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Before writer/director Lulu Wang made an international splash this year for her movie The Farewell, one of her day jobs was producing videos for lawyers to be used in legal cases.

“I was basically going to people’s homes – you know, people who had been severely injured, people who, oftentimes, their injuries weren’t visible to the eye, you know, which meant a lot of brain damage cases. I would go into people’s homes and just interview the – you know, the client and sometimes their family to better understand the extent of their injuries.

“So we – it was called a day in a life video, and so you also would – I would include footage from before the injury occurred and – to see, you know, what they were capable of, what their dreams and aspirations were. And sometimes it would be as mundane as just shooting this person trying to make breakfast, you know, because if this client walks into a courtroom and gets on a stand, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to determine what the extent of their injuries are by just hearing them talk. You might think, well, maybe they’re not the brightest person, but, you know, they seem fine to me. But you would – if I, you know, was with them, watching them make breakfast, they would take the eggs out and then go back to the refrigerator and go grab eggs and forget where they put the eggs. You know, there’s all of these little nuances of how the – of how brain injury affects a person’s day-to-day life that I had to show.

“So there was that. I did some class action cases as well. . . . I found it very fascinating. It was very difficult, too, you know, because you meet somebody for, you know, 10 minutes, and then you’re in their home and you’re asking them to open up their lives to you. And I – you know, I was usually there by myself, maybe with one other person who was helping me set up the camera and maybe a light or something.

“But you know, there’s a lot of stories, and it – I think it also helped me to really stay grounded because no matter what fictional story I was working on, I was still doing this at the same time.”
Lulu Wang
NPR interview with Terry Gross

And in various interviews Lulu Wang has done, here are some other life experiences that show the trajectory of her career before making The Farewell. 
—She was born in China, and moved to the United States (Miami) when she was six.
—She went to a arts conservatory high school where she was a good enough pianist that her teachers thought she could have a career playing the piano, but she didn’t have enough passion for music. (New World School of the Arts in Miami is also where playwright and Oscar-winning Moonlight screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney went to high school.)
—She earned her four year degree from Boston College, where she only took one  photography class and one filmmaking class. But she did well enough in school that she was accepted into law school on a full scholarship. But she didn’t have enough passion for law to continue that route.
—She moved to Los Angeles and because she could speak Mandarin Chinese ended up doing translation work on the film Rush Hour 3.
—She made some short films, and also shot some bar mitzvah videos.
—In 2016, her story What You Don’t Know was part the radio broadcast This American Life. She got an option to write the screenplay version that eventually got produced with her directing and debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
—The film was released in the United States in July.
—Last night Awkwafina won best actress at the Gotham Awards for her lead role in The Farewell.

P.S. After graduating from NYU film school, Sean Baker (The Florida Project) worked on wedding and corporate videos, and explains why it’s good training for filmmakers.

“I was lucky enough to land a job right out of school with a small publishing company that put me in charge of their AV work. So basically I was producing a lot of corporate type videos. I was interviewing authors. Traveling all over the states just to interview them to put together a little EPK [Electronic Press Kit]. But that’s good work. It pays the bills. And I would suggest anybody who’s striving to become a filmmaker to at least stay within the AV world. Because you’re practicing on a daily basis. And even though you think this isn’t me being creative, it is. It really is because you’re still framing shots, you’re still editing, you’re understanding the technical side of things.”
Sean Baker
No Film School podcast interview

Scott W. Smith

 

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This exchange between playwright Neil Simon and Terry Gross is from a 1996 Fresh Air interview:

GROSS: You have a theory that you write about in [your book Rewrite:A Memoir] that your mind doesn’t know, when you’re writing, that it’s only fiction. Your mind thinks you’re actually living through whatever you’re putting on paper.

SIMON: Yes.

GROSS: What has led you to this conclusion?

SIMON: Because my body goes through the pain that I am going through in the writing. I feel the tenseness if I’m writing a scene between, let’s say, a husband and wife who are having a fractious marriage. Things are going wrong. There’s a big argument. There’s a confrontation. I feel the intensity in my body, and I don’t think I’m acting that out. I truly feel it. I’m exhausted when I go home, whereas if I write something that’s a funnier scene, a lighter scene, a more loving, romantic scene, I don’t feel that same tension. I feel a lightness about me. So I don’t think that the mind differentiates about what’s going on in real life or what’s going on in the fiction you’re writing.

GROSS: So fiction really does take its toll on you physically.

SIMON: It does, but it’s been very rewarding for me. I don’t think I would like to have been anything else in life but a writer, but I also don’t think I could have been anything else.

Related posts:
Nostalgia: The Pain from an Old Wound
Emotion-Emotion-Emotion
Power Your Podcast with Storytelling “Everyone wants to find a way out of pain.”-
Alex Blumberg
Method Writing—Write with Your Scars 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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This post originally ran in 2010 and I’m reposting it in light of Jim Harrison’s death last Saturday:

“Later that night the ocean again entered Tristan’s dreams…”
Legends of the Fall (Jim Harrison)

“So many nights I just dream of the ocean…”
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (Jimmy Buffett)

I’m not sure what the connection is between writer Jim Harrison and musician Jimmy Buffett, but I’m pretty sure there is one. Some secret Livingston/Key West handshake.

And somewhere in that connection is a spirit that resonates a longing not limited to the books, poems, and songs they’ve created but they’ve tapped into a desire to experience what it means to be alive. And to desire to not only live a life in full—or to use Hemingway’s phrase “all the way up”— but also to have “a good death.”

The 1994 movie Legends of the Fall, based on a novella by Harrisonis a movie I watch every couple of years. I don’t know if it’s the scenery where director Edward Zwick (Glory) picked to shoot the film in the beautiful Canadian Rockies. I don’t know if it’s the cinematography that captured that beauty—for which DP John Toll won an Oscar in 1995. I don’t know if it’s the actors—or simply Brad Pitt’s character Tristan or his Lawrence of Arabia/John Waynelike  introduction, or the James Horner music—whatever the reason, I find Legends of the Fall repeatedly enjoyable to watch.

Critics were spilt at the time of its release and it’s not hard to see why. It has one foot in being an epic story and one foot in melodrama. Tricky territory. And I think that was by design in an attempt for the movie to gain a large audience of both men and women.  Coming off the heals of a Dances with WolvesLegends of the Falls fell short at the box office & Academy Award-wise compared with Dances (which won Pest Picture and 7 total Oscars and made $184 million domestic). But Legends is the one I return to again and again.

Perhaps Legends the film split the vote more than the book did and paid the price. You have wild horses, guns and war for the men and beautiful western clothes, lawn tennis, and a romance normally associated with a romance novel or soap opera for the ladies. And if any men were on the fence, Pitt’s flowing hair (often perfectly backlit) kept them from going over. I’m never surprised when men tell me they’ve never seen the film. Perhaps a sweeping generalization and an oversimplification, but that’s my take. It’s too—to use Harrison’s word—pretty.

Pitt even jokes on the DVD commentary that the movie’s like a L.L. Bean catalog. This is what the original source writer had to say of the refined mountain life portrayed in the movie;

“I did have issues, as they say now, with certain parts of the film, because I thought, ‘Do they have a French dry cleaner right down the street or something like that?,’ ’cause everybody looked— pretty. But so many people seem to like it and I have no objections because it’s a director’s medium. When you accept your check you’re selling your kid.” 
Jim Harrison
NPR, All Things Considered, Feb. 08, 2007

The movie basically extracts the characters that Harrison created and somewhat places them in a new story. Col. Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), Alfred (Aidan Quinn), Samuel (Henry Thomas), Tristan (Pitt) and others are all there. Susannah’s role (Julia Ormond) is altered and beefed up. Heck, the book opens with the brothers going to the war where in the movie that doesn’t occur until the 32 minute mark. The book is more Tristan focused and covers more of his far away adventures. Like writer Walter Kirn (who also happens lives in Livingston, Montana where Harrison lives part of the year) said of the movie Up in the Air that was based on his book of the same name—the book is not the movie, and the movie is not the book, but they have the same DNA.

To director Zwick’s credit I think he and screenwriters Bill Wittliff and Susan Shiliday, as well as the talented cast & crew created a film that continues to have legs (and a heartbeat) more than 15 years after it was created and that’s not an easy accomplishment. (And something that I don’t think any of the other films based on Harrison’s work have achieved.)

As a side note, though Harrison has homes now in both Arizona and Montana, and has traveled widely, this is what he wrote a few years ago:

“I have several dear friends in Nebraska and the Niobrara River Valley in the Sandhills is my favorite beautiful spot on earth.” 
Jim Harrison

In my adventures over the years I have been fortunate to experience such things as witnessing a full solar eclipse in Salzburg, been free diving with large green turtles in Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, and flown in a seaplane over the Amazon River, but one of the most unbelievable and unexpected experiences I’ve ever had is watching thousands of Sandhill Cranes fill the sky on the edge of the Nebraska Sand Hills.

To beat the drum once again you don’t need to be in New York and L.A. to find adventures or stories worth telling. Certainly, even a somewhat remote place such as Nebraska has been fertile ground for writers from Harrison (Dalva), to Willa Cather (My Antonia) and screenwriter Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt).

“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pig pen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.”
Willa Cather
My Antonia

May you all have eyes to see.

Up in the Air—The Novel vs. The Film

Scott W. Smith

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“I like dissolves. A dissolve is a film technique, usually a transition from scene to scene where image A begins to fade out, overlapped with the fade in of image B….Nowadays you don’t see too many dissolves in movies. And I never paid attention to when they went out of fashion. And Kevin Tent, my editor, and I think they’re beautiful. I happen to be a big fan of Hal Ashby films in the ’70s and to my mind, he an ex-editor, was a master of dissolves, and particularly long dissolves. For me, they lend emotion to a film and there’s a kind of a melancholy that comes from them….One thing is going away, another thing is coming in. And I can’t explain it, but there’s something poetic and melancholy about it.”
Producer, writer, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election)
NPR/Fresh Air Interview with Terry Gross

I think I’ve shown all the clips out there of Payne’s new film Nebraska, so today I think it’s fitting to show a video that’s a nod to Hal Ashby (1929-1988). While Ashby is best known for directing Coming Home (for which Nebraska star Bruce Dern received an Oscar nomination), Being There, The Last Detail and Harold and Maude, his sole Oscar win was for editing the 1967  film In the Heat of the Night.

I’ll have to do a run of posts on Ashby next year after I read Nick Dawson’s (@thatnickdawson) book Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel. While his acclaim did not reach the heights of many of his Easy Rider and Raging Bulls fellow filmmakers, Ashby’s influence today may be greater. Not only on Alexander but on Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell and I imagine a whole list of others.

P.S. And since I like to point out origins of filmmakers from unlikely places…Hal Ashby was born in Ogden, Utah and raised in a Mormon home where his father was a dairy farmer. Remember the wise words of Anton Ego in Ratatouille, “Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Good ones, too.

Related Post:

Editing for Emotion
40 Days of Emotions ‘I try to set things up so that they pay off in a way I hope evokes a strong reaction.” Eric Roth (Forrest Gump)
Cinematography & Emotions
Cinematography & Emotions (Part 2)

Related Blog:

Check out Oliver Peters’ blog post on a case study of editing Alexander Payne’s film The Descendants.

Scott W. Smith

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“I  never tailor a screenplay to fit the actor. I always demand the actor come to the script – even if it’s Nicholson or Clooney.”
Alexander Payne
Nebraska Coast Connection Q & A

“I’m not there to give an acting class. I’m there to make a movie. And I often don’t know, nor do I often care to know, really, what the actor is thinking about….My basic direction is: please hit your mark and recite your dialogue exactly as written. And you think I mean that somewhat facetiously. But actually, my job I feel is basically done – not done, but on the way to being done when I’ve cast them. And that old cliche is very true, 90 percent of directing is casting, not just the actors, but the technicians, everyone involved in making a film. So in the moment we’re doing a scene, and I work with intelligent actors, they know what the heck the scene’s about, so – and they know what, without being too result-oriented in their thinking, they know what emotional state the character is in. Sometimes I think that if I get too personal with a direction, you know, try doing this or think about that, I may mar what they’re already thinking about.”
Two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne
NPR/Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross

Some of the fruit of Payne’s casting and directing:

George Clooney (The Descendants) Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Feature
Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) Golden Globe Award Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture–Drama
Cast (Sideways) Screen Actors Guild  winner Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
Bruce Dern (Nebraska) Cannes Award for Best Actor

Related posts:
Directing “Chinatown”
Directing “Mud”
Writing & Directing “Rush”
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 1) Follow the thread for a total of ten tips from Marshall.
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich
Kazan on Directing (Part 1) Follow the thread for ten tips from Kazan

Scott W. Smith

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“Under no condition can you teach curiosity.”
Producer 
Brian Grazer
(Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind)

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Albert Einstein

“I believe in disrupting my comfort zone.”
Brian Grazer

Producer Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment has put up some pretty good numbers; More than 50 films for a box office total over $1 billion, five Emmys and an Oscar. (And one funky haircut.)

In the last few days I’ve written about Akiva Goldsman writing the script for A Beautiful Mind, and Sylvia Nasar first uncovering John Nash’s story, and a shout out to the movie’s director Ron Howard, but the connector of the entire project was Grazer. He reportedly had been looking for the right project for years that was an intriguing story about the brain.

A Beautiful Mind was an impossible movie to get made. Brian (Grazer) got it made. For a time, I wasn’t even going to direct it. But it was going to be a movie. Brian made sure of that. Brian nurtured this difficult project to fruition. He was responsible for A Beautiful Mind.”
Ron Howard
Esquire magazine

One of the ways that Grazer is said to keep information and ideas flowing in the pipeline is to work with a “cultural attaché.” A person who can keep up with cultural trends and help direct Grazer to meet some of the most interesting people alive. A couple of years ago in The New Yorker, Lizzie Widdicombe published an unofficial email that entailed just what a cultural attaché was expected to do working for Mr. Grazer:

This person would be responsible for keeping Brian abreast of everything that’s going on in the world; politically, culturally, musically. . . . They’re also responsible for finding an interesting person for Brian to meet with every week . . . an astronaut, a journalist, a philosopher, a buddhist monk. . . . There is LOTS of reading for this position! Grazer may ask you to read any book he’s interested in. You’ll probably get to read about 4 or 5 books a week and you may be required to travel with him on his private plane to Hawaii, New York, Europe—teaching him anything he asks you about along the way. . . . You will also be provided with an assistant. . . . Salary is around $150,000 a year. . . . You will be to Grazer what Karl Rove was to Bush.

Not a bad gig if you can land it. (Not sure if you’re paid overtime, but it doesn’t sound like a 40 hour a week job.) But if you can’t work for Brian Grazer—or be Brian Grazer (and I don’t think they’re currently taking applications for that position either)—you can at least learn from Brain Grazer.

“When I started out in the entertainment business, I made a list of people I thought it would be good to meet. Not people who could give me a job or a deal, but people who could shake me up, teach me something, challenge my ideas about myself and the world. So I started calling up experts in all kinds of fields: trial lawyers, neurosurgeons, CIA agents, embryologists, firewalkers, police chiefs, hypnotists, forensic anthropologists, and even presidents.”
Brian Grazer
Disrupting My Comfort Zone
NPR June 6, 2006

P.S. If you happen to be Brian Grazer’s cultural attaché, I am available next Wednesday for lunch if Mr. Grazer happens to be traveling through Iowa—or more likely flying over.(We do actually have one small connection. Back in the late ’80s when his film Parenthood was being shot in Orlando, my wife and son were extras. Our red Toyota van even got a cameo for a few seconds—a few frames?— in the alley scene where Steve Matin & Mary Steenburgen digging through trash. Almost famous.)

Update 2/17/11: Found a interview where Grazer was ask if he still has a cultural attaché, and he said, “That was sort of a joke title. I’ve been out meeting different people, I have a record, for 24 years, of meeting someone every two weeks. It helps inform your filter and hopefully informs your taste. I don’t have anyone that’s doing that for me right now. I use a couple of my assistants and I just say ‘hey, can I meet so-and-so’ and then we work on it or I’ll call them myself, but I don’t have a person that does that any longer.”

Related post: Jack Kerouac in Orlando

Genius, Madness & a Genuine Third Act

Scott W. Smith



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I missed the premier yesterday of the new Hawaii Five-O. In general I don’t go out of my way to watch much TV at all. But the remix of Hawaii Five-O bugs me and not because I think the original show is sacred—but because several years ago I wrote a coming-of-age screenplay the opens with 10 year-old-boys riding bikes and jumping curbs on their bikes all to the theme song from Hawaii Five-O. In my head I’ve played the opening scene out hundreds of times. It was alive with action and the pulsing of the music. And I thought it would a fresh way to introduce a new group of people to the theme song created by Morton Stevens.

Of course, because of my script and the movie that was supposed to be a hit movie, a new TV version of Hawaii Five-O would be produced with hot young actors and I would be a hero in Hawaii for helping stimulate the economy there.

Oh well, best wishes to the writers, actors, producers, etc. of the new show.

It’s disappointing but I’ll live. Speaking of disappointing did you happen to catch David Bianculli’s review of the new TV line-up on NPR yesterday?  Of course, if you’re a writer you may or may not be encouraged by this review of this year’s new TV show line-up:

“This year, more than in any year I can remember, the new shows are positively underwhelming. Every year at this time, the question I’m asked most often is, “Which new series do I have to watch?” And most years, there’s at least one easy answer. Glee and Modern Family. Lost and Desperate Housewives. 30 Rock. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though few people believed me at the time.

This year, the easy answer is Boardwalk Empire, which premiered last night on HBO. But if you restrict the question to broadcast TV — to ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC and the CW — I have a different answer.

Nothing. Nada. And I’m not just being cranky. As a TV critic, I’ve evaluated the new fall season output for 35 years now, and never before — not once — have the broadcast networks come up completely empty.”
David Bianculli
This Fall, Shows You Know Are The Only Must-See TV

Apparently, there is room for some improvement. Bianculli is also the founder/editor of the website TV Worth Watching.

Scott W. Smith

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