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Actor Harry Dean Stanton grew up on a farm in Kentucky, served in the Navy and was stationed in the Pacific during WWII, studied at the Pasadena Playhouse, once recorded a song with Bob Dylan, was a roommate of Jack Nicholson before they both became name actors, and acted along side Paul Newman and Marlon Brando.

Stanton started in theater and his first IMDB credit is for Inner Sanctum in 1954. He’d go on to become one of the great character actors working on Cool Hand Luke, The Godfather II, Escape from New York, Repo Man, Paris, Texas and when he died ten days ago at age 91 his film Lucky was playing in theaters.

He had a film and TV career that spanned  over 60 year and over that time worked with the a who’s who of great directors including Francis Ford Coppola, Sam PeckinpahJohn Milius, Wim Wenders, Arthur Penn, Norman Jewison, and David Lynch.

On a podcast interview with Marc Maron Stanton was a man of few words, but I did think there were a few nuggest in there including this brief exchange:

Marc Maron: What makes a guy a good director?
Harry Dean Stanton: Leave the actors alone. 

P.S. Two films I’d recommend of Stanton’s if you haven’t seen them are Paris, Texas written by Sam Shepard and The Straight Story (which mostly takes place in Iowa). I haven’t seen Sophia Huber’s documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly, but it’s on my short list.

Related posts:
Sam Shepard (1943-2017)
David Lynch in Iowa

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade


“I don’t know if you saw the parting of the Red Sea with the chariots on the horses, I did stuff like that.”
Richard Farnswort
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After I posted the above Goldman comment yesterday on the post titled Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” it jogged my memory of another story about a career transition—both fictional and real life. The Grey Fox was released in 1982 about a decade after Butch Cassidy, but there are some similarities, mostly the concept of change in the Old West.

Richard Farnsworth plays a former stagecoach robber who is released from San Quintin after serving 33 years for his crimes. When he gets out in 1903 it’s a new world—the stagescoaches are out and movies are in. His character, Bill Miner, goes to see The Great Train Robbery and is inspired to take up his old ways yet with a new fresh angle.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film so I’ll rely on Rodger Ebert’s account to bring us all up to speed:

“(The Great Train Robbery.) That famous movie is only eleven minutes long, but long enough to make everything absolutely clear to Miner, who realizes he has a new calling in life, as a train robber. All of this could, of course, be an innocuous Disney movie, but it’s well-written and directed, and what gives it zest and joy is the performance by Richard Farnsworth, who plays Miner. Maybe you’ll recognize Farnsworth when you see him on the screen. Maybe not. His life has been one of those careers that makes you realize Hollywood is a company town, where you can make a living for years and never be a star. Farnsworth has been in more than three hundred movies.”
Roget Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, The Grey Fox
January 1. 1982

Though Farnsworth had been in more than 300 films, they were mostly as a stuntman. He doubled for some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors; Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen. You think he might have picked up a thing or two about acting from those fellows because after 30 years as a stuntman he began acting.

And he did it well enough to receive a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1979 for his role in Comes a Horseman and another Oscar nomination for Lead Actor in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (that was filmed right here in Iowa). He was 79 at the time of the nomination making him the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor nomination.

You may also remember his roles in The Natural, The Two Jakes, and Misery. I had the good fortune to meet Richard Farnsworth at a movie theater in Burbank some time in the 80s. Nothing exciting, he was just standing in front of me waiting to buy popcorn or whatever.

“Are you Richard Farnsworth?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I appreciate your work.”
“Thank You.”

He smiled and we shook hands. This was in the days before IMDB so I didn’t know in that simple exchange I was shaking hands with a man who was a real life Forrest Gump in the film industry having been in some legendary Hollywood productions;   Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Ten Commandments, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Roots, Bonanza, The Wild One,  Blazing Saddles, Spartacus and many others.

That means to one degree or another he worked with John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Howard Hawks,  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Cecil B. DeMille.

I don’t know how long stuntman work on a regular basis in Hollywood, but it has to take its toll on your body.  Farnsworth’s last credit as a stuntman was 1975 when he would have been 55. He was almost 60 when his acting career took off. He changed with the times.

By the way, the screenwriter of The Grey Fox, John Hunter,  was no spring chicken himself and was 71 when the movie was released.

Oh yeah, Farnsworth did stunts in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, too.

Scott W. Smith


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When The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien premieres tonight it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another one.

The show will no longer be taped at the NBC studios in Burbank, but across the way at Universal Studios. Though The Tonight Show began in New York in 1954, since 1972 the show had come from Burbank, California. Hosted by Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992 I grew up listening to his references to “Beautiful downtown Burbank.” 

It was meant as a put down because Burbank was a rather bland area (some would say that bland would describe the entire San Fernando Valley). But Carson’s jab helped put Burbank on the map for millions of viewers and it is still a catch phrase today. 

These days Downtown Burbank is actually a nice area with a good mix of restaurants and a couple hundred shops. But when I moved there in 1982 it was a different story. Though Burbank is home to Disney Studios and The Burbank Studios (as well as NBC) back then there wasn’t even a single movie theater in the city. Just one drive-in theater near my Riverside Drive apartment. Today the drive-in theater is gone but there are over 30 movie screens in Burbank.

Once the theaters were built I remember going one night and standing in line for popcorn and there was an older gentleman in front of me who looked familiar. I asked him if he was Richard Farnsworth and he said he was. In those days I would have only known him as the actor in The Grey Fox (1982) and The Natural (1984). Little did I know that he was a full-fledged Hollywood legend having been a stunt man first and received his first film credit way back  in 1937.

It wasn’t until the Internet and IMDB that I learned he was in Gone with the Wind, A Day at the Races, Red River, The Ten Commandments, and The Wild One. Which meant he was connected in film history to Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, the Marx Brothers, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Cecil B. DeMille. He turned to acting after 30 years as a stuntman and received two Oscar nominations as Best Actor. 

His last film was The Straight Story (1999) which was directed by David Lynch and for which Farnsworth’s nomination made him the oldest actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. The Straight Story was filmed right here in Iowa. You knew there had to be an Iowa angle, right?

And just for the record Johnny Carson was born Corning, Iowa and lived in southwest Iowa until he was 8 when his family moved to Nebraska.

Like many young people who moved to L.A. in the eighties I dreamed of getting on The Tonight Show and meeting Johnny Carson. Back in the day, that was seen as the pinacle of success. That never happened and I never even went to a single taping all the time I lived out there. But while going to film school I did work as a driver for a video equipment rental company and one day made a delivery to NBC.

I made a comment to the security guard about The Tonight Show and he asked if I wanted to see the set. Of course I did. So while not making it on the show, I did make it to the set. Almost famous.

And like a lot of things in life The Tonight Show set  seemed a lot smaller in real life. But thanks to Carson and Jay Leno for all the memories and humor they kept flowing from Burbank the last 37 years.

And best wishes to Conan in his new venture.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“So many gurus and so few good writers. Where are all these lessons going?”
Larry Gelbart (Tootsie)

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Here’s the straight story. There are many screenwriting gurus out there and I thought I’d warn you about them. Actually, I just need to warn you about your addiction to them.

Back in November I was doing a video shoot in the Bay area and the fellow I was interviewing said he had a friend who worked at George Lucus’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) who might be able to give me a tour if I was interested. (Is there a reason I wouldn’t be interested?)  I took the photo of Yoda at the ILM headquarters at the Presidio in San Francisco a couple of hours later during my Forrest Gump-like experience. Who doesn’t want a wise and powerful mentor to help guide them from the dark side? The trouble is always knowing who to trust.

A couple of years ago I spent seven months of my life producing real estate and financial infomercials. As far as infomercials go, these were big budget fares that were well done.

I’ve had worse gigs and definitely ones that paid less. It was a good experience as I worked with a talented group of people and learned a ton of production techniques. A common question my friends asked about the shows I was working on was “Are they true?”

Well, they weren’t really false, but they didn’t quite tell the whole truth. For instance the sound bite you heard on TV was, “I made $10,000 on my first deal.” What was edited out was this guy explaining how it took him two years to put together his first real estate deal. Another fellow said it was not uncommon for him to make 100 lowball real estate offers before one got accepted.

Infomercials never touch on how hard it is to make money because infomercials work emotionally on how easy things are to do. They skip showing the scenes of Rocky running up the stairs and pounding the beef.  Instead they pound the testimonials of how much money people say they have made until you hear what you want to hear. The executive producer where I worked was fond of saying, “There is no such thing as over-the-top in infomercials.”

Most of my work was focused on the success stories. Two-minute vignettes that showed how a person or couple used such and such products and became wealthy. In the business this is called a zero to hero story. (I have that in a folder of potential titles for a future script.)

A zero to hero is someone who was down on their luck, went to a seminar or ordered books and audio products and applied the principles and in a short time became wealthy. Who among us doesn’t yearn for the magic formula?

The history of this in our country goes way back to Ponce de Leon looking for the fountain of youth in St. Augustine.  Come to think of it, in another time and place weren’t Adam and Eve just looking for a little more knowledge?

Infomercials have a tremendous failure rate and the ones that do succeed focus on just a few categories:

1)Kitchen & Cooking (George Forman Grill)

2)Beauty & Fitness (Chuck Norris and the Total Body Gym)

3)Self-improvement (Tony Robbins)

4)Making Money (Rich Dad, Poor Dad)

5)Leisure (Time –Life Music)

Basically they touch on our deepest longings in life to look good, feel healthy, and have money. You want to believe the infomercials, that’s why they work.

Here’s the problem as it applies to screenwriting seminars. We want to believe they will give us the missing link and make us a better writer.  Many writers are like crack addicts thinking the next book, workshop, audio series, writing software will make them a better writer. Just one more hit off the pipe and we’ll quit.

There may be a kernel of truth in books and seminars (my blogs are intended to pull out those kernels for you) but the fact is if you are reading or searching more for the secret of writing more than you are writing then you are heading down the wrong path.

John August the screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and a Drake graduate here in Iowa) wrote this on his website blog , “The truth is, there’s no magic formula for writing a great script. (Or for that matter, a commercial one.) Anyone who tries to convince you that theirs is the One True Way is deluding themselves and you.”

Robert McKee who wrote the book Story is the main screenwriting guru.  On his website he lists the number of major award winners and nominees who were his former students. (Of course, he taught at USC so many professors there could make the same claim. And those that have been to his workshop, I imagine have learned from other guru’s workshops and books as well.) But his advertising materials imply that he is the reason for their success and if you attend his class you’ll be walking down the aisle to accept your Academy Award.

After all,  didn’t one of his students Akiva Goldsman do just that? Well, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind does credits McKee’s class with helping him make the transition from novelist to screenwriter. But the fact is Goldsman has a MFA from NYU and was, by his own admission, a failed novelist for 10 years. And if he started writing as a teenager he probably had many teachers who he learned from, but more importantly he was writing. (Getting in his 10,000 hours of education and practice long before he took a three-day seminar with McKee.)

There’s a glaring problem in respect to gurus and I’m not the first to point it out. Take McKee for instance, he’s not only not won an Academy Award he’s never had a feature screenplay of his produced. Ever. Zero. If it was all formula you think he’d have had one hit movie made in his lifetime.  McKee’s is an academic and people with Ph.Ds are analytical by nature. McKee is brilliant in telling students why a film works. Many critics can do so just as well, they just don’t have the theatrics or business acumen that McKee has to become a screenwriting guru.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that McKee is a bad writer or that he hasn’t sold any scripts before, or that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m just stating a fact and making an observation. With McKee there is a disconnect, a gap between what he knows and what he’s done. (I’m sure if one of his feature scripts gets made, he’ll die a happy man. But then again, if it’s not a good movie it could damage his whole legacy.)

August writes, “To read his brochure, you’d think that everyone in Hollywood has taken McKee’s course, but the truth is, I don’t know anyone who has. Wherever I hear his name brought up, it makes these tiny hairs rise on the back of my neck, because it usually means the speaker is going to cite some piece of screenwriting gospel, or use some cleaver word like “counter-theme.”

McKee does such a through job of breaking down Casablanca you think that its writers attended his seminar, until you realize the movie was made before he was born. He also does a several hour breakdown of Chinatown.

“I’ve never met McKee and have nothing against him, but to read his bio it’s clear that he’s not a very successful screenwriter and never really was,“ August continues on his blog, “That’s not to say he can’t be a great teacher, just as many great film critics are not filmmakers, nor do I think that there’s anything wrong with a screenwriting class per se, especially if it helps you get off your ass and write. But I would rather have dental surgery than go through a structural analysis of CHINATOWN.”

That is the fundamental difference between successful screenwriting gurus and successful writers. It’s like the engineer who builds the car and knows how it works and the race car driver who takes that engineering feat and does something amazing with it. But there is a tension there, and it’s rare to find a person who can do both well.

In fact, if you took the five top screenwriting gurus you might find five produced films between them. Maybe. And of those five films, you would have five films that were little known and/or poorly reviewed. That’s why they’re doing seminars, because there is more money to be made teaching this stuff than writing screenplays. (Or more nicely put, their real gift is in teaching.) And the flip side is even if the working screenwriter took the time off writing to do a seminar the chances are it wouldn’t be very good. (Joe Eszterhas has been a screenwriting box office rock star, but I’d recommend McKee’s book Story over the one Eszterhas wrote to help screenwriters (The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood).

In the book Screenplay; Writing the Picture (Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs) make this observation:
“It is interesting to note that few Hollywood screenwriting gurus have ever sold a movie (and Aristotle never wrote a play). This is because the ability to structure a story and the ability to analyze the structure of a story are two totally different talents. They come from different parts of the brain…Good writers seldom have an analytical understanding of what they do or how they do it. Instead they have a practical understanding of dramatic techniques.”

 

And screenwriters learn those practical techniques in a class, seminar or book and if that teacher finds a larger audience he or she becomes a guru. It’s a beautiful thing. Just don’t kid your self into thinking that the guru is the answer. Writing and rewriting is the answer. If you forget that you are lost and can become dependent on a guru…and then the next guru.

 

McKee is so popular in some circles he could form a cult if he wanted to. Americans love gurus. I’m a fan of business guru Tom Peters, marketing guru Seth Godin, and even McKee himself.

I attended one of McKee’s first public seminars on screenwriting. The year was 1984 or ’85 in Los Angeles. (Back when he was a guru in training. And back when he didn’t just read from his book as I hear he does today.) I was a recent film school grad, working as a photographer, and studying acting and hungry for my break in the industry and didn’t blink at the cost that at that time equaled a week’s salary. In fact, I still have the tapes from that seminar and have listened to them many times over the years.

McKee’s insights into screenwriting were more articulate than anyone I had ever heard speak on film. It is a class that I recommend to this day, but it’s best if you have at least a script or two under your belt. Because there is a danger there. As Morpheus says in The Matrix, “There is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.”

Speaking of gurus did you see where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died earlier this month?

He was famous for (temporarily) being the guru to the Beatles in the 60’s and bringing Transcendental Meditation (TM) to this country in the 50’s.  Few people realize that in 1974 he started a college in Fairfield, Iowa that is still there today.

Fairfield is one of the most interesting places in the US. Mother Earth News called it one of the “12 Great Places You’ve Never Hear Of.” The article said, “Your image of southeast Iowa probably doesn’t include the world’s premier ayurvedic health spa, more restaurants per capita than San Francisco or 25 art galleries on the downtown square but these are some of the many features of Fairfield, a surprisingly sustainable and cosmopolitan town.” (It’s also about an hour away from the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop that keeps coming up on this blog.)

Fairfield is also home to Hawthorne Communications whose founder Timothy Hawthorne literally wrote the book on infomercials. After I moved to Iowa and was looking for production work there I naturally met with Hawthorne. No work came out of it but he was kind enough to give me a copy of his out-of-print book “The Complete Guide to Infomercial Marketing”  that he told me was fetching $125. on ebay.

And to bring this full circle back to movies, David Lynch was a follower of the Maharishi and makes occasional trips to Fairfield. I’m sure there is some connection there and his directing The Straight Story featuring Richard Farnsworth as an elderly man who drives a riding lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his ailing brother. (Watch that film again and ask yourself how Lynch’s practicing TM for 30 years effects that material. And I dare you to watch the Catholic-influenced Koyaanisqatsi in the same night.)

There is no doubt that Lynch is an artist and one of America’s most original filmmakers. The “I am not an animal” scene from The Elephant Man is one of the most moving scenes recorded on film.  From the first time I saw Eraserhead in a college film class my perception of what movies could be was altered.

But I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag by saying that Lynch’s work at times can be a little hard to understand.

I believe enough in cross-pollination to think that a trip to Fairfield might do McKee some good and if Lynch could sit though McKee’s seminar it might also do him an ounce of good.  I’d pay to watch those guys in a room debating story structure and the roll of screenwriting gurus.

By the way, anyone interested in employment or an internship at ILM check out this section of their website: www.ilm.com/employment.html

Photo and text © Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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