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Winter Park , Florida

Winter Park , Florida

Last week  I went to hear screenwriter Stephen Susco do a Q & A at Full Sail University. It wasn’t open to the public but I know some people who know some people, so I dropped in and found some worthwhile advice from a Hollywood veteran that I’ll pass on here in bullet points.

Back in 2009 in the post Screenwriting Post #83 (Stephen Susco) I mentioned that Susco wrote 25 screenplays before he had one produced (The Grudge). His numbers as of 2014…he’s now written 63 scripts and had a grand total of 7 produced.

Welcome to the Jungle
We’ve Got fun ‘n Games 

(But that’s Susco’s experience, he has a writer friend who’s written 28 scripts and had 20 of them produced.)

Sucso wore a Notre Dame hat during his Q&A which is where he did his undergraduate work before getting his master’s at USC film school. Some of his other credits are Red, High School, and Texas Chainsaw 3D. His next film to hit theaters is The Reach starring Michael Douglas. Here are ten takeaways form the Q&A with students, followed by an interview with Susco via Movie Greeks United!

* Filmmaking is a battleground of art and commerce.

* To investors, films are like widgets. Watch Shark Tank to see how investors think. When talking to investors think in terms of heart, mind, and pocket book.

* Screenwriters give up the copyright when they sell their script.

* Writing for Tv is attractive to feature screenwriters because writers are considered important in TV.

* Write what you’re passionate about (big Hollywood movie, horror, whatever) because even if it doesn’t get made, if it’s good it will open doors and people will ask, “What else do you have?” As an example Travis Beachman’s script Killing on Carnival Row got a lot of attention in Hollywood, but still hasn’t been produced. But it opened the door for writing assignments on Clash of the Titans and Pacific Rim.

* After his first script sold he couldn’t believe he was getting paid to do what he’d do for free. That first script sold for $38,000–but he had a partner so his half was $19,000. After taxes, attorney and agent fees he netted $7,500. It took them 2 years to write that script.

* He once spent four years on a script that ultimately wasn’t used for the movie that eventually got produced. He received an associate producer credit. It’s a business where a screenplay about your mother gets turned into a movie about Elvis and your name isn’t in the credits—or worse ,it is in the credits.

* You will hear the word “no” a lot and you’ll need to forget hearing it before the syllable “o” has faded from their lips.

* Pitching stories and ideas is not as common as when he first started in the mid-90s, but it’s easier than ever to make your own film. He mentioned writer/director Oren Peli and his film Paranormal Activity as an example.

* Think primal. Fear and personal loss are the foundations of many fine films.

Related Post:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) —John Logan’s journey
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tips #41) —Michael Arndt’s journey
How Much Do Screenwriters Make?

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I’m more interested in politics than anything in the world.  Much more interested in politics than I am in movies, art, or anything. I’m absolutely fascinated by politics and have been all my life…The truth is every piece of art is a political statement. When you deliberately make it you—the audience is going to get dizzy—when you deliberately make it you usually fall into the trap of rhetoric and the trap of speaking to a convinced audience, rather than convincing an audience. I think some movies and some books, and god some paintings, have changed the face of the world. But I don’t believe it’s the duty of every artist to change the face of the world. He is doing it by being an artist.”
Orson Welles at Q&A at USC in 1981
(Welles was most personally politically active during the ’30s and ’40s—”FDR used to say, ‘You and I are the two best actors in America.'”—Orson Welles)

This concludes a week of posts of the Orson Welles Q&A at USC after they screened his film The Trial. It’s interesting to note that in the Q&A he mentioned that he never watched his film after he made them because they are so much better in his mind.

It’s also worth noting that in the last few years before Welles dies in 1985,  filmmaker Henry Jaglom recorded conversations with him at the original Ma Masion restaurant where Welles held court in his later years.Those conversation were edited by Peter Biskin (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) and recently  published in the book My Lunches with Orson Welles. I have not read the book yet but from what I’ve read it does offer some new—and unplugged—revelations into a man who at just 24-years-old directed one of the masterpieces of cinema—Citizen Kane.

“When asked to describe Welles’s influence, Jean-Luc Godard remarked, simply, ‘Everyone will always owe him everything.'”
Peter Biskin introduction to My Lunches with Orson Welles

For Welles Citizen Kane was his mountaintop experience. The movie was released in 1941 and his journey, and creative & financial struggles, over the years have been well documented. If you were born after his death you may be surprised to learn that in the ’70s—and era before cable TV, DVDs, and Internet streaming—Welles was mostly known to the American public as the spokesman for Paul Mason wine. For his Shakespearean delivery of the line, “We will sell no wine before its time.”

An average young person  today is more likely to know Welles from his drunken outtakes from those Paul Mason commercials. The kind of video that ends up on Funny or Die and I’ve actually seen a video of the outtakes below re-shot with actors today as either a spoof or a class project.

By this time in his life the well had run dry for Welles. In a sense he had become like what became of many legends in their later years (Elvis, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams) a shadow of his former greatness. But like Elvis, Hemingway, and Williams the sun is shinning once again. The good, the bad, and the ugly has turned the man who once stood on the mountaintop to become his own mountain. Welles like a select few people in Hollywood—a place he called “a snake pit”— has become through appointments and mythology reached the status of legend and icon.

In the spirit of who “Who was Charlie Kane?” and “Who was Rosebud?” — Who was Orson Welles?   Biskin and Jaglom I imagine have added another chapter to the growing story of the man now sometimes called Citizen Welles.

The final scene of The Lady from Shanghai is perhaps the most autobiographical truthful metaphor in all of his work. It is ultimately impossible to find the real Orson Welles among all the fun-house mirrors he so energetically set in place.”
Henry Jaglom

And to end this full circle, I found a quote online from Jaglom’s talks with Welles that touched on politics.

“Politics is always corrupting. Even saints in politics. The political world, in itself, is corrupt. You’re not going to satisfy that urge to spiritual perfection in any political movement without being betrayed and without betraying others. Only service, direct service, say, helping a lot of starving kids in a Third World country, is impeccable.”
Orson Welles
My Lunches with Orson Welles

And instead of ending with the a scene from The Lady from Shanghai or a clip of one of Welles’ films I thought you might enjoy this clip of Welles talking about Ernest Hemingway.

P.S. If you happen to be in the Orlando area, the Enzian Theater will have a Saturday matinée of Citizen Kane tomorrow (1/11/14) at noon.

Related links: The USC Spectator Spring of 1982 about Welles visiting USC

There is an entire You Tube Channel dedicated to Citizen Welles which includes the  90 min doc—The Complete Charlie Kane.

Scott W. Smith

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“I think The Third Man is one of the best, if not the best, non-auteur films ever made.”
Writer/Director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show)

The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen. Like many love affairs, it started at a dinner table and continued with many headaches in many places, Vienna, Venice, Ravello, London, Santa Monica.”
Screenwriter Graham Greene
‘The Third Man’ as a Story and a Film
NY Times—March 19, 1950

Towards the end of the Orson Welles Q&A at USC back in 1981 there is this brief exchange which says a lot about going to great lengths to get the right shot.

Audience member: An actor friend of mine once told me that he thought one of the great moments in film is in The Third Man when the light falls on you and you’re revealed —

Orson Welles: —”Oh, it is one of the great moments. (The USC audience laughs and applauds.) Remember I didn’t direct it, Carol Reed directed it. And do you know that we had that set built on another stage, and every afternoon for five days at the end of the day’s shooting we went and shot it again until Carol had it exactly the way he wanted it. Because he knew it was the key moment of the movie.”

I couldn’t find that scene online, and that’s just as well. If you’ve seen it you know what’s being talked about. If you haven’t seen it, you should (and not online). But I did find the classic short “cuckoo clocks” monologue by Welles that is often quoted from the movie. And a couple other related videos including a full audio commentary of The Third Man by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic ) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity). And I should at least mention that The Third Man—which is listed at number #94 on IMDB’s Top 250— was written by the novelist, playwright and screenwriter Graham Greene (but even he admitted, “the popular line of dialogue concerning Swiss cuckoo clocks was written into the script by Mr. Welles himself.”)

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m writing more to a theme rather than to story…if the scene thematically represents what I wanted the picture to say then I feel I’ve been successful…When you discover what you think it’s about—like I would say to you, ‘I think Forrest Gump is about loneliness’ and then you may say, ‘I don’t see that in the movie’ but that’s what it means to me.  Every scene I write is about a guy who’s trying to confront loneliness and not feel like an outsider. Or find a home in a sense…I think a lot of my movies are about loneliness.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth 
(Forrest GumpThe Insider, Munich, Ali, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)
“Conversations with…” interview at USC Film School

Related posts:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20) 
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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“I literally thought I might get fired at lunch.”
Ron Howard
Speaking about the first day of shooting his first feature film at age 23.
(Grand Theft Auto for Roger Corman. A film Ron co-wrote with his actor father, Rance Howard.)

Ron Howard has had one of the most amazing careers in entertainment history. First, as a youth and a young man he was an actor in several iconic TV shows and movies; The Andy Griffith Show, The Music Man, Happy Days and American Graffiti. He played Huck Finn, met Walt Disney and had cameo parts on Gunsmoke, Lassie, M*A*S*H, The Waltons, and The Twilight Zone. He acted alongside Hollywood legends John Wayne and Lauren Bacall in The Shootist where he earned a Golden Globe nomination.

Then as he shifted to directing he started his education at USC and finished it directing a feature for Roger Corman. From there he’s gone on to make over 30 more films including and as varied as Apollo 13, Cocoon, Slash, Backdraft, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Da Vinci Code. In 2002, he won two Oscars for his role as producer and director on A Beautiful Mind. Howard has also won a few Emmys as one of the producers of Arrested Development and From Earth to the Moon.

He comes from a perspective few, if any, can match— accomplish actor, low-budget filmmaker, Oscar-winning Hollywood producer/director. So just maybe he’d be a good person to listen to as the film business transitions to actually not having anything to do with literal film strips. A time when people are asking, “Will there even be movie theaters in the future?”

“It can be unsettlingAny time you go through a period when technology and delivery systems and distribution systems broaden and change, when there are generational shifts—all that influences what filmmakers do, the decisions they make, the kinds of projects they can work on. But I sometimes think about this 96-year-old guy, named Charles Rainsbury, who had a tiny speaking part in Cocoon. He’d been an actor and a film crew member when Fort Lee, New Jersey, was the center of the film world. He hadn’t been on a set since 1915, 1916. When I asked him how movies had changed since then, he said, ‘We didn’t have to shut up when they were shooting then; otherwise, it’s the same, hurry up and wait.’ And I find that comforting. As we go through this period of transition and worry about whether people are seeing our movies in multiplexes or on cell phones—or seeing them at all—I’m reminded that the thing I love is this process that hasn’t changed so much: You try to tell a story that’s meaningful, and share it with people. What really gets me out of bed in the morning is this lifestyle that I’ve always been a part of: the creative problem-solving, the collaboration.”
Ron Howard
DGA Quarterly/Fall 2009

See it’s not really the film biz after all—it’s the story biz. Go tell some meaningful stories.

Link to Ron Howard’s Oscar Acceptance Speech.

Scott W. Smith

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Last night I watched the Monday Night Football game which happened to be the first outdoor Vikings game in Minnesota in 29 years. It proved to be a historic game in that the Chicago Bears broke the record for special teams touchdowns in a season. It was also a night when the Minnesota Viking’s honored the 50 Greatest Vikings.

One of the player’s honored was Ron Yary. When I was in film school, and a few years after graduating, I work as a photographer for Yary Photography. A company that Ron and his brother Wayne owned in Southern California. Ron was an Outland Trophy winner in 1967 when he helped lead USC to a national championship. In 1968, he became the first lineman to ever be the overall NFL #1 pick in when the Vikings drafted him. He played in four Super Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. Quite a career.

Ron lives in Southern California and in 1986 “was the guiding force” in starting the Southern California Viking Club which is said to be the largest Viking fan club outside the state of Minnesota. Of course, all of this fuels L.A. football fans because despite Los Angeles being the second largest media market they currently do not have an NFL team.

What lead the game being played outside last night was a damaged roof on the aging indoor stadium where they usually play. The Vikings would like a new stadium to stay in Minnesota. Of course, many in L.A. would love to have the Vikings move to Southern California. Various reports (rumors) have the Vikings’ front office in talks with businessmen in LA. An article on Forbes.com has a Minnesota Senator promising a stadium tax bill in January 2011 that will help keep the Vikings in Minnesota.

Either way, look for some Minnesota Vs. LA drama in the future. (For the record, L.A. has already lured screenwriters such as Diablo Cody, the Coen Brothers, Nick Schenk from Minnesota.) I don’t know, the Venice Vikings just doesn’t have the right ring.

Congrats to Ron Yary for yet one more honor to add to his career.

P.S. Here’s one of the photos I took when I worked for Yary Photo. It’s of the Los Angeles Rams in 1985. It was signed by Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson and is in my office at work. (One additional personal meaning is in this photo is Chuck Scott, a number #2 draft pick from Vanderbilt, who I played football with in high school.)

That ’85 Ram team won their division, but eventually lost to the Chicago Bears in the playoffs. The Bears lead by Walter Payton. Jim McManhon, and Mike Singletary would go on to win the Super Bowl that year. And just to come full circle with a screenwriting connection—before Chicago-raised screenwriter Diablo Cody wrote Juno she thought about writing about the ’85 Bears team as her first screenplay.

Scott W. Smith

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Robert Rodat was born in Keene, New Hampshire and received his bachelor’s degree in history from Colgate University and a MBA from Harvard. That’s pretty solid credentials to start with, but just for good measure he added an MFA in Film from USC. (Seriously, how many screenwriters have an MBA? From Harvard nonetheless. Just one more writer with a Harvard background.)

He had a couple TV movie credits and wrote the feature Fly Away Home before earning an Oscar nomination for his Saving Private Ryan script. The film won a total of five Academy Awards including Steven Spielberg’s second best director Oscar.

In a New York Daily News article Denis Hamil writes that Rodat’s research for historical projects includes reading in the range of 30 books as well as journals and letters on the subject at hand.

In 2000, The Patriot staring Mel Gibson from a script by Rodat was released. Rodat at the time was quoted by Hamil saying;

“What interests me right now is big-canvas stories told from an intimate perspective. I like to find one small story within the larger picture and use that – not as a microcosm, but as an illustration. I don’t claim that Benjamin Martin, my main character in ‘The Patriot,’ says everything there is to say about the American Revolution. But the goal is to have one small, emotional and dramatic story about a complex character – with a matrix of people around him [who can transport] the audience to a different world and time.”

Didn’t Victor Hugo “find one small story within the larger picture”” when he wrote Les Miserables? Didn’t Tolstoy do the same in War & Peace ? Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind?  Michael Blake with Dances with Wolves? Keep that in mind if you are tackling a story of epic proportions. Think big and think small.

Though some of my info is dated, I believe Rodat lives in Massachusetts and is the screenwriter attached to the World of Warcraft movie that will be directed by Sam Raimi.

PS. Where was Private Ryan (Matt Damon’s character) from? Iowa. (Though an early version of the script has the Ryan farm in Mansfield, Ohio.) Here’s an example from Rodat’s script where you can see how he unpacks a sense of place. Quite a contrast from the chaotic Omaha Beach battle scenes toward the start of the film.

Related Post: Screenwriting from Hell (War movies and the five Sullivan Brother’s who were all killed on the same ship during World War II.)

Scott W. Smith

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“If you’re just some dude or dude-ette from Oklahoma with a dream of seeing your name in lights, know that you’re one of millions.”
Internet post by leinbl00

“I graduated with an MFA from UCLA. The odds I heard were that only 1 in 5 of us would have any appreciable career. I graduated 5 years ago. I’m the most successful (so far) in my class, with one script bought and made, one webseries delivered to the web and one further indie feature that I co-produced now reaching the festival circuit — but all my success only puts me on the lowest tier of the Hollywood game. I’m still struggling… I’m still broke.”
Internet post by Riter

This morning I came across an exchange on Reddit (via the blog Complications Ensue) and I’m not sure of the original source, but I found it interesting. This was the original question posted somewhere online:

Q.) I was just wondering what it’s like being a struggling writer in LA. What’s the day to day life like? How do you make ends meet, do you wait tables at night and write during the day? I’m not asking specifically for people who have sold scripts, but anyone who is really struggling to find work in the business, or has already.

Here is the abridged “realistic but not quite cynical” answer from a longer thread by  someone who goes by kleinbl00;

“I’ve optioned two scripts. I’ve made enough money at it to be ineligible for the Nicholl. I’ve seen some of my work show up on the big screen. I count among my friends some exceedingly pro screenwriters, a few struggling directors, a couple producers, and storyboard artists, makeup artists, art directors and concept designers whose work you have seen dozens of times. I’m hip-pocketed at one of the Big 5 and have, in the past, had offers of representation by managers you see prominently on the Black List.

I make ends meet by mixing sound.

If you’re a screenwriter with a hope and a dream out there in Middle America, STAY THERE. The screenwriting-as-hobby sphere of influence (lookin’ at you, Austin Film Festival) will have you believe that “if you write it, they will come.” What they don’t tell you is that USC, UCLA, Cal Arts, Loyola, AFI, Claremont and half a dozen smaller programs are turning out hundreds of grads a year, who already have the connections you need to make, who have already learned the lessons you need to learn, and are already going to the parties you wish you could attend.”

What’s it like being a struggling writer in LA? It’s like being one goose in an unwanted sea of geese. When there’s just a few of you you’re magnificent, marvelous birds… but when there’s as many of you as there are in LA, it’s like being a public health menace and knowing it.

My intent, when I made the move down to LA, was to get into the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. And I got a 1530 on my GREs, and I’d written 5 screenplays, and I had a letter of recommendation from one of the biggest screenwriters in modern Hollywood, and they told me to pound sand. I was good’n’pissed about that for a while.But I came down and I started mixing and I landed on a pretty big show. And the guy who changed the coffee and made sure we had enough snacks in the breakroom and did whatever scut work the producers told him to do? MFA, Peter Stark Producer’s Program, USC.*

And with that cue Albert Hammond‘s great and timeless song It Never Rains in Southern California

Bottom line—Don’t Waste Your Life, and don’t bitch about how hard it is to sell a screenplay until you’ve invested 10,000 hours in writing, and know that every once in a while someone in the fly-over states actually separates themselves from the rest of the geese.

* Don’t bet against the USC person who spent $100,000 on his MFA and is currently working 18 hours days on a set making minimum wage. He or she is not unemployed, they are educated, and they’re making plenty of contacts—and I’m guessing he/she is hungry and has passion. (And with overtime still brings home enough a month to more than cover their part of the rent of the small apartment they share with other PAs in Koreatown.)

Scott W. Smith


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This past weekend in the Midwest there was more drama surrounding college and professional football than I think comes out in movie theaters any given weekend. (Year?)

There were 106,033 people in Columbus, Ohio watching USC come from behind about a minute before the game ended to beat Ohio State 18-15.

There were 110,278 people in Ann Arbor, Michigan to watch Michigan beat Notre Dame 38-34 by scoring a touchdown with 11 seconds left in the game.

And over in Wisconsin at a sold out Lambeau Field the Green Bay Packers beat the Chicago Bears 21-15 by scoring the winning touchdown with 1:11 remaining.

And perhaps the best ending of the weekend was a little less visible game in East Lansing, Michigan when underdogs Central Michigan upset Michigan St. 29-27. All it took was a last minute touchdown, a failed 2-point conversion, a successful onside kick, an off-side penalty on the defense on a missed field goal, followed by a successful field goal with 3 seconds to go.

 

Why can’t more movies be that engaging?


 

Scott W. Smith

 


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“(USC Film School) made me realize that this wasn’t something I could take lightly; if I was serious about it, I’d have to get my butt in gear.”
Stephen Susco
screenwriter, The Grudge, Red

Years ago I heard it said that there were plenty of screenwriters in L.A. who had never had a movie produced but were living in homes with swimming pools and driving nice cars. Meaning that even though a screenwriter hadn’t been produced he or she could still earn a decent living. I’m sure today that is still true (though perhaps to a lesser extent).

Up until yesterday the record number that I had ever heard about of feature scripts written by a screenwriter before they were produced was 18 by Geoff Rodkey who finally broke through with Daddy Day Care. Then I heard the Creative Screenwriting’s podcast where Jeff Goldsmith mentioned that Stephen Susco wrote 25 movies before he had his first one produced (The Grudge).

The Grudge was produced by Sam Reimi and starred Sarah Michelle Gellar and had an $100 million domestic gross at the box office. An interesting side note is The Grudge is based on the Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge written and directed by Takashi Shimizu though that version only made $3 million worldwide.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Susco is not that he wrote 25 screenplays before being produced but that he wrote 25 screenplays in less than a decade. He wrote his first feature screenplay in ’96, graduated from USC film school in ’99 and The Grudge was released in ’04. But he had also been writing since he was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania far from the film industry. He also had made some short films including one that won an award in California which helped open the door at USC.

So Susco wrote his pages and paid his dues. Susco’s directorial debut Red premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Everybody’s got their own crazy story about how they got started, and for me, I had written a lot by that point. Also, when I got to USC, I got a really good recommendation from someone. What the school’s going to be able to do for you is somewhat limited, so you should try to get an internship at the studios and you can learn a lot, so I ended up getting an internship at Warner Brothers at a production company over there.

My job was basically to get coffee and water for people in the morning and alphabetize the script library . . . but I read all of them, and listened to people talking on the phone and started to figure out how the business actually worked, things you couldn’t really get in school. I kept writing and second semester I switched and interned at Silver Pictures: Joel Silver’s company, which was good for me cause I grew up on those films; I loved his films. And it was also a totally different kind of shop.

The first place I worked was sort of a smaller company, Paul Weinstein’s company, and they did a lot of sort of independent films and going over to Joel Silver, it was suddenly you’re in a middle of an episode of Entourage but there was a guy who worked there who had aspirations to be a producer also, and he had found out that I had written a couple of scripts and he said you know I have this project that needs re-writes, and I have this director involved. Can’t pay you, but if you’re interested that’d be great. I ended up re-writing their script for them, and that’s the script that ended up at New Line cinema a number months later and led me to get my first gig. It was kind of a circuitousness path- I didn’t have an agent at the time.
Stephen Susco
Interview at filmmaker.com

Scott W. Smith

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