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Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Bridges’

“Yeah I think I know what my father meant when he sang about his lost highway…”
Hank Williams Jr.
All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)

“You must break from cliché. You must ‘Give us the same thing…only different.'”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

The movie Country Strong is no Tender Mercies. And there are some pluses and minus associated with that. While Tender Mercies is one of my all time favorite films, it did only make $8 million at the box office. Country Strong almost did that this weekend. But since I’ve been writing a good deal recently about movie clones it’s a good time to talk about avoiding clichés.

Tender Mercies is the 1983 Bruce Beresford directed movie for which Robert Duvall earned an Academy Award for Actor for playing a fallen (and alcoholic) county star. Horton Foote also earned an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Country Strong is the 2010 film written and directed by Shana Feste which stars Gwyneth Paltrow as a (recently) fallen (and alcoholic) county music star . And while Paltrow may get an Oscar nod, the screenplay won’t.

Feste is not Foote, and it would be unfair to compare her to him. He wrote Tender Mercies about 50 years into his career. A career that included Broadway plays and an Oscar for Adapted Screenplay for writing To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962. (And later a Pulitzer Prize.) County Strong is just Feste’s second film. (Who knows what Foote’s early plays were like decades before he became known as “America’s Checkov”?)

And to Feste’s credit she not only wrote the film but directed it putting together a great cast that do their best with a script that crosses the line into a melodrama with a cliché or two—or three. It doesn’t help that last year Jeff Bridges just happened to win an Academy Award in Crazy Heart for playing a fallen (and alcoholic) county music star. In fact, bio pictures of fallen and or musicians struggling with fame, drugs and/or alcohol is such a well travel path (The Doors, Walk the Line, A Star is Born, Glitter, Sweet Dreams) that Judd Apatow found it fertile ground to parody with his 2007 film Walk Hard: The Dewey Coy Story.

“When it seems like you’re stealing—don’t. When it feels like a cliche—give it a twist. When you think it’s familiar—it probably is, so you’ve got to find a new way.”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

“Clichés are shortcuts. The more you avoid taking them, the more interesting the places you’ll end up.”
John August
Avoiding cliches

When you start sampling movies about musicians you have to work hard not to hit a wrong note—be diligent to avoid the clichés. (Wait, did I just use a cliché?) I’ll give you one example of good and bad writing. In the opening scene of Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake pulls into the parking lot of a dive bar and empties a jug of urine. Not a word has been spoken and we’ve learned a lot about this character and we’ve seen something that no other film has shown before. Here’s a guy who lives on the road and doesn’t want or can’t take the time to make a proper restroom stops between gigs. (A little like the true “stalking astronaut in a diaper story” a couple of years ago.)

Now contrast that with (not really a spoiler, folks) Paltrow’s character finding a baby bird while in rehab and her husband played by Tim McGraw carrying the beat-you-over-the-head-metaphor-in-a-box through half the film. At least one point in the making of the film McGraw had to think, “Is this bird thing working? Seems a little forced to me.”  And I don’t even recall a payoff with the bird.

Country Strong is the kind of movie I used to walk out of when I was younger (ie: Bolero) but now I’ve learned to enjoy the good things about any film. Here the music is top-notch and the studios gave Feste the great director of photography, John Baily (As Good As It Gets), so the film looks wonderful. And despite the 17% Rotten Tomatoes rating from top critics, the film has its moments. I thought the opening scene was a fresh twist and great start to the movie. But somewhere along the way my mind started drifting and I started to wonder how actor Tobey Maguire (Superman, Seabiscuit) got attached to this project as producer.

Later I found out and that’s where the story gets interesting.  I discovered that Feste was once Maguire’s nanny. That’s not meant as a knock. That’s interesting stuff. Everyone needs a job until they break through and Feste was savvy enough to work as a nanny in LA to make connections in the industry. It worked. (I’d definitely recommend being a nanny over some of screenwriter Diablo Cody’s previous income streams. Heck, maybe you could be a nanny for Cody.)

“I went to work as a nanny for people who were in the entertainment business, so that I could get any information I could, even while I was watching their kids. I love children, so it was an easy gig.”
Shana Feste
MovieMaker, December 2010

Along the way, Feste also cut her chops getting a BA at UCLA, a master’s in creative writing from University of Texas at Austin, and another graduate degree from AFI. Solid credentials. After AFI she went to work as an assistant at CAA for  Richard Lovett, who was president of the agency. Again, brilliant move. Her first film The Greatest premiered at Sundance in 2009. Country Strong may not be the best film of the year, but I imagine there are few grads that she went to school with at UCLA, UT-Austin, and AFI who are in the position that Feste finds herself as a Hollywood player writing and directing features.

P.S. Feste was once a nanny for Courney Love. I imagine Love and many others will have a “no screenwriter” request for future nannies. I also have a feeling that the nanny agencies will be getting a lot of calls this week from filmmakers with MFA’s looking for work. So if you happen to live in LA and decide to sign up at one of the agencies like Buckingham Nannies you may want to keep that screenwriter thing to yourself.

Scott W. Smith

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“The future has arrived!”
Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges)
Seabiscuit

“But I’m not; I’m not obsolete!”
The Obsolete Man written by Rod Serling
The Twilight Zone

Thinking about my recent posts that touched on the theme of the Old West changing, represented in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1970) as well as The Grey Fox (1982), made me think about another movie that begins in those years of transition—Seabiscuit (2003).

Back in 1996 magazine journalist Laura Hillenbrand stumbled upon an article that would change her life.

“That day I found just a tidbit of information, a few passages about how Charles Howard was a modern automobile man and Tom Smith was a plains cowboy. Something about that tugged at me, and I kept turning it over in my head. I thought it was fascinating that a man who would find his true greatness by teaming up with a frontier horseman who had been rendered obsolete by the automobile. I started poking around in more documents and doing a few interviews, and a spectacular story tumbled out of the research.”
Laura Hillenbrand

Her research became an article, then a best-selling book, and then a wonderful film based on Seabiscuit and the people that were touched by that horse. One of the side benefits of research is what you can stumble upon along the road you thought you were headed down. Serendipity happens in writing, in traveling, and in life.

Speaking of life, the movie was produced and released in wake of the September 11, 2001. A film about struggle was timely then, and it’s timely in 2010. A public speaker once told me that if you talk about pain and suffering, you will always have an audience. This is how the book starts:

“In the winter of 1937, America was in the seventh year of the most catastrophic decade in its history. The economy had come crashing down, and millions upon millions of people had been torn loose from their jobs, their savings, their homes.”

It was the task of screenwriter and director Gary Ross to take Hillenbrand’s research and best-selling book and somehow tell the story in two hours.

Seabiscuit is about these broken characters coming together, how they helped heal one another. It’s about people redeeming each other, getting past their own barriers and isolation to live again, and to re-engage in life. That’s what I found so amazing about it, was the struggles these three guys had out of despair. As the country was engaging in a similar struggle. That’s what really drew me to it.”
Gary Ross
DVD Talk Interview

Themes about hardship and the hope for change and transformation will never go out of style. Perhaps that is not only the history of American cinema, but of the history of civilization.

Related Posts: Seabiscuit Revisited in 2008
Writing Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid

Scott W. Smith

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That’s it, Eric Guggenheim is the final straw. Is it me or are screenwriter’s names getting longer? Today I’m officially change one of the categories on this blog from “Screenwriting Quote of the Day” to simply “Screenwriting Quote #___.” The last writer I quoted was Mark D. Rosenthal and the post heading just looked too long.

So let it be said, so let it be done.

Wonder what took me so long to edit that down. It’s not like I’m paid by the word like my first writing gig at the Sanford Herald. I think it was 10 cents a word. But, heck, I was nineteen and thrilled to being paid anything to write. (Wish I was making 10 cents a word to write this blog.)

Anyway, back to Eric Guggenheim. Guggenheim sold his first script at age 23 just after he graduated from NYU before going on to write the script for Miracle (on the 1980 US Hockey team).  In an interview he did with Debra Eckerling he was asked, “What separates a good sports movie from a bad one?”

Guggenhiem: If all you have is that big game, you’re lost. The film has to be about something else. Take Seabiscuit for example. It’s a story about loss and healing that just happens to be set against the backdrop of horseracing. Jeff Bridges’ character lost his son, Tobey Maguire’s character lost his family. Chris Cooper’s character lost his way of life. Working with the horse and each other helped to ease those losses.

Since I’ll go on record as Seabiscuit being my favorite movie of the last decade (and most watched), I never get tired of talking about that movie. (And am always surprised by how many people haven’t seen the film.) Sports film, horseracing, big Hollywood film—I get why some people would not be attracted to the film, but if you haven’t seen it give it a try. It really is a well-crafted film that is enjoyable to watch on many levels.

Is your favorite sports film about more than the big game? I know Rocky & Hoosiers are both about broken characters looking for redemption.

And by the way, Debra Eckeling writes for Storylink and has the website Write On Online (which is full of Q&A with writers). And you can follow her on Twitter @writeononline.

Scott W. Smith


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“Pick-up your crazy heart and give it one more try.”
From the Crazy Heart theme song

Since one of my favorite films of all times is Tender Mercies, the Horton Foote-written story of a fading country & western singer (played by Robert Duvall, who won an Oscar for his role in the 1983 movie), I look forward to seeing Crazy Heart which stars Jeff Bridges as a down and almost out country singer.

I noticed that the title track to Crazy Heart (The Weary Kind) was written & performed by singer Ryan Bingham. I was unfamiliar with his work but the name Ryan Bingham sounded familiar. Wasn’t the main character in Up in the Air named Bingham? I doubled checked and sure enough the character  George Clooney plays in the recent Jason Reitman film is in fact named Ryan Bingham. (And I thought Scott Smith was a common name.)

Earlier this week Ryan Bingham (the singer) won a Golden Globe award for Best Original Song (along with T. Bone Burnett), and Reitman and Sheldon Turner won Best Screenplay for Up in the Air (featuring the character Ryan Bingham). Small world, huh?

Here is an interview that Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper has with the singer Ryan Bingham & T. Bone Burnett as they talk about writing their Golden Globe winning song. (Followed by the song itself performed by the real life 28-year-old, former bull rider, Ryan Bingham.)

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