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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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Okay, there really isn’t a Hickory, Indiana. But for those who have seen the 1986 movie Hoosiers, there will always be a Hickory, Indiana. Yesterday as I was heading south on Interstate 74 heading toward Indianapolis I realized I was deep in Hoosier territory. A quick search of the Internet showed there were several towns in the surrounding area where the movie was shot. I make a short detour to New Richmond because that was where the exteriors for the town of Hickory were shot. And from the above picture, you can see a lasting remnant from the movie shot there more than 25 years ago.

Here’s the opening credit sequence of Hoosiers:

From a screenwriting perspective check out Jeff Merron’s ESPN article Hoosiers’ in reel life to see how the real life events were changed in the movie for dramatic purposes by the screenwriter Angelo Pizzo.

Related Posts:

Hoops, Hoosiers, & Hollywood
Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)
Storytellers from Indiana

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
John Wooden (1910-2010)

Since a major theme of “Screenwriting from Iowa” is an emphasis on showing how people come from flyover country to make an impact in larger areas—John Wooden could be exhibit one. Though not a screenwriter, he was part of a great story that impacted many lives. The great UCLA basketball coach died Friday at age 99.

But long before he won ten national championships coaching men’s basketball at UCLA. Long before his back to back undefeated seasons. And long before he was named by Sporting News as the greatest coach of all-time, Wooden was born in a small town called Hall, Indiana. When he was eight he lived on a farm in Centerton, Indiana and as a teenager moved to Martinsville, Indiana. (Three towns most people outside the area would have a little trouble pointing out on a map.)

And though far from the big spotlights, Wooden managed to carve out a little fame leading his high school team to three consecutive state championship finals and winning the state championship in 1927. He was an All-State player three times in high school. While playing at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana he was a three-time All-American player and helped the team win the national championship in 1932.

It’s safe to say that long before he moved away from Indiana that the foundation for success was firmly in place.

While he did play professionally as a basketball player, as is often the case with great coaches, his success there was limited. He spent a few years during World War II in the Navy, and 11 years coaching at the high school level and teaching English in Kentucky and Indiana. He coached a few years at Indiana State University before UCLA came calling.

Ironically, it was a storm that changed the direction of his life. UCLA and the University of Minnesota were competing for his coaching abilities. Wooden’s first choice was to stay in the Midwest  and he set a deadline for offers. When Minnesota didn’t call on the deadline he accepted the UCLA offer. The story is that a storm had knocked the phone lines down in Minneapolis and Minnesota officials were not able to contact Wooden in time. When they later did Wooden would not back down from his commitment.

Wooden and his wife realized in that first year or so that the Los Angeles lifestyle didn’t quite fit them. And an offer to coach back at Purdue seemed like a perfect fit and a dream come true. But Wooden instead honored his three-year committment to UCLA and the rest is history.

And what a history it is. And what a life “the Wizard of Westwood”  lived.

After his retirement he was a speaker and author. And as a man of faith, he often stressed that there were more important things to life than playing basketball.

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
John Wooden

You can read more quotes by Wooden, and see his “Pyramid of Success,” at the official website of Coach Wooden.

Scott W. Smith

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“I know everything there is to know about the greatest game ever invented. “
Hoosiers (Dennis Hopper’s character)

Since tonight’s NCAA championship basketball game is an extension of March Madness, I’ve finally posted my March Screenwriting from Iowa video. The game tonight between powerhouse Duke (with several national championship) versus Butler (in their first national title appearance) has been called Hoosiers II. Not only because Butler is the smaller school going up against the well established program, but because part of the movie Hoosiers was actually shot in the Butler gym in Indianapolis, Indiana.

You know the ending part of the movie where little Hickory High School walks into the big gym and the players are in awe. And the coach (played by Gene Hackman) takes a tape measure to show the players that the rim is the same height as their little gym back home. They go on to pull off an upset victory in the closing seconds.

Hoosiers was released in November of  1986 and who knows how many basketball players have watched it for inspiration. Butler forward Gordon Hayward said, “I can’t really tell you how many times I’ve watched that movie. I think everyone growing up in Indiana watches that movie. I’ve lost count.”

And a fitting quote to tie-in screenwriting with basketball comes from Geoffrey Fletcher who reportedly wrote thousands of pages before his work finally made its way to the screen in the movie Precious: Based on a Book by Sapphire.

“I watch, say Michael Jordan play and he makes it look quite easy, but we never see all the hours, and hours, and hours of years of practice beforehand. So when people ask me if writing Precious was difficult (to write), well certainly it was. The subject matter…we have a semi-literate character telling us the story. But a lot of the difficulty was writing all of those pages of original material before I got this opportunity.”
Oscar-Winning screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher
wga.com interview

PS. One of the great things about the new HDSLR cameras is that shooting videos with it opens up new opportunites. I bought the Nikon D90 which was the first HDLS released that shot HD video. I took it with me to the Northern Iowa gym to take some still photos for the above video and ended up thinking, “why not shoot a little video while I’m here.” So other than the greenscreen opening section that was shot on Panasonic HPX 170, I shot all the photos and video with the Nikon D90. It doesn’t take much surfing on the web to see many high quality short narrative films and videos that are being made with this new jump in technology. (Just did some test shooting with the very popular Canon 7D last week and that camera is solid.)I haven’t heard of a feature being made with a HDSLR yet, but I’m sure that’s just around the corner.

Related Posts:
Storytelling from Indiana

The King of Cool’s Roots

Why Do We Love Underdog Stories?

Scott W. Smith


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“Two american kids growin up in the heartland…”
Jack & Diane
John Mellencamp

Steve McQueen has been dead for thirty years now, but they still call him the king of cool. Last night I watched The Sand Pebbles which was McQueen’s only Oscar-nominated role.

After the film I did some checking to see where the king of cool came from and guess what I found out? He was born seventy years ago this month in Beech Grove, Indiana. The interesting thing about that is he was born just a year earlier, and about an hour and a half drive from another cool guy, James Dean who was born in Marion, Indiana.

That’s a lot of cool for one part of the country–especially at the same time. (Can’t believe John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana hasn’t written a song about that.)

McQueen’s family life wasn’t so cool as his father abandoned his family, leaving him with an alcoholic mother. As a youngster he went to live with family in another Midwest town, this time outside of Kansas City on a farm in Slater, Missouri. Later in life he would settle in Santa Paula, California and say that it reminded him of his hometown of Slater. As a teenager he was back with his mother and now living in Los Angeles but he got into various trouble and ended up living in what is now known as the Boy’s Republic, a home for at risk boys in Chino Hills, California.

He left the Boy’s Republic when he was 16 and ended up wandering the country working at various odd jobs until he joined the Marines when he was 17. He was honorably discharged a couple year later and used his G.I. Bill to study acting. After a decade of smaller roles he became a star in The Great Escape (1963), followed by Bullitt, The Cincinnati Kid and The Sand Pebbles. In 1974 he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. But it’s almost a cliché to say that didn’t mean he was happy. Cool but not content.

He went through a couple divorces and tangled with more than one director. His co-stars have said he was personable and charismatic, but also an unpredicable, angry troubled man, who was distrustful of people and insecure due to his upbringing. Perhaps that’s where his cool came from.  A sort of carefree aloofness. But there is no doubt that part of his cool factor was not only that he was a good-looking movie star, but that he raced cars and motorcycles and flew planes. That’s the image that even today sells watches, cars and khaki pants and pours money into his estate.

McQueen was a contradiction in many ways; for a while he worked out for two-hours a day, but he also smoked, drank heavily and used drugs. He was worth millions but sometimes slept in an airport hanger. He didn’t trust people and was said to be a loner who played by his own rules (much like his character Jake in The Sand Pebbles), but at the end of his life he put his trust in God. Struggling with an aggressive cancer has a way of putting into perspective fame, money and even being cool. McQueen died of cardiac arrest after a radical surgery in Mexico to remove a large tumor.

McQueen did have some advice for screenwriters saying they ruined too much with dialogue. He believed that actors could often convey more with just a look. Keep that in mind when you watch the next McQueen movie— and when you write. And if you ever question his coolness, remember that Steve McQueen is the one who encouraged Chuck Norris to study acting. That’s right, no Steve McQueen, no legend of Chuck Norris.(Found on the Internet: Chuck Norris has never won an Academy Award for acting… because he’s not acting.)

The one McQueen film I’d love to see is the one that some could say was a result of “sudden serious actor syndrome” where the cool action movie star took on the lead in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. That’s always been one of my favorite plays and it would be interesting to see how he did playing the role of a doctor who knew what was wrong with the town, though the townspeople didn’t care to listen.

“I’m out of the Midwest. It was a good place to come from. It give you a sense of right or wrong and fairness, which I think is lacking in our society.”
Steve McQueen

Scott W. Smith

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Just a quick thank you to all the people that stopped by this blog last week and helped make it the single biggest week view-wise since I started this blog just over a year ago. Those kinds of things are always encouraging. Also, Sunday I ran into a short film director I worked with a year or so ago said she didn’t know you could win an Emmy for a blog. (Technically the category is Advanced New Media.)

But that got me wondering if “Screenwriting from Iowa” is the first screenwriting blog to win an Emmy. If you know of another let me know, because if this is the first then I’ll market that a little more. (It’s always good to be the first.) 

One of the great thing about all the social networking going on the Internet is you can watch a movie like Transsiberian (like I did over the weekend) and do a quick Google search on the writer/director (Brad Anderson) who made this amazing, fresh and original film. And within a few seconds I was directed to Anderson’s  My Space page.

There I will found several questions he’d been asked by various people online. And here was his answer to a question about starting out in the business:

“In regard to finding a good story you have to have a level of curiosity and desire to go out there and see the world—do things. Find interesting, provocative, unusual fresh kinds of stories to tell because those are the kinds of stories that get noticed and more likely get the kinds of financing you need to realize it.  This movie here, Transsiberian, evolved out of a trip I took 20 years ago, after graduating from college, on the Trans-Siberian. That trip became the seed for the script and the movie like 20-odd years later. So gathering experiences is more important to me, at least in the early stages of your career, than trying to stratagize and think of clever ways to break into the industry. Go out there see the world. Try to use your curiosity to pull in interesting ideas into your brain that are later going to translate later into movies….So my advice is find a good story and don’t be surprised if it takes you five years to get it off the ground, get the financing together to make it.”
                                                                               Brad Anderson
                                                                               On Getting Started/My Space 

Of course, I must also add that when Anderson wanted to find a naive, goofy, and square American as protagonist in Transsiberian for some reason he chose a church-going protagonist (Woody Harrelson) from Iowa, complete with a minor John Deere power mower injury. “If she likes cold, she’d like Iowa because it gets cold there.”

(Update: Turns out the co-writer of Transsiberian, Will Conroy, spent five years living in Iowa City where his father, Frank Conroy, was the director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. If you read the post The Juno-Iowa Connection you’ll see how in many ways this blog is an extension the work Frank did there. I was glad that Will contacted me in the response section as it’s part of that whole circle of life stuff)

When I started this blog it was simply because Iowa is where I live now and because it’s where screenwriter Diablo Cody went to college before writing Juno. I didn’t really know it was the center of the world.  Now I know why Obama spent so much time here in ’06-’08.

And just for the record Woody Harrelson must have been tapping into his Midwest roots for the role. In real life spent his teen years in Lebanon, Ohio (a Cincinnati & Dayton bedroom community) and was a theater & English major at Hanover College in Indiana.  He made his feature film debut in Harper Valley PTA which happened to be filmed in Lebanon.

Anderson for the record was born in Connecticut, went to Bowdoin College in Maine (where he majored in anthropology and Russian) and lived for a while in Boston. He also applied to but didn’t get into USC and NYU film schools. So he studied film in London for a year and then went off and did his own thing and has done pretty well. He’s doing his part to show a world outside NY & LA. Loved the photography from China & Russia in Transsiberian. And if nothing else get the movie just to watch Ben Kingsley.

It’s a solid movie and it must be frustrating for Anderson and Conroy to see their film get a great 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and yet only see it bring in $2 million in the box office. I hope it is one of those films that gets a following in the DVD world.

Transsiberian also took me back in memory to a documentary I shot in Samara, Russia back in ’05. If I recall correctly after 13 hours of traveling they almost didn’t let us into the country because of some mixup in visa’s.We happened to be there when Russian was celebrating it’s 60th anniversary of defeating Hilter. It’s when I realized that they had a long way to go but they were on the rise as a nation. Our translator told us that many Russians “hate Americans and want to be just like them.”

Other cultures offer so much to explore from a creative aspect. And just to bring it back home, I’m sure there are interesting things worth exploring creatively  in Moscow, Iowa (yes, there is such a place) and Moscow, Idaho.  

Nostrovi!

russiashootdsc_1597

 

Scott W. Smith

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