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Posts Tagged ‘Max Allen Collins’

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
                                                         Gordon Gekko
                                                         Wall St. 

“Our entire economy is in danger.”
                                                         President George W. Bush
                                                         September 2008    

“When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod?”
                                                        
 Doc Hudson (voice of Paul Newman)
                                                          Cars       

                                                    

This is a look at two Hollywood icons. One fictitious, one real. One that’s alive and well and one that just died. 

But before we get to our heavyweight match-up let’s look at why I’ve put them in the ring together.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase made popular during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid. It’s always about the economy. Well, usually. Understanding economics can help your screenwriting greatly.  

First let me clarify that if you’re looking for “The Economics of Screenwriting” (how much you can get paid for screenwriting)  then check out Craig Mazin’s article at The Artful Writer

Few things are as primal in our lives as the economy. Wall Street’s recent shake-up joins a long list of economic upheaval throughout history. Just so we’re on the same page, the word economy flows down from the Greek meaning “house-hold management.” I mean it to include how people, businesses, villages, towns, cities and countries manage resources such as money, materials and natural resources. 

That is a wide path indeed. It’s why college football coach Nick Saban is on the cover of the September 1, 2008 issue of Forbes magazine as they explain why he is worth $32 million dollars to the University of Alabama. Why is the economy center stage once again in the most recent presidential election? Because… it’s always the economy, stupid.

Looking back you’ll see economics at the core issue of not only Enron, Iraq, 911 and the great depression but world wars, famines, and even the Reformation. I’m not sure how much further we can look back than Adam and Eve, but that whole apple/fruit thing in the garden had huge economic (as well as theological) ramifications. (In fact, it’s been said that there is more written in the Bible about money than about salvation.)    

There is no question that economics plays a key role in films as well — in production as well as content. On some level it’s almost always about the economy. This first dawned on me when I saw Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” for the first time and I realized the thread of money in it. Then I read Ibsen’s play  “An Enemy of the People” and noticed the economic theme there. They I started noticing it everywhere in plays, novels and movies.

From the mayor’s perspective the real danger of Bruce the shark in Jaws is he threatens the whole economy of the island town. In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney takes the boat back out because money is tight. Dustin Hoffman auditions as a women in Tootsie because he can’t get work as a male actor. Once you see this you see it everywhere in movies. 

Here is a quick random list where money, need to pay bills, lack of a job, greed and/or some form of economics play a key part in the story:

Chinatown
Scarface
Titanic
Sunset Blvd.
Tootsie
On the Waterfront
Wall St.
Cinderella 
Cinderella Man
Ragging Bull
Rocky 
Jaws
Jerry Maguire
It’s a Wonderful Life
Field of Dreams
Big
Greed
Body Heat
Falling Down
The Godfather
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 
The Jerk
Gone with the Wind
The Verdict 
Gone with the Wind 
The Grapes of Wrath
Risky Business
Do the Right Thing
Hoop Dreams 
Rain Man
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Gold Rush
Home Alone
Babette’s Feast
The Incredibles
Castway
Ocean’s Eleven
The Perfect Storm
Pretty Women
Trading Places
Indecent Proposal 
The Firm
American Ganster 
Rollover 

And it’s not limited to dramatic films. It’s hard to watch Hoops Dreams, Ken Burns’ The West, or any Michael Moore documentary and not connect it to economics.

So if you’re struggling with a story or struggling what to write, open up that door that explores economics. You don’t have to write The Wealth of Nations, but at least explore some aspect of it.  Join Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and other great writers who tackled that monster.

One thing living in the Midwest the past five years has done is help me understand how the world works economically. Because on a small level you see when John Deere is selling tractors locally, nationally and globally it helps the housing market here as the standard of living increases. The Midwest was the only place to to see homes appreciate last quarter. (Other parts of the country saw a 2 to 36% drop.)  But that wasn’t always the case.

When the farming crisis hit in the mid-eighties and John Deere (Cedar Valley’s largest employer) laid off 10,000 of it’s 15,000 employees and people were walking away from their homes. A film that came out of that era was the 1984 Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange film Country filmed right here in Black Hawk County. (By the way John Deere the company celebrates today 90 years being in this area. If you’ve ever eaten food they’ve had some role in it along the way.)

Three years later Oliver Stone’s film Wall St. came out the same year Black Monday occurred as stock markets around the world crashed. It was the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history since the great depression. (It only ranks #5 now.)  So here we are 20 years later still trying to figure it all out as two of the top ten largest stock market drops have been in the last two weeks. (Sept 29 update: Make that three of the top ten stock market drops have occurred in the last two weeks.)

(I’m sure Stone felt good when Wall St. first came out, kinda of like “I told you so.” But on the DVD commentary Michael Douglas said that he often told by stock brokers that they got into the business because of the Gekko character he played. Douglas said he doesn’t understand because he was the bad guy. But how many of those guys now in positions of leadership in the financial crisis had Gekko as their hero? To quote writer/professor Bill Romanowski one more time, “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”

The news will tell us what happened, critics will tell us why it happened, and it’s up to writers to tell us what it means. For years now I have noticed in many different states that more often than not when I go into a convenience store I see someone buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets and I ask myself, “What does this say about about the direction we are heading?”

Screenwriting is a place where we can pose those questions –and the playwright Ibsen said it was enough to ask the question.  So get busy asking questions. And if the economy gets worse remember this Carlos Stevens quote:

”Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”

On the opposite end of Hollywood from Gordon Gekko is Paul Newman. If there ever was an example of a talented actor/director and giving businessman/ social entrepreneur it was Ohio-born and raised Newman who passed away last night. Newman’s films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict will always be favorites of mine.

“I had no natural gift to be anything–not an athlete, not an actor, not a writer, not a director, a painter of garden porches–not anything. So I’ve worked really hard, because nothing ever came easily to me.”
                                                                                            Paul Newman 

 

(Newman’s Midwest roots extend to performing in summer stock theaters in Wisconsin and Illinois. And an Iowa connection is his last Academy Award nomination was for his role in The Road to Perdition which was based on the graphic novel by Iowa writer Max Allen Collins. And don’t forget that the Newman’s Own label was inspired by Cedar Rapids artist Grant Woods’ American Gothic.

I find it interesting that the three largest legendary film actors coming up in the 50s were all from the Midwest; Marlon Brando (Nebraska), James Dean (Indiana) along with Newman.)

Gavin the lawyer Newman played in the David Mamet scripted The Verdict says words that are just as relevant today as when they we spoken a couple decades ago: “You know, so much of the time we’re lost. We say, ‘Please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless…’ We become tired of hearing people lie.”

The world is upside down when we pay executives millions in golden parachutes when they drive a company into the ground. And that’s after they lied about the about the companies financial record along with their hand picked spineless board of directors. And after they’ve cashed in their own inflated stocks while the stockholders and employees are shortchanged.

But how nice to see a company like Newman’s Own whose entire profits from salad dressing and all natural food products are donated to charities. The company motto is “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.” To date Newman and his company have generated more than $250 million to thousands of charities worldwide. 

“What could be better than to hold out your hand to people who are less fortunate than you are?
                                                                                                      Paul Newman

P.S. Robert Redford had hoped he and Newman would be able to make one last film together and had bought the rights to Des Moines, Iowa born and raised Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods

“I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn’t decide if we were too old to do it,” said Redford. “The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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jdpps.gif VS.      VeggieTales Pirate Do you think when Johnny Depp is home in France with his kids they sit around and watch VeggieTales videos? It’s possible. He may even like the videos more than the rest of his family.

But the real question is in a swashbuckling ultimate fight could Depp’s pirate character Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies take on Bob the Tomato of the recent release The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie?
That could remain one of life’s great mysteries –like could Rocky Graziano beat Ali? Or how did Marilyn Monroe really die?
Where better to find out how Bob the Tomato would fare against Jack Sparrow than to ask Phil Vischer, the creator of the animated VeggieTales and voice of Bob the Tomato? “Bob’s lack of hands certainly doesn’t help much in hand-to-hand combat situations, but I believe Bob could outwit Jack and confuse him using only his wit superior intellect,” said Vischer.
Vischer was raised in Muscatine, Iowa. Known as the former button capital of America. It’s the town that Mark Twain wrote about in Life on the Mississippi, “I remember Muscatine —still more pleasantly—for its summer sunsets. I have never seen any, on either side of the ocean, that equaled them.”
That quote alone should make you take stock of your perceptions of fly-over country in general and Iowa specifically. I’m serious when I say I hope to encourage writers and filmmakers outside of L.A. and I thought it would be good to talk to Vischer about his work and to plug his new film in theaters.
If you are not familiar with VeggieTales it’s important to know that Vischer lead a team that created the most successful direct-to-video series in history. More than 50 million units have been sold since 1993. In its prime Vischer turned down a $20 million offer for the animated vegetable franchise.
Vischer has had an amazing career since launching what would become Big Idea Productions at age 22. He’s been an actor, writer, composer and/or producer on more than 30 VeggieTales videos including the 2002 feature released nationally Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.
Jonah’s box-office numbers surprised some in a Hollywood because it was a faith-based kids film. Marketing guru Seth Godin wrote in his book Purple Cow, “As I write this…the number-two movie in America is a low-budget animated movie in which talking vegetables act out Bible stories.” (In Godin lingo Bob the Tomato is a good example of a purple cow, i.e. something different that gets people’s attention.)
Unfortunately, the film didn’t do well enough to offset some problems that would eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the company. You can read Vischer’s account in his book, Me, Myself, & Bob – A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Vischer Book
(Does anyone else think Vischer looks a little like Steven Jobs’ younger brother?)
Remember that not all your screenwriting has to be for the big screen. There are many avenues for your writing. Vischer started small and just got bigger and bigger and was well on his way to realizing his dream of becoming the next Walt Disney.
But like a scene out of a VH1 Behind the Scene special, (cue the music) “Then one day….”And just like that his dream was gone.
In his book he lists as the #5 thing he learned from that experience, “Bigger is no longer better.” Didn’t Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire say the same thing in his mission statement? Vischer had a painful front row seat to watch his dream fade away and the company eventually changed hands.
But when dreams die (as they are prone to do), new ones spring up from the ashes.
Vischer still lives in the Chicago area and continues to work on VeggieTales productions as well as having a multiple-vegetable personality doing the voices of several characters. He’s also started a new company Jellyfish and keeps a blog at PhilVischer.com.
I’ve had the privilege to talk with Phil at gatherings in Denver and Chicago and have even had the opportunity to work on a couple small projects for him. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for Screenwriting from Iowa.
Q. There used to be a Heinz ketchup factory in Muscatine, Iowa while you where growing up. Is there any connection there between that fact and your creating Bob the Tomato?
Vischer: “No, I don’t think so. I actually came up with Larry the Cucumber first, then was looking for a complimentary shape for a sidekick. Tomatoes and cucumbers seemed to go together like Laurel and Hardy.”
Q. Have you gone online to Rotten Tomatoes and seen how the film has done on the tomatometer?
Vischer: “But of course!”
Q. One tomatometer critic wrote: “I have to admit that this animated VeggieTales endeavor is far more entertaining and artistically competent than anything offered in the last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies.”
Vischer: “Yeah, that quote kind of surprised me. Overall, the reviews are pretty mixed, which is certainly more than you can say for the Alvin & the Chipmunks. Of course, most filmmakers would give up good reviews for $200 million at the box office!”
Q. Screenwriter/novelist Max Allan Collins (The Road to Perdition) lives in Muscatine, Iowa. What’s in the water there that would inspire Bob the Tomato’s creator and foster another writer known for pulp fiction and crime noir?
Vischer: “Um… I think it’s the tomato residue from the Heinz plant. Or perhaps the corn residue from the Kent Feed plant.”
Q. Any advice or encouragement for screenwriters living outside L.A.?
Vischer: “Screenwriting is a beautiful thing, in that you can live anywhere, and work on a project anywhere. And living in a non-Hollywood locale gives you the benefit of being able to write stories outside the Hollywood norm. The Coen brothers channeling their Minnesota childhoods into their film Fargo is a great example. It’s very hard to imagine a Los Angeleno writing that film with anywhere near the authenticity. Interesting stories come from interesting places!”
In the coming years you’ll hear a lot from Vischer. Support a fellow writer and take your little band of pirates to see The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie. And don’t forget to catch one of those Mississippi River sunsets in Muscatine.
© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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