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Below is an excerpt from a Go Into The Story interview that screenwriters Bryan Woods & Scott Beck did with Scott Myers. This exchange is from part 6 of the interview.

Bryan Woods: With A Quiet Place, we weren’t comfortable writing the script until we knew that the theme was going to be about communication. We liked how that paralleled the idea of a world and a story that’s scary because the characters can’t talk and they can’t make noise.

We didn’t feel good about the story until we were like, “OK, we are comfortable with this theme.” One of the interesting things about theme is that you can start off with one thing in your head, and then the ultimate movie teaches you what it’s really about.

While I think that theme of communication that we started with is very much prevalent in the finished film, I think another theme emerged, which is the theme of, what would you do to protect your children and how hard is it to protect your children?

I think that theme is maybe an obvious one that we didn’t intellectualize but comes through very boldly in the finished film. I think that’s the best way to do it. I think you should be thinking about making sure your story has layers and that it can resonate on a deeper level.

At the same time, you’ve got to let it teach you what it wants to be and not be so constricted that you’re forcing it into a certain box.

Scott Beck: I will say like any time that we’ve gone off and written things where we haven’t really honed in on any theme whatsoever, that’s where you start getting into the weeds and you start losing your sight. It’s always important to hone in on some certain ideas that can at least be the starting point.

Related posts:

Writing from Theme 
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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A Quiet Place has now been out in theaters for a whole month and still came in #3 at the box office this weekend. You could also say it entered full culture iconic status over the weekend when Saturday Night Live spoofed it with their A Kanye Place skit.

And also over the weekend, Scott Myers at Go Into the Story concluded a six-part interview with A Quiet Place screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. Here’s an excerpt that touches on the great opening of that movie without really spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.

Very early on, the idea that attracted us was opening with a completely idyllic farmscape and what appears to be the perfect family living out the perfect life. Little by little, as this family starts to move about their farmhouse, we start to realize that there are weird things going on.

They’re putting padding on the walls. They’re wearing shoe covers on their feet. They don’t seem to be speaking very much. Everything is really quiet. It all builds up to that Monopoly scene where there’s a noise and we realize, ‘Oh, there’s creatures out there. If they make a noise, then they’re in danger.’

That’s how it started. Then it started to evolve more into this Jaws opening, where we set the stakes up immediately. We would pay full credit to John [Krasinski] for going this dark this early, but we love it.
Screenwriter Bryan Woods
Scott Myers/Go Into The Story  interview with Bryan Woods & Scott Beck

P.S. Congrats to Scott Myers for his excellent blog being named recently to the 20th Annual Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers list. This month his blog celebrated its 10th anniversary and I’ve been a fan of his site since way back in 2008.

Scott W. Smith

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Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Silent Night
Lyrics by Joseph Mohr
(Written in Salzburg, Austria and performed around the world for 200 years)

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R.C. Sproul’s notes used for a videotaping

R.C. Sproul was the Elvis of theologians.

He corresponded via letters with novelist Pat Conroy and scientist Carl Sagan. He once led a Bible study with some of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the Bradshaw-era, did a pretty decent impersonation of Peter Falk as Columbo, could recite Edger Allen Poe and Shakespeare from memory, and played jazz on the piano. He’s quoted in the vampire movie The Addiction, and once played golf with Alice Cooper. Just your average theologian.

Wait. Backup. Why are we talking about a theologian on a screenwriting/filmmaking blog?

R.C. Sproul died earlier this month and it’s brought a flood of memories to my mind because tucked between my being a 16mm cameraman at American’s Downhill in Aspen in 1987, and winning my first Emmy in 2008, I spent the decade of the ’90s producing videos with him. (You can read his official obituaries at The Washington Post or  USA TODAY.)

I saw R.C. speak at a conference before 7,000 people, and at a smaller predominately African-American church in Charleston, and occasionally recorded his talks one on one in his home. R.C.’s mind was a deep well of knowledge and it was no effort for him to switch gears between the teaching of a Jewish carpenter named Jesus with Plato, Socrates, Heraclitus, John Calvin, Martin Luther and Thelonious Monk. R.C. believed all truth was God’s truth.

I met R.C. when I was 27 years old and just a few years removed from being an earring wearing, motorcycle riding, film school student in Los Angeles. I had Tony Lama eel skin boots, skinny Italian leather ties, and a jacket or two that would blend in on the set of Miami Vice. 

Imagine that guy walking into a Brooks Brothers blue blazer culture complete with Wingback chairs, and Hunt Club prints on the walls. I may have been a fish out of water, but it turned out to be a great opportunity on many levels.

This post is not so much a tribute to R.C. as it is about the twists and turns in the road that happen in your life. And in a round about way it’s my Christmas post this year. It’s way too long for most of you, but something I had to process. Merry Christmas.

FOLLOW YOUR OPPORTUNITIES

TV host Mike Rowe says that people shouldn’t follow their dreams, but their opportunities.  When writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) graduated from NYU film school he had a dream to make feature films, but he also had a need to earn a living. So what he did was follow his opportunity:

“I was lucky enough to land a job right out of school with a small publishing company that put me in charge of their AV work. So basically I was producing a lot of corporate type videos. I was interviewing authors. Traveling all over the states just to interview them to put together a little EPK [Electronic Press Kit]. But that’s good work. It pays the bills. And I would suggest anybody who’s striving to become a filmmaker to at least stay within the AV world. Because you’re practicing on a daily basis. And even though you think this isn’t me being creative, it is. It really is because you’re still framing shots, you’re still editing, you’re understanding the technical side of things.”
Sean Baker
No Film School podcast interview

For me, working for a non-profit educational group that started out as The Ligonier Valley Study Center helped me turn the corner from film to video production, and eventually led me into the digital world. There I was able to produce, direct, shoot, and edit video projects.  As an audio producer/editor I helped launch and name the international radio program Renewing Your Mind with R.C. Sproul in 1994. I did some photography, and helped build and design sets.

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Set for Ligonier youth video

But working for R.C. also did more than getting me hands on experience with non-linear editing with the AVID way back in mid-’90s, but it allowed me to work and learn from some of the most creative and talented people in Orlando. The list is too long to name everyone, but it includes cameraman Mike Murray of Adrenaline Films (who went on to become a director of photography on Survivor), cameraman Mike “Mac” McAleenan (now with Nat Geo credits), Bryan Smoker (now an editor at Disney World), audio engineer John Blanche (who worked on Eagles records at Criteria Records in Miami), editor Oliver Peters, film producer Rick Eldridge, and engineer Bob Zelin known for his posts at Creative Cow. 

I learned about graphics from Terry Groner, and motion graphics from Terry Briegel. And I doubt I’d won a second Emmy for location lighting if I hadn’t picked up a few tricks from DP Ben Mesker.  And I learned from Jack Rowley who first started videotaping R.C. back in the ’70s.

Just last week I saw a 1988 promotional video for “Hollywood East” and it made me smile. I left LA in December of 1987 in hopes of getting on the ground floor of the Central Florida production world as Disney and Universal were both building studios.

I guess in some ways I did, but it wasn’t the Florida version of Hollywood I was seeking.  The closest I got to that was editing a Ligonier project at Century III at Universal Studios while director David Nutter was editing Superboy in the next edit bay.

Nutter would eventually go on to win a Primetime Emmy for directing an episode of Game of Thrones, and Hollywood East eventually became a reality—in Atlanta.  But my point is Orlando in the ’90s was happening in terms of production.

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I put on a tie and a blue blazer and they let me direct

Directing multicamera shoots for Ligonier at the CBS and FOX TV studios, and just working on productions day in and day out was a great place to learn and grow.  And it positioned me well for the multimedia work I’ve been doing since 2002. And though I only saw R.C. in passing over the last 15 years, his teaching/storytelling/communication style is one that I embrace and use (without the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) when I speak to students about production.

While at the time I would have rather been an assistant cameraman on the feature films that were shot in Orlando in the late 80s and early 90s —Ernest Saves Christmas (88), Parenthood (89), Passenger 57 (92)— I think I was better served long term working with R.C. producing/directing/shooting/editing an eclectic range of projects. It was also during that time when I did some of the Holocaust interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project, which is easily in my top ten all-time production experiences.

Here’s the opening I produced and edited with Bryan Smoker that I think holds up pretty well even though it was done in standard def 20 years ago .

THE LIGONIER VALLEY— SILICON VALLEY CONNECTION

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. ”
Steve Jobs
2005 Stanford graduation speech

“The older the question, the older the answer.”
Naval Ravikant (Co-founder of Angel-list)

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Grounds of the original Ligonier Valley Study Center

There was a hunger in the ’60s for some deeper meaning to life. One clear—yet short lived— example was when the Beatles went to India to study with the Maharishi in ’68. It was a time of experimentation which included psychedelic drugs and asking spiritual questions. Tech guru Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine even talks about Silicon Valley’s roots being grounded in hippy culture where there was freedom to create and innovate. The hippies may not have cared about material possessions, but they still needed to eat. So there was an entrepreneurial/bohemian/gypsy spirit where people made bracelets and such to sell at concerts and fairs.

Of course, a strange byproduct is this group of people who didn’t people care about material items laid the ground work that’s changed the world with computers and created some of the wealthiest people in the history of civilization. (Lawrence Kasden’s The Big Chill touched on the theme of how a group of friends went from not caring about material items to become full-bore materialists.)

Established places like Koinonia Farm (founded in 1942 ) in rural Georgia. were positioned well for Jesus movement when it formed in the ’60s. In 1969 Koinonia built their first house for the less fortunate, and the international group Habitat for Humanity (and President Jimmy Cater’s life work after leaving the White House) flowed from those efforts.

The early roots of Ligonier were also earthy, communal, and early church-like. Heck, I think even a few hippies were there. (Judging some of R.C. ‘s early photos I’d put him down as a beatnik.) Several documentaries and TV programs about the ’60s cover the aspect of how baby boomers were heading into the hills around the world in search of some form of spiritual enlightenment. One of those places was in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania—a rural area in the Ligonier Valley about an hour outside of Pittsburgh.

That’s where The Ligonier Valley Study Center was founded in 1971 and modeled a little after what theologian Francis Schaeffer started in Switzerland called L’Abri. (R.C. met with Schaffer before starting Ligonier.) A place where small groups of people came to stayed for days or weeks and learned more about the Bible, theology, and philosophy and how to live the Christian life.

One redemptive example from Ligonier’s early years was Chuck Colson who came to the study center after his release from prison for his role in Watergate. He was mentored one on one with R.C. before launching Prison Fellowship They work to reform inmates while in prison and prepare them to make the transition once released. Another example is Joni Eareckson Tada who listened to R.C.’s tapes after a diving incident left her paralyzed as a teenager. Despite once thinking she wasted her life she started Joni & Friends in 1979.  Her minsitry helps handicapped people around the world, including refurbishing 10,000 wheelchairs a year.

R.C. not only connected a lot of dots for me, he showed me a lot of dots I didn’t even know existed. Some of those dots I still don’t understand. And while I embrace a lot of mystery of faith, one key principle that R.C. taught that I clearly understood was that men and women are reveled in the Bible warts and all. And the beauty is—God still used them.

While technically theology proper is the study of God. R.C.’s talks covered not only the Bible and theology, but philosophy, the arts, sex, economics, ethics, Greek mythology—in fact, I’m not sure what realm he didn’t cover.

Of course, any theologian popping up on a screenwriting blog may seem unusual, but it’s not unheard of. If you can’t talk about the spiritual realm at Christmas time, when can you talk about it? One of the most respected screenwriter bloggers/teachers, Scott Myers of Go Into the Story, has an Masters of Divinity degree from Yale. And perhaps my first grownup theological lesson ever came from Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader  in an interview published in  The Craft of the Screenwriter.  (I first read that book in the early 80s when I was still in film school.)

In an interview with John Brady, Schrader lays out the doctrine of total depravity and how he used that in the screenplay for Hardcore (1979). A story about a man from Grand Rapids, Michigan searching for his daughter who’s become a prostitute in California. (Sort of a modern-day reworking of John Ford’s The Searchers.)

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Schrader’s book Transcendental Style in Film looks at the films of Yasajiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer goes deeper on the topic. That book was published in 1988, when R.C. had relocated to Orlando. But it’s the kind of book that he would have discussed back in the early days when he talked about the foreign films.

There’s an episode of  Northern Exposure  titled A Wing and a Prayer where they arm wrestled over the doctrine of transubstantiation. I’ve always wondered where that episode came from. And you can’t talk about spirituality and films without talking about one of America’s greatest film directors who once wanted to be a priest:

“I’m not a theologian who could argue the Trinity. I’m certainly not interested in the politics of the institution. But the idea of the Resurrection, the idea of the Incarnation, the powerful message of compassion and love — that’s the key. The sacraments, if you are allowed to take them, to experience them, help you stay close to God.”
Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese (The Mission, Silence)

From the many interviews I read and heard over the years, I wouldn’t say that Scorsese has a lot of company in Hollywood that share his views.  But if you look outside the Hollywood system you’ll find filmmakers over the years with more of a spiritual emphasis; Krzysztof Kieslowski (Decalogue)—who Roger Ebert called among the greatest filmmakers, Oscar-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski , and Andrei Tarkovsky.

If you’re unfamiliar with films with a spiritual bent check out these; Tender Mercies, Babett’s Feast, Koyaanisqatsi, Ida,  Departures, Grand Canyon, On the Waterfront, and Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

R.C.’s memorial service was this past Wednesday and the song they started the service with was the song Non Nobis Domine that ends the movie Henry V.  A song translated from the book of Psalms meaning, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to thy name give the glory.” 

SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM

“Man is a useless passion. It is meaningless that we live and it is meaningless that we die.”
Jean-Paul Sartre

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
Jesus of Nazareth

Apparently we took the long road to Bethlehem on this post. But it’s Christmas Eve and churches will be filled with people singing songs about a baby in a manger; O Holy Night, Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angles Sing, Handel’s Messiah. 

Outside the churches people will sing Jingle Bells, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Santa Baby, and White Christmas. Christmas time in the United States is the meeting of the sacred and the secular.

The orginal Christmas in Bethlehem was a collision of the sacred and the secular on a cosmic level.  It turned the world upside down.

So much so that even the king of rock ‘n roll once became a theologian when he sang;

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born

 

Scott W. Smith

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“A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”
Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) in Annie Hall 

Have you ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend break-up with you?  Raise your hand if you’ve gone through a nasty and emotional break-up? Wow, look at all those hands.

The Social Network opens up with a scene that builds up to a break-up.

“You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) in The Social Network

If your goal is to be in a healthy, loving relationship and the person you’ve been with calls you an asshole right before they break-up with you have three basic options:

  1. Work through those issues with that person (and perhaps yourself) and eventually kiss and make up.
  2. Shake the dust off your feet and move on to another relationship (or at least begin looking for one).
  3. Listen to the Phil Collins song I Don’t Care Anymore 426 times and swear off personal relationships as impossible and get a dog, throw yourself into your career, or travel to Tahiti and take up big wave surfing.

We could call those three options complications, roadblocks, and reversals. On Scott Myers’ screenwriting blog Go Into the Story here’s how he defines those three things:

Complications: A complication is an event or circumstance which slows the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.

Roadblocks: A roadblock is an event or circumstance which stops the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.

Reversals: A reversal is an event or circumstance which reverses the Protagonist’s progress toward their goal.

Now granted screenwriters/screenwriting teachers have plenty of confusing names for various writing techniques that can muddy the water. But I think complications, roadblocks and reversals is simple and helpful way to look at scenes you’re writing.

In the fictitious movie version of Mark Zuckerberg’s life, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin uses the break-up to change not only the computer wizard’s life, but the lives of quite a few people. In the movie, that break-up led to a major reversal that changed the world.

After the break-up Zuckerberg could have walked around campus and thought things over and then taken his ex some flowers and tried to make up. In that scenario the break-up was just a complication.

Or after the break-up he could have said “Fine,  there’s more fish in the sea” and spent a few days or weeks looking for a new girlfriend. The break-up was a roadblock in his quest for a healthy, loving relationship.

But what Sorkin had the Zuckerburg character do is head back to his dorm and with a little computer know-how, a few beers, a couple of friends, and a lot of bitterness launch the “hot or not” website to get back at the woman who broke-up with him.

That leads to he and his friends to starting The Facebook, now known as just Facebook. In that version the break-up led to a major reversal in not just Zuckerberg’s life, but in the way that over a billion people live their daily lives.

As of this writing there are over 1.79 billion active Facebook users and over a billion of those log onto Facebook daily. Talk about disruptive. Facebook is up there with Henry Ford’s Model T, and the birth control pill, as far as disrupting the way people live their lives.  (And according to some reports Facebook could be classified as a modern form of birth control.)

Ultimately when you boil it down, complications, roadblocks, & reversals—slow down, stop, back-up (or change directions)—  when done right are all in the family of conflict & emotions, and are part of engaging an audience in your story.

Related posts:
Conflict—Conflict-Conflict
Major Reversals (Tip #104)
What’s Changed? (TIp #102)?

Scott W. Smith

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Kon, Zhou & Williams—sounds like an international law firm, right?

If you enjoy the world of filmmaking and are unfamiliar with Satoshi Kon and Tony Zhou then the following seven minutes and 36 seconds of the video below are going to be a real treat. Guaranteed—or your money back.

Last month, in my post Time For A Cool Change I talked about taking some sort of detour after my 2,000th post in the coming months (as I approach the 7th anniversary of this blog). After seeing Zhou’s videos Martin Scorsese—The Art of Silence and The Spielberg Oner—One Scene, One Shot I started thinking about revisiting doing something more video based. I did a couple early on in this blog—and was encouraged by Scott Myers at Go Into the Story to do more—but I just found them too time consuming to produce.

But Zhou has given me a vision that doesn’t require shooting. I’ve already started a list of topic ideas.

Maybe as I hit the reset button in the coming months instead of writing an every weekday blog, perhaps I’ll create a video once a month. Or perhaps a 1 or 2 minute video once a week. Regardless, I love Zhou’s work (and his voice reminds me of the Richard Dreyfuss VO in Stand By Me). I hope you appreciate his film knowledge and time commitment to produce these as much as I do. Here’s his recent video on Robin Williams.

Scott W. Smith

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“When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate.”
Pulitzer-Prize winner John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men)
Travels with Charley: In Search of America

I generally try to discover my own quotes but this one came via a tag team effort—From The Black Board via @GoIntoTheStory (Scott Myers). Both worth following.

P.S. This is in line with the well-known saying; “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” And echoes of the classic Anne Lamott insight “Bird by Bird.”

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #66 (John Steinbeck)
Pages Per Day
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Stephen King’s Double Wide Trailer “There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station.”—Stephen King
Travels with Steinbeck

Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I saw Saving Mr. Banks and enjoyed it immensely. And there is a line in the film—that I don’t think is a spoiler—that seems to be what the film was about.

“In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Saving Mr. Banks

That sounds like a pretty strong theme. And I’m fascinated by the topic of theme because I’ve read successful screenwriters and directors say these contradictory things:

A) I never think in terms of theme
B) I usually start with theme
C) The theme reveals itself somewhere in the writing
D) Theme is something the audience sees when the film hits the theaters
E) I avoid writing from theme to avoid the story being message driven
F) I have no clue what the word theme means

So one thing we can learn from Rod Serling, Alexander Payne, Francis Ford Coppola, and others is the process of screenwriting varies from writer to writer.  Which is why you have visually strong writers and dialogue driven writers.

Now I don’t think that Disney line is a direct quote from the Mickey Mouse creator, but from the imagination of the Saving Mr. Banks screenwriter Kelly Marcel.  I don’t know at what point she wrote Disney’s monologue—or if she even thinks that was the theme of the movie—but I do know she in facts does think in terms of theme.

“I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along. It allows for much more intricate storytelling, ways of speaking to the theme and letting your theme to speak to you, even unconsciously. I said ‘theme’ four times in that last paragraph. I shouldn’t be allowed to be a writer.”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey)
Go Into the Story Interview with Scott Myers

Related Posts (and a ping pong of views on theme):

Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Diablo Cody on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Wes Anderson on Theme
Lawrence Konner on Theme
Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness
William Froug on Theme
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Diane Frolov & The Theme Zone
Theme vs. Story
“Network” Notes by Paddy Chayefsky
Writing and Directing “Out of Africa”
Serling vs. Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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