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Posts Tagged ‘Melissa Mathison’

“Most of us have some old pain or hurt that we don’t think about all the time, but which is always vulnerable on some level of awareness…To humanize a hero or any character, give her a wound, a visible, physical injury or deep emotional wound.”
Christopher Volger
The Writer’s Journey

April

Because it’s probably never been done before, allow me to compare the 2003 indie film Pieces of April to the 1982 classic blockbuster E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. I’ll flesh that out in a moment.

I’ve heard it said that everyone has a personal wound—and it’s usually a wound from a  mother or father. In Pieces of April the wound is from the mother. But the prodigal child April (Katie Holmes) decides that she wants to cook Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment —perhaps due to the fact that her mother Joy has cancer.

We don’t know exactly how that arrangement went down since the movie starts Thanksgiving morning with the plans already in place. And at the 15 minute mark April realizes she has a problem—a dilemma. Her oven isn’t working.

This is how writer/director Peter Hedges writes the key conflict scene in half a page:

INT. APRIL’S APARTMENT – KITCHEN AREA

April finishes writing “Mom” on the Thanksgiving-themed name card she has decorated. Beat as she looks at it. She tears it in two. Then writes “Joy” on the Thanksgiving-themed name card.

She glances up at…

A small clock on her dinning room table which reads 8:00.

April crosses to the turkey pan sitting on the counter, lifts the pan and carries it to the oven. She opens the oven.

She’s about to slide the turkey in when she stops. Beat. She reaches in, feels for heat. Her hands touch the sides of the oven. Her hands touch the metal roasting rack.

She checks the temperature knob. It’s been turned to 375.

She stares in confusion, then it hits.

                                        APRIL
                     Oh, no. No –

A nice simple scene about a broken oven. Normally it wouldn’t be that big a deal, but Hedges raises the stakes by adding that it’s Thanksgiving morning, that April’s mother has cancer, and her family is expecting her to let them down. As I said it Part 1 it’s the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.

Now what could that possibly have in common with E.T.? Well, the Steven Spielberg directed movie (written by Melissia Mathison) opens with space aliens already on earth. Their space ship planted firmly in the San Fernando Valley. But that’s not the inciting incident, that comes at the seven minute mark when E.T. gets left behind when the space ship leaves without him.

If E.T.’s on that ship Spielberg & Mathison would have to tell a different story. And on the same note, if April’s oven works then Hedges has to tell a different story.

I labor the point because script readers say one of the common problems in screenplays they read is a lack of a clear inciting incident. Something active that sets the story in motion and ties into the ending.

I know indie films like to be less conventional, but I think Pieces of April is an indie film that works well following this basic screenwriting principle. (Winter’s Bone does as well.) If you’ve ever read 30 pages of a screenplay or watched 30 minutes of a movie and not been sure what the movie is about—it’s probably missing an inciting incident.

P.S. I couldn’t find that oven scene online, so if you have a link please send it my way.

Related posts:

Starting Your Screenplay
What’s Your Problem?
Protagonist=Struggle
One Clear Dilemma
Telling Smaller Stories
What’s at Stake?
There are no rules, but…
The Major or Central Dramatic Question

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“He lost. He’s alone. And he’s three million light years from home.”
Trailer for E.T., The Extra Terrestrial

“In the beginning, E.T. was never going to be the story of a little lost alien. Instead, I had intended to tell the story of the effects of a divorce on a young boy, a purging of all the pain children suffer and them must endure when a seismic event divides a family. I had been pondering this ever since I became a director, but it wasn’t until I was actually shooting the final scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that a new idea seized me, one that could be blended with my personal story of divorce.”
Steven Spielberg
Introduction to E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, From Concept to Classic, 30th Anniversary Edition

In my last post, Tootsie at 30, I mentioned that Tootsie was number one at the box office the week it came out in December of 1982. The weekend Toostie was release, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial came in at number 7 at the box office. That may seem surprising. But as they say, “a number without a reference is meaningless.”

I doubt E.T.’s director Steven Spielberg was disappointed by being beaten out by Tootsie, or even Airplane II: The Sequel (which came in at #6), because E.T. was released way back on June 11, 1982. Spielberg says in the book E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, From Concept to Classic, “Never in my wildest, wishful thinking did I imagine that our film would reach beyond a handful of family and friends.” So the fact that E.T. was still in theaters—and in the top ten moneymakers—six months after its release is pretty amazing.

The movie went on to have a worldwide gross of just under $800 million. And who knows how many more hundreds of millions in merchandising?

ET

From a screenwriting perspective what you’ll like about the book on the making of E.T. is not only Melissa Mathison’s screenplay, but the rules of E.T.’s universe that were set in place in telling the story. Things like, “All adults in the movie are shot from the waist down, except for mom,” and “Everytime E.T. says a word he has to say it twice.”

“Melissa delivered this 107-page first draft to me and I read it in about an hour. I was just knocked out. It was a script I was willing to shoot the next day. It was so honest, and Melissa’s voice made a direct connection with my heart.”
Steven Spielberg

E.T. received nine Oscar-nominations, including Mathison for her screenplay, and won four (Best Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing, Original Score, and Best Sound).

“I would write for four or five days in my little office in Hollywood, and then drive out to Marina Del Rey where Steven Spielberg was editing in a little apartment on the beach. I’d bring him my pages and we’d sit and go through them…It took about eight weeks for us to get the first draft, which was quite fast I think.”
Melissa Mathison
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, From Concept to Classic, 30th Anniversary Edition

Here’s a a 10 minute clip I found on The Making of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial where Speilberg comments about a scene that was cut from the finished film, “I think every scene needs to advance the story. And anytime a scene doesn’t advance the story, if it’s just fun for the sake of fun, it doesn’t really belong in the movie.”

Related posts:
E.T. & Emotional Autobiography
E.T., Mel & Easter
E.T. was from Youngstown (Kinda)
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter (Opposing views on personal storytelling)
Writing as Self-Exploration (Tip #67)
John Ford’s Advice to Spielberg
Filmmaking Quote #21 (Spielberg)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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E.T. was a very personal little picture. My motivation for making it was pure and non-profit based – I didn’t think it would be a hit because it was about kids and no films about kids under 18 were doing any business then.”
Steven Spielberg
Total Film interview

“This movie made my heart glad. It is filled with innocence, hope, and good cheer. It is also wickedly funny and exciting as hell. “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a movie like “The Wizard of Oz,” that you can grow up with and grow old with, and it won’t let you down.”
Roger Ebert
E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial movie review

In the post Emotional Autobiography I touched on The King’s Speech being the emotional autobiography  of screenwriter Daivd Sielder . His personal childhood story of overcoming stuttering is told in the larger story of King George VI.

In a similar way, the movie E.T. touches on the childhood of director Steven Spielberg. The script written by Melissa Mathison is saturated by the great director’s own Norman Rockwell childhood full of Boy Scouts, toy trains, and 8mm movies. A childhood that was disrupted by his parents divorce and moving to California in high school. Before the divorce his parents moved a lot making it difficult to establish friendships, and he had other issues;

“I was skinny and unpopular. I was the weird, skinny kid with acne. I hate to use the word wimp, but I wasn’t in the inner loop. I never felt comfortable with myself, because I was never part of the majority.”
Steven Spielberg on his youth

“ET is as close to an autobiographical movie as Spielberg has given us with the themes of loneliness, fear of separation and longing for friendship, they seem to come straight from Spielberg’s own lonely, peripatetic childhood.”
Roger Ebert

“A beautiful simple and lyrical parable of interplanetary friendship, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was also the little movie about ‘keeds” Francois Truffaut had been urging Spielberg to make since 1976. Produced for Universal by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, E.T. was made for comparatively low production cost (about $10. Million) and with few of the elaborate visual effects that accompanied the aliens’ visit to earth in Close Encounters. But, ironically, it was finally delivering the ‘little movie’ he promised himself and the public that Spielberg made the film that accumulated the largest domestic box-office gross in movie history until Star Wars reclaimed the title with its 1997 reissue. What touched the hearts of more than two hundred million moviegoers throughout the world in E.T.’s first year of was release was a disguised emotional autobiography of Steven Spielberg.”
Joseph McBride
Steven Spielberg: A Biography

Related Posts: E.T. Mel & Easter

E.T. Was from Youngstown (kinda)

The Bump In Factor

Scott W. Smith


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“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”
Emily Dickinson

So last week I was sitting down at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas waiting for the Los Angeles Final Cut Pro User Group (LAFCPUG) to start their Super Meet and started a conversation with a man next to me who turned out to be a Hemingway-like character.

Dirck Halstead started his career in photojournalism at the age of 17. He was the youngest combat photographer for LIFE magazine, a roving photographer in the U.S. Army, spent 15 years as photographer for UPI covering stories around the world including winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his images of  the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. And I’m just getting warmed up.

Let me just defer to an online bio: “Halstead accepted an independent contract with TIME magazine in 1972. Covering the White House for the next 29 years, he was one of only six photographers asked to accompany Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China in that same year. His photographs have appeared on 47 TIME covers. During this period he was also a “Special Photographer” on many films, producing ad material used by major Hollywood studios.”

Have you ever heard the song The Last Mango in Paris by Jimmy Buffett?

                    He said I ate the last mango in Paris
Took the last plane out of Saigon
I took the first fast boat to China
And Jimmy there’s still so much to be done 

Halstead is that kind of guy (if not literally that guy). And after his adventures with LIFE, UPI, and TIME there was still so much to be done. Back in the early 90s he was a pioneer in helping still photojournalist make the transition into shooting video. Now in his 70s Halstead is the editor and publisher for The Digital Journalist  and a senior fellow in photojournalism at The Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin. In 2007 he was honored by The University of Missouri with the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism.

And I bet he’d still say, “There’s still so much to be done.”

All that to say there is power in the bump in factor. While I was at NAB Show last week I also bumped into a producer friend from Michigan, a cameraman from Des Moines who owns a RED camera, and a editor friend from Orlando. How does this all apply to screenwriting?

Your talent and skill will keep you in the room once you get there but sometimes you need a little help from the bump in factor to open the door. I once landed a gig writing 12 radio dramas because I was editing a project at a post house and bumped into a producer who had an immediate need for a writer. Here’s what Melissa Mathison (who was once married to Harrison Ford) told Susan Bullington Katz in Conversations with Screenwriters:

“I was with Harrison on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and halfway through the shoot, we were all in Tunisia, and Steven Spielberg asked me if I would be interested in writing a children’s movie about a man from outer space. And I thought that sounded like a really wonderful idea.”

The screenplay she wrote was E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial.

Granted being married to Harrison Ford improves the prospects of who you can bump into but you never know who’s next to you while you wait in line. Which leads me back to Halstead. If you’re interested in improving you visual storytelling Halstead is hosting The Platypus Workshops this year in Oregon and Maine.

Related Post: The Bump In Factor (Take 2)

Scott W. Smith

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