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Posts Tagged ‘Zen and the art of screenwriting’

“When I wrote the screenplay for A Few Good Men, not only had I never written a screenplay before, I had never read a screenplay before. I didn’t know much about movies at all. I had been a student of plays…so I read as many screenplays as I could. I started to pay attention to movies, and I tried to figure out how to kind of crowbar this story into a three-act structure, which I was told movies have to be. So I fiddled around with the placement of some emotional climaxes in the story and then managed to turn it into three acts.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
Zen and the Art of Screenwriting by William Froug 

On that first screenplay (based on his play) Sorkin wrote an emotional climax that is one of the most memorable (and most quoted) scenes in contemporary cinema when Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Thinking back to my days in L.A. doing actor workshops, the scenes where people yelled (or had some other emotional outburst like crying) usually won the competitions that were judged by people in the industry. They call it drama for a reason.

Scott W. Smith

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“What interested me about the story (of the Dalai Lama) was how a young man who lived in a society based on the spirit, found himself in conflict with a strongly anti-religious society, the Maoist government of the Chinese communists. How does a man of non-violence deal with these people?”
Martin Scorsese

“A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker.”
Siddhartha

As unlikely as it sounds, the Dalai Lama will be speaking today in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  Since I moved here in 2003 I’ve come to almost expect these kind of things. After all, just in the last few years Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman have performed here, and Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama stumped here.

So I wouldn’t say this is a typical small town of 35,000 people. The Dalai Lama will speak a of couple times on education at the University of Northern Iowa.

There are many kinds of Buddhist (sort of like denominations among Protestants), but the one I am most familiar with is the Hollywood Buddhist. Richard Gere being the leader of the pack and who recently did the narration for The Buddha which recently aired on PBS. Harrison Ford did the narration for the documentary Dalai Lama Renaissance. Martin Scorsese directed Kundun, based on the life and writings of the Dalai Lama. And Brad Pitt starred in Seven Years in Tibet. (Not that they all claim to be Buddhist, but there is a connection, and much of what the average person in America knows about Buddhism flows from those sources.)

Others linked with Buddhism in Hollywood are Sharon Stone,  Orlando Bloom, and Oliver Stone. (Scorsese and others are interviewed in the John Halpern documentary Refuge, which is a look at why Buddhism is so popular in the West.)

Melissia Mathison, who wrote the screenplay for The Black Stallion as well as E.T., wrote the script for Kundan. The Scorsese directed film is based on the life of the Dalai Lama and the political struggles between Tibet and China. In an interview Mathison did with Erin Free she had this to say about writing the script for Kundun:

“I buried myself in research, and I loved it. I had to learn about the people, the religion, the history and it was all quite fantastic and tantalising. I read everything I could find on Tibet and this went on for a couple of years. So that was the basis. I also did interviews with lots of people, including His Holiness, the Dalai Lama… It was wonderful. I would send him questions and his secretary would fax me back the answers. I took a couple of different drafts at different times to India and read through them with him. You could imagine what a pleasure it was.”

The script for Seven Years in Tibet was written by Becky Johnston. (Johnston was nominated for an Oscar for her script Prince of Tides.) She also did a great deal of research on the religion and met for a short time with the Dalai Lama. Both Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun came out in 1997. (For whatever reason both of those films were the last film credits for both Johnston and Mathison.)

That’s as close as I could find of American screenwriters with any ties to any kind of Buddhism. William Froug did write two volumes of Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, though the title really is just a play on Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But Froug does include a quote in the second volume by screenwriter Ron Bass that I think is a pretty wise quote about life and the stories we tell; “It’s all one story really, the story of who we are and how we relate and how we get it wrong.”

Scott W. Smith

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“(Scent of a Woman) is my favorite only because I feel like I matured and the movie reflects that.”
Screenwriter Bo Goldman

Before Bo Goldman won an Academy Award as a screenwriter he had to experience his own personal life of ups and downs.

His father owned a chain of department stores which afforded Goldman an opportunity to attend prep schools and prepared him for Princeton University. He spent three years in the Army. All of those experiences would come in handy years later in writing Scent of a Woman.

But in the meantime while still in his twenties had his first play performed on Broadway. He was on the fast track. “First Impressions ran about three months. Then I was ten years trying to get my second one on Broadway,” Goldman told William Froug in Zen and the Art of Screenwriting.

That’s when things got tough for Goldman. “I was young and had a large family. And you know the old story about Broadway; You can’t make a living, you can only make a killing. I was starving, and when my parents died around 1970, 71, 72, I kind of bottomed out…It was humiliating.”

He wrote for TV including a Christmas show for PBS that was successful, and at the same time wrote a screenplay about marriages he saw breaking up which was a new trend. It took nine years to get Shoot the Moon made but the script became a calling card and got the attention of director Milos Forman who was having trouble with a script for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Goldman stepped in to get his first produced film credit, as well as his first Oscar. (Shared with Lawrence Hauben, and based on the novel by Ken Kesey and the play written by Dale Wasserman.)

He won his second Oscar four years later for Melvin and Howard.  Scent of a Woman was released in 1992, 13 years after is second Oscar. Goldman explained to Froug where the concept for Scent of a Woman (1992) came from;

“I had been estranged from most of my family, and still am from the ones I grew up with and my long-lost brother, who made millions in mortgage brokerage, became an alcoholic, and had a terribly tragic life. Then I got this SOS from another brother of mine who said the once-rich brother was going to need conservator. He was living in a big expensive New York apartment, a year behind on rent, and had no money at all. I went there and found him living in a kind of shabby elegance. The skeletons of his life were riddled with moral cancer, to strike a phrase. A week later, I came back to California and got a call from Martin Brest, who showed me this sort of forgotten Italian movie, Profuma di Donna. I looked at this movie, and this character struck me as being exactly like my brother, who became the character in Scent of a Woman. The character was crossed with my first sergeant in the Army, a member of the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who was the second man I’ve ever really been afraid of, and the first man I was afraid of—my father. The sergeant was a real soldier…So this character became a hybrid of all these people.”

Of course, Al Pacino brought that character to life (and, believe it or not, is Pacino’s only Oscar-winning performance)—a character forged from Goldman’s life in prep school, experience in the military, his father, and a brother who had gone from riches to rags.

That process that Goldman talked about is a perfect example what I wrote about in Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C).

And how about that phrase of Goldman’s—”The skeletons of his life were riddled with moral cancer.” Fine writing and good inspritation for you to write about the characters who have crossed your path who are living in their equivalent world “of shabby elegance” and riddled with moral cancer. Audiences will always find those creatures facinating to watch. (Noah Cross in Chinatown and Gordon Gekko in Wall St. come to mind.)

Scott W. Smith

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It’s interesting to me that the screenwriter who wrote one of the most memorable lines in recent cinema didn’t start out wanting to be a writer.

Before Aaron Sorkin wrote the Jack Nickolson line “You can’t handle the truth” in A Few Good Men, and before his multiple Emmy’s for West Wing, he was an actor. After graduating from Syracuse University with a BFA in musical theater in 1983 he moved to New York City.  And he got work as an actor…not on Broadway, or even off-Broadway, but way, way far off from Broadway.

“When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I traveled the South with a touring children’s theater company called The Traveling Playhouse. When I say the South, we weren’t playing in Atlanta, we were playing Jasper, Alabama. We’d do six or seven shows in elementary school gymnasiums at about ten o’clock in the morning, then pile into a station wagon, and a van carrying the costumes and sets. We did The Wizard of Oz, Rip Van Winkle, and Greensleeves. We were paid thirty dollars a performance.”
Aaron Sorkin
Zen and the Art of Screenwriting
Interview with William Froug
Page 31

Sorkin says he had no interest in writing until one day at a “Motel Six or something” somewhere in Georgia when, “I don’t know why, I all of a sudden felt like Sam Shepard. I felt like I ought to be writing something. That’s the first time that thought went into my head, and it just kept nagging at me and I just felt like a writer without ever having written anything.”

Magical things can happen on the road—even in a Motel Six.

Dream big, start small.

Scott W. Smith

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