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Posts Tagged ‘Rod Serling’

“In all this darkness, is there anybody who can make out the truth?”
The Twilight Zone/ episode I Am the Night —Color Me Black (1964)  

Writer/director Sean Baker spoke at Rollins College yesterday and asked the question, “Can cinema change the world?” He talked about the filmmakers and their films that have inspired him over the years.

As with his own films (The Florida Project, Tangerine), Baker is drawn to films that are “passports to the underrepresented,” and ones that shine a light on a specific subject or problem, and have potential to have a positive impact on society.

Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake)

Nicholas Meyer (The American TV movie The Day After Tomorrow, with and a nod to the BBC TV movie Threads—both movies sparked a debate about the fallout of a nuclear holocaust.)

Robert Kenner (Food, Inc)

Those films—as well as An Inconvenient Truth, JFK, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel— give you some insights on why he would be interested in doing a film about the hidden homeless or about an illegal Chinese immigrant.

Starting with an issue or a theme can be a dubious beginning as it can be seen as didactic and stepping into the murky waters of propaganda. Baker acknowledged that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he is committed to asking the hard questions.  He’s working toward change knowing that change takes time. Sometimes years or even a generation.

As a side note, Rod Serling began with a theme on The Twilight Zone episodes yet eventually found a universal audience with timeless truths.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a storyline or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt

Read Serling’s 1968 Moorpark College speech and you’ll see where he stood ideologically. But in the early ’60s he couldn’t overtly write about racism and other social concerns, so he used metaphors.  He could address xenophobia by writing about space aliens, as he did on The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.  

“[Rod Serling’s] optimism about the human condition led to stories that made one feel good about the race and its chances for emotional triumph. That, well told, will always sell.”
Producer Buck Houghton (The Twilight Zone)
What a Producer Does 

I wrote many positive posts on this blog about The Florida Project, but one thing it wasn’t was a film that gave us hope for an emotional triumph. I think that is why it had a limited audience. Audiences like to see a character change for the better, even if it’s just one tiny step forward. Halley (Bria Vinaite’s character) took (at least) two giant steps backward and devolved (taking her daughter with her) making it difficult for some to even finish watching the film.

Baker’s a bold filmmaker. It takes him three years to make a film so he made the film he wanted to make.  And maybe the change—the emotional triumph that he wanted to see was not one that happened on the screen, but one that happened to those that watched the film. Personally, no film resonated and haunted me more in 2017 than The Florida Project. 

Baker said last night that “the true success of The Florida Project” was that Rollins College has promised a full four-year scholarship to Christopher Rivera, the child actor who plays Scooty in the film. Rivera was living in a hotel in Kissimmee, Florida when he was cast to be in the film alongside Brooklynn Prince. (According to the Orlando Sentinel, with room and board at Rollins that offer is “roughly $250,000 at current prices.”)

As Baker pointed out, change can be on a micro level. One life changed because The Florida Project co-writer Chris Bergoch learned via news outlets about the hidden homeless living in hotels in the shadow of Disney World.

P.S. I know one of the conventions of indie filmmakers is unconventionality. Offbeat (even unlikeable) main characters, mini or non-plot stories, and downbeat endings. But if you want to nudge the world a little—to borrow Tom Stoppard’s phrase once again—please revisit On the Waterfront. It’s Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. (Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg, Eva Marie Saint, Leonard Berstein) And it’s based on articles by Malcolm Johnson (see the book On the Waterfront) based on corruption that was common on the New York Harbor.

It’s a film that’s very specific to New York City/Hoboken, New Jersey in the ’40s & ’50s, and yet a timeless story that’s played out in one form or another throughout the world, throughout history.  Considered a great American film—by some—and an anti-American film by others. Nothing like a controversy to keep the conversation going. It’s number eight on AFI’s 100 Films…100 Years list, and one of my favorites that I return to again and again.

On the Waterfront won eight Acadamy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Here’s the screenplay. The film is available on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection.

Not all writers agree on the role they have in plying their trade. Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet writes in On Film Directing, “People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people’s lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn’t work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn’t. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.”

On the other hand, when Charles Dickens wanted to address child labor laws and other poor social conditions in London, he didn’t write a pamphlet encouraging reforms—he wrote Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and A Christmas Carol.

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
Bruce Springsteen/My Hometown

Musician Bruce Springsteen walks that line of entertaining large crowds, yet at the same time writing and recording songs with a social consciousness. Youngstown is one of my favorite Springsteen songs because it connects me to a grandfather I never met who spent over 30 years working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mill.

I’ll write more about Springsteen and his Broadway special later, but one of the reasons his songs are both gritty and hopeful is he mixes blues with gospel music over and over again in his songs.

“If you look at all my songs – ‘Badlands,’ ‘Promised Land’ – it’s the way I sing ‘Badlands;’ it’s the verse of ‘Promised Land;’ it’s the chorus of ‘Born in the USA.’ The spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I got from gospel music in the church, and then the blues and what the song is — the details of what the song is moving to transcend are almost always contained in the verses.”
Bruce Springsteen
NPR interview with Terry Gross

Related posts:

The Florida Project Revisited 

The Florida Project

The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of The Florid Project

Sean Baker Aiming for Someplace Different…and Striking Gold

The Rusty Gears of Three Acts and Blurring the Lines of Traditional Screenplay Structure with The Florida Project

The Florida Project and Shining a Light

The Eye Candy of The Florida Project

Thanksgiving with The Florida Project and Pieces of April

The Florida Project—Margaritaville or Bust

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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A nice segue from my recent Rod Serling posts (and even my golf/movie related posts from a couple of weeks ago) is the following quote by Oscar-winner screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Serling was born in Syracuse, New York and Sorkin went to Syracuse University.

“I have a lot of experience with failure, and I hate it. It’s going to happen again, but it’s like electroshock therapy. So combined with the pressure that you put on yourself, that’s pretty much the jet fuel for writing. You know when you’re not [writing well], when you’re slogging through it and it’s all coming like molasses, you know something’s wrong. But when you’re writing well, there’s nothing like it. It’s like the golfer who hacks his way around a golf course all day long, but then for some reason, you don’t know why, just hits a beautiful shot. That’s the reason they keep coming back to the golf course.”
Aaron Sorkin (West Wing creator)
Emmys Roundtable—The Hollywood Reporter 

Bonus failure quote from the same article:

“When I’m being really honest with myself, the only thing I ever learn from is failure. Because Breaking Bad is the rare success I’ve had in my career.”
Vince Gilligan

Related posts:

J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure
Commitment in the Face of Failure
Spectacular Failures
Rod Serling on Rejection
Winning. Losing and Little Miss Sunshine “From my perspective, the difference between success and failure was razor-thin…”—Oscar-winning Screenwriter Michael Arndt
Orson Welles at USC in 1981 (Part 3) “Anybody who goes into film has to be a little crazy. And has to be ready for every kind of disappointment and defeat.”—Welles

Scott W. Smith

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You’ve heard the story about how basketball great Michael Jordan once got cut from his high school basketball team, right? This is kinda of like that—The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling recounting some early stuggles in his writing career.

The writer in any field, and particularly the television writer, runs into ‘dry periods’—weeks or months when it seems that everything he writes goes the rounds and ultimately gets nowhere. This is not only a bad moment but an endless one. I remember a five-month period late in 1952 when my diet consisted chiefly of black coffee and fingernails. I’d written six half-hour television plays and each one had been rejected at least five times. What this kind of thing does to a family budget is obvious; and what it does to the personality of the writer is even worse. The typewriter on my desk was no longer a helpmate; it took on the guise of an opponent. The keys seemed stiff and unyielding. The carriage seemed bulky and sluggish, and the wastepaper basket would get crammed by the hour with discarded pages—a testimonial to my unsureness as to what to write and how to write itToward the end of this, I got a letter from Mr. Worthington Miner. He was a major-league, top-drawer television producer. And to get a letter from him, particularly a letter asking to see scripts, was like a third string pony-league pitcher getting a telegram from John McGraw telling him to come up and pitch for the Giants. I flew into New York to see him, my briefcase bulging with manuscripts. Tony read them, and during our second meeting informed me that he’d like to buy at least six of them. He was putting together a new show to be sponsored by an auto company, and my work impressed him. The feeling I got in that given moment was something akin to what a person feels when he is notified that he’s just won the Irish sweepstakes. The knees begin to give out and there’s a roar that begins some place down deep in the gut and starts to travel toward the throat. Fifteen minutes later I was on the telephone calling my wife and guzzling a Scotch on the rocks I ordered from room service (tipping the bellboy a whole buck), and adding up in my mind know very well by now how prophetic were his words, how much are six times six or seven hundred dollars. One week later, back in Ohio, I got another letter from Tony Miner apologizing and explaining that the show he was putting together had been shunted off to another agency and he would not be producing it. The guy who had won the Irish sweepstakes couldn’t find his ticket stub. It was that kind of feeling. For some perverse reason I saved Tony’s second letter; my wife put it into a scrapbook. And sometimes I take a look at it as a piece of memorabilia to document a bad moment that on the scale of a career’s ups and downs represents the bottom of the barrel. A writer’s career is studded with the near sales, the close hits, the almost-but-never-wases. And afterward, when he becomes accustomed to eating a little higher off the hawg, the bad moments get remembered. And no matter what you eat, it tastes like pheasant under glass.”
Rod Serling
1957 Introduction to the Bantam Paperback Patterns

P.S. Patterns was broadcast live on January 12, 1955 and was so popular it was broadcast live again with the same cast less than a month later.

 

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“In 11-12 years of writing I can lay claim to this—I’ve never written beneath myself. I’ve never written anything I didn’t want my name attached to.”
Rod Serling in 1959

“No one could know Serling, or view or read his work, without recognizing his deep affection for humanity … and his determination to enlarge our horizons by giving us a better understanding of ourselves.”
Gene Roddenberry

If I could arrange for a dinner  with special guests in The Twilight Zone I love to sit at a table with Rod Serling, Francis Ford Coppola, Tennessee Williams, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, and Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody. (You can invite who you want to your Twilight Zone dinner, but these are who I invited.)

These all happen to be writers who have written and/or spoken quite well about success, struggles, and spirituality in the context of creativity and culture.

“What I tried to suggest dramatically [in The Velvet Alley] is when you get into the big money—particularly in the detonating, exciting, explosive overnight way that our industry permits—there are certain blandishments that a guy can succumb to and many do. A preoccupation with status, with the symbols of status, with the heated swimming pool that’s ten feet longer than the neighbors.With the big car. With concern about billing. All these things. In a sense really minute things really in context, but that become disproportionately large in a guy’s mind. ”
Rod Serling

When Mike Wallace asked Serling when those preoccupation with the symbolism of status becomes large what becomes small, here’s what Serling said in that 1959 interview:

“I think probably the really valuable things. And I know this sounds corny,  but  things like having a family, being concerned with raising children, being concerned with where they go to school, being concerned with a good martial relationship–all these things I think are the essence. Unfortunately, and what I tried to dramatize in The Velvet Alley was that the guy who makes the success is immediately assailed by everybody. And you suddenly find you have to compromise along the line giving so many hours to work and a disproportionately number fewer number of hours to family. And this is inherent in our business.”

Serling went on to say that he worked on The Twilight Zone 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week.

When you comin’ home dad?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son
You know we’ll have a good time then
Cats in the Craddle lyrics written by Harry Chapin

Below is a opening from The Velvet Alley that first aired in 1959 on Playhouse 90 with a cast that included Art Carney, Leslie Nelson, Jack Klugman, Micky Dolenz, Dyan Cannon, and Burt Renyolds. And directed by Franklin J. Schaffner who won an Oscar for directing Patton. You can rent the whole program on Amazon. (I wonder if you go to clip six on the You Tube link you may wonder if Cameron Crowe saw this scene before he wrote Jerry Maguire.)

 

Related posts:

“The Catastrophe of Success” (Part 1)
“The Catastrophe of Success” (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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Leave It to Beaver is probably the most classic TV show ever. There’s just something so wholesome about it.”
Kurt Cobain interview with Kurt Saint Thomas

Who knows how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far, so fast
But, somewhere back there in the dust
That same small town in each of us
The End of the Innocence 
Written by Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby

I always enjoy hearing from people who’ve been to the top of the mountain. Their experiences and stories help give one perspective on life.  Just a few months before Rod Serling died he was asked, “If you could live in another time, another era, what period would that be?”

“That’s a good one. Well, if I had the means, I think I would like to be in Victorian times. Small town. Bandstands. Summer. That kind of thing. Without disease.  I think that’s what I would crave, a simpler form of existence. When you walked to a store and sat on the front porch.”
Rod Serling
Rod Serling’s Final Interview

Related posts:

Rod Serling’s Binghamton Roots
Movies from Main Street

Scott W. Smith

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“Well somewhere along the line your drinks caught up with you and you got lost…”
The Twilight Zone episode Stopover in a Quiet Town

On this repost Saturday, I’m tapping into a post I originally wrote in 2009. Of course, Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone are ageless:

All filmmaking is embracing limitations because you always have to draw the line somewhere on running time and expenses.

The Twilight Zone was no exception. Now considered one of the best programs ever produced for television it had trouble finding an audience in the early sixties an actually only ran for a few years. Rod Serling wrote 49 original programs in three years which is an amazing output. According to The Twilight Zone producer Buck Houghton, Serling came up with a pattern that became the standard for all programs.

According to Houghton in his book What a Producer Does here are a few of the patterns they used.

Find an interesting character, or a group, at a moment of crisis in life, and get there quickly; then lay on some magic.

The character(s) must be ordinary and average and modern, and the problem facing him (her, them) must be commonplace. (The Twilight Zone always stuck people as identifiable as to whom it was about, and the story hangups as resonant of their own fears, dreams, wishes.)

The story must be impossible in the real world. A request at some point to suspend disbelief is a trademark of the series.

Embrace your limitations.

Scott W. Smith

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Writing Quote #47 (Rod Serling)

“I don’t have any system. I dictate a lot, through a machine, and I also have a secretary. But I used to type just like everybody else. I find dictating in the mass media particularly good because you’re writing for voice anyway; you’re writing for people to say a line and, consequently, saying a line through a machine is quite a valid test for the validity of what you’re saying. If it sounds good as you say it, likely as not it’ll sound good when an actor’s saying it. The tendency when you dictate is to overwrite, because you’re not counting pages, you don’t really know what the hell the page count is. But in terms of standing up when I write, what hour I write, that all relates very specifically to the individual. Writers vary tremendously. Was it Tom Wolfe who stood up or was it Hemingway who had to stand up? I don’t know.  And I think Wolfe wrote in longhand. You know, it depends on the animal, particularly who’s doing it. In my case, the only thing I would say was part of the discipline is that I have to start writing quite early. I write much better in the nonconfines of the early morning than I do the clutter of the day.”
Rod Serling
1975 interview with Linda Brevelle

Related post: The Breakfast Club for Writers (2.0)

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Somehow, some way, incredibly enough, good writing ultimately gets recognized. I don’t know how that happens but it does. If you’re really a good writer and deserve that honored position, then by God, you’ll write, and you’ll be read, and you’ll be produced somehow. It just works that way.”
Playwright/screenwriter Rod Serling (Requiem for a Heavyweight, Planet of the Apes)
1975 interview with Linda Brevelle

In the post Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany I wrote about the time when Serling was 27 or 28 years old and working as an advertising writer for a Cincinnati, Ohio  television station. If you met Serling at that point in his life—when he was “making up testimonial letters”—you might not think he was destined for greatness as the creator of The Twilight Zone. 

But if you happen to be writing screenplays in some unlikely place—in between “making up testimonial letter”—memorize Serling’s words, “Somehow, some way.” But that only happens when you’re cranking out scripts and sending them out—or making your own films.

That Ohio Epiphany  post was written four years ago and in the comments section there was a reply by “Loyd” which I said at the time officially put him in the “Screenwriting from Iowa” Comment Hall of Fame.  Loyd was Loyd Boldman and he died last month. I’d known him for probably 15 years and he was a true Renaissance man, and one of the most creative people I’d ever met.

He also happened to be from Cincinnati. I didn’t learn until Loyd’s memorial service that he inspired his younger brother Craig Boldman to became a cartoonist. Craig’s worked on the DC Comic’s Superman and Bazooka Joe.

Here’s Loyd’s comment written in 2010 after the Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany post:

“I remember Serling as a striking presence, a ghost that haunted each Twilight Zone episode. His wry sense of humor, rugged good looks and cool demeanor were an odd idea for the host of a fantasy/sci-fi series, but in a strange way, perfect.

When is the last time TV had a writer who could command such attention? Harlan Ellison has tried it and come close, but he lacks the temperament–you always feel his rage. Serling exuded a sense of control. Ellison is always one turn from flying off the rails.

Serling was a great moralistic writer, something he shared with Mark Twain, O. Henry and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Each Twilight Zone episode was a fable with a moral twist at the end. Serling also connected with so-called “common men” and understood their ambitions. He also had a hatred for the pettiness of small dictators clutching for power that always slips through their fingers.

The only name that even comes close to the output, consistency and supervisory skill that Serling demonstrated is Aaron Sorkin, who wrote The American President, A Few Good Men, The West Wing and Sports Night, and even the well-written but doomed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin lacks the range and imagination of Serling, however. In the arena that Serling created, he is still the champion.”

–Loyd

Related links:
Writers Breaking In
Writers Not Breaking In (Part 1)
Writers Not Breaking In (Part 2)
The Myth of “Breaking-In” (Tip #58)
There are no rules, but… (Tip #93+)
Keep Your Head Down

Scott W. Smith

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Former Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden once said of a standout player, “He may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in— it doesn’t take long to take roll.” (That’s from memory, but you get the point.)  I thought of that quote I heard decades ago when I read the following quote by Rod Serling.

You have to compromise all the way down the line no matter who you are. Unless, of course—you say I’m an affluent screenwriter and all that—I’m a known screenwriter, but I’m not in the fraternity of the very, very major people. I would say a guy like Ernie Lehman, William Goldman, and a few others are quite a cut above. There’s a marvelous and unique man named Frank Gilroy. He’s the only writer I know who absolutely, pointedly refuses to do any changes that he doesn’t feel are absolutely essential and totally in keeping with his own view and perspective. But not too many writers are that independent and that strong-willed.”
The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling
Rod Serling:The Facts of Life interview with Linda Brevelle

P.S.  I found the link to Brevelle’s interview via nofilmschool and it’s believed to be his last interview before Serling died in 1975 at age 50. Serling’s work was great at giving people a fresh perspective on life. When I read the interview the first thing that jumped out at me was the above quote because it’s a reminder that there’s always a food chain. That’s true not only in the world of screenwriting—but if you play professional sports, become a world-class surgeon, or become the President of a great county. Don’t be discouraged by that, but it should help keep you humble. Simply do the best you can, with the skills you have, wherever you live. Stay in your lane because you can’t run William Goldman, Ernest Lehman, or Rod Serling’s race.

P.P.S. And not to take anything way from 6-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), but time has been very good to Rod Serling’s legacy and I don’t think Serling’s “quite a cut above” comment is true. Despite not attracting a wide audience when it first ran in 1959-1962, in 2013 The Twilight Zone ranked fifth on TV Guide Magazine’s 60 Best Series of All Time. (Following The Sopranos, Seinfeld,  I Love Lucy, and All in the Family. )

Related links:

Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany
Rod Serling’s Binghamton Roots
Stories that Will Always Sell (Tip #89)
Spike, Woody, and The Twilight Zone
Screenwriting Quote #111 (Ernest Lehman)
William Goldman Stands Alone

 

Scott W. Smith  

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The Twilight Zone was in peril of not being renewed, season after season. It was not a hit, rating-wise; succès d’estime, yes but not the sort of series anyone could have predicted would be running thirty years later. [Rod] Serling’s skill as a writer has a lot to do with that…also his compassion for the human race as he saw it around him, from day to day. His optimism about the human condition led to stories that made one feel good about the race and its chances for emotional triumph. That, well told, will always sell.”
Producer Buck Houghton (The Twilight Zone)
What a Producer Does (First published in 1991)

P.S. Look at this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominations and look back on past Oscar-winning Best Pictures and see how many end showing an “emotional triumph.” Not all, but it’s an interesting gauge. And even in death there can be an emotional triumph—Gladiator, Titanic, Braveheart.

Bonus:
“The Twilight Zone at its best is better than anything else I’ve ever seen on television…Walking Distance is maybe the show’s best episode.”
Producer/Writer/director J.J. Abrams (LOST)
Time/ Top 10 Twilight Zone Episodes

Related Posts:
The Twilight Zone Secrets
Rod Serling’s Binghamton Roots
Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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