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Posts Tagged ‘Van Gogh’

(It’s been almost four years since I originally wrote this post—then titled Screenwriting Obsessionand it seems a fitting time to repost.)

“Most creators — and all would-be creators — simply aren’t obsessed enough.”
Eric Maisel

A few weeks ago I was talking to a couple filmmakers and we got to talking about a favorite topic of mine; Why are so many artists dysfunctional?  Take a handful of painters, writers, actors, musicians and filmmakers and you’ll have more than your share of people who suffer from depression, mental illness or at least some phobia that haunts them. Alcoholism and drug abuse appears more common with this tribe.

So the big question is — why?

One of the filmmakers had an easy answer, obsession.

I instantly thought of Jackson Pollock painting in his barn. I thought of Van Gogh’s passion. I thought of Martin Scorsese and his own demons. Obsession may be as good and answer as I’ve heard.

“One hasn’t become a writer until one has distilled writing into a habit, a habit that has been forced into an obsession. Writing has to be an obsession. It has to be something as organic, physiological and psychological as speaking or sleeping or eating.”
Niyi Osudare
From the book One Hundred Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters/Karl Iglesias

Eric Maisel, PhD has written several books that touch on this issue including Creativity for Life, The Creativity Book, and The Van Gogh Blues. I haven’t read his books, but in his article In Praise of Positive Obsessions he does make the distinction between positive and negative obsessions. He writes:

What exactly do I mean by a positive obsession?

A fair working definition is as follows: positive obsessions are insistent, recurrent thoughts or sets of thoughts, pressurized in feel, that are extremely difficult to ignore, that compel one to act, and that connect to one’s goals and values as an active meaning-maker and authentic human being.

For Van Gogh, for a period of time, sunflowers obsessed him. For Dostoevsky, for decades, the question of whether an innocent–a “saintly man” –could survive in the real world haunted and obsessed him.

Georgia O’Keeffe obsessed about how to represent the desert, thrilling herself when her imagery of bleached bones satisfied her for a time.

It is no accident or coincidence that effective artists harbor preoccupations that rise to the level of positive obsession.

So maybe we just obsess too much about those creative souls who have negative obsessions. After all those are the ones that tend to fascinate us the most. Those are the ones books are written about and movies made of their lives.

If you have any books and articles that explore the similarities and differences of positive and negative obsessions toss them my way. I don’t think my obsession is going away from thinking about it anytime soon.

And as far as screenwriting obsessions—there are many. Why do people spend so much time and money on something when the odds are so against any meaningful return on investment? Why all the books, CDs, workshops, college degrees, screenwriting expos, script consultants, etc. if there wasn’t a screenwriting obsession in this country? Why do produced screenwriters continue though they often feel less than satisfied with the finished results of their script?

Maybe it has something to do with Van Gogh continuing to paint even though the appreciation for his work would come long after he died. I hope you can find that “positive obsession,” and can continue to work on your craft without losing your mind.

Related posts:
“What it means to be a screenwriter.”
Don’t Waste Your Life (2.0) “It’s an accepted fact that all writers are crazy, even the normal ones are weird.”—William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade    
‘The Greatest Gift’“It is a story about depression and disillusionment, alcoholism and attempted suicide. And yet for all that, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has just been voted the most inspirational film ever made.” 2006 article in The Guardian

Scott W. Smith

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“Most creators — and all would-be creators — simply aren’t obsessed enough.”
Eric Maisel

A few weeks ago I was talking to a couple filmmakers and we got to talking about a favorite topic of mine; Why are so many artists dysfunctional?  Take a handful of painters, writers, musicians and filmmakers and you’ll have more than your share of people who suffer from depression, mental illness or at least some phobia that haunts them. Alcoholism and drug abuse appears more common with this tribe.

So the big question is — why?

One of the filmmakers had an easy answer, obsession.

I instantly thought of Jackson Pollock painting in his barn. I thought of Van Gogh’s passion. I thought of Martin Scorsese and his own demons. Obsession may be as good and answer as I’ve heard.

“One hasn’t become a writer until one has distilled writing into a habit, a habit that has been forced into an obsession. Writing has to be an obsession. It has to be something as organic, physiological and psychological as speaking or sleeping or eating.”
Niyi Osudare
From the book One Hundred Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters/Karl Iglesias

Eric Maisel, PhD has written several books that touch on this issue including Creativity for Life, The Creativity Book, and The Van Gogh Blues. I haven’t read his books, but in his article In Praise of Positive Obsessions he does make the distinction between positive and negative obsessions. He writes:

What exactly do I mean by a positive obsession?

A fair working definition is as follows: positive obsessions are insistent, recurrent thoughts or sets of thoughts, pressurized in feel, that are extremely difficult to ignore, that compel one to act, and that connect to one’s goals and values as an active meaning-maker and authentic human being.

For Van Gogh, for a period of time, sunflowers obsessed him. For Doestovshy, for decades, the question of whether an innocent–a “saintly man” –could survive in the real world haunted and obsessed him.

Georgia O’Keeffe obsessed about how to represent the desert, thrilling herself when her imagery of bleached bones satisfied her for a time.

It is no accident or coincidence that effective artists harbor preoccupations that rise to the level of positive obsession.

So maybe we just obsess too much about those creative souls who have negative obsessions. After all those are the ones that tend to fascinate us the most. Those are the ones books are written about and movies made of their lives.

If you have any books and articles that explore the similarities and differences of positive and negative obsessions toss them my way. I don’t think my obsession is going away from thinking about it anytime soon.

And as far as screenwriting obsessions—there are many. Why do people spend so much time and money on something when the odds are so against any meaningful return on investment? Why all the books, CDs, workshops, college degrees, screenwriting expos, script consultants, etc. if there wasn’t a screenwriting obsession in this country? Why do produced screenwriters continue though they often feel less than satisfied with the finished results of their script?

Maybe it has something to do with Van Gogh continuing to paint even though the appreciation for his work would come long after he died. I hope you can find that “positive obsession,” and can continue to work on your craft without losing your mind.

Scott W. Smith



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“In making art you declare what is important.”
David Bayles & Ted Orland

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”
Vincent Van Gogh

Several  years ago I attended a weeklong workshop at what is now known as the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, Maine. I’ve mentioned before that the workshop I took and just visiting the towns of Rockport and Camden where worthwhile, but my real lasting memory of that trip was sitting at a table one meal with legendary photographers Arnold Newman and Mary Ellen Mary.

At that time the workshop also had a large library and a bookstore with tons of books on art, photography, and filmmaking. One of the books I purchased was Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland.  It’s a thin book—just 122 pages—that I find myself drawn to from time to time.

“It’s apparent that as some level, all art is autobiographical. After all, your brush only paints a stoke in response to your gesture, your word processor only taps out a sentence in response to your keystrokes. As Tennessee Williams observed, even works of demonstrable fiction or fantasy remain emotionally autobiographical. John Szarkowskowski once curated a show at the Museum of Modern Art titled Mirrors and Windows. His premise was that some artists view the world as if looking through a window at things happening ‘out there’, while others view the world as if looking in a mirror at a world inside themselves. Either way, the autobiographical vantage point is implicit.

If art is about self, the widely accepted corollary is that making art is about self-expression. And it is—but that is not necessarily all it is. It may only be a passing feature of our times that validating the sense of who-you-are is held up as the major source of the need to make art. What gets lost in that interpretation is an older sense that art is something you do out in the world, or something you do about the world, or even something you do for the world. The need to make art may not stem solely from the need to express who you are, but from a need to complete a relationship with someone outside yourself. As a maker of art you are custodian of issues larger than self.”
David Bayles & Ted Orland
Art & Fear
pages 107-108

Note: The above Van Gogh painting is one of his works from the 15 months he spent in Arles, France.  The specific painting is of the inner court of the hospital in Arles where Van Gogh ( who struggled with metal illness) stayed for a time for after he was admitted after he cut his lower earlobe off in 1888.  In 1999 I visited the hospital (now a cultural center) in Arles which looks very similar to painting. If you ever have a chance to go to Arles they have a wonderful walking tour that takes you to many of the sites “the redheaded madman” (as he was known to some of his neighbors) painted.

Scott W. Smith

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Years ago, philosophers Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a serious book called How to Read a Book. In it, they mentioned that unless you’d read a book three times, you really hadn’t read the book. That is, you hadn’t digested the book. I wonder how many of the estimated 1.7 billion DVDs sold last year were viewed more than once (not counting Finding Nemo).

The best way to watch a movie in order to grow as a screenwriter and filmmaker is to watch it over an over again. Writer/director Frank Darabont admits that, on his days off while making The Shawshank Redemption, “I would just watch Goodfellows again and again…just for inspiration.”

Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch George Stevens’ classic, A Place in the Sun 50 times. In fact, the single best class I had in film school was taught by a professor who showed us A Place in the Sun and afterwards asked us questions like “what sounds and visuals do you associate with the Shelly Winters’ character?” and “What music is playing whenever Elizabeth Taylors’ character appears?” It was the first time I really saw the intentionality of a filmmaker.

Film school was also the first time I was challenged to watch a film with the sound turned off and then just listening to the audio. Just out of school as VHS machines finally became affordable is when I began to break down movies scene for scene and to time the length of scenes as well.

Repeated viewing take you to a deeper understanding and appreciation of film. And now with DVDs and the like you can easily locate a single memorable scene, allowing you insights on how lighting, editing, pacing, economy of writing, direction, music sound effects and performance all come together for maximum impact.

While many DVDs come with extras, the real gold is in the commentaries. I’m not talking about the ones with film professors and critics, but the real nuggets that come from the writers and directors who made the film.

One DVD that I recommend you invest your time studying is the 15th Anniversary edition of Rain Man. The film, winner of “Best Picture” Oscar in 1988, has been out long enough to stand the test of time and be considered a modern-day classic. One aspect that separates it from the DVD pack is its three commentaries.

The director, Barry Levinson, the original writer Barry Marrow, and the rewrite writer, Ron Bass, offer more than six hours of insights that warrant repeated listening as well as the film itself.

The commentaries on Rain Man expose the collaborative process at its best. At one point, Steven Spielberg was set to direct, and had spent many months working with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise on their characters and mulling over script ideas with Bass. You learn how difficult it was to get the film made even with top talent attached.

Levinson explains how he sought to shoot in a way that would give the audience glimpses of how Hoffman’s autistic savant character saw patterns in the world. And he notes that his direction was designed to show that Cruise was as handicapped (relationally) as his brother, making the film a journey of two broken people connecting.

Rain Man works on so many levels (psychologically, visually, emotionally, and performance-wise) that you can begin to appreciate its depth only by repeated viewings.

So don’t concern yourself with watching films just to check them off your AFI Greatest Films list. Invest in couple DVDs of your favorite movies that you’ve heard good things about the commentary and watch those–study those–repeatedly. And like Van Gogh studying a Rembrandt painting, you will be partaking in a timeless creative tradition.

Here is a short list of my favorite DVD commentaries:

The Godfather; Francis Ford Coppola commentary

Stand by Me; Directing inexperienced actors and using improvisation

Seabiscuit; On adapting a film from a best-selling book

The Shawshank Redemption (15th Anniversary Edition); Frank Darabont and “Happy Accidents”

Pieces of April: On funding falling through and finally making the low-budget movie in 16 days.

Big: Commentary with writers Gary Ross and Annie Spielberg which has original excerpts of when they were writing the original script before they had ever had a script produced. Great stuff.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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“If you follow your passion, the money will follow. Success, in my opinion, involves sheer luck, hard work and humility.”
                                                           Anthony Zuiker, creator CSI TV programs

 

“I’m Zack Johnson and I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s about it, I’m a normal guy.”

                                                           Zach Johnson, professional golfer

Last year at this time Zach Johnson’s above quote caused laughter from the press corp in Augusta, Georgia as he spoke those words before a national TV audience after winning the prestigious Masters at Augusta National golf tournament.

But do normal guys come from seemingly nowhere to win their first major tournament against the greatest golfers in the world? Do normal guys fend off Tiger Woods, one of the greatest golfers in the history of the game?

Zach Johnson was sneaky long.

Sneaky long is a golf phrase which describes a golfer, a golf shot, or a particular hole that looks deceptively underrated. Think of it like an Adam Sandler/Bill Murray-like fellow in his goofiest outfit coming up to some serious golfers and saying, “You guys want to put a little money on who can hit the next ball the longest?” They take the bet thinking the guy doesn’t have a chance and he ends up taking their money.

Sneaky long is the underdog that causes snickers. Rocky, Seabiscuit, and Erin Brockovich were all sneaky long. Audiences love an underdog mainly because the underdog represents us and our deepest wishes.

When a 36-year-old writer broke into the TV business (in a business where 30 is old) with a script for an episode for the TV show Hunter (followed by scripts for even lesser remembered TV shows) few probably thought that within ten years this guy was going to write a movie that would win five Oscars. But that’s what happened after Randell Wallace wrote Braveheart.

Johnson’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa has had it’s share of sneaky long characters. NFL quarterback Kurt Warner not only grew up in Cedar Rapids but went to the same high school as Johnson. When no large schools offered him a football scholarship, he signed with the University of Northern Iowa, a Division II college right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

It wasn’t the big-time college football that he’d hoped for, but at least he thought he’d start all four years. However, he sat the bench for three years before making his marking mark his senior year by becoming the Gateway Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Following graduation, he worked as a grocery stocker at HyVee (where I shop these days to pick up the vibe) and then played arena football in Des Moines. Next was pro ball in Europe before joining the St. Louis Rams where he was booed in his first game. He went on to be twice voted the top player in the NFL and Super Bowl XXXIV MVP. Someday they’ll do a movie about his life.

One could even say that artist Grant Wood was sneaky long. He was a schoolteacher and artist who lived in a small apartment above a carriage house in (you guessed it) Cedar Rapids, where he eventually painted one of the most recognizable (and copied and parodied) paintings in the history of art—American Gothic.

Wood once said, “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.” He also coined the term regionalism to define his belief that an artist should “paint out of the land and the people he knows best.”

Isn’t that what Van Gogh did in Arles? Isn’t that what Winslow Homer did in Maine? Isn’t that what Faulkner did in Oxford, what Steinbeck did in Monterey, what O’Connor in Georgia, what Ibsen did in Norway, what Willa Cather did in Nebraska, and what Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) has done in Texas?

This is the heartbeat of Screenwriting from Iowa. Hollywood will always make its tent pole movies. Movies will always have a LA/New York thrust because that’s where the majority of studios, crews, and talent are located.

But if the writer’s strike signaled one thing it’s the times are changing. As the founder of The Geek Squad said recently, “What people don’t understand is the internet hasn’t yet started.” I believe new forms of distribution will fuel a revival in regionalism.

“What regional filmmaking means to me is not only utilizing the actors of your area, the musicians and the artists, but probing what it means to that region. And for me, the thing about Memphis that I’ve always responded to is its music scene, from Sam Phillips recording Howlin’ Wolf, Rudus Thomas, Elvis Presely, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich.”
Craig Brewer, writer/director Hustle & Flow

Audiences for years have been complaining about the lack of originality and seemingly endless repetition of remakes and sequels. (And again that’s why they flocked to Juno.) And writers have struggled with the pressure to write what they think will sell to the masses rather than writing what they know and really want to write.

While advertising dollars are shrinking along with the writing dollars for TV jobs, the advertising dollars are not going away. They’re heading to the internet. And audiences are no longer satisfied the the TV limitations they’ve had in the past. They like being their own Internet programers.

We don’t know what it will look like yet, but the writing jobs (and acting, producing, directing, editing, and shooting jobs) will follow. Like the era from silent movies to sound pictures the industry is shifting.

Hollywood is stocked with talent from all across the United States and Canada. We enjoy hearing stories of Katie Holmes being from Toledo, Ohio and Julia Roberts from Smyrna, Georgia. Even the greater Cedar Rapids area alone has its share of actors in recent films and TV programs.

Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings)
Eric Rouse (Superman Returns)
Michele Monaghan (Mission Impossible III)
Tom Arnold (The Final Season)
Michele Emerson (Lost)
Ron Livingston (Office Space)
Ashton Kutcher (The Guardian)

Did you know that Kutcher grew up in rural Homestead, Iowa and once had a job sweeping up Cheerio dust at the General Mills factory in Cedar Rapids? That was before he became a biochemical engineering student at the University of Iowa, New York model, film and TV actor, and husband of Demi Moore.

Kutcher had the looks, drive, talent, and quirky good fortune to make a name for himself that thousands of small town actors, writers, directors will never find in Hollywood. And what happens to those actors, writers and directors who don’t find fame or fortune in L.A.?

Do they embrace that hotel manager job? Have a career in sales for a health club or a real estate company in the valley? Move back home and unpack their suitcase full of broken dreams? Probably a little of all of that, but it’s going to become less necessary for talent to have to be in New York and LA.

This trend has already been seen in the advertising world as Crispin Porter in Miami was chosen to launch the Mini Cooper campaign years ago. (More recently they revamped VW’s image.) And Virginia’s Martin Agency has been doing the UPS Brown and quirky Geico cavemen & gecko ads. (At Martin they used to have a sign in the creative department that read, “Nobody comes to Richmond for the restaurants.”) Creativity Magazine has called Martin the “Third most creative agency in the world.” And they’re in Virginia! Changing times indeed.

But wherever the sneaky long actor, writer, or director lives they need to keep plugging away at the craft. Keep learning and keep creating.

I’ve said before in workshops I’ve given, “Don’t quit your day job, because you never know how that can serve your work.” (Not to mention it pays the biils.) Johnny Depp says he used to use different voices in the telemarketing job he had when he first moved to L.A. from Florida.

Then there is Anthony Zuiker’s story. After the show he created, CSI, became the top rated scripted show he told Creative Screenwriting magazine, “Three years ago I was living in Vegas as the night manager of the Mirage Hotel tram line.” (Zuiker whose creation has since grown into the hit shows CSI:New York and CSI:Miami has Chicago roots. How many years until CSI: Cedar Falls?)

But when Zuilker was a night manger he was also writing. It was while working at a motel when he actually found the inspiration for his first TV script. “The police and I are in this motel room searching for evidence when an officer lifts up the bed skirt. All I see is a pair of eyes before she leaps from beneath the bed clawing at my face. And I thought, ‘There’s a show here.'” (By the way if you’re interested in having Zuilker speak to a group of yours contact the Greater Talent Network.)

Certainly golfer Zach Johnson has followed Zuilker’s advice: “If you follow your passion, the money will follow. Success, in my opinion, involves sheer luck, hard work and humility.” Johnson was not the top golfer on his college team at Drake. (Congrats, by the way, to Drake men’s basketball coach Keno Davis for getting AP Coach of the Year last week.) Johnson even wasn’t the #1 golfer on his high school team.

But he had passion and kept improving his game until he got to slip on the famed green jacket at Augusta on his way to making $4 million dollars last year.

Whether you’re making music videos in Minneapolis, turning out B-grade cable scripts, teaching high school theater in Tulsa, a grocery store stock boy, a night tram manager in Vegas, a daytime tram operator in Orlando,  or someone sweeping up Cheerio dust in a factory you have to believe that you’re sneaky long and can surprise a lot of people with what you write. But you have to be writing to get there.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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