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Posts Tagged ‘Marlon Brando’

“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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Though more of a directing rather than a screenwriting device, “sweeping the floor” is a phrase used to describe an  action given to an actor so their lines appear more natural. Sometimes an actor with a short scene or just one line wants to give more importance to their small part so they put too much emphasis on their small role. “Sweeping the floor” helps the actor concentrate on the activity (and, of course, it doesn’t have to be a literal sweeping the floor action) and the result is often a more natural performance. This works for better actors in bigger roles as well.

When Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) first meets Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street director Oliver Stone uses many variations of “sweeping the floor” in that one scene. Gekko talks on the phone (a couple of times), lights  a cigarette, checks his blood pressure, flips through his mail/messages, and ends the scene hopping on a treadmill in his office. It’s an important five-minute scene and all of those activities help push the scene forward.

“For a more ingenious example of the same device look at one of the love scenes between Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront. It is reasonably well written, but might have seemed over saturated if the actors had played it while looking at each other directly. Instead Brando uses a couple of props, one of which is a child’s swing in the playground of the park where the scene takes place. Incongruously he sits in the swing, giving a slightly self-depreciation tone to his performance. The other prop is the glove the girl has dropped. Brando picks it up and does not return it, absent-mindedly trying it on his own much larger hand. This purely incidental activity means that for much of the dialogue he avoids eye contact with her. Because of this the scene is less sentimental and creates an impression of unpretentious and natural screen presence (though it is, needless to say, just as contrived and premeditated as any other piece of acting).
Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of Directing

Once you become aware of the “sweeping the floor” device you see it everywhere. People sitting down talking eye to eye the whole time happens more in low-budget indie films than in real life. That’s why experienced directors have actors doing things even if the scene isn’t written that way.

What’s your favorite “sweeping the floor” movie example?

Scott W. Smith

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Today let’s look at how to cast farmers in Nebraska. Really.

Relax— It’s going to be okay. Two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) will be our guide.

Come on,  I have this little blog called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places—what are the odds I’m going to pass up writing about Payne’s new film Nebraska? Forgetaboutit. (To use a not so Midwestern phrase.)

“This is my love letter to the state of Nebraska.”
Alexander Payne
LA Times 

The film Nebraska has Nebraska written all over it.  Pure Nebraska roots. Not only in the title but the film’s director Payne was born in Omaha and the parents of Nebraska screenwriter Bob Nelson were from Hartington, Nebraska.  Much of the film was shot in Nebraska and some of it was cast there. And the casting of locals is part of what gives the film its authenticity.

“All of my films, and [Nebraska] even more so, are a combination of highly seasoned, professional actors who typically live in Los Angeles or New York; local, nonprofessional actors … [who do] community theater, local commercials, that sort of thing … and then nonactors, people really off the street or, in this case, off the farm whom John Jackson, my casting director, and I make a point of finding.

For this film, it took over a year of casting to find, for example, those retired farmers who play some of Bruce Dern’s character’s brothers and their wives. And it was a long process of putting out casting notices on, for example, rural radio after the farm report or in small-town newspapers. … For retired farmers, we weren’t so much expecting them to submit auditions, so we were targeting their kids — in their 40s, 50s, 60s — who might go over to their folks’ house on a Sunday and say, ‘Hey! Look at this, I read this. Come on, just for a hoot let me put you on my iPhone reading these lines of dialogue and let me email it into Omaha.'”
Alexander Payne
NPR/Fresh Air Interview with Terry Gross

For those who are geographically challenged, Omaha is pretty centrally located in the contiguous United States. (Just west of Iowa and north of Kansas.) And the reason those iPhone readings were emailed to Omaha is because Payne is not only from Omaha, but he continues to live there as well as Southern California. (He actually grew up near Warren Buffett.) Payne also shot three of his other films in Omaha—About Schmidt, Citizen Ruth, and Election. 

Why? Because Omaha is interesting. Because Nebraska is interesting. But then again, so is wherever you live.

“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pigpen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.” Willa Cather (My Antonia)
OmahaMap

P.S. Speaking of casting and Nebraska, did you know that actors Henry FondaMontgomery Clift, and Marlon Brando were all born in Nebraska?

Update:   “[Casting director John Jackson] liked it and thought he wanted to cast it. He said he felt a very personal connection to it through his family, whom he describes as dirt farmers from Iowa.”—Alexander Payne, Salon Q&A

Related Posts:
Screenwriting from Nebraska (Includes an interview I did in Nebraska with Lew Hunter who was one of Payne’s screenwriting professors at UCLA.)
Alexander Payne on Adapting Books
“Wake up and pay attention.” Alexander Payne
Emotional Autobiography (2.0)
Writing to Music (Tip #52)
Capturing Your Country & Hometown “If you’re going to make movies in whatever country you’re in, you want to somehow ‘capture’ it.”—Alexander Payne
Directing Non-Professional Actors

Scott W. Smith

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“I try to make films that move people when they are in the theater and make them think only after they leave.”
Claude Berri
Oscar-winning French filmmaker (Le poulet, Jean de Florette)

“I’ve always chosen to work on films that are more than entertainment. I believe film can also be provocative and send audiences home thinking.”
Cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, True Grit)

A few years ago I was producing a promotional video for a seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. As I was shooting b-roll footage of a professor teaching, I experienced one of those wonderful moments that happens from time to time—I learned something. And it was so simple I remembered it: “Think. Feel. Do.”

Turns out that the concept of think, feel, do is not limited to preachers explaining Biblical passages to their congregants, but is used by everyone from marketing professionals to psychologists—and since screenwriters and storytellers fall somewhere between preachers and psychologist it’s worthwhile to toss it into your tool box.

Though for screenwriters it’s best to think in terms of feel, think, do. And just when I think I’ve reinvented the wheel, a quick Google search tells me there’s already a business book titled See, Feel, Think, Do.

Let’s use the pre-Super Bowl VW commercial that went viral this week as an example. I saw the Stars Wars influenced spot called The Force when it merely had 500,000 views a couple of days ago. As of this writing it’s passed the 10 million view mark. (Though I think roughly 25,000 views of those are mine.) I love the simplicity of the spot and from Volkswagen’s perspective they want you to Feel, Think, Do.

Ideally the team behind that spot wants you to feel a connection with the little kid striving to find his superforce powers. (And they’ve spent a galactic amount of money to make sure plenty of viewers do make that connection.) You empathize with the kid’s situation. You think about all those good feelings you had for the Star Wars movies. Maybe you even remember where you were when you first heard the words, “Luke, I am your….” Maybe you identify with the situation because you are a mother or father who currently have a son or daughter running around the house in Star Wars garb. Maybe your kids are now college age and you remember when they did the same. A mix of thinking & feeling stirring all kinds of emotions in viewers.

Then comes the do part—”You know, my car is looking a little ratty.” “A new car would be nice.” “That new Passat is a sharp-looking car.” “Honey, you want to go looking at cars today?”

Think. Feel. Do./Feel. Think. Do.

That’s what people who gives sermons try to do, that’s what people who make commercials try to do, and that’s what many great films do.

I can tell you first hand, that watching Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in On the Waterfront stand up to injustice has helped me a few times to think, feel, and do in a few instances and stand up to injustices I’ve seen. (And like Malloy, I’ve got the scars to prove it.)

But I must add, that films work best when they are subversive. When they sneak up on you. When the theme grows on you long after you’ve left the theater. The biggest problem that pure propaganda filmmakers make is hitting you over the head with a message like “pay it forward,” “save the environment, “war is bad.”drugs are bad,” “have faith in God” and “wear clean underwear.” They tend not to make audiences think, feel or do—nor do they tend to be very entertaining. (Except in the case of Avatar.)

Show don’t tell. Total word count of that VW commercial…zero.

P.S. Using Darth Vader to sell cars…evil has never been so cute.

P.P.S. If you haven’t seen On the Waterfront or Jean de Florette...Netflix.

 

Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriter Edward Anhalt had a more than a 40-year career after graduating from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. While two of his most popular films were Jeremiah Johnson and The Young Lions, his two Academy Awards were for Panic in the Streets and Becket.

Along the way his work was produced by an amazing group of people:
Elia Kazan,  Robert Redford, Henry Fonda, Ricard Burton, John Frankenheimer, Shelly Winters, Burt Landcaster, Bob Hope, Edward Dmytryk, Montgomery Clift, Elvis and Marlon Brando.

I often find it interesting and helpful to learn how writers write, and I came across this old interview of Anhalt where he laid out his writing process:
“I write longhand and from that I go to tape. I read the scene, and if it doesn’t sound right when I replay it, I do it over. Although I’m not a very good actor, it works for me. So I can play a number of parts. Brando taught me that. He does that—where he’ll play all the parts and listen to himself. So I do that and I transmit that over the telephone to my secretary, who has a telephone pickup on her end, and then she takes it off her tape onto the typewriter. Then once a day or so, we meet. She comes down to the boat or I go to her house, or whatever, and she gives me the pages.”
Edward Anhalt
The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter
by William Froug

You may not have a secretary or a boat, but who can’t afford a pen and a pad of paper? And you can probably pick-up a used cassette recorder for $5 or a fancy new digital one for $75. For a couple bucks toss in some index cards and you’re off to the races. There are a lot of things people will tell you you need to be a screenwriter, but what you really need is a story and willpower.

Scott W. Smith

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“Being born in Dodge City, I really wanted to know where the trains were going. The first real light I saw was in a movie theater. I just wanted to know where they were making those movies.”
Dennis Hopper

“He was a Midwestern boy on his own…”
Bob Seger
Hollywood Nights

Dennis Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas and spent his early years on farm. When he was nine he moved to Kansas City, Missouri (where he took Saturday art classes with Thomas Hart Benton) and then on to San Diego area when he was 13, eventually being named “Most Likely to Succeed” at  Helix High School in La Mesa.

Hopper succeeded at a lot of things—unfortunately they weren’t all good for him.

His acting career started by performing Shakespeare as a teenager at The Old Globe at San Diego’s Balboa Park, and he then headed to Los Angeles when he was 18 and did some TV work before landing a role in classic James Dean films Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. On a PBS interview, Hopper would say of the actor from Marion, Indiana, “James Dean was the best actor that I ever saw work, really. He was just incredible.”

Hopper also worked with four other Midwestern actors who made their mark in Hollywood (Marlon Brando & Montgomery Cliff/Omaha, John Wayne /Iowa-Nebraska, and Paul Newman/Ohio). When Hopper died yesterday he had more than 200 credits as an actor. But he’s probably known best for just a handful or so roles on top of the James Dean films; Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, True Romance, Speed, and his Oscar-nominated role in Hoosiers. When the dust all settles he may be best remembered for directing and starring in Easy Rider for which he also received an Oscar nomination for co-writing the screenplay.

“There are moments that I`ve had some real brilliance, you know. But I think they are moments. And sometimes, in a career, moments are enough.”
Dennis Hopper

Hopper rode motorcycles with Steve McQueen, hung out with Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce and Jack Nicholson, he collected and created art, he was at the civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery which was led by Martin Luther King Jr., along with his Hollywood career that spanned 56 years.

And while Hopper had his days in the sun, he had his years (decades?) in the darkness. His was a life of excess— alcoholism, cocaine, heroin, LSD, hallucinations, abuse, violence, multiple failed marriages, detox clinics, jail, psychiatric wards, and orgies. But somehow he managed to rebound time and time again and somehow lived to be 74. (Even in his final days as he was in the midst of a divorce, he reportedly had “marijuana joints throughout his compound’ and loaded guns nearby to help ease the pain of his cancer and perhaps provide an exit—Hopper was Shakespearean to the end.)

I’ll always prefer to remember Hopper as his role in Hoosiers as the brilliant, yet alcoholic, Shooter. The story of a town drunk and a disgraced coach who both have a shot at redemption. That’s the hope I have for everyone, especially the artists—the crazy ones who seem to have a harder time than most dealing with demons.

“I am just a middle-class farm boy from Dodge City and my grandparents were wheat farmers. I thought painting, acting, directing and photography were all part of being an artist. I have made my money that way. And I have had some fun. It’s not been a bad life.”
Dennis Hopper
USA Today

Scott W. Smith

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(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade


“I don’t know if you saw the parting of the Red Sea with the chariots on the horses, I did stuff like that.”
Richard Farnswort
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After I posted the above Goldman comment yesterday on the post titled Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” it jogged my memory of another story about a career transition—both fictional and real life. The Grey Fox was released in 1982 about a decade after Butch Cassidy, but there are some similarities, mostly the concept of change in the Old West.

Richard Farnsworth plays a former stagecoach robber who is released from San Quintin after serving 33 years for his crimes. When he gets out in 1903 it’s a new world—the stagescoaches are out and movies are in. His character, Bill Miner, goes to see The Great Train Robbery and is inspired to take up his old ways yet with a new fresh angle.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film so I’ll rely on Rodger Ebert’s account to bring us all up to speed:

“(The Great Train Robbery.) That famous movie is only eleven minutes long, but long enough to make everything absolutely clear to Miner, who realizes he has a new calling in life, as a train robber. All of this could, of course, be an innocuous Disney movie, but it’s well-written and directed, and what gives it zest and joy is the performance by Richard Farnsworth, who plays Miner. Maybe you’ll recognize Farnsworth when you see him on the screen. Maybe not. His life has been one of those careers that makes you realize Hollywood is a company town, where you can make a living for years and never be a star. Farnsworth has been in more than three hundred movies.”
Roget Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, The Grey Fox
January 1. 1982

Though Farnsworth had been in more than 300 films, they were mostly as a stuntman. He doubled for some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors; Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen. You think he might have picked up a thing or two about acting from those fellows because after 30 years as a stuntman he began acting.

And he did it well enough to receive a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1979 for his role in Comes a Horseman and another Oscar nomination for Lead Actor in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (that was filmed right here in Iowa). He was 79 at the time of the nomination making him the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor nomination.

You may also remember his roles in The Natural, The Two Jakes, and Misery. I had the good fortune to meet Richard Farnsworth at a movie theater in Burbank some time in the 80s. Nothing exciting, he was just standing in front of me waiting to buy popcorn or whatever.

“Are you Richard Farnsworth?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I appreciate your work.”
“Thank You.”

He smiled and we shook hands. This was in the days before IMDB so I didn’t know in that simple exchange I was shaking hands with a man who was a real life Forrest Gump in the film industry having been in some legendary Hollywood productions;   Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Ten Commandments, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Roots, Bonanza, The Wild One,  Blazing Saddles, Spartacus and many others.

That means to one degree or another he worked with John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Howard Hawks,  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Cecil B. DeMille.

I don’t know how long stuntman work on a regular basis in Hollywood, but it has to take its toll on your body.  Farnsworth’s last credit as a stuntman was 1975 when he would have been 55. He was almost 60 when his acting career took off. He changed with the times.

By the way, the screenwriter of The Grey Fox, John Hunter,  was no spring chicken himself and was 71 when the movie was released.

Oh yeah, Farnsworth did stunts in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, too.

Scott W. Smith


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