Posts Tagged ‘Illinois’


Did you know there’s actually a city named Metropolis in the United States? It sits on the Ohio River in the southern part of Illinois.   And if you expect a real life town of Metropolis to embrace Superman and build a giant replica of the fictional character, you will not be disappointed.

I took the above photo of Superman this morning back on my way up to a few productions in the Midwest this week. It was hard to show the scale of this  giant statue until a couple Superman admirers stepped into the frame.  While one of the creators of Superman said he based the fictional Metropolis on Toronto, back in 1972 DC Comics declared Metropolis, IL the “Hometown of Superman”.

Just around the corner from the Statue is the Massac Theater which hasn’t aged as well as Superman. The art deco building opened in 1938 just in time for that great year in movies—1939. There is currently an effort to restore the theater at savethemassac.org 


Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (see the post The First Black Feature Filmmaker) was born in Metropolis in 1884.  When they have a grand reopening of the Massac I suggest they show a couple Superman films in the day, and a double feature at night with one of Micheaux’s films with the classic Fritz Lang directed film Metropolis (1927) written by Thea von Harbou. (Anybody have any memories of the Massac Theater in its glory days?)

Related Posts:

The Superman from Cleveland
Putting the $ in Superman

Scott W. Smith

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For years I drove through Illinois on I-80 to and never had a chance to stop in the Peru and Starved Rock area because I was either on my way to Chicago or heading home from Chicago. But I actually had a shoot in Peru the last two days so had a chance to kick around there and finally visit nearby Starved Rock State Park.

Though the area is just two hours west of downtown Chicago it’s quite a different world. I was hoping to shoot one of the many waterfalls they sometimes have there, but was told they were dry this time of year. So here’s some postcards from the road I shot on my free time in the area apart from the realty auction show I was shooting.

By the way, the 1989 movie Prancer written by Greg Taylor and starring Sam Elliot and Academy Award-winner Cloris Leachman was shot partly at Starved Rock. But I think “Starved Rock” is just begging to be the title of its own movie. (Maybe a reader from the area can pass on where that name originally came from.)




Scott W. Smith

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I’m on the tail end of a three week road trip working on a variety of video projects and I took the above picture at sunset this evening in Quincy, Illinois. The town sits on the Mississippi and no doubt was a stop for Mark Twain who came from Hannibal, Missouri just down river. Quincy also happens to be where actress Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) was born. And much more recently—this year— filmmakers (and brother/sister and business partners)  Peter and Rachel Craig of Quincy were featured in Reel Chicago after their short film Une Histoire d’Amour played at Slamdance.  According to Peter’s bio on Spacmanx, one of his latest scripts, “Relativity was purchased and is currently in development at Walden Media.”

Screenwriting from unlikely places….

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Mark Twain’s Florida
Mark Twain 

Scott W. Smith

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“(Writing the screenplay for An Education) was a bit like being given an outline and being asked to color it in.”
Nick Hornby

With apologies to Henry David Thoreau— The unexamined script is not worth writing.

A few days ago I watched An Education for which screenwriter Nick Hornby received an Oscar nomination for adapting Lynn Barber’s memoir to the screen. He’s a fine writer and will always have a following for writing the book High Fidelity which was Americanized and turned into a cult movie classic of the same name starring John Cusack and Jack Black.

Hornby has long been comfortable letting others write scripts from his novels, so it’s interesting that his first step into screenwriting was adapting an essay* he read in the British literary magazine Granta. He liked the essay enough to pursue writing the screenplay.

“The degree of examination that goes on in film is very interesting for a writer, because there’s not a line that goes unchallenged in a script. You do so many drafts, so every single conjunction is subject to some kind of thought, which never happens with books…I came away with the idea that I’d like to write books the way people write screenplays. I think I’m not going to let another line go through unexamined.”
Nick Hornby

Hornby has a blog and has a post called My advice to you: which could come in handy if you ever get nominated for an Oscar. (He writes, “I actually pretty good at being in the room with Meryl Streep.”) And if you need assistance picking summer reading material Hornby’s post My Waterstone Writer’s Table may be helpful.

As a sidenote, when I was watching the finely crafted An Education I keep trying to figure out where I had seen the lead British actor. Turns out that Peter Sarsgaard has not only been in Jarhead, Flightplan, and Garden State, but his an American from the Midwest. Born and raised in Belleville, Illinois. He graduated from Washington University where he majored in history and literature (and did some acting and improv), before heading off to New York to make a career as an actor. I think that’s working out okay for him.

* Barber later expanded her essay into the 192 page book An Education)

Scott W. Smith

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“The main thing in writing a movie is to have a good ending.”
Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects)

For five bucks I recently bought The Usual Suspects DVD. You can buy the book of the screenplay on Amazon for another five bucks. Considering the Writers Guild of America’s 101 Greatest Screenplays list placed The Usual Suspects at #35 there are worse ways to spend ten dollars. (Or to save money see if your local library has the movie and track down an online version of the script.) Both the movie and the screenplay are a worthwhile investment of your time.

It doesn’t appear that The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie set out to be an Academy Award winning screenwriter—or even a screenwriter— and perhaps that’s his secret. According to Wikipedia, after high school he spent time hitchhiking around Australia and also worked there as an assistant teacher at a boarding school. He returned to the United States where he worked for a detective agency for four years. He was in the process of joining the New York Police Department when high school classmate Bryan Singer called with an opportunity to write Public Access.

Public Access won the 1993 Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize. Two years later the $400,000. film The Usual Suspects was released and would go on to win McQuarrie an Academy Award. Since then he’s done rewrites on various Hollywood films including X-Men, wrote Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise, and wrote and directed The Way of the Gun starring Benicio del Toro. More recently he is writing or has written Wolverine 2 and a retelling of the Jack and the Beanstock fairy tale in a script called Jack the Giant Killer (which will be directed by Singer).

For independent film fans who don’t understand how McQuarrie went from Sundance and The Usual Suspects to working on Hollywood blockbusters, a German war film and then a fairy tale— maybe this will help;

“(Winning an Oscar) doesn’t make the studios want to make your movie any more than before. It just means they want you to make their movies. I found that rather than sacrificing the story, I was sacrificing something else. At every meeting I was taking less money and less back end, and giving up casting, just so I could have control of the story. And they said no. For a long time I resented those people, and saw them as fearful and ignorant, but in reality, all they’re doing is trying to reduce risk. It was the same thing I was doing: they’re trying to protect money and I’m trying to protect the story. The place that I’ve come to after all of this is, there are stories I want to make that will have to remain in a budget under $25 million, depending on what actors I can cast. And then there are those stories that the studios want to make, and that’s how you make your living. Is that selling out? Well, you’ve got to eat.”
Christopher McQuarrie
Interview with Cynthia Fuchs

At some point McQuarrie decided to move to Seattle (where I believe he still resides) and is on the Advisory Board of The Film School. An interesting sidenote is McQuarrie not only went to high school with director Bryan Singer, but also actor and filmmaker Ethan Hawke.

Sometimes it’s fun to make connections like this; In 2002, I was in Berlin for a couple days doing a shoot which happened to be the same year McQuarrie was on a tour in Berlin when he stumbled upon the idea of doing what became Valkyrie. Of course, the connection doesn’t mean anything, but it keeps the synapses firing. And creativity is all out connections. (Where Do Ideas Come From? A+B=C)

At some point before his screenwriting breakthrough McQuarrie also worked as a bodyguard for a jewelry dealer in downtown LA. That info not only provided him with a key event in The Usual Suspects, but is also where he saw a bulletin board that was made in Skokie, Illinois which provided McQuarrie with the impetus for the entire film. (Don’t Quit Your Day Job)

And for what it’s worth, Skokie is no stranger to Hollywood. The Chicago suburb over the years has provided shooting locations to many memorable films, including Blue Brothers, Risky Business, The Breakfast Club, Home Alone 3, and Sixteen Candles.

Scott W. Smith

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“Segar grew up in an out-of-the way place but the inspiration for his most successful graphic creations came out of that place.”
Ed Black

“I’m strong to the finich
Cause I eats me spinach
I’m Popeye the Sailor Man ”
Popeye’s theme song written and composed by Sammy Lerner

Thanks to the Google Popeye doodle I saw last night I’ve discovered one more example of a big success coming from a small place. I’m not sure if any of the decades of comic strips or the 350+ TV shows that feature Popeye explain where he was from, but Popeye’s creator had solid small town Midwest roots.

E.C. Segar was born and raised in Chester, Illinois near the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois. According to Wikipedia Segar provided music to films and vaudeville acts in the local theater and for a while was a projectionist in the days before talking pictures.

When he was 18 he signed up for a correspondence course in cartooning that cost him $20. (Keep in mind this would have been before World War 1.)  After work he would work on his courses where he said he, “lit up the oil lamps about midnight and worked on course until 3am.”

His skill and hard work took him to Chicago and New York were he succeeded creating comic strips. In the 1920s while working at the New York Journal he had an unusual way to come up with ideas. He and fellow cartoonist Walter Berndt (creator of Smitty) would finish their work in the morning and spend their afternoons fishing off a pier in New Jersey. Berndt was quoted as saying later, “We’d finish the day with a bunch of fish and about 15 or 20 ideas each.”

When Segar moved to Santa Monica in 1923 he carried on that idea fishing tradition along with his teenage assistant Bud Sagendorf. Ed Black wrote, “According to Sagendorf Seger had a rather unusual method of thinking up ideas. He’d sit in a rowboat twice or three times a week from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m off the Santa Monica breakwater, fishing and thinking. Segendorf had to accompany him to take notes by the light of a Coleman lantern.”

(That’s great imagery. If you’re stuck on a story idea you may want to give that a try.)

In 1928 Segar created Popeye in his Santa Monica studio though the inspiration appears to be a man from back in his hometown of Chester named Rocky Feigle. He was short, worked in a bar, smoked a corncob pipe and was known to use his fists a time or two. Popeye first appeared in 1929 and helped pave the way for Segar to earn $100,000 a year in the 1930s. (And Popeye not only found lasting fame, but helped promote the eating of spinach.)

Segar didn’t just create a great characters, he knew how to tell stories. But it is the Popeye the Sailor that is his lasting legacy. An odd character with a couple anchor tattoos on his forearms, one-eye,  a corncob pipe, a slight speech impediment and a desire to eat spinach out of can which gave him super human strength who has earned his place on the iconic fictional shelf with Mickey Mouse, James Bond and Scrooge.

Back in Chester, Illinois they have a six-foot, 900 pound bronze statue  of Popeye at Elzie C. Segar Memorial Park to honor their hometown boy who made good on his $20 correspondence course in cartooning. And though most people have probably never been to Chester, or even heard of it, legend has it that both literary giants Mark Twain and Charles Dickens stayed there.

As you drive around your town or city today think of the interesting characters there or that have crossed your path in the past and perhaps you’ll find your Rocky Feigle who will be the basis for your Popeye. And perhaps someday your hometown will create a bronze statue in honor of your creation.

Dream big, start small.

Bud Sagendof who took over the Popeye comic strip after Segar died had a book published in 1979 called Popeye:The First Fifty Year which you can find on Amazon.

Update: According to The Handbook of Texas Online Popeye said he was born in Victoria, Texas.  Apparently Segar was grateful to the town’s paper for being the first to run the comic strip Popeye. In 1934 anniversary issue of the Advocate Segar wrote a note to the newspaper’s editor as Popeye saying,  “Please assept me hearties bes’ wishes an’ felitcitations on account of yer paper’s 88th Anniversity….Victoria is me ol’ home town on account of tha’s where I got born’d at.”

And to add one more illustration into the persuasive means of the media, the Texas Handbook also declared that, “The spinach industry credited Popeye and Segar with the 33 percent increase in spinach consumption from 1931 to 1936, and in 1937 Crystal City, Texas, the Spinach Capital of the World, erected a statue to honor Segar and his sailor.”

Scott W. Smith

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“I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.”
                               Ray Bradbury
                               On writing
Fahrenheit 451 

It would be a fitting end to writing about Ray Bradbury by talking about the remake of Fahrenheit 451. But the only news I know is old news in that Tom Hank pulled out of the project a while back and director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) is still trying to get the movie done.

In an interview with MTV Darabont said, “The time has never been better for Fahrenheit 451. I think the message is something we need to hear. Anybody who believes authority should be questioned needs this movie. There’s a reason that novel has been in print for over half a century. It’s one of the most vital antiauthoritarian stories ever written. It also happens to be a really wildly galloping yarn. This would be on the bigger end of the scale for me.”

I hope Darabont gets that film made some day. But since we can’t end there I thought I’d end my posts on Bradbury by talking about the beginning. Bradbury is yet one more writer from the greater Chicago area. He was born in 1920 just a little north of downtown Chicago in Waukegan, Illinois.

Though he spent some of his childhood in Arizona much of his early inspiration came from Waukegan where he lived until his family moved to Los Angeles when he was thirteen. But by that time Bradbury already had a love for books and a strong desire to be a writer. And Bradbury is still alive in L.A. and of this writing is 88 years old. He has a website that is simply www.raybradbury.com which is where I pulled the extended quote of the day from.

“I was fully in love with writing from grade school on and in high school I began to write things about the ravine in my hometown. In FAREWELL SUMMER the ravine is the center of everything; the old people and the young live on opposite sides of this ravine that divides the town. 

Many years since DANDELION WINE began, which was the beginning of the genesis of FAREWELL SUMMER, I had begun to collect essays and short stories about front porches and summer nights and Fourth of Julys and all the celebrations that led me into writing. Looking back I realize that I never had a day when I was depressed or suffered melancholia; the reason being that I discovered that I was alive and loved the gift and wanted to celebrate it in my story. 

At one point Gourmet Magazine offered me a chance to write an article about helping my grandfather make dandelion wine when I was three in our cellar in Waukegan, Illinois. When I went back to visit my home town I wandered into the shop of the town barber, discovering that he had been there since I was a child and he remembered being my grandmother’s boarder and recalled my coming up from the cellar to gather dandelions to make wine with my grandfather.
Ray Bradbury 
                                       In His Words 


Related posts — and one of my most popular ones: Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Scott W. Smith

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Did you know the Midwest had a big part in the success of Sunset Boulevard? Not only was Gloria Swanson born in Chicago and William Holden born in O’Fallon, Illinois (just east of St. Louis) but Nancy Olson who received and Academy Award nomination in her supporting role in the film was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But it was a preview screening just north of the city of Chicago that first signaled there was a problem with the opening scene.

While few have seen the original opening of the movie since 1949 there are scripts kicking around with the original open. The opening scene takes place in a morgue where William Holden’s character Joe Gillis lies dead with other dead bodies of men, women and children. Then things get funky when the voices of the dead people begin to talk.

                                                           A MAN”S VOICE
                                             Don’t be scared. There’s a lot of us here.
                                             It’s all right.
                                             I’m not scared.

And then they all continue talking about how they died and one asks if “Satchel Paige beat the White Sox yesterday?” to which the Gillis voice-over replies, “No I wouldn’t. I died before the morning paper came.” The tone Wilder was after was missed by that first audience in the Midwest.

“Because of the touchy subject matter. Paramount sought a venue far from Hollywood to preview the picture. Evanston, Illinois, seemed distant enough. After the opening credits, when the story moved down Sunset Boulevard and into the L.A County Morgue, the audience stunned Billy Wilder. Years later he recalled, ‘When the morgue label was tied on Mr. Holden’s toe, they started to scream with laughter. In the mood of hilarity I walked out of the preview, very depressed.’”
                                                    Sam Staggs
                                                    Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard
                                                    Page 151

Paramount got the same negative reviews in Poughkeepsie, New York  and Great Neck on Long Island. The release was delayed as Wilder took six months to make changes.  When the film was released with changes in 1950 it was generally well received in the larger cities with some reviews having a clear understanding of the lasting value of the film. But the film was not a blockbuster hit. But it would go on to become what many have called the greatest film about Hollywood and in 1998 AFI would list Sunset Boulevard  as #12 on its top 100 film list.


Scott W. Smith

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Orson Wells was born May 6, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His mother died when he was nine and his father when he was 15 and I’ve always wondered if there was a part of Welles that resonated with the young boy in Citizen Kane who is separated from his parents. Shortly after his mother died Welles began attending the Todd Seminary for Boys in Woodstock Illinois. 

When he graduated in 1931 the school was called Todd School for Boys. According to Wikipedia the school was founded by Reverend R.K. Todd with the philosophy of “plain living and high thinking, and in harmony with Puritan traditions.” It was a boarding school. (In Citizen Kane you may recall, the parents own a boarding house.)

Keep in mind that Wells was only 25 when he made Citizen Kane, so not that removed from school. At the Todd school Welles’ talent was allowed to flourish under the influence of Roger Hill, his teacher, headmaster and father figure. It was where Welles began his theater performances that would include Shakespeare and other classics.

Barbara Learning writes in her book Orson Welles, a Biography that after Welles arrived at the Todd School,“There followed a starling succession of plays—variously adapted, designed, directed, and acted by Welles. There was Orson as Cassius; Orson as Marc Anthony; Orson as Richard III, Orson as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Orson as both Androcles and the Lion; even as Jesus Chrsit, for which he posed for photographs looking strangely ethereal.” 

Keep in mind that he did all that between the ages of 11 and 15. Welles did not attend college, but traveled Europe and North Africa acting here and there so the Todd School really was his only formal education.

An association with playwright Thornton Wilder (who was born in Madison, Wisconsin) led Welles to New York just a few years after graduating from the Todd School. In 1935 he was 20 years old and considered a prodigy. In 1937 he found international fame with the radio performance of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Three  years later he would write and direct Citizen Kane which many critics consider the greatest film ever made.

Director Peter Bogdanovich on a Citizen Kane DVD commentary wondered how Welles played Kane as an old man when he was only in his mid 20s. I think the answer is that by that time he had been playing older men for almost 15 years. An actor once told me the key to being a good actor is stage time. And Welles got a lot of stage time at the Todd School.

So it’s no wonder then when Welles was 45 and asked in a TV interview “where home was” he tried to dodge the question before saying, “I suppose it’s Woodstock, Illinois if it’s anywhere. Went to school there for four years. And if I try to think of home it’s that.” 

(I had never heard of Woodstock, Illinois until my father-in-law died there this past summer. While there I learned that the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day was filmed there. It’s located about 45 minutes outside Chicago.)

Welles was a magician and an enigma. Many books have been written about him as they try to figure him out just like the reporters tried to figure out who Charlie Kane really was. But if there is one thing we know about Welles from just War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane it is that he knew how to hold an audience.

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.” 
                                                                                                   Orson Welles 

P.S. Orson Welles’ education is why I think the next great writer/director will not come from USC film school, but from a kid who is homeschooled by a mother who loves Shakespeare. (Probably in a small town in Iowa…and who reads this blog, of course.) And he or she will do it with a film using actors who have never been in a film before as Welles did in Citizen Kane.

Related posts: Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl from Ohio

New Cinema Screenwriting (Part 1)


Scott W. Smith

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Before screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin won an Oscar in 1990 for his script Ghost he spent time in the Midwest. He was born in Detroit and graduated from high school there, he was a student at Indiana University, and was living in Illinois before he and his wife and their two kids decided to give L.A. a try with $4,000. to their name.  It was a gamble that paid off.  

“Everyone who tells me they don’t have time to write, I just say, ‘One scene a night for three months, and you’ll have a movie—you can even use the weekends.’ It’s possible to be a writer if you want to be a writer, even without all the time in the world….After doing the dishes, instead of turning on the television or reading a book or going to the movies, write one scene. Whatever you do write one scene.”
                                                                  Bruce Joel Rubin

                                                                  Screenwriters by Joel Engel 
                                                                  Page 18


Scott W. Smith

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