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Posts Tagged ‘Silence of the Lambs.’

Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there
Was a little more to life
Tom Petty/ American Girl

You’ll probably never watch a double feature one night of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), but one thing that connects those movies together is the Tom Petty song American Girl.

And for good measure here’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers playing the song during the NFL Super Bowl half-time show in 2008.

Scott W. Smith

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“We make the kind of movies we want to see, we love to laugh, but I also believe what Walt Disney said, ‘for every laugh there should be a tear.”
John Lasseter
Pixar director of Toy Story, Cars, and A Bug’s Life

“Come in! Come in, you’ve nothing to fear!”
The old lady in Hansel and Gretel

Several reviews of Toy Story 3 talk of the darker nature of the movie. The film just opened yesterday and I haven’t seen it yet, but I wonder if many have just forgotten the darker corners that Pixar has treaded in the past (and Walt Disney before them).

One of the whole themes of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 is the fear of outliving your purposefulness and being replaced.  Of ending up in the broken toy bin, or even worse— being sold for 25 cents in a yard sale. That’s pretty dark stuff. And it’s set up early in the first film when Buzz Lightyear arrives and Woody fears literally being put up on the shelf.

Here are some of the lines from those first two films:

“No one is getting replaced.”

“Yes sir, we’re next month’s garage sale fonder for sure.”

“Toys don’t last forever.”

“You’re broken, I don’t want to play with you anymore.”

“I hate yard sales.”

Facing your own demise is pretty dark stuff. And don’t forget in Toy Story there is the bad boy next door, Sid, who likes to dismantle and destroy toys and dolls. In Toy Story 2 there is a kidnapping and a threat of Woody being sold and shipped to a collector in Japan. Dark stuff.

Remember conflict is the life blood of movies and the gang at Pixar understand this very well. (Maybe I shouldn’t use “blood” and “gang” in the same sentence when talking about family friendly Pixar, but in the spirit of this post I think it’s okay.)

Being old, forgotten, and left behind is addressed in Cars. (“I’m in this little town called Radiator Springs. You know Route 66? It’s still here!”) Roger Ebert wrote of Cars, “It tells a bright and cheery story, and then has a little something profound lurking around the edges. In this case, it’s a sense of loss.” Cars is all the more poignant since it was the great Paul Newman’s last film. (Cars also happens to be Newman’s highest grossing film.)

And how gut wrenching is that montage of Carl & Ellie’s life  in Pixar’s Up? They meet and have hopes and dreams of a life adventure together. But their savings are depleted time and time again as life problems intrude—a car repair here, a house repair there. Finally, later in their life Carl buys tickets for a trip to South America, but before he can surprise Ellie she gets sick and dies. Dark stuff.

In the opening scene of Pixar’s Finding Nemo, Marlin’s wife and large family are killed by a barracuda. And soon afterwards his only son, Nemo, is captured by a scuba diver. Dark Stuff.

Fortunately the gang at Pixar also know how to balance some of their darker, somber themes by cloaking them with humor. They understand stand that life is a mixture of sadness and humor. They simply understand human emotions—even if their creations aren’t always human.

Certainly part of the magic of Walt Disney was not shying away from harsh and dark conflict. Think of Bambi’s mother being shot (“Mother we made it. Mother…”) or of Cruella De Vil who abducts puppies with the hopes of making a dalmatian coat. We’re talking Silence of the Lambs creepy.

Of course, Disney was just tapping into the tradition of fairy tales before him. Stories of a big, bad wolf who has eaten grandma, a witch who desires to put Hansel and Gretel in an oven, and a giant who yells to a poor, fatherless boy;

Fee-fi-fo-fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman?
Be he ‘live, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

In real life we may be scared to go into the woods, but as writers (even writers of children and family stories) into the woods we must go.

But don’t forget to pack a flashlight.

Post tenebras lux.

Related post: Everything I Learned in Film School
Toy Story 3’s Ohio Connection
Screenwriting Quote #129 (Bob Peterson)
Writing “Finding Nemo”
Screenwriting the Pixar Way

Update 6/21/10: I was one of the people who helped make Toy Story 3 a record Father’s Day weekend.  It continued the same theme of the fear of being discarded, of outliving your usefulness. Overall it is a super film with the best ending of the three movies. Had a little water in my eyes at the end and it wasn’t from wearing those 3-D glasses for an hour and a half.

I can’t help wonder how hard it is for people who are unemployed to watch that film with their kids as they face uncertainty of work in the future. Just read an article where 40 is considered old at Google. I could help but think of Woody, Buzz and the gang when I read the following rely in the comments section of the post:

My husband has been coding since 1980 and was plucked from college his junior year by IBM because of a shortage of programmers. He can code rings around most newbies who weren’t born when he wrote his first lines of PL1 and cobalt. The main problem as I see it, is that he doesn’t look shiny and new while he does it and that turns off a lot of employers.

Scott W. Smith

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“My goal on first drafts is to write about three pages a day.”
Ted Tally

Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Tally was born and raised in North Carolina, went to the Yale School of Drama, and was an award-winning playwright (Terra Nova) before working in film and television. Various sources say that Tally these days lives in Pennsylvania and that most of Silence of the Lambs was shot in Pittsburgh.

Here’s some screenwriting advise from the man who helped bring to life the character that AFI listed as the #1 all time Villain (Dr. Hannibal Lecter).

“There are indeed some ‘rules’ that cannot be broken. Chief among them: Don’t Bore The Audience. And also: Make The Stakes High For the Characters (i.e., don’t waste the audience’s time and patience with trivialities). Every story, in some sense, is a matter of life and death. And also: Make the Main Character(s) End Up Somewhere Different Than Where They Started The Story (in terms of knowledge, emotion, experience – whatever). These and other ‘rules’ become ingrained with writers (not just screenwriters), so I’m not sure you even consciously think about them after a while. But certainly they’d better be in the back of your mind during the notes-and-outline stage, long before you’re writing the screenplay.”
Ted Tally
Oscar-winning Screenwriter, Silence of the Lambs
An Interview with Ted Tally by Anup Suguan

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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