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“Ohh Nooo!!!”
Mr. Bill

“You could make a really good-looking movie right now for ten grand.”
Steven Soderbergh

The other day I saw Mr. Bill in a commercial and I realized I hadn’t seen him in many years. That took me back and I somehow I ended up looking at screenwriters from Louisiana because that’s where Mr. Bill’s creator Walter Williams is from and now lives.

The New Orleans native discovered Super-8 film when he was 17 years old. According to the Mr. Bill website he began making comedy films that were shown in local clubs and bars and he ended up with his own UHF TV show.

In the pre-You Tube days of 1975 Saturday Night Live put out a call for home movies and Mr. Bill debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1976 and ran until 1980. (Williams was eventually hired by Lorne Michaels as a staff writer.) The years ’76-80 were the early golden years of the program with a cast that included Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin and John Belushi.

Mr. Bill and his supporting cast Mr. Hands and Sluggo were quite an inspiration to me in those years because they were my high school years. One of my first films in Annye Refoe’s creative writing class featured my version of Mr. Bill. I don’t remember the story line but I do recall the obligatory destruction scene where Mr. Bill is standing in front of the door as the entire class leaves for the day flattening Mr. Bill. “Ohh, nooo!!! (My art teacher mom had to make a few Mr. Bill’s for the stunts.)

It was that class that set me on course for film school and an over 20 year career in production. Looking back on the years ’76-80 there was an eclectic mix of inspiration for a young creative mind:  Star Wars (77), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (77), David Lynch’s Elephant Man (80), Rocky (76), Raging Bull (80), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (77), Saturday Night Fever (77), Grease (78), Animal House (78),  Apocalypse Now (78) Kramer Vs. Kramer (79), Norma Rae (79), …And Justice for All (79), Breaking Away (79), Halloween (78)Being There (79), The Great Santini (79), Silent Movie (76), Silver Streak (76), Heaven Can Wait (78), Mad Max (79)  along with those movies I probably saw at the now defunct Prairie Lake Drive-In Theater–Smokey and the Bandit (77), Up in Smoke (78) and The Kentucky Fried Movie (77).

Mr. Bill is an American icon from the 70s and it’s nice to see him (and Williams) kicking around 28 years later. Williams has not only directed Mr. Bill in spots for Lexus, Burger King and Ramada Inn but in non-profit efforts to help restore the wetlands in New Orleans.

In 1978 there was a 15 year-old over in Baton Rogue, Louisiana who began to make animation and short narrative films (perhaps inspired by Mr. Bill’s success) who would go to make his mark in 1989 writing and directing and shooting sex, lies, and videotape. (Winner of the Palm d’Or at the ’89 Cannes Film Festival some credit the film with starting the modern day independent film movement.)

Steven Soderbergh went on to win an Oscar for best director for Traffic (2000). (That same year his Erin Brockovich was also nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards. That’s called having a great year.)

Soderbergh has done an amazing job of making big budget features with actors as such as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and then turning around and making a DV feature like Bubble with amateur actors in Ohio and West Virginia. (Though from what I’ve read, it’s not a favorable outlook on small town America.) His next two films, Guerrilla & The Argentine (on Che Guevara) were shot with the new revolutionary RED camera which shoots digitally –no film or tape. (Am I the only one who thinks it’s ironic to make a film on a Marxist leader with a camera called Red?)

Now that I think about it, do we really need two more films on Che Guevara? From a guy who was executive producer on Syriana? (Justifiably cynical at best, anti-American at worse.) It’s good to be reminded in film critic Andrew Sarris’ review of Syriana that despite this countries problems, ” The world is too full of people who’d kill us (Americans) for the shoes on our feet.”

We need counter-cultural writers and filmmakers who challenge us (even our capitalistic & materialistic faults that helped bring on the mortgage crisis), but do we need to make socialist, marxist, communist, dictators, and/or terrorist our heroes? (And I’d bet that there are more than one pro-Taliban scripts floating around Hollywood.)  But I do look forward to seeing what the RED camera footage looks like on the big screen and I’m sure Benicio Del Toro performance as Guevara will be worthy and increase sales of Che Guevara t-shirts.

Politics aside, Soderbergh is also unusual in that he is the director of photography on most of his films, and sometimes the editor as well.  I think he and multiple creative hat wearer Robert Rodriguez will be the inspiration and model for filmmakers of the future.

Anne Rice, novelist and screenwriter of Interview with the Vampire, was born in New Orleans which is where many of her stories take place. Novelist and essay writer Walker Percy (The Moviegoer, The Second Coming) spent his last forty plus years in Covington and most of his stories take place in Louisiana.

Ernest J. Gaines  whose A Lesson Before Dying was nominated a Pulitzer Prize and made into a TV movie is a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafaytte.

Other well-known writers with a Louisiana connection are Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes), Stephen Ambrose (writer of Band of Brothers and consultant on Saving Private Ryan), and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire).

John Kennedy Toole after years of publishers rejection won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize A Confederacy of Dunces over a decade after committing suicide. Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood) was born in New Orleans but belongs more to Alabama where he grew-up.

On the production side, Louisiana has been aggressive over the years in making movies in the state:
The Apostle
Southern Comfort
The Big Easy
Dead Man Walking
The Cincinnati Kid
Live and Let Die
King Creole
Tightrope
All the Kings Men

Even Shreveport is getting into the action according to an USA Today article last month titled “Hooray for movie locations outside Hollywood.” According to writer Alexandyr Kent, Shreveport has attracted “at least 18 projects in 2008, totaling more than $200 million in production budgets, and more than 80% of that will likely be spent in Louisiana.”

Shreveport is where Katie Holmes filmed Mad Money and where Josh Brolin was arrested in an incident outside a bar in July while there for filming Oliver Stone’s W. (No, Stone didn’t use a RED camera.)

To learn more about the film industry in Louisiana contact the  Louisiana Film & Television Office of Entertainment Industry Development and Louisiana Movies Blog.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“The Tennessee Williams we know and admire cannot be imagined without his long relationship with the Midwest.”  
                                                                                                                                            David Radavich

“I’m only really alive when I’m writing.”
Tennessee
 Williams

When you think of St. Louis the chances are good that you think of the iconic St. Louis Arch. (I took this picture on one of those perfect clear windy mornings one day when I was driving through town and it is majestic to see up close.) What’s probably lower on your St. Louis list is that writer Tennessee Williams grew up there.

Before I address the writers from Missouri let me first say that there would not be a Tennessee Williams without Iowa. Oh, there probably would still be a great American playwright but he might just be called him by his given name Tom. Tom Williams isn’t quite as memorable.  “I got the name of Tennessee,” said Williams, “when I was going to the State University of Iowa because the fellows in my class could only remember that I was from a Southern state with a long name.”

He was actually born in Columbus, Mississippi but Mississippi Williams doesn’t quite have the proper ring to it either so it’s a good thing his classmates got it wrong. Much of his early childhood was lived with his grandfather at the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

According to David Radavich, Williams said his childhood there was happy and carefree, but “this sense of belonging and comfort were lost, however, when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, and to write— ‘because I found life unsatisfactory.'” Williams struggled with depression and took comfort in his daily writing as well as the bottle.

“Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence.”
 Tennessee Williams

The is no doubt that the Mississippi Delta shaped his imagination as it has so many others. Clarksdale is known as the birthplace of the blues and the location of the Crossroads intersection of Highways 61 and 49 where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar like he did.

Clarksdale’s where musicians Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and  W.C. Handy were born and where The Delta Blues Museum lives today.  If you’re anywhere in the Memphis area it’s worth a trip out of your way to visit.

But from the age of seven through the college years Williams lived in the Midwest mostly in St. Louis. Radavich writes, “In 1931, Williams was admitted to the University of Missouri where he saw a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and decided to become a playwright. His journalism program was interrupted however, when his father forced him to withdraw from college to work at the International Shoe Company.”

Even though Williams is mostly remembered for his time in New Orleans, Key West, and New York, Missouri is where he would return to again and again, visiting his mother until she died in 1980. Williams died three years later and is buried in St. Louis.

Saturday night I went to see Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here it Cedar Falls just a little over an hour away from where Williams studied playwriting at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 1938. The play brought back many memories.

When I lived in LA I studied acting for three years mostly at Tracey Roberts Actors Studio. Roberts was a talented actress in her day but never became a star. She was a wonderful teacher and encourager and herself had studied and performed with the greats of the Actors Studio – Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan. (Sharon Stone and Laura Dern both studied with Roberts.)

It was at her studio that I began to appreciate good writing. In a scene study class I had with Arthur Mendoza we spent three months working on just the opening monologue of “The Glass Menagerie”:

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion….”

And so it began. There was much to learn in three months just beyond getting the words down. Place, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology wrapped in Williams’ poetic style. Mendoza also stressed learning about the playwrights background so we studied that as well. It would do every writer good to take at least one acting class in their life. You’ll meet some actors and learn the process they go through in approaching your text.

As I did my scene the final day of class it was the one true moment I ever had as an actor where I felt totally in sync. We sometimes look back on any success big or small with regret but I look back on that day with satisfaction. (It was the highlight of my brief acting career, even bigger than the Dominos Pizza commercial I was in later. Though for the record, Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan’s two-story office in Ann Arbor, Michigan still holds the record for the largest office I’ve ever been in.)

Mendoza studied with Stellar Adler for 10 years and became the principal acting instructor at Stella Adler’s Studio where Benicio Del Toro studied with him. (Del Toro won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Traffic.) Mendoza eventually formed the Actors Theater Circle in Hollywood where he still teaches today. He was the first to open my eyes to the classic playwrights. He threw out names of writers I had never heard of and said as actors we needed to be able to flip our pancakes and do them all.

During that time I found three books at a used bookstore on Main Street in Seal Beach, California that caused a shift in my thinking about the power of writing. For one dollar each I picked up the best plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg. Best three dollars I ever spent.

Strindberg did not stay with me but Ibsen and Chekhov have been lifelong friends. Only recently did I find out Ibsen’s Ghost influence on Williams. Which makes perfect sense given Williams fascination of dealing with the sins of the father being visited on the son. Williams tapped into the southern-family-with-hidden-problems theme.

Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie had a Midwest beginning as it premiered in Chicago. He wrote fragile characters who were on the brink of hysteria. And he was rewarded well for such characters winning two Pulitzer Prizes along with two Oscar nominations.

Two other creative writing giants where also raised in Missouri, Mark Twain in Hannibal and Walt Disney in Marceline and Kansas City. (Both Hannibal and Marceline are less than an hour south of the Iowa border.) Marceline is said to be the inspiration behind Main Street USA at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Orlando has Tom Sawyer’s Island. Exporting the Midwest for all the world to enjoy.

Other screenwriters born in  Missouri include William Rose who won an Oscar in 1968 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, John Milius (Apocalypse Now), Langston Hughes (screenwriter & playwright), Dan O’bannon  (Alien), Honorary Academy Award Director/Screenwriter Robert Altman, and Oscar-winning director/writer John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). That’s a deep rich heritage.

So Missouri joins the areas we’ve already looked at, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin as more than capable of producing talented writers.

“Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.
Walt Disney

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain

“I’m an airmail pilot. St. Louis to Springfield to Peoria to Chicago. The ocean can’t be any worse than snow, sleet and fog.” (Charles A. Lindbergh the night before his historic flight across the Atlantic ocean.)

The Spirit of St. Louis
Screenplay Billy Wilder
& Wendell Mayes
based on Lindbergh’s book

Photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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