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Posts Tagged ‘Masterclass’

“Movies are about life-changing events in these character’s lives.”
Screenwriter John August
Scriptnotes, Ep. 218

The 25 cent word of the day is synecdoche. Author/Princeton professor Joyce Carol Oates uses the word synecdoche in her MasterClass talk as a literary device meaning “one stands for the whole” and states that “it is the principle of all art.”

One example she gives is her book Blonde: A Novel. While the real life Marilyn Monroe had several miscarriages and lived in multiple orphanages and foster homes, Oates chose to write about one miscarriage, one orphanage, and one foster home. Limiting selections gives your story power.

Oates says this principle works in journaling and other forms of writing.

“If some profound thing happens one day out of 25, that’s the day you write about. So too with a short story. Most of my short stories focus on people at climactic moments of their lives. Like it’s the one event in their whole lives that’s really momentous— that’s what I’m writing about. I’m not writing about anything else.”
—Joyce Carol Oates
MasterClass, Principles of Writing Short Fiction (Message 2)

This principle works in screenwriting as well.

“If your movie isn’t about the most important moment in your hero’s life don’t write it.”
—Scriptshadow

Billy Ray used synecdoche in his screenplay Richard Jewell where he made a composite character named Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). A singular FBI agent that stood for the many FBI agents on the case.

Aaron Sorkin used the technique when he limited his screenplay Steve Jobs to just three days —three acts—in the life the Apple co-founder. The 1984 Apple Macintosh launch, the 1988 launch of NeXT, and the 1998 launch of the iMac. The king on the throne, the king in exile, and the return of the king.

And when writer/director Lulu Wang chose to tell the story of a Chinese family in The Farewell, she chose the events surrounding her grandmother getting cancer and a lie.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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“The task of the successful writer is to lower the bar. You want to avoid areas of high difficulty. So a high difficulty task is having your story in your head before you write it. That’s too hard to do! You got to be really smart to do that. I’m not smart enough, so why would I put myself in that position? Just start writing and then work it out. You can always rewrite it, you can change it. That’s the great luxury of being a writer. We’re not surgeons. The world does not hold us to our first pass.”
—Author Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point)
MasterClass, “Drafts and Revisions”

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“I divide the world into two groups of people. There are those who pay someone to listen to their problems. And there are those who get paid for telling people their problems. I am very fortunate to be in group number two. . . . I can’t wait to hear everything that’s gone wrong in your life.”
David Sedaris
Masterclass, Conclusion: Two Groups of People

Humorist David Sedaris said that he knows there are better storytellers than him, better writers than him, and people who have better speaking voices than him him—but as of this post he’s written ten books that have sold 12 million copies and has made a career out of reading his stories in person and on the radio. (That reminds me of the motivational saying, “Never let what you can’t do prevent you from doing what you can do.”)

Here’s one of his secrets.

“I wrote every day for 15 years before my first book came out.”
David Sedaris

If you want an easier task to follow, read Ann Patchett’s essay The Getaway Car (found in her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage) which Sedaris calls “the best essay I’ve ever read about writing” because it reminds him “of the joy of writing.”

“Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?”
Ann Patchett

P.S. Ann Patchett is a has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. All roads lead to Iowa.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Notice when you’re talking to people, notice what people laugh at. If you tell a story and somebody laughs, then they sort of ask you some follow-up questions, that’s a pretty good indication that that might be a good thing to write about. Carry a notebook— make note of those times. I do.”
Humorist David Sedaris
Masterclass, “Observing the World”

While I lived in Iowa I got to know former Saturday Night Live writer/cast member Gary Kroegerwho lives there now, and he said that comedian Rodney Dangerfield once told him that three funny things happen to everyone every day, he just writes them down.

Do the Dangerfield math there. If you write down 3 funny things every day for a year (365 days) you’ll have 1,095 funny bits. Even if only 10% have staying power you’ll have over 100 bits to develop further.

And if you want to see how a comedian crafts together five-minutes of original comedy material then check out the documentary Comedian (2002) with Jerry Seinfeld.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

 

 

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“I know for myself, it’s important to write every single day. I meet a lot of young writers and I say do you write everyday, and they say, no, I write when it strikes me. I don’t know, I suppose that might work for some people—I’m not really the one to say—but it never would have worked for me. So much happens sitting at your desk when you don’t have an idea. So many things can happen, but they’re not going to happen unless you’re at your desk. So you need to sit there, and not have the internet, and see what happens. You just have to do the work. That means not going to the party. It means people are really going to think you’re a drag. . . . I’ve meet so many people who say I really want to write, but I work all day. So did I. You work all day and then you come home and write. If it means that much to you, you’re going to find the time to do it.”
Writer/speaker David Sedaris
Masterclass (Lesson 3), Turning Observations Into Stories

David Sedaris graduated from college in 1987 and worked various odd jobs (including cleaning houses) and wrote a lot until eventually Ira Glass called him one day asking him to read Santaland Diaries (an essay Sedaris wrote about being one of Santa’s helpers at Macy’s). Sedaris was 35-years-old when it aired on December 23 , 1992 on NPR’s Morning Edition.  That lead to an ongoing gig with This American Life, and eventually his books being published and paid speaking engagements.

Interesting things don’t happen “out there,” they happen right where you are in your day job. (All the better if it’s an odd, odd job—like being an elf.) Your job is to make observations with your special writer glasses and write them down in your diary. At least, that worked for Sedaris.

Related links:
David Sedaris, Ira Glass and 25 Years of “Santaland Diaries”

Scott W. Smith 

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This is a follow-up to my last post (The George Lucas Directing Class in Under 100 Words) and it’s advice that comes from three Oscar winners. And it has to do with how you as a director capture wide shots, medium shots, and close-up shots in any given scene.

Director Spike Lee says you not only want to hire a talented director of photography (DP), but one who is also efficient. That’s a big part of what is going to help you keep on schedule and make your days. And the lower the budget, the fewer days you have to shoot your film.

And it’s not only the shooting schedule that’s important. Lee says, “Actors come to the set ready to work.” They’ve already been through hair, makeup, and wardrobe so they don’t want to be sitting in their trailers while the DP tinkers with lighting.

Oscar winner Martin Scorsese said that back in the ’80s when he was coming off a lull in his career he had smaller budgets to work. In one case he needed 75 shots in three days, but the budget only allowed for two days so they cut out 25 shots and scheduled to shoot 25 shots per day over the two days they had. The way they kept on schedule was to allow x-amount of time for each shot—10 minutes for one shot, 20 minutes for another, and 45 minutes for a more complicated shot. If they didn’t get what they needed in that time frame, they had to move on.

Oscar winner Jodie Foster drives home the point of how to be efficient in your shooting:

“There are a lot of things that waste time on movies. For example, you have five setups, you have one incredibly wide shot, and the other ones are five little pieces you’re going in for. Your wide shot— you can barely see their mouths move. So please don’t do 25 takes of the entire scene and print them all, and give your actors notes based on this wide shot. You’re probably only going to need one take or maybe two takes. Go in and get the other stuff afterwards and don’t waste all of your time getting the wide shot perfectly. Allow yourself to go in for the other shots.

“With movement very often, when you start a move and you know you’re going to keep this move, you want the beginning of the move and the end of the move. And that means you’re going to be stuck on this shot for the whole thing. If you make that decision that you’re going to keep that shot, then you don’t need those lines for any of the other pieces of coverage. So you don’t need to get everything perfect if you know that you have the money shots or the shots that are really in your head are working. So that’s where a lot of time gets spent, people want everything perfect and they don’t have an understanding of their cutting patterns or their potential cutting pattern. And they heard that old adage ‘Get coverage, get everything. Get every choice you possible have.‘ Large films can afford to not make choices. A little movie—gotta make choices and keep moving on.”
Jodie Foster
Masterclass, Shooting Your Film

So don’t worry about getting every take perfect (it won’t happen anyway), and have a clear vision going into the scene of what you envision the final edited scene to be. Another trick Lee has used throughout his career is to do scenes in one take. Steven Spielberg is a master of the oner–some that are simple and some that are quite complex. (Shots that often involve wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups all in one long take.)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.29.12 PM

Close-up on Opie (Ron Howard)

Ron Howard has had one of the most amazing careers in Hollywood history. He’s been a  child actor in a classic Tv show (The Andy Griffith Show), a young star actor  (Happy Days), an indie filmmaker (Grand Theft Auto), an Emmy winning producer (From Earth to the Moon), and an Oscar winning producer/director (A Beautiful Mind). He also had the privilege of developing a personal relationship with producer/director George Lucas who directed him in American Graffiti and produced Willow which Howard directed.

So with Howard’s over 50+ solid years of film and television experience here’s a very simple piece of filmmaking advice that I’m calling “The George Lucas Directing Class in Under 100 Words (via Ron Howard).” It’s advice that Howard learned first hand from Lucas, and advice that has always stuck with him and that he shares with others as they set out to direct. Here are 91 words that can change your life:

“George Lucas said no well-written scene has ever gone bad because the director staged it and shot it with a wide shot, a medium, and two close ups. If the scene’s well-written, you can just always fall back on that formula and you’ll have the material you’ll need to go into the editing room. Now, if you have an idea or a visual notion that’s more sophisticated that involves camera moves so be it, but you’re not going to ruin the scene because you shot it in a very simple way.”
Ron Howard
Masterclass, Frost/Nixon Staging Review

I learned about wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups in film school and it was called sequencing. Basically getting the coverage you need in a scene that when you go into the edit room you have a variety of shots that allows you to control pacing, visual interest, performance, and dramatic presentation. Once you become aware of wide/medium/close-up shots you realize that the entire history of cinema is saturated with that basic “formula” to use Lucas’ word. Watch any film from the early silent era through to the most recent release and you’ll see wide, medium, and close-up shots over and over again.

What constitutes a wide, medium, and a close-up is somewhat subject—and there are variations such as an extreme close-ups)  but this will get you in the ballpark.

MEDIUM CLOSE-UP
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.02.22 PM.png
CLOSE-UP (reversal shot of the medium closeup)
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.02.39 PM.png
MEDIUM TWO SHOT 
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.03.29 PM.png
WIDE SHOT
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.04.00 PM.png
MEDIUM SHOT 
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.12.05 PM.png
EXTREME WIDE SHOT
screen-shot-2019-10-07-at-3.16.29-pm.png

EXTREME CLOSE-UP (A BEAUTIFUL MIND)
Screen Shot 2019-10-08 at 2.58.13 PM.png

 

Once you become aware of wide/medium/close-up shots you realize that the entire history of cinema is saturated with that basic “formula” to use Lucas’ word. Watch any film from the early silent era through to the most recent release and you’ll see wide, medium, and close-up shots over and over again.

Bigger budget films have tools at their disposal to make very complicated shots (dolly, crane, Steadicam, helicopter, etc) but it still boils down to wide/medium/close-up shots. Even films that where done in one take (Russian Ark) or meant to look like one take (Rope, Birdman) are still a variety of wide, medium, and close-ups.

Watch this evergreen advice played out from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show from the 1960s.

P.S. And wide/medium/close-up is scalable on every kind of production—from the largest blockbuster to the :15 second web spot.

 

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