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Posts Tagged ‘Starsky & Hutch’

Last night I watched Michael Mann’s Heat for the first time. I’m not sure what took me 15 years to see the film starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. I should have seen this when it first came out if for no other reason that I believe it’s the first time Pacino and DeNiro faced each other in a film. It’s not your typical good guy/bad guy story. Mann exposes for the grey areas of the characters and you think that it wouldn’t take much for the good guy to be the bad guy and the bad guy to be the good guy. Similar criminal minds who have taken different paths that pit them against each other.

My favorite line in the film was said by Val Kilmer when De Niro asks him why his woman is leaving him and Kilmer says (in his ocean front house), “Not enough steaks in the freezer.”  That’s tight writing and we know he’s not talking about literal “steaks in the freezer.”

Heat screenwriter/ director Michael Mann was born and raised in Chicago and got turned on to filmmaking while an English major at the University of Wisconsin. He made documentaries in London before writing for TV shows like Starsky & Hutch and Police Story and creating Miami Vice. From there he’s gone on to write and or direct some terrific feature films including The Last of the Mohicans, Collateral, and The Insider. Along the way he’s picked up four Oscar nominations.

To get a glimpse of how Mann works here is a part of an interview that Mann did with Michael Sragow talking about writing and directing The Insider starring Pacino and Russell Crowe:

I tried to direct the subtext. That’s where I found the meaning of the scenes. You could write the story of certain scenes in a code that would be completely coherent but have nothing to do with the lines you hear.

For example, in the hotel room scene, Scene 35, when Lowell and Jeffrey first meet: All Lowell knows for sure is that Jeffrey has said “no” to helping him analyze a story about tobacco for “60 Minutes.” He doesn’t know yet that there’s a “yes” hiding behind this “no.” There’s a whole story going on that’s not what anybody’s talking about.

If you wrote an alternate speech for Jeffrey, it would go: “I’m here to resurrect some of my dignity, because I’ve been fired, and that’s why I dressed up this way and that’s why I have these patrician, corporate-officer attitudes.” And you could do the same for Lowell, and have him sitting there and saying, “This man wants to tell me something that is not about why he’s meeting me.”

Al Pacino just took over Lowell’s great reporter’s intuition to sit there and laser-scan Jeffrey with his eyes. You know, he looks at him, looks at him, and doesn’t move, until, after all the fidgeting and shuffling with the papers, Russell, as Jeffrey, gets to say his great line — “I was a corporate vice president” — with the attitude “Once upon a time, I was a very important person.” And that [Mann snaps his fingers] is when Lowell has it.

Suddenly, here’s the significance of this meeting: “He’s the former head of research and development at Browne & Williamson Tobacco Company, and he wants to talk to me.” Without hitting anything on the head with exposition, without any of that awful dialogue, like “Boy, have I got a lead which may give us the newsbreak of the decade,” you know that Lowell knows he’s on the scent of a helluva story.

Scott W. Smith

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Since Diablo Cody is my poster child (female) for a screenwriter coming from outside L.A. (and the original inspiration for this blog)  then I think I’ll name Lawrence Kasdan as the poster child (male) screenwriter from outside L.A. Kasdan was raised in Morgantown, West Virginia. Quick, name another screenwriter from West Virginia.

(While Morgantown is the second largest city in West Virginia it only has about 30,000 residents not including the students at the University of West Virginia. My lasting memory of Morgantown goes back to 1994 when I was there for a video shoot and the news broke of O.J. Simpson’s famous low-speed police chase. I remember walking down the main drag and seeing restaurant/bar after restaurant/bar having the same helicopter shot of the Simposn’s white Ford Bronco on their TVs.)

Kasdan left Morgantown to attend the University of Michigan where he was an English major. A gifted writer he would go on to win Hopwood Prize at UM for creative writing. In his 30s he became  one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood with a string of box office hits— Star Wars: The Empire Strikes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He has also had  three Oscar nominations for his screenwriting —Grand Canyon, The Accidental Tourist, and The Big Chill.

But what I think you’ll be interested in is that little period between college in Ann Arbor, Michigan and his first sale as a screenwriter. While reading The First Time I Got Paid for It, Writers’ Tales from the Hollywood Trenches I found this retelling by Kasdan when he would have been a 28 year old advertising copywriter:

“One summer day in 1977 my agent asked me to lunch, which was so unusual it made me nervous. It has taken me a long time to get an agent, so naturally, I was worried about hanging on to him. For two years now he had been trying to sell a thriller I had written for my favorite star Steve McQueen, who didn’t know I’d written this thriller for him. Originally, the agent thought he wouldn’t have much trouble selling the script, so he agreed to represent me. But after sixty-seven rejections he was getting discouraged.”

But his agent didn’t want to part ways with Kasdan, but he did want Kasdan to try his hand at writing for television, specifically Starsky & Hutch. Kasden reluctantly agreed to give it a shot. Soon he heard back from the powers that be at Starsky & Hutch that he didn’t have the goods to write for the show. He told the agent not to give up on him that he had a new screenplay in the works that was almost done. He thought that would buy him a little more time to breakthrough.

Then Kasdan writes, “But when I came into my job the next day, there was a message that my agent had called. Could he have changed his mind overnight? Of course he could. After nine years of writing screenplays without success, I believed only bad things were going to happen to me. But what he had to tell me wasn’t bad. It was kind of miraculous. After two years and all that rejection, suddenly two different parties were interested in my thriller—which was called The Bodyguard.”

So while you dream of writing the next  Raiders of the Lost Ark or Return of the Jedi (or get discouraged in your own career) remember Kasden’s line, “After nine years of writing screenplays without success.” And also keep in mind that while that first sale came in 1977 it was fifteen years before the film The Bodyguard was produced and released into theaters. (The film starred Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in roles that were originally thought would star Steve McQueen & Barbra Stresisand. The movie made over $400 million worldwide.)

Related posts: Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Screenwriting from Michigan

Raiders Revisted (part 1)

Scott W. Smith

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