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Posts Tagged ‘Spike Lee’

This is a follow-up to my last post (The George Lucas Directing Class in Under 100 Words) and it’s advice that comes from three Oscar winners. And it has to do with how you as a director capture wide shots, medium shots, and close-up shots in any given scene.

Director Spike Lee says you not only want to hire a talented director of photography (DP), but one who is also efficient. That’s a big part of what is going to help you keep on schedule and make your days. And the lower the budget, the fewer days you have to shoot your film.

And it’s not only the shooting schedule that’s important. Lee says, “Actors come to the set ready to work.” They’ve already been through hair, makeup, and wardrobe so they don’t want to be sitting in their trailers while the DP tinkers with lighting.

Oscar winner Martin Scorsese said that back in the ’80s when he was coming off a lull in his career he had smaller budgets to work. In one case he needed 75 shots in three days, but the budget only allowed for two days so they cut out 25 shots and scheduled to shoot 25 shots per day over the two days they had. The way they kept on schedule was to allow x-amount of time for each shot—10 minutes for one shot, 20 minutes for another, and 45 minutes for a more complicated shot. If they didn’t get what they needed in that time frame, they had to move on.

Oscar winner Jodie Foster drives home the point of how to be efficient in your shooting:

“There are a lot of things that waste time on movies. For example, you have five setups, you have one incredibly wide shot, and the other ones are five little pieces you’re going in for. Your wide shot— you can barely see their mouths move. So please don’t do 25 takes of the entire scene and print them all, and give your actors notes based on this wide shot. You’re probably only going to need one take or maybe two takes. Go in and get the other stuff afterwards and don’t waste all of your time getting the wide shot perfectly. Allow yourself to go in for the other shots.

“With movement very often, when you start a move and you know you’re going to keep this move, you want the beginning of the move and the end of the move. And that means you’re going to be stuck on this shot for the whole thing. If you make that decision that you’re going to keep that shot, then you don’t need those lines for any of the other pieces of coverage. So you don’t need to get everything perfect if you know that you have the money shots or the shots that are really in your head are working. So that’s where a lot of time gets spent, people want everything perfect and they don’t have an understanding of their cutting patterns or their potential cutting pattern. And they heard that old adage ‘Get coverage, get everything. Get every choice you possible have.‘ Large films can afford to not make choices. A little movie—gotta make choices and keep moving on.”
Jodie Foster
Masterclass, Shooting Your Film

So don’t worry about getting every take perfect (it won’t happen anyway), and have a clear vision going into the scene of what you envision the final edited scene to be. Another trick Lee has used throughout his career is to do scenes in one take. Steven Spielberg is a master of the oner–some that are simple and some that are quite complex. (Shots that often involve wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups all in one long take.)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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Back in the ’70s actor Lee Majors was The Six Million Dollar Man. I don’t know what $6 million dollars in 1974 would be worth today, but Kenya Barris’ $100 million dollar deal with Netflix makes him—if not bionic (like Lee Majors character)—quite a wealthy writer/producer by any measure.

And Barris wasn’t hurting for coin. The creator of Black-ish (who also just happens to be married to a doctor) earlier this year donated $1 million to his alma mater, Clark Atlanta University. 

Here’s a glimpse into his early inspiration as a writer:

“I am what I am as a writer because of Norman Lear [All in the Family, Sanford & Son] and Spike Lee. Norman Lear in particular. I feel like Norman had this amazing ability to have the foresight to talk about real things at a time when they needed to be talked about.

“For some reason, television went through this amazing hibernation of not talking about things. [The Evans family, from Good Times] in particular affected me, and it affected my family and it affected other families that didn’t look like my family. It really showed that at the core — rich or poor — family is about love and about sticking together. And I think that that is one of those specific universalities that really influenced and informed what my show does.”
Kenya Barris (Twitter: @funnyblackdude)
NPR, Fresh Air, 2016

P.S. To show you how organic writing this blog is . . . I didn’t know that I’d write about Barris today when I wrote the Spike Lee post two days ago, or the one that touched on Good Times/Jimmy Walker last week. These things tend to happen in clumps. And I may be closer to Barris that I am to Kevin Bacon. No 7 degrees here. On April I wrote a post about Cydney Kelley—a writer friend of mine from Iowa— who’d just won a Daytime Emmy. Kelley also worked alongside Barris on the TV show The Game that was shot in Atlanta.

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How Much Do Screenwriters Make? “It’s either very lucrative and exciting, or nothing.”—Screenwriter Anthony Peckham

Scott W. Smith

 

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“You get tired of going to the movies and seeing stuff that you don’t want to see or not seeing the stuff you want to be dealt with. When the subject matter you love is not being done right, you have to make your own movies.”
Writer/director Spike Lee
(I don’t remember where I first read this quote, but it’s at least 15 years old. Found it in handwritten in an old notebook today. What I used to do just for myself before I had this blog. )

Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman has a 97% Rotten Tomato rating from all critics.  And it opened this weekend in 1,512 theaters making a respectable $10 million. Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz developed the original spec script based on the memoir of Ron Stallworth. (Read the  IndieWire interview  to see how they contacted Stallworth directly and pitched their idea to him.)

Lee and Kevin Willmott are also credited as writers on the finished film.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“For your first screenplay, what I’m going to ask all of you is to think about your favorite films and what genre they are. Whatever that genre is, I want you to write that kind of script. If you don’t like murder mysteries, don’t write murder mysteries.”
Robert McKee
(Words that inspired filmmaker Edward Burns before he launched his career)

“I thought about what films I loved the most, I instantly knew the answer: Woody Allen movies. So I said to myself, ‘All right, I’m going to write whatever that genre is; whatever Woody’s genre is, that’s what I’m going to write.'”
Edward Burns

Back in 1995 filmmaker Edward Burns won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival with his debut film The Brothers McMullen. In his new book Independent Ed he recounts what led to that success giving assists to various college classes, Syd Fields’ book Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting, Robert McKee’s story structure seminar, and working as a production assistant on Entertainment Tonight (ET) where he also found time to crank out “four or five screenplays” that didn’t get sold or produced.  After all that, he finally had an epiphany.

Then one day it hit me. What was it about The Last Picture Show and Marty and The 400 Blows that made me want to be a filmmaker in the first place? They were honest. They felt like they were written by people who had lived those stories. Then I thought about the story I had lived.

The Irish Americans were a big part of New York culture. They were an important in my New York City. And having grown up in a tight-knit Irish American family, surrounded by similar families, my world revolved around this community and culture.

I said to myself, “That’s what I’m going to write. These guys are going to be Irish. And they’re not going to be just passively Irish. I’m going to make them aggressively, nostalgically Irish.”

The sudden clarity I had was stunning. Woody Allen wrote and directed about the Jewish American New York experience; Martin Scorsese wrote and directed films about Italian American New York experience; and Spike Lee was writing and directing films about the African American New York experience. All these guys had carved their own niche. I had been asking what mine would be. Now I knew.
Director/Actor/Writer Edward Burns
Independent Ed: Inside My Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life
Page 17

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Emotional Autobiography (“My work is emotionally autobiographical.” Tennessee Williams)

Scott W. Smith

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“We’re a great country. We’ve got great stories. And for the most part, the great stories of people of color have not been told.”
Spike Lee
(at the NYC Premier of Red Tails)

“Americans trust black people when we sing, dance or tell jokes. It’s when we stop laughing that people get itchy.”
Author Charles Fuller (A Soldier’s Story)

As a response of the release of The Birth of a Nation (1915) plans were set in place by black leaders to give a response to stereotypes portrayed in D.W. Griffith’s widely praised film. Plans to film Booker T. Washington’s book Up from Slavery fell apart, the start of World War I didn’t help with film funding, but eventually The Birth of a Race did get produced and was released in 1918. According to the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance the film “was considered a critical and popular failure, and it was a financial fiasco.”

But the one thing it did do was inspire Oscar Micheaux to become the first Africa-American to write and direct a feature film—The Homesteader in 1919.  (On IMDB, Jerry Mills is also listed a co-director.) He would go on to make 41 films over the next 29 years. But his direct response to The Birth of a Nation was the film Within Our Gates (1920).

Now here’s the great thing about technology—there was no known copy of Within Out Gates until 1990 when one was found in Paris. Now the whole version pf the film is available for free on You Tube.

While it’s generally accepted that Micheaux is the first African-American to make a feature film, back in 1910 William D. Foster of Chicago founded the Foster Photoplay Company—the first independent African-American film company. He was a sports writer from Chicago and his first film was The Railroad Porter, a short film made in 1912 and starred William D. Foster.

And back when Jacksonville, Florida was known as “winter film capital of the world,” writer/director Richard Norman (also an African-American) made several features in the 1920s. Long before Tyler Perry opened his film studio in Atlanta, Norman owned the Norman Studios. A studio which is still around today as a museum.  And before Red Tails (currently in theaters as I write this) Norman was the producer, director and writer on The Flying Ace (1926)—about a World War I pilot— with an “ALL COLORED CAST” as one old advertisement promised.

That movie is part of the Library of Congress. Here’s the trailer for The Flying Aces (with a little updated music):

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Scott W. Smith

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“One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the colored man can be anything,”
Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951)

On Tuesday, the United States Postal Service released a stamp of producer, director, screenwriter Oscar Micheaux. This is significant for several reasons. First it shows that long before Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, and before even Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, there was Micheaux. Though probably less known than those other filmmakers, according to The Miami Herald, “Micheaux, who died in 1951, was the first African American to produce a feature-length film — The Homesteader, in 1920 — and a sound feature-length film — The Exile — in 1931.”

In all he is said to have made 40 films, though only all or part of 15 survive.

The USPS press release says, “Micheaux thrived at a time when African-American filmmakers were rare, venues for their work were scarce, and support from the industry did not exist. Micheaux’s entrepreneurial spirit and independent vision continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers and artists.”

On Wednesday, Film Life’s 14th Annual American Black Film Festival began (June 23-26, 2010) in Miami. (I’m not sure if honoring Oscar Micheaux is on the list this year, but if you’re in that area Spike Lee will be doing a Master Class on The Art of Filmmaking Saturday, June 26 at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.)

The second thing about Micheaux of significance to this Screenwriting from Iowa blog is that I like to point out writers and filmmakers who come from outside Los Angeles and Micheaux was born in 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois, grew up in Great Bend, Kansas and had a farm in South Dakota. It was in South Dakota when he began writing short stories. According to IMDB, “Micheaux lost his homestead in 1915 due to financial losses caused by a drought. He moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where he established the Western Book and Supply Co. He continued to write novels, selling them himself, door-to-door.”

In case you missed that, Micheaux lived in Iowa for spell. Wrote books and sold them himself.  (My new hero.) Micheaux moved to Chicago with hopes of making one of his novels a book. Again IMDB, fills in what happened;”Micheaux returned to the white businessmen and farmers around Sioux City, Iowa, where he still maintained an office, and sold them stock in his new company. In this way he was able to raise enough capital to begin filming his novel in Chicago, which was then a major film production center.” (I swear, I couldn’t make all this stuff up if I tried.)

His first feature, The Homesteader, was made in 1919. IMDB states, “His next film, Within Our Gates (1920), was his response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that had glorified the Ku Klux Klan.” These films were known as “Race Films” or “Race Movies” intended for black audiences. Wikipedia says, “During the height of their popularity, race films were shown in as many as 1,100 theaters around the country.”  It would not be until the 50s and the modern civil rights movement when Race Films were faded out.

And the third significance to Micheaux’s stamp is the artwork was created right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa by artist Gary Kelley. The same Gary Kelley I’ve mentioned many times on this blog and who I did a multi-media project with earlier this year (Kelley’s Blues).

Anyway to honor Oscar Micheaux, Gary Kelley, and my high school creative writing teacher Annye Refoe (who just happens to be black) I am going to give away one new copy of Seattle writer/teacher Brian McDonald’s screenwriting book Invisible Ink; A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate. I own way too many books on screenwriting than I’d like to admit, but I believe that Invisible Ink is the first and only screenwriting book I own written by an African-American. Perhaps not something that needs mentioning, but in the context of Micheaux, I thought it was worth pointing out.

Anyway, I’ll send the book via the USPS with Micheaux/Kelley stamps. But here’s how I’ll pick one winner. In the spirit of Micheaux, I am working on publishing parts of this blog as a book (or two or three) and what I need are some blurbs from people who can say two or three positive sentences about me and/or Screenwriting from Iowa. (Could be longer, but doesn’t need to be.)  Put them in the comment section or email to me at info@scottwsmith.com. I’ll print the names and put them in a hat and choose a winner on next Friday (July 2, 2010).

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Scott W. Smith

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“Growing up in Ohio was just planning to get out.”
Jim Jarmusch

Have you ever put together a top ten list of films that you’ve walked away from feeling stunned? I haven’t but one film that I think would be on that list is Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise. The 1984 film is credited with giving a fresh take on independent filmmaking. The low-budget, black and white film is still the only movie I’ve ever watched where each scene is done in single master shots.

Stranger than Paradise won Camera d’Or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival. Empire magazine’s The 50 Greatest Independent Films listed the film #14, just ahead of Memento.

I haven’t seen the film is a long time. Actually, because it has a special place in my memory I’m a little hesitant to watch it again for fear it won’t measure up to the fondness I have it. But I’m sure I’ll check out The Criterion Collection version in the near future.

Most filmmakers struggle to one degree or another with a balance between artistic freedom and commercial success.   A look at Jarmusch’s career shows how one filmmaker has walked that balance. Even if you haven’t seen his films (Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Dead Man, Down by Law) know that any writer/director who can attract the acting talents of Forest Whitaker, Bill Murray, Roberto Benigni, and Johnny Depp, on top of a 25-year career is doing something right.

Born in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (just north of Akron)  in 1953 Jarmusch went to New York and received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University and worked on an MFA in film at NYU where Spike Lee was a fellow student. He also gained valuable experience working as an assistant for directors Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray.

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.'”
Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules
MovieMaker 2004

The Akron-Cleveland has changed a lot since Jarmusch was a kid (and even when he shot part of Stranger in Paradise there in the 80s) and I’d like to think that the next Jim Jarmuschs from the area, like current NBA MVP LeBron James, stay in their hometown and do their thing for the world to see.

Scott W. Smith

 

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