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Posts Tagged ‘Mississippi’

And I’d never been 
West of New Orleans or East of Pensacola
My only contact with the outside world
Was an RCA Victrola
Jimmy Buffett/Life is Just a Tire Swing 

“If I had grown up in Montgomery or Birmingham with less access to the beaches, bays, and rivers, I would be a completely different person.”
Lucy Buffett

Pascagoula1

Halfway between New Orleans and Pensacola sits a little town with a long name—Pascagoula. (That’s almost as much fun to say as Yazoo City.) Though I’d never been to Pascagoula, Mississippi before Tuesday, it’s doubtful there would even be a blog titled Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places without an event that happened one Christmas day in Pascagoula.

Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett was born on December 25, 1946 in Pascagoula. I bought my first Buffett album at the ripe age of 15 years old. At that point in my life I had only been to three states (if you include a stopover at the Atlanta airport). In fact, most of my life was lived on a dead-end street in Central Florida. But it was on that street, in a cement block house, that I sat in my bedroom with Koss headphones on and listened to Buffett’s music that opened up a world of storytelling.

Stories about pirates, Paris,  New Orleans, Tony Lama boots, and Patsy Cline music became influences in my life.

Reading departure signs in some big airport
Reminds me of the places I’ve been
Visions of good times that brought so much pleasure
Makes me want to go back again
Jimmy Buffett/ Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes

Eventually I made my way off the dead-end street to all 50 states and to the far side of the world. Found my own adventures sailing in Key West, flying in a sea plane over the Amazon River, and riding a camel in the middle east. All inspired by a guy born in Pascagoula. An unlikely place.

Inspiration is funny that way. A guy born in Tupelo, Mississippi (Elvis) inspired a guy from Pascagoula/Fairhope/Mobile (Buffett) . A guy from Lubbock, Texas (Buddy Holly) inspired a guy Hibbing/Duluth, Minnesota (Bob Dylan). And they all have roots in the Delta Blues. And the epicenter of the Delta Blues is in Clarksdale, Mississippi where Highway 49 and Highway 61 meet at the famous Crossroads.

And the main influences of Delta Blues musicians were hard times, alcohol, and gospel music. (What good can come from Bethlehem?) That and a good deal of them came from Mississippi. Here’s just a handful of the key blues players and where they’re from in Mississippi; Robert Johnson (Hazlehurst), Bo Diddley (McCombs), Elmore James (Richland in Holmes County), Muddy Waters (Issaquena County) and B.B. King (Itta Bena).

I’m fortunate to not get much criticism on this blog, but one that I’ve heard goes along the lines of “Who cares where writers come from? Everyone in Hollywood comes from somewhere else? What’s the big deal?” There is no big deal if you’re writing cookie-cutter, contrived screenplays. But you if want to write something special, your roots and influences are all you have. That’s what sets you apart. And that’s true if you’re in Hollywood, or if you’re in Austin like screenwriter Jeff Nichols (Writing “Mud”). It’s true of Pat Conroy novels and Tennessee Williams plays.

Lastly, as I drove home to Florida this week after 10 days on the road working on various photo and video gigs I made a stop a Lucy Buffett’s Lulu’s in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Lucy is Jimmy Buffett’s sister and has her own little empire cooking down in lower Alabama. While I had a great trout dinner in North Carolina, the best meal on the whole trip was a simple flounder meal at Lucy B. Goode overlooking Homeport Marina. It was a fitting stop on the tail end of a trip that really started one Christmas day in Pascagoula.

photo-25

P.S. BTW—Mississippi not only produced some great blues artists but other people who have been some of the most influential in their fields. Here’s a list I came up with quickly: Tennessee Williams (Columbus, MS), James Earl Jones (Arkabutla), Oprah Winfrey (Kosciusko), Jim Henson (Greenville), and Jerry Rice (Starkville).  And Morgan Freeman has a home  in Charelston, Mississippi and owns the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Lotta mojo still in Mississippi.

Related Post:

Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1)
Revisiting Highway 61 Revisited (2.0)
Muscle Shoals Music & Movie
The Outsider Advantage

Scott W. Smith

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“For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.”
The Optimist’s Daughter written by Eudora Welty
(And included on Welty’s headstone in Jackson, Mississippi)

DSC_1831

Pulitzer Prize winning writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She earned an English degree from the University of Wisconsin, studied advertising at Columbia in New York City, before working for a radio station in Jackson and as a WPA photographer in Mississippi. Her literary career formally began in 1936 when  Death of a Traveling Salesman was published, which incase you’re wondering was written about 15 years before Arthur Miller’s landmark play Death of a Salesman. 

“He pulled the brake. But it did not hold, though he put all his strength into it. The car, tipped toward the edge, rolled a little. Without doubt, it was going over the bank. 

He got out quietly, as though some mischief had been done him and he had his dignity to remember. He lifted his bag and sample case out, set them down, and stood back and watched the car roll over the edge. He heard something – not the crash he was listening for, but a slow, unuproarious crackle. Rather distastefully he went to look over, and he saw that his car had fallen into a tangle of immense grapevines as thick as his arm, which caught it and held it, rocked it like a grotesque child in a dark cradle, and then, as he watched, concerned somehow that he was not still inside it, released it gently to the ground. “
Eudora Welty
Death of a Traveling Salesman

More shorts stories, essays and novels followed and she was soon able to write full time. She was on staff with the New York TImes her writings led to speaking engagements at Harvard University and abroad. From 1960 until her death in 2001 she lived in Jackson, and her family home which I photographed on Monday is now known as the Eudora Welty House (virtual tour with link). The house has been called, “one of the most intact literary houses in America in terms of its authenticity. Its exterior, interior, and furnishings are as they were in 1986 when Welty made the decision to bequeath her home to the State of Mississippi: paintings, photographs, objects d’art, linens, furniture, draperies, rugs, and, above all, thousands of books in their original places. With virtually every wall lined with books, it is evident that this family of readers valued the written word.”

It is in that Tudor Revival home, across the street from Belhaven College,  is where Welty wrote The Optimist’s Daughter, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973. A friend of my who went to Belhaven in the 80s said it was not unusual to see Welty outside her home and around town.

According to the The Eudora Welty Foundation they fund “a Eudora Welty Scholar; develops teaching resources that will expand appreciation of Eudora’s writing and photography; supports study of her work; assists in preserving Eudora’s home and garden; and hosts seminars, competitions, and festivals for young writers, established authors, and the public.”

The first book I ever read of Welty’s was One Writer’s Beginning which I just learned is available in audio in Wetly’s own voice. Lastly, several of her stories were made into films and TV movies including most recently the short film The Purple Hat (2010) written and directed by Gregory Doucette.

P.S. It is not known what Jackson (if any) was the inspiration for the Johnny Cash and June Carter song Jackson, but I did find this interesting bit of info from Billy Edd Wheeler, one of the writers of Jackson who just happened to also Yale’s School of Drama as a playwriting student:

Jackson came to me when I read the script for Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (I was too broke to see the play on Broadway). You know, the way the man and woman go at each other. When I played it for Jerry, he said “Your first verses suck,” or words to that effect. “Throw them away and start the song with your last verse, ‘We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.’” When I protested to Jerry that I couldn’t start the song with the climax, he said, “Oh, yes you can.” So I rewrote the song and thanks to Jerry’s editing and help, it worked. I recorded the song on my first Kapp Records album, with Joan Sommer, an old friend from Berea, Kentucky, singing the woman’s part. Johnny Cash learned the song from that album, “A New Bag Of Songs”, produced by Jerry and Mike.
Billy Edd Wheeler (who wrote Jackson) with Jerry Leiber
Spectropop

Here’s the song Jackson recorded for The Johnny Cash Show, a program that U2′s Bono has said was an early inspiration for him:

Scott W. Smith

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YazooCity

Yazoo City— can you even say the name without smiling?  Yazoo City is not really a town you go out of your way to visit—unless you know the work of writer Willie Morris (1934-1999). That’s what caused me to make a slight detour there Sunday afternoon. Yazoo City is located about an hour’s drive north west from the Mississippi state capital of Jackson. It’s not really convenient to I-20 and I-55. Though it has been called “The gateway to the Delta,” so it is one of the ways you can get to the famed Highway 61.

“Its name is Yazoo City, from the Yazoo Rover which flows by it—a muddy winding stream that takes in the Tallahatchie, the Sunflower, and countless other smaller creeks and river before it finally empties itself into the Mississippi a few miles north of Vicksburg. ‘Yazoo,’ far from being the funny name that many think it, always meant something a little dark and crazy for me. It is an old Indian name that means ‘Death’ or Waters of the Dead,’ for the the Indians who once loved here as fighters and hunters had died of some strange and dreadful disease. Stephen Forster at first meant his song to be ‘Way Down Upon the Yazoo River,’ but he found out the meaning of the word and felt he had been tricked. Years later when I left to go to college, I was called ‘Yazoo’ —such was the spell the very name had on you long after you left it, for its people have always been given to somber fancies and the most peculiar fears and hallucinations.”
Willie Morris
Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town

Some of the others book by Morris include My Mississippi,  The Ghost of Medgar Evans, A Tale of Race, Murder, Mississippi, and Hollywood, and The Courting of Marcus Dupree. But the book and/or movie that people are most familar with is My Dog Skip. I love that movie. It stars a young Frankie Muniz, Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane—and a couple dogs playing Skip. The script was written by Gail Gilchriest (based on Morris’ book) and directed by Jay Russell.

Yazoo City today doesn’t look much like the Yazoo City in the film which is set in the 1940s. I was only in town long enough to take a few photos, but it appears its former glory has departed. But they’re working on it. And people have been living there since the 1600s, and the area has survived floods, tornados, a yellow fever epidemic, and the town being burned by Union troops during the Civil War—so I imagine the small town will endure. And more stories will be told. Commedian Jerry Clower often made mention of Yahoo City where in once lived. One of his albums was even called From Yazoo City—Mississippi Talkin.’

P.S. The movie Miss Firecracker was shot in Yazoo City, and Yazoo City also gets a mentioned in both O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crossroads.

Scott W. Smith

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“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad—Read!”
William FaulknerOxford

Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Faulkner moved to Oxford, Mississippi when he was three and after a long life in literature, and a short career as a screenwriter in Hollywood, Faulkner died at age 64 and is buried in Oxford.

I had been to Oxford before, but never on a college football Saturday, so I’d never seen The Grove in all its glory. The Grove has been called “the Holy Grail of tailgating sites” on the campus of the University of Mississippi. One saying at Ole Miss is, “We may not win every game, but we never lose a party.” They, in fact, didn’t win the game against Texas A & M which was decided by a field goal as time ran out. But before the game I got to witness what sets The Grove apart from other pregame atmospheres. The China ware, the chandeliers, and some of the students wearing jackets and ties.

As people made their way into the stadium I headed over to The Square in Oxford where they have a statue of Faulkner. I stopped in Square Books where I took the above photo that is a parade photos of writers and their work. It seemed to me to a fitting postcard that represents Oxford at its best.

A darker chapter of Oxford can be found in the lyrics of the Bob Dylan song, Oxford Town surrounding the events that happened in 1962 when James Meredith, a black man,  enrolled at the University of Mississippi. But Oxford today is more than Faulkner and race relationships and is home to many artist and writers.  Author John Grisham went to law school at the University of Mississippi and he lived in Oxford for a decade before moving to Virginia. So if you’ve ever enjoyed one of Grisham’s books or movies from his books, you can thank Ole Miss and Oxford for shaping his legal and literary mind.

Over the years several movies have been made in Oxford including several based on Faulkner’s novels.

One more recent connection to Oxford and Hollywood was the movie The Blind Side (2009) for which Sandra Bullock won an Oscar.  That movie centers around the true story of Michael Oher and his transformation from a young homeless teenager to an NFL football player.  He attended Ole Miss. In the movie they handle his steep educational learning curve in a kind of Rocky running up the steps montage. But in the book of the same name by Michael Lewis (which was the basis of the movie) you get a deeper grasp of what it took for Oher to raise his .09 GPA in high school to be eligible for college.  His story is an amazing one, but I think his graduating with a degree in criminal justice in 2009 was an even greater feat than playing football in the NFL.

Scott W. Smith

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“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
John LennonDSC_1067

If you want proof that big things can come from somewhat small and unlikely places I have just two words to share; Tupelo. Elvis.

According to the website for the birthplace of Elvis Presley here’s the history behind the building above I photographed Saturday afternoon in Tupelo:

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935 to Vernon and Gladys Presley. Born in a two-room house built by his father, grandfather and uncle, Elvis was one of twin brothers born to the Presleys. His brother, Jessie Garon was stillborn. Elvis grew up in Tupelo surrounded by his extended family including his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Financially, times were hard on Vernon and Gladys, and they had to move out of the house where Elvis was born when he was only a few years old for lack of payment.

Elvis and his family moved to Memphis when Elvis was a teenager and they lived in boarding houses and public housing until Elvis graduated from Humes High School in 1953. In 1953 he paid to record a couple of songs at Sun Records, and soon afterwards people were paying him to record. His first RCA single, Heartbreak Hotel, was a number one hit and his families financial problems were over. (In fact, even though Elvis died in 1977, his estate still makes $50 million a year.)

Depending on what source you use Elvis sold an estimated one billion albums. He also made 31 movies including Jailhouse Rock (1957) written by Guy Trosper and Nedrick Young.

Elvis said that his favorite film he made was King Creole (1958) written by Herbert Baker and Michael V. Gazzo based on the novel A Stone for Danny Fisher written by Harold Robbins. (Robbins also wrote the novel The Carpetbaggers, which became the film Nevada Smith—one of the inspirations for the Indiana Jones character.)

But remember before he came one of the top icons of the 20th century, Elvis had humble beginnings it that little house in Tupelo.

Scott W. Smith

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Lord, that 61 Highway
It’s the longest road I know
61 Highway Blues
Fred McDowell

And he said, “Yes, I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61″
Bob Dylan
Highway 61

In light of Bob Dylan playing two miles from my house tomorrow night here in Cedar Falls, Iowa I thought I’d give a nod to the man from Minnesota who influenced a generation. (And, yes, I have a ticket for the concert.)

Dylan and Highway 61 both are deeper roots to what Screenwriting from Iowa is all about. (Yes, technically a stretch of Highway 61 runs though Iowa, but Dylan’s reference as well as this blog’s name is more metaphorical.)

Where does really talent come from? Everywhere. Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota which happens to be a stop on Highway 61 as it goes from New Orleans all the way north to Wyoming, Minnesota. (Contrary to the lyrics in 61 Highway Blues, Highway 61 goes nowhere near New York City.) Highway 61 has been called “The Blues Highway” because of the southern region from which blues music sprang up before it flowed into the world.

At the corner of Highway 61  and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi is where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange to become a master blues musician. Lots of talent has driven up and down Highway 61 including Muddy Waters, “the father of the blues,” who was born in the Mississippi Delta near Highway 61 between Clarksville and Vicksburg.

Muddy Waters not only influenced Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Elvis, but rock n’ roll, jazz, folk, R&B,  country and who knows what else. His 1950 song Rollin’ Stone is where the Rolling Stones took their name.  And of course, Waters & other bluesmen influenced Dylan. So that’s the Highway 61 connection.

Dylan spent most of his youth in the mining town of Hibbing in northern Minnesota. A group of close-knit Jewish people from Eastern Europe were drawn to opportunities in the area known as the Mesabi Iron Range. (See David Mamet’s connection to storytelling and Eastern European Jews.) The ore from the area once made the small town of Hibbing very wealthy. But by the time Dylan (then known as Robert /Bobby Zimmerman) was a teenager in the 1950s the mining town’s heyday was over. But it was fertile ground to listen to blues and country on the radio and learn to play the piano and guitar. Dylan graduated from Hibbing High School in 1959.

Zimmerman became Bob Dylan while playing the folk music circuit in the Minneapolis area known as Dinkytown by the University of Minnesota. Some have said the name change was a nod to Welch poet Dylan Thomas. (“Do not go gentle into that good night.”) That was 50 years ago. Just a few years before he would record the album Highway 61 Revisited, which the magazine The Rolling Stone listed as the #4 on its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. And on the magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone (from the album Highway 61 Revisited) comes is at number one.

Not bad for a kid from Hibbing.

P.S. I’ve been listening to Dylan’s songs before screenwriter Diablo Cody was born. But I should point out that she was not only the inspiration behind me starting this blog in ’08 —Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)— but she has ties to the same artistic, literary, and musical turf that Dylan tread in Minneapolis.

Related Posts:
Highway 61 Meets A1A (Dylan & Buffett)
Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)

Scott W. Smith

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The Silence of the Lambs is the most authentically terrifying movie since Psycho.
Robin Wood
Film Reference

“Do we seek out things to covet? … No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.”
Hannibal Lecter

It’s hard to believe that The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was released almost 20 years ago.  A few days ago I watched the five time Oscar-winner for the first time in at least a decade and it hasn’t lost any sparkle—or creepiness.  The movie is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Thomas Harris.  Harris’ roots are in the deep south, born in Jackson, Tennessee and raised in the small town of Rich, Mississippi. In 1988, his book The Silence of the Lambs won the Bram Stroker Award (Novel) presented by the Horror Writers Association.

So the story had a lot going for it when screenwriter Ted Tally set out to turn the 352-page novel into a 126-page screenplay. When Tally was finished he had crafted a well-tuned script and walked away win an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

“The first thing I do is break down the book scene by scene. That’s my method of working, the way I approach a screenplay adaptation. When I have all that broken down, I’ll try to establish and define the line of events; this event happens, then this event, then this and this happens, all the time trying to keep the integrity of the novel, or source material.

What’s important for me is finding what sticks out in my mind. That’s when I’ll put those scenes down on cards, one by one, just getting the story line down, concentrating on the needs of the adaptation.

Adapting The Silence of the Lambs, for example, I knew this had to be Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster’s) story. Even though the book goes inside Hannibal Lecter’s mind, inside Crawford’s (Scott Glenn’s) mind, inside Jame Gumb’s mind, the book basically follows the character of Clarice.

So, this had to be Clarice’s movie. Anything she’s not in, any scene that may be extraneous to furthering Clarice’s story, had to be cut, if possible. If it’s not cut, then it has to be kept to an absolute minimum. This story is her journey. Approaching it this way meant automatically reducing the book.

But keeping a determined focus on Clarice meant losing a lot of wonderful things that were in the book. Jack Crawford’s dying wife, for example. I bitterly tried to hang on to that in the first couple of drafts, but by the third draft I realized it wouldn’t work; so, it had to go. I had to be ruthless in terms of what I kept and what I didn’t keep.”
Screenwriter  Ted Tally
Ted Tally —On Adaptation/ Syd Field.com

Anthony Hopkins, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal, holds the record in the Best Actor category for shortest on screen time (under 17 minutes). Hopkins’ acting lesson: “How do you play Hannibal Lecter? Well just don’t move. Scare people by being still.”

Though Hopkins was an understudy to Sir Laurence Olivier at the Royal National Theater in London it may have been his unbringing that help shaped his role as Lecter. On IMDB Hopkins is quoted as saying, “My own father was a tough man. He was a pretty red hot guy but he was also cold. He was also slightly disappointed in me because I was not a good kid as a school boy, you know. But I learned from it, I liked that coldness, because it was harsh. And he taught me to be tough. So I know how to be tough. I know how to be strong. I know how to be ruthless. It’s part of my nature. I wouldn’t be an actor if I wasn’t.”

The Silence of the Lambs also won an Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Jodie Foster) making it the last film to pull off an Oscar sweep in the top five categories. The seeds of which were planted all those years ago when Thomas Harris was reading Hemingway as a youngster in the fertile literary land of the Mississippi. It probably didn’t hurt that he earned an English degree at Baylor University and worked as a crime reporter in Texas and New York.

Scott W. Smith

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Ellen Page can skate. Really skate. Roller derby-style to boot. That alone makes Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It worth seeing. But wait, there’s more….

Most people know Page for her Juno role, but the 22-year-old Oscar nominated actress from Nova Scotia already has a decade old career having been in over 25 films and TV programs. We know Page can act but it’s special to watch the actress continue to blossom. Special in that way you see Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun or Paul Newman in The Hustler where you see great talent being revealed.

Many actors have stumbled in trying to play convincing roles as an athlete so I appreciate it when it’s done well. It was not a safe choice for Page or Barrymore, but they pulled it off.

Now I remember the roller derby in its 1970s incarnation.  Not that I was really a fan, but back then the roller derby was hard to miss because in a pre-cable TV and Internet world you only had three main channels to chose from. So on weekends somewhere between bowling, fishing and wrestling you had the roller derby. The roller derby was popular enough in the 70s to have a few films made about it including Unholy Rollers (1972), the documentary Derby (1972) and Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber (1972)–and let’s throw in the futuristic Rollerball (1975) for good measure.

Today the revival in roller derby is relatively small in comparison which may account for the soft opening this weekend at the box office. (That and people can’t seem to get enough of zombies.) But Barrymore and screenwriter Shauna Cross have put together a fine and entertaining film that also has a layer of wisdom in it, so I think it will continue to gather a following for years to come.

There is one scene, one line in particular (and this gives nothing away) that I thought was brilliant. It’s when Page’s character simply says, “I don’t want to be that girl.” It’s a moment that I don’t remember ever seeing in a film before and would benefit every teenage girl who is feed a steady diet of pop culture in regard to relationships. (Also part of that relationship plotline involves a t-shirt from the 80s Christian heavy metal band Stryper. I got a kick out of that as back in my L.A. days as a 16mm director and cameraman I shot an interview with Stryper’s lead singer Michael Sweet. If I find some photos from that shoot I’ll post them.)

At its core, Whip It is a coming-of-age story. Or as Save the Cat screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder calls it a rite of passage (ROP);

The ROP yarn…has three telling indicator: (1) The Problem, (2) the ‘wrong way’ to fix it, and (3) the solution to the problem: acceptance.’”

There are trampings involved with any genre and it’s hard to be original when you are dealing with a story that centers around sports, but I think Barrymore and Cross bring some subtle nuances to the film. One being the role of the parents played by Marica Gay Harden and Daniel Stern. Stern of course brings clout not only with his Wonder Years background, but as being in one of the greatest coming-of-age films/sports films ever—Breaking Away. Great casting choice. And way to go in not making the parents total dorks. (Took a page from Juno there.)

From a screenwriting perspective I do think they missed a huge opportunity to show some three dimensionality by at least giving a nod to the fact that the tribe some girls may want to be in is being in beauty pageants. What if Page’s best friend in the film would have really been gung-ho for doing the pageant thing? That’s the kind of dynamic that made John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club stand out. We’re all different and we’re all in this together.

Recently actress Sela Ward, who was raised in Mississippi, said this in an interview with Parade magazine;  “Growing up in the South, it’s all about manners and propriety. Every weekend, I went to charm school at the Sears department store, where I learned such fabulous tidbits as how to blot your face with a damp cloth to remove some of the powder and give yourself a little glow.” Not every girl is going to grow up and be dignified, refined and as graceful as Sela Ward. But those traits haven’t hurt her career any and there is still a man or two who finds that more attractive than blood and tattoos.

Two other missed opportunities were on the sound track. The dry opening to the film would have benefitted from a jump start montage of the roller derby girls intercut with shots of Page’s character getting ready for a beauty pageant with the song Roller Derby Saved My Soul by Uncle Leon and the Alibis playing. And on the credits Devo’s Whit It would have been a fitting tribute and left audiences with a big smile.

Whip It may not be as insightful as the classic Texas movie  The Last Picture Show, but you could put it on the shelf with the old John Travolta/Debra Winger film Urban Cowboy. It’s a fun film with a few life lessons thrown in, and a wonderful start for Barrymore. And she can really skate, too.

Whip It (Part 3)

Scott W. Smith

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Auntie Em: “Why don’t you find a place where there isn’t any trouble?” 
Dorothy:
“A place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place Toto? There must be.”
                                                                               The Wizard of Oz

Melissa: “Is there an F5?… What would that be like?”
Jason ‘Preacher’ Rowe
: ”The finger of God.” 
                                                                               Twister
 

Chances are if you think back to where you were in 1996 it may seem like 100 years ago. A lot can happen in 12 years.

1996 is on my radar today because it’s the release date of a two-disc special edition of the movie Twister that was made that year. Iowa was not on my radar back then and neither were storm chasers.  Those strange people who in the name of science roam the region known as tornado alley chasing monster-sized tornados looking for data to improve warning systems and hopefully save lives. (And also a good excuse to have an exciting day at the office.)

Twister was shot in Oklahoma and Iowa and according to some reports it was one of the most demanding films ever made. It earned every penny of its almost $500 million worldwide gross. According to Box Office Mojo Twister is #50 in all-time domestic box office draw.

 

It was everything that you expect from a big Hollywood tent pole movie. Special effects and more special effects. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in the Twister screenplay the story is basically there to bridge one spectacular special effect with the next. The filmmakers and the studios told us what kind of film they were making and delivered on their promise.

I look forward to seeing the special edition DVD just to see the behind the scene footage and listen to the added commentary material. In fact, the commentary material may be the only way I watch some films from now on. I did that for the first time with the movie Cloverfield. I just rented it to listen to the director’s commentary. (I love learning little things like one phrase producer J.J. Abrams is fond of saying to keep the budget down is “We can make this whole movie with a ball of yarn.” Abrams and director Matt Reeves did an amazing job with special effects on Cloverfield given their budget was only a third of Twisters.)

A couple weeks ago I was meandering in a used book store next to the University of Northern Iowa looking for something different and came across a book called Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie by Keay Davidson.

I flipped through it and found this quote:

“If you want a spiritual experience, you should go spend April to June in the Midwest, because you have never seen cloud formations like this! You watch everything in the sky happening in front of you as if you were watching time-lapse photography. We would literally watch cloud towers shoot into the sky and within fifteen minutes one little cloud would rise to become one 30,000 feet high.” 
                                                                     Producer (Twister) Kathleen Kennedy

Now when Kathleen Kennedy talks you should listen. She has flat out had an amazing career in Hollywood and has had a hand in producing some of my favorite films: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Seabiscuit (the only movie poster I own), and most recently The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. If you’re still not impressed, she also produced the upcoming Indiana Jones film being released later this month. (Not bad for starting out as a secretary/production assistant for Steven Spielberg.)

To top it off Kennedy is married to Frank Marshall who produced Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Bourne Ultimatum and a whole lot in between. Together the Kennedy/Marshall duo have produced films that have made over 5 billion dollars. 

Here’s another passage from Davidson’s book:

Twister’s setting is as grandiose as its subject: the Midwest. A terrain as rich in myth for Americans as the Aegean is for Greeks…What makes the Midwestern sky “so interesting is that the terrain is so flat—more than half of what you’re seeing is sky! So you tend to pay a lot of attention to it, said (Twister) director of photography Jack Green. “They’ve got these incredible cloud patterns passing through—clouds that contrast against a clear, intense blue and nearly unpolluted sky.”

The blue sky here in Iowa can be mesmerizing. (Especially if you’ve ever been on the Disney lot in Burbank and not been able to see the Verdugo Mountains just a few miles away because of the smog.) And while some Hollywood producers only know that blue sky as they’re flying over this part of the country, there are stories to be told from here. And I hope you’re doing your part to write them down wherever you live.

On a closing note the first week of May is not even over and already around 100 tornados have been spotted in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Iowa. Unfortunately it’s cost hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damages and claimed several lives.

And even more tragic, in Myanmar (next to Thailand) they report over 20,000 deaths due to a cyclone this week.

None of us know where we’ll be 12 years from now. But one thing we can be sure of is there will be more disasters like Hurricane Katrina, 911, and the Tsunami that killed over 200,000 in Asia.  There will be many prayers said and much relief work done. But remember that stories can also bring healing power and help give us perspective on life.

“Today is Father’s Day. Until my stroke, we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar. But today we spend the whole of the symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.”
                                                                       The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
                                                                        Jean-Dominique Bauby 

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“The Tennessee Williams we know and admire cannot be imagined without his long relationship with the Midwest.”  
                                                                                                                                            David Radavich

“I’m only really alive when I’m writing.”
Tennessee
 Williams

When you think of St. Louis the chances are good that you think of the iconic St. Louis Arch. (I took this picture on one of those perfect clear windy mornings one day when I was driving through town and it is majestic to see up close.) What’s probably lower on your St. Louis list is that writer Tennessee Williams grew up there.

Before I address the writers from Missouri let me first say that there would not be a Tennessee Williams without Iowa. Oh, there probably would still be a great American playwright but he might just be called him by his given name Tom. Tom Williams isn’t quite as memorable.  “I got the name of Tennessee,” said Williams, “when I was going to the State University of Iowa because the fellows in my class could only remember that I was from a Southern state with a long name.”

He was actually born in Columbus, Mississippi but Mississippi Williams doesn’t quite have the proper ring to it either so it’s a good thing his classmates got it wrong. Much of his early childhood was lived with his grandfather at the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

According to David Radavich, Williams said his childhood there was happy and carefree, but “this sense of belonging and comfort were lost, however, when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, and to write— ‘because I found life unsatisfactory.’” Williams struggled with depression and took comfort in his daily writing as well as the bottle.

“Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence.”
 Tennessee Williams

The is no doubt that the Mississippi Delta shaped his imagination as it has so many others. Clarksdale is known as the birthplace of the blues and the location of the Crossroads intersection of Highways 61 and 49 where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar like he did.

Clarksdale’s where musicians Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and  W.C. Handy were born and where The Delta Blues Museum lives today.  If you’re anywhere in the Memphis area it’s worth a trip out of your way to visit.

But from the age of seven through the college years Williams lived in the Midwest mostly in St. Louis. Radavich writes, “In 1931, Williams was admitted to the University of Missouri where he saw a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and decided to become a playwright. His journalism program was interrupted however, when his father forced him to withdraw from college to work at the International Shoe Company.”

Even though Williams is mostly remembered for his time in New Orleans, Key West, and New York, Missouri is where he would return to again and again, visiting his mother until she died in 1980. Williams died three years later and is buried in St. Louis.

Saturday night I went to see Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here it Cedar Falls just a little over an hour away from where Williams studied playwriting at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 1938. The play brought back many memories.

When I lived in LA I studied acting for three years mostly at Tracey Roberts Actors Studio. Roberts was a talented actress in her day but never became a star. She was a wonderful teacher and encourager and herself had studied and performed with the greats of the Actors Studio – Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan. (Sharon Stone and Laura Dern both studied with Roberts.)

It was at her studio that I began to appreciate good writing. In a scene study class I had with Arthur Mendoza we spent three months working on just the opening monologue of “The Glass Menagerie”:

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion….”

And so it began. There was much to learn in three months just beyond getting the words down. Place, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology wrapped in Williams’ poetic style. Mendoza also stressed learning about the playwrights background so we studied that as well. It would do every writer good to take at least one acting class in their life. You’ll meet some actors and learn the process they go through in approaching your text.

As I did my scene the final day of class it was the one true moment I ever had as an actor where I felt totally in sync. We sometimes look back on any success big or small with regret but I look back on that day with satisfaction. (It was the highlight of my brief acting career, even bigger than the Dominos Pizza commercial I was in later. Though for the record, Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan’s two-story office in Ann Arbor, Michigan still holds the record for the largest office I’ve ever been in.)

Mendoza studied with Stellar Adler for 10 years and became the principal acting instructor at Stella Adler’s Studio where Benicio Del Toro studied with him. (Del Toro won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Traffic.) Mendoza eventually formed the Actors Theater Circle in Hollywood where he still teaches today. He was the first to open my eyes to the classic playwrights. He threw out names of writers I had never heard of and said as actors we needed to be able to flip our pancakes and do them all.

During that time I found three books at a used bookstore on Main Street in Seal Beach, California that caused a shift in my thinking about the power of writing. For one dollar each I picked up the best plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg. Best three dollars I ever spent.

Strindberg did not stay with me but Ibsen and Chekhov have been lifelong friends. Only recently did I find out Ibsen’s Ghost influence on Williams. Which makes perfect sense given Williams fascination of dealing with the sins of the father being visited on the son. Williams tapped into the southern-family-with-hidden-problems theme.

Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie had a Midwest beginning as it premiered in Chicago. He wrote fragile characters who were on the brink of hysteria. And he was rewarded well for such characters winning two Pulitzer Prizes along with two Oscar nominations.

Two other creative writing giants where also raised in Missouri, Mark Twain in Hannibal and Walt Disney in Marceline and Kansas City. (Both Hannibal and Marceline are less than an hour south of the Iowa border.) Marceline is said to be the inspiration behind Main Street USA at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Orlando has Tom Sawyer’s Island. Exporting the Midwest for all the world to enjoy.

Other screenwriters born in  Missouri include William Rose who won an Oscar in 1968 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, John Milius (Apocalypse Now), Langston Hughes (screenwriter & playwright), Dan O’bannon  (Alien), Honorary Academy Award Director/Screenwriter Robert Altman, and Oscar-winning director/writer John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). That’s a deep rich heritage.

So Missouri joins the areas we’ve already looked at, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin as more than capable of producing talented writers.

“Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.
Walt Disney

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain

“I’m an airmail pilot. St. Louis to Springfield to Peoria to Chicago. The ocean can’t be any worse than snow, sleet and fog.” (Charles A. Lindbergh the night before his historic flight across the Atlantic ocean.)

The Spirit of St. Louis
Screenplay Billy Wilder
& Wendell Mayes
based on Lindbergh’s book

Photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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