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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Boal’

“One of the things that [then Oberlin College] President Starr said to me, which stuck with me, was —’look out into the world and see if there is a gap that needs to be filled, see if there’s something you really want to do that isn’t being done, and then go and do it.’ And that you don’t actually need additional degrees in order to do that. And that really rubbed true to me especially since I probably couldn’t have gotten into any graduate school in the country given my low GPA when I was here at Oberlin. So I took that as a firm piece of advice.”
Two-time Oscar winner Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) on advice he got as a college student at Oberlin College
(And what set the philosophy major in the direction of journalism, which led to screenwriting.)

Scott W. Smith

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Live. Learn. Lead.
Motto of Oberlin, Ohio

Oberlin, Ohio map

Last year Oberlin was voted the “Best Hometown” in northeast Ohio by Ohio Magazine.  The city of just under 10,000 people was founded in 1833 by two Presbyterian ministers, and just happens to also be the place that helped develop two top Hollywood screenwriters. And while the city sits between Cleveland and Toledo it’s interesting to head over to Europe to see the original roots that links Oberlin to the Oscars.

Oberlin, Ohio was named after Jean-Frederic Oberlin (1740-1826) who was a German minister who worked to build a better community in the Le Ban de la Roche region in France.  (Known for his work in medicine, agricultural, helping to build roads, bridges and oraphanages—along with his spiritual teachings.)  The J.-F Oberlin Museum in Waldersbach is dedicated to celebrating his 59 years of ministry work in the remote valley.

Oberlin-Hollywood

Oberlin College was established in 1833 by the same two ministers who founded the town. According to Wikipedia, Oberlin was a key stop for the Underground Railroad in assisting escaped slaves and  the college  “was the first college in the United States to regularly admit African-American students, beginning in 1835.” And while Oberlin College is strong in the arts, and today has a Cinema Studies program, the school’s most successful screenwriters majored in different disciplines.

Two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman was an English major at Oberlin before he wrote the novel Harper which led to a career in Hollywood. His best known films are Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, Misery, All the Presidents Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Goldman also wrote the insightful book Adventures in the Screen Trade:  A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. That book includes the entire screenplay to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Though first published in 1982, it’s the first book any inspiring screenwriter should read. Here’s how Goldman introduced Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) in the screenplay.

A MAN idly walking around the building. He is BUTCH CASSIDY and hard to pin down. Thirty-five and bright, he has brown hair, but most people, if asked to describe him, would remember him as blond. He speaks well and quickly, and has been all his life a leader of men, but if you asked him, he would be damned if he could tell you why.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Written by William Goldman

The other screenwriter from Oberlin is Mark Boal who majored in philosophy. While the much respected Goldman is on the tail-end of his career, Boal who graduated from Oberlin in ’95 is at the front end of his career but already has four Oscar nominations for his work writing and producing Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, resulting in two-Oscar wins. Here’s how Boal introduced Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) in The Hurt Locker:

Working the joystick on the laptop is SERGEANT J.T. SANDBORN, a type-A jock, high school football star, cocky, outgoing, ready with a smile and quick with a joke…or, if you prefer , a jab to the chin. Think Muhammad Ali with a rifle.

I couldn’t tell you another connection between Goldman and Boal, but for the sake of this blog, two great screenwriters passing through the same small city decades apart makes it a city of interest. And a reminder that talent comes from everywhere.

Related posts:

William Goldman Stands Alone
Screenwriting Quote #118 (William Goldman)
Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl in Ohio
Toy Story 3’s Ohio Connections
Screenwriter Ernest R. Tidyman
Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany
Descriptive Writing—Pt 3, Characters

Scott W. Smith

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“I started out in newspapers, went on to narrative nonfiction magazine articles in the late 90’s, and then began trying my hand at screenwriting…In 2002, Kathryn Bigelow optioned a piece I did called ‘Jailbait.’ It became a short-lived TV show on Fox that she directed. That was really my introduction to television and film. Then I continued on the dual track I’m on now, trying to merge the two disciplines. This really started with The Hurt Locker, which was based on reporting, and continued with Zero Dark Thirty.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker)
Interview with Rob Feld
The Hurt Locker: The Shooting Script 

Here’s a link to Boal’s article Jailbait which got the attention of Bigelow.

P.S. Back in 1995 Boal graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio where he majored in philosophy. In this 2010 talk at the school Boal told students, “You have to be willing to get your teeth kicked in continually before you achieve even a modicum of success. And once you achieve that you have to be willing to put up with a bunch of rejection before you can get anywhere.” (I don’t get too much criticism from this blog, but when it comes it’s usually in the form of, “you make this sound too hard to do.” I think Boal’s quote and Twilight screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg‘s similar quote—“Don’t give up. You’re going to get kicked in the teeth. A lot. Learn to take a hit, then pick yourself up off the floor. Resilience is the true key to success.”—pretty much sum it up.

BTW—Two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, All the Presidents Men) graduated from Oberlin College with an English degree.

Related post:
Screenwriting Quote #126 (Mark Boal) Boal proves you don’t have to go to film school, but you do have to learn from others. (And it’s a bonus if those others are Oscar-winner Paul Haggis and Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow. The key is to write something good enough to get you in the room with that kind of talent.)
Hitchcock Loved The Hurt Locker
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip#2)
First screenplay=9 Oscar Nominations
Beatles, King, Cody & 10,000 Hours
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70)

Scott W. Smith

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Hitchcock loved The Hurt Locker? As in Alfred Hitchcock? Really? Hasn’t he been dead for like 30 years? Yes, I guess I should have said that “Hitchcock would have loved The Hurt Locker”—but that’s a long title, and less interesting. So why do I think the master of suspense and a psychological thrillers would have appreciated the film that picked up the best picture Oscar Sunday?

Well, in part because The Hurt Locker was suspenseful and psychological. But there are three other reasons that come to mind of why I think director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal tapped into the Hitchcock creative mindset as filmmakers.

1) Hitchcock said that the difference between shock and suspense was the difference between having a bomb suddenly going off surprising the audience (shock) and the audience seeing that there is a bomb under a table with a timer ticking down (suspense). The later being able to hold your attention for a long time no matter what the conversation is above the table. Bigelow and her editors knew they didn’t need to rush certain scenes and used the built in suspense to their advantage.

2) Little dialogue/strong visuals—Hitchcock came from the world of silent films and believed you only used words when the visuals didn’t tell the story. (Watch Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and The Birds to see excellent examples.) Bigelow studied painting before she became a filmmaker and The Hurt Locker is strong on visuals. Hitchcock embraced simplicity at times sometimes using little or no sound effects. Sometimes pulling the effects and music altogether for a dramatic effect. I’ve only seen The Hurt Locker once so far but I seem to recall the music and effects track being spartan at times. I’m sure much effort went into the sound design of The Hurt Locker but it didn’t overpower the track and at times seemed to be just actor Jeremy Renner breathing in his protective suit.

3) Hitchcock didn’t care about reality. There have been a few articles about how some bomb experts in Iraq don’t feel like the film was realistic. One used the words “grossly exaggerated.” Bigelow wasn’t making a documentary. She was making a movie. And movies as I learned in film school are “heightened  reality.” Some cops never shoot their gun in their whole career, but that tends not to make for good drama. Hitchcock didn’t worry about reality and I’ll let him explain his reasoning, after all he’s the guy who had a chase scene on top of Mount Rushmore, a killing inside the UN building, as well as many other “grossly exaggerated” situations;

“To insist that a storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately…We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it’s not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow…I don’t want to film a ‘slice of life’ because people can get that at home, in the street, or even in front of the movie theater. They don’t have to pay money to see a slice of life. And I avoid out-and-out fantasy because people should be able to identify with the characters. Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.”
Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Truffaut

Of course, the military leadership has to go on record saying that they aren’t looking for lone-ranger, hotshot cowboys on their bomb squads. And they probably don’t. But I image they realize  this will do a little for recruiting what the cocky, hotshot pilot Tom Cruise and Top Gun did back for Navy recruiting in the 80s. Bigalow and Boal have made rock stars of guys that risk their life to defuse bombs. (I read one reviewer who went as far as to say the movie felt like an Army recruitment film.) The movie hasn’t been seen any where near as much as Top Gun and flying a jet plane seems a little more glamorous, but I think that bomb disposal experts should be sending thank you notes to Bigelow and Boals because they have brought dignity and awareness to a job most Americans knew little about.

And if any bomb disposal experts in Iraq or Afghanistan read this, thank you for what you’re doing. I hope you come home safely soon.

And congrats to Bigelow and the whole Hurt Locker crew on the Oscar wins.

Related post: Pandora vs. Baghdad

Scott W. Smith

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Last week I was asked by Debra Eckerling to do my first ever guest blogging on her excellent Write On Online website. I appreciated the opportunity and wrote the following post after making the observation that there was a heavy dose of films made beyond what is known as the thirty mile zone in L.A. (As a side note, though Eckerling lives in L.A. these days she is part of the Midwest tribe invading Southern California, having been raised in the Chicago area and college educated in Wisconsin and Nebraska.)

The Oscars & Screenwriting East of L.A.

On my blog Screenwriting from Iowa I enjoy writing about screenwriters who come from outside L.A., not because I have anything against L.A., but because I think there are wonderful stories to tell from all over the world. The famous painter Grant Wood (American Gothic) was fond of talking about regionalism in painting. I’d like to think there is a regionalism brewing from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective.

One thing that jumps out at me about this year’s Oscar nominations in both the original and adapted screenplay categories is every single one of the stories is set outside Los Angeles.

I haven’t seen all of the films, but after a little research I’m not even sure that of the 10 films nominated in the screenplay categories that there is a single scene even set in the state of California. Those are pretty staggering statistics considering that L.A. is the center of the film industry.

Original Screenplay Nominees:

District 9
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; set in Johannesburg, South Africa,

An Education
Screenplay by Nick Hornby; set in England

In the Loop
Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche; set in England and Washington, D.C.

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher; set in New York City

Up in the Air
Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner; set in various airports & airplanes around the county with key scenes set in Nebraska, Wisconsin and in the air over Iowa

Adapted Screenplay

The Hurt Locker
Written by Mark Boal; set primarily in Iraq

Inglourious Basterds
Written by Quentin Tarantino; set in France

The Messenger
Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman; set in and around New Jersey

A Serious Man
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; set in Minneapolis

Up
Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter. Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy; set in South America

Just taking a cursory glance at all the films in every single Academy Award category and I don’t notice a single movie set in Los Angeles. There are films set in places like Michigan, Memphis, China, and of course, Pandora. This year’s films represent a global cinema.

Novelist and musicians have always been able to ply their trade in far away places that over the centuries has brought an original and rich texture to their work. It’s exposed readers and listeners to new worlds and experiences.

But because feature films usually take large crews and a good deal of equipment it has traditionally resulted over the decades in a good amount of stories that are L.A.-centered. And because of that screenwriters from all over have always been drawn to Los Angeles and end up writing more stories about L.A. (Or had their stories changed to be able to be shot in California.)

Perhaps we’re witnessing the end of a cycle that began 100 years ago when the movie industry moved from New York and Chicago to Hollywood. In 2008-2009 there was a lot of talk about L.A.’s runaway production and what to do about the shrinking number of films being shot on the streets of Los Angeles.

People can argue and blame it on the economy, unions, the high cost of shooting in L.A., tax incentives that are available all over the world, reality TV, the fact that people are tired of seeing the Santa Monica Pier, or the downsizing & democratization as the result of digital production, but the one thing this year’s crop of Oscars prove is that the door is wide open (slightly cracked?) for screenwriters who have stories that take place beyond the shadow of the Hollywood sign.

We may not be at that place where Francis Ford Coppola prophesied 20 years ago when he said that, “One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart” by making a film on her father’s videocamera. But things are getting very interesting.

Mark Boal who wrote The Hurt Locker is a good example of a screenwriter who did not take a traditional route to break into Hollywood. Though neither fat or a girl he did go to a small college in Ohio where he majored in philosophy. As a journalist embedded in Iraq it led to writing the story that became the film In The Valley of Elah.Then he took the next step by writing his first screenplay (The Hurt Locker) which not only got produced, but has been nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards.

* * *

In a related note, this year’s Oscars will be doing a John Hughes tribute. Hughes was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan until his family moved to the Chicago suburbs when he was a teenager.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more successful mainstream Hollywood writer/director who was as much of an Hollywood outsider. Hughes, whose films include Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink. Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Christmas Vacation, and of course Home Alone, once told film critic Roger Ebert:

“I’m going to do all my movies here in Chicago. The (Chicago) Tribune referred to me as a ‘former Chicagoan.’ As if, to do anything, I had to leave Chicago. I never left. I worked until I was 29 at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, and then I quit to do this. This is a working city, where people go to their jobs and raise their kids and live their lives. In Hollywood, I’d be hanging around with a lot of people who don’t have to pay when they go to the movies.”

Scott W. Smith

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It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess
And that’s enough reason to go for me

It’s My Job
Mac McAnally

A couple weeks ago I touched on Mark Boal’s Oscar-nominated script for The Hurt Locker which deals with a group of guys whose job is on a bomb squad during the war in Iraq. It was a fresh angle to cover dramatically.  The Messenger is another Oscar-nominated script that also finds a fresh angle to the war, that of the officers who must report the death of a soldier to the next of kin.

“We quickly learned, by all accounts of the officers we spoke to and read about, that casualty notification is one of the most difficult jobs in the military—more difficult, some of them argued, than going into combat. This makes for rich dramatic territory to explore. If there’s one thing I know as a writer, it’s that you can always tell a story about someone doing a job. It can be a job with built-in conflict and high stakes (that’s why movies and shows about cops, doctors and lawyers keep getting made); it can be a prosaic job, seen in unique ways (taxi driver, mailman, gigolo); and if the job is unusual, thankless and dangerous—delivering death notices, firing other people, defusing bombs—one can immediately engage the audience’s curiosity and dread.
Alessandro Camon (co-screenwriter of The Messenger)
MovieMaker magazine
February 3. 2010

What are some of your favorite movies that show work in a unique way?

Scott W. Smith

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For journalist turned screenwriter Mark Boal, 2009/2010 turned into quite a life changing period. His script for The Hurt Locker was released as a movie and more recently the film has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. He was asked recently by  Claudia Eller at the Los Angeles TImes how all of that has changed the 36-year old’s life;

“Drastically. The single biggest change is probably seeing a story I care about discussed on the “Today” show with Kathryn Bigelow and Jeremy Renner. It’s a far cry from being on the subway and seeing the story you wrote being read by a guy as he turns the page to look at the escort ads. I was in the post office the other day sending a copy of the screenplay to someone whose house I stayed at in Nantucket, and this woman behind me in line who had seen the movie said, “Oh my God, I’ve got to text my friend that I’m in line with you.”
Mark Boal, screenwriter
The Hurt Locker had an explosive effect on Mark Boal’s Screenwriting Career
Article by Claudia Eller/LA Times

Related post: Screenwriting from Massachusetts

Scott W. Smith

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