Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee’

“In Jailhouse Rock, he’s everything rockabilly’s about. I mean, he is rockabilly: mean, surly, nasty, rude.”
Clarence on Elvis in True Romance
Written by Quentin Tarantino

Last Friday was the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death and since I’ve been running a string of posts on Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood this seems like a fitting place to touch on Elvis in Quentin Tarantino’s world.

“All right, Scotty, next time I see you, it’ll be on Tennessee time.”
(Bruce Willis)
Pulp Fiction written by Quentin Tarantino

Screen Shot 2019-08-19 at 5.27.28 PM.png

Elvis died in Memphis, Tennessee in 1977 and Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1963. Tarantino has more than passing interest in the King of Rock ‘n Roll.

“When I was about eighteen-years-old, I got waaaay into rockabilly music. I was like the second coming of Elvis Presley. I dyed my hair black. I wore it in a big ole pompadour.”
Quentin Tarantino

That fascination with Elvis helped Tarantino land a bit part as an Elvis imitator when he was trying to launch an acting career.

Tarantino was obsessed with movies from a young age and got involved with Torrance Community Theater. Around 1981 he pursued studying  acting with James Best—an actor perhaps best known for his role as Sheriff Rosco on The Duke’s of Hazard. But whose credits go back to 1950 and include an impressive and eclectic list: The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Mod Squad and Sounder. 

“Quentin walked into my class one day and said, ‘Mr. Best, I want to meet you. You worked in my favorite movie of all time.’ Really what’s that that? I asked. ‘Rolling Thunder… Quentin started quoting lines from the picture. Then, he mentioned other movies that I made and quoted dialogue from them, too. What a memory he had. It helped that he had managed a video store. He obviously liked movies of all kinds. When Quentin got onstage, he was less than adequate….I went to Quentin and told him. ‘You’re a lousy actor. You should take up writing.’”
James Best
Best In Hollywood, The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Tarantino’s actor friend, Craig Hamann, remembers things differently.

“[Tarantino] was the most talented actor in the class, and probably the least appreciated, which really used to anger me. I mean, here’s a guy with a wealth of knowledge about movies., who clearly knew more than any of the instructors. But in acting schools, in my view, the instructors become gurus, and the students do things a certain way to please the gurus, but Quentin wouldn’t do that. Within a matter of months he outgrew the school.”
Craig Hamann
Quentin Tarantino, The Man and His Movies 

Hamann and Tarantino became friends and wrote the script for the low-budget My Best Friend’s Birthday. And the experience at James Best Theater didn’t discourage Tarantino of continuing studying acting. In 1985, Tarantino began studying with actor Allen Garfield after Garfield left the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute to start the Actors’ Shelter.

“Quentin sought me out because he had seen the first two films I had done in New York with De Niro and De Palma called Greetings and Hi, Mom! And so Quentin, being enamored of those films, sought me out to study acting, writing and directing. He told me he wanted to work with the actor who had worked with Brian De Palma . . . . From the inception what I had in front of my eyes was a very beautiful, pure, raw, unharnessed talent. And also a fellow who has all of the hunger to act, write, and direct, not knowing if he would be accepted in the marketplace at any time because of his feeling that he marched to such a different drummer.”
Allen Garfield
Quentin Tarantino, The Man and His Movies , page 52

In was in Garfield’s classes that Tarantino started writing “all of these rambling, uncharted monologues” that he’s refined into his own distinctive Oscar-winning screenwriting style.

Hamann went on to work as an assistant for manager for Cathryn Jaymes and Jaymes went on to represent Tarantino for the first 10 years of his career. When she met Tarantino he was 25-years-old and had no credits and no acting reel, but she saw something in him.

“I wasn’t sure what he had but he was so charming. He was this compelling oddball.”
Cathryn Jaymes
Rebels on the Backlot by Sharon Waxman

Jaymes got Tarantino a walk-on part on The Golden Girls as an Elvis imitator.

Tarantino finished the script for True Romance in 1987 and Jaymes sent the script to over 100 producers and got nothing but rejection for over a year. One of the rejections letters read, The action is not exciting and the characters are under-developed and unbelievable. True Romance is one long hollow adventure.”

To make a long story short True Romance eventually got sold and produced, as did Tarantino’s script Natural Born Killers. And both of those paved the way for Tarantino to finally direct his script for Reservoir Dogs. 

The takeaway there is it wasn’t a smooth, conflict free path for Tarantino. There were a few people that connected with him and helped him along the way. And it was path full of persistence and resilience.

P.S. Another Elvis connection to Tarantino is his connection with Kurt Russell who has a small part Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, as well as larger roles in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Death Proof. Russell not only played Elvis in the TV movie Elvis, but he did a scene with Elvis in It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963). 

P.P.S. Like me, James Best moved from L.A. to Orlando in 1987 with the hopes of taking part in Hollywood East. He opened the James Best Theater in Longwood, Florida and my wife actually played Goldilocks in a children’s play of Goldilocks and the Three Bears that was performed there in 1988. Best didn’t direct that play and I never had the opportunity to meet him. But I heard stories about his long time acting friends Burt Renyolds and Paul Newman visiting him while he lived here. He died in 2015.


My wife as Goldilocks in the play Goldilocks and the Three Bears performed at The James Best Theater in 1988

…and to end with a song, here’s the late, great Steve Goodman with his song Elvis Imitator.

Scott W. Smith





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”Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
Ben Franklin

Fall in Franklin2

After traveling around the county over the years for various productions there are a few cities and towns that I find special—Franklin, Tennessee is one of those places. Located just south of Nashville the town was founded in 1799 and named after Ben Franklin. I took the photo of the late fall leaves yesterday when I had the opportunity to walk around the shops in the historic downtown area.

If you’ve never heard of Franklin you may be surprised to learn of some the people who have (or had) homes in and around the Franklin area; Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman and her Grammy-winning country star husband Keith Urban, five-time CMA Male Vocalist of the Year Brad Paisley (who had two songs on the Cars soundtrack) and his actress wife Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Father of the Bride, Nashville), actress Ashely Judd (Heat) and her champion race car driving husband Dario Franchitti, and Carrie Underwood and her pro hockey husband Mike Fisher have 400 acres there with plans to build.

If that sounds like neighbors you’d like to have (and there are 60,000 or so regular folks living there as well), the uber talented couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are selling their 753 acres (complete with four houses and once owed by Hank Williams Sr.) in Franklin for $20 million.  (They bulit a new house betwen Franklin and downtown Nashville.)

McGraw has not only had more than 30 number one songs, but has popped up as an actor in Friday Night Lights and The Blind Side.  Earlier this month McGraw’s latest single Southern Girl (written by Jaren Johnston, Rodney Clawson, and Lee Thomas Miller) became a #1 hit. Even if you don’t like county music, perhaps you can appreciate the geography covered in the song.

Related Posts:
Muscle Shoals Music & Movie
The Advantage of Being from ______ (“I know one writer, believe it or not, who launders his scripts through a phony address he has in Murfreesboro, Tennessee,  outside of Nashville, because it’s just more exciting than one more writer from the San Fernando Valley.”–UCLA’s Richard Walter)

Scott W. Smith

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“How weak is man? How often do we stray from the straight and narrow?”
Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton in the movie version)
The Night of the Iguana written by Tennessee Williams

suwanne“Have you seen the cross?” I had no idea what the lady was talking about. On Monday I made a quick stop off I-24 in Sewanee, Tennessee to take a couple of photos at The University of the South campus.  I read recently that the school was willed the literary rights to the works of Tennessee Williams and I was intrigued.

I was trying to get a photo of the large Gothic chapel on campus but the setting sun was too low for me a shot I liked. That’s when the lady asked me if I had seen the cross. She seemed to think it was something I should see, so I followed her instructions and five minutes later I pulled up to the cross which is 60 feet tall.  Now the setting sun was working in my favor and I got the above shot. (The Sewanee War Memorial Cross was constructed in 1922.)

So why did Tennessee Williams leave has literary rights to a school which sits atop the Cumberland Plateau between Nashville and Chattanooga, and that was founded in 1860 by Episcopal priests?

It’s because that’s where his grandfather, an Episcopal priest, graduated from the School of Theology. I’ve read that Tennessee Williams is only second to Shakespeare in frequency of plays produced today so that literary estate must be doing quite well. Check out the link The Tennessee Williams Legacy on the school’s website.

“I was born a Catholic, really. I’m a Catholic by nature. My grandfather was an English Catholic (Anglican), very, very high church. He was higher church than the Pope. However, my ‘conversion’ to the Catholic church was rather a joke because it occurred while I was taking Dr. Jacobson’s miracle shots. I couldn’t learn anything about the tenets of the Roman Catholic church, which are ridiculous anyway. I just loved the beauty of the ritual in the Mass. But [my brother] Dakin found a Jesuit father who was very lovely and all, and he said, ‘Mr. Williams is not in a condition to learn anything. I’ll give him extreme unction and just pronounce him a Catholic.’

I was held up in the Roman Catholic church, with people supporting me on both sides, and I was declared a Catholic. What do you think of that? Does that make me a Catholic? No, I was whatever I was before.

And yet my work is full of Christian symbols. Deeply, deeply Christian. But it’s the image of Christ, His beauty and purity, and His teachings, yes . . . but I’ve never subscribed to the idea that life as we know it, what we’re living now, is resumed after our death. No. I think we’re absorbed back into, what do they call it? The eternal flux? The eternal shit, that’s what I was thinking.”
Tennessee Williams
Interviewed by Dotson Rader for the Paris Review

Williams’ play (and the movie that followed) The Night of the Iguana is about a defrocked Episcopal priest.

P.S. A little Night of the Iguana trivia; The cross that Richard Burton wore in the movie belonged to Williams’ grandfather and is on now on display at the former house that Williams lived in in Columbus, Mississippi where his grandfather used to minister. It was donated by Williams’ nieces.

At the base of the Sewanee cross it reads:

To the sons of Sewanee who answered their country’s call to service win the World War 1917-1918

To those from the University, the Military Academy, Sewanee, and all Franklin County in World War II. 1941-1945.

Related post: Postcard #64 (Columbus, MS)

Scott W. Smith

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“Sergeant York”

“One of the greatest pictures ever made!”
N.Y. Daily News on Sergeant York


Since today is Veterans Day I decided to look at a film centered around war and landed on Sergeant York. The 1941 film directed by Howard Hawks received 10 Oscar nominations and won 2 including Best Actor for Gary Cooper’s role as a conscientious objector who also happens to be an expert sharp shooter from Tennessee.

The script was written by Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, and John Huston based on the Diary of Alvin C. York. (Today the diary reads like a blog— “Shooting at squirrels is good, but busting a turkey at 150 yards–ho ho,” or a Facebook post or tweet;  “Mons Babert, France– Hiked here and stayed a few days.”) The diary became the book Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary written by York and Tomas John Skeyhill.

York was born in a two room cabin in Pall Mall, Tennessee—the third of 11 children, to a family of limited finances. York only had nine months of education, doing farming and hunting to help feed his family. He honed his shooting skills as a youth hunting turkeys and squirrels in the Appalachian mountain area known as Valley of Three Forks of the Wolf.

“As York came of age he earned a reputation as a deadly accurate shot and a hell raiser. Drinking and gambling in borderline bars known as ‘Blind Tigers,’ York was generally considered a nuisance and someone who ‘would never amount to anything.’ That reputation underwent a serious overhaul when York experienced a religious conversion in 1914. In that year two significant events occurred: his best friend, Everett Delk, was killed in a bar fight in Static, Kentucky; and he attended a revival conducted by H.H. Russell of the Church of Christ in Christian Union. Delk’s senseless death convinced York that he needed to change his ways or suffer a fate similar to his fallen comrade, which prompted him to attend the prayer meeting.

A strict fundamentalist sect with a following limited to three states–Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee–the Church of Christ in Christian Union espoused a strict moral code which forbade drinking, dancing, movies, swimming, swearing, popular literature, and moral injunctions against violence and war.”
Dr. Michael Bordwell
The Legends & Traditions of the Great War: Sergeant Alvin York

Perhaps an unlikely person—from an unlikely place— to end up a war hero, but that’s why there’s a movie about his life. In April 1919 the story first gained a wide audience when George Pattullo published The Second Elder Gives Battle in the The Saturday Evening Post. York became an instant hero. As the narrative grew into a legend, the myths increased. But the act of heroism by York and others in Company G, 328th Infantry has never been in questions.

And as trouble brewed in Europe in the late ’30s and early ’40s the release of Sergeant York was positioned to help favor America’s involvement in World War II. Sergeant York was released on September 27, 1941less than three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941).

Today the  unincorporated area of Pall Mall, Tennessee has a population around 1,500 people. It’s home to the Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park and the gravesite of Sergeant York. Just about 10 miles south of Pall Mall in the town of Jamestown, TN is the Alvin C. York Insitute. A rural high school established by York in 1926.

P.S. Until I wrote this post I only knew Pall Mall as a brand of cigarettes. Back in the ’60s it was actually the number one brand of cigarettes.

“Here’s the news: I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown & Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats.”
Kurt Vonnegut
(He died in 2007 at aged 84.)

When Steven King was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, Pall Mall was his preferred brand. He has characters who smoke Pall Malls in his many of his novels including Hearts of Atlantis and The Dark Half.

But if you’ve ever watched a life long smoker with COPD struggle with the simple act of breathing you’ll know that those warning signs on the boxes of cigarettes are true. The only good thing I can say about cigarette smoke is it looks great when backlit. Cinematographers love that stuff.

Scott W. Smith

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The Silence of the Lambs is the most authentically terrifying movie since Psycho.
Robin Wood
Film Reference

“Do we seek out things to covet? … No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.”
Hannibal Lecter

It’s hard to believe that The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was released almost 20 years ago.  A few days ago I watched the five time Oscar-winner for the first time in at least a decade and it hasn’t lost any sparkle—or creepiness.  The movie is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Thomas Harris.  Harris’ roots are in the deep south, born in Jackson, Tennessee and raised in the small town of Rich, Mississippi. In 1988, his book The Silence of the Lambs won the Bram Stroker Award (Novel) presented by the Horror Writers Association.

So the story had a lot going for it when screenwriter Ted Tally set out to turn the 352-page novel into a 126-page screenplay. When Tally was finished he had crafted a well-tuned script and walked away win an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

“The first thing I do is break down the book scene by scene. That’s my method of working, the way I approach a screenplay adaptation. When I have all that broken down, I’ll try to establish and define the line of events; this event happens, then this event, then this and this happens, all the time trying to keep the integrity of the novel, or source material.

What’s important for me is finding what sticks out in my mind. That’s when I’ll put those scenes down on cards, one by one, just getting the story line down, concentrating on the needs of the adaptation.

Adapting The Silence of the Lambs, for example, I knew this had to be Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster’s) story. Even though the book goes inside Hannibal Lecter’s mind, inside Crawford’s (Scott Glenn’s) mind, inside Jame Gumb’s mind, the book basically follows the character of Clarice.

So, this had to be Clarice’s movie. Anything she’s not in, any scene that may be extraneous to furthering Clarice’s story, had to be cut, if possible. If it’s not cut, then it has to be kept to an absolute minimum. This story is her journey. Approaching it this way meant automatically reducing the book.

But keeping a determined focus on Clarice meant losing a lot of wonderful things that were in the book. Jack Crawford’s dying wife, for example. I bitterly tried to hang on to that in the first couple of drafts, but by the third draft I realized it wouldn’t work; so, it had to go. I had to be ruthless in terms of what I kept and what I didn’t keep.”
Screenwriter  Ted Tally
Ted Tally —On Adaptation/ Syd Field.com

Anthony Hopkins, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal, holds the record in the Best Actor category for shortest on screen time (under 17 minutes). Hopkins’ acting lesson: “How do you play Hannibal Lecter? Well just don’t move. Scare people by being still.”

Though Hopkins was an understudy to Sir Laurence Olivier at the Royal National Theater in London it may have been his unbringing that help shaped his role as Lecter. On IMDB Hopkins is quoted as saying, “My own father was a tough man. He was a pretty red hot guy but he was also cold. He was also slightly disappointed in me because I was not a good kid as a school boy, you know. But I learned from it, I liked that coldness, because it was harsh. And he taught me to be tough. So I know how to be tough. I know how to be strong. I know how to be ruthless. It’s part of my nature. I wouldn’t be an actor if I wasn’t.”

The Silence of the Lambs also won an Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Jodie Foster) making it the last film to pull off an Oscar sweep in the top five categories. The seeds of which were planted all those years ago when Thomas Harris was reading Hemingway as a youngster in the fertile literary land of the Mississippi. It probably didn’t hurt that he earned an English degree at Baylor University and worked as a crime reporter in Texas and New York.

Scott W. Smith

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Auntie Em: “Why don’t you find a place where there isn’t any trouble?” 
“A place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place Toto? There must be.”
                                                                               The Wizard of Oz

Melissa: “Is there an F5?… What would that be like?”
Jason ‘Preacher’ Rowe
: ”The finger of God.” 

Chances are if you think back to where you were in 1996 it may seem like 100 years ago. A lot can happen in 12 years.

1996 is on my radar today because it’s the release date of a two-disc special edition of the movie Twister that was made that year. Iowa was not on my radar back then and neither were storm chasers.  Those strange people who in the name of science roam the region known as tornado alley chasing monster-sized tornados looking for data to improve warning systems and hopefully save lives. (And also a good excuse to have an exciting day at the office.)

Twister was shot in Oklahoma and Iowa and according to some reports it was one of the most demanding films ever made. It earned every penny of its almost $500 million worldwide gross. According to Box Office Mojo Twister is #50 in all-time domestic box office draw.

It was everything that you expect from a big Hollywood tent pole movie. Special effects and more special effects. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in the Twister screenplay the story is basically there to bridge one spectacular special effect with the next. The filmmakers and the studios told us what kind of film they were making and delivered on their promise.

I look forward to seeing the special edition DVD just to see the behind the scene footage and listen to the added commentary material. In fact, the commentary material may be the only way I watch some films from now on. I did that for the first time with the movie Cloverfield. I just rented it to listen to the director’s commentary. (I love learning little things like one phrase producer J.J. Abrams is fond of saying to keep the budget down is “We can make this whole movie with a ball of yarn.” Abrams and director Matt Reeves did an amazing job with special effects on Cloverfield given their budget was only a third of Twisters.)

A couple weeks ago I was meandering in a used book store next to the University of Northern Iowa looking for something different and came across a book called Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie by Keay Davidson.

I flipped through it and found this quote:

“If you want a spiritual experience, you should go spend April to June in the Midwest, because you have never seen cloud formations like this! You watch everything in the sky happening in front of you as if you were watching time-lapse photography. We would literally watch cloud towers shoot into the sky and within fifteen minutes one little cloud would rise to become one 30,000 feet high.” 
                                                                     Producer (Twister) Kathleen Kennedy

Now when Kathleen Kennedy talks you should listen. She has flat out had an amazing career in Hollywood and has had a hand in producing some of my favorite films: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Seabiscuit (the only movie poster I own), and most recently The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. If you’re still not impressed, she also produced the upcoming Indiana Jones film being released later this month. (Not bad for starting out as a secretary/production assistant for Steven Spielberg.)

To top it off Kennedy is married to Frank Marshall who produced Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Bourne Ultimatum and a whole lot in between. Together the Kennedy/Marshall duo have produced films that have made over 5 billion dollars. 

Here’s another passage from Davidson’s book:

Twister’s setting is as grandiose as its subject: the Midwest. A terrain as rich in myth for Americans as the Aegean is for Greeks…What makes the Midwestern sky “so interesting is that the terrain is so flat—more than half of what you’re seeing is sky! So you tend to pay a lot of attention to it, said (Twister) director of photography Jack Green. “They’ve got these incredible cloud patterns passing through—clouds that contrast against a clear, intense blue and nearly unpolluted sky.”

The blue sky here in Iowa can be mesmerizing. (Especially if you’ve ever been on the Disney lot in Burbank and not been able to see the Verdugo Mountains just a few miles away because of the smog.) And while some Hollywood producers only know that blue sky as they’re flying over this part of the country, there are stories to be told from here. And I hope you’re doing your part to write them down wherever you live.

On a closing note the first week of May is not even over and already around 100 tornados have been spotted in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Iowa. Unfortunately it’s cost hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damages and claimed several lives.

And even more tragic, in Myanmar (next to Thailand) they report over 20,000 deaths due to a cyclone this week.

None of us know where we’ll be 12 years from now. But one thing we can be sure of is there will be more disasters like Hurricane Katrina, 911, and the Tsunami that killed over 200,000 in Asia.  There will be many prayers said and much relief work done. But remember that stories can also bring healing power and help give us perspective on life.

“Today is Father’s Day. Until my stroke, we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar. But today we spend the whole of the symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.”
                                                                       The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
                                                                        Jean-Dominique Bauby 


Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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