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Posts Tagged ‘Rain Man’

“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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