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Orson Wells was born May 6, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His mother died when he was nine and his father when he was 15 and I’ve always wondered if there was a part of Welles that resonated with the young boy in Citizen Kane who is separated from his parents. Shortly after his mother died Welles began attending the Todd Seminary for Boys in Woodstock Illinois. 

When he graduated in 1931 the school was called Todd School for Boys. According to Wikipedia the school was founded by Reverend R.K. Todd with the philosophy of “plain living and high thinking, and in harmony with Puritan traditions.” It was a boarding school. (In Citizen Kane you may recall, the parents own a boarding house.)

Keep in mind that Wells was only 25 when he made Citizen Kane, so not that removed from school. At the Todd school Welles’ talent was allowed to flourish under the influence of Roger Hill, his teacher, headmaster and father figure. It was where Welles began his theater performances that would include Shakespeare and other classics.

Barbara Learning writes in her book Orson Welles, a Biography that after Welles arrived at the Todd School,“There followed a starling succession of plays—variously adapted, designed, directed, and acted by Welles. There was Orson as Cassius; Orson as Marc Anthony; Orson as Richard III, Orson as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Orson as both Androcles and the Lion; even as Jesus Chrsit, for which he posed for photographs looking strangely ethereal.” 

Keep in mind that he did all that between the ages of 11 and 15. Welles did not attend college, but traveled Europe and North Africa acting here and there so the Todd School really was his only formal education.

An association with playwright Thornton Wilder (who was born in Madison, Wisconsin) led Welles to New York just a few years after graduating from the Todd School. In 1935 he was 20 years old and considered a prodigy. In 1937 he found international fame with the radio performance of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Three  years later he would write and direct Citizen Kane which many critics consider the greatest film ever made.

Director Peter Bogdanovich on a Citizen Kane DVD commentary wondered how Welles played Kane as an old man when he was only in his mid 20s. I think the answer is that by that time he had been playing older men for almost 15 years. An actor once told me the key to being a good actor is stage time. And Welles got a lot of stage time at the Todd School.

So it’s no wonder then when Welles was 45 and asked in a TV interview “where home was” he tried to dodge the question before saying, “I suppose it’s Woodstock, Illinois if it’s anywhere. Went to school there for four years. And if I try to think of home it’s that.” 

(I had never heard of Woodstock, Illinois until my father-in-law died there this past summer. While there I learned that the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day was filmed there. It’s located about 45 minutes outside Chicago.)

Welles was a magician and an enigma. Many books have been written about him as they try to figure him out just like the reporters tried to figure out who Charlie Kane really was. But if there is one thing we know about Welles from just War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane it is that he knew how to hold an audience.

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.” 
                                                                                                   Orson Welles 

P.S. Orson Welles’ education is why I think the next great writer/director will not come from USC film school, but from a kid who is homeschooled by a mother who loves Shakespeare. (Probably in a small town in Iowa…and who reads this blog, of course.) And he or she will do it with a film using actors who have never been in a film before as Welles did in Citizen Kane.

Related posts: Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl from Ohio

New Cinema Screenwriting (Part 1)

 

Scott W. Smith

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“Small town people are more real, more down to earth.”
                                                             Groundhog Day 
                                                             Phil (Bill Murray) 

 

“A growing number of Americans are seeking a larger life in a smaller place. Many are finding it.” 
                                                                                      Life 2.0
                                                                                      Richard Karlgaard 

You hear a lot about Main St. these days and I thought I’d explore what that means from a screenwriting & filmmaking  perspective. A couple days ago my travels took me to northern Illinois and to the town of Woodstock which happens to be where much of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray was filmed.

The above photo is the corner where Ned confronts Bill Murray’s character again and again and where Murray steps off the curb into the puddle of water. The town, which is about an hour north east of Chicago, has improved much over the last 15 years and continues to embrace the fact that Groundhog Day was filmed there.

 

That’s right, Woodstock doubled for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Director Harold Ramis thought the town square there worked better as a location than the real deal. I wonder how many people go out of their way to go to Punxutawney and are disappointed that it doesn’t look like the town in the movie? That’s showbiz.

In fact, the town even has a life-imitating-art groundhog day celebration and a nice map you can follow to see the various filming locations of the Danny Rubin and Ramos screenplay. The bar scene where Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell drink to world peace is now the Courtyard Grill and has a signed script on the wall by where they sat.

 

Certainly, if you’re in the area it’s worth it to stop to see where one of the great comedy films (#34 on the AFI Greatest American Comedy list) was filmed. If you’re there at the beginning of February you can even take part in the groundhog days celebration. 

From my home where I am typing this I can see Main St. here in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It’s just a block to the west and is quite a lively Main St. USA. Shops, a playhouse, art galleries, several bars and restaurants (a new one opening next month will feature a respected Chicago chef) and even a comedy club. It’s also worth a stop if you are ever driving the Avenue of the Saints between St. Louis and St. Paul.

There’s something endearing about Main Streets in general. Of course, sometimes they aren’t even called Main St., but they are the historic main road through the heart of smaller towns. It’s not hard for me to think back at some of my favorite main drags (Telluride, Colorado, Winter Park, Florida., Franklin, Tennessee,, Holland, Michigan, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Seal Beach, California, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania  and Galena, Illinois).

Places that for the most part that have been around for 100 years. Places with history and character. Perhaps in a response to sprawling suburbs there has been an architectural movement to design areas that look a little like small towns complete with a Main St. (Some even have a small movie theaters.)

I first became aware of this while a student at the University of Miami in the ’80s when two Miami architects (Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) began to design the beach community of Seaside, Florida. (Seaside is so idyllic, it is where they filmed The Truman Show.) The success of Seaside has been well documented.

On the Seaside website you’ll find the history and the philosophy of what they set out to create after doing extensive research:
“Most of the buildings were studied in the context of small towns, and gradually the idea evolved that the small town was the appropriate model to use in thinking about laying out streets and squares and locating the various elements of the community. 

Seaside is a great place and today you can go throughout the country and find other areas that were designed in its wake; Celebration, FL,  Baldwin Park, FL, Harmony, FL, Prospect New Town in Boulder County, Colorado, and Kentlands in Gaitherburg, Maryland. 

That is not to say that this new urbanist master planned communities idea doesn’t have its critics. The most common charge is they say the towns are more like film sets or some kind of fantasyland — sentimental and far removed from reality.  Some felt it a little strange when Thomas Kinkade (The Painter of Light) got into the act outside the San Francisco Bay area by inspiring a development called The Village at Hiddenbrook that feature homes that would be at home in one of his glowing paintings. Where are the Rod Serling/Twight Zone inspired writers on that one?

But for many (including Walt Disney, and perhaps Kinkade) small towns represent the ideal. (Community, honesty, fullness of life, etc.) The way life ought to be, or the way it was.  Many movies and TV programs tap into this mystique: It’s a Wonderful Life, American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show, My Dog Skip, The Andy Griffith Show, Cars, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Truman Show, Northern Exposure, Places in the Heart, and Hoosiers.

(And some books, films and songs are critiques and satires of small town living such as Pleasantville, Harper Valley PTA, and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street.

Either way Main St. (and all that it represents) is a part of Americanna and will continue to be probably forever and is fertile ground for you to explore in your screenwriting, and perhaps even in your life. As Don Henley (who was raised in the small town of Linden, Texas) sings in The End of the Innocence:
Who know how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far so fast
But somewhere back there in the dust,
that same small town in each of us

On a closing note, I remember when I lived in L.A. there was a popular radio host named Dr. Toni Grant who used to encourage her callers/listeners to write the script of their life. I always thought that was an interesting concept and worth exploring as you take a few more trips around the sun. 

Come to think of it, isn’t that what Bill Murray’s character did in Groundhog Day? He rewrote the script of his life and became a better person — and got the girl to boot. It is a wonderful life…

 

Photos and text 2008 copyright Scott W. Smith

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