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Posts Tagged ‘King David’

“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a reminder of what movies are for. Most movies are not for any one thing, of course. Some are to make us think, some to make us feel, some to take us away from our problems, some to help us examine them. What is enchanting about E.T. is that, in some measure, it does all of those things.”
Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun Times

“The image of E.T. emerging from his mobile tomb summons a storehouse of symbols that mark the presence of God and divine miracle.”
Roy M Anker
Catching Light

Hollywood has had an interesting dance with religious films over the years with various degrees of successes, failures and controversy. An abridged list includes The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, Seven Years in Tibet, King David, Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ.

The biggest game changer being The Passion of the Christ. Oddly, the violent retelling of the crucifixion of Christ became the all time R-rated box office champ. Mel Gibson’s $30 million dollar gamble eventually  paid a dividend of $600 million at the world-wide box office. Despite it’s predicted failure at the box office, in the year it was released (2004) it became the seventh highest grossing movie ever. (With the audience it found some would say it paved the way for films like The Book of Eli and The Blind Side.)

Speaking of The Passion, did you ever see the humorous studio notes Steve Martin wrote for the The New Yorker?:

Dear Mel,
We love,
love the script! The ending works great. You’ll be getting a call from us to start negotiations for the book rights…Possible title change: “Lethal Passion.” Kinda works. The more I say it out loud the more I like it.

But in general Hollywood has had much more luck dealing with stories that would be considered spiritual allegories. They tend to me less didactic, less overtly religious and less controversal, and generally better stories.  And the box office responds much better to them. Films I would put in this category are Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia,  Star Wars, and The Matrix. (Though it’s fair to say that not everyone is in one accord with the meanings of these films. But then again, how many different religions are there? Focus on something like separate protestant denominations and you’ll see the numbers climb into the the thousands. Getting people to agree is not that easy.)

In the spirit of Easter, one film that has been closely identified with the death and resurrection of Christ is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the movie,”essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the filmmaker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination.”

Written by Melissa Mathison (a self-described “ex-Catholic’) and directed by Steven Spielberg (raised Jewish in Anglo-Saxon suburbs) there has been much written about the spiritual aspects of E.T., but Spielberg has said (in Take 22; Moviemakers on Moviemaking) that, “If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles.”

So much detail went into the technical aspects of E.T. it would be hard to believe that Spielberg and Mathison were not at least aware of the spiritual parallels they were drawing on. (At least kicking around somewhere in Mathison’s Catholic-schooled subconscious in the eight weeks she took writing the first draft.) But I don’t think they were pandering to a Christian audience, in fact, when the movie first came out some Christian leaders were calling the film “new age.”

Spielberg and Mathison were simply trying to tell a story that would make a good movie, and in doing so tapped into their own upbringing (Spielberg has talked about his parents divorce and his longing for an imaginary friend), their spiritual upbringing, mixed with creative imagination, as well as a powerful death and resurrection theme that many associate with the cornerstone of the Christian faith. (Of course, Joseph Campbell would make the case that death and resurrection themes pre-date Christ, but that opens up a whole different can of worms.)

But in making E.T. the filmmakers made one of the most uplifting films ever and the one that the American Film Institute currently lists as the 25th greatest American film. Sitting nicely between Raging Bull and Dr. Strangelove.

© 2010 Scott W. Smith



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“David took a stone from the bag and slung it… knocking the Philistine to the ground.”
Scene from the movie Hoosiers

Today the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) men’s basketball team from here in Cedar Falls, Iowa plays the #1 team in the country, Kansas. For many it’s just another game as part of March Madness. But if UNI wins today it would be the biggest win in the school’s history. Of course, the term David & Goliath is being thrown around.

The epic Biblical story of David & Goliath is mentioned just about every time there’s a battle between the little guy and the big guy. It could be a sporting event, a corporate clash, a movie, or any number of references that pit the little guy against the big guy. The term David & Goliath is mentioned so much that like “Catch-22” many don’t even know the original reference.

We could go to the movies to get caught-up on our history. Did you know Orson Wells played David in the 1961 movie David & Goliath? Richard Gere played David in the 1985 movie King David. I’m not sure just how many movies feature David and Goliath but there are a few, including at least one musical.

And though this is a blog about screenwriting I think it’s worth a look at the original context of David & Goliath. After all “Screenwriting from Iowa” is all about the little guy. To any new reader; Iowa is just a metaphor for coming from a place far from Hollywood. But time and time again over the last two years I’ve shown that writers really do come from all kinds of unusual places.

What we mostly remember about the original biblical story is simply that David as a youngster slew a giant. We actually don’t know exactly how old David was or how tall Goliath was, but it’s enough to say that it was a mismatch. David was young and the giant was tall. On the day of the famous battle the only reason David was there was to take food to his older brothers who were in the fight. But when David sees and hears the trash talking Philistine warrior he decides to take him on.

Goliath is not impressed when David grabs five smooth stones and a slingshot, “Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks? Come to me and I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the fields.” (Nice dialogue.) Game on.

David says he comes in the name of the Lord and then plants a stone in Goliath’s forehead. Goliath falls on his face and David uses Goliath’s own sword to finish the job and cuts off the giant’s head. Game over. And David, who was just the food delivery guy a few minutes prior, is on his way to becoming the King of Israel.

No doubt a great story and it’s no surprise we’re still talking about it centuries later.

But let’s not over look a couple things. Yes, David came in the name of the Lord so maybe he wasn’t quite the underdog that we think. But there is one more detail about David that is always overlooked—He was prepared.

Prepared like a teenage Olympian who has trained a lifetime to win a gold metal. Prepared like screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher who wrote thousands of (unproduced) pages over a couple decades before he won an Oscar (adapted screenplay, Precious).

While David was off tending the sheep in some far away place that is the equivalent of Iowa in Israel, he had killed “both lion and bear.” We’re not talking about a video game. How many people do you know that have killed a lion and a bear? I imagine David passed 10,000 hours practicing sling shot techniques. He stepped into the situation with Goliath with confidence because he was prepared.

Bringing this home to screenwriting is this quote I’ve mentioned before;

“When it comes to screenwriting, it’s the writing. You don’t hear people who want to play professional tennis ask to be introduced to the head of Wimbledon. No, they’re out there hitting a thousand forehands and a thousand backhands.”
Screenwriter Scott Frank

Lastly, I’m not saying UNI will win today. But I am saying they could win today because they having been preparing for this for a long time. And just because I like odd facts, let me add that writer Robert Waller (The Bridges of Madison Country) played basketball at the University of Northern Iowa.

Update: This is why they call it March Madness…This afternoon UNI defeated the top-seeded team (Kansas) 69-67. Some have called it one of the biggest upsets in March Madness history. (It is the first time in the school’s history when they have beaten a top ranked team.) At Yahoo sports they even called Ali Farokhmanesh’s bold three-point shot toward the end of the game, “The shot that felled Goliath.”

Related post: Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)

First Screenplay, Oscar— Percious


Scott W. Smith

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“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.” — William Froug

                              

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Today marks the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  The civil rights leader and Baptist minister has left a lasting impression on the United States.

In 2006 I was doing a video shoot in Jackson, Mississippi and then had to drive to Atlanta for another shoot. When I’m on the road I try to make it as interesting as possible and I took a detour off the main highway so I could retrace the Selma to Montgomery march. (This shot was taken as I drove over the bridge in Selma, Alabama where the conflict known as Bloody Sunday occurred back in 1965.) 

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Much of that region looks similar as it did in that day. In route to Atlanta I learned that King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, had died and there would be a public viewing in Atlanta that weekend. I figured that was a more than amazing way to finish my civil rights tour and I took the photo of King’s hearse outside the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’d like to address Martin Luther King Jr. from that perspective.

Let’s talk about the characters you chose to write about.

“Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.”                           Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay

It’s been said that drama favors the great saint or the great sinner.

We don’t have to go very far in theater, literature and film to see that this is true:

Hamlet
King Lear
Blanche DuBois
The Godfather
Scarlet O’Hara
James Bond
Mad Max
Lawrence of Arabia
Snow White
Norma Rae
William Wallace
Virgil Tibbs
Darth Vader
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Bonnie & Clyde

In fact, we might as well say that history favors the great saint or great sinner:

Nero
Lincoln
Grant
Washington
Kennedy
Stalin
Elvis
Ali
Nixon
Churchill
Hitler

It’s been said that the History Channel should be called the Hitler Channel because he plays such a key role in many programs.

Certainly the words saint and sinner are religious in nature so let’s look there to see if it favors the great saint and the great sinner as far as being remembered:

Adam & Eve
Cain & Abel
Moses
King David
Christ
Mary
Paul
Judas
Gandhi
Muhammad
Buddha
St. Augustine
Martin Luther
John Calvin
Mother Theresa
Jim Jones
Satan

How memorable are the characters you have created? Do you write characters that are as fascinating to watch as animals at the zoo? “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

That’s not to say that every character you write has to be as fascinating as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s Wall St. but your protagonist and antagonist must be somebody we are interested in investing two hours of hours lives. (They could be a shark, a robot, or a tornado as well, but whatever they are make them standout.) They don’t even have to shoot the bad guy at the end. Jake LaMotta in Ragging Bull is a despicable character but man is he ever an interesting case study.  

“I’m not interested in having to root for someone; I’m trying to get some sort of understanding as to what makes people tick and what they’re about. — Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct

If you do write about a common person it’s best if you put them in an extraordinary situation. (Like Miss Daisy & Hoke’s relationship in Driving Miss Daisy centered around a changing world, or Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest who must run for his life. And let’s not forget the quintessential common man Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman who is a mirror for all humanity that faces living, as Thoreau said, “lives of quite desperation.”  

The truth is it’s easier to write a strong bad guy than a strong good guy. For every Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) there are probably three Norman Bates (Psycho). (And actors love to play a good bad guy.) And basic dramatic structure dictates that when you throw your protagonist and antagonist into the ring it should be a fair battle. 

Look at Steven Spielberg films and you’ll find a long list of really bad people and creatures. 

And here’s a secret. Many great characters are a mix of saint and sinner. Isn’t there a Jekel and Hyde in all of us? Don’t we love to go to movies and watch characters wrestle with life, with themselves? (Heck, even Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell characters are really wrestling with life.)

Showing that struggle is part of what makes your characters engaging and memorable. It gives your characters dimension.

“It’s rare that you find three-dimensional characters in a writing sample, and when you do, it’s obvious that’s a writer you want to work with.”   Paramount Story Editor 

So as you hear the stories about Martin Luther King Jr. today ask yourself what was it about this man and his work that made him memorable. What obstacles did he have to overcome? How did his character respond to the set-backs? And how in the years after his death has his work been relevant in shaping America today?

The debates I’ve heard on the radio programs have given answers all over the map. Great characters are not lukewarm.

Martin Luther King Jr., by some accounts, was like Oskar Schindler, in that he was a flawed man who left a great legacy. His dream has not been realized, but it’s a good dream.  Remember that throughout history, ideas flow from the philosophers and prophets to the masses via artists.

“Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”  William Romanowski

Photos & Text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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