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Posts Tagged ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’

“Sometimes I think we have to rescue the business from the very people who own it.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
2012 Academy Nicholl Fellowship Keynote Speech

“Try to sell Kramer vs. Kramer today, which was a big hit [in 1979].You just can’t do it…I don’t know if there are executives that listen to this, but I believe that 15 years from now, 20 years from now I think there’s going to be some sort of semi-Nuremberg kind of trial where all the executives of today are going to be standing on a docket and someone like you is going to ‘Where were you when the art of movies just went down the sewer? When this uniquely American art form was completely sacrificed? What were you doing about that?’ And I don’t think any of them will have an answer. And that’s a sad thing…And the problem with [CGI-heavy] movies that are generated inside a computer is that when any image is possible, no image is that impressive anymore. And I think we are raising the bar for what it’s going to take to dazzle people to such a degree that eventually you’re just going to have a movie that’s just an hour and 20 minutes of explosions, because I don’t know what else you can do if it’s not going to be about character, story, and theme.”
Writer/director Billy Ray
Scriptnotes podcast interview with John August

Like a lot of feature writers, Ray has a reverence for great TV (Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men) and appreciates the Kramer vs. Kramer-like dramatic opportunities that can be found there these days. Just a few days ago his pilot for The Last Tycoon, which Ray wrote and directed and based on old Hollywoodbecame available on Amazon.  

“As I was writing the pilot I had a rule for myself which was if I had written a line that I didn’t think was good enough to be in a Mad Men episode I had to come up with another line.”
Billy Ray

Related posts:
Billy Ray’s Directing Advice
Screenwriting Quote #162 (Billy Ray)
Is TV the Best Place to Tell Your Story?

Writer/director Robert Benton-related posts (He won two of his three Oscars for his work on Kramer vs. Kramer):
Filmmaking Quote #14 (Robert Benton)
Screenwriting Quote #104 (Robert Benton)
Joy vs. Agony = Fun Writing 

P.S. To modern Hollywood’s credit the just a handful of Kramer vs. Kramer-like dramatic films at the ’16 Oscars were Bridge of Spies, Room, Brooklyn, Carol and the Best Picture winner Spotlight. To paraphrase what David Mamet once said of theater in America—movies are always dying, and always being reborn.

Scott W. Smith

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“I love finding the worst things happening at the best moments of a person’s life. So trying to have a scene that embodies those disparate elements of joy and agony when you keep pushing and pulling the characters like that—that’s fun writing.”
Two-time Oscar-winning producer/director/writer Paul Haggis (Crash)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

When I heard the above Haggis quote about “the worst things happening at the best moments of a person’s life” I thought of the movie Kramer vs. Kramer where near the start of the film Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is put in charge of a large advertising account that if he succeeds will land him a nice promotion. He comes home to his family excited at this opportunity only to have his wife (Meryl Streep) tell him that’s she’s leaving him.

Hoffman’s character summarizes his wife leaving saying, “she’s ruined one of the five best days of my life.” Super example of “the worst things happening at the best moments of a person’s life.”

Robert Benton won Oscars for both writing and directing Kramer vs. Kramer, as did Hoffman and Streep for their roles. The film based on the novel Kramer vs. Kramer by Avery Corman also won best picture. The 35-year-old film holds up well today, and even though it was released four years before actress Emily Blunt (The Devil Wear Prada, Edge of Tomorrow) was born this is what she had to say about the movie:

Kramer vs. Kramer makes me weep. I love that offset of the dynamic, of the father being the main caretaker and his life being put into uproar in trying adapt and take care of this little boy. I love the perseverance of that film, and it makes me bawl my eyes out.”
Emily Blunt
Five Favorite Films with Emily Blunt

And if that’s not enough for you to go back and check out the movie, screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) says the Kramer vs. Kramer script is one of five you need to study in order to understand screenwriting structure.  It’s one full of meaningful conflict and emotions.

What movie scenes jump to your mind that mix joy and agony?

Related Posts:
Filmmaking Quote #14 ((Robert Benton)
Screenwriting Quote #104 (Robert Benton)
Starting Your Screenplay
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith 

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“I took a great class taught by Robert McKee—sort of a cliché in Hollywood— but I learned things in there that I use and apply on every script. And even if I’m breaking the rules, it’s helpful to me to know what those rules are. The McKee class taught me a way of thinking about writing, and thinking about structure that has never left me.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)

“For [the screenplay] 102 Minutes, it was the adaptation of a book (102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers—best book I ever read. And this was a case where it was a job I had to have. My agent called me one day and said, ‘Here’s this book you ought to take a look at it, but it’s not coming to you exclusively, if you want this job you’re going to have to go battle with some big time guys to get this job.’ And the second I read it I said OK it doesn’t matter how hard I have to work no one is going to out work me I going to get this job. And when I went in to pitch that story I had a 38 page outline. I had every single scene of that movie laid out…I had respect that there were better known writers who had better credits than mine who wanted that job, too. And the goal was to make the studio feel that they’d be missing out if they hired anyone else.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Shattered Glass)
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriting Summer School Homework: Read the five screenplays and watch the five movies that Billy Ray says you need to study in order to understand structure—Broadcast News, Rocky, Ordinary People, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Wizard of Oz. (All stories Ray says in which the main characters are all in horrible situations.) Extra credit: Read McKee’s Story, and 102 Minutes written by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

P.S. As far as I know, the script for 102 Minutes hasn’t been produced. If anyone has an update on the status of that project let me know.

P.P.S. Ray’s quote about the McKee class being a cliche is because so many people have taken it over the years. Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman credits McKee’s class in helping him transition from failed novelist to successful screenwriter. But there has been plenty of backlash over the years because of McKee’s popularity. Several working screenwriters have downplayed McKee’s knowledge and/ or influence, one even wrote,To read his [marketing] brochure you’d think that everyone in Hollywood has taken McKee’s course, but the truth is, I don’t know anyone who has.” Guess that writer doesn’t know Goldsman or Ray—perhaps many working screenwriters just don’t admit to taking McKee’s class. I took what I believe was McKee’s first story stucture class in LA (back in, I think, 1984) and he was the first film teacher who showed me how deep the well went. Every writer takes his or her own path, and while McKee may be  too acedemic for some creative people, there is no doubt–because of comments by  Ray and Goldsman–that there are people who benefit from McKee’s teachings.

Related posts:

Writing ‘Rocky’
Art is Work (Milton Glaser)
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)
Billy Ray’s Directing Advice
Screenwriting & Structure (tip #5) Some notes from McKee.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“The most fantastic thing about Mr. Fox is the way he shows that while our flaws can bring us down, sometimes, too, we triumph in spite of them and because of them.”
Nancy Churin, review of The Talented Mr. Fox
Dallas Morning News

“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorn.”
William Cosgreve
The Mourning Bride (1697)


There are no speeches about the dangers of infidelity in the movie Fatal Attraction. No one says, “There is a proverb that goes, ‘For the lips of the adulteress drip honey, And smoother than oil is her speech; But in the end she is bitter like wormwood, Sharp as a two-edged sword.'”   No, the film does what film does best, it visually and viscerally tells a story. Remember the old adage  — show, don’t tell.

Back in the early 80s producer Stanley Jaffe saw a short film called Diversion by James Dearden and thought it had potential to be a feature. Jaffe’s producing partner Sherry Lansing agreed and they had Dearden write a feature script that both Jaffe and Lansing loved but was turned down by every major studio. Though Jaffe had won a Best Picture Oscar for producing Kramer vs. Kramer a few years earlier it was not thought there was an audience for a film like Fatal Attraction. (No one ever said winning an Oscar made finding funding any easier.)

It took them over four years to get the film made and it not only found a large audience but earned five Oscar nominations. Its altered ending is legendary and may have cost Glenn Close the Oscar, and while it’s possible that the original ending may have been better it also may have been less satisfying for audiences and released and forgotten. We’ll never know.

Here is a key scene in the movie that is a hybrid of the fourth draft of Fatal Attraction and the dialogue as spoken in the finished film. It’s a wonderful scene that captures the essence of fine screenwriting.  The scene appears at 13:30 into the film after Dan (Michael Douglas) and Alex (Glenn Close) who are business associates have trouble getting a cab in the rain and end up sitting down for a drink.

It’s a scene full of subtleties and subtext. A display of simplicity and complexity. An interesting sidenote is the character Alex was originally named Eve, nothing subtle about that which was why it was probably changed.

(We pick up in the middle of the scene where they are sitting down at a restaurant. And you’ll have to endure the funky formatting because my WordPress isn’t allowing me to format this correctly.)

There is a brusqueness in her manner towards the WAITRESS, suggesting a certain lack of empathy with the other women. The WAITRESS goes off. Alex folds her hands and looks at Dan as if to say, ‘What next?’.

DAN
Ahh, it’s funny – being a lawyer’s
a bit like being a doctor. Everyone’s
telling you in their innermost secrets.

ALEX
You must have to be discreet.

DAN
Oh, yeah.

ALEX
Are You?

DAN
Am I what?

ALEX
Discreet.

He looks at her, an ironic smile playing about his lips.

DAN
Yes, I’m discreet.

ALEX
Me too.

She holds his gaze. There is a moment of complicity.

DAN
Can I ask you something? Why don’t you have a
date tonight? Saturday night.

ALEX
I did have a date. Stood him up, that was the phone
call I made. Does that make you feel good?

DAN
It doesn’t make me feel bad.

There is a momentary lull. Finally:

ALEX
So where’s your wife?

Taken by surprise, Dan fumbles for his words.

DAN
Where’s my wife? My wife is in the country with
her parents visiting for the weekend.

ALEX
And you’re here with a strange girl being a naughty boy.

Dan holds up his hands to protest his innocence.

DAN
I don’t think having dinner with anybody is a crime.

ALEX
Not yet.

DAN
Will it be?

ALEX
I don’t know, what do you think?

DAN
I definitely think it’s going to be up to you.

Alex smiles, She is enjoying the game.

ALEX
Can’t say yet. I haven’t made up my mind.

DAN
At least you’re very honest.

ALEX
We were attracted to each other at the party.
That was obvious. You’re on your own for
the night that’s also obvious. We’re two adults…

A beat.

DAN
Check.

—–

It’s a scene that was wonderfully written and acted. It was also well directed by Adrian Lyne. Dearden received and Oscar nomination for the script and the character Alex Forrest was named by AFI as the #7 villain in movie history.

Lastly, while Dearden did receive sole writing credit for Fatal Attraction, I should point out that Nicholas Meyer was brought in to do some additional writing. Meyer is a graduate of the University of Iowa (B.A.–Theater & Film) and best known for writing a couple Star Trek films, but he was also nominated for an Oscar for screenwriting The Seven-Per-Cent Solution that was based on his New York Times #1 bestselling novel of the same name. The Papers of Nicolas Meyer (working scripts, story ideas, galley proofs, reviews, etc.) are available for research at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Related post: Screenwriting Quote of the Day #95 (Nicholas Meyer)

Scott W. Smith

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I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am women

I Am Women
Written by Helen Reddy & Ray Burton

“I couldn’t find any songs that said what I thought being a woman was about. I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that.”
Helen Reddy

The movie Whip It owes a lot to the 1970s. Not only were Whip It screenwriter Shauna Cross, director Drew Barrymore and supporting actress Juliette Lewis born in the 70s— the movie’s theme of girl power rises from the Gloria Steinem version of feminism that came to fruition in the early 70s. (The National Women’s Political Caucus and Ms. Magazine were both founded in 1971 with Steinem’s guidance. A year before Helen Reddy sang I Am Woman in which would become a catchy powerful feminist anthem.)

And while there are probably a zillion different views of feminism today (and plenty of strong women who don’t care for that label) most would look at the role women have in culture today and agree with the popular 70s Virginia Slims ad champaign, “You’ve come a long way baby.”  (Of course, not everyone would agree on the interpretation of that phrase. Some would say a long way good and others a long way bad.) In the 1970s there was a shift in the roles that women would play in business, education, politics, military and sports. I was raised in the 60s-70s by a single mother and two of the best athletes on my street were girls, so I can’t say I felt the shift and only knew the traditional world by watching old reruns of Leave it to Beaver.

(Growing up in Central Florida I have burned into my memory the blarring 70s radio ads for drag racing events, “Big Daddy Don Garlits, and Shirley ‘Cha-Cha’ Muldowney this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Gainesville International Speedway. BE THERE ! BE THERE! BE THERE!” I never did get there but I remember being amazed that there was a female drag racer. Muldowney was the first women to receive a NHRA licence and won NHRA top fuel championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982. Her story was made into the excellent 1983 film Heart Like a Wheel starring Bonnie Bedelia.)

Of course, as women sought more independence, freedom and accomplishments outside the home this would impact how children were raised and as a result our entire culture effected.  Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) was one of the first films to deal with this changing world. And The Fight Club (1999) dealt with the lingering effects. But honestly, things haven’t exactly been a picnic ever since that incident with the fruit in the garden of Eden. We live in a broken, fallen world and everyday the news confirms this. We go to movies for the hope of a little sliver of restoration.

Which brings us back to Whip It. The movie’s poster with a great shot of star Ellen Page says, “Find your tribe.” It’s about finding your place in this world even if you live in a little town like Bodeen, Texas. I became aware of the story when Cedar Falls, Iowa had a shot at becoming both Bodeen and Austin when I received a call from Mandate Pictures to do some location scouting in the Cedar Falls, Waterloo and Cedar Rapids area here in Iowa.

Iowa’s film incentives were the main reason they considered shooting a story set in Texas. (It would have been a nice payback since the Johnny Depp/Leonardo DiCaprio/Juliette Lewis film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was set in Iowa but shot in Texas.) When I got the call last spring, Ellen Page was already in Iowa making another Mandate Picture called Peacock which was shooting in the Des Moines area.

I ended up doing two days of scouting and thought we had a good shot. One of the biggest problems though was they were really looking for a 50s style ranch home made of brick. We had a good deal of 50s ranch homes in the area but brick for whatever reason was not commonly used. They also wanted the yards to be a little worn down. Maybe it’s because the soil is good in Iowa or the neat German heritage, but there aren’t many lawns in disrepair in this part of the county.

I took hundreds of pictures for the various locations they needed including the Oink Joint where Page’s character worked. My best find was the town of Vinton, Iowa (between Cedar Falls & Cedar Rapids) that I thought made a fitting small Texas town like the ones I’ve driven through before. But at the end of the day they shot most of the film in Michigan. (Apparently, they don’t take care of their lawns as well as Iowans.) I was bummed when I found out they weren’t shooting in Iowa because it would have meant a lot to the community and I would have loved having a small part in bringing the first Hollywood film here since they shot Country in Black Hawk County back in the mid-80s.

But I’m glad the film got made and will write specifically about it tomorrow. The script was written by Cross based on her youth book Derby Girl. Since I write a blog that’s focused on writing or writers that come from outside of L.A. I enjoyed reading an interview where Cross stated, “It’s easier to be more original writing about Texas than New York or L.A.” But it should be noted that while Cross went to film school at the University of Texas at Austin, she did get her breakthough while living in L.A. and bumping into film people.

Whip It (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith



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Writer/director Robert Benton grew up in Texas where he suffered from Dyslexia, failed his only creative writing class before dropping out of college, but went on to write Bonnie and Clyde on his way to being nominated for six Oscars.

“Now it’s a side of my inability to deal with reality that I decided to be a screenwriter.”

Robert Benton
Three-time Oscar winning writer/director
(Places of the Heart, Kramer vs. Kramer, Nobody’s Fool)

*Note that I heard this interview on Jeff Goldsmith’s Creative Screenwriting podcast and because of poor audio quality I think that was the exact quote but not 100% sure.

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