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“When I’m doing a movie, I’m not doing anything else. It’s all about the movie. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have a kid. Nothing can get in my way.”
Quentin Tarantino in 2009
GQ article Triumph of His Will

It’s offical—Once Upon a Time …. in Hollywood became the first movie I’ve ever seen in theaters more than three times. I saw it for the fourth time yesterday, and if I’d had the time I would have watched it again right way.

For me it’s just been a rare movie going experience and one that I’m not sure will come again any time soon.

And this from someone who wouldn’t consider himself a Quentin Tarantino fanboy. I went to Hateful Eight in 70mm and left disappointed. I appreciate his talent for remixing influences, but don’t enjoy his casual use of violence. I didn’t see any of his prior films in the theater more than once, many of his movies I didn’t even go to while they were in theaters, and I skipped Death Proof all together.

Which makes me wonder why Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood resonated with me so much. I think part of it was being alive in 1969 (albeit I was 8 and 9 years old then),  having spent five years in LA on the fringes of the film industry, being aware of the Charles Manson cult, and having a lifelong love of movies.

After seeing Once Upon with an almost full audience on the opening night the first comment I heard was from a 20-something girl who “What did I just watch?” My guess is she had little or no idea who Charles Manson was or what he and his cult did back in 1969.

Tarantino doesn’t spoon feed you that information with any expositional dumps. If any thing he downplays things. What he does brilliantly is play on expectations. Somewhere early in my first viewing I remember thinking “How is he going to land this plane.”

It was like Hitchcock’s bomb under the table. Screenwriting 101. As long as the audience sees the bomb under the table you can have actors at the table discuss anything and it will be riveting. Some do that for a scene or two. But here Tarantino does it for almost entire film. All but the last scene of the two hour and 40 minute film is a ticking bomb.

Tarantino and cast and crew layer the film with character studies wonderfully acted, a zillion culture reference, beautiful cinematography, and spellbinding sound tack. In a world crowded with content, it stands out as exceptional and emotional storytelling. It’s also one that rewards audiences with repeat viewings. (Well, at least the ones that don’t hate this film.)

For the dozen or so movies I’ve seen three times in theaters, I’ve found that three times is the maximum amount of viewings before I determine that the next time I see it will be on DVD or streaming. But what made this fourth viewing better that the others was I bought the movie sound track on CD (a first in the last decade or so) and listened to it repeatedly over the past week. It’s a joy all by itself. Then I also listened to Karina Longworth’s 12 part You Must Remember This podcast on “Charles Manson’s Hollywood.”

That podcast gave many wonderful insights into the times and people involved in the surrounding story. That podcast was released in 2015 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was part of Tarantino’s inspiration with wanting wrap a story around that faithful hot August night in 1969.

On this fourth viewing I really appreciated the range of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. On the first viewing of the film I really wanted to see Matt Dillion in that roll of an aging actor. An actor that is closer to Brad Pitt’s age, and one who had some great leading roles 15-20+ years ago. (And one who as the same namesake as the sheriff on Gunsmoke.) But on a $90 million budget I understand needing someone who attract a wide audience so I wanted to see Tom Cruise as the aging actor. On the third viewing I was good with DiCaprio, but still wished he was 10 years older—or at least looked a little more worn. On this viewing, I was good with DiCaprio as is.

Though this is Tarantino’s ninth film this is his first film to complete while married. Perhaps that altered his sensibilities for the better. There is something intellectual (even mystical learning toward spiritual) in this film that I did experience in his pervious films.

Perhaps after the fifth viewing in theater (which their no doubt will be) I will be able to articulate what it is about this movie that’s made be respond the way I have. But in the meantime here are a few dots that were connected and memory doors that the movie opened for me and warranted my record breaking viewing.

  1. When I was in film school in Los Angeles in the early 80s I briefly worked at Frank’s Camera in Highland Park (not far from Dodger Stadium) and I sold a camera to a fellow who worked in the film industry and I asked him if he had any advice for someone starting out. He looked at me dead serious and said “Don’t get married.” It was such unexpected advice that it hit me hard. In many ways working in film and television is like joining the circus and not exactly conducive to a normal family life. Tarantino has spoken openly about the sacrifices he made to become the great filmmaker he is. In my early 20s I met several people in L.A. who were in their 40s and 50s who had some success in Hollywood, yet were still waiting for their big break and I knew I didn’t want to be one of those people. I got married when I was 24-years-old and carved out a niche working in production and having a family life.  Tarantino says he didn’t even have a girlfriend until he was 25 (though he pointed out in a interview that he was “the king of first dates). He got married last year at age 56.
  2. When I moved to L.A. in 1981 I rented a studio apartment on Riverside Dr. in Burbank next to some horse stables connected to what is now called the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. I met my wife at that apartment complex. We once rented horses and went on a trail ride there. This week I read that’s where Tarantino’s parent met. In Once Upon a tourist from Tennessee named Connie goes on a horse back ride at Spahn Ranch. Tarantino’s mother is from Tennessee and named Connie.
  3. When Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) says “Okay Kato” to Bruce Lee it snaped a memory to me that The Green Hornet (1966-67) was a favorite TV show of mine as a kid. I couldn’t tell you what a single episode was about, but I remember wearing a Green Hornet ring. This was a very distant memory and one that I wasn’t even sure was a real memory. So last night I googled “Green Hornet ring” and sure enough that was a real thing and I even found a commercial for it.
  4.  
  5. When I saw that Tarantino married 35-year-old Daniella Pick I wondered if Tarantino wasn’t getting into position to start a family. Yesterday I read that Daniella is pregnant. Tarantino has said that he wanted to make 10 films and then retire from feature filmmaking at age 60. It’s possible that that could happen. But it’s also probable that he’ll be creating long form streaming content, writing plays and books. And like Steven Soderbergh and Michael Jordan it’s possible that he’ll un-retire down the road. I hope he doesn’t stop creating because I kinda dig this (relatively) kinder, gentler Tarantino.
  6. I grew up on Burt Reynold’s movies as did Tarantino and while I haven’t heard anyone make this connection, but I wonder if The 14 Fists of McClusky wasn’t a nod to Reynold’s character Gator McKlusky in White Lighting (1973) and Gator (1976). Reynold’s  was cast to play the George Spahn character in Once Upon but unfortunately died before his parts were shot. (But Tarantino points out he did do table reads and rehearsals so it was his last role). Back in 1969, Reynolds started in the western Sam Whiskey.  Actress Tracey Roberts has a part in that film and is who I studied acting with in the early 80s. Laura Dern also studied with Roberts, and her father Bruce Dern is the one who replaced Reynolds as George Spahn. Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 3.08.59 AM
  7. Like a lot of kids I grew up watching old westerns on TV, but I had the benefit of having a Western theme park not far from where I grew up. Six Gun Territory was a place in Ocala, Florida that had an old west town, gun fights and can-can girls. I not only visited a couple of times as a kid but shot part of my first 16mm film there. One of the times I visited my father drove my sister and I up in his Karmann Ghia. The same car that Pitt’s character drives around in Once Upon. 
  8. When Smokey and the Bandit starring Burt Reynolds hit theaters I was 16 years old and I remember well how exhilarating it was after the movie was over and getting in my car to drive away. Tarantino has said that Smokey and the Bandit is a movie that holds up well with repeated viewings. Tarantino is a writer/director who thinks of the audience from the early idea stages through post production. It’s how this movie takes me back to film school when I rode a motorcycle up and down Hollywood Blvd. at night.
  9. Even though Once Upon is a centered on a bromance, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, and Julia Butter shine in their scenes. I would have been fine with Tarantino expanding any of their roles, but it would have pushed the movie over the 3 hour mark.
  10. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is still a full sensory experience even if you weren’t alive in the 1960s, if you never visited Six Gun Territory, if your dad didn’t have a Karmann Ghia, and even if you never even visited Los Angeles —but you may not see it four+ times.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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”My own experience leads me to believe that an original plot is never as essential or, in fact, salable as is fresh and original treatment of a plot that has proved popular.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion

Here is a list of plots pulled from Frances Marion’s book How to Write and Sell Stories—published way back in 1937. As you’ll see, plots over 80 years ago weren’t that much different than today. This list is Marion’s (and the films in parentheses are ones she mentions). The clips I added to so show some examples (more or less) from the past 25 years.

The Prodigal Son Plot

The Sacrifice Plot (Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch)

The Love Plot (Stella Dallas, Min and Bill, Beau Geste, Sorrel and Son)

The Dramatic Triangle (Wife vs. Secretary, These Three, Dark Angel)

The Plot that is Didactic 

Plot Based on Likeness of Identity (As You Desire Me)

Reformation of Character (Magnificent Obsession, Fury, Green Light)

Revelation of Character

Domestic Relations (Dodsworth)

Topical or Timely Plots

The Relation to Society

The Adventure Plot (Tiger Rose)

The Plot Involving the Detection of a Criminal (Charlie Chan)

The Horror Story (Dracula, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, King Kong)

Stories of Fantasy (Peter Pan)

Musical Plot

The Comedy Form 

Plot Involving Race Conflict (The Birth of a Nation, The Lives of the Bengal Lancer)

“We don’t wade through our existence with any sort of originality. We all live and die and eat three meals a day, and fall in and out of love, and the rest of it.”
Charlie Chaplin

Embrace your limitations and consider following Marion’s wisdom to pick a “fresh and original treatment of a plot that has proved popular.”

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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In the podcast Launch novelist John August gives an insider look into the book making process, down to the font selections and the voiceover narrator for the audio book. Because August is also a screenwriter, there’s a better than average chance that his book Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire will become a book.

But in another podcast this month he answers the question from a frustrated novelist named Matthew who’s had novels optioned, even screenplays written based on his books and stars attached to the projects, but still not a single movie from his work has come to fruition. Here’s part of John August’s answer why:

“Most books that get optioned don’t get made into movies. Most scripts that get written don’t get made into movies. And when I see authors being so excited about the film rights sold, or it’s going to be a movie, I’m happy for them, but I also want to pull them aside and let them know that like if it gets made into a movie, that’s winning the lottery. That so rarely happens…But other times, like Big Fish, it happens. And so you just don’t know. And you have so little control over it, Matthew. That’s the remarkable thing. As the author you control everything. And every word and every comma. Movies seem like they’re made by magic. Like 200 people are off making your movie. Except most times they don’t get made. They get optioned, they pay someone to write a script. That script sits on a shelf and it doesn’t happen.”
John August
Scriptnotes, Ep. 334

P.S. Speaking of Big Fish (screenplay by John August, based the book by Daniel Wallace), I had breakfast with several people Saturday to remember a man named Jim who died recently at age 85.. At one point they wanted everyone to share a story about this him. I shared a story and then I recommended to Jim’s adult children that they watch Big Fish. Jim was from Kentucky and like a lot of people from the south, Jim could tell a yarn are two. In fact, you never were sure which stories were true and which weren’t. Which is part of the Big Fish story.

Scott W. Smith

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Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there
Was a little more to life
Tom Petty/ American Girl

You’ll probably never watch a double feature one night of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), but one thing that connects those movies together is the Tom Petty song American Girl.

And for good measure here’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers playing the song during the NFL Super Bowl half-time show in 2008.

Scott W. Smith

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“Kindness is free.”
Garry Marshall

160719213214-garry-marshall-super-169

When I learned Hollywood legend Garry Marshall died yesterday, I recalled fondly his career in film, theatre, and TV. The producer, writer, director and actor has a special place on this blog as he’s the only person I’ve ever blogged about for 31 days in a row. In fact, I called last October Garry Marshall Month where I re-posted previous wisdom that Marshall passed on through his books and interviews.

What follows are quotes by Marshall (unless otherwise noted):

Garry Marshall’s ‘Gentle Hilarity ’ “I wanted to make films that celebrated the human spirit and high lighted the good in human beings through both comedy and drama.”

Writing and Rewriting ‘Pretty Woman’ (Part You just have to believe that the more you write, the greater the chances are that you can write something that will sell.”

Writing and Rewriting ‘Pretty Woman’ (Part 2) “When Disney first sent me the script for Pretty Woman, it was a dark tale about a cold and heartless corporate raider and a drug-addicted prostitute.

‘The Power of Gentleness’ “Directing is about more than just the nuts and bolts and technological process. That can be learned. It’s also about the people, which is much more difficult to master.”

Screenwriting Quote #171 (Garry Marshall) “It is true that I look for the Cinderella aspect when I am making a film. Most good stories are Cinderella. Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 1) “If you want to be adored on a movie set, don’t be a director, be the caterer. Everyone loves lunch.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 2) “A director has to be part psychiatrist, part teacher, and part parent to everyone on the set.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 3) “The truth is that there are a few stars who are just one taco short of a combo platter. The director’s job is to deal with it all.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 4)  “Yes, I’m a filmmaker and I chart menstrual cycles.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 5) “One of the best characteristics a director can have is the ability to compromise wisely.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 6) “A brief but important moment for me as an actor was when I needed an angle on the character Barnard Thompson, the hotel manager in Pretty Woman. I went to Garry. He paused for a moment and said, ‘Just create the guy you’d like to work for.’ Simple as that. No long discussion. No deep analysis. A slight suggestion and I made it my own. We’ve done 17 movies that way.”—Hector Elizondo

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 7)  “To have a great line is nice, but to have a strong and memorable reaction is even better.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 8) “For the sake of the story, you never want to mislead the audience, unless it’s intentional.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 9) “Film directors should jump at any chance to direct a play because it can improve their relationship with actors.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 10) “I will always protect the actor.”

Garry Marshall’s Chicago Detour “Academically, Northwestern opened many new doors for me. It was the first place I learned that words mattered and could lead to a real job.”

Jumping the Shark “People come up and ask me all the time about the phrase jumping the shark and if I find it offensive…”

Happy Days in Hollywood  “Happy Days was for me the quintessential television success story. I had followed my instincts, and they had turned out to be right.”

Wanted: Writers with No Lives “When you hire actors or actresses for a series, you look for people who have well-rounded-lives with supportive friends and family. But when hiring writers…”

The ‘Stuckinna’ Plot “in which the main characters would get ‘stuck in’ something because it helped reduced the number of sets and kept production values down.”

Garry Marshall—Survivor “The truth is that I always wanted a more stable life than my intellectual idols had…. I wanted to come home to a wife, children, and a sane family dinner hour.”

Offensive & Defensive Screenwriting “The biggest lesson a screenwriter can learn is how to master a rewrite of his own script, or someone else’s, and make the change a studio wants without destroying the story.”

Telling the Truth=Humor “[Phil Foster] encouraged us to abandon our sophomoric gag humor and said, ‘Look at people and pick up on their mistakes and inadequacies. Watch human behavior. Telling the truth about people will make them laugh.’”

Tasting & Smelling Comedy Buddy Hackett held up a matchbook and said, ‘What jokes can you write about this?…”

Flaming Rejection “Be prepared at all times for rejection, even after you break in.”

Scott W. Smith

 

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The extended title of this post could be called, Dramatic writers don’t all agree on various techniques, but when Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet and Paddy Chayefsky all basically agree on the same approach it’s wise to follow their lead—but I thought that was a little too wordy.

“Rather than tell the audience who the character is, I like to show the audience what a character wants. It all boils down to intentions and obstacles.  Somebody wants something; something is standing in their way of getting it. They want the girl, they want the money, they want to get to Philadelphia — it doesn’t matter, but they have to want it bad. If they need it, that’s even better. Something formidable is in standing in their way, and the tactics that character uses to overcome the obstacle is going to define who the character is. It’s like having a Christmas tree and then hanging ornaments on it…I worship at the temple of intention and obstacle. That’s the drive shaft of the car.”
Producer/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, West Wing)
The Aspen Institute interview with David Brooks

And if Sorkin, Mamet, and Chayefsky don’t sway you how about a Pixar example from the same interview?

“If you look at the characters in Toy Story, beginning with Woody on down, they had one big desire which was to be there for Andy. To fulfill their essence of a toy, which is to make him happy. A ton of obstacles were thrown at them. And their characters were defined by how they overcame them.”
Aaron Sorkin

P.S. Intentions and obstacles leads to Conflict-Conflict-Conflict and helps you follow Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule: Don’t be boring. And Intentions, obstacles, and conflict are all cousins of The Major or Central Dramatic Question.

Related posts:
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO (?)
Screenwriting Quote #94 (David Mamet)1. Who wants what from whom? 2. What happens of they don’t get it? 3. Why now?”
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6) “Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?” Paddy Chayefsky
‘There is only one plot’—A person, or group or an entity (an animal, or an alien, or whatever) wants something…” David Morrell
Character Introductions (Tip #71)
Show Don’t Tell
Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)
Writing the Pixar Way 

Scott W. Smith

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“The purpose of a ticking clock: to inject urgency and tension into the story or an individual scene.”
Screenwriter Doug Eboch (Sweet Home Alabama)
Let’s Schmooze blog

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 11.05.48 PM

The last movie I saw (Eye in the Sky) was full of anticipation, and that was set up by the ticking clock scenario. Time was of the essence for the entire film. While I have touched on the ticking clock concept in pervious posts, I realized I had not done a post dedicated to unpacking the concept in detail—so here it is:

The ticking clock is simply a device writers use to create a sense of urgency—in both the characters and the audiences. It’s not found in every film and TV show, but there are plenty of examples over the years of stories across all genres that show it’s something worthwhile to have in your toolbox.

Sometimes the ticking clock is used in a single scene and other times it basically spans the entire film.

Two examples that come quickly to mind are Back to the Future (1985) and Taken (2008). Situations where major stakes are on the line if such and such doesn’t happen within in a specific time frame.

It doesn’t have to be a literal clock ticking down (though it can be) but it must be clear to those involved (and those watching) that there will be dire consequences if some terms aren’t met before a specific deadline.

“An example of a ticking clock would be the movie Armageddon, where the team had only a short time to blow up the asteroid, or all of mankind would be destroyed when it hit Earth. This gives an underlying tension to the entire movie”
Stephen Cannell

“A time endpoint, also known as a ticking clock, is a technique in which you tell the audience up front that the action must be completed by a specific time. It is most common in action stories (Speed), thrillers (Outbreak), caper stories (where the characters pull off some kind of heist, as in Ocean’s Eleven), and suicide mission stories (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen).”
John Truby
The Anatomy of Story

“Always helps to have a ticking clock. In Millions, the two boys have only a limited amount of time before the fortune in cash they found is worthless, as all currency is about to be converted to Euros. They are forced to solve their problem before the suitcase of money is useless.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks

Here are other films with ticking clocks:

127 Hours —A solo adventurer must find a way to get his arm released from being wedged in a rock crevasse before he dies from lack of food and water.
48 Hours
The  Hunt for Red October
United 93
Notorious
Back to the Future

Silence of the Lambs
Little Miss Sunshine
The Hangover
High Noon
Blue Brothers
Happy Gilmore
Unstoppable
The African Queen
and more recently The Martian.

Here’s what the ticking clock looks like on the page from the Drew Goddard written screenplay The Martian (based on Andy Weir’s book). This scene starts at page 16 after astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) survives being left behind on Mars.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.53.39 PMScreen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.54.24 PM

Even terrific indie films Winter’s Bone, Buried, and Ida have ticking clocks. Tv programs like Breaking Bad and Empire have ticking clocks related to the health issues of the lead characters.

Like any technique there are times when its use can seem heavy handed and forced—even a cliche. But that doesn’t negate that in the right hands it is a time trusted (pun intended) way to produce a sense of urgency.

Remember in Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks and his troop are charged with finding (and returning) Private Ryan before he’s killed on the battlefield? That qualifies as a ticking clock. As does finding (and killing) the shark in Jaws before it wrecks the town’s tourist economy.  And, now that I think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, E.T. and Schindler’s List all make uses of ticking clocks. So if Spielberg doesn’t shy away from ticking clocks why should you?

Related Posts:
Conflict-Conflict-Conflict
The Bomb Under the Table 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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