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Posts Tagged ‘Out of Africa’

“I guess every form of refuge has its price.”
Lying Eyes/Eagles
Written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey

“This idea of possession seemed to be organic to both the foreground story, and all of Karen’s relationships, and this background story of Colonialism.”
Director Sydney Pollack on the spine of Out of Africa

There are movies like Erin Brockovich and An Officer and a Gentleman that in the hands of different filmmakers would be soap operas and not films that receive Academy Award nominations.  Out of Africa belongs in the same category. A woman is attracted to a man, but since the feeling is not mutual, she settles for marrying the brother of the man she loves. As an older single woman (for the times) it was a form of refuge. And from there the story unfolds.

The line between a classic tragic love story and a melodramatic soap opera is often very thin. But in the hands of director Sydney Pollack and his talented team the 1985 movie Out of Africa was nominated for eleven Oscars and won a total of seven. On the DVD director’s commentary Pollack explains the difficulties of bringing the story to the screen;

“I’d known about this book Out of Africa for years, as almost everyone in Hollywood had, and I was not the first director to try make it. Several directors had attempted it and there were several screenplays. When I first went and looked into the vaults at the studio there were at least five other screenplays that had been attempted. The difference we had was we had Judith Thurman’s extraordinary biography, Isak Dinesen The Life of a Storyteller to work with.  And that gave us something that none of the other filmmakers had the use of.

Kurt Luedtke who wrote the screenplay had written Absence of Malice, a film the two of us did earlier, and he always wanted to try this and I warned him that it had been attempted before. I think part of what helped him to lick it was the fact that he was new to the form and absolutely not intimidated by the fact that it had been tried so many times before.

And the combination of his grasp of the material and his perceptions and then the insights into her life that Judith Thurman gave us at least allowed us to get  a screenplay out of it.

The big problem in getting this book to the screen was the fact that there was no conventional narrative in her book. It’s really a pastoral.* A beautiful formed memoir that relies on her prose style and her sense of poetry and her ability to discover large truths in very small, specific details. So it’s very difficult and illusive material to base a screenplay on.”

To keep track of all of the writers and literary influences on Out of Africa here is an overview:

1) Karen Blixen, Lived the story and wrote the books (as Isak Dinesen) Out of Africa, Shadow’s on the Grass and Letters from Africa
2) Judith Thurman spent seven years writing and researching her book, Isak Dinesen The Life of a Storyteller
3) Erol Trzebinski, Silence Will Speak
4) Kurt Luedtke, Out of Africa script (working with Pollack), several screenplay drafts over several years
5) David Rayfiel, Who did credited screenwriting on Pollack’s
Three Days of the Condor, and uncredited work on Pollack’s The Electric Horseman and Absence of Malice, also did uncredited writing on Out of Africa

There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but the solo screenplay title card and the Oscar (Best Writing, Screenplay Based from Another Medium) went to Luedtke.

“We spent about two years trying to find what I always call a spine or an armature** of this piece. Sort of trying to distill the idea  down to one or two clear sentences that could be a guidepost. What is it really about? And we finally settled on possession. Freedom versus obligation. If I say I love you, what price am I expected to pay?… How much of myself do I have to give up? It’s always important for me to be able describe the heart of a film in some simple and evocative way so that I can sort of test each scene and character and development against that idea.”
Director Sydney Pollack

* Pastoral; Of, relating to, or being a literary or other artistic work that portrays or evokes rural life, usually in an idealized way
** Armature; framework


Scott W. Smith

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“Find a bright spot and clone it. That’s the first step to fixing everything from addiction to corporate malaise to malnutrition. A problem may look hopelessly complex. But there’s a game plan that can yield movement on even the toughest issues. And it starts with locating a bright spot — a ray of hope.”
Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard

A good thing about the book Tales from the Script is it shows bright spots. Screenwriters who have found success of some measure. And it also offers a ray of hope because any writer who has not had their day in the sun can read the common ongoing struggles that screenwriters have not only starting out (“I thought, ‘I will never get a movie made, ever.'”–Nora Ephron) but sustaining a career (“Every career is filled with peaks and valleys.”–Frank Darabont).

The one thing that shines clearly when you read about these screenwriters is that making a living as a screenwriter is hard work.

“I have written a lot of screenplays, but only two of them have actually been made into films—the ones that came directly from me, only two in sixteen years. My job, as a screenwriter working in Hollywood, is to give the producer and the studio what they want. Whether they make the movie or not, that’s in someone eles’s hands.”
Antwone Fisher

“Sydney Pollack had just done Toostie and Out of Africa, he had won Academy Awards, and he was just one of our most important directors. I said to him, ‘It must get easier for you.’ He gave me a look like I was a fool. It’s never easier. Every single movie is just as hard.”
Mark D. Rosenthal

Where’s that ray of hope? Obviously there has to be some joy in the journey. The small breakthroughs you get in your own writing and the encouraging words from someone who’s read your work (even if it’s just a friend). The times when you know you not only have a good idea but a good script.

The ray of hope is that ever writer in Tales from the Script was once an unproduced screenwriter.  The hope is that your next script (or even an older script) is optioned, and that your script is made into a film, and that that film wins an audience, and ideally after all of those things happen that it also becomes an award winner.

That’s the hope that every writer (from the beginner to the Academy Award-winner) has in common.

And perhaps the biggest hope for writers (after you’ve read all the war stories in Tales from the Script) is that people are always hungry for a good story.

Scott W. Smith

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Indiana’s been in the news the last couple weeks. First there’s the new Indiana Jones film that’s on top at the box office, there was the Indy 500 this past weekend, and then I saw the front page of New York Times yesterday morning and learned that director and Indiana native Sydney Pollack died Monday.

It seems like a fitting time to take a road trip to the Hoosier State. Though Pollack was not a screenwriter it’s worth paying tribute to this giant of a filmmaker who knew how to tell a story.

Before he headed to New York after high school in South Bend to study acting with Sanford Meisner he had spent his life in Indiana.  From acting in theater, to directing TV shows, to directing over 40 feature films Pollack was unusually gifted. I was a long time fan of Pollack’s and he directed some of my favorite films:

They Don’t Shoot Horses, Do They? The Way We Were Jeremiah Johnson Three Days of the Condor The Electric Horseman Absence of Malice Tootsie Out of Africa The Firm Sketches of Frank Gehry 

He was a two time Oscar winner (Out of Africa & Tootsie) both of which films also won Best Picture Oscars.  Another Indiana native producer/director Robert Wise also had won two best director Oscars for his films West Side Story & The Sound of Music. He also won two more Best Picture Oscars for producing both movies.

And to challenge Nebraska’s cool actor category (which produced both Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando), Indiana lays claim to Steve McQueen and James Dean. The list of entertainment icons from Indiana also includes Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), comedian Red Skelton, song writer Cole Porter, and TV host David Letterman.

Moving to the writing side, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis. Glenn Berggoetz writes, “It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis that Vonnegut gained his first writing experience. During his last two years there he wrote for and was one of the editors of the Shortridge Daily Echo, which was the first high school daily newspaper in the country. At this young age Vonnegut learned to write for a wide audience that would give him immediate feedback, rather than just writing for an audience of one in the form of a teacher.” (Note also that Vonnegut also honed his skills at the Iowa Writers Workshop.) 

Theodore Dreiser from Terre Haute wrote the novel An American Tragedy that was made twice made into a film including the 1951 George Stevens’ version (A Place in the Sun) staring Elizabeth Taylor that won 6 Academy Awards. It is a film that Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) said if you wanted to learn how to direct you should watch 50 times.

To counter Dreiser’s somber look at the dark side of America let’s look at another film with Indiana roots. Playwright and screenwriter Steve Tesich was born in Yugoslavia, raised in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University. He won an Oscar for his screenplay Breaking Away based and filmed in Bloomington, Indiana and that became the 1979 sleeper hit staring Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Chrisopher Plummer and James Earle Haley.

Tesich’s script came at a time before we were jaded by sports stories and was released just three years after Rocky. The film captures much of what I’m trying to write about in Screenwriting from Iowa. That is that there are stories to tell beyond Hollywood, and people all over the world need encouragement to tell those stories.

Frank Deford reviewed Breaking Away for Sports Illustrated in 1979:

“It is the rare film that has understood the essence of sport so well as Breaking Away; or understood summer or growing up; or, for that matter, America and Americana. This joyous story about four young A&P cowboys and a bicycle race in Bloomington, Ind. cost a measly $2.4 million to make but it is better by far than all the ballyhooed, star-studded epics. Steve Teisch’s screenplay is impeccable; Peter Yates’ direction is nearly magic in its command and sensitivity; and the cast is perfectly chosen, an ensemble always in character. And if all this were not enough, Breaking Away also evokes a spirit these times yearn for.

“I’m sure that Teisch and Yates didn’t set out to wave the flag, but there is something special here… the wonderful thing about Breaking Away is that you leave the theater very proud that America has both an Indiana and a Hollywood.”

TV and film director David Anspaugh was born in Decatur, Indiana and also studied at Indiana University before going on to win two Emmy’s producing and directing Hill Street Blues and the quintessential Indiana film Hoosiers.

Matt Williams from Evansville, Indiana is best known as the creator and executive producer of Roseanne and co-creator of Home Improvement. But he also wrote for The Cosby Show and produced the Mel Gibson film What Women Want. He graduated with a theater degree from the University of Evansville and was awarded an honorary doctorate from there in 2003.

And the newest up and coming writer/ director from Indiana is James C. Strouse (from Goshen, Indiana) whose latest film Grace is Gone won the critics awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. His first film Lonesome Jim starred Casey Affleck and was directed by Steve Busemi. 

But I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana who seems to embody a Midwestern spirit in everything he does. Going way back into the early 80’s with prefect sing-a-long songs Jack & Diana (“Two American kids growing up in the Heartland”), Pink Houses and Small Town to his classic thought-provoking album Scarecrow that addressed the farm crisis in the 80’s, to his more recent Our Country. Mellencamp embraced his Midwestern roots and we were better for it.

While his film connections are usually on the soundtracks of films he did star and direct the 1992 film Falling from Grace. Mellencamp was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Indiana University awarded him an honorary doctorate of Musical Arts.

On Sunday I spent a several hours driving on the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinenental highway in the country. (It goes through both Iowa and Indiana. And paid my first ever $4.+ per gallon for gas.) It’s hard for me to make that kind of trip and not think of Mellencamp’s lyrics, “Ain’t that America Something to See.”

It’s something to write about, too.

P.S. Did you know that in the original Indy script that it was Indiana Smith? Doesn’t have the same ring does it?  (Spielberg thought it sounded to much like Nevada Smith, a 1966 Steve McQueen film.) And isn’t it hard to see Tom Selleck as Indy, who Spielberg originally wanted but couldn’t get because of Selleck’s commitment to Magnum P.I.?

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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