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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Towne’

“The world crushes your soul and the arts remind you that you have one.”
—Legendary actress/acting teacher Stella Adler

If I listed all the writers who started out as actors it would be an extensive list. But here’s a short list: Sofia Coppola, David Mamet, and Aaron Sorkin. And there are others that are still known for both acting and writing; Ben Affleck, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tina Frey, Jordan Peele, Sylvester Stallone, and Emma Thompson.

Even if you don’t have a desire to act—and just the idea terrifies some introverted writers—just taking one class for say three months is still an experience that can benefit you as a writer. Here’s what sitcom writer Sheldon Bull says new writers should do after taking a writing class or joining a writers group.

l“Take an acting class. Even if you have no aspirations to be an actor, an acting class can be invaluable to a writer. Even of you just audit the class and never do any acting yourself, it’s great to see how actors work and what their problems and challenges are. Observe how the acting teacher coaches the actors. That’s how a director on a sitcom works. You’ll see how the acting teacher gives notes to an actor. Learn how to give notes that improve the actor’s performance and build his confidence. As a sitcom writer, you are writing words that are intended to be spoken by the actors. The more you understand the acting process, the better your writing will be.”
—Producer/writer Sheldon Bull (M*A*S*H, Coach, Newhart)
Elephant Bucks, An Inside Guide to Writing for TV Sitcoms

That’s timeless advice that works across the board no matter the kind of writing you want to do. Some writers act out their lines while writing. Walt Disney was said to get so excited in story meetings that he would act out scenes as his ideas were flowing. (And you really haven’t had an acting class unless you and your classmates have all acted out being animals in a zoo.) A fringe benefit is just getting to know actors and how they’re wired. Understanding their doubts and insecurities. Their strengths and weaknesses. Plus having more actor friends help do table readings of your script is a good thing.

Robert Towne was in an acting class with Jack Nicholson when they were starting out and neither knew if they were going to have careers in Hollywood. Towne wrote the script for Chinatown with Nicholson in mind for the lead role. Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar and Towne won the Oscar for his screenplay.

If you can’t take a class in person, and interesting class to watch is the Nina Foch Course for Filmmakers and Actors. (Foch was a legendary in film, Tv, and theater actress.)

On Udemy right now, the course Directing the Actor a USC Course with Nina Foch is only $14.99 (No sponsorship.) That’s worth four hours of your time. Here’s what Alex Ferrari from Indie Film Hustle says about that course.

P.S. Two opportunities I missed while living in LA back in the ’80s. Shelly Winter’s was teaching an acting class. I was in my early 20s and only knew her then from The Poseidon Adventure, but later became aware of her two Oscars in A Patch of Blue and The Diary of Anne Frank. And my favorite Winter’s film is A Place in the Sun. I would have loved to watch her teach. And Stella Adler had long been based in New York, but opened a studio in LA around 1985 and was teaching a class that somehow involved William Hurt. I could audit the class for $360, but just couldn’t part with that money at the time. If ever those kinds of things come your way—jump at the opportunity. When I lived in Iowa, I once drove 3 hours each way to hear filmmaker David Lynch speak for a couple of hours. No regrets there.

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

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“What I like is that the secret to the mystery that [Jack Nicholson’s character J.J. Gettes is] eventually going to uncover is right in front of his eyes almost at the very beginning. And like Oedipus you have the mystery in front of you. (He was the killer and he didn’t know it.) In a sense all detective movies are surrogate retellings of the Oedipus tale. That from the very beginning you know the hands that you look at all the time are a reminder of the killer, but he doesn’t realize it until the end.”
Screenwriter Robert Towne on the Chinatown commentary with David Fincher
26:30 mark

The above comment is a little cryptic if you aren’t familiar with both Chinatown and Greek mythology. But since Robert Towne won an Oscar (Best screenplay, Original Screenplay) for writing Chinatown I thought it was worth posting since the quote “all detective movies are surrogate retellings of the Oedipus tale” was something I’d never heard anyone say, and a reminder—as Arthur Miller was fond of saying—that there is gold to draw from in the theater of ancient Greece.

Related post: Writing ‘Chinatown’

Scott W. Smith

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“I went to Jack (Nicholson) and said ‘What if I wrote a detective story set in L.A. of the ‘30s?’ He said “Great.” The one feeling I had was a desire to try and recreate the city. But that was just the beginning. Then owing to a building project near where I lived, I got a chance to see the corruption of city hall first-hand, which is where that element of the plot got into Chinatown. I then had to go to Oregon where Jack was filming Drive, He Said. I hadn’t really read Raymond Chandler at that point, so I started reading Chandler. While I was there at University of Oregon, I checked out a book from the library called “Southern California Country: Island on the Land.” In it was a chapter called “Water, water, water,” which was a revelation to me. And I thought ‘Why not do a picture about a crime that’s right out in front of everybody. Instead of a jewel-encrusted falcon, make it something as prevalent as water faucets, and make a conspiracy out of that. And after reading about what they were doing, dumping water and starving the farmers out of their land, I realized the visual and dramatic possibilities were enormous. So that was really the beginning of it.”
Screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown)
The Hollywood Interview by Alex Simon and Terry Keefe

P.S. Southern California: An Island on the Land, written by Carey McWilliams, was first published in 1946, and according to the back cover is, “Widely recognized as the best non-fiction book written about Southern California for the period 1920s through the 1940s.” Also, in the interview with Simon and Keefe, Towne also said an early influence was an copy of Old West Magazine that in 1969 recreated L.A. of the 30s.

Scott W. Smith

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“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.”
Holden Caulfield
Catcher in the Rye
Written by J.D. Salinger

How did J.D. Salinger become one of the most wanted writers in Hollywood? By not wanting Hollywood.  Perhaps it would be better said that it was not the reclusive Salinger who was wanted but his work, Catcher in the Rye. When Salinger died a few days ago I imagine producers were excited about the possibility of finally bringing the book to the screen.

Selling the film rights to Catcher in the Rye would be very lucrative for the Salinger estate.

The story goes that Salinger was so upset with the adaption of Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut (made into the 1949 film My Foolish Heart) that he was done with Hollywood. (Though I did notice on IMDB that he is credited a couple times in the last 30 years.)

I don’t know if Salinger ever stepped foot in Iowa but his spirit was drawn here. In the Field of Dreams, the character that James Earl Jones plays (Terrance Mann) was based on Salinger. In the W.P Kinsella book (Shoeless Joe) that the movie is based on the character actually is  J.D. Salinger himself, but he did not allow his name to be used in the film so changes were made. Good thing, too. It would be hard to imagine that film without James Earl Jones, a fine actor but one who doesn’t quite look like Salinger.

Not much is known about Salinger and that’s the way that he wanted it. But that will all change since his death.  Screenwriter Shane Salerno (Shaft, Armageddon) has spent five years working on a self-funded documentary on Salinger. One in which he interviewed over 150 people who “had contact with him otherwise, or were greatly influenced by him.”  (Robert Towne, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, Philip Seymour Hoffman) The documentary is based on Salinger: A Biography, written by Paul Alexander.

Salerno told Mike Fleming at Deadline Hollywood;

“I loved (Salinger’s) work, and how he had the world at his doorstep, and said no thanks. He somehow understood in 1951 the corrosive effect that fame and money could have on his writing. He was singular, and in this Internet age where people pursue their 15 minutes of fame, nobody did what Salinger did: living in the woods in New Hampshire, writing to please only himself.”

Maybe in the future it will be hip to pursue 15 minutes of reclusiveness. I think it was Blaise Pascal who said a few centuries ago that the chief problem of man was that he could not stand to be in room by himself. (I might update that to “by himself—without a TV, a computer and the Internet.”)

Scott W. Smith

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