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Posts Tagged ‘Sunset Blvd.’

“I am big— it’s the pictures that got small.”
The faded from glory silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Blvd. 

“We didn’t need dialogue—we had faces.”
Norma Desmond (Sunset Blvd.

Yesterday it was announced that (mostly) silent film The Artist lead the race for the British Academy Film Awards with a total of 12 nominations. 

So in it seems fitting to continue to glance back at the silent film era. In real life around the time that the fictional story The Artist takes place, the highest paid actress was Gloria Swanson. In a 1957 interview Mike Wallace called her, “One of Hollywood’s most spectacular links with its glamorous heyday.” My introduction to her in film school was not her silent films, but her Oscar-nominated performance in Sunset Blvd. (1950) where she played a faded and forgotten film star.

The Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett/D.M Marshman Jr. written film is one of my all-time favorites. (It’s also #12 on AFI’s list of America’s Greatest Movies.) It’s also one of those film that gets richer over time as I appreciate another layer of the film. Even that line “I am big—it’s the pictures that got small” has a new meaning today as people watch movies on computers, iPads and cell phones. 

A silent movie clip in Sunset Blvd. that is supposed to be a Norma Desmond in her big screen glory days directed by her now butler is actually the 1929 film Queen Kelly staring Swanson and directed by Erich von Stroheim (who plays the butler in Sunset Blvd). If Norma Desmond was a real person and alive today she may at least appreciate that though pictures haven gotten even smaller Queen Kelly has its own Facebook page. Another memorable line in Sunset Blvd. is when von Stroheim tells Norma, “Madame is the greatest star of them all.” A line that newspapers headlines play off of when Swanson died in 1983.

It was wondered if Swanson would make the transition from the silent era to the talkies. Her first speaking role was The Trespasser (1929) for which she earned an Oscar nomination. (And a film the was reportedly written in three weeks by Edmund Goulding who also directed the movie.) 

The backlash for The Artist has already started. I’m glad I saw the film in an art house theater with little expectations. Despite whatever awards it wins, perhaps the greatest value of The Artist is reintroducing people to silent movies. To giving a nod to the creative people of the past whose work is often not simply forgotten, but not even known about in the first place. 

Here is a scene from Sunset Blvd. that featured several silent movie stars that hadn’t been seen on screen in years. It’s been said that this scene made audience gaps when first seen. (Imagine a movie scene in 20 years featuring Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Will Smith and Angelina Jolie—a few years past their prime— sitting around passing time playing cards.)

And as nod to show you how dangerous they kicked it back in the ole’ days here is a Gloria Swanson interview recounting a scene from the 1919 film Male and Female.

Oh, and for what it’s worth—Gloria Swanson was born in Chicago.

Related post: Screenwriting from Sunset Blvd. (Show what happens sometimes to screenwriters from Ohio who struggle in Hollywood.)

Scott W. Smith

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“God help you if you use voice-over in your work my friends. God help you! That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of the character.”
Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) in Adaptation

“You see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion – with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of ‘B’ pictures to his credit.”
William Holden VO in Sunset Blvd.

Last night I watched The Holiday listening to the director’s commentary by writer/director Nancy Meyers and she mentioned that while writing The Holiday that she watched Billy Wilder’s The Apartment three times. I haven’t quoted Wilder in a while so now is as good a time as any unearth another one from the great six-time Oscar winner.

In some circles having voice-over narration is taboo, but Wilder didn’t shy away from it. Heck, Wilder (and additional writers  Charles Brackett & D.M. Marshman, Jr.) in Sunset Blvd. even had a dead guy give VO. And the writers won an Oscar for the story. Granted that was 60 years ago, but is voice-over narration really sloppy writing?

What about these films?

The Shawshank Redemption
Forrest Gump
Days of Heaven
Taxi Driver
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Big Lebowski
Election
A Christmas Story
Goodfellas
Stand by Me
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Fight Club
The Usual Suspects
American Beauty
The Princess Bride
Double Indemnity

 

Unless someone changed the definition of sloppy writing there isn’t a whole lot of fat in those films. And just for good measure, Nancy Meyers is fond of using voice-over narration and she’s the most successful female box office money-making director. And she takes her lead in the voice-over department from Wilder.

“In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.”
Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s sreenwriting tips as told to Cameron Crowe

Scott W. Smith

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“A good title should be like a good metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or two obvious.”
Walker Percy

I’m staying on the Up in the Air gravy train (gravy plane?)  just a little bit longer. Not only did I love the film but I love the title. It’s a title that has a literal meaning since it’s a film that deals with traveling via airplanes. But it’s also a common phrase in our culture meaning undecided or uncertain.

Up in the Air is a pretty good description of the Up in the Air main character Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney.  A character whose only real purpose appears to collecting frequent flyer miles. Everything else is up in the air.

Many writers talk about starting with a title and build from there and others say they can’t even decide on a title even after they’ve written the script or book.  Can a movie succeed without a great title? Sure, look at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Looking at the AFI list of top 100 films and you’ll see a mixture of great, good, and bland titles. A title doesn’t make a film, but in a day and age of the importance of the opening weekend, a great title is desired to help attract an audience.

The most common titles seem to focus a main character or being, place or thing, or an event.

Character or being:
Citizen Kane
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
King Kong
Rocky
Forrest Gump
Spartacus
Bonnie and Clyde
The Godfather
Tootsie
Jaws
Psycho
Raging Bull

A place or thing:
Titanic
The African Queen
Bridge on the River Kwai
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On the Waterfront
Chinatown
Sunset Blvd.
The Maltese Falcon
The Apartment
Casablanca

An event:
High Noon
Apocalypse Now
Star Wars
2001: A Space Odyssey
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
Sophie’s Choice

And while not a hard and fast rule, great titles tend to be short (three words or less). Just look at the above list.  And my favorites of those listed are Jaws and Psycho. Each one a simple word, but both hit you at a gut level.

Titles like Avatar, Batman, The Matrix are easier to discuss around the water cooler.  Even longer titles (especially sequels) tend to get edited around the water cooler and just called  Harry Potter, Narnia, Pirates, Star Wars, Twilight, Spider-Man.

Up in the Air falls into that minority category of a title that’s a little more obtuse, in line with The Last Picture Show, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Silence of the Lambs, or Gone with the Wind. (All of which happened to have been books or plays first which tend to favor a more intellectual audience.) If you go with a metaphor, it doesn’t hurt to have a movie star in the lead role. As I talk up the film Up in the Air, I find myself calling it “The George Clooney Film.”

What are some of your favorite titles (even if they aren’t one of your favorite films)? Or some of your favorite bad titles.
I love the title of the lesser known 50s film Them. And I like titles such as Black Hawk Down, Meet the Parents, Witness, The Hunt for Red October, Collateral and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly because they all have built in conflict, mystery and intrigue. And the worst titles off the top of my head goes to Ishtar and Valkyrie, neither of which leave me with a visceral reaction.

Of course, the most bland title ever might just be…Movie Titles (tip #32). (But at least it’s twitter friendly.)

Update: I decided to do a Google search to see what others thought were the best and worst movie titles ever and found one blogger who had a post called Top 10 Worst Movie Titles Ever and the writer put Surf Nazis Must Die at #10. That film was written and directed by Peter George who I happened to go to film school with. (I was always a little upset I didn’t get a small role in the film.) If anyone knows where Mr. George is these days tell him I want my watch back. The one that I left at his Hollywood apartment after I crashed on his sofa one night back before he was making top ten lists.

Scott W. Smith


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A couple weeks ago two young guys appoached me for some help on a commercial they were producing and when they pitched me the idea it sounded more like a mini-series than a :30 spot. I gave them a much simpler idea and they shot it the next day and all was right in the world.

Screenwriters often fall into the same trap that these guys did. Their stories get too complicated. They want to have too many characters. Their characters speak too much.  I like simplicity, and I think audiences do too. That’s why I like this simple quote:

“A good movie is almost always a very simple story.”
Alex Epstein
Crafty Screenwriting
Page 36

Yes, there are exceptions. But think about these movies; Rain Man, North by Northwest, Rocky, Jaws, Juno, Cast Away, Sunset Blvd., Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz.  The kind of movies that people return to again and again. One thing they have in common is they are simple stories that tap into basic human needs and desires; survival, significance, understanding, solving a problem, and connecting with others in the human race.

So if your story is lost in your screenplay it may be because you’ve gotten lost in making the story too complicated. You are either trying to say too much, go in too many directions, or simply haven’t connected the beginning of your story with the end. Look at what sets your story in motion (your inciting incident or hook) and then look at how your story ends and see if there is a connection.

I now declare the new KISS principle: Keep it simple screenwriter. (Though I should add Paul Lucey’s quote on the subject; “Write simple stories and complex characters.”)

By the way, Alex Epstein has a blog called Complications Ensure: The Craftt TV and Screenwriting Blog.

Related post: Simplicity in Screenwriting (tip 27)

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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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