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“I never saw myself as a sitcom person, but I was waiting tables and I was like I have to figure out something and I wrote this script that was super dark, but when I put it into Charlie’s [Charlie Day] hands or Glenn’s [Glenn Howerton] they made it funny and I realized this could actually be a sitcom. But the truth is I never had any aspirations to get into comedy writing at all.”
Writer/actor Rob McElhenny on the initial concept for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

The following exchange from Scriptnotes podcast #299 lasts less than a minute, but it belongs in the Scriptnotes hall-of-fame. And it’s the drum I’ve been beating in the 9+ years of writing this blog. And a classic example of “do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Screenwriter Dana Fox: What was your trajectory to get you where you are right now?

Rob McElhenny : Well, mostly desperation. I was working in every bar and restaurant in New York City and I was just acting—or I was auditioning, and not getting any jobs, and complaining about every script that I read. So I was encouraged by my agent to stop bitching and write something for myself. I got the Syd Field screenwriting books, and William Goldman [Adventures in the Screen Trade] and just tried to understand [the basic principles of writing]. The first thing I wrote was not a comedy at all, it was really super dark. Really dark because that was a time in my life when I was very dark. 

That script got optioned and led to Rob working with Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) for six months. And while had to be an incredible opportunity itself, took Rob further into the deep forest as the project fell apart and ultimately didn’t get made. Rob stopped writing and decided it was time to leave New York.

Rob McElhenny (con’t): I moved out to Los Angeles and I decided to write again. I said I want to write something very simple so I don’t have to give it to somebody else. I want to go shoot it myself. So I wrote a little short film that was very dark but I brought it to my friends Glenn and Charlie and they thought it was funny so I just hitched my wagon to those two and held on for dear life. 

I didn’t really know anything about filmmaking, but I didn’t know anything about writing I just got all the books and watched as many movies as I possibly could. And so I just went to Best Buy—I didn’t have any money, but I got one of their credit cards with the high interest rates and I bought a prosumer camera and I got Final Cut [editing software] and learned how to cut and we shot it and I cut it together—and it was terrible. Like terrible, terrible. But I realized it was terrible and I re-wrote it and I shot it again. That was also terrible. And then we shot maybe three or four iterations and then I realized, wait, maybe this isn’t so bad. 

It not only wasn’t so bad, but it was so good that it paved the way to co-creating It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (with Glenn Howerton) which is now in its 12th season, and if it continues through its contract will end up being the longest running live action narrative TV program in the history of television. (Surpassing The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriest which ran for 14 seasons.)

Scott W. Smith

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I’m certainly not an expert on movies that feature architecture but the topic does interest me and I did find an interesting article called Ten films that every architect must watch. Half of the films on the list I have not only not seen but have never heard of before. Films from Poland, UK, Italy, Japan, France, Germany. I see a new world opening up.

1. The Fountainhead
2. Metropolis
3. Blade Runner
4. Mon Oncle
5. Playtime
6. My Architect
7. Tango
8. Castle in the Sky
9. Belly of an Architect
10. Star Wars series

Architects and architecture are often fitting metaphors for screenwriters and filmmakers because it exposes the world we build or want to build.

As far back as the Bible there is this question asked: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”

Harrison Ford longed to build his uptopia in The Mosquito Coast (screenplay by Paul Schrader from Paul Theroux’s book). Adam Sandler is an architect in the movie Click and faces a life that he has built. Henry Ford’s character in 12 Angry Men was an architect. Over 100 years ago Ibsen wrote the tragic play The Master Builder. And most recently Inception written and directed by Christopher Nolan that features some mindbending architecture and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as features Ellen Page as architect/grad student who creates subconscious dreamscapes. (For what it’s worth, I have read that females architects are only in the 10-13% range of all architects in North America.)

I’m sure there are many other noteworthy films that feature architects and architecture and fell free to comment on some of your favorites.

Scott W. Smith

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“The fact is, when I wrote Juno—and I think this is part of its charm and appeal—I didn’t know how to write a movie.”
Diablo Cody

Today marks the two and a half-year anniversary of starting this blog— Screenwriting from Iowa. A blog that got its start after seeing the movie Juno and reading the articles about screenwriter and University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody who jump started her career by blogging. Two and a half years ago blogging was still pretty much a mystery to the masses. Just put your stuff out there and see what happens was Cody’s encouragement to anyone who would listen.

She walked away with an Oscar in 2008 and later that year I won a Regional Emmy in Advanced Media for Screenwriting from Iowa. (Juno Has Another Baby.) It was all the sweeter that I received the Emmy in Minneapolis where Cody happened to write Juno.

My goal with this blog from the start has been to encourage and inspire writers and filmmakers around the country to hone their craft as they pursue writing for Hollywood, ultra low-budget filmmaking, or something in between. Along the way I’ve also shown writers in Los Angeles who write stories that take place far from the shadow of the Hollywood sign. (Usually, because they came from outside L.A. originally, or they are adapting a novelist who set a story in their neck of the woods.)

Cody was not the first writer outside L.A. to breakthrough, nor will she be the last. But I believe she is the poster child for screenwriters originally from outside L.A. who desire to write something so original that it leap frog’s the zillions of other more experienced screenwriters. Really, how many screenwriters does the public know by name?

That doesn’t mean that she is loved and adored by everyone. I’m sure she even understands some of the Cody backlash, because how many people walk away with an Oscar on a first script that they were just flirting around writing?

“I think I went into (writing Juno) as an experiment; I didn’t really have a whole lot invested in it. It was more something I just wanted to try. I had no idea throughout the whole process that this would ever wind up being a produced screenplay or that this would ever end up being cast with these amazing actors. There was absolutely no pressure on me because I was just sitting in Minnesota writing for my own edification. So I think that was freeing in a lot of ways.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

That has to make all of those screenwriting gurus cringe. And tick off a few writers who have been at it five, 10, 20 years. And if that doesn’t, this will:

“I guess ignorance is bliss is the best way of putting it. [laughs] The only thing I did was I went to Barnes & Noble and bought the shooting scripts for a couple of movies that I liked so I could see how they looked on the page and that gave me a little structural guidance. but that was all I did. ”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

But what about all those screenwriting classes and workshops you’re supposed to take and all those books on screenwriting you’re supposed to read, on top of the years of writing screenplays? Nah, remember Cody was just flirting with screenwriting. Juno was her first attempt and she cranked it out in six weeks at a Starbucks inside a Target store in the Minneapolis suburb of Crystal. Was it a flawless, script? Perfectly tuned like the screenwriting gurus tell you it has to be? Not according to Cody.

“When we sent that screenplay out it was riddled with typos and formatting errors because I had no idea what I was doing. [laughs] My manager was so stunned that I had turned out something vaguely coherent that he just said, ‘Let’s just throw it out there and see if anybody likes it.’ We didn’t really obsess; I think it was just a case of expectations being so low that there was not a lot of polishing and spit-shinning going on.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

It would be easy to just say Cody got lucky. That would be a mistake. How did she get a manager in the first place? Because her manager-to-be (Mason Novick) came across her blog and saw talent and originality. Perhaps a freshness that’s not easy to find in L.A. when everyone is going to the same screenwriting workshops, reading the same screenwriting books, going to the same screenwriting expos, and hanging out at the same L.A. restaurants or sitting on the same L.A. freeway.

Thanks in part to the plethora of new books and seminars on screenwriting, a new phenomenon is taking over Hollywood: Major scripts are skillfully, seductively shaped, yet they are soulless. They tend to be shiny but superficial.”
Richard Walter
UCLA Screenwriting Professor

Part of what sets Cody apart is, to use Colin Covert’s phrase, she is “scary-smart.” She had 12 years of Catholic school, was raised in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Media Studies from the University of Iowa. While not in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate program, that was part of what attracted her to Iowa. While she had never written a screenplay before Juno, she thought of herself as a writer and had been writing on a regular basis (poems, short stories, etc.) for 15 years before she turned her hand to screenwriting. (Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours)

And I love the fact that not three miles from where Cody wrote Juno is a Minneapolis bar called Grumpy’s where screenwriter Nick Schenk wrote much of Gran Torino that in 2009 would become Clint Eastwood’s highest grossing film that he’s ever starred in. (Screenwriting Postcard from Minneapolis.) If Cody and Schenk don’t inspire you nothing will.

“Aspiring screenwriters always ask what’s the best way to break into the Hollywood? I say move to Minnesota.”
Writer Ken Levine (Frasier, MASH, Cheers)
How to sell a screenplay by drinking in a bar

Thanks again to Ms. Cody for the nudge to jump into the blogging world. And thanks to everyone for stopping by to read what I post, because without readers it would be hard to have written the 600+ posts I’ve written so far.

P.S. In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I’d explain why Clark Gable would be attracted to Diablo Cody and here’s my reasoning. A Time magazine article said, “Gable liked his women to be both sacred and profane.” It doesn’t take much reading about Cody to realize she is both scared and profane. While the profane aspects get more press, Cody’s sacred side is more fascinating to me. And it certainly doesn’t hurt her originality.

Read her 2005 post Finding My Religion to see a theological side to Cody that probably can only be matched in Hollywood by the Calvinist-raised Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver). One thing Cody says she’s never flirted with is atheism. Here’s a sample of her pre-Juno writing;

“I’ve had my share of core-rattling Touched By an Angel moments–brief instances in which God seemed to be standing right beside me, tousling my overprocessed hair like a kind scoutmaster–but most of the spiritual epiphanies I’ve had in my life were far earthier, borne of personal reflection, diverging beliefs, and the admission that I can’t ever fully grasp the sacred.”

Related Post: The Juno-Iowa Connection
Juno Vs. Walt
The Oscars Minnesota Style
The Fox, the Farm, & the Fempire
Life Beyond L.A. (The first blog on January 22, 2008)

Update June 23, 2010: Here is what Diablo Cody (@diablocody) wrote on Twitter: “@scottwsmith_com Thank you for writing that kind and lovely piece. I truly appreciate it.” Yeah, that’s a good way to start your day.

Scott W. Smith

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Calvin College Bridge

I took the above photo at Calvin College after my screenwriting talks this week. It’s part of Calvin’s Crossing, a pedestrian bridge designed by architect Frank Gorman that spans a little over a football field in length connecting the main parts of campus with the DeVos Communications Center over one of the busiest roads in Grand Rapids.

While the bridge has a practical purpose for Calvin students, it’s a fitting metaphor for all writers, filmmakers, and video producers. Too often creative folks distance themselves from the other disciplines of life. (You could call it a superiority complex.) In fact, there is a growing trend for young filmmakers to just go to film schools that only teach film and digital video production. (Technical skills are always easier to develop than writing. Which is why there are many beautifully photographed movies with shallow stories.)

At Calvin the communication center is where the video and radio studios, the video and film theater, and the video editing suites are all located. But Calvin is a liberal arts school so students head over the bridge to fill their minds with art, literature, languages, philosophy, politics, history, mathematics, religion and science with an emphasis on knowledge and truth rather than livelihood.

The knock on a liberal arts education has always been in line with it doesn’t prepare you for any job except to maybe teach. But if you look at the info where liberal arts grads end up you might conclude that liberal arts majors are prepared for just about every job. Margaret W. Crane wrote in the article For the Love of Learning, “a liberal arts background prepares you to think, analyze, and contribute meaningfully to the world around you.” 
 


While speaking at Calvin this week one of the things I mentioned was when I was a student at the University of Miami a professor told us film school students that you don’t go to school to learn to make films, you go to school to learn what make films about.

Screenwriter/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) did go to UCLA for his Master’s work in film studies, but he did his undergraduate work with an emphasis in pre-seminary at Calvin College. While later rejecting the doctrine, he has credited Calvin College with teaching him to think.

When Suzanne O’Malley, who’s written for the TV show Law & Order, taught a seminar a couple years ago at Yale College called “Writing Hour Long Television Drama” where the class came together to write a 47-minute television program. Something a little different at the liberal arts college.

“We’re drawing from The New York Times, from Shakespeare, from Sun Tzu, from [John Lewis] Gaddis, one of the professors here, looking at all different kinds of serious work and blending that into our plot and story line,” she said in a Yale Daily News article by Andrew Bartholomew.

And just to connect all the dots. Yale is actually made up of 12 residential colleges and the one O’Malley taught at was Calhoun College, which is actually where actress Jodie Foster graduated from with a B.A. (with honors) in literature — after she was nominated for best supporting actress in Taxi Driver. She went on to win two Oscars after graduating from Yale. (Maybe a liberal arts degree should be a requirement for all child actors.)

So at least for Schrader and Foster their undergraduate liberal arts backgrounds haven’t hurt their now pushing 40 year careers in Hollywood.

Even if you’re out of school (or never went to school) read and study widely because it will add richness to your writing and your life.

Text and photo copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?”
                                         Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)
                                         Taxi Driver
                                         Written by Paul Schrader 

deniro500

No Bobby, I’m not talkin’ to you. But I did spend a couple days talking to students (and a few visitors) at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan the last couple days and the above photo was one of the movie posters hanging outside the video theater where I spoke.  Calvin’s most famous film alumni is Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader.

I would like to thank Prof. Bill Romanowski for the invite and and all the support staff, other professors, and students for the opportunity to speak, as well as the sponsorship by the Gainey Institute and Communication Arts & Sciences department. It sure is more fun to talk about this stuff than write about it.

I not only got to meet a lot of eager students, but had lunch yesterday with a New York actor who’s recently been on Law and Order and had a director from L.A. sit in on one of my seminars. (He was in town raising funds for a film that would take advantage of Michigan’s 40%-42% tax incentives.)

Those tax incentives are bringing a film called The Genesis Code not only to Michigan, but they will be shooting part of the film at the Calvin College campus. But Michigan is learning quickly about Hollywood’s ways as people have gotten excited about films starring people like Samuel L. Jackson, Joe Mantegna and Robert Duvall scheduled to shoot in Michigan only to see them postponed for one reason or another.

It was an interesting time to be in Michigan because not only is Detroit hurting because of the decline in auto sales, but the whole economy of the state is effected because many of the smaller cities are made up of manufacturing plants that produce parts for the  automobiles that people aren’t buying.

So people are both excited and skeptical about the possibilities of a film industry bringing jobs. Enrollment at schools and colleges that teach film and video is up. I saw people shooting footage around the Calvin campus including this young fellow that I snapped a picture of as he was in action. This kind of thing is happening all over the country. 

calvinstedicam1858

While at Calvin College I learned that they have a few other grads who are working in the film industry, but the most impressive to me is Jeannie Claudia Oppewall. She’s is a four time Oscar nominated production designer/art director who’s worked on two of my favorite films, Seabiscuit and Tender Mercies.

And for what it’s worth, she’s worked in Iowa twice on The Bridges of Madison County and the yet to be release Ellen Page film Peacock. And just to come full circle she was once married to Paul Schrader.

Schrader’s divorce played a part of his state of mind before writing Taxi Driver, as did Jean-Paul Sartre, “Before I sat down to write Taxi Driver, I reread Sartre’s Nausea, because I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero…and put him in an American context.” Schrader has also said that part of the inspiration for picking a taxi driver to represent loneliness was based on the  Harry Chapin song Taxi about a taxi driver who used to dream of being a pilot and one night gives a lift to his old girlfriend.

…And me, I’m flying in my taxi, 
Taking tips, and getting stoned, 
I go flying so high, when I’m stoned.

                                          Taxi
                                          Harry Chapin 

Before that song was a hit in 1972, Chapin had actually written and directed a documentary called Legendary Champions which was nominated for an Oscar in 1969.

And lastly, AFI lists “Are you talking to me?” as the 10th most popular movie quote of the last 100 years. So yes, it is possible to be born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan and to write a screenplay that leaves an imprint on film history. (Though it’s okay to start out with slightly lower aspirations.) 

Scott W. Smith

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“Movie storytelling is about redemption–the recovery of something lost or the attainment of something needed.”
                                                               Brian Godowa
                                                               screenwriter, To End All Wars 

“All main characters are wounded souls, and the stories we tell are merely an acting out of the healing process.”
                                                            
   Richard Krevolin 
                                                               Screenwriting From the Soul 

shaw

 

Director Martin Scorsese was once told by a priest friend that his films were “too much Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday.” In his films, characters like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) are wounded souls with no hint of redemption. No hope of resurrection. (Though the real life Jake LaMotta has said that the film changed his life.)

But there are plenty of films that somewhat mirror the Christ story of death and resurrection, of transformation or redemption, or even the concept of laying ones life down for another. Though one could argue there are similar themes throughout history (and Joseph Campbell does) it’s hard to miss the Christ metaphor in a film like Gran Tornio when Clint Eastwood is positioned in a Christ-like pose at the end of the film.

And it’s impossible to miss the Christ-like imagery of Tim Robbins on the poster of The Shawshank Redemption, taken from the climatic moment in the film when he emerges free from prison (death) on his way to paradise (life). 

Audiences never tire of stories of  transformation because I think that is one of the chief reasons we go to films. Yes, we want to be entertained, we want to eat popcorn, and we want to escape. But deep down inside we want to have purpose and meaning in our lives and art acts as a conduit to give structure to what often seems like a meaningless life. It points to the mysterious. 
                                    

 “Stories are equipment for living.”
                                          Kenneth Burke 

 “Stories are the language of the heart.”
                                          John Eldredge 

So while yesterday on Easter Sunday I pointed to the many films that actually portrayed Christ figures such as in The Greatest Story Ever Told, today I’ll point to films that show a Christ-like metaphor in their central characters, or have themes of transformation, sacrifice and/ or resurrection. (And like yesterday this is just a partial list, but the ones that seem to have lasting appeal.)

ET
The Lion King
Tron
On the Waterfront
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Sling Blade
Cool Hand Luke
Schindler’s List
The Natural
Babette’s Feast
Hoosiers
Cinderella
The Beauty & the Beast
An Officer and a Gentleman 
Tender Mercies 
Braveheart
Superman
Spiderman
Iron Man
The Matrix 

Roger Ebert has an interesting read called In search of redemption and talks about  the kind of films that made him want to be a film critic. He talks about films with “human generosity and goodness.” And he even closes with a nod to Juno.  

Now if you’d like to take a deeper look at spiritual side of films then Paul Schrader is your man and I recommend his book Transcendental Style in Film as he looks at the films of Ozu, Bresson and Dryer. Schrader is the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, The Mosquito Coast, and The Last Temptation of Christ. And he’s a graduate of Calvin College.

If you happen to be in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area tomorrow night (4/14/09) I will touch more on this in a talk I’m giving at Calvin College. Schrader is not Calvin’s only connection to Hollywood. Phil Oosrerhaus was an assistant to the Wachowski Brothers on The Matrix as well as an associate producer on the sequels. 

As I pointed out in Screenwriting from Michigan there is a lot going on there film-wise. There were 32 features shot there last year including Eastwood’s Gran Torino. I also look forward to giving a screenwriting talk there on Wednesday. 

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith


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When John Brady interviewed Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader one of his questions was “What’s the toughest part when you’re writing?”

Schrader: “Getting an idea. A metaphor. Having one or two lines that describe a film—that’s the hardest part. Once you get that, if you have any common sense, you can execute it.”

                                                       The Craft of the Screenwriter
                                                        Interviews with Six Celebrated Screenwriters
                                                        by John Brady
                                                        Page 282 

 

Check out the much longer post Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)

 


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