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Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker’

I absolutely treat myself like a factory. A word factory. That’s been really helpful for me because writing is very mysterious, and the creative process is very mysterious. It’s comforting to have a few mechanical tools at hand to help balance that sense of mystery.

First of all, if you don’t have a deadline, give yourself one and take it seriously. Secondly, I am thoroughly dependent on having a daily word count as a goal that I have to hit. If I get it done in an hour, I have the afternoon off. If it takes me until midnight, it takes me until midnight. The value of that is it makes concrete a process that otherwise seems ephemeral.”
Susan Orlean, Best selling author and writer for The New Yorker
The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean on the magic and mystery of writing by Lillian Cunningham, The Washington Post

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“When you map your life in retrospect there’s a bit of a blind cartographer at work.”
Jim Harrison
Off to the Side: A Memoir

This is a screenwriting blog that strays off the reservation (the reservation being Hollywood). Or as the official blog of Tom Cruise said a few years ago, “For a more off-beat look at writing, the Screenwriting from Iowa blog provides screenwriters with a slightly removed take from the Hollywood norm.”

We’ve been remembering writer Jim Harrison who died last Saturday so I thought we’d take a little trip today down to Key West and introduce you to a little off-beat film— Tarpon (1973)—that featured Jim Harrison and the music of Jimmy Buffett.

There’s been plenty written and said about Superman v Batman in the last few days since its release but for some reason here’s the only thing I could find recently said about the obscure 40+ year old documentary on tarpon fishing:

“[Director] Guy de la Valdene had all the money and sent a crew that was all French. I speak French now, but I didn’t at the time, so there was a huge communication issue. So we’re in the Keys and taking out boats with [poet] Richard Brautigan and [novelist] Tom McGuane. It really captured the Key West of the ‘70s. It’s sort of a treasure today. But we didn’t really get paid for it. I wrote the music and Harrison was going to do the narration.”
Jimmy Buffett
Men’s Journal

And here’s another memory of Harrison that Buffett tells in the Men’s Journal that rounds out well this round of posts on Harrison:

“One time Jim and I drove his Ford Cortina from Montana to Michigan together. Just the two of us. We seemed to have all these road trips that we did together that were kind of, kind of hilarious. I loved to hear Jim’s view of the world. I don’t know how much he cared about mine. On another trip in Florida, we talked about Cuba a lot. I told him about my grandfather, who was a ship captain who took his family on board in those days, back in the early 1920s. My father spent his first birthday in Havana Harbor, and there’s a family story that my grandfather put up a signal flag to celebrate my dad’s first birthday, and all of the other ships in the harbor started signaling back. So all the sailing ships in Havana Harbor had their flags up for my dad’s first birthday. And he loved that story. Well, the next thing I knew, he told me to look at Legends of The Fall when it came out. The opening of one chapter it says Tristan took a ship to somewhere, and there’s this passage about it. And he told me later, he said ‘Yeah, I did that for your grandpa and your dad.’ He put it in the book.”

P.S. “Jim [Harrison] became famous for his fiction, celebrated internationally as a storyteller of genius, but through all the years, and the novels and novellas and films that came with them, he remained a poet, his life syncopated with contrapuntal complexities and the chromatic cadences of rural landscapes.”
Terry McDonell
The New Yorker, Jim Harrison, Mozart of the Prairie

P.P.S. In 2008 Tarpon became available on DVD. Here are a couple of quotes about the doc:

“Tarpon is a timeless and beautifully executed film about life, sport and culture. You’ll be moved, amused, outraged and, most of all, entertained.” 
Tom Brokaw, Journalist and Author

“This long-lost gem of a film has acquired cult status in the fly fishing world, and with good reason. It has the most breathtaking footage of the tarpon-stalking experience that you’ll ever see. Like the fish itself, this is a work of art.” 
Carl Hiaasen, Author

Related posts:
Writer Jim Harrison
Pat Conroy & Rehearsing for Death
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 2)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 3)
Havana Daydreamin’

Scott W. Smith

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“I also think you can learn to be a good writer. Like I was a bad writer, actively bad, and I willed myself to get better. I really tried to learn what are the building blocks of a good story. And I think often people who aren’t naturally good writers, you’re just intimidated because you feel like you have to be touched by an angel to be a good writer, but you just have to have taste on what’s interesting.”
Ira Glass

Ira Glass got a little heat recently after seeing the play King Lear and tweeting, “I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.” As others pointed out, including The New Yorker, Glass later backed down saying, “That was kind of an off-the-cuff thing to say that in the cold light of day, I’m not sure I can defend at all.”

But the man’s welcomed to his opinion. The United States is still a free country. It seems the more we talk about tolerance, the more intolerant we’re becoming. (Another way of saying it is, “we’re tolerant of everyone—as long as they think like us.”) Of course, it’s fair game for people to critique his critique, but at times the internet seems to be a giant funnel to make the smallest tweet an Middle eastern-size crisis.

While Shakespeare is more well-known than Glass (as more than one person online pointed out in their critique of Glass’s tweet) Glass’s work stand on its own. For more than 30 years he’s been writing for NPR and is most known as the producer and host for the radio program This American Life, which last year broadcast its 500th show. In 2009 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for outstanding contribution in public radio.

Shakespeare may have created some of best drama in history, but he never worked in radio, had a the top-rated  iTunes podcast or spoke at Google headquarters like Glass has accomplished . Granted those options weren’t around 400 years ago, but I’d like to think the stage is big enough for both storytellers.

“There is a thing in writing that I feel I had to learn on my own that I’m surprised isn’t taught in school, and that is people don’t teach story structure properly in school. I think that when we’re all taught how to write, like we’re taught topic sentences—we’re taught the way that you would write an essay with topic sentences at the top of the paragraph, and then you fill out the paragraphs, and that basically was learning to write in school. But in fact, there’s a structure of telling a story that’s more effective than that, that I feel I had to learn by reading and by trial and error and whatever, which is much more anecdote based. So for example, the stories on our show the structure of them is really built around plot and ideas.  And it’s a very traditional kind of story structure where you just want to think through the sequences of actions where one thing leads to the next, leads to the next, leads to the next. So really you want to break down wherever is going to happen into this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.  And the advantage of having forward motion is that it inherently creates suspense because you wonder what’s going to happen next. And so you hold people’s attention because simply moving forward action, it’s like you create suspense and you can do it with the most banal story possible, or the most everyday story…It’s so much more mesmerizing than topic sentences, because you’re utilizing something that’s so primal in us because you can create suspense.”
Ira Glass Q&A at Google

P.S. Perhaps the best thing about Glass’s tweet is some people were asking, “Who’s Ira Glass?” Which if Glass was a marketing genius was a great move. As of a month ago This American Life left Public Radio International and is now independently distributed. Cara Buckley wrote in the NY Times,  “Mr. Glass will now be responsible for the show’s marketing and distribution, as well as for finding corporate sponsors. It’s the equivalent of Radiohead’s releasing its own album ‘In Rainbows,’ or Louis C. K.’s selling his own stand-up special — except all the time, for every show. It’s the kind of move that can signal radical changes in the public radio firmament, with National Public Radio and other distributors wondering who, if anyone, may follow suit, and whether Mr. Glass will return if he fails.”

P.P.S. Glass also gave a giant boost to the career of writer David Sedaris by having him read The Santaland Diaries story on NPR back in the ’90s when Sedaris was still working odd jobs to make ends meet. Sedaris told the story of working as an elf at Macy’s one Christmas and said after that broadcast, “The telephone started ringing and it wouldn’t stop.”

Update: Apparently Glass attended the play King Lear in NYC with writer/director Judd Apatow and commedian/actress Amy Schumer so he could have easily said one of the humorist hacked his Twitter account regarding his Shakespeare tweets.

Related post:

Ira Glass on Storytelling
What’s Next?
“All stories are emotionally based.”
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter
Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville
Writing and House Cleaning (David Sedaris quote about one of his jobs)
Can Screenwriting Be Taught (2.0)
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) This guy loves Shakespeare.

Scott W. Smith

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“Under no condition can you teach curiosity.”
Producer 
Brian Grazer
(Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind)

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Albert Einstein

“I believe in disrupting my comfort zone.”
Brian Grazer

Producer Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment has put up some pretty good numbers; More than 50 films for a box office total over $1 billion, five Emmys and an Oscar. (And one funky haircut.)

In the last few days I’ve written about Akiva Goldsman writing the script for A Beautiful Mind, and Sylvia Nasar first uncovering John Nash’s story, and a shout out to the movie’s director Ron Howard, but the connector of the entire project was Grazer. He reportedly had been looking for the right project for years that was an intriguing story about the brain.

A Beautiful Mind was an impossible movie to get made. Brian (Grazer) got it made. For a time, I wasn’t even going to direct it. But it was going to be a movie. Brian made sure of that. Brian nurtured this difficult project to fruition. He was responsible for A Beautiful Mind.”
Ron Howard
Esquire magazine

One of the ways that Grazer is said to keep information and ideas flowing in the pipeline is to work with a “cultural attaché.” A person who can keep up with cultural trends and help direct Grazer to meet some of the most interesting people alive. A couple of years ago in The New Yorker, Lizzie Widdicombe published an unofficial email that entailed just what a cultural attaché was expected to do working for Mr. Grazer:

This person would be responsible for keeping Brian abreast of everything that’s going on in the world; politically, culturally, musically. . . . They’re also responsible for finding an interesting person for Brian to meet with every week . . . an astronaut, a journalist, a philosopher, a buddhist monk. . . . There is LOTS of reading for this position! Grazer may ask you to read any book he’s interested in. You’ll probably get to read about 4 or 5 books a week and you may be required to travel with him on his private plane to Hawaii, New York, Europe—teaching him anything he asks you about along the way. . . . You will also be provided with an assistant. . . . Salary is around $150,000 a year. . . . You will be to Grazer what Karl Rove was to Bush.

Not a bad gig if you can land it. (Not sure if you’re paid overtime, but it doesn’t sound like a 40 hour a week job.) But if you can’t work for Brian Grazer—or be Brian Grazer (and I don’t think they’re currently taking applications for that position either)—you can at least learn from Brain Grazer.

“When I started out in the entertainment business, I made a list of people I thought it would be good to meet. Not people who could give me a job or a deal, but people who could shake me up, teach me something, challenge my ideas about myself and the world. So I started calling up experts in all kinds of fields: trial lawyers, neurosurgeons, CIA agents, embryologists, firewalkers, police chiefs, hypnotists, forensic anthropologists, and even presidents.”
Brian Grazer
Disrupting My Comfort Zone
NPR June 6, 2006

P.S. If you happen to be Brian Grazer’s cultural attaché, I am available next Wednesday for lunch if Mr. Grazer happens to be traveling through Iowa—or more likely flying over.(We do actually have one small connection. Back in the late ’80s when his film Parenthood was being shot in Orlando, my wife and son were extras. Our red Toyota van even got a cameo for a few seconds—a few frames?— in the alley scene where Steve Matin & Mary Steenburgen digging through trash. Almost famous.)

Update 2/17/11: Found a interview where Grazer was ask if he still has a cultural attaché, and he said, “That was sort of a joke title. I’ve been out meeting different people, I have a record, for 24 years, of meeting someone every two weeks. It helps inform your filter and hopefully informs your taste. I don’t have anyone that’s doing that for me right now. I use a couple of my assistants and I just say ‘hey, can I meet so-and-so’ and then we work on it or I’ll call them myself, but I don’t have a person that does that any longer.”

Related post: Jack Kerouac in Orlando

Genius, Madness & a Genuine Third Act

Scott W. Smith



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Before Emmy winning writer David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) tried his hand at dramatic writing in his mid-30s he had majored in academia and minored in drug and alcohol abuse. He did his undergraduate work at Yale, his graduate work at Iowa (MFA—Iowa Writers’ Workshop) and I’m not sure where he did his heroin.

But in 1982 Milch was an unpublished novelist teaching English at Yale when he wrote a script for Hill Street Blues— for which he won an Emmy and launched his career in TV.

My idea of storytelling is—I wouldn’t say it’s religious but I would say it’s spiritual. You know, the chemist Friedrich August Kekule worked for twenty years trying to figure out the structure of the benzene ring, and he couldn’t do it. And then one night he was sleeping and he had a vision of a snake swallowing its tail. So he told his students about it and they said, ‘Not bad, you go to sleep and you wake up with that.’ And he said, ‘Visions come to prepared spirits.’ The way Billy Wilder put it was ‘The muse has to know where to find you.’”
David Milch
The New Yorker
The Misfit; How David Milch got from “NYPD Blue” to “Deadwood” by the way of an Epistle of St. Paul
by Mark Singer

Milch is originally from Buffalo, NY and was also the creator of John from Cincinnati and wrote the pilot for the upcoming TV program Luck which will star Dustin Hoffman in the world of horse racing.

Scott Myers at Go Into The Story has several links about Milch that are some of the most interesting and different insights you’ll get into the writing process.

P.S. From the way back machine,  I also see where Milch had a writing credit on the short-lived TV show Bay City Blues back in 1983. Dennis Franz and Sharon Stone were a part of the cast. The show was about a minor league baseball team, and since I had played baseball in high school and was studying acting at the time in LA I remember going to a batting cage in Glendale to prepare for an audition that never came. The show only lasted eight episodes.

Scott W. Smith



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“His ears are too big and he looks like an ape.”
Darryl Zanuck on Clark Gable’s screen test

“He was to the American motion picture what Ernest Hemingway is to American Literature.”
1960 Time magazine on Gable’s death

Before he was called “The King of Hollywood,” and long before he uttered the famous words in Gone with the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Clark Gable was born in Cadiz, Ohio and raised about 80 miles northwest of there in Akron, Ohio.

Though not a writer, I thought that was an interesting find while doing some research on writer/director Jim Jarmusch also being from the Akron area. Gable even worked at B.F. Goodrich where Jarmusch’s father also worked, though in different eras.

Gable became interested in theater after seeing a play performed as a teenager in Akron. He later worked with a traveling theater group, did manual labor, worked on oil fields in Oklahoma, eventually finding his way to Portland, Oregon where he was a tie salesman and theater actor. After a few years he went to Los Angeles working on his craft on his way to becoming the star of It Happened One Night,  Mutiny on the Bounty, and Gone with the Wind. He was in 65 films and was nominated for three Oscars and won one.

In Premiere magazine’s list of The 100 Sexiest Movie Stars of All Time they listed Gable at #13 and  AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars listed Gable as the #7 male legend. Not bad for a kid from Cadiz, Ohio.

“There’s no special light that shines inside me and makes me a big star. I’m just a lucky slob from Ohio who happened to be in the right place at the right time. I had a lot of smart guys helping me that’s all.”
Clark Cable

Gable also won the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal when he was in the Army during World War II.

Tomorrow marks the two and a half anniversary of “Screenwriting from Iowa” and I’ll explain tomorrow why Clark Gable would have been attracted to screenwriting Diablo Cody.

P.S. Just to show you how times have changed in Akron, Ohio. Chrissie Hynde wrote about Akron in her 1982 song, “My City is Gone” (Pretenders):

I went back to Ohio,
but my city was gone.
There was no train station.
There was no downtown.

Akron was founded in 1825 and I’m sure there have been many changes over the years. Because of the advent of rubber, and Akron being a place where rubber was produced made it once the fastest growing city in America. Its wealth also brought the arts and fostered artists to one degree or another. The New Yorker says that poet Hart Crane “once worked behind a candy counter of a drug store in Akron, Ohio.” (Maybe Akron is what Francis Coppola had in mind when he made his famous comment about the future of filmmaking: “One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart.”)

The city being gone that Hynde refers to is I believe after some plants and buildings were torn down in the 80s due to economic change.

I went through Akron about 10 years ago and found a great minor league baseball field there (Canal Park) right off Main St. in the downtown area. These days many older buildings have been restored and there is even a Biomedical Corridor downtown.

In 2007, Hynde even opened a vegan restaurant called The VegiTerranean just north of downtown Akron. And I’ve read that she keeps an apartment in her old hometown in an urban renewal area known as Highland Square. This is the same Akron that basketball great LeBron James (the other “King”) said of just this weekend, “Akron is my home, it’s my life. Everything I do is for this city. I’m going to continue to do great things. I love every last one of you all. Akron is home.”

Clark Gable, Jim Jarmusch, Chrissie Hynde, Hart Crane, James LeBron, Benjamin Franklin Goodrich—what a country.

Scott W. Smith


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“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a reminder of what movies are for. Most movies are not for any one thing, of course. Some are to make us think, some to make us feel, some to take us away from our problems, some to help us examine them. What is enchanting about E.T. is that, in some measure, it does all of those things.”
Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun Times

“The image of E.T. emerging from his mobile tomb summons a storehouse of symbols that mark the presence of God and divine miracle.”
Roy M Anker
Catching Light

Hollywood has had an interesting dance with religious films over the years with various degrees of successes, failures and controversy. An abridged list includes The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, Seven Years in Tibet, King David, Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ.

The biggest game changer being The Passion of the Christ. Oddly, the violent retelling of the crucifixion of Christ became the all time R-rated box office champ. Mel Gibson’s $30 million dollar gamble eventually  paid a dividend of $600 million at the world-wide box office. Despite it’s predicted failure at the box office, in the year it was released (2004) it became the seventh highest grossing movie ever. (With the audience it found some would say it paved the way for films like The Book of Eli and The Blind Side.)

Speaking of The Passion, did you ever see the humorous studio notes Steve Martin wrote for the The New Yorker?:

Dear Mel,
We love,
love the script! The ending works great. You’ll be getting a call from us to start negotiations for the book rights…Possible title change: “Lethal Passion.” Kinda works. The more I say it out loud the more I like it.

But in general Hollywood has had much more luck dealing with stories that would be considered spiritual allegories. They tend to me less didactic, less overtly religious and less controversal, and generally better stories.  And the box office responds much better to them. Films I would put in this category are Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia,  Star Wars, and The Matrix. (Though it’s fair to say that not everyone is in one accord with the meanings of these films. But then again, how many different religions are there? Focus on something like separate protestant denominations and you’ll see the numbers climb into the the thousands. Getting people to agree is not that easy.)

In the spirit of Easter, one film that has been closely identified with the death and resurrection of Christ is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the movie,”essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the filmmaker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination.”

Written by Melissa Mathison (a self-described “ex-Catholic’) and directed by Steven Spielberg (raised Jewish in Anglo-Saxon suburbs) there has been much written about the spiritual aspects of E.T., but Spielberg has said (in Take 22; Moviemakers on Moviemaking) that, “If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles.”

So much detail went into the technical aspects of E.T. it would be hard to believe that Spielberg and Mathison were not at least aware of the spiritual parallels they were drawing on. (At least kicking around somewhere in Mathison’s Catholic-schooled subconscious in the eight weeks she took writing the first draft.) But I don’t think they were pandering to a Christian audience, in fact, when the movie first came out some Christian leaders were calling the film “new age.”

Spielberg and Mathison were simply trying to tell a story that would make a good movie, and in doing so tapped into their own upbringing (Spielberg has talked about his parents divorce and his longing for an imaginary friend), their spiritual upbringing, mixed with creative imagination, as well as a powerful death and resurrection theme that many associate with the cornerstone of the Christian faith. (Of course, Joseph Campbell would make the case that death and resurrection themes pre-date Christ, but that opens up a whole different can of worms.)

But in making E.T. the filmmakers made one of the most uplifting films ever and the one that the American Film Institute currently lists as the 25th greatest American film. Sitting nicely between Raging Bull and Dr. Strangelove.

© 2010 Scott W. Smith



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The thing that often gets lost when we talk about the outstanding career of writer/director Billy Wilder is the contribution of screenwriter Charles Brackett who wrote 13 films together with Wilder. Brackett won three Oscar awards over the years, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Academy in 1959. 

Brackett was 14 years older than Wilder and brought a considerable amount of clout to the writing table. He had graduated from Williams College and Harvard Law School, he wrote short stories, novels, and was a drama critic for the The New Yorker from 1924-29, and Hollywood took notice buying some of his stories in the 1920s until he finally moved to L.A. when he was 34 years old. 

But according to Sam Staggs the results were less than grand.  “Like many writers from the East, he distained the studio assemble line approach to writing. So he went home. Soon, however, Paramount’s blandisments lurned him to Hollywood again, and in 1932 he signed a contract with that studio as a staff writer. Some half dozen scripts followed, not one of them noteworthy, until someone at Paramount had the crazy-brilliant idea of caging Brackett with Wilder.”

The refined, educated Brackett mixed with the street smart Jewish immigrant from Europe made for an interesting mix, lots of fights and they wrote a heck of a lot of great movies including The Lost Weekend, A Foreign Affair, Ninotchka along with Sunset Boulevard. For whatever reason Sunset Boulevard was the last script they wrote together. After the break-up Brackett won another Oscar as one of the writers on 1954 film version of Titanic.

In 1938-39 Brackett was the president of the Screen Writers Guild and from 1949-1955 he was the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He died in 1969 in Beverly Hills and was buried in Saratoga Springs, New York where he was born in 1892.

Brackett’s grandson, Jim Moore, has a website dedicated to his grandfather called The Charles Brackett Project.

Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriter Millard Kaufman who died last week at age 92 was twice nominated for an Oscar for writing Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Take the High Ground (1953), but he may be more remembered for writing Raintree County which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. And for those unfamilar with those movies or Kaufman at all will undoubtedly be familiar with a character he helped co-create, Mr. Magoo.

Mr. Magoo first came on the scene in 1949 in the cartoon Ragtime Bear. The near-sighted Mr. Magoo had many incarnations over the years and two short films featuring him won Oscars, Magoo’s Puddle Jumper and When Magoo Flew. Of course, a large part of Mr. Magoo’s charm was the unusual delivery by actor Jim Backus who was the voice of Mr. Magoo. 

Kaufman was born and raised in Baltimore and didn’t set out to be a screenwriter until after World War II where he was a Marine seeing action in Guadalcanal, Guam and Okinawa.  And though Kaufman had a great run from ’49 to ’57 with Magoo, Liz, and Oscar (nominations) he continued to write into old age publishing his first novel Bowl of Cherries when he was 90.

“Years ago, I was working in Italy, and Charlie Chaplin and his family came from Switzerland. We were at a beach north of Rome, and it was a very foggy day and the beach was lousy. At about three o’clock it cleared up, and Chaplin said, ‘I’m going back to the hotel. Unless I write every day, I don’t feel I deserve my dinner.’ That made an impression on me.”
                                                                    Millard Kaufman
                                                                    First At Ninety by Rebcca Mead
                                                                    The New Yorker

Kaufman also wrote a book on screenwriting, Plots and Characters. A Screenwriter on Screenwriting.

 

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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