Posts Tagged ‘Sundance Film Festival’

I’m reading through Ted Hope’s book Hope for Film, From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions (the Kindle version which I recommend) and came along this passage that he calls “My formula for the perfect Sundance Film.” I hope you find it helpful. (From pages 78-79.)


1. The protagonist: Center the story around an everyday person, someone the audience can identify with (not a wealthy or an evil type).

2. The plot: The protagonist needs to go through a serious arc, suffer hardship, and then come to some understanding that the audience didn’t expect.

3. Be bold: Show risk-taking in the filmmaking. Make it feel like it may all fall apart, but then save it at the last moment: People should say, “It’s bold.”

4. Be disciplined: If you can’t be bold, be disciplined. If it doesn’t fit the form, cut it out.

5. Own your aesthetic: Embrace, even flaunt, your aesthetic and the limits of your aesthetic. Don’t be ashamed of your limitations. Own your choices.

6. Engage bigger issues: The story has to be bigger than the movie itself and should deal with issues of either class conflict, gender conflict, sexual conflict, or other political issues. How do you comment on the world at large while still examining the minute and particular?

7. Cast: You need to cast a few stars or soon-to-be stars, so it should be an ensemble piece that covers generational conflict. You have the old-name actor you’re bringing back and the up-and-comer whom no one had seen yet, along with actors who can move from TV into feature films.

8. Shock value: It needs some moment of audacity, the kind of thing that people will talk about and that might even shock the uninitiated.

9. The right mix: Have a sense of humor about great tragedy— or find the tragedy in the hilarious. Embrace the cocktail; make it at least feel fresh.

10. Leave them wanting more: Shorter is better; 90 minutes is the new 120 (today, 80 is the new 90). No one ever says, “I wish it had been longer” when they leave the theater.



Read Full Post »

“I’m telling you Iowa is incredible. We should all move to Iowa and start the revolution.”
Hannah (Lena Dunham) in Girls, Season 4 episode 2

It’s been a busy month for Lena Dunham as she’s been prominently featured in the press near the center of the film & political world in January 2016. She’s been at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah where her documentary Suited premiers tonight and she’s been stumping in Iowa for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.   

“This is my second time in Iowa, but before I came to Iowa, I was pretending to be in Iowa. We filmed all our Girls stuff not in Iowa. I had seen tons of pictures of Iowa City, we had a location scout from Iowa and a writer from Iowa, so we had our experts in check, but I hadn’t, myself, had an opportunity to come. It was amazing when I came to Iowa City last year on my book tour because I had already had the experience of existing in fake Iowa and I was like, wow, we didn’t do that bad a job.”
Lena Dunham
The Des Moines Register 
January 11, 2016

Dunham, the creator of the HBO show Girls, is the perfect person to follow up my last post (Diablo Cody Day) about Diablo Cody winning an Oscar in 2008 for writing the Juno screenplay.  (And since I was living in Iowa at the time, the fact that Cody graduated from the University of Iowa served as inspiration for me starting this blog.)

Well, back in 2008 Dunham graduated with a degree in creative writing from Oberlin College in Ohio. While in college, in the infant days of You Tube, she was also creating short films that went viral.

“I didn’t go to film school. Instead I went to liberal arts school and self-imposed a curriculum of creating tiny flawed video sketches, brief meditations on comic conundrums, and slapping them on the Internet.”
Lena Dunham

In 2010, just two years out of college she won the SXSW Award in Narrative Fiction for her film Tiny Furniture. The film made for just $45,000 also earned Dunham Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards. (The same award Cody won back in 2008.)

That led to the opportunity to create Girls which has been on the air since 2012, and has won two Golden Globe Awards (Best Television Series—Comedy or Musical, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series—Comedy or Musical).

That’s right, she acts, too. And she was paid $3.6 million to write her 2014 memoir Not That Kind of Girl. I don’t exactly fit the demographics of watching/reading Dunham’s work, and haven’t actually never seen a full episode of Girls, and have been out of the loop of the controversies of her work.  But I enjoyed the quirkiness of Tiny Furniture (which is currently available on Netflix), and it’s hard not to appreciate what she’s achieved creatively and financially before she’s even turned 30. 

And I was curious what Cody thought of Dunham and found this quote:

“I absolutely love Lena Dunham. I don’t know her personally, but I’m completely obsessed with the show. I cannot believe what she has accomplished at 26. I think she is like our new Woody Allen.”
Diablo Cody
Huffington Post interview with Lori Fradkin

P.S. Last year, Dunham’s character in Girls began attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City so I thought I’d give some links that give a glimpse to the real place.

BTW—Diablo Cody got her undergraduate degree in Media Studies from the University of Iowa and when asked why she didn’t attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop she said it was easier to win an Oscar than to get into Iowa’s competitive graduate program.

Related Posts:
John Irving, Iowa & Writing (My visit to the Iowa Workshop)
(Yawn) Another Pulitzer Prize (for a Workshop graduate)
Postcard #55 (Iowa Writers’ Workshop)
The Making of Woody Allen in 10 Simple Steps
The Juno-Iowa Connection
Oberlin to Oscars (Screenwriters William Goldman and Mark Boal also both graduated from Oberlin.)

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“It’s very hard to live up to an image.”
Elvis Presley

Last night at the Sundance Film Festival Sam Levinson won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Another Happy Day. Unfamiliar with Levinson, I was curious to see the path that the 25-year-old writer/director took to make his first feature.

“I guess it goes back to what I said about fanatically watching films since I was very young. I began to see to the film in my head and then as a reference point, I watched certain films, each of them for different reasons, but all of them had aspects of the way I wanted to shoot this film. There was nothing haphazard here, and this is not a criticism of any other style of filmmaking but I never had any thoughts of shooting this film in a verité style. I always saw this film as somehow, ‘formally informal.’ I am in no way comparing my film to these, but I went back again and again, to three extremely different types of films. I watched. ‘Who’ s afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ directed by Mike Nichols, ‘Hannah and her Sisters,’ directed by Woody Allen and ‘Carnal Knowledge,’ again Nichols.”
Sam Levinson

I haven’t seen Another Happy Day, but since it’s an emotional drama surrounding an upper-class wedding and a dysfunctional family, it’s hard at first glance to not connect it to Rachel Getting Married. (Written by director Sidney Lumet’s daughter, Jenny.)

Turns out that Sam is the son of director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, The Natural). I’m sure Sam picked up a thing or two from his brilliant father at the dinner table.

Add Oscar-winning screenwriter Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) into the mix and you definitely see a trend emerging. So if you happen to be looking for an alternative to USC/UCLA/AFI film school, don’t have a Minneapolis background (Coen Brothers, Diablo Cody, Nick Shenk), and are looking for a way to break into screenwriting— then having a father who is a gifted and talented director can help. And I hate to complicate matters, but the elder Lumet, Coppola and Levinson are Oscar-winners, as well. (Plus I’m not sure if adoption counts.)

Truth is statistically very few sons and daughters of Hollywood’s successful producers, directors, writers, and actors make it as big as their mother or father. There’s a special burden attached to the situation. Think of the pressures of being, say, the daughter of Elvis and wanting to have a musical career. If  you don’t need the money—it’s really not worth the all the pain of constantly being compared to the king. You don’t get the luxury of failing and of taking the time to find your own voice.

So congrats to Sam Levinson (and Sofia and Jenny) for stepping up to the plate. (And keep in mind Jenny Lumet was working as a school teacher when she sold Rachel Getting Married.)

“I was driving a truck and studying to be an electrician.”
21-year-old Elvis Presley talking in 1956 about what he did before his musical career took off.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a truck driver (or a son or daughter of a truck driver)  living in a two-room house in, say, Tupelo, Mississippi and you’re writing screenplays and don’t have a single contact in Hollywood—just keep writing and making connections. Who knows, maybe you’ll hook-up with a filmmaker in Memphis and bigger things will happen for both of you. It’s happened before. Dream big, but take little steps.

“What regional filmmaking means to me is not only utilizing the actors of your area, the musicians and the artists, but probing what it means to that region. And for me, the thing about Memphis that I’ve always responded to is its music scene, from Sam Phillips recording Howlin’ Wolf, Rudus Thomas, Elvis Presely, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich.”
Memphis-based Craig Brewer,
writer/director Hustle & Flow

If there’s ever an Elvis of screenwriting I’d put my money on that person not being someone who comes from Hollywood royalty, but from a background that looks more like this…

Update 1/31/11: As far as the current crop of Hollywood sons & daughters, I’d put Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman’s son, Jason (Juno, Up in the Air), as the top candidate to top his father’s legacy.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“She could sense blood driven by heartbeats pulsing from the torn places beneath her skin.”
From the novel Winter’s Bone written by Daniel Woodrell

Seventeen year old Ree Dolly has a simple goal in the movie Winter’s Bone—to find her father. But it proves to not be an easy task. I’m sure the same could be said for writer/director Debra Granik as she sought to find a way to turn Daniel Woodrell’s novel into a movie.

Granik certainly didn’t take the easy road in making her second feature film and she was rewarded for her efforts when earlier this year the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. Glowing reviews followed.

“Every once in a rare while a movie gets inside your head and heart, rubbing your emotions raw. The remarkable Winter’s Bone is just such a movie.”
Peter Travers
Rolling Stone

No one is going to confuse Winter’s Bone with Toy Story 3, but if you want a sign that American cinema is alive and well in 2010 then those two films would be a good starting point. And as different as those two are, they have themes that intersect. To borrow Bob Segers’ phrase, both films have characters “seeking shelter against the wind.”

On one level Winter’s Bone is not an enjoyable to watch. But on another level it’s like watching Tender Mercies in that you are being exposed to characters and a world foreign to our largely suburban culture.  And as harsh as the realities are there are moments of grace.

On a filmmaking level Winter’s Bone is a pure delight. The casting is rock solid. Jennifer Lawrence carries the lead beautifully and the entire cast of not so familiar faces made me think Granik had somehow discovered an acting troupe in the Ozarks. While she did, in fact, find some of the actors involved in an acting group in I believe Arkansas, she found others from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama—those with Southern backgrounds that served the film well. Granik also used local people for smaller roles.

And while John Hawkes, who plays the character Teardrop with amazing presence,  is not from the south,  he was born and raised in rural Minnesota and started his career in theater in Austin, Texas.

The actors give the film an authentic texture as does the location in rural southern Missouri where they shot the movie. On the DVD commentary Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough talk about being influenced by the photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Shelby Lee Adams.

Photo by Dorothea Lange

McDonough who shot the film in 24 1/2 days using the Red camera says,”I think one of the things you’ll notice with a lot of the interiors in the film is we deliberately lit from the exterior which is what daylight naturally does. So our film lights are outside—there may be some lamps inside, but—the main lighting is coming from the outside and it lets us work really freely with the actors inside. There’s not all the trappings of filmmaking. You can look at multiple angles without seeing film equipment and it lets you work fairly quickly and more importantly naturalistically.”

Granik, who won the best director award at Sundance in 2004 for her first film Down to the Bone, said in an interview with Ruthie Stein;

I really think you don’t have to spend that kind of money ($20-30 million) to make a good film. It helps lighten the load (to have less money). You want to make a film with a fleet-footed and agile crew that doesn’t leave a footprint. You don’t want to mow down things in its wake. I like to work small and take a gentler approach to actually trying to capture something.”

A common question I found myself asking over the years as I’ve traveled around this country and overseas is, “What do these people do?” What is their everyday life like? Films offer a chance to explore some of those questions.

Granik said in an interview with Sam Adams, “What keeps me going is that life has lots of bonbons, a lot of treats. You have your mundane life, and then you go into another neighborhood, another zip code, and you’re all delirious again. You’re all delirious and caught up, and then you want to make stories about it.”

If you ever get writer’s block, just look out your window at your neighbors or take a drive in the next town over. There are stories everywhere waiting to be told.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“If you are an aspiring filmmaker, in this day of inflating budgets and runaway production, the truth is you can make a movie for no money in New York… and have a blast.”
Edward Burns

Back in 1995 Edward Burns showed the world a little film that he produced, directed, and was also the lead actor. That little film, The Brothers McMullen, had a big impact on his career. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of ’95 and won the Grand Jury Prize. The $25,000. film was released later that summer and grossed over $10 million.

“For my first film, basically what I did was I wrote a list of locations I knew I could get for free. I live in New York, and I knew you don’t need permits to shoot in Central Park. So I put five scenes in Central Park. Part of indie filmmaking is that you have to believe in compromise.  And that isn’t necessarily a dirty word.”
Edward Burns
Indiewire article by Peter Knegt

And though he has gone on to earn big paychecks as an actor on large Hollywood films as varied as Saving Private Ryan and 27 Dresses, he’s never lost his desire to write and direct smaller pictures. Among the nine features he’s directed, in 2004 he made Looking for Kitty using a $3,500 Panasonic DVX 100 camera. In 2009 he made some Webisodes called The Lynch Pin using the Red Camera.

One thing Burns has resisted doing is the Hollywood offers to direct big budget productions that he doesn’t have the heart to make.

“The minute someone writes you a check, there’s artistic compromise… You’re not able to cast the people you want to cast. They’re offering and sometimes making changes they feel the film needs. That’s frustrating. On a low budget film, there are also compromises. You need to find free locations to film. There are no special effects. Nobody is going to look at your film and say ‘Wow, that’s a cool shot.’ You have to be OK with telling smaller character stories. But that’s all I’ve wanted to do anyhow.”
Edward Burns
Chicago Tribune

And just a couple weeks ago he released his latest smaller story, Nice Guy Johnny, that he pulled off making for $25,000. using a three man crew and just a ten day shooting schedule. The movie was released iTunes, Video on Demand, and Netflix. And Burns still owns the copyright to the film. Could this really be Hollywood 2.0?

“Distribution models are starting to dismantle.”
Edward Burns

“My stuff is low concept. Usually character driven, and usually born out of a type of character I either know or come across that I get excited about exploring who they are, and a lot of times where they come from. So I try and look at environment, their community, their family, and they are mostly born out of that. Periodically I’ve tried to find a little bit of a plot just to drive the story forward in order to explore who these people are.”—That’s how Burns summed up the smaller stories he tells during a Q&A session at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. It’s a model that I think works in whatever unlikely place you find yourself writing screenplays.

Tomorrow we’ll flash 15 years forward from Burns’ success at Sundance and look at a different kind of film by different filmmakers that in 2010 won the best picture award at Sundance, Winter’s Bone. A small story set in the Missouri Ozarks. (And one that just happens to have an Iowa connection.)

Screenwriting Quote #146 (Edward Burns)

You can purchase the Nice Guy Johnny script with Burns’ notes at Amazon.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“It was a brilliant script.”
Director Rodrigo Cortes on Chris Sparling’s script Buried
(And why he didn’t change the one location/one on-screen actor concept.)

So here’s my latest angle to give “Screenwriting from Iowa” a new perspective. My first video blog. Since shifting to daily posts was burying me why not add video into the mix? Right now, I’m going to try doing one video a month for now and see how it goes. (Of course,  the shooting style of this video is best understood if you’ve seen the original trailer for Buried.)

Buried was purchased by Lionsgate for between $3 & 4 million after the film was shown at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival just a few days ago. The entire movie is said to feature one person (Ryan Reynolds) held captive in a coffin for the entire length of the film as he tries to call people on his cell phone to secure his $1 million ransom.

Buried alive? There’s no app for that.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I was really beginning to question if I’d ever catch my proverbial big break. I drifted away from film work and started applying for police jobs.”
Chris Sparling, Buried screenwriter

“(Chris Sparling) went directly from struggling indie director to successful Hollywood scribe when the screenplay for his horror thriller Buried was picked up, cast with a major up-and-coming star, and thrown before the cameras in just six months. And now it’s receiving its U.S. première at the Sundance Film Festival.
Melissa Silvstri
Filmmaker Magazine Winter 2010

Until this morning I had never seen or heard the name Chris Sparling. Then I read on Scott Myers’ screenwriting blog (Go Into The Story) about a movie Sparling wrote called Buried that sold at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival for between $3 & $4 million. Sparling is from Providence, Rhode Island and has made short films and one low-budget independent feature five years ago that had little distribution.

He was looking to write a movie that could be shot quickly and cheaply when he stumbled upon the idea for Buried.

“Stealing a page from Hitchcock’s playbook, I decided on writing a story that takes place entirely in one small location. In my case, this was inside an old, wooden coffin.”
Chris Sparling

While his sudden rise is rare, the process that he took to be a screenwriter in demand is a familiar story. One of dedication and hard work.

Sparling was asked in an interview with Carson Reeves at Script Shadow, “How many scripts had you written before Buried? Which script did you realize that maybe you were getting the hang of it?” Sparling said, “Before Buried, I think I’d written about nine or ten features and two TV specs. Truth be told, it didn’t start to click for me until about my seventh feature script.”

I think to pull off writing a 90 minute story in a coffin one has to have a solid handle on the craft of screenwriting. You have to think that having a story set in a coffin would cut down on crew, cast, wardrobe,  lighting, etc.. The film was directed by Rodrigo Cortes and shot in 21 days in Barcelona, Spain. With Ryan Reynolds in the lead role it couldn’t have be too low a budget film.

Renyolds plays a  U.S.  contract driver in Iraq who is attacked and placed in a coffin with a flashlight, a cell phone and a lighter and must find someone to pay a million dollar ransom or he’ll soon die. A primal survival story reminscent of low-budget success stories of past years; The Blair Witch Project, Open Water and Paranormal Activity.

Is there a Midwest angle? Of course.  The character Renyolds plays says that he’s from Hastings, Michigan. Below is the promo for the movie that is said to being released this spring. If you do a little homework you can find a version of the script online.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: