Wednesday 26 October 2011

Terry Rossio, "Seven Samurai" and "Star Wars"

Back in the mid-90s, when I first became interested in screenwriting, the one source of information I stumbled across was Terry Rossio's Wordplay columns. At the time, I worked in desktop publishing for the Department of Defence at DSTO, Salisbury. I spent all day, every day, working with PageMaker. So it was natural for me to copy the Wordplay columns into PageMaker and turn them into a convenient-sized book. 

I lugged that homemade paperback around with me for ages, read it cover-to-cover at least three times, and was inspired, exhilarated and intimidated. [I went looking for it a few weeks ago, but couldn't find it. Probably the victim of some well-intentioned clean-up.]

I would like to take this opportunity to give a big shout-out of gratitude to Terry Rossio. Man, your columns kept me going. I grew up in a Housing Commission estate in the bush, a place where no one expected us to do much more than the occasional stint in prison. I avoided that option, but (until I moved far away) never hinted to anyone that I wanted to write. So, thank you for your encouragement. I am indebted.

I'm also indebted to a bunch of other wonderful people who share their knowledge on the internet. You can see their blogs listed on the side of this page. Take some time today to check them out; I'm sure you'll learn something.                                                                                                          
Anyway, back to Wordplay. The column I read most often, the one that intimidated me most, was Column 34, Throw in the Towel. It includes a section on "Knowledge," meaning knowledge of the film industry. Terry snaps out a series of questions designed to make the point that most people have, at best, a superficial knowledge of the movies. One of his questions was: 

Quick, George Lucas just asked you to name your favorite Kurosawa film.
That shook me. At the time, I knew zip about Akira Kurosawa, but I was determined to learn. A few weeks later Seven Samurai (1954) played at an art house in the city and I was there. Ran (1985), Rashomon (1950), Yojimbo (1961), High and Low (1963), and Dersu Uzala (1975) followed.                                                                                                    
To answer George's question, while I have a sentimental fondness for Seven Samurai (as the first Kurosawa film I ever watched), my real favourite is Yojimbo. I think it's also Hollywood's favourite. It was referenced in The Bodyguard (1992) and Rising Sun (1993), remade with Clint Eastwood as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), remade with Bruce Willis as Last Man Standing(1996), then remade again, with a major remix of the key elements by the Coen Brothers, as Miller's Crossing (1990). It's probably due for another remake about now.

Akira Kurosawa had a big impact on George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. They watched all his movies and later presented him with an honorary Academy Award in 1990. You can watch the presentation here on YouTube. 

One of the things about rewatching old Japanese movies is, you start to notice little details. This is especially true if you're familiar with the adage to "steal like an artist." The following frames are taken from Seven Samurai (1954) and the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

On the left we have Gisaku, the wise old man, who teaches the villagers to use hungry samurai to defeat the bandits. 

On the right we have Yoda, the wise old Jedi, who teaches Luke Skywalker to use the force to defeat Darth Vader. 

If you learn to steal like an artist, you're going to find yourself in good company.

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