Posts Tagged ‘Titanic’

“I wrote to explain my own life to myself, stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself.”
Pat Conroy

On Wednesday I was on the final stretch of road trip where I was shooting footage for a couple of clients when I pulled into Oskaloosa, Iowa. It’s become a favorite stop of mine while in Southern Iowa. An Oasis of sorts. Located between Des Moines and Iowa City it has a town square guarded by a statue of Chief Mahaska of the Iowa Tribe. Oskaloosa was once a wealthy coal mining town and much of its architecture reflects its 19th century prosperity.

In fact, when snow covers the town square in Oskaloosa and Christmas lights drape the surrounding trees for a moment one could think they were in Aspen, Colorado—minus the mountains, the celebrities, and the billionaires. But my favorite thing about Oskaloosa is The Book Vault—a three story bookstore in a converted historic bank building. It’s not only my favorite bookstore in Iowa, but on my top ten list in the United States. (A list that also happens to include the Explore Booksellers on Main St. in Aspen—a remnant of old Aspen.)

The Book Vault —Oskaloosa, Iowa

As I pulled into Oskaloosa I was listening to a radio interview with Laura Hillenbrad on her new book,  Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival which sounds even more powerful than her book Seabiscuit. The Book Vault did not have any copies available of Unbroken, but I did pick up the audio version of Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life. (Bonus: Unabridged and read by the author.)

Listening to the first couple chapters made my remaining hours driving fly by. I learned that Conroy in his youth spent time in my hometown of Orlando, calling the small city in its pre-Disney days “a backwater city dimpled with lakes.” Conroy’s turning of a phrase is one of the things that makes his writing so enjoyable. He calls the book Gone with the Wind, “The Iliad with a southern accent” and “an anthem of defiance.”

Several of his novels have been made into movies: Conrack, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, The Water is Wide. If you’re keeping track of great writers who were educated in Catholic schools, and who have struggled with alcohol and depression then you can add Conroy to your list. Mix in a dysfunctional family upbringing in general—specfically some serious father issues—and a lifelong daily habit of reading 200 pages a day and you have another powerful combination for storytelling.

My Reading Life was just published last week, so here are two quotes hot off the presses:

“My attraction to story is a ceaseless current that runs through the center of me. My inexhaustible ardor for reading seems connected to my hunger for storylines that show up in both books and in the great tumbling chaos of life.”
Pat Conroy
My Reading Life

“The most powerful words in English are ‘Tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself. I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories, poems their rhymes, paintings their form, and music its beauty, but that does not mean I had to like that trend or go along with it.  I fight against these movements with every book I write.”
Pat Conroy
My Reading Life

Van Gogh once said he’d be content with a Rembrandt painting and bread. I’m sure there are a few people out there that feel the same way about Conroy.

P.S. Does Oskaloosa, Iowa have a Hollywood connection? Of course. It’s the home of Musco Lighting which has won both an Academy Award and an Emmy Award. It provided lighting sytems for the movies Titanic, Road to Perdition, and Pearl Harbor.  It’s also where film, TV and radio writer Bill S. Ballinger (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Operation C.I.A.) was born in 1912. The town was mentioned in the short story What She Wore by Edna Febner (Show Boat, Giant).

The picture below which I took on Wendesday is not Oskaloosa, but the similar town of Albia about 30 miles away.

Albia, Iowa

Scott W. Smith

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Photograph by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“My bracket has Kansas winning the whole thing. Kansas is that big, fast, strong, deep, good, great, unbeatable.”
Gregg Dovel, CBSSports.com

President Obama was wrong. But he was not alone in picking the Kansas Jayhawks to win the NCAA National Championship in men’s basketball this year. In case you don’t follow such things, Kansas lost yesterday to that little known team from right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa—The University of Northern Iowa (UNI).

One sports writer said the upset victory, “could go down as the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.” Of course, that’s debatable. What is less debateable is this is the biggest victory in UNI’s history. This was the first time they have ever beaten a top ranked team. To do it in the NCAA Tournament before a national TV audience is all the sweeter.

The above photo of UNI player Ali Farokhmanesh celebrating says it all. It’s one frame that if it were the end of a movie the critics would be rolling their eyes calling it cliché. But movie audiences enjoy a good underdog story time after time. Why do we love underdog stories?

What is it about an underdog story that makes us feel so good? Perhaps it’s as simple as we all feel like underdogs. We can relate. Heck, I have a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa which might as well be called Screenwriting for Underdogs. But then again that would be redundant, wouldn’t it? (Tell me Joe “I’ve been in fights most of my life” Eszterhas hasn’t felt like an underdog his entire career?)

So screw the critics and keep writing underdog stories because the truth is cinematic history is full of great stories of underdog characters and underdog stories. From Rocky, Indiana Jones, and Norma Rae Webster to Hans Solo, Oskar Schindler, and Erin Brockovich they’re all underdogs that are greatly admired.

More recently, The Blind Side (based on the life of Michael Orr) found an audience to the tune of $250 million so far and landed Sandra Bullock her first Oscar. People still want to see Michael Orr stories. And, of course, an underdog doesn’t have to be an athlete.

Both James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic are the #1 & #2 box office champs—and both underdog stories.

What are some of your favorite underdog characters or stories?

P.S. The University of Northern Iowa is where Kurt Warner played college football before he became one of the greatest underdog stories in contemporary sports history. I should also give a shout out to the University of Iowa’s wrestling team who last night won the 2010 NCAA Division 1 wrestling championship. No underdogs there—it’s the third straight year they’ve won the championship and 23rd in school history.

Related post: Orphan Characters (Tip #31)

Scott W. Smith

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Now that writer/director James Cameron has claimed the number one and two spots of worldwide box office money makers with Avatar and Titanic he really is king of the world…at least the king of the box office world. But it’s worth a look back to how the Canadian born and raised Cameron made the transition from making films for Roger Corman to making mainstream blockbusters–including a film that is up for nine Academy Awards Sunday.

“My first success as a writer was The Terminator.  And it was successful, in a way, before the film was made. I wrote the script entirely on spec, for myself, and it was sent out by my agent as a writing sample. It was only sent out, to my knowledge, to a few people, and I managed to land jobs with two of them. One was Rambo and the other was on Alien.”
James Cameron
American Screenwriters
Karl Schanzer & Thomas Lee Wright
page 57

Scott W. Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott W. Smith

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood …1999-2009

While Titanic has been the pinnacle of the Hollywood blockbuster there has been a somewhat quiet movement in the film industry which came into prominence in 1999.

The use of video came on the scene in the 1950s its claim about the death of film were greatly exaggerated. Fifty years later those claims are starting to resurface.

In 1995 Sony released the Sony VX1000. The first digital video camera that independent filmmakers got excited about. Lars von Trier jumped on the digital bandwagon in directing and shooting the feature film The Idiots with the Sony VX1000 which he showed at Cannes in 1998.

As digital filmmaking became more popular the debate continued over whether this was really filmmaking since film was no longer being used. I remember being at a film festival in the ’90s when a New York filmmaker stated that he didn’t make videos, he made films.

Then this little hybrid movie came along in 1999 called The Blair Witch Project that was a game changer. Shot with a mixture of 16mm film and a consumer video camcorder (Hi8 I believe) Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale made the film for $35,000. that went on to make in the ballpark of $250 million worldwide. It still has the record for box office income against production costs. (We’ll see if Paranormal Activity beats it. A film inspired by The Blair Witch Project.)

When film historians look at the shift in the film business I think they will look at The Blair Witch Project and 1999 as the most important year for change. The Blair Witch filmmakers were not only from outside L.A. (they met in Orlando), not only found great success making a film shot in part on video, but they used the Internet to market the film in a whole new way.

Because I was living in Orlando at the time I like to point out they the Blair Witch filmmakers pointed out that Ralph Clemente who heads up the film program at Valencia Community College was a great inspiration to them in making a different kind of film. I studied with Clemente when he was teaching at the University of Miami film school and was happy he got a special nod.

The list of films made digitally grew and grew. In 2000, Spike Lee chose to shoot most of his $10 million dollar film Bamboozled with the Sony VX1000. In that same year Academy-award winning director Michael Figgis released a DV feature Timecode. Also in 2002 Steven Soderbergh shot the DV feature Full Frontal and Jerry Seinfeld was executive producer and featured performer for the DV documentary Comedian (2002).

Another landmark film was released in 2002, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark— a film that was shot digitally in one take. I saw Russian Ark in one of those grand old theaters in Chicago and I really thought it was a perfect mix of the past and future coming together.

What was different about Russian Ark from the DV features is it was shot on a high-end Sony HD camera. The quality difference between DV and 35mm is great when projected on the big screen. And films up to that point used DV for a variety of reasons usually related to budgets. Russian Ark reached new heights by shooting a type of film that not only couldn’t physically be shot on film (due to the nature of film loads being limited in time) but the quality for the average viewer was matched on the screen.

Also in the year 2002, Gary Winick’s  who directed Tadpole (shot with a Sony PD-150 DV camera) won the Best Director Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Sundance used to have a policy that said they only took films made on film. No videos allowed. The world was changing.

“I could have shot Tadpole on 35mm, and would it have been a better film? I don’t know. Would I have gotten that cast? I don’t know. Part of the reasons for the cast wanting to be in the film, besides the material, was that they were all interested in working in DV, which I presented it to them as this hybrid between the theater and film. And also, I only need you for two weeks and not two months.”
Gary Winick

In 2003 Peter Hedges (known for writing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) released the DV feature Pieces of April starring Katie Holmes.  It won many awards at film festivals and actress Patricia Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar. I love that film and it shows how a story and talent can overcome some technical deficiencies. Hedges pointed out in interviews out that financing had falling through a couple times before when it was budgeted for film so the $150,000 film would not have been made without shooting on DV.

In 2004 the InDigEnt produced November starring Courteney Cox and shot with a $4,000. Panasonic DVX 100 DV camera by director of photography Nancy Schreiber who won best cinematography for the film at the Sundance Film Festival.

Also in 2004 at Sundance Morgan Spurlock earned the Directing Award for Super Size Me and the documentary Born into Brothels won an audience award, both of which were shot on digital video cameras. Brothels beat Super at the Academy Awards. So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences.

Here’s what I wrote in a post last year called New Cinema Screenwriting:

So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences. You can sit around and argue all day about how film is superior to digital video, but folks the train has left the station.

And the standard def DV video cameras have now been replaced by digital High Def cameras that in the right hands can give a wonderful look. The crazy thing is these are cameras in the $5,ooo dollar range. And they are not being used on just low budget features. The Panasonic HVX 200 was used on the $30 million film Cloverfield.

But let’s not forget Paranormal Activity that is purposely meant to look like an amateur video and as of this writing has made over $60 million at the box office.

Yes, this is the point where I bring out the visionary trunk monkey Francis Ford Coppola (the grandfather of the digital filmmaking movement) who had this to say back in 1991:

Coppola was right on track. But can you imagine if he would have said that “some day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to make a film with her cell phone camera….”—the response might have been, “Yeah, right when we’re flying around like the Jetsons.” Yet, in 2005 a feature was shot using a cell phone. Today there are several cell phone film festivals around the world.

Coppola recently made and released Youth Without Youth shot digitally with the high-end Sony F900. The Sony camera (along with the Viper camera) are reaching quality levels that match film resolution. But the biggest talk about the digital filmmaking seems to center around the Red Cameras and we’ll address that in Part 7.

The film verses digital debate is coming to an end.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…(Part 7)

Scott W. Smith

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“The United States is the only country with a known birthday.”  
                                           James G. Blaine

July 4th not only marks the birthday of the United States of America (and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776), but it’s the birthday of actress Gloria Stuart. Don’t remember that name? Need a clue? Well, she’s most well known for her role as a 100-year-old woman. Gloria Stuart played the older Rose character in James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, the biggest money making movie in history. She turned 99 today.

I don’t know if Stuart has ever been to Iowa, but I like to point out that her character Rose is living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa when the audience is first introduced to her. For her role as Old Rose, Stuart became the oldest person ever nominated for an Oscar.

Stuart was born in 1910 and made her first film, Street of Women, in 1932. But it wasn’t until Titanic came out in 1997 that she became internationally known— seventy years after she graduated from Santa Monica High School.

“I was voted the girl most likely to succeed. I didn’t realize it would take so long.”
                          Gloria Stuart

Like they say, it takes a little time sometimes.

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“With the exception of My Dinner with Andre, very few films can sustain interest in one type of location for too long. Mix it up with day and night scenes, interiors and exteriors. Too many scenes in one type of location will hypnotize a reader like the centerlines on a highway.
                                                             Jim Suthers
Common Screenwriting Mistakes

“I’m a little bit country…I’m a little bit rock-n-roll”
                                                            Donnie & Marie

On Tuesday morning in Cedar Falls, Iowa I got tired of trying to scrape the ice off my SUV windows and ended up riding my bike to work on the snow packed roads. (My office is only a few blocks away.) Three days later I was riding a bike on the beach in a much warmer and sunnier New Smyrna Beach, Florida. That’s quite a contrast.


And that got me thinking of how contrast is used in screenwriting and in film/video/TV production.

It may only be something you become aware of in the rewriting stage or editing stage but how you handle contrast affects the flow of your story. If you’ve ever seen a production board of a feature film you’ve seen that there are different color strips for interior or exterior locations. Also listed are characters needed for certain scenes.

It helps producers and production managers get an overall feel of what is needed each day to bring a film in on time and on budget. It also helps a producer who is running over budget to know where to cut. And some contrasts begin to emerge in the story.

Some writers find it helpful to lay out their story in a similar way to see if there are any problems that jump out. Laid out in sequence you can see if there are x-amount of pages where your protagonist isn’t on screen ( a common problem).

Are there too many scenes in a row inside the same house? (Granted this works in a movie like Halloween, but is best to mix it up and move it around.) Let me give you another visual contrast from New Smyrna Beach of a sign a took yesterday.


The mostly white sign pops against the deep blue sky. Contrasts are used across the board in production from the script, to the way the script is shot and edited.

By contrast I mean things like:

As basic as this is many writers neglect addressing contrast favoring a more intuitive approach. But if we look over at our fellow creatives in the painting field they understand contrast very well. They are deliberate in their approach to color and composition.

Films are a visual medium and audiences enjoy seeing a contrast on screen. This can be seen in the biggest blockbuster of all time in how James Cameron deals with the world of the upper class wealthy and working class represented by Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic.

It also contrast the arrogance of those who thought they had built a ship that couldn’t be sunk with the realities of hitting an iceberg. The film deals with a contrast between life & death as the unsinkable ship begins to sink. Another way to look at contrast in this story is wet/dry.

On the Legally Blonde DVD commentary the production designers talk how they designed Reese Witherspoon’s California sorority lifestyle to be a pastel and playful world  to contrast the serious world of East Coast Harvard law school..

In both Jaws and Cold Manor Creek there is a contrast between families leaving the mean evil big cities seeking calm small town living –only to have those small town utopias turn into dangerous places. (Just for the record New Smyrna Beach with all its charm is the shark bite capital of the the US if not the world.)

Romeo & Juliet is the contrasts between two families.

In Fatal Attraction & The Godfather the calm demeanor of the Glenn Close and Marlon Brando characters are just one side of who they are.

Hitchcock built suspense in many a scene and movie using contrasts.

You get the picture. And of course the reasons for the contrast goes back to conflict. (If you a haven’t read the post Everything I learned in Film School (tip #1), that covers much of this ground.)

So the equation looks like this: CONTRAST=CONFLICT

Look for it everywhere in your script.

And look for it when you watch film and TV shows. Watch how they handle contrasts.

When you watch A Place in the Sun look and see how Elizabeth Taylor is dressed compared to Shelly Winters, both of whom are of interest to Montgomery Clift. Listen to the music and sounds associated with each character. Great writers and directors are intentional in their choices.

Watch how directors and directors of photography and editors use wide shots, medium, and close-ups (and some times ultra wide & extreme close-ups) in making a scene effective.

In the circles I travel in we call this shooting a sequence, other people call it coverage. Where you are shooting the same action in wide, medium, and close up shots. Without that coverage you have no contrast and it can make it difficult for an editor to make a scene work.

If photographers don’t have contrasts in their photos they talk about the photo being flat. While at times you can use that to your advantage, it is best to avoid writing flat characters. And the way you do that is adding contrasts to every scene.

Extra Credit: Since the opening quote mentioned My Dinner with Andre, I’d like to know if anyone has heard the rumor that it was written by Wally Shawn in the Black Hawk Hotel in Cedar Fall, IA–not  a half a block from my office. Several people have said that Shawn lived at the Black Hawk Hotel for a time in the 70’s and performed with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony. I’d like to read some confirmation of that.

Update: The day before I flew back to Iowa it was 80 degree in Orlando and a windchill of minus 20 in Cedar Falls, that’s a 100 degree difference. Quite a contrast indeed.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith˙

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