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Posts Tagged ‘USC film school’

“My story is like an American dream story. I grew up on the south side of Chicago [in a] working poor family…I was a freshman in high school when I saw Bonnie and Clyde, and I remember very profoundly there is a scene where Gene Hackman’s character gets shot in the head and he’s in this field and he’s dying. And I remember being overwhelmed with sadness and emotion. And that was the seminal moment where I go I gotta be a movie director. Right around the same time I’m watching Johnny Carson and his guest that night is Jerry Lewis. In the 60s he was like the Spielberg of the movie industry. He had like total autonomy of making his movies. So Johnny says, ‘Hey Jerry, I hear your teaching school at a university,’ and he goes, ‘Yeah, I’m teaching at USC Cinema School.’ And I went, there’s cinema school? I thought there’s a place where you can actually learn cinema. I said I gotta go to this place. I got accepted into the USC film school and that was my connection to the movie business. I came out cold turkey. I had no relatives in the movie business, nobody had a union card, and I basically got into the industry through the film school.”
Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump)
The Director’s Chair
interview with Robert Rodriguez

In 1975 Zemeckis won at the The Academy’s Student Film Award for his film A Field of Honor. Over the years his filmography includes Back to the Future, Cast Away, Flight, and The Walk (which is released in theaters next week).

Related posts:
Professor Jerry Lewis (The Total Filmmaker)
Professor Jerry Lewis (Screenwriting)
Professor Jerry Lewis (Great Filmmakers)
Jerry Lewis (Directing)
Professor Jerry Lewis (Actors)
Filmmaking Quote #13 Robert Zemeckis
Postcard #43 (Savannah)
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight
Schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenfeffer incorporated
Laverne & Shirley theme song

schlemiel: an inept clumsy person; a bungler; a dolt 
schlimazel: a chronically unlucky person
Words flow from Yiddish/Hebrew/German words

Jerry Lewis is a one-man hero with 1,000 faces.

Some people first think of Jerry Lewis as the actor, director and co-writer of The Nutty Professor (1963)—where he played three characters in one movie. Others think fondly of his 45-year run as the host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day telethon, some think of him as the side kick of Dean Martin, and yet others recall his role in the Martin Scorsese directed film The King of Comedy (1982) which he co-starred with Robert De Niro.

But few think of Lewis as a real life college professor—so real that one of his students was George Lucas. From 1967 to 1977 he was an Adjunct Professor at the USC film school.

In 1971 Professor Lewis published a book called The Total Filmmaker which has long been out of print and copies are on sale at Amazon go for as high as $999.99.  But since earlier this year the excellent website Cinephilia and Beyond has a PDF of the book available for free. 

Today I’ll start a run of posts taken from that book. Here’s lesson one:

“I do not know that I have a carefully thought-out theory on exactly what makes people laugh, but the premise of all comedy is a man in trouble, the little guy against the big guy. Snowballs are thrown at the man in the black top hat. They aren’t thrown at the battered old fedora. The top-hat owner is always the bank president who holds the mort­ gage on the house, or he’s a representation of the under­ taker.

In the early days, working night clubs, I learned that taking a pratfall in a gray suit might get a few laughs. But I had to get up quickly and start another routine. Take the same fall dressed in a $400 tuxedo and I could stay on the floor for a minute. They would howl when the rich guy took the tumble.

Or it is the tramp, the underdog, causing the rich guy, or big guy, to fall on his ass. In this respect the sources of comedy are a simple matter of who’s doing what to whom. They include, of course, what the comedian does to him­self.

Chaplin was both the shlemiel and the shlimazel. He was the guy who spilled the drinks-the shlemiel-and the guy who had the drinks spilled on him-the shlimazel. In his shadings of comedy, and they were like a rainbow, he also played a combination of shlemiel-shlimazel. In Mode­rn Times, diving into six inches of water when he opens the back door, which is one of the great sight jokes in com­edy-film history, he does it to himself.”
Jerry Lewis

P.S. In an interview earlier this year on The Talk the 88-year-old Lewis said he began writing at the age of eight and that the idea for The Nutty Professor was to do a comedic version of  Jekyll and Hyde. (Either the Robert Lewis Stevenson novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or one of the many movies based on that book.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Studio executives kept saying, ‘Eh, time travel movies don’t make any money. Time travel movies don’t make any money.'”
Screenwriter Bob Gale

Twenty-five years ago the world embraced the movie Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox based on a script written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. Though Gale and Zemeckis had teamed up on Used Cars (1980) it did not have a strong release and didn’t make getting their next script made easier. Gale explains the process of writing the script and the trouble they had getting others interested in it.

“We outline the story on index cards before we start detailing the individual scenes. And we come up with our index-car structure nonlinearly; we always like to know what the ending’s going to be before we really got started. You can’t take a trip if you don’t know where you’re going…The (Back to the Future) script was rejected over 40 times. Nobody read it said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to make this.’ You know there had been no time-travel movies that had made that much money prior to Back to the Future, and again the mashup of genres was confusing for some people. We’re talking 1981, 1982…Porky’s was around that time, and that’s what everybody’s idea of comedy was—fart jokes and naked girls.”
Bob Gale
Script magazine interview with Sara Scott
Volume 16/Number 4

According to Box Office Mojo, Back to the Future ended up with a domestic gross of $210 million  and a worldwide gross of $318 million. All on a $19 million budget. Gale and Zemeckis were also nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay. And, of course, two sequels were made that added around $500 million to the worldwide gross.

And where did the original idea come from? A basement in St. Louis.

“The inspiration for making the movie, for coming up with the story is that I was visiting my parents in the summer of 1980, from St. Louis Missouri, and I found my father’s high-school yearbook in the basement. I’m thumbing through it and I find out that my father was the president of his graduating class, which I was completely unaware of. So there’s a picture of my dad, 18-years-old, and I’m thinking about the president of my graduating class, who was someone I would have had nothing to do with. He was one of these “Ra-Ra” political guys, he was probably Al Gore or something. Captain of the debate team, all this stuff. So the question came up in my head, ‘gee, if I had gone to school with my dad would I have been friends with him?’ That was where the light bulb went off.”
Bob Gale
Interview with Matt Patches 

P.S. Zemeckis was raised in the South Side of Chicago and Gale was raised in the suburbs of St. Louis. They met at USC film school.

Related posts: Screenwriting from Missouri

Scott W. Smith

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Over the years I’ve learned to wear quite a few hats; producer, director, writer, cameraman, editor, etc.—but one thing I have little experience in is sound design. Thanks to The Angry Filmmaker, Kelley Baker, I know a lot more today than before I met him two days ago.

Years ago, I had one class is film school where the teacher showed us the George Stevens’ classic A Place in the Sun. When it was over he asked us questions like, “What sounds do you associate with the Elizabeth Taylor character?” and “What is going on in the background noise for Shelly Winters’ character?” None of us had a clue. We talked about sound design and then watched parts of the film again and I began to understand the details that went into a well crafted film. Though it’s been a big gap, what I learned from Baker took up right where that film professor left off.

Baker stopped into my office Monday as a quick pit stop on his way from Wisconsin to St. Louis. He watched a short video I’m on the tail end of production on and offered some wisdom on sound design and added that I should cut it the whole thing by a minute. A minute? It’s only four minutes long. A minute is 25% of the almost finished video. Later that night (just before midnight) 51 seconds had been painfully edited out and it’s a better project for it.

Baker is a USC film school grad, an independent feature filmmaker, and was sound designer on several high profile features including Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, and My Own Private Idaho. That’s a pretty good resume.  These days he spends a lot of time doing film seminars and passing on what he’s learned over the years to other filmmakers. (I’ll get into why he’s the Angry Filmmaker in later posts.)

But today I want to touch on one scene Barker sound designed for Good Will Hunting. It’s the scene where Will (Matt Damon) gets into a fight. Watch the linked clip and then read Baker’s comments below. (If you really want to dip your toes in sound design, first watch the clip without sound and then ask yourself how you would design the scene, Then listen to it with sound before you read Baker’s comments below.)

Baker told me that he asked director Gus Van Sant what he wanted for the fight scene thinking he might want big punches like those found in Raging Bull. Van Sant simply told him, “I want Revolution Number 9.” That’s the Beatles song off their White Album and what Van Sant was saying was he wanted chaos.

Baker goes into more detail on his educational DVD Sound Design For Independent Films saying;

“We already agreed that the fight would be from Matt’s point of view—all the audio for the fight…You’re going to hear church bells, you’re going to hear birds, happy little birds, and you’re going to hear kind of a choir…There’s a lot more going on, but those three kind of stand out. And you have to think, “This is a fight, what am I hearing happy birds for? Why am I hearing church bells? What’s the whole deal with the choir? It’s easy. As a young man Will Hunting was beat up and knocked around and dumped on by all these foster parents and he talks about it in the movie.

The only time he’s ever happy and at peace with himself is when he’s fighting. When he’s beating the crap out of somebody. So to him to some extent—and this is only in my logic perhaps—it’s the happiest time for him when he’s invloved in a fight and he’s winning. That’s why you get happy birds, that’s why you get these religious type sound effects because he is at one. He is at peace when he’s in the middle of a fight.

Is anybody in the middle of watching the movie going to say, ‘Listen there’s a choir, he’s at one with himself because of his horrible childhood”? No, nobody’s going to say that. Are they going to pick up on it psychologically? I hope so. That’s the idea. I’m trying to tell you more about characters through sound and sound effects.”

Now watch the clip of the Good Will Hunting clip again. You may be a writer, not a sound designer, but look at the detail that professionals (including directors, actors,  editors, directors of photography, wardrobe, set designers, sound designers, etc.) are looking for clues on how to best bring your story to life.

And just for good measure listen to the Beatles Revolution Number 9 to see Van Sant’s original reference point for the fight scene sound.

Scott W. Smith

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“I love the concept that your friends, your neighbors, the people you know best and trust most become your enemies, and that’s a pure, primal concept that digs deep into the soul and human psyche and human fear. I thought, what a great subject to explore.” 
Director Breck Eisner
(A quote not about a documentary on the Hollywood film industry, but the concept behind his film The Crazies)

Last night I went to see The Crazies, the first full-bore Hollywood feature that was shot & widely released as a part of the Iowa film incentives. (Yes, the ones that are fading away.) I’m not really into the zombie-like thing but was pleasantly surprised how good the film was and how enjoyable it was to watch. (72% on the T-meter over at Rotten Tomatoes and a healthy box-office.)

The cast led by Timothy Olyphant was super and the pacing of the movie was excellent. Screenwriters Scott Kosar and  Ray Wright set the George Romero remake in a small town in Iowa. The Midwest peacefulness was shattered from the start when the first crazy walks onto a little league baseball field with a shotgun. It was an effective way to set the tone early. Some stories need a little setting up, but like Jaws, The Crazies sprints out of the gate and never really stops until the end.

I didn’t know until after the film was over that former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s son, Breck Eisner, directed the film. Turns out the director who is in his mid-thirties is a USC film school grad and spent 10 years directing big budget commercials as well as some TV programs and the film Sahara starring Matthew McConaughey. Even though he’s Michael Eisner’s son (which I’m sure has its advantages and disadvantages) he’s still been at it for 15 years as he develops his craft. (A favorite theme of mind.)

“The greatest moviegoing experience of all time is Raiders of the Lost Ark, maybe just after Star Wars. So there was an element in me who as a kid just loved those kinds of movies and was excited to make one. When it came to The Crazies, getting an opportunity to do a darker, more intimate, character-based, more personal movie was something I really jumped at and wanted to do. It’s much looser, much more intimate – it’s a completely different type of movie, for sure. It’s not about scope; I really got to dive into character and relationships and really spend time in those worlds.

But still, shooting horror is like shooting action. They’re very closely-related cousins. You’ve got an action sequence, it’s built up, you’ve got a number of shots to build up to the big climax, and then you quickly resolve it and hopefully do a couple of spins on the way. With horror it’s the same way – it’s all about the suspense, it’s all about the pieces and shots and angles and how you build up to the big climax and the resolution, so it’s a similar muscle that’s flexed.”
Breck Eisner
Cinematical interview with Todd Gilchrist

Scott W. Smith

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“Although I have only a small driblet of fame and fortune, it’s enough. My life has gone very well in all spheres except for my physical health.”
Dan O’Bannon

Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon died earlier this month after a 30 battle with Crohn’s disease. He’ll be most remembered in film history for writing Alien.

O’Bannon was born in St. Louis and stated that his early creative influences were comic books, monster movies of the 1950s, and H.P. Lovecraft novels. He would go to Washington University in St. Louis and MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, before going on to USC where he earned an MFA.

William Froug, in his book The New Screenwriter Looks at The New Screenwriter, had this to say about O’Bannon, “Looking back over twenty years of teaching at both USC and UCLA, I single out Dan O’Bannon as the most original, unique student I encountered. Dan was a quiet, modest young man, quite a bit undernourished, gentle, and soft-spoken. Dan was also something of a loner. It was clear he had his own vision, and it was the vision of an iconoclast. I was fond of him from the first time we met in one of my non-writing classes.”

O’Bannon met director John Carpenter in film school at USC and they made a student film together called Dark Star that they later expanded into their first feature film. After Alien O’Bannon went on to make several other films including The Return of the Living Dead, Total Recall, and Blue Thunder.

In an interview that he did with Froug I’ve pieced together what O’Bannon said was his way of working;

“I’m a structuralist myself. We believe in discipline, hard work, and architecture. Writing a script is like carpentry…In my early days of writing, I was afraid that working it all out in advance would destroy the creative impulse. Now I don’t even start seriously writing until it’s all worked out on paper…I keep retyping from the beginning. I list all my scenes. Then I rearrange them into three acts. I just keep working on it until I run dry of stuff that should go into an outline, and then I start on the script. I don’t start writing the script until it’s completely working in an outline. Until all the pieces are there…So the first big thrust is to get the structure first and then the script goes fairly quickly.”

O’Bannon was part of solid list of writers & filmmakers from Missouri. (See post Screenwriting from Missouri.)

There is a Dan O’Bannon website that is up and running as well as being in the process of being further developed and is sure to be a wealth of info on his writings.

Scott W. Smith


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