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Posts Tagged ‘Stagecoach’

“I don’t know if any studio would make Butch Cassidy today.”
William Goldman

When I was a kid there was a place in Florida called Six Gun Territory that was an old west theme park near Ocala. They had a rail road, a saloon complete with can-can dancers, old-time photo studio, and most importantly they staged bank robberies and shootouts in the street. I still remember being around 9-years-old and the feel and the sound of walking on the gravel streets wearing cowboy boots.

I have many fond memories of that place and even shot my first 16mm film there. I remember ending that film paying homage to The Great Train Robbery by ending with a shot of a gunfighter shooting into the camera for no other reason than I thought it looked cool.

Every time I watch the opening scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid I think of Six Gun Territory. I don’t know if that was the first movie I ever saw set in the old west but I know it’s the one I go back to the most. It’s also the second highest rated western (after High Noon) on AFI’s top 100 films (1997) joining just a handful of other  Westerns that  made the list (Shane, Stagecoach, The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven).

Paul Newman and Robert Redford speaking screenwriter William Goldman’s words—that’s great stuff.  It took Goldman eight years to write the script which paid him a record fee up to that date of $400,000.  He also took home the Oscar for the 1970 film.

I sometimes watch favorite films with the sound off to get a different perspective. The movie holds up well without the great banter (“Think you used enough dynamite there Butch?”) With the sound off you follow the story easily and it plays as a visually stunning action film. (Though personally I could do without the trendy zoom lens shots.)

On this viewing I also realized that it perfectly matches Goldman’s “stay with the money” theory. Studios pay actors a lot of money, because audiences pay money to see stars. How many scenes do you think there are in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that don’t include Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and/or the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford)? The grand total is…zero. In fact, there is one scene where the town’s men talk about what to do about these bank robbers, and it’s more humorous by having Butch and Sundance listening to the discussion from a hotel balcony. Stay with the money.

“The essential opening labor a screenwriter must execute is, of course, deciding what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing. And to do that, you have to know what is absolutely crucial in the telling of your story—what is its spine? Whatever it is, you must protect it to the death…(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman 

Adventures in the Screen Trade

If I recall my philosophy class correctly, it was Heraclitus who said a long, long time ago that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” I think the times are always changing and that’s a good thing to realize. It was true of the old west, and it’s true of the new west, the Midwest, Key West—wherever you live. “The times they are a-changin’.”

By the way, Six Gun Territory pre-dated Disney World but closed in 1984. The land where it sat is now a strip mall. If you want to survive….

Scott W. Smith

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Once upon a time…between 1927-1941.

By 1927 the film industry was barely 30 years old but great strides artistically and its popularity grew. Filmmaking which started in the United States and France was now happening in Russia, Germany, Italy, Britain, Sweden and beyond. Film technique grew more sophisticated and the audiences simply grew.

Movie theaters became known as picture palaces sometimes the size of cathedrals. In the larger cities the plush carpet, dome ceilings with artwork, and seating for 2,000- 4,000 per theater was not unheard of. They were often grand and sometimes gaudy. Ushers were needed for crowd control. Keep in mind this was not only long before the invention of television, but before the great depression.

There was around 20 movie studios by the end of the 1920s and many people don’t realize that  the 800 films produced per year was at an all-time high. (Compare that today with about 400 feature films being made these days on average. Granted many of these films were shorter.)  Director like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were respected.

Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, William S. Hart, and Lillian Gish were well paid for their talent. But they were not paid to talk. Because until 1927 films were silent. The Jazz Singer changed all of that. Though largely a silent picture it did employ sync sound. Within two years most American movies were talkies.

If you think the industry is going through shift now can you imagine the changes than occurred at that time? Famous and glamourous actors for various reasons were done. Career over. Directors and cinematographers who had the freedom to move the camera freely down had larger cameras and cumbersome sound issues to deal with. And the poor pianist and organist across the country who played the scored music at theaters were now out of the business.

But audiences didn’t care about all of that. By 1929 movie attendance was averaging 90 million tickets sold per week. Even the stock market crashing in 1929 at the start of The Great Depression did not really show down the movie industry. And some would say people during the great depression was a boom to the movie industry as people look for hope and diversion in cheap entertainment. The 30s and into the early 40s are known as the golden age of cinema.

The movie making system was controlled by studios where writers, directors and actors were under contract  so not free to work on any movie they desired and filmmakers had to work under the restriction of  they Hays Code which put restraints on what could and could be on screen. In perhaps a nod to the belief that creativity is best expressed when limitations are set rather than allowed total freedom, the Hollywood golden era produced what many believe to be the finest films ever made.

And even if you disagree with that it’s hard to disagree with scholars who believe that 1939 was the single best year for movies. Check out the lineup:

Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Stagecoach
Goodbye Mr. Chips
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Ninotchka
Gulliver’s Travels
Jesse James
Dark Victory
Gunga Din
Wuthering Heights

Though personally I think 1941 was the single best year for movies (Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon, Meet John Doe, Dumbo, Sullivan’s Travels, Suspicion, Sergeant York, The Little Foxes, The Lady Eve). The truth is whatever year you pick around that time there is an amazing list of great films.

I honestly don’t know why that short studio era was so prolific. But I do know we’ve never been able to return. Perhaps it was just a shear numbers game in that they were making twice as many films as they are today. (There was no competition from TV, Internet, video games, etc.) Or maybe creating fine work in the hyper-studio controlled era has something to do with an old T.S. Elliot quote;

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

Every decade since then has turned out some great films, but there has been a lot of sprawl. Of course, maybe all that sprawl from the 1930s has just been long forgotten.

What I do know is that on December 7, 1941 the United States was attacked on Pearl Harbor and followed by the U.S. joining World War II. A war that only lasted a few years but where between 50-70 million people died. Things have never been the same. Including movies.

Hollywood side note: Edwin S. Porter, a lead pioneer in the early film business who gave D.W. Griffith his first acting job and who in 1903 directed highly the successful The Great Train Robbery , resisted the changes in the film business and was working in the appliance business in 1930.

Scott W. Smith

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“Why does New York have a monopoly on theater?”…I have no vested interest in New York, I don’t live there anymore. It’s all the same to me. But that is where the talent is collected, and if it doesn’t happen there, generally it doesn’t happen anywhere else. I wish it would happen in Ann Arbor, when you get a new theater.
Arthur Miller
February 28, 1967
The University of Michigan

Writing is core to everything we do. Yet good writing is becoming a lost art, and a lost value. I am looking forward to watching Michigan invest in what it takes to create the best writing program in the country.
Helen Zell

As I’ve said many times before Screenwriting from Iowa is not limited to screenwriting or Iowa — but it represents movies and people coming from a place beyond Los Angeles. Today we’re going to take a look at talent from another Midwest state as I turn the spotlight on Michigan.

It was no mistake that the great New York born writer Arthur Miller got his college education at the University of Michigan. Even in the 1930s UM was already know for its high literary output and in the 1920s playwright Avery Hopwood created an endowment for UM writers. Miller was an early recipient of the Avery Hopwood Award award in 1937. It was just the first step of recognition for the writer that would go on and write Death of Salesman and The Crucible as well as many other plays, screenplays, short stories and novels in a career that would span 70 years until his death in 2005.

He is considered one of the greatest American dramatists and supported the University of Michigan his entire life. Last year the Arthur Miller Theater opened on the UM campus keeping his wishes as being the only theater bearing his name. That was a tribute to the education he received in Ann Arbor.

But even before Miller became famous the University of Michigan had tradition in Hollywood. Dudley Nichols, a UM alumni  wrote the 1939 John Ford and John Wayne classic Stagecoach. The long train that followed include:
Valentine Davies (Miracle on 34th Street)
John Briley’s (Ghandi)
David Newman’s (SupermanBonnie & Clyde)
Kurt Luedtke (Absence of Malice, Out of Africa),
Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It)
Adam Herz (American Pie)
Josh Greenfield, (Harry and Tonto)
Roger Lowenstein (TV’s L.A. Law)
Judith Guest (Ordinary People)
Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Grand Canyon, Body Heat)
Laura Kaisischke (
The Life Before Her Eyes)
Jim Burnstein
(D3: The Mighty Ducks)

Burnstein who also wrote Ruffian starring Sam Shepherd has taught at the University of Michigan and gave a presentation this year titled “Wolverines in Hollywood.”

I’m not sure where this Michigan writing legacy started but chances are famed Hollywood screenwriting teacher (and Detroit native) Robert McKee does know. He also attended the University of Michigan where he earned his undergraduate, masters and Ph.D. degrees.  Studying under Kenneth Thorpe Rowe where he learned a good deal about story structure that he promotes in his famed three-day screenwriting seminar and book Story.

Rowe wrote Write that Play and also hooked former student Arthur Miller up in New York that helped Miller start his career.

And though not a writer where would Hollywood be without the talent of former UM pre-med student James Earl Jones? A big voice (“Luke, I am your father”) who was born in a small town of Arkabutla, Mississippi, raised in a couple small towns in Michigan where he overcame a stuttering problem that caused him to be a functionally mute from grade school until high school.

In an interview with Michael J. Bandler Jones mentions Donald Crouch as the teacher that helped him overcome stuttering and find his voice. “I credit him with being the father of my voice. He said, ‘You have a man’s voice now, an impressive bass, but don’t let that impress you. If you start listening to your voice, no one else will.’ It was a good lesson in general. I [try] to be devoid of self-consciousness.”

According to Wikipedia his career in theater began at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan where he was a stage carpenter before his role in Shakespeare’s Othello. Again to quote to old expression; “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” (And no, I won’t pass up the opportunity to mention that Jones brought his booming voice to Iowa in Field of Dreams.)

And just so we don’t leave out UM rival Michigan St. — that’s where Top Gun screenwriters Jack Epps Jr. and Jim Cash first teamed up. The academy-award nominated screenwriter of Finding Neverland and 48 hr director Walter Hill also graduated from Michigan State. Peter Gent was an athlete at MSU and went on to write the novel & screenplay for North Dallas Forty which impacted me greatly when I saw it as a high school football player. Spiderman director Sam Raimi also attended the school in East Lansing. And lastly writer/director David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) is also a Spartan.

Grand Rapids is where Paul Schrader was raised and attended Calvin College to become a minister before eventually writing Taxi Driver and having a long career in Hollywood.

Flint, Michigan native and current resident of Traverse City, Michigan is Academy-Award winning filmmaker Michael Moore who has made three of the top five grossing documentaries of all time. In 2005 he started the annual Traverse City Film Festival.

Michigan native Mike Binder was the writer/director of The Upside of Anger. In a talk he gave in Ann Arbor Binder told students, “If you’re looking for respect don’t become a screenwriter.”

And batting clean-up is a writer who has been called “the Dickens of Detroit” – Elmore Leonard. His novels and short stories often find their way to the big screen with big talent: Get Shorty (John Travolta), Jackie Brown (Robert De Niro) 3:10 to Yuma (Russell Crowe), Hombre (Paul Newman), and the upcoming Killshot starring Diane Lane. He graduated from University of Detroit Jesuit High School and the University of Detroit.

Back in 2001 Leonard had an essay published in The New York Times called Writers on Writing where he offered ten rules for writing. It’s well worth a read. Though geared toward writing novels most apply to screenwriting such as rule number 9: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”

“Oh, I love Elmore Leonard. In fact, to me True Romance is basically like an Elmore Leonard movie… I actually owe a big debt to like kind of figuring out my style from Elmore Leonard because, you know, he was the first writer I’d ever read.
Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction)
The Charlie Rose Show 1994

Leonard lives in Michigan these days, and though in his 80s has a website (www.elmoreleonard.com) complete with a blog and podcasts. From the man who inspired Tarantino, here’s Leonard’s advice on how to get an agent: “My advice is to learn how to write and the agent will find you.”

Of course, Michigan also has a long history of real life characters who were interesting enough to have movies made about their lives (Ty Cobb, Jimmy Hoffa, Eminem, and most recently the intermittent windshield wiper guy Robert Kearns).  Then there is the storytelling history through music from Michigan which is way too long to list but covers probably every form of American music; Jazz, blues, soul, gospel, rock, country, hip hop, rap, punk, techno.)

The rock and roll hall of fame has a little space taken up with artists from Michigan including Aretha Franklin, Bill Haley, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Glenn Frey, and Bob Seger.

I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to connect Michigan’s creative success to one man — Henry Ford. With his cars and factory line he brought prosperity to the area. Some of the people coming to Detroit were from the Mississippi Delta and they brought their music with them. That’s the short history of the Model T to Motown. But again you can’t ignore the part economics plays in its connection to the arts.

These days are lean times for those in Detroit. (Heck, these days they are even lean times for Toyota and Honda.) As the Michigan prophet Kid Rock sings; “Now nothing seems as strange as when leaves began to change, or how we thought those days would never end.” (All Summer Long)

One thing Michigan has recently done to rejuvenate the area economically is to pass one of the largest tax incentives for the film industry. Late this past spring I did some location scouting for Mandate Pictures for Whip It!, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. But Iowa lost out to Michigan and I’m sure the incentives played a part. The roller derby film staring Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis began shooting in Southeast Michigan in July.

The WNEM TV station reported this on their website: In April, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation aimed at giving Michigan a bigger role in the film industry. The key bill in the package gave film studios a refundable credit of up to 42 percent on production expenses in the state. The bills also cover commercials, TV shows, documentaries, video games and other film work.

Landing the Barrymore film is a nice start out of the gate for Michigan and there is talk of three film studios being built. It would seem like a good time to be writing Michigan-centered screenplays. If you don’t have any ideas you can start here: A popular mayor in Detroit has an affair…

P.S. If you are interesting in shooting in Michigan or in learning more about their incentives contact Janet Lockwood at the Film in Michigan office.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

“Film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.”
Jean Cocteau

“The future of filmmaking is changing and mobile-generated art is fast becoming the next medium for film. In five years, I believe we will be watching films in movie theaters that have been shot on a mobile phone.”
Spike Lee
(April 2008)

I stopped laughing years ago.

Back in 1995 I had a friend tell me she was getting married to someone she had met on the Internet. That was uncharted territory back then and fodder for many jokes.

Four years later when the creative team behind The Blair Witch Project stunned Hollywood with the use of their unusual marketing on the Internet it got everyone’s attention.

Now almost ten years later it seems as if the whole world has jumped on the Internet bandwagon. Video for the web is exploding and it’s hard to be surprised by the technological breakthrough of the month.

There is a new cinema coming and for the screenwriter that means new opportunities. So in two parts I’ll attempt to give a sweeping overview of this new world.

In May of 2005, I was on a shoot in Cape Town, South Africa when I read an article about a director in the United States who was making a national commercial with a cell phone. That’s when I thought to myself, “Someday, someone’s going to make a feature film with a cell phone.” In December of 2005 in Johannesburg, South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof, shot the first dramatic feature film, SMS Sugar Man, entirely with a cell phone. A cell phone.

Kaganof, an accomplished filmmaker, told Ryan Fortune of Johannesburg’s Sunday Times’, “We are re-writing the book on cinema here…things will never be the same…from now onwards, all you’ll need (to make a film) is a good idea, a cellphone, a laptop and you’re off. It opens up a whole world of possibilities….” Fortune commented that the film is a perfect example of leap-frogging meaning a technological leap had occurred much like it had ten years previously with the advent of DV cameras and non-linear editing systems.

But also in 2005, the first feature documentary shot entirely with a cell phone was being shot. Italian directors Marcelo Mencarini and Barbara Seghezzi co-directed the 93-minute film, New Love Meetings. “With the widespread availability of cell phones equipped with cameras, anybody could do this,’’ Mencarini said, “If you want to say something nowadays, thanks to the new media, you can.”

Within a year of the cell phone feature breakthroughs, cell phone film festivals began popping up around the world. For the naysayers out there who question the quality of the equipment or films being made need to view the first copyrighted film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze. It was made in 1894 and features, well, Fred Ott sneezing. Yes, I paid a lot of money in film school to learn that, but you can see it free on You Tube.

In fact, you can see quite a lot on You Tube. Not just silly videos of teenagers lip-syncing pop songs, but there’s a mini film school hidden in there. Classic clips from Charlie Chaplin films, the opening tracking shot in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho are available for you to study.

And you have to admit Judson Laipply’s The Evolution of Dance is original and funny. You have to take notice of a video that gets viewed 10 million times in its first two weeks and a year later as I write this is still the number one all-time viewed video on You Tube with more than 83 million views.

Things have evolved very quickly in digital filmmaking and distribution. I don’t know if there are more people making money in the digital world but there is a heck of lot more content. And that is a start and gives us a taste of what is to come. We know that the Internet is shaking up the industry as more and more people spend time on the Internet and less time watching TV programs and going to movies.

We know that in a few years video stores will probably revert back to the small mom and pop stores that sprang up in the 80’s with the demand for video rental. Stores like Blockbuster will have to diversify what they do to survive. I don’t think the need for people renting movies will ever totally go away, they’ll just become more like those funky retro record stores. (Heck, people still collect 8-track tapes.)

One of the good things that may come out of this is the rebirth of the filmmaker as artist. Because of the high costs of making films, filmmakers have always had an uneasy agreement with commerce. Only certain type of films could be made. Ones that could find a large audience. The goal was a high return on investment.

With the rise of the super blockbuster it was once believed that the studios would then make more smaller, less sensational films. That didn’t happen. Once studios got a taste of 100 million dollar box offices then that became the goal for every film. Bruce the shark in Jaws killed more than people.

Over the years I’ve read article after article where actors, directors, writers, and cinematographers lament over not making the kind of films they really want to make. Part of the problem is they too are caught up in the machine. But every once in a while a flower breaks through the concrete and gets made for the joy of it. Because the writer and or director have a vision beyond simply the box office. The real exciting part is when those films make money.

Not all digital films will turn out as well as Sketches of Frank Gehry, but that is part of the process. Remember, before Francis Ford Coppola made The Godfather he cut his teeth on Roger Corman films. Ditto that for Titanic writer/director James Cameron and many other filmmakers. Let’s look back and how far we’ve come in a short time.

I remember in the late 90’s when a filmmaker from New York told an audience at the Florida Film Festival, “I am a filmmaker, I make films with film—I’m not interested in video.” Many film festivals didn’t even allow films shot on video. Looking back it reminds me of the days when snow boarding was outlawed at ski resorts in Colorado. (Snow boarding now represents more than half the revenue at some resorts.) Things change. And these days they change rapidly.

When I was in film school in the early 80’s there was a line drawn between the film and video world. The film students looked down on the video and TV students,  just as did film actors looked down on TV work.

As the 80’s progressed both the VHS videotape market and cable TV opened new opportunities for filmmakers and the lines between film and video became blurred. The year 1994 was the year that I gave up being a film snob. That was the year that Hoop Dreams was released.

I didn’t care what it was shot on it was simply a great film—even if it was shot on video.

Film critic Rodger Ebert would later call it the best film of the 1990’s.  Up until that point there had been a lot of dabbling with video in Hollywood. Jerry Lewis was the first to use video assist on a film for his directorial debut The Bellboy. The first feature film shot on video was 200 Motels, co-directed by Frank Zappa in 1971. Coppola explored with video on The Outsiders back in 1982 mostly for a reference point while working with young actors.

This is a good place to end part one of New Cinema Screenwriting. My last post touched on David Lynch shooting Island Empire on DV and swearing not to return to shooting film. Whether that is another one of Lynch’s bizarre dreams or in fact reality time will tell.

“I think there’s a slight trend toward embracing new cinema, non-Hollywood blockbuster cinema. It’s not erupting, but because of the Internet, I think people have more of a chance to get buzz going on alternative cinema, so I think it’s hopeful out there.”
David Lynch

Granted this is all in the beginning stages which reminds me of an interview I saw last year with the founder of the Geek Squad who said, “What people don’t realize is the internet has not yet started.” Keep in mind that it wasn’t too long ago when Bill Gates dismissed the power and future of the Internet.

There is nothing wrong with having Big Budget Technicolor Hollywood Dreams but keep in mind that today in little towns and villages all over the world there are people experimenting with little digital cameras (even cell phones) and making movies. Writing words and making movies. And tomorrow we’re going to be watching some of those films.

It’s kind of like the golden age of Hollywood when they cranked out film after film to hungry audiences in a pre-television era. Films were sometimes made start to finish in a couple weeks. That’s how some directors directed over 100 films.   Most of those films are forgotten but the ones that survived shine brightly.

The first John Ford film that most people have heard of and perhaps even seen is Stagecoach which he made in 1939. (Though he did win acclaim for Arrowsmith and The Informer in ’31 & ’35)  Before he directed Stagecoach Ford had made 94 films in 22 years. (Think about the learning that went into the simple process of making that many films.)  There is a reason that Orson Welles’ is reported to have watched Stagecoach 40 times before he directed Citizen Kane.

He was in his 40’s when his career got rolling and making the films that we remember him for making. And he directed into his 80’s. There are some great older directors and screenwriters out there that the Hollywood system has forgotten even though they have some films still in them. Maybe if they pick up a digital camera they can make their best films yet.

Speaking of 1939, has there ever been a single better year for movies than 1939?

Maybe this new cinema is a return back to the future.

“I’m ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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