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Posts Tagged ‘theme’

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
Lyrics by Bob Dylan

On my top shelf of storytellers sits Bob Dylan.

His songs written and/or performed over the last 50 year have appeared in movies or Tv shows more than a staggering 550 times. Along with his creative influence he’s won many awards including an Oscar for his Things Have Changed which he performed on the movie Wonder Boys (2000).

Ever since seeing St. Vincent (2014) a week ago I’ve been listening to Dylan’s Shelter From The Storm over and over again. It hit me that Shelter From The Storm could sum up what most movies are really about:

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Many great movie characters seek shelter from the storm;  Rocky, Terry Malloy (On the Waterfront),Norma Desmond (Sunset Blvd.) , Rick (Casablanca), Erin Brockovich, George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life), Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath), Norma Rae, Oskar Schindler, Maximus (Gladiator), Karen Silkwood, Tyler Durban (Fight Club), Indiana Jones, Ellen Ripley (Aliens), Chuck Noland (Cast Away), Joan of Arc, Sophie (Sophie’s Choice), C.C. Baxter (The Apartment), Andy Dufresne (The Shawshank Redemption), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and Bogart and Hepburn’s characters in The African Queen.

If you’re looking for a standard and proven theme/desire to hang your story on take a tip from Dylan and write about characters who are seeking shelter from the storm. It emotionally resonates with movie audiences —people who are also seeking shelter from the storm.

P.S. Couldn’t find a good version of Dylan singing Shelter From The Storm, but I did find a version with Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris.

Related posts:

Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan’s Brain
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisited” (2.0)
‘Against the Wind’ Bob Seger’s version of “Shelter From The Storm”)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1) Buffett’s version (written with Bobby Holcomb):
And there’s that one particular harbour
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within
Highway 61 Meets A1A
Protagonist=Conflict
Neil Simon on Conflict (Conflict and more conflict.)
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)

Scott W. Smith

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“Here’s the beautiful thing about theme, it’s the underlying message that kind of unifies the story…Even if you don’t write from theme I know the reason why a lot of you are sitting down and putting the time into [screenwriting] is you have a way of looking at the world that you want to communicate to people…Just like dialogue needs to have subtext and not be on the nose, you never want to be on the nose thematically. You don’t want to be didactic, you don’t want to be preachy, it’ll put people to sleep. It’s not what people expect from drama. Drama is about emotion…In Star Wars Luke has to shoot the Death Star, he has to shoot something down a little hole—blow up the Death Star. And he’s got a chose in front of him, he’s got the force—’Use the force, Luke’—or he has a computer. Now the computer technology isn’t just like [basic] computer technology, it’s the technology that built the Death Star—which is pretty powerful stuff. So when he chooses the force and he’s successful, you get this theme; ‘Humans, intuition is more important than technology.'”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme
Obligatory Scene=Story’s Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Sheldon Turner on Theme
Theme=Story’s Heart and Soul
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sideny Lumet on Theme
More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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Citizen Kane is the film that made me want to become a filmmaker.”
Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection)

No Trespassing

“I think the opening image is usually about theme. And the question you might ask is what comes next? Character? Setting? Tone? Genre? Well, I don’t think that’s the right question to ask because there’s no perfect answer. I want you to think about your images and your sounds in your opening in order that you’re doing two or three things at once. In Citizen Kane we immediately get the castle, we get Xanadu. But is it just location? No way. We see the animals so it’s like a zoo, and a cage to suggest some kind of prison—and it’s dark. And there’s a NO TRESSPASSING sign at the gate and the camera’s going over that as we come in to discover the rosebud moment. So we know this movie thematically and storywise is going to be about trespassing on someone’s life and kind of digging in. So you see it’s not just about location. A great movie can never spend three minutes on this and three minutes on that, it’s got to being doing all of this at the same time.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

P.S. I’m sure someone has written a nice article about opening movie shots (or at least opening scenes) and how they tie into the theme of the film. If you know of one put it in the comments or shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com . And if you have a favorite opening image that ties into the meaning of the film let me know as well. The open images of the movie Witness being about community has been well documented. One could even say there are two communities at odds in that movie. The crooked, violent police community and the pious, anti-violent Amish community. The goal of one community is to kill the Harrison Ford character while the goal of the other community to preserve his life.

Related Post:
‘The Greatest Film Ever Made’
‘Study the Old Masters’—Martin Scorsese
Stagecoach (2.0) The John Ford film that Orson Welles watched 40 times before and/or during the making of Citizen Kane.
Screenwriting Quote #166 (Joseph McBride) McBride manually typed an entire copy of the Citizen Kane script while a student in college.
Screenwriting Quote #38 (Orson Welles) “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that…”
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Scott W. Smith

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Mike De Luca: How many screenplays did you write before the first one got produced?
Sheldon Turner: A good 15 probably. You have to be resilient.
The Dialogue: Sheldon Turner Interview Part 2
(Sheldon also mentions on The Dialogue that as he was finding his voice he wrote 11 scripts before he even showed one to anybody.)

“I think all too often now we as a society train ourselves to not have time to think. You get home—you turn the TV on. You get in the car—you turn the radio on. I think those moments [of inspiration] come in solitude. It’s themes—you don’t want to put somebody in a position to go down the hall and tell Amy Pascal (Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures) that Sheldon Turner has some wonderful themes he wants to explore in this movie— but I think that’s what makes for really good [movies]. Even something like The Longest Yard which is pabulum and a fun movie and all that, at least for me I’ve gotta know what the themes are.  Something like redemption or whatever it is, that’s what makes interesting movies.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sheldon Turner  (credits on Up In the Air, X-Men, First Class)

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
Obligatory Scene=Story’s Theme
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme
Kelly Marcel on Theme
John Carpenter on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Lawrence Konner on Theme
Theme= What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme
More Thoughts on Theme 

Scott W. Smith

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“Is there a confrontation scene? In a well-constructed story the audience is held in expectation of what is called an obligatory scene brought about by a reversal (or indeed, a series of reversals). Note that the obligatory scene, usually the denouement of a story, classically expresses the theme. It is an expression of the story’s central moral, the point expressed as a generalisation as seen in character-in-action. (A good way of defining this moment, in fact many moments in a dramatic narrative, is to ask: ‘Who does what with which to whom and why?’)”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
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age 21

P.S. Rocky’s a movie that has a natural confrontation scene with the fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed. It may be the longest obligatory scene in cinema since it lasts basically the entire third act. The reversal scene of Rocky realizing he can’t beat the champ is one of the key things that separates Rocky from most films about sports. Robert McKee says that, “Rocky redefined winning.” Rocky decides that if he can just go the distance with the champ—be on his feet when the fight is over—that he will have an internal victory.

“All I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
Rocky written by Sylvester Stallone

And that personal victory, that personal redemption is the theme of Rocky. A theme by the way that never gets old. It could argued that the climax of the obligatory scene in Rocky is when he goes the distance with the champ. He’s proven to himself that he’s not a bum. He’s the flip side of Brando in On the Waterfront—he’s a somebody, a contender.

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme (tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Writing “Rocky”  “I was obsessed with the idea of personal redemption…” Stallone
Insanely Great Endings

Scott W. Smith

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“I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble. Those are the key elements I look for. And they have to have a very specific world they’re in, as in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. They’re a sort of community and they’re having to reinvent themselves. So they’re in trouble of some kind, but their world also has some enchantment in it that they love. There’s love and passion and compassion in it. And then there must be a sizable theme, and in [American Hustle] it’s not just about conning people, but reinvention.
Oscar-winning writer/director David O. Russell
Post magazine Interview with Iain Blair/ January 2014

P.S. American Hustle tied Gravity for the most Oscar nominations (10) and shows the important of execution. I can’t imagine too many screenwriters pitching a film based on the ’70s scandal Abscam getting a request for the script. Now, David O. Russell wanting to do a film on Abscam—that’s an easier sell.  By the way, Oscar-nominated Best Picture Nebraska, would be a hard pitch as well. No matter how you dressed it up it’s still a story about a son who drives his elderly dad from Montana to Omaha. But say that Oscar-winner Alexander Payne wants to make that film and it’s an easier sell to investors and audiences.  Execution trumps concept in those cases. Though it still took Nebraska 10 years to get made after Bob Nelson’s script was first optioned. Here’s how that script got early traction:

“I was working at a Seattle show called The Eyes of Nye. Producer Julie Thompson came up. I had written a screenplay to try and get a TV job. Julie got the script to Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who have a company called Bona Fide Productions.  They decided to send it to Alexander [Payne], not with the intention to direct it but just to produce it and raise money. I was very fortunate, very lucky, and it doesn’t happen a lot. The one take-away is that even though I was in Seattle, I was still working in the business.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Bob Nelson
Indiewire Interview with Meredith Alloway

Especially if you live outside of LA you have to be creative in finding find alternative ways of getting people excited about your screenplay. And while not the norm, Nelson—and Diablo Cody— show that you can not only capture the magic while living in Seattle or Minnespolis, but that it can even lead to an Oscar trip.  In fact, there are film people living in LA that say you have to live in LA to be taken seriously yet will never see the critical success of Nelson or Cody.

Related posts:
Broken Wings and Silver Linings
Screenwriting Quote #177 (David O. Russell)
Screenwriting from Nebraska
The 20 Year Journey of Craig Borten The Dallas Buyers Club took two decades to make it to theaters,  but joins American Hustle and Nebraska in the Oscar race for Best Picture.
Writing from Theme (tip#20)
Jailbait, Rejection & Screenwriter Mark Boal’s Start Another Oscar-winning screenwriter (The Hurt Locker) who was living outside of LA when his journalist writing opened doors.
Screenwriting Quote #145 (Mike Rich) Rich (The Rookie) launched his screenwriting from Portland by being awarded a Nicholl Fellowship.

Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I saw Saving Mr. Banks and enjoyed it immensely. And there is a line in the film—that I don’t think is a spoiler—that seems to be what the film was about.

“In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Saving Mr. Banks

That sounds like a pretty strong theme. And I’m fascinated by the topic of theme because I’ve read successful screenwriters and directors say these contradictory things:

A) I never think in terms of theme
B) I usually start with theme
C) The theme reveals itself somewhere in the writing
D) Theme is something the audience sees when the film hits the theaters
E) I avoid writing from theme to avoid the story being message driven
F) I have no clue what the word theme means

So one thing we can learn from Rod Serling, Alexander Payne, Francis Ford Coppola, and others is the process of screenwriting varies from writer to writer.  Which is why you have visually strong writers and dialogue driven writers.

Now I don’t think that Disney line is a direct quote from the Mickey Mouse creator, but from the imagination of the Saving Mr. Banks screenwriter Kelly Marcel.  I don’t know at what point she wrote Disney’s monologue—or if she even thinks that was the theme of the movie—but I do know she in facts does think in terms of theme.

“I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along. It allows for much more intricate storytelling, ways of speaking to the theme and letting your theme to speak to you, even unconsciously. I said ‘theme’ four times in that last paragraph. I shouldn’t be allowed to be a writer.”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey)
Go Into the Story Interview with Scott Myers

Related Posts (and a ping pong of views on theme):

Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Diablo Cody on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Wes Anderson on Theme
Lawrence Konner on Theme
Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness
William Froug on Theme
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Diane Frolov & The Theme Zone
Theme vs. Story
“Network” Notes by Paddy Chayefsky
Writing and Directing “Out of Africa”
Serling vs. Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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