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Posts Tagged ‘Waterloo’

“There’s no such thing as a totally new concept, just reworking old ones to make them current and fresh.”
Adam Levenberg
The Starter Screenplay

We’ll start the new year by looking at an old trend in the movie business—Similiarities between films.

It’s not hard to look at Roger Corman’s Piranha (1978) and see how it was influenced by JAWS (1975). But it’s also not hard to see how JAWS was influenced by the classic 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. I’d like to think that a then eight year old Steven Spielberg saw Creature from the Black Lagoon when it first came out and thought, “Gee, when I grow up I think it would be fun to work at Universal Studios.”

—The creature and the shark both kill people
—The creature and the shark strand a boat that threatens all aboard
—Both stories have an element of greed on the part of the humans
—Both have quirky boat captains
—Both have scientists
—Similar music to announce impending danger of creature/shark (Da-Dum)
—Both are Universal Pictures
—The creature and the shark are killed at the end

I’m sure there are a few other similarities. Just as there are similarities between Creature and King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1946), Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). Of course Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein was published in 1818. And if we went back in time we have tales of creatures by the Greeks and Romans, and even in the Garden of Eden we have the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve.

To use Blake Snyder’s phrase, “monster in the house” stories have been with us a long time. (Even if the house is technically a lagoon or a small beach town.) Overall I think we put too much emphasis on the similarities of film instead of their differences. Earlier this week I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon and JAWS and found they each stand on their own.

I once had a teacher say that if you gave ten writers the basic concept of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and had them write a script you would have ten original stories. Heck, Scorsese has made a career out of lifting chunks of 1930s gangster films and giving them his own imprint.

So don’t be discouraged when people read your script and say, “Oh, it’s just like….” They’re just seeing patterns that are in every film. Last week I saw The Black Swan and I thought, “Oh, it’s The Wrestler meets The Fight Club.” Then I saw Mark Walhberg in The Fighter and even though it’s based on a true story, I still thought, “It’s part Rocky (1976) and part Fat City (1972).” Your originality will come from your own unique background.

And speaking of  Creature from the Black Lagoon, I saw where screenwriter Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) is remaking the film. Turns out that Ross’ father, Arthur A. Ross, was one of the screenwriters on the original film. The elder Ross was nominated for an Oscar for the 1980 film Brubaker which was just eight years before Gary received his first Oscar nomination for Big—shared with co-writer Anne Spielberg, who happens to be Steven’s sister. (One big happy family, right?)

And lastly, I can’t help but point out that the actress (Julie Adams) who the creature from the Black Lagoon was attracted to, in real life was born in Waterloo, Iowa. (Just a few miles from where I type this post in Cedar Falls, Iowa.)



P.S. If you’re a filmmaker near the Florida panhandle, the exterior shots for Creature from the Black Lagoon were shot in Wakulla Springs State Park. I’m not sure what the requirements are to shoot there, but it’s as untouched today as it was when then filmed Creature. Crystal clear water and beautiful natural light.

© 2011 Scott W. Smith


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Last Friday I went to hear Entertainment Tonight co-anchor Mark Steines speak at his alma mater, the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), here in Cedar Falls, Iowa. His basic message to a couple hundred mostly Electronic Media students was simple;

“Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? It’s as simple as that.”

I might add that it doesn’t hurt to look like Tom Cruise, as Stienes did when he was starting out, and still does today. That played a big part in some opportunities that came his way in the 80s and lead to what has turned into a 15 year stint at Entertainment Tonight.

Yesterday, I drove through Steines’ hometown of Dubuque, Iowa which sits on the Mississippi River. He was an all-state full-back in high school and got a football scholarship to the UNI where he became a tight end. After knee & back injuries, he turned his attention to electronic media and got an internship at the local TV station KWWL in Waterloo, Iowa. His goal was to be a cameraman, but the co-anchors at the time, Ron Steele and Liz Mathis encouraged him to give it a try in front of the camera. They also mentored him along the way. And the rest is history.

To make a long story short he was hired by KWWL and while covering the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in the 80s he was confused as being Tom Cruise and Entertainment Tonight did a story on Steines and that got him some good exposure and lead to three job offers, He took one in Springfield, MO where he was the sports anchor for three years. That eventually lead him to a sports reporter job in Los Angeles at KCAL where he won his first of three Emmys. Being in LA he also studied acting, worked on voice training at the Kalmenson & Kalmenson Voice Over School for Actors, and also studied improv at The Groundlings.

In 1995, seven years after the ET spotlight on him looking like Tom Cruise, he was hired by Entertainment Tonight as an entertainment correspondent and eventually became co-anchor with Mary Hart.

He comes back to Iowa from time to time to speak at UNI as a way of paying back what has turned into a long, fulfilling and prosperous career in an industry where that combination is not easy to find. It helped give clout to his words that he was on his way to London to be on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Cedar Falls one day, hanging out with Johnny Depp the next day.

Steines talked about the importance of standing out, and how that’s hard to do in Iowa. That the industry is in LA and that’s where many opportunities are—as well as the competition.  He spoke about the need to have passion, commitment as well as rock solid skills. He also said that didn’t guarantee success in Los Angeles.

Steines spoke about the changes in the business and if he were coming up today one thing he might try is being a one-man band where you knew how to shoot and edit as well as software like After Effects. Maybe produce a little segment that was of interest to yourself and send to producers and tell them you did everything and  that would get attention.

As I’ve said many times on this blog, these are good times to be a jack-of-all-trades. That was not the message preached to me when I was in college. But the majority of 20-somethings I work with today are fearless when it comes to multitasking and performing many production skills.

And lastly, Steines talked about the difficulties of juggling career and family, because when something happens to Britney or a celebrity dies then he has to rush to the set for an update. Steines comes across about as grounded and laid back as you’ll probably find in Los Angeles. He talked about the need to give back and said as much as he loves L.A. he sometimes misses his life back in Iowa. (But don’t look for him to be moving back here any time soon.)

Scott W. Smith

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I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am women

I Am Women
Written by Helen Reddy & Ray Burton

“I couldn’t find any songs that said what I thought being a woman was about. I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that.”
Helen Reddy

The movie Whip It owes a lot to the 1970s. Not only were Whip It screenwriter Shauna Cross, director Drew Barrymore and supporting actress Juliette Lewis born in the 70s— the movie’s theme of girl power rises from the Gloria Steinem version of feminism that came to fruition in the early 70s. (The National Women’s Political Caucus and Ms. Magazine were both founded in 1971 with Steinem’s guidance. A year before Helen Reddy sang I Am Woman in which would become a catchy powerful feminist anthem.)

And while there are probably a zillion different views of feminism today (and plenty of strong women who don’t care for that label) most would look at the role women have in culture today and agree with the popular 70s Virginia Slims ad champaign, “You’ve come a long way baby.”  (Of course, not everyone would agree on the interpretation of that phrase. Some would say a long way good and others a long way bad.) In the 1970s there was a shift in the roles that women would play in business, education, politics, military and sports. I was raised in the 60s-70s by a single mother and two of the best athletes on my street were girls, so I can’t say I felt the shift and only knew the traditional world by watching old reruns of Leave it to Beaver.

(Growing up in Central Florida I have burned into my memory the blarring 70s radio ads for drag racing events, “Big Daddy Don Garlits, and Shirley ‘Cha-Cha’ Muldowney this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Gainesville International Speedway. BE THERE ! BE THERE! BE THERE!” I never did get there but I remember being amazed that there was a female drag racer. Muldowney was the first women to receive a NHRA licence and won NHRA top fuel championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982. Her story was made into the excellent 1983 film Heart Like a Wheel starring Bonnie Bedelia.)

Of course, as women sought more independence, freedom and accomplishments outside the home this would impact how children were raised and as a result our entire culture effected.  Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) was one of the first films to deal with this changing world. And The Fight Club (1999) dealt with the lingering effects. But honestly, things haven’t exactly been a picnic ever since that incident with the fruit in the garden of Eden. We live in a broken, fallen world and everyday the news confirms this. We go to movies for the hope of a little sliver of restoration.

Which brings us back to Whip It. The movie’s poster with a great shot of star Ellen Page says, “Find your tribe.” It’s about finding your place in this world even if you live in a little town like Bodeen, Texas. I became aware of the story when Cedar Falls, Iowa had a shot at becoming both Bodeen and Austin when I received a call from Mandate Pictures to do some location scouting in the Cedar Falls, Waterloo and Cedar Rapids area here in Iowa.

Iowa’s film incentives were the main reason they considered shooting a story set in Texas. (It would have been a nice payback since the Johnny Depp/Leonardo DiCaprio/Juliette Lewis film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was set in Iowa but shot in Texas.) When I got the call last spring, Ellen Page was already in Iowa making another Mandate Picture called Peacock which was shooting in the Des Moines area.

I ended up doing two days of scouting and thought we had a good shot. One of the biggest problems though was they were really looking for a 50s style ranch home made of brick. We had a good deal of 50s ranch homes in the area but brick for whatever reason was not commonly used. They also wanted the yards to be a little worn down. Maybe it’s because the soil is good in Iowa or the neat German heritage, but there aren’t many lawns in disrepair in this part of the county.

I took hundreds of pictures for the various locations they needed including the Oink Joint where Page’s character worked. My best find was the town of Vinton, Iowa (between Cedar Falls & Cedar Rapids) that I thought made a fitting small Texas town like the ones I’ve driven through before. But at the end of the day they shot most of the film in Michigan. (Apparently, they don’t take care of their lawns as well as Iowans.) I was bummed when I found out they weren’t shooting in Iowa because it would have meant a lot to the community and I would have loved having a small part in bringing the first Hollywood film here since they shot Country in Black Hawk County back in the mid-80s.

But I’m glad the film got made and will write specifically about it tomorrow. The script was written by Cross based on her youth book Derby Girl. Since I write a blog that’s focused on writing or writers that come from outside of L.A. I enjoyed reading an interview where Cross stated, “It’s easier to be more original writing about Texas than New York or L.A.” But it should be noted that while Cross went to film school at the University of Texas at Austin, she did get her breakthough while living in L.A. and bumping into film people.

Whip It (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith



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But, somewhere back there in the dust,
That same small town that’s in each of us.

                                    The End of the Innocence 
                                    Don Henely 

Got nothing against a big town
Still hayseed enough to say
Look who’s in the big town
But my bed is in a small town

                                     Small Town
                                     John Mellencamp

 

What would you do if you won an Academy Award? What if against all odds you won two? Would you load up the family and move to Beverly Hills? But what if you already lived there or in New York City? Where would you put the idea of moving to a small town in Minnesota a year after you won your second Oscar? 

That’s what actress Jessica Lange did back in 1995 after she won her second Academy Award. She, Sam Shepard and their four kids moved to Stillwater, Minnesota,  a small town that sits on the St. Croix River just outside the Twin Cities.  Why?

Jessica Lange told Architectural Digest a couple years ago, “I had this kind of romantic image of the children growing up not dissimilarly to the way I grew up in a small town where they could walk to school. Even more than that, I wanted to raise them close to their extended family.”

So they bought a house next to where her mother lived. So the town not only got a Hollywood actress, but in Sam Shepard they also got an Oscar nominated actor (The Right Stuff), a screenwriter,  and a Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright (Buried Child).  It’s not so off the wall when you think about it. Lange was born 15 miles south of Duluth in Cloquet,  Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, IL.

They lived in Stillwater for about a decade.  Then after Lange’s mother died and all but one of their kids had graduated from high school there was no reason to be in Stillwater anymore so they moved to New York. But for a while they lived the small town dream. (They still own a lake cabin near Cloquet.)

A few days ago I had a video shoot in Minneapolis and ended up driving through Stillwater one morning. In some ways it’s outgrown the hardware store on Main St. thing and in some ways has been changed by gift shops and the condos that have popped up. After Lange sold their Stillwater house she commented that the town wasn’t real anymore. But for most small towns in America it’s a matter of growing or dying. (That probably could be said of most things in life.) From my perspective, Stillwater looks like a pretty fine place to live. (But it is a long commute if you work on Broadway from time to time.)

There’s something mythical about small towns in America. A little idealism mix with romanticism. A place where life is somewhere in between It’s a Wonderful Life and  Live it to Beaver. Where little kids can wander down Main Street like Opie did in Mayberry and where teenagers can hangout like they do on Happy Days. And if you can’t move back to the 1950s or live in a black & white movie or TV show then living in a small town may be as close as you can get to the ideal.

Of course, the reality is that there are often economic struggles in smaller towns. Teenagers are bored and can’t wait to leave. And small towns are not immune from drugs and violence. But small towns are still a refuge. And there is a reason why many of those teenagers when they hit their 30s and have kids move back to those same boring towns to raise their families. And they bring their gifts, talents and new perspectives that make the town a better place for everyone.

If you were in Cedar Falls, Iowa this weekend it would have made you at least think, “I could live in a place like this.” With two days of weather more fitting for San Diego, you could have watched a parade down Main St., eaten kettle corn while you listened to the United States Marine Corp Band perform at the band shell, taken a long bike ride through a state park, watched lighting bugs in the early evening, and listened to the church bells Sunday morning and a sala band down by the river Sunday night.

As a matter of fact, Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard lived in this area for a while back in the 80s. They rented a house in the Prospect area of the neighboring city of Waterloo while filming the farm crisis movie Country that was shot here in Black Hawk County. (That would have been the time when I was living in L.A. and going to Shepard’s play True West that featured Randy and Dennis Quaid in a small theater in Hollywood.)

Lange has the talent and has built her career in a way that allows her to live anywhere she wants and to continue her acting career. And my hope is with the changing digital technology and the various incentives to shoot films outside L.A. that there will rise up a new generation of filmmakers and actors who can make good films and live good lives wherever they want to live.

Well, I have to go walk to work now…

 

Scott W. Smith


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She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast
He was a Midwestern boy on his own
She looked at him with those soft eyes,
So innocent and blue
He knew right then he was too far from home he was too far from home

                                           Bob Seger
                                           Hollywood Nights 

 

Though I’ve said that Diablo Cody was the inspiration for me to start the Screenwriting from Iowa blog, it was an event that happened three years after she was born that probably planted the seed that eventually led me to Iowa.

When William Holden the lead actor of Sunset Boulevard died November 12, 1981 it made a huge impact on me. I had just moved to L.A. a few months prior from Orlando and was attending film school and studying acting. I was already familiar with his work on the movies Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, and Network. I knew that he was an Oscar winner and one of the biggest stars of the 1950s.

But it wasn’t his films and life that made the news of his death leaving such an impression on me. It was the way he died. The news in L.A. at that time played up the fact that he apparently fell while drunk in his Santa Monica apartment and had hit his head on a table and bled to death. And he laid there dead in his apartment overlooking the Pacific Ocean for several days before anyone missed him. He died alone. 

I remember thinking at that time, “How is that possible?” How is it possible for a guy that’s achieved everything I could ever hope to achieve in the movie business to lay in his condo for several days before any one missed him? This is the original Golden Boy, who was linked romantically to Audrey Hepburn, Shelly Winters, Grace Kelly and at the end with Stefanie Powers,. He had a six decade career including heavyweight the films The Bridge on the River Kawi, Sabrina, and The Wild Bunch.

He was rich and famous and he is now #25 on AFI’s list of top movie stars. But he died alone.

Two weeks later actress Natalie Wood died in a mysterious late-night accident involving a boat off Santa Catalina Island in Southern California.

A few miles away from where Holden died, and just four months later actor/comedian John Belushi died of a heroin overdose at the Chateau Marmont which just happens to be on Sunset Boulevard.  Much of my misspent youth as a teenager was spent laughing at Belushi’s antics on Saturday Night Live (Cheezebuger, Cheezburger), Animal House and The Blues Brothers so I didn’t find anything funny about his death.

I was only 20 years old and hadn’t even been in L.A. a year and I knew something was wrong with the place. While I was an intern on a cable TV show called Alive and Well that was taped in Marina del Rey I remember talking to L.A. Dodger Steve Yeager who was a guest on the show about L.A. and he told me something I never forgot. (Yeager, by the way, went to high school in Dayton, Ohio which just happened to be where William Holden’s character was from in Sunset Boulevard.) I asked Yeager if he thought L.A. was a plastic town and he said, “Yes, but if you live here long enough you don’t see the plastic.”

I only lived there five years so I could still see the plastic when I headed back to Florida. I still love much about L.A, but maybe it wasn’t so crazy to eventually move to Iowa. 

Yesterday I read that Forbes listed nearby Iowa City, Iowa as the #9 best small metro places to live and work (Waterloo-Cedar Falls was #33) and not too far away Des Moines was listed as the #7 best metro places to live and work.  How did California fare? According to Forbes writer Kurt Badenhausen “Bringing up the rear of our rankings are the troubled spots in California. The Golden State had its worst showing ever in our tally.” Los Angeles ranked #180.

I hope as the digital revolution continues that the William Holden’s and John Belushi’s of the future (if they aren’t big enough to live in Montana or France) can do their thing in their home states and avoid some of the L.A. trappings. Holden and Belushi weren’t the first do die in excess in L.A. and they won’t be the last. (And it’s also true that every part of the country has its problems with drugs and alcohol. But L.A. seems to have a special gift for leading actors and musicians—and in some cases actors turned musicians—toward a path of destruction.)

Do you wonder if William Holden when he was all alone in his apartment did he ever fire up a projector and watch Sunset Boulevard?  He was a respected (and still working actor) but faded movie star that Susanne Vega referenced in her song Tom’s Diner;

I open
Up the paper
There’s a story
Of an actor

Who had died
While he was drinking
It was no one
I had heard of

  

Certainly as Holden wandered alone in his large apartment at least once had to see some parallels between his life and Norma Desmond’s. 

And right now a 20 year old actor is pulling into Hollywood for the first time and he’s never heard of Norma Desmond, William Holden…or even Susanne Vega.

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

 


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But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep.
I couldn’t take one more step.

                                                            Don McLean
                                                            American Pie 

 

In my office I have just one album framed on my office wall and it is Don McLean’s Amerian Pie. I knew there was something special about the title song the first time I heard it when I was ten-years-old. What I didn’t really know then was that “the day the music died” was a reference to Buddy Holly’s plane crash. As a teenager I would learn of the details, but not until three decades later when I moved to Iowa did I realize he died in a cornfield eight miles from the Mason City, Iowa airport he departed from. 

Fifty years ago today is the day the music died. Buddy Holly died in that plane crash along with musicians Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and a young pilot named Roger Peterson. Peterson’s plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, an urban legend has it was named  “Miss American Pie,” but McLean has said he coined the phrase. The musicians were on a quick winter tour and had just played The Surfball Room in Clear Lake, Iowa and were on their way to Moorehead, Minnesota. Just a few days prior to the plane crash a young teenager from Hibbing, Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman stood a few feet from Holly in a concert in Duluth.

Zimmerman would later change his name to Bob Dylan and has often spoken about how Holly’s music influenced him. And the list of others who say basically the same thing is long including Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles. In fact, there is a direct connection to the Beatles being called the Beatles because of Buddy Holly’s band being called the Crickets. 

One of the main things that fascinates me about Holly is how this 22-year-old could have such an impact on the world of music in such a short time. He was a kid from Lubbock, Texas who had only been on the touring music scene for 18-months and was playing in places like Fargo, North Dakota, Duluth, Minnesota, and Waterloo, Iowa… sometimes in the middle of winter. 

And from there he went on to be named #13 by Rolling Stone magazine on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. And it all began in Lubbock. Music has a long history of seeing talented people rise up from places like Tupelo and Liverpool. The drum I keep pounding on this blog is this is going to happen more and more in filmmaking with the digital revolution. So when you hear Peggy Sue or American Pie today keep dreaming, and keep writing wherever you are.

I set out one night in June
Stoned by the glow of the Texas moon
Humming an old Buddy Holly tune called Peggy Sue 
With my favorite jeans
And a cheap guitar
I ran off chasing a distant star
If Buddy Holly could make it that far
I figured I could to
                                           Mac Davis
                                           Happiness is Lubbock, Texas (In My Rearview Mirror)

By the way, if you’ve never seen the movie The Buddy Holly Story, then forget everything you know about Gary Busey and check that movie out. (Busey was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Buddy Holly. The film was written by a first time screenwriter Robert Gittler who died the year the movie was released, 1978.) 

And for the real thing here is a clip I found on You Tube:

If you’re ever passing through Iowa and want to pay tribute to Buddy Holly RoadsideAmerica.com has directions to crash site.

 

Copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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On this day in 1859 the local paper where I live was established. As The Courier turns 150 today I want to look at its most famous reporter, Sinclair Lewis. Yes, the novelist, playwright, short story writer Sinclair Lewis worked for a brief time in Waterloo, Iowa before going on to publish over 20 books and in 1930 becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He attended Yale but did not graduate and traveled around doing various job and along the way lived in a writers colony in California and a Utopia community New Jersey. He had his first book published in 1912 and found his first big success with the 1920 publication of Main Street. The book would eventually sell millions of copies and made Lewis a wealthy man.

He followed his success writing Babbitt, Arrowsmith and Elmer Gantry among others. More than two dozen of his novels and stories were made into movies and TV shows including Elmer Gantry which starred Burt Lancaster as a phony preacher. The movie won three Oscar awards. And it was also controversial subject matter for the day especially in light of the Hays Code being in effect which said what content was morally acceptable for films.  

One of the restrictions was “The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.” My guess is Elmer Gantry got around this by being a phony preacher or maybe the code wasn’t enforced in its later years. Regardless, Lewis was not one to shy away from expressing his views of the hypocrisy he saw.

The seeds of Elmer Gantry may have come from right here from Waterloo, Iowa where he wrote an editorial about a fraudulent evangelist. Then again since his book came out history has shown that that subject matter has proven to be rather ubiquitous even to the point of cliche.

Every year the headlines tell of not just fraudulent evangelists but of fallen ministers, priests, pastors and ministers who have often been respected leaders. Steve Brown, an author, radio host and ordained pastor may touch on part of the problem; “The church is the only place that gives a pastor a microphone, a spotlight, and puts him in front of thousands of people and tells him to be humble.”

But that’s not our quote of the day. It comes from the Lewis who never seemed to eager to back down from using his words to make a point.; “Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile.”

May you be bold in your writing.

And while you’re at it, beware of the cult of personality. 

 

Scott W. Smith

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“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.
Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
Speech circa 1880

 “All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war, and rule number one is young men die. And rule number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one.”
                                                                    M*A*S*H, TV Program/Season One
                                                                   (Sometimes You Hear the Bullet)

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour on this day in 1941 five brothers in Waterloo, Iowa walked into a Navy recruiting station and demanded that they all serve on the same ship.  Two months later all five bothers (George, Frank, Red, Matt & Al) were photographed on the USS Juneau and became a famous band of brothers.

Nine months later they were all killed in the South Pacific in the Battle of the Guadalcanal. You can imagine the scene when the news was delivered to their parents home on Adams St. where they raised their boys.

“War is hell” is the often paraphrased Sherman quote. And that hell is full of drama so it is not surprising that there have been so many war movies.

300px-fighting_sullivans

A movie on the five brothers, The Fighting Sullivans written by  Edward Doherty and  Jules Schermer was released in 1944 and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. (The Academy would later call the Best Story the Best Original Screenplay).

A similar story of eight brothers dying in the Civil War was the inspiration for Robert Rodat’s script Saving Private Ryan that would be nominated for 11 Academy Award and for which Steven Spielberg would win best director honors. (Private Ryan is from the fictious town of  Peyton, Iowa and I do not know if this is a minor tribute to the Sullivan Brothers who would of come up in Rodat’s research as he looked for a World War II angle.)

Just a few weeks ago The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum opened in Waterloo, Iowa. The 32,000-square-foot state-of-the art facility  is named after the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo and honors the men and women who have served in the United States Military.

Since today is Pearl Harbor Day in the US  it seemed a fitting time to look at screenwriting and war. I guess I could have called this Screenwriting from Vietnam, Screenwriting from Germany or Screenwriting from Iraq.

There have been many great movies made dealing with war because it has everything I’ve covered over the year; Strong, meaningful conflict where larger than life characters deal with life and death decisions that have consequences greater than there own lives. Actions that could in fact change the world.

The upcoming Tom Cruise film Valkyrie  appears to be in this tradition. The Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander script centers around an assassination plot against Hitler. It would be hard to film a character in history that has been at the core of  more films, TV programs, and books than Hitler. Understanding evil seems to be one of our chief preoccupations. (When we’re not Googling Britney Spears.)

One of the first films I ever remember seeing in the theater was The Green Beret starring John Wayne and David Janseen.  (And for what it’s worth Wayne was born in Iowa and Janseen in Nebraska.)  By doing the math I was seven years old when that movie came out. I didn’t see the movie again for almost 30 years but there were scenes that I have always carried with me.

The first two were booby traps where soldiers are killed (one into  a wall of spikes, maybe I was too young to see this movie) and the other was the ending where a little boy goes looking for  Sgt. Petersen who befriended the boy. But Petersen has been killed and it’s heartbreaker (at least it was for a seven-year-old viewing it) as he runs from helicopter to helicopter yelling “Peter-san,  Peter-san!”

My boyhood friends and I had no real understanding of Vietnam but we loved the concept of shooting guns, rolling off a hill of sand pretending to be shot, talking on walkie talkies, and dressing up like G.I. Joe.  I think every boy at that stage of his life is a dramatist. Making up dramatic scenarios and living them out daily. One day they’re playing with stick that’s an old west gun, the next day it’s a Medieval sword, and the next day it’s a futuristic laser.

Fast forward to when I was in high school and  Apocalypse Now was released. That made me want to be a filmmaker and make sure I avoided going into war. Because of Vietnam  the majority of young people at that time didn’t get excited about joining the military until the movie Top Gun game out in 1986 where people signed up in record numbers once again proving the influence of Hollywood. (Ironically, Platoon came out that same year.)

Here is a partial list of some of the greatest war films:

Patton
All Quiet on the Western Front
From Here to Eternity
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Schindler’s List
The Sand Pebbles
Glory
The Dirty Dozen
Battleship Potemkin
Das Boot
The Caine Mutiny
Black Hawk Down
Henry V
Letters From Iwo Jima
Gone With the Wind
Battleship Potemkin
Ran
Zulu
The Last of the Mohicans
Braveheart

Some films have dealt with war from a perspective of humor or irony:
Stalag 17
M*A*S*H
Dr. Strangelove
Catch-22
Good Morning, Vietnam
Stripes
Private Benjamin
The General
The Great Dictator

And yet other films deal with the lingering effects of returning home from war:
The Deer Hunter
Courage Under Fire
The Best Years of Our Lives
First Blood
Coming Home

“Out in the Pacific they say he was the best,
now he’s in his civvies heading home like all the rest.” 

Jimmy Buffett
Sending the Old Man Home 

Just as there were stories that emerged after World War II I believe there will be a new crop of stories emerging from Iraq. Jarhead writer Anthony Swofford not only recounted his experiences from The Gulf War but earned an MFA from the University of Iowa.  The script for that movie was written by William Broyles Jr. who himself was a Marines in Vietnam.

So there will be more stories to tell from places far away from Hollywood. Stories than help give us meaning or at least a glimmer of humanity in a world that has been at war for thousands of years.

“The next wave of Hollywood filmmakers will undoubtedly include veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their values and empathy could alter the landscape of the filmmaking industry, even the world we share.”
Liz Alani
Script  magazine/ Real Men Write 

It’s my hope that this posts finds its way to Iraq and Afghanistan where a solider or two can read it and be inspired. Thanks to all the soldiers who have fought for this country over the years and have made it such a great place to call home.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith


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Obama Speaking in Waterloo, Iowa 2007
Obama Speaking in Waterloo, Iowa 2007

 

There is some speculation about what President-elect Obama’s howdy factor will be. They don’t call it that, but that’s what it’s known as in some screenwriting circles. (I’m not sure who I learned this from, but when I remember I’ll give them credit.)

The howdy factor (or howdy trait) is the thing that every President has to have to seem more down to earth. (Maybe for Obama we should call it The Aloha Factor.)

John F. Kennedy; Pick-up football games on the White House lawn
Richard Nixon; Bowling
Gerald Ford; Skiing and golfing
Jimmy Carter; Softball
Ronald Reagan; Cowboy
George Bush Sr; Fishing
Bill Clinton; Jogging 
George W. Bush; Mountain biking  & kid’s baseball games on the White House lawn
 
Now Obama is already a pretty cool cat, but he still needs a howdy factor. And while he does play golf, I think he’s going to be the first President with a penchant for basketball. That’s part of his regular workout these days so as long as his knees and legs hold out I think that’s what he’ll be about.

“Hey, M.J. can you can swing by around 2:00 for some hoops? And see if Magic and Bird are available so we can roll two on two.”

George Clooney said that he liked the character he played on E.R. when he read the first script. Though his character was flawed, at one point he saves a dog and knew that he was a complex character that people would embrace.

Blake Snyder would call that a “Save the Cat” moment. A little trick of the trade that sometimes up pops in films where a character does something — like saving a cat (or a dog in Clooney’s case) — that makes him or her more likable. Once you become aware of these howdy traits you see them everywhere. (Blake and his readers have been known to yell out “Save the Cat” when they see it occur at the theaters.)

Of course, it doesn’t have to literally be a save the cat scene, but it can be. In I Am Legend, Will Smith’s character is on a hunt for food when he comes upon a lion that looks like quite a few meals. He raises his gun to shoot, but doesn’t pull the trigger when he sees a baby lion come around the corner. He decides to let the animals go (save the large cats) and it’s meant to convey he’s a good guy. 

In the Fugitive Harrison Ford’s character is falsely convicted of killing his wife and is sent to prison. On a bus ride to the prison with other prisoners the bus is hit by a train and the prisoners flee the wrecked bus and escape in the night. But before Ford escapes he takes his time to save an injured prisoner. A save the cat moment to prove that he is a good man setting up that he really is innocent of killing his wife.  

It’s best to show a howdy trait as early as possible. They are usually found in the first act if not in the first 10 pages in many screenplays because they are a shorthand way of establishing character.

Do you have any howdy factors in the script you are working on now? Now that I think about it there is also a “kill the dog” scene in I Am Legend, but even that is a compassionate act.

Oh, and by the time Obama finished his tour of the White House today, I bet he knew exactly where he was going to put the b-ball court. 

Related Posts:  Politics, Power & Screenwriting (tip #3)

 

Photo and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“I shoot video because it gives me freedom as a filmmaker to try new things.”
                                                                                                Mike Figgis
                                                                                                Writer/Director
                                                                                                Leaving Las Vegas  

“Montage is conflict.”
                                                                                              
Sergei Eisenstein 

 

 

Since my last post was on the six-word story, I thought it would be a fitting place to talk about the 48 hour film.

A couple weekends ago I made a film as part of The 48 Hour Film Project taking place in Des Moines, Iowa. Below the film titled “Heart Strings” I’ll talk a little about the process of making that film.

This is my third year doing The 48 Hour Film Project in Des Moines. The past two years my films have won best cinematography against the 35+ teams competing. This year I really wanted to take a shot at making the best film.

The first thing I noticed is in these sort of things comedy does very well so I had in mind that I’d make a film with a humorous angle. I also decided that I wanted to shoot in one location and be done shooting by Saturday morning. Local artist Paco Rosic (www.pacorosic.com) has a restaurant here and said we could shoot there after 10 PM. 

Then we had a handful of people that had agreed to be in the film if I needed them. My goal was to use only two or three people. I really was aiming for simplicity. On Friday night we drew romance as the genre we had to make and the idea of speed dating came to my mind in about ten seconds.

Which of course fit the talent pool I had gathered– a mix of men and one women. Paco ended up as one of the actors and not only gets the girl at the end of the movie, but he edited the film as well. He is a talented artist and who has a non-linear editing system in his loft near the restaurant.

You learn to go with the flow when you’re making a film in 48 hours. I had an editor and a DP both from Minneapolis who had to pull out of helping just days before the shoot so I was glad Paco wanted to take a stab at editing it. Local grip and lighting specialist Jon Van Allen decided he could help out and the film would not have been as good without him. He brought not only his talent, but his fully equipped grip trailer and an extra Panasonic HVX 200 camera.   

And then there is the lead actress Amy Anderson. This is a classic case of “do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” This was Amy’s first film, but I knew she could play the violin so that would play a part of the story. So she not only was on camera between midnight and 6AM talking to strangers, but she had to perform for the final scene after that. Thank you, Amy.

The entire cast and crew did a super job and it was an enjoyable and stress free shoot. I had written a loose outline of characters and some dialogue and then we just shot a lot of footage picking out the best performances that seemed to have the most conflict in the character Bridget’s search for Mr. Right. 

We turned in the film before the deadline and would have liked more time to tweak the audio–but it is a 48 hour film. Thanks to people lending their time, talent and equipment the total budget was less than 48 bucks. (Probably less than the average lunch for Matthew McConaughey on “Failure to Launch.”)

If you’re a screenwriter who’s never directed a film, events like this are perfect for you to try some new things. It’s also a good chance to let people who have little or no experience to get a glimpse into what it takes to make a film. Believe it or not, an all night shoot is a great introduction to the carnival of a life in the film business.

And if you’re ever driving through Iowa and looking for a unique restaurant check out  Galleria de Paco in Waterloo, Iowa. (The shooting location of Heart Strings.) How many places in the world can you eat shrimp and grits and look at a fantastic spray painted recreation of the Sistine Chapel?

Update: On August 14, The 48 Hour/Des Moines Awards were given out and my little film  “Heart Strings” won best cinematography and an honorable mention for best directing.  

Later that night US Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson from West Des Moines snagged a silver metal in Beijing. In one of those quirky timing things I drove by Johnson’s high school on the way to the Fleur Cinema where the top 12 48 Hour Films were being shown.

Johnson is one more reminder that Iowa is full of surprises. Check out her website that is hosted by my buddies over at Spin-U-Tech.

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