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Posts Tagged ‘Youngstown’

It’s funny when you pick an area to focus on what you can uncover.

First I learned that screenwriter/producer/director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Night at the Museum, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) was from the Youngstown, Ohio area.

Then I learned that the producer Paula Wagner (Mission Impossible, Vanilla Sky, Valkyrie)  was born and raised in the Youngstown area.

Now I learn that E.T. was from Youngstown. Okay, technically E.T. was from space, but one of the key  personnel responsible for being inside one of the E.T.’s was 2’10” Pat Bilon of Youngstown, Ohio. There were many people (and actually several E.T.’s) responsible for E.T.’s movements depending on what was needed. Tamara De Treaux and Matthew De Meritt also wore E.T. suits, but according to Fred Skidmore, spokensman of Universal Studios, “Pat did do the majority of the movie.”

Bilon worked as dispatcher for the Mahoning Country Sheriff’s Department when he was discovered by a casting director at a Little People of America conference. He first appeared in Under the Rainbow that starred Chevy Chase. Upon auditioning for Steven Spielberg he was reportedly cast within a day.

His role in making E.T. move required him to wear the E.T. suit up to six hours a day with no ventilation. After the movie was released Bilon told Roma Sochan Hadzewycz that his favorite scene to play was a chase scene on a bike, “I was in a yoga position in the basket of Elliot’s bike, and a truck with a camera was pulling the bike. I couldn’t see how fast we were going, but I could feel the breeze and I could tell it was very fast.”

E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial was released in 1982 and in January 1983 it passed Star Wars at the #1 all-time box office champ. (It is currently #5 domestically.) Sadly, also in January of 1983 Pat Bilon died. But what a journey he must of had.

So while you’re dreaming (in between your writing), why not shoot for the moon?

Scott W. Smith

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Happy Thanksgiving.

Before I take a circuitous route to point out yet one more connection between Youngstown and Hollywood let me first thank everyone for reading this screenwriting blog as it’s given me much encouragement in my quest to post daily. It’s not easy to write something original daily and finding odd connections really is a fun part of the process. Today is a good example.

My favorite movie with a Thanksgiving theme is Pieces of April. Granted, I don’t think there is a long list of films with Thanksgiving themes. So let me add that it’s also one of my favorite low-budget films of all time.  Odd or relevant connection to Screenwriting from Iowa? Number one: Pieces of April writer/director Peter Hedges grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. Number Two: My recent posts have centered around Ohio, and Pieces of April stars Katie Holmes who grew up in Toledo.

But can I get from Toledo to Youngstown which has technically be the focus of recent blogs? Yes, but I have to take the indirect route via Cincinnati. Katie Holmes is married to Tom Cruise who lived for a time in Cincinnati as a teenager. The agent that got Cruise his breakout role in Risky Business was raised in Youngstown. That agent Paula Wagner, eventually became Cruise’s producing partner including all the Mission Impossible movies, Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai.

What prepared Wagner to become one of the most powerful women in Hollywood?  Being born Paula Kaufman in Youngstown back in 1946 didn’t hurt. Just this month she returned to Youngstown for the first time in 30 years to give a talk at Youngstown State University and said, “I really attribute so much of what I’ve done to having grown up in this city…Youngstown is very much a part of me.”

Her father was a fighter pilot in World War II and also a prisoner of war, and went on to run a steel mill in Youngstown. “Youngstown was founded on steel and we all have a spine of steel,” said Wagner at her Youngstown talk. It was at the Youngstown Playhouse where Wagner began acting as a child. (The same place advertising giant Mary Wells began acting at age 5.) She was known as a talented actress at Hubbard High School and then earned a BFA in theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (just a little over an hour’s drive from Youngstown).

Wagner performed on Broadway and off-Broadway before heading to Los Angeles with $500. to her name. She ended up being an agent at Creative Artists Agency where her clients included  Demi Moore, Val Kilmer and Oliver Stone. She formed Cruise/Wagner Productions in 1993 and the films they have produced together have earned around $3 billion at the box office.

And I thought it was impressive that former Youngstown resident and current producer/director/writer Chris Columbus (The Goonies, Home Alone, and the first two Harry Potter movies) had a box office total over $1 billion. Is there another small city in America where people raised there went on to have a key role in movies that have earned around $4 billion?

Most recently Wagner has started a new company Chestnut Ridge Productions and is slated to produce the film version of Miss Saigon. What’s the significance of the name of her new company? Guy D’Astolfo reports, “Paula Wagner’s Hollywood career has taken her around the world, but she keeps coming back to Chestnut Ridge. That’s the road she grew up on in Hubbard Township”

So if you’re a screenwriter from the Youngstown area use that back of steel to get connect with Wagner. Remember, there’s no place like home.

By the way, if you’d like to see what Youngstown looked like back around the time Wagner was born watch the 15 minute movie Steel Town that Mike Gaunter, a news producer in Youngstown sent my way via You Tube.

Scott W. Smith

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Since I agree that creativity is simply connecting influences (not my phrase) today’s post is a good example of that. A few days ago I wrote about writer/director John Hughes and yesterday I wrote about Youngstown, Ohio. In doing that research I stumbled upon a connection between the two—Home Alone.

That little $15 million film that went on to make over $500 million world wide was written by John Hughes and directed by Christopher Columbus. Youngstown? That’s where Columbus spent much of his childhood and graduated from high school. (Technically, the northern suburb of Champion, Ohio where he attended John F. Kennedy High School.) His father was a coal miner.

Columbus headed to NYU to attend film school. (If you look at  a map you see if you head due east on Interstate 80 from Northeast Ohio and drive for 6 hours it will take you right into Manhattan.) While still a student at NYU Columbus sold his first script, which filmbug.com says was called Jocks, and was “a semi-autobiographical comedy about a Catholic schoolboy who struggles with his religion and his inability to succeed on the high school football team.”  After graduating from NYU he sold the script Reckless, “based on his experiences as a factory worker in Ohio. The film was directed by James Foley and starred Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah.”

But what really put Columbus on the map was working with Spielberg directly for three years as he developed his writing style and that resulted in his writing Gremlins (1984) and The Goonies (1985). Columbus directed Home Alone in ’90 and two more John Hughes films before directing the first two Harry Potter films.

In a 2003 DGA article it was pointed out about Columbus:

“If there is a common theme to his films, it would be variations on familial relationships. Home Alone is about a boy who loses his family and must find the inner strength to survive alone. Mrs. Doubtfire is about a man who loses his family through divorce and the only way he can reenter their world is by doing the outrageous, dressing up as the family housekeeper. Only the Lonely, which Columbus also wrote, is about a man who needs to extricate himself from his mother’s domineering presence in order to marry the woman he loves. And, of course, there’s Harry Potter, the tale of a boy living a miserable existence with his aunt and uncle who finds refuge with an extended loving ‘family’ at Hogwarts, a school for wizards.”

Columbus clarified the common theme in most of his films:

“It’s always about the search for a family or the redefining of who your family is. I guess it’s the fact that sometimes you play on your biggest fear. My biggest fear in my life would be to lose my family. So I’ve always been drawn to that theme. I mean, it’s odd. I never really talked or thought about it much, but if you look at the films I’ve done, particularly the films I’m really most happy with, and even the films that weren’t that successful, I think there is a thematic link. Most of them are about someone potentially losing their family.”
Christopher Columbus
DGA Magazine January 2003

Columbus is part of a small tribe of filmmakers whose films have made more than $1 billion at the box office. Not bad for a guy from Youngstown who used to work in a factory.

Scott W. Smith

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“Them smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.”
Bruce Springsteen
Youngstown


I don’t know if it’s common for kids growing up in Poland, Ohio to dream about living aboard a yacht someday, but that’s the short life story of Mary Wells.

When I was a kid I first learned about Poland, Ohio and I wasn’t thrilled by it. It was located on my birth certificate as the place where my father was born. I knew nothing about the town, or even the country of Poland, I just knew there were lots of Pollack jokes and I wanted no part of that.

My dad left Poland, Ohio soon after he graduated from Spingfield-Township High School and went to Ohio State Univesity, which after a stint in the Air Force prepared him for a career in advertising in Orlando and Tampa.

Looking back my father had a 30+ year run in advertising and later in life for his labor he had a lovely condo in St. Pete Beach that looked over Boca Ciega Bay & the Gulf of Mexico. After he died I visited Poland, Ohio for the first time to see where he had come from. I walked around the remains of the Youngtown Sheet & Tube at Struthers and imagined what it would have been like for my grandfather to work a lifetime in a steel mill. (I must have listened to Bruce Springsteen’s song “Youngstown” a hundred times while driving around because that’s where Yellow Creek referred to in the song is located.) My father had come a long way.

But it pales when compared to Mary Wells’ journey. Born and raised in Poland, Ohio she fled to New York at 17 to study acting and where she ended up as a copywriter in the era of Mad Men.

She worked her way up from copywriter to CEO of Wells Rich Green (WRG).  In 1969 she was already inducted into the copywriters Hall of Fame. She was the driving force behind helping change the image of New York with the “I Love New York” campaign. And at one time she was the highest paid woman in advertising and sold her company in 1990 for $160. Million.  And that’s just the quick overview. You can read her story in her book A Big Life (in Advertising).

Now she has homes in New York and the West Indies as well as the little boat she likes to spend time on as she travels the world.

One of my favorite quotes by Wells; “Of course, I’m a legend. But it’s not because of any great gift I have. It’s because I’m a risk taker.”

But where did she get her creative start? She began acting in plays at The Youngstown Playhouse at the age of 5. (America’s oldest ongoing community theater.) She was only three years older than my father and I’ll always wonder if their paths crossed somewhere like the Poland Library or if she ever saw The Charles Smith Band perform.

But she’s one more example of a creative that rose up from flyover country to accomplish much.

And I also wonder when the Mary Wells story will end up on the big screen. I’m not the first one to envision Michelle Pfeiffer playing Mary Wells. I hope the movie gets made someday and I hope the opening shot is in Poland, Ohio.

Wells’ yacht is featured in Architectural Digest December ’09.

As a side note, Youngtown is where the Warner brothers (Jack & Sam)  of Warner Bros. Studios fame spent much of their childhood. And it’s where they began their own journey in the film business when they screened a copy of The Great Train Robbery.

Related post: Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl from Ohio

Scott W. Smith

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