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Who won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay at the first Oscars?
Ben Hecht. 1929. The movie was Underworld. Considered one of the earliest, if not the earliest gangster movie ever made, you’d think that would be enough of an achievement for a lifetime. But this is Ben Hecht, and he was just warming up. Check out his bio:
“Ben Hecht, one of Hollywood’s and Broadway’s greatest writers, won an Oscar for best original story for Underworld (1927) at the first Academy Awards in 1929 and had a hand in the writing of many classic films. He was nominated five more times for the best writing Oscar, winning (along with writing partner and friend Charles MacArthur, with whom he wrote the classic play “The Front Page”) for The Scoundrel (1935) (the other nominations were for Viva Villa! (1934) in 1935, Wuthering Heights (1939) (shared with MacArthur), Angels Over Broadway (1940) and Notorious (1946), the latter two for best original screenplay). Hecht wrote fast and wrote well, and he was called upon by many producers as a highly paid script doctor. He was paid $10,000 by producer David O. Selznick for a fast doctoring of the Gone with the Wind (1939) script, for which he received no credit and for which Sidney Howard won an Oscar, beating out Hecht and MacArthur’s Wuthering Heights (1939) script.
Born on February 28, 1894, Hecht made his name as a Chicago newspaperman during the heady days of cutthroat competition among newspapers and journalists. As a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, he wrote the column “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” and broke the “Ragged Stranger Murder Case” story, which led to the conviction and execution of Army war hero Carl Wanderer for the murder of his pregnant wife in 1921. The newspaper business, which he and MacArthur famously parodied in “The Front Page”, was a good training ground for a screenwriter, as he had to write vivid prose and had to write quickly.
While in New York in 1926 he received a telegram from friend Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had recently arrived in Hollywood. The telegram read: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” Hecht moved to Hollywood, winding up at Paramount, working uncredited on the script for Lewis Milestone‘s adaptation of Ring Lardner‘s story The New Klondike (1926), starring silent superstar Thomas Meighan. However, it was his script for Josef von Sternberg‘s seminal gangster picture Underworld (1927) that got him noticed. From then until the 1960s, he was arguably the most famous, if not the highest paid, screenwriter of his time.”–IMDB.
I first learned of Ben Hecht when I adapted his “1,001 Afternoons In Chicago” for the stage. These were columns he wrote for the Chicago Daily News about life in Chicago circa 1921. Every day people and events– what’s now called the human interest story– came out in these columns. Voices of the long since departed came alive, like this one, from a flapper in a jazz club in 1922:
SUZIE: So, you didn’t call me. I thought you and I was cookies. Well, that’s the way it is with Jakes. But there’s enough to go around, you can bet. Say, boy! I met the classiest Jake the other evenin’ the front of the Hopper. Did he have class, boy! You know there are some of these fancy Jakes who look like they were the class. But are they? Ask me. Nix. And don’t I give ‘em the berries quick. I don’t let any Jake get moldy on me. Soon as I see they’re heading for a dumb time I say ‘razzberry!’ and off your little sugar toddles!
SHERWOOD ANDERSON: You think I’m moldy?
SUZIE: Nah. There’s so Jakes tip over the oil can right from the start. You never forget them. Nobody could forget you, handsome. Never no more, never. How’s about that hootch, huh?! The stuff’s gettin’ rottener and rottener, doncha think? Come on, swallow. Here’s how! Oh, ain’t we got fun!
With 162 IMDB writing credits, I guarantee you’ve seen one of his movies. Everyone, for instance, knows the 1983 Al Pacino movie Scarface. But how about the original Scarface, with Paul Muni, back in 1929? Tell me this trailer doesn’t look good, even today…
As the bio above tells us, in what is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest years in filmmaking history, 1939, Hecht had TWO scripts up for consideration in the Best Picture category! His uncredited pass on Gone With The Wind beat out his credited Wuthering Heights script. The dude wrote Scarface AND Wuthering Heights! Oh, Heathcliff!
Looking over a screenwriting career that spans forty years (1927-1970), you’ll see this Chicago guy also worked with Hitchcock…a lot! Lifeboat and Rope (uncredited), Spellbound and Notorious (screenplay, Academy Award nominated). 4 with Hitchcock!
And this giant–who not one of my Millennials at Columbia College film school would know–was nominated for six Oscars, winning two. Am I crazy? Who else can say that? OK OK, Billy Wilder (16 nominations) and Woody Allen (12) have him beat, but still!
Of course the one he’s likely most remembered for is His Girl Friday. His days as a Chicago reporter trained Hecht’s ear for the dialogue he captured via his play The Front Page. Adapting it for film, “Devil-may-care” Cary Grant and “ravishing” Rosiland Russell had a repartee that was unrivaled in its day, the pacing of it setting the tone for 1940’s screwball comedy and echoed Nick and Nora Charles in the The Thin Man series. Howard Hawks, the director, made the lead character, Hildy Johnson, a woman, a radical choice back in the day. The film made #19 on American Film Institutes 100 years…100 laughs and was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry. Watch the full movie for free here.
Let’s carry on with my unconventional list of the best sex scenes in mainstream movies. Remember from the first go-around, the Orson Well quote:
“Ecstasy … is not to be communicated by a couple of people, or one person, or any combinations there of, unless it’s actually happening … [Ecstasy] is really not part of the thing we can do on celluloid.”
I will now single-highhandedly disprove the magnificent Orson Wells. Or, barring that, will show once again that your Humble Narrator is just a bit off.
Script, then the film clip of the scene to follow(or the closest thing I could find!) Compare and contrast. Let’s go to the videotape!
Christina Ricci is Rae: Nymphomaniac, viciously beaten, found in the road by Samuel Jackson and held against her will at the end of a chain. Imagine Craig Brewer’s pitch on this one! Ricci is combustible flame, literally speaking in tongues in this script scene. Don’t have a YouTube scene but the music video sets the tone. If you haven’t seen this, get thee hence…
INT. LAZARUS’ HOME – DAY
Rae flinches and flails. She falls to the floor.
Hold on, now. Hold on!
Rae’s eyes are open and filled with fear. She struggles to
flee as Laz holds her in place, trying to reassure her.
Now, I ain’t gonna hurt’cha. Calm down, Miss.
(she fights, coughs)
Listen… Listen… LISTEN NOW, GAL!
(Rae settles in his grip)
I ain’t gonna hurt ya, hear? Gotta get
you well. Now, look me… HEY! Look me in
Rae is too weak to talk or move. Laz clutches her small face
in his dark hands.
Open your eyes. Go’on, now. You need to
see, ain’t no harm here. Ain’t no harm.
My name is Lazarus Woods. And I ain’t
gonna let you die.
Rae’s eyes roll back.
Lazarus looks terrified as she cranes her head back and
forward. Her mouth opens. In her sickened state, with the force
of something evil and deep inside, Rae clasps her open mouth
over Laz’s. A shriek sounds in his brain as he holds her tighter,
allowing the kiss to grow in intensity.
Rae falls to her stomach as Laz abruptly stands and stumbles
across the room. What he sees chills him to the bone.
Rae is writhing on the floor as if she is possessed – a rant
of raspy words pour from her mouth.
… you don’t… touch me… s’no… NO!
Lazarus gets spooked by what he is seeing. He looks to the
mantle. His weathered Bible lies in a coat of dust. He picks
it up as a wave of the burning hits Rae.
She clutches her breast and crotch, rolling from side to side.
Mm-mm… mm-mm… Ma-muh… Ma-MUH!
(sudden anger, shouting)
See… S… See if’I GIVE… GIVE’A… SHIT..
Read the rest of this entry »
Good Reader, another week, another confessional…
If there’s one thing I’ve mastered over the years– being Southern Italian and Type A– it’s “hating” well. Hating artfully.
To quote The Sound Of Music, here are a few of my least favorite screenwriting things– circa my article this week in Script Magazine.
The only thing I hate more than parentheticals, misused adverbs & adjectives, etc…is debating it. The older I get the more these online format discussions seem like the Bernie vs. Hillary stuff breaking out all over my Facebook page. Just…freaking…pointless.
If you write The Social Network, sure, you can jam in as many parentheticals as you like. You can make it 162 pages too, as Aaron Sorkin did. Nobody will be questioning the number of adverbs you used or didn’t use.
Story trumps format. That’s the point of this article. Check it out here.
Good Reader, I have just returned from the proverbial Australian Outback, hitting the long, hard road(see above) to bring you the best of the Internet, screenwriting edition, V9. While I have a twinge of guilt about not writing new stuff every week, I’m actually spending about 5X the time to find these kernels of knowledge amidst the BS.
And so, without further ado, vamos!
Loved this guy’s stuff since I was introduced to him via Script Magazine. If you check out this amazing post you’ll find an Odyssey in the screenwriting biz told with black humor and bite. The guy wrote Die Hard 2 and four other big-budget movies so his take-no-prisoners attitude toward Hollywood resonates. Here’s a piece of this tale:
“I hate the word ‘piss.’ Can you lose it?”
Three hours and one hundred and twenty pages of similar earth-shattering notes, we finally finished the session.
I could go on and tell you a detailed version of another time when a studio chieftain, after pillorying me for hours with nonsensical script notes, told me along with a veteran producer that if we secured Tom Cruise for the lead we could forget every lousy suggestion. But I think you get the point: that he, too, among many others, is my audience.
And before you think I’m cranking up my WGA volume to a writers’ mega-whine, you can shove that thought back where it came from. Because as a screenwriter, that’s the job. And sometimes it means writing for putzes like Milton and Big Daddy.
I write movies. Which are, for lack of a better description, artful schematics. Blueprints for others to eventually interpret or invest into a motion picture. That means, as a writer, my audience is primarily agents and managers and producers and directors and executives. They are my peeps—the consumers of my created product. Though some may find it a pleasure reading mine or another word jockey’s screenplays, none of my target audience can say they are pleasure readers. At least not in regard to that never-ending stack of scripts in their constant queue.”
I get a lot of questions about options of adapted material. This is a terrific short explanation of the process written by Priyanka Mattoo for Splitsider.com. Her bio informs us that she was a former comedy agent at UTA and WME. You can tell. She knows her stuff. Here’s a taste:
“Option fees are small. Unless you’re dealing with a competitive studio situation, we are talking a range of $500-5000, to a high end of $10,000 (although there are outliers in competitive situations). That is your money for a year. The “real” money is in the purchase price, which you get paid if the movie actually gets made — say this is around 2% of the movie’s budget, with a cap. So for an indie that has a $5 million budget, that’s $50k. for a studio movie in the $20 million range that can be upward of $400k, but is likely capped. TV deals are structured for pilots and then episodes, if a series is ordered (big if). This is a long-winded way to say — count on an option not to bring you money, but to build your reputation, and to get more of your work optioned. Movies can take a year in development but could easily take 6-10 years, or just evaporate when your director is offered the next Marvel movie. Cautious and mildly distracted optimism is the best approach when your work has been optioned.”
I also gets many questions about music licensing and what falls into the category of “fair use”. While you can find a down-and-dirty definition at Wikipedia, I kinda like this article from the great website nofilmschool.com. They interview the CEO of Songfreedom, Matt Thompson, and separate useful information from the misinformation floating around online. Here’s a taste from it:
NFS: So a song being used in a video couldn’t be considered personal or fair use?
MT: That’s not entirely true, but almost always true within the professional film community. Personal use is really something that exists for listening to music in your home, car, or on headphones. There’s no part of your iTunes download that gives you the rights to put that song in a video. You’d need something called a sync license for that, unless something is truly “fair use”.
NFS: Can you give an example of something that would be fair use?
MT: First of all, I should be clear that even though there is a great deal of overlap from territory to territory, I’m talking about U.S. copyright law here. While there are certain criteria for which something could qualify as fair use (Columbia University actually put together a pretty good checklist.), one of my favorite examples is truly incidental use.
An example of that would be if you had your camera outside filming your kid riding a bike for the first time. Everyone is cheering and excited and not really paying attention to anything else (rightfully so). But 3 blocks over there is a parade with a marching band going by and they are playing a Top 40 song. While you, of course, didn’t get written consent from the marching band to record their performance and certainly don’t have consent from the artist or any of the other writers or their representative publishers on that particular song; you truly didn’t intend to capture the music and it really has nothing to do with what you’re capturing in the video.”
Speaking of adapting books for Hollywood, many thanks to John Robert Marlow for this interview with Terry Rossio as part of his book.
If you’ve been living under a rock, Rossio has written a thing or two of note. From the bio on the site: “TERRY ROSSIO is probably the highest-paid screenwriter in the history of the medium. He prefers to write with a partner, which is almost invariably Ted Elliott. Together, they’ve written the screenplay and/or story for films such as: Aladdin; Godzilla; The Lone Ranger, Shrek; the Pirates of the Caribbean, Zorro, and National Treasure movies; and far too many others to mention here. Terry also co-wrote (with Bill Marsilii) the record-breaking Deja Vu spec script—which sold for $5 million–and Lightspeed, which sold for $3.5 million. Terry is also a producer. (Read Terry’s official bio here.) ”
Any writer who has a Disney Theme Park ride based on his script and sold TWO other scripts for over $3 million each is someone to whom I will listen. This is a long interview going into tons of useful advice. Check out the article here.
Never say I didn’t try to make you money here at Script Gods! In this case, it’s Scott W. Smith from the great website Screenwriting From Iowa doing the heavy lifting, writing this great post about — yes!– tax exemptions for screenwriters. I know it’s 6+ years old but I’m guessing the tax laws haven’t changed that much. I’m bringing Scott’s list into my April tax meeting. Thanks, Scott! Here’s a piece of it:
“So your deductions for the year should include all equipment and hard costs related to marketing your screenplays. This may include (again check with your accountant):
Computer & software
Percentage of office space used if working out of home
Percentage of phone (cell and/or land line) and utilities
Printing, postage, envelopes
Writing workshops, seminars, books, magazines & CDs
Mileage and other car expenses
Travel (Air, Hotel, car rental & part of food)
Business cards & thank you notes
Website and other marketing materials
And the list goes on…”
I am a technophobe.
I am one of the 7% who does not own a cellphone.
I have never sent a text message.
I don’t play video games, I don’t know the names of YouTube stars. I most certainly do not care what’s trending.
But live long enough, you might try everything once.
Remember the Twilight Zone episode A Thing About Machines? Bartlett Finchley, a guy who loathes and despises technology, gets chased down the stairs by an electric razor, chased out of the house by a TV that won’t turn off, and gets himself drowned by a car with no driver.
Well, that’s me.
My computer and I wage daily war, be it the sound shutting off for no reason, Java-based websites leaving me weird messages about me being compromised, cable cords not working, adapters not working, TV remotes blowing up, website issues, blahblahblah…
When my Columbia Millennials ask me how THE FUCK I’ve never sent a text message in my life I tell them constant communication is highly overrated.
I am obviously not a Twitter guy. Nothing about that mode of communication comes naturally to me. Sure, I have a Script Gods account that has somehow managed to accumulate a few hundred followers, but it’s not like I’m TRYING. I post exactly once a week. I do it mostly because it’s how people communicate nowadays. You run a business, you get on Twitter and tweet, and tweet, and tweet. It’s expected, and I do it. But I don’t have to like it.
All this to say that I’m surprised to announce that I’m going to be on ScriptChat this Sunday at 7pm Chicago time. My editor at Script Magazine, Jeanne Bowerman, asked me to be on and your humble narrator, the technophobe, for whatever goofy reason, said WTF, let’s do it.
ScriptChat is one of the best webcasts out there. We’ll be talking all things micro-budget, both writing and producing. If you’re about to shoot a short film, a web series, a low-budget feature–they’ll be something in those 60 minutes of discussion for you. Least I think there will be… (insert red-faced emojis).
If only for curiosity’s sake, come check out a latter-day Bartlett Finchley as he adds his voice to the cultural din of the TwitterVerse.
#scriptchat. Sunday 7pm. See ya there!