Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

My story about the Texas Film Awards posts to Creative Screenwriting magazine

20 Apr

It is a golden age not only for television but also for independent films. At least, it is according to the Austin Film Society’s founder and artistic director Richard Linklater, speaking at the press conference for the 2017 Texas Film Awards.

At the panel of this year’s Hall of Fame Honorees, Richard Linklater, together with Honorees Hector Galan (Children of Giant), Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse), Jeff Nichols (Loving), and producer Sarah Green (Midnight Special), discussed a wide range of issues related to filmmaking and screenwriting.

Creative Screenwriting was fortunate enough to attend.

Sarah Green kicked off the panel with a discussion about her work on Song to Song with Terrence Malick.
Green: It’s about sex and drugs and rock and roll. There’s this just unbelievable young kid named Ryan Gosling, you’ll like him. Rooney Mara – she’s incredible. Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop – there’s so many – Bérénice Marlohe, Val Kilmer…It kind of just goes on and on. The Black Lips, the Red Hot Chili Peppers – some of these are performing and some are interacting with other actors.

Jeff Nichols then talked about his Oscar-nominated film, Loving.
Nichols: It wasn’t until I got behind the curtain with Loving, that I realized just how far away all my other films were from ever being considered in that world.

And that was illuminating for a lot of reasons.
And Tye Sheridan talked about his new movie, Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg and due to be released in 2018.
Sheridan: The film is based on a sci-fi novel written by Ernest Cline. It takes place in the future. And when I read it I just thought “wow, it’s such an honest depiction of where we’re headed in our world right now. It’s the technology and the kids playing video games – that social world.”

If you work in film, it’s everyone’s dream-come-true to work with Steven Spielberg. I was working with the best of the best.

Talking next about funding, Green said that more companies such as Amazon, HBO, and Netflix are providing funding for movies.

Green: More is better when it comes to financing opportunities. We want every opportunity we can get, and then it’s a question of “what’s the best distribution company for that particular movie, that will get it seen more on television, that will get it seen more in the theaters?” I love that there are more opportunities.

However, panel moderator Steven Gaydos said that a gulf still exists in Hollywood between large budget studios, and mid-level independent or specialty film companies.
Linklater: It’s excruciating to talk about, but I think it’s kind of true. But with that said, we’re sitting here with a guy who got that rare film made – and I’m talking about Jeff NicholsMidnight Special.

Nichols: I feel like I live in a bit of bubble though, because I’m a rare exception in the year 2016 to get a film like Midnight Special released. So I know my experience is unique. It took somebody at the top to reach down literally and give me that opportunity.

That’s what’s so great about Rick’s [Richard Linklater’s] career. I use it as a model because he’s been able to move back and forth between those worlds. He seems to be having fun in all of them.
Linklater: I think you have to be really practical in your approach. You know, it’s storytelling. You ask “what does this story need?” Well if it’s a period film it needs a bigger budget, so I’ll try to take this one to the studio. Or if this one’s a really intimate little story, let’s just keep that at home.

I think a filmmaker gets into trouble when they take that personal indie film and get a huge budget – that’s where careers go off the rails. So, you have to just be humble and try to not to spend any more than you have to.

It’s the golden age of television, but if you really think about it, it’s also the golden age of documentaries, you know? I think that’s clear. And if you really think about it, it’s the golden age of indie cinema.

Take the Oscars and the recent recognition for a film like Moonlight. If it had come out in 1985, back then indie films didn’t hit the mainstream awards shows. A couple did: there were nominations for John Pierson [who produced some of Linklater’s first films, along with those created by Spike Lee, Michael Moore and Kevin Smith]. But it was weird for an indie film to break through at that time or to receive recognition.

Green: It also matters how much they’re spinning it, how they’re releasing it. It’s not just about the most money, but it’s about the money that’s spent, and how much they can put behind it, and whether they actually know how to release a film of a certain type.
Galan said Latinos have become one of the most under-represented ethnicities in American cinema today.
Galan: There are more Latinos in America than there are Canadians in Canada. But you just don’t see that represented on the big screen, even on the small screen, to the degree that reflects the population.

It’s true that a lot of people look at us in LA as gardeners, maids and people who take care of babies. It’s real complex because we do have Spanish-language networks. So, some of us speak Spanish and some of us don’t. It’s very very complex.

When there are a 25 million eligible Latino voters in a 54 million population, with 18,000 Latinos turning 18 every month in this country, there’s still a lot of representation that needs to happen.

A member of the audience asked Linklater if he knew what might happen to The Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, that has provided incentives for filmmakers to make their movies in Texas since 2005, but is now at risk.

Linklater: I just shot a film [Last Flag Flying] in Pittsburgh. So it’s a real issue, but I think there’s some hope to getting us back to where we were.

And we’re a good industry. We moviemakers bring hundreds of millions of dollars in to Texas, we bring in the jobs, clean industry and that’s just the business.

But I worry more about the cultural representation. If you tell Texas stories you’ve got to tell them in Texas. It’s kind of sad; last year, Hell or High Water, a story set in West Texas, was shot, as the producers for the movie have said, “as close to Texas as we could.” They shot it in New Mexico.

We would feel a lot differently about The Last Picture Show, if they had shot that in Colorado. So culturally, for our own stories, our own borders are important.
When a member of the audience asked what the future holds for documentarians, Galan responded with an impassioned plea to filmmakers to tell the stories of undocumented immigrants in Texas affected by raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Galan: Now is really an important time for documentary work. At one time, people were predicting the death of the documentary. I think today it’s more important than ever, especially for us Latinos.

I have so many friends out there right now who are hiding, people that I know. It’s like when I was in Germany – and I’m kind of telling you some history – but I would go to Munich or Heidelberg or some of those places in Germany that were still standing after the bombings in World War II. I imagined what it must have been like for those people hiding and knowing that the Nazis were coming for them. That’s happening now. A lot of people don’t know.

People are afraid to go out of their homes. People need to report on this and the division that is happening.

Finally, this reporter for Creative Screenwriting magazine asked Green what the future holds for women screenwriters and filmmakers.

Green: It’s our responsibility as producers, and the studios’ responsibilities as financiers, and everyone’s responsibility, to ensure that all voices are heard.

Whether it’s people of color, whether it’s different genders, whatever those stories we need to be telling are, we need to make sure that we are training those people, that we are providing those opportunities.

Please also see my story posted on Creative Screenwriting magazine’s website at:

https://creativescreenwriting.com/texas-film-awards/

My article with Scott Frank’s advice posts to CS magazine

9 Apr

Write Every Day: Screenwriting Advice from Scott Frank | CreativScreenwriter and director Scott Frank has one hard-and-fast rule that he says has led directly to his success: he writes every day — for at least 10 minutes. Some days, that effort stretches into two hours or at the most, four hours.

“I am at my desk or in my chair or wherever I am, but I write probably two hours a day. I mean if I’m really under the gun, I’ll write four hours a day,” he said. “I burn out after that. I burn out very hot and very fast.”

Frank spoke to an audience of Texas screenwriters March 1 at the “On Story” conversation about “Sustaining a Writing Career,” sponsored by Austin Film Festival at Holiday Inn on Town Lake March 1.

He shared his insights about how he became a writer, how luck has played a part in building his successful career, and how to improve the craft of screenwriting. He also talked about his upcoming project.

Frank has written several original screenplays as well as a string of novel adaptations by crime writers Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block.

He became a director after working as a writer with some of the biggest names in Hollywood such as Steven Soderbergh, Out of Sight (1998); Steven Spielberg, Minority Report (2002); and Sydney Pollack, The Interpreter (2005).

Last year he directed A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson, adapted from Lawrence Block’s novel.

How Frank became a screenwriter

   During the Iran hostage crisis from Nov. 4, 1979 to Jan. 20, 1981 as a college student attending the University of California Santa Barbara, Frank felt inspired to write his first original screenplay, Little Man Tate.

After graduating college in 1982, Frank began to focus writing more about the boy character, Fred Tate. It took eight years before the story became a film project but in the meantime, Frank established himself as a screenwriter.

How luck has helped his career

Looking back over 30 years, Frank said he did not have a career plan at 24 years old.

“I don’t know that there was a conscious design for my career as much as it was blind luck,” he said. “I was incredibly lucky.”

He happened to meet someone who had the ability to alter the path of his entire career.

“I was very lucky that the first person that I met early on in my career was Lindsay Doran (actress and movie producer best known for The Firm in 1993, Sense and Sensibility in 1995 and Stranger than Fiction in 2006,) for instance. That’s just luck. There’s no reason for it,” he said.

“I could have met (producer, Jerome Leon) ‘Jerry’ Bruckheimer (best known for the television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation since 2000, and The Amazing Race since 2001,) and I might have done something else, but I met Lindsay Doran and she actually took the time and taught me how to write.”

He also met late film executive and producer Ned Tanen, best known for Sixteen Candles in 1984, The Breakfast Club, and St. Elmo’s Fire both in 1985. Tanen brought Frank to Paramount and gave him a desk on the studio’s writing floor.

While at Paramount, Frank met other writers and movie producers, including Dennis Feldman, best known for Just One of the Guys in 1985, The Golden Child in 1986 and Species in 1995.

“One day I wandered into his (Feldman’s) office to play Nerf basketball and I said ‘I have this title in my head and I have no idea what the movie is about. I just like this title, it’s a weird bumbling of words – Dead Again.’ And he said ‘huh’ and by the end of the basketball game I had the plot for the movie,” he said.

“Weird stuff like that just happens. I didn’t go in there to talk about a movie. I had no agenda, just luckily that’s what happened.”

He worked on the screenplay for over two years before it became the 1991 movie directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.

To further his luck, he often becomes “the dumbest guy in the room.”

   “I’ve made a career – no joke – out of being the dumbest guy in the room. Writers tend to want to be the smartest guy in the room because they don’t want to take anybody’s notes, but if you’re the dumbest guy in the room, you’re surrounded by those people who make your work better and ultimately you get credit for it,” he said.

“The best stuff in The Lookout (2007) came from (David) Fincher and in Out of Sight, (1998) the best stuff came from (Steven) Soderbergh, and the best stuff in Minority Report (2002) came from Steven Spielberg.”

Crucial conversations with influential people have often changed the direction of his screenplays. As an example he described a phone call he received from director Barry Sonnenfeld during pre-production for the 1995 movie, Get Shorty.

“Barry (Sonnenfeld) called me up in the middle of the night and he said ‘I think Chili (Palmer, played by John Travolta,) should rent a minivan.’ So I wrote the scene and there was this whole scene with the lady on the bus who calls it ‘the Cadillac of minivans.’ I never would have written that if Barry hadn’t called me up,” he said.

Frank’s tips for improving the craft of screenwriting

Think like a director

Now that he also directs, Frank writes more sparingly and he includes critical visual details in his screenplays.

   “Now when I write a little paragraph, I think ‘Ok. That’s eight hours of shooting. Do I really want to do that, to be outside in the snow again? How about interior, girls’ locker room, day.’ So you’re constantly thinking about stuff you’re going to make, all the time,” he said.

“There are things not in your script that you need in your script – things that were very non-specific and stuff that you just hoped someone would work out and now you’re the someone.”

Writers will write better scenes if they think like directors, he said.

“Even if it’s two people sitting at a table. It makes you want to make something happen,” he said.

“If you just write a scene with two people sitting at a table, guess what? You get on the set and there are two actors sitting across from one another at a table and there is nothing for them to do but say your lines. Unless your lines are like My Dinner with Andre, — which is spectacular dialogue — nothing is going to hold your attention.”

Writers should write dynamic scenes as visually interesting as possible and think about who might interrupt, or what unexpected bit of business may occur.

“You want to start thinking about these things and you only start thinking about them as a director,” he said.

“I had a little of that as a writer because I worked for so many directors from the get-go, so I was always aware that something always has to be happening. Still, if you don’t create something, a director will fill in the vacuum. Sometimes it’s not good.”

Write great openings

Frank has a reputation for creating compelling openings for each of his screenplays; he uses that same writing device at the start of every scene throughout his screenplays.

   “People who are happy are boring,” he said. “Unless it’s somebody who’s really happy and then something horrible happens to them – that’s awesome.”

In order to enjoy a movie, a viewer must be invested pretty quickly. Writers must write their scripts with that rule in mind.

“We are also writing for people who read the script,” he said. “Our writing is a factor. Sometimes people write these things when translated are really good, but they read horribly. I would argue that you have to do both, especially early on in your career and especially if you aren’t directing,” he said.

“It has to read great and it has to be great. My thought process ranges from ‘What do I need to know to care enough to go on this ride? What do I need to know? Is there a mystery or a question that I can ask that’s waiting to be answered?’”

Frank said that every scene should answer the same questions three questions.

Develop great characters

   Readers must care about a script’s main characters right off the bat and writers must reveal them as authentic and multifaceted people motivated by passion, Frank said.

As examples of solid characters, Frank cited those created for: Raging Bull, the 1997 book written by authors Jake LaMotta, Joseph Carter, Peter Savage and Nick Tosches, and adapted for the 1980 movie by screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin. He also likes the characters in Nightcrawler, last year’s screenplay by Dan Gilroy, loosely based upon the comic series by Chris Claremont.

   Frank also likes writing about men suffering from a serious mid-life crisis. He particularly likes bank robbers as characters.

“I’m so glad that I’m not them,” he said. “I have a very boring life and I like it that way. My childhood wasn’t particularly fascinating, but I had a great imagination and I’m very curious. I have weird friends and I know that I collect weird people and I just like that,” he said.

“I like people in crisis. Also I think good stories are about people who ‘in extremis,’” a Latin phrase that translates “at the point of death.”

He also looks for ways to endear a complex character to his or her audience.

“I’m always thinking I just want you to care about this guy. I just want you to care more about her or him in any way that I can to get you there. So by the end (of the screenplay) you have some type of emotional connection, even if it’s a dark, dark story,” he said.

Writers must find “the hook” that makes a character interesting. Mistakenly, most writers spend too much time on exposition, Frank said.

Don’t set the scene at the beginning of a screenplay

Drop brief descriptions about the setting throughout the script, he said.

“The big mistake people make is they feel that they need to set the scene. So they spend a lot of time in the beginning of their script setting the scene – telling what the apartment looks like, introducing you to their kids and their dog and their car and their life,” he said.

“Nothing is more boring than that.”

A screenwriter entertains; he does not explain, Frank said.

Set the tone immediately

Frank created the tone for his movie, Walk Among the Tombstones, loosely based upon the tenth book in a series of novels written by Lawrence Block about an alcoholic and former private investigator Matt Scudder.

In order to write the adaptation, Frank had to change the original setting and borrowed a different opening scene from one Block mentions in another book in the thrilling detective series.

“So I wanted something that started off with a bang where you saw this man and you kind of got one sense of him,” he said.

“I thought what would be really interesting is if the guy you met in the first five minutes was different from the guy that you meet after the credits.”

Write concise dialogue

Screenwriters must learn to say much with very little.

“That’s exactly what a script should look like,” he said.

Make the script your own

   While writing an adaption for a novel, Frank does not collaborate with the author.

“I want the author to like me; I don’t want them to help me,” he said.

For Get Shorty, Frank had to invent at least half the story for his script, a huge departure from the novel.

“I realized for the movie, for the story that I wanted to tell — not all of it’s in the book,” he said.

The same rule applies for his current project.

This year he plans to direct a movie loosely based on a German children’s novel, set inside a little village in Ireland.

“It’s about a flock of sheep who solve the murder of their shepherd. He has read to them every night from Agatha Christie because he’s a lonely, sad guy. They’ve heard every Agatha Christie story there is so they believe they’re up to the task,” he said.

“One or two of them may be smart, but the only person dumber than the sheep is the town constable.”

Frank hopes to cast Liam Neeson to play the shepherd and Emma Thompson to voice the smartest sheep, Miss Maple. Craig Mazin wrote the adaption for the 2008 book, Three Bags Full: a Sheep Detective Story, written by Leonie Swann and translated by Anthea Bell.

“The sheep can choose to forget things and any time something bad happens, like death, they all choose to forget. So they never realize that through our memories is how we actually keep people alive,” he said.

“My wife says ‘Well, you finally do a real family movie and it’s about murder.’ So I said, ‘I did another family movie and killed the dog; it’s perfectly in keeping.’”

To see my article as it appears on the website of Creative Screenwriting magazine, please follow this link:

http://creativescreenwriting.com/write-every-day-screenwriting-advice-from-scott-frank/

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