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Posts Tagged ‘Oscar award’

“I can make three bad movies and still make movies.”
Janusz Kaminski on the career longevity of a cinematographer verses a director

How does one go from being born in Ziebice, Dolnoslaski, Poland to being the Oscar-winning right hand cinematographer of director Steven Spielberg?

The short answer is talent and hustle.

At least that’s what I gathered from reading and watching various interviews with Janusz Kaminski who shot Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, War Horse, Lincoln, Munich as well as other Spielberg and many other non-Spielberg projects.

Kaminski also used his weakness to his advantage. Because he was an immigrant to the United States he felt like English as a second language might create some communication barriers if he chose to be a director or writer while in film school so he focused on shooting.

And shooting a lot. While a student at Columbia College Chicago (82-87) he says he shot between 30-40 student films. That’s a lot of films. Especially since that was back in the day where I imagine we’re talking narrative and documentary films actually shot on film not You Tube-ready videos that are shot and edited in a day.

Being foreign he said also made him strong on non verbal storytelling. Another advantage Kaminski had growing up in Poland during a communistic regime is the only American films he was allowed to see where ones that showed a disillusioned America—meaning a heavy dose of 70s films like Taxi Driver and The Panic in Needle Park.

(An America he says he didn’t find when he first came to the United States and still hasn’t seen. When he arrived in the USA the country was in the middle of a fitness craze.)

He made a demo reel from his student films and landed an independent feature film in Hollywood. He also spent a year at AFI one year and started working for Roger Corman’s company New Horizons shooting what he says were exploitation films and silly movies with men running around in rubber suits and crime suspense.

And here’s one more little gem I can pass on that Kaminski did to set himself a part from everyone else. He said he once interned on a film shot by John A. Alonzo that starred Tom Hanks.

I think that film was Nothing in Common (1986) which makes sense because I believe that was shot in Chicago during the time Kaminski was going to college. But he didn’t take the formal route to get the internship. He simple saw a film being shot, jumped a fence introduced himself to Alonzo. As Christopher Lockhart has said— when you see a shot take it.

You can bet he learned a thing or two about lighting and running a crew from the man who was the Oscar-nominated director of photography on Chinatown.

It was the TV movie Wildflower (1991) Kaminski shot that caught Spielberg’s eye and led to their longtime beginning with Class of ’61 followed by Schindler’s List (1993).  Schindler’s List by the way takes place in Poland during World War II. Circle of life stuff.

Both Spielberg and Kaminski won Oscars for their work on that movie.

P.S. These days–as was true when I was in film school— it’s easy to see people getting caught up in technical jargon when discussing filmmaking. I love Kaminski’s answer to a question just a couple years ago at a film festival.

Question:- When you’re looking at an image do you go with the philosophy of adding light to get the image or subtracting to take away to get the image?
Janusz Kaminski“I have no idea…I don’t know how it happens.”

It’s all about capturing the magic. And you do that making film after film…and maybe jumping a fence or two.

Related Post:
Ida’ (My favorite film this year was shot in Poland.)
Cinematography Cheats #1 Kaminski’s work on Jerry Maguire

P.S. Countdown to 2000th special post on January 22, 2015—16 posts.

Scott W. Smith

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“I formed my notions of America in Yugoslavia by watching films. And most of the films were westerns so therefore when I landed [in the USA] I honestly expected—maybe if not John Wayne, a close friend of his to be there on a horse.”
Screenwriter Steve Tesich (The World According to Garp, American Flyers)

I don’t know how many screenwriters David Letterman has had on his show over the years but on that short list is Oscar winning screenwriter Steve Tesich (1942-1996).

Tesich was born in Yugoslavia but immigrated to the United States when he was 14. His family settled in East Chicago, Indiana (the Hoosier state) back in its heavy industrial days when soot filled the skies daily.

He did his undergraduate work at Indiana University, and according to Wikipedia he was actually an alternate rider for the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity team that rode in the Little 500 bike race that is featured in the movie Breaking Away, which was based on his screenplay.

And because I’m always interested in story origins, this is the beginning of the creative process that lead Tesich to his first produced film—an eight year journey from script to screen—and his only Oscar Award:

“I ran into a guy [in Bloomington] who was doing his Italian fantasy. I was riding a bike— I hear an Italian opera being sung behind me and I turn around and there’s this guy climbing a hill singing. He starts talking Italian to me, and being Yugoslavian and knowing how tough it is on foreigners I really have pity on the guy. For a week I try to tell him what America is like, what it’s like to be in Indiana and all this and I find out he’s from Indianapolis [Indiana]. He grew up there and this whole fantasy was just kind of a daydream.” 

Yes, inspiration and story ideas can be found in unusual places all over the world. Like Stephen King says, you have to be like a paleontologist looking for bone fragments in the ground.

Related Posts:
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Where Are The Wild Men?
Stagecoach Revisited 2.0
‘Breaking Away’—Like a Rock
Screenwriting Quote #55 (Stephen King) “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
The King of Cool’s Roots Steve McQueen was from Indiana. James Dean, too. (John Wayne, now he was from Iowa.)

Scott W. Smith

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“I haven’t seen too many films since Blade Runner (1982) to be honest with you.”
Director William Friedkin in a 2012 interview

William Friedkin tells of something he did on the road to becoming an Oscar-winning director (The French Connection) that I imagine a small percentage of people who want to be filmmakers have ever done—watch one movie five times in a single day. That one film changed his life. But before I tell you which film that is, let me give you a quick recap of the skills he acquired before he directed his first feature film in his early thirties.

Friedkin was the son of Russian immigrants and grew up in a one-room apartment in the north side of Chicago, but “didn’t know we were poor until I left high school.” He left high school without a degree, and got a job in the mail room at a local television station. He made his way into production and worked on 2,000 local tv programs. His Tv work included even thing from kids programs to the documentary The People vs. Paul Crump (1962).

Citizen Kane is the film that made me want to become a filmmaker. I saw it when I was 20-years-old. I had no idea what I wanted to do. And somebody told me there was this really interesting old film playing at the Surf Theatre in Chicago on Dearborn and Division. And I trusted this guy’s opinion so I went there on a Saturday at noon, and I left the theater at midnight. I saw it five straight times. Whatever that was, that was what I wanted to do. To me it’s the greatest film ever made, because it synthesizes everything that was found in the past, and it points the way to the future.”
William Friedkin
Fade In/William Friedkin’s Favorite Films of all Time

P.S. While I don’t know how many times Friedkin has seen Citizen Kane, I imagine it’s over 50 times. I saw a list recently where he talked about 10 of his favorite films—all of which he’d seen at least 50 times each. Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch the George Stevens’ classic A Place in the Sun 50 times.

Related posts:

Orson Welles at USC in 1981 (part 1)
Study the old masters.’—Martin Scorsese
Orphan Characters (Tip #31)
‘Stagecoach’ Revisited  “[Citizen Kane director Orson] Welles not only watched the film 40 times, but when once asked who his favorite three film directors where said, ‘John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.'”
Screenwriting Quote #38 (Orson Welles) And the early roots of Welles who also had a connection to the greater Chicago area.
Screenwriting da Chicago Way (2.0)

Scott W. Smith

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“[Schindler’s List] was one of the most beautiful scripts I ever read. But you know, it was only after the film came out — 21 years ago this year — that we saw the really profound effect it had on audiences. And continues to have.”
Liam Neeson (who played Oskar Schindler) in an interview this month with Stephen Whitty.Oskar Schindler

“I don’t think there was any anticipation that Schindler’s List would become a big film, which is why they would entrust it to me. I remember quite vividly reading it for the first time, getting about two-thirds of the way through it, and praying there would be a decent third act. The thing I grabbed onto—which affected almost ever scene in it—was the idea of a man doing something that went against everything he thought he wanted. A reluctant hero.”
Oscar-winning Screenwriter Steven Zaillian of Schindler’s List
(The 7 time Oscar-winning 1993 movie Schindler’s List was based on the book with the same title written by Thomas Keneally)

It’s worth noting that while Oskar Schindler was a reluctant hero, he was still an active protagonist. Here’s a fitting quote from the post Making Dramatic Writing Dynamic: “Protagonists have to be active, they’re making their own fate all the time.”—Screenwriter Robin Swicord (Little Women)

And speaking of active protagonists, Steven Spielberg said the Oscar he won for directing Schindler’s List was not only his first Oscar win (more than 20 years after his first Oscar nomination), but the first Oscar statue he’d actually ever held in his life. Even for the great ones it takes a little time some times.

P.S. A few years after Schindler’s List was in theaters I had the opportunity to videotape two interviews of Holocaust survivors for the foundation that Steven Spielberg started (now known as the USC Shoah Foundation) to help preserve the stories of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. One of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had working in production.

steven-spielberg-dsc_0503-version-2

Related Post:
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO (?) From a screenwriting perspective Schindler’s List answers clearly Mamet’s first two questions every screenwriter should ask; Who want what and what happens if they don’t get it.
What’s at Stake? (tip #9)
Goal. Stakes. Urgency.” (Tip #60)
What’s at Stake? (David Wain) The stakes don’t always have to be life or death to be compelling.

Scott W. Smith

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“I had dabbled with the idea of (becoming a writer), but I had never actually attempted anything. I mean, maybe once or twice I had tried to write a sitcom script or something like that, but again the discipline thing was a problem. And then one night, I was coming home from a shoot (working on music videos), and I had just gotten off the freeway and I pulled up in front of my house and parked the car. And I turned off the engine, and I thought, two women go on a crime spree. That was about December ’97. And I just sat there in the car because of that phrase. I liken it to being hit in the head with a two-by-four. That’s what it felt like…I finally decided I was going to write a screenplay…Probably a total of four people knew that I was doing this and they were all sworn to secrecy. I didn’t want to walk around telling people,’Yeah I’m writing a screenplay,’ because I knew I’d never finish it, I knew I would just get nothing but negative feedback. It seems people are always so willing to believe that you’re going to fail. Especially with somebody who didn’t go to film school, I was kind of there by luck. There were certainly people who would say, ‘Well, what the hell do you know about it. You didn’t go to AFI.’ I just decided to not open myself up to that. And the challenge to me was to just finish the screenplay; that was all I was trying for. I didn’t think about selling it. I didn’t think about anything.”
Callie Khouri interviewed in American Screenwriters
Khouri finished that screenplay, Thelma & Louise, in six months and it not only sold and got produced—but in 1992 she won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for that script and it would later be named by the Writers Guild of America as #72 on their list of 101 Greatest Screenplays.  (Ahead of The Verdict, Witness, Rocky, Do the Right thing, and The Grapes of Wrath.)
Like Diablo Cody, Khouri proved that you don’t always have to go to film school, have written 6-10 scripts…or be a man to make a huge impact.

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John Patrick Shanley won an Oscar in 1988 for writing the script for Moonstruck. He started as a playwright and has written more plays than screenplays. But he’s found success in both worlds. His play Doubt, A Parable won the Tony Award and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2005. And he’s nominated this year for adapting Doubt into a screenplay, and he also directed the movie.  And he has Emmy & Golden Globe nominations as well. And just so you know he isn’t batting 1,000., he also has a Razzie nomination (worst screenplay) for his script for the movie Congo.

I guess one of the biggest things I’d say about the difference between theater writing and film writing is that film writing requires endless structure. It’s just all about structure. And the way you do it is sort of these rectangular building blocks—the movie frame. And you build scene after scene into this burgeoning collage that you try to get moving in the same direction like a freight train to this inevitable conclusion. And you want to watch the pace of that build throughout so that you get that narrative pull.”
                                                                            John Patrick Shanley 
                                                                            Moonstruck DVD commentary 

P.S. Worldwide Congo made $152 million at the box office. 

 

Scott W. Smith


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“I’d wake up at night with the smell of the ball park in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet… The thrill of the grass.”
Field of Dreams
Shoeless Joe Jackson

Yesterday I wandered over the Iowa state line into Omaha, Nebraska to watch the final game of the 2008 College World Series. The Georgia Bulldogs played the Fresno State Bulldogs.

That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen two teams play that have the same mascot. What are the odds?Probably a little worse than getting a script you’ve written made. Since every screenwriter is an underdog there are a few things every screenwriter can learn from the game of baseball.

In the end the Bulldogs from California won the school’s first ever baseball national championship. One sports announcer proclaimed it “one of the greatest stories in sports history.” I don’t know about that but those Fresno St. ‘dawgs were true underdogs. They lost 12 of their first 20 games and finished the regular season only 32-27 but somehow won when they needed to and ended up in the College World Series where they were ranked dead last.

No team had ever come from the last ranked team to win a national championship…until last night. As I said about this year’s Super Bowl, if it had of been a movie you would have said it was full of cliches. But everyone has a dream.

Before we get to screenwriting I want to go back to 2003 where Chris Moneymaker changed the face of poker playing when playing in his first tournament he began as an unknown and turned $39 into a $2.5 million winning purse.

“I got lucky along the way. I also bluffed a lot during this tournament, but somehow I got away with it.” 
Chris Moneymaker

The screenwriting equivalent may be Diablo Cody who won an Oscar for her first film script Juno. These are rare cases, and it is important to have a real understanding of how difficult it is to have a screenwriting career or even get one of your scripts made. But it’s also important to know that Hollywood needs good scripts because the Hollywood system needs good movies.

I found this little nugget of information in Joe Eszterhas’ The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood:
Director Phillip Noyce: “I realized that the Hollywood system–based as it is on the employment of branch offices all over the world promoting and selling movies–is totally dependent on a continual flow of product, and it’s been set up to promote that product into the hearts and minds of people all over the world. In essence, movies represent marketing opportunities for Hollywood.” 

That should encourage you in your writing. And keep in mind:

“The only essential requirement to launch a successful screenwriting career is a terrific script.”
                                                                                     Cynthia Whitcomb

The Fresno St. baseball team, Chris Moneymaker, and Diablo Cody are a group of talented people who were all considered underachivers before their breakthroughs. And what do you do until that breakthrough? You keep dreaming and you write scripts and continue to find key people to read your scripts.

When former baseball players Logan Miller and Noah Miller dream to play professional baseball failed they turned their attention to screenwriting and filmmaking. Once they wrote their first script they cornered actor Ed Harris at a film festival where he was receiving an award and he agreed to read the script. Last year that film, Touching Home (which they also directed and star in) was completed with Ed Harris playing the Logan brothers father.

Editor Walter Murch said this about the film:  “With its crisp photography, concise editing and excellent use of sound, I found Touching Home to be a thoughtful and emotional exploration of the forgotten corners of the American Dream.”

Driving back home today I made a slight detour to Winterset, Iowa which is where The Bridges of Madison County was shot and where John Wayne was born in a house not far from where Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep did scenes together in downtown Winterset.

And if that’s not enough, George Washington Carver lived in Winterset for a while where the former slave was encouraged to attend college which he did, both Simpson College and Iowa State Agricultural College where in 1891 he became their first black student and would go one to earn a Master’s degree before going on with many agricultural discoveries.

George Washington Carver and John Wayne are two more examples of coming from a small town before finding global success.

P.S. I noticed on TV’s at the stadium that Orel Hershiser was calling the game on ESPN. In my Cedar Falls office I have a signed baseball from Hershiser for a project I helped produce for his retirement celebration. It’s also worth noting, before Hershiser became a World Series MVP he played minor league ball in Clinton, Iowa and when he played for the LA Dodgers manger Tommy Lasorda gave him the nickname “Bulldog.”

I really don’t make this stuff up, you know?

 

Word and Photos ©2008 Copyright Scott W. Smith

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