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Posts Tagged ‘The Last Picture Show’

“If you’re not hot in Los Angeles, it’s a very lonely town…It’s a lonely town even if you are hot.”
Peter Bogdanovich

“I’m not bitter. I ask for it myself. Success is very hard. Nobody prepares you for it. You think you’re infallible. You pretend you know more than you do. Pride goeth before the fall.”
Peter Bogdanovich
New York Times article: Older, Sadder, Maybe Wiser
April 07,2002

In the post The Making of Peter Bogdanovich I wrote about his rise from an early love of movies as a child, to being a teenage actor, to being a writer in his early twenties, to directing The Last Picture Show in his early thirties. After that film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, he would direct two more winners—What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon. At least professionally, at that moment in time, Bogdanovich had the kind of success that few filmmakers experience. But then what happened?

“What happened? Three-in-a-row struck back. Mr. Bogdanovich’s three successes were followed with Daisy Miller (1974), At Long last Love (1975), and Nickelodeon (1976)–three flops.”
David Thomson

Professionally he was in a tail spin. It probably didn’t help his psyche that he turned down opportunitees to direct The Godfather and Chinatown. His private life was no picnic either. During The Last Picture Show he began an affair with Cybill Shepherd which ended his marriage to Polly Platt. After his three failed films, his relationship  ended with Shepherd and in 1979, at age 39, he began a relationship with 19-year-old Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, who he cast in his film They All Laughed. Tragically Stratten was killed in 1980 by her  estranged husband who then killed himself. Bogdanovich retreated by writing a book about Stratten.

He also created a controversy when his compassion for Stratten’s 13-year-old half-sister turned into a romantic relationship sometime in her later teens. When Bogdanovich was 49 he married the 20-year-old.  They would later divorce, and along the way he’s filed for bankruptcy twice, reportedly went through psychiatric treatment, and eventually left California and returned to New York’s Upper West Side, not far from where he was raised.

“If you do not stay visible, you’re forgotten. It’s somewhat like riding a tiger. If you fall off, you get eaten, and if you stay on it’s a rough ride.”
Paul S. Sigelman (An attorney of Peter Bogdanovich’s at the time of his bankruptcy trials)

But Bogdanovich is a survivor. Heck, my favorite Bogdanvich film, Mask (1985), was made during one of the hardest periods of his life. And he’s continued to make films over the years, he had a role on The Sopranos, he’s written books (including Who the Devil Made It and one on Orson Welles), he blogs at Blogdanovich, he teaches at the University of North Carolina School for the Arts, and because of his deep film knowledge and relationship with Welles and John Ford he is a living link to the past and in demand at film festivals and doing DVD commentaries. Now at age 73 he still has films to make & roles to play, articles to write, and lessons to pass on to the next generation of filmmakers.

 “[Hollywood's] an easy place to get fooled. There are no real seasons and you’re not aware of time going. Orson had this line: ‘The terrible thing about LA is that you sit down when you’re 25 and when you stand up you’re 62.’ He was not wrong.”
Peter Bogdanovich

The Bel-Air hacienda, the Rolls-Royce, and the servants of his past life are gone. Like John Wayne, John Ford, and Cary Grant—all just a faded remnants of Bogdanovich’s past.

But well into the future, filmmakers will learn from Bogdanovich—even if just via his writings and commentaries—about filmmaking, old Hollywood, and maybe a life lesson or two along the way.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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Over the weekend I watched the movie Mask for the first time since it was released in 1985. It’s a terrific film. Mask is not to be confused with the Jim Carrey comedy The Mask (1994), it’s more in line with David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980).

Mask is based on the life of Rocky Dennis who suffered from craniodiaphyseal disease which gave him a severe skull deformity. In the film, Eric Stoltz is Rocky and Cher is his mother and both of them are 100% believable. Part of what’s so amazing about that is they both had limited feature film acting experience.

Cher won the Best Actress Awards at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival for her performance. She would later win an Academy Award for her role in Moonstruck, but when Peter Bogdanovich cast her in Mask it was a gamble. Though she had solid performances in Silkwood (1983) and the Robert Altman film Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), she was still best know for the TV show Sonny & Cher (71-74) and her hit songs. Against Bogdanovich’s wishes, the studios made Cher test for the part.

Though Stoltz was around 24-years-old when he made Mask, he had been acting for ten years in theater, TV, and in films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Wild Life. Bogdonovich cast him out of 300 people he saw for the part of Rocky.

So all that leads us to the first tip we can learn from Peter Bogdanovich.

Tip #1: Cast the right actors in the right parts.
Bogdanovich seems to follow the old Hollywood axiom, “casting is 90% of directing.” (I’ve seen that quote attributed to everyone from John Ford, to John Huston, to Elia Kazan, to Hitchcock, but don’t if any of them actually said that—only that it’s often repeated. (On the director’s commedtary on Mask, Bogdanovich says that of all of the actresses being consider for the role, Cher was the only one he thought would be believable as a druggie/biker chick.)

Watch Bogdanvich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and you’ll also see a wonderful cast.

Tip #2: “If you have two good actors there’s no reason to cut around a lot. Just let the audiences get into the story.”
Peter Bogdanovich

Cast the right actors for the part and let them act. Simple, right? Bogdanovich was an actor first—he studied with Stella Adler—so it would make sense that he would be concerned with performances. One trick that he used frequently in the past is to not complicate the production with lots of set-ups. Here’s how he explains a shot in Mask where two character have a conversation on a picnic bench with the scene staring with a close up of some baseball trading cards before settling on a two shot:

“This close-up pulls back into a two shot and then the whole scene plays in one piece. I’ll point that out a number of times in this picture where you had a whole scene play without any cutting, it’s a way of giving the actors a tremendous amount of fluidity. Good actors always love that if you can do.”
Peter Bogdanovich
Mask director’s commentary

Tip #3: Forget about shallow depth of field.

“I like everything in focus because that’s the way the eye sees. Orson Welles had that done in Citizen Kane and other films.”
Peter Bogdanovich
Paper Moon Director’s commentary

Bogdanovich has been a long time fan of the films of John Ford and Orson Welles. And while today shallow depth of field is all the rage with many filmmakers where the background is out of focus, both Ford and Welles were notorious for shots where everything is in focus. (Watch Citizen Kane and The Searchers.) Bogdanovich seems follow their lead. Bogdanovich describes one scene in Mask where two actors walk and talk on a long tracking shot with horses riding and jumping in the background and a freeway with cars beyond that;

“We have the horses behind them and the traffic way in the distance. That’s my idea of a good scene. Two good actors, no cutting, and a lot of movement in the background. It isn’t distracting. It gives you the feeling of life going on. This therefore becomes more real.”

Every actor knows the frustration of  what it’s like having to do a good take over because an assistant didn’t nail a focus pull. Having a large depth of field allows a greater chance of having technical problems. Every great performance is captured. Bogdonovich and his crew tended to favor wide angle lens and fast film to achieve that look. These days because digital cameras can really jack up the ISO without adding too much grain that’s easier to achieve than ever. Though most shy away from it because it’s too reminiscent of the smaller senor video cameras which made everything look it focus. Shallow depth-of-field is now considered the “film look,” yet film history is full of other kinds of styles.

Tip #4“Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”
Peter Bogdanovich

Great acting isn’t just saying words.

There’s a scene in Mask where Cher’s father playfully tosses a baseball to Cher. She playfully tosses it back to him. There seems to be a connection made, and he tosses it back to her. Then Cher’s countenance changes and she fires it back to her father. He catches it but seems stunned. He puts the ball down, and walks out of the house. Not a word is spoken, but so much is conveyed. In fact, you can read into it their entire relationship. Silence is powerful stuff. (I should mention that Mask screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan received a WGA for the script.)

Tip #5:The best kind of movie acting is with the eyes.”
Peter Bogdanovich

This is more of an extension of tip #4, showing how to maximize silent looks. In The Last Picture Show where the Timothy Bottom’s character is in the back of a movie theater making out with his girlfriend yet at the same time is glancing up at actress Elizabeth Taylor on the big screen, and then glancing down in front of him at Cybill Shepard who is kissing Jeff Bridges. His eyes say everything about his relationship with his girlfriend.

P.S. In case Bogdanovich is off your radar, or you only know him as an actor on The Spranos, his film The Last Picture Show was nominated for eight Oscars including two for him for Best Director and Best Writing Based on Material from Another Medium (shared with Larry McMurty). (He also edited The Last Picture Show, though didn’t take a credit for it since he thought his name would be on screen too much.) The documentary he directed, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream, won a Grammy. And if that’s not enough clout, Quentin Tarantino once said that They All Laughed (a 1981 film directed and co-written by Bogdanovich) was one of the top ten films ever made. Wes Anderson called it a “masterpiece.”

Related Posts:
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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“A good title should be like a good metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or two obvious.”
Walker Percy

I’m staying on the Up in the Air gravy train (gravy plane?)  just a little bit longer. Not only did I love the film but I love the title. It’s a title that has a literal meaning since it’s a film that deals with traveling via airplanes. But it’s also a common phrase in our culture meaning undecided or uncertain.

Up in the Air is a pretty good description of the Up in the Air main character Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney.  A character whose only real purpose appears to collecting frequent flyer miles. Everything else is up in the air.

Many writers talk about starting with a title and build from there and others say they can’t even decide on a title even after they’ve written the script or book.  Can a movie succeed without a great title? Sure, look at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Looking at the AFI list of top 100 films and you’ll see a mixture of great, good, and bland titles. A title doesn’t make a film, but in a day and age of the importance of the opening weekend, a great title is desired to help attract an audience.

The most common titles seem to focus a main character or being, place or thing, or an event.

Character or being:
Citizen Kane
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
King Kong
Rocky
Forrest Gump
Spartacus
Bonnie and Clyde
The Godfather
Tootsie
Jaws
Psycho
Raging Bull

A place or thing:
Titanic
The African Queen
Bridge on the River Kwai
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On the Waterfront
Chinatown
Sunset Blvd.
The Maltese Falcon
The Apartment
Casablanca

An event:
High Noon
Apocalypse Now
Star Wars
2001: A Space Odyssey
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
Sophie’s Choice

And while not a hard and fast rule, great titles tend to be short (three words or less). Just look at the above list.  And my favorites of those listed are Jaws and Psycho. Each one a simple word, but both hit you at a gut level.

Titles like Avatar, Batman, The Matrix are easier to discuss around the water cooler.  Even longer titles (especially sequels) tend to get edited around the water cooler and just called  Harry Potter, Narnia, Pirates, Star Wars, Twilight, Spider-Man.

Up in the Air falls into that minority category of a title that’s a little more obtuse, in line with The Last Picture Show, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Silence of the Lambs, or Gone with the Wind. (All of which happened to have been books or plays first which tend to favor a more intellectual audience.) If you go with a metaphor, it doesn’t hurt to have a movie star in the lead role. As I talk up the film Up in the Air, I find myself calling it “The George Clooney Film.”

What are some of your favorite titles (even if they aren’t one of your favorite films)? Or some of your favorite bad titles.
I love the title of the lesser known 50s film Them. And I like titles such as Black Hawk Down, Meet the Parents, Witness, The Hunt for Red October, Collateral and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly because they all have built in conflict, mystery and intrigue. And the worst titles off the top of my head goes to Ishtar and Valkyrie, neither of which leave me with a visceral reaction.

Of course, the most bland title ever might just be…Movie Titles (tip #32). (But at least it’s twitter friendly.)

Update: I decided to do a Google search to see what others thought were the best and worst movie titles ever and found one blogger who had a post called Top 10 Worst Movie Titles Ever and the writer put Surf Nazis Must Die at #10. That film was written and directed by Peter George who I happened to go to film school with. (I was always a little upset I didn’t get a small role in the film.) If anyone knows where Mr. George is these days tell him I want my watch back. The one that I left at his Hollywood apartment after I crashed on his sofa one night back before he was making top ten lists.

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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Ellen Page can skate. Really skate. Roller derby-style to boot. That alone makes Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It worth seeing. But wait, there’s more….

Most people know Page for her Juno role, but the 22-year-old Oscar nominated actress from Nova Scotia already has a decade old career having been in over 25 films and TV programs. We know Page can act but it’s special to watch the actress continue to blossom. Special in that way you see Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun or Paul Newman in The Hustler where you see great talent being revealed.

Many actors have stumbled in trying to play convincing roles as an athlete so I appreciate it when it’s done well. It was not a safe choice for Page or Barrymore, but they pulled it off.

Now I remember the roller derby in its 1970s incarnation.  Not that I was really a fan, but back then the roller derby was hard to miss because in a pre-cable TV and Internet world you only had three main channels to chose from. So on weekends somewhere between bowling, fishing and wrestling you had the roller derby. The roller derby was popular enough in the 70s to have a few films made about it including Unholy Rollers (1972), the documentary Derby (1972) and Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber (1972)–and let’s throw in the futuristic Rollerball (1975) for good measure.

Today the revival in roller derby is relatively small in comparison which may account for the soft opening this weekend at the box office. (That and people can’t seem to get enough of zombies.) But Barrymore and screenwriter Shauna Cross have put together a fine and entertaining film that also has a layer of wisdom in it, so I think it will continue to gather a following for years to come.

There is one scene, one line in particular (and this gives nothing away) that I thought was brilliant. It’s when Page’s character simply says, “I don’t want to be that girl.” It’s a moment that I don’t remember ever seeing in a film before and would benefit every teenage girl who is feed a steady diet of pop culture in regard to relationships. (Also part of that relationship plotline involves a t-shirt from the 80s Christian heavy metal band Stryper. I got a kick out of that as back in my L.A. days as a 16mm director and cameraman I shot an interview with Stryper’s lead singer Michael Sweet. If I find some photos from that shoot I’ll post them.)

At its core, Whip It is a coming-of-age story. Or as Save the Cat screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder calls it a rite of passage (ROP);

The ROP yarn…has three telling indicator: (1) The Problem, (2) the ‘wrong way’ to fix it, and (3) the solution to the problem: acceptance.’”

There are trampings involved with any genre and it’s hard to be original when you are dealing with a story that centers around sports, but I think Barrymore and Cross bring some subtle nuances to the film. One being the role of the parents played by Marica Gay Harden and Daniel Stern. Stern of course brings clout not only with his Wonder Years background, but as being in one of the greatest coming-of-age films/sports films ever—Breaking Away. Great casting choice. And way to go in not making the parents total dorks. (Took a page from Juno there.)

From a screenwriting perspective I do think they missed a huge opportunity to show some three dimensionality by at least giving a nod to the fact that the tribe some girls may want to be in is being in beauty pageants. What if Page’s best friend in the film would have really been gung-ho for doing the pageant thing? That’s the kind of dynamic that made John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club stand out. We’re all different and we’re all in this together.

Recently actress Sela Ward, who was raised in Mississippi, said this in an interview with Parade magazine;  “Growing up in the South, it’s all about manners and propriety. Every weekend, I went to charm school at the Sears department store, where I learned such fabulous tidbits as how to blot your face with a damp cloth to remove some of the powder and give yourself a little glow.” Not every girl is going to grow up and be dignified, refined and as graceful as Sela Ward. But those traits haven’t hurt her career any and there is still a man or two who finds that more attractive than blood and tattoos.

Two other missed opportunities were on the sound track. The dry opening to the film would have benefitted from a jump start montage of the roller derby girls intercut with shots of Page’s character getting ready for a beauty pageant with the song Roller Derby Saved My Soul by Uncle Leon and the Alibis playing. And on the credits Devo’s Whit It would have been a fitting tribute and left audiences with a big smile.

Whip It may not be as insightful as the classic Texas movie  The Last Picture Show, but you could put it on the shelf with the old John Travolta/Debra Winger film Urban Cowboy. It’s a fun film with a few life lessons thrown in, and a wonderful start for Barrymore. And she can really skate, too.

Whip It (Part 3)

Scott W. Smith

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Tender Mercies was filmed in Texas in the Waxahachie area with mainly Texas crews.

                                                               Horton Foote, Texas-born screenwriter
                                                               Tender Mercies, A Trip to Bountiful

I was born and raised in Texas in a family with 10 brothers and sisters. I was a daydreamer and bored at school, so I’d draw and doodle and make little flip cartoon movies. When I was 12, I decided to start making actual movies rather than just cartoons using my dad’s Super 8 camera.

                                                               Robert Rodriguez, Filmmaker
                                                               His movies have earned over $600 million 


There was an Austin breeze in Iowa last night as Willie Nelson was in town for a concert. The good seats costs $69.50 to hear the 75-year-old, and Sling Blade writer/director Billy Bob Thornton (The Boxmasters) was on the bill as well. I didn’t go but it did make me think it would be a fitting time to look at screenwriting from Texas.

While Willie is not a screenwriter, he is a legend. And he is a Texan (which I think is bigger than being a legend). And he certainly is a proven storyteller, a prolific songwriter and believe it or not has over 300 film and TV credits as actor, sound track music, composer, producer, and playing himself.

I’ve been hooked on Willie’s music ever since I first heard “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow-Up to be Cowboys” and have heard him play live a couple times. And I remember fondly his starring roll in Barbarosa back in the day. (And just for the record, the Barbarosa screenplay was written by Texas born Bill Wittliff who would go on to write the scripts for Legends of the Fall and The Perfect Storm.)

I don’t have time to write about all the talent that has come from Texas because it is a big state. But when I think of movies and Texas one name stands tall;

Horton Foote. 

That pretty much sums up screenwriting from Texas. Of course, he’s not the only writer from Texas — he just embodies the essence of fine writing from the longhorn state. He is best known for his screenplays Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird both of which earned him Academy Awards.

But he has had a long distinguished career that includes the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his play The Man from Atlanta, A Trip to Bountiful (for which Geraldine Page would win an Oscar for Best Actress), and the script for the Gary Sinise & John Malkovich version of Of Mice and Men.  

Foote was a trained actor born in 1916 in Wharton, Texas and made his broadway debut in 1944. But it was writing for the theater and in the early days of TV where he earned a living and made a name for himself eventually being called the “American Chekhov.”

But standing next to Horton Foote on the right is Larry McMurty.

McMurty, born in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1936 is yet another giant literary talent from the state. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1972 for The Last Picture Show and shared an Oscar win with Diana Ossana for the script for Brokeback Mountain.

He won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel Lonesome Dove that was also turned into a popular TV mini-series. (Wittliff, if you’re keeping a scorecard, also won a WGA Award for adapting part one of Lonesome Dove.)  And way back in 1963 McMurty’s novel Horseman Pass By was made into the Mitt Ritt directed Hud staring Paul Newman and Patricia Neal (who won the Oscar for Best Actress in a leading role).

Two quirky things about the prolific McMurty is he still writes on a typewriter and he owns a large antiquarian bookstore, Booked Up, in Archer City Texas where The Last Picture Show was shot and where he now lives.

And standing next to Horton Foote on the left I’ll put  three time Oscar winner writer/director Robert Benton who was born in Waxahachie. Huh? The same place Tender Mercies was filmed in — interesting. I don’t know what’s in the water there, but once coming back from a gig in Austin I went out of my way to drive through Waxahachie just to breath the air.

Benton’s screenwriting career began with Bonnie & Clyde and he  wrote and directed Places in the Heart which is just a beautiful film. Ellen McCathy of the Washington Post wrote this about Benton; “His most noteworthy films of the past three decades — 1979′s Kramer vs. Kramer, 1984′s Places in the Heart and 1994′s Nobody’s Fool – present familiar characters, ordinary lives and the full range of love’s twisted complexities.”

Maybe instead of calling my blog Screenwriting from Iowa I should of called it Screenwriting from Waxahachie. Then again, how many people can spell Waxahachie? I think it’s an Native Indian word that means land of sacred storytellers.

I’m not sure where to put Robert Rodriguez. But then again he stands out from the pack because he does a little of everything and is one of the greatest overall creative forces in cinematic history.

Born in Texas in 1968, Rodriguez has done a remarkable job of making the low budget El Mariachi (on a reported $7,000 budget) as well as big Hollywood mega hits including Spy Kids which made over $100 million. Personally I like what Rodriguez is doing more than what he has done. That is I don’t revisit his films but I love that he is a producer, director, camera operator, Steadicam operator, director of photography, actor, writer, editor, sound mixer, visual effects supervisor and composer who not only pushes the envelop in the digital world but he is free to tell you what he’s doing so you can get in on the show.

Rodriguez is based in Austin which is its own filmmaking mecca that has inspired  Matthew McConaughey (by the way, love the Airstream in Malibu concept), Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Mike Judge, Owen Wilson and is home to The Austin Film Festival. Austin as a whole is one of the most interesting cities in the country. The have the state capitol, a major college in the heart of the city, there are plenty of old hippies, rednecks, computer geeks, business people, artists and musicians of all kinds thrown into the mix for a great overall creative vibe. 

And since at the time of this post the number one box office movie is Twilight (with a $70 million opening weekend) I must mention that the director Catherine Hardwicke was born and raised in McAllen, Texas. She was also the writer/director of Thirteen. (Making a case for speed writing, Thirteen was co-written in six days with 14-year old Nikki Reed.)

And the newcomer from Texas is Chris Eska who comes from Ottine, Texas (pop 98) whose film debut Evening August  was the winner of the 2008 Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award and the Best Film Awards at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Like those oil wells, Texas just keeps producing.

And Texas as a whole is a full of a wonderful wacky history and mix of characters and talent Mark Cuban, Don Henley, Lance Armstrong and you fill-in-the-rest. Here is a short list of some of the films made in Texas that I haven’t mentioned:

Red River (1948)
Giant (1956)
Urban Cowboy (1980)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
North Dallas Forty (1979) 
Southern Comfort (1981)
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)
Waltz Across Texas (1982) 
Fandango (1985)
Scary Movie (1989)
Rushmore (1998)
Office Space (1999)
Miss Congeniality (2000)
The Alamo (2004) 
Friday Night Lights (2004)
No Country for Old Men (2007) 
There Will Be Blood (2007) 

North Dallas Forty writer Peter Gent played wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys and is an excellent writer and who for whatever reason only has one film credit to his name. Now living in Michigan I hope it’s not his last and that he hook-ups with one of those Michigan filmmakers and knocks our socks off once again. (How about a look into the heart of the auto industry like you did with professional football?)

As I said I’m sure I missed a few people and great films but feel free to send your comments. But a fitting place to end this tour of Texas is back in Austin with William Broyles Jr. the Oscar-nominated screenwriter from Houston (who now lives in Austin) who wrote the screenplays for Apollo 13, Cast Away, and Flags of Our Fathers

“This movie (Cast Away) begins and ends in Texas. And that’s not an accident. This is where my heart is.” 
                                                                    William  Broyles Jr.
                                                                     The Austin Chronicle (Dec. 2000)

Apparently he’s not alone there.


2008 Copyright Scott W. Smith

 

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“Small town people are more real, more down to earth.”
                                                             Groundhog Day 
                                                             Phil (Bill Murray) 

 

“A growing number of Americans are seeking a larger life in a smaller place. Many are finding it.” 
                                                                                      Life 2.0
                                                                                      Richard Karlgaard 

You hear a lot about Main St. these days and I thought I’d explore what that means from a screenwriting & filmmaking  perspective. A couple days ago my travels took me to northern Illinois and to the town of Woodstock which happens to be where much of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray was filmed.

The above photo is the corner where Ned confronts Bill Murray’s character again and again and where Murray steps off the curb into the puddle of water. The town, which is about an hour north east of Chicago, has improved much over the last 15 years and continues to embrace the fact that Groundhog Day was filmed there.

 

That’s right, Woodstock doubled for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Director Harold Ramis thought the town square there worked better as a location than the real deal. I wonder how many people go out of their way to go to Punxutawney and are disappointed that it doesn’t look like the town in the movie? That’s showbiz.

In fact, the town even has a life-imitating-art groundhog day celebration and a nice map you can follow to see the various filming locations of the Danny Rubin and Ramos screenplay. The bar scene where Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell drink to world peace is now the Courtyard Grill and has a signed script on the wall by where they sat.

 

Certainly, if you’re in the area it’s worth it to stop to see where one of the great comedy films (#34 on the AFI Greatest American Comedy list) was filmed. If you’re there at the beginning of February you can even take part in the groundhog days celebration. 

From my home where I am typing this I can see Main St. here in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It’s just a block to the west and is quite a lively Main St. USA. Shops, a playhouse, art galleries, several bars and restaurants (a new one opening next month will feature a respected Chicago chef) and even a comedy club. It’s also worth a stop if you are ever driving the Avenue of the Saints between St. Louis and St. Paul.

There’s something endearing about Main Streets in general. Of course, sometimes they aren’t even called Main St., but they are the historic main road through the heart of smaller towns. It’s not hard for me to think back at some of my favorite main drags (Telluride, Colorado, Winter Park, Florida., Franklin, Tennessee,, Holland, Michigan, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Seal Beach, California, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania  and Galena, Illinois).

Places that for the most part that have been around for 100 years. Places with history and character. Perhaps in a response to sprawling suburbs there has been an architectural movement to design areas that look a little like small towns complete with a Main St. (Some even have a small movie theaters.)

I first became aware of this while a student at the University of Miami in the ’80s when two Miami architects (Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) began to design the beach community of Seaside, Florida. (Seaside is so idyllic, it is where they filmed The Truman Show.) The success of Seaside has been well documented.

On the Seaside website you’ll find the history and the philosophy of what they set out to create after doing extensive research:
“Most of the buildings were studied in the context of small towns, and gradually the idea evolved that the small town was the appropriate model to use in thinking about laying out streets and squares and locating the various elements of the community. 

Seaside is a great place and today you can go throughout the country and find other areas that were designed in its wake; Celebration, FL,  Baldwin Park, FL, Harmony, FL, Prospect New Town in Boulder County, Colorado, and Kentlands in Gaitherburg, Maryland. 

That is not to say that this new urbanist master planned communities idea doesn’t have its critics. The most common charge is they say the towns are more like film sets or some kind of fantasyland — sentimental and far removed from reality.  Some felt it a little strange when Thomas Kinkade (The Painter of Light) got into the act outside the San Francisco Bay area by inspiring a development called The Village at Hiddenbrook that feature homes that would be at home in one of his glowing paintings. Where are the Rod Serling/Twight Zone inspired writers on that one?

But for many (including Walt Disney, and perhaps Kinkade) small towns represent the ideal. (Community, honesty, fullness of life, etc.) The way life ought to be, or the way it was.  Many movies and TV programs tap into this mystique: It’s a Wonderful Life, American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show, My Dog Skip, The Andy Griffith Show, Cars, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Truman Show, Northern Exposure, Places in the Heart, and Hoosiers.

(And some books, films and songs are critiques and satires of small town living such as Pleasantville, Harper Valley PTA, and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street.

Either way Main St. (and all that it represents) is a part of Americanna and will continue to be probably forever and is fertile ground for you to explore in your screenwriting, and perhaps even in your life. As Don Henley (who was raised in the small town of Linden, Texas) sings in The End of the Innocence:
Who know how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far so fast
But somewhere back there in the dust,
that same small town in each of us

On a closing note, I remember when I lived in L.A. there was a popular radio host named Dr. Toni Grant who used to encourage her callers/listeners to write the script of their life. I always thought that was an interesting concept and worth exploring as you take a few more trips around the sun. 

Come to think of it, isn’t that what Bill Murray’s character did in Groundhog Day? He rewrote the script of his life and became a better person — and got the girl to boot. It is a wonderful life…

 

Photos and text 2008 copyright Scott W. Smith

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