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Posts Tagged ‘The Sopranos’

“America was born as a rebel country, and Americans have always had a soft spot for the outlaw.”
Professor Maurice Yacowar
Married to the Mob by Mark Sauer

One of my favorite discovers since starting this blog in 2008 is being able to find the connective tissues between ideas, scenes, ideas, characters and sometimes entire stories found in movies and TV shows. Often writers are open about their influences and yet other times plead ignorance for similarities.

Many critics said The Sopranos was indebted to Goodfellas—I can’t remember who called it “the companion guide to Goodfellas.” But there is a key element to The Sopranos that I think was taken from Donnie Brasco. Much was made about how fresh and original it was for Tony Soprano—a mobster—to go therapy.

But Johnny Depp’s character in Donnie Brasco is an undercover agent who has infiltrated the mafia. And when what started out as a six month FBI assignment starts turning into years it causes friction at home with his wife. Like a military man or a truck driver his lifestyle is somewhat unorthodox, yet there is something about the job that he loves. In the scene below his wife (Maggie played by Anne Heche) says tells her husband that he’s becoming like the mobsters he’s investigating.

Eventually Depp’s character’s wife says she wants a divorce. He tells her, “There hasn’t been a divorce in my family since back to Julius Caesar. Divorce someone else.” They settle on going to marriage counseling.

The Sopranos first aired in 1999 , Donnie Brasco was released in 1997. Here’s the beginning of the first counseling scene from a Donnie Brasco script dated 1992.

INT. DAY. OFFICE

SHELLY BERGER, late 40s, flannel shirt, earth shoes -- PSYCHOTHERAPIST -- 
sits with Donnie and Maggie.

                                     MAGGIE
                         ...He comes home at all hours of the 
                         night, without announcing when or 
                         why, or where he's been for three 
                         weeks. Or three months. Then he 
                         expects everything to be just the 
                         way he wants it. He vacuums the entire 
                         house. Do you know another man who 
                         vacuums? It's abnormal. Of course, 
                         he expects the girls to drop their 
                         lives when he shows up...

                                     DONNIE
                         I'm their father, Maggie. I ring 
                         that doorbell I expect them home.

                                     MAGGIE
                         They think it's a Jehovah's witness.
                              (to Berger)
                         You'd think he'd tell me where he 
                         goes or what he's doing --

                                     DONNIE
                         That's for your own protection.

                                     MAGGIE
                         Ha!
                              (to Berger)
                         I know he's cheating on me --

While Donnie Brasco screenwriter Paul Attanasio used the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life as his foundation, he said the counseling concept came from his imagination. This doesn’t take any thing away from what the great David Chase created with The Sopranos, it just helps us understand how the creative process works.

And since Donnie Brasco was not a made man in the Mafia, but FBI agent Joe Pistone that means the Tony Soprano—unless there is a film/TV show I’m unfamiliar with—was technically the first Mafia man depicted in a counseling setting. File it under, “the same thing only different.”

In my post Where Do Ideas Come From? I quoted James Young Webb, “ An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Orson Welles all acknowledged they built on what came before them.

P.S. Of course, Attanasio including a romance into Donnie Brasco accomplished many things including adding pressure (i.e. conflict) in Donnie Brasco/Joe Pistone’s. (On top of his pressure of some in the FBI questioning the operation, pressure from the mob itself, life or death circumstances if his cover is blow, and conflict with himself over his relationship with mobster Lefty Ruggiero, who will be killed or go to prison because of the undercover operations.

The Mike Newell directed film was not a box office hit when it first came out, but it has aged very well.

But about that husband/wife element of Donnie Brasco, Oscar and Emmy-winning director Sydney Pollack once stated something to the effect that each of his film always had a romance element. Certainly true of Out of Africa, The Electric Horseman, The Way We Were, and Tootsie.

P.P.S. I was enjoying The Dialogue series that was put on You Tube, but it went dark yesterday. Anyone know why. It now says those videos are private. If anyone knows why please shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com.

Related Post:
(Note: While I’ve used the term cloning before, I now prefer the concept of sampling to describe what goes on in connecting movies.)
Movie Cloning (“Raiders”) Some of the DNA of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Movie Cloning (Pirates) Some of the DNA of Pirates of Caribbean.
Movie Cloning (Part1) 

Scott W. Smith



					

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“Boris was a great artist. He did a beautiful job under difficult conditions. The weather was cold and overcast. We rushed to shoot the film in 35 days. Cheap is fast. Every day costs money. Spiegel, the producer, was on Kazan’s tail to go faster. We were pleased by the way the film turned out. Everybody was against it. We overcame all the obstacles.”
Screenwriter Budd Schulberg on Director of Photography Boris Kaufman who won an Oscar for shooting On the Waterfront which Schulberg won an Oscar for writing
on the waterfront

In the past year and a half I’ve been giving away boxes of my screenwriting and productions books to high schools and colleges. Last week I went through my bookshelves again and came up with two more boxes of books to give away and this batch includes William Froug’s Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade which was first published in 1992.

I flipped through my copy heavy with yellow highlighter marks looking for something I hadn’t covered on this blog before. Here’s the quote that jumped out at me:

“You are almost always better off if your scene is located outside in an interesting location with things happening in the background and all around the talkers. Keeping the characters moving helps. Movies are about moving pictures.”
Producer/writer/professor William Froug
Screenwritng Tricks of the Trade

Since this summer I’ve been calling these posts part of Screenwriting Summer School, it would be an interesting test to write down your all time favorite movie scenes and see if the majority of them are inside or outside. I know some screenwriters have a color coding index card system to see if they have a nice contrast of interior and exterior scenes. (Can’t recall anyone else saying you’re, “almost always better off if your scene is located outside.”)

The first exterior scene that jumped to my mind is the playground scene from On the Waterfronwritten by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. A simple walk and talk scene with Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando. It’s an understated scene and a bit of an exposition dump, but the good girl/bad boy scene (and their relationship) is important for the transformation of Brando’s character.

It’s a scene that does move the story forward and ties into the climax at the end of the story. I also like this scene because it’s an indie filmmaker-friendly kind of scene. It would be possible to shoot this scene with two actors and a four person crew. (How? Read The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns.)

The playground scene opens with a dolly shot* that runs a full two minutes without a cut. But it’s an elegant scene that’s not only well written and acted but watch it a couple of times and see how the direction and cinematography of this outdoor shot work to make the shot visually interesting. There’s the smoke from trashcan fires floating by, the swing set, the dropped glove, the stick of gum, the Manhattan skyline across the river, and the wrought iron fence—all of which to help make the three and a half-minutes visually interesting.

Van Gogh once said that he’d be content with water and a Rembrandt painting. I feel that way about On the Waterfront—a 1954 film that won 8 Oscars including Best Picture, and which the AFI lists as the #8 best movie of all time.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the climax of On the Waterfront is set outside. But the scene most played from the movie “I coulda been a contender” is set inside a car, and Karl Malden’s well-known speech is an interior scene. If someone’s expanded Froug’s outside comment please send me the link.

I’ve been watching the first season of The Sopranos (another Jersey-centered mob story like On the Waterfront) and I know cable TV—especially in the 90s before The Sopranos changed the face of TV—doesn’t have the budgets of an average Hollywood movie, but there’s a lot of sitting around and talking on The Sopranos. (Same for the #2 rated all-time TV show Seinfeld.)

Perhaps that’s the nature of the beast and it’s not fair to compare a top Tv show with a top movie.  Last year the Writer’s Guild of America named The Sopranos as the top show in television history. Created by David Chase it stands on it own and paved the way for one of the writers on The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner, to create Mad Men. And while Mad Men has its share of interior shots, the set design and set decorating of show set a new standard in Tv of how visually interesting an interior shot can be. And I’m sure there are plenty of Breaking Bad fans who would rather watch the compelling opening scene of the series a few times over the scene I chose from a black and white film that’s 60 years old.

This isn’t really about is TV more like theater than film, or a debate if TV writing is the best dramatic work being done today. It’s just three sentences by the one-time TV producer/writer and former UCLA professor Mr. Froug that I hopes helps you contemplate about your scene settings.

Here’s the second exterior scene that came to mind:

*A small indie crew couldn’t lay the tracks needed to do that On the Waterfront dolly shot with the large camera they used, but they could quickly set up and use a shorter dolly move using something like a Dana Dolly or what I have the Porta Jib Explorer. (I’ve even set my up in as little as 10 minutes shooting solo.) Or you could ditch the tracks altogether and using something like the MOVI.

Update: I learned that the studios wanted to shoot On the Waterfront on the lot in Los Angeles, but Kazan said it was an ‘East coast movie” and fought and won to shoot it in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Related posts:
The Source of ‘On the Waterfront’
Telling Our Own Shadow Stories
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
Kazan on Directing (Part 1) 

Scott W. Smith 

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“Theme is the primary statement, the purpose of the story, the overall message, the truth behind the story.”
Writing the Picture
Robin U. Rissin & William Missouri Downs

I first became aware of Diane Frolov‘s writing back in the 90s when I saw her name come up on the credits for Northern Exposure. She and her writing partner and husband Andrew Schneider wrote and produced many episodes of the quirky show set in Cicely, Alaska. They won a Primetime Emmy for their episode “Seoul Mates.” (They also wrote the great “More Light” scene that I have mentioned before.)

But Frolov’s writing credits go back to Magnum P.I. and the TV program The Incredible Hulk. And in the days since Northern Exposure Frolov’s most memorable work has been as a writer and producer on The Sopranos. She was on the Sopranos team that won an Emmy in 2006 for Outstanding Drama Series.

Though I don’t watch much TV, I’ve always been a Northern Exposure fan and put it up there with The Twilight Zone as television at its best. And I’ve always thought part of the reason I ended up in Cedar Falls, Iowa was due in part for the fondness of quirky Cicely, Alaska. (And I’m fond of pointing out that John Falsey, co-creator of Northern Exposure, has an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.)

Twenty years ago Frolov was interviewed by William Froug, who she studied with at UCLA (MFA Playwriting), and was asked what was the most important thing to know before writing a screenplay;

“I would say theme. You really need to know what the piece is ‘about’ and you have to make sure that all plot turns and character arc elucidate and project that theme.”
Diane Frolov

Recently, Brian McDonald who wrote the book Invisible Ink and has a blog of the same name, sent me a link to The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling who wrote in a letter  basically the same thing as Frolov.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a story line or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt

Maybe that explains the connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone.

Now writers are not in agreement with the idea of starting from theme. Some goes as far as saying that the writer should never even be aware of the story’s theme. Many, like  Robert McKee, say that starting with theme before story puts the cart before the horse.

“The Story tells you its meaning, you do not dictate meaning to the story.”
Robert McKee
Story

The fear of starting with theme (or a controlling idea or moral premise as some call it) is that you fall into didacticism or a sermon. And there are plenty of examples where heavy handed themes weigh down stories. But perhaps that’s a matter of the talent and skill of the writer.

Just because a baseball pitcher has an ineffective fast ball or curve ball doesn’t mean fast balls or curve balls are bad. No those are the staple of every baseball pitcher. He will be judged (and his ERA will reflect) the skill in which he uses his fastball and curveball.

And in the case of Frolov and Serling their work has shown that starting from theme can be very effective. (And you can put Charles Dickens in the camp of starting with theme.)

Lastly, Froug ended his interview with Frolov by asking here is she had any thoughts that she’d like to express. (And keep in mind that her answer is before all her Emmy nominations and wins.)

“To have courage and really love what you do. But not to lose sight of the life around you. You’ll find, as you go through the (writing) process, there will be so many people who will tell you that it is impossible and that you can’t do it. You’ll have your heart-broken so many times, and you just have to sustain yourself with your vision. And, as I said, your love of what you do.”
Diane Frolov
The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter
Page 273

P.S. Even though the last new episode of Northern Exposure aired in 1995, there is still a group of people who gather yearly for Moosefeast, a Northern Exposure Fan Festival that takes place in Roslyn, Washington where the series was filmed. I also like to point out, that the final song of the final episode was written and performed by Iris DeMent who now lives in Iowa. Actually, in the same town where Northern Exposure co-creator, John Falsey, went to college. (Maybe there is more of a connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone than I thought.)

Related post: Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Scott W. Smith

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