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Posts Tagged ‘The Criterion Collection’

“Paris, Texas is a heartbreaking character study of longing and lacerations of the heart.”
Hillary Weston 

When you blog daily you have to find ways to try to keep it fresh. So the journey that started with Holland, Michigan—The Screenplay, and continued on to  Vernon, Florida yesterday, now leads us to Paris, Texas. The Wim Wender’s directed film from a script by Sam Shepard with L.M. Kit Carson doing some re-writing came out in 1984. Like Tender Mercies that came out the prior year, it was a film that captivated me and moved me in a way that’s hard to explain.

If say 80% of Hollywood movies follow a somewhat similar narrative flow, we can be thankful for filmmakers who fill in some of the other 20% with words and images that defy our normal movie going experience.

“What makes Paris, Texas and all of Wim’s work so special is that it is filled with so much yearning and so much restlessness; people aching so badly to find what it is they’re looking for. They’re all so hungry for love and connection and something to make them feel alive.”
Hillary Weston
Cinematic Panic: Longing Endlessly With Wim Wenders

If you’re drawn to writing less traditional screenplays the one blessing you have is often times actors get tired of being in traditional Hollywood roles and enjoy opportunities that allow them to do something that flexes some of their acting muscles they sometimes don’t use. Harry Dean Stanton acted in more than 100 films before he made Paris, Texas and The Observer quoted him saying of the film , “After all these years, I finally got the part I wanted to play. If I never did another film after Paris, Texas I’d be happy.”

Paris, Texas won the Palme d’Or at 1984 Cannes Film Festival, and the film is now part of The Criterion Collection.

I found a link at the excellent Cinephilla and Beyond that includes an old article by L.M. Kit Carson subtitled Postcards from the Old Man on Paris, Texas that contains this nugget called The Wim Movie Making Method:

“When you make a movie you actually make two movies at the same time. 1) the movie you write and think you’re supposed to make; 2) the movie that comes up, you can’t write it ahead of time, it only comes up from the people gathered when you shoot. The second movie is the true movie, you watch for it and make it.”

Though it’s been a long time since I last saw Paris, Texas,  I do rememeber being impressed with the cinematography of Robby Müller and the music of Ry Cooter.

P.S. Yes, there really is a Paris, Texas  ( “Second Largest Paris in the World.”) and they even have a 70-foot Eiffel Tower replica—which a cowboy hat on top of it.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Growing up in Ohio was just planning to get out.”
Jim Jarmusch

Have you ever put together a top ten list of films that you’ve walked away from feeling stunned? I haven’t but one film that I think would be on that list is Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise. The 1984 film is credited with giving a fresh take on independent filmmaking. The low-budget, black and white film is still the only movie I’ve ever watched where each scene is done in single master shots.

Stranger than Paradise won Camera d’Or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival. Empire magazine’s The 50 Greatest Independent Films listed the film #14, just ahead of Memento.

I haven’t seen the film is a long time. Actually, because it has a special place in my memory I’m a little hesitant to watch it again for fear it won’t measure up to the fondness I have it. But I’m sure I’ll check out The Criterion Collection version in the near future.

Most filmmakers struggle to one degree or another with a balance between artistic freedom and commercial success.   A look at Jarmusch’s career shows how one filmmaker has walked that balance. Even if you haven’t seen his films (Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Dead Man, Down by Law) know that any writer/director who can attract the acting talents of Forest Whitaker, Bill Murray, Roberto Benigni, and Johnny Depp, on top of a 25-year career is doing something right.

Born in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (just north of Akron)  in 1953 Jarmusch went to New York and received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University and worked on an MFA in film at NYU where Spike Lee was a fellow student. He also gained valuable experience working as an assistant for directors Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray.

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.'”
Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules
MovieMaker 2004

The Akron-Cleveland has changed a lot since Jarmusch was a kid (and even when he shot part of Stranger in Paradise there in the 80s) and I’d like to think that the next Jim Jarmuschs from the area, like current NBA MVP LeBron James, stay in their hometown and do their thing for the world to see.

Scott W. Smith

 

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I wrote in my last post (Screenwriting from Japan) that many Japanese films are about respect and honor. Akira Kurosawa, who was the youngest of eight children, was born in Toyko in 1910 and would go on as a film director and screenwriter to gain the respect and honor of some of the greatest filmmakers in history including Fellini, Bergman, Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola.

Martin Scorsese said of Kurosawa, “His influence on filmmakers throughout the entire world is so profound as to be almost incomparable.”

But one of the things that may make his films so accessible and enduring to those outside Japan is that Kurosawa was influenced by Frank Capra, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, John Ford and  William Shakespere.

And if you want to follow a nice exercise of how creativity is passed around read Shakespere’s King Lear and watch Kurosawa’s Ran. Watch Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and then watch The Magnificent Seven (1960). Read Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan IIyich and then watch Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

As original as we think we are, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” But it doesn’t hurt to expose yourself to the wisdom and creativity of great artists from the past.

”With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. The script must be something that has the power to do this.”
Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa died in 1998, but look for some celebrations coming as the 100th anniversary of his birth arrives March 23. And for a list of Kurosawa’s films check out The Criterion Collection.

And, for good measure, I’ll toss in this quote by Tom Cruise;

“I was 18 when I saw Akira Kurosawa’s Shinchinin no samurai (Seven Samurai). After about 30 seconds, I realized that this was not just a cultural thing, it was universal. Years later, I read Bushido. It talked about many things that I strive for in my own life: loyalty, compassion, responsibility, the idea of looking back on your life and taking responsibility for everything you’ve ever done. I’m fascinated by the samurai and the samurai code – it’s one of the main reasons I wanted to make The Last Samurai.”

Scott W. Smith

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“When film came to Japan,  the country had only allowed foreign imports for a few decades. The nation’s culture—which means its way of accounting for, of constructing, of assuming—was still its own.”
Donald Richie
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film

It’s been a while since I took a screenwriting road trip and today seems like a good day to do so. Yesterday I mentioned Louie Psihoyos and his Oscar-winning documentary The Cove which was shot in Japan so that seems like a fitting place to head.

My knowledge of Japanese cinema is limited but I know enough to say they have a long eclectic love affair with movies. From Godzilla to Kurosawa covers a lot of ground.

I imagine as a kid the Godzilla films were the first I ever saw that were made in Japan. Kurosawa I starting watching while in film school. In fact, Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Rashomon are pretty much the go to films that he made that are considered all-time cinema classics. Later via Paul Schrader’s book Transcendental Style in Film I became familiar with Yasujiro Ozu (Toyko Story, An Autumn Afternoon).

More recently (though I confess to never having seen any of his film) Academy Award-winner Hayo Miyazaki (Porco Rosso, Princess MonokeSpirited Away) is considered by some Japan’s top director and his anime the best ever. (These days more than half of the films produced in Japan are anime.)  I’m sure I’m leaving out many of the top filmmakers in Japan, but this is just meant as an overview to show films and screenwriting done far from Hollywood.

One film I did see just over the weekend that I would consider one of the best films I’ve seen in the last 10 years is Okuribito (Departures) directed by Yojiro Takita and staring Masahiro Motoki. At the Academy Awards in 2009 it won best foreign film. The script was the first feature film written by Kundo Koyama (known for his work as a TV writer) loosely based on Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician by Aoki Shinmon.

If I know little about Japanese cinema, I know even less about Buddhism and its rituals. (And I don’t know if the traditions in the movie were even rooted in Buddhism, but I know they were foreign to me.) But as an American and a Christian I found that Departures deals with the passage of physical death in a beautiful way that I wish was practiced here.

In western cultures we sterilize death. We’re told someone has died a few days later there is a service and that’s it. In fact, when my father died years ago I was at a TV studio in Florida getting ready to direct a program when I was informed of the news. To the man I had known a lifetime, had visited two weeks prior, and spoken to on the phone the day before–that was it, he was gone. I never saw his body, he was cremated, and then a while later there was a service at a military cemetery in Clearwater. Like most funerals or memorial services I’ve been to the whole thing seems like an abrupt ending to life, and impersonal.

The film Departures shows a culture and a tradition that I have never seen before in Western culture. A tradition rooted in respect and honor which seems to be the basis for many Japanese films. It’s a film that shows a tradition where time is stopped to reflect on the passing of a life in a way that is personal and meaningful. A time to say goodbye. A time to reflect on your own life.

And for all I know it may be a passing tradition in Japan itself as families become more fragmented, hurried and westernized.

So I was curious to find out a little more about this film and found this quote by the director;

“Because it deals with the very tricky subject of death he and the producers at the time weren’t sure how to go about making a film out of this. It probably took about 15 years since the idea was first conceived to the completion of the film. It was a producer at an independent production company who felt strongly that this film should be made. Many of us are around the same age, and we got to a certain point in our lives when death was slowly creeping up to become a factor around us with the people that we knew. And death, of course, is something that many of us around the world, of course, tend to avoid as a subject matter altogether.  We don’t like to think about it. But we felt at this point, we really should face it head-on and do something with that subject matter…But in the process of making the film, and looking at how we honor those who’ve passed I came to realize that the film is ultimately about the value of life and how we honor those who’ve passed and how we look at and confront out own lives and the act of living.”
Yojiro Takita
From an interview on the  Departures DVD

If you haven’t seen the film, here are a couple quotes from critics;
“The ultimate beauty of the film rests in its symbolic details that bridge the abyss between the living and the dead.”
Andrew Sarris, New York Observer

The music is lush and sentimental in a subdued way, the cinematography is perfectly framed and evocative, and the movie is uncommonly absorbing.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

As it turns out, I have read that the topic of death is somewhat taboo in Japan so the filmmakers didn’t know if anyone would want to see this film. But it did very well in the box office in Japan and then won an Academy Award here in the states which were nice payoffs for the 15 year journey they took to get the film made.

So yeah, there is some good stuff happening east of L.A….even far-east of L.A.

P.S. In the forward of A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Paul Schrader (screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Yakuza) writes of the book’s author, “Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie.” (And for what it’s worth Richie—this expert on Japanese films who has lived in Japan since 1947— is originally from Lima, Ohio.) His commentaries can be found on the The Criterion Collection of many DVDs of Ozu and Kurosawa’s films.
Scott W. Smith


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“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” — Alfred Hitchcock

slaterebirthj.jpg

Since tip #3 focused on the one main person in your story,  it makes sense to address the other numbers related to screenwriting. Numbers play a key part in every production from the slate that keeps track of takes to you keeping track of your mileage for expenses. Screenplays are not exempt from the numbers game.

When you were a child the chances are pretty good that somewhere along the way you used one of those paint by numbers kits. If the number was one, you were supposed to use blue, number two yellow, and so on. And when you finished painting in all the numbers you actually had a decent little painting—for a six year old.

That’s actually not a bad way to approach writing––no matter what your age. I know it sounds cold, calculated and superficial, but hang with me for a moment. When I first started writing I was confused about the numbers game. Advice I got in books and magazines seemed conflicting and confusing.

Screenwriting by numbers is simply basic story structure and demystifies the process. Think of it like playing or watching a sport. It helps if you know the rules of the game. What are the boundaries, how high is the net in basketball or tennis? How are points scored, how long is the game played?

It takes nothing away from your originality. It takes nothing away from the story you have a burning desire to tell. It does not diminish the status of a great athlete just because he shoots a basketball at the same ten-foot hoop everyone uses, it enhances it. The limitations show his greatness. 

“Limitation stimulates the imagination.” — Milton Glazer

This is my favorite chapter to talk about because it’s like pulling back the veil on the main part of simplifying the screenwriting process. It’s easy to grasp and easy to follow, yet it’s a hangup for many writers because they miss it. If you don’t like the sports analogy think of it in terms of cooking or whatever field of expertise you have.  As Clint Eastwood says in Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Part of knowing the limitations is knowing what form you are writing for. For instance how long can a short film be and still be eligible for an Oscar? According to the Academy “A short film is defined as a motion picture that is not more than 40 minutes in running time (including all credits).” The total run time of a 30 minute sitcom is 22 minutes.  A video for You Tube cannot be longer than ten minutes. And to point out the obvious if you’re writing a 30 second commercial you have 30 seconds.

How long should a feature film script be? A coy response would be—as long as it needs to be. In the feature film world (especially for the new screenwriter) the real answer is most films fall between 90 and 120 pages.  

You can rebel against that all you want (go ahead point out the exceptions) but in reality, at a page a minute, the majority of movies made fall between an hour and a half and two hours in length. Why fight that? There is great freedom there.

A mighty river is powerful only if it has banks to contain it. (Just to sneak in an Iowa reference here and remind you that the mighty Mississippi River flows along eastern Iowa. Part of the Third Coast.) Look at these great films from a variety of genres that fall within the 100-120 minute parameters:

Finding Nemo 100m.

Casablanca 102 m.

The African Queen 105m.

Psycho 108m.

On the Waterfront 109m.

Sunset Blvd. 110m.

Citizen Kane 119m.

Raiders of the Lost Ark 115m.

Pretty Women 117m. 

The Bourne Ultimatum 115m.

That’s a pretty good list of films, but what about those under 100 minutes? You’ll find more comedy and horror films here because if you can scare people or make them laugh for an hour and a half you’ve done your job. You’ll also find low budget films here because it’s simply cheaper to shoot a film closer to 90 minutes than one that’s two hours. Films with limited sets also are common in this time frame as well.

Annie Hall 94m.

When Harry Met Sally 95m.

Twelve Angry Men 95m.

Halloween 91m.

Reservoir Dogs 99m.

Juno 96m.

Monsters, Inc 92m.

There are examples of films that are even a little shorter than 90 minutes. Generally, today these are limited to youth oriented films.

Bambi 68m.

Toy Story 80m.

Stand by Me 89m.

The Gold Rush 82m.

High Noon 84m.

She’s Gotta Have It 84m.

Stranger than Paradise 89m. (By the way, I just saw yesterday that Jim Jarmusch’s film is now out on DVD as part of  The Criterion Collection. Worth getting just to see a film done in master takes.)

Perhaps, you’re stubborn and you want to point out all the great films that are well over the two-hour mark. Let’s deal with them.

The Godfather 175m.

Dances with Wolves 181m.

Titanic 194m.

Lord of the Rings (3) 210m.

Ben Hur 212m.

Gone with the Wind 222m.

Longer films tend to have a built-in audience which justifies the extra expense. In the case of these listed five were best selling books first and one was based on a well documented historic event. But even those fall between basically the 3 and 4 hour mark. A long limitation, but a limitation nonetheless.

It’s hard enough to get any film made much less one over two hours, so if you’re really interested in getting produced why not improve your odds by writing a 90 minute screenplay? Keep in mind that low budget producers are trying to keep cost down so less is more there. And in Hollywood there are readers who get paid by the scripts they review. Human nature says they’ll choose the 90-page script before the 150-page script.

Embrace the limitations.

90 Page Script

So let’s say you’re setting out to write a 90 page script. Now what?

1-3 page scenes

Here’s an interesting observation I’ve made simply from reading scripts and watching movies. Most scenes are between 1 and 3 pages in length. So if that averages out to 2 pages per scene and you have a 90 minute movie you have 45 scenes.

45 Scenes

Do you see the freedom here? Most of you could stop reading this blog right now and write down 45 scenes from your childhood or odd things that have happened to you at work. I’m not saying you have a screenplay yet—but you may have an outline. 45 scenes. That’s doable, right? There’s nothing magical about 45 scenes, but it’s a good number to shoot for. I hope you’re beginning to see the freedom in writing by numbers.

When I first started writing I wondered how you kept track of all your characters. Believe it or not readers have the same problem in reading scripts. Which is why most screen plays only have four main characters. There’s just not room to develop characters beyond that. 

1 Protagonist/ 1 Antagonist

Limit yourself to one protagonist and one antagonist.

As I’ve said before, when you write your script either your protagonist or antagonist should be in every scene. (Or have a really good reason why they’re not there.) Once I tuned into this I have watched movies with awe how some writers include the protagonist is in ever scene. It’s so easy when to go off on little tangents and side characters. 

Lots of White Space

When you read a screenplay of your favorite movie the chances are good that there will be a lot of white on the page. Meaning that top screenwriters write sparingly. You generally don’t find big chucks of scene descriptions and thick lines of dialogue.

The Law of 3

I’ve read many a great scripts that basically applied what I call the law of three. As you watch movies from now on I think you’ll see the truth here. 

3 Lines or Less of Dialogue

Dialogue: Most lines of dialogue are three lines or less.                      

3 Characters (or less) Per Scene

“It’s difficult to have a lot of characters.”– Francis Ford Coppola

Most scenes involve three characters or less. There may be other characters around but the main conversation is limited to three characters. The main reason behind this is I think it is hard to write—and hard to follow—more than three characters talking.

Three Subplots or Less 

Generally you are limited to three subplots in a story because again you have limited time to develop them.

There you have it the basic numbers you need to contain your story.  As you watch films with this perspective in mind I think you’ll find that they are generally followed pretty closely. I hope this fires you up to write. How long does it take to write a screenplay? Well those numbers are all over the place but if you want some motivation to write quickly I’ll leave you with a quote from Sylvester Stallone: 

“It took me about three and a half days to write Rocky.” 

Copyright @2008 Scott W. Smith 

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