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Posts Tagged ‘Humphrey Bogart’

“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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“Oh, I’ve stolen from the best… I mean I’m a shameless thief.”
Woody Allen

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”
Jim Jarmusch

No, I’m not going to write about writers and artists who create while drinking. But if you read a few bios of writers and artists you’ll realize that more than a few (for whatever reason) have a fondness/weakness for drugs and alcohol. But that’s another post for another day.

I want to address creative influence.

Yesterday, I did a photo shoot and was told by one friend that one of my shots looked like one of the Star Trek movie character posters and other friend said George Hurrell would be proud. Not knowing what either meant I did a quick Google search and discovered that they were both correct. See if you agree.

The photo I took of Josh McCabe is one the left and the other is of actor Eric Bana as the Star Trek character Nero. I don’t recall ever seeing the Nero photo before, but the  similarities are obvious. Black & white photo of white males, dead center  composition with eyes looking up, lit with edge lights to the left and right. (If I shaved Josh’s head and Photoshopped some tattoos from his arm to his face it would be called a dead rip off.)

Now photographer George Hurrell‘s influence I will admit to. When I moved to LA as a 21-year-old there was a place on Hollywood Blvd. that was lined with photos of old movie stars— Errol Flynn, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and the like.  Lots of black and white shots from the 30s and 40s and I’ve always been drawn to that style. Hurrell was one of the best known photographers of movie stars in that era. Here’s one of his shots of Humphrey Bogart next to the photo I took. Again, there are similarities and I understand why the connection was made.

There’s nothing new under the sun. Isn’t Lady Gaga just an updated version of Madonna and Cher? And weren’t they updated versions of Carmen Miranda?

Well now she had a big hat, my it was high
Had bananas and mangos all piled to the sky
How she could balance it, I wouldn’t dare
But they don’t dance like Carmen nowhere
—Jimmy Buffett

From a screenwriting perspective, don’t be surprised (or offended) if someone reads your script and says, “It reminds me of….” Graphic designer Milton Glaser (most famous for his I Love New York design) says that all creativity is is just connecting influences. You have your influences when you create something and the viewer/reader of your work has their influences. Lines are being crossed and connected all the time.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have both talked about boyhood TV shows and movies that influenced the concepts behind Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sometimes the connection is obvious and sometimes obscure. One of the screenplays kicking around my house is Body Heat written by Lawrence Kasden. The 1981 film has often been called a re-make of the 1944 Billy Wilder film Double Indemnity. You can find much online (here’s one) about the connection between the two, and I don’t know if Kasden ever saw Double Indemnity, but the script I have says “An original screenplay by Lawrence Kasden.”

Don’t analyze this stuff too much because it will stifle your creativity. Just keep creating, keep writing.

Scott W. Smith

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On Screen Writing by Edward Dmytryk is not the most marked-up book on writing that I have, but it is one that I return to again and again. Dmytryk directed the Oscar-winning film Crossfire (1947) as well as the highly regarded films The Young Lions, Raintree County and The Caine Mutiny. In total he directed 56 films and later taught at the University of Texas at Austin and USC. I can’t think of an another filmmaker who has better combined professional and academic credentials than Dmytryk.

Need is undoubtedly the most common, the most useful, the most malleable, and the most easily understood and accepted basis for a story…In The African Queen two completely diverse personalities are forced to ride the length of a dangerous African river in a dilapidated boat—that is the situation. Their need is two-fold; first, to leave the territory, which is occupied by the enemy, and second, to blow up the German gunboat at the end of their journey. The conflict is also two-fold; first that of the diametrically opposed characters, and second, their battles with the perils of the journey, By the end of the film they have conquered the situation, fulfilled their needs, and resolved both their physical and personality conflicts.”
Edward Dmytryk
On Screen Writing
page 20

Just as I finished this post I learned that The African Queen (Commemorative Box Set) will be released for the first time on Blue-Ray March 23, 2010. The 1951 film directed by John Huston and starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart is a classic of classics, and an excellent film/script to study from a filmmaking and screenwriting perspective.

Scott W. Smith

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Edward Dmytryk is not the most recognizable name in film history but you could benefit from knowing his work. First he directed 56 feature films, one of which was nominated for an Academy Award (Crossfire) and two others were nominated for DGA Awards (The Caine Mutiny, The Young Lions).  Though some believe his best films were Murder, My Sweet and Warlock. (An interesting mix of military/war films, film noir, and a western—all which happen to deal with morality.)

Along the way Dmytryk directed some of the greatest Hollywood legends; Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Montgomory Clift, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Elizabeth Taylor.

When Dmytryk is mentioned  today it’s usually in connection with his being one of The Hollywood Ten. Back in the late 40s, ten screenwriters were blacklisted after being charged with contempt of Congress for not answering questions in regard to their involvement in the communist party. It’s a highly debated issue of which much has been written about and documented on film & video.

Several films are said to have been made as a response to the events surrounding The Hollywood Ten including, High NoonOn The Waterfront, and The Crucible.

Dmytryk after serving several months in prison cleared his name by talking to the House Committee on Un-American Activities which saved his career while creating lifelong enemies. Dmytryk pleads his case in his book Odd Man Out, A Memoir of The Hollywood Ten. 

He made films into his seventies and in the 1970s began teaching at the University of Texas in Austin and later taught at USC where he held a chair in filmmaking. In the 80s he wrote a series of books on filmmaking which are some of the few books you can read by an accomplished filmmaker.

“Today, many film-makers are afraid to deal with sentiment, dismissing it as sentimentality. But the ability to properly handle sentiment and its underlying emotion, to get the most out if it without going over the line into mawlisness, is the mark of the dramatist. The greatest dramas ever written or performed have been ‘love stories’, concerned with emotional contacts and conflicts of human beings. If the characters in a film do not  ‘touch’ each other, how can they possibly touch the viewer?”
                                                                           Edward Dmytryk
                                                                           On Screen Writing
page 101 

Just for the record, I don’t think I had ever seen the word mawkishness before reading it in Dmytryk’s book, nor do I recall ever seeing it used again. It means “Excessively sentimental.”  I thought it was a fitting quote to pull the day after Valentine’s Day, which has it’s share of mawkishness.

And lastly, here is a scene from my favorite Dmytryk film The Caine Mutiny starring Bogart as Captain Queeg. The movie was based on the 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Herman Wouk. The Oscar nominated screenplay was written by Stanley Roberts who wrote the film version of Death of a Salesman just a few years prior.

Scott W. Smith

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safetylast-1

Does anybody really know what time it is?
                                                             Robert Lamm/Chicago

Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By
                                                             Humphrey Bogart
                                                             Casablanca 


Did you know that Three Days of the Condor was based on Six Days of the Condor?

That is the movie Three Days of the Condor was based on the novel Six Days of the Condor.

Why do you think the screenwriters Lorenzo Semple and David Rayfiel compressed the novel by James Grady? I haven’t read any comments by the writers, Robert Redford who was the star, or by director Syndey Pollack on why that was done, but I have a pretty good hunch.

Movies do not handle long passages of time well. More often than not films will compress time for the sake of moving the story forward and keeping your interest.

Screenwriters and producers often talk of a time-lock on a film. A specific set of time the story is set when something must happen by. (“If you don’t get the heck out of Dodge by sunset there will be hell to pay.”) It sets the parameters for the story. Here are some films that have a time-lock:
High Noon
Speed
48 Hours
Apollo 13

Lew Hunter in his book Screenwriting 434 says when you use a time-lock “you inject an urgency into your story that can give it additional drive to heighten audience involvement and anxiety.” Of course, the more organic to the story the better.

Some movie deal with time by placing them in a single day, in just a night, or even in real time in the length of the film:

American Graffiti
The Breakfast Club
Halloween
Phone Booth 
Before Sunrise
Rope 
Timecode 
Russian Ark 

In a talk I heard John Updike give at the University of Iowa earlier this year he spoke about the limitations that film has in showing the passing of time. When he’s writing a novel he can take a person from a baby to old age and it’s no problem for the reader, but in movies it doesn’t work as well. He explained that if your main character is a child for the first 30 minutes of the film they have a certain amount invested in that person and to switch to another person is a jolt.

This may be one of the problems Updike is having in bringing the story of Olympic wrestler/famed college coach Dan Gable to to screen. Gable had a great high school, college career before winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Then he went on to win 10 national championships as a head coach at the University of Iowa before retiring. Then he came back as an assistant coach last year to help Iowa win another national championship.

How do you show that in an hour and a half or two hour movie? And even if you found a way, can you really have the same person play Gable as a 15-year-old high school freshman and Gable as a 63-year-old coach? See the problem there? 

Maybe the digital world will help this in the future and it will be interesting to see the effect on Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button where he plays an man born in his eighties and ages backwards. If anyone can pull that off it’s David Fincher & Eric Roth. (Didn’t that once happen on a Star Trek episode?) But it’s still Brad Pitt we are investing in.

Of course there are other exceptions, and generally Hollywood has found some creative ways to deal with the passing of time when needed. For instance, in Forrest Gump we are introduced to Forrest (Tom Hanks) as an adult in the opening scene and while we see Forrest as a child the majority of the film is as an adult. We are invested in Tom Hanks.

In The Natural they chose to have Robert Redford play both the thirtysomething Roy Hobbs as well as the teenage Roy Hobbs. They used soft lighting, shadows (and Redford’s youthful look) to create believability for the audience. 

The remarkable TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won eight primetime Emmys including two for actress Cicely Tyson. Tyson playing a 110-year old woman reflecting on her life was amazing, and aided greatly by makeup and costume design (that both also won Emmys) as well as a whole creative team that brought the Ernest J. Gaines novel to life. (Leonard Maltin called it “One of TV’s all-time best,” so it’s worth renting of you’ve never seen it.)

One major problem with the passing of time is the amount of money it takes to create different eras. Think of the expense of the cars alone cover the time period of a story set in the 40s, 60s, 80s. Sure it’s been done, but if you are starting out it may be best to avoid that hurdle. (A short time frame also favors lower budget films since you have less continuity issues to worry about. Always good especially if you don’t have a script supervisor.) 

In my post Screenwriting by Numbers (tip #4) I point out some averages related to running time in movies such as most movies tend to be between 90-120 minutes in length and most scenes tend to run between 1-3 minutes long. And if all of this seems cold and artificial let me once again to the great quote by design guru Milton Glazer; “Limitation stimulates the imagination.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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