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Posts Tagged ‘Katie Holmes’

“Most of us have some old pain or hurt that we don’t think about all the time, but which is always vulnerable on some level of awareness…To humanize a hero or any character, give her a wound, a visible, physical injury or deep emotional wound.”
Christopher Volger
The Writer’s Journey

Katie Holmes in “Pieces of April”

Since it’s Thanksgiving Day and I’ve been writing a string of posts the last couple of weeks on The Florida Project, I thought it would be fitting to repost some thoughts on Pieces of April That 2003 low-budget indie film set entirely on Thanksgiving Day could be a cousin of The Florida Project.

Both are simple yet complex films. Pieces of April starred Katie Holmes who played April, a different version of the Halley character (Bria Vinaite) in The Florida Project. 

Yesterday I stopped at a connivence store here in the Orlando area and saw a real life April/Halley. She looked around the same age as the girls those movies, but looked more tired, worn, and dirty. She sat leaning against a wall next to a large backpack.

Since I was stopping in the store for a protein bar I bought an extra one I was going to  give to her. A clerk came in from outside as I was checking out and said to the other clerk, “If she’s not gone in ten minutes, I’m calling the police. She’s been asked to leave three times.”

When I got outside she was still there and I gave her the protein bar and a dollar and she thanked me. It wasn’t a Thanksgiving dinner or the promise of a better life. But it was something. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (co-written with Chris Begosh) may not change the world, but the words of playwright Tom Stoppard come to mind:

“I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.” 
Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love)
Above quote spoken by character Henry in The Real Thing: A Play

Pieces of April was written and directed by Peter Hedges who was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa. A fact I didn’t learn until years after falling in love with the movie.

In December of 1998, I received a phone call from my mother in Iowa. She had bad news. She’d been diagnosed with cancer. I went to her as soon as I could. She underwent radiation and chemotherapy. Over the next fifteen months, my sisters, my brothers, and I traveled back and forth to take care of her.

“During this time, my mother urged me to keep writing, but it was difficult. One day in my office in Brooklyn, I started opening files on my computer and came across notes I’d written a year earlier for a story about  girl with a broken oven trying to get her turkey cooked.

“In my notes, I had named the girl April after the moody, unpredictable month. The month when it is sunny one moment and rainy the next. In my notes, she was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for her family. Most surprising was the reason why I’d decided April was making the meal: She was attempting to bridge an estranged relationship with her mother who was sick with cancer. 

“That’s when I knew this was a story I had to write.”
Writer/director Peter Hedges
Pieces of April; The Shooting Script—Introduction

May you all write stories that “nudge the world a little.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

P.S. So after I wrote this post I saw the trailer for the Katie Homes directed the film All We Had about a mother-daughter relationship where “everything around us is collapsing.”

Related posts:
Goal. Stakes. Urgency. (Tip #60)
Protagonist= Struggle
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B+C)

Scott W. Smith

 

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” I don’t know why I’m so hard on you Beth, when you’ve always been the daughter of my dreams. We’re almost the same person, except I don’t have your weight problems.”
Joy (Patricia Clarkson) in Pieces of April

Happy Mother’s Day.

I picked today to round out my set of posts on Pieces of April (2003)  because even though it’s a film set on Thanksgiving Day—it’s kind of a Mother’s Day film as well. And of the six posts I’ve written on the movie (starting with this post on April 1) I needed to give a special mention to actress Patricia Clarkson.

Clarkson plays Katie Holmes’ mother, Joy, in the film written and directed by Peter Hedges. Clarkson’s had a solid 30+ year career (which followed getting a Master’s in theater from Yale), yet her sole Oscar-nomination is from Pieces of April.

So if you know Clarkson from one of her many film, Tv and/or theater roles, including her role in Six Feet Under where she won two Emmys, her 2015 Tony Award-winning Broadway performance in The Elephant Man—or even from the so wrong Motherlove music video featuring Justin Timberlake and Adam Sandler—but haven’t seen her in Pieces of April check it out.

(And if you’re estranged from your mother, really check it out.)

Related Posts:
Pieces of April (Part 1)
Pieces of April (Part 2) 
Pieces of April (Part 3) 
Pieces of April (Part 4) 
Pieces of April (Part 5)
Pieces of April (Part 6) 

 

 

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Most of us have some old pain or hurt that we don’t think about all the time, but which is always vulnerable on some level of awareness…To humanize a hero or any character, give her a wound, a visible, physical injury or deep emotional wound.”
Christopher Volger
The Writer’s Journey

April

Because it’s probably never been done before, allow me to compare the 2003 indie film Pieces of April to the 1982 classic blockbuster E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. I’ll flesh that out in a moment.

I’ve heard it said that everyone has a personal wound—and it’s usually a wound from a  mother or father. In Pieces of April the wound is from the mother. But the prodigal child April (Katie Holmes) decides that she wants to cook Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment —perhaps due to the fact that her mother Joy has cancer.

We don’t know exactly how that arrangement went down since the movie starts Thanksgiving morning with the plans already in place. And at the 15 minute mark April realizes she has a problem—a dilemma. Her oven isn’t working.

This is how writer/director Peter Hedges writes the key conflict scene in half a page:

INT. APRIL’S APARTMENT – KITCHEN AREA

April finishes writing “Mom” on the Thanksgiving-themed name card she has decorated. Beat as she looks at it. She tears it in two. Then writes “Joy” on the Thanksgiving-themed name card.

She glances up at…

A small clock on her dinning room table which reads 8:00.

April crosses to the turkey pan sitting on the counter, lifts the pan and carries it to the oven. She opens the oven.

She’s about to slide the turkey in when she stops. Beat. She reaches in, feels for heat. Her hands touch the sides of the oven. Her hands touch the metal roasting rack.

She checks the temperature knob. It’s been turned to 375.

She stares in confusion, then it hits.

                                        APRIL
                     Oh, no. No –

A nice simple scene about a broken oven. Normally it wouldn’t be that big a deal, but Hedges raises the stakes by adding that it’s Thanksgiving morning, that April’s mother has cancer, and her family is expecting her to let them down. As I said it Part 1 it’s the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.

Now what could that possibly have in common with E.T.? Well, the Steven Spielberg directed movie (written by Melissia Mathison) opens with space aliens already on earth. Their space ship planted firmly in the San Fernando Valley. But that’s not the inciting incident, that comes at the seven minute mark when E.T. gets left behind when the space ship leaves without him.

If E.T.’s on that ship Spielberg & Mathison would have to tell a different story. And on the same note, if April’s oven works then Hedges has to tell a different story.

I labor the point because script readers say one of the common problems in screenplays they read is a lack of a clear inciting incident. Something active that sets the story in motion and ties into the ending.

I know indie films like to be less conventional, but I think Pieces of April is an indie film that works well following this basic screenwriting principle. (Winter’s Bone does as well.) If you’ve ever read 30 pages of a screenplay or watched 30 minutes of a movie and not been sure what the movie is about—it’s probably missing an inciting incident.

P.S. I couldn’t find that oven scene online, so if you have a link please send it my way.

Related posts:

Starting Your Screenplay
What’s Your Problem?
Protagonist=Struggle
One Clear Dilemma
Telling Smaller Stories
What’s at Stake?
There are no rules, but…
The Major or Central Dramatic Question

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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This April I’ve decided to sprinkle in some posts throughout the month of the indie movie Pieces of April (2003). Like Tender Mercies (1984) it’s a simple yet complex films that I revisit from time to time.

Pieces of April was written and directed by Peter Hedges who just happened to be born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa. A fact I didn’t learn until years after falling in love with the movie.

Today we’ll look at the story origins of the movie which starred a young Katie Holmes.

“In December of 1998, I received a phone call from my mother in Iowa. She had bad news. She’d been diagnosed with cancer. I went to her as soon as I could. She underwent radiation and chemotherapy. Over the next fifteen months, my sisters, my brothers, and I traveled back and forth to take care of her.

“During this time, my mother urged me to keep writing, but it was difficult. One day in my office in Brooklyn, I started opening files on my computer and came across notes I’d written a year earlier for a story about  girl with a broken oven trying to get her turkey cooked.

“In my notes, I had named the girl April after the moody, unpredicatble month. The month when it is sunny one moment and rainy the next. In my notes, she was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for her family. Most surprising was the reason why I’d decided April was making the meal: She was attempting to bridge an estranged relationship with her mother who was sick with cancer. 

“That’s when I knew this was a story I had to write.”
Writer/director Peter Hedges
Pieces of April; The Shooting Script—Introduction

Related posts:
Goal. Stakes. Urgency. (Tip #60)
Protagonist= Struggle
Christmas & Cancer
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B+C)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“One of the essential components of drama is tension…Drama, so said drama critic William Archer, is almost always the effect of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty.'”
Alexander Mackendrick

“We knew no time for sadness, that’s a road we each had crossed.”
Pieces of April
Lyrics by Dave Loggins, recorded by Three Dog Night

“Passivity in a character is a real danger to dramatic values. ‘Protagonist’ (the name given to the leading character in your story) literally means the person who initiates the agon (struggle). But a figure who does not (or cannot) actually do things or who hasn’t got the gumption to struggle in a way that produces new situations and developments is apt—in dramatic terms—to be dead weight on the narrative. In effect, a bore.”
Writer/ director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
Page 11

I wish when I was younger someone would have explained that the word protagonist flowed from the Greek word agōn, and basically meant struggle.  (The word agony also has roots in agōn.) I used to prefer the term hero to protagonist. But thinking of your main character as the one who struggles—and the antagonist as the one struggling against your main character—conjurers up powerful imagery.

The Olympic Games started in Greece so here’s a good visual of wrestling in Ancient Greece that also symbolically represents modern screenwriting.  (Think of if as Screenwriting from Greece.)

Ancient-wrestling

Keep in mind that while the struggle can be as grand as saving the world (Deep Impact), it can also be as simple as cooking a turkey (Pieces of April). In fact, the micro-budget Pieces of April written and directed by Peter Hedges is a good example of having a character struggling on many levels. April (Katie Holmes) not only struggles to find a place to cook her Thanksgiving dinner after her oven breaks, but she struggles with her neighbors, her boyfriend, her family, society, herself—she even has conflict with the salt and pepper shakers.

In fact, if you’re looking for a film school for under forty bucks pick up Mackendrick’s On-Filmmaking, a used copy of Seven Famous Greek Plays (introduction by Eugene O’Neil),  and the DVD of Pieces of April (which has a commentary by Hedges). Pieces of April is tour de force of quality writing and acting.

P.S. If you’re new to screenwriting then today is your lucky day. Because if you can simply do two things in your screenwriting— 1) Have an active protagonist, and 2) Have a level of tension/conflict in every scene—you will have a heads-up on most scripts written. Any script readers out there want to say what percentage of screenplays they’ve read where two major problems were passive characters and lack of conflict?

Related post:
Don’t Bore the Audience!
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
Meet Your First Audience (Tip #36)

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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seabiscuitdsc_3768

 

“You don’t just throw a whole life away just because it’s banged up a little.”
                                                                Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper)
                                                                Seabiscuit’s trainer
 

“This is not a movie about victory, but about struggle.” 
                                                                 Gary Ross, Screenwriter/Director
                                                                 Seabiscuit 

 

Seabiscuit turned five this year — not the horse, of course, but the movie. And I wish Universal would re-release the film in theaters this holiday season. (In the digital projection future those decisions will be easier to make.) 

The film originally came out in the summer of 2003. The economy was still in a slump from the terrorist events surrounding 911. Unemployment was high. The Laura Hillenbrand book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, about a race horse set in the Great Depression was already a #1 New York Times bestseller.   

The movie had a solid box-office run and was nominated for 7 Academy Awards. It was not only my favorite film of that year, but I’d put it in the top ten of my all time favorites. In my book it is across the board solid filmmaking on par with Rain Man and On the Waterfront. As time goes by that film will continue to find favor because it is a film with many layers.

(Seabiscuit is also the only movie poster I own. And as seen in the above photo, I keep it close by where I edit for inspiration. It just so happened that I moved to Iowa in the Summer of ’03 and for various reasons it was a hard enough transition that I saw Seabiscuit three times just in movie theaters.)

And the reason I’d love to see a re-release of the film is because the theme resonates even more today than it did even in 2003. Unemployment is higher today than it’s been in the past 15 years. While the stock market hasn’t crashed it has recently seen some of its greatest declines since the Great Depression. And then there is the auto industry.

Seabiscuit is set in a time of transition in the United States. A transition from the natural to the mechanical on one level and an examination of the American Dream on another level. And all wrapped together around three broken people and one broken horse.

It’s a movie that could have turned into a bad After School Special in the wrong hands, but in careful hands is a classic movie.

Of course, one thing that is happening now that wasn’t the case in 2003 is the auto industry is in a slump. What has been called the back bone of industry in our country is in trouble. Reports of sales being a third lower than normal are causing a ripple effect throughout the country.  By some accounts the auto industry represents 10% of all US jobs when you begin to connect the related industries. 

Maybe we could have a double feature with Seabiscuit. Remember the Ron Howard film Gung Ho? It starred Michael Keaton as a worker who has to justify his automotive job with the Japanese company that has taken over. By all accounts some US automotive companies need some major restructuring to survive.

In the movie Seabiscuit automobiles represent the future and bring wealth to Howard (played by Jeff Bridges), but it comes at a price. His son is killed in an automobile accident. And it is Howard who must find a way to put the pieces back together again. And along the way there is the forgotten horse trainer (Chris Cooper) and the angry jockey Red (Tobey Maguire) who are all brought together because of an underrated race horse. It’s a story of brokenness and restoration.

On the DVD commentary Gary Ross comments, “Howard is a guy who lost his son, and Red is a guy who lost his father. That’s just kind of the basic facts of it both in almost a cataclysmic way. And that original wound can never be righted but you can make peace with the pain in your life and somehow kind of continue. It can’t replaced, but it can be understood.”

And what’s special about Seabiscuit is it’s a film that connects with most of our lives. In fact, the closing shot is not one of victory, but one of a point of view of the audience on the horse as if to imply this is race we are all in. There will be battles and scars. But get back on the horse. As one friend tells his little boys when they get scrapes–“cuts and scars are proof of living.”

And Ross is careful to convey that these characters are far from perfect. “We labor under the tyranny of perfect heroes. Especially with movies that cost any money and everything gets homogenized down to things that are not objectionable or that are only heroic. The things that are ultimately most heroic are people struggling against their own obstacles or struggling to become something or struggling against their flaws and that’s what’s really heroic right there. I was lucky, I had three flawed heroes.”

And of course, this all started with the words written by Laura Hillenbrand as she researched and wrote the book over a course of years. Struggle is not foreign to Hillenbrand who has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome since she was a college student in Ohio.

At 19 she had to abandon her dreams of some day getting a Ph.D. and in an interview with Anne A. Simpkinson said, “I spent the first year of my illness pretty much bed-bound and when I began to improve a little bit in 1988, I needed some way to justify my life.” She turned to writing. 

In an article she wrote for The New Yorker, A Sudden Illness — How My Life Changed, Hillenbrand recounts the long process of adapting to her new life and how hard it was to write, “Because looking at the page made the room shimmy crazily around me, I could write only a paragraph or two a day… It took me six weeks to write 1,500 words.” Knowing that adds weight to her writing (not that it needs it).

“Man is preoccupied with freedom yet laden with handicaps.”
                                                                 Laura Hillenbrand
                                                                
Seabiscuit, An American Legend

If you’re a writer, Hillenbrand recounting the difficulties she endured while researching and writing Seabiscuit will probably give you little room to complain about the difficulties surround your situation.  She wrote the first article on Seabiscuit from a tiny apartment in Washington, D.C. 

And whatever grace Hillenbrand tapped into to write that book was passed on to screenwriter Gary Ross as he translated the 400 page book into a two hour and 21 minute movie. And in one of the rare cases in movie history the author was pleased with the movie script; “I found myself struck by how deftly Gary had managed to weave so much of the story into so short a time without it feeling compressed or rushed. Gary’s screenplay is simply brilliant, and I am so deeply grateful to him for his immense effort, his creativity, and his inspiration.”

On a closing note, if I recall correctly there were some interesting choices Ross made while adapting the script. I don’t expect to see every character in the book but from memory here are a handful of changes you may find interesting from a writer’s perspective and why I think they were made:

1) Howard’s son who was killed in real life was a teenager and not his only son. By making him younger and the only son creates more empathy for Howard. 

2) Howard’s second wife Marcela (Elizabeth Banks) was actually the sister of his son’s wife. But why complicate the story? Plus in the movie there is only one son and he’s killed in his youth. 

3) Tick-Tock McGlaughlin the colorful character played by William Macy is a fictitious character. And by Ross’ admission he’s there to compress the needed exposition to keep the story moving forward.

4) Ross also chose to end the movie when a sense of order had been restored in each of the lives. It’s a great jumping off point. But the epilogue in the book is a little different. 

5) Hillenbrand writes that while Red lived close to the pulse of Tijuana that, “he appears to have passed up offers from Tijuana prostitutes.” Ross chose to use Red in the brothel as key scene where he learns of his vision problems. This is in the movie because I think there is a quota in Hollywood where x-amount of movies must have a prostitute or a pole dancer in it.

If you have never seen Seabiscuit do yourself a favor and see it before the end of the year, and if you just lost your job watch it tonight.

And for the writers out there here’s Hillenbrand quoted in the Ballinetine Books, Seabiscuit, The Screenplay reminding us of the power of storytelling:

“I was thinking ‘if I can sell five thousand copies (of Seabiscuit) out of the truck of my car, I’ll be happy.’ I just wanted to tell the story.”

Update November 27: Happy Thanksgiving. A day after I wrote this post I saw an ad for a new film called The Tale of Despereaux  with the tagline about a “Small Hero. Big Heart.” Sounded kinda like Seabiscuit. I looked who to see who the screenwriter was and it’s Gary Ross. I look forward to that Christmas release.

If you’re looking for a Thanksgiving movie to watch today check out Pieces of April on DVD which is a wonderful film I’ve written a little bit about. It stars Katie Holmes and was written and directed by Des Moines, Iowa native Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?). And for you indy filmmakers that film was made just a few years ago using a Sony PD 150 DV camera that you can find on ebay these days for under $1,500. 

 

photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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