Posts Tagged ‘Ken Burns’

“Look, I don’t have the vision or the voice of Martin Luther King or James Baldwin or Jesse Jackson or even of Jackie Robinson. I’m just an old ballplayer. But I learned a lot as a ballplayer. Among other things, I learned that if you manage to make a name for yourself—and if you’re black, believe me, it has to be a big name—then people will start listening to what you have to say. That was why it was so important for me to break the home run record.”
—Hank Aaron
I Had a Hammer

Tomorrow I’ll return with more Coronavirus Writers’ Room posts, but today I thought I’d share something special. Like a lot of people on lockdown during this pandemic, I’ve been spending some time sorting through my stuff. Call it a forced spring cleaning.

This was my recent find—a signed photo of baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. I was 13 years old when he broke Babe Ruth’s all time home run record.  Even though I was a Cincinnati Reds fan, I was a baseball fan that loved the whole build up to Aaron’s historic achievement.

At some point, I remember writing a letter to Aaron via the Braves organization. And some time later the signed photo below came in the mail. I was young and naive enough to think that life was always going to go as smooth.

This was also back in the day long before autographs were a big business and forgery was the issue it is today. Aaron has a distinct signature and it lines up well with others I’ve seen online, so I’m going to believe it’s 100% authentic. Thank you Mr. Aaron and the Atlanta Braves for the cherished memento.

I’ve kept it in safe keeping in a filed sleeve all these years, but in the spirit of Marie Kondo’s concept of sparking joy—I’m now going to get it framed and have it on display.

It was many decades after Aaron retired when I fully understood his accomplishment. He not only became the home run king, but he did it under immense pressure of hate mail and death threats. One letter was a blunt as “Retire or die.” He did eventually retire after a great career playing baseball and today is a senior vice president with the Braves.


This is what the home run looked like on April 8, 1974.

If you’re unfamiliar with Aaron, read his autobiography I had a Hammer, and check out the video below.

P.S. And since the start of  MLB has been delayed with the coronavirus, Ken Burns has made his Baseball series (produced with Lynn Novick) available on PBS for free.  

Scott W. Smith 

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“I wanted to move to a place where I could live for nothing, and I moved to New Hampshire . . . The best professional decision I have made was deciding to stay here once [Brooklyn Bridge] was nominated for an Oscar.”
Filmmaker Ken Burns (on leaving New York City)
After the Fact podcast interview


Covered bridge in Gilford, NH

One of the shots that I saw as a film school student that influenced my photographic aesthetic was the tilt-up shot of the sunrise in the On Golden Pond (1981) title sequence.  They shot that enduring movie at Squam Lake, New Hampshire. I was in that area of the White Mountains over the weekend and delighted in the scenery even though it was winter, and the temperature was zero degrees (and my app said “feels like -20”) on Sunday morning.

On Saturday, I briefly stopped at the Omni Mt. Washington Resort, visited  America’s oldest ski shopLahouts, ate lobster at Gordi’s Fish & Steak House (whose two owners were both on the U.S. Ski team), and stayed the night in the Waterville Valley (not far from where they shot On Golden Pond).  I took the above photo of the covered bridge near Gunstock Ski resort, a day after taking the photos below in Bretton Woods and Lincoln.


Omni Mt. Washington, “#1 Best Ski Resort on the East Coast”
—Condé Nast Traveler


Gordi’s—The perfect place for lobster at Loon Mountain

I didn’t have time to make it two hours southeast to Walpole, New Hampshire where one of the most accomplished modern filmmakers has lived and worked for the past four decades.

“I thought I had just taken a vow of anonymity and poverty, if I was going to be a documentary filmmaker concentrating in American history for PBS.”
Ken Burns (who ironically became rich and famous making historical docs)
New York Times 

One hundred years from now documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (along with Steven Spielberg) will be remember as one of two giant American filmmakers of this era that will not only be well revered—but whose films will still be watched and appreciated. His films have covered a wide range of topics, including the Civil War, Jazz music, baseball, and his most recent 8-part PBS series on country music.

I don’t know the overall extent of filmmaking in New Hampshire, but just On Golden Pond being filmed there, and Ken Burns (and his team)—and filmmaker Dayton Duncan— living there is a rich enough history to impress me.  Here’s an illustration—with roots in New Hampshire— about the subtractive nature of filmmaking:

We live in New Hampshire. We make maple syrup here, and it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. And it’s very much like our process of 40- to 50- to 60- to 75-to-1 shooting ratio. So, it’s distillation. It’s subtraction. It’s what doesn’t fit. At the same time, you are also not trying to simplify it to the place where it no longer resonates with the complexities that the thing has. Now, filmmakers are notorious for saying, ‘Well, that’s a good scene. Let’s not touch it. It’s working. That scene’s working.’ And I’ve got a neon sign in my editing room that says, ‘It’s complicated.’”
Ken Burns

I’m going through Burns’ Masterclass on documentary filmmaking now and will write some posts on it later this month. But here’s one last quote from Burns about rejection that everyone needs to understand.

“There’s never been a moment where I haven’t, on any given day of the year, been actively pursuing the raising of money to pay for these [films]. It didn’t get any easier as my success grew or the popularity of the films grew.”
Ken Burns
The Art of the Documentary by Megan Cunningham

And next time I go to New Hampshire, I hope to make it to Walpole where Burns happens to owns a restaurant—Burdick’s— and grocery store . (Read about it in Travel + Leisure.)  And I hope to one day stay at The Manor Inn On Golden Pond that is linked to the classic movie which starred Henry Fonda,  Katharine Hepburn,  Jane Fonda…and the loons.

Lastly, here are some creative people from New Hampshire; Writer/director Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), his screenwriter brother Max,  and National Geographic VP of Production Matt Renner (The Cave) all grew up in the Oyster River area of New Hampshire. Novelist and screenwriter John Irving (The Hotel New Hampshire) grew up in Essex, NH. Actress/writer Sarah Silverman was born and raised in New Hampshire.

P.S. Ken’s daughter, Sarah Burns—who was raised in Walpole and now lives in Brooklyn—and her filmmaker husband, David McMahon, co-wrote & directed  East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story, that will begin airing on PBS March 24, 2020.

P.P.S. I drove through New Hampshire after my weeklong class on Writing and Directing the Documentary at the Maine Workshops in Rockport, Maine. Until today (when I found the below video) I didn’t know that cinematographer Billy Williams—who was the director of photography for On Golden Pond) taught workshops in Maine in the past. Williams won an Oscar for Gandhi (1982) and is 91 years old. One of his workshop students was DP Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave).

Filmmaking nitpick: On that sunrise (sunset?) tilt up shot from On Golden Pond they should have cut about 30 frames out to avoid the shake at the end of the shot. (It’s at the 1:13 mark of the video at the top of the post.) Always bugs me. I’m sure it bugs whoever was operating camera that it was left in.

Related quotes:
Emotional Archaeology
Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns) 
Ken Burns on 1+1=3
Burns, Baseball, and Character Flaws

Related links:
The Cabin from On Golden Pond 
Florentine Films/Sherman Pictures 
Film in New Hampshire 

Scott W. Smith

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 “If I were given a thousand years to live, I wouldn’t run out of topics in American history.”
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns

“In the country of baseball, men rise to glory in their twenties and their early thirties—a garland briefer than a girl’s, or at least briefer than a young woman’s—with an abrupt rise, like scaling a cliff, and then the long meadow slopes downward.”
Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball by Donald Hall with Dock Ellis

When I heard filmmaker Ken Burns speak Monday night at Rollins College he used a phrase I’d never heard before—”emotional archaeology.” He said that’s what he aims for in his work which includes the documentaries The Civil War, Jazz, and Baseball.

Burns added that “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?”are key questions he tries to answer in his work. Others words that he said his work often addresses is “race,”  “space,” and the shared experience of life as a struggle.

And just when you thought I wasn’t going to write about baseball anymore I have at least one more baseball-themed post to sneak in—the new documentary No, No: A Dockumentary (2014) on Major League pitcher Dock Ellis who in 1970 threw a no-hitter while on LSD.

Jeff Radice directed the film and I hope to catch it tomorrow night (4/10/14) at the Florida Film Festival. Judging from the trailer the doc seems to cover race, space, and life as a struggle. You know, emotional archaeology.

Related post: 40 Days of Emotions 

Scott W. Smith 

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“In the United States words are medicine.”
Filmmaker Ken Burns

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of American had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game and do it by watching first some high-school or small town teams.”
French-born American historian Jacques Barzun

Tonight I’m going to go hear filmmaker Ken Burns speak at Rollins College. So while I’m on a string of  writing about baseball and filmmaking this seems like a good time to touch on the PBS doc Baseball; A Film by Ken Burns (1994), and his 2010 follow-up with Lynn Novick, Baseball; The Tenth Inning.

One of the things that’s addressed in those docs is baseball heroes and their flaws. Gambling and drug use being two of the the flaws that haunt some of baseball’s greatest legends.

“Loving contradictions is saying you love life. All our heroes have dark sides. Only in modern media culture would heroism mean perfection. The Greeks have told us heroism is a negotiation between strength and weakness. That defines heroism.”
Ken Burns
Orlando Sentinel article by Hal Boedekker

P.S. While I’ve read that the patron saint(s) of baseball are Saint Sebastian and/or Saint Rita, I think Robert Clemente could be considered the modern-day saint of baseball. He was an National League, MVP and the first Latino baseball player inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. He died in 1972—just a year after being voted World Series MVP—when a plane he was in taking that was taking relief aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed. Each year Major League Baseball picks a winner of the Roberto Clemente Award to the player “who demonstrates the values Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.”

Related posts:
Character Flaws 101 (Tip #30)
Ken Burns on 1+1=3
Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns)

Scott W. Smith

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‘Anonymity and Poverty’

“I thought I had just taken a vow of anonymity and poverty, if I was going to be a documentary filmmaker concentrating in American history for PBS.”
Ken Burns
New York Times 2013

There’s no doubt that my personal project Tinker Field: A Love Letter  was influenced by filmmaker Kens Burns’ PBS film Baseball.   (I’m looking forward to hearing Burns speak in a few weeks Rollins College.)

It could almost be said that when Burns set out early in his career to be a documentary filmmaker that he was aiming for no demarcation between his professional work and his personal work. And despite thinking he’d “taken a vow of anonymity and poverty,” Burns has become quite well-known, been nominated for two Oscars and won multiple Emmys, and I’m guessing doing fairly well financially.

Burns is a great example of someone finding wide success by choosing a narrow path.

Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns)
Ken Burns 1+1=3

Scott W. Smith

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David Mamet 

“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal. We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct,because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There’s a reason that we’re all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It’s not just that they’re damn cute; it’s because they can’t completely express what they’re thinking and what their intentions are. And it’s like a magnet. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.

I first started really understanding this storytelling device when I was writing with Bob Peterson on Finding Nemo. And we would call this the unifying theory of two plus two.Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four, give them two plus two. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience. Editors and screenwriters have known this all along. It’s the invisible application that holds our attention to story. I don’t mean to make it sound like this is an actual exact science, it’s not. That’s what’s so special about stories, they’re not a widget, they aren’t exact. Stories are inevitable, if they’re good, but they’re not predictable.”
Two time Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E)
TED talk The Clues to a Great Story

P.S. I think I first read that 2+2 story concept in an interview with Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch. (I’ll try to track it down.)

Related Posts:
Mr. Silent Films
Emotionally Silent Dialogue
Writing “The Artist” (Part 1) “I thought making a silent film would be a magnificent challenge.”
Show, Don’t Tell (Tip #46) “One of the cardinal sins for a scriptwriter, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say ‘We can cover that by a line of dialogue.”—Hitchcock
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 7) “The reaction to the action is critical.”—Blake Edwards via Marshall
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich  “Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”—Peter Bogdanovich
Ken Burns on 1+1=3

Scott W. Smith

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“I think filmmaking is obstacles. In fact, every film is a set of millions, literally—no exaggeration—millions of problems. But I use the word problems not so much pejoratively as if it’s just resistances, friction that you have to overcome. I’m fifty-six right now and have been making films for over 30 years—I don’t look fifty-six— you can imagine what I looked like when I started off. The first film I wanted to do was tell the story of the Brooklyn Bridge. So people would slam the door and say, ‘This child is trying to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. No.’ And for many years I kept two thick binders, three-ring binders of literally hundreds of rejections. So I guess the biggest sort of outer resistance was just finding the money to be able to produce these films I wanted to produce.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (The Dust Bowl, The Civil War, Baseball)
Big Think Interview

Scott W. Smith

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“The real genuine stories are one and one equalling three.”
Ken Burns

My entrance into the world of Ken Burns was his film The Civil War which first aired back in 1990. Though that was 22-years ago, and in a world before YouTube, Facebook, and smart phones, there were plenty of distractions in modern Amercia to be amazed that 40 million people would watch a PBS documentary consisting mostly of black and white photos and interviews—that ran 608 minutes.

As I watched his latest film The Dust Bowl on Monday and Tuesday, I thought I’d glance back at the educational foundation that prepared Burns to do his life’s work. One that would bring him two Oscar nominations (Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty) and several Primetime Emmys (Jazz, The National Parks, Baseball, Unforgivable Blackness, The Civil War).

“‘Ken was well steeped in film history,’ remembers Morgan Wesson, who was a year ahead of Burns at Hampshire [College in Amherst, Massachusettes] and later worked with him on Empire of the Air; ‘he could quote you chapter and verse about the French New Wave, various documentary movements, whatever style had impact,’ In characterizing Jerom Liebing’s influence on them all. Wesson adds, ‘Though he might respect the craftsmanship of Hollywood films, he wasn’t about to give an inch. He was trying to convert us all to a private vision, to get us thinking on our own track. Ken took the lead from Jerry and started making documentaries.’

Burns worked part-time at the college bookstore during his four years at Hampshire (1971-1975) to help finance his education and subsidize several student film projects while earning a degree in film studies and design. Liebling, moreover encouraged his students to establish their own nonprofit company called Hampshire Films so that they would be in a position to hire themselves out at no wage to area companies and public institutions who would utilize their maturing talents while underwriting the entire cost of these commissioned productions. Clients were thus able to secure competently made informational films which they could not afford in any other way; and the students, more importantly, obtained a significant amount of much needed real-world experience. As Burns recalls, ‘it made it possible to leave Hampshire and have the confidence to start my own company and not spend years mired in someone else’s vision of things.”
Gary R. Edgerton
Ken Burns’s America
pages 31-32

There you have it—entrepreneurial filmmaking from an unlikely place. These days Burns and the Florentine Films team are based in Haydenville, Massachusetts (just north of Northampton). Impacting the world from a town with a population of just over 1,000.

P.S. It’s worth noting that Burns’s student film subjects included documentaries on decaying mill towns, a study on child abuse, and working in rural New England. Follow your own vision.

P.P.S. How many films over the years equate to 1+1=0?

Scott W. Smith

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“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
                                                         Gordon Gekko
                                                         Wall St. 

“Our entire economy is in danger.”
                                                         President George W. Bush
                                                         September 2008    

“When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod?”
 Doc Hudson (voice of Paul Newman)


This is a look at two Hollywood icons. One fictitious, one real. One that’s alive and well and one that just died. 

But before we get to our heavyweight match-up let’s look at why I’ve put them in the ring together.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase made popular during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid. It’s always about the economy. Well, usually. Understanding economics can help your screenwriting greatly.  

First let me clarify that if you’re looking for “The Economics of Screenwriting” (how much you can get paid for screenwriting)  then check out Craig Mazin’s article at The Artful Writer

Few things are as primal in our lives as the economy. Wall Street’s recent shake-up joins a long list of economic upheaval throughout history. Just so we’re on the same page, the word economy flows down from the Greek meaning “house-hold management.” I mean it to include how people, businesses, villages, towns, cities and countries manage resources such as money, materials and natural resources. 

That is a wide path indeed. It’s why college football coach Nick Saban is on the cover of the September 1, 2008 issue of Forbes magazine as they explain why he is worth $32 million dollars to the University of Alabama. Why is the economy center stage once again in the most recent presidential election? Because… it’s always the economy, stupid.

Looking back you’ll see economics at the core issue of not only Enron, Iraq, 911 and the great depression but world wars, famines, and even the Reformation. I’m not sure how much further we can look back than Adam and Eve, but that whole apple/fruit thing in the garden had huge economic (as well as theological) ramifications. (In fact, it’s been said that there is more written in the Bible about money than about salvation.)    

There is no question that economics plays a key role in films as well — in production as well as content. On some level it’s almost always about the economy. This first dawned on me when I saw Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” for the first time and I realized the thread of money in it. Then I read Ibsen’s play  “An Enemy of the People” and noticed the economic theme there. They I started noticing it everywhere in plays, novels and movies.

From the mayor’s perspective the real danger of Bruce the shark in Jaws is he threatens the whole economy of the island town. In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney takes the boat back out because money is tight. Dustin Hoffman auditions as a women in Tootsie because he can’t get work as a male actor. Once you see this you see it everywhere in movies. 

Here is a quick random list where money, need to pay bills, lack of a job, greed and/or some form of economics play a key part in the story:

Sunset Blvd.
On the Waterfront
Wall St.
Cinderella Man
Ragging Bull
Jerry Maguire
It’s a Wonderful Life
Field of Dreams
Body Heat
Falling Down
The Godfather
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 
The Jerk
Gone with the Wind
The Verdict 
Gone with the Wind 
The Grapes of Wrath
Risky Business
Do the Right Thing
Hoop Dreams 
Rain Man
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Gold Rush
Home Alone
Babette’s Feast
The Incredibles
Ocean’s Eleven
The Perfect Storm
Pretty Women
Trading Places
Indecent Proposal 
The Firm
American Ganster 

And it’s not limited to dramatic films. It’s hard to watch Hoops Dreams, Ken Burns’ The West, or any Michael Moore documentary and not connect it to economics.

So if you’re struggling with a story or struggling what to write, open up that door that explores economics. You don’t have to write The Wealth of Nations, but at least explore some aspect of it.  Join Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and other great writers who tackled that monster.

One thing living in the Midwest the past five years has done is help me understand how the world works economically. Because on a small level you see when John Deere is selling tractors locally, nationally and globally it helps the housing market here as the standard of living increases. The Midwest was the only place to to see homes appreciate last quarter. (Other parts of the country saw a 2 to 36% drop.)  But that wasn’t always the case.

When the farming crisis hit in the mid-eighties and John Deere (Cedar Valley’s largest employer) laid off 10,000 of it’s 15,000 employees and people were walking away from their homes. A film that came out of that era was the 1984 Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange film Country filmed right here in Black Hawk County. (By the way John Deere the company celebrates today 90 years being in this area. If you’ve ever eaten food they’ve had some role in it along the way.)

Three years later Oliver Stone’s film Wall St. came out the same year Black Monday occurred as stock markets around the world crashed. It was the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history since the great depression. (It only ranks #5 now.)  So here we are 20 years later still trying to figure it all out as two of the top ten largest stock market drops have been in the last two weeks. (Sept 29 update: Make that three of the top ten stock market drops have occurred in the last two weeks.)

(I’m sure Stone felt good when Wall St. first came out, kinda of like “I told you so.” But on the DVD commentary Michael Douglas said that he often told by stock brokers that they got into the business because of the Gekko character he played. Douglas said he doesn’t understand because he was the bad guy. But how many of those guys now in positions of leadership in the financial crisis had Gekko as their hero? To quote writer/professor Bill Romanowski one more time, “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”

The news will tell us what happened, critics will tell us why it happened, and it’s up to writers to tell us what it means. For years now I have noticed in many different states that more often than not when I go into a convenience store I see someone buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets and I ask myself, “What does this say about about the direction we are heading?”

Screenwriting is a place where we can pose those questions –and the playwright Ibsen said it was enough to ask the question.  So get busy asking questions. And if the economy gets worse remember this Carlos Stevens quote:

”Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”

On the opposite end of Hollywood from Gordon Gekko is Paul Newman. If there ever was an example of a talented actor/director and giving businessman/ social entrepreneur it was Ohio-born and raised Newman who passed away last night. Newman’s films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict will always be favorites of mine.

“I had no natural gift to be anything–not an athlete, not an actor, not a writer, not a director, a painter of garden porches–not anything. So I’ve worked really hard, because nothing ever came easily to me.”
                                                                                            Paul Newman 


(Newman’s Midwest roots extend to performing in summer stock theaters in Wisconsin and Illinois. And an Iowa connection is his last Academy Award nomination was for his role in The Road to Perdition which was based on the graphic novel by Iowa writer Max Allen Collins. And don’t forget that the Newman’s Own label was inspired by Cedar Rapids artist Grant Woods’ American Gothic.

I find it interesting that the three largest legendary film actors coming up in the 50s were all from the Midwest; Marlon Brando (Nebraska), James Dean (Indiana) along with Newman.)

Gavin the lawyer Newman played in the David Mamet scripted The Verdict says words that are just as relevant today as when they we spoken a couple decades ago: “You know, so much of the time we’re lost. We say, ‘Please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless…’ We become tired of hearing people lie.”

The world is upside down when we pay executives millions in golden parachutes when they drive a company into the ground. And that’s after they lied about the about the companies financial record along with their hand picked spineless board of directors. And after they’ve cashed in their own inflated stocks while the stockholders and employees are shortchanged.

But how nice to see a company like Newman’s Own whose entire profits from salad dressing and all natural food products are donated to charities. The company motto is “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.” To date Newman and his company have generated more than $250 million to thousands of charities worldwide. 

“What could be better than to hold out your hand to people who are less fortunate than you are?
                                                                                                      Paul Newman

P.S. Robert Redford had hoped he and Newman would be able to make one last film together and had bought the rights to Des Moines, Iowa born and raised Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods

“I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn’t decide if we were too old to do it,” said Redford. “The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart.”


Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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