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Posts Tagged ‘James Cameron’

“When I was traveling the Midwest by car, bus and train, I regularly visited small-town libraries and found that readers in Keokuk, Iowa, or Benton Harbor, Mich., were checking out Proust and Joyce and even Svevo and Andrei Biely. D. H. Lawrence was also a favorite. And sometimes I remember that God was willing to spare Sodom for sake of the 10 of the righteous. Not that Keokuk was anything like wicked Sodom, or that Proust’s Charlus would have been tempted to settle in Benton Harbor, Mich. I seem to have had a persistent democratic desire to find evidence of high culture in the most unlikely places.”
Pulitzer Prize & Nobel Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift)
Hidden Within Technology’s Empire, a Republic of Letter
The New York Times
October 11, 1999

P.S. This blog is about a sense of place as much as it is about screenwriting. And I love stories about big success that originates from small places. There is no greater example in cinematic history of the writer/director born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada who is the only filmmaker to make a film that has made $2 billion dollars. And James Cameron’s actually done that twice, Avaitar and Titanic. As I point out in the post Filmmaking Quote #7 (James Cameron), part of his success is being raised in a town of just 2,000 people and having to ride a school bus for two hours a day to and from school. Two hours he spent reading books. For what it’s worth, Saul Bellow was also born in Canada—Lachine, Quebec.

Related Posts:

Mark Twain (His first paid job as a writer was for a newspaper in Keokuk, Iowa.)
The Juno-Iowa Connection (The University of Iowa in Iowa City—where Tennessee Williams,  Diablo Cody and many other writers attended— is an hour and a half drive directly north of Keokuk.)
Screenwriting Quote #2 (Skip Press) “If you live in Keokuk, Iowa, and write a screenplay…”
Postcard #33 (Quincy, Iowa) About half a hour directly south of Keokuk.
Screenwriting from Michigan (Yeah, Michigan has helped shape some pretty good writers.)
Kalamafrickin’zoo’s Talent Pool  (Kalamazoo is less than an hour drive from Benton Harbor, MI)

Scott W. Smith

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I didn’t intend to spend several days exploring movie cloning, but it’s turned into quite a rabbit hole of information. On top of the words that I listed in part 1 that explain why some movies remind you of other movies (remake, update, homage, rip-off, mash-up, inspired by, parallels, movie mapping, story patterns, story echo, influences, plagiarism) some additional words have popped up—imitation, riff,  and paean. (Paean: A fervent expression of praise.) Writer Lee A. Matthias at The Last Reveal calls it “Lateral Screenwriting.”

Now on the comment section of Movie Cloning (Part 2) a point was made that the word cloning “makes it sound like copying and that reduced creativity is involved.”  But I’m not talking about hitting Apple—C on a script. And I wrestled with using the word cloning, but went with it because it seemed fresh. Another reason is I associate the concept of DNA with cloning.

Perhaps a scientist can fill us in (in layman’s terms) on how cloning is really an “umbrella term.” Not all cloning is the same. My understanding is that not all cloning is reproductive cloning (a duplicate copy). Nor is there anything easy about it. (And, for the record, scientists do very creative work.)

I think “DNA Cloning” is what I had in mind when linking two films that have similar characteristics. With the example of “Avatar” and “Dances with Wolves” I don’t think there was anything easy about James Cameron’s 15 year journey to get “Avatar” made. But I do think it’s clear that “Avatar” and “Dances with Wolves” do share the same DNA—and that was by design.

Cameron used structural DNA from “Dances” and that helped greatly with some of the heavy lifting on “Avatar,” but there was still a lot of work to be done.

It’s not really even possible to perfectly clone a film unless you had the exact same actors, locations, etc. The 1998 version of Psycho where Gus Van Sant matched Hitchcock’s 1960 version shot for shot is as close as I can think of as a film that was trying to literally clone another film. (I wondered if someone had edited the famous shower scene together from both versions and of course they have uploaded it to You Tube: Psycho Re-Imagined. (I think it was Sydney Pollack who said something to the effect that Hitchcock had his own style because he kept making the same film.)

And if you think all of this talk is beneath you as a writer, listen to the screenwriting advice from a Hollywood agent:

“Deliver a world or a setting that we’ve never seen before, or that we haven’t seen in a while (remember approximately 50% of the movie going audience is between 14 & 24. If a concept was used 10+ years ago, odds are they haven’t seen it). “War of the Worlds” = “Independence Day”=”War of the Worlds”. “Kelly’s Heroes” = “Three Kings”. “Taming of the Shrew”=”10 Things I Hate About You,” “Disturbia” = “Rear Window.” Are these exact matches? No! But are they delivering, or repackaging if you will, concepts that the earlier films/plays successfully sold to the consumer. Yes!”
Bruce Bartlett
Bartlett Screenwriting Tips Blog

Bartlett, by the way. was the first agent I ever talked to. Back in 1996 he read a script of mine called First Comes Marriage.* (In a follow-up phone call he said he was looking for something edgier like Swingers.) He’s a partner at Above the Line Agency in Beverly Hills. (You can submit queries to them online.) His partner, Rima Greer, has written an informative book called The Read , Low Down, Dirty Truth About Hollywood Agenting.

But as for movie cloning, can you really watch the 2010 film Date Movie and not at least think of Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest? Of course you can, and that’s Bartlett’s point. People just want to watch Steve Carell & Tina Fey and laugh—which is why it made $98 million domestic.  But people who write and are up on film history know otherwise. In fact, I just Googled, “Date Night is North by Northwest” and found a post by Allen Palmer titled, Did you catch Hitchcock in Date Night? He can fill you in on the similarities of the two films.

Ever wonder how Walt Disney and his team of animators were able to crank out so many great films? Maybe it had something to do with using the same DNA. (Again, I saw this connection on Kal Bashir’s website.)

Winnie the Pooh

The Jungle Book

Just one more reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun.

*As a side note, First Comes Marriage, a script I completed in 1995 involved a couple getting married the day they met. It was simply an original idea that I had never seen or read  before (or had ever heard of happening in real life) but I thought it could happen and would be interesting to explore. While never produced, the basic concept was similar to the hit TV show Dharma & Greg (1997-2002), and in the 2008 film What Happens in Vegas.

Scott W. Smith

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“Martha Graham used to say, ‘if you’re going to steal, steal from the best,’ and I have always embraced the people that I have idolized and tried to incorporate what I’ve enjoyed in their films and in their styles in mine.”
Woody Allen
Interview by Tony Jenkins

“I decided that I would create a modern version of (the Ben-Hur chariot race) which was instead of horses and chariots they would be speeders hooked behind giant engines.
George Lucas on the pod race in Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace


Yesterday’s post covered how the movie Dances with Wolves helped inspire James Cameron as he created Avatar. But before Avatar became the all-time box office winner, Cameron’s Titanic held that spot for 12 years. Was there a filmed that helped Cameron create Titanic?

I couldn’t find a quote from Cameron, but here’s a thought-provoking comparison of Titanic and Ben-Hur, that was created by Kal Bashir.* (One slight correction, Titanic was nominated for 14 Academy Awards but won 11 Oscars, which tied Ben Hur’s total wins. A record they now also now share with Lord of the Rings:Return of the King.)

Ben-Hur was also an inspiration to Ridley Scott on the making of Gladiator—a film that itself was nominated for 11 Academy Award, winning five including Best Picture, and the famous Ben-Hur chariot race was the basis for George Lucas in creating the pod race scene in The Phantom Menace.

Lew Wallace‘s book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was first published in 1880 and for over 50 years was the second best-selling book next to the Bible. ( Wallace was born, raised, and died in Indiana. He spent seven years reseaching and writing Ben-Hur “under a tree in Crawfordsville, Indiana.” ) There was a New York stage version of the book done in 1899, and the play would eventually go on the road in the states and overseas and be seen by an estimated 20 million people.  Ben-Hur was made into movies in 1907, 1925, 1958 and an animated version in 2003.

*Kal has several other movie examples on his website where he touches on what he calls The 510+ stage Hero’s  Journey. (Ben-Hur/Titanic synopsis used by permission.)

Scott W. Smith

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“You do things sometimes as a writer subconsciously, things you’re not even aware of. I’m always comfortable doing things instinctively because I see it as tapping into this vein of archetype that works for a broader audience base.”
James Cameron
Writer/director of Titanic and Avatar

“I think it’s fine for young (filmmakers) to out and out rip off people who come before them because you always make it your own.”
Francis Ford Coppola
World News interview


Yesterday we looked at several films that share some of the same DNA. I mentioned several words and phrases used to explain why some movies resemble other movies. Blake Snyder in Save the Cat added one more phrase—”Hollywood’s Dirty Little Secret.”

“Look at Point Break starring Patrick Swazye, then look at Fast and Furious. Yes, it’s the same movie almost beat for beat. But one is about surfing, the other is about hot cars. Is that stealing? Is that cheating? Now look at The Matrix and compare and contrast it with the Disney/Pixar hit Monsters, Inc. Yup. Same movie. And there’s a million more examples. Who Saved Roger Rabbit? is Chinatown…In some instances, the stealing is conscious. In other, it’s just coincidence.”
Blake Synder
Save the Cat

So let’s have some screenwriters weigh in on the topic.

“I wrote the screenplay (for The Magnificent Seven), Johnny Struges, the director, asked me to make a screenplay out of Kuroisawa’s (Seven Samari), setting it in the West.”
Walter Brown Newman

“(The movie Red River) was Mutiny on the Bounty. I had always thought what a great Western.”
Red River screenwriter Borden Chase as told to William Bowers

Okay, but do screenwriters have to be at retirement age to admit to taking from other films? Well, writer/director James Cameron prefers to use the words “reference point” when talking about films that he watched before he made Avatar.  Here’s an Q&A interview that he did with the Los Angeles Times that addresses if Avatar is Dances with Wolves in space.

Geoff Boucher: There’s also maybe some heritage linking (“Avatar”) to “Dances with Wolves,” considering your story here of a battered military man who finds something pure in an endangered tribal culture.

James Cameron: Yes, exactly, it is very much like that. You see the same theme in “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” and also “The Emerald Forest,” which maybe thematically isn’t that connected but it did have that clash of civilizations or of cultures. That was another reference point for me. There was some beautiful stuff in that film. I just gathered all this stuff in and then you look at it through the lens of science fiction and it comes out looking very different but is still recognizable in a universal story way. It’s almost comfortable for the audience – “I know what kind of tale this is.”

Dances with Wolves was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and Avatar was nominated for 9. Combined they both they won ten Oscars. And while only Dances with Wolves won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Screenplay based on Material from Another Medium (Michael Blake), Avatar became the all-time box office champ making $2.7 billion worldwide.

As a sidenote Avatar’s production designer saw shades of The Wizard of Oz in the script. (The Wizard of Oz just happens to be one of Cameron’s favorite films.)

Scott W. Smith

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Photograph by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“My bracket has Kansas winning the whole thing. Kansas is that big, fast, strong, deep, good, great, unbeatable.”
Gregg Dovel, CBSSports.com

President Obama was wrong. But he was not alone in picking the Kansas Jayhawks to win the NCAA National Championship in men’s basketball this year. In case you don’t follow such things, Kansas lost yesterday to that little known team from right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa—The University of Northern Iowa (UNI).

One sports writer said the upset victory, “could go down as the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.” Of course, that’s debatable. What is less debateable is this is the biggest victory in UNI’s history. This was the first time they have ever beaten a top ranked team. To do it in the NCAA Tournament before a national TV audience is all the sweeter.

The above photo of UNI player Ali Farokhmanesh celebrating says it all. It’s one frame that if it were the end of a movie the critics would be rolling their eyes calling it cliché. But movie audiences enjoy a good underdog story time after time. Why do we love underdog stories?

What is it about an underdog story that makes us feel so good? Perhaps it’s as simple as we all feel like underdogs. We can relate. Heck, I have a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa which might as well be called Screenwriting for Underdogs. But then again that would be redundant, wouldn’t it? (Tell me Joe “I’ve been in fights most of my life” Eszterhas hasn’t felt like an underdog his entire career?)

So screw the critics and keep writing underdog stories because the truth is cinematic history is full of great stories of underdog characters and underdog stories. From Rocky, Indiana Jones, and Norma Rae Webster to Hans Solo, Oskar Schindler, and Erin Brockovich they’re all underdogs that are greatly admired.

More recently, The Blind Side (based on the life of Michael Orr) found an audience to the tune of $250 million so far and landed Sandra Bullock her first Oscar. People still want to see Michael Orr stories. And, of course, an underdog doesn’t have to be an athlete.

Both James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic are the #1 & #2 box office champs—and both underdog stories.

What are some of your favorite underdog characters or stories?

P.S. The University of Northern Iowa is where Kurt Warner played college football before he became one of the greatest underdog stories in contemporary sports history. I should also give a shout out to the University of Iowa’s wrestling team who last night won the 2010 NCAA Division 1 wrestling championship. No underdogs there—it’s the third straight year they’ve won the championship and 23rd in school history.

Related post: Orphan Characters (Tip #31)

Scott W. Smith

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Now that writer/director James Cameron has claimed the number one and two spots of worldwide box office money makers with Avatar and Titanic he really is king of the world…at least the king of the box office world. But it’s worth a look back to how the Canadian born and raised Cameron made the transition from making films for Roger Corman to making mainstream blockbusters–including a film that is up for nine Academy Awards Sunday.

“My first success as a writer was The Terminator.  And it was successful, in a way, before the film was made. I wrote the script entirely on spec, for myself, and it was sent out by my agent as a writing sample. It was only sent out, to my knowledge, to a few people, and I managed to land jobs with two of them. One was Rambo and the other was on Alien.”
James Cameron
American Screenwriters
Karl Schanzer & Thomas Lee Wright
page 57

Scott W. Smith

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“[Kathryn] Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal…have made the first fictional feature about American soldiers in Iraq that doesn’t fall apart, or preach to a choir, or turn into a position paper.”
Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune

The Hurt Locker had a limited release last summer and never made it to my neck of the woods. Nor did the release in December. Which is too bad, because I think that the story which takes place in Iraq would have resonated well in a part of the country that attracts a lot of men and women into the military.

What’s worse though is it never found an audience in the theater so not many people got to see this great and well crafted film on the big screen. Fortunalty,  the film was nominated for nine Academy Awards which has helped it attracts more of a following. I watched the film this week and found this exchange on the commentary track between producer/director Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: Widowmaker, Point Break) and producer/screenwriter Mark Boal talking about the impetus of the film.

Mark Boal: (The Hurt Locker) sort of came out of a experience I had in Baghdad—in Iraq–where I was embedded as a journalist in 2004 covering the bomb squad and going out on daily missions with them and seeing the kinds of situations they got into. And it was a really eye-opening experience  just to witness the sheer onslaught of bombs that these three man teams would have to deal with at that time in the war. And I think that it took the military a little bit by surprise, it certainly took them by surprise. I wrote a article about the bomb squad and then felt that the story warrented a larger translation, perhaps into a film.

And when I came back from Iraq (I) presented the idea to Kathryn Bigelow, and I think you were intrigued–I don’t know if that’s putting words in your mouth…

Kathryn Bigelow: I was more than intrigued. I thought that these men have arguable the most dangerous job in the world, And that it’s a voluntary military, so that’s a very interesting psychological profile and I thought because we had an opportunity to look at this conflict through first hand observation of Mark’s embed I thought it was a pretty rare and extraordinary situation and could be a very interesting film. I also felt that the war was under reported and that I, being a member of the general public, I had very little idea what was going on over there. What EOD, IED–what these terms meant, And looking at a day in the life of a bomb tech really unpacked it.

Mark: So having secured Kathryn’s interest I set out to write a script on spec. Which means that there was no contract or money involved and we ended up producing the movie independently, raising the funds sort of outside the Hollywood system.

I hope that the film gains traction and I imagine as we look back on this era The Hurt Locker will be one of the defining film of the times.

A second rare and extraordinary situation is this is Mark Boal’s first screenplay.

And third rare and extraordinary thing surrounding The Hurt Locker is Kathryn Bigelow was once married to writer/director James Cameron who also has a little film out called Avatar which also has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. What are the odds of that combo ever happening again?

The Hurt Locker and Avatar are up against each other in the best picture category. Fantasy vs. reality. 3-D vs. 2-D.  Pandora vs. Baghdad. At the box office there is no question who the winner is–Avatar probably made more thanThe Hurt Locker in just its first weekend playing at the Archlight Cinema in Hollywood.

Avatar just became the top box office money-maker in the history of movies, and it would be poetic justice if The Hurt Locker took home the best picture Oscar next month. It would be well deserved.

Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriting from Iowa, huh?

That’s how I started my first blog two years ago today. The first time I had ever posted anything anywhere. I started out in 2008 writing two or three times a week with posts between 1,000-2,000 words. Really, mini essays. In 2009 I shifted over to daily post usually under 500 words and sometimes just a quote.

The results of the shorter daily post were a double number of views. Now for 2010 how can I fine tune it a little to be more helpful? I welcome any suggestions, but on Monday I’m planning at least one new twist.

Looking back on the last two years there have been a lot of changes. Just in the original 2008 post I see where I quote Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. He left that gig, but is now on his way back. I mentioned Kevin Bacon & John Edwards who have both had significant reversal. Bacon losing a sizable amount of money in the Madoff scam, and Edwards–who was a presidential candidate in ’08–has since fathered a baby with a woman who is not his wife.

And for a couple years there was actually a relative boom in features being made in Iowa due to Film Incentives which were recently discontinued because of mismanagement and accusations of fraud by recipients. The economy has gone into a deeper recession and the US is still in Iraq (and now back in Afghanistan). The Internet continues to change the life in general, and the media specifically. Most noticeably the decline of newspapers and magazines as readers look elsewhere for their news and information.

And just has Hollywood box office seemed in decline, James Cameron lead the charge for ’09 to be the best ever dollar intake in movie history. But from a production side, perhaps the biggest change in the past two years is the rise of people everywhere making films and videos. Fifteen years ago secretaries became graphic designers as Photoshop became a common tool. Now Final Cut Pro, digital cameras, and You Tube have opened the door for the production pyramid to be much bigger.

But there is still a pyramid with the best talent at the top and the beginners at the bottom. There are still fine films being made and a larger crop of junk being produced. All in all, it’s an exciting time to be in production. One thing I’m sure about more than when I started this blog two years ago is more and more people outside of the L.A. and the Hollywood system with continue to find ways to make better and better films and will continue to find distribution means to get people to watch there films (and hopefully recoup their funds and ideally make a little money to keep the train moving forward).

In the meantime, keep writing, networking and learning–because once the economy kicks back in there are going to be some crazy opportunities out there. Thanks for stopping by the blog. As the views continue to grow that is an encouragement to me to keep encouraging you in your creative journey. And just for nostalgia here is the very first post for “Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A,”

Life Beyond Hollywood (Original post on January 22, 2008)

Screenwriting from Iowa, huh?

No, it’s not a joke or an oxymoron.

Screenwriting from Iowa isn’t really just about Iowa or limited to screenwriting. But that is the starting point. And I hope this on-going blog encourages writers who feel like they live in the middle of nowhere. And if you hold on a moment you’ll learn that the hippest and hottest screenwriter in Hollywood today has some Iowa roots.

It’s ten degrees below zero and snowing as I begin this first blog compounding the barren wasteland fears people have about the state of Iowa. But I think you’ll be surprised at the creative talent growing beyond them there cornfields.

On January 3, 2008 all eyes were on Iowa (at least for a quick glance) as the first presidential caucuses took place. Jay Leno joked on The Tonight Show, “Many people don’t know this, but the word caucus is Indian for the one day anyone pays attention to Iowa.”

Iowa may not be New York or LA but where else can you see 13 presidential candidates up close within a ten-mile drive of your home as I did in the last couple months? There was plenty of drama, and enough material for a couple screenplays.

Iowa is a metaphor for any place that represents life beyond Hollywood. (That could be West Virginia, West Africa, or even West Covina.)   Iowa is where I live and write and is also a state that most people in the United States would have trouble pinpointing on a map. Quintessential “fly-over country.”  What good can come from Iowa? Can you get any further from Hollywood? You’d be surprised.

Forget that six degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon thing. Bacon was right here in Cedar Falls earlier this month stumping for presidential hopeful John Edwards.  Cedar Falls is also where Nancy Price wrote the novel that became the Julia Roberts’ film Sleeping with the Enemy, and where Robert Waller wrote the book that became the Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep film The Bridges of Madison County.

And since this is the first blog let me also mention that entertainment icons Johnny Carson & John Wayne were both born in Iowa. This site is dedicated seeing the depth of talent that can from a remote place and will provide you with practical advice on screenwriting and digital filmmaking.

As I write this, the independent film Juno continues its strong box office run and has already won the Critics’ Choice Award for screenwriter Diablo Cody.  (And I don’t think that will be the last award she wins.) Film critic Tom Long of the Detroit News wrote, “Juno’s the best movie of the year. It’s the best screenplay of the year, and it features the best actress of the year working in the best acted ensemble of the year.” Roger Ebert wrote, “The screenplay by first-timer Diablo Cody is a subtle masterpiece of construction…The Film has no wrong scenes and no extra scenes, and flows like running water.”

The 29-year-old Cody’s own life story of spending a year as a less than exotic dance in Minneapolis is well documented, bit to learn where she honed her writing skills we must go back a couple years to when she was a college student in…you guessed it, Iowa. The University of Iowa  in Iowa City has long been sacred writing grounds and home to one of the richest traditions in creative writing. Tennessee Williams and John Irving are among its alma mater.

“They have the writer’s workshop there. They have an undergraduate workshop, and I got in,” Cody said in this month’s Written By. “I focused mainly on poetry. I laugh about that now. I actually think it wound up helpful because as a poet you develop a certain efficiency with language that I think you use as a screenwriter.” (The entire article by Matt Hoey can be found at the Writer’s Guide of America’s website: www.wga.org/writtenby/writtenbysub.aspx?id=2693)

Though Cody couldn’t wait to get out of college she did earn a degree in media studies and was known for her excellent writing. And I believe that excellent writing will always be discovered wherever you live.

So over the course of this blog I will offer insights gleaned from my film school days, various workshops I attended and given, over 100 books read on writing and the creative process, as well as more than 20 years of experience as a video producer/director/writer (www.scottwsmith.com), and most importantly quotes from successful screenwriters.

Scott W. Smith

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“I rode a school bus for an hour each way… so I had two hours a day on the bus and I tried to read a book a day.
James Cameron

They should have a special room for James Cameron over at Box Office Mojo. Titantic, which he wrote and directed, sits atop every film ever made in terms of box office gross ($600. million domestic/$ 1.8 billion worldwide). And for the last two weeks his newest film Avatar has been #1 at the box office already bringing in $600. worldwide.

And, of course, those aren’t the only films he’s ever made. Aliens, The Terminator,  Terminator 2:Judgment Day also found quite large audiences. But how many saw his first two films Xenogenesis and Piranha Part Two; The Spawning? It’s easy to get lost in the big numbers Cameron puts up and forget that he had to jump-start his career just like anyone else who’s made it.

So where did he come from?

Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada and raised in a town of 2,000. He was inspired by the movie 2001:A Space Odyssey and said he read The Making of 2001 book eighteen times and dreamed of Hollywood all before his family moved from Canada to Los Angeles when he was 17. And before he ever won an Oscar he drove a truck to pay the bills until his screenwriting career took off. I’ve pieced together a few of his quotes from various places to give a succinct overview of his views on filmmaking.

“The film industry is about saying ‘no’ to people, and inherently you cannot take ‘no’ for an answer…You never really ‘get’ an opportunity. You take an opportunity. You know, in the film making business no one ever gives you anything…If you wait until the right time to have a child you’ll die childless, and I think film making is very much the same thing. You just have to take the plunge and just start shooting something even if it’s bad…Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee…I think it’s, the old adage: ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’ I think chance is not a big factor in the long run…There are many talented people who haven’t fulfilled their dreams because they over thought it, or they were too cautious, and were unwilling to make the leap of faith.”
James Cameron

Most of these quotes were pulled from an interview found on the Academy of Achievement website.

Scott W. Smith

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood …1999-2009

While Titanic has been the pinnacle of the Hollywood blockbuster there has been a somewhat quiet movement in the film industry which came into prominence in 1999.

The use of video came on the scene in the 1950s its claim about the death of film were greatly exaggerated. Fifty years later those claims are starting to resurface.

In 1995 Sony released the Sony VX1000. The first digital video camera that independent filmmakers got excited about. Lars von Trier jumped on the digital bandwagon in directing and shooting the feature film The Idiots with the Sony VX1000 which he showed at Cannes in 1998.

As digital filmmaking became more popular the debate continued over whether this was really filmmaking since film was no longer being used. I remember being at a film festival in the ’90s when a New York filmmaker stated that he didn’t make videos, he made films.

Then this little hybrid movie came along in 1999 called The Blair Witch Project that was a game changer. Shot with a mixture of 16mm film and a consumer video camcorder (Hi8 I believe) Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale made the film for $35,000. that went on to make in the ballpark of $250 million worldwide. It still has the record for box office income against production costs. (We’ll see if Paranormal Activity beats it. A film inspired by The Blair Witch Project.)

When film historians look at the shift in the film business I think they will look at The Blair Witch Project and 1999 as the most important year for change. The Blair Witch filmmakers were not only from outside L.A. (they met in Orlando), not only found great success making a film shot in part on video, but they used the Internet to market the film in a whole new way.

Because I was living in Orlando at the time I like to point out they the Blair Witch filmmakers pointed out that Ralph Clemente who heads up the film program at Valencia Community College was a great inspiration to them in making a different kind of film. I studied with Clemente when he was teaching at the University of Miami film school and was happy he got a special nod.

The list of films made digitally grew and grew. In 2000, Spike Lee chose to shoot most of his $10 million dollar film Bamboozled with the Sony VX1000. In that same year Academy-award winning director Michael Figgis released a DV feature Timecode. Also in 2002 Steven Soderbergh shot the DV feature Full Frontal and Jerry Seinfeld was executive producer and featured performer for the DV documentary Comedian (2002).

Another landmark film was released in 2002, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark— a film that was shot digitally in one take. I saw Russian Ark in one of those grand old theaters in Chicago and I really thought it was a perfect mix of the past and future coming together.

What was different about Russian Ark from the DV features is it was shot on a high-end Sony HD camera. The quality difference between DV and 35mm is great when projected on the big screen. And films up to that point used DV for a variety of reasons usually related to budgets. Russian Ark reached new heights by shooting a type of film that not only couldn’t physically be shot on film (due to the nature of film loads being limited in time) but the quality for the average viewer was matched on the screen.

Also in the year 2002, Gary Winick’s  who directed Tadpole (shot with a Sony PD-150 DV camera) won the Best Director Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Sundance used to have a policy that said they only took films made on film. No videos allowed. The world was changing.

“I could have shot Tadpole on 35mm, and would it have been a better film? I don’t know. Would I have gotten that cast? I don’t know. Part of the reasons for the cast wanting to be in the film, besides the material, was that they were all interested in working in DV, which I presented it to them as this hybrid between the theater and film. And also, I only need you for two weeks and not two months.”
Gary Winick

In 2003 Peter Hedges (known for writing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) released the DV feature Pieces of April starring Katie Holmes.  It won many awards at film festivals and actress Patricia Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar. I love that film and it shows how a story and talent can overcome some technical deficiencies. Hedges pointed out in interviews out that financing had falling through a couple times before when it was budgeted for film so the $150,000 film would not have been made without shooting on DV.

In 2004 the InDigEnt produced November starring Courteney Cox and shot with a $4,000. Panasonic DVX 100 DV camera by director of photography Nancy Schreiber who won best cinematography for the film at the Sundance Film Festival.

Also in 2004 at Sundance Morgan Spurlock earned the Directing Award for Super Size Me and the documentary Born into Brothels won an audience award, both of which were shot on digital video cameras. Brothels beat Super at the Academy Awards. So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences.

Here’s what I wrote in a post last year called New Cinema Screenwriting:

So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences. You can sit around and argue all day about how film is superior to digital video, but folks the train has left the station.

And the standard def DV video cameras have now been replaced by digital High Def cameras that in the right hands can give a wonderful look. The crazy thing is these are cameras in the $5,ooo dollar range. And they are not being used on just low budget features. The Panasonic HVX 200 was used on the $30 million film Cloverfield.

But let’s not forget Paranormal Activity that is purposely meant to look like an amateur video and as of this writing has made over $60 million at the box office.

Yes, this is the point where I bring out the visionary trunk monkey Francis Ford Coppola (the grandfather of the digital filmmaking movement) who had this to say back in 1991:

Coppola was right on track. But can you imagine if he would have said that “some day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to make a film with her cell phone camera….”—the response might have been, “Yeah, right when we’re flying around like the Jetsons.” Yet, in 2005 a feature was shot using a cell phone. Today there are several cell phone film festivals around the world.

Coppola recently made and released Youth Without Youth shot digitally with the high-end Sony F900. The Sony camera (along with the Viper camera) are reaching quality levels that match film resolution. But the biggest talk about the digital filmmaking seems to center around the Red Cameras and we’ll address that in Part 7.

The film verses digital debate is coming to an end.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…(Part 7)

Scott W. Smith



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