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Posts Tagged ‘The great depression’

“In 1928 I lost everything I had, and in 1936 I went broke again. So did most of the other soundly advised people in the county…I lost very little money through extravagance, I regret to say. Most of my losses were the result of the dubious pleasure of remarking over the phone, ‘Yes, go ahead.'”
Samson Raphaelson

Imagine your writing career talking off in the 1920s. That’s where playwright/screenwriter Samson Raphaelson found himself after his play The Jazz Singer had a long run on Broadway and then his play was turned into the first talkie film in 1927. You can imagine that for that moment in time life was good for Samson Raphaelson. Then 1928 came along ushering in the Great Depression which lasted more than a decade.

In his book, The Human Nature of Playwriting, Raphaelson said he went broke not once, but twice. His book is based on a class he taught in 1948 at the University of Illinois, and along with his writing advice he gave some practical financial advice to students that is just as valuable today as when he talked about in more than 60 years ago.

“A writer can live anywhere. I myself bought a modest house in the country, where the taxes are low. Ideally, one should live a simple, modest existence and provide for his old age—that is self-evident. I’m trying to tell you how in terms of my temperament and experience.
Samson Raphaelson
The Human Nature of Playwriting

I believe at the time Raphaelson taught that one semester class his home was in Pleasant Valley, PA—about 120 miles outside New York City.

Scott W. Smith

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“Film makers can’t get enough of Adolf Hitler. I think it’s because he’s the perfect villain.” Arnold Pistorius

Once upon a time in Hollywood…1941-1976

So in a sweeping look at American film history today we’re going to clip off 35 years.  Again one of the reasons for this brief look back at film history is to see how change has been a constant throughout the business and to see how we are in another major shift.

Hollywood had enjoyed its greatest decade through the 1930s in the short history of the film industry. (Some still believe that era was the greatest movie decade of all-time.)

1940 & 1941 continued the Golden Era of cinema. But then on December 7, 1941 the world changed for Americans with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The United States was coming off The Great Depression which started with the crash of Wall Street in 1929.

Hollywood actors and directors lended a hand in making training and propaganda films . And then there were movies about the war and its lingering effects back in the states.

So Proudly We Hail, 1943
Best Years of Our Lives, 1946

But I think the biggest lingering effect of Hitler and the Nazi’s is it created a world of fear. I’m not sure we’ve ever recovered from the idea that one man could cause so much pain and destruction in the modern world.

“The motion pictures made during World War II deeply affected Steven Spielberg, and movies about the war remain fertile ground for numerous filmmakers during subsequent decades. One reason for the continued popularity of these sages, and for movies about different wars as well, is the panoply of visual pleasures such conflicts offer.” “Citizen Spielberg”: by Lester D. Friedman

Europe exported existential thought and a new wave of movies that we free morality standards in the American film industry.

Much has been written about the prosperity that followed World War II, but many films reflected a period of questioning human existence and sometimes landing on nihilism or some for of despair. And themes that followed from World War II were prevalent for at least the next 30 years—and maybe until the present day. (The names and fears have just changed over the years)

Look at some of the top films of the 50s:

Rebel Without a Cause
On the Waterfront
Sunset Boulevard
Rear Window
War of the Worlds
Death of a Salesman

Sci-Fi films with end of the world themes were popular:
It Came From Outer Space
The Thing
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Them

Hilter may have been gone but there were plenty of worries beyond wondering how Jerry Mathers was going to break in his baseball glove on Leave it to Beaver. (The Korean War, Soviets, the Bomb, communists, etc.)

And then into the 60s President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr were shot and killed, there were riots in Chicago,  L.A. and other cities. Viet Nam War.  And if things werem’t bad enough TIME Magazine’s cover on April 8, 1966 asked, “Is God Dead?”

Some of the more well known movies of the 60s were:

Dr, Strangelove; or how I stopped learning to Love the Bomb
They Don’t Shoot Horses Do They?
Easy Rider
Psycho
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Bonnie & Clyde
Cool-Hand Luke
Midnight Cowboy
2001 A Space Odyssey
The Wild Bunch
The Manchurian Candidate

The pessimistic trend  continued into the early 1970s in politics with Viet Nam & Watergate as well as at the movies:

M*A*S*H
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Deliverance
Five Easy Pieces
The Last Picture Show
The Godfather
Chinatown

Sure you had Disney movies and light musicals during all these years but these films represent much of the best films of the era.

Bruce became the catalyst for change. Bruce was a mechanical shark on the set of the 1975 film JAWS who didn’t work as well as desired.  But he worked well in the edit bay and the $7 million film went on to make over $400 million worldwide. Sure there was blood and guts, but it had a happy ending.

The tent pole movie was born (or maybe just perfected). And once that genie was out of the bottle everybody in Hollywood was shooting for the  $100 million boxoffice goal.  By this time Viet Nam was over and Americans were ready to get on with life and the bicentennial celebration of the United States in 1976.

And Rocky was there toward the end of the year to give audiences something to cheer about. I do believe the one-two punch of JAWS & Rocky had a huge impact on the future of the film business. More thills per minute and a somewhat happy ending that would make a lot of money.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Part 5)

Scott W. Smith

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Once upon a time…between 1927-1941.

By 1927 the film industry was barely 30 years old but great strides artistically and its popularity grew. Filmmaking which started in the United States and France was now happening in Russia, Germany, Italy, Britain, Sweden and beyond. Film technique grew more sophisticated and the audiences simply grew.

Movie theaters became known as picture palaces sometimes the size of cathedrals. In the larger cities the plush carpet, dome ceilings with artwork, and seating for 2,000- 4,000 per theater was not unheard of. They were often grand and sometimes gaudy. Ushers were needed for crowd control. Keep in mind this was not only long before the invention of television, but before the great depression.

There was around 20 movie studios by the end of the 1920s and many people don’t realize that  the 800 films produced per year was at an all-time high. (Compare that today with about 400 feature films being made these days on average. Granted many of these films were shorter.)  Director like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were respected.

Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, William S. Hart, and Lillian Gish were well paid for their talent. But they were not paid to talk. Because until 1927 films were silent. The Jazz Singer changed all of that. Though largely a silent picture it did employ sync sound. Within two years most American movies were talkies.

If you think the industry is going through shift now can you imagine the changes than occurred at that time? Famous and glamourous actors for various reasons were done. Career over. Directors and cinematographers who had the freedom to move the camera freely down had larger cameras and cumbersome sound issues to deal with. And the poor pianist and organist across the country who played the scored music at theaters were now out of the business.

But audiences didn’t care about all of that. By 1929 movie attendance was averaging 90 million tickets sold per week. Even the stock market crashing in 1929 at the start of The Great Depression did not really show down the movie industry. And some would say people during the great depression was a boom to the movie industry as people look for hope and diversion in cheap entertainment. The 30s and into the early 40s are known as the golden age of cinema.

The movie making system was controlled by studios where writers, directors and actors were under contract  so not free to work on any movie they desired and filmmakers had to work under the restriction of  they Hays Code which put restraints on what could and could be on screen. In perhaps a nod to the belief that creativity is best expressed when limitations are set rather than allowed total freedom, the Hollywood golden era produced what many believe to be the finest films ever made.

And even if you disagree with that it’s hard to disagree with scholars who believe that 1939 was the single best year for movies. Check out the lineup:

Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Stagecoach
Goodbye Mr. Chips
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Ninotchka
Gulliver’s Travels
Jesse James
Dark Victory
Gunga Din
Wuthering Heights

Though personally I think 1941 was the single best year for movies (Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon, Meet John Doe, Dumbo, Sullivan’s Travels, Suspicion, Sergeant York, The Little Foxes, The Lady Eve). The truth is whatever year you pick around that time there is an amazing list of great films.

I honestly don’t know why that short studio era was so prolific. But I do know we’ve never been able to return. Perhaps it was just a shear numbers game in that they were making twice as many films as they are today. (There was no competition from TV, Internet, video games, etc.) Or maybe creating fine work in the hyper-studio controlled era has something to do with an old T.S. Elliot quote;

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

Every decade since then has turned out some great films, but there has been a lot of sprawl. Of course, maybe all that sprawl from the 1930s has just been long forgotten.

What I do know is that on December 7, 1941 the United States was attacked on Pearl Harbor and followed by the U.S. joining World War II. A war that only lasted a few years but where between 50-70 million people died. Things have never been the same. Including movies.

Hollywood side note: Edwin S. Porter, a lead pioneer in the early film business who gave D.W. Griffith his first acting job and who in 1903 directed highly the successful The Great Train Robbery , resisted the changes in the film business and was working in the appliance business in 1930.

Scott W. Smith

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seabiscuitdsc_3768

 

“You don’t just throw a whole life away just because it’s banged up a little.”
                                                                Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper)
                                                                Seabiscuit’s trainer
 

“This is not a movie about victory, but about struggle.” 
                                                                 Gary Ross, Screenwriter/Director
                                                                 Seabiscuit 

 

Seabiscuit turned five this year — not the horse, of course, but the movie. And I wish Universal would re-release the film in theaters this holiday season. (In the digital projection future those decisions will be easier to make.) 

The film originally came out in the summer of 2003. The economy was still in a slump from the terrorist events surrounding 911. Unemployment was high. The Laura Hillenbrand book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, about a race horse set in the Great Depression was already a #1 New York Times bestseller.   

The movie had a solid box-office run and was nominated for 7 Academy Awards. It was not only my favorite film of that year, but I’d put it in the top ten of my all time favorites. In my book it is across the board solid filmmaking on par with Rain Man and On the Waterfront. As time goes by that film will continue to find favor because it is a film with many layers.

(Seabiscuit is also the only movie poster I own. And as seen in the above photo, I keep it close by where I edit for inspiration. It just so happened that I moved to Iowa in the Summer of ’03 and for various reasons it was a hard enough transition that I saw Seabiscuit three times just in movie theaters.)

And the reason I’d love to see a re-release of the film is because the theme resonates even more today than it did even in 2003. Unemployment is higher today than it’s been in the past 15 years. While the stock market hasn’t crashed it has recently seen some of its greatest declines since the Great Depression. And then there is the auto industry.

Seabiscuit is set in a time of transition in the United States. A transition from the natural to the mechanical on one level and an examination of the American Dream on another level. And all wrapped together around three broken people and one broken horse.

It’s a movie that could have turned into a bad After School Special in the wrong hands, but in careful hands is a classic movie.

Of course, one thing that is happening now that wasn’t the case in 2003 is the auto industry is in a slump. What has been called the back bone of industry in our country is in trouble. Reports of sales being a third lower than normal are causing a ripple effect throughout the country.  By some accounts the auto industry represents 10% of all US jobs when you begin to connect the related industries. 

Maybe we could have a double feature with Seabiscuit. Remember the Ron Howard film Gung Ho? It starred Michael Keaton as a worker who has to justify his automotive job with the Japanese company that has taken over. By all accounts some US automotive companies need some major restructuring to survive.

In the movie Seabiscuit automobiles represent the future and bring wealth to Howard (played by Jeff Bridges), but it comes at a price. His son is killed in an automobile accident. And it is Howard who must find a way to put the pieces back together again. And along the way there is the forgotten horse trainer (Chris Cooper) and the angry jockey Red (Tobey Maguire) who are all brought together because of an underrated race horse. It’s a story of brokenness and restoration.

On the DVD commentary Gary Ross comments, “Howard is a guy who lost his son, and Red is a guy who lost his father. That’s just kind of the basic facts of it both in almost a cataclysmic way. And that original wound can never be righted but you can make peace with the pain in your life and somehow kind of continue. It can’t replaced, but it can be understood.”

And what’s special about Seabiscuit is it’s a film that connects with most of our lives. In fact, the closing shot is not one of victory, but one of a point of view of the audience on the horse as if to imply this is race we are all in. There will be battles and scars. But get back on the horse. As one friend tells his little boys when they get scrapes–“cuts and scars are proof of living.”

And Ross is careful to convey that these characters are far from perfect. “We labor under the tyranny of perfect heroes. Especially with movies that cost any money and everything gets homogenized down to things that are not objectionable or that are only heroic. The things that are ultimately most heroic are people struggling against their own obstacles or struggling to become something or struggling against their flaws and that’s what’s really heroic right there. I was lucky, I had three flawed heroes.”

And of course, this all started with the words written by Laura Hillenbrand as she researched and wrote the book over a course of years. Struggle is not foreign to Hillenbrand who has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome since she was a college student in Ohio.

At 19 she had to abandon her dreams of some day getting a Ph.D. and in an interview with Anne A. Simpkinson said, “I spent the first year of my illness pretty much bed-bound and when I began to improve a little bit in 1988, I needed some way to justify my life.” She turned to writing. 

In an article she wrote for The New Yorker, A Sudden Illness — How My Life Changed, Hillenbrand recounts the long process of adapting to her new life and how hard it was to write, “Because looking at the page made the room shimmy crazily around me, I could write only a paragraph or two a day… It took me six weeks to write 1,500 words.” Knowing that adds weight to her writing (not that it needs it).

“Man is preoccupied with freedom yet laden with handicaps.”
                                                                 Laura Hillenbrand
                                                                
Seabiscuit, An American Legend

If you’re a writer, Hillenbrand recounting the difficulties she endured while researching and writing Seabiscuit will probably give you little room to complain about the difficulties surround your situation.  She wrote the first article on Seabiscuit from a tiny apartment in Washington, D.C. 

And whatever grace Hillenbrand tapped into to write that book was passed on to screenwriter Gary Ross as he translated the 400 page book into a two hour and 21 minute movie. And in one of the rare cases in movie history the author was pleased with the movie script; “I found myself struck by how deftly Gary had managed to weave so much of the story into so short a time without it feeling compressed or rushed. Gary’s screenplay is simply brilliant, and I am so deeply grateful to him for his immense effort, his creativity, and his inspiration.”

On a closing note, if I recall correctly there were some interesting choices Ross made while adapting the script. I don’t expect to see every character in the book but from memory here are a handful of changes you may find interesting from a writer’s perspective and why I think they were made:

1) Howard’s son who was killed in real life was a teenager and not his only son. By making him younger and the only son creates more empathy for Howard. 

2) Howard’s second wife Marcela (Elizabeth Banks) was actually the sister of his son’s wife. But why complicate the story? Plus in the movie there is only one son and he’s killed in his youth. 

3) Tick-Tock McGlaughlin the colorful character played by William Macy is a fictitious character. And by Ross’ admission he’s there to compress the needed exposition to keep the story moving forward.

4) Ross also chose to end the movie when a sense of order had been restored in each of the lives. It’s a great jumping off point. But the epilogue in the book is a little different. 

5) Hillenbrand writes that while Red lived close to the pulse of Tijuana that, “he appears to have passed up offers from Tijuana prostitutes.” Ross chose to use Red in the brothel as key scene where he learns of his vision problems. This is in the movie because I think there is a quota in Hollywood where x-amount of movies must have a prostitute or a pole dancer in it.

If you have never seen Seabiscuit do yourself a favor and see it before the end of the year, and if you just lost your job watch it tonight.

And for the writers out there here’s Hillenbrand quoted in the Ballinetine Books, Seabiscuit, The Screenplay reminding us of the power of storytelling:

“I was thinking ‘if I can sell five thousand copies (of Seabiscuit) out of the truck of my car, I’ll be happy.’ I just wanted to tell the story.”

Update November 27: Happy Thanksgiving. A day after I wrote this post I saw an ad for a new film called The Tale of Despereaux  with the tagline about a “Small Hero. Big Heart.” Sounded kinda like Seabiscuit. I looked who to see who the screenwriter was and it’s Gary Ross. I look forward to that Christmas release.

If you’re looking for a Thanksgiving movie to watch today check out Pieces of April on DVD which is a wonderful film I’ve written a little bit about. It stars Katie Holmes and was written and directed by Des Moines, Iowa native Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?). And for you indy filmmakers that film was made just a few years ago using a Sony PD 150 DV camera that you can find on ebay these days for under $1,500. 

 

photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
                                                         Gordon Gekko
                                                         Wall St. 

“Our entire economy is in danger.”
                                                         President George W. Bush
                                                         September 2008    

“When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod?”
                                                        
 Doc Hudson (voice of Paul Newman)
                                                          Cars       

                                                    

This is a look at two Hollywood icons. One fictitious, one real. One that’s alive and well and one that just died. 

But before we get to our heavyweight match-up let’s look at why I’ve put them in the ring together.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase made popular during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid. It’s always about the economy. Well, usually. Understanding economics can help your screenwriting greatly.  

First let me clarify that if you’re looking for “The Economics of Screenwriting” (how much you can get paid for screenwriting)  then check out Craig Mazin’s article at The Artful Writer

Few things are as primal in our lives as the economy. Wall Street’s recent shake-up joins a long list of economic upheaval throughout history. Just so we’re on the same page, the word economy flows down from the Greek meaning “house-hold management.” I mean it to include how people, businesses, villages, towns, cities and countries manage resources such as money, materials and natural resources. 

That is a wide path indeed. It’s why college football coach Nick Saban is on the cover of the September 1, 2008 issue of Forbes magazine as they explain why he is worth $32 million dollars to the University of Alabama. Why is the economy center stage once again in the most recent presidential election? Because… it’s always the economy, stupid.

Looking back you’ll see economics at the core issue of not only Enron, Iraq, 911 and the great depression but world wars, famines, and even the Reformation. I’m not sure how much further we can look back than Adam and Eve, but that whole apple/fruit thing in the garden had huge economic (as well as theological) ramifications. (In fact, it’s been said that there is more written in the Bible about money than about salvation.)    

There is no question that economics plays a key role in films as well — in production as well as content. On some level it’s almost always about the economy. This first dawned on me when I saw Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” for the first time and I realized the thread of money in it. Then I read Ibsen’s play  “An Enemy of the People” and noticed the economic theme there. They I started noticing it everywhere in plays, novels and movies.

From the mayor’s perspective the real danger of Bruce the shark in Jaws is he threatens the whole economy of the island town. In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney takes the boat back out because money is tight. Dustin Hoffman auditions as a women in Tootsie because he can’t get work as a male actor. Once you see this you see it everywhere in movies. 

Here is a quick random list where money, need to pay bills, lack of a job, greed and/or some form of economics play a key part in the story:

Chinatown
Scarface
Titanic
Sunset Blvd.
Tootsie
On the Waterfront
Wall St.
Cinderella 
Cinderella Man
Ragging Bull
Rocky 
Jaws
Jerry Maguire
It’s a Wonderful Life
Field of Dreams
Big
Greed
Body Heat
Falling Down
The Godfather
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 
The Jerk
Gone with the Wind
The Verdict 
Gone with the Wind 
The Grapes of Wrath
Risky Business
Do the Right Thing
Hoop Dreams 
Rain Man
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Gold Rush
Home Alone
Babette’s Feast
The Incredibles
Castway
Ocean’s Eleven
The Perfect Storm
Pretty Women
Trading Places
Indecent Proposal 
The Firm
American Ganster 
Rollover 

And it’s not limited to dramatic films. It’s hard to watch Hoops Dreams, Ken Burns’ The West, or any Michael Moore documentary and not connect it to economics.

So if you’re struggling with a story or struggling what to write, open up that door that explores economics. You don’t have to write The Wealth of Nations, but at least explore some aspect of it.  Join Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and other great writers who tackled that monster.

One thing living in the Midwest the past five years has done is help me understand how the world works economically. Because on a small level you see when John Deere is selling tractors locally, nationally and globally it helps the housing market here as the standard of living increases. The Midwest was the only place to to see homes appreciate last quarter. (Other parts of the country saw a 2 to 36% drop.)  But that wasn’t always the case.

When the farming crisis hit in the mid-eighties and John Deere (Cedar Valley’s largest employer) laid off 10,000 of it’s 15,000 employees and people were walking away from their homes. A film that came out of that era was the 1984 Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange film Country filmed right here in Black Hawk County. (By the way John Deere the company celebrates today 90 years being in this area. If you’ve ever eaten food they’ve had some role in it along the way.)

Three years later Oliver Stone’s film Wall St. came out the same year Black Monday occurred as stock markets around the world crashed. It was the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history since the great depression. (It only ranks #5 now.)  So here we are 20 years later still trying to figure it all out as two of the top ten largest stock market drops have been in the last two weeks. (Sept 29 update: Make that three of the top ten stock market drops have occurred in the last two weeks.)

(I’m sure Stone felt good when Wall St. first came out, kinda of like “I told you so.” But on the DVD commentary Michael Douglas said that he often told by stock brokers that they got into the business because of the Gekko character he played. Douglas said he doesn’t understand because he was the bad guy. But how many of those guys now in positions of leadership in the financial crisis had Gekko as their hero? To quote writer/professor Bill Romanowski one more time, “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”

The news will tell us what happened, critics will tell us why it happened, and it’s up to writers to tell us what it means. For years now I have noticed in many different states that more often than not when I go into a convenience store I see someone buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets and I ask myself, “What does this say about about the direction we are heading?”

Screenwriting is a place where we can pose those questions –and the playwright Ibsen said it was enough to ask the question.  So get busy asking questions. And if the economy gets worse remember this Carlos Stevens quote:

”Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”

On the opposite end of Hollywood from Gordon Gekko is Paul Newman. If there ever was an example of a talented actor/director and giving businessman/ social entrepreneur it was Ohio-born and raised Newman who passed away last night. Newman’s films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict will always be favorites of mine.

“I had no natural gift to be anything–not an athlete, not an actor, not a writer, not a director, a painter of garden porches–not anything. So I’ve worked really hard, because nothing ever came easily to me.”
                                                                                            Paul Newman 

 

(Newman’s Midwest roots extend to performing in summer stock theaters in Wisconsin and Illinois. And an Iowa connection is his last Academy Award nomination was for his role in The Road to Perdition which was based on the graphic novel by Iowa writer Max Allen Collins. And don’t forget that the Newman’s Own label was inspired by Cedar Rapids artist Grant Woods’ American Gothic.

I find it interesting that the three largest legendary film actors coming up in the 50s were all from the Midwest; Marlon Brando (Nebraska), James Dean (Indiana) along with Newman.)

Gavin the lawyer Newman played in the David Mamet scripted The Verdict says words that are just as relevant today as when they we spoken a couple decades ago: “You know, so much of the time we’re lost. We say, ‘Please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless…’ We become tired of hearing people lie.”

The world is upside down when we pay executives millions in golden parachutes when they drive a company into the ground. And that’s after they lied about the about the companies financial record along with their hand picked spineless board of directors. And after they’ve cashed in their own inflated stocks while the stockholders and employees are shortchanged.

But how nice to see a company like Newman’s Own whose entire profits from salad dressing and all natural food products are donated to charities. The company motto is “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.” To date Newman and his company have generated more than $250 million to thousands of charities worldwide. 

“What could be better than to hold out your hand to people who are less fortunate than you are?
                                                                                                      Paul Newman

P.S. Robert Redford had hoped he and Newman would be able to make one last film together and had bought the rights to Des Moines, Iowa born and raised Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods

“I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn’t decide if we were too old to do it,” said Redford. “The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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