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Posts Tagged ‘Saving Private Ryan’

Robert Rodat was born in Keene, New Hampshire and received his bachelor’s degree in history from Colgate University and a MBA from Harvard. That’s pretty solid credentials to start with, but just for good measure he added an MFA in Film from USC. (Seriously, how many screenwriters have an MBA? From Harvard nonetheless. Just one more writer with a Harvard background.)

He had a couple TV movie credits and wrote the feature Fly Away Home before earning an Oscar nomination for his Saving Private Ryan script. The film won a total of five Academy Awards including Steven Spielberg’s second best director Oscar.

In a New York Daily News article Denis Hamil writes that Rodat’s research for historical projects includes reading in the range of 30 books as well as journals and letters on the subject at hand.

In 2000, The Patriot staring Mel Gibson from a script by Rodat was released. Rodat at the time was quoted by Hamil saying;

“What interests me right now is big-canvas stories told from an intimate perspective. I like to find one small story within the larger picture and use that – not as a microcosm, but as an illustration. I don’t claim that Benjamin Martin, my main character in ‘The Patriot,’ says everything there is to say about the American Revolution. But the goal is to have one small, emotional and dramatic story about a complex character – with a matrix of people around him [who can transport] the audience to a different world and time.”

Didn’t Victor Hugo “find one small story within the larger picture”” when he wrote Les Miserables? Didn’t Tolstoy do the same in War & Peace ? Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind?  Michael Blake with Dances with Wolves? Keep that in mind if you are tackling a story of epic proportions. Think big and think small.

Though some of my info is dated, I believe Rodat lives in Massachusetts and is the screenwriter attached to the World of Warcraft movie that will be directed by Sam Raimi.

PS. Where was Private Ryan (Matt Damon’s character) from? Iowa. (Though an early version of the script has the Ryan farm in Mansfield, Ohio.) Here’s an example from Rodat’s script where you can see how he unpacks a sense of place. Quite a contrast from the chaotic Omaha Beach battle scenes toward the start of the film.

Related Post: Screenwriting from Hell (War movies and the five Sullivan Brother’s who were all killed on the same ship during World War II.)

Scott W. Smith

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“If you are an aspiring filmmaker, in this day of inflating budgets and runaway production, the truth is you can make a movie for no money in New York… and have a blast.”
Edward Burns

Back in 1995 Edward Burns showed the world a little film that he produced, directed, and was also the lead actor. That little film, The Brothers McMullen, had a big impact on his career. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of ’95 and won the Grand Jury Prize. The $25,000. film was released later that summer and grossed over $10 million.

“For my first film, basically what I did was I wrote a list of locations I knew I could get for free. I live in New York, and I knew you don’t need permits to shoot in Central Park. So I put five scenes in Central Park. Part of indie filmmaking is that you have to believe in compromise.  And that isn’t necessarily a dirty word.”
Edward Burns
Indiewire article by Peter Knegt

And though he has gone on to earn big paychecks as an actor on large Hollywood films as varied as Saving Private Ryan and 27 Dresses, he’s never lost his desire to write and direct smaller pictures. Among the nine features he’s directed, in 2004 he made Looking for Kitty using a $3,500 Panasonic DVX 100 camera. In 2009 he made some Webisodes called The Lynch Pin using the Red Camera.

One thing Burns has resisted doing is the Hollywood offers to direct big budget productions that he doesn’t have the heart to make.

“The minute someone writes you a check, there’s artistic compromise… You’re not able to cast the people you want to cast. They’re offering and sometimes making changes they feel the film needs. That’s frustrating. On a low budget film, there are also compromises. You need to find free locations to film. There are no special effects. Nobody is going to look at your film and say ‘Wow, that’s a cool shot.’ You have to be OK with telling smaller character stories. But that’s all I’ve wanted to do anyhow.”
Edward Burns
Chicago Tribune

And just a couple weeks ago he released his latest smaller story, Nice Guy Johnny, that he pulled off making for $25,000. using a three man crew and just a ten day shooting schedule. The movie was released iTunes, Video on Demand, and Netflix. And Burns still owns the copyright to the film. Could this really be Hollywood 2.0?

“Distribution models are starting to dismantle.”
Edward Burns

“My stuff is low concept. Usually character driven, and usually born out of a type of character I either know or come across that I get excited about exploring who they are, and a lot of times where they come from. So I try and look at environment, their community, their family, and they are mostly born out of that. Periodically I’ve tried to find a little bit of a plot just to drive the story forward in order to explore who these people are.”—That’s how Burns summed up the smaller stories he tells during a Q&A session at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. It’s a model that I think works in whatever unlikely place you find yourself writing screenplays.

Tomorrow we’ll flash 15 years forward from Burns’ success at Sundance and look at a different kind of film by different filmmakers that in 2010 won the best picture award at Sundance, Winter’s Bone. A small story set in the Missouri Ozarks. (And one that just happens to have an Iowa connection.)

Screenwriting Quote #146 (Edward Burns)

You can purchase the Nice Guy Johnny script with Burns’ notes at Amazon.

Scott W. Smith

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“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Andy Defresne in The Shawshank Redemption

In light of quoting Secretariat screenwriter Mike Rich this week (Screenwriting Quote #145Mike Rick & Hobby Screenwriting) it would be hard to look at the list of films he’s written and not see that there is a thread of hope and redemption in all of them.

“It’s very, very hard to get a movie made. Quadruple or quintuple that degree of difficulty when your movie is about endless grim horribleness. If there is no spiritual uplift at the end , the reader is going to heave the script into the fireplace and cackle as it burns. Why should the audience suffer along with the character only for it to have been in vain?…Let the reader end on a note of hope or redemption.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks
page 15

The themes of hope and/or redemption aren’t limited to Disney films or more overtly spiritual films. Here is a short list in a mix of genres and old and new films that I’d put in the category;

The Shawshank Redemption
Casablanca
On the Waterfront
Seabiscuit
Juno

The African Queen
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Toy Story

Jaws
Tender Mercies
Field of Dreams
Erin Brockovich
Rocky

Rain Man
The Natural
Tootsie
Saving Private Ryan
An Officer & a Gentleman
Jerry Maguire
Pieces of April

It’s an easy list to come up with because those are some of my favorite films. It’s also a list shows that themes of hope & redemption are often popular with audiences, the Academy and critics. Sure getting a film made is hard, but what are the odds that your film resonates with audiences, the Academy and critics?(There are reasons universal themes are called universal.)

And on one level every screenwriter hopes the script they are working on will be produced and find an audience and will redeem the time spent working on their craft. (Even the edgy, indie, non-mainstream screenwriter working on the most nihilistic script ever written shares the same desire.) May hope & redemption fill your writing career and your life.

Scott W. Smith

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I wanted to find a quote for St. Patrick’s Day from a screenwriter with Irish roots. The quote I found isn’t about screenwriting but I got a kick out of it and I did find a way to tie it into what this blog is all about. It’s from actor/writer/director Edward Burns (Saving Private Ryan, The Brothers McMullen). I’m not 100% sure of the context but it appears to be in a reference to actors who are bothered by paparazzi popping up around every corner.

“If that stuff really bothers you so much, you should go do regional theatre. Go do Chekhov in Iowa. No paparazzi will be following you.”
Edward Burns

See Iowa is always the bench mark for obscurity. (Hence, the title Screenwriting from Iowa.) And speaking of theater in Iowa, congrats to Theatre Cedar Rapids for the renovations they just completed on their historic theater following the flood of ’08 that had the water as high as seven feet inside. It took a lot of time and money to restore it to its original state.

Fans of the movie Office Space may be interested that Ron Livingston was born in Cedar Rapids and has performed on the stage at Theatre Cedar Rapids.  A visit there as a teenager helped give him inspiration to become an actor.

“I remember being in 10th grade and being a part of Marion High School’s job shadowing program and being asked to pick something that I might want to do for a living. I told them I was thinking about being an actor—and in a lot of parts of the country they would have looked at me and laughed and told me to pick something else—but my guidance counselor was able to pick up the telephone, and a week or so later I was able to follow Richard Barker around as he held auditions and gave me a tour of the theater and told me what it would be like to be a professional actor…I’ve very proud to be a part of Theatre Cedar Rapid’s history.”
Actor Ron Livingston

While  paparazzi may not be following you while you’re writing or performing for regional or community theaters in Iowa (or wherever you live in fly-over country) but it sure could lead to bigger things. In fact, just to tie this back into St. Patrick’s Day, the Provincetown Playhouse (on Cape Cod in Massachusetts) not only had a part in the spread of the “Little Theater” movement 100 years ago, but they helped launch the career of  the great playwright Eugene O’Neill.

It would be fun someday to do a screenwriting seminar at the Provincetown Playhouse or Theatre Cedar Rapids and to tap into some of that history and hopefully inspire the next generation of writers and actors rising up from seemingly obscure places.


Scott W. Smith


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“A good title should be like a good metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or two obvious.”
Walker Percy

I’m staying on the Up in the Air gravy train (gravy plane?)  just a little bit longer. Not only did I love the film but I love the title. It’s a title that has a literal meaning since it’s a film that deals with traveling via airplanes. But it’s also a common phrase in our culture meaning undecided or uncertain.

Up in the Air is a pretty good description of the Up in the Air main character Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney.  A character whose only real purpose appears to collecting frequent flyer miles. Everything else is up in the air.

Many writers talk about starting with a title and build from there and others say they can’t even decide on a title even after they’ve written the script or book.  Can a movie succeed without a great title? Sure, look at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Looking at the AFI list of top 100 films and you’ll see a mixture of great, good, and bland titles. A title doesn’t make a film, but in a day and age of the importance of the opening weekend, a great title is desired to help attract an audience.

The most common titles seem to focus a main character or being, place or thing, or an event.

Character or being:
Citizen Kane
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
King Kong
Rocky
Forrest Gump
Spartacus
Bonnie and Clyde
The Godfather
Tootsie
Jaws
Psycho
Raging Bull

A place or thing:
Titanic
The African Queen
Bridge on the River Kwai
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On the Waterfront
Chinatown
Sunset Blvd.
The Maltese Falcon
The Apartment
Casablanca

An event:
High Noon
Apocalypse Now
Star Wars
2001: A Space Odyssey
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
Sophie’s Choice

And while not a hard and fast rule, great titles tend to be short (three words or less). Just look at the above list.  And my favorites of those listed are Jaws and Psycho. Each one a simple word, but both hit you at a gut level.

Titles like Avatar, Batman, The Matrix are easier to discuss around the water cooler.  Even longer titles (especially sequels) tend to get edited around the water cooler and just called  Harry Potter, Narnia, Pirates, Star Wars, Twilight, Spider-Man.

Up in the Air falls into that minority category of a title that’s a little more obtuse, in line with The Last Picture Show, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Silence of the Lambs, or Gone with the Wind. (All of which happened to have been books or plays first which tend to favor a more intellectual audience.) If you go with a metaphor, it doesn’t hurt to have a movie star in the lead role. As I talk up the film Up in the Air, I find myself calling it “The George Clooney Film.”

What are some of your favorite titles (even if they aren’t one of your favorite films)? Or some of your favorite bad titles.
I love the title of the lesser known 50s film Them. And I like titles such as Black Hawk Down, Meet the Parents, Witness, The Hunt for Red October, Collateral and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly because they all have built in conflict, mystery and intrigue. And the worst titles off the top of my head goes to Ishtar and Valkyrie, neither of which leave me with a visceral reaction.

Of course, the most bland title ever might just be…Movie Titles (tip #32). (But at least it’s twitter friendly.)

Update: I decided to do a Google search to see what others thought were the best and worst movie titles ever and found one blogger who had a post called Top 10 Worst Movie Titles Ever and the writer put Surf Nazis Must Die at #10. That film was written and directed by Peter George who I happened to go to film school with. (I was always a little upset I didn’t get a small role in the film.) If anyone knows where Mr. George is these days tell him I want my watch back. The one that I left at his Hollywood apartment after I crashed on his sofa one night back before he was making top ten lists.

Scott W. Smith


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When Ed Burns came on the scene in 1995 with his film The Brothers McMullen he was the independent hero of the year. That film was made in the $25,000. range with a loan from his father who was tired of hearing Burns complain about his screenplays not getting made.

The Brothers McMullen won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in ’95 and went on to make over $10 million, which was very impressive until 1997 when The Blair Witch Project with an original budget around $35,ooo grossed well over $100 million.

But Burns has outlasted The Blair Witch gang in the long run. He’s not only directed nine features but he’s picked up work acting in movies and TV shows including Saving Private Ryan. Because his style of writing is more in the style of Woody Allen he’s a little off the radar because his films tend to be dialogue driven films.

But he continues to build his career brick by brick and find innovative ways to distribute his films. In 2007 he became the first filmmaker maker make a feature straight-to-iTunes release. You can hear an interview with Burns speaking about that film, Purple Violets, on NPR. In that interview he talks about the drop in art house audiences over the years due to TiVo, My Space, You Tube and the other ways that people are finding entertainment these days.

So I thought it would be good to go back and look at a quote from Burns about his life before The Brothers McMullen found its way to Sundance and before he found himself acting in a Steven Spielberg movie.

“I wrote seven screenplays that nobody wanted. I’d turn on the light, and there would be thousands of cockroaches. But that was the least of my concerns, because we also had mice and rats.”

Echoing again the process it often takes finding your voice and for your words to make it to the screen. Finding the audience to watch those words on the screen is a whole different process altogether. The good thing about Burns’ commitment to his style of writing and filmmaking is I think his best work is yet to come and he’ll probably be making films into his 60s & 70s.

Scott W. Smith

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“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.
Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
Speech circa 1880

 “All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war, and rule number one is young men die. And rule number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one.”
                                                                    M*A*S*H, TV Program/Season One
                                                                   (Sometimes You Hear the Bullet)

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour on this day in 1941 five brothers in Waterloo, Iowa walked into a Navy recruiting station and demanded that they all serve on the same ship.  Two months later all five bothers (George, Frank, Red, Matt & Al) were photographed on the USS Juneau and became a famous band of brothers.

Nine months later they were all killed in the South Pacific in the Battle of the Guadalcanal. You can imagine the scene when the news was delivered to their parents home on Adams St. where they raised their boys.

“War is hell” is the often paraphrased Sherman quote. And that hell is full of drama so it is not surprising that there have been so many war movies.

300px-fighting_sullivans

A movie on the five brothers, The Fighting Sullivans written by  Edward Doherty and  Jules Schermer was released in 1944 and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. (The Academy would later call the Best Story the Best Original Screenplay).

A similar story of eight brothers dying in the Civil War was the inspiration for Robert Rodat’s script Saving Private Ryan that would be nominated for 11 Academy Award and for which Steven Spielberg would win best director honors. (Private Ryan is from the fictious town of  Peyton, Iowa and I do not know if this is a minor tribute to the Sullivan Brothers who would of come up in Rodat’s research as he looked for a World War II angle.)

Just a few weeks ago The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum opened in Waterloo, Iowa. The 32,000-square-foot state-of-the art facility  is named after the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo and honors the men and women who have served in the United States Military.

Since today is Pearl Harbor Day in the US  it seemed a fitting time to look at screenwriting and war. I guess I could have called this Screenwriting from Vietnam, Screenwriting from Germany or Screenwriting from Iraq.

There have been many great movies made dealing with war because it has everything I’ve covered over the year; Strong, meaningful conflict where larger than life characters deal with life and death decisions that have consequences greater than there own lives. Actions that could in fact change the world.

The upcoming Tom Cruise film Valkyrie  appears to be in this tradition. The Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander script centers around an assassination plot against Hitler. It would be hard to film a character in history that has been at the core of  more films, TV programs, and books than Hitler. Understanding evil seems to be one of our chief preoccupations. (When we’re not Googling Britney Spears.)

One of the first films I ever remember seeing in the theater was The Green Beret starring John Wayne and David Janseen.  (And for what it’s worth Wayne was born in Iowa and Janseen in Nebraska.)  By doing the math I was seven years old when that movie came out. I didn’t see the movie again for almost 30 years but there were scenes that I have always carried with me.

The first two were booby traps where soldiers are killed (one into  a wall of spikes, maybe I was too young to see this movie) and the other was the ending where a little boy goes looking for  Sgt. Petersen who befriended the boy. But Petersen has been killed and it’s heartbreaker (at least it was for a seven-year-old viewing it) as he runs from helicopter to helicopter yelling “Peter-san,  Peter-san!”

My boyhood friends and I had no real understanding of Vietnam but we loved the concept of shooting guns, rolling off a hill of sand pretending to be shot, talking on walkie talkies, and dressing up like G.I. Joe.  I think every boy at that stage of his life is a dramatist. Making up dramatic scenarios and living them out daily. One day they’re playing with stick that’s an old west gun, the next day it’s a Medieval sword, and the next day it’s a futuristic laser.

Fast forward to when I was in high school and  Apocalypse Now was released. That made me want to be a filmmaker and make sure I avoided going into war. Because of Vietnam  the majority of young people at that time didn’t get excited about joining the military until the movie Top Gun game out in 1986 where people signed up in record numbers once again proving the influence of Hollywood. (Ironically, Platoon came out that same year.)

Here is a partial list of some of the greatest war films:

Patton
All Quiet on the Western Front
From Here to Eternity
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Schindler’s List
The Sand Pebbles
Glory
The Dirty Dozen
Battleship Potemkin
Das Boot
The Caine Mutiny
Black Hawk Down
Henry V
Letters From Iwo Jima
Gone With the Wind
Battleship Potemkin
Ran
Zulu
The Last of the Mohicans
Braveheart

Some films have dealt with war from a perspective of humor or irony:
Stalag 17
M*A*S*H
Dr. Strangelove
Catch-22
Good Morning, Vietnam
Stripes
Private Benjamin
The General
The Great Dictator

And yet other films deal with the lingering effects of returning home from war:
The Deer Hunter
Courage Under Fire
The Best Years of Our Lives
First Blood
Coming Home

“Out in the Pacific they say he was the best,
now he’s in his civvies heading home like all the rest.” 

Jimmy Buffett
Sending the Old Man Home 

Just as there were stories that emerged after World War II I believe there will be a new crop of stories emerging from Iraq. Jarhead writer Anthony Swofford not only recounted his experiences from The Gulf War but earned an MFA from the University of Iowa.  The script for that movie was written by William Broyles Jr. who himself was a Marines in Vietnam.

So there will be more stories to tell from places far away from Hollywood. Stories than help give us meaning or at least a glimmer of humanity in a world that has been at war for thousands of years.

“The next wave of Hollywood filmmakers will undoubtedly include veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their values and empathy could alter the landscape of the filmmaking industry, even the world we share.”
Liz Alani
Script  magazine/ Real Men Write 

It’s my hope that this posts finds its way to Iraq and Afghanistan where a solider or two can read it and be inspired. Thanks to all the soldiers who have fought for this country over the years and have made it such a great place to call home.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith


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