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“My recipe for making movies has always been to give an audience two or three really top-notch scenes in every film and to try not to annoy them the rest of the time. If you can do that you will have made an entertaining picture.”
Producer/director Howard Hawks (Red River, Sergeant York, His Girl Friday)
Talk at Chicago Film Festival
via The Movie Makers: Artists in an Industry by Gene D. Phillips

Here are two memorable scenes with Howard Hawks connections. The first is from the film The Big Sky (1952) which Hawks directed, and the second film is Scarface (1983) directed by Brian DePalma from a script by Oliver Stone.  After seeing the original Scarface (1932) which Hawks directed, Al Pacino set theings in motion to star in a modern retelling of the story.

Scott W. Smith

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“Nothing’s ever the way it is supposed to be at all.”
Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd )
The Last Picture Show

We are living in the wild west. Right now, right here in the good ole United States of America.

Last night I watched the classic John Ford/John Wayne western The Searchers, and though the story is set in the wild west almost 150 years ago it only took ten minutes to connect it to current events here in the United States.

The plot of the movie kicks in the first few scenes when a young girl and her older sister are abducted in the wild west. Unfortunately,  just two weeks ago here in the Cedar Valley in Iowa two young girls (cousins) disappeared without a trace. Initially more than 350 people joined the volunteer search locally, eventually FBI divers were brought in search a nearby lake, but as of today there is no news of their whereabouts.

News of their abduction went national, only to replace this weekend with the headlines of the shooting in a movie theater in Colorado where 12 people were killed.

It’s a political season so the right blames the left, and the left blames the right. “It’s movies.” “It’s guns.” Of course, it’s not that simple. But I am fond of saying that movies reflect the culture that it helps produce. Rebel Without a Cause reflected a gang culture in LA in the 50s that resulted in tires being slashed in parts of the country where that was never a problem before the movie. John Travolta hops on a mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy reflecting a Texas trend and mechanical bulls pop in bars around the country.

When Paul Giamatti yells, “I’m not drinking any f___ing Merlot!” in the Oscar-winning film Sideways it was blamed for causing a “Sideways effect” where Merlot sales dipped.  Some wine expert said the movie actually helped get rid of lousy Merlots. But there is no question that the movie Sideways gave the red wine a black eye.

“Merlot acreage has been in steady decline ever since Sideways. Many were removed and planted to other crops in the San Joaquin Valley (where 60-65 percent of all California winegrapes are grown) while many along the coast were grafted to other varietals over the past few years.”
Nat DiBuduo, president and CEO of Allied Grape Growers
Merlot on the rebound  (Feb 2012 article by Bob Ecker)

The bottom line is movies & Tv shows are a major influence what we drive, value, buy, wear, eat & drink, etc.—some of those influences are good, and some of them are not.

After the shooting in Colorado, Warner Brothers pulled some of the trailers for its upcoming movie Gangster Squad, where several gunmen fire their machine guns into a movie crowd. USA Today reported the film’s September 7 release has been postponed and the film is “expected to be reshot and edited.”

Since I’ve been quoting Peter Bogdanovich the last couple of days, I thought you’d be interested in an article in The Hollywood Reporter yesterday titled, Legendary Director Peter Bogdanovich:What if Movies Are Part of the Problem?

“One of the most horrible movies ever made was Fritz Lang’s M, about a child murderer. But he didn’t show the murder of the child. The child is playing with a rubber ball and a balloon. When the killer takes her behind the bushes, we see the ball roll out from the bushes. And then he cuts to the balloon flying up into the sky. Everybody who sees it feels a different kind of chill up their back, a horrible feeling. So this argument that you have to have violence shown in gory details is not true. It’s much more artistic to show it in a different way.

Today, there’s a general numbing of the audience. There’s too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible. Back in the ’70s, I asked Orson Welles what he thought was happening to pictures, and he said, ‘We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.’ The respect for human life seems to be eroding.”
Peter Bogdanovich

Of course, other than Gangster Squad, the only other movie I think of that involves a gunman shooting a moviegoers is Bogdanovich’s film Targets, in which is a gunman opens fire at a drive-in theater.

As I watched The Searchers last night I also listened to the commentary which happened to be given by Bogdanovich. He pointed out one scene of hope in the film, “Where [director John] Ford sort of lets the mother tell the theme of the picture”:

“Some day this country’s going to be a fine, good places to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.”

Perhaps that was the hope in the 1860s after the Civil War when the movie takes place. Just a little time was needed to heal the wounds of division. Perhaps that was John Ford’s hope when he made The Searchers in the mid 1950s. Just a little more time. But over the last 150 years since the Civil War we’ve put a lot of bones in the ground, and I’m not sure that time is the answer.

When I attended film school at the University of Miami in ’81-’82 there was an average of a murder a day in Miami metro. When our film professor showed us A Clockwork Orange (1971), he joked, “Welcome to Miami.”  The next year Brian De Palma’s Scarface came out that reflected the violent culture of Miami at that time. That film’s almost a cartoon today.

“Writing off a tragedy like the Dark Knight massacre as an instance of simple ‘insanity,’ while technically correct, may miss one dimension of what’s really going on. For what has gradually decayed, in our society of screens, isn’t sanity. It’s empathy.”
Owen Gieibman
Why does pop culture inspire people to kill? EW.com

With the passing of time we seem to becoming increasingly violent. With the passing of time movies seem to becoming increasingly violent.

But there is a movie that comes to mind that’s always been one of my favorites, and one that at least wrestles with the violent culture that we live in—Grand Canyon. Early in the film Simon (Danny Glover) is a tow-truck driver trying to haul a broken down Lexus out of the ‘hood and tells a gang member with a gun:

“Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this.”
Simon (Danny Glover)
Grand Canyon

That film, written by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan and released in 1991, showed that Los Angeles—complete with drive-by shootings—isn’t that far removed from the wild west. But neither is Miami, or even small towns in Iowa today.

“The world ain’t supposed to work like this.” Little girls should be able to ride their bikes without be abducted, and people should be able to go to a movie theater without being shot.

Scott W. Smith

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“The best drama for me is one which shows a man in danger. There is no action when there is no danger. To live or die? What drama is greater?”
Howard Hawks*
Director— Scarface (1932), Sergent York, Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep
Interviews with Film Directors
Edited by Andrew Sarris

*Hawks was one of those directors that bridged the silent era with the talkies. He was born in Goshen, Indiana in 1896 and made his first film in 1926— The Road to Glory starring Carole Lombard. According to IMDB, that film is about “a woman who is blinded in an auto accident and relies on prayer to regain her sight”— so I’m not sure that fits Hawks’s above quote. But his Scarface fits the bill:

Last week I saw a contemporary version of the question “To live or die?”, The Grey, starring Liam Neeson and written by Joe Camahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers. The tag line is “LIVE OR DIE ON THIS DAY.” Intense stuff. 

P.S. Both Scarface and The Grey are great example of that great quote by Stanley Elkin, “I would never write about a character who is not at the end of his rope.” And one doesn’t have to be facing life or death to be at the end of their rope as Erin Brockovich and Winter’s Bone prove. (Though both of those female-driven films do have an element of life or death in them.)

Related posts:
What’s at Stake? (Tip #9)
Screenwriting Quote #132 (Kurosawa) —Howard Hawks was an influence on Kurosawa.

Scott W. Smith

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“Writing a good movie brings a writer about as much fame as steering a bicycle.”
Ben Hecht

“The job of turning good writers into movie hacks is the producer’s chief task.”
Ben Hecht

Screenwriter Ben Hecht was born in 1894 just as moving pictures were being invented. Before he died in 1964 he worked on 70+ films and wrote many plays and books. He was the first screenwriter to ever win an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story. He’s considered  one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of motion pictures.

Hecht was born in New York City and spent time on the lower east side before moving to Racine, Wisconsin. where his mother worked in downtown Racine. For those keeping score, Racine is not far from Kenosha, WI where Orson Welles was born.

After graduating from high school in Racine and briefly attending college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (for all of three days), Hecht went to Chicago where he eventually began working for newspapers (Chicago Journal and The Chicago Daily News). His first novel (Erik Dorn) was published in 1921. His Chicago-basedplay The Front Page was written in 1928 and was made into films several times. His time in Chicago covering murders and gangster would serve him well in Hollywood as those stories translated well to the big screen.

Jumping into the world of movies just as they were using sound, his script for Underworld was released in 1929 and earned him an Oscar award. He sometimes wrote a script in a matter of days and said that he never took longer than eight weeks. Scarface (1932) was written in nine days. He is quoted as saying of his screenwriting career that he was paid, “tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle.”

He was called The Shakespeare of Hollywood but had this to say of his own career: “Out of the seventy movies I’ve written some ten of them were not entirely waste product. These were Underworld, The Scoundrel, Wuthering Heights, Viva Villa, Scarface, Specter of the Rose, Actors and Sin, Roman Holiday, Spellbound, Nothing Sacred.
Ben Hecht

Some of the other movies he worked on (credited and uncredited) include:

Gunga Din
Notorious (Oscar Nominated)
Gone with the Wind
The Shop Around the Corner
His Girl Friday
Stagecoach
Angels Over Broadway (Oscar Nominated)
Viva Villa (Oscar nominated)

He won his second Academy Award for The Scoundrel (shared with Charles MacArthur). Because he sometimes used a pseudonym (partly because he was blacklisted in Europe) we’ll probably never know exactly how many novels, plays and movies Hecht actually wrote. But it’s safe to say that he cranked out his share of pages. Combine the tough-talking gangster persona Hecht carried with the rapid exchange found in His Girl Friday (based on Hecht/MacArthur play The Front Page) and it’s hard to think that Hecht didn’t pave the way for writers Joe Eszterhas and Quentin Tarantino.  (Eszterhas in his book Hollywood Animal called Hecht “the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood history.”

Later in life Hecht had his own TV talk show in New York City (you can find a weak interview he did with Jack Kerouac on You Tube) and was critical of the culture that American movies had helped produce:

“The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century….Of their many sins, I offer as the worst their effect on the intellectual side of the nation. It is chiefly from that viewpoint I write of them — as an eruption of trash that has lamed the American mind and retarded Americans from becoming a cultured people.”
Ben Hecht

What would he say of TV and the Internet today?

Scott W. Smith

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“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) quoting fatherly advice
Ranked #58 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes

After the screen success of The Godfather the studios were interested in making a sequel. Wrtier/director Francis Ford Coppola, who did not enjoy the process of making The Godfather, was not as thrilled with repeating the experience and turned down their offer. The studios told him they couldn’t  believe he had found the secret formula but was not interested in making more of the product. Eventually Coppola agreed to produce the film finding a new director and then circumstances changed and once again he was leading The Godfather family, writing and directing the sequel.

“The Godfather Part II had taken upon itself a very ambitious structure  which was that it was going to tell its story in two entirely different time periods basically going back and forth in a kind of parallel structure between them. Actually, this was an idea before I knew I was making this Godfather Part II, I wanted to write a screenplay about a man and his son but both at the same age—like let’s say 30 years old— and tell the parallel story. Finally, I found myself doing The Godfather Part II—I basically just took that notion and conceived of Part II as having two time periods told against each other.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Part II DVD Commentary

Coppola basically wrote the contemporary parts that were set in Miami, Lake Tahoe and Cuba while the older sections in Italy and New York were taken from Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. The Godfather Part II was nominated for 11 Academy Award winning 6, including Best Screenplay from Adapted Material for both Coppola and Puzo. The Godfather Part II is listed #32  on AFI’s !00 Years…100 Movies—1oth Anniversay Edition. And Michael Corleone is listed as the #11 top villian in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villians. Not bad for a film Coppola didn’t initially want to make.

(Though personally, I must add that I think Pacino as Tony Montana—Scarface— could take Pacino as Michael Corleone any day of the week. Unless Montana was all coked-up.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Classic last line of Some Like it Hot

“In story terms, the main character’s persona is plagued with a flaw, and as this flaw is tested throughout the story, the main character integrates a greater understanding of overcoming the flaw through the lessons of life that are expressed by the story.”
Kate Wright
Screenwriting is Storytelling
page 114


The world recently learned that the great golfer Tiger Woods is not perfect. And if you read this post in a few months or a few years just fill in the blank…The world (or your local community) recently discovered that ____  ____ is not perfect.  The news of imperfection—of character flaws—still makes the news. Always has, always will.

Character flaws in movies are not always spelled out as clear as they are in The Wizard of Oz, but it’s hard not to have a flawed character in a film because the cornerstone of  drama is conflict. Flaws can be external and/or internal so they offer ample room for conflict.

I don’t need to explain a character flaw so I’ll just give you a list of some key flaws in some well-known movies. As you’ll see both protagonists and antagonists have flaws. The major difference tends to be the protagonist/hero generally must overcome his or her flaw for growth, whereas the antagonist are usually defeated due to their great flaw. (But even in tragic endings where lessons are not learned and character is not changed in the hero, and where evil not defeated (Death of a Salesman, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, Scarface), there is a warning shot felt in the heart of the viewer.

“Greek classical drama frequently afflicted the hero with a blind spot that prevented that character from seeing the error of his or her ways.  This strategy still shows in films that range from character studies (What’s Love Got to Do with It), to epics (The Bridge on the River Kwai), to action stories (Jurassic Park).”
Paul Lucey
Story Sense
page 159

The following list is not a conclusive list of flaws, just some of the most common ones that you’ll recognize when you get together with family this holiday season.

Pride/arrogance
Zack Mayo, An Officer & a Gentleman
Maverick
, Top Gun

Drugs/alcohol
Paul Newman character, The Verdict
Sandra Bullock character,28 Days
Nicolas Cage character, Leaving Las Vegas
Don Birnam
, The Lost Weekend

Greed/Power
Darth Vader,  Star Wars
Gordon Gekko & Budd Fox, Wall St.

Lie/Cheat/Steal/Corruption 101
Jim Carrey character, Liar! Liar!
Denzel Washington character
, Training Day

Delusional/Mentally ill
John Nash, A Beautiful Mind
Norman Bates, Psycho
Captain Queeg/ The Caine Mutiny
Blanche Dubois, A Streetcar Named Desire
Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
Glenn Close character/ Fatal Attraction

Unfaithful/Promiscuous
Fatal Attraction
Body Heat
A Place in the Sun

Obsessive
Jack Nicholson character, As Good as it Gets
Meg Ryan character, When Harry Met Sally
Tom Hanks character, Castaway

Flaws, by the way, are one of the chief dilemmas that both philosophy and religion have struggled to answer for at least the last few millenniums. Where do flaws come from and what do we do with them? The central question being if  man (as in mankind) is born good as some believe then why is everyone and every civilization since, uh—the beginning of time— so messed up? And if we’re born with original sin as other believe then what are the ramifications of that? I’m pretty sure we can agree on one thing, this is one messed up world with a whole cast of real life flawed characters.

We’re all trying to figure out why we’re wired the way we’re wired. And we go to the movies to get a piece of the puzzle. And the side benefit to writing great flawed characters is the audience not only identifies with the character, but actors love to to play flawed characters. Writing great flawed characters tend to be appreciated at the box office and at award time. It’s a win-win situation.

Who are some of your favorite flawed characters?

P.S. Marc Scott Zicree The Writer’s Wrench calls character flaws, “The hurt that needs healed.” Zicree also wrote The Twilight Zone Companion and Rod Serling understood a lot about writing about character flaws.

Scott W. Smith

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“I think what makes a film stick to the brain is the theme.”
William C. Martell

“There’s no place like home.”
Dorothy
The Wizard of Oz

There are many ways to attack writing your story and if you read enough of how writers ply their trade you will find quality writers who come from all kinds of angles; plot, character, situation. Another angle  is writing from theme. And even those who don’t start with theme have one emerge somewhere in the process.

Talking about theme can can get a little tricky but I like to say that it is not your story, but is what your story is really about. (Some also call this the controlling idea.) The story of Oliver Stone’s Scarface is a Cuban emigrant who rises from tent city to become a drug lord in Miami.  The theme of Scarface is the old standard crime doesn’t pay, or you could say, a life of excess and ruthless ambition will destroy you. Theme wise, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is in the same family as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Variations of theme can pop up anywhere in the story. At the beginning of another Stone film Wall St., the first words out of Bud Fox’s (Charlie Sheen) mouth when he’s asked how he’s doing is, “Any better and it’d be a sin.” Bud Fox does much better and it’s not only a sin but he has to go to prison.

Stone uses the wiser, older Lou (Hal Holbrook) to be the voice of reason as he tells Bud, “that’s the problem with money — it makes you do things you don’t want to do.” Another time he tells Bud, “Enjoy it while it last — cause it never does.” (That film takes place in ’85 but they would have been fitting words for all of us in ’05, and probably will be twenty years from now. Good themes are timeless and universal.)

Again the theme of Wall St. is crime doesn’t pay, or a life of excess will destroy you, or even “the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.” (Anyone working on a script for the Bernie Madoff story?)  The big difference between Scarface and Wall St. is Bud Fox doesn’t get killed at the end like Tony Montana. No, it’s more hopeful and Bud seems to have learned his lesson.

Speaking of hope … The Shawshank Redemption is all about hope and screenwriter & director Frank Darabont finds many ways to express that theme. On page 63 of the script Andy says while in prison “…there’s a small place inside of us they never lock away, and that place is called hope.”  Then there’s the most often quoted line from the film,”Get busy living, or get busy dying.” (Usually meant to get busy living.)

Some writers post the theme on the wall where they write to as a way to keep them centered and focused. On the front page of The Shawshank Redemption script are the words, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies…” — words that echo throughout the film. Words that stick with us long after we leave the theater.

The theme of hope is one of the major reasons people watch The Shawshank Redemption again and again. We may not ever have been in a state prison but we can identify with the situation as we all at times know what it’s like to live in our own personal prisons or at least know what it’s like to almost lose hope in difficult situations.

Theme pops up at the end of Braveheart as the last word that William Wallace (Mel Gibson) yells is “Freedom!” Or as the screenplay says, “FREEEEE-DOMMMMMM!” Throughout the film the fleshed out theme “Live free or die” is clear and that resonates here in the United States of America. (Heck,”Live Free or Die” is even the official motto of New Hampshire.)

Paul Schrader has said he wrote Taxi Driver by recognizing “a rip in the moral fabric of society” and used the metaphor of a taxi driver to represent loneliness.

Of course the danger with theme is writers can become heavy handed with it and audiences don’t like being beaten over the head with it. Films work best not as an intellectual exercise but as an emotional experience. (At least that’s traditionally been true in American cinema.) Audiences want to be sweep away by your story. They want to discover the theme not have it handed to them.

Theme is powerful stuff. So remember as you write, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Related posts: More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith


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