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Posts Tagged ‘Laura Hillenbrand’

Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
Gimme Shelter/Rolling Stones
Lyrics by Mick Jagger/Keith Richards

“I’m attracted to subjects who overcome tremendous suffering and learn to cope emotionally with it.”
Unbroken author Laura Hillenbrand @laurahillenbran

“I’ve got so many scars, they’re criss-crossing each other!”
Louis Zamperini whose life story is told in the movie Unbroken

“I want to be able to say it can seem dark, and it can seem hopeless, and it can seem very overwhelming, but the resilience and the strength of the human spirit is an extraordinary thing.”
Unbroken director Angelina Jolie
Interview with Tom Brokaw

“His story is a lesson in the potential that lies within all of us to summon strength amid suffering, love in the face of cruelty, joy from sorrow. Of the myriad gifts he has left us, the greatest is the lesson of forgiveness.”
Laura Hillenbrand on the passing of Louis Zamperini earlier this year

P.S. Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote Seabiscuit, suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome.

Related Posts:
‘Unbroken’ Louis Zamperini (2.0)
Writing ‘Seabiscuit’
Seabiscuit Revisited in 2008
Writing Quote #24 (Laura Hillenbrand)
40 Days of Emotions
End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14) Pretty sure Unbroken will be in the ’15 version.

Scott W. Smith

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“The future has arrived!”
Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges)
Seabiscuit

“But I’m not; I’m not obsolete!”
The Obsolete Man written by Rod Serling
The Twilight Zone

Thinking about my recent posts that touched on the theme of the Old West changing, represented in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1970) as well as The Grey Fox (1982), made me think about another movie that begins in those years of transition—Seabiscuit (2003).

Back in 1996 magazine journalist Laura Hillenbrand stumbled upon an article that would change her life.

“That day I found just a tidbit of information, a few passages about how Charles Howard was a modern automobile man and Tom Smith was a plains cowboy. Something about that tugged at me, and I kept turning it over in my head. I thought it was fascinating that a man who would find his true greatness by teaming up with a frontier horseman who had been rendered obsolete by the automobile. I started poking around in more documents and doing a few interviews, and a spectacular story tumbled out of the research.”
Laura Hillenbrand

Her research became an article, then a best-selling book, and then a wonderful film based on Seabiscuit and the people that were touched by that horse. One of the side benefits of research is what you can stumble upon along the road you thought you were headed down. Serendipity happens in writing, in traveling, and in life.

Speaking of life, the movie was produced and released in wake of the September 11, 2001. A film about struggle was timely then, and it’s timely in 2010. A public speaker once told me that if you talk about pain and suffering, you will always have an audience. This is how the book starts:

“In the winter of 1937, America was in the seventh year of the most catastrophic decade in its history. The economy had come crashing down, and millions upon millions of people had been torn loose from their jobs, their savings, their homes.”

It was the task of screenwriter and director Gary Ross to take Hillenbrand’s research and best-selling book and somehow tell the story in two hours.

Seabiscuit is about these broken characters coming together, how they helped heal one another. It’s about people redeeming each other, getting past their own barriers and isolation to live again, and to re-engage in life. That’s what I found so amazing about it, was the struggles these three guys had out of despair. As the country was engaging in a similar struggle. That’s what really drew me to it.”
Gary Ross
DVD Talk Interview

Themes about hardship and the hope for change and transformation will never go out of style. Perhaps that is not only the history of American cinema, but of the history of civilization.

Related Posts: Seabiscuit Revisited in 2008
Writing Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid

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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Last Friday I learned that Screenwriting from Iowa was nominated for an Emmy. Who knew you could even win an Emmy for a blog?

A couple months ago I entered a couple of my productions for regional Emmys in the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Television Academy. I saw where there was a catagory for blogs on the arts and decided to give that a shot as well. 

While I’ll find out in October if I’ve won I really have to thank (one more time) Diablo Cody. Her inspirational story of blogging that eventually lead to her writing Juno (which of course, led to her winning an Academy Award) is what gave me nudge to jump into the blogging game.

She single handedly changed my perception of blogging. (Well, Ken Lee of Michael Weise Productions also had a role.) As I’ve said before, I began blogging Screenwriting from Iowa just a few days after seeing Juno and discovering Ms. Cody went to college at the University of Iowa. (The Juno-Iowa Connection.) 

It’s fitting that the Emmy Awards Gala next month will be held in downtown Minneapolis…just a few miles from where Ms. Cody wrote Juno. Don’t you just love those circle of life moments? I may never win an Oscar, but an Emmy (even a regional one) would be pretty cool.

Which brings me to the topic of screenwriting contests and awards. Are they a waste of time and money or something you should do? First let me say the writing lifestyle is hard. Writing is hard in and of itself, and finding time to actually write can be difficult between paying bills and juggling relationships. And then add on top of that it’s difficult to get much encouragement along the way. And the money thing? Forgetaboutit.

Most writers that make a living at writing could measure their work not in pages but in feet before they were discovered and the money began to flow. (Cody is no different in that while Juno was her first screenplay she had been writing since she was 12.)

One thing contests and awards provide is a little encouragement along the way. I know I have pushed more than once to make a deadline for a screenwriting contest. And I’ll never forget the person from the first Project Greenlight who commented that my script reminded then of the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. So if entering a competition forces you to write that’s a good thing. And if you win a reputable contest it could lead to getting an agent and/or getting produced. Some even offer feedback on your script.

On the other hand…I’m not a big fan of screenwriting contests in general. I think they are cash cows for many people and groups and a good deal are a waste of your time and money. Why not spend your time (and money) sending your scripts and notes to various people who can actually get your script bought and hopefully made? 

Any salesperson will tell you sales is a numbers game. It’s a matter of knocking on doors, making phone calls, sending emails and shaking hands. When screenwriter/director Gary Ross contacted Seabiscuit: An American Legend author Laura Hillenbrand to tell her why she should chose him to make her film he had on his salesman hat.  

(Allow me to add a little Midwest trivia. Hillenbrand attended Kenyon College in central Ohio whose notable alumni include actor Paul Newman, Calvin & Hobbs cartoonist Bill Watterson and writer E.L. Doctorow.)  

Before you send your script and money into a contest check it out online and see what other people are saying. I’m sure there are some good ones out there so check around. Of course, the grand daddy of screenwriting contests is The Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting

Lots and lots of competition but they offer up to five $30,000. fellowships. Age range of past winners range between 21 and 64 years old. And winners have gone on to have a role in writing 60 produced feature films. Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) was a fellow. 

The only produced screenwriter (Love Liza) I know who has his own screenwriting contest is Gordy Hoffman of Blue Cat Screenplay. In fact, Hoffman has an insightful article on screenwriting contests called The Rouge Knight: Why Screenwriting Contests Matter.

I think there are some exciting things developing with online screenwriting contests that will be refined over the coming years and I think will have some real opportunities to not only win awards but have a direct hand in getting winning scripts produced.

Let me end with a closing story on how a screenwriting contest indirectly landed my first paid dramatic writing gig. I was producing a radio program in Orlando and had missed a contest deadline for some reason (like not enough postage) and I was complaining about it at this studio where I was working on the radio program and this guy said, “I didn’t know you wrote scripts. I have a radio drama that I’m producing, do you want to write the scripts?”  (Sometimes it’s not who you know or what you know, but where you are when opportunity knocks.)

And over the next several months I wrote 12 one hour long scripts that aired nationally on the USA radio network. The producer who wrote those checks has gone on to produce several feature films so who knows if my missed opportunity many years ago could lead to other opportunities?

So keep writing and keep telling people what you do. 

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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