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Posts Tagged ‘Memento’

“I’ve always made films and I never really stopped, starting with little stop-motion experiments using my dad’s Super 8 camera. In my mind, it’s all one big continuum of filmmaking and I’ve never changed. I used to noodle around with the camera but I didn’t go to film school. I studied English literature at college and pursued a straight academic qualification, all the while making my own films and wanting to make more. I paid for my first feature, Following, myself and made it with friends. We were all working full-time jobs, so we’d get together on weekends for a year, shooting about 15 minutes of raw stock every Saturday, one or two takes of everything, and getting maybe five minutes of finished film out of that. We went to the San Francisco Film Festival with it [in 1998] and Zeitgeist Films picked up distribution, which really helped me get Memento going. I got paid to direct it, I had millions of dollars in trucks and hundreds of people and everything, and I haven’t looked back since.”
Writer/director Chris Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Memento)
DGA article The Traditionalist by Jeffrey Ressner

Scott W. Smith

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“For me, it comes down to deciding whether it is a film that I feel I have to make. I ask myself, will I be sorry if I miss this chance? Is it a film that I would be excited to see? Will the story stick in my mind years and years after it is done? Those are the types of things I think about. The irony is that once you get into the process, sometimes the story leads you into a different direction than you initially imagined.

I think film is first and foremost entertainment. But, all forms of entertainment throughout history have always produced works that last and transcend the concept of entertainment. All entertainment can take many different forms. It can be serious and intellectually stimulating, and it can also be a temporary way to forget our everyday worries. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities encompassed by the word entertainment, but I do believe that film has developed into the most important story-telling medium of our age. I am certain about that statement.

As much as I love books and the theater, I think the cinema is a uniquely modern medium that we look to for the stories of our times.”
Writer/Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception)
On Film/A Conversation with Christopher Nolan by Bob Fisher


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The origins of the classic hand game “Rock, Paper, Scissors” are unknown. But what is known is its popularity is undisputed and universal. There are even RPS contests and leagues around the world.  In fact, the World RPS Society has cash prizes and a world champion every year. Online you can find all kinds of websites, t-shirts, and tips on improving your game.

And, yes, there is a documentary on the subject called Rock Paper Scissors; a geek tragedy.

Though there are variations of the game, the basic rules are the same;
—Paper covers rock
—Rock smashes Scissors
—Scissors cut paper

You gotta love the simplicity. For the sake of this post on screenwriting, let’s explore three popular ways that accomplished writers say they have used as starting points for writing screenplays;

—Story
—Characters
—Theme

But we’re not really pitting them against each other, just showing three examples of writers who use one as their starting point.

STORY

“I always start with story rather than characters. When I write I try to write from the point of view of defining a character through action. That way having the narrative shifts define what we think of the characters. That’s why I love film noir crime fiction because double-crosses, twists and turns… you’re constantly readdressing your opinion of the characters and you’re reassessing who you think those people are. I find that a really interesting and very strong form of characterization, but it means putting story first and then just seeing where that leads the characters.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Christopher Nolan
Memento
(And writer/director of the #3 all-time (domestic) box office film The Dark Knight)

CHARACTER

“I DETEST the word plot. I never, never think of plot. I think only and solely of character. Give me the characters; I’ll tell you a story–maybe a thousand stories. The interaction between and among human beings is the only story worth telling.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant
In the Heat of the Night

THEME

“The best thing that can happen is for the theme to be nice and clear from the beginning. Doesn’t always happen. You think you have a theme and you then start telling the story. Pretty soon the characters take over and the story takes over and you realize your theme isn’t being executed by the story, so you start changing the theme.”
Three time Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky
Network, The Hospital, Marty

Three different writers with three different starting points, but each with successful results. The important thing isn’t to argue or worry over your starting point, but pick which works best for you and start (and, yes, there are other starting points). But just as important, finish what you start. And if you really want to have a hand up on most screenplays write one with a solid story, solid characters, and a solid theme.

Scott W. Smith

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“From Iowa to Pennsylvania, the presidential campaign has provided its share of made-for-Hollywood moments.”
                                                                                  All Things Considered
                                                                                  April 18, 2008


“It’s not until Iowa when people say this is how the American people are feeling. … So it ends up shaping how people view the race in subsequent states.”
                                                                                  Barack Obama
                                                                                  USA Today
                                                                                  July 17,2007 

obama300

Did you catch the Texas–Texas Tech game last Saturday? That was high drama. And everything I love about college football. A close game down to the last second.

Did you happen to follow the 2008 presidential election results last night? Not quite as close a game. But there was still plenty of drama in the last year and a half race to the White House including a full lineup of sideshows acts; Joe the plumber, The Obama girl (not to be confused with the John Edward’s girl), Super Tuesday, Sarah “Barracuda” Palin’s troopergate, Biden’s blunders, Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s preaching, Huckabee’s humor, Hillary Clinton and her 18 million cracks in the ceiling, and even Oprah coming to Iowa.

Congratulations to President elect Barack Obama. I was able to see 13 presidential candidates as they came through Iowa and I really never thought Obama would get past Hillary. But there he was last night showing that Dylan, Springsteen, Louis Farrakhan, Pamala Anderson, Colin Powell, Jimmy Buffett and Warren Buffett were all on the eclectic winning team.

Obama overcame his lack of experience with his message of change along with the storytelling abilities of Ronald Reagan and the inspirational chants (“Fired Up–Ready to Go!”) of a motivational speaker. So 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed we have an moment in history that represents symbolic healing. 

Congratulations to John McCain and his team for their hard fought battle. He’s served his country well and had over 55 million people pulling for him. And like many politicians who face defeat, the chances are good that Palin will do her homework and be back stronger with many lessons learned and popularity gained. (Though she’d have more fun and make more money doing the speaker/author circuit and having her own TV talk show.)

It really has been amazing to be a part of democracy in action at such an in-depth level. Who knew Iowa would play such an important role in history?

 

Never did I think when I moved to Iowa from Central Florida five years ago that I’d be close to such a dynamic election. So close in fact that I was within a couple feet of the future president of the United States of America several times in 2007 taking photos and shooting video on assignment.    

I took the photos on this blog at gatherings in Iowa a wee bit smaller than the huge crowd that showed up in Chicago last night to hear Obama’s acceptance speech. (I haven’t seen a celebration like last night’s since…well, Saturday when the Texas Tech students and fans stormed the field after upsetting the number one team in the country.)

Watching the gazed faces on TV at Grant Park kinda looked like that old footage you see of when The Beatles played at Shea Stadium. But America didn’t elected a rock star.  No, from the looks on the faces he’s bigger than that. More like a mix of Bono/JFK/MLK/Michael Jordon/Muhammad Ali/Billy Graham/Tiger Woods and Oprah –all in their prime.

Why is this man smiling?

Iowa State Fair August 2007

Last night I couldn’t help but think back to my creative writing teacher in high school where I wrote my first scripts and directed my first videos. Dr. Annye Refoe, who happens to be African-American, took this sports and girl obsessed teenager and added color to his world beyond the athletic endeavors of Paul Warfield and Joe Morgan. All these years later, she was one of the first people I contacted when I won the Emmy last week.

I also thought back to when I was a 19-year-old journalist and photographer and I interviewed then Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Doug Williams for the Sanford Evening Herald. Williams went on to become the first African-American to be a winning Super Bowl quarterback (while playing for the Washington Redskins).

Obama was born a month after I was and the arc of racial change that has occurred since then is stunning. But we have a long way to go to realize Martin Luther King’s dream that one day the color of our skin won’t matter.  This election gets us over one hump but I am reminded of the saying that every problem has a solution and every solution has a problem.  We have not reached the finish line.

Anyway — speaking of Washington D.C. –this is a blog about screenwriting so let’s look at the inspiration and movies that has come out of that rather small area of land. The political scene and the drama surrounding it is a natural fit for Hollywood. The quintessential Washington film is Frank Capria’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring Jimmy Stewart. The film earned an Oscar nomination for screenwriter Sidney Buchman who happened to be born in Duluth, Minnesota.

Between 1941-42 he served as the president of the Writers Guild of America, but was later backlisted for his refusal to name names of those in the American Communist Party to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  

Washington D.C. is also home to Georgetown University that has educated some fine talent:
Jonathan Nolan (Memento and co-writer The Dark Knight.) 
Carl Reiner (Writer/director/actor and seven time primetime Emmy winner)
Michael J. Winship (current president, Writers Guild of America East)
William Peter Blatty (writer of The Exorcist)  
John Guare (screenwriter of Atlantic City and Tony Winning playwright)
Blake Snyder (screenwriter and author of the screenwriting book Save the Cat)
 

And coming out of the historically black Howard University in D.C. are writers Zora Hurston Neal (Their Eyes Were Watching God), screenwriter and Oscar-nominated director Dianne Houston, director Ernest Dickerson who has also been the cinematographer on many Spike Lee films, Richard Wesley (Let’s Do It Again, which was directed by Sidney Poitier), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson (Wit), poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as well as a host of actors and actresses including Ossie Davis, Phylicia Rashad, and Sean (P. Diddy) Combs. 

And American University is not only home to one of the best film programs in the country, but where the top box-office female film director, Nancy  Shyer, graduated from college. Shyer not only directed Mel Gibson in What Women Want  but also co-wrote Father of the Bride, Baby Boom  along with being nominated for an Academy Award back in 1981 for co-writing Private Benjamin.

“I remember driving on the Ventura Freeway when I was about 27, to run an errand, when I thought, ‘What if a girl joined the Army to escape her problems?'”
                                                              Nancy Shyer
                                                              (On the inspiration for Private Benjamin
                                                              Hollywood Reporter 

The Oscar winning director of Rain Man and screenwriter of Diner Barry Levinson also attended Washington University. As did actors Jude law and Jack Black. 

The Washington D.C. political scene itself has provided an compelling background for many excellent films. Mainly because films work on conflict and that never seems to be in short supply there. In fact The White House may be the single most popular home featured in movies and TV shows. Here is a partial list of movies that feature Washington D.C.:

A Few Good Me
Air Force One
All the President’s Men
An American President
Being There 
Dave
Enemy of the State
First Kid
Forrest Gump
The Hunt for Red October
Independence Day
JFK
Minority Report
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 
Nixon
No Way Out
Three Days of the Condor
Thirteen Days
Traffic
Wag the Dog
West Wing
W.

 

There are also probably a few screenplays in the works on Obama’s life. (I bet Spike Lee and Tyler Perry are racing each other to be first.) Even if you didn’t vote for Obama you have to appreciate the journey–or at least the narrative or the significance. 

Of course there will be plenty of conflict in President Obama’s office. (Probably beginning day one at three in the morning — if not before he even takes office.) I’m sure before the final ballot was cast that Iran, Russia, and North Korea were moving chess pieces around preparing to welcome our new president. January of ’09 will be a hard time to take over the role as president  and Obama’s leadership skills will be tested early.

We quickly forget the pattern of almost every election, hope on the promise of change, harsh realities followed by blame of prior administration, and a plea for four more years to finally get things on track. Obama simply cannot do all the things he’s promised and people tend to become disillusioned quickly.

I just hope the criticism (and the joking from comedians) is not confused with racism or it’s one step forward and two steps back. If Powell is right about Obama being a transformational candidate, I just hope that transformation is for the good.  

I personally enjoy college football more than Washington politics and look forward to the Alabama-LSU game this weekend. Of course there are politics in college football, but at the end of the year the match-up for the title is usually the two best qualified, winning and prepared teams in the national. (Okay, maybe two out of the best three.)

And college football teaches us lessons in perspective.  Like the much hyped Matt Leinhart who had a stacked resume when he was the Arizona Cardinals’ first round draft pick in the 2006 NFL draft: Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback of two national championship teams at USC, and AP All-American.  Stats half-way through the 2008 season: 1 completed pass. (Only five more years on his 7 year 50 million dollar contract.)

Meanwhile the thought to be washed-up old-timer (and Iowa native) Kurt Warner is the starting QB for the Cardinals and who Sports Illustrated said is the clear choice for MVP at this point in the season.

Related Post: Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (tip #7)

 

photos and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Structure is the most important element in the screenplay. It is the force that holds everything together.”   Syd Field

Today is the first day of spring and that signals a change. (Not so much here in Iowa, because the forecast is we’ll get 2-6 inches of snow tomorrow.)

If you’ve been thinking about writing a screenplay why not begin today?  This blog is on structure and is a fitting place to begin.

The more scripts you write and the more movies you see the more you’ll understand structure and why it’s a vital part of screenwriting. I’m going to limit this blog on good old western culture traditional structure. You don’t get more basic than this:

Act 1 – Beginning

Act 2 – Middle

Act 3 – End

Syd Field became the modern-day screenwriting pioneer when he wrote Screenplay back in the 1974. Field had been a reader and development executive at various studios and after reading 10,000 scripts he felt he really knew what made a good script.

He even broke it down into page counts.

Act 1     1-30  (setup)

Act 2     30-90 (confrontation)

Act 3     90-120 (resolution)

There’s nothing wrong with a script coming in between 90 and 100 pages either. He’s how a 100 pages script might look like:

Act 1       1-25

Act 2      26-80

Act 3      81-100

Now if this were the sixties I could hear someone saying, “Hey, man, that’s just not my scene.” But these things aren’t written in stone either.

Sure we can look at many films like Memento which turned structure upside down, and Pulp Fiction and Magnolia that mixed structure up. And let’s not forget about the famous quote by Goddard “I believe in a beginning, a middle, and an end — just not in that order.”

How do I answer those? Let me start with the Goddard quote. According to Lew Hunter who later asked Goddard about his famous quote it was simply an off-hand comment at a cocktail party.

As for the film exceptions? It is hard enough to write a solid screenplay, get an agent, and get the film made. The concept of a beginning, middle and end are universal because that is the way most of us of our lives;

We wake up

We eat

We go about our work or school

We eat dinner

We recreate

We go to bed

We’re born, we live, and we die.

Throughout history that is the cycle civilization has lived. Humans around the world have also made sure that life is not predictable. Love, war, new inventions and discoveries help ensure that within the human tradition there are millions of variations.

Traditional structure is the most understood form of storytelling which is one of the reasons it is the most commercial as well.

It’s as basic as one writer said; Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks and him and get him down. That’s structure 101.

Many screenwriting books have different ways of breaking down structure but here’s a common one that Robert Mckee has landed on based on the people that went before him:

1) Inciting Incident

2) Progressive Complication (Rising Conflict)

3) Crisis

4) Climax

5) Resolution

If you can understand those five areas of structure (one for every finger one hand) it will save you some frustration. We’ll look at these in detail at another blog, but for now it’s enough for you to understand that this structure fits most successful films. (Even if you want to flip structure inside out it’s best to understand structure. Check out Picasso’s early paintings to see what I mean.)

There is always that rebel in us that says. “I don’t want to do it the way it’s always been done. I want to do my own thing man. I want freedom!”

But keep in mind what poet Robert Frost said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.”

There is freedom in structure. Embrace it. When the limits are set, great things can happen. Performing within certain boundaries helps us understand the greatness Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and LeBron James.

Think of all the structure that goes into:

Making Movies. The script is written and then budgeted. Actors are hired who you want to show up on time. Sets are built and props are found. Cameras are rented and crews are hired. Caterers cook food. Drivers drive trucks. People work, people get paid. There is a lot of structure in place to make a film.

Making Music. Before a concert becomes a reality many logistics have to have taken place. Travel arrangements, tickets sold, money transacted, bathrooms working, electricity flowing, stages constructed, lights hung, usher in place, security in place, green M&Ms in place. There’s a lot of structure there. So you can smile the next time a lead singer screams for anarchy because that’s the last thing he wants at his concert.

There really is freedom in structure.

“I’m a structuralist myself. We believe in discipline, hard work, and architecture. Writing is like carpentry.” Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter (Alien)

Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet compares ignoring structure to the countercultural design movement in the 60’s:

“I was a student in the turbulent sixties in Vermont at a countercultural college. In that time in place, there flourished something called the Countercultural Architecture. Some people back then thought that the traditional architecture had been too stifling. And so they designed and built countercultural buildings. These buildings proved unlivable. Their design didn’t begin with the idea of the building’s purpose; it began with the idea of how the architect “felt.”“As those architects looked at their countercultural buildings over the years, they may have reflected that there is a reason for traditional design. There’s a reason that doors are placed in a certain way.

“All those countercultural buildings may have expressed the intention of the architect, but they didn’t serve the purpose of the inhabitants. They all either fell down or are falling down or should be torn down. They’re a blot on the landscape and they don’t age gracefully and every passing year underscores the jejune folly of those countercultural architects.”

David Mamet

Because I want to hammer this point home take a look at the cars you see today. Cars could be made with three wheels or five wheels but most cars are still made with four wheels because engineers and car builders have decided that is what works best.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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