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“I was Number One at the box office five years in a row, which I don’t think anybody has done since. In 1978, I had four movies at once playing nationwide. If I met you then, I’m sorry.”
Actor/director Burt Reynolds (reflecting on his unchecked ego)

It wasn’t a fair fight. Star Wars vs. Smokey & the Bandit that is.

When both of those movies opened during the same week in May 1977, who do you think won coming out of the gate?

The one featuring a cocky driver in a black Trans Am or the one featuring a cocky pilot flying an X-Wing Starfighter?

Keep in mind that Burt Reynolds was the biggest box office star throughout the late ’70s, that legendary comedian and actor Jackie Gleason was Smokey (the cop), and co-star Sally Field was well-known for her Tv show The Flying Nun. That Star Wars movie had a bunch of then-unknown actors in a space genre that not many people believed in. (Granted in time, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Darth Vader would become bigger than any superlative I can come up with.)

Smokey & the Bandit wonat least that opening week. And according to Burt Reynolds in his book  But Enough About Me. Other sources back that up, others say it was a tie, and one I found even said Star Wars edged out Smokey. (Box office data appears to be spotty from more than 40 years ago.) It was close either way.

But even if the numbers $1.6  million (Smokey) vs. $1.5 million (Star Wars) were the final numbers, Smokey may have won the first round, but it definitely lost the fight. Star Wars finished the year number one ($460 million) and Smokey second or third ($126 million) depending on how counts the revenue for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then the Star Wars franchise went on to crush everyone in movie history.  (I don’t count the Marvel universe as one franchise film.)

And, as the saying goes, a number without a reference is meaningless. Star Wars had a limited release in its first week opening in only 43 theaters. Smokey opened in 726 theaters. So even if Smokey did win the box office that first week, Star Wars was killing it in per theater. But, according to IMDB,  Smokey did finish in the top ten of all movies in the 1970s.

Oddly, one of the fans of the movie was the director Alfred Hitchcock. His daughter says it was one of his favorite films in the years before he died, and that he watched it repeatedly.

When I heard that Burt Reynolds died yesterday a zillion thoughts went through my mind. One was I don’t know that there would be this blog without Burt Reynolds. I was 16-years-old when Smokey and the Bandit hit the theaters.  My three biggest interests then were sports, girls, and cars. The fact that I’m talking about Reynolds in the same breath as Star Wars is amazing when you consider he was essentially a jock from a small town in Florida who only became interested in theater when a drama teacher at Palm Beach Junior College encouraged Reynolds to audition for a school play.  Within two years he was in a play on Broadway. (A reminder of the power of one person to give others a sense of direction in life.)

While I was in high school I knew that Burt Reynolds was once a star football player in high school, briefly played football at Florida State University, and then found fame and fortune as a Hollywood actor. For a kid growing up in central Florida, he made that path seem possible.

I was a good enough football player in high school to earn All-Conference honors my senior year, and then walk-on to the University of Miami football team. UM is where I first studied film history and made my first 8mm and 16mm films in the film school there. (Emmy winning Game of Thrones director David Nutter was the Jim Kelly of the film program while I was there.) It’s also where I dislocated my shoulder in practice, got operated on, and walked off.  (Having only dressed for one JV football game—I think I had the shortest football career of any Hurricane player ever.)  Then I set off to finish film school in Los Angeles the next year.

Fame or fortune did not follow, but in tracking Reynolds’ career (and others like him) over the years I realized that path has its own pitfalls. But I’ve had the opportunity to work in production my entire creative career, so I’m thankful to Reynolds for giving me hope and planting that dream.

And that’s the part of the unlikely roots of this blog. Mix in Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville album also coming out in 1977, getting my driver’s license that year—then a few months later scoring three touchdowns in a game, seeing the swagger and laugh of Burt Reynolds on the big screen, and you had one optimistic young fellow.

Hold on to sixteen as long as can
Changes come along real soon
Make us women and men
Jack & Diane/ John Mellencamp

I once produced a video for someone who was fond of saying, “The one thing I’ve learned is every day the world rolls over on top of someone who was just sitting on top of it yesterday.” Burt Reynolds knew what it was like to be at the top and then have the world roll over on top him—then have it back up and roll over him again.  As he reached his 80s, he said his final role was “survivor.”

Fifty years from now, when people think back to the coolest actors of the ’70s I’m sure Burt Reynolds (and specifically his performance in Deliverance) will be on the shortlist. (All the bad choices he made in life and in roles will be forgotten. In time, ideally, artists are judged on only their best work.)

I flipped through his autobiography last night and found a few odd connections that show what a small world it is. Reynolds briefly studied at the Actors Studio in New York. One of the acting teachers I had in L.A. was Tracey Roberts who also studied at the Actor’s Studio so I wonder if she ever worked with Reynolds. Turns out they were both in a movie called Sam Whisky (1969).

One of the writers on Smokey and the Bandit was Charles Shyer, and one of my professors in film school was Bruce Block who’s worked as a producer on a few films with Shyer, including Father of the Bride I & II. (Two great resources by Block are his book The Visual Story, and his DVD commentary on the collector’s edition of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.)

One of the players I played high school football with (Billy Giovanetti) and the starting wide receiver when I was at Miami (Larry Brodsky) both played for the short-lived USFL pro-football team the Tampa Bay Bandits which Reynolds was a part owner.

Reynolds continued working as an actor and director over his lifetime and was involved with his own theater in Jupiter, Florida. His various personal, financial, and physical struggles were well documented in the press, but when I think of Reynolds I remember how he entertained me in movies like Gator, Semi-Tough, White Lighting, and The Longest Yard.

One last little bit of Burt Reynolds trivia is Oscar-winning writer/director Quentin Tarantino was named after Renyold’s Gunsmoke character Quint. Tarantino was born the same year I was so I imagine he also enjoyed Reynolds and his ’70s films when he was a teenager.

If Quentin Tarantino hadn’t become “Quentin Tarantino,” I’m not sure what he’d be doing for a living since video stores faded away—but he’d probably have a movie blog and write a post about Burt Reynolds the day after he died

P.S. I’m grateful for a teacher in school who had us read Irwin Shaw’s classic short story, The Eighty-Yard Run. It made you want to make sure you had a life once the glory days passed you buy.  A few years later I saw the documentary Hoop Dreams about a pair of Chicago basketball phenoms starting in eighth grade and follows their dream until they get to college. It should be required viewing for every high school athlete.

Since 2009, ESPN’s  30 for 30 series of sports-centered documentaries have done a great job of showing how athletics intersects with life outside of the games themselves. Three of them have featured the University of Miami football team—The U ,The U Part 2, and Catholics vs. Convicts. 

And if ESPN wanted to do a fourth documentary on UM football they could. There are so many storylines to explore. There’s former QB Jim Kelly and his struggles with cancer, and there’s former QB Mark Richt’s long journey from Hurricane QB to current head coach. The struggles and triumphs of life. It was sad when I learned of the passing of two great players who were at Miami when I was there who also briefly played in the NFL. Rocky Belk was a prime target for Jim Kelly’s passes and died after an illness at age 50,  and Stanely Shakespeare who died in a boating accident when he was 42. I always thought Stanley Shakespeare was the coolest name of anyone who ever put on a football uniform.  He was also starting wide receiver on the 1983 team that won Miami’s first National Championship. And in the final odd connection in this post, both Stanley Shakespeare and Burt Reynolds died in Jupiter, Florida.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The ‘rules’ of structure ensure that a huge reversal happens every 30 minutes, a big one every 15 minutes or so and some sort of smaller one every single scene.”
Writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper)

snake-oil-header-e1417544608275

I pulled the following excerpt from an article by Rian Johnson that I found in a stack of articles I wanted to included on my blog someday. Here it is— just five years after it was published:

“As a writer I understand the instinct to bristle at ‘S’ word. Structure seems antithetical to the free-wheeling creative process we associate with creating fresh art. But it’s essential to understand structure. You don’t need to learn it as a rote set of rules or a diagram of blanks to fill in with your ideas, but to simply understand it, and to wrap your head around why a three-act structure works. 

My own bottle of snake oil, for what it’s worth? Traditional screenplay structure is a tried and true method of keeping you, as a writer, lashed to the mast of the one and only hard and fast rule in all of screenwriting: Do not be boring….As a writer, the rules of a good script, keep you honest.

Can you write a good script without following a structure? Yes. In fact, some of my favorite scripts have nothing at all resembling three acts. Can you write a good one without following the principles that drive a traditional structure? Maybe, sure. But I have yet to read one.”
Rian Johnson
MovieMaker/Complete Guide to Making Movies 2011

P.S. Back when that was first published Johnson was best known for his indie film Brick (2005), now he’s best known for writing and directing a film that won’t be released until next year—Star Wars: Episode VIII (2017). Does that give a little more gravitas to the above quote?

 

Related post:
Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule
There are No Rules, But…
Screenwriting & Structure
Analytical vs. Intuitive Writing
What’s Changed (Tip #102)
Screenwriting with Brilliant Simplicity

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Here’s the beautiful thing about theme, it’s the underlying message that kind of unifies the story…Even if you don’t write from theme I know the reason why a lot of you are sitting down and putting the time into [screenwriting] is you have a way of looking at the world that you want to communicate to people…Just like dialogue needs to have subtext and not be on the nose, you never want to be on the nose thematically. You don’t want to be didactic, you don’t want to be preachy, it’ll put people to sleep. It’s not what people expect from drama. Drama is about emotion…In Star Wars Luke has to shoot the Death Star, he has to shoot something down a little hole—blow up the Death Star. And he’s got a chose in front of him, he’s got the force—’Use the force, Luke’—or he has a computer. Now the computer technology isn’t just like [basic] computer technology, it’s the technology that built the Death Star—which is pretty powerful stuff. So when he chooses the force and he’s successful, you get this theme; ‘Humans, intuition is more important than technology.'”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

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More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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Star Wars is one of those films — old films — that was designed for the big screen. It makes a big difference to see it on the big screen with the overwhelming sound, the picture and now 3D. We’ve had two generations be able to see it on the big screen and it was great. Now kids who have never seen it on the big screen, who have no idea how powerful it was — because all they had was DVD — have that chance.”
George Lucas
The Hollywood Reporter article by Alex Ben Rock

It’s been a Star Wars week for me. Wednesday night I had to drive two hours to pick-up a crew member flying into Des Moines Airport from Los Angeles. Because he was coming in around midnight I decided to make a stop at the Apple Store and catch a late showing of Star Wars: Episode 1 -The Phantom Menace 3D at the West Jordan Mall. I know this will be heresy to diehard Star Wars fans, but I had never seen the film. I was a teenager when the first Star Wars came out and eventually when I found out who Darth Vader was I was satisfied with the series.

Which means I hadn’t seen a Star Wars movie in the theaters since seeing Return of the Jedi in 1983. That’s almost 30 years! But I remember that night well, because I was in film school where about 70% of the people were there because of the original Star Wars. A bunch of us went to a midnight showing in Hollywood and it was great.

So there I was Wednesday night (with just one other person in a massive theater) hitting the reset button experiencing Star Wars again like I was seven years old. And remembering that through all of the pros and cons that’s been said of various Star Wars characters and movies over the years—that George Lucas is a genius. Forget almost everything else he’s done and just judge him Star Wars, American Graffiti and the story for Indiana Jones is proof enough.

Yesterday (the day after seeing The Phantom Menace) I went to a shoot at a company here in Cedar Falls called Phantom EFX where among others things in their creative environment was a handmade R2D2 so I couldn’t pass up having my picture taken with the little fellow. I was interviewing Aaron Schurman, Phantom EFX CEO and designer of the Darkest of Days video game. It turns out that Aaron has been out to LA to meet with CAA and develop one of his games into a feature film.) Boy, you never know what’s going on in the outskirts of the cornfields here in Iowa.

All of this reminds me of an opportunity I had back in 2006 to visit ILM in San Francisco where I was greeted by the statue below of Yoda before entering the building.

Good memories, and great movie memories. Thanks Mr. George Lucas.

Maybe the force still be with you—and all of us—all the of days of our lives.

Scott W. Smith

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“I try to make films that move people when they are in the theater and make them think only after they leave.”
Claude Berri
Oscar-winning French filmmaker (Le poulet, Jean de Florette)

“I’ve always chosen to work on films that are more than entertainment. I believe film can also be provocative and send audiences home thinking.”
Cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, True Grit)

A few years ago I was producing a promotional video for a seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. As I was shooting b-roll footage of a professor teaching, I experienced one of those wonderful moments that happens from time to time—I learned something. And it was so simple I remembered it: “Think. Feel. Do.”

Turns out that the concept of think, feel, do is not limited to preachers explaining Biblical passages to their congregants, but is used by everyone from marketing professionals to psychologists—and since screenwriters and storytellers fall somewhere between preachers and psychologist it’s worthwhile to toss it into your tool box.

Though for screenwriters it’s best to think in terms of feel, think, do. And just when I think I’ve reinvented the wheel, a quick Google search tells me there’s already a business book titled See, Feel, Think, Do.

Let’s use the pre-Super Bowl VW commercial that went viral this week as an example. I saw the Stars Wars influenced spot called The Force when it merely had 500,000 views a couple of days ago. As of this writing it’s passed the 10 million view mark. (Though I think roughly 25,000 views of those are mine.) I love the simplicity of the spot and from Volkswagen’s perspective they want you to Feel, Think, Do.

Ideally the team behind that spot wants you to feel a connection with the little kid striving to find his superforce powers. (And they’ve spent a galactic amount of money to make sure plenty of viewers do make that connection.) You empathize with the kid’s situation. You think about all those good feelings you had for the Star Wars movies. Maybe you even remember where you were when you first heard the words, “Luke, I am your….” Maybe you identify with the situation because you are a mother or father who currently have a son or daughter running around the house in Star Wars garb. Maybe your kids are now college age and you remember when they did the same. A mix of thinking & feeling stirring all kinds of emotions in viewers.

Then comes the do part—”You know, my car is looking a little ratty.” “A new car would be nice.” “That new Passat is a sharp-looking car.” “Honey, you want to go looking at cars today?”

Think. Feel. Do./Feel. Think. Do.

That’s what people who gives sermons try to do, that’s what people who make commercials try to do, and that’s what many great films do.

I can tell you first hand, that watching Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in On the Waterfront stand up to injustice has helped me a few times to think, feel, and do in a few instances and stand up to injustices I’ve seen. (And like Malloy, I’ve got the scars to prove it.)

But I must add, that films work best when they are subversive. When they sneak up on you. When the theme grows on you long after you’ve left the theater. The biggest problem that pure propaganda filmmakers make is hitting you over the head with a message like “pay it forward,” “save the environment, “war is bad.”drugs are bad,” “have faith in God” and “wear clean underwear.” They tend not to make audiences think, feel or do—nor do they tend to be very entertaining. (Except in the case of Avatar.)

Show don’t tell. Total word count of that VW commercial…zero.

P.S. Using Darth Vader to sell cars…evil has never been so cute.

P.P.S. If you haven’t seen On the Waterfront or Jean de Florette...Netflix.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“They drew first blood, not me.”
John Rambo

“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.”
Joseph Campbell

The road to the first Rambo movie being released in 1982 was a long journey. The novel First Blood was published in 1972 and reports are that the property went through three studios, 16 scripts, and a lot of high-profile actors and directors before it became Sylvester Stallone’s second franchise character (after Rocky). And though Stallone had become a superstar after the 1976 release of Rocky his other non-Rocky films (F.I.S.T., Nighthawks & Paradise Alley) hadn’t faired so well. Nor was the topic of Vietnam a popular one in ’82—the last U.S. troops pulled out of Saigon in ’75. There weren’t strong indicators that First Blood was going to be a hit film.

But producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, and director Ted Kotcheff, put together a team that would defy the odds, and created not only a film that would open #1 at the box office, but one that would go on to make $125 million worldwide, followed by three sequels—all creating the rare international iconic character, John Rambo.

The movie was based on the David Morrell novel First Blood that actually had Rambo as more of a killing machine. (The first movie while having plenty of actions, explosions and injuries, actually only has a few people dying.) The changes were made to make the character more sympathetic. Morrell was a professor of English at the University of Iowa between 1970-1986, which means the chances are good that the novel was written in the vicinity Iowa City. (Just learned that today as I was doing research on Morrell.)

“My intent in writing (First Blood) started back in 1968 when I was a graduate student at Penn State and I was watching TV one night when I was struck by the news by two reports that followed back to back. One which was of a Vietnam fire-fight with soldiers screaming, and shooting and bullets kicking up dust, and the other was about riots going on in American cities. That summer and the summer before there were many, many riots and many of them had to do with off-shoots of the Vietnam war. And I got to thinking what if we had a novel in which the Vietnam war came home to the United States and we sort of had a taste of what it would be like in our own back yard. Basically what the intent was was to write an anit-war novel about how I was not in favor of the Vietnam war. It was about how the establishment abused young men and took them over and made killing machines and then took them back and never retrained them.
David Morrell
First Blood Blu-ray commentary

His key model for the Rambo character was World War II hero Audie Murphy. Morrell has gone on to have a long successful career as a novelist. He received his undergraduate degree at the St. Jerome University (a Roman Catholic university in Canada), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Penn State. He said on the DVD commentary that he always thought of First Blood as being a western and lists The Sheepman (1958) as a film that was a sort of parallel to First Blood.

Here is a summary of The Sheepsman found on IMDB:

A stranger in a Western cattle-town behaves with remarkable self-assurance, establishing himself as a man to be reckoned with. The reason appears with his stock: a herd of sheep, which he intends to graze on the range. The horrified inhabitants decide to run him out at all costs.

Morrell also was influenced by Joesph Campbell’s work on mythology in developing his character and story for First Blood. (Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was also key to George Lucas years later as he would develop the Star Wars movies.) It’s not hard to read Campbell and understand the primal aspects that Morrell drew upon in creating First Blood. There’s the warrior fleeing into the woods, descending into the mine, starting a fire, and surviving swimming with rats, and ascending the ladder into the light. Morrell called it a “Hunter hunted story,” while Stallone has made references is to Rambo being a Frankenstein-like character.

First Blood was also a film that dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and while not giving any answers, Morrell says that he heard reports that many Vietnam vets wept for the first time since the war as the film somewhat depicted how hard it was to make the transition from solider to civilian in a country where they were often despised and rejected.

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son don’t you understand”
Bruce Springsteen
Born in the USA 

You may be also interested to know that Morrell picked the name John Rambo as a combination of the poet Arthur Rimbaud (A Season in Hell) and a type of apples called Rambo that his wife brought home one day while he was writing. Credited on the First Blood screenplay are Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone.

You can find out more about Morell, and the 30+ novels and books he’s written, on his website davidmorrell.net.

P.S. For the person who has everything…the survival knife that Rambo uses in First Blood was designed by the late Jimmy Lile who was known as the Arkansas Knifesmith. For $3,500 you can have a knife like Rambo—it’s called the New Lile First Blood.

Scott W. Smith

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Judging from the Christmas list (or Cristmis list) that my wife and I received recently from a seven-year-old, LEGOs are a little different then when I was a kid. (And, yes, this list is 100% authentic.) And if this is a common list this Christmas, and every kid gets one or two Star Wars LEGOs this year, then it will be a very good year for George Lucas. The total of this list comes to $1,384.91.

Star Wars, the movie that just keeps on earning.

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