Posts Tagged ‘Mad Men’

“Stop making the same, safe, soul-less movies and TV shows.”
Part of a memo from the Sony Pictures leak

“We have a new paradigm, a new reality, and we’re going to have to come to real terms with it all the way down the line.”
George Clooney on the Sony hack and canceling of The Interview release
Deadline Hollywood December 18, 2014

Did you get the memo? If not, maybe that’s because the Sony hack was reportedly 100 terabytes of information. A massive tidal wave of information that if was just in paper form would probably take a lifetime for one person to read it all. (Among the information is said to be 47,000 social security numbers.)

My first thought when I heard the news (with a group called Guardians of Peace taking credit) was something an old boss of mine used to repeat often—”There are no secrets.”

I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my systems blow
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Radioactive lyrics

I do believe that—as George Clooney basically said, and as the Carpenters used to sing— “We’ve only just begun.” Now an unnamed person or group (many believe connected to North Korea, though the government has denied) has taken the next step and threatened further damage to Sony Pictures if they released their movie The Interview—a comedy about a mission to kill the leader of North Korea—and any moviegoers who watch the film in theaters. The December 25 film release has been canceled.

Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age

There has been much speculation about how the leak—and last month’s shut down of Sony’s website—could happen without some Sony—or former Sony—insider. (To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Hell hath no furry like an employee scorned.”) Perhaps we’ll never know the intricate mysteries behind the hack, but some of the information from it has been interesting.

My favorite line being a plea to, “Stop making the same, safe, soul-less movies and TV shows.” And this extended thought:

“Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I’ve been disappointed with the content of some of the films we’ve been producing lately. I don’t think people who know me would consider me a prude, but the boorish, least common denominator slate strikes me as a waste of resource and reputation. ‘I think the mirror should be tilted slightly upward when it`s reflecting life — toward the cheerful, the tender, the compassionate, the brave, the funny, the encouraging, all those things — and not tilted down to the gutter part of the time, into the troubled vistas of conflict’—(actress/philanthropist) Greer Garson 1990. I think that quote could be adapted to apply to the base elements of some of the films we produce.”

I’ll leave to authorities to sort out the legalities of the hack, and to the pundits dealing with the ramification of Sony Pictures canceling the December 25th release of The Interview. But my charge to all screenwriters and film and TV producers is, “Stop making the same, safe, soul-less movies and TV shows.”

Of course, one could say Sony didn’t take the safe road producing a film that depicts the killing of the leader of North Korea. And I’ll defend Sony Pictures all day long with its AMC productions Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Neither of which were the same, safe, or soul-less. I don’t know the date of the “soul-less” memo—maybe it’s what led to taking a chance with creators Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan.

And lastly, while I haven’t seen it yet, there doesn’t appear to be anything safe or soulless about Sony’s recent release Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle.

P.S. Countdown to 2000th special post on January 22, 2015—14 posts.

Related Posts:
‘Mad Men’ Diet & Workout
Breaking Bad’s Beginning
Jerry Maguire’s Mission Statement

 Scott W. Smith

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“Boris was a great artist. He did a beautiful job under difficult conditions. The weather was cold and overcast. We rushed to shoot the film in 35 days. Cheap is fast. Every day costs money. Spiegel, the producer, was on Kazan’s tail to go faster. We were pleased by the way the film turned out. Everybody was against it. We overcame all the obstacles.”
Screenwriter Budd Schulberg on Director of Photography Boris Kaufman who won an Oscar for shooting On the Waterfront which Schulberg won an Oscar for writing
on the waterfront

In the past year and a half I’ve been giving away boxes of my screenwriting and productions books to high schools and colleges. Last week I went through my bookshelves again and came up with two more boxes of books to give away and this batch includes William Froug’s Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade which was first published in 1992.

I flipped through my copy heavy with yellow highlighter marks looking for something I hadn’t covered on this blog before. Here’s the quote that jumped out at me:

“You are almost always better off if your scene is located outside in an interesting location with things happening in the background and all around the talkers. Keeping the characters moving helps. Movies are about moving pictures.”
Producer/writer/professor William Froug
Screenwritng Tricks of the Trade

Since this summer I’ve been calling these posts part of Screenwriting Summer School, it would be an interesting test to write down your all time favorite movie scenes and see if the majority of them are inside or outside. I know some screenwriters have a color coding index card system to see if they have a nice contrast of interior and exterior scenes. (Can’t recall anyone else saying you’re, “almost always better off if your scene is located outside.”)

The first exterior scene that jumped to my mind is the playground scene from On the Waterfronwritten by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. A simple walk and talk scene with Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando. It’s an understated scene and a bit of an exposition dump, but the good girl/bad boy scene (and their relationship) is important for the transformation of Brando’s character.

It’s a scene that does move the story forward and ties into the climax at the end of the story. I also like this scene because it’s an indie filmmaker-friendly kind of scene. It would be possible to shoot this scene with two actors and a four person crew. (How? Read The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns.)

The playground scene opens with a dolly shot* that runs a full two minutes without a cut. But it’s an elegant scene that’s not only well written and acted but watch it a couple of times and see how the direction and cinematography of this outdoor shot work to make the shot visually interesting. There’s the smoke from trashcan fires floating by, the swing set, the dropped glove, the stick of gum, the Manhattan skyline across the river, and the wrought iron fence—all of which to help make the three and a half-minutes visually interesting.

Van Gogh once said that he’d be content with water and a Rembrandt painting. I feel that way about On the Waterfront—a 1954 film that won 8 Oscars including Best Picture, and which the AFI lists as the #8 best movie of all time.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the climax of On the Waterfront is set outside. But the scene most played from the movie “I coulda been a contender” is set inside a car, and Karl Malden’s well-known speech is an interior scene. If someone’s expanded Froug’s outside comment please send me the link.

I’ve been watching the first season of The Sopranos (another Jersey-centered mob story like On the Waterfront) and I know cable TV—especially in the 90s before The Sopranos changed the face of TV—doesn’t have the budgets of an average Hollywood movie, but there’s a lot of sitting around and talking on The Sopranos. (Same for the #2 rated all-time TV show Seinfeld.)

Perhaps that’s the nature of the beast and it’s not fair to compare a top Tv show with a top movie.  Last year the Writer’s Guild of America named The Sopranos as the top show in television history. Created by David Chase it stands on it own and paved the way for one of the writers on The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner, to create Mad Men. And while Mad Men has its share of interior shots, the set design and set decorating of show set a new standard in Tv of how visually interesting an interior shot can be. And I’m sure there are plenty of Breaking Bad fans who would rather watch the compelling opening scene of the series a few times over the scene I chose from a black and white film that’s 60 years old.

This isn’t really about is TV more like theater than film, or a debate if TV writing is the best dramatic work being done today. It’s just three sentences by the one-time TV producer/writer and former UCLA professor Mr. Froug that I hopes helps you contemplate about your scene settings.

Here’s the second exterior scene that came to mind:

*A small indie crew couldn’t lay the tracks needed to do that On the Waterfront dolly shot with the large camera they used, but they could quickly set up and use a shorter dolly move using something like a Dana Dolly or what I have the Porta Jib Explorer. (I’ve even set my up in as little as 10 minutes shooting solo.) Or you could ditch the tracks altogether and using something like the MOVI.

Update: I learned that the studios wanted to shoot On the Waterfront on the lot in Los Angeles, but Kazan said it was an ‘East coast movie” and fought and won to shoot it in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Related posts:
The Source of ‘On the Waterfront’
Telling Our Own Shadow Stories
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
Kazan on Directing (Part 1) 

Scott W. Smith 

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“You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”
Don Draper (Jonn Hamm)
Mad Men

“Well, what if there is no tomorrow?”
Phil (Bill Murray)
Groundhog Day

Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee says that movies, “Favor the great saint, or the great sinner”— Chuck Colson was both. I had the good fortune 10-15 years ago to not only meet Colson but work with him on several occasions.

Colson died a couple of days ago at age 80. The LA Times said, “He was Richard Nixon’s ‘hatchet man,’ the president’s ‘evil genius,’ who by his own admission was ‘ruthless in getting things done’ in the Watergate years, when the things that he and others in the White House were getting done would become a national disgrace and send Colson to prison.”

It would be his time at the Maxwell Correction Facility in Alabama that would define his life. His Ivy League education at Brown, his Marine training, his law practice, and his rise to be the President of the United States’ right hand man were just a preface to watch a man fall from grace. (Kind of like that opening visual in the TV series Mad Men.)

“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul.”
Mark 8:36

But it was Colson’s very public fall that set up his life’s work. His religious awakening while in prison set up his founding Prison Fellowship Ministries. What the The New York Times called a “remarkable reveral.” While Colson also became a much in demand speaker and writer,  Timothy M. Phelps in the LA Times wrote, “he apparently never amassed great personal wealth from his work. He took an annual salary of $113,000 from his prison groups and donated all royalties from his 30 books, substantial speaking fees, and the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion he was awarded in London in 1993 to his prison fellowship.”

Colson’s story was made into the film Born Again in 1978. That was back when “born again” became a bumper sticker catch phrase, around the time when “born again” became part of the Jimmy Carter campaign on his way to being elected to president in 1976.

Interestingly, it was not the time in the White House for either the Democrat Carter or the Republican Colson that will be their lasting legacies. After Carter left the White House he founded Habitat for Humanity, and after Colson left the White House (and prison) he founded Prison Fellowship—which operates in 1,367 prisons in the U.S. and has more that 200,000 inmates participating in its program.

“I used to look at life from the top looking down. In prison, you learn to look at life from the underside and you see people hurting and suffering and it has changed my whole perspective.”
Chuck Colson

One of the most memorable experiences of my life is going into the Lake County Correctional Institute in Florida and taking part in a Prison Fellowship weekend. I’ve never been around a group of people who sang deeply more than those men of faith.  The Bible says, “Remember those in prison.” and that’s what became the redemptive life work of Colson the last 35 years of his life.

It’s no surprise that Colson found a connection to the movie Walk the Line.  Back when that film was released back in 2005, Colson wrote;

Early in the new film Walk the Line, opening today, a twelve-year-old Johnny Cash is talking with his adored older brother Jack. Johnny asks how Jack is able to remember all the stories in the Bible. Jack, who wants to be a preacher, responds, “You can’t help people unless you can tell ’em the right stories.”

It’s a truth that the filmmakers clearly bore in mind as they made the movie. Walk the Line, a beautifully made film about Cash’s early years, is many stories in one: a story of sin, self-absorption, recklessness, grace, and redemption.
Chuck Colson
The Right Story  

Which brings us back to those above quotes from Groundhog Day and  Mad Men. The times I worked on the production side of Colson’s talks, the people he often quoted were the Nobel Prize writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn who spent time in the Russian Gulag, William Wiberforce who worked to end the slave trade in Britain, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the German Lutheran pastor who was arrested and executed related to his anti-Nazi views and actions.

Solzhenitsyn, Wilberforce, Bonheoffer and Colson were different kinds of mad men—reformers—ones that believed that there is a tomorrow. Because ultimatley if there is no tomorrow, then today doesn’t really matter.

Scott W. Smith


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Were you ever in the valley
Where the way is dark and dim?
Cup of Loneliness
Lyrics by George Jones and Burl Stephens 

How does it feel 
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown…

Like a Rolling Stone/ Lyrics by Bob Dylan

“I have been watching my life…it’s right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it.”
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Mad Men

The TV show Mad Men not only has style, it has theology. From the opening credit images symbolizing a falling man right up through the end of season two (that I just finished in my two week binge) Mad Men deals with lost and fallen people.

Time will tell if they find some sort of salvation. But new life and resurrection themes are what this time of the year are all about.

The ending of Mad Men episode #24 (The Mountain, written by Matthew Weiner & Robin Veith) has the perfect song for Easter time.  The George Jones song Cup of Loneliness sums up Don Draper’s life as season two comes to a close. This is the Good Friday song.

And since tomorrow is Easter Day there is the resurrection Sunday Mad Men song, also from season two that balances Cup of Loneliness quite well. It’s from episode 21, A Night to Remember (also written by Weiner & Veith) and the closing credit song is sung by Peter, Paul & Mary.

And since we’re stuck in the sixties and talking about Easter why don’t we conclude with the quintessential singer/songwriter from the ’60s. While Bob Dylan’s music was featured in season one of Mad Men, it was not this song where he sings about his “hero.”

Happy Easter.

P.S. A few days ago 80-year-old George Jones was hospitalized a respiratory infection. His website says he is resting at home now and plans to return to the stage April 20 in Minnesota. Another well-known 8o-year old was also hospitalized this week, Chuck Colson of Watergate fame. Known as Nixon’s “hatched man” he’s gone on to write several books including Loving God  following his conversion to Christianity. There is a movie based on his life called Born Again starring Dean Jones. I had the opportunity to work with Colson a couple of times in the ’90s and once did an video interview with the late Green Bay Packer great Reggie White for a promotional video for Prison Fellowship which Colson founded in 1976 after his own time in prison.  In light of the recent news reports about Charles Manson being up for parole, I remember Colson once giving a talk where he made the provocative comment that, “We are much closer to Charles Manson than Jesus Christ.” Though not universally agreed upon, I think Don Draper would agree with that sentiment.

Scott W. Smith

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Behind those Mad Men is a pack of woman.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned how Maria Jacquemetton was one of the writer/producers on the Emmy-winning TV series Mad Men. I don’t know what the ratio is this season for Mad Men, but in a 2009 Wall St, Journal article by Amy Chozick she points out that, “Seven of the nine members of the [Mad Men] writing team are women.”

The amazing thing there is as the article points out, “Woman comprised 23% of television writers during the 2007 to 2008 prime-time season” and
“nearly 80% of TV programs had no women writers.”

The entire series is saturated (either in single episodes or its entire run) with women in key roles on various episodes; directing, costume design, sound design. editing, makeup, casting, set design, etc.

It’s not easy to find interviews and information about these writers but here’s some info I found on one of them that shows her road the road she took on the way to winning a Primetime Emmy.

Kater Gordon: According to HamptonRoads.com , she graduated from high school in Virginia Beach in 2000 and then attended the University of Virgina. After school she worked as production assistant on a couple features (Munich, Enchanted) and then landed a job as a writer’s assistant on the first season of Man Men. And at the end of season two she wrote the final episode with the shows creator Matthew Weiner. She received her first solo writing credit in season 3 with The Fog.

And, in all fairness, I should mention that a few weeks after winning that Emmy Ms. Gordon was relieved of her duties as a staff writer on Mad Men. I’m not sure what she’s worked on since then, but her last IMDB credit was four years ago. No one ever said it was an easy business. But how many people go from college to a Primetime Emmy in five years?

Scott W. Smith

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“Write script after script and never give up.”
Maria Jacquemetton

Two of the writer/producers on Mad Men are the husband-and-wife team Andre and Maria Jacquemetton.  They’ve both won three Primetime Emmy Awards for their work on Mad Men. I found a Q&A of them and thought you’d find it interesting how they got started in the industry and eventually got to work with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

“We met when we were both assistants at Paramount… At the time, we were aspiring writers doing day jobs to pay the bills, and writing at night and on weekends. … It took ten years for us to actually be able to collaborate and get a paycheck as writers…Matthew Weiner was in a writing group with us when we were all struggling writers. We’d meet at Stir Crazy, a coffee shop on Melrose Avenue, and exchange pages — well, mostly we exchanged gossip about the industry. Eventually, we all ended up working on shows, but stayed in contact, reading each other’s work and giving encouragement. He wrote Mad Men as a spec pilot when he was on Becker and we were working on Star Trek: Enterprise on the Paramount lot. We loved it and told him if he ever got this going we would love to work on it. About six years later he gave us the good news.”
AMC Q&A with Andre and Maria Jacquemetton 

Did you catch that? Ten years of writing before they got paid to write together. (And it took Weiner six years to get Mad Men off the ground after writing the spec script.) Takes a little time sometimes. And in Maria’s case, that came after her earning a Master’s in Film Production at Boston College. Before Mad Men, Maria was also the head of the writing program at The Vancouver Film School.

Scott W. Smith

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“I had an open bar at the agency in which I kept 10 to 15 bottles of booze…I smoked three to four packs a day. Everybody smoked at all times in all meetings…There was a tremendous amount of sex. I don’t know of a single marriage that survived that time.”
Jerry Della Femina
Called the original “Madman of Madison Avenue” who began his career as a copywriter in 1961*
USA Today article Does ‘Mad Men’ Exaggerate? Nope (2009)


My parents on their wedding day

My father, Charles W. Smith, was born on April Fools’ Day 1931. He would have been 81 today, but after a career in advertising he didn’t make it past age 64.

Last week, I blazed through watching the entire first season of the Emmy-winning show Mad Men—a mere five years after its TV debut. It didn’t take long for me to realize why I connected with the show. At age 30, my father walked away from being a pilot in the Air Force to start a new career in advertising. Not in New York City, but a scaled down version in the new frontier of Central Florida in the pre-Disney days of 1961.

He began his new career as a copywriter at McClellan and Associates, before moving on to other agencies and positions.

While they didn’t have the high profile accounts featured in Mad Men, that didn’t mean they smoked or drank any less. While I never saw my father out of control drunk, I rarely saw him without a drink in his hand. When I asked my mom about Mad Men she said, “I lived that life.” My father would entertain clients at the Villa Nova Restaurant or Freddy’s Steak House in the Orlando area and often didn’t come home for dinner—and sometimes didn’t come home until 2 or 3 AM. My mom and dad got divorced in 1968 before it came in vogue in the United States.

Divorce, alcoholism, sexism and affairs—and all that jazz— weren’t limited to the big boys in New York City advertising. (And I’m sure it wasn’t limited to just the advertising business.)

My father eventually left Orlando in early 70s to start his own advertising agency in Tampa called simply Smith Advertising. He had long left behind industrial Northeast Ohio where his father worked for more than 30 years at Youngstown Steel & Tube. A world he acknowledged only in passing. (Ironically, at the same time my father was growing up in the Youngstown area there was a young girl named Mary Wells from there who would go on to be president of Wells, Rich & Greene—one of the major New York advertising agencies in the 1960s.)

So it’s with great interest that I watch Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Mad Men navigate the world of his past, his family, his career, and the culture of the times. All in the warmly lit and highly stylized world of the 1960s—”The Golden Era of Advertising.” Of course, Central Florida of the ’60s was far from the glamour  surrounding Madison Avenue in New York City. Making my father not really one of the lowly Mad Men represented on the TV show, but simply an ad man.

But how I’d love to sit with my dad at the classic old school Bern’s Steak House in Tampa and spend the evening hearing him recount driving around in the Florida heat in his unairconditioned Volkswagen Karmann Ghia trying to drum up business. Learn more about how he was named in 1976 as Advertising Professional of the Year by the Tampa Advertising Federation— an award I only learned about after he died in ’95. If your father’s still alive, watch the music video below and then give him a call. There is power, grace and magic in stories.

P.S. If you watch Mad Men and/or work in advertising you have to check out this week’s Newsweek magazine (March 26 & April 2, 2012) with the cover Mad Men Goes Back to the Office. It not only features Mad Men, but an overview of advertising, as well as many retro-designed 60s ads of current products.

* That Newsweek Mad Men issue referred to George Lois, also born in 1931,  as ‘The Original Mad Man.’ He has a website that recaps his work on the “I Want My MTV” campaign and his year long MoMA exhibit of his Esquire covers.

Related Posts: From Poland, Ohio to a 155-foot Yacht

“Mad Men” Diet & Workout

Super Bowl Lemmings

The Dog Strikes Back

Scott W. Smith

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“When I write a script, I am telling a story that comes from my heart.”
Matthew Weiner, 9-time Emmy winning writer/producer (The Sopranos, Mad Men)

“He had a home,
The love of a girl,
But men get lost sometimes,
As years unfurl”
New York Minute
Lyrics by Don Henley, Danny Korthchmar, Jai L. Winding

I’m on a steady Mad Men diet. No, I didn’t see the season premiere of the Emmy-winning AMC TV program earlier this week. Not being a regular TV watcher it takes me a little time to commit to watching a show. But once I’m in, I’m all in. This week alone I’ve watched 9 episodes. (All which aired originally in 2007.)

It’s really more of a workout—literally. At the gym I set either a stationary bike or an elliptical machine for 47 minutes. (The length of an episode.) And I’ve even switched machines and watched shows back to back. So if you had a sedate winter give that Mad Men diet and workout a try. (Results vary.)

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”— but it sure can make for good drama. It worked for Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman and it works for Matthew Weiner and his writing team for Mad Men. In fact, the subtitle of Man Men could borrow words from Thoreau; “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Mad Men is everything that television usually isn’t; intelligent, philosophical, contemplative, and even spiritual. (Along with a good deal of smoking, drinking, and philandering.) And its use of subtext and visual storytelling* exceeds what you’ll find in the typical Hollywood feature film.

So I thought I’d find a little inspiration today for you from the Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

“Writers were idolized in my home. My parents had a big poster picture of Ernest Hemingway on a wall in a hallway in our house. I thought I was going to be a poet and that I would find some other profession, teaching or something, to support me. After I graduated from film school at the University of Southern California, it was about 10 years before I got a paying job in the industry, but I never gave myself a time limit. I wrote the pilot episode for Mad Men in 1999 at night while I already had a job, and finally got it produced in 2006.”
Matthew Weiner
A Conversation with Matthew Weiner by Bob Fisher 

Don’t gloss over that 10 year deal. It was 10 years after Weiner earned his MFA from USC that he got “a paying job in the industry.” He also did his undergraduate work at Wesleyan University where he was in “a Great Books program with philosophy, literature and history mixed together.” Smart cookie, with educated and affluent parents, but it still took him 10 years to get a paying job in the industry. Say he’s 24 when he gets his Master’s degree, that puts him at 34 before his career started to take off.

I don’t know what he did in that ten-year period, but I bet he was cranking out pages. (He did have some scripts optioned for free.)

“I’ve learned that tenacity is a common part of the personalities of successful writers whom I have met. Now, maybe because I have had some success, I can say that the struggling  for the 10 years or so before I got a paying  job, made me a better writer.”
Matthew Weiner

Looking for a word today to put on a 3X5 card to place on the wall behind your computer? Try tenacity. Meaning persistent, relentless—like a dog on a bone.

P.S. From the quirky connection category. Weiner is four years younger than me an attended the all-boys prep school Harvard in Los Angeles (Now the co-ed Harvard-Westlake School). When I was in film school I worked for Yary Photography taking pictures of sports groups throughout Southern California. I did several shoots at the Harvard School when I was 21/22-years-old. Weiner would have been a 17/18-year-old student meaning if he played sports our paths could have crossed for a fleeting moment.

And for what it’s worth, writer-director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) is also an alumni of the Harvard-Westlake School where the tuition for this school year is $30,000.

P.P.S. Care for a Midwest angle on Mad Men? Jon Hamm, who plays creative director Don Draper was born in St. Louis, Missouri and graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Missouri. Same school Brad Pitt attended. Ironically, neither of the future stars and Sexist Men Alive were theater majors at the Columbia, MO college. And January Jones (who plays Don’s wife Betty) was born and raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (about 10 miles from the Iowa border).

* Visual storytelling Mad Men example: In the episode Long Weekend, the number #2 man at the advertising agency Sterling-Cooper calls a secretary into his office (who is having an affair with) and just before she closes the door to his office she decides to leave it ajar about a foot. Nothing said, but so much implied. As the scene plays on it turns out she has seen Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and  sympathizes with the Shirley MacLaine character and wonders if she herself is just being used.

Related posts:

Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
“Unstoppable” Wesleyan University
Screenwriting Quote #32 (Mad Men)
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) John Logan’s (Hugo, Rango) 10 year struggle as a writer.

Scott W. Smith

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“Mark’s script was the best page-turner I’ve ever read,  I flew through it.”
Director Tony Scott (Unstoppable) 

(Sorry for the strange format WordPress is acting funny today.)
After several days of talking about lower budget Indie films I thought I’d jump tracks and look at the other end of the spectrum. Unstoppable, which came with a budget of 100 million dollars, is a full-bore Hollywood film. I saw it last night and enjoyed the ride with the rest of the audience in the theater. In its simplicity it’s reminiscent to many films including Speed. 


In this case you missed the movie’s advertising, the story revolves around a runaway train. Simple, right?
The film was shot in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Since I’m a big fan of seeing parts of the country that don’t get much screen time, it was a fresh way to give a time-tested genre a new twist. The film was inspired by true life events regarding an unmamanned train incident known as the Crazy Eights incident in Ohio back in 2001.
The script was written by Mark Bomback, who also wrote Live Free or Die Hard starring Bruce Willis. Bomback is a graduate of Wesleyan University where he was an English major. A couple of years ago Vanity Fair mentioned Wesleyan’s Entertaining Class and how the small Connecticut school “has turned out a shockingly disproportionate number of Hollywood movies and shakers” listing among its graduates, Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), Michael Bay (Transformers),  Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), and Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm).
That’s just a partial list that most films schools couldn’t match. (Anybody know why? Secret handshake?)
But back to Unstoppable, the movie.
“Like a lot of children, I liked trains as a kid, but I certainly wasn’t a fan. I started researching the film (Unstoppable) from a place of complete ignorance. Trains are ubiquitous, but you never think about how the entire country depends on them so it seemed like an interesting setting for a film. Trains haven’t been done in a while so I thought this might be a new way to introduce them; they’re so old school, they’re new school. We wanted audiences to think that Frank or Will could die at any moment and the movie would still continue because audiences would understand the train can’t derail until, at best, the end of the film. So the question is, how do you maintain that sense of tension? I did my best to stay within the bounds of realism and not go too far.”
Mark Bomback

in its opening week has made back about  a third of its production budget and is on track to break even in the states. But because it’s a universal action picture it will do well overseas it will probably cover it’s advertising budget and then some.

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Though I do appreciate great TV programs like The Twlight Zone, Northern Exposure, Sienfeld, and LOST I’ve never been a big TV watcher. And since I don’t get HBO, CNN, or AMC unless I’m at a hotel, I’m sure I miss some good stuff. But there are only so many hours in a day. 

But just like in the fifties when writers like Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, and Rod Serling helped made for a TV a golden era, but many believe this is a new golden era for television as its attracting some of the best dramatic writers with David E. Kelley, Alan Ball and Aaron Sorkin leading the way. (Certainly if you are looking for a large audience TV is the way to go.)

I had been hearing so many good things about the show Mad Men that I rented the first season DVD last week and watched the pilot.  I guess the fact that it’s won three Golden Globes and six Emmys, including an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series finally got my attention. But I’m kind of jaded on TV from watching too many hours of characters sit around and spill out exposition. Most of the time I’d rather watch a classic movie one more time.

All that to say I was blown away by Mad Men. At least that first script by Matthew Weiner is brilliant. The lighting and sets were beautiful and the talented crew of actors were believable–which is not easy since the first program takes place at a New York City ad agency in 1960. There are layers of depth and subtext in the writing that is hard to find anywhere today.

“Advertising is based on one thing…happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing…it’s okay.  You are okay.”

                                     Mad Men
                                     Season 1/ Program 1
                                     Don Draper ( Jon Hamm) pitching a cigarette company

So I wanted to find out a little about Weiner and discovered that he worked on The Spranos. He wrote the script for Mad Men seven years before it was finally produced and even with his cnnection to HBO could not get them to commit.  Weiner has said to many reporters that part of his inspiration for the series was based on the movies The Apartment and  and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. And there is also where key piece to Weiner’s mindset. 

“There’s no one working in television or theater today who’s not influenced by… the fountainhead of this whole thing, which is Death of a Salesman. That’s it. And you never have to see it, just read the play and you’re like ‘This is it. This is everything. This is the truth about human behavior.’ And it’s earlier than the show but it’s everything that I am interested in. And anybody who I know that I admire, and all the people I admire were influenced by it. Paddy Cheyefsky and Rod Serling – they’re all part of that.”
                                                   Matt Weiner
                                                   Mad Men Q&A Kathy Lyford

The show is a look back to how we got where we are as a culture, while at the same time probing who we are as human beings today.  That’s hard to capture on the page in the first place , much less find a studio that will produce it and convince an audience to watch. Weiner is a great example of someone with vision, talent and persistence who shows you how an 18 year journey can lead to overnight success.

Scott W. Smith

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