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"I'm asked why people don't often see me and Elin in gossip magazines or tabloids. I think we've avoided a lot of media attention because we're kind of boring."

                                            Tiger Woods (pre car accident)  


"We felt if (Fatal Attraction) was to be successful it had to be about anybody sitting in the audience. It had to be about you."

                                                                                                                                Stanley Jaffe, producer
 

On Friday I was looking for a movie to go see and came across this synopsis of Wes Anderson’s new film The Fantastic Mr. Fox;

“After 12 years of bucolic bliss, Mr. Fox (George Clooney) breaks a promise to his wife (Meryl Streep) and raids the farms of their human neighbors, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Giving in to his animal instincts endangers not only his marriage but also the lives of his family and their animal friends. When the farmers force Mr. Fox and company deep underground, he has to resort to his natural craftiness to rise above the opposition.”

Uh…speaking of animals and movies, I don’t know if Tiger Woods has ever met Glenn Close. I’m guessing not because if she was ever a cocktail waitress before her acting career took off it was before Tiger was born. And I’m guessing he never saw her Oscar-nominated role as Alex in Fatal Attraction. He was only 12 when the film first came out in 1987 and he’s probably been too busy to catch up on old films.

But Fatal Attraction has to be one of the most powerful and memorable films that deals with adultery.  And the competition is strong. (The Scarlet Letter, Citizen Kane, Doctor Zhivago, The Bridges of Madison County, Jungle Fever, The Graduate, Blue Sky, The End of the Affair, The Apartment, Election, Unfaithful, Indecent Proposal, Death of a Salesman, American Beauty and ever other Woody Allen film are part of the string of films with adultery in the storyline.)

“Saul Bellow once compared a novel without adultery to ‘a circus without elephants.'”
Jody W. Pennington
The History of Sex in American Film

Since films center around conflict it should be no surprise that conflict among marital relationships are a common theme to wrestle with. Hitting a tree with your car at 30 mph is conflict, having an affair is meaningful conflict.

It’s interesting to note that though Hollywood is not the most pro-marriage place in the United States most of the films that deal with adultery put it in a negative light (except for The Bridges of Madison County and every Woody Allen film that deals with adultery). That is films often show the consequences of cheating on a spouse.

And whatever Tiger did it appears he also looks at adultery in a negative light. In his statement he used words like “values,” “far short of perfect,” “personal sins” “personal failings” and “transgressions.” It was reported that the most searched word on the Internet (according to Google Trends) the day Tiger gave his press conference was the word “transgression(s)”

I spent many years producing and directing videos for theologian Dr. R.C. Sproul so I know a lot of 25 cent words and didn’t need to take time to look that up. Just hearing the word transgression brings up in my mind the well-known passage in Isaiah (“He was wounded for our transgressions.”) as well as the old Westminster Shorter Catechism Question Number 14. What is sin? 
Answer: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.

Sproul, by the way, is the only contemporary theologian I know who has ever been quoted in a vampire film.  In the Abel Ferrara directed film The Addiction written by Nicholas St. John, the Annabella Sciorra character says, “Now, R.C. Sproul said we’re not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners.” (The film also stars Christopher Walken and Lili Taylor.)

We sin because we’re sinners is as good an explanation as any for Norman Bates (Pyscho), Annie Wilkes (Misery),  Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) as well as real life characters Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. As well as our own shortcomings.  Tiger is not the only non-perfect human being and the bible does say, “We all stumble in many ways.” (James 3:2) Or as speaker/author/radio host Steve Brown is fond of telling audiences, “Everyone in this room has at least one sin that if was made public would crawl out of here on their hands and knees.”

I think that the role drama has played for a couple thousand years is to show people struggle with life. Good old good versus evil stuff. Sometimes drama is inspirational and sometimes it offers a cautionary tale.

When we hear the word adultery, even for the non-religious, it tends to make us think of one of the ten commandments:
”Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery” (Exodus 20:14) Which is a long way from a billboard ad I once saw for the TV show Melrose Place proclaiming; “Loving thy neighbor is cool.”

There aren’t too many people that say adultery is a good thing for marriages, families and society (though some do) and we can look back over the last several thousand years and see successful men and women in every arena of life (politics, education, business, athletics, entertainment, religion, etc.) get tangled up in the web of adultery. Often painfully and publicly tangled up.

Which brings us back to Tiger and  Glenn Close. If “stories are equipment for living” as Edmund Burke wrote then I think Fatal Attraction shows us brilliantly the extremes of a cause and effect of an affair. Tomorrow we’ll look at one key scene from James Dearden’s Fatal Attraction script.

The film that Michael Douglas would later reflect back on the success of the film saying, “It hit a nerve around the world as a ‘what if?’ type scenario.” Fatal Attraction producer Stanely Jaffe added, “I think the world was ready for someone to examine the way we were living our lives.”

As Tiger has said he is examining his life. And don’t you think that husbands and wives around the world are examining text messages more closely? And perhaps some are examining where they store their golf clubs.

Scott W. Smith



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“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.
Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
Speech circa 1880

 “All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war, and rule number one is young men die. And rule number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one.”
                                                                    M*A*S*H, TV Program/Season One
                                                                   (Sometimes You Hear the Bullet)

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour on this day in 1941 five brothers in Waterloo, Iowa walked into a Navy recruiting station and demanded that they all serve on the same ship.  Two months later all five bothers (George, Frank, Red, Matt & Al) were photographed on the USS Juneau and became a famous band of brothers.

Nine months later they were all killed in the South Pacific in the Battle of the Guadalcanal. You can imagine the scene when the news was delivered to their parents home on Adams St. where they raised their boys.

“War is hell” is the often paraphrased Sherman quote. And that hell is full of drama so it is not surprising that there have been so many war movies.

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A movie on the five brothers, The Fighting Sullivans written by  Edward Doherty and  Jules Schermer was released in 1944 and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. (The Academy would later call the Best Story the Best Original Screenplay).

A similar story of eight brothers dying in the Civil War was the inspiration for Robert Rodat’s script Saving Private Ryan that would be nominated for 11 Academy Award and for which Steven Spielberg would win best director honors. (Private Ryan is from the fictious town of  Peyton, Iowa and I do not know if this is a minor tribute to the Sullivan Brothers who would of come up in Rodat’s research as he looked for a World War II angle.)

Just a few weeks ago The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum opened in Waterloo, Iowa. The 32,000-square-foot state-of-the art facility  is named after the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo and honors the men and women who have served in the United States Military.

Since today is Pearl Harbor Day in the US  it seemed a fitting time to look at screenwriting and war. I guess I could have called this Screenwriting from Vietnam, Screenwriting from Germany or Screenwriting from Iraq.

There have been many great movies made dealing with war because it has everything I’ve covered over the year; Strong, meaningful conflict where larger than life characters deal with life and death decisions that have consequences greater than there own lives. Actions that could in fact change the world.

The upcoming Tom Cruise film Valkyrie  appears to be in this tradition. The Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander script centers around an assassination plot against Hitler. It would be hard to film a character in history that has been at the core of  more films, TV programs, and books than Hitler. Understanding evil seems to be one of our chief preoccupations. (When we’re not Googling Britney Spears.)

One of the first films I ever remember seeing in the theater was The Green Beret starring John Wayne and David Janseen.  (And for what it’s worth Wayne was born in Iowa and Janseen in Nebraska.)  By doing the math I was seven years old when that movie came out. I didn’t see the movie again for almost 30 years but there were scenes that I have always carried with me.

The first two were booby traps where soldiers are killed (one into  a wall of spikes, maybe I was too young to see this movie) and the other was the ending where a little boy goes looking for  Sgt. Petersen who befriended the boy. But Petersen has been killed and it’s heartbreaker (at least it was for a seven-year-old viewing it) as he runs from helicopter to helicopter yelling “Peter-san,  Peter-san!”

My boyhood friends and I had no real understanding of Vietnam but we loved the concept of shooting guns, rolling off a hill of sand pretending to be shot, talking on walkie talkies, and dressing up like G.I. Joe.  I think every boy at that stage of his life is a dramatist. Making up dramatic scenarios and living them out daily. One day they’re playing with stick that’s an old west gun, the next day it’s a Medieval sword, and the next day it’s a futuristic laser.

Fast forward to when I was in high school and  Apocalypse Now was released. That made me want to be a filmmaker and make sure I avoided going into war. Because of Vietnam  the majority of young people at that time didn’t get excited about joining the military until the movie Top Gun game out in 1986 where people signed up in record numbers once again proving the influence of Hollywood. (Ironically, Platoon came out that same year.)

Here is a partial list of some of the greatest war films:

Patton
All Quiet on the Western Front
From Here to Eternity
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Schindler’s List
The Sand Pebbles
Glory
The Dirty Dozen
Battleship Potemkin
Das Boot
The Caine Mutiny
Black Hawk Down
Henry V
Letters From Iwo Jima
Gone With the Wind
Battleship Potemkin
Ran
Zulu
The Last of the Mohicans
Braveheart

Some films have dealt with war from a perspective of humor or irony:
Stalag 17
M*A*S*H
Dr. Strangelove
Catch-22
Good Morning, Vietnam
Stripes
Private Benjamin
The General
The Great Dictator

And yet other films deal with the lingering effects of returning home from war:
The Deer Hunter
Courage Under Fire
The Best Years of Our Lives
First Blood
Coming Home

“Out in the Pacific they say he was the best,
now he’s in his civvies heading home like all the rest.” 

Jimmy Buffett
Sending the Old Man Home 

Just as there were stories that emerged after World War II I believe there will be a new crop of stories emerging from Iraq. Jarhead writer Anthony Swofford not only recounted his experiences from The Gulf War but earned an MFA from the University of Iowa.  The script for that movie was written by William Broyles Jr. who himself was a Marines in Vietnam.

So there will be more stories to tell from places far away from Hollywood. Stories than help give us meaning or at least a glimmer of humanity in a world that has been at war for thousands of years.

“The next wave of Hollywood filmmakers will undoubtedly include veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their values and empathy could alter the landscape of the filmmaking industry, even the world we share.”
Liz Alani
Script  magazine/ Real Men Write 

It’s my hope that this posts finds its way to Iraq and Afghanistan where a solider or two can read it and be inspired. Thanks to all the soldiers who have fought for this country over the years and have made it such a great place to call home.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith


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“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.” — William Froug

                              

king-2006.png

Today marks the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  The civil rights leader and Baptist minister has left a lasting impression on the United States.

In 2006 I was doing a video shoot in Jackson, Mississippi and then had to drive to Atlanta for another shoot. When I’m on the road I try to make it as interesting as possible and I took a detour off the main highway so I could retrace the Selma to Montgomery march. (This shot was taken as I drove over the bridge in Selma, Alabama where the conflict known as Bloody Sunday occurred back in 1965.) 

selma-scottwsmith.png

Much of that region looks similar as it did in that day. In route to Atlanta I learned that King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, had died and there would be a public viewing in Atlanta that weekend. I figured that was a more than amazing way to finish my civil rights tour and I took the photo of King’s hearse outside the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’d like to address Martin Luther King Jr. from that perspective.

Let’s talk about the characters you chose to write about.

“Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.”                           Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay

It’s been said that drama favors the great saint or the great sinner.

We don’t have to go very far in theater, literature and film to see that this is true:

Hamlet
King Lear
Blanche DuBois
The Godfather
Scarlet O’Hara
James Bond
Mad Max
Lawrence of Arabia
Snow White
Norma Rae
William Wallace
Virgil Tibbs
Darth Vader
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Bonnie & Clyde

In fact, we might as well say that history favors the great saint or great sinner:

Nero
Lincoln
Grant
Washington
Kennedy
Stalin
Elvis
Ali
Nixon
Churchill
Hitler

It’s been said that the History Channel should be called the Hitler Channel because he plays such a key role in many programs.

Certainly the words saint and sinner are religious in nature so let’s look there to see if it favors the great saint and the great sinner as far as being remembered:

Adam & Eve
Cain & Abel
Moses
King David
Christ
Mary
Paul
Judas
Gandhi
Muhammad
Buddha
St. Augustine
Martin Luther
John Calvin
Mother Theresa
Jim Jones
Satan

How memorable are the characters you have created? Do you write characters that are as fascinating to watch as animals at the zoo? “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

That’s not to say that every character you write has to be as fascinating as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s Wall St. but your protagonist and antagonist must be somebody we are interested in investing two hours of hours lives. (They could be a shark, a robot, or a tornado as well, but whatever they are make them standout.) They don’t even have to shoot the bad guy at the end. Jake LaMotta in Ragging Bull is a despicable character but man is he ever an interesting case study.  

“I’m not interested in having to root for someone; I’m trying to get some sort of understanding as to what makes people tick and what they’re about. — Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct

If you do write about a common person it’s best if you put them in an extraordinary situation. (Like Miss Daisy & Hoke’s relationship in Driving Miss Daisy centered around a changing world, or Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest who must run for his life. And let’s not forget the quintessential common man Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman who is a mirror for all humanity that faces living, as Thoreau said, “lives of quite desperation.”  

The truth is it’s easier to write a strong bad guy than a strong good guy. For every Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) there are probably three Norman Bates (Psycho). (And actors love to play a good bad guy.) And basic dramatic structure dictates that when you throw your protagonist and antagonist into the ring it should be a fair battle. 

Look at Steven Spielberg films and you’ll find a long list of really bad people and creatures. 

And here’s a secret. Many great characters are a mix of saint and sinner. Isn’t there a Jekel and Hyde in all of us? Don’t we love to go to movies and watch characters wrestle with life, with themselves? (Heck, even Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell characters are really wrestling with life.)

Showing that struggle is part of what makes your characters engaging and memorable. It gives your characters dimension.

“It’s rare that you find three-dimensional characters in a writing sample, and when you do, it’s obvious that’s a writer you want to work with.”   Paramount Story Editor 

So as you hear the stories about Martin Luther King Jr. today ask yourself what was it about this man and his work that made him memorable. What obstacles did he have to overcome? How did his character respond to the set-backs? And how in the years after his death has his work been relevant in shaping America today?

The debates I’ve heard on the radio programs have given answers all over the map. Great characters are not lukewarm.

Martin Luther King Jr., by some accounts, was like Oskar Schindler, in that he was a flawed man who left a great legacy. His dream has not been realized, but it’s a good dream.  Remember that throughout history, ideas flow from the philosophers and prophets to the masses via artists.

“Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”  William Romanowski

Photos & Text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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