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“The main thing in writing a movie is to have a good ending.”
Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects)

For five bucks I recently bought The Usual Suspects DVD. You can buy the book of the screenplay on Amazon for another five bucks. Considering the Writers Guild of America’s 101 Greatest Screenplays list placed The Usual Suspects at #35 there are worse ways to spend ten dollars. (Or to save money see if your local library has the movie and track down an online version of the script.) Both the movie and the screenplay are a worthwhile investment of your time.

It doesn’t appear that The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie set out to be an Academy Award winning screenwriter—or even a screenwriter— and perhaps that’s his secret. According to Wikipedia, after high school he spent time hitchhiking around Australia and also worked there as an assistant teacher at a boarding school. He returned to the United States where he worked for a detective agency for four years. He was in the process of joining the New York Police Department when high school classmate Bryan Singer called with an opportunity to write Public Access.

Public Access won the 1993 Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize. Two years later the $400,000. film The Usual Suspects was released and would go on to win McQuarrie an Academy Award. Since then he’s done rewrites on various Hollywood films including X-Men, wrote Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise, and wrote and directed The Way of the Gun starring Benicio del Toro. More recently he is writing or has written Wolverine 2 and a retelling of the Jack and the Beanstock fairy tale in a script called Jack the Giant Killer (which will be directed by Singer).

For independent film fans who don’t understand how McQuarrie went from Sundance and The Usual Suspects to working on Hollywood blockbusters, a German war film and then a fairy tale— maybe this will help;

“(Winning an Oscar) doesn’t make the studios want to make your movie any more than before. It just means they want you to make their movies. I found that rather than sacrificing the story, I was sacrificing something else. At every meeting I was taking less money and less back end, and giving up casting, just so I could have control of the story. And they said no. For a long time I resented those people, and saw them as fearful and ignorant, but in reality, all they’re doing is trying to reduce risk. It was the same thing I was doing: they’re trying to protect money and I’m trying to protect the story. The place that I’ve come to after all of this is, there are stories I want to make that will have to remain in a budget under $25 million, depending on what actors I can cast. And then there are those stories that the studios want to make, and that’s how you make your living. Is that selling out? Well, you’ve got to eat.”
Christopher McQuarrie
Interview with Cynthia Fuchs

At some point McQuarrie decided to move to Seattle (where I believe he still resides) and is on the Advisory Board of The Film School. An interesting sidenote is McQuarrie not only went to high school with director Bryan Singer, but also actor and filmmaker Ethan Hawke.

Sometimes it’s fun to make connections like this; In 2002, I was in Berlin for a couple days doing a shoot which happened to be the same year McQuarrie was on a tour in Berlin when he stumbled upon the idea of doing what became Valkyrie. Of course, the connection doesn’t mean anything, but it keeps the synapses firing. And creativity is all out connections. (Where Do Ideas Come From? A+B=C)

At some point before his screenwriting breakthrough McQuarrie also worked as a bodyguard for a jewelry dealer in downtown LA. That info not only provided him with a key event in The Usual Suspects, but is also where he saw a bulletin board that was made in Skokie, Illinois which provided McQuarrie with the impetus for the entire film. (Don’t Quit Your Day Job)

And for what it’s worth, Skokie is no stranger to Hollywood. The Chicago suburb over the years has provided shooting locations to many memorable films, including Blue Brothers, Risky Business, The Breakfast Club, Home Alone 3, and Sixteen Candles.

Scott W. Smith

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Last week I was asked by Debra Eckerling to do my first ever guest blogging on her excellent Write On Online website. I appreciated the opportunity and wrote the following post after making the observation that there was a heavy dose of films made beyond what is known as the thirty mile zone in L.A. (As a side note, though Eckerling lives in L.A. these days she is part of the Midwest tribe invading Southern California, having been raised in the Chicago area and college educated in Wisconsin and Nebraska.)

The Oscars & Screenwriting East of L.A.

On my blog Screenwriting from Iowa I enjoy writing about screenwriters who come from outside L.A., not because I have anything against L.A., but because I think there are wonderful stories to tell from all over the world. The famous painter Grant Wood (American Gothic) was fond of talking about regionalism in painting. I’d like to think there is a regionalism brewing from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective.

One thing that jumps out at me about this year’s Oscar nominations in both the original and adapted screenplay categories is every single one of the stories is set outside Los Angeles.

I haven’t seen all of the films, but after a little research I’m not even sure that of the 10 films nominated in the screenplay categories that there is a single scene even set in the state of California. Those are pretty staggering statistics considering that L.A. is the center of the film industry.

Original Screenplay Nominees:

District 9
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; set in Johannesburg, South Africa,

An Education
Screenplay by Nick Hornby; set in England

In the Loop
Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche; set in England and Washington, D.C.

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher; set in New York City

Up in the Air
Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner; set in various airports & airplanes around the county with key scenes set in Nebraska, Wisconsin and in the air over Iowa

Adapted Screenplay

The Hurt Locker
Written by Mark Boal; set primarily in Iraq

Inglourious Basterds
Written by Quentin Tarantino; set in France

The Messenger
Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman; set in and around New Jersey

A Serious Man
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; set in Minneapolis

Up
Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter. Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy; set in South America

Just taking a cursory glance at all the films in every single Academy Award category and I don’t notice a single movie set in Los Angeles. There are films set in places like Michigan, Memphis, China, and of course, Pandora. This year’s films represent a global cinema.

Novelist and musicians have always been able to ply their trade in far away places that over the centuries has brought an original and rich texture to their work. It’s exposed readers and listeners to new worlds and experiences.

But because feature films usually take large crews and a good deal of equipment it has traditionally resulted over the decades in a good amount of stories that are L.A.-centered. And because of that screenwriters from all over have always been drawn to Los Angeles and end up writing more stories about L.A. (Or had their stories changed to be able to be shot in California.)

Perhaps we’re witnessing the end of a cycle that began 100 years ago when the movie industry moved from New York and Chicago to Hollywood. In 2008-2009 there was a lot of talk about L.A.’s runaway production and what to do about the shrinking number of films being shot on the streets of Los Angeles.

People can argue and blame it on the economy, unions, the high cost of shooting in L.A., tax incentives that are available all over the world, reality TV, the fact that people are tired of seeing the Santa Monica Pier, or the downsizing & democratization as the result of digital production, but the one thing this year’s crop of Oscars prove is that the door is wide open (slightly cracked?) for screenwriters who have stories that take place beyond the shadow of the Hollywood sign.

We may not be at that place where Francis Ford Coppola prophesied 20 years ago when he said that, “One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart” by making a film on her father’s videocamera. But things are getting very interesting.

Mark Boal who wrote The Hurt Locker is a good example of a screenwriter who did not take a traditional route to break into Hollywood. Though neither fat or a girl he did go to a small college in Ohio where he majored in philosophy. As a journalist embedded in Iraq it led to writing the story that became the film In The Valley of Elah.Then he took the next step by writing his first screenplay (The Hurt Locker) which not only got produced, but has been nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards.

* * *

In a related note, this year’s Oscars will be doing a John Hughes tribute. Hughes was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan until his family moved to the Chicago suburbs when he was a teenager.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more successful mainstream Hollywood writer/director who was as much of an Hollywood outsider. Hughes, whose films include Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink. Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Christmas Vacation, and of course Home Alone, once told film critic Roger Ebert:

“I’m going to do all my movies here in Chicago. The (Chicago) Tribune referred to me as a ‘former Chicagoan.’ As if, to do anything, I had to leave Chicago. I never left. I worked until I was 29 at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, and then I quit to do this. This is a working city, where people go to their jobs and raise their kids and live their lives. In Hollywood, I’d be hanging around with a lot of people who don’t have to pay when they go to the movies.”

Scott W. Smith

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I have no idea how many advertising copywriters have become produced screenwriters, but I have an idea how many would like to make that leap—about 100%. One of the great modern day success stories of an ad writer turning screenwriter was John Hughes.

Just found an article on John Hughes by Robert Nolan who hired Hughes at a well known advertising agency back in the mid-70s. (The Early Ferris Bueller: Remembering John Hughes in Advertising.) He writes that Hughes didn’t have much of a writing portfolio at the time he hired him but that it was Hughes’ hysterical jokes that he had sold to comedians for $5. that got him the job.

“One of the last times I saw John Hughes, he was sitting across my desk at Leo Burnett in Chicago and telling me he was quitting. It was early 1979 and he said he was leaving advertising to write screenplays. His first assignment, he said, was to write a script for a prospective National Lampoon movie called Jaws -3, People- 0. Selfishly, I told him that he was making a big mistake. That he’d never make it as a screenwriter. That he shouldn’t quit his day job. I felt so strongly about this that at the end of his last day at Burnett, I drove him all the way home trying to talk him out of it. But John was unmoved. His mind was made up.”
Robert Nolan

Hughes proved his old boss wrong and went on to write Mr. Mom, The Breakfast Club, Home Alone ,Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and around three dozen more filmsHughes, who passed away earlier this year, would have been 29 in 1979.

Scott W. Smith

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safetylast-1

Does anybody really know what time it is?
                                                             Robert Lamm/Chicago

Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By
                                                             Humphrey Bogart
                                                             Casablanca 


Did you know that Three Days of the Condor was based on Six Days of the Condor?

That is the movie Three Days of the Condor was based on the novel Six Days of the Condor.

Why do you think the screenwriters Lorenzo Semple and David Rayfiel compressed the novel by James Grady? I haven’t read any comments by the writers, Robert Redford who was the star, or by director Syndey Pollack on why that was done, but I have a pretty good hunch.

Movies do not handle long passages of time well. More often than not films will compress time for the sake of moving the story forward and keeping your interest.

Screenwriters and producers often talk of a time-lock on a film. A specific set of time the story is set when something must happen by. (“If you don’t get the heck out of Dodge by sunset there will be hell to pay.”) It sets the parameters for the story. Here are some films that have a time-lock:
High Noon
Speed
48 Hours
Apollo 13

Lew Hunter in his book Screenwriting 434 says when you use a time-lock “you inject an urgency into your story that can give it additional drive to heighten audience involvement and anxiety.” Of course, the more organic to the story the better.

Some movie deal with time by placing them in a single day, in just a night, or even in real time in the length of the film:

American Graffiti
The Breakfast Club
Halloween
Phone Booth 
Before Sunrise
Rope 
Timecode 
Russian Ark 

In a talk I heard John Updike give at the University of Iowa earlier this year he spoke about the limitations that film has in showing the passing of time. When he’s writing a novel he can take a person from a baby to old age and it’s no problem for the reader, but in movies it doesn’t work as well. He explained that if your main character is a child for the first 30 minutes of the film they have a certain amount invested in that person and to switch to another person is a jolt.

This may be one of the problems Updike is having in bringing the story of Olympic wrestler/famed college coach Dan Gable to to screen. Gable had a great high school, college career before winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Then he went on to win 10 national championships as a head coach at the University of Iowa before retiring. Then he came back as an assistant coach last year to help Iowa win another national championship.

How do you show that in an hour and a half or two hour movie? And even if you found a way, can you really have the same person play Gable as a 15-year-old high school freshman and Gable as a 63-year-old coach? See the problem there? 

Maybe the digital world will help this in the future and it will be interesting to see the effect on Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button where he plays an man born in his eighties and ages backwards. If anyone can pull that off it’s David Fincher & Eric Roth. (Didn’t that once happen on a Star Trek episode?) But it’s still Brad Pitt we are investing in.

Of course there are other exceptions, and generally Hollywood has found some creative ways to deal with the passing of time when needed. For instance, in Forrest Gump we are introduced to Forrest (Tom Hanks) as an adult in the opening scene and while we see Forrest as a child the majority of the film is as an adult. We are invested in Tom Hanks.

In The Natural they chose to have Robert Redford play both the thirtysomething Roy Hobbs as well as the teenage Roy Hobbs. They used soft lighting, shadows (and Redford’s youthful look) to create believability for the audience. 

The remarkable TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won eight primetime Emmys including two for actress Cicely Tyson. Tyson playing a 110-year old woman reflecting on her life was amazing, and aided greatly by makeup and costume design (that both also won Emmys) as well as a whole creative team that brought the Ernest J. Gaines novel to life. (Leonard Maltin called it “One of TV’s all-time best,” so it’s worth renting of you’ve never seen it.)

One major problem with the passing of time is the amount of money it takes to create different eras. Think of the expense of the cars alone cover the time period of a story set in the 40s, 60s, 80s. Sure it’s been done, but if you are starting out it may be best to avoid that hurdle. (A short time frame also favors lower budget films since you have less continuity issues to worry about. Always good especially if you don’t have a script supervisor.) 

In my post Screenwriting by Numbers (tip #4) I point out some averages related to running time in movies such as most movies tend to be between 90-120 minutes in length and most scenes tend to run between 1-3 minutes long. And if all of this seems cold and artificial let me once again to the great quote by design guru Milton Glazer; “Limitation stimulates the imagination.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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