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Posts Tagged ‘Rain Man’

Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

Both Sides Now, written by Joni Mitchell (and performed in Emilia Jones in CODA)

One of the reasons I steer away from writing much about recent film releases is they have not marinated into the culture long enough to see if they are going to have a lasting impact. And in the case of CODA—winner of three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (Troy Kotsur)— not only have many people not seen it yet, I have talked to people who don’t even know that film exists. (Blame it on COVID.)

Confession: It took me 8 months, its recent Oscar wins, and a free temporary pass to AppleTV for me to finally watch it last night. A really enjoyable film that left me with three take aways in my first viewing.

3) It’s the first film from a streamer to win Best Picture. (Netflix’s Roma won Best Foreign film a couple years ago.) In the last chapter of my book  Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles I addressed Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley. But two years later, when the COVID dust settles, we all might realize that Silicon Valley is Hollywood. (The good thing for creators is how much the streamers are creating.)

2) The film was familiar, yet different. It was shot in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a fishing town that was prominent in the film The Perfect Storm). Hearing impairment plays a key part in the film as did the recent hit A Quiet Place, the super indie film Sound of Metal, and the 1986 movie Children of a Lesser God (where Marlee Matlin won an Oscar). It has the young person underdog reminiscent of Karate Kid. A female protagonist with rising musical talent like Perfect Pitch. The demanding musical teacher with a hint of Whiplash. A girl with dreams going to a tough audition from Flashdance (What a feeling!), a teen love story like The Edge of Seventeen… the list goes on. CODA writer/director Siân Heder (along with Tarantino and Scorsese) knows that originality is rooted in your spin on the mixtape you put together. CODA itself is a remake of the 2014 French hit film La Famille Bélier.

1) CODA also did what I believe many of the best films do—it focused on brokenness and healing of the family unit. It’s a theme that will never be out of style, because it is so key to the human experience. Is there one family in the history of civilization that can’t relate to this most basic struggle? This won’t give anything away about CODA, but there is one moment in the film where I got goosebumps and my eyes watered. (And don’t tell David Lynch, but that all happened while watching on an iPhone.) And at that emotional peak of the movie, CODA reminded me of Rain Man. And of this nugget from Rain Man screenwriter Barry Morrow that I’ve been holding on to for a few weeks:

“One of the deepest, most ancient yearnings that humans have is the unity of group. And within that the family. We all have stories here of how lives have been hurt by fractures in the family. From kids whose parents are divorced to siblings that are estranged. We hate that brokenness. So if you can do a movie—which is always about discomfort and pain—if you can tap into some really primal themes. And pay them off in a way that’s satisfying and yet not saccharine, it should resonate. Again, that’s the kismet that we tapped into [with Rain Man]. . . . This was supposed to be a slice of life. Two guys on a road for a week. Disconnected and become connected. And that disconnect is what the movie works on, always. It’s what makes it funny. It’s what makes in poignant. And when their foreheads touch at the end, that’s the connection. As subtle as it is, that should probably be the movement at which you feel the most in the movie. I’ve been in many audiences—it’s a quiet moment. And so you do hear a little sniffling. And when I first heard that, I knew that it worked.”
Barry Morrow (co-screenwriter Rain Man)
UCTV Script to Screen interview

And just like CODA, there is a large referential wake behind Rain Man. There was the 1955 film Marty and the 1968 movie Charley And the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character was actually based in part on autistic savant Bill Sackter. Barry Morrow had met Sackter in Minneapolis and became his guardian. When Morrow moved to Iowa to work at the University of Iowa he brought Sackter with him. Morrow wrote the 1983 TV movie Bill: On in Own which earned Morrow an Emmy. (That Emmy Award is on display in the University of Iowa Main Library in the Special Collections on the third floor.) 

And the documentary A Friend Indeed: The Bill Sackter Story, directed by Lane Wyrick, came out in 2008. It used much footage that Morrow shot back in the 1970s.

P.S. You may have noticed that Tom Cruise has a little film coming out next month titled Top Gun: Maverick. Of course, it’s one of the most antisipated films of the year. Back in 1986, Cruise starred in Top Gun beginning a great ten year run that in included the hit movies Rain Man, The Firm, Mission: Impossible, and Jerry Maguire. But of all of Cruise’s movies, Rain Man I the one I’ve seen the most. It’s a movie stealing role for Hoffman, but many forget Cruise’s brilliant performance in that film. For young filmmakers out there who haven’t seen Rain Man, do yourself a favor and not only watch it, but track down the DVD that has three commentaries. One with Morrow, one with co-screenwriter Ron Bass (who came on to make changes for the director), and also the commentary with the director Barry Levinson. It‘s a film course by itself. Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay at the 1989 Oscars.

Related post:
It’s the Relationships Stupid!—A Heart to Hart Talk About Movie Endings with Lindsay Doran & Moss Hart

What’s being celebrated at the ends of those movies is each other.It’s the tenderness and the kindness and the comfort of each other.”
Producer (and former president of United Artists) Lindsay Doran
2012 TED Talk, Saving the World Vs. Kissing the Girl 

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”
Opening lines of HBO’s Chernobyl

I’m going to finish watching the five-part series Chernobly in the next day or two and will write about it more extensively. But today I thought I’d pull a quote from the writer of the HBO/Sky miniseries about the 1986 nuclear disaster.

“In thematic structure, the purpose of the story—listen carefully now—the purpose of the story is to take a character, the protagonist,  from the place ignorance of the truth (or the true side of the argument you’re making) and take them all the way where they become the very embodiment of that argument. And they do it through action.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin (Chernobyl)
Scriptnotes

In Craig Mazin’s talk How to Write a Movie he likes to refer a few times to Shrek and Pixar’s Finding Nemo as being great at thematic structure, but two personal favorites I like to return to again and again is Rain Man and The Verdict where the Tom Cruise character and the Paul Newman characters start out in one place in the opening scenes and are both changed and transformed by the end of those movies.

Mazin says if you just took the opening and closing scenes of movies with strong thematic structure you would see the anthesis and the synthesis of the theme played out. Two films that jumped to my mind are Erin Brockovich and Flight that show how that plays out on screen in dramatic fashion.

But not everyone agrees on the use of theme in screenwriting, and here are 10 writers and directors giving conflicting views on the topic:

“. . . I’m quite sure that I never thought much about theme before getting roadblocked on [writing] The Stand. I suppose I thought such things were for Better Minds and Bigger Thinkers. I’m not sure I would have gotten to it as soon as I did, had I not been desperate to save my story. I was astounded at how really useful ‘thematic thinking’ turned out to be.”
Stephen King
On Writing, pages 206-207

“I’m not sure I know what themes are. I know English departments care about themes. So it’s possible to look at my work, as I guess anybody’s work, and infer a theme, but it’s not something which concerns me.”
Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet
MasterClass

“I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along.”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks)
Go Into the Story Interview with Scott Myers

“So usually, for me, I have a thematic idea—an inspiration —and then I build everything around that.”
Writer/director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up)
Masterclass/Writing the First Draft

“If somebody asks me about the themes of something I’m working on, I never have any idea what the themes are…. Somebody tells me the themes later. I sort of try to avoid developing themes.”
Writer/director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom)
Elvis Mitchell interview on KCRW’s The Treatment

From the book Script Tease by Dylan Callaghan:
Question: What guides you through a story if you don’t outline? is it character or a certain voice?
Diablo Cody: “I like to pick a theme. I know that sounds stupid. It’s not a super advanced technique. They pick a theme on Laverne and Shirley. I think about what the emotional core of the story is, what’s something I can play on across multiple story lines, and I go from there.”

“The most important decision I have to make: What is this movie about? I’m not talking about plot, although in certain very good melodramas the plot is all they’re about. A good, rousing, scary story can be a hell of a lot of fun. But what is it about emotionally? What is the theme of the movie, the spine, the arc? What does the movie mean to me?”
Sidney Lumet
Making Movies

“Every great work has something that’s thematic about it. Not a message, because I don’t think movies do messages very well. They fall flat. Socially, I mean, some great films were made back in the ’30s and ’40s and you can see that they were placed in the time they were made, but their themes are for all time. The biggest thing is the story, but within that you need some thematic element that gets the audience going, that reaches out to them.”
Writer/director John Carpenter
Creative Screenwriting, Volume 6, #1

“I try not to think about theme until later. If I’m adapting a book I’ll extract a theme if I can from something that’s already written, but if I’m writing something I don’t say, ‘oh, here’s the theme.’ I feel like the movie feels – this word I keep using – it feels ‘built’ if you start with the theme ahead of time. If you arrive at a theme that’s great. If there are themes you know you love, that’s great. But for me, if I start writing it seems it doesn’t matter to me early on. I know there are certain themes I automatically always go to, but it’s not anything conscious.”
Screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, Marley & Me)
2012 BAFTA Lecture

“The theme rarely is mentioned in the story; it is never rubbed in. The audience may not put it in words at all, but will recognize the theme and the fact that the story keeps in line with it. Suppose that you have taken for your theme the slogan, ‘It pays to advertise.’ These words may never be mentioned in the story, but the story itself will demonstrate the truth of that statement.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (The Big HouseThe Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories  (1937)
pages 106-107

“I will say like any time that we’ve gone off and written things where we haven’t really honed in on any theme whatsoever, that’s where you start getting into the weeds and you start losing your sight.”
A Quiet Place screenwriter Scott Beck (on how he and Bryan Woods work)

“Sometimes you never really quite understand what the movie’s about until you go into a matinée screening at the Oriental Theater on a Thursday afternoon.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434

Related posts:
Writing from Theme
Writing Grace Notes (via James L. Brooks & Judd Apatow)
Ryan Coogler on the Theme of Black Panther
Michael Arndt on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m in the emotional transportation business. If you want to be in that position, you have to understand drama. You have to understand how characters interact. You must understand how to move audiences emotionally, because that’s what they talk about in word of mouth. You don’t talk about what the film was about, you talk about your experience seeing the film: I loved it, I laughed, I cried, I observed. That’s what makes people go to the movies.”
Peter Guber, Chairman/CEO of Mandalay Ent Group (Exec Producer Rain Man, Batman Returns)
MovieMaker magazine
Winter 2006
Page 69

Related Post: 40 Days of Emotion

Scott W. Smith

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“I’ll tell you (what is wrong with cinema today)—nobody dies. It used to be that there were always two endings to any story—the hero either gets what he wants, or he dies trying. And in the 60s everybody died.  When Ratso Risso in Midnight Cowboy got to Florida he died, right at the end. Jack Nickolson got snuffed at the end of Cuckoo’s Nest. Let’s not talk about Bonnie & Clyde, they really died. Then the studios realized that they wanted sequels and now nobody dies. Because you can’t do a sequel if the character’s dead…So, in my opinion, there’s no real stakes in movies anymore, because you know going in that the main character is going to get what he wants, going to achieve the goal.
Academy & Emmy Winning Screenwriter Barry Morrow (Rain Man)
Interview with Stephen Jennings

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“I kept saying to over and over to myself that God would probably lead me home.”
Nadia Bloom
(11-year-old girl who was found in swampy woods after missing for several days)

“We’re looking forward to the whole story. It’s got to be awesome.”
Jeff Bloom (Nadia’s father)

The story of Nadia Bloom’s rescue from the swampy woods in Florida gets more interesting the more we learn. It’s a little in the great adventure tradition of Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway mixed with Alice in Wonderland.  A mixture of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Robinson Crusoe,  Tarzan, Rain Man, Dorothy, and a little less known but much more contemporary literary character named Lanie. (“She’s an energetic girl who discovers the world in her own back yard.”)

Nadia’s story is also a story of faith, hope and a lot of determination by a large team of people. It’s the stuff of great stories.

It turns out that she had been missing for 90 hours and the Winter Springs Police Chief said that six more hours of searching was the point where it would have turned from a rescue mission to a recovery mission.

And though there were 150 searchers in the area, the foliage is so thick that machetes are needed to proceed and visibly at times was only 20 feet.

There were 30 dog search team that couldn’t find a trail due to knee deep and waist deep water —that at times dropped to fifteen feet of murky water.

ATV, horses, divers, side scan sonar machines, helicopters and a few days time turned up nothing. It had to be discouraging.

Then early Tuesday morning James King, a church going man with five children of his own, set out at sunrise believing that God would lead him to the girl. (Granted, when the press and many people hear that— the soundtrack to Deliverance kicks in, but in this case it appears to be just a real deal person of faith. The Blind Side kind of person who is just trying to do the right thing.)

King found Nadia near the shoreline of Lake Jesup. The lake that I mentioned yesterday that is estimated to have 10,000 alligators.  It took a team of 15 men to daisy chain carrying her out of the swampy woods.

The 85-pound girl was reported to be shoeless and covered from head to toe with mosquito bites, but otherwise doing “remarkably fine.”

Nadia said she prayed to be rescued and recalled the Bible verse,  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

The sheriff’s office has her camera and those pictures will be sought after in the coming days as people will want to know what Nadia saw in her own version of Wonderland with skunks, snakes and such.

In many ways Nadia is an average elementary school girl who likes Webkinz. She or her younger sister was reading the American Girl book Lanie. (Either way I bet the story was familiar to her.) I found this description of the book at Amazon:

Ten-year-old Lanie loves science and nature, but she has a problem: she’s an “outside” girl with an “inside” family. She longs get out and go camping, but they all want to stay home. It wouldn’t be so bad if her best friend was around, but she’s halfway around the world, living out their dream of studying wildlife. Lanie feels she never gets to have any adventures-anywhere. But when her favorite aunt comes to stay, Lanie discovers that the wonders of nature are everywhere-even in her own backyard.

An adventure in her own backyard? Sound kinda familiar? Nadia’s younger sister and father at the time of her disappearance were actually on a camping trip with a Brownies troop in the Everglades.

Lanie was written by Jane Kurtz and just published at the end of 2009. Kurtz has a website and a blog and it sounds like she has had an interesting and adventurous  life as well. She was born in Portland, Oregon but moved to Ethiopia with her parents when she was just two. Speaking engagements have taken her to Uganda, Nigeria, Romania, Indonesia and many other places, and she lives in Lawrence, Kansas. (Here in the adventurous Midwest.) She also helped start Ethiopia Reads, a nonprofit group that is “planting the first libraries for children in Ethiopia.”

But what may have led Nadia into the woods more than anything was her mild Asperger syndrome. Something that can lead to a preoccupation with one subject of interest. A simple desire to take a picture on the edge of the swampland could have led to another step, and another photo, and another step until she was deep in the woods.

Nadia is not the first child for this to happen to in Florida.  Back in 1996 the NY Times reported a 10-year-old autistic boy named Taylor Touchstone disappeared four days in a black water swamp area in the Florida panhandle. That search included “Army Rangers, Green Berets, marines, deputies with the Okaloosa Country Sheriff’s Department and volunteers.”

The NY Times article said the boy went for a swim and “just felt compelled to keep moving” and was found unharmed four days later by a fisherman farther down the river than search teams imagined was possible. One thing that both Taylor and Nadia have in common other than great adventures is they both share mild forms of autism which has been reported can make them hyper-focus and times and be fearless. Perhaps the things that both led them into their adventures and helped them survive.

I’m glad James King didn’t do the sensible thing Tuesday morning and sleep in or perhaps Nadia wouldn’t have been found in the dense brush. But know from the public’s fascination to this story, as well as the literary output of the “lost in the woods/stranded on an island/on the yellow brick road” themes that it is fertile ground for writers to explore.

P.S. To add to the odd connection file, I just saw online a video at CBS News with Rev. Jeff Dixon who is the pastor at Covenant Community Church where Nadia and her family attend church. I know Rev. Dixon from my days in Central Florida and once used him as a cameraman for a video I was producing.

One last thing, if you’re ever in Central Florida and want to get a taste of Florida before Disney, visit the Black Hammock Restaurant located just a couple of miles from where Nadia was rescued.

Scott W. Smith

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A couple weeks ago two young guys appoached me for some help on a commercial they were producing and when they pitched me the idea it sounded more like a mini-series than a :30 spot. I gave them a much simpler idea and they shot it the next day and all was right in the world.

Screenwriters often fall into the same trap that these guys did. Their stories get too complicated. They want to have too many characters. Their characters speak too much.  I like simplicity, and I think audiences do too. That’s why I like this simple quote:

“A good movie is almost always a very simple story.”
Alex Epstein
Crafty Screenwriting
Page 36

Yes, there are exceptions. But think about these movies; Rain Man, North by Northwest, Rocky, Jaws, Juno, Cast Away, Sunset Blvd., Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz.  The kind of movies that people return to again and again. One thing they have in common is they are simple stories that tap into basic human needs and desires; survival, significance, understanding, solving a problem, and connecting with others in the human race.

So if your story is lost in your screenplay it may be because you’ve gotten lost in making the story too complicated. You are either trying to say too much, go in too many directions, or simply haven’t connected the beginning of your story with the end. Look at what sets your story in motion (your inciting incident or hook) and then look at how your story ends and see if there is a connection.

I now declare the new KISS principle: Keep it simple screenwriter. (Though I should add Paul Lucey’s quote on the subject; “Write simple stories and complex characters.”)

By the way, Alex Epstein has a blog called Complications Ensure: The Craftt TV and Screenwriting Blog.

Related post: Simplicity in Screenwriting (tip 27)

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I’d hate to admit to how many books on screenwriting I’ve read. I tend to agree you need just one to get you on track and then start writing. (And this blog, of course. Just for a little inspiration.) But with that said, I just starting reading John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. 

Truby has been around a long time and has a lot of people who swear by his seminars. (Check out his website Truby’s Writers Studio.) I’m just a little slow coming to the table. But then again his book just came out in 2007. 

I think I’ll spend a few days pulling a few gems from his book. Here’s the first one.

“In the vast majority of stories, the hero’s overall change moves from slavery to freedom.”
                                                          John Truby 
                                                          The Anatomy of Story 
                                                          page 177 
Truby uses the word slavery to mean a way that life is out of balance. (Koyaaisqatsi, right?) Could be slavery to money, a career, an illness, an another person, a significant loss, a worldview, a prison, etc. The number 4 definition of The Free Dictionary reads, “The condition of being subject or addicted to a specified influence.” That’s a wide path.

That’s a simple thought but as I thought of several favorite films across many genres and I realized he’s right on track. Just off the top of my head I think these films would qualify the “slavery to freedom” concept:

Rocky
Good Will Hunting
Erin Brockovich
On the Waterfront
Big
Juno
Seabiscuit 
A Christmas Carol
Home Alone
Rain Man
Shawshank Redemption

Think about the script you’re writing now and ask how your main character is in slavery. That may help you if you’re having trouble finding an ending.

 

Scott W. Smith

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Finding time to write is one of the biggest struggles for those writers with jobs and a family. But there are many stories of writers like John Grisham (The Firm) and Ron Bass (Rain Man) waking up at 5 A.M. to write before their day jobs. Now I’ve discovered another that is in that club:

“I began training for the writing life in 1951, getting up at 5:00 A.M. and writing for two hours before going to work at an ad agency. My one rule; I had to start writing, get into a scene, before I could put on coffee. Two pages a day in the early hours allowed me to turn out five books, all westerns, and over 30 short stories in the next ten years.”
                                  Elmore Leonard
                                  (Three-Ten to Yuma, Get Shorty
                                  AARP The Magazine
                                  page 29

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Years ago, philosophers Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a serious book called How to Read a Book. In it, they mentioned that unless you’d read a book three times, you really hadn’t read the book. That is, you hadn’t digested the book. I wonder how many of the estimated 1.7 billion DVDs sold last year were viewed more than once (not counting Finding Nemo).

The best way to watch a movie in order to grow as a screenwriter and filmmaker is to watch it over an over again. Writer/director Frank Darabont admits that, on his days off while making The Shawshank Redemption, “I would just watch Goodfellows again and again…just for inspiration.”

Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch George Stevens’ classic, A Place in the Sun 50 times. In fact, the single best class I had in film school was taught by a professor who showed us A Place in the Sun and afterwards asked us questions like “what sounds and visuals do you associate with the Shelly Winters’ character?” and “What music is playing whenever Elizabeth Taylors’ character appears?” It was the first time I really saw the intentionality of a filmmaker.

Film school was also the first time I was challenged to watch a film with the sound turned off and then just listening to the audio. Just out of school as VHS machines finally became affordable is when I began to break down movies scene for scene and to time the length of scenes as well.

Repeated viewing take you to a deeper understanding and appreciation of film. And now with DVDs and the like you can easily locate a single memorable scene, allowing you insights on how lighting, editing, pacing, economy of writing, direction, music sound effects and performance all come together for maximum impact.

While many DVDs come with extras, the real gold is in the commentaries. I’m not talking about the ones with film professors and critics, but the real nuggets that come from the writers and directors who made the film.

One DVD that I recommend you invest your time studying is the 15th Anniversary edition of Rain Man. The film, winner of “Best Picture” Oscar in 1988, has been out long enough to stand the test of time and be considered a modern-day classic. One aspect that separates it from the DVD pack is its three commentaries.

The director, Barry Levinson, the original writer Barry Marrow, and the rewrite writer, Ron Bass, offer more than six hours of insights that warrant repeated listening as well as the film itself.

The commentaries on Rain Man expose the collaborative process at its best. At one point, Steven Spielberg was set to direct, and had spent many months working with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise on their characters and mulling over script ideas with Bass. You learn how difficult it was to get the film made even with top talent attached.

Levinson explains how he sought to shoot in a way that would give the audience glimpses of how Hoffman’s autistic savant character saw patterns in the world. And he notes that his direction was designed to show that Cruise was as handicapped (relationally) as his brother, making the film a journey of two broken people connecting.

Rain Man works on so many levels (psychologically, visually, emotionally, and performance-wise) that you can begin to appreciate its depth only by repeated viewings.

So don’t concern yourself with watching films just to check them off your AFI Greatest Films list. Invest in couple DVDs of your favorite movies that you’ve heard good things about the commentary and watch those–study those–repeatedly. And like Van Gogh studying a Rembrandt painting, you will be partaking in a timeless creative tradition.

Here is a short list of my favorite DVD commentaries:

The Godfather; Francis Ford Coppola commentary

Stand by Me; Directing inexperienced actors and using improvisation

Seabiscuit; On adapting a film from a best-selling book

The Shawshank Redemption (15th Anniversary Edition); Frank Darabont and “Happy Accidents”

Pieces of April: On funding falling through and finally making the low-budget movie in 16 days.

Big: Commentary with writers Gary Ross and Annie Spielberg which has original excerpts of when they were writing the original script before they had ever had a script produced. Great stuff.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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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

 “Where do we go to solves life’s problems? We go to the movies… Stories are the language of the heart.”

John Eldredge

In my post “Screenwriting by Numbers” I pointed out some basic numbers common to the majority of produced screenplays. But now we’re going to go beyond mere numbers and talk about what make movies work beyond the level of entertainment.

The only time I watch cable TV is when I’m on the road. And it seems like every trip I take The Shawshank Redemption is on some channel. Maybe they should just dedicate a channel to that movie.  The Shawshank Channel. The simple reason that film is on so much is people love that film. It trades places with The Godfather on IMDB.com as fans’ favorite film.

It’s the highest rated film by Yahoo! Movies and by the 2006 the readers of Empire magazine.

The Shawshank Redepmtion is a movie people identify with. Not because they were once in a prison in Ohio back in the day, but because through all of life’s danger, toils and snares — we need hope. We can sympathize with Andy Dufresne and his predicament. An early Jimmy Buffett song comes to mind, “There’s nothing soft about hard times.”

For any writer looking for excuses don’t look to Stephen King. Long before he wrote the novella that would become The Shawshank Redemption he was an unpublished writer with a stack of rejections, teaching high school English in Hampden, Maine and living in a trailer with his wife and kid and having trouble making ends meet. He wrote his first novel (Carrie) in a laundry room balancing a typewriter on his knees. (Please read the February 12 post Screenwriters Head Back-to-Work (Tip #2) if you want to get rid of the “artist” monkey on your back.)

Once King had success then he had to deal with a drug and alcohol addiction as well as getting hit by a van while the driver was reaching for “one of those Mars bars.” A collapsed lung, a broken leg in nine places, a shattered hip and after who knows how much physical therapy and pain, he is still writing away.

Stephen King understands hard times.

We understand hard times. That’s a universal theme that doesn’t need explaining.

“Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
                 Forrest Gump, (While Jenny throws rocks at the house she grew up in.)

“Are you going to be something else I have to survive?”
                                                                                          Erin Brockovich
“I coulda been somebody.”
                                                                                          On the Waterfront 

“You don’t throw a whole life away just cause it’s banged up a little.”
 Seabiscuit 

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
William Butler Yeats
poem, The Second Coming 

“You’re breaking up with me?! I thought you were proposing.”
                                                                                          Legally Blonde

“I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that, but prison is no fairy-tale world.”
                                                                             The Shawshank Redemption 


I think Shawshank’s ongoing popularity is because the story simply transcends film. Director Frank Darabont talks about getting many letters from people thanking him for making that film because it helped them through a difficult time in their life.

It’s doubtful that when King wrote the Shawshank story or when Darabont wrote the script that either were thinking that this male dominated prison story would bring comfort to a woman going through a divorce. But good stories have a way of creeping into our lives in unexpected ways.

In seminars I’ve given it’s amazing to see how the same films pop up when I ask what films people watch over and over again:

The Wizard of Oz
Forrest Gump
Apollo 13
Star Wars
Casablanca
When Harry Met Sally
Princess Bride
Good Will Hunting
Rain Man
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Sound of Music
Braveheart

Something resonates in those films with large groups of people. I heard director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) recently say on a DVD commentary that his films were a mixture of spectacle and humanity. I think that would be true of most of the above films.

When we write we are writing about ourselves. A good part of writing is self-discovery. The odds are good that in the films you see over and over again you are identifying with a character or a situation.

This is where we tap into writing beyond the numbers. It’s the reason that films that don’t fit the typical Hollywood mold find an audience.

Have you ever walked into a show home and been impressed at first only to feel that it’s well decorated but impersonal? The house I grew up in had a place in our kitchen where we had a growth chart on a wall. It was fun to look back over the years and see how you had grown. I’ve never seen a growth chart in a show home. No worn out carpet, no stacks of paper, no drawings by the kids on the refrigerator. Nothing authentic. No sign of life.

Just as your home should be full of stories and memories- and life- so should your screenplays.

“There should be something in the writing that indicates that it was written by a person.”

William Zinsser
On Writing Well

What sets your writing apart? The same thing that sets you apart from the crowd.

Your vision, your life experiences, and your worldview. It is why first time writers (like Diablo Cody) sometimes break in with an original story. (By the way, speaking of Cody, the Juno DVD is out this week.) This is also where Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside LA comes into play big time. Here is why I think writers from outside LA, or writers in LA that keep their hometown non-LA roots, have a better chance of showing audiences something new.

“If you try to write honestly about yourself, you’re writing about every single individual in the world.”
                                                                 Walter Brown Newman
Oscar & Emmy nominated Screenwriter

I heard a speaker once say that basically we all grew up in the same neighborhood. I took that to mean we all long for the same basic things; Food, shelter, love, dignity, purpose.

Primal needs as Blake Snyder would say.

You don’t have to be a salesman to identify with Willy Loman’s need for significance in Death of a Salesman.

Sometimes as writers we jump through all kinds of strange hoops trying to guess what will sell. We err on one side by trying to write the sensational story that everyone will love and on the other side by writing the small personal story where nothing really happens.

“It’s all one story, really, the story of who we are and how we relate and how we get it wrong.”
                                                                                                Ron Bass
Rain Man

“We spend much of our lives trying to reconcile these two halves of our spirit and soul — call it identity –as we struggle to figure out just what and who we genuinely are…The reason we go to movies is precisely to explore these perpetually unanswerable questions regarding our identity.”

                                                                                                   Richard Walter

Think how these films deal with the theme of identity (who am I?):

Babe
Big
Toy Story
Shriek
Stand By Me
Fight Club
Elf
Lion King
Finding Nemo
Seabiscuit
An Officer and a Gentleman
Sense and Sensibility
Office Space
The Incredibles

They’re all about identity. Yes, we can identify with not only people, but pigs, orges, fish, and horses.

“Each film tells a story in which the central character seeks only to discover his own true identity.”

     Richard Walter

We never know how high we are, until we are called to rise and then if we are true to form, our statues touch the skies.”

Emily Dickinson

“I finally became the man I always wanted to be.”

Jerry Maguire, mission statement
written by Cameron Crowe


“Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.”

                 Anne Lamont 

“Stories are equipment for living”

Kenneth Burke

One of the female writers at a seminar I once gave said movies were cheap therapy. Perhaps you’ve seen the book Cinematherapy which develops with that concept. And cinematherapy is not just a chick thing. Once when I was at Blockbuster I saw a guy pick up Braveheart to rent and his girlfriend said, “You’ve watched that 100 times,” to which he said, “And I’ll watch it 100 more times.”

We want to be the hero of our story and we are inspired by heroes of stories we read and watch. We identify with them. We identify with William Wallace, Hans Solo, Erin Brockovich and Cinderella.

Not all films have identity themes but those that do tend to not only have a long following, but they tend to do well at award time as Linda Seger points out in her book Advanced Screenwriting, “If we look at some Academy Award winners of the 1980s and 1990s, we can see an identity theme shimmering though the philosophical, theological, and/or psychological ideas.”

That trend hasn’t stopped in the 2000s, nor is it likely to as longs as human beings roam the earth.

 “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

                                                                                 The Shawshank Redemption

Get busy writing, too.

Related posts:
Broken Wings & Silver Linings
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
Diablo Cody on Theme
Theme=What Yor Movie is Really About

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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