies (remake, update, homage, rip-off, mash-up, inspired by, parallels, movie mapping, story patterns, story echo, influences, plagiarism) some additional words have popped up—imitation, riff,  and paean. (Paean: A fervent expression of praise.) Writer Lee A. Matthias at The Last Reveal calls it “Lateral Screenwriting.”

Now on the comment section of Movie Cloning (Part 2) a point was made that the word cloning “makes it sound like copying and that reduced creativity is involved.”  But I’m not talking about hitting Apple—C on a script. And I wrestled with using the word cloning, but went with it because it seemed fresh. Another reason is I associate the concept of DNA with cloning.

Perhaps a scientist can fill us in (in layman’s terms) on how cloning is really an “umbrella term.” Not all cloning is the same. My understanding is that not all cloning is reproductive cloning (a duplicate copy). Nor is there anything easy about it. (And, for the record, scientists do very creative work.)

I think “DNA Cloning” is what I had in mind when linking two films that have similar characteristics. With the example of “Avatar” and “Dances with Wolves” I don’t think there was anything easy about James Cameron’s 15 year journey to get “Avatar” made. But I do think it’s clear that “Avatar” and “Dances with Wolves” do share the same DNA—and that was by design.

Cameron used structural DNA from “Dances” and that helped greatly with some of the heavy lifting on “Avatar,” but there was still a lot of work to be done.

It’s not really even possible to perfectly clone a film unless you had the exact same actors, locations, etc. The 1998 version of Psycho where Gus Van Sant matched Hitchcock’s 1960 version shot for shot is as close as I can think of as a film that was trying to literally clone another film. (I wondered if someone had edited the famous shower scene together from both versions and of course they have uploaded it to You Tube: Psycho Re-Imagined. (I think it was Sydney Pollack who said something to the effect that Hitchcock had his own style because he kept making the same film.)

And if you think all of this talk is beneath you as a writer, listen to the screenwriting advice from a Hollywood agent:

“Deliver a world or a setting that we’ve never seen before, or that we haven’t seen in a while (remember approximately 50% of the movie going audience is between 14 & 24. If a concept was used 10+ years ago, odds are they haven’t seen it). “War of the Worlds” = “Independence Day”=”War of the Worlds”. “Kelly’s Heroes” = “Three Kings”. “Taming of the Shrew”=”10 Things I Hate About You,” “Disturbia” = “Rear Window.” Are these exact matches? No! But are they delivering, or repackaging if you will, concepts that the earlier films/plays successfully sold to the consumer. Yes!”
Bruce Bartlett
Bartlett Screenwriting Tips Blog

Bartlett, by the way. was the first agent I ever talked to. Back in 1996 he read a script of mine called First Comes Marriage.* (In a follow-up phone call he said he was looking for something edgier like Swingers.) He’s a partner at Above the Line Agency in Beverly Hills. (You can submit queries to them online.) His partner, Rima Greer, has written an informative book called The Read , Low Down, Dirty Truth About Hollywood Agenting.

But as for movie cloning, can you really watch the 2010 film Date Movie and not at least think of Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest? Of course you can, and that’s Bartlett’s point. People just want to watch Steve Carell & Tina Fey and laugh—which is why it made $98 million domestic.  But people who write and are up on film history know otherwise. In fact, I just Googled, “Date Night is North by Northwest” and found a post by Allen Palmer titled, Did you catch Hitchcock in Date Night? He can fill you in on the similarities of the two films.

Ever wonder how Walt Disney and his team of animators were able to crank out so many great films? Maybe it had something to do with using the same DNA. (Again, I saw this connection on Kal Bashir’s website.)

Winnie the Pooh

The Jungle Book

Just one more reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun.

*As a side note, First Comes Marriage, a script I completed in 1995 involved a couple getting married the day they met. It was simply an original idea that I had never seen or read  before (or had ever heard of happening in real life) but I thought it could happen and would be interesting to explore. While never produced, the basic concept was similar to the hit TV show Dharma & Greg (1997-2002), and in the 2008 film What Happens in Vegas.

Scott W. Smith

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 "You like race horses? I love 'em. Beautiful, expensive Racehorses. You are looking at six hundred thousand on four hoofs...I bet even Russina Czars never paid that kind of dough for a single horse."
Jack Woltz (John Marley) in The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola

If you’ve never seen The Godfather there is a major hole in your film history knowledge. Write a note to screenwrtier/ director Francis Ford Coppola begging for forgiveness, buy a bottle of his wine (unless you’re under 21), and watch that film before you read this post. (After all, it is #2 on the AFI’s 100 years 100 Movies list.)

The horse’s head scene is not only the most memorable, the most visceral scene in The Godfather trilogy, it is one of the most memorable in film history. It’s also the one scene that, to me, technically makes the least sense. I’ve watched The Godfather many times and there is no doubt that the scene works every time.

My problem is a logical one. How did they get the horses head in the bed without waking the Hollywood studio head who was sleeping in it? Sure we could jump through some hoops and say he was drugged and all and anybody ruthless enough to do such a heinous act could figure out how to pull it off.

Still, it just seems like a flaw. Maybe I’m the only one who this bugs. And this is not to take anything from one of the greatest films ever made. I have the deepest respect for Coppola as a writer and a director. There is no screenwriter I have written about on this blog that I’d rather sit down and have a meal with than Coppola. (Okay, maybe Billy Wilder, but that’s kind of hard these days.)

If anything, it shows the genius of Coppola as a writer and director to change what was originally written by Mario Puzo in the book so that it would have the maximum impact on the audiences. Here’s how Coppola explains the scene on The Godfather DVD commentary:

“Interesting about the horse’s head scene— that was at the time a very, very famous scene in the book, and the way it’s described in the book Woltz wakes up and he looks and the horse’s head is there on the bedpost. And I just felt it would it be more horrible not to just have the horse there, but that he feels something wet in his bed and he turns down the sheets and he sees blood. And at first he thinks, ‘my god it could be me, I’ve been stabled or something.’ And as he pulls the sheet he sees the horse’s head right under the covers, so it’s quite different than in the book in the film—it’s maybe more effective, I’m not sure. I think that moment of doubt, that maybe it was his own wound bleeding maybe contributed to the horror.”

It’s a scene that lasts only one minute*, but that is embedded on audiences for a lifetime. Yes, the horse’s head on the bedpost does make more sense and is more plausible, but would have been far less effective. (Remember Hitchcock thought those that spoke in terms of plausibility were boring.)

The lesson here is the drama of the reveal trumps logic.

*And for the directors out there, the horse’s head scene consists mostly of one long take of dolly shot, followed by three quick shots reaction shots after the revel of the horse’s head.  Filmmaking at it’s best.

Related post: Screenwriting and the Little Fat Girl in Ohio
The Francis Ford Coppola Way

Scott W. Smith

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“Believe me, for a 28-year-old writer, getting a check for $200,000 was a big deal indeed.”
Aaron Sorkin

Before Aaron Sorkin created the Emmy-winning TV program West Wing and wrote the four-time Oscar nominated film A Few Good Men, he was just another writer in New York trying to make a living.

“I was working as a bartender at the Palace Theater, I had graduated from Syracuse University in 1983 with a degree in theater and I had come to New York to begin my career as a struggling writer. So every night, really eight times a week, during the first act of La Cage Aux Folles I would write notes on cocktail napkins and stuff them in my pockets. I would go home to my apartment that I shared with about 17 other people and kind of spill the cocktail napkins out on the desk and started writing A Few Good Men.”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

It took him a year and a half to write the play A Few Good Men, and he went through 23 drafts of the play before it made its way to Broadway where it ran for a year and a half. In 1989,  he was awarded Outstanding American Playwright by the Outer Critics Circle. Following the success of the play he was asked to write the screenplay for A Few Good Men, which was directed by Rob Reiner and starred Tom Cruise. On the Special Edition DVD of A Few Good Men Sorkin explains;

“I didn’t know anything about movies. I had grown up just watching plays and reading plays. Plays were all I knew. I went to the movies like anybody else, but I wasn’t paying attention like the way friends of mine were. Other people I know who do what I do can tell you who the make-up guy was on every Hitchcock film, I was never that person. So when I was writing the A Few Good Men screenplay, not only had I never written a screenplay before, I had never read a screenplay before.”

But it worked out well and the movie received an Oscar nomination for best picture. And the trademark line from A Few Good Men— “You can’t handle the truth”— spoken by Jack Nicholson’s was named by the American Film Institute as the twenty-ninth greatest American movie quote. Not bad for your first script.

But where did the original idea for A Few Good Men come from? Sorkin’s sister was a lawyer in the Navy and told her playwright brother about a case she was involved with at Guantanamo Bay involving a Marine killing a Marine.

The Cedar Falls—Aaron Sorkin connection: Actress Annabeth Gish, who was on West Wing for six seasons, grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa. On Main St., just a block from my office there is a plaque in the sidewalk honoring her, complete with a signature and hand prints.

Related post: Screenwriting Quote of the Day #43 (Aaron Sorkin)

Scott W. Smith

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“You tell the audience only what they need to know—no more. And as little of that as possible. I feel that a great deal of tension can be given to any scene, any character, by keeping the information to a minimum. As Hitchcock said some time ago, ‘The one who tells you everything right away is a bore.'”

Walter Brown Newman
Three-time Oscar nomiated screenwriter
Ace in the Hole, Bloodbrothers,  Cat Ballou

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