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Posts Tagged ‘Oliver STone’

Though more of a directing rather than a screenwriting device, “sweeping the floor” is a phrase used to describe an  action given to an actor so their lines appear more natural. Sometimes an actor with a short scene or just one line wants to give more importance to their small part so they put too much emphasis on their small role. “Sweeping the floor” helps the actor concentrate on the activity (and, of course, it doesn’t have to be a literal sweeping the floor action) and the result is often a more natural performance. This works for better actors in bigger roles as well.

When Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) first meets Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street director Oliver Stone uses many variations of “sweeping the floor” in that one scene. Gekko talks on the phone (a couple of times), lights  a cigarette, checks his blood pressure, flips through his mail/messages, and ends the scene hopping on a treadmill in his office. It’s an important five-minute scene and all of those activities help push the scene forward.

“For a more ingenious example of the same device look at one of the love scenes between Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront. It is reasonably well written, but might have seemed over saturated if the actors had played it while looking at each other directly. Instead Brando uses a couple of props, one of which is a child’s swing in the playground of the park where the scene takes place. Incongruously he sits in the swing, giving a slightly self-depreciation tone to his performance. The other prop is the glove the girl has dropped. Brando picks it up and does not return it, absent-mindedly trying it on his own much larger hand. This purely incidental activity means that for much of the dialogue he avoids eye contact with her. Because of this the scene is less sentimental and creates an impression of unpretentious and natural screen presence (though it is, needless to say, just as contrived and premeditated as any other piece of acting).
Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of Directing

Once you become aware of the “sweeping the floor” device you see it everywhere. People sitting down talking eye to eye the whole time happens more in low-budget indie films than in real life. That’s why experienced directors have actors doing things even if the scene isn’t written that way.

What’s your favorite “sweeping the floor” movie example?

Scott W. Smith

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“Now that all the decay is over, things are going to get better.”
Adam (Brendan Frazier) in Blast from the Past
Written by Billy Kelly and Hugh Wilson

Who knows how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far, so fast
The End of the Innocence
Bruce Hornsby/Don Henley

Watching It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street back to back made me think of the 1999 film Blast from the PastKind of what would happen if George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) of the 1940s showed up in Martin Scorsese’s modern version of Pottersville? (Pottersville is the Girls-Girls-Girls flip side nightmare world to the Norman Rockwell—like Bedford Falls in the Frank Capra classic.)

But Pottersville in Scorsese’s hands comes across like a perpetual party paradise.  An echo of Gary Kamiya’s All hail Pottersville! article— “Pottersville rocks!” Boring vs. Fun.

Perhaps the Wolf of Wall Street himself had a clearer view of the world he created at the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont:

“It should have been Sodom and Gomorrah. After all, it wasn’t every firm that sported hookers in the basement, drug dealers in the parking lot, exotic animals in the boardroom, and midget-tossing competitions on Fridays.”
Jordan Belfort

Earlier this month, a former worker at Stratton Oakmont who once idolized Belfort gave his perspective:

“But eventually, the blindness from the drugs, the girls and the cars, the clothes and the money, wore off. These people were some of the worst people that I have ever met in my life — they would sell their own grandmother in a second….I’m still going to see the [The Wolf of Wall Street]. My parents want to go with me. I would hope people would try to keep some morality while still trying to achieve success — but I’m not sure the movie is going to show that. Just the wild ride.”
Josh Shapiro
My life working for the real life ‘Wolf of Wall Street’

The movie is a three-hour fantasy wild ride that—well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it—but it’s an upside down world. One that Scorsese celebrates more than he condemns. Actress Hope Holiday was quoted in The Wrap saying a screen writer at an Academy screening for The Wolf of Wall Street screamed at Scorsese “Shame on you.” But if you’ve seen Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or GoodFellas you know the director has a fondness for depravity over redemption.

The Wolf of Wall Street is not Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment (1960) on steroids…or cocaine, quaaludes or even viagra. The stated theme seems to want to be “When the chickens come home to roost,” but comes across more like “Crime pays, and it pays well.” Maybe Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (Boradwalk Empire, The Sopranos) were just being faithful to Belfort’s book that the movie was based on.

It’s hard to say the 3 hour movie (okay, technically 2 hours and 59 minutes) is missing anything but constraints, but I think TIME’s Richard Corliss says it best—”What’s missing is the broker’s acknowledgement of a wasted life — if not his, then his victims.”

Scorsese said he knows the The Wolf of Wall Street is not for “everyone’s taste” and added, “It’s not made for 14 year olds.”

But I believe that 14-year-olds are going to see this film. And for some The Wolf of Wall Street will be their ideal—their goal. Just as young Jordan Belfort said Gordon Gekko in Wall Street became his ideal, his goal after watching Wall Street. (And Wall Street was not the upside down, amoral world of The Wolf of Wall Street.)

Gordon (“Greed… is good”) Gekko is the #24 Villain on AFI’s 100 Year…100 Heroes & Villains. Ranked just ahead of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining (Here’s Johnny!). But the Gekko character may rank as the #1 villain that most people want to be like. Actor Michael Douglas said he was surprised at how many people over the years have told him they became stock brokers because of his Oscar-winning performance of what he called “the bad guy.” (And how many of those Gekko followers became players in the banking collapse of 2008? Movies reflect the culture they help produce.)

“As the years have gone by, it’s heartening to see how popular the film has remained. But what I find strange and oddly disturbing is that Gordon Gekko has been mythologized and elevated from the role of villain to that of hero.”
Wall Street co-screenwriter Stanley Weiser
Repeat After Me: Greed Is Not Good, 2008 LA Times

“I’d just say anyone who took away that greed is good has missed the point. The movie speaks for itself. People who walk out of the movie and think ‘[Gekko's] such a great guy,’ they need to think and ask themselves on what terms am I willing to do that?”
Oliver Stone, Wall Street director and co-screenwriter
Oliver Stone: Life after Wall Street by Telos Demos/ CNNMoney

Wall Street was closer in ideals to It’s a Wonderful Life than The Wolf of Wall Street. More Bedford Falls than Pottersville. More the ’80s Miami of Scarface than the ancient Roman orgies of Caligula.

Perhaps the ongoing battle is the way the world is versus the way we want it to be. But what do I know? Well, I do know one thing—that Jordan Belfort’s speaking fee just went up.

P.S. A movie that’s said to have influenced Stone’s Wall Street was Executive Suite (1954) directed by Robert Wise from a script by Ernest Lehman from a novel by Cameron Hawley.

Related Posts:

Raging Bull vs. Martin Scorsese
“Study the Old Master.”—Martin  Scorsese
The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 1)
The Heart of “Hugo” (Part 2)
Hugo & The Artist
Writing Good Bad Guys (Tip #85)

Scott W. Smith

 

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“When you read a good screenplay, you know it—it’s evident from page one.”
Syd Field

“Shakespeare knew his audience; the groundlings standing in the pit, the poor and oppressed, drinking freely, talking boisterously to the performers if they didn’t like the action on stage. He had to ‘grab’ their attention and focus it on the action.”
Syd Field

Syd Field’s book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting came out in 1979 putting him at the center of a new wave of interest in screenwriting that continues to this day. Sure there were books on screenwriting before Field’s released his “Step-by-Step Guide from Concept to Finished Script” but he had a flair of looking at then contemporary films like Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy as well as more mainstream movies;  Star Wars, Rocky and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

By the mid-70s, the party was over for many baby boomers born between 1946-1964 and they were looking for a new guru to lead them into actually finding an income stream. Field’s, who died last month at age 77, filled that void. (And it certainly did provide an income stream for at least one person.)

I bought the “New Expanded Edition” of his book Screenplay when I was in college. To show how times have changed, I bought that book when I was in film school in the early ’80s. I think it was the first book on screenwriting I ever bought. This was long before the Internet became a great free resource for people wanting to learn about screenwriting. Before DVD commentaries featuring screenwriters. In fact, if you go back to 1979 I bet the average American couldn’t have named one screenwriter.

These days I’m often amazed at the way film savvy high school students can talk about movie structure and their favorite filmmakers (including screenwriters). These days the book Screenplay doesn’t exactly take your breath away, but you have to remember that the gems Field’s tossed out—”The first ten pages of your screenplay are absolutely the most crucial”—were not common knowledge back then.

Field wrote from the perspective of the script reader. He had spent several years as the head of the story department at Cinemobile Systems and began to wonder why so few good scripts were recommended for possible development and why other films succeeded.

“My reading experience gave me the opportunity to make a judgment and evaluation, to formulate an opinion. This is a good screenplay, this is not a good screenplay.”
Syd Field

And just as he was formulating his experiences, he was asked to teach a screenwriting class at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College. His book flowed from the years of teaching that class. Of course, not all of his students became working screenwriters. And one could even argue that the ratio of scripts recommended verses rejected today has basically remained unchange—despite the wealth of screenwriting info out there today.

Field addressed that reason in the introduction to his first book—talent. It’s the same reason sometimes that even gifted college athletes (even Heisman Trophy winners) don’t have sustainable pro careers.

Field ended up giving screenwriting workshops all over the world, and took a lot of blame over the years for basically starting a cottage industry that has made a lot of money over the years out of the pockets of dreaming screenwriters, but after his death there were some accomplished screenwriters that had some positive things to say about him.

“What I learned in Syd Field’s class was here’s how Annie Hall works, and here’s how Witness works, and then I begin to think, ‘OK now how would I do it differently than that?’ That concept of ‘Always being in learning mode’ has stuck with me to this day” 
Producer/director/writer Judd Apatow 

“I did a million drafts. And then I did the thing everybody does—I read Syd Field and I used my index cards.”
Producer/writer/actress Tina Fey

“RIP Syd Field. We can argue about formula and dogma, but Field introduced countless screenwriters to the craft. He was an inciting incident.”
Screenwriter John August

“I’m not surprised to have seen the many acknowledgements from screenwriters, professional and non-pros, about Field today. I know I never would have broken into the business without the insights into the basics of screenwriting his book gave me.”
Screenwriter/Go Into The Story blogger Scott Myers

 “I’ve gone from reading [Field's] books, to being taught by him in courses! I think one of us must have done something right! I thank him all the time for inspiring me.”
The Shawshank Redemption writer/director Frank Darabont

Field went on to write several books which reportedly sold over a million copies. Just this past September he delivered the Keynote address at STORY EXPO on Why We Are Storytellers. (I’ll try to track that talk down for a future post. ) You can find several videos of Field teaching online, but here’s a short clip of him interviewing screenwriter Micahel Ardnt. (It’s worth pointing out that Ardnt was a co-screenwriter of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire which has been at the top of the box office the last two weeks and pulled in over $500 million worldwide.)

According to the Syd Field website, they list three places charitable donations can be made in Syd’s name:

P.S.  An interesting sidenote: Field was said to have written nine screenplays, none of which were produced. I have also written nine feature scripts, but have only had my short film scripts produced. I like to point out on this blog that there are several Oscar-winning & nominated screenwriters who have mentioned having no scripts made (or even sold in some cases)  after writing nine scripts including Oliver Stone (Platoon), Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air), and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine). So I think persistence is the bookend to talent. Arndt said well before his success that he made a commitment to be “a screenwriter for life.” (In his case, he wrote ten scripts before selling one.)

Related posts:

How To Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)
The Secret of Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Screenwriting Quote #144 (Syd Field)
Screenwriting Via Index Cards
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
‘Up in the Air’—Take 2 “I wrote 12 screenplays before I gave one to anybody.”—Sheldon Turner
Screenwriting from Pixar (Part 2) One of the all-time most popular posts on this blog. Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3 with the Pixar team, breaks down what he found in studying previous Pixar movies.

Scott W. Smith

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“The reason that I am a writer today is Shakespeare.”
Three-time Oscar nominated screenwriter John Logan (Hugo)

Unlock the Secret

Here it is, in just under 1,000 words, the secret of being a successful screenwriter. (From the lips of a bona fide and currently successful screenwriter.)

There was some disappointment yesterday when the Oscar nominations were announced. (Isn’t there always?) While there were some new faces, in general, many felt it was a lot of the usual suspects; Scorsese, Spielberg, Sorkin, etc.

It’s a little bit like the Super Bowl this year— The Patriots verses the Giants. Brady verses Manning. Haven’t we seen that before? In fact, we have—Super Bowl XLII back in 2008 when the New York Giants and Manning defeated a then undefeated New England Patriot team led by Brady. There is one simple reason why these those two quarterbacks are in facing each other in the Super Bowl again—they are two of the best quarterbacks in professional football.

Ditto that from a filmmaking perspective for Scorsese, Spielberg, Sorkin…Clooney, Pitt, Streep, Malick, Alexander Payne, and Woody Allen.

But there is one screenwriter that is not a household name outside of Hollywood (as someone like, say, Diablo Cody) who had a killer year in 2011—John Logan. Though a top A-list Hollywood screenwriter, I think by design, he flies a little under the radar for even the average moviegoer.

He’s nominated for writing the film Hugo. A film that led the field for the 2012 Oscars with a total of  11 nominations. But wait, there’s more! He also wrote Rango (featuring Johnny Depp) which received an Oscar nomination for Animated Feature Film. But wait there’s still more! He also wrote Coriolanus which was released in 2011 and picked up a BAFTA nomination for its director Ralph Fiennes. Yes, 2011 was a very good year for John Logan.

And it’s not like he’s a newcomer. He’s fifty-years-old and has been nominated for an Academy Award twice before; The Aviator (2004) and Gladiator (2000). On top of that his credits also include Any Given Sunday, The Last Samurai, and Sweeney Todd.

So here’s the really important question? What’s his secret? Glad you asked. John Logan has the answer;

“I graduated from Northwestern. I had no money. No one had any money. So I got a day job, shelving books at the Northwestern University Law Library. Every morning I would work from nine to five and shelve books, for ten years. Every single day for ten years. 

I lived in a tiny studio apartment where you could practically touch the walls. Outside the window was a place that installed car alarms, so at all hours it was car alarms. I lived on tuna fish, which I still will not eat to this day. I learned to de-bone a chicken because it was cheaper. And it was hard. And it was the greatest time of my life because I had no expectations of anything but learning how to do my job, which was to be a playwright….And my plays were put on in teeny little church basements or in back allies, in theaters that were condemned while the play was going on. It was fantastic. It was a very vibrant time in Chicago theater, and I loved it. I spent ten years learning how to do my job and it was fantastic.”

His writing eventually got noticed and he landed an agent in L.A., Brian Siberell at CAA. He didn’t have any assignments, but moved to L.A. and took nine months to write his first screenplay, which eventually became Any Given Sunday. But not, according to Logan, until he and Oliver Stone did a few re-writes;

“We did 26 drafts of Any Given Sunday, one right after another, so I learned everything about the form from him. He was patient. I’d go to his house, he’d say, ‘Pick up that Oscar, hold it, it’ll feel good, you’ll enjoy it.’ And then we’d work. Any Given Sunday, like all these monstrous big movies,  was hard to get made.”

In case you missed it—26 drafts. That’s after his spending nine months writing and re-writing it on his own. 26.

Still with me? Still want to be a screenwriter? If so, here’s the bomb. From the lips of John Logan, here’s the most powerful, and potentially life-changing advice as you’ll ever find for being a screenwriter;

“If you want to be a screenwriter—a successful screenwriter—here’s the secret…This is what you have to do, it’s great—don’t tell anyone. You have to read Hamlet, and you have to read it again, and you have to read it until you understand every word. And then you move onto King Lear. And then maybe treat yourself to Troilus and Cressida

And then you know what? Then you’re going to go back and read Aristotle’s Poetics until you can quote it. And then you’re going to read Sophocles, and then you’re going to read Ibsen, and then you’re going to read Tony Kushner, and then you’re going to read Chekhov.  You’re going to understand the continuum of what it is to be a dramatist, so you have respect for the form in which you are trying to function. So you understand what comes before you. Then, if you chose, watch a couple of movies.”

On Monday I was a guest speaker at a college and asked, “Is screenwriting hard?” I think Mr. Logan answers that question quite well.

Here are the CliffsNotes on John Logan’s path to successful screenwriting:
* Study acting and playwriting in well-established Midwestern college with successful writer/actor alumni
* Devour Shakespeare
* 10 years of starving and learning his craft (while working a non-creative day job)
* Writings (finally) get him an L.A. agent
* Sells script to Oliver Stone and then does 26 drafts
* Becomes a wealthy and in demand writer complete with a house in Malibu
* Receives several Oscar nominations

The above quotes from Logan are from his BAFTA talk on September 20, 2011. Below is the You Tube 2-minute teaser which as of this writing only has 339 views. (Link to PDF of full talk.) Seriously, if there is one post I’ve ever written that I think you should pass on to fellow writers via Twitter, Facebook, text, email, or whatever— it’s this post.

Special thanks to BAFTA and the BFI Screenwriters Lecture Series in association with the JJ Charitable Trust for the work they do.

Tomorrow we’ll be back looking at the continuum of film history. (Inspired by my seeing Hugo and The Artist earlier this year.)

P.S. As big a year as Logan has had in 2011, 2012 doesn’t look like it’s going to be bad for him either. On top of possibly winning his first Oscar, he’s credited on the soon to be released Lincoln directed by Spielberg, and is also credited on the new James Bond film Skyfall which is currently being filmed.

Update 1/26/11: Found this nice little nugget about Logan:

“What I value most of all is his extraordinary knowledge of everything under the sun — film, theater, painting, literature, world history, you name it. I can tell you he’s absolutely unique is that sense and it gives him a real advantage as a writer.”
Martin Scorsese
LA Times article

Related posts: Screenwriting da Chicago Way
Sam Shepard’s Start
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Screenwriting Quote # 43 (Aaron Sorkin)
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)

Screenwriting Quote #82 (John Logan)

Scott W. Smith

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According to IMDB Shane Salerno has co-written or re-written four films that have opened #1 at the box office; Armageddon, Breakdown, Alien vs. Predator, Shaft (though not always credited). He got a jump start in the business when he made an award winning documentary in high school that landed him on Larry King Live. That opened the door for him at age 19 as an apprentice on the TV program NYPD Blue.

Salerno likes to stress that he was raised by a single mother, didn’t come from money, and never went to college. He probably says those things to encourage you and help you avoid the tired excuses.

I found a couple quotes of his from Screenwriting Expo 3 held years ago which echos some favorite themes here on Screenwriting from Iowa, or wherever you live outside L.A.

“I just hope these people stay persistent because sometimes it’s six or eight scripts before they have that great script. All the people they admire went through these things and had adversity. Oliver Stone wrote 10 scripts before he wrote Platoon which got him all of his first jobs which got him Midnight Express and then he waited 10 years to get Platoon made...I attended all these (film industry) functions, the classes and the bookstores reading all the time. I have a 10,000-book library in my house from collecting books over the years. Young writers and beginning writers need to stay persistent and understand what the odds are against them succeeding.”
Shane Salerno
Interview With Screenwriter Shane Salerno
J. Freedman, FilmMakers.com

Related post: Beatles, Cody, King  & 10,000 Hours


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Most screenwriters don’t jump onto the world stage like Diablo Cody who won an Oscar for the first screenplay she ever wrote. More often than not they follow a 20 year journey like screenwriter John Logan who was 40 years old when he received an Oscar nominated for his part in writing Gladiator. 

Logan was born in 1961 and graduated in 1983 from Northwestern in Chicago. He started out with a desire to be an actor but fell in love writing when he took a playwriting class.  After Logan finished college, according to David S. Cohn “He stayed in Chicago, writing plays by night and working at Northwestern Law Library by day. Some fourteen years later he was solidly established in Chicago theater.”

His plays including “Never the Sinner” and “Hauptmann” won awards and he also acted on occasion. In 1996 he had his first TV movie produced (Tornado) and in 1999 approaching 40 years old he had his first feature film produced (Bats). A major break through occurred when Oliver Stone optioned his script Any Given Sunday in which Logan eventually earned a story credit and a lesson or two in screenwriting from Stone. 

From then on he left the tornados and bats behind and was in the big time.  In 2000 he received a shared screenwriting credit on Gladiator, in 2002 Star Trek; Nemesis,  in 2003 The Last Samurai, 2004 Aviator, and in 2007 Sweeney Todd.

“My learning curve on writing movies—which, believe me, is still going on, under the tutelage of people like Martin Scorsese—(has involved) the amazing slapping-the-head realization that Leo DiCaprio’s eyes communicate more than a paragraph I have written. Unlike writing for the stage, which is declamatory and presentational for an audience, in writing for a movie you’re really trying to bring the audience in to see, to experience the world through a character’s eyes. For me it’s always stunning to watch actors communicate so silently with one another, in a way that’s as powerful as the greatest line of dialogue I could possibly imagine writing.”
                                                        John Logan
                                                        Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen

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“I think what makes a film stick to the brain is the theme.”
William C. Martell

“There’s no place like home.”
Dorothy
The Wizard of Oz

There are many ways to attack writing your story and if you read enough of how writers ply their trade you will find quality writers who come from all kinds of angles; plot, character, situation. Another angle  is writing from theme. And even those who don’t start with theme have one emerge somewhere in the process.

Talking about theme can can get a little tricky but I like to say that it is not your story, but is what your story is really about. (Some also call this the controlling idea.) The story of Oliver Stone’s Scarface is a Cuban emigrant who rises from tent city to become a drug lord in Miami.  The theme of Scarface is the old standard crime doesn’t pay, or you could say, a life of excess and ruthless ambition will destroy you. Theme wise, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is in the same family as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Variations of theme can pop up anywhere in the story. At the beginning of another Stone film Wall St., the first words out of Bud Fox’s (Charlie Sheen) mouth when he’s asked how he’s doing is, “Any better and it’d be a sin.” Bud Fox does much better and it’s not only a sin but he has to go to prison.

Stone uses the wiser, older Lou (Hal Holbrook) to be the voice of reason as he tells Bud, “that’s the problem with money — it makes you do things you don’t want to do.” Another time he tells Bud, “Enjoy it while it last — cause it never does.” (That film takes place in ’85 but they would have been fitting words for all of us in ’05, and probably will be twenty years from now. Good themes are timeless and universal.)

Again the theme of Wall St. is crime doesn’t pay, or a life of excess will destroy you, or even “the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.” (Anyone working on a script for the Bernie Madoff story?)  The big difference between Scarface and Wall St. is Bud Fox doesn’t get killed at the end like Tony Montana. No, it’s more hopeful and Bud seems to have learned his lesson.

Speaking of hope … The Shawshank Redemption is all about hope and screenwriter & director Frank Darabont finds many ways to express that theme. On page 63 of the script Andy says while in prison “…there’s a small place inside of us they never lock away, and that place is called hope.”  Then there’s the most often quoted line from the film,”Get busy living, or get busy dying.” (Usually meant to get busy living.)

Some writers post the theme on the wall where they write to as a way to keep them centered and focused. On the front page of The Shawshank Redemption script are the words, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies…” — words that echo throughout the film. Words that stick with us long after we leave the theater.

The theme of hope is one of the major reasons people watch The Shawshank Redemption again and again. We may not ever have been in a state prison but we can identify with the situation as we all at times know what it’s like to live in our own personal prisons or at least know what it’s like to almost lose hope in difficult situations.

Theme pops up at the end of Braveheart as the last word that William Wallace (Mel Gibson) yells is “Freedom!” Or as the screenplay says, “FREEEEE-DOMMMMMM!” Throughout the film the fleshed out theme “Live free or die” is clear and that resonates here in the United States of America. (Heck,”Live Free or Die” is even the official motto of New Hampshire.)

Paul Schrader has said he wrote Taxi Driver by recognizing “a rip in the moral fabric of society” and used the metaphor of a taxi driver to represent loneliness.

Of course the danger with theme is writers can become heavy handed with it and audiences don’t like being beaten over the head with it. Films work best not as an intellectual exercise but as an emotional experience. (At least that’s traditionally been true in American cinema.) Audiences want to be sweep away by your story. They want to discover the theme not have it handed to them.

Theme is powerful stuff. So remember as you write, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Related posts: More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith


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“Ohh Nooo!!!”
Mr. Bill

“You could make a really good-looking movie right now for ten grand.”
Steven Soderbergh

The other day I saw Mr. Bill in a commercial and I realized I hadn’t seen him in many years. That took me back and I somehow I ended up looking at screenwriters from Louisiana because that’s where Mr. Bill’s creator Walter Williams is from and now lives.

The New Orleans native discovered Super-8 film when he was 17 years old. According to the Mr. Bill website he began making comedy films that were shown in local clubs and bars and he ended up with his own UHF TV show.

In the pre-You Tube days of 1975 Saturday Night Live put out a call for home movies and Mr. Bill debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1976 and ran until 1980. (Williams was eventually hired by Lorne Michaels as a staff writer.) The years ’76-80 were the early golden years of the program with a cast that included Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin and John Belushi.

Mr. Bill and his supporting cast Mr. Hands and Sluggo were quite an inspiration to me in those years because they were my high school years. One of my first films in Annye Refoe’s creative writing class featured my version of Mr. Bill. I don’t remember the story line but I do recall the obligatory destruction scene where Mr. Bill is standing in front of the door as the entire class leaves for the day flattening Mr. Bill. “Ohh, nooo!!! (My art teacher mom had to make a few Mr. Bill’s for the stunts.)

It was that class that set me on course for film school and an over 20 year career in production. Looking back on the years ’76-80 there was an eclectic mix of inspiration for a young creative mind:  Star Wars (77), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (77), David Lynch’s Elephant Man (80), Rocky (76), Raging Bull (80), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (77), Saturday Night Fever (77), Grease (78), Animal House (78),  Apocalypse Now (78) Kramer Vs. Kramer (79), Norma Rae (79), …And Justice for All (79), Breaking Away (79), Halloween (78)Being There (79), The Great Santini (79), Silent Movie (76), Silver Streak (76), Heaven Can Wait (78), Mad Max (79)  along with those movies I probably saw at the now defunct Prairie Lake Drive-In Theater–Smokey and the Bandit (77), Up in Smoke (78) and The Kentucky Fried Movie (77).

Mr. Bill is an American icon from the 70s and it’s nice to see him (and Williams) kicking around 28 years later. Williams has not only directed Mr. Bill in spots for Lexus, Burger King and Ramada Inn but in non-profit efforts to help restore the wetlands in New Orleans.

In 1978 there was a 15 year-old over in Baton Rogue, Louisiana who began to make animation and short narrative films (perhaps inspired by Mr. Bill’s success) who would go to make his mark in 1989 writing and directing and shooting sex, lies, and videotape. (Winner of the Palm d’Or at the ’89 Cannes Film Festival some credit the film with starting the modern day independent film movement.)

Steven Soderbergh went on to win an Oscar for best director for Traffic (2000). (That same year his Erin Brockovich was also nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards. That’s called having a great year.)

Soderbergh has done an amazing job of making big budget features with actors as such as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and then turning around and making a DV feature like Bubble with amateur actors in Ohio and West Virginia. (Though from what I’ve read, it’s not a favorable outlook on small town America.) His next two films, Guerrilla & The Argentine (on Che Guevara) were shot with the new revolutionary RED camera which shoots digitally –no film or tape. (Am I the only one who thinks it’s ironic to make a film on a Marxist leader with a camera called Red?)

Now that I think about it, do we really need two more films on Che Guevara? From a guy who was executive producer on Syriana? (Justifiably cynical at best, anti-American at worse.) It’s good to be reminded in film critic Andrew Sarris’ review of Syriana that despite this countries problems, ” The world is too full of people who’d kill us (Americans) for the shoes on our feet.”

We need counter-cultural writers and filmmakers who challenge us (even our capitalistic & materialistic faults that helped bring on the mortgage crisis), but do we need to make socialist, marxist, communist, dictators, and/or terrorist our heroes? (And I’d bet that there are more than one pro-Taliban scripts floating around Hollywood.)  But I do look forward to seeing what the RED camera footage looks like on the big screen and I’m sure Benicio Del Toro performance as Guevara will be worthy and increase sales of Che Guevara t-shirts.

Politics aside, Soderbergh is also unusual in that he is the director of photography on most of his films, and sometimes the editor as well.  I think he and multiple creative hat wearer Robert Rodriguez will be the inspiration and model for filmmakers of the future.

Anne Rice, novelist and screenwriter of Interview with the Vampire, was born in New Orleans which is where many of her stories take place. Novelist and essay writer Walker Percy (The Moviegoer, The Second Coming) spent his last forty plus years in Covington and most of his stories take place in Louisiana.

Ernest J. Gaines  whose A Lesson Before Dying was nominated a Pulitzer Prize and made into a TV movie is a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafaytte.

Other well-known writers with a Louisiana connection are Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes), Stephen Ambrose (writer of Band of Brothers and consultant on Saving Private Ryan), and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire).

John Kennedy Toole after years of publishers rejection won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize A Confederacy of Dunces over a decade after committing suicide. Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood) was born in New Orleans but belongs more to Alabama where he grew-up.

On the production side, Louisiana has been aggressive over the years in making movies in the state:
The Apostle
Southern Comfort
The Big Easy
Dead Man Walking
The Cincinnati Kid
Live and Let Die
King Creole
Tightrope
All the Kings Men

Even Shreveport is getting into the action according to an USA Today article last month titled “Hooray for movie locations outside Hollywood.” According to writer Alexandyr Kent, Shreveport has attracted “at least 18 projects in 2008, totaling more than $200 million in production budgets, and more than 80% of that will likely be spent in Louisiana.”

Shreveport is where Katie Holmes filmed Mad Money and where Josh Brolin was arrested in an incident outside a bar in July while there for filming Oliver Stone’s W. (No, Stone didn’t use a RED camera.)

To learn more about the film industry in Louisiana contact the  Louisiana Film & Television Office of Entertainment Industry Development and Louisiana Movies Blog.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
                                                         Gordon Gekko
                                                         Wall St. 

“Our entire economy is in danger.”
                                                         President George W. Bush
                                                         September 2008    

“When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod?”
                                                        
 Doc Hudson (voice of Paul Newman)
                                                          Cars       

                                                    

This is a look at two Hollywood icons. One fictitious, one real. One that’s alive and well and one that just died. 

But before we get to our heavyweight match-up let’s look at why I’ve put them in the ring together.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase made popular during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid. It’s always about the economy. Well, usually. Understanding economics can help your screenwriting greatly.  

First let me clarify that if you’re looking for “The Economics of Screenwriting” (how much you can get paid for screenwriting)  then check out Craig Mazin’s article at The Artful Writer

Few things are as primal in our lives as the economy. Wall Street’s recent shake-up joins a long list of economic upheaval throughout history. Just so we’re on the same page, the word economy flows down from the Greek meaning “house-hold management.” I mean it to include how people, businesses, villages, towns, cities and countries manage resources such as money, materials and natural resources. 

That is a wide path indeed. It’s why college football coach Nick Saban is on the cover of the September 1, 2008 issue of Forbes magazine as they explain why he is worth $32 million dollars to the University of Alabama. Why is the economy center stage once again in the most recent presidential election? Because… it’s always the economy, stupid.

Looking back you’ll see economics at the core issue of not only Enron, Iraq, 911 and the great depression but world wars, famines, and even the Reformation. I’m not sure how much further we can look back than Adam and Eve, but that whole apple/fruit thing in the garden had huge economic (as well as theological) ramifications. (In fact, it’s been said that there is more written in the Bible about money than about salvation.)    

There is no question that economics plays a key role in films as well — in production as well as content. On some level it’s almost always about the economy. This first dawned on me when I saw Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” for the first time and I realized the thread of money in it. Then I read Ibsen’s play  “An Enemy of the People” and noticed the economic theme there. They I started noticing it everywhere in plays, novels and movies.

From the mayor’s perspective the real danger of Bruce the shark in Jaws is he threatens the whole economy of the island town. In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney takes the boat back out because money is tight. Dustin Hoffman auditions as a women in Tootsie because he can’t get work as a male actor. Once you see this you see it everywhere in movies. 

Here is a quick random list where money, need to pay bills, lack of a job, greed and/or some form of economics play a key part in the story:

Chinatown
Scarface
Titanic
Sunset Blvd.
Tootsie
On the Waterfront
Wall St.
Cinderella 
Cinderella Man
Ragging Bull
Rocky 
Jaws
Jerry Maguire
It’s a Wonderful Life
Field of Dreams
Big
Greed
Body Heat
Falling Down
The Godfather
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 
The Jerk
Gone with the Wind
The Verdict 
Gone with the Wind 
The Grapes of Wrath
Risky Business
Do the Right Thing
Hoop Dreams 
Rain Man
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Gold Rush
Home Alone
Babette’s Feast
The Incredibles
Castway
Ocean’s Eleven
The Perfect Storm
Pretty Women
Trading Places
Indecent Proposal 
The Firm
American Ganster 
Rollover 

And it’s not limited to dramatic films. It’s hard to watch Hoops Dreams, Ken Burns’ The West, or any Michael Moore documentary and not connect it to economics.

So if you’re struggling with a story or struggling what to write, open up that door that explores economics. You don’t have to write The Wealth of Nations, but at least explore some aspect of it.  Join Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and other great writers who tackled that monster.

One thing living in the Midwest the past five years has done is help me understand how the world works economically. Because on a small level you see when John Deere is selling tractors locally, nationally and globally it helps the housing market here as the standard of living increases. The Midwest was the only place to to see homes appreciate last quarter. (Other parts of the country saw a 2 to 36% drop.)  But that wasn’t always the case.

When the farming crisis hit in the mid-eighties and John Deere (Cedar Valley’s largest employer) laid off 10,000 of it’s 15,000 employees and people were walking away from their homes. A film that came out of that era was the 1984 Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange film Country filmed right here in Black Hawk County. (By the way John Deere the company celebrates today 90 years being in this area. If you’ve ever eaten food they’ve had some role in it along the way.)

Three years later Oliver Stone’s film Wall St. came out the same year Black Monday occurred as stock markets around the world crashed. It was the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history since the great depression. (It only ranks #5 now.)  So here we are 20 years later still trying to figure it all out as two of the top ten largest stock market drops have been in the last two weeks. (Sept 29 update: Make that three of the top ten stock market drops have occurred in the last two weeks.)

(I’m sure Stone felt good when Wall St. first came out, kinda of like “I told you so.” But on the DVD commentary Michael Douglas said that he often told by stock brokers that they got into the business because of the Gekko character he played. Douglas said he doesn’t understand because he was the bad guy. But how many of those guys now in positions of leadership in the financial crisis had Gekko as their hero? To quote writer/professor Bill Romanowski one more time, “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”

The news will tell us what happened, critics will tell us why it happened, and it’s up to writers to tell us what it means. For years now I have noticed in many different states that more often than not when I go into a convenience store I see someone buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets and I ask myself, “What does this say about about the direction we are heading?”

Screenwriting is a place where we can pose those questions –and the playwright Ibsen said it was enough to ask the question.  So get busy asking questions. And if the economy gets worse remember this Carlos Stevens quote:

”Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”

On the opposite end of Hollywood from Gordon Gekko is Paul Newman. If there ever was an example of a talented actor/director and giving businessman/ social entrepreneur it was Ohio-born and raised Newman who passed away last night. Newman’s films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict will always be favorites of mine.

“I had no natural gift to be anything–not an athlete, not an actor, not a writer, not a director, a painter of garden porches–not anything. So I’ve worked really hard, because nothing ever came easily to me.”
                                                                                            Paul Newman 

 

(Newman’s Midwest roots extend to performing in summer stock theaters in Wisconsin and Illinois. And an Iowa connection is his last Academy Award nomination was for his role in The Road to Perdition which was based on the graphic novel by Iowa writer Max Allen Collins. And don’t forget that the Newman’s Own label was inspired by Cedar Rapids artist Grant Woods’ American Gothic.

I find it interesting that the three largest legendary film actors coming up in the 50s were all from the Midwest; Marlon Brando (Nebraska), James Dean (Indiana) along with Newman.)

Gavin the lawyer Newman played in the David Mamet scripted The Verdict says words that are just as relevant today as when they we spoken a couple decades ago: “You know, so much of the time we’re lost. We say, ‘Please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless…’ We become tired of hearing people lie.”

The world is upside down when we pay executives millions in golden parachutes when they drive a company into the ground. And that’s after they lied about the about the companies financial record along with their hand picked spineless board of directors. And after they’ve cashed in their own inflated stocks while the stockholders and employees are shortchanged.

But how nice to see a company like Newman’s Own whose entire profits from salad dressing and all natural food products are donated to charities. The company motto is “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.” To date Newman and his company have generated more than $250 million to thousands of charities worldwide. 

“What could be better than to hold out your hand to people who are less fortunate than you are?
                                                                                                      Paul Newman

P.S. Robert Redford had hoped he and Newman would be able to make one last film together and had bought the rights to Des Moines, Iowa born and raised Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods

“I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn’t decide if we were too old to do it,” said Redford. “The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.” — William Froug

                              

king-2006.png

Today marks the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  The civil rights leader and Baptist minister has left a lasting impression on the United States.

In 2006 I was doing a video shoot in Jackson, Mississippi and then had to drive to Atlanta for another shoot. When I’m on the road I try to make it as interesting as possible and I took a detour off the main highway so I could retrace the Selma to Montgomery march. (This shot was taken as I drove over the bridge in Selma, Alabama where the conflict known as Bloody Sunday occurred back in 1965.) 

selma-scottwsmith.png

Much of that region looks similar as it did in that day. In route to Atlanta I learned that King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, had died and there would be a public viewing in Atlanta that weekend. I figured that was a more than amazing way to finish my civil rights tour and I took the photo of King’s hearse outside the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’d like to address Martin Luther King Jr. from that perspective.

Let’s talk about the characters you chose to write about.

“Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.”                           Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay

It’s been said that drama favors the great saint or the great sinner.

We don’t have to go very far in theater, literature and film to see that this is true:

Hamlet
King Lear
Blanche DuBois
The Godfather
Scarlet O’Hara
James Bond
Mad Max
Lawrence of Arabia
Snow White
Norma Rae
William Wallace
Virgil Tibbs
Darth Vader
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Bonnie & Clyde

In fact, we might as well say that history favors the great saint or great sinner:

Nero
Lincoln
Grant
Washington
Kennedy
Stalin
Elvis
Ali
Nixon
Churchill
Hitler

It’s been said that the History Channel should be called the Hitler Channel because he plays such a key role in many programs.

Certainly the words saint and sinner are religious in nature so let’s look there to see if it favors the great saint and the great sinner as far as being remembered:

Adam & Eve
Cain & Abel
Moses
King David
Christ
Mary
Paul
Judas
Gandhi
Muhammad
Buddha
St. Augustine
Martin Luther
John Calvin
Mother Theresa
Jim Jones
Satan

How memorable are the characters you have created? Do you write characters that are as fascinating to watch as animals at the zoo? “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

That’s not to say that every character you write has to be as fascinating as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s Wall St. but your protagonist and antagonist must be somebody we are interested in investing two hours of hours lives. (They could be a shark, a robot, or a tornado as well, but whatever they are make them standout.) They don’t even have to shoot the bad guy at the end. Jake LaMotta in Ragging Bull is a despicable character but man is he ever an interesting case study.  

“I’m not interested in having to root for someone; I’m trying to get some sort of understanding as to what makes people tick and what they’re about. — Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct

If you do write about a common person it’s best if you put them in an extraordinary situation. (Like Miss Daisy & Hoke’s relationship in Driving Miss Daisy centered around a changing world, or Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest who must run for his life. And let’s not forget the quintessential common man Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman who is a mirror for all humanity that faces living, as Thoreau said, “lives of quite desperation.”  

The truth is it’s easier to write a strong bad guy than a strong good guy. For every Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) there are probably three Norman Bates (Psycho). (And actors love to play a good bad guy.) And basic dramatic structure dictates that when you throw your protagonist and antagonist into the ring it should be a fair battle. 

Look at Steven Spielberg films and you’ll find a long list of really bad people and creatures. 

And here’s a secret. Many great characters are a mix of saint and sinner. Isn’t there a Jekel and Hyde in all of us? Don’t we love to go to movies and watch characters wrestle with life, with themselves? (Heck, even Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell characters are really wrestling with life.)

Showing that struggle is part of what makes your characters engaging and memorable. It gives your characters dimension.

“It’s rare that you find three-dimensional characters in a writing sample, and when you do, it’s obvious that’s a writer you want to work with.”   Paramount Story Editor 

So as you hear the stories about Martin Luther King Jr. today ask yourself what was it about this man and his work that made him memorable. What obstacles did he have to overcome? How did his character respond to the set-backs? And how in the years after his death has his work been relevant in shaping America today?

The debates I’ve heard on the radio programs have given answers all over the map. Great characters are not lukewarm.

Martin Luther King Jr., by some accounts, was like Oskar Schindler, in that he was a flawed man who left a great legacy. His dream has not been realized, but it’s a good dream.  Remember that throughout history, ideas flow from the philosophers and prophets to the masses via artists.

“Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”  William Romanowski

Photos & Text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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