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Posts Tagged ‘Walter Kirn’

“Later that night the ocean again entered Tristan’s dreams…”
Legends of the Fall (Jim Harrison)

“So many nights I just dream of the ocean…”
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (Jimmy Buffett)

I’m not sure what the connection is between writer Jim Harrison and musician Jimmy Buffett, but I’m pretty sure there is one. Some secret Livingston/Key West handshake.

And somewhere in that connection is a spirit that resonates a longing not limited to the books, poems, and songs they’ve created but they’ve tapped into a desire to experience what it means to be alive. And to desire to not only live a life in full—or to use Hemingway’s phrase “all the way up”— but also to have “a good death.”

The 1994 movie Legends of the Fall, based on a novella by Harrison, is a movie I watch every couple of years. I don’t know if it’s the scenery where director Edward Zwick (Glory) picked to shoot the film in the beautiful Canadian Rockies. I don’t know if it’s the cinematography that captured that beauty—for which DP John Toll won an Oscar in 1995. I don’t know if it’s the actors—or simply Brad Pitt’s character Tristan or his Lawrence of Arabia/John Waynelike  introduction, or the James Horner music—whatever the reason, I find Legends of the Fall repeatedly enjoyable to watch.

Critics were spilt at the time of its release and it’s not hard to see why. It has one foot in being an epic story and one foot in melodrama. Tricky territory. And I think that was by design in an attempt for the movie to gain a large audience of both men and women.  Coming off the heals of a Dances with WolvesLegends of the Falls fell short at the box office & Academy Award-wise compared with Dances (which won Pest Picture and 7 total Oscars and made $184 million domestic). But Legends is the one I return to again and again.

Perhaps Legends the film split the vote more than the book did and paid the price. You have wild horses, guns and war for the men and beautiful western clothes, lawn tennis, and a romance normally associated with a romance novel or soap opera for the ladies. And if any men were on the fence, Pitt’s flowing hair (often perfectly backlit) kept them from going over. I’m never surprised when men tell me they’ve never seen the film. Perhaps a sweeping generalization and an oversimplification, but that’s my take. It’s too—to use Harrison’s word—pretty.

Pitt even jokes on the DVD commentary that the movie’s like a L.L. Bean catalog. This is what the original source writer had to say of the refined mountain life portrayed in the movie;

“I did have issues, as they say now, with certain parts of the film, because I thought, ‘Do they have a French dry cleaner right down the street or something like that?,’ ’cause everybody looked— pretty. But so many people seem to like it and I have no objections because it’s a director’s medium. When you accept your check you’re selling your kid.”
Jim Harrison
NPR, All Things Considered, Feb. 08, 2007

The movie basically extracts the characters that Harrison created and somewhat places them in a new story. Col. Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), Alfred (Aidan Quinn), Samuel (Henry Thomas), Tristan (Pitt) and others are all there. Susannah’s role (Julia Ormond) is altered and beefed up. Heck, the book opens with the brothers going to the war where in the movie that doesn’t occur until the 32 minute mark. The book is more Tristan focused and covers more of his far away adventures. Like writer Walter Kirn (who also happens lives in Livingston, Montana where Harrison lives part of the year) said of the movie Up in the Air that was based on his book of the same name—the book is not the movie, and the movie is not the book, but they have the same DNA.

To director Zwick’s credit I think he and screenwriters Bill Wittliff and Susan Shiliday, as well as the talented cast & crew created a film that continues to have legs (and a heartbeat) more than 15 years after it was created and that’s not an easy accomplishment. (And something that I don’t think any of the other films based on Harrison’s work have achieved.)

As a side note, though Harrison has homes now in both Arizona and Montana, and has traveled widely, this is what he wrote a few years ago:

“I have several dear friends in Nebraska and the Niobrara River Valley in the Sandhills is my favorite beautiful spot on earth.”
Jim Harrison

In my adventures over the years I have been fortunate to experience such things as witnessing a full solar eclipse in Salzburg, been free diving with large green turtles in Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, and flown in a seaplane over the Amazon River, but one of the most unbelievable and unexpected experiences I’ve ever had is watching thousands of Sandhill Cranes fill the sky on the edge of the Nebraska Sand Hills.

To beat the drum once again you don’t need to be in New York and L.A. to find adventures or stories worth telling. Certainly, even a somewhat remote place such as Nebraska has been fertile ground for writers from Harrison (Dalva), to Willa Cather (My Antonia) and screenwriter Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt).

“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pig pen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.”
Willa Cather
My Antonia

May you all have eyes to see.

Up in the Air—The Novel vs. The Film

Scott W. Smith

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“As a script reader, I noticed that every variation of Die Hard had sold. Not all of them got made, but they all sold.”
Michael France (On what led him to write Cliffhanger on spec)

One of the fun things about doing a small niche blog like this is making all kinds of odd connections, which I believe is what creativity is all about. (See the post Where Do Ideas Come From?)

For instance, as I mentioned yesterday I flew out of the Tampa airport and learned that the first commercial flight ever was between St. Pete and Tampa. That led me to learn that screenwriter Michael France (Cliffhanger, Hulk) was not only born in St. Pete Beach, but lives there today. Not only that, but he owns an old movie theater there which is currently playing the Jason Reitman/George Clooney film Up in the Air that I spent several days blogging about recently. In one of those posts I mentioned that Walter Kirn, who wrote the novel Up in the Air, was once married to and has two kids with the daughter of Thomas McGuane. Well, it turns out that I found an interview with Michael France where he said his favorite book is The Buchwacked Piano by Thomas McGuane.

One big interconnected world.

In an interview with Stax at ING, France was asked, “What do you feel has been your most important professional accomplishment to date?

“I took this question a couple of different ways. My first response to this is, managing my writing career so that I’m able to live where I want – which is waaaaay out of L.A. – and spend my off hours with my wife and kids on the beach. That’s not an easy balance to pull off, and it allows me to live the way I want to, so…that’s important to me personally. But I think you probably mean artistically, so I’ll take my head out of the beach for a minute. When I was writing Hulk, I wanted to make Bruce Banner an extremely complex, emotionally sealed off character, and to make his relationship with Betty romantic but still tragic. Those dynamics are difficult to make credible even when you’re not bringing in large science fiction ideas – but I tried to make that work in balance with the large scale action scenes that you have to have with Hulk.”
Michael France

To be fair, France did do time in New York & L.A., but a screenwriter “waaaaay out of L.A.”—huh, what an interesting concept. (Of course, to pull that off, it doesn’t hurt to have a few blockbuster films to your name and Marvel’s Stan Lee in your address book.)

Though I’ve never met France, I bet in that funky, creative way our paths have crossed somewhere. We’re the same age so it may have been that Jimmy Buffett concert I went to at the University of Florida campus (where France went to school) in the early 80s (Coconut Telegraph tour if I remember correctly), maybe somewhere in L.A., but most likely it would have been St. Pete Beach where I’ve spent much time visiting over the last 30 years. In fact, I shot part of a commercial there last summer.

One thing is sure, the next time I’m down that way, I’m going to catch a movie at France’s Beach Theater after my regular fried grouper stop at The Hurricane.

Scott W. Smith

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“The movie Frankenstein is not much like the book but there’s some essential creation in the book without which there could not be the movie.”
Walter Kirn
writer of the novel Up in the Air

 

Just in case you think Up in the Air is the only movie I’ve seen recently let me assure you that in the last couple days I have seen both Sherlock Holmes and Avatar. Both were spectacles that from a writing perspective left me with little inspiration. So back to Up in the Air. I found this nice little exchange at Cinema Blend between the novelist Walter Kirn and the screenwriter/director Jason Reitman about turning the book Up in the Air into a movie.

What was the adaptation process like?
Kirn: I think that the book is to the movie, what a piece of paper is to a paper airplane.
Reitman: That was great! That’s not the first time you’ve said that though!
Kirn: What I mean by this paper airplane comparison is this, he took this story and he folded it and he refolded it and he transformed it in a way that I completely recognize my own impulse in writing it but when I sat down to see it was not only honored and delighted but surprised by the transformations that had taken place in my own material and some of the potentials that I left untapped and, you know, here are two characters [gestures towards actresses Anna Kendrick and Vira Farmiga], one of whom is sort of in the book and one of whom is not at all in the book. There’s an Alex of a sort and there is no Natalie. So there’s so much invention. I think that anyone who’s interested in book to film adaptation really should look at this book and this film and see the way that that can be something more than a linear process but actual sort of chrysalis, you know, butterfly process. I read Jason’s script amazed and when you talk about Oscars and that sort of thing, because I know the source material that it came from intimately, there is a very deserved one there.

If you’re interested in adapting a book into a story I’d recommend Linda Seger’s The Art of Adaption:Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. And it would be most helpful to pick your favorite film made from a book and do a breakdown of the similarities and differences of the two. Try to figure out why some things were added and some things left out. Ask how creating a visual film changed some of the literary qualities? How how the structure of the book and the movie are similar and different.

Go deep with one book and one movie rather than trying to do broad strokes with several of your favorite books/movies.

And if you’re adapting a book into a screenplay, unless it’s just an exercise, it’s best to get the rights before you take on the task of investing in the screenplay. (Though I believe Reitman began his script before he actually had the rights to the story so these things do work out sometimes.) Some authors are very accessible, especially if you pick one of their obscure short stories.

And don’t forget there is a lot of public domain material out there.

Also, Walter Kirn has said in interviews that he wrote a script version of his novel. If anyone knows if there is a link to that script I’d love to read it to see how the original writer attempted to adapt his own material.

Scott W. Smith

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Reading departure signs in some big airport
Reminds me of the places I’ve been.
Visions of good times that brought so much pleasure
Makes me want to go back again.
Jimmy Buffett
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes

“A zip code is something I’d rather do without.”
George Bingham
Up in the Air
Written by Walter Kirn

Over the weekend I decided to read Walter Kirn’s novel Up in the Air to see how it’s different from the new movie starring George Clooney.  It’s actually quite different. I read somewhere that Kirn said that the movie was not the book, and the book was not the movie, but that they had the same “genetic code.”

But I was surprised how little connection there was between the two story-wise. I remember reading the book Seabiscuit after seeing the movie and it was remarkable how similar the two were. In that case several hundred pages had to be pared down, meaning that huge chunks the story had to be left out. In other case things were added to streamline the story. But the two worked as almost a mirror of each other.

Not so with Up in the Air. The core is there. A man named Ryan Bingham flies around the country living in hotel rooms and chalking up frequent flyer miles in between his job as a career transition consultant—he fires people. Yet though he is connected to the entire United States, he’s disconnected from just about everything and everyone else.

And he does motivational speaking on the side. Though in the movie it’s a seminar called “What’s in Your Backpack?” and in the book it’s a business parable called The Garage. They are similar, yet different.

Here are some other differences:

In the book Bingham is 35-years-old (which explains why Leonardo DiCaprio was attached at one time), Clooney is closer to 50.

In the book Bingham’s base is Denver and in the movie it’s Omaha. (Perhaps because Omaha represents more the middle of the country. Perhaps as a tribute to writer/director Alexander Payne (Sidesways, Election) who Up in the Air director Jason Reitman is said to be a fan of his work.

Bingham’s sister lives in Minnesota and that’s where a family wedding is planned, whereas the movie has the wedding taking place in Wisconsin. (Perhaps simply to remove it from the same state where Reitman’s Juno takes place.)

Only fragments of dialogue overlap between the book and the movie. (“You’re awfully isolated, the way you live.”)

The plot of the book is more about Bingham getting a million frequent flyer miles where in the movie it’s more about Bingham keeping his way of life on the road alive. The story and supporting characters are probably the biggest differences between the book and the film.

Perhaps the biggest additions to the movie that are not in the book are Bingham has a young female traveling companion and there is an online technological change to the film.  Both of these help the film. One gives Bingham a chance to explain his way of life and the other help make the story contemporary.

Things like discussions about Mormonism and Binghams’s preference for listening to Christian rock music are left out of the movie, but the movie has its own spiritual undertones–albeit subtle. In the book, Bingham likes to do his paperwork in the small worship places that are found in most large airports. Simply because they are quiet and usually empty. That would have been a nice touch for the film. Perhaps fitting of Bingham’s character if he would have met a lady friend there.)

Both stories have a good twist in them, but the twists are different.

One thing that stays consistent is a key event in Bingham’s life takes place in Iowa. In the movie it’s Dubuque and in the book it’s Fort Dodge. “I like the name,” Bingham says about Fort Dodge. (A place just about an hour to the west of Cedar Falls where I’m typing this post. Just did a shoot there a month or so ago.)

The worst thing about the original hardback book is the cover artwork. It lacks the simple, elegant design of the movie poster. It’s cartoonish clouds could be taken as an explosion and there is a burning person falling to the ground. (Of course, it didn’t help this book that it came out just two months before September 11, 2001.)

But the theme of people losing their jobs is much more timely in 2009/2010 than it was when the book was first released.

One thing the movie can’t capture is Kirn great ability at turning a phrase and his descriptive writing;

“Dwight is my age but with an air of elegance, as though he grew up abroad, in grand hotels.”

“I suppose that it’s time to explain about women. There are lots of them. I credit my looks.”

“The car, a new model I’ve never driven before, smells of a fruity industrial deodorant that’s worse than any odor it might be masking.”

“Our clothes and papers strewn across the room like wreckage from a trailer-park tornado.”

And a fitting place to end this post is with this Iowa-friendly section from the book:

“My mother has developed a sense of place; her mental map of the country is zoned and shaded according to her ideas about each region’s moral tenor and general demographic…If I’m in Iowa, sensible, pleasant Iowa, I’m eating well, thinking clearly, and making friends.”

His mother’s right, you know? Sensible, pleasant, clear thinking. (Except for the meth labs and some of the people I’ve interviewed when producing segments for The Montel Williams Show & The Doctors.)

Update: You can follow Walter Kirn on Twitter @walterkirn.

Scott W. Smith

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Happy New Year.

Well, I made it one whole year blogging once a day and I won’t say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done–nor was it the easiest. Perhaps self-medication for ADHD. I’m not sure when I started this journey two years ago that I would have imagined that it would have evolved into a part-time job. But it’s given me a place to hyper-focus on an area of great interest to me.

And apparently screenwriting and filmmaking is of great interest to a lot of people as there are many blogs dedicated to the ever-changing film industry. Let hope it all results in better films in the near future.

I would also like to thank all the people for stopping by Screenwriting from Iowa in the past year to read some of the 142,630 words I wrote last year on this blog. December ’09 ended up being my biggest month ever view-wise and was actually five times higher than December ’08. As long as people keep reading, I’ll keep writing. Technically, my anniversary date for the blog is in a couple weeks and I’m working on a change to mark that period. (I welcome any suggestions as well.)

In the meantime, I’ll kick off the new year where I finished last year (which was just last night) with a post connected to the movie Up in the Air. This time just a simple quote from the book’s author Walter Kirn on why he lives in Montana.

I live in Livingston, Montana, a town of 7,000 not far from Yellowstone Park. I have a commercial building downtown, the top part of which is the loft, and I do almost all of my writing there. I found it necessary at an early stage in my career, about 20 years ago, to remove myself from metropolitan life in order to observe America. And I think it‘s served me in good stead, strangely enough. Through the years I‘ve worked for Time Magazine, all sorts of magazines based in New York, and they were always willing to send me everything west of you know the Hudson River and east of Los Angeles. So it‘s worked out.”
Walter Kirn
C-SPAN/Q & A

That’s what I’ve been trying to say for two years now–living outside New York and L.A. does have its advantages (as well as its obstacles). The key is to keep observing, and keep writing. Keep submitting and keep networking. I’d love someday to hear a screenwriter being interviewed about his or her new film to be asked, “What made you think you could write a film in ______ (nondescript middle of nowhere place in fly-over country) and actually get it made?,” and hear them say, “There was this blog….”

Related post: “Up in the Air” Over Iowa

Scott W. Smith

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“I just happen to find life funny. Everywhere I look I see comedy…often where it’s inappropriate. “
Jason Reitman
Director Juno/Up in the Air

After the success of Juno Jason Reitman’s had the clout to make a film like Avatar. A big budget extravaganza. Instead he made Up in the Air. A film that not only works on many levels, but that was also shot in an area dear to my heart—flyover country. Granted some of it is literally  in the air in the vast stretch of land between New York and L.A., but the are plenty of Midwest moments including George Clooney’s business headquarters and what he has of a home both being located in Omaha, Nebraska.

And this won’t be a spoiler, but there is even a nice little moment tied into Dubuque, Iowa.

Somehow Reitman directed a film (co-written with Sheldon Turner) that deals with contemporary issues of the economy and yet gave it a timeless feel of a classic film. Somehow he made a film that touches on psychology, sociology, and even the meaning of life and along the way entertains us and makes us laugh.

I don’t know specifically which states the movie was actually shot in but I do know that Reitman did location scouting in Michigan and Missouri that impacted the making of the film:

“At a certain point during scouting, I realized that the scenes that I had written of people getting fired were just inauthentic. We needed something that spoke to the times and what was really happening. I cut out all the firing scenes in the movie and we put ads out in the paper, both in Detroit and St. Louis, saying that we were making a documentary about job loss.”
Jason Reitman
Free Press article by Julie Hinds

Twenty of those people where chosen to be film. To paraphrase Clooney’s character who fires people for a living, being fired brings new opportunities.

But the authentic ground work for the movie is rooted in the book Up in the Air written by Walter Kirn. And though there are many differences to the movie, the heart of the story came from Kirn’s own travel experiences:

I wrote this book in [Earl], Montana of all places, in a snowbound winter on a ranch thinking about airports and airplanes and thinking about a particular conversation I’d had that had startled me. I sat down in a first class cabin – somebody else must have been paying – and you know, I’m the guy you don’t want to sit next to on an airplane because I want to know your story and want to tell you mine and I asked him where he was from this line is in the movie. He said, “I’m from right here” and I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “Well, I used to have an apartment in Atlanta but I never used it. It just collected dust and then I got a storage locker, I stay in hotels and am on the road 300 days a year. So this is where I’m from and this is my family.” He pointed to a flight attendant and said, “I know her. I know her name. I know her kids’ names.” And I thought, this is a new creature. I felt like an ornithologist discovering a new bird and when you’re a novelist and you discover a new creature and you discover a sort of new environment in which this creature is possible, you have to write the book.
Walter Kirn
CinemaBlend. com article by Perru Nemiroff

So far Up in the Air has been named the best picture of 2009 by the National Board of Review and the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association. Personally, it will be the only film in 2009 I will see multiple times in the theaters. Actually, the first one since Juno. In case I’ve understated myself—if you like fine writing, go see this film.

12/28 Update: Found out that Walter Kirn was born in Akron, Ohio and raised in Marine on Saint Croix, Minnesota (just outside the greater suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul). For some reason that doesn’t surprise me. How many times have writers from Minnesota come up in this blog?

Related posts: Filmmaking Quote #6 (Jason Reitman)
Screenwriting Quote of the Day #117 (Jason Reitman)

Scott W. Smith

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