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Posts Tagged ‘University of Missouri’

“A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing.”
Blake (Alec Baldwin) in Glengarry Glen Ross


Do you remember Pete Jones? He’s the guy who was the first writer/director picked by Project Greenlight to have a movie made. He has a new movie out today called Hall Pass starring Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis. (Jones is credited as co-writer with Kevin Barnett, along with the Farrelly bothers from There’s Something About Mary fame.)

Ten years ago Jones was this guy in Chicago selling insurance and hoping to be one of the lucky ones chosen by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to have their script plucked from the Internet to be made into a movie. The result was the movie Stolen Summer. It was far from a blockbuster film, but it launched Jones’ career.

Back in ’03 or ’04 I met Jones in West Hollywood. I was in LA for a TV program I was producing and the cameraman on that shoot was Pete Biagi. Biagi is well-known in indie circles in Chicago and was the director of photography on Stolen Summer. So when we wrapped our shooting after a of couple of days Biagi called up Jones and a small group of us had dinner at the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.

The Formosa is one of those classic old Hollywood restaurants that’s been around since the ‘30s and whose guests over the years have included Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp and so on. The Formosa was also featured in the movies L.A. Confidential and The Majestic.

So I’m at this restaurant with this Chicago-connected gang and I’m the outsider from Orlando. So I don’t say much but I learned something important that night.

I asked Jones how many screenplays he had written before he got discovered on Project Greenlight. He said six. If you remember the HBO special made on the making of Stolen Summer you may recall how they played up the fact that Jones was an average Joe insurance salesman who wrote a script. I know people who call themselves screenwriters who haven’t written six scripts—I don’t know any average Joe salesmen who have written six screenplays.

Playing up that Jones was a salesman is called PR. Because everyone wants to think, “I could probably do that if I tried.” The fact is Jones was an insurance salesman, but he had also graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. (That school has turned out a lot of accomplished writers.) Keep in mind that he was in his early thirties when he was chosen for Project Greenlight. His sales training played a critical part of his success. Graduating from J-School couldn’t have hurt. But he still wrote six dang screenplays before being discovered.

You can pick up a used DVD set of the complete first season of Project Greenlight for under $10 on Amazon, and that’s a solid investment in getting a foundation of what it takes to make a film. I’ll go as far as to say that I think it’s the single best example on DVD I’ve ever seen of watching the entire filmmaking process unfold.

But my favorite part of Project Greenlight is when Affleck, Damon, producer Chris Jones and others have narrowed their selection down to three screenwriters. It’s late at night and after six hours of deliberations the producers have to finally make the call on what film they are going to spend a million dollars to make.

In desperation Affleck asked the sound guy working on shooting the HBO special who they should choose, and he says, “Pete. Pete’s the guy that’ll never get the chance unless you do it.” Miramax VP Jon Gordon jokes that they should just have the screenwriters wrestle for it.

What they do is bring the three finalists back individually to have them make a final pitch on why their script should be chosen.

That’s when Jones’ insurance sales background kicks in. Where the others talk about their story, Jones hits the producers emotions. He tells the group;

“It’s about making the best film. And I’m getting a little emotional and I shouldn’t be, but it’s about making the best film…and the HBO thing is great—I would personally love it. Call me narcissistic, but I enjoy that. That’s not what it’s about, it’s about you guys screwing the studio system and saying let’s make the best film. Market the film? F*#K you. Who cares? We’re making the best film, we’re putting out a million bucks. I don’t have a million bucks, but studios have some money and a million dollar budget is not going to crush them. So he’s let’s make the best film that we can make. And, obviously, I’m biased, I think my movie’s the best film to make. I think my film probably wouldn’t get made by a studio—by a big studio, you know? I think that Greenlight is the kind of project  that would make a film like this.  I’m not a Hollywood expert, so I don’t know—I’m just going on a stereotype here.”

You can tell by the faces of those in the room that it’s a done deal. Sold.  Damon and Affleck are either dead tired, stoned or mesmerized. Chris Jones says, “I don’t have any other questions after that answer. “ Remember people invest in passion. And the part where Jones says, “F*#K you. Who cares? —I’m pretty sure Jones was channeling Mamet/Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross. “Coffee’s for closers only.” Jones was a closer that day.

And that was the turning point in Pete Jones’ career. The man was good in a room. He understood the basic sales principles of features and benefits and hitting human emotions. Next thing you know Jones was directing Aidan Quinn and Bonnie Hunt.

The movie Stolen Summer had a limited theatrical release making only $140,000.  But Jones got to make another film. Oddly he chose to follow a kid film with the gay-themed movie Outing Riley (2004) which went direct to DVD. And the next year he sold the spec script Hall Pass for high six figures and it eventually, six years later, became the movie that opens in theaters today.

Everyone’s got a story, right? (Even if you haven’t seen Jones’ movies or like the ones you have seen, you have to appreciate his journey.)

The common recurring theme on this blog is Pete Jones did the leg work before he got a shot. He wrote six screenplays before he was discovered. Just like fellow Chicagoan screenwriter Diablo Cody, Jones had been writing for over a decade before his big break.  And he used that sales experience from his day job to sell Hollywood producers and actors that he was the right person to be chosen for Project Greenlight.

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Screenwriting Quote #87 (Ray Bradbury)

Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic

Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Writing “Good Will Hunting

Scott W. Smith

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“Every cell of your body has to be aligned so that you’re making the best possible image.”
Photographer and Oscar-winning filmmaker Louie Psihoyos

His name is Louie Psihoyos. He won an Oscar Sunday. And he’s originally from Iowa.

That’s the short version.

If Louie Psihoyos doesn’t sound like a traditional Midwestern German Lutheran name to you, you’d be correct.  A little over fifty years before he accepted his best documentary Oscar for The Cove, he was born to Greek immigrants and raised in Dubuque, Iowa.

And it was in Dubuque were he first got turned on to art, eventually focusing on photography. In perhaps an odd connection you’ll probably only find on a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa, Psihoyos had an interesting experience with an Oscar-nominated screenwriter in of all places Dubuque, Iowa.

In the 1970s, the movie F.I.S.T. was filmed in Dubuque starring Sylvester Stallone.  F.I.S.T. was Stallone’s first film after the Oscar-winning best picture Rocky. Rocky, of course, put Stallone on the map as he was nominated for an Oscar as best actor and for best original screenplay. (F.I.S.T. also just happens to be the first script that Joe Eszterhas ever had produced.)

Psihoyos was a teenager at the time F.I.S.T. was being filmmed but was already an accomplished photographer having won some contests and somehow was able to met and photograph Stallone. (Update: Photographer Brian Smith actually said Psihoyos appeared in the film so I looked into it and found on Psihoyos’ website the Stallone photograph and this account by Psihoyos: “As a photographic intern for the local newspaper, I was sent to stake out Stallone at the local hotel where the crew was staying. He came in from the airport dressed in costume and I took the photograph in a hotel elevator. Stallone loved the photograph and invited me to stay on the set… He put me in the movie F.I.S.T. as his wedding photographer. I have one speaking line, ‘smile now!'”)

Psihoyos went on to graduate from the highly esteemed journalism school at the University of Missouri and won the National Geographic annual College Photographer of the Year contest. That helped him launch into a long career as a photographer for National Geographic.

A couple years ago he decided to turn his talent and resources into his vision of what became the documentary The Cove.

So once again while Psihoyos appears to be another filmmaker who won an Oscar with his first film—there is a 30+ year accomplished creative career behind him. Here’s some advice from him;

“What I like to tell newcomers is that there’re about 30,000 working photographers in Manhattan. Those are people who, by their IRS statements, are making a living and are profitable, and a lot of them are pretty damn good. You have to give of yourself 200 percent in everything you do; then the right people find you like a beacon.”
Louie Psihoyos
2006 Interview with Ted Fry
—–

Psihoyo’s acceptance speech was cut off during the Oscars broadcast so here is what he intended to say;

“We made this film to give the oceans a voice.

We told the story of The Cove because we witnessed a crime. Not just a crime against nature, but a crime against humanity.

We made this movie because through plundering, pollution and acidification from burning fossil fuels, ALL ocean life is in peril from the great whales to plankton which incidentally is responsible for half the oxygen in this theater.

Thank you, Black OPS Team for risking your lives in Japan — and thank You Academy for shining the brightest lights in the world on THE COVE……

Japan, please see this movie for yourselves!  Domo Arigato!”

Psihoyos is based in Boulder these days. I don’t know if he has reasons to come to Iowa anymore, but I’d thought it interesting that he got his start here. Much in the spirit of screenwriter Diablo Cody who graduated from college in Iowa where she developed her skills on her way to writing the Oscar-winning script for Juno. (Which I should mention to any new readers is who inspired me to start blogging two years ago.)

Scott W. Smith

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