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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Travers’

Big is one of those rare films that will tickle the funny bone and touch the heart.”
Movie critic Peter Travers (then with People magazine)

“(As a screenwriter) I’m in that emotional place where there is room for idealism. In Big (1988) and Dave (1993) there is a similar question being asked: Is innocence redemptive? And I want people to come away with renewed optimism.”
Four-time Oscar nominated producer/screenwriter Gary Ross (Seabiscuit)
1993 LA Times article 

The following exchange between screenwriters Anne Spielberg and Gary Ross can be seen on the second disc of the expanded edition of Big. The 1988 film brought the screenwriters an Oscar nomination, as well as landing Tom Hanks his first Academy Award nomination.

Gary: If there was a punch line on top of the situation where you could feel the writer—we’d yank it out.  If you were organically laughing at the situation, then than was great, that’s where the comedy should come from. If we went through pages and pages (in reading the script for Big) when you weren’t laughing, that was okay.

Anne: And that’s what gave the poignancy to it—that you’re always on that edge of being a kid on his own, and he can’t go home again. There’s always that little moment of sadness just right around the corner.

Gary: And under a lot of the movie there is a lot of sadness. A loss of childhood is a wonderful and sad thing, and I think we respected both of those emotions. And I think one of the things we did that was good was when the story wasn’t funny to us, but was true to the story—that was okay.

An interesting sidenote to the casting of big; Tom Hanks originally turned now the role in Big, and Anne and Gary (and director Penny Marshall) were working with Robert De Niro to play the role of the boy who wakes up a man. Imagine how different that film would be.

And way back in 1959 a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling called Walking Distance first aired. It’s the story of an ad man who mysteriously returns to his childhood town—and nothing has changed. Rod said it was one of his most personal episodes and the theme of returning to one’s youth was never far from his thoughts. You can read that script at rodserling.com. The small boy in the clip below from that episode was played by Ron Howard.

(Yes, Hollywood is one big family–Ron’s dad, Rance Howard, is an actor, Anne’s brother is Steven, and Gary’s dad, Arthur A. Ross, was a screenwriter —deal with it. Write a script as good as Big and you’ll be in the family as well. One more reason Diablo Cody should be your screenwriting hero—a total Hollywood outsider…until she had a hit film and won a Oscar.)

I think the Big commentary by Anne and Gary is the single best commentary I’ve ever heard on a movie from the perspective of a screenwriter, because it is the only one I know that has the original recordings of the creative process as they developed the story right out of the gate.

Related posts:

It Takes Guts to be a Screenwriter (Gary Ross quote)

Rod Serling’s Binghamton Roots

Writing “Seabiscuit”

The Juno—Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

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“She could sense blood driven by heartbeats pulsing from the torn places beneath her skin.”
From the novel Winter’s Bone written by Daniel Woodrell

Seventeen year old Ree Dolly has a simple goal in the movie Winter’s Bone—to find her father. But it proves to not be an easy task. I’m sure the same could be said for writer/director Debra Granik as she sought to find a way to turn Daniel Woodrell’s novel into a movie.

Granik certainly didn’t take the easy road in making her second feature film and she was rewarded for her efforts when earlier this year the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. Glowing reviews followed.

“Every once in a rare while a movie gets inside your head and heart, rubbing your emotions raw. The remarkable Winter’s Bone is just such a movie.”
Peter Travers
Rolling Stone

No one is going to confuse Winter’s Bone with Toy Story 3, but if you want a sign that American cinema is alive and well in 2010 then those two films would be a good starting point. And as different as those two are, they have themes that intersect. To borrow Bob Segers’ phrase, both films have characters “seeking shelter against the wind.”

On one level Winter’s Bone is not an enjoyable to watch. But on another level it’s like watching Tender Mercies in that you are being exposed to characters and a world foreign to our largely suburban culture.  And as harsh as the realities are there are moments of grace.

On a filmmaking level Winter’s Bone is a pure delight. The casting is rock solid. Jennifer Lawrence carries the lead beautifully and the entire cast of not so familiar faces made me think Granik had somehow discovered an acting troupe in the Ozarks. While she did, in fact, find some of the actors involved in an acting group in I believe Arkansas, she found others from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama—those with Southern backgrounds that served the film well. Granik also used local people for smaller roles.

And while John Hawkes, who plays the character Teardrop with amazing presence,  is not from the south,  he was born and raised in rural Minnesota and started his career in theater in Austin, Texas.

The actors give the film an authentic texture as does the location in rural southern Missouri where they shot the movie. On the DVD commentary Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough talk about being influenced by the photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Shelby Lee Adams.

Photo by Dorothea Lange

McDonough who shot the film in 24 1/2 days using the Red camera says,”I think one of the things you’ll notice with a lot of the interiors in the film is we deliberately lit from the exterior which is what daylight naturally does. So our film lights are outside—there may be some lamps inside, but—the main lighting is coming from the outside and it lets us work really freely with the actors inside. There’s not all the trappings of filmmaking. You can look at multiple angles without seeing film equipment and it lets you work fairly quickly and more importantly naturalistically.”

Granik, who won the best director award at Sundance in 2004 for her first film Down to the Bone, said in an interview with Ruthie Stein;

I really think you don’t have to spend that kind of money ($20-30 million) to make a good film. It helps lighten the load (to have less money). You want to make a film with a fleet-footed and agile crew that doesn’t leave a footprint. You don’t want to mow down things in its wake. I like to work small and take a gentler approach to actually trying to capture something.”

A common question I found myself asking over the years as I’ve traveled around this country and overseas is, “What do these people do?” What is their everyday life like? Films offer a chance to explore some of those questions.

Granik said in an interview with Sam Adams, “What keeps me going is that life has lots of bonbons, a lot of treats. You have your mundane life, and then you go into another neighborhood, another zip code, and you’re all delirious again. You’re all delirious and caught up, and then you want to make stories about it.”

If you ever get writer’s block, just look out your window at your neighbors or take a drive in the next town over. There are stories everywhere waiting to be told.

Scott W. Smith

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“Anything that comes to me from the Los Angeles zip code is subjected to a 99% skepticism test.”
Walter Kirn
author Up in the Air

My third look at the film Up in the Air involves a closer look at the original writer of the book (Walter Kirn) that inspired director Jason Reitman to make the film. Kirn has solid Midwest roots being born in Ohio and raised in Minnesota. Though a jock in school he was also aware of the talents of the St. Paul writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby). And he was smart enough to go to Princeton University where Fitzgerald attended for a while.

Kirn graduated from college in 1983 and moved to New York and ended up writing for a variety of magazines and published his first of several books in 1990.  His book Thumbsucker was made into a movie in 2005 starring Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn. Along the way he moved west to Livingston, Montana and married the daughter of actress Margot Kidder and writer Thomas McGuane. Kidder is most known for her role in Superman and McGuane for his book Ninety-Two in the Shade. Though now divorced from his wife, it would be interesting to know how the relationship with Thomas McGuane influenced Kirn’s writing development over the years.

I remember become aware of McGuane in the 70s from stories about his hanging out in Key West with the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Tennessee Williams.  In fact, Buffett has a song on the soundtrack of the 1975 film Rancho Deluxe that starred Jeff Bridges and was written by McGuane. It’s not a surprise that Kirn lives in Montana as it has a rich tradition of literary talent.  I grew up on Buffett’s early music which often had references to places in Montana like Missoula, Livingston, and Ringling, and was taken by the place and I finally got to visit the place in 1984. It’s a state built for reflecting on life. Something Kirn seems to have a knack for.

(If my facts are correct, Thomas McGuane married Jimmy Buffett’s sister in the 70s, so while Kirn was married to McGuane’s daughter he and Buffett were related.)

One thing is for sure, if Up in the Air, is nominated for an Academy Award then Kirn will have fared better in dealing with Hollywood than both Fitzgerald and McGuane. And much of that credit goes to director Reitman.

Up in the Air was first published in 2001 and was selling well until September 11, 2001 when like a lot of things the sales just dropped off. Though Kirn’s book was optioned and he had written a script based on the book it seemed doomed to never be made. But after a few years of laying dormant the book’s stock was back on the rise. Kirn writes;

“The ascent commenced with a brief email from Jason Reitman, a thirtyish film director who, at the time he wrote me, was not well known, but would soon become famous for his first two movies: Thank You for Smoking and Juno. He was writing a script from my novel, he informed me, and would get back in touch when he was finished. Right. Heard that one. Though another one of my novels, Thumbsucker, had by then become an indie, I knew from experience—my own and others’—that when Hollywood promises to get back to you, it’s best not to wait by the phone. You’ll starve to death.”

It would still be a few years before Reitman would finish the script and then several months after that when George Clooney came on board to star in the film. Kirn was starting to believe the film might actually get made. And once the film finally did get made he had a simple prayer request before he viewed the film for the first time, “Please let this not be crap.”

His prayer seems to be answered. The film is not crap, and has garnered solid reviews across the board. (91% from the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes.)

“Up in the Air is a defining movie for these perilous times.”
Peter Travers
Rolling Stone

And while the film is different from the book in many ways Kirn is glad that the DNA of the book is intact.

“(Up in the Air), which I started writing at the peak of the dot-com mania, was conceived, in part, as a morality tale about the spiritual distortions forced upon people by techno-capitalism. It was also a satirical treatment of the drive to pile up useless wealth. But mostly it was a character study of someone (or a class of someones) who I felt was invisible in literature despite being all around me in real life: the pretzel-eating, mini-bar-raiding nomad, his existence pared down to a single carry-on, but his soul the same size as everyone else’s.”
Jason Reitman
George Clooney Saved My Novel
The Daily Beast

Perhaps the film resonates with me because Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham is a character I recognize from my travels—perhaps even in myself. I flown enough over the years to earn enough frequent flyer miles to fly free to Alaska, Hawaii and Europe. On one trip to the west coast I remember being gone from home for three weeks for productions in San Diego/Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. A friend said to me on that trip, “Don’t you hate traveling?” I remember thinking, “I could live my whole life on the road.” Up in the Air is an exploration of one such character who does just that and it ends up being a reflection on our culture.

Of course, once Reitman finally got the script to the point where it could actually get made, he had to make the film and did a super job of guiding the solid cast that included Clooney, Vera Farming, Anna Kendick, and Jason Bateman.

It’s a fitting end to 2009 to be talking about another Jason Reitman film. For it was his movie Juno, based on Diablo Cody’s script (as well as her life’s story that included a stint here in Iowa) that inspired this blog in the first place. (See post Juno Has Another Baby.) Kirn sounds a lot like Cody when he talks about the Reitman’s film based on his story, “Sometimes miracles happen and this was one of them.”

Happy New Year.

Scott W. Smith


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