Posts Tagged ‘Spielberg’

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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“I never wanted to write a screenplay. To me, writing is this wonderful, indulgent activity where you just fill the page with words.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody

Three years ago today I created my first blog post ever (Life Beyond Hollywood). I started out with a little Diablo Cody inspiration and a modest goal to consolidated my writing notes gathered over the years from film school, books, magazines, seminars & workshops in hopes of it becoming a 50,000 word book—and perhaps helping a fellow writer or two.

Three years later I’ve written 832 posts and over 300,000 words. (With roughly 833 estimated typos, which I blame on posting daily without a copy editor. Like Jimmy Buffett I’m not aiming for perfection—just trying to “capture the magic.”) I’m now in the process of distilling those 832 posts into three books which will be much more refined.

Actually the idea of a book predates the blog. Since I had read quite a few film and video books by Michael Weise Books, and  had just read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat at the end of ’07 (which they published, and I thought was great)  I sent them a book proposal toward the end of 2007 and got this email back from Ken Lee:

Please email me your table of contents and a sample chapter



Ken and I traded emails a few times and I ended up sending him three or four chapters and we spoke on the phone a couple of times and he asked me to think about what I’d like to write and blog about over the next five years. At the end of the day, while there was no deal with Michael Weise Books, this blog in part was an indirect result of my communication with Ken. (If you’re looking for a theme to write about “Success out of Failure” is a great concept because everyone can identify with losing their locker like Rocky did in that first film.)

At the same time I had written those first four chapters I started to read about Diablo Cody’s story about writing the Juno screenplay in Minneapolis, her blogging, and having gone to college at the University of Iowa. Lightning struck. A couple of people showed me the ropes on how to start a blog and four days after seeing the movie Juno I launched my first post exactly three years ago today.

I even traded a few emails in January of 2008 with Blake as his blog was one of the first screenwriting blogs I ever read. In fact, I just found this email from him that ended with: “Best to you in ‘the great 2008’ and yes, I am happy to help in any way I can.” Miss ya Blake, but long live your books & influence.

Later that year, in October of 2008, the Screenwriting from Iowa blog won a Regional Emmy (Minneapolis) in the category of advanced media. A few months later Diablo Cody walked away with an Oscar for writing Juno. Fun.

“I’ve never read a screenwriting book. I’m really superstitious about it too. I don’t even want to look at them. All I did was I went and bought the shooting script of  ‘Ghost World’ at Barnes and Noble and read it just to see how it should look on the page because I like that movie.”
Diablo Cody

The day after my first post I received this email  from Scott Cawelti, an English professor and writer at the University of Northern Iowa: “Ready for a collaboration?” It took a little time, but we recently finished a spec screenplay, have done a couple re-writes, and are just now shopping it. (As a quirky sidenote, Scott was once in a band with Robert Waller who wrote The Bridges of Madison County.)

There was early support from Mystery Man on Film. For the record I think Mystery Man’s post The Raider’s Story Conference is the single best thing you’ll find on the Internet on the process of storytelling. (Make sure to follow the link to the 125 page transcript of Lucas, Spielberg and Kasden as they discuss what became Raiders of the Lost Ark.) I was also encouraged by emails from readers and fellow blogger Scott Myers at Go Into the Story.

Last year the shout out by Diablo Cody on Twitter as well as the TomCruise.com plug were bonuses and will keep me going another year. And I hope some things I write encourage you in your own quest as a writer. In the coming days I’ll have some posts based on interviews I did with UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter and screenwriter Dale Launer (My Cousin Vinney, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). This blog has brought me into contact with producers and writers in LA that would be hard for me to connect with otherwise. So if you have a blog in mind, go for it.

But for now let me say thanks for stopping by, best wishes on your own writing and if you need a little inspiration today I hope this helps:

“I can actually give you a really specific bit of advice that I give to everyone. I would not be where I am, I would not be any sort of professional writer if I had not self-published. We live in a day and age where there’s so many opportunities for writers and filmmakers with YouTube to self-publish, to make their own work available without having to go through the rejection letters and the middleman and, you know, it used to be that you were, that if you wanted to share your work with other people, I mean, you had to go through so many channels and jump through so many hoops. And now, you can just put it out there. You know, the internet is a miraculous thing, so just share as much as you can self-publish blog, you know, podcast, whatever you need to do, just make sure that you are not withholding your (unintelligible) from the world because we have so many opportunities now.”

Diablo Cody
NPR transcript Feb  2009

I never would have dreamed that I’d write 823 posts in three years, but that’s what happened. The Writers Store has an article online that talks about Jerry Seinfeld’s method for success where he marks on a calender with a red “X” over everyday he writes new material. Each “X” forms a chain and his goal is to not break that chain. You want to talk a day or two off every week from writing, that’s fine (and healthy) but do your best to have at least 20 “X’s” on your calender each month.

Writers write.

Related Posts: Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)

Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt

The Juno—Iowa Connection

Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Scott W. Smith

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It looks like 2011 is going to be the year of the clones. Not in terms of movies in the theaters (because that’s always the case), but in terms of my exploring the topic from a screenwriting perspective.

“You don’t get to be a Hollywood hitmeister like (Michael) Bay — 200 Zillion Tickets Sold! — without indulging in formulas, and the characters Star Warshero Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) play in The Island bear a striking resemblance to the hyperactive narcs of Bad Boys, the tireless Earth-savers of Armageddon, and the dashing flyboys and selfless nurse of Pearl Harbor. Bay watchers know the king of the big-budget directors has been in the cloning game for a decade now, and that he knows a good thing when he repeats it.”
Bill Gallo
Send in the Clones
SF Weekly July, 20, 2005

And though Gallo’s quote from a critic’s perspective is meant in the pejorative sense, for the screenwriter inside you it is should make you sit up and take notice. Time and time again it’s been said that getting a feature produced and released into theaters takes a minor miracle. (Getting people to see the film and then to win awards takes a major miracle.) So it’s worth it to at least take a look at what kind of films are being made because most screenwriters would rather be writing movies rather than just scripts that are left unproduced.

Again don’t be turned off by the word clone. Don’t think of it as a mere copy, but as containing similar DNA. If it’s good enough for Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, etc.—maybe there’s something to it. Yes, of course, there are bad clones (Pasadise two years after Blue Lagoon*) but keep in mind that Castway was a modern retelling of Robinson Crusoe and (as Lee A. Matthias points out) Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet was updated into West Side Story.

In fact, there were 13 Oscar nominations between Castaway and West Side Story. Take what you want and make it your own. And just for the record Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719 and Romeo and Juliet circa 1560. With reports of similar stories of both being told even before those authors were born. The quest for love and survival are as primal and universal as you can get.

*Of course, I haven’t seen it since in came out in 1980, but Blue Lagoon starring Brooke Shields was probably just a retelling from a youth perspective of Robinson Crusoe. Toss in the TV shows LOST and Gilligan’s Island and you can see the stranded on an island concept is never going away. Here’s a trailer you may have never seen from a movie called Horrors of Spider Island about “eight beautiful girls” and one man stranded on an island (Hmmmmm):

Scott W. Smith






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“Surely the most famous life line in classic storytelling is the glass slipper.”
Wells Root (referring to Cinderella)

Your character has a goal or a problem that needs solved—what they ultimately need to achieve that goal is a life line.

Do you remember in the movie Jaws when the Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) was facing imminent death at the end of the movie? It’s a scene of high drama. It’s a you or me face-off and it looks like Brody is on the losing end with a shark…until he reaches for a life line.

From the Peter Benchley script (this draft only has his name on it) at page 112:

Brody is sliding toward (the shark) with the rest of the debris as the bow raises thirty degrees. He intercepts one of Hooper’s compressed air tanks and just as he and everything else pours toward the whirlpool and into the jaws Brody braces himself and shoves the tanks at the bottomless pit. They jam between the upper and lower jaws and stick fast.

But where did these compressed air tanks come from? The tanks are loaded on Quint’s (Robert Shaw) boat on page 79. They are intended for diving by Hooper, but just so we know the power and danger of the tanks Benchley writes a little exposition.

Quint almost trips over Hooper’s tanks as he walks to the chum barrels. He roughly kicks them aside.

Fancy goddamn toys….

(jumping up)
Careful! Compressed air — you crack that and it explodes like a bomb!

It’s a quick exchange that doesn’t draw attention to itself. So now let’s fast forward to page 112 of the 113 page script. Brody has tossed the tanks in the shark’s mouth. That’s the set-up and now the payoff. Benchley writes (major spoiler coming):

The shark twists backward in the water and turns away. Hooper, rising, is peering around for Brody and Quint. The shark is spinning in crazed circles, the head-thrusts indicating that it can neither dislodge nor swallow the silver tanks. It bites down at fifteen tons pressure per square inch. The TANKS EXPLODE!

Now Spielberg (or Benchley, or additional credited writer Carl Gottieb, or even somebody else) said something like, “Yeah, technically Brody got the shark, but what if we raised the stakes? What if we put victory or defeat in the hands of Brody? Wouldn’t that be a more satisfactory ending than the shark basically killing himself? Brody is a cop, he knows how to shoot a gun. We laughed at him for pulling out his pistol at one point and trying to shoot this giant killer shark. ‘ But what if he falls back on his marksmanship and takes a rifle and has to shoot the compressed air tanks wedged in the sharks teeth or he’s a dead man?” The audiences will be thinking ‘Good luck. That’s not going to work.’ The shark gets closer and closer. Brody pulls himself together, concentrates, fires…and boom The TANK EXPLODES.”

That’s what happens in the movie. The box office exploded as well. And some would say that Jaws was the film that changed American movies forever. With a great big assist by a great life line.

In the book Writing the Script (which happened to be published in 1979—the same year as Syd Field’s Screenplay) Wells Root writes;

“This life line, therefore, is whatever device you can use to resolve your hero or heroine’s problem…But the technique has certain strict limitations. It must be logical. Not cloud-built or contrived. It should not be just wild luck, such as a lightning bolt killing the heavy or a flash flood drowning all the escaping bandits. Your life line should not be deus ex machina. That is latin for ‘a god from the machine.'”

So give your character a life line, but always remember to set it up properly so we’re not reading your script or watching your moving and reacting with a uniform bewildered look as we bury our face in our hands.

And just for the record, life lines tend to have the most impact when what’s at stake is life or death. (What’s at Stake? Tip #9)

What are some of your favorite movie life lines?

Scott W. Smith

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The story of the missing little girl who was found yesterday in Florida has caused quite a stir in the news the last few days. Eleven year old Nadia Bloom has Asperger’s syndrome and wandered off into the woods alone and wasn’t rescued until four days later.

Having grown-up in Central Florida, the area she was rescued is very familiar to me. And this is one time when the press has not given to hyperbole. Calling it the woods doesn’t do it justice—there is a reason why this area is not just another Orlando area subdivison. It is rugged swampland complete with dense foliage, muck and snakes. While I don’t know the exact area where she was rescued, I do know nearby Lake Jesup in Winter Springs is estimated to have an alligator population of over 10,000.

Bloom was thankfully carried out alive with just bug bites and dehydration and I bet one heck of a story to tell. Her father said she, “is a nature lover. She went on a bike ride and stopped and went off to take some pictures.”

The first time I ever heard of Asperger’s syndrome was in a book by playwright/screenwriter David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla;

“I think it is not impossible that Asperger’s syndrome helped make the movies. The symptoms of this developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence, and difficulty with transitions, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutia of the task at hand. This sounds like a movie director to me.”

Mamet goes on to say that the highest prevalence of Asperger’s syndrome is among Ashkenazi Jews and their descendants, which historically just happens to make up the bulk of American movie directors and studio heads. (The Jewish lineage, of course, is not a requirement to be in film industry Mamet points out, but one that includes Goldwyn, Mayer, Spielberg, Mamet himself, and a long list of others.)

While Nadia’s Asperger syndrome may have lead her into the woods to take some pictures, it is probably what helped her survive as she did not appear to panic, but was concentrating on the minutia of the swampland.

I hope her camera and pictures and/or video survived the journey as well. Don’t tell me some Hollywood producers aren’t already working an angle on this story. Nadia’s story is the real life Where the Wild Things Are.* She spent four days (and don’t forget the nights) alone in an area few of us would want to spend four minutes.

Can I get an associate producer credit for my suggested title?: How to Train Your Alligator.

And lastly, Nadia’s story is one reason why happy endings are so popular in movies. Because in real life we are used to seeing so many heart breaking stories when young boys and girls disappear.

*Where the Wild Things Are writer/illustrator Maurice Sendak’s parents were Jewish immigrants to the United States from a small village outside Warsaw, Poland. Mamet points out (via Neal Gabler’s book  An Empire all Their Own), that Warsaw (and the surrounding 200 mile radius) was ground central for those that would lay the foundation for Hollywood storytelling. Perhaps I should have called this blog Screenwriting from Warsaw.

Scott W. Smith

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I wrote in my last post (Screenwriting from Japan) that many Japanese films are about respect and honor. Akira Kurosawa, who was the youngest of eight children, was born in Toyko in 1910 and would go on as a film director and screenwriter to gain the respect and honor of some of the greatest filmmakers in history including Fellini, Bergman, Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola.

Martin Scorsese said of Kurosawa, “His influence on filmmakers throughout the entire world is so profound as to be almost incomparable.”

But one of the things that may make his films so accessible and enduring to those outside Japan is that Kurosawa was influenced by Frank Capra, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, John Ford and  William Shakespere.

And if you want to follow a nice exercise of how creativity is passed around read Shakespere’s King Lear and watch Kurosawa’s Ran. Watch Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and then watch The Magnificent Seven (1960). Read Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan IIyich and then watch Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

As original as we think we are, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” But it doesn’t hurt to expose yourself to the wisdom and creativity of great artists from the past.

”With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. The script must be something that has the power to do this.”
Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa died in 1998, but look for some celebrations coming as the 100th anniversary of his birth arrives March 23. And for a list of Kurosawa’s films check out The Criterion Collection.

And, for good measure, I’ll toss in this quote by Tom Cruise;

“I was 18 when I saw Akira Kurosawa’s Shinchinin no samurai (Seven Samurai). After about 30 seconds, I realized that this was not just a cultural thing, it was universal. Years later, I read Bushido. It talked about many things that I strive for in my own life: loyalty, compassion, responsibility, the idea of looking back on your life and taking responsibility for everything you’ve ever done. I’m fascinated by the samurai and the samurai code – it’s one of the main reasons I wanted to make The Last Samurai.”

Scott W. Smith

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I think it’s going to turn into David S. Cohen week as I pull another quote from his book Screen Plays. This one from screenwriter David Franzoni. Before Franzoni won an Oscar for his role in producing Gladiator or worked with Spielberg on Amistad he was a struggling writer like everyone else. He grew up in Vermont and attended the University of Vermont where he studied geology and paleontology. 

By the time he turned his full attention to screenwriting he was in his early 20s. It would take him five years before he would break into the business with a script sale and another 10 years before he saw his first screen credit. By the time that film (Jumpin’ Jack Flash) was released Frazoni was 39 years old. The Oscar would take another 15 years. It’s a process. (For more on the process read the post on Malcolm Galdwell’s chapter The 10,000 Hour Rule from his book Outliers.)

“I remember the day I broke through. I had a meeting with Sissy Spacek and I came out and I’ve got a flat tire. And my spare’s flat. I’ve got twenty-six bucks. I take the spare and roll it down the street. For twelve bucks they patch it for me and I roll it back. I get home. I don’t have an agent. I have a girl at CAA who’s representing me on the side. I get home and there’s a message. ‘Sissy wants to hire you, and we sold the spec script.’ “
                                                       David Franzoni
                                                       Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen
                                                       page 21

Scott W. Smith

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