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Posts Tagged ‘William Wallace’

The 1985 film Witness is one of those movie that pops up again and again in screenwriting books as a fine example of writing. But like Rain Man there are a lot of reasons why the film works and it is an example of a collaboration at it’s best. It was a perfect storm of talent and it resulted in an Oscar award for writers Earl Wallace, William Wallace and Pamela Wallace.

Helping the film become a classic was the direction of Peter Weir, the acting and personna of Harrison Ford, and a wonderful crew that helped the tone of the film set largely in Amish country. Many were nominated for their work on the film, John Seale (Best Cinematography), Maurice Jarre (Best Music, Orginal Score) and Stan Jolly and John H. Anderson (Best Art Direction-Set Direction). And Thom Noble picked up the Oscar for Best Film Editing.

But according to David S. Cohen’s book Screen Plays it all started with a simple story idea from Pamela; “A contemporary cop falls in love with an Amish women.” Earl and William who had written for the old TV show Gunsmoke fleshed the story out and after 16 versions had a well tuned script. Neither had ever written with a partner before and neither had ever had a feature film produced.

There were creative battles fought during the making of the film but at the end of the day it all came together and they made a film that resonated with audiences and the Academy. No small feat. Then the storm was gone. Cohen writes that, yes they won an Academy Award, “Yet the writing team of Wallace and Kelly got no career boost from the success of Witness.” In fact, they had a fall out of sorts and went their separate ways.

The creative process is odd and messy and it’s nice to get a glimpse behind the scene of a script that not only found the light, but that still shines bright almost 25 years later.  Cohen writes, “The film was nosed out for best picture by Out of Africa—the film that gave Kurt Luedtke his Oscar. But Kelly and Wallace won, and from the podium Wallace got off one of the more memorable lines in Oscar acceptance speech history: ‘I have the uneasy feeling my career just peaked.'”

Your career has to peak somewhere — it might as well be at the Academy Awards.

Scott W. Smith

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“I think what makes a film stick to the brain is the theme.”
William C. Martell

“There’s no place like home.”
Dorothy
The Wizard of Oz

There are many ways to attack writing your story and if you read enough of how writers ply their trade you will find quality writers who come from all kinds of angles; plot, character, situation. Another angle  is writing from theme. And even those who don’t start with theme have one emerge somewhere in the process.

Talking about theme can can get a little tricky but I like to say that it is not your story, but is what your story is really about. (Some also call this the controlling idea.) The story of Oliver Stone’s Scarface is a Cuban emigrant who rises from tent city to become a drug lord in Miami.  The theme of Scarface is the old standard crime doesn’t pay, or you could say, a life of excess and ruthless ambition will destroy you. Theme wise, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is in the same family as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Variations of theme can pop up anywhere in the story. At the beginning of another Stone film Wall St., the first words out of Bud Fox’s (Charlie Sheen) mouth when he’s asked how he’s doing is, “Any better and it’d be a sin.” Bud Fox does much better and it’s not only a sin but he has to go to prison.

Stone uses the wiser, older Lou (Hal Holbrook) to be the voice of reason as he tells Bud, “that’s the problem with money — it makes you do things you don’t want to do.” Another time he tells Bud, “Enjoy it while it last — cause it never does.” (That film takes place in ’85 but they would have been fitting words for all of us in ’05, and probably will be twenty years from now. Good themes are timeless and universal.)

Again the theme of Wall St. is crime doesn’t pay, or a life of excess will destroy you, or even “the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.” (Anyone working on a script for the Bernie Madoff story?)  The big difference between Scarface and Wall St. is Bud Fox doesn’t get killed at the end like Tony Montana. No, it’s more hopeful and Bud seems to have learned his lesson.

Speaking of hope … The Shawshank Redemption is all about hope and screenwriter & director Frank Darabont finds many ways to express that theme. On page 63 of the script Andy says while in prison “…there’s a small place inside of us they never lock away, and that place is called hope.”  Then there’s the most often quoted line from the film,”Get busy living, or get busy dying.” (Usually meant to get busy living.)

Some writers post the theme on the wall where they write to as a way to keep them centered and focused. On the front page of The Shawshank Redemption script are the words, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies…” — words that echo throughout the film. Words that stick with us long after we leave the theater.

The theme of hope is one of the major reasons people watch The Shawshank Redemption again and again. We may not ever have been in a state prison but we can identify with the situation as we all at times know what it’s like to live in our own personal prisons or at least know what it’s like to almost lose hope in difficult situations.

Theme pops up at the end of Braveheart as the last word that William Wallace (Mel Gibson) yells is “Freedom!” Or as the screenplay says, “FREEEEE-DOMMMMMM!” Throughout the film the fleshed out theme “Live free or die” is clear and that resonates here in the United States of America. (Heck,”Live Free or Die” is even the official motto of New Hampshire.)

Paul Schrader has said he wrote Taxi Driver by recognizing “a rip in the moral fabric of society” and used the metaphor of a taxi driver to represent loneliness.

Of course the danger with theme is writers can become heavy handed with it and audiences don’t like being beaten over the head with it. Films work best not as an intellectual exercise but as an emotional experience. (At least that’s traditionally been true in American cinema.) Audiences want to be sweep away by your story. They want to discover the theme not have it handed to them.

Theme is powerful stuff. So remember as you write, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Related posts: More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith


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Thanks in part to the plethora of new books and seminars on screenwriting, a new phenomenon is taking over Hollywood: Major scripts are skillfully, seductively shaped, yet they are soulless. They tend to be shiny but superficial.”

                            Richard Walter
UCLA Screenwriting Professor

 “Where do we go to solves life’s problems? We go to the movies… Stories are the language of the heart.”

John Eldredge

In my post “Screenwriting by Numbers” I pointed out some basic numbers common to the majority of produced screenplays. But now we’re going to go beyond mere numbers and talk about what make movies work beyond the level of entertainment.

The only time I watch cable TV is when I’m on the road. And it seems like every trip I take The Shawshank Redemption is on some channel. Maybe they should just dedicate a channel to that movie.  The Shawshank Channel. The simple reason that film is on so much is people love that film. It trades places with The Godfather on IMDB.com as fans’ favorite film.

It’s the highest rated film by Yahoo! Movies and by the 2006 the readers of Empire magazine.

The Shawshank Redepmtion is a movie people identify with. Not because they were once in a prison in Ohio back in the day, but because through all of life’s danger, toils and snares — we need hope. We can sympathize with Andy Dufresne and his predicament. An early Jimmy Buffett song comes to mind, “There’s nothing soft about hard times.”

For any writer looking for excuses don’t look to Stephen King. Long before he wrote the novella that would become The Shawshank Redemption he was an unpublished writer with a stack of rejections, teaching high school English in Hampden, Maine and living in a trailer with his wife and kid and having trouble making ends meet. He wrote his first novel (Carrie) in a laundry room balancing a typewriter on his knees. (Please read the February 12 post Screenwriters Head Back-to-Work (Tip #2) if you want to get rid of the “artist” monkey on your back.)

Once King had success then he had to deal with a drug and alcohol addiction as well as getting hit by a van while the driver was reaching for “one of those Mars bars.” A collapsed lung, a broken leg in nine places, a shattered hip and after who knows how much physical therapy and pain, he is still writing away.

Stephen King understands hard times.

We understand hard times. That’s a universal theme that doesn’t need explaining.

“Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
                 Forrest Gump, (While Jenny throws rocks at the house she grew up in.)

“Are you going to be something else I have to survive?”
                                                                                          Erin Brockovich
“I coulda been somebody.”
                                                                                          On the Waterfront 

“You don’t throw a whole life away just cause it’s banged up a little.”
 Seabiscuit 

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
William Butler Yeats
poem, The Second Coming 

“You’re breaking up with me?! I thought you were proposing.”
                                                                                          Legally Blonde

“I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that, but prison is no fairy-tale world.”
                                                                             The Shawshank Redemption 


I think Shawshank’s ongoing popularity is because the story simply transcends film. Director Frank Darabont talks about getting many letters from people thanking him for making that film because it helped them through a difficult time in their life.

It’s doubtful that when King wrote the Shawshank story or when Darabont wrote the script that either were thinking that this male dominated prison story would bring comfort to a woman going through a divorce. But good stories have a way of creeping into our lives in unexpected ways.

In seminars I’ve given it’s amazing to see how the same films pop up when I ask what films people watch over and over again:

The Wizard of Oz
Forrest Gump
Apollo 13
Star Wars
Casablanca
When Harry Met Sally
Princess Bride
Good Will Hunting
Rain Man
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Sound of Music
Braveheart

Something resonates in those films with large groups of people. I heard director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) recently say on a DVD commentary that his films were a mixture of spectacle and humanity. I think that would be true of most of the above films.

When we write we are writing about ourselves. A good part of writing is self-discovery. The odds are good that in the films you see over and over again you are identifying with a character or a situation.

This is where we tap into writing beyond the numbers. It’s the reason that films that don’t fit the typical Hollywood mold find an audience.

Have you ever walked into a show home and been impressed at first only to feel that it’s well decorated but impersonal? The house I grew up in had a place in our kitchen where we had a growth chart on a wall. It was fun to look back over the years and see how you had grown. I’ve never seen a growth chart in a show home. No worn out carpet, no stacks of paper, no drawings by the kids on the refrigerator. Nothing authentic. No sign of life.

Just as your home should be full of stories and memories- and life- so should your screenplays.

“There should be something in the writing that indicates that it was written by a person.”

William Zinsser
On Writing Well

What sets your writing apart? The same thing that sets you apart from the crowd.

Your vision, your life experiences, and your worldview. It is why first time writers (like Diablo Cody) sometimes break in with an original story. (By the way, speaking of Cody, the Juno DVD is out this week.) This is also where Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside LA comes into play big time. Here is why I think writers from outside LA, or writers in LA that keep their hometown non-LA roots, have a better chance of showing audiences something new.

“If you try to write honestly about yourself, you’re writing about every single individual in the world.”
                                                                 Walter Brown Newman
Oscar & Emmy nominated Screenwriter

I heard a speaker once say that basically we all grew up in the same neighborhood. I took that to mean we all long for the same basic things; Food, shelter, love, dignity, purpose.

Primal needs as Blake Snyder would say.

You don’t have to be a salesman to identify with Willy Loman’s need for significance in Death of a Salesman.

Sometimes as writers we jump through all kinds of strange hoops trying to guess what will sell. We err on one side by trying to write the sensational story that everyone will love and on the other side by writing the small personal story where nothing really happens.

“It’s all one story, really, the story of who we are and how we relate and how we get it wrong.”
                                                                                                Ron Bass
Rain Man

“We spend much of our lives trying to reconcile these two halves of our spirit and soul — call it identity –as we struggle to figure out just what and who we genuinely are…The reason we go to movies is precisely to explore these perpetually unanswerable questions regarding our identity.”

                                                                                                   Richard Walter

Think how these films deal with the theme of identity (who am I?):

Babe
Big
Toy Story
Shriek
Stand By Me
Fight Club
Elf
Lion King
Finding Nemo
Seabiscuit
An Officer and a Gentleman
Sense and Sensibility
Office Space
The Incredibles

They’re all about identity. Yes, we can identify with not only people, but pigs, orges, fish, and horses.

“Each film tells a story in which the central character seeks only to discover his own true identity.”

     Richard Walter

We never know how high we are, until we are called to rise and then if we are true to form, our statues touch the skies.”

Emily Dickinson

“I finally became the man I always wanted to be.”

Jerry Maguire, mission statement
written by Cameron Crowe


“Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.”

                 Anne Lamont 

“Stories are equipment for living”

Kenneth Burke

One of the female writers at a seminar I once gave said movies were cheap therapy. Perhaps you’ve seen the book Cinematherapy which develops with that concept. And cinematherapy is not just a chick thing. Once when I was at Blockbuster I saw a guy pick up Braveheart to rent and his girlfriend said, “You’ve watched that 100 times,” to which he said, “And I’ll watch it 100 more times.”

We want to be the hero of our story and we are inspired by heroes of stories we read and watch. We identify with them. We identify with William Wallace, Hans Solo, Erin Brockovich and Cinderella.

Not all films have identity themes but those that do tend to not only have a long following, but they tend to do well at award time as Linda Seger points out in her book Advanced Screenwriting, “If we look at some Academy Award winners of the 1980s and 1990s, we can see an identity theme shimmering though the philosophical, theological, and/or psychological ideas.”

That trend hasn’t stopped in the 2000s, nor is it likely to as longs as human beings roam the earth.

 “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

                                                                                 The Shawshank Redemption

Get busy writing, too.

Related posts:
Broken Wings & Silver Linings
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
Diablo Cody on Theme
Theme=What Yor Movie is Really About

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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