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Posts Tagged ‘John Hughes’

Since I agree that creativity is simply connecting influences (not my phrase) today’s post is a good example of that. A few days ago I wrote about writer/director John Hughes and yesterday I wrote about Youngstown, Ohio. In doing that research I stumbled upon a connection between the two—Home Alone.

That little $15 million film that went on to make over $500 million world wide was written by John Hughes and directed by Christopher Columbus. Youngstown? That’s where Columbus spent much of his childhood and graduated from high school. (Technically, the northern suburb of Champion, Ohio where he attended John F. Kennedy High School.) His father was a coal miner.

Columbus headed to NYU to attend film school. (If you look at  a map you see if you head due east on Interstate 80 from Northeast Ohio and drive for 6 hours it will take you right into Manhattan.) While still a student at NYU Columbus sold his first script, which filmbug.com says was called Jocks, and was “a semi-autobiographical comedy about a Catholic schoolboy who struggles with his religion and his inability to succeed on the high school football team.”  After graduating from NYU he sold the script Reckless, “based on his experiences as a factory worker in Ohio. The film was directed by James Foley and starred Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah.”

But what really put Columbus on the map was working with Spielberg directly for three years as he developed his writing style and that resulted in his writing Gremlins (1984) and The Goonies (1985). Columbus directed Home Alone in ’90 and two more John Hughes films before directing the first two Harry Potter films.

In a 2003 DGA article it was pointed out about Columbus:

“If there is a common theme to his films, it would be variations on familial relationships. Home Alone is about a boy who loses his family and must find the inner strength to survive alone. Mrs. Doubtfire is about a man who loses his family through divorce and the only way he can reenter their world is by doing the outrageous, dressing up as the family housekeeper. Only the Lonely, which Columbus also wrote, is about a man who needs to extricate himself from his mother’s domineering presence in order to marry the woman he loves. And, of course, there’s Harry Potter, the tale of a boy living a miserable existence with his aunt and uncle who finds refuge with an extended loving ‘family’ at Hogwarts, a school for wizards.”

Columbus clarified the common theme in most of his films:

“It’s always about the search for a family or the redefining of who your family is. I guess it’s the fact that sometimes you play on your biggest fear. My biggest fear in my life would be to lose my family. So I’ve always been drawn to that theme. I mean, it’s odd. I never really talked or thought about it much, but if you look at the films I’ve done, particularly the films I’m really most happy with, and even the films that weren’t that successful, I think there is a thematic link. Most of them are about someone potentially losing their family.”
Christopher Columbus
DGA Magazine January 2003

Columbus is part of a small tribe of filmmakers whose films have made more than $1 billion at the box office. Not bad for a guy from Youngstown who used to work in a factory.

Scott W. Smith

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Using advertising as a stepping stone to screenwriting has been going on for decades. Basically all writers need time to develop their craft, pay the bills, and meet people.  The five years that John Hughes spent in advertising hit all those goals. And according to Robert Nolan who hired him at Leo Burnett, Hughes didn’t slack off on the advertising work at hand and he even picked up a few presentation skills that would help him in dealing with studio executives once he began working in movies.

“John never looked down his nose at the job. He took on every assignment with gusto and an off-kilter sense of humor. He was tireless and prolific — a committed workaholic. Every time he had a success on one project, he’d take on two more. When he finished those two, he’d go for four more. He was a whirlwind, banging away on his typewriter from morning till night. I think it was a discipline that never left him.

…Years later, when he was a successful screenwriter, he told me that the presentation skills he learned at Burnett helped him in presenting to the studio executives. He always remembered two things: first, to tell them what the idea was in one sentence before going into the details; second, to make some self-deprecating remark or a joke about the studio executive’s tie in order to break the ice and make everyone relax.”
Robert Nolan
The Early Ferris Bueller: Remembering John Hughes in Advertising

 

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Writing action in a screenplay is not to be confused with car chases (though it could be a car chase). The action, or as it is also called the narrative, is simply what’s supposed to be happening on screen. More often than not it is a few blurbs rather than thick paragraphs. If there is a lot of action it’s best of you can break it down into short paragraphs. Keeping the action to a minimum helps to keep the screenplay vertical, which keeps the reader of your script heading down the page. Here are how some memorable scenes looked like on the page:

INT. GARAGE

Cameron has kicked the Ferrari off the jack. It squeals out the of the garage in a cloud of blue smoke. A $50,000 unmanned investment heading backwards down a driveway.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
                                    John Hughes       

EXT. ART MUSEUM STAIRS – DAY

It is twilight and Rocky is alone at the very bottom of a huge flight of steps that seem to stretch into the heavens…Rocky takes a deep breath and sprints up the never ending stairs …Halfway up, his body shows the strain. Nearing the top, Rocky pumps with all his strength and arrives at the very top…He looks down the steep stairs and swells with pride…He is ready.
Rocky
                                    Sylvester Stallone

As ANNIE swings, the sledgehammer makes contact with the ankle. It breaks with a sharp CRACK.
CUT TO:
PAUL: CLOSE UP, shrieking.

                                     Misery
                                     William Goldman 

He wades upstream, ripping his clothes from his body. He gets his shirt off, spins it through the air over his head, flings the shirt away. He raises his arms to the sky, turning slowly, feeling the rain washing him clean. Exultant. Triumphant. A FLASH OF LIGHTNING arcs from horizon to horizon.
                                      The Shawshank Redemption
Frank Darabont

Notice how it doesn’t take many words to convey a lot in a screenplay?

Scott W. Smith

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“I adore Chicago. It is the pulse of America.”
Sarah Bernhardt

“You’re Abe Froman… the sausage king of Chicago?”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

“I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail.
H. L. Mencken

“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone!”
The Untouchables

Last week a 5.4 earthquake hit Illinois and was felt in Indiana and as far away as Iowa. Just one more way the Midwest is following those California trends. You know, I’m doing my part to export screenwriting from the Midwest and other unlikely places where people are writing so it makes sense to make another road trip and head over the Iowa state line to the east and travel into Illinois.

The epicenter of last week’s earthquake was West Salem, but from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective the epicenter for the Midwest is Chicago. It’s the third largest city in the United States and sits with a commanding view of Lake Michigan and can rightly be called The Third Coast.

Everyone should have the opportunity once in their life to have their own version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the windy city. Here’s my perfect Chicago day: The Art Institute in the morning, a walk and lunch at the Navy Pier, see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field, ride an architectural boat tour, a sunset dinner at the Signature Room high atop the John Hancock Center , a play at one of the zillions of theater options, a carriage ride around the Chicago Water Tower downtown and a nice room at The Drake Hotel on the Magnificent Mile with a room overlooking the Gold Coast (and where they welcome my golden retriever).

And if you have the weekend you can fit in a concert at Millennium Park and a list that just gets longer and longer. Chicago is a great city. And it alone has produced a wealth of creative talent that shines as bright as a city. (Maybe that’s why Dan Quayle once said, “It is wonderful to be in the great state of Chicago…”)  Here’s a list of writers from Illinois though I’m sure to leave out many people. (Feel free to email me additional writers with connections there.)

Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding)
Sam Shepard (True West)
David Mamet (The Verdict)
Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)
Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels)
Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan)
Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea)
Mark Brown (Barbershop)
John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix)
Harold Ramis  (Groundhog Day)
Bill Murray (The Razor’s Edge)
Greg Glienna (Meet the Parents)
Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness)
John Logan (Gladiator)
Jon Favreau (Swingers)
Tina Fey (Mean Girls)
Michael Mann (The Insider)
Phil Vischer (VeggieTales movies)
Roger Rueff (The Big Kahuna)
Robert Zemeckis,  (Back to the Future)
Edward Zwick, (The Last Samurai)
Diablo Cody (Juno)
John Logan (Hugo
Garry Marshall (The Odd Couple-TV)

From the odd connections category, Evangelist Billy Graham (who used to have a film studio in Burbank) and horror specialist Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) both graduated from Wheaton College about 30 miles from downtown Chicago. Blues Brother, and writer/actor John Belushi graduated from Wheaton High School.

Film critic and produced screenwriter Roger Ebert (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and screenwriter/Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman) are both are both graduates of the University of Illinois system.

Filmmaker and book publisher Michael Wiese is originally from Illinois. I have at least a dozen production books that Michael Wiese Productions has produced. If you’re not familiar with their books three to check out are Save the Cat (Blake Snyder) , Shot by Shot (Steven D. Katz) and The Hero’s Journey (Christopher Vogler).

A special mention must be made to two pillars of writing from Chicago: Pulitzer Prize winner Saul Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift) and Studs Terkel (Hard Times).

The list of well-known actors with Chicago ties is too long to list but here are a few;  Harrison Ford, Vince Vaugh, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, John and Joan Cusack, Virgina Madsen, Kim Novak, Bill Murray, Terrance Howard, Red Foxx, Bonnie Hunt, Patricia Arquette, Karl Malden and Gary Sinise.

Chicago is the kind of place where probably every night of the week you could attend a film related function between the various school, colleges and professional groups. There are plenty of ways to avoid writing if you live in the Chicago area.

But, of course, your goal is probably to write while living outside L.A., get sold and get produced. (I’ve said before you could live in West Africa or West Covina and feel like you’re far from the Hollywood system.)

Let me tell you about a fellow I just found out about via the DVXuser.com forum. Kyle is a radiologists living in the suburbs of Chicago. He owns a DV camera package and writes screenplays. In other words he was like every other writer with a dream…until a couple weeks ago.

He wrote a screenplay called The Lemon Tree and had a lawyer he met in Chicago rep him in L.A. and earlier this month sold the script for $300,000 against $600,000. He has no plans to quit his job and move to L.A. The next step is seeing if the film gets made and then if it finds an audience. But as far as a writer outside the system Kyle has hit the jackpot, and proves it can be done.

(You can read the entire thread and download a well-informed screenwriting document Kyle has put together at DVXuser.com. Look under filmmaking–screenplay/writing/Sold it! The DVXuser forum is a wealth of info for the independent filmmaker and a supportive community. Here’s a little poser shot of me with my DVX camera back in ’06 when I was shooting a documentary in Chicago.)

If you want further proof that screenplays can be sold by screenwriters outside L.A. here is a quote that screenwriter and author of Save the Cat! Blake Snyder sent me when I asked him about writers living outside L.A. selling their work:

“I have said often that geography is no longer an impediment to a career in screenwriting. I know of one woman who decided to be a screenwriter in Chicago, wrote 5 scripts, sold 2 and got an agent and manager, all while never leaving the confines of her condo.  It starts with a great concept! You have a great idea and a great poster, if you execute that well, you will get phone calls — and deals.  The key is: the great script!  And that starts with the step by step process I outline in Cat!  Go get ‘em!”

On the footsteps of The Dark Knight (Batman) being filmed last summer in Illinois, the current big movie being shot there is Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant starting Matt Damon with a funky mustache. The story takes place in Decatur and is based on Kurt Eichenwald’s book about a scandal at Archer Daniels Midland’s Company (ADM) that involved the FBI. Ultimately ADM was fined $100 million for a conspiracy involving replacing sugar with high fructose corn syrup. Shades of Soderbergh’s other film about corporate greed,Erin Brockovich?

Other helpful sites about the filmmaking scene in Illinois here are a few recommended sites:

Reel Chicago

Chicago Script Works

Midwest FIlm

Chicago Screenwriters

Illinois Film Biz


So come on, if Abraham Lincoln can go from a one room log cabin to become the 16th President of the United States (via Illinois) certainly that should give you some motivation to overcome a few obstacles in your life to get your scripts written and sold. Or maybe to buy a camera and make your own films. Even if you live in Springfield or Kankakee.

Speaking of Kankakee, if Screenwriting from Iowa had a theme song it might be Chicago native Stevie Goodman’s City of New Orleans because it captures a flavor of a life beyond Hollywood:

Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passin’ towns that have no names
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

Chorus
Good morning, America, how are you
Don’t you know me, I’m your native son
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

And if I can pick a B-side song I’ll go with, Jim Croce’s tribute to the South Side of ‘ole Chicago — Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.

Photographs & Text Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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