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“There’s a quality that most first scripts share: fresh, surprising, and unspoiled.”
Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (The Sting)
Moviespeak

I was eighteen
Didn’t have a care
Working for peanuts
Not a dime to spare
But I was lean and
Solid everywhere
Like a rock
Lyrics by Bob Seger/Like a Rock

BreakingAway

The 1979 movie Breaking Away received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and Steve Tesich won the Oscar for his screenplay. It was his first produced feature film. Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates,  also landed at #8 on AFI’s list of 100 Most Inspirational Films of All Time.

If I ever put together a Hall of Fame list of Hollywood movies that represent well the world outside of Hollywood, Breaking Away would be there. But the aspect of the movie and screenplay I want to look at today is what could be called texture.

In my last post writer/director Gary Ross touched on the texture of Seabiscuit by including key elements (fishing pole, tackle box, keysin one pivotal scene of a young boy going fishing. In Breaking Away the texture—the limestone from the area— is a major motif of the entire film.

The opening shot and opening scene are of rocks and a rock quarry in Bloomington, Indiana. Stones that were cut out of the ground built many of the buildings at the Indiana University Bloomington.

IU-MaxwellHall

Tesich (who was born in Užice, Yugoslavia but raised in Indiana) uses those stones brilliantly in his script as he shows what unites the town is also what divides it. Working in the rock quarries and cutting the stones provided jobs for the locals—the townies known as Cutters. But the buildings they built for the local college were more preppy than blue collar friendly. (This may not be true in real life, but it worked for the movie.)

Tesich touched on that contrast in the script and in the scene below shows a beautiful synthesis of the two worlds colliding—then merging.

EXT. CAMPUS – NIGHT

The campus is deserted. Dave and Mr. Blasé are walking slowly outside a huge classroom building. Mr. Blase lights a cigarette.

                                                MR. BLASE
Just one.  Don’t tell mother.
(looking at the building)
You know, I do this every now and then. Come here at night and…I cut the stone for that building over there…

                                                DAVE
Yes, I know, Dad.

                                                MR. BLASE
I was one fine stonecutter…Mike’s dad…Moocher’s, Cyril’s…we all were. Well, Cyril’s dad…Ah, never mind. The thing is. I loved it. I was young, slim and strong and damn proud of my work…and the buildings went up…and when they were finished…damnest thing happened…It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. But we just felt uncomfortable. Even now. I’d like to be able to stroll through the campus and look at the limestone but I feel out of place. I suppose you guys still go swimming in the quarries.

                                                DAVE
Sure

                                                MR. BLASE
So, all you get from my twenty years of work is the holes we left behind.

                                                DAVE
I don’t mind.

                                                MR. BLASE
I didn’t either when I was your age. But…Eh, Cyril’s dad says he tool that college exam.

                                                DAVE
Yeah, both of us did.

                                                MR. BLASE
So, how did…how did both of you do?

                                                DAVE
Well, I think, eh, one of us…eh…I won’t go, Dad. The hell with them. I’m not ashamed of being a cutter. 

And that’s pretty much how the scene played out in the movie between Mr. Blase (Paul Dooley) and Dave (Dennis Christopher). It’s a scene that shows the evolution of  both characters. At the beginning of the film Dave is fascinated with being an Italian bike racer (even though he’s an American in Bloomington, Indiana) and the the dad (Mr. Blase)—now a used car salesman— doesn’t understand his son’s directionless life. Nor does he think his son should go to college because he didn’t. But in the end, Dave’s way to break away from his directionless friends is to attend college. And his dad now sees that as a good thing.

The synthesis is a Cutter’s son will be going to the very college that he helped build. Perhaps if we could magically follow those characters today we’d discover that Dave became a successful architect and continued the building motif. But his flaw is while his education and talent helped made him financially set it also made him materialistic.

And Dave’s son doesn’t want anything to do with his father’s money or to go into debt  going the four-year college route, but instead wants to be an artist working with stone from the local quarry tapping into working with the land as his grandfather did.

All that to say, dig deep into the world you’re creating in your stories and mine the riches that surround your characters.

H/T to Jim Mercurio for mentioning the limestone in his Complete Screenwriting course making me want to revisit Breaking Away and dig a little deeper.

P.S. While these days Breaking Away is not as revered as Rocky or Raging Bull in the  movie world it did make AFI’s top 10 sports films. Which along with Hoosiers gave the state of Indiana two films in that category.

P.P.S. One of Dave’s directionless friends in Breaking Away is the former jock character played by Dennis Quaid—who for what it’s worth in that movie is built like a rock.

Related posts:
Storytellers from Indiana
Postcard #15 (Seymour, Indiana)
Against the Wind  (More Seger)
Frank Gehry on Creativity Limestone from Iowa used in LA concert hall.
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) I started this blog as an offspring of a first script—Diablo Cody’s Juno.

Scott W. Smith

 

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This blog is not really about Iowa or the Midwest. It’s focus is on screenwriting. But I do put an emphasis on Iowa and the Midwest as it is a fitting metaphor to discuss the process of growing your creative career from unlikely places. Filmmaking in general, and screenwriting specifically, are both usually thought of in terms of L.A. and New York City.

That’s because that is where the honey is stored. It’s the end of the rainbow. It’s the climax found somewhere in the third act. Perhaps it’s best to think of Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A. as a good look at Act 1. The set-up of the story. How writers (and sometimes others) prepare for their moment in the spotlight. (Though I do think that new opportunities are popping all over the place outside of traditional Hollywood circles.)

Which leads me to Super Bowl XLIV. The Indianapolis Colts verses the New Orléans Saints.  The obvious Midwest angle to the 2010 game is quarterback Payton Manning and entire Indianapolis Colts team are from the Midwest. A little less know is Colts tight end Dallas Clark (who had seven catches in the game) is from Livermore, Iowa. (pop. 431 ). But those aren’t my focus.

The key three people in this year’s Super Bowl with a Midwest connection are Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Saints defensive back Tracy Porter , and the Saints coach Sean Payton.

Drew Brees— After Brees finished his high school career in Austin, Texas undefeated as starting quarterback, he chose to attend Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. I’m not sure why he ended up in Indiana, but I imagine it had something to do with him being relatively short (six-foot) and known for not having the strongest arm. But he left Purdue with several Big Ten passing records and was twice a Heisman Trophy finalist.  Two days ago he lead the Saints in their first Super Bowl victory and was named the Super Bowl MVP.

Tracy Porter–Late in the fourth quarter, with Peyton Manning appearing to lead a game tying drive, Porter intercepted Manning and ran it back for a touchdown sealing the victory for the Saints. (Just happens to be the same guy who intercepted Brett Favre in the NFC title game just a couple weeks ago that sealed that victory.) Porter played college ball at Indiana University.  How did a kid from Louisiana end up playing for a college not known as a football powerhouse? Probably because he was undersized and just started playing football in his junior year in high school. But his time in Indiana served him well. The school in Bloomington is less than an hours drive to Indianapolis. Porter said after the game, “I’ve been watching (Manning) since my time at Indiana put up points on the scoreboard.”

Sean Peyton— Payton was born in California but raised in Naperville, Illinois (just outside Chicago) and played quarterback at Naperville Central High School and Eastern Illinois University in  Charleston, IL. When his playing days were over he began assistant coaching and gained experience at various schools including Indiana State, Miami University (in Ohio), and at the University of Illinois. He eventually made his way to become an NFL head coach in 2005 with the New Orleans Saints. The team was long known as the “aints” and in the year before he took over had a record of 3-13. In his first season the Saints were 10-6 and first in the NFC South and Payton was voted NFL Coach of the Year by AP. This season the Saints finished 13-3 and are now Super Bowl champs for the first time.

So there you have it, three men originally from outside the Midwest, who were shaped by their experiences in the Midwest and who would all go on to achieved the highest level of success in the biggest game of their chosen field.

Be faithful in the little things.

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P.S. You may never have heard of Eastern Illinois University, but it has more than one tie to the NFL as Brad Childress, head coach of Minnesota Vikings, Mike Shanahan, head coach of Washington Redskins (and who just happened to be the head coach when John Elway and the Denver Broncos won back to back Super Bowls), and Dallas Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo are all alumni of the school. Hollywood? Actor (and Juno producer) John Malkovich attended Eastern Illinois before transferring to Illinois State and going on to help found the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

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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