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Posts Tagged ‘Russell Crowe’

One of the great things about watching films over and over again is you begin to notice little details and see patterns emerge.  Ideally the first time you watch a movie you are simply engaged in the story.  Then you go back as a screenwriter looking for clues as to what made the films work, and more importantly what will make you a better screenwriter and filmmaker. One things you’ll notice in many films—off the top of my head The Verdict, A Beautiful Mind, Erin Brockovich and Juno come to mind—is in those films the main characters (Paul Newman, Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts and Ellen Page) are in almost every scene in the movie. There’s a reason for that.

Stay with the money. The audience came because you advertised the star. Shoot the star. (NB: Howard Lindsay,* coauthor of the plays Arsenic and Old Lace, Life with Father, State of the Union, et cetera, once privately printed a small volume of stage wisdom. One of his axioms was: take the great lines from the secondary characters and give them to the lead. This works like gangbusters in film and on stage).”
David Mamet
Bambi VS. Godzilla
page 112

*Lindsay (1889-1969) along with writing partner Russel Crouse won the Pulitzer Prize for their 1946 play State of the Union, but they are better known for their work on the Tony Award-winning The Sound of Music. Lindsay’s had more than 25 films made from his work and was the co-screenwriter of the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers movie Swing Time. That movie features the Oscar-winning song The Way You Look Tonight, which has been covered by many people including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. The song was also featured in the 1991 film Father of the Bride and sung by Steve Tyrell. Today many people are most familiar with the Rod Stewart rendition.

Related Post: Screenwriting Quote #143 (Elia Kazan)” ‘Have your central character in every scene.’ This is a way of ensuring unity to the work and keeping the focus sharp.”

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“It’s a difficult case…to give a man back his heart.”
Angel (John Travolta) in Michael

“The fact is, I don’t like people much. And they don’t like me.”
John Nash in A Beautiful Mind


At the core of the film A Beautiful Mind is a love story. Sure it deals with mental illness and the fragmented life of John Nash, but at the end of the day—it is a love story. A love story between John Nash (Russell Crowe) and his wife Alica (Jennifer Connelly). Here is how screenwriter Akiva Goldsman brings the story to a close as Nash gives a speech at the end of the film:

INT.—ROYAL SWEDISH ACADEMY—NOBEL CEREMONY

A giant hall. Full. Nash, stands at the podium, blinking his eyes. Hundreds sit watching, as camera flashbulbs finally cease.

But Nash just stands there. A long beat. And even longer.

KING-CLOSE. In the audience. Concerned. (*)

ALICA-CLOSE. In the front row. Starting to worry.

Back to Nash. Still standing there. See what he sees. Hundreds of faces staring back at him. Finally, just when all seems lost…

Nash: Thanks You for your patience.

But he’s not only looking at the speech before him. He’s not looking at the audience. He’s looking at Alicia.

Nash: I have always believed in numbers. In the equations and logics that lead to reason. I was wrong. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reason can be found. Perhaps it is good to have a beautiful mind. But a better gift is to discover a beautiful heart.

And suddenly there is no one else in the room but the two of them, Nash’s magical vision reveling the patterns of the heart.

Nash: Thank you for your belief in me after so many years. You are the reason I am here today.

On the A Beautiful Mind DVD commentary this is how screenwriter Goldsman sums up that scene;

“This speech, which was not a speech that was actually made, was for me a construct for me to signify what was important about the theme of the film and personally my experience with people who suffer from mental illness began very young, and this movie and the writing of this movie was a tribute to my mother…What she taught me is this ‘It is a good thing to have a beautiful mind, but a better gift is to discover a beautiful heart.’ I’d like to believe that’s what this movie’s about.”

And as a nice poetic gesture, Goldsman’s mother was on stage sitting behind Russell Crowe when they filmmed that scene.

Nash’s personal life may have been even more schizophrenic than the movie, (and we could debate the dichotomy separating the head and heart for the next decade) but I think director Ron Howard & Goldsman were simply creating a story that would resonate more with audiences’ hopes and dreams. How we’d like life to be, rather than how it is. The movie did resonate with audiences and the Academy as well as it won four Oscars in 2002, including Best Director, Best Picture and Best Screenplay (based on other material, Sylvia Nasar’s book A Beautiful Mind, The Life of a Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laurate John Nash.)

And over the credits of the film is the beautiful voice of Charlotte Church singing All Love Can Be:

I will guard you with my bright wings,
Stay till your heart learns to see
All love can be

Happy Valentine’s Day—

(*) Isn’t that moment echoed in The King’s Speech?

Scott W. Smith



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Last night I watched Michael Mann’s Heat for the first time. I’m not sure what took me 15 years to see the film starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. I should have seen this when it first came out if for no other reason that I believe it’s the first time Pacino and DeNiro faced each other in a film. It’s not your typical good guy/bad guy story. Mann exposes for the grey areas of the characters and you think that it wouldn’t take much for the good guy to be the bad guy and the bad guy to be the good guy. Similar criminal minds who have taken different paths that pit them against each other.

My favorite line in the film was said by Val Kilmer when De Niro asks him why his woman is leaving him and Kilmer says (in his ocean front house), “Not enough steaks in the freezer.”  That’s tight writing and we know he’s not talking about literal “steaks in the freezer.”

Heat screenwriter/ director Michael Mann was born and raised in Chicago and got turned on to filmmaking while an English major at the University of Wisconsin. He made documentaries in London before writing for TV shows like Starsky & Hutch and Police Story and creating Miami Vice. From there he’s gone on to write and or direct some terrific feature films including The Last of the Mohicans, Collateral, and The Insider. Along the way he’s picked up four Oscar nominations.

To get a glimpse of how Mann works here is a part of an interview that Mann did with Michael Sragow talking about writing and directing The Insider starring Pacino and Russell Crowe:

I tried to direct the subtext. That’s where I found the meaning of the scenes. You could write the story of certain scenes in a code that would be completely coherent but have nothing to do with the lines you hear.

For example, in the hotel room scene, Scene 35, when Lowell and Jeffrey first meet: All Lowell knows for sure is that Jeffrey has said “no” to helping him analyze a story about tobacco for “60 Minutes.” He doesn’t know yet that there’s a “yes” hiding behind this “no.” There’s a whole story going on that’s not what anybody’s talking about.

If you wrote an alternate speech for Jeffrey, it would go: “I’m here to resurrect some of my dignity, because I’ve been fired, and that’s why I dressed up this way and that’s why I have these patrician, corporate-officer attitudes.” And you could do the same for Lowell, and have him sitting there and saying, “This man wants to tell me something that is not about why he’s meeting me.”

Al Pacino just took over Lowell’s great reporter’s intuition to sit there and laser-scan Jeffrey with his eyes. You know, he looks at him, looks at him, and doesn’t move, until, after all the fidgeting and shuffling with the papers, Russell, as Jeffrey, gets to say his great line — “I was a corporate vice president” — with the attitude “Once upon a time, I was a very important person.” And that [Mann snaps his fingers] is when Lowell has it.

Suddenly, here’s the significance of this meeting: “He’s the former head of research and development at Browne & Williamson Tobacco Company, and he wants to talk to me.” Without hitting anything on the head with exposition, without any of that awful dialogue, like “Boy, have I got a lead which may give us the newsbreak of the decade,” you know that Lowell knows he’s on the scent of a helluva story.

Scott W. Smith

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When the Sylvia Nasar biography A Beautiful Mind, the story of  John Nash, was brought to the screen it was a giant of a creative team that created a beautiful movie.

It not only earned Russell Crowe, who played John Nash, the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role, but at the 2002 Academy Awards it won four awards; Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Jennifer Connely), Best Director (Ron Howard), Best Picture (Ron Howard & Brian Grazer) and Best Writing, Screenplay based on Material Previously Produced (Akiva Goldsman).

Screenwriter Goldsman is another case of taking the long and winding road to success. With an MFA from NYU Goldsman spent 10 years as a failed novelist (his words) before turning to screenwriting. But one of his first nominations wasn’t the good kind. He was nominated for worst script by the Golden Raspberry Awards (Razzies) for his Batman & Robin script.

These days Goldsman is reported to have been paid $4 million to write the sequel to the Da Vinci Code making him one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. In the introduction of The Shooting Script; A Beautiful Mind,  published by Newmarket press, Goldsman touches on what it took for him to write an Academy Award winning film:

“I’ll skip the writing part, except to say, I used about a million packs of cigarettes, a thousand pots of coffee, several hundred cans of tuna eaten over the sink, and my whole heart.”

Akiva Goldsman, Introduction in
                                                                       The Shooting Script; A Beautiful Mind
                                                                       Newmarket Press

It’s hard to do anything with your whole heart for five minutes, much less write an entire script that way. Think about what it means to do something with your whole heart. The image that comes to mind for me is of triathlete Julie Moss who became famous (as well as the sport itself) when she collapsed (while in the lead) toward the end of the 1982 Ironman competition and crawled the last 100 yards to the finish line.

Copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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What can politics teach us about screenwriting?

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I’ve already talked about the importance of conflict so let’s skip over that for this blog. And first let me say that I took all the photos for this section in the months leading up to the famed Iowa caucus. Jay Leno joked that many people don’t realize that the word caucus is Indian for “The one day anyone pays attention to Iowa.” (Bonus points if you can tell which political “Where’s Waldo” is in the above photo.)

The highest point in Iowa is just 1,670 feet but the political view from just about anywhere is spectacular leading up to the caucus. We understand politics and power, but what’s this all got to do with screenwriting?

When I connect screenwriting and politics it is not the Watergate Hotel, Bill Clinton’s cigar, hanging chads in Palm Beach, restrooms at the Minneapolis airport, or the back stabbing kind of politics. I simply mean this year’s race for the presidency of the United States. The process of going from the many to the one.   I call this the power of one.

When I set out to write my first screenplay one of the first questions I wondered about was, “How do you keep track of all the characters?”  My answer now could make this my shortest post ever; Your screenplay is about one person. Not too hard to keep track of one person is it? Feel better?

Granted not every character is on a deserted island like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. (I still see Wilson sadly drifting away–“WILSON!”) But most scripts are like Cast Away in that the story is really about one person being transformed. Even if it appears that the film is about two or three people it’s really about one person. Just like there is only going to be one president. Here are a couple Academy Award winning examples:

Good Will Hunting – Will (Matt Damon) is the one who is changed at the end. Ben Affleck’s character is basically unchanged. It’s Will’s story.

The Shawshank Redemption – Where would Andy (Tim Robbins)  be without Red (Morgan Freeman)? But it is Andy’s story. Red is like the Vice President.

Rain Man – Dustin Hoffman got the Oscar and the memorable lines, but the story is really about Tom Cruise’s character. He is the one who undergoes the transformation.

Wasn’t that simple? Sure there will be more than one character in your script,  a strong antagonist and a supporting cast, even a couple subplots,  but your script will have one focal point. There are exceptions–such as ensemble casts (Crash, Magnolia, any Altman film)–but I am addressing probably 75% of all films made.

One could even argue that in buddy films like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and Thelma & Louise that the characters are so close they represent one person. (And those dynamic duo’s are as rare as they are close.)

As I mentioned, here in Iowa we get a ground floor perspective on the presidential candidates. And not just for a week or two leading up to the caucuses but it’s a several month-long process. In fact, my writer friend Matthew said it should come with a warning, “If elections last longer than three months…see your doctor.”

My goal leading up to the ’08 election was to see as many of the candidates as I could. I got a nice jump-start when I received a call from Des Moines to cover an event in my neck of the woods where I would be video taping six of the presidential hopefuls. By the time the caucuses were over on January 3 I had seen a total of 13.

It is a bit overwhelming to keep track of what 13 people believe and what they say they can do for the country. For the majority of the candidates I was within ten feet of them and all this happened no more than ten miles from my home. Considering I had only seen one other presidential candidate in my life, I thought it was a pretty interesting opportunity.

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Tuesday night Mike Huckabee officially dropped out of the Republican primary so what was over a dozen candidates just two months ago is down to three viable ones. By November it will be either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama versus John McCain.

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But come January there will be one new president. And just one.

And so it is with your script. Pour your creative energy into one main character and you will be on your way to keeping track of your characters. I need to stress the importance of reading scripts a lot more than reading books about screenwriting. In reading a script multiple times you will begin to see patterns. Read Susan Grant’s wonderful script for Erin Brockovich and you’ll see that Erin (Julia Roberts) is in every single scene.   In most cases if your protagonist  is not in a scene you need to have a good reason for that scene being there. (And if neither the protagonist or antagonist is in a scene you need to take an extra long look at why that scene is in your script.)

To test this out I just flipped through Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning original screenplay Juno, I found three scenes without Juno but even those three were about or connected to Juno. The same thing holds true for A Beautiful Mind where the script I have has John Nash (Russell Crowe) in every scene. (Even if I missed a scene or two where the protagonist is absent you have to admit the evidence for the power of one is pretty strong.)

So the main ways to keep track of your characters is to limit them and don’t let them wander off-screen too long.

This isn’t just a Hollywood movie star thing, it keeps the story on track. Easy for you the writer, easy for the reader at the studio or production company who is reading four scripts a day, and easy for the audience to follow.

We’ll look at the importance of a strong protagonist later, but think of your favorite films and how one character is at the center of the show. Never underestimate the power of one.

I’m sure if Addicus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night), or Ellen Ripley (Aliens) were running for the presidency they’d get a few votes. Heck, I bet The Terminator could even win the thing. What would his plan for Iraq be? Maybe in the future there will be amendment to the Constitution that allows cyborgs to run for president.

Photos & Text Copyright © 2008 Scott W. Smith

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