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Posts Tagged ‘John Sayles’

“I often say to people: ‘You absolutely can make movies. The idea of having a career in the movie business is a very, very different thing.’ That’s just dollar and cents. A garage band can release their music for free on the web make their money by gigging live. You can’t do that as a moviemaker. People have to pay for the movie, not to see you talk about it. There’s a pretty big generation of people who are just so used to getting things for free. It’s really hard to make money back on a movie now…Moviemaking has gotten a lot more democratic. If you’re just starting with a credit card and a bunch of friends, you can make a movie. You don’t have to buy film stock and develop it anymore. But getting it distributed is really tough, and one of the reasons it’s tough is because everybody else can make a movie.”
Two-time Oscar-nominated writer/director John Sayles (Lone Star, Passion Fish)
Indiewire interview with Eric Kohn

Related posts:
Thinking in Pictures (John Sayles)
Screenwriting Quote #60 (John Sayles)
The ‘Piranha’ Highway
Writing for Low Budget Films

Scott W. Smith

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“I think it’s good for a writer to always be an outsider of some sort.”
Canadian-born screenwriter Paul Haggis

“When I’ve spoken at colleges and schools and—after you give the long spiel about writing from the heart, and all that stuff—the writers always ask, ‘What are people looking for?’ And I say, ‘Stop, stop thinking that right now.’ The really great producers don’t look for that anyway. They’re looking for an individual voice. They’re looking for a story that moves them.  And if you start thinking, ‘What do they want?’ and write that, then you’re never going to reach down to that great place.”
Two-time Oscar-winning producer/director/writer Paul Haggis (Crash)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

Note: Haggis co-wrote both Crash and Million Dollar Baby on spec. The end result was a total 13 Oscar nominations, and seven wins for those movies.

P.S. Screenwriting Summer School homework: Take all advice with a grain of salt. Plenty of people  started their careers with Roger Corman by asking what he wanted. Keep in mind that the above quote is from an Oscar-winning screenwriter. But when Haggis was starting out in his career he wrote for The Richie Rich/Scooby-Doo Show and The Love Boat. And despite Billy Ray’s quote (Screenwriting Litmus Test) “Never ever write a movie that you yourself wouldn’t pay to see”—I’m not 100% sure Oscar-nominated writer/directed John Sayles wanted to see Piranha (1978) or Alligator (1980), scripts he worked on early in his career. But as far a spec scripts, I say absolutely write something from the heart that you would want to see (and hopefully one a few other people would also like to see ).

Related posts:

The Outsider Advantage
Finding Your Voice Frank Darabont quote
Finding Your Own Voice Henry Miller quote
The ‘Piranha’ Highway “It’s funny the things you would do when you’re starting out in your career that you probably wouldn’t do the same later.”—Director Joe Dante (Piranha)
Coppola & Roger Corman
Filmmaking Quote #7 (James Cameron) The Canadian-born writer/director who stands at the top of the Hollywood box office.

Scott W. Smith

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“I can remember very vividly in high school getting my heart-broken and it was like a physical pain. I was physically nauseous. And anytime there is an emotion that is that strong, or that I can remember or feel that strongly in the present day, it’s worth hanging a movie around.”
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols

While the overall cast of Mud is convincing and believable, the acting between Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan is unusually remarkable. Part of that credit goes to the actors themselves, but also to the writer/director Jeff Nichols. So I thought it would be beneficial to look at how Nichols approached the directing side of Mud.

“I give actors a fairly clear blueprint. And I’m happy to talk things out with them, but if they have big character questions then something’s wrong. Either I didn’t do my job or they’re not paying attention. We don’t really rehearse very much. If you don’t understand something I’ll walk you through it a little bit, but that’s really not the case. And I like to roll on the first take ’cause you never know what’s going to happen. And then I don’t shoot very much beyond that. We do four or five takes and we move on. And we don’t do very much improvisation or anything else….I read John Sayles’ book and I think we’re pretty similar in that we shoot constructive coverage. We shoot puzzle pieces that hinge and fit together. I don’t shoot standard coverage and I know the pieces that are going to be going together to make the whole thing.  And in order to do that I lean really heavily on the script. It’s my safety-net. “
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols (Mud)
Dp/30 Mud Interview

P.S. John Sayles directed McConaughy in Lone Star. I think the Sayles book that Nichols is referring to is Thinking in Pictures. A few years ago I wrote the post Thinking in Pictures (John Sayles).

Related posts:
Writing “Mud”
Screenwriting Quote #183 (Jeff Nichols)
Screenwriting Quote #60 (John Sayles) A warning about movies going over a 2 hour run time. (Advice that Nichols didn’t follow. Mud runs 130 minutes.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Visiting the set of Piranha and talking to the people involved in making it helped me learn one of the basic rules of film production, which is talk is cheap and action is expensive.”
John Sayles

The term low budget is relative. Some talk in terms of a $10 million film being low budget, others talk about $500,000. being low budget and others talk about $10,000. being low budget. Talking about film costs is like taking about affordable housing in Manhattan, New York versus Manhattan, Kansas (The Little Apple)—they’re two different worlds.

In his book Thinking in Pictures, writer/director John Sayles talks about the writing parameters for writing low budget films using a union cast and crew. But in general most of his considerations ring true for any size productions. If you’re trying to keep your costs down on a script you are writing, Sayles says the first requirement is an understanding of what costs money in making a movie.

“Anything set in a historical period costs more for costumes, props and sets than the same story in a contemporary setting would (unless you’re doing Adam and Eve in Griffith Park). Shooting on location brings with it the expense of lodging, per diem, travel days, long-distance phone calls and shipping of film materials. Each speaking part you add means another day or more of Screen Actor Guild (SAG) minimum wage, even for a few lines. Music you don’t own the publishing or performing rights to can cost a fortune. Precision camera movement calls for a crew that can pull it off—the best people in those categories are expensive to hire. Star actors cost a lot more than SAG minimum and can run you into lots more maintaining them in the style to which they’ve become accustomed. Special effects and stunts are more expensive and increase your insurance bills. Action scenes and stunts are more expensive to shoot in terms of shots and man-hours per screen minute than dialogue scenes are. Special equipment—cranes, Stedicams, helicopter mounts—all cost a lot. Each additional day you shoot has a price tag on it.”
John Sayles
Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan

There are those that think you shouldn’t inhibit your writing by worrying about the expense of shooting. Just tell the story as best you can. But it’s not easy to get any film made, so if you’re not working on Steven Zaillian-sized projects at least consider this post food for thought. Every film has concerns about costs and sometimes whole scenes are cut because of budget restraints and others need to be re-written to accommodate the budget.

One famous scene in a studio film that was changed from how it was originally written was in Rocky when Rocky Balboa pays the skating rink maintenance guy to let Adrian and him into the rink when it’s closed. The scene was originally written to take place on a busy skating rink, but the producers decided they didn’t have money in the budget for all the extras, so it was re-written to basically be just Rocky and Adrian and it turned out to be a solid scene. Probably better than how it was originally written.

“Embrace your limitations” should be the motto of the low budget filmmaker. (Actually, I think I first heard that phrase was from DP Nancy Schreiber on the DVD commentary of the $150,000. film November in which she won a cinematography award at Sundance for shooting.) Don’t worry about what you can’t do, focus on what you can do.

Sayles writes, “The ideal low-budget movie is set in the present, with few sets, lots of interiors, only a couple speaking actors (none of them known), no major optical effects, no horses to feed. It is no wonder so many beginning movie-makers set a bunch of not-yet-in-the-Guild teenagers loose in an old house and have some guy in a hockey mask go around and skewer them.”

But it doesn’t have to be a horror film. Here’s a short list of films of various budgets that all took advantage of shooting mostly in one location (some with no wardrobe changes over the course of the film):

Buried
Panic Room
The Tenant
Phone Booth
Clerks
Closetland
12 Angry Men
The Breakfast Club
Clue
Dogville
Paranormal Activity
Obsession

Lifeboat
Rear Window

Rope

Take note that those last three films were directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  “Embrace your limitations.”

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s funny the things you would do when you’re starting out in your career that you probably wouldn’t do the same later.”
Joe Dante
Director (Piranha)

There are probably not six degrees of separation between the movie Piranha and anyone is working in Hollywood.

Of course, you could probably take any feature ever made and find an interesting crossroad of careers for cast and crew members. The 1978 Roger Corman film Piranha is a good example. Perhaps the biggest surprise on that film is it’s the film that launched John Sayles’ film career.

But before we look at Sayles, let’s glance at some of the other people that worked on the JAWS-inspired cult classic.

It was director Joe Dante’s (Gremlins) second feature with New World Pictures.

The lead actor in Piranha, Bradford Dillman, had the lead role in the 1961 film Francis of Assisi directed by the great Michael Curtiz (Casablanca).

Barbara Steele who had a small role in Piranha was in Fellini’s classic movie 8 1/2.

The low-budget film was edited by Mark Goldblatt who would go on to edit the not so low-budget films The Terminator, Armageddon, and X-Men: The Last Stand.

Piranha’s sound effects editor Richard L. Anderson has since be nominated for two Oscars and has worked on sound on dozens of  films including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Shrek the Third and won an Emmy as part of the team that did sound editing on Amazing Stories.

Phil Tippet who was a creature designer on Piranha has won two Oscars and two Emmys for his visual effects and has worked on Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark movies and most recently was visual effects supervisor on Eclipse.

I believe Piranha was also the first make-up credit that Rob Bottin earned on his way to working on The Thing, Fight Club, Seven, and received an Oscar-Nomination for his work on Total Recall.

I’m sure that list could go on and on of people who were on the crew happy to be getting their start working on what would become a cult classic. But since this is a blog on screenwriting let’s look at John Sayles’ role as the screenwriter of Piranha and how he got to work on that film.

Sayles was born in Schenechtady, New York, raised Catholic by his educator parents, and graduated from Williams College in 1972 (B.S. in psychology). According to his website, after college he hitchhiked across much of the U.S., worked as a nursing-home orderly in Albany, as a day laborer in Atlanta, and as a meat packer in Boston. In the 1975, Sayles who had been writing stories since he was eight-years old had his first short story published (I-80 Nebraska) in the  Atlantic Monthly, and it went on to win an O. Henry Award.

That led him to publishing his first novel, Pride of the Bimbos, which eventually led him  a literary agent, for who he wrote a screenplay for just to show the agent he could write a screenplay, followed by an opportunity to write his first produced screenplay, Piranha, for $10,000.

“The great thing was between Roger (Corman) and (story editor) Frances Doel, the story conferences were very compact and very specific. I never got these very vague directions like ‘We’ve got problems with the second act,’ or something like that. I did a lot of re-writes based on very specific notes. The other great thing about working there was that Roger only paid someone to write a script that he was going to make. There’s not a lot of development of material that’s not going to be produced. So I wrote three things that got produced in a very short order. I wrote very quickly, usually two or three drafts, that made Roger happy because he got to see something concrete right away.”
John Sayles
Interview with Alex Simon

Sayles success and experience working on the Roger Corman films paved the way for him to direct his first feature Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979). Since then he’s carved out a nice filmmaking career. (And he does have a blog where he writes about his recent film Amigo.) The important take away from Sayles start is it was his writing that got him the connections and opportunities. He didn’t go to film school, he worked odd jobs around the country, wrote some short stories that finally got published, won a big award, published a novel, wrote a second novel, then landed an agent, and wrote a spec script—all before he hopped on the Piranha highway. My guess is since he had been writing stories since he was eight-years-old and was 25 when he began to get published that Sayles got his 10,000 hours in before he started to make any money on his writings.

The DVD of Piranha came out this summer and has a humorous commentary by Dante and producer Jon Davison as they recount how they messed up the swimming pool at USC and filmed at Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, Texas (near Austin). Davison says that most of the crew was paid $50. a day.

And as a nice footnote to getting your start on low-budget features, Piranha Part Two:The Spawning was the first feature film directed by an up and coming film director/writer named James Cameron. Yes, James Cameron who directed Titanic and Avatar.

Related post: Coppola & Roger Corman

Scott W. Smith


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I think it was designer Milton Glaser who said all creativity is is connecting influences. The other day when I was writing the post on Temple Grandin called Thinking in Pictures (the title of one of her books) I seemed to recall there was an old book on filmmaking also called Thinking in Pictures. So I poked around my books and found it yesterday.

John Sayles’ book Thinking in Pictures was published back in 1987 and subtitled The Making of the Movie Matewan. (Just saw where you can buy a used copy on Amazon for $4.24.) One nice connection with the movie Temple Grandin and Matewan is both feature actor David Strathairn. Back in the day, it was hard to find much information out about independent filmmaking and Sayles’ was a beacon. It’s still a solid book that gives an excellent overview of the production process.

I flipped through the book this morning looking at my yellow highlighted sections hoping to find a quote that seemed to jump out at me and fit what I try to communicate on this blog called Screenwriting from Iowa…and other unlikely places and found this quote:

“If storytelling has a positive function it’s to put us in touch with other people’s lives, to help us connect and draw strength or knowledge from people we’ll never meet, to help us see beyond our own experience. The people I read about in the history books and the people I met in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia had important stories to tell and I wanted to find a way to pass them on.”
John Sayles
Thinking in Pictures
page 11

So if you’re looking for a filmmaker who champions unusual people and places then check out John Sayles’ films. And tomorrow I’ll talk about how Sayles himself got his unusual start in the film business—writing the script for the 1978 Roger Corman film Piranha.

Scott W. Smith

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This will be the last of four days of pulling some quotes and thoughts from Tony Bill’s book Movie Speak, How to Talk Like You Belong on a Film Set. It’s a helpful little book that comes with an impressive lists of endorsements; Steve Spielberg, Dennis Hopper, Jodie Foster, John Sayles and Roger Ebert.

One of my favorite phrases that I learned from the book was the definition of “classic Hollywood cinema” :
“A Jewish-owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America.”
anonymous

Sounds like a college class to me. Or at least a workshop. The great film On the Waterfront fits that category as does several others off the top of my head. It would be interesting to see just how many films made in the 30s through the 50s would fit that simple paradigm.

Perhaps a more interesting question would be, “What is the definition of contemporary cinema?”

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“One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart.”
Francis Ford Coppola

It’s hard to mark the beginning of the modern independent film movement. Certainly one could make the cases for the films of John Sayles, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino, but I mark the year of 1999 as the point when things really changed in the film industry.

That’s when a group of young guys in Orlando, Florida, created The Blair Witch Project. The graduates from the University of Central Florida shot with a mixture of 16mm film and consumer video cameras and made history. It is still the film with the highest ratio of profit to production cost of any film ever made.

One huge reason is that the filmmakers used the Internet to market their concept in a way that Hollywood easily could have afforded to do if they only had the vision. (They weren’t the only ones to miss the early boat. Bill Gates was not a cheerleader of the Internet at the start.) Hollywood caught the vision soon after the success of The Blair Witch Project, but they’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

I moved back to Orlando from L.A. at the end of 1988 just as the marketing campaign for Hollywood East was heating up. Disney and Universal were building production studios and Chapman-Leonard would follow suit.

Britney, Justin and Christina began doing their thing at Disney, and Nickelodeon found a new use for slime at Universal. Ron Howard’s Parenthood, Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57, and the building that blew up in the opening of Lethal Weapon III– were all shot in Orlando.

I wrote and directed a national radio drama at Century III (known as C-III) at Universal and received my first paycheck writing from Rick Eldridge who would go on to produce Bobby Jones Story; Stroke of Genius. I once was editing a video project at one of the suites at C-III while David Nutter (who I went to school with at the University of Miami) was editing a Super Boy episode he directed in the edit bay next to me. (Nutter went on to direct a Band of Brothers episode as well as some X-Files and has had quite a career in TV.)

Matchbox Twenty, Creed, and yes, The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync were on the Orlando music scene in the 90’s, Shaq was in command for the Orlando Magic, and Tiger Woods moved to town.

It was an exciting time to be in Orlando. But perhaps the biggest underrated event in that era was under most people’s radar. Valencia Community College lured film professor Ralph Clemente away from the University of Miami. (He still runs the film program at VCC that Steven Spielberg said was, “One of the best film schools in the country.”)

I had an editing class with Clemente at Miami and had gotten a good grade in part because I edited a montage of found rodeo footage with a Willie Nelson song. Who knew the German born Clemente whose accent sounds remarkably like Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s would be a Willie Nelson fan? Clemente enjoyed telling student to try new things.

Years later a couple of students would be inspired by Clemente to make a mockumentary that hit the Sundance Jackpot. Most people forget that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t even an official entrant. It was a special midnight showing that created the buzz that hasn’t really gone away.

It was as a giant step toward to prophetic words that Francis Ford Coppola said on the 1991 documentary Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse:

“To me the great hope is that now that these little 8mm video recorder and stuff now, some–just people who normally wouldnt make movies are going to be making them. And, you know, suddenly one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, and you know, and make a beautiful film with her father’s little camera-corder and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever and it will become an art form. That’s my opinion.”

S]

I hope you’ve never been exposed to that quote before. It’s legendary in the micro-budget film world. If I was a fat girl in Ohio who wanted to make films I’d have that quote gold-plated and framed above my iMac.

I don’t know why Coppola picked Ohio as his frame of reference. Maybe he chose it for the same reason I titled this blog Screenwriting from Iowa. Ohio, like Iowa, represents the heartland of America and is more known for farms than film. And since I’m throwing around f-words, Ohio is quintessential flyover country.

But Ohio rocks. In part because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. LeBron James does his magic in Cleveland. The kings of high-flying dreams, Orville and Wilber Wright worked out of a bicycle shop in Dayton. The list goes on. (Did you know that the Wright Brothers lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa at one time?)

And Ohio, like Iowa, has some interesting history connected to screenwriting and movie making: Sundance winner American SplendorMajor League, and the classic family film A Christmas Story. At the time of this writing the ever resourceful Internet Movie Date Base (IMDb) lists a tie for the top rated film ever by its voters as Coppola’s The Godfather and Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption.

The later having been shot in Mansfield, Ohio. That site is a character in the film. And you can still take tours there during the summer. (Mansfield State Reformatory in Ohio)

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Antioch College in funky Yellow Springs can lay claim to helping to educate Rod Serling before he became an advertising copywriter in Cincinnati before becoming the famous writer & host of The Twilight Zone.

Speaking of Cincinnati, though its influence is probably small, it’s worth nothing that Tom Cruise (who Premiere Mag ranked as the #3 Greatest Movie Star of All Time) attended school briefly in Cincinnati and the highest box office money-making director of all-time (over $3.5 Billion) Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati. (And just to pile on George Clooney was raised just over the river in Kentucky.)

The former reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Joe Eszterhas, has returned to his Ohio roots but not before making his mark in Hollywood where he made as much as four million dollars a script. While no one would accuse the writer of Basic Instinct and Showgirls with writing regional Midwestern stories that doesn’t mean he hasn’t written any. In his book Hollywood Animal, Eszterhas mentions a distinctly Midwestern film he wrote that never got made because he was told, “Dirt don’t sell.” Most of the film F.I.S.T. written by Eszterhas (directed by Norman Jewison and staring Sylvester Stallone) was filmed in Dubuque, Iowa.

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In his book “The Devils Guide to Hollywood,” Eszterhas offers advice to screenwriters such as “Move to the Midwest.” Talk about counter-culture? (And from a guy who once owed homes in Malibu, the San Francisco Bay area, and Hawaii–at the same time.)

Why would he give such advice? “You won’t be able to write real people if you stay in L.A. too long. L.A. has nothing to do with the rest of America. It is a place whose values are shaped by the movie business. It is my contention that it is not just a separate city, or even a separate state, but a separate country located within America. Real people live in Bainbridge Township, Ohio.”

(Perhaps that’s part of the success of Diablo Cody’s Minnesota-based Juno? Maybe she should write a tell all book and call it, Diablo’s Guide to Hollywood.)

But what does Mr. Eszterhas think about what that does for your odds of selling a screenplay? Glad you asked. These are the words every writer outside L.A. wants to hear:

If you write a script anywhere and send it to an agent in Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever…and if that agent sends it to an agent in Hollywood who loves it…you can sell your script. You don’t need to have any connections, you don’t need to have an agent, you don’t need to live in L.A. All you have to do is send your finished script to an agent anywhere. That agent will know another agent in Hollywood and you’ll be in business.”

Joe Eszterhas

Keep in mind Eszterhas is talking about the conventional Hollywood agent route, not the additional opportunities wherever you live by various production people who will be attracted to your script.

While not being fat or from Ohio, Zana Briski took a giant step toward Coppola’s vision when the English photographer picked up a handheld DV camera for the first time and made a film in Calcutta’s red light district. Co-directed and shot with Ross Kauman, Born into Brothels, won Best Documentary Feature at the 2005 Academy Awards.

Some people have been asking “Where’s that little fat girl in Ohio?” I think he may have meant Iowa. People get those confused a lot, you know?

But wherever she is she’s on her way. Although she may not make her film using her father’s camera-corder as Coppola suggested, but using her cell phone camera and posting it on the Internet.

Rewind back to 1999 when Steven Spielberg told Katie Couric on the NBC today show, “I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”

As in Des Moines, I-O-W-A. I don’t just make this stuff up, you know? When Couric remarked, “Great, I’m gonna lose my job” (No comment.), ” Spielberg interjected, “We’re all gonna lose our jobs. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.” (Speaking of the Internet, to see a fun and original five-minute film actually made in Des Moines view Mimes of the Prairie, which won the 2005 National 48 Hour Film Project.

As Morgan Freeman’s famous character Red says, “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

Cheers to the new Mozarts in Ohio and beyond.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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