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Posts Tagged ‘Tony Bill’

There was [The Wizard of Oz actor] Bert Lahr sitting with the cast of his latest vehicle . . . Stash [Prager] introduced me, saying ‘This is Doc Simon. The kid’s written a funny play Bert.’ Bert looked at me an said quite earnestly, but still in that Cowardly Lion’s voice, ‘Is it about anything? If it’s not about anything, they won’t like it. Make sure it’s about something, kid,’ then wished me good luck and turned back to his party.”
Playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon
Rewrites, A Memoir

P.S. That brief exchange happened in a restaurant in Philadelphia shortly before the opening night of his first play (Come Blow Your Horn) in 1961. The first performance received, according to Simon, “a partial standing audience.” Critic Ernie Schier of the Philadelphia Bulletin agreed with the audience writing, ”The theater season has bounced to its feet with Come Blow Your Horn, a laugh happy, bell-ringing farce which opened last night at the Walnut.”

And that’s how Neil Simon launched his playwriting career. That success in Pennsylvania paved the way for the play to make it to Broadway and eventually get produced as a movie featuring Frank Sinatra, Molly Picon, Jill St. John, Barbara Rush, Lee Cobb, and Tony Bill.

Related post:

How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (and where Michael Arndt gives basically the same advice as Bert Lahr)

Scott W. Smith

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“Everyone has a big but. Simone, let’s talk about your big but…You can’t just wish for something to come true—you have to make it happen.”
Pee Wee Herman
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

“The reason why most [comedy screenplays] don’t work is they’re not about anything.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)

The screwball comedy (living cartoon?) Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is a guilty pleasure for many. I just recently saw the Tim Burton directed film for the first time and think I know why it has such a strong following even though it was released back in 1985. It not only addresses everyone’s “big but”—which I’ll look at in a minute— but it’s a simple story well told.

1) The opening scene begins with Pee Wee doing what he loves to do best—ride his bike.
2) In the first 10 minutes we are introduced to the quirky hero and his colorful world.
3) In the set-up we understand that Pee Wee’s bike is special to him and he wouldn’t sell it for any amount of money.
4) At the 19 minute mark he learns of his stolen bike. A clear inciting incident.
5) Pee Wee’s goal is simple “To find my bike.”
6) He begins a quest to get back what was taken. (Just like John Wayne in The Searchers and Liam Neeson in Taken.  Active hero=Thumbs up.)
7) Along his journey he meets many bizarre characters, including Large Marge—an 18-wheeler truck driving ghost.
8) There are as many roadblocks as there are set-pieces (Western, Biker, James Bond, Godzilla, Beach, etc.).
9) It has a clear ending and Pee Wee returns from his journey a better man.

When the answer to “What’s at stake?” is just a stolen bike, they get by with it because;  A) It’s a comedy, and B) Pee Wee really loves his bike.  And to show his emotional attachment to his bike they have several dream/nightmare sequences that actually gets mentioned in one book.

“Anxiety is a particularly frequent subject of dreams, both in real life and in films. The anxiety dream sequence is typically portrayed as a state of paranoia, in which everyone and everything is menacing and destructive, and the dreamer is confronted by his deepest fear. In Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee Wee is plagued by terrible nightmares in which his bicycle is destroyed. The dreams cue the audience in to the emotional intensity behind Pee Wee’s anxiety over his beloved bike. “
Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick

For Pee Wee to lose his bike for good would be a sort of death.

But where the screenwriters Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, and Michael Varhol really nailed it is in theme. Three different places in the film, by three different people, the words “I’m a loner… A rebel” are spoken. I won’t totally spoil it for those who never seen (or heard of) the movie, but by the end of the film Pee Wee is “humbled” and sees the need for community.

Kind of like the movie 127 HoursSay what? Am I the only one to make that connection?  James Franco starts out riding his bike and boldly proclaims, “I can do everything on my own.”

It you want your movie to be remembered 30 years from now it better be about something.

“Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives.”
Joseph Campbell
Pathways to Bliss

“Stories are equipment for living”
Kenneth Burke

Which brings us back to the big but.

When I was first told about Pee Wee’s Big Adventure it was a friend paraphrasing Pee Wee— “Everyone has a big but—what’s yours.” Not as in big butt of the Sir Mix-A-Lot variety, rather what’s the “big but” that’s stopping you from doing that thing you’ve always wanted to do. (“I want to _______, but ________.”)  For Simone it was leaving her jealous boyfriend and living in Paris.

For you it’s something else. What’s the “big but” that’s stopping you? Simone was inspired to live her dream and my guess is that audiences over the decades have been inspired by Pee Wee’s words of encouragement: “You can’t just wish for something to come true—you have to make it happen.”

Or as the German writer Goethe put it, “In action there is power, grace, and magic.”

Speaking of magic and bicycles—and if Pee Wee is too silly for you—check out the classic Italian film The Bicycle Thief.  

Happy New Year. And thanks for being a part of this journey. A journey that at times is like a bike ride in country with Pee Wee Herman, Joseph Campbell , Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and  John Wayne riding along side us.  Hope these posts help you and your writing. Here’s a little related JB quote and song to finish out the year.

“I bought a red bike shortly after I decided to stay in Key West, and it served me well. Key West has changed drastically from the days when you didn’t have to lock up your bike, but it’s still the best place I know to ride.”
Jimmy Buffett

 

P.S. If you ever kicked around Burbank, California back in the ’80s you may get nostalgic when you watch Pee Wee’s Big Adventure because they shot some scenes there. Places like the former Golden Mall (“Beautiful downtown Burbank”) and the old drive-in (also used for shooting Grease). And there are many other interesting layers to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure including Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman composing the music, and cameos by Milton Berle, Morgan Fairchild and Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (The Sting).

Related Post:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) Just learned yesterday via my WordPress annual report that this now almost 3 year old post was the most viewed post this year.
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6)  “As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.”—David Mamet (The Verdict)

Related links: Did you know there is a Bicycle Film Festival. (I once made an award-winning short film called Bicycle Dreams that I wanted to submit to that festival, but I forgot. One of my big buts.)

Get A New Story: What’s Your Story About Not Writing? by Jenna Avery at Script

Scott W. Smith

 

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This will be the last of four days of pulling some quotes and thoughts from Tony Bill’s book Movie Speak, How to Talk Like You Belong on a Film Set. It’s a helpful little book that comes with an impressive lists of endorsements; Steve Spielberg, Dennis Hopper, Jodie Foster, John Sayles and Roger Ebert.

One of my favorite phrases that I learned from the book was the definition of “classic Hollywood cinema” :
“A Jewish-owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America.”
anonymous

Sounds like a college class to me. Or at least a workshop. The great film On the Waterfront fits that category as does several others off the top of my head. It would be interesting to see just how many films made in the 30s through the 50s would fit that simple paradigm.

Perhaps a more interesting question would be, “What is the definition of contemporary cinema?”

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I’ve always liked how David Mamet would go into the MFA theater programs at Yale and The American Repertory Theater at Harvard and tell students that he didn’t think an MFA was much help for actors. (Usually with stronger & more blunt words.) Producer/writer/director Tony Bill falls into that same school in regards to screenwriting books and seminars (and probably blogs like this one).

“So here’s my absolutely free ‘How to Write a Great Script’ speech, book, and lecture series, all rolled into one: Get a hold of three or four terrific original scripts. You decide which ones. Read them; analyze them if you want, or just let them wash over you. Notice their format: it’s standard in the industry, no exceptions. Then throw them way or erase them from memory all the books, articles, and lessons that reference or espouse three-act structure, five- and seven -act structures, ‘inciting events,’ ‘character arcs,’ redemption,” Joseph Campbell’s name, plot graphs and charts, or supposed ‘tricks of the trade.’ Forget the mumbo jumbo and just write the damn script and finish it in 120 pages or less. If you’re sufficiently talented, original, and inspired, nothing else is necessary.”
Tony Bill
Movie Speak
page 200

Update from Tony Bill himself  (in case you don’t check the comments):
“Thanks for the quote! Hope it’s useful. By the way, it might also be helpful to remember my next sentence:
If you’re not (sufficiently talented, original, and inspired)…nothing else will help.”


Scott W. Smith

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In his book Movie Speak, Tony Bill (who directed My Bodyguard) mentions that in his 35 years or so of producing and directing films that almost all of them were either  the first scripts written, or the first script produced by the writer. Bill speculated why that has so often been the case:

“There’s a quality that most first scripts share: fresh, surprising, and unspoiled. Recently, it was Juno. Little Miss Sunshine was a first-time script, as was My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Good Will Hunting, Rocky, Sling Blade, and Taxi Driver were all first scripts. So was My Bodyguard. None of these came out of a how-to-do book or a weekend seminar in screenwriting. First scripts usually come from a need to write something (or, sometimes, a need to eat and pay the rent.) But with rare exceptions, they don’t come out of  a need to score big, to write a hit, to make a splash. And they don’t follow in the footsteps of pervious successes; They’re invariably ‘surprises’ flying in the face of what’s considered commercial. Whatever the genres, they come from the heart.”
Tony Bill (Oscar-winning producer. The Sting)
Movie Speak
page 197 

And I should add that every single movie, except for Little Miss Sunshine (which was really a road movie), that Bill mentioned took place outside Los Angeles. And while Taxi Driver was New York the majority of films he mentioned took place in Chicago, Minnesota, Boston, Philadelphia, Arizona, and rural Arkansas.

Do you think that might have had something to do with the fresh perspective of those films?

Scott W. Smith


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When I was in film school I heard that producer/director Tony Bill was known to provide up and coming people opportunities to get a start in the movie business. He had won an Oscar for producing The Sting, and at this time and had offices in Venice, California. So I gathered some courage and dropped a resume off at the front desk and waited for Mr. Bill to call. 

Never got that call.

I had not yet been told that I needed to add persistence to my resume. (If you want to practice persistence I recommend blogging daily.)  Over the years whenever I have seen Tony Bill’s name on the credits I always remember my timid approach to the film industry.

So yesterday when I saw that Bill has a book out called Movie Speak I bought it. The subtitle of the book is How to Talk Like You Belong on a Film Set. It’s a helpful little book for anybody who wants to work (or does work) on film, TV and video production sets. Some of the code words are common  (C-stand, room tone, C47), some less common (cardellini, butterfly lighting, redhead), and some I had never heard used (seagull, pull the plug, rhubarb).

As I’ve worked on productions around the country it’s funny to hear how each region has even more production words and phrases than are listed in Bill’s book. But Movie Speak is an excellent little book to give you a foundation (or to fill in some holes) that will help you know what’s going on on the set.

And Bill also offers a little insight into the business as well and I’ll share some of these over the next couple days. The first bit of advice is geared for screenwriters in what I’d file under, “I thought you were creative…”;

“I have scant patience with the lament of writers who claim they cannot get someone to read their script. Instead, I’d offer that a clever-enough submission can get anyone to read (or rather start reading) a script… In fact, I’m opinion enough to say that anyone who can’t figure an original, imaginative , and fresh way of submitting a script probably doesn’t have what it takes to write one.”
Tony Bill
Movie Speak
page 124-125 

Hint from personal experience; finding out where Tony Bill’s office is and simply dropping off a resume is not considered imaginative. But I am working on a script that would be perfect for Bill who directed My Bodyguard. Better late than never, right?

If anyone has a success story of how they used a creative way to get a producer to read a script I’d love to hear it. (Especially if it resulted in a deal.)

Scott W. Smith

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