Posts Tagged ‘Pieces of April’

” I don’t know why I’m so hard on you Beth, when you’ve always been the daughter of my dreams. We’re almost the same person, except I don’t have your weight problems.”
Joy (Patricia Clarkson) in Pieces of April

Happy Mother’s Day.

I picked today to round out my set of posts on Pieces of April (2003)  because even though it’s a film set on Thanksgiving Day—it’s kind of a Mother’s Day film as well. And of the six posts I’ve written on the movie (starting with this post on April 1) I needed to give a special mention to actress Patricia Clarkson.

Clarkson plays Katie Holmes’ mother, Joy, in the film written and directed by Peter Hedges. Clarkson’s had a solid 30+ year career (which followed getting a Master’s in theater from Yale), yet her sole Oscar-nomination is from Pieces of April.

So if you know Clarkson from one of her many film, Tv and/or theater roles, including her role in Six Feet Under where she won two Emmys, her 2015 Tony Award-winning Broadway performance in The Elephant Man—or even from the so wrong Motherlove music video featuring Justin Timberlake and Adam Sandler—but haven’t seen her in Pieces of April check it out.

(And if you’re estranged from your mother, really check it out.)

Related Posts:
Pieces of April (Part 1)
Pieces of April (Part 2) 
Pieces of April (Part 3) 
Pieces of April (Part 4) 
Pieces of April (Part 5)
Pieces of April (Part 6) 



Scott W. Smith


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“Most of us have some old pain or hurt that we don’t think about all the time, but which is always vulnerable on some level of awareness…To humanize a hero or any character, give her a wound, a visible, physical injury or deep emotional wound.”
Christopher Volger
The Writer’s Journey


Because it’s probably never been done before, allow me to compare the 2003 indie film Pieces of April to the 1982 classic blockbuster E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. I’ll flesh that out in a moment.

I’ve heard it said that everyone has a personal wound—and it’s usually a wound from a  mother or father. In Pieces of April the wound is from the mother. But the prodigal child April (Katie Holmes) decides that she wants to cook Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment —perhaps due to the fact that her mother Joy has cancer.

We don’t know exactly how that arrangement went down since the movie starts Thanksgiving morning with the plans already in place. And at the 15 minute mark April realizes she has a problem—a dilemma. Her oven isn’t working.

This is how writer/director Peter Hedges writes the key conflict scene in half a page:


April finishes writing “Mom” on the Thanksgiving-themed name card she has decorated. Beat as she looks at it. She tears it in two. Then writes “Joy” on the Thanksgiving-themed name card.

She glances up at…

A small clock on her dinning room table which reads 8:00.

April crosses to the turkey pan sitting on the counter, lifts the pan and carries it to the oven. She opens the oven.

She’s about to slide the turkey in when she stops. Beat. She reaches in, feels for heat. Her hands touch the sides of the oven. Her hands touch the metal roasting rack.

She checks the temperature knob. It’s been turned to 375.

She stares in confusion, then it hits.

                     Oh, no. No –

A nice simple scene about a broken oven. Normally it wouldn’t be that big a deal, but Hedges raises the stakes by adding that it’s Thanksgiving morning, that April’s mother has cancer, and her family is expecting her to let them down. As I said it Part 1 it’s the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.

Now what could that possibly have in common with E.T.? Well, the Steven Spielberg directed movie (written by Melissia Mathison) opens with space aliens already on earth. Their space ship planted firmly in the San Fernando Valley. But that’s not the inciting incident, that comes at the seven minute mark when E.T. gets left behind when the space ship leaves without him.

If E.T.’s on that ship Spielberg & Mathison would have to tell a different story. And on the same note, if April’s oven works then Hedges has to tell a different story.

I labor the point because script readers say one of the common problems in screenplays they read is a lack of a clear inciting incident. Something active that sets the story in motion and ties into the ending.

I know indie films like to be less conventional, but I think Pieces of April is an indie film that works well following this basic screenwriting principle. (Winter’s Bone does as well.) If you’ve ever read 30 pages of a screenplay or watched 30 minutes of a movie and not been sure what the movie is about—it’s probably missing an inciting incident.

P.S. I couldn’t find that oven scene online, so if you have a link please send it my way.

Related posts:

Starting Your Screenplay
What’s Your Problem?
One Clear Dilemma
Telling Smaller Stories
What’s at Stake?
There are no rules, but…
The Major or Central Dramatic Question

Scott W. Smith



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This April I’ve decided to sprinkle in some posts throughout the month of the indie movie Pieces of April (2003). Like Tender Mercies (1984) it’s a simple yet complex films that I revisit from time to time.

Pieces of April was written and directed by Peter Hedges who just happened to be born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa. A fact I didn’t learn until years after falling in love with the movie.

Today we’ll look at the story origins of the movie which starred a young Katie Holmes.

“In December of 1998, I received a phone call from my mother in Iowa. She had bad news. She’d been diagnosed with cancer. I went to her as soon as I could. She underwent radiation and chemotherapy. Over the next fifteen months, my sisters, my brothers, and I traveled back and forth to take care of her.

“During this time, my mother urged me to keep writing, but it was difficult. One day in my office in Brooklyn, I started opening files on my computer and came across notes I’d written a year earlier for a story about  girl with a broken oven trying to get her turkey cooked.

“In my notes, I had named the girl April after the moody, unpredicatble month. The month when it is sunny one moment and rainy the next. In my notes, she was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for her family. Most surprising was the reason why I’d decided April was making the meal: She was attempting to bridge an estranged relationship with her mother who was sick with cancer. 

“That’s when I knew this was a story I had to write.”
Writer/director Peter Hedges
Pieces of April; The Shooting Script—Introduction

Related posts:
Goal. Stakes. Urgency. (Tip #60)
Protagonist= Struggle
Christmas & Cancer
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B+C)

Scott W. Smith








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“In this screenplay, I imagined a deadbeat father who had bailed on his kids years earlier, looking to return home to make amends.”
Writer/director Edward Burns on The Fitzgerald Family Christmas 

“It’s a good thing our father left—we needed the space.”
Sharon (Kerry Bishe) one of nine Fitzgerald children raised in a 3 bedroom house in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas 

One of the things most (all?) Catholic and Protestant theologians agree on in is that Jesus was not born on December 25. Some scholars even speculate that Christ’s birth account 2000 years ago wasn’t even during wintertime, but in the springtime because that’s when shepherds watch over their fields. (“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Luke 2:8)

So it’s actually not that bizarre to talk about Christmas in May.  And I’ll do so by mentioning what I think is Edward Burns’ tightest script and best film, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas. (It’s currently on Netflix if you’d like to get in the Christmas spirit this spring day.)

“I knew I didn’t want to make the sappy, goofy, funny Christmas comedy. My favorite Christmas film has always been It’s a Wonderful Life, another film that has the perfect blend of light and dark, comedy and drama. George Baily has to cover a lot of tough ground to get that payoff. I also wanted my characters to go on a tough journey so that when the Fitzgerald family got together in the end, it felt earned. As I started to work on the screenplay, a theme of forgiveness started to present itself. Given that it’s one of the themes of Christmas, it tied together nicely. The script poured out of me and within four weeks, I had a first draft.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns (Sidewalks of New York)
Independent Ed; Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life
page 212

If you just happen to be in the mood for Christmas music today, check out The Fitzgerald Family Christmas Album largely featuring the music of long-time Burns collaborator P.T. Walkley.

P.S. And if you want to add an indie companion Thanksgiving film to your May viewing watch Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April starring Katie Holmes. Fitzmas (2012) and Pieces (2003) cost less than $600,000 to produce—combined. And one connection between both films that I know of is John Sloss was an executive producer on Pieces and received a special thanks credit on Fitzmas (Sloss, a University of Michigan law school grad, also provided legal service on Burns’ first film The Brothers McMullen.)

P.P.S. Yes, that is the talented Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, American Crime Story) in the screen grab above. She fit in time between shooting the Nashville TV series for the small (but wonderful performance) in Fitzmas as nod/thank you to Burns for casting her in her debut movie The Brothers McMullen (1995).

Related Posts:
The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Prison “Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Frank Darabont
Merry Silver Linings Christmas
Christmas & Cancer (Connected because the father in Fitzmas has cancer.)
Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)
Merry Christmas (2012) Same year as Fitzmas release and my last Christmas in Iowa.
Writing from Theme
Hope & Redemption
Filmmaking Quote #27 (Frank Capra)
Filmmaking Quote # 15 (Edward Burns)

Scott W. Smith

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“One of the essential components of drama is tension…Drama, so said drama critic William Archer, is almost always the effect of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty.'”
Alexander Mackendrick

“We knew no time for sadness, that’s a road we each had crossed.”
Pieces of April
Lyrics by Dave Loggins, recorded by Three Dog Night

“Passivity in a character is a real danger to dramatic values. ‘Protagonist’ (the name given to the leading character in your story) literally means the person who initiates the agon (struggle). But a figure who does not (or cannot) actually do things or who hasn’t got the gumption to struggle in a way that produces new situations and developments is apt—in dramatic terms—to be dead weight on the narrative. In effect, a bore.”
Writer/ director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
Page 11

I wish when I was younger someone would have explained that the word protagonist flowed from the Greek word agōn, and basically meant struggle.  (The word agony also has roots in agōn.) I used to prefer the term hero to protagonist. But thinking of your main character as the one who struggles—and the antagonist as the one struggling against your main character—conjurers up powerful imagery.

The Olympic Games started in Greece so here’s a good visual of wrestling in Ancient Greece that also symbolically represents modern screenwriting.  (Think of if as Screenwriting from Greece.)


Keep in mind that while the struggle can be as grand as saving the world (Deep Impact), it can also be as simple as cooking a turkey (Pieces of April). In fact, the micro-budget Pieces of April written and directed by Peter Hedges is a good example of having a character struggling on many levels. April (Katie Holmes) not only struggles to find a place to cook her Thanksgiving dinner after her oven breaks, but she struggles with her neighbors, her boyfriend, her family, society, herself—she even has conflict with the salt and pepper shakers.

In fact, if you’re looking for a film school for under forty bucks pick up Mackendrick’s On-Filmmaking, a used copy of Seven Famous Greek Plays (introduction by Eugene O’Neil),  and the DVD of Pieces of April (which has a commentary by Hedges). Pieces of April is tour de force of quality writing and acting.

P.S. If you’re new to screenwriting then today is your lucky day. Because if you can simply do two things in your screenwriting— 1) Have an active protagonist, and 2) Have a level of tension/conflict in every scene—you will have a heads-up on most scripts written. Any script readers out there want to say what percentage of screenplays they’ve read where two major problems were passive characters and lack of conflict?

Related post:
Don’t Bore the Audience!
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
Meet Your First Audience (Tip #36)

Scott W. Smith 

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“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Andy Defresne in The Shawshank Redemption

In light of quoting Secretariat screenwriter Mike Rich this week (Screenwriting Quote #145Mike Rick & Hobby Screenwriting) it would be hard to look at the list of films he’s written and not see that there is a thread of hope and redemption in all of them.

“It’s very, very hard to get a movie made. Quadruple or quintuple that degree of difficulty when your movie is about endless grim horribleness. If there is no spiritual uplift at the end , the reader is going to heave the script into the fireplace and cackle as it burns. Why should the audience suffer along with the character only for it to have been in vain?…Let the reader end on a note of hope or redemption.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks
page 15

The themes of hope and/or redemption aren’t limited to Disney films or more overtly spiritual films. Here is a short list in a mix of genres and old and new films that I’d put in the category;

The Shawshank Redemption
On the Waterfront

The African Queen
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Toy Story

Tender Mercies
Field of Dreams
Erin Brockovich

Rain Man
The Natural
Saving Private Ryan
An Officer & a Gentleman
Jerry Maguire
Pieces of April

It’s an easy list to come up with because those are some of my favorite films. It’s also a list shows that themes of hope & redemption are often popular with audiences, the Academy and critics. Sure getting a film made is hard, but what are the odds that your film resonates with audiences, the Academy and critics?(There are reasons universal themes are called universal.)

And on one level every screenwriter hopes the script they are working on will be produced and find an audience and will redeem the time spent working on their craft. (Even the edgy, indie, non-mainstream screenwriter working on the most nihilistic script ever written shares the same desire.) May hope & redemption fill your writing career and your life.

Scott W. Smith

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Happy Thanksgiving.

Before I take a circuitous route to point out yet one more connection between Youngstown and Hollywood let me first thank everyone for reading this screenwriting blog as it’s given me much encouragement in my quest to post daily. It’s not easy to write something original daily and finding odd connections really is a fun part of the process. Today is a good example.

My favorite movie with a Thanksgiving theme is Pieces of April. Granted, I don’t think there is a long list of films with Thanksgiving themes. So let me add that it’s also one of my favorite low-budget films of all time.  Odd or relevant connection to Screenwriting from Iowa? Number one: Pieces of April writer/director Peter Hedges grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. Number Two: My recent posts have centered around Ohio, and Pieces of April stars Katie Holmes who grew up in Toledo.

But can I get from Toledo to Youngstown which has technically be the focus of recent blogs? Yes, but I have to take the indirect route via Cincinnati. Katie Holmes is married to Tom Cruise who lived for a time in Cincinnati as a teenager. The agent that got Cruise his breakout role in Risky Business was raised in Youngstown. That agent Paula Wagner, eventually became Cruise’s producing partner including all the Mission Impossible movies, Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai.

What prepared Wagner to become one of the most powerful women in Hollywood?  Being born Paula Kaufman in Youngstown back in 1946 didn’t hurt. Just this month she returned to Youngstown for the first time in 30 years to give a talk at Youngstown State University and said, “I really attribute so much of what I’ve done to having grown up in this city…Youngstown is very much a part of me.”

Her father was a fighter pilot in World War II and also a prisoner of war, and went on to run a steel mill in Youngstown. “Youngstown was founded on steel and we all have a spine of steel,” said Wagner at her Youngstown talk. It was at the Youngstown Playhouse where Wagner began acting as a child. (The same place advertising giant Mary Wells began acting at age 5.) She was known as a talented actress at Hubbard High School and then earned a BFA in theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (just a little over an hour’s drive from Youngstown).

Wagner performed on Broadway and off-Broadway before heading to Los Angeles with $500. to her name. She ended up being an agent at Creative Artists Agency where her clients included  Demi Moore, Val Kilmer and Oliver Stone. She formed Cruise/Wagner Productions in 1993 and the films they have produced together have earned around $3 billion at the box office.

And I thought it was impressive that former Youngstown resident and current producer/director/writer Chris Columbus (The Goonies, Home Alone, and the first two Harry Potter movies) had a box office total over $1 billion. Is there another small city in America where people raised there went on to have a key role in movies that have earned around $4 billion?

Most recently Wagner has started a new company Chestnut Ridge Productions and is slated to produce the film version of Miss Saigon. What’s the significance of the name of her new company? Guy D’Astolfo reports, “Paula Wagner’s Hollywood career has taken her around the world, but she keeps coming back to Chestnut Ridge. That’s the road she grew up on in Hubbard Township”

So if you’re a screenwriter from the Youngstown area use that back of steel to get connect with Wagner. Remember, there’s no place like home.

By the way, if you’d like to see what Youngstown looked like back around the time Wagner was born watch the 15 minute movie Steel Town that Mike Gaunter, a news producer in Youngstown sent my way via You Tube.

Scott W. Smith

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