Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Vonnegut’

Indiana’s been in the news the last couple weeks. First there’s the new Indiana Jones film that’s on top at the box office, there was the Indy 500 this past weekend, and then I saw the front page of New York Times yesterday morning and learned that director and Indiana native Sydney Pollack died Monday.

It seems like a fitting time to take a road trip to the Hoosier State. Though Pollack was not a screenwriter it’s worth paying tribute to this giant of a filmmaker who knew how to tell a story.

Before he headed to New York after high school in South Bend to study acting with Sanford Meisner he had spent his life in Indiana.  From acting in theater, to directing TV shows, to directing over 40 feature films Pollack was unusually gifted. I was a long time fan of Pollack’s and he directed some of my favorite films:

They Don’t Shoot Horses, Do They? The Way We Were Jeremiah Johnson Three Days of the Condor The Electric Horseman Absence of Malice Tootsie Out of Africa The Firm Sketches of Frank Gehry 

He was a two time Oscar winner (Out of Africa & Tootsie) both of which films also won Best Picture Oscars.  Another Indiana native producer/director Robert Wise also had won two best director Oscars for his films West Side Story & The Sound of Music. He also won two more Best Picture Oscars for producing both movies.

And to challenge Nebraska’s cool actor category (which produced both Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando), Indiana lays claim to Steve McQueen and James Dean. The list of entertainment icons from Indiana also includes Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), comedian Red Skelton, song writer Cole Porter, and TV host David Letterman.

Moving to the writing side, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis. Glenn Berggoetz writes, “It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis that Vonnegut gained his first writing experience. During his last two years there he wrote for and was one of the editors of the Shortridge Daily Echo, which was the first high school daily newspaper in the country. At this young age Vonnegut learned to write for a wide audience that would give him immediate feedback, rather than just writing for an audience of one in the form of a teacher.” (Note also that Vonnegut also honed his skills at the Iowa Writers Workshop.) 

Theodore Dreiser from Terre Haute wrote the novel An American Tragedy that was made twice made into a film including the 1951 George Stevens’ version (A Place in the Sun) staring Elizabeth Taylor that won 6 Academy Awards. It is a film that Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) said if you wanted to learn how to direct you should watch 50 times.

To counter Dreiser’s somber look at the dark side of America let’s look at another film with Indiana roots. Playwright and screenwriter Steve Tesich was born in Yugoslavia, raised in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University. He won an Oscar for his screenplay Breaking Away based and filmed in Bloomington, Indiana and that became the 1979 sleeper hit staring Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Chrisopher Plummer and James Earle Haley.

Tesich’s script came at a time before we were jaded by sports stories and was released just three years after Rocky. The film captures much of what I’m trying to write about in Screenwriting from Iowa. That is that there are stories to tell beyond Hollywood, and people all over the world need encouragement to tell those stories.

Frank Deford reviewed Breaking Away for Sports Illustrated in 1979:

“It is the rare film that has understood the essence of sport so well as Breaking Away; or understood summer or growing up; or, for that matter, America and Americana. This joyous story about four young A&P cowboys and a bicycle race in Bloomington, Ind. cost a measly $2.4 million to make but it is better by far than all the ballyhooed, star-studded epics. Steve Teisch’s screenplay is impeccable; Peter Yates’ direction is nearly magic in its command and sensitivity; and the cast is perfectly chosen, an ensemble always in character. And if all this were not enough, Breaking Away also evokes a spirit these times yearn for.

“I’m sure that Teisch and Yates didn’t set out to wave the flag, but there is something special here… the wonderful thing about Breaking Away is that you leave the theater very proud that America has both an Indiana and a Hollywood.”

TV and film director David Anspaugh was born in Decatur, Indiana and also studied at Indiana University before going on to win two Emmy’s producing and directing Hill Street Blues and the quintessential Indiana film Hoosiers.

Matt Williams from Evansville, Indiana is best known as the creator and executive producer of Roseanne and co-creator of Home Improvement. But he also wrote for The Cosby Show and produced the Mel Gibson film What Women Want. He graduated with a theater degree from the University of Evansville and was awarded an honorary doctorate from there in 2003.

And the newest up and coming writer/ director from Indiana is James C. Strouse (from Goshen, Indiana) whose latest film Grace is Gone won the critics awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. His first film Lonesome Jim starred Casey Affleck and was directed by Steve Busemi. 

But I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana who seems to embody a Midwestern spirit in everything he does. Going way back into the early 80’s with prefect sing-a-long songs Jack & Diana (“Two American kids growing up in the Heartland”), Pink Houses and Small Town to his classic thought-provoking album Scarecrow that addressed the farm crisis in the 80’s, to his more recent Our Country. Mellencamp embraced his Midwestern roots and we were better for it.

While his film connections are usually on the soundtracks of films he did star and direct the 1992 film Falling from Grace. Mellencamp was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Indiana University awarded him an honorary doctorate of Musical Arts.

On Sunday I spent a several hours driving on the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinenental highway in the country. (It goes through both Iowa and Indiana. And paid my first ever $4.+ per gallon for gas.) It’s hard for me to make that kind of trip and not think of Mellencamp’s lyrics, “Ain’t that America Something to See.”

It’s something to write about, too.

P.S. Did you know that in the original Indy script that it was Indiana Smith? Doesn’t have the same ring does it?  (Spielberg thought it sounded to much like Nevada Smith, a 1966 Steve McQueen film.) And isn’t it hard to see Tom Selleck as Indy, who Spielberg originally wanted but couldn’t get because of Selleck’s commitment to Magnum P.I.?

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

 

juno.jpeg

Yesterday the Oscar nominations were announced and Diablo Cody and her script Juno were nominated for best original screenplay and the film was also nominated for best picture.  I recently pointed out her Iowa connection as having graduated from the University of Iowa.

If you’re not familiar with the creative talent that has come out of the University of Iowa hold on for what I’m about to tell you.  You’ll be hard pressed to find a university that has educated and attracted more novelist, poets, essayist, screenwriters and short story writers at such a high level of proficiency and acclaim.

The campus is located just off Interstate 80 in Iowa City. Head west on 80 from New York City and you’ll run right into it. Head east on 80 from San Francisco (or via Park City if you’re coming from Sundance) and you’ll be heading toward the promise land of creative talent.  And if you happen to be in Cedar Falls where I’m typing this, it’s just a little over an hour drive south.

Its famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the oldest and most prestigious MFA writing program in the country. The program has produced thirteen Pulitzer Prize winners, and has had professors such as Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five), Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men) and Philip Roth (The Human Stain).

Its notable MFA alumni whose writings have become movies include John Irving (The World According to Garp), W.P.Kinsella (Shoeless Joe, which became the movie Field of Dreams), Leonard Schrader (screenplay, Kiss of the Spider Woman), Ethan Canin (The Palace Thief that became the movie The Emperor’s Club), Michael Cunningham (The Hours), Nicholas Meyer (Oscar-nominated The-Seven-Percent-Solution), Robert Nelson Jacobs (screenplay, Chocolat), Max Allan Collins (The Road to Perdition) and Anthony Swofford (Jarhead).

Most recently two Iowa grads have had books listed in The New York Times 10 best books of 2007; Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson and Then We Came to an End by Joshua Ferris.

Those educated at the University of Iowa (though not in the writing program) include Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause), Barry Kemp (Coach), actor/writer Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein), producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man), Richard Maibaum (12 James Bond films including From Russia with Love), and the great playwright Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire).  I’m sure I’ve missed many people, but I think you get the point.

So Diablo Cody joins a distinguished list of honored writers from Iowa. Congratulations on her success. I’m sure her 12 years of Catholic schooling in the Chicago area also played a part in developing her talent. The list of Catholic influenced (some positive, some negative) writers is too long to address now but may be worth a future blog. (I’m neither Catholic nor did I attend the University of Iowa, but I do like to notice trends.)

But make no mistake, Cody’s quirky mix of Midwest roots (she wrote Juno while living in Minneapolis) are what make her writing original. (Ditto that for the Minneapolis raised Coen brothers who just received writing and directing Oscar nominations for No Country for Old Men.) And that originality is what makes Cody attractive to Hollywood, both as a writer and as a person. Stick to your dreams and more importantly keep writing.

And paste this quote from Ohio screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) above your writing area: “If you write a good, commercial script and start sending it out – someone will recognize that it is good and commercial…If they think your script will make them money, they will option or buy your script.”

May 2008 Addition: The Juno-Iowa Connection Part 2. Ellen Page the talented lead actress in Juno is in Des Moines this month shooting Peacock with Cillian Murphy.

For more about Iowa and Diablo Cody read the post Life Beyond Hollywood. To read more about University of Iowa graduate John Irving read John Irving, Iowa & Writing.

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: