Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”
To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee (1926-2016)

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Yeah I think I know what my father meant when he sang about his lost highway…”
Hank Williams Jr.
All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)

“You must break from cliché. You must ‘Give us the same thing…only different.'”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

The movie Country Strong is no Tender Mercies. And there are some pluses and minus associated with that. While Tender Mercies is one of my all time favorite films, it did only make $8 million at the box office. Country Strong almost did that this weekend. But since I’ve been writing a good deal recently about movie clones it’s a good time to talk about avoiding clichés.

Tender Mercies is the 1983 Bruce Beresford directed movie for which Robert Duvall earned an Academy Award for Actor for playing a fallen (and alcoholic) county star. Horton Foote also earned an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Country Strong is the 2010 film written and directed by Shana Feste which stars Gwyneth Paltrow as a (recently) fallen (and alcoholic) county music star . And while Paltrow may get an Oscar nod, the screenplay won’t.

Feste is not Foote, and it would be unfair to compare her to him. He wrote Tender Mercies about 50 years into his career. A career that included Broadway plays and an Oscar for Adapted Screenplay for writing To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962. (And later a Pulitzer Prize.) County Strong is just Feste’s second film. (Who knows what Foote’s early plays were like decades before he became known as “America’s Checkov”?)

And to Feste’s credit she not only wrote the film but directed it putting together a great cast that do their best with a script that crosses the line into a melodrama with a cliché or two—or three. It doesn’t help that last year Jeff Bridges just happened to win an Academy Award in Crazy Heart for playing a fallen (and alcoholic) county music star. In fact, bio pictures of fallen and or musicians struggling with fame, drugs and/or alcohol is such a well travel path (The Doors, Walk the Line, A Star is Born, Glitter, Sweet Dreams) that Judd Apatow found it fertile ground to parody with his 2007 film Walk Hard: The Dewey Coy Story.

“When it seems like you’re stealing—don’t. When it feels like a cliche—give it a twist. When you think it’s familiar—it probably is, so you’ve got to find a new way.”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

“Clichés are shortcuts. The more you avoid taking them, the more interesting the places you’ll end up.”
John August
Avoiding cliches

When you start sampling movies about musicians you have to work hard not to hit a wrong note—be diligent to avoid the clichés. (Wait, did I just use a cliché?) I’ll give you one example of good and bad writing. In the opening scene of Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake pulls into the parking lot of a dive bar and empties a jug of urine. Not a word has been spoken and we’ve learned a lot about this character and we’ve seen something that no other film has shown before. Here’s a guy who lives on the road and doesn’t want or can’t take the time to make a proper restroom stops between gigs. (A little like the true “stalking astronaut in a diaper story” a couple of years ago.)

Now contrast that with (not really a spoiler, folks) Paltrow’s character finding a baby bird while in rehab and her husband played by Tim McGraw carrying the beat-you-over-the-head-metaphor-in-a-box through half the film. At least one point in the making of the film McGraw had to think, “Is this bird thing working? Seems a little forced to me.”  And I don’t even recall a payoff with the bird.

Country Strong is the kind of movie I used to walk out of when I was younger (ie: Bolero) but now I’ve learned to enjoy the good things about any film. Here the music is top-notch and the studios gave Feste the great director of photography, John Baily (As Good As It Gets), so the film looks wonderful. And despite the 17% Rotten Tomatoes rating from top critics, the film has its moments. I thought the opening scene was a fresh twist and great start to the movie. But somewhere along the way my mind started drifting and I started to wonder how actor Tobey Maguire (Superman, Seabiscuit) got attached to this project as producer.

Later I found out and that’s where the story gets interesting.  I discovered that Feste was once Maguire’s nanny. That’s not meant as a knock. That’s interesting stuff. Everyone needs a job until they break through and Feste was savvy enough to work as a nanny in LA to make connections in the industry. It worked. (I’d definitely recommend being a nanny over some of screenwriter Diablo Cody’s previous income streams. Heck, maybe you could be a nanny for Cody.)

“I went to work as a nanny for people who were in the entertainment business, so that I could get any information I could, even while I was watching their kids. I love children, so it was an easy gig.”
Shana Feste
MovieMaker, December 2010

Along the way, Feste also cut her chops getting a BA at UCLA, a master’s in creative writing from University of Texas at Austin, and another graduate degree from AFI. Solid credentials. After AFI she went to work as an assistant at CAA for  Richard Lovett, who was president of the agency. Again, brilliant move. Her first film The Greatest premiered at Sundance in 2009. Country Strong may not be the best film of the year, but I imagine there are few grads that she went to school with at UCLA, UT-Austin, and AFI who are in the position that Feste finds herself as a Hollywood player writing and directing features.

P.S. Feste was once a nanny for Courney Love. I imagine Love and many others will have a “no screenwriter” request for future nannies. I also have a feeling that the nanny agencies will be getting a lot of calls this week from filmmakers with MFA’s looking for work. So if you happen to live in LA and decide to sign up at one of the agencies like Buckingham Nannies you may want to keep that screenwriter thing to yourself.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Well, I don’t like to adapt, to begin with. It’s a very painful process—a big responsibility—particularly if you like something, which I usually have to do…The contribution (producer Alan Pakula) made was to say, “Now look, just stop worrying about the time frame of the novel (To Kill a Mockingbird) and try to bring it into focus in one year of seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer.” Architecturally, that was a big help. Then I felt I could compress and take away and add from that point of view.”
Horton Foote
Oscar-winning screenwriter of To Kill A Mockingbird (based on the Harper Lee novel)
Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 60s/Patrick McGilligan

Read Full Post »

“I picked a difficult subject, a little lost Texas town no one’s heard of or cares about … But I’m at the mercy of what I write. The subject matter has taken me over.”
                                                                 Horton Foote 

“What Foote knew was Wharton (Texas). By now, he was in New York, but everything he had learned about life had come from Wharton — all the eccentric characters he’d grown up around, the stories his loquacious aunts had told in order to pass the time, the family legends. His memories were and are strings of oral histories born from the triumphs and failings of the Texans he knew.”
                                                                 Becca Hensley
                                                                 American Way 

 

Writer Horton Foote died a few days ago, but his writings will live a long, long time. And though he was born and raised in a small town in Texas that was never a hindrance— it was his greatest inspiration.

In 1962 he won an Oscar for the screenplay adaptation for To Kill A Mockingbird. That alone is enough to be remembered by. Here are a couple things to consider about that movie:

Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, was voted the #1 hero in AFI’s Top 50 heroes and top 50 villains 
The film is listed as #34 in AFI’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time

In 1983 Foote won another Oscar, this time for Best Original Screenplay, for Tender Mercies.

Foote was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his play The Young Man from Atlanta (which also was nominated for a Tony).

Foote won an Emmy in 1997 for best writing for a TV miniseries or special for Old Man, (which was based on a novella by William Faulkner).

He also had several plays on Broadway and off-Broadway. Horton Foote was brilliant. Horton Foote was accomplished. But Horton Foote paid his dues. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he says that it takes an artist 10,000 hours to have a firm grip on his craft. (He uses Mozart and the Beatles as examples.) It is talent, but it is also a numbers game. And those numbers are hours and hours, year after year of learning one’s craft.

Foote’s set out to be an actor and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse and in New York. He wrote his first play in 1940 when he was 24 years old. But it would be another 13 years before you’d find a play he wrote that most people today would recognize, A Trip to Bountiful. (And at that point, counting his acting experience he had invested 21 years in theater.) When he started to write for the TV program Playhouse 90 in 1956 Foote was 40 years old. When he won the Academy Award for To Kill a Mockingbird he was 45-years old, and when he won his second Academy Award 67-years old, and 79-years old when awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1995,  and 81-years old when he won his Emmy in 1997.

He continued to write until he died and was quoted not that long ago saying, “I can’t quit (writing) I woke up last night at 1:30 and had to get up and write. It’s compulsive.”                                            

Horton Foote is that tall tree in the forest that didn’t sprout up overnight. Here are some of his quotes:

“But I don’t really write to honor the past. I write to investigate, to try to figure out what happened and why it happened, knowing I’ll never really know. I think all the writers that I admire have this same desire, the desire to bring order out of chaos.” 
                                                               Horton Foote 

“I knew little about adapting or writing for the screen.”
                                                               Horton Foote  

When you’re a writer, you have to write these stories, even if you don’t get paid.”
                                                               Horton Foote 

Related posts: Screenwriting from Texas

 

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Tender Mercies was filmed in Texas in the Waxahachie area with mainly Texas crews.

                                                               Horton Foote, Texas-born screenwriter
                                                               Tender Mercies, A Trip to Bountiful

I was born and raised in Texas in a family with 10 brothers and sisters. I was a daydreamer and bored at school, so I’d draw and doodle and make little flip cartoon movies. When I was 12, I decided to start making actual movies rather than just cartoons using my dad’s Super 8 camera.

                                                               Robert Rodriguez, Filmmaker
                                                               His movies have earned over $600 million 


There was an Austin breeze in Iowa last night as Willie Nelson was in town for a concert. The good seats costs $69.50 to hear the 75-year-old, and Sling Blade writer/director Billy Bob Thornton (The Boxmasters) was on the bill as well. I didn’t go but it did make me think it would be a fitting time to look at screenwriting from Texas.

While Willie is not a screenwriter, he is a legend. And he is a Texan (which I think is bigger than being a legend). And he certainly is a proven storyteller, a prolific songwriter and believe it or not has over 300 film and TV credits as actor, sound track music, composer, producer, and playing himself.

I’ve been hooked on Willie’s music ever since I first heard “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow-Up to be Cowboys” and have heard him play live a couple times. And I remember fondly his starring roll in Barbarosa back in the day. (And just for the record, the Barbarosa screenplay was written by Texas born Bill Wittliff who would go on to write the scripts for Legends of the Fall and The Perfect Storm.)

I don’t have time to write about all the talent that has come from Texas because it is a big state. But when I think of movies and Texas one name stands tall;

Horton Foote. 

That pretty much sums up screenwriting from Texas. Of course, he’s not the only writer from Texas — he just embodies the essence of fine writing from the longhorn state. He is best known for his screenplays Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird both of which earned him Academy Awards.

But he has had a long distinguished career that includes the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his play The Man from Atlanta, A Trip to Bountiful (for which Geraldine Page would win an Oscar for Best Actress), and the script for the Gary Sinise & John Malkovich version of Of Mice and Men.  

Foote was a trained actor born in 1916 in Wharton, Texas and made his broadway debut in 1944. But it was writing for the theater and in the early days of TV where he earned a living and made a name for himself eventually being called the “American Chekhov.”

But standing next to Horton Foote on the right is Larry McMurty.

McMurty, born in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1936 is yet another giant literary talent from the state. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1972 for The Last Picture Show and shared an Oscar win with Diana Ossana for the script for Brokeback Mountain.

He won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel Lonesome Dove that was also turned into a popular TV mini-series. (Wittliff, if you’re keeping a scorecard, also won a WGA Award for adapting part one of Lonesome Dove.)  And way back in 1963 McMurty’s novel Horseman Pass By was made into the Mitt Ritt directed Hud staring Paul Newman and Patricia Neal (who won the Oscar for Best Actress in a leading role).

Two quirky things about the prolific McMurty is he still writes on a typewriter and he owns a large antiquarian bookstore, Booked Up, in Archer City Texas where The Last Picture Show was shot and where he now lives.

And standing next to Horton Foote on the left I’ll put  three time Oscar winner writer/director Robert Benton who was born in Waxahachie. Huh? The same place Tender Mercies was filmed in — interesting. I don’t know what’s in the water there, but once coming back from a gig in Austin I went out of my way to drive through Waxahachie just to breath the air.

Benton’s screenwriting career began with Bonnie & Clyde and he  wrote and directed Places in the Heart which is just a beautiful film. Ellen McCathy of the Washington Post wrote this about Benton; “His most noteworthy films of the past three decades — 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer, 1984’s Places in the Heart and 1994’s Nobody’s Fool — present familiar characters, ordinary lives and the full range of love’s twisted complexities.”

Maybe instead of calling my blog Screenwriting from Iowa I should of called it Screenwriting from Waxahachie. Then again, how many people can spell Waxahachie? I think it’s an Native Indian word that means land of sacred storytellers.

I’m not sure where to put Robert Rodriguez. But then again he stands out from the pack because he does a little of everything and is one of the greatest overall creative forces in cinematic history.

Born in Texas in 1968, Rodriguez has done a remarkable job of making the low budget El Mariachi (on a reported $7,000 budget) as well as big Hollywood mega hits including Spy Kids which made over $100 million. Personally I like what Rodriguez is doing more than what he has done. That is I don’t revisit his films but I love that he is a producer, director, camera operator, Steadicam operator, director of photography, actor, writer, editor, sound mixer, visual effects supervisor and composer who not only pushes the envelop in the digital world but he is free to tell you what he’s doing so you can get in on the show.

Rodriguez is based in Austin which is its own filmmaking mecca that has inspired  Matthew McConaughey (by the way, love the Airstream in Malibu concept), Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Mike Judge, Owen Wilson and is home to The Austin Film Festival. Austin as a whole is one of the most interesting cities in the country. The have the state capitol, a major college in the heart of the city, there are plenty of old hippies, rednecks, computer geeks, business people, artists and musicians of all kinds thrown into the mix for a great overall creative vibe. 

And since at the time of this post the number one box office movie is Twilight (with a $70 million opening weekend) I must mention that the director Catherine Hardwicke was born and raised in McAllen, Texas. She was also the writer/director of Thirteen. (Making a case for speed writing, Thirteen was co-written in six days with 14-year old Nikki Reed.)

And the newcomer from Texas is Chris Eska who comes from Ottine, Texas (pop 98) whose film debut Evening August  was the winner of the 2008 Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award and the Best Film Awards at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Like those oil wells, Texas just keeps producing.

And Texas as a whole is a full of a wonderful wacky history and mix of characters and talent Mark Cuban, Don Henley, Lance Armstrong and you fill-in-the-rest. Here is a short list of some of the films made in Texas that I haven’t mentioned:

Red River (1948)
Giant (1956)
Urban Cowboy (1980)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
North Dallas Forty (1979) 
Southern Comfort (1981)
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)
Waltz Across Texas (1982) 
Fandango (1985)
Scary Movie (1989)
Rushmore (1998)
Office Space (1999)
Miss Congeniality (2000)
The Alamo (2004) 
Friday Night Lights (2004)
No Country for Old Men (2007) 
There Will Be Blood (2007) 

North Dallas Forty writer Peter Gent played wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys and is an excellent writer and who for whatever reason only has one film credit to his name. Now living in Michigan I hope it’s not his last and that he hook-ups with one of those Michigan filmmakers and knocks our socks off once again. (How about a look into the heart of the auto industry like you did with professional football?)

As I said I’m sure I missed a few people and great films but feel free to send your comments. But a fitting place to end this tour of Texas is back in Austin with William Broyles Jr. the Oscar-nominated screenwriter from Houston (who now lives in Austin) who wrote the screenplays for Apollo 13, Cast Away, and Flags of Our Fathers

“This movie (Cast Away) begins and ends in Texas. And that’s not an accident. This is where my heart is.” 
                                                                    William  Broyles Jr.
                                                                     The Austin Chronicle (Dec. 2000)

Apparently he’s not alone there.


2008 Copyright Scott W. Smith

 

Read Full Post »

“Small town people are more real, more down to earth.”
                                                             Groundhog Day 
                                                             Phil (Bill Murray) 

 

“A growing number of Americans are seeking a larger life in a smaller place. Many are finding it.” 
                                                                                      Life 2.0
                                                                                      Richard Karlgaard 

You hear a lot about Main St. these days and I thought I’d explore what that means from a screenwriting & filmmaking  perspective. A couple days ago my travels took me to northern Illinois and to the town of Woodstock which happens to be where much of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray was filmed.

The above photo is the corner where Ned confronts Bill Murray’s character again and again and where Murray steps off the curb into the puddle of water. The town, which is about an hour north east of Chicago, has improved much over the last 15 years and continues to embrace the fact that Groundhog Day was filmed there.

 

That’s right, Woodstock doubled for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Director Harold Ramis thought the town square there worked better as a location than the real deal. I wonder how many people go out of their way to go to Punxutawney and are disappointed that it doesn’t look like the town in the movie? That’s showbiz.

In fact, the town even has a life-imitating-art groundhog day celebration and a nice map you can follow to see the various filming locations of the Danny Rubin and Ramos screenplay. The bar scene where Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell drink to world peace is now the Courtyard Grill and has a signed script on the wall by where they sat.

 

Certainly, if you’re in the area it’s worth it to stop to see where one of the great comedy films (#34 on the AFI Greatest American Comedy list) was filmed. If you’re there at the beginning of February you can even take part in the groundhog days celebration. 

From my home where I am typing this I can see Main St. here in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It’s just a block to the west and is quite a lively Main St. USA. Shops, a playhouse, art galleries, several bars and restaurants (a new one opening next month will feature a respected Chicago chef) and even a comedy club. It’s also worth a stop if you are ever driving the Avenue of the Saints between St. Louis and St. Paul.

There’s something endearing about Main Streets in general. Of course, sometimes they aren’t even called Main St., but they are the historic main road through the heart of smaller towns. It’s not hard for me to think back at some of my favorite main drags (Telluride, Colorado, Winter Park, Florida., Franklin, Tennessee,, Holland, Michigan, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Seal Beach, California, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania  and Galena, Illinois).

Places that for the most part that have been around for 100 years. Places with history and character. Perhaps in a response to sprawling suburbs there has been an architectural movement to design areas that look a little like small towns complete with a Main St. (Some even have a small movie theaters.)

I first became aware of this while a student at the University of Miami in the ’80s when two Miami architects (Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) began to design the beach community of Seaside, Florida. (Seaside is so idyllic, it is where they filmed The Truman Show.) The success of Seaside has been well documented.

On the Seaside website you’ll find the history and the philosophy of what they set out to create after doing extensive research:
“Most of the buildings were studied in the context of small towns, and gradually the idea evolved that the small town was the appropriate model to use in thinking about laying out streets and squares and locating the various elements of the community. 

Seaside is a great place and today you can go throughout the country and find other areas that were designed in its wake; Celebration, FL,  Baldwin Park, FL, Harmony, FL, Prospect New Town in Boulder County, Colorado, and Kentlands in Gaitherburg, Maryland. 

That is not to say that this new urbanist master planned communities idea doesn’t have its critics. The most common charge is they say the towns are more like film sets or some kind of fantasyland — sentimental and far removed from reality.  Some felt it a little strange when Thomas Kinkade (The Painter of Light) got into the act outside the San Francisco Bay area by inspiring a development called The Village at Hiddenbrook that feature homes that would be at home in one of his glowing paintings. Where are the Rod Serling/Twight Zone inspired writers on that one?

But for many (including Walt Disney, and perhaps Kinkade) small towns represent the ideal. (Community, honesty, fullness of life, etc.) The way life ought to be, or the way it was.  Many movies and TV programs tap into this mystique: It’s a Wonderful Life, American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show, My Dog Skip, The Andy Griffith Show, Cars, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Truman Show, Northern Exposure, Places in the Heart, and Hoosiers.

(And some books, films and songs are critiques and satires of small town living such as Pleasantville, Harper Valley PTA, and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street.

Either way Main St. (and all that it represents) is a part of Americanna and will continue to be probably forever and is fertile ground for you to explore in your screenwriting, and perhaps even in your life. As Don Henley (who was raised in the small town of Linden, Texas) sings in The End of the Innocence:
Who know how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far so fast
But somewhere back there in the dust,
that same small town in each of us

On a closing note, I remember when I lived in L.A. there was a popular radio host named Dr. Toni Grant who used to encourage her callers/listeners to write the script of their life. I always thought that was an interesting concept and worth exploring as you take a few more trips around the sun. 

Come to think of it, isn’t that what Bill Murray’s character did in Groundhog Day? He rewrote the script of his life and became a better person — and got the girl to boot. It is a wonderful life…

 

Photos and text 2008 copyright Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: