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Posts Tagged ‘It’s a wonderful life’

[Movies] have an obligation to be sort of timeless. A good story is a good story, it doesn’t change. The Searchers is still The Searchers. It’s A Wonderful Life is still charming, Dirty Harry is still suspenseful, Jaws is still terrifying. These are movies that are prime, pristine examples of storytelling. The Exorcist is as compelling today and is absolutely frightening as it was when it was first released. It didn’t age. I took a friend of mine to see it recently, it scared her out of her wits.”
Writer/Director Shane Black
Interview with Alex Young

Related post: Study the Masters-Martin Scorsese 

Scott W. Smith

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“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
Squire Bill Widener
(Often wrongly attributed to Theodore Roosevelt)

[It’s a Wonderful Life] dealt with the sweeping problem, ‘What would happen if any individual had not been born?’  How would the world be if you’d not been born? Because the Jimmy Stewart character was just anybody from a small town, a very normal guy. He wasn’t anything in particular. Just a small town guy who tried to do the best he could with what he had. Now he was dissatisfied all the time. Dissatisfied with his lot. Dissatisfied with his place. Had ambition to do great things. Yet, had he not lived his particular little world would have been a worse place to live in. Now, this is a theme that I think is universal, and I think is one of the greatest themes I’ve ever encountered. I’d never seen it tackled head-on. What would happen to the world had some individual not been born? Now this is the ultimate in individuality. ‘Cause that individual is you, you, you, you, you, you. It was not Napoleon. One people, one little people. [Jimmy Stewart’s character] couln’t go to the war. Considered himself a complete failure. And found out he was worth much more dead than alive because he had a small little equity in a life insurance [policy].And he tries to bring that off [by attempting suicide]. And somebody comes along and says, no don’t do that, you’re pretty important to people, you know. So he gets a chance to see what his world would have been like had he not been born. Then he wants to live. Wants to live very badly. I think that’s a great tale. I don’t give a damn when you tell that story, I think it’s a great story.”
Three time Oscar-winning director Frank Capra 
(And director of It’s a Wonderful Life)
1971 Interview

Today happens to be my birthday and Capra’s words seem a fitting birthday post. (And I hope it’s encouraging to those of you especially going through a rough time.) And for the younger filmmakers out there who’ve perhaps never seen a Frank Capra film, I’m old enough to say, “Stay off the lawn, and go home and watch some Frank Capra films.”

H/T to Scott Myers at Go Into the Story for posting that Capra video a few days ago. I’d never seen it before. And my birthday gift to you—if you like film history and are unaware of this resource—check out the Cinephilia & Beyond  website because it’s outstanding. (And it comes from an unlikely place—Croatia. Consider supporting their work as well.)

P.S. Speaking of unlikely places, I think the official motto of Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikey Places should be; “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” (For what it’s worth, Capra’s journey began in Bisacquino, Sicily, Italy.)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“In this screenplay, I imagined a deadbeat father who had bailed on his kids years earlier, looking to return home to make amends.”
Writer/director Edward Burns on The Fitzgerald Family Christmas 

“It’s a good thing our father left—we needed the space.”
Sharon (Kerry Bishe) one of nine Fitzgerald children raised in a 3 bedroom house in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas 

One of the things most (all?) Catholic and Protestant theologians agree on in is that Jesus was not born on December 25. Some scholars even speculate that Christ’s birth account 2000 years ago wasn’t even during wintertime, but in the springtime because that’s when shepherds watch over their fields. (“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Luke 2:8)

So it’s actually not that bizarre to talk about Christmas in May.  And I’ll do so by mentioning what I think is Edward Burns’ tightest script and best film, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas. (It’s currently on Netflix if you’d like to get in the Christmas spirit this spring day.)

“I knew I didn’t want to make the sappy, goofy, funny Christmas comedy. My favorite Christmas film has always been It’s a Wonderful Life, another film that has the perfect blend of light and dark, comedy and drama. George Baily has to cover a lot of tough ground to get that payoff. I also wanted my characters to go on a tough journey so that when the Fitzgerald family got together in the end, it felt earned. As I started to work on the screenplay, a theme of forgiveness started to present itself. Given that it’s one of the themes of Christmas, it tied together nicely. The script poured out of me and within four weeks, I had a first draft.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns (Sidewalks of New York)
Independent Ed; Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life
page 212

If you just happen to be in the mood for Christmas music today, check out The Fitzgerald Family Christmas Album largely featuring the music of long-time Burns collaborator P.T. Walkley.

P.S. And if you want to add an indie companion Thanksgiving film to your May viewing watch Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April starring Katie Holmes. Fitzmas (2012) and Pieces (2003) cost less than $600,000 to produce—combined. And one connection between both films that I know of is John Sloss was an executive producer on Pieces and received a special thanks credit on Fitzmas (Sloss, a University of Michigan law school grad, also provided legal service on Burns’ first film The Brothers McMullen.)

P.P.S. Yes, that is the talented Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, American Crime Story) in the screen grab above. She fit in time between shooting the Nashville TV series for the small (but wonderful performance) in Fitzmas as nod/thank you to Burns for casting her in her debut movie The Brothers McMullen (1995).

Related Posts:
The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Prison “Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Frank Darabont
Merry Silver Linings Christmas
Christmas & Cancer (Connected because the father in Fitzmas has cancer.)
Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)
Merry Christmas (2012) Same year as Fitzmas release and my last Christmas in Iowa.
Writing from Theme
Hope & Redemption
Filmmaking Quote #27 (Frank Capra)
Filmmaking Quote # 15 (Edward Burns)

Scott W. Smith

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“Now that all the decay is over, things are going to get better.”
Adam (Brendan Frazier) in Blast from the Past
Written by Billy Kelly and Hugh Wilson

Who knows how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far, so fast
The End of the Innocence
Bruce Hornsby/Don Henley

Watching It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street back to back made me think of the 1999 film Blast from the PastKind of what would happen if George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) of the 1940s showed up in Martin Scorsese’s modern version of Pottersville? (Pottersville is the Girls-Girls-Girls flip side nightmare world to the Norman Rockwell—like Bedford Falls in the Frank Capra classic.)

But Pottersville in Scorsese’s hands comes across like a perpetual party paradise.  An echo of Gary Kamiya’s All hail Pottersville! article— “Pottersville rocks!” Boring vs. Fun.

Perhaps the Wolf of Wall Street himself had a clearer view of the world he created at the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont:

“It should have been Sodom and Gomorrah. After all, it wasn’t every firm that sported hookers in the basement, drug dealers in the parking lot, exotic animals in the boardroom, and midget-tossing competitions on Fridays.”
Jordan Belfort

Earlier this month, a former worker at Stratton Oakmont who once idolized Belfort gave his perspective:

“But eventually, the blindness from the drugs, the girls and the cars, the clothes and the money, wore off. These people were some of the worst people that I have ever met in my life — they would sell their own grandmother in a second….I’m still going to see the [The Wolf of Wall Street]. My parents want to go with me. I would hope people would try to keep some morality while still trying to achieve success — but I’m not sure the movie is going to show that. Just the wild ride.”
Josh Shapiro
My life working for the real life ‘Wolf of Wall Street’

The movie is a three-hour fantasy wild ride that—well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it—but it’s an upside down world. One that Scorsese celebrates more than he condemns. Actress Hope Holiday was quoted in The Wrap saying a screen writer at an Academy screening for The Wolf of Wall Street screamed at Scorsese “Shame on you.” But if you’ve seen Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or GoodFellas you know the director has a fondness for depravity over redemption.

The Wolf of Wall Street is not Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment (1960) on steroids…or cocaine, quaaludes or even viagra. The stated theme seems to want to be “When the chickens come home to roost,” but comes across more like “Crime pays, and it pays well.” Maybe Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (Boradwalk Empire, The Sopranos) were just being faithful to Belfort’s book that the movie was based on.

It’s hard to say the 3 hour movie (okay, technically 2 hours and 59 minutes) is missing anything but constraints, but I think TIME’s Richard Corliss says it best—”What’s missing is the broker’s acknowledgement of a wasted life — if not his, then his victims.”

Scorsese said he knows the The Wolf of Wall Street is not for “everyone’s taste” and added, “It’s not made for 14 year olds.”

But I believe that 14-year-olds are going to see this film. And for some The Wolf of Wall Street will be their ideal—their goal. Just as young Jordan Belfort said Gordon Gekko in Wall Street became his ideal, his goal after watching Wall Street. (And Wall Street was not the upside down, amoral world of The Wolf of Wall Street.)

Gordon (“Greed… is good”) Gekko is the #24 Villain on AFI’s 100 Year…100 Heroes & Villains. Ranked just ahead of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining (Here’s Johnny!). But the Gekko character may rank as the #1 villain that most people want to be like. Actor Michael Douglas said he was surprised at how many people over the years have told him they became stock brokers because of his Oscar-winning performance of what he called “the bad guy.” (And how many of those Gekko followers became players in the banking collapse of 2008? Movies reflect the culture they help produce.)

“As the years have gone by, it’s heartening to see how popular the film has remained. But what I find strange and oddly disturbing is that Gordon Gekko has been mythologized and elevated from the role of villain to that of hero.”
Wall Street co-screenwriter Stanley Weiser
Repeat After Me: Greed Is Not Good, 2008 LA Times

“I’d just say anyone who took away that greed is good has missed the point. The movie speaks for itself. People who walk out of the movie and think ‘[Gekko’s] such a great guy,’ they need to think and ask themselves on what terms am I willing to do that?”
Oliver Stone, Wall Street director and co-screenwriter
Oliver Stone: Life after Wall Street by Telos Demos/ CNNMoney

Wall Street was closer in ideals to It’s a Wonderful Life than The Wolf of Wall Street. More Bedford Falls than Pottersville. More the ’80s Miami of Scarface than the ancient Roman orgies of Caligula.

Perhaps the ongoing battle is the way the world is versus the way we want it to be. But what do I know? Well, I do know one thing—that Jordan Belfort’s speaking fee just went up.

P.S. A movie that’s said to have influenced Stone’s Wall Street was Executive Suite (1954) directed by Robert Wise from a script by Ernest Lehman from a novel by Cameron Hawley.

Related Posts:

Raging Bull vs. Martin Scorsese
“Study the Old Master.”—Martin  Scorsese
The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 1)
The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 2)
Hugo & The Artist
Writing Good Bad Guys (Tip #85)

Scott W. Smith

 

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Ooh, Superman where are you now
When everything’s gone wrong somehow
Land of Confusion

Money, Money, Money—across film genres as diverse as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,  Pretty Woman, Toostie, Babette’s Feast, The Gold Rush, A Perfect Storm,  Some Like It Hot, The Verdict, Double Indemnity, JAWS and, of course, Wall Street, money plays a key role. That should be no surprise since money plays such a key role in civilization—in survival.

As I watched It’s a Wonderful Life again late Christmas Eve, with an eye toward seeing The Wolf of Wall Street this week it didn’t take much to make an economic connection between the two. Then I saw how Chicago-based filmmaker Owen Weber took that connection up a notch by actually making a trailer mash-up of It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street. Very well done.

P.S. As several people have pointed out over the years, the United States today represents—for better or worse—  Pottersville much more than Bedford Falls. I think Richard Walter’s is right, “No audience wants to see The Villiage of the Happy Nice Peoplebut I’d sure like to live there someday.

Related links: All Hail Pottersville!  Gary Kamiya’s 2001 pro-Pottersville article

Scott W. Smith

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“I like characters that are struggling, and they’re gonna die or they want to die, they’ve never prayed in their life, but they say, ‘Help me, God, I’m at the end of my rope!’ And then something happens… I always loved that Wonderful Life scene where Jimmy Stewart is praying in the bar, and then he gets punched in the face — that’s how God responds.”
Director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club)
The Hollywood Reporter 

“[It’s a Wonderful Life] movie works like a strong and fundamental fable, sort of a ‘Christmas Carol’ in reverse: Instead of a mean old man being shown scenes of happiness, we have a hero who plunges into despair.”
Roger Ebert 

It’s interesting that a largely dark film that deals with a suicidal man is such a beloved Christmas classic. It’s also interesting that the town of Bedford Falls was actually a 4 acre set—complete with 300 foot Main St.— built in Encino, California. It was partly shot in the summer of 1946 during a record heat wave in Encino, so keep that in mind when you watch those snow scenes. Hot was made cold, and darkness made light; The power and magic of filmmaking.

Merry Christmas—

And in case you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life here is the entire movie on You Tube:

Related posts:

It’s a Wonderful Prison— “Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Frank Darabont
“The Greatest Gift”—The original 4,000 word self published story that became It’s a Wonderful Life.
Writing “Flight”—Post begins with the quote, “I would never write about a character who is not at the end of his rope.”—Stanley Elkin

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m stuck here in this mudhole for life, doing the same dull work day after day…I never did anything really useful or interesting, and it looks as if I never will. I might just as well be dead. 
George Pratt in The Greatest Gift

“Even the smallest voice can be heard by millions.”
Jay Z

Before It’s a Wonderful Life became the much loved film It’s a Wonderful Life it was a humble short story that couldn’t find a publisher. Since Philip Van Doren Stern couldn’t get his 4,000 word story titled The Greatest Gift published by traditional means he printed 200 copies on his own and sent them as Christmas cards in 1943. Good Housekeeping magazine published the story in 1944 under the title The Man Who Was Never Born.

Frank Capra somehow got a copy of the story and allegedly said something in line with having waited all his life to find The Greatest Gift. It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946 with Capra directing James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore in the lead roles. The film received five Oscar-nominations a eventually became a Christmas standard. It’s number 20 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies.

The opening hook of the short story of a man contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve fits well one of my favorite writing quotes:

“I would never write about a character who is not at the end of his rope.”
Stanley Elkin

Stern was born in 1900 in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania which even today has less than a 1,000 residents. According to Wikipedia he was raised in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers University. When he died in 1984 the NY Times wrote, “During his career as an editor, he worked for Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf.” He also wrote more than 40 historical books including ”The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln” and  ”Robert E. Lee: The Man and the Soldier.”

Though today Stern’s books are not widely remember—and perhaps even his name obscured by time—his little story that came to him in a dream has found quite a world wide audience. (According to an article by Daven Hiskey, in 1992 It’s a Wonderful Life was the first American program ever shown on Russian television. It was broadcast to 200 million viewers.)

“It is a story about depression and disillusionment, alcoholism and attempted suicide. And yet for all that, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has just been voted the most inspirational film ever made.”
2006 article in The Guardian

Stern’s daughter Dr. Marguerite Stern Robinson said one of the themes of the story is “the awesome power of apparent insignificance.” In one limited edition of the book Robinson wrote in the forward, “The business about the insignificance is very important. George wished he had never been born. It was only after he learned for himself what the world would have been like without him that he begs to be returned to his life.”

P.S. It should be pointed that Donna Reed, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, showed Lionel Barrymore how to milk a cow on the set of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Here’s a PDF of The Greatest Gift.

Related article: The Real Bedford Falls

Related Posts:
Don’t Waste Your Life
Legacy Filmmaking (& Your Bank Account)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…(Part 9)
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)
Screenwriting Quote #182 (Richard Krevolin) “All characters are wounded souls…”
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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