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Posts Tagged ‘Tobey Maguire’

This is part two (of what I think will be four parts) of an interview with screenwriter Rick Ramage (Stigmata). In part one we covered how he was born in Fargo, North Dakota, raised in Denver, Colorado, where in his mid-twenties he was selling tractors when he wrote his first screenplay. That led him to getting accepted at the American Film Institute  in L.A. where he got a formal education writing and making short films.

Scott W. Smith: I read that when you were at AFI you had the  opportunity to work with and up an coming young actor named Tobey Maguire.

Rick Ramage: Yeah, that was an unbelievable day. He wasn’t a star then; I think he was 12 or 13 years old. He walked in an just nailed that audition. Tobey and I became fast friends. We’ve lost touch now, but we hung out for quite a while after that. He was just a wonderful kid. Bright and cocky, he had all the right stuff. He was a wonderful actor. He just had it. I always tell that story when I’m at a party, “Oh, I know Spiderman. He was in one of my movies.” “Really, which one?”, “Ah…it was a student film.” But it’s still fun.

SWS: What did you do after your formal film education at AFI?

RR: After film school I worked at Omega Cinema Props for almost a year while I continued to write, and I got lucky and I optioned a script. I actually optioned my script right before I got out of film school.

SWS I think I read where that first script optioned for $5,000.

RR: Yep, Five thousand bucks, but it felt like a million though. It never got made. But I had a serious sale after that and was busy. I started to work on the project Shakespeare’s Sister which turned into The Proposition [1998] which was the first movie that I had written get made. Ted Field and Diane Nabatoff who were at Interscope bought that script. I never looked back after that.

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SWS: So you had success right out of the gate.

RR: This is the truth— but I almost hesitate to tell it because I had such a dream experience—I sold Shakespeare’s Sister and literally in the next week or ten days the first director I ever met was Steven Spielberg and the second director I ever met was Sydney Pollack. Both on the same day and both gave me a job so I was thrust into a level for which I was in no way prepared. Those guys are massive storytellers and massive directors, but they read Shakespeare’s Sister and were intrigued enough to give me a shot. So here I went from having $17 to having Shakespeare’s Sister sell. As you know, you get half up front and half upon production, so I had a couple hundred thousand there. So I went to work with both of those directors. It was phenomenal. I thought “great, this is how it works”. Everybody wants that to happen. And I stayed in the studio system for the next 15 years. I would do re-writes. I’d sell a spec—I’ve sold 10 or 11 spec scripts. I was pretty spoiled.

[Note: Ramage is taking all the experienced he’s gather over the years and putting them together in The Screenplay Show.]

SWS: Stigmata, of which you are co-credited as writer with Tom Lazarus, is one of your highest profile projects. How did you get on that project?

RR: I was asked to do a rewrite on Stigmata by Frank Mancuso and it was shortly after The Proposition was made. I didn’t even know what stigmata was. I got a call from MGM and they asked if I’d look at it. I love projects where I don’t necessarily know the answer that I’m looking for. I have a theory that if I can get you to identify in the first few pages and ask, “What would I do here?”, I got ya.

SWS. I thought the scene in Stigmata where Patricia Arquette gets a stigmata raised a major dramatic question and it made me think “What’s going to happen to her?” and carried that through to the climax when that was resolved.

RR: I tend to look for God a lot through character and scripts. I love that because there is no answer, right? It’s what you arrive at dramatically that counts. As long as you approach anything with reverence, I think people will respect it.

I had a director ask me once, “What’s the one thing you come out of the movie theater with?” and I’m like, “Duh, I don’t know.” He goes, “An opinion. It’s the one thing that everybody has when they leave a movie.” And he said, “The gift is they’re discussing your movie or engaging about it on the way home.” Because you’ve accomplished something. It’s not Spam in a can. You got people talking about it. I thought that was great advice.

SWS: Stigmata and Se7en were thrillers with religious overtones—both made in the 90s—do you think those films get made today given that the middle class of filmmaking has all but disappeared?

RR: I’m glad you put it that way, middle class. Where did the middle class go? I don’t know. It disappeared shortly after the Writers Guild strike. I think a story like Stigmata would definitely more so than a story like The Proposition. As a a society we’ve moved so far past what might have been considered salacious back in the 30s to now is commonplace.

Stigmata would. It touches on the spiritual aspect. The horrific elements of Stigmata came out of a real place. The Father named Padre Pio would be attacked in his cell, another word for his room in Italy every month or two (something) would go in there and throw him around. That’s when it got interesting to me, because it’s the yin and yang, good and evil at work.

Right after the movie came out—and it was number one that week—I did a radio interview out of New York and the guy said, “I really liked your movie and we’re about to go on the air.” And I said “Good”, because at least he liked the movie. And he came back after the commercial break and said, “we’re with Rick Ramage screenwriter of the number one movie Stigmata, Rick what do you have against Catholics?” I felt my stomach sink into my knees. I said “I don’t have anything against Catholics; I’m married to one. Why?” He said, “Well, you know, in The Proposition the priest sleeps with the woman, and in Stigmata your priest is a bad guy.” I go, “Well, my priest in The Proposition finds God because there is an old saying that ‘Priests are in search of God, and sinner know him.’ And for Stigmata the priest is a bad guy, but so is the good guy. It’s called a power struggle. Certainly the church is a wonderful place for a power struggle.” He said, “That makes sense”, but you get the point, you never know how something is going to be interpreted.  

I was in awe of what Patrica Arquette did with the role. One of the gifts of a screenwriter is you write it down and then you watch somebody do it better than you ever hear it in your head. That’s a gift. She made it better, and that’s one of the fun parts of getting something made. When I watched her performance, she didn’t blink she went for it. Gabriel Byrne went to seminary so he’d know how a priest would think and act. So it was a great experience.

In Part 3 we’ll look at how Rick transitioned to television and other projects.

Related posts:
Screenwriter Rick Ramage Q&A (Part 1)
Screenwriter Rick Ramage Q&A (Part 3)

Scott W. Smith

 

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That’s it, Eric Guggenheim is the final straw. Is it me or are screenwriter’s names getting longer? Today I’m officially change one of the categories on this blog from “Screenwriting Quote of the Day” to simply “Screenwriting Quote #___.” The last writer I quoted was Mark D. Rosenthal and the post heading just looked too long.

So let it be said, so let it be done.

Wonder what took me so long to edit that down. It’s not like I’m paid by the word like my first writing gig at the Sanford Herald. I think it was 10 cents a word. But, heck, I was nineteen and thrilled to being paid anything to write. (Wish I was making 10 cents a word to write this blog.)

Anyway, back to Eric Guggenheim. Guggenheim sold his first script at age 23 just after he graduated from NYU before going on to write the script for Miracle (on the 1980 US Hockey team).  In an interview he did with Debra Eckerling he was asked, “What separates a good sports movie from a bad one?”

Guggenhiem: If all you have is that big game, you’re lost. The film has to be about something else. Take Seabiscuit for example. It’s a story about loss and healing that just happens to be set against the backdrop of horseracing. Jeff Bridges’ character lost his son, Tobey Maguire’s character lost his family. Chris Cooper’s character lost his way of life. Working with the horse and each other helped to ease those losses.

Since I’ll go on record as Seabiscuit being my favorite movie of the last decade (and most watched), I never get tired of talking about that movie. (And am always surprised by how many people haven’t seen the film.) Sports film, horseracing, big Hollywood film—I get why some people would not be attracted to the film, but if you haven’t seen it give it a try. It really is a well-crafted film that is enjoyable to watch on many levels.

Is your favorite sports film about more than the big game? I know Rocky & Hoosiers are both about broken characters looking for redemption.

And by the way, Debra Eckeling writes for Storylink and has the website Write On Online (which is full of Q&A with writers). And you can follow her on Twitter @writeononline.

Scott W. Smith


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“You don’t just throw a whole life away just because it’s banged up a little.”
                                                                Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper)
                                                                Seabiscuit’s trainer
 

“This is not a movie about victory, but about struggle.” 
                                                                 Gary Ross, Screenwriter/Director
                                                                 Seabiscuit 

 

Seabiscuit turned five this year — not the horse, of course, but the movie. And I wish Universal would re-release the film in theaters this holiday season. (In the digital projection future those decisions will be easier to make.) 

The film originally came out in the summer of 2003. The economy was still in a slump from the terrorist events surrounding 911. Unemployment was high. The Laura Hillenbrand book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, about a race horse set in the Great Depression was already a #1 New York Times bestseller.   

The movie had a solid box-office run and was nominated for 7 Academy Awards. It was not only my favorite film of that year, but I’d put it in the top ten of my all time favorites. In my book it is across the board solid filmmaking on par with Rain Man and On the Waterfront. As time goes by that film will continue to find favor because it is a film with many layers.

(Seabiscuit is also the only movie poster I own. And as seen in the above photo, I keep it close by where I edit for inspiration. It just so happened that I moved to Iowa in the Summer of ’03 and for various reasons it was a hard enough transition that I saw Seabiscuit three times just in movie theaters.)

And the reason I’d love to see a re-release of the film is because the theme resonates even more today than it did even in 2003. Unemployment is higher today than it’s been in the past 15 years. While the stock market hasn’t crashed it has recently seen some of its greatest declines since the Great Depression. And then there is the auto industry.

Seabiscuit is set in a time of transition in the United States. A transition from the natural to the mechanical on one level and an examination of the American Dream on another level. And all wrapped together around three broken people and one broken horse.

It’s a movie that could have turned into a bad After School Special in the wrong hands, but in careful hands is a classic movie.

Of course, one thing that is happening now that wasn’t the case in 2003 is the auto industry is in a slump. What has been called the back bone of industry in our country is in trouble. Reports of sales being a third lower than normal are causing a ripple effect throughout the country.  By some accounts the auto industry represents 10% of all US jobs when you begin to connect the related industries. 

Maybe we could have a double feature with Seabiscuit. Remember the Ron Howard film Gung Ho? It starred Michael Keaton as a worker who has to justify his automotive job with the Japanese company that has taken over. By all accounts some US automotive companies need some major restructuring to survive.

In the movie Seabiscuit automobiles represent the future and bring wealth to Howard (played by Jeff Bridges), but it comes at a price. His son is killed in an automobile accident. And it is Howard who must find a way to put the pieces back together again. And along the way there is the forgotten horse trainer (Chris Cooper) and the angry jockey Red (Tobey Maguire) who are all brought together because of an underrated race horse. It’s a story of brokenness and restoration.

On the DVD commentary Gary Ross comments, “Howard is a guy who lost his son, and Red is a guy who lost his father. That’s just kind of the basic facts of it both in almost a cataclysmic way. And that original wound can never be righted but you can make peace with the pain in your life and somehow kind of continue. It can’t replaced, but it can be understood.”

And what’s special about Seabiscuit is it’s a film that connects with most of our lives. In fact, the closing shot is not one of victory, but one of a point of view of the audience on the horse as if to imply this is race we are all in. There will be battles and scars. But get back on the horse. As one friend tells his little boys when they get scrapes–“cuts and scars are proof of living.”

And Ross is careful to convey that these characters are far from perfect. “We labor under the tyranny of perfect heroes. Especially with movies that cost any money and everything gets homogenized down to things that are not objectionable or that are only heroic. The things that are ultimately most heroic are people struggling against their own obstacles or struggling to become something or struggling against their flaws and that’s what’s really heroic right there. I was lucky, I had three flawed heroes.”

And of course, this all started with the words written by Laura Hillenbrand as she researched and wrote the book over a course of years. Struggle is not foreign to Hillenbrand who has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome since she was a college student in Ohio.

At 19 she had to abandon her dreams of some day getting a Ph.D. and in an interview with Anne A. Simpkinson said, “I spent the first year of my illness pretty much bed-bound and when I began to improve a little bit in 1988, I needed some way to justify my life.” She turned to writing. 

In an article she wrote for The New Yorker, A Sudden Illness — How My Life Changed, Hillenbrand recounts the long process of adapting to her new life and how hard it was to write, “Because looking at the page made the room shimmy crazily around me, I could write only a paragraph or two a day… It took me six weeks to write 1,500 words.” Knowing that adds weight to her writing (not that it needs it).

“Man is preoccupied with freedom yet laden with handicaps.”
                                                                 Laura Hillenbrand
                                                                
Seabiscuit, An American Legend

If you’re a writer, Hillenbrand recounting the difficulties she endured while researching and writing Seabiscuit will probably give you little room to complain about the difficulties surround your situation.  She wrote the first article on Seabiscuit from a tiny apartment in Washington, D.C. 

And whatever grace Hillenbrand tapped into to write that book was passed on to screenwriter Gary Ross as he translated the 400 page book into a two hour and 21 minute movie. And in one of the rare cases in movie history the author was pleased with the movie script; “I found myself struck by how deftly Gary had managed to weave so much of the story into so short a time without it feeling compressed or rushed. Gary’s screenplay is simply brilliant, and I am so deeply grateful to him for his immense effort, his creativity, and his inspiration.”

On a closing note, if I recall correctly there were some interesting choices Ross made while adapting the script. I don’t expect to see every character in the book but from memory here are a handful of changes you may find interesting from a writer’s perspective and why I think they were made:

1) Howard’s son who was killed in real life was a teenager and not his only son. By making him younger and the only son creates more empathy for Howard. 

2) Howard’s second wife Marcela (Elizabeth Banks) was actually the sister of his son’s wife. But why complicate the story? Plus in the movie there is only one son and he’s killed in his youth. 

3) Tick-Tock McGlaughlin the colorful character played by William Macy is a fictitious character. And by Ross’ admission he’s there to compress the needed exposition to keep the story moving forward.

4) Ross also chose to end the movie when a sense of order had been restored in each of the lives. It’s a great jumping off point. But the epilogue in the book is a little different. 

5) Hillenbrand writes that while Red lived close to the pulse of Tijuana that, “he appears to have passed up offers from Tijuana prostitutes.” Ross chose to use Red in the brothel as key scene where he learns of his vision problems. This is in the movie because I think there is a quota in Hollywood where x-amount of movies must have a prostitute or a pole dancer in it.

If you have never seen Seabiscuit do yourself a favor and see it before the end of the year, and if you just lost your job watch it tonight.

And for the writers out there here’s Hillenbrand quoted in the Ballinetine Books, Seabiscuit, The Screenplay reminding us of the power of storytelling:

“I was thinking ‘if I can sell five thousand copies (of Seabiscuit) out of the truck of my car, I’ll be happy.’ I just wanted to tell the story.”

Update November 27: Happy Thanksgiving. A day after I wrote this post I saw an ad for a new film called The Tale of Despereaux  with the tagline about a “Small Hero. Big Heart.” Sounded kinda like Seabiscuit. I looked who to see who the screenwriter was and it’s Gary Ross. I look forward to that Christmas release.

If you’re looking for a Thanksgiving movie to watch today check out Pieces of April on DVD which is a wonderful film I’ve written a little bit about. It stars Katie Holmes and was written and directed by Des Moines, Iowa native Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?). And for you indy filmmakers that film was made just a few years ago using a Sony PD 150 DV camera that you can find on ebay these days for under $1,500. 

 

photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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I was talking to John Irving the other day…

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Okay, technically that’s true, but it’s not like we were hanging out talking about his writings and the finer aspects of American literature. Irving was in Iowa City this week and doing a Q&A session sponsored by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was simply one of the approximately 200 people in attendance and I got to ask him a couple questions.
After University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her screenplay Juno the school gave her a blurb on its website and they put in a link to Screenwriting from Iowa because I had written an article about her called The Juno–Iowa Connection. In that blog I went into detail on the long list of great writers who have come out of the University of Iowa.

After poking around their website I found out the Writers’ Workshop had regular readings and decided that Irving was worthy of making the 75 minute trek from Cedar Falls. Not because I’m a huge fan of his work but because of his place in American literature. I do remember discovering his writings while in college and have seen most of the movies made from his novels. Since he was a student and a professor at Iowa I thought he fit the Screenwriting from Iowa concept fairly well.
Some of his movies are The Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp, Simon Birch (Prayer for Owen Meany) and The Cider House Rules. The later for which he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. 
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Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden once said of one of his players, “He may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in it doesn’t take long to call roll.” With Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonagunt dying in 2007, Irving is in a class that includes just a handful of American literary giants like John Updike and Tom Wolfe.
It’s been said that film directors are either geeks or jocks. I don’t know if that’s true of writers but in Irving’s case he looks every bit the jock. Even at age 66 he looks like a wrestler to be reckoned with and has had a life long love for the sport. If you follow the American literary scene you have to agree that he is also a writer to be reckoned with. Writer Peter Matthiessen has said, “He’s probably the great storyteller of American literature today.”  
Here are some notes from his Q&A that I thought you’d be interested in;
Irving was turned on to writing at a young age and after reading Dickens  and thought that being a writer would be a good thing. He said that if he would have read Hemingway first instead he’d of probably have ended up doing something different. He went as far as saying he hated Hemingway’s writing which was good for a few chuckles from those gathered at the Dey House. He’s said worse things about Updike in the past. Irving is a man with opinions.
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He said he never thought he could earn a living solely as a writer and in fact was a teacher through his first four books. (Before Garp made him rich and famous he had been writing for 11 years with limited success.) Though he writes his first drafts quickly he spends two-thirds of his time doing re-writing. That is when the book comes together. 
He said that he enjoys the editing side of filmmaking because it closely resembles what he does in rewriting. Though he is a novelist he comes at his work with the audience in mind. “My goal is to entertain you–and break your heart.” He wants to provoke the reader.
Like many (all?) writers with Hollywood experience he’s had his share of bad experiences. But he didn’t seem bitter when he said of the film industry, “It’s not a nice business.”

I’ve been told that in the days before amateur wrestlers wore headgear protection that you could always tell a wrestler by his cauliflower ears. (Cartilage damage that permanently deforms the ear.) It’s an old school badge of honor, a source of pride. It’s a tribal thing for wrestlers. I’m not sure what the equivalent is for a Hollywood screenwriter, but I think Irving has those scars. But he’s a grappler so they don’t appear to weigh him down. He may even enjoy that aspect of the business.
Perhaps he appears more grounded because he’s a novelist that really wouldn’t have a problem walking away from Hollywood if he had to. But more likely it’s because he lives in Toronto and Vermont. and because his roots are far from Hollywood in Exeter, New Hampshire. Maybe he learned something from the stories of Faulkner and others hanging around Hollywood too long.
In his book My Movie Business Irving writes “All writers repeat themselves; repetition is the necessary concomitant of having anything worthwhile to say.” Stephan King in his book on writing says that every writer has their “little red wagon.” For King it’s the paranormal, for John Grisham it’s justice, for Pat Conroy it’s his dysfunctional family, and for Woody Allen it’s his neurotic self.
For Irving it’s themes of disturbing sexual relations, abandonment and a touch of nihilism. I think it was Proust who said that every artist paints the same picture. You may be eclectic in the books you read and movies you watch, but chances are good that there are only a couple issues or themes you care enough about to invest your time writing stories about. (If you’re unsure of the themes that move you just look at the films you watch over and over again. Something there touches a cord inside you.)
A look at the scripts I’ve written and the few movies I own show a fascination with the concept of restoration. (David Mamet’s The Verdict, Ben Afflack & Matt Damon’s  Good Will Hunting, and Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, Gary Ross & Laura Hillenbrand‘s Seabiscuit are a few restoration movies that jump out at me as I glance over at my DVDs.)
As fallen New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer said a few days ago in his resignation speech, “I go forward with the belief, as others have said, that as human beings, our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Few of us will experience such public disgrace as being link to a sex scandal, but is anyone exempt from some level of falling and or brokenness?
“We all walk as crippled men” I once heard a Scottish preacher say drawing out the word crippled in a way that resonated with me to this day.  And so Jenny in Forrest Gump throws rocks at the home she was abused in as a child and Forrest says, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.” What I call redemption, the Greeks playwrights called catharsis (cleansing).
After Irving’s Q&A session I made a quick stop at Prairie Lights Bookstore. While it doesn’t have the funky character of The Tattered Book Cover in Denver’s LoDo district or the physical size of Powell’s City of Books in Portland, the quality of books that Prairie Lights Books carries put it on a CNN list of Nine bookstores worth a tourist stop. 
Last November I did a video shoot on Sproule Plaza at UC Berkeley and downtown Iowa City has that kind of feel. (Though I must say I thought it was humorous that the police at Berkeley were giving out tickets for bike riding on Sproule Plaza. Free speech may still be cherished there but riding a bike will cost you.)
I also grabbed this movie marque shot in Iowa City because when else again will I see The Who’s Tommy next to The Princess Bride? (If only it were a double feature.)
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If you live in Iowa or are driving through Iowa on I-80 you owe it to yourself to make a little detour in Iowa City. Soak in the atmosphere that has produced  many Pulitzer Prize winning authors and has become known as The Writing University. Below is a photo I took of the Dey House after Irving’s Q&A session. If you are interested in learning more about the MFA writing program at the University of Iowa visit the website of The Writers’ Workshop.
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The last question I ask Irving was if there was any truth to his writing a screenplay on wrestler Dan Gable. High School & college wrestling is huge in Iowa and Dan Gable is the number #1  icon. Gable was an Olympic champion and coach at the University of Iowa where he won 15 national championships. His only loss in high school and college came on the last match his senior year. Irving said he was serving as producer on the film about Gable. Irving’s love for the sport can be seen by a tattoo one of his forearms. It could be mistaken for a bulls-eye or a skinny version of the Target store logo , but it is actually a wrestling mat starting circle.  I’m sure that won’t be your typical sports film.
As I made the drive home after hearing Irving speak I couldn’t  help but think how ironic it is that in the last eight years two University of Iowa grads have both won Academy Awards for screenplays that are essentially about unplanned pregnancies? (And I’m not sure that topic could be handled more differently than the serious Cider House and the humorous Juno.)
Producer David Puttnam, who won an Oscar award for Chariots of Fire, once wrote that “all films are propaganda.” In that all films are propagating something.  So despite the old Hollywood adage “If you want to send a message use Western Union,” films again and again have messages.
Irving writes in My Movie Business, “The Cider House Rules is a didactic novel. The nature of Dr. Larch’s (Michael Caine) argument with Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is polemical, and Larch wins the argument in the end…The Cider House Rules was not a love story, Phillip Borsos and I decided. It was a history of illegal abortion.”
He went through fifty drafts of the script to make sure his abortion rights vision was clear. He was clear enough that when Paul Newman read the script he turned down the roll of Dr. Larch and told Irving, “There are so many scenes at that incinerator (Where the aborted babies are burned). That incinerator really gets me.”
What got Juno was an pro-life advocate and school friend who told the Ellen Page character, “Your baby has fingernails.” Juno stops in her tracks and says, “My baby has fingernails?” and the story takes a different direction when she decides not to have an abortion.
Juno was actually the fourth film  of ’07 (following WaitressBella, and Knocked Up) to feature an unplanned pregnancy and an attempt to adjust to less than ideal circumstances to bring the baby into this world.  An interesting trend, don’t ya think?
I’m not sure what it all means, but I’ve said before that one of my favorite quotes is from William Romanowski;  “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.” Remember that when you’re writing.
Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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