Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Early Years of American Zoetrope

I first came across A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope (2004) as a Special Feature on the 2-Disc edition DVD for THX 1138.

The winner of numerous awards, this one-hour documentary focuses on the creation of Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark San Francisco film company, American Zoetrope. The story is set against the changing landscape of American cinema in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The documentary—which is narrated by Richard Dreyfuss and features interviews with Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and many others—is now part of the curriculum at several prominent film schools. Everyone interested in cinema should watch this documentary; it has particular lessons for the time in which we are living.

First posted: 12 October 2013

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Book review: "Shakespeare for Screenwriters"

Shakespeare for Screenwriters: Timeless Writing Tips from the Master of Drama was written by Jennie (J.M.) Evenson. It is part of the growing stable of books about filmmaking from Michael Wiese Productions.

Jennie Evenson received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. At UCLA, she was awarded top honors at the UCLA Showcase Screenwriting Contest.

As a writer in L.A., she has worked with a variety of studios and production houses, from DreamWorks to Focus Features. An award-winning teacher of Shakespeare, composition, and film, Evenson currently teaches at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

Hollywood has long been fascinated by Shakespeare. Wikipedia mention well over 400 movies have been made from the famous plays, the earliest being Macbeth in 1898. The MIT Open Course, Shakespeare, Film and Media, says that:
Filmed Shakespeare began in 1899, with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree performing the death scene from King John for the camera. Sarah Bernhardt, who had played Hamlet a number of times in her long career, filmed the duel scene for the Paris Exposition of 1900. In the era of silent film (1895-1929) several hundred Shakespeare films were made in England, France, Germany and the United States, Even without the spoken word, Shakespeare was popular in the new medium. The first half-century of sound included many of the most highly regarded Shakespeare films, among them -- Laurence Olivier's Hamlet and Henry V, Orson Welles' Othello and Chimes at Midnight, Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, Polanski's Macbeth and Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.
IMDb list almost 1,000 films on which Shakespeare has been granted a writer credit. Such is the respect in which Shakespeare is held, Mel Gibson turned down a chance to play James Bond in order to play Hamlet (1990) for Franco Zeffirelli.

Quotes from, and references to, Shakespeare appear in endless movies:

Richard Dreyfus:  Now is the winter of our discontent...  The Goodbye Girl (1977)

Michael Caine:  ... made glorious summer by this son of York...  The Actors (2003)

Geoffrey Rush:  ... And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house...  The King's Speech (2010)

Rafe Spall:  ... In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.  Anonymous (2011)
Alan Rickman:  I played Richard the Third... There were five curtain calls.  Galaxy Quest (1999)

Rick Morannis:  The great Blunderman... 
Steve Martin:  I knew him... 
Victoria Tennant:  A fellow of infinite jest...   L.A. Story (1991)

Cary Elwes:  A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!  Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt:  I burn, I pine, I perish!  10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

I first heard of Shakespeare for Screenwriters on Twitter and immediately thought, What a great title!

Other people must have had the same reaction, as it appears to have been rushed into print. I've never seen so many typos in such a small book. (A bit over 100 pages, after padding out with 'Exercises' and 'Key Points to Remember'). Or maybe that's the way the publishing industry is going these days.

The book doesn't have an index (which I consider an epic fail, given modern word processing capacities), just a list of the films referenced, and a summary of the "great" plays of Shakespeare.

The book consists of brief examinations of fourteen of Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays, each with a mention of three or four movies which contain some common element. So King Lear is linked to Ordinary People, Titanic, Life is Beautiful, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Much Ado About Nothing is linked to Annie Hall, There's Something About Mary, and Elf.
And so on. 

There are curious absences from the book. For instance, A Midsummer's Night Dream is linked to Being There, When Harry Met Sally, and Wedding Crashers, but not to L.A. Story, which was based on A Midsummer's Night Dream.

[Digression: Screen Crush have a Now-and-then photo spread about the stars of L.A. Story, here.]

The book is about Shakespeare, but it ignores two thirds of Shakespeare's plays. The fourteen plays referenced are labelled 'The Great Plays.' Presumably Shakespeare had nothing to say to screenwriters in the other twenty-four.

There's no Save-The-Cat-style formula-ising, no structural theory. I found that strange, given Shakespeare's habit of writing plays with five-act structures, a pattern that is decidedly out-of-fashion amongst the modern screenwriting gurus.

It would be easy to write this book off as a lost opportunity, but... I just can't do that. I will be rereading it in the near future. The book is thin, but snappy. I can't get the following line out of my head:

  • Want to make a classic drama? Destroy a family.
Wow! What a solid piece of advice. Ruthless. Very Hollywood. And all true.

Here are a few more quotable lines from the book.
  • Audiences love to watch characters make unexpected choices.
  • Sometimes it's better not to limit your characters to one motivation that remains stable through the course of the story.
  • Give your characters an important decision and then make the arguments for and against it equally.
  • Climaxes should be inevitable (but not predictable).
  • Shakespeare weaves foreshadowing into every act of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Obsessed characters must show that they are different from everyone around them.
  • The perfect balance of... romance and loss is what makes us cry at the end.
  • A good comedy requires at least one accident, coincidence, or ironic twist.
  • A coincidence can do something remarkable—remind the audience that life is unpredictable—in both wonderful and terrible ways
  • Every good comedy has an ironic twist.
  • Nobody wants to watch a happy couple.
  • Watching the characters play together is essential to building a romance.
  • Flawed heroes are the only ones worth caring about.
  • Every character has to want something.
  • If the character is going to change, the audience needs to see exactly how and why it happens.
  • In order to make character arcs work, the changes need to be big.
  • It's the situation, not the dialogue, that generates the big laughs.
  • The more your characters suffer, the better.
  • The true secret to a good hero is a good villain.
  • The villain we don't see coming is far more frightening than than the one we do.
  • Watching the lovers enjoy pure bliss is a necessary part of building a compelling romance.
  • The key to the love story in Romeo and Juliet is that it ends.
  • Only two of Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays have no known source. The rest were stolen.
  • Don't be afraid to cannabalize other people's work, but always make sure you offer your own spin on the story.

Here's an interview with Connie Martinson. As usual, Martinson makes it more about herself than about the person she's interviewing, but you might get something from it.

First posted: 11 October 2013

Sunday, 23 July 2017

"Motion Picture" magazine

Over the years there have been many magazines with a focus on Hollywood and the movies. The first of these was "Motion Picture Magazine," a monthly magazine published from 1911 to 1977.

It was founded by Vitagraph studio head J. Stuart Blackton and Eugene V. Brewster.

Early editions included fiction, and information on how to get involved in film production. When the magazine shifted its focus to celebrities, it attracted a larger female readership, and the circulation jumped to 400,000.

In 1941, the magazine merged with "Hollywood Magazine" and "Screen Life."

This is a photo of Charlie Chaplin with his mother, Hannah Chaplin. It was published in Motion Picture magazine in December 1928, a few months after she passed away. The article—Charlie Chaplin's One Great Love—written by Dorothy Donnell, is quite moving. It starts like this:

The other day a little man with black hair, thickly streaked with grey, stood beside a grave. He was as lonely in his sorrow as he was lonely in his struggles and his success.
   It was a small grave, hardly larger than a child's. The woman who was buried there had been tiny of body but great of spirit—until the War, raining death from the skies upon her familiar London streets, had left her bewildered and lost. It was a small grave, but it held the great love of Charlie Chaplin's life.
   With his mother was buried his youth, all his ties with that long-ago life, when as a ragged urchin he strutted through the slums imitating the gait of a pushcart peddler for her amusement. When his two step-brothers Wheeler Dryden and Sidney Chaplin, left home to fend for themselves, Charlie, a child of eight, remained with her in the attic room he was to copy many years later, to the last windy knot hole and broken window pane, in "The Kid." They had gone hungry together and shivered together with the cold; they had laughed together over the funny sights in the streets, and she had praised him when he brought home coppers thrown by theater crowds, waiting at the gallery door, whom he entertained with comic songs and dances.

The article occupies two pages. You can find the first here and the second here.

If you haven't seen the movie, Chaplin (1992), do yourself a favor and grab it now. I've never understood why Robert Downey Jr. didn't receive an Academy Award for his performance. Geraldine Chaplin, the granddaughter of Hannah Chaplin, memorably played the role of her grandmother in the movie. (Compare the two women in these photos.)

Smile is a song based on an instrumental theme used in the soundtrack for the 1936 Charlie Chaplin movie Modern Times. Chaplin composed the music, while John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added the lyrics and title in 1954.

Smile has become a popular standard since its original use in Chaplin's film. Originally sung by Nat King Cole in 1954, the song has been covered by many people, including Cole's daughter, Natalie, Petula Clark and Michael Jackson.

A day without a laugh is a wasted day.
                              ~Charles Chaplin

My (current) favourite is the version by Phyllis Diller, the one she recorded with Thomas Lauderdale and released on the Pink Martini album, "Get Happy." She was 95 years old at the time, and the spirit of what Charlie Chaplin was trying to express sounds throughout the song. Lauderdale was so moved at her death that he placed a copy of the recording he made—in Los Angeles, in Phyllis Diller's house, in her living room—on YouTube.

Many thanks to VP81955 for sharing an enthusiasm for the Tony Bennett recording.

Back issues of this magazine, from 1915 to 1929, are available online here, courtesy of the Media History Digital Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

First posted: 7 October 2013

Saturday, 22 July 2017

JJ Abrams: The Mystery Box

TEDTalks is a daily video podcast of the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world's leading thinkers and doers are invited to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes.

Here J.J. Abrams traces his love for the unseen mystery—a passion that's evident in his films and TV shows, including Cloverfield, Lost and Alias—back to its magical beginnings.

 IMDb    Wikipedia

First posted: 30 September 2013

Friday, 21 July 2017

Neorealism vs Mainstream (American) filmmaking

Kogonada is a largely anonymous filmmaker. We know he was born in Seoul, Korea, that he knows plenty about filmmaking, and that's about it.

His offering today is a practical examination of the differences between mainstream (American) filmmaking and neorealism.

In 1953, Vittorio De Sica (director of Bicycle Thieves) made a film in Rome called Stazione Termini
(known in the US as Terminal Station). The film starred Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift. 
Prior to leaving by train for Paris, a married American woman tries to break off her affair with a young Italian in Rome's Stazione Termini.
At the time, Jones was married to David O. Selznick (producer of Gone With The Wind). Selznick was the executive producer of the film. He took control of US distribution, but first he recut the movie and renamed it Indiscretion of an American Wife.

What follows is an examination of the two approaches to filmmaking, sometimes employing a side-by-side display.

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First posted: 21 September 2013

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Five tips for cleaning up your script

Julie Gray lives and works in Tel Aviv. She is a screenwriter, story consultant, writer's coach, director of a Screenwriting Competition and publisher of the Just Effing Entertain Me blog.

Julie has taught at the Oxford Student Union at Oxford University, The West England University in Bristol, Wilmington University in Delaware and San Francisco University in Quito, Ecuador. She also teaches writing classes at Warner Bros., The Great American Pitchfest, The Creative Screenwriting Expo and the Willamette Writer's Conference in Portland, Oregon.

She is a volunteer at the Afghan Women's Writing Project, she blogs for the Times of Israel, and is working on a memoir.

I'm hoping to set up an interview with Julie down the track. Meantime, here's a simple but valuable piece of advice she posted on her blog recently.

Five Tips for Clean Pages

You know that feeling you get when you receive an email from someone – someone you love and care about, and yet the email is one long, dense block of type? And your shoulders slump a little? Why can’t they just use paragraph breaks? This is going to be a slog.

Script pages that are cluttered and have “too much black” give readers the same feeling. And they frequently get put at the bottom of the pile if not rejected entirely. Which is a crying shame because your story might be GREAT. But your pages are off-putting. Listen, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, real human beings read your scripts. They might have read three other scripts that DAY alone. So you want to make your pages very clean and easy to read.

Here are five ways to clean up those pages.

1. Avoid Camera Directions

Do not use camera directions of any kind. No “tracking shot”, no “angle on”, no “smash cut”. These instructions do not belong in your spec script and definitely muck up your pages. Don’t do it.

2. Limit The Number of Consecutive Action Lines

Try not to write more than five lines of action in one block. If you have more action because you are writing an action scene, simply use a paragraph break. Break up those big blocks of action lines.

3. Avoid Lengthy Dialogue

Avoid dialogue that is more of a monologue and is longer than ten lines. Monologues that take up half a page or even a whole page instantly put a reader off their feed.

4. Keep Sluglines Simple

Simplify your slug lines. Do you need:


No. Many writers include in sluglines what should actually be in the action lines below it. Long detailed sluglines are very off putting.

5. Learn About and Use Mini-Sluglines

Use mini-slug lines. If you are in the same location (one house, many rooms, as one example) instead of slugging every mini-location within your location, you can use a mini-slug which looks like this KITCHEN, or OUTSIDE ON THE DECK. 

Taken from Michael Clayton (2007), by Tony Gilroy

Go through your pages today and look for EVERY opportunity for there to be more white on your page and less black. It’s okay if you have a long sequence or two – but it’s all in how you present it. Simplicity and brevity are your very best pals in screenwriting.

First posted: 15 September 2013

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

"Hollywood" magazine

Over the years there have been many magazines with a focus on Hollywood and the movies. One such was "Hollywood," a monthly magazine published from 1911 to at least 1943.

For 5 or 10 cents, you could learn the answers to such pressing questions as:
Can a Woman Love Two Men at the Same Time?
Is Success Ruining Katharine Hepburn?
Are Pretty Girls Safe in Hollywood?

You could also learn about:
Mae West's Personal Beauty Secrets,
How to Hold a Husband in Hollywood
, or  

The Man in Garbo's Past.

This appeared on "The Publisher's Page" in 1934.

January 1934:  Fame and Romance in Hollywood.
It's amazing just how far a few yeast tablets could take a girl in the old days.

Back issues of this magazine, from 1934 to 1943, are available online here, courtesy of the Media History Digital Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

First posted: 9 September 2013