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Posts Tagged ‘Sydney Pollack’

This is part two (of what I think will be four parts) of an interview with screenwriter Rick Ramage (Stigmata). In part one we covered how he was born in Fargo, North Dakota, raised in Denver, Colorado, where in his mid-twenties he was selling tractors when he wrote his first screenplay. That led him to getting accepted at the American Film Institute  in L.A. where he got a formal education writing and making short films.

Scott W. Smith: I read that when you were at AFI you had the  opportunity to work with and up an coming young actor named Tobey Maguire.

Rick Ramage: Yeah, that was an unbelievable day. He wasn’t a star then; I think he was 12 or 13 years old. He walked in an just nailed that audition. Tobey and I became fast friends. We’ve lost touch now, but we hung out for quite a while after that. He was just a wonderful kid. Bright and cocky, he had all the right stuff. He was a wonderful actor. He just had it. I always tell that story when I’m at a party, “Oh, I know Spiderman. He was in one of my movies.” “Really, which one?”, “Ah…it was a student film.” But it’s still fun.

SWS: What did you do after your formal film education at AFI?

RR: After film school I worked at Omega Cinema Props for almost a year while I continued to write, and I got lucky and I optioned a script. I actually optioned my script right before I got out of film school.

SWS I think I read where that first script optioned for $5,000.

RR: Yep, Five thousand bucks, but it felt like a million though. It never got made. But I had a serious sale after that and was busy. I started to work on the project Shakespeare’s Sister which turned into The Proposition [1998] which was the first movie that I had written get made. Ted Field and Diane Nabatoff who were at Interscope bought that script. I never looked back after that.

the-proposition-863469l

SWS: So you had success right out of the gate.

RR: This is the truth— but I almost hesitate to tell it because I had such a dream experience—I sold Shakespeare’s Sister and literally in the next week or ten days the first director I ever met was Steven Spielberg and the second director I ever met was Sydney Pollack. Both on the same day and both gave me a job so I was thrust into a level for which I was in no way prepared. Those guys are massive storytellers and massive directors, but they read Shakespeare’s Sister and were intrigued enough to give me a shot. So here I went from having $17 to having Shakespeare’s Sister sell. As you know, you get half up front and half upon production, so I had a couple hundred thousand there. So I went to work with both of those directors. It was phenomenal. I thought “great, this is how it works”. Everybody wants that to happen. And I stayed in the studio system for the next 15 years. I would do re-writes. I’d sell a spec—I’ve sold 10 or 11 spec scripts. I was pretty spoiled.

[Note: Ramage is taking all the experienced he’s gather over the years and putting them together in The Screenplay Show.]

SWS: Stigmata, of which you are co-credited as writer with Tom Lazarus, is one of your highest profile projects. How did you get on that project?

RR: I was asked to do a rewrite on Stigmata by Frank Mancuso and it was shortly after The Proposition was made. I didn’t even know what stigmata was. I got a call from MGM and they asked if I’d look at it. I love projects where I don’t necessarily know the answer that I’m looking for. I have a theory that if I can get you to identify in the first few pages and ask, “What would I do here?”, I got ya.

SWS. I thought the scene in Stigmata where Patricia Arquette gets a stigmata raised a major dramatic question and it made me think “What’s going to happen to her?” and carried that through to the climax when that was resolved.

RR: I tend to look for God a lot through character and scripts. I love that because there is no answer, right? It’s what you arrive at dramatically that counts. As long as you approach anything with reverence, I think people will respect it.

I had a director ask me once, “What’s the one thing you come out of the movie theater with?” and I’m like, “Duh, I don’t know.” He goes, “An opinion. It’s the one thing that everybody has when they leave a movie.” And he said, “The gift is they’re discussing your movie or engaging about it on the way home.” Because you’ve accomplished something. It’s not Spam in a can. You got people talking about it. I thought that was great advice.

SWS: Stigmata and Se7en were thrillers with religious overtones—both made in the 90s—do you think those films get made today given that the middle class of filmmaking has all but disappeared?

RR: I’m glad you put it that way, middle class. Where did the middle class go? I don’t know. It disappeared shortly after the Writers Guild strike. I think a story like Stigmata would definitely more so than a story like The Proposition. As a a society we’ve moved so far past what might have been considered salacious back in the 30s to now is commonplace.

Stigmata would. It touches on the spiritual aspect. The horrific elements of Stigmata came out of a real place. The Father named Padre Pio would be attacked in his cell, another word for his room in Italy every month or two (something) would go in there and throw him around. That’s when it got interesting to me, because it’s the yin and yang, good and evil at work.

Right after the movie came out—and it was number one that week—I did a radio interview out of New York and the guy said, “I really liked your movie and we’re about to go on the air.” And I said “Good”, because at least he liked the movie. And he came back after the commercial break and said, “we’re with Rick Ramage screenwriter of the number one movie Stigmata, Rick what do you have against Catholics?” I felt my stomach sink into my knees. I said “I don’t have anything against Catholics; I’m married to one. Why?” He said, “Well, you know, in The Proposition the priest sleeps with the woman, and in Stigmata your priest is a bad guy.” I go, “Well, my priest in The Proposition finds God because there is an old saying that ‘Priests are in search of God, and sinner know him.’ And for Stigmata the priest is a bad guy, but so is the good guy. It’s called a power struggle. Certainly the church is a wonderful place for a power struggle.” He said, “That makes sense”, but you get the point, you never know how something is going to be interpreted.  

I was in awe of what Patrica Arquette did with the role. One of the gifts of a screenwriter is you write it down and then you watch somebody do it better than you ever hear it in your head. That’s a gift. She made it better, and that’s one of the fun parts of getting something made. When I watched her performance, she didn’t blink she went for it. Gabriel Byrne went to seminary so he’d know how a priest would think and act. So it was a great experience.

In Part 3 we’ll look at how Rick transitioned to television and other projects.

Related posts:
Screenwriter Rick Ramage Q&A (Part 1)
Screenwriter Rick Ramage Q&A (Part 3)

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Most parts in comedy, they’re not written for men. They’re written for, like, boy-men. So it’s cool to play a man-man. They don’t make adult movies anymore. Go to a multiplex. If Sydney Pollack was around today, he’d be directing episodes of True Blood.
Chris Rock on the film 2 Days in New York
New York Times Q & A with Dave Itzkoff
August 5, 2012

If you’d like to emulate  Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Absence of Malice) , Sidney Lumet (The Verdict, 12 Angry Men) , or even Sydney Greenstreet (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon)—those kinds of “adult movies”— and you’re not an A-list screenwriter or director getting ofters to write or direct movies like Moneyball then small independent films is your haven—or cable TV.

Related Posts:
Writing and Directing “Out of Africa”
Screenwriting Quote #162 (Billy Ray)

Scott W. Smith

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“Every artist confronts a series of issues that are constraints.”
Frank Gehry

Please allow me to run with this architectural theme for a few days. Architect Frank Gehry is perhaps best known for his buildings the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall* in Los Angeles. I’ll never forget in 1999 when I saw my first building designed by Gehry—”Dancing Building” in Prague. The last design of his I’ve seen is the Weisman Art Museum on the campus at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Disney Concert Hall (Photo by Kwong Yee Cheng)

Disney Concert Hall (Photo by Kwong Yee Cheng/CC)

“I think creativity… I guess (Henry) James wrote that it was like poking around in a deep well with a big stick, and every once in a while you would pull this stick out and something was there. These ideas are not easy to describe. They’re easy to rationalize after the fact, like the sense of movement is easy to rationalize, or certain materials, or certain constructs, and shapes, and forms. But basically, I am trying to make buildings and spaces that will inspire people, that will move people, that will get a reaction. Not just to get a reaction, but to get a positive reaction, hopefully, a place that they like to be in. My greatest thrill is to still be friends with the clients and people that helped me make these buildings.”
Frank Gehry
Academy of Achievement

That’s not too hard to draw parallels to your screenwriting and filmmaking. If you haven’t seen the documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry I recommend it.It also happens to be the last film made by director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie).

*An interesting side note that is not commonly known about the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the above photography is the limestone is from Iowa. The Weber Stone Company hauled nearly 800 ton of Anamosa Limestone to Los Angeles.

Scott W. Smith

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“I guess every form of refuge has its price.”
Lying Eyes/Eagles
Written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey

“This idea of possession seemed to be organic to both the foreground story, and all of Karen’s relationships, and this background story of Colonialism.”
Director Sydney Pollack on the spine of Out of Africa

There are movies like Erin Brockovich and An Officer and a Gentleman that in the hands of different filmmakers would be soap operas and not films that receive Academy Award nominations.  Out of Africa belongs in the same category. A woman is attracted to a man, but since the feeling is not mutual, she settles for marrying the brother of the man she loves. As an older single woman (for the times) it was a form of refuge. And from there the story unfolds.

The line between a classic tragic love story and a melodramatic soap opera is often very thin. But in the hands of director Sydney Pollack and his talented team the 1985 movie Out of Africa was nominated for eleven Oscars and won a total of seven. On the DVD director’s commentary Pollack explains the difficulties of bringing the story to the screen;

“I’d known about this book Out of Africa for years, as almost everyone in Hollywood had, and I was not the first director to try make it. Several directors had attempted it and there were several screenplays. When I first went and looked into the vaults at the studio there were at least five other screenplays that had been attempted. The difference we had was we had Judith Thurman’s extraordinary biography, Isak Dinesen The Life of a Storyteller to work with.  And that gave us something that none of the other filmmakers had the use of.

Kurt Luedtke who wrote the screenplay had written Absence of Malice, a film the two of us did earlier, and he always wanted to try this and I warned him that it had been attempted before. I think part of what helped him to lick it was the fact that he was new to the form and absolutely not intimidated by the fact that it had been tried so many times before.

And the combination of his grasp of the material and his perceptions and then the insights into her life that Judith Thurman gave us at least allowed us to get  a screenplay out of it.

The big problem in getting this book to the screen was the fact that there was no conventional narrative in her book. It’s really a pastoral.* A beautiful formed memoir that relies on her prose style and her sense of poetry and her ability to discover large truths in very small, specific details. So it’s very difficult and illusive material to base a screenplay on.”

To keep track of all of the writers and literary influences on Out of Africa here is an overview:

1) Karen Blixen, Lived the story and wrote the books (as Isak Dinesen) Out of Africa, Shadow’s on the Grass and Letters from Africa
2) Judith Thurman spent seven years writing and researching her book, Isak Dinesen The Life of a Storyteller
3) Erol Trzebinski, Silence Will Speak
4) Kurt Luedtke, Out of Africa script (working with Pollack), several screenplay drafts over several years
5) David Rayfiel, Who did credited screenwriting on Pollack’s
Three Days of the Condor, and uncredited work on Pollack’s The Electric Horseman and Absence of Malice, also did uncredited writing on Out of Africa

There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but the solo screenplay title card and the Oscar (Best Writing, Screenplay Based from Another Medium) went to Luedtke.

“We spent about two years trying to find what I always call a spine or an armature** of this piece. Sort of trying to distill the idea  down to one or two clear sentences that could be a guidepost. What is it really about? And we finally settled on possession. Freedom versus obligation. If I say I love you, what price am I expected to pay?… How much of myself do I have to give up? It’s always important for me to be able describe the heart of a film in some simple and evocative way so that I can sort of test each scene and character and development against that idea.”
Director Sydney Pollack

* Pastoral; Of, relating to, or being a literary or other artistic work that portrays or evokes rural life, usually in an idealized way
** Armature; framework


Scott W. Smith

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Indiana’s been in the news the last couple weeks. First there’s the new Indiana Jones film that’s on top at the box office, there was the Indy 500 this past weekend, and then I saw the front page of New York Times yesterday morning and learned that director and Indiana native Sydney Pollack died Monday.

It seems like a fitting time to take a road trip to the Hoosier State. Though Pollack was not a screenwriter it’s worth paying tribute to this giant of a filmmaker who knew how to tell a story.

Before he headed to New York after high school in South Bend to study acting with Sanford Meisner he had spent his life in Indiana.  From acting in theater, to directing TV shows, to directing over 40 feature films Pollack was unusually gifted. I was a long time fan of Pollack’s and he directed some of my favorite films:

They Don’t Shoot Horses, Do They? The Way We Were Jeremiah Johnson Three Days of the Condor The Electric Horseman Absence of Malice Tootsie Out of Africa The Firm Sketches of Frank Gehry 

He was a two time Oscar winner (Out of Africa & Tootsie) both of which films also won Best Picture Oscars.  Another Indiana native producer/director Robert Wise also had won two best director Oscars for his films West Side Story & The Sound of Music. He also won two more Best Picture Oscars for producing both movies.

And to challenge Nebraska’s cool actor category (which produced both Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando), Indiana lays claim to Steve McQueen and James Dean. The list of entertainment icons from Indiana also includes Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), comedian Red Skelton, song writer Cole Porter, and TV host David Letterman.

Moving to the writing side, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis. Glenn Berggoetz writes, “It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis that Vonnegut gained his first writing experience. During his last two years there he wrote for and was one of the editors of the Shortridge Daily Echo, which was the first high school daily newspaper in the country. At this young age Vonnegut learned to write for a wide audience that would give him immediate feedback, rather than just writing for an audience of one in the form of a teacher.” (Note also that Vonnegut also honed his skills at the Iowa Writers Workshop.) 

Theodore Dreiser from Terre Haute wrote the novel An American Tragedy that was made twice made into a film including the 1951 George Stevens’ version (A Place in the Sun) staring Elizabeth Taylor that won 6 Academy Awards. It is a film that Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) said if you wanted to learn how to direct you should watch 50 times.

To counter Dreiser’s somber look at the dark side of America let’s look at another film with Indiana roots. Playwright and screenwriter Steve Tesich was born in Yugoslavia, raised in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University. He won an Oscar for his screenplay Breaking Away based and filmed in Bloomington, Indiana and that became the 1979 sleeper hit staring Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Chrisopher Plummer and James Earle Haley.

Tesich’s script came at a time before we were jaded by sports stories and was released just three years after Rocky. The film captures much of what I’m trying to write about in Screenwriting from Iowa. That is that there are stories to tell beyond Hollywood, and people all over the world need encouragement to tell those stories.

Frank Deford reviewed Breaking Away for Sports Illustrated in 1979:

“It is the rare film that has understood the essence of sport so well as Breaking Away; or understood summer or growing up; or, for that matter, America and Americana. This joyous story about four young A&P cowboys and a bicycle race in Bloomington, Ind. cost a measly $2.4 million to make but it is better by far than all the ballyhooed, star-studded epics. Steve Teisch’s screenplay is impeccable; Peter Yates’ direction is nearly magic in its command and sensitivity; and the cast is perfectly chosen, an ensemble always in character. And if all this were not enough, Breaking Away also evokes a spirit these times yearn for.

“I’m sure that Teisch and Yates didn’t set out to wave the flag, but there is something special here… the wonderful thing about Breaking Away is that you leave the theater very proud that America has both an Indiana and a Hollywood.”

TV and film director David Anspaugh was born in Decatur, Indiana and also studied at Indiana University before going on to win two Emmy’s producing and directing Hill Street Blues and the quintessential Indiana film Hoosiers.

Matt Williams from Evansville, Indiana is best known as the creator and executive producer of Roseanne and co-creator of Home Improvement. But he also wrote for The Cosby Show and produced the Mel Gibson film What Women Want. He graduated with a theater degree from the University of Evansville and was awarded an honorary doctorate from there in 2003.

And the newest up and coming writer/ director from Indiana is James C. Strouse (from Goshen, Indiana) whose latest film Grace is Gone won the critics awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. His first film Lonesome Jim starred Casey Affleck and was directed by Steve Busemi. 

But I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana who seems to embody a Midwestern spirit in everything he does. Going way back into the early 80’s with prefect sing-a-long songs Jack & Diana (“Two American kids growing up in the Heartland”), Pink Houses and Small Town to his classic thought-provoking album Scarecrow that addressed the farm crisis in the 80’s, to his more recent Our Country. Mellencamp embraced his Midwestern roots and we were better for it.

While his film connections are usually on the soundtracks of films he did star and direct the 1992 film Falling from Grace. Mellencamp was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Indiana University awarded him an honorary doctorate of Musical Arts.

On Sunday I spent a several hours driving on the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinenental highway in the country. (It goes through both Iowa and Indiana. And paid my first ever $4.+ per gallon for gas.) It’s hard for me to make that kind of trip and not think of Mellencamp’s lyrics, “Ain’t that America Something to See.”

It’s something to write about, too.

P.S. Did you know that in the original Indy script that it was Indiana Smith? Doesn’t have the same ring does it?  (Spielberg thought it sounded to much like Nevada Smith, a 1966 Steve McQueen film.) And isn’t it hard to see Tom Selleck as Indy, who Spielberg originally wanted but couldn’t get because of Selleck’s commitment to Magnum P.I.?

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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