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[Brooklynn Prince] is just so incredible and she worked very closely with Sam [acting coach Samantha Quan], but to tell you the truth with her in particular she is a born thespian. I mean she is really acting. There is a true performance there, a true character that she found. She is wise beyond her years. I just can’t speak more highly of her, and just love her. She just brought so much to the table and I can’t even imagine [The Florida Project] without her. …For the three kids, Brooklyn,  Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto,  [Sam] made it a really fun summer camp environment for the kids. It was shot over their summer, so we were taking their summer away from them, so we wanted to give them the best experience possible. And at the end of every day—you have a limited number of hours you can work with children because of child labor laws, so you get to that six hour mark and you have to let them go. And [Brooklynn] would never want to go. Well it’s the law, get out of here [laughs]. I think because it was so much like a family unit. the kids were having fun, they were having workshops, experimenting, that by the time we actually got them in front of the camera they understood their characters enough where if I did have the audacity to ask little six year old to improvise it was fine. They would actually be able to pull it off. And especially Brooklynn. Brooklynn has that innate, genius ability to comedically improvise. Which is incredible at that age.  Near the end of the film, we just spend time eating with her brunch at a higher end hotel that her mother brings her to. And I just wanted to document her eating. Just a series of jump cuts of her eating. What I did was just roll two, thousand foot mags on a 35mm camera so it’s like 20 minutes. And we just watch this girl eat for 20 minutes. And Chris [Bergoch] and I have scripted lines,—we do have a full screenplay— but I encourage improvisation on top of it. So she got through her 15 scripted lines in a minute and a half and we had 18 minutes to burn. So we just ask her questions, what do you think that taste like? What do you wish that tasted like. And sometimes I’m feeding lines to her, or taking her lines—like if she gives me something that’s almost there, I can quickly figure something out with Chris, and deliver the line back to her and she’ll feed it to us. It was wonderful to see her do that. It was like stand-up comedy night. We had 40 cast and crew just watching this little girl eat.”
Sean Baker , director, editor, co-writer on The Florida Project
Filmspotting
 podcast interview #652

I think my favorite line in the movie is when Brooklynn says while eating the she wishes her fork was made of candy so she could eat it when she was done with her meal. Maybe that was a scripted line that she just delivered real, but it felt improvised, fresh, in character and totally something a six year old would say.

Scott W. Smith

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“I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass.”
David Mamet

If you like discussing screenplay structure, and praising or blasting three act structure, then this post is for you. I’ll start out with an exchange between writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) taken from The Director’s Cut podcast that the DGA produced.

Paul Schrader: This film The Florida Project, which is really amazing, is part of a larger trend that I first noticed four or five years ago. And I called it at that time the exhaustion of narrative, because we see so much plot—so much narrative—in our lives, hour upon hour upon hour, that we’re growing tired of it, so we’re much more open now to things that amble and are anecdotal because they feel more real. We’re so tired of seeing those rusty gears of the three act structure crank, and you start to say; Okay, rising action, falling action, boom, boom, boom. Robert McKee has done none of us favor. So you saw it with Dunkirk, which is a big historical action piece but it’s done anecdotally. And you saw it with Detroit which meanders. And you see it here [with The Florida Project]. And I think that audiences find this more interesting than that heavy plotted stuff that we used to have 25 years ago. I don’t know if you agree with that.

Sean Baker: Well, read Twitter. I don’t know if that’s exactly true. First I just want to say Paul, thank you so much for doing this. You’ve been an inspiration and an influence on my entire career so thank you. Regarding [structure] my co-screenwriter Chris Bergosh actually comes from—our sensibilities are slightly different. He’s really is actually very structured in his writing, he likes the three act structure. I come from the other side of the spectrum where I can have a 10-minute Tarkovsky tracking shot that I’m intrigued by. We sort of meet somewhere in the middle. With this film in particular we kept saying—we’ve written three films together Starlet, Tangerine and [The Florida Project]—and I kept saying on this one, if there is a plot I want it to be disguised, I want it to be buried. I want the lines of our three act structure to be blurred, so it would be hard to figure out where the second and third act begin. And make this film more about character. We wanted the audience to spend a summer with this children. And if you think about your summers of your youth, it wasn’t exactly plot driven. There wasn’t a three act structure to your summer. So that’s how we approached it. 

Now we did take some precautions by writing scenes that didn’t make it into the final film, but we did it just out of safety sake. We actually had scenes that had more exposition, that actually did focus on just the adults, especially the ending it was much more procedural in the script. Hoping that it could come out, but shooting it for safety sake. And end the end we did remove a lot of that stuff and put back in what you might call extraneous scenes back in. For example, the kids dancing on the bed,  that’s not exactly something that pushes the plot forward or the story forward. …Almost like vignettes to a degree. Some people do have an issue with that, but for me ultimately I thinks it’s about connecting with these characters and having spent real time with them and not having every scene about exposition. 

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let me just defend traditional three act structure (and by association McKee since Schrader brought him into the discussion). Three act structure is simply a time proven tradition that’s been around for arguably decades of film, and hundreds (or even thousands of years) of theater. And it will be around forever. Even if it means some work being in four or five acts. (McKee, Syd Field, and others just pointed out what was common in many great films. It’s like blaming the hero’s journey on Joseph Campbell.)

No one is calling Pixar films or Spotlight and dozens of other recent solid traditionally structured films rusty.  Good story telling is good storytelling. Period. Paul Schrader has a brilliant mind and has had a long love affair with movies. But with that said he, like the critics who love The Florida Project, want to see something new. Baker and Bergosh delivered.  You only get that experience in cinema a few times a year. The Florida Project is the poster child for new and different this year.

The Florida Project deserves the praise it’s getting. But it was a risk to make because it is a character driven film that is mini-plot at best. It does build to a climax. But there is no major dramatic question in this movie. No stated goal. Just survival tactics. But there is plenty of what I’ve said are three of the most important things for a script/movie to have; conflict, and emotion. And they toss in several interesting characters who are a part of the end of the rope club.

They ride that train from the opening to the closing scene. And they can downplay the narrative because they made the film for “well under $2 million.” They weren’t going after a Titanic box office. They were going after a small audience. To date the film has made $3 million so they’re doing quite well.

It will do well at the award season and open new opportunities for Baker and Bergosh. But the death of three act structure is greatly exaggerated.  We need structure in our films, because so much of life is not structure. To get the broadest audience you have to wrap in a why that is accepted by the widest group of people. The three act structure (or any structure that works) is not going anywhere.

I think McKee once said something like 80% of all films fall under traditional structure, because it helps give the film a chance to making back its money. The Florida Project falls into that other 20% of films that are made. Heck, it’s hard for any film to find an audience—but even harder for those other 20%. The Florida Project is getting a welcomed standing ovation. (But with that said, I understand why someone would wonder five, ten, 20 minutes into the film, “What is this film about?” They may leave the theater before the movie is over.) But not all films need to be neatly explainable. When The Florida Project was over I felt like I got punched in the face. And it was a great feeling. And it’s way that movie is getting the hype it’s getting and will be remember for decades.

There’s not too many movies you can say that about.

One of my all time favorite films is Tender Mercies which could be considered mini-plot. But 30 years later that film still haunts me. Tender Mercies was directed by Australian Bruce Beresford and I’ve called it an American foreign film. My guess is that though Baker and Bergosh are Americans that one or both of them have had a steady diet of foreign films in their lifetime.

Let me close this with a graph from McKee’s book Story that touches on archplot, miniplot, and antiplot. There is no one way to make a great movie. And in the book he goes even deeper covering non-plot.

Mckee.jpg

P.S. Movies that are well structured but lack meaningful conflict and emotion tend to be boring and lifeless. No one is going to call The Florida Project boring and lifeless.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

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“I want to tell everyone reading this they have the means to shoot a feature film in their pocket”
Writer/director Sean Baker 
(Baker only shot one scene of The Florida Project with a cell phone—the rest in 35mm— but his entire feature Tangerine was shot on a couple of iPhones 5s with the FilMiC Pro app)

Yesterday I wrote a post about going to a spring training game in Kissimmee (in the greater Orlando area). Yesterday I also had to make an unplanned trip to Kissimmee for a root canal. And today I’m going to see The Florida Project which as shot in Kissimmee.

The Florida Project borrows it’s name from what Walt Disney World was referred to in its early stages.  While people around the world generally associate Disney World with Orlando, the mailing address for Disney World is Lake Buena Vista, and all four of the theme parks are located in Bay Lakes.

But the major spillover city of Disney World is Kissimmee. The former small rural, cattle town is now a tourist area mixing with a sprawling community that’s now 58% Hispanic. It is possible to fly into Orlando and drive to Disney World and have a fantasy vacation without seeing Kissimmee.

But if you want to stay at a cheaper hotel, eat a cheaper restaurants, or experience some cheaper tourist attractions you might end up in Kissimmee. The range of things to do in Kissimmee ranges from tacky touristy to stunning nature beauty. And Kissimmee is where a lot of people work in the Magic Kingdom call home.

And since the majority of jobs at Disney World are service jobs paying in the $8-12 an hour range, where some people call home is a cheap hotel. (Read the Orlando Sentinel article, Magic Kingdom brings joy, if not riches, for long time Disney employee.)  Homelessness is an issue in Central Florida. And not just the living in the woods or or an underpass variety, but families living out of cars and vans.

That is the world that writer/director Sean Baker (and co-writer Chris Bergoch) chose to explore in The Florida Project. Specifically kids that live in a hotel in Kissimmee.  It’s the kind of off the beaten path kind of film that the Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places blog has championed for 10 years now.

Go see this movie. (It opens today in 187 cities.)  Then use your voice (and your cell phone if you have to) to tell the stories waiting to be told in your own backyard.

P.S. When President Obama was in the White House one of his spiritual advisors was Joel Hunter who was then the pastor of Northland Church in the Orlando area. Hunter recently become the founder and chairman of Community Resource Network in central Florida whose vision “sees a future where homelessness is eliminated through the collaborative effort and collective resources of government, business, nonprofit, and the faith community.”

Scott W. Smith

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I got my own way of talkin’
But everything gets done
With a southern accent
Where I come from
Tom Petty/ Southern Accents

“The reason to make it in Florida was to make it out of Florida.”
Warren Zanes
Petty: The Biography 

The Beatles had Hamburg to refine their sound, Tom Petty had Gainesville.

When Petty died earlier this week a few places mentioned that he was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida before his success as a musician on the world stage. But since a part of this blog is about a sense of place, I’d like to spotlight just what it meant that Petty was from Gainesville.

The first time I visited Gainesville I was struck how it was unlike any place I’d ever been. I was 17 years old and hadn’t ventured far from the Orlando suburbs where I was raised. I was part of a high school football team that made the two hour drive north to play a game on the same field where the University of Florida played their games.

That was 1978 before cable Tv and the internet so I didn’t really have a frame of reference of what a college town looked like. We pulled into Gainesville and it was magical. The late afternoon sun hitting historic brick buidings that seemed more at home at an Ivy League school than in Florida. We drove down fraternity row where some guys were drinking beer next to a firetruck parked on a frat house lawn, and it seemed as if every coed was jogging around campus. (Jogging was big in the ‘70s.)

This was not the part of Gainesville where Petty came from, but it helped pave the way for his success.

I was in the redneck, hillbilly part [of Gainesville]. I wasn’t part of the academic circle, but it’s an interesting place because you can meet almost any kind of person from many walks of life because of the university. But it’s really surrounded by this kind of very rural kind of people that are — you know, they’re farmers or tractor drivers or just all kinds of — game wardens, you name it. So it’s an interesting blend. 

My family wasn’t involved in the college. They were more of ‘white trash’ kind of family. And so I have that kind of background, but I always kind of aspired to be something else, and I made a lot of different friends over the years that were passing through.”
Tom Petty
NPR interview with Terry Gross

The closet Petty got be a student at the University of Florida was working as a groundskeeper at the University of Florida. But the large campus, and the Lipham Music store where students and local muscians hung out, did help him get his musical education.

“Gainesville, Florida [in 1972] had become fully hippie, with a lot of mushroom-potion drinking going on.”
Jeff Calder

(To get a taste of the kind of interesting people connected with the University of Florida during Petty’s time there, check out the post Writing Quote #40 about author and professor Harry Crews.)

Gainesville has long had a reputation as a party school, and in Petty’s day that gave bands nightly musical opportunities to play. A step up from the teen dances and Moose Lodges he started doing when he was 14.

A lesser know fact is Petty took guitar lessons for 18 months as a teenager from Don Felder—as in Don Felder, member of the Eagles (1974-2001)—and co-writer of the song Hotel California. Felder himself took slide guitar lessons from Duane Alman. That’s the kind of musical talent kicking around Gainesville in the 60s and 70s.

“Tom Petty came in [the music store where I taught] one day, gosh, he must’ve been 12 or 13. He had been playing bass in a band called the Epics that I knew as the Rucker Brothers Band and he wanted to play guitar… so I started teaching him to play and went over to his house a couple of times and hung out and heard him play and went over to two or three of the Rucker Brothers’ shows ’cause it was a bit of a train wreck. I kind of helped put them together in the sense that one of them would play rhythm and one of them would play lead while Tommy was playing bass and just help sort through their band to help these kids put their garage band together…. Growing up together in Gainesville and seeing one of my students blossom as an incredibly gifted musician and songwriter has been one of my most fulfilling experiences in this life.
Don Felder
Billboard article by Gary Graff 

Both Petty and Felder would both go on to become more than local legends. And they weren’t alone.

“Eight musicians with musical roots in Gainesville in the ’60s and ’70s have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills and Nash; Buffalo Springfield), Don Felder and Bernie Leadon (the Eagles), and the original lineup of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — Tom, Mike Campbell, Stan Lynch, Benmont Tench and Ron Blair. That’s a remarkable showing for a small college town.”
How One Sleepy Southern college town changed the history of rock ‘n’roll

”An unusual number of people came out of that small little north central Florida town that went on to become platinum-selling recording artists and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. The closest thing I can draw it to is the same sort of phenomenon that happened at Motown or around Memphis or in Nashville, where in certain areas there were so many people that kind of influenced each other or developed a similar style and that same group of people went on to stay involved in music because of that love and excitement in music.”
Don Felder

As Petty and third band Mudcrutch (after the Sundowners and Epic) became a popular regional band playing clubs and large music festivals (“mini-Woodstocks”) and they even opened for the Jacksonvile-based band Lynyrd Skynyrd. By the time Petty headed to Los Angeles in 1974 the 24-year-old had a solid ten years of playing and performing experience. He would go on to sell 80 million albums.  But the seeds were planted and nurtured right there in Gainesville, Florida.

“However long it had been since he’d run away from Gainesville, Florida, from the rednecks and college boys calling out for ‘Satisfaction,’ however long it had been since that town had both loved him and kicked him down its main streets, he knew it was the place that made him. He didn’t find rock and roll in Malibu. He’d brought it with him.”
Warren Zanes, Petty: The Biography

In the world of film outside of Los Angeles, Austin and Portland have an excellent track record of having that kind of iron sharpens iron vibe that Gainesville had musically back in the day. And over the years I’ve tried to show little pockets around the world where people come from on their way to bigger success.

Yes, screenwriters can even have roots in Iowa. Three solid examples are Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls and screenwriter/podcaster John August (Big Fish), who both studied journalism and/or theater at Drake University in Des Moines, and Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody (who was media studies student at the University of Iowa in Iowa City).

Related Posts:
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Aiming for Small Scale Success First 
Aaron Sorkin in Jasper, Alabama
Start Your Own Writers/Actors Workshop

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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“Producers and directors buy a property because they like the story. Actors buy it because they see them­selves in a part. ”
Jerry Lewis in The Total Film-Maker
From the post Writing Actor Bait

Mark Twain’s one of my favorite writers from the South. [My character in American Made is a] kind of southern rascal, Huckleberry Finn kind of character in modern day. And also the fact that, the kind of flying that you could have in the 80s, that kind of adventure, those kind of escapades – that was it. You’ll never have that time period again, so these kind of cowboys were very unique. And also one of my favorite films, which was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is based on a true story but had also that kind of you know – it’s a very layered film. It’s very humorous, but it’s also about American history.”
Actor Tom Cruise on what attracted him to the Gary Spinelli screenplay
ScreenRant interview with Alex Leadbeater  @ADLeadbeater

P.S. I grew up in Florida in the 70s, went to college in Miami in the early 80s and especially enjoy the Scarface to Cocaine Cowboys retelling of stories from that era. American Made puts its own topspin on the “same thing, only different” school of Hollywood filmmaking and I enjoyed the ride. Nice touch by director Doug Liman and editing crew for adding Linda Ronstadt’s 1977 version of Blue Bayou to the American Made soundtrack.

P.P.S. Speaking of American made, in this 2010 post I mentioned that Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and George Cooney all lived in Kentucky at one point in the late 60s or early 70s. You can add Harry Dean Stanton, Jennifer Lawrence, and The Father of Film to the list from the Bluegrass State. Oh, and actress Sarah Wright, who plays Tom Cruise’s wife in American Made—she’s from Kentucky, too.

Related Posts:
Mark Twain’s Florida
Cocaine Cowboys and the Future of Film
Complex Stories/Simple Characters
Writing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Thanks for the Plug TomCruise.com

Scott W. Smith

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The thing I try to instill in students is like the only thing you have to offer is you. Your individual stories, your individual perception, your individual humanity, and figuring out a way to communicate that humanity to humanity at large—that’s the beauty of cinema once again, that you can have a six-year-old Iranian girl, or a 90-year-old British gentleman, and you can have an equal emotional experience if the filmmaker does their job right to it.

For me it would be a ballerina [Black Swan] and a wrestler [The Wrestler]—can I make you feel in their blood and their pain. That’s the goal. Because that’s one of the great things cinema does—is to bring us into other human experiences.”
Screenwriter/Director Darren Aronofsky  (mother!
Podcast interview with Tim Ferriss (At 53 minute mark when Ferriss asked Aronofsky about advice for filmmakers who don’t fit in the widget factory )

Related posts:
The Greatest [Cinematic] Invention of the 2oth Century (According to Darren Aronofsky)
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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One thing we know is that failure is generally funnier than success. Every once in a while, we get to the point in the story where the guys in the show have a big win, and then we sit down and say: ‘Let’s write three episodes where things are going great for them.’ And we just can’t do it. It is too boring for the audience. The audience is invested in the characters and wants them to succeed, but if they do succeed, it is not interesting.”
Silicon Valley showrunner  Alec Berg (And former Seinfeld writer)
Tim Adams/The Guardian

Related posts:
Running from Failure
Normal is Not Funny
Jerry Seinfeld on What Drives Comedy

Scott W. Smith

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