Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ed Burns' New Movie Wraps Up the Tribeca Film Festival
by Janet Lawler
Ed Burns at Apple Store                                                                              photos by: Janet Lawler
Ed Burns' new indie film Newlyweds ends tonight's 10th Tribeca Film Festival.  It's only fitting. Burns was part of festival's debut in 2001 and remains one of its most popular filmmakers.

Burns recently chatted at the Apple Store as part of its Meet the Filmmaker series.  Packed house.  Seats filled with students, indie filmmakers and admirers.  Several aspiring artists stood up to tell Burns that his first indie movie The Brothers McMullen changed their lives, their college majors, their belief in themselves to make movies.
   Meet the Filmmakers Series
The talk quickly turned geeky (after all, it's the Apple Store).  Burns' shared his tips to newcomers entering the biz: he shot Newlyweds on a Canon 5D (basically a camera that sells for around $2600).  No extra lights.  No makeup or hair crew.  No wardrobe.  His editor cut the film on Burns' desktop with Final Cut.  Bare bones movie making here.  It took twelve days to shoot over four months.  No permits (maybe a couple, he laughed).  "We didn't worry about permits and cops.  My father is a retired NYPD cop anyway.  I would tell them 'Go talk to Sgt. Burns.' 

Scenes were shot on the streets or in public places -- a downtown cafe, restaurant, etc.  Sound recorded on a flash drive.  Burns showed a clip of the movie -- and it looked like a movie!
Meeting new filmmakers
Contest Winner  By Logogo_Boy
Burns is a filmmaker plugged into social media.  Big time.  He ran contests on Twitter asking followers to submit original music or ideas for his next movie poster.  They did.
One lucky artist  won the movie poster contest.  He'll be attending the Newlyweds cast and crew party with Burns at Tribeca this weekend.  Who says Twitter is a waste of time?  Here's Ed's website link

He gives away all trade secrets.  Does he worry about competition?  Some young, hot shot director moving in on his indie turf?  Nah. This Long Island guy would like nothing better than to see fresh movies being made by upstarts.  That's how he made it back in the day.  He hasn't forgotten what it's like to be an outsider looking in.

Ed Burns made it big  -- acting, directing, writing -- he works with Hollywood's top actors and directors, but he isn't clawing to make blockbusters or stay in the box-office rat race.  Not even tempted.

He likes living in NYC with his family and banging out a movie a year for about $25,000.  No big theatrical releases to sweat over.  Those days are gone.  In this digital age, Burns' movies do well online, finding his niche audience through Netflix, VOD, Comcast and Time Warner... and, of course, iTunes. He tapped into that new market a few years back with his indie Purple Violets.  It was released exclusively on iTunes at the time. 

"People said then are you out of your mother-effin' mind?  Nobody will watch a movie on their phone.  That was back in '07," Burns recalled.  "I want to keep making small movies every year.  Stay in the biz.  Making my stories."
Autograph time
Signing a Brothers McMullen poster for a young fan

Burns recalled how years ago, before hitting it big with McMullen, he was walking down the street in New York City and spotted Spike Lee walking right in front of him.  He was a huge fan of Spike Lee, but couldn't muster up enough nerve to stop the director and ask him advice about filmmaking.  Burns says he choked.  "I didn't have the balls to tap Lee on the shoulder that day," he says, explaining why he's quick now to lend an ear to newcomers seeking their way in the biz.
Just one more photo before you go, Ed.


Giving a special Shout-Out Thanks to Hot Damn Short Sales for their donation this week here.  We appreciate you supporting The NY Screenwriting Life blog.  We'll keep the posts coming thanks to supporters like you!!

Also looking for a new band to download?  Check out The Wilderness of Manitoba.  They're a Canadian Chamber Folk group that will blow your mind.  Love their music.  Give 'em a listen.
The Wilderness of Manitoba
Until next time!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

by Janet Lawler

The April showers have let up, but now the high temps are kickin' in big time here in NYC. Whew! My neighbors in Astoria are breakin' out their flip-flops, shorts and sun dresses already -- summer is fast on our heels.  I'm lovin' spring though.  Besides my Easter basket of candy, I got to meet some of my personal writing heroes recently.
Seth Meyers of SNL
First up --Seth Meyers, head writer and anchor of "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live. We met at C-SPAN's studios on Fifth Avenue (where I freelance). Get ready.  Seth has a new Saturday night gig this weekend. He's the featured speaker at the White House Correspondents dinner in Washington, DC.  He'll be cracking jokes about Obama with the president sitting right next to him.  Talk about pressure to be funny.

Seth says his SNL gig is his real first-paying job right out of college. Really, Seth Meyers?! Really?? Yes.  NBC plucked him out of his improvisational group fresh after college and he's been working on SNL every since.
Live from New York...
Like most writers, Seth is a procrastinator.  Not good since he has to write a live show every week. (Tina Fey gives credit in her new book "Bossy Pants" to Seth for writing that now classic SNL skit between Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.   Seth Meyers is not only super cool, but smart and funny... (and um, tall and handsome) what more could you ask for in a writer? 

Next up -- story consultant and author Jen Grisanti. Jen held her mini-workshop and book-signing at The Drama Book Shop in midtown Manhattan earlier this month. She talked about her new book Story Line: Finding Your Gold in Your Life. She offered a free workshop filled with great tips for writers about writing a log line for your own life (no easy task!) -- digging deep when writing your truth -- and writing about universal themes. Jen also has a podcast on iTunes and a YouTube Channel. She's also on Facebook and Twitter.  She's one busy woman, not to mention genuine and down-to-earth as all get out.  Jen will be back in NYC speaking at the Moviemaker Screenwriting Conference June 11-12 with other speakers like Spike Lee and Marilyn Horowitz.  Sign me up!
Janet and Jen at The Drama Book Shop in Manhattan
Everything I really need to know about screenwriting I learned in kindergarten.  Have you seen this video yet?  It's produced by The Onion.  Very funny... and true on so many levels about writing movies today (and cheesy talk show hosts)

Up next here at the NY Screenwriting Life for May -- Ed Burns' new indie flick Newlyweds and the Tribeca Film Festival.  Until next time, enjoy the leftover Easter  jelly beans... and be careful walking around New York in flip-flops.

PS -- here is the C-SPAN interview with Seth Meyers.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Q&A with screenwriter/producer Angelo Pizzo
Screenwriter Angelo Pizzo
by Janet Lawler 

"Sometimes a winner is a dreamer that just won't quit," from the movie trailer Rudy.
Angelo Pizzo is an accomplished screenwriter and producer.  He penned Hoosiers and Rudy. Both films usually make the Top 10 Best Sports Movies of All-Time lists.  The NY Screenwriting Life asked Pizzo about his writing ritual and working with actors Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper.

Hi, Angelo, what is your writing process like on an average day?

Pizzo:  Every day is different, I tend to write in flurries with a lot of time where I anguish about what I'm going to write. the last third of a script I tend to write quickly so there is a momentum (and because a producer is ready to send out a hit team because I'm so late).

You've worked with director David Anspaugh on two movies, Hoosiers and Rudy, how did that relationship come about?

Pizzo:  David and I were good friends and roommates in college.

Your IMDB credits say you were a Second Unit Director on both hit movies mentioned above, would you like to direct a movie?

Pizzo:  I have been attached to many of my scripts as a director, unfortunately have yet to get one greenlit.

A screenwriter needs the human spirit and determination of Rudy to keep believing in themselves after facing rejection, how did you overcome early setbacks in your writing career?

Pizzo:. I was fortunate to get a job in development almost by accident and moved up the ranks as an executive fairly easily. I wrote my first script when I was 33 and it was Hoosiers. We got a lot of rejections over a three year period, but I knew that was part of the process. I learned never to take rejection personally in my prior years as an executive. I observed how it ate up and turned writers, directors, actors and producers bitter and disenchanted. Another truth is it takes a minor miracle for any movie to get made. So many, many factors go into it, most out of one person's control.

Besides your own movies, what sports drama is your favorite?

Pizzo:  Raging Bull, Field of Dreams 

What's it like to be at a table reading with Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper on Hoosiers?

Gene Hackman in Hoosiers
Pizzo:  Dennis was shooting Blue Velvet during our table read. Gene said hardly a word, he saved his comments for me the day before we shot the scenes. He wanted to be fresh and immediate with his takes.

How do prefer to watch movies? DVD, theater or online? 

Pizzo:  I love watching movies in the theater, accept the DVD home experience and refuse to watch anything online.

What's the best advice you can give to a screenwriter trying to make it today in the movie business?

Pizzo:  Write, every day. Don't talk about it, worry about it, complain about it. Do it. Passion, vision, commitment count for a lot. Don't do it because you think there is good money or glamor, or fun or hipness. Write the movie you want to see not what you think other people want to see. And always write from the inside out rather than the outside in.

Thanks, Angelo, for being a good sport and for writing movies that inspire us to keep reaching for our dreams.   

Below are the trailer links for Hoosiers and Rudy.  Rent them (along with The Game of Their Lives) and have yourself an Angelo Pizzo movie marathon.

Until next time. 

Rudy Trailer
Hoosiers Trailer


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Some "Serpico" Scenes Shot Right Here in Astoria
by Janet Lawler

Copyrighted Columbia Pictures   Sidney Lumet
My two favorite movie directors are named Sidney/Sydney.  I love these two guys!

There is Sydney Pollack, who directed movies like "This Property is Condemned" (1966) starring Robert Redford and Natalie Wood (based on a story by Tennessee Williams), "Tootsie", "Out of Africa" "Three Days of the Condor", "Jeremiah Johnson" and "The Firm". This Sydney also made "The Way We Were". Need I say more? Sydney Pollack passed away in 2008 at the age of 73.

My other favorite Sidney is Lumet.  If I name ten of my favorite movies -- many from the 70s -- this Sidney made most of them.  Sadly for us, Sidney Lumet passed away this week at the age of 86.
Image Credit Freestyle Releasing/Everett Collection
I first saw "Serpico" in 1973.  It was about a cop who blows the whistle on corruption inside the NYPD. I saw it while growing up in the Bronx. The grittiness of NYC up on the screen matched the rawness of the city streets I was experiencing. Crime running rampant. Drugs everywhere, destroying a generation. Government failing from local, state, right up to the White House in the 70s.

Sidney captured on film the fear that Americans, and especially New Yorkers, were feeling in that decade like no other -- long before 9/11 introduced us to a new kind of terror.

I live in Astoria, Queens today.  In "Serpico" there is a scene shot under the Hell's Gate Bridge here.  It's one of my favorite scenes in a movie.  It's just two men talking... a police chaplain and a desperate cop... shouting at each other on an overcast day by the East River.  The scene was used during the Oscars when Al Pacino was nominated as Best Actor for that role.  Pacino paces back and forth talking to the Chaplain like a caged animal... trapped... scared... enraged... the final image is of Pacino standing in a wide shot... under this MASSIVE bridge... alone... shouting profanities as the priest turns his back and walks away from him.  The image is haunting.  It says everything with one shot of film.
Al Pacino as Serpico
There were also other key scenes from "Serpico" filmed here in Astoria right on Ditmars Boulevard.  The scene where Serpico is almost shot by two uniform cops who think he's a perp.  They trap him on a side street by a dumpster until he reveals his badge.  Rent this movie if you haven't seen it -- or rent it again if you have.  It's one of Sidney's best movies.  One of Pacino's best too.

Al Pacino & Sidney Lumet
Sidney's next movie "Dog Day Afternoon" was a comedy/crime drama. A perfect blend of lunacy and suspense.  Al Pacino gave a dynamic performance -- after playing the reticent Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" and Frank Serpico in "Serpico" -- Pacino turns flamboyant in this movie, ranting, prancing outside the bank and stealing the show.

Pacino about to chant "Attica!"
The scene where Pacino yells "Attica! Attica! Attica!" outside that bank is amazing... when he kicks the glass door and tells the cops "to put your guns down"... and gays cheer him behind the police barricades... I couldn't believe this was happening in a movie.  What was going on here??

Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon
"Dog Day Afternoon" showed gay and a transsexual character in a way that a mainstream movie hadn't before. Pacino's character sticks up the bank to get money for his transsexual lover's sex change operation. Sidney took on that story (based on a real incident) and directs a spectacular, confined film with heart.

Sidney said in an interview that he sweated over the scene where Pacino talks to his lover over the phone in "Dog Day Afternoon"... it was 1975, remember... because if done badly, that scene would kill the movie for the American audience. The movie would die on the spot.  It didn't. Pacino, Chris Sarandon and Sidney Lumet created a scene that was intimate, uncomfortable, comical and tragic.  Rent it and see for yourself.

What can I say about "Network"?

It's a classic and perhaps more relevant today. Made in 1976, it predicts today's state of journalism and media. It's as if Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky looked into a crystal ball and could see how TV News would change for the worse someday if we weren't careful -- if our news became entertainment for profit -- if corporations ran the evening news -- how we'd change as a collective audience and not for the better. Would we really watch a man blow his brains out on network TV?  Would it get huge ratings then and now?  What do you think?
We're still "mad as hell" like Peter Finch (if not more so today) and still taking it.

Sidney made movies about characters facing outside demons and inner ones and confronting authority. Rent "Prince of the City" or "The Verdict" with Paul Newman as an example of this.  Sidney made small movies (except for The Whiz). He made dramas with razor sharp New York wit and sensibilities. Characters in his movies talked like guys off the streets. His actors looked like guys you knew from your old neighborhood.

Sidney had an authentic eye and voice about New York.  He presented it warts and all.

If you love movies, or wonder how they get made, read Sidney Lumet's book Making Movies. He describes everything from blocking scenes, to rehearsing actors to editing. He lays it all out for us. He gives away his secrets for making magic.  I've read it often (highlighting parts in different colors) because it teaches me something new every time I read it.

There are so many distinct New York directors -- Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Edward Burns, Sydney Pollack, as mentioned above, each present New York City in a different shade of light. Some with romanticism, some with comedy, some with flaws and some with violence. Sidney Lumet is the master though -- the quintessential New York director in my opinion.  His work reflects New York City during the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s. He worked in live TV during its Golden Age, the same in film, was a native New Yorker to his core and it showed through his lens with every scene, every syllable and throughout his long legacy of work.  Sixty years of brilliant work.

Sidney Lumet
Sydney Pollack
Thanks, Sidney (and Sydney), for what you guys left us and for what you will continue to teach us through your great movies.  

Until the next time.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Q&A with "Limitless" Screenwriter Leslie Dixon
by Janet Lawler

Does the name Leslie Dixon ring a bell with you? It will if you love movies. Leslie's written the popular movies Hairspray, Freaky Friday, Pay It Forward, The Thomas Crown Affair, Mrs. Doubtfire, Overboard, Outrageous Fortune and now Limitless, still out in theaters.

Limitless opened at #1 at the box office when released in March.

Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro star.

The film has a cool premise. A down-on-his-luck writer can't finish his novel, his girlfriend dumps him and his life is spiraling out of control until he takes a new untested drug. This pill allows him to use 100% of his brain power... they say we only use 20% of our brains (and we all know people who use a lot less, don't we?). So what would you do if you could use all your intellect? Learn several languages? Finish that epic script? Play an instrument or two? Or would your use your new found gray matter for power and greed?

Writer Leslie Dixon answers questions for the NY Screenwriting Life.

NY Times film critic A.O. Scott recently said as a screenwriter you're an example of "disciplined productivity" because of your body of work. Do you write every day or are you a binge writer?

"Disciplined productivity" is a total diss, don't you think? Sound like code for "hack" to me. I am writing nothing at the moment. Totally burned out. This movie took a lot out of me and I feel, at the moment, like a shriveled-up husk. (I have, in the past, approached the task with equal parts inspiration and iron will.)

On Limitless you were producer, had consulting rights and director/casting approval -- was adding these responsibilities a blessing or a curse? Would you recommend other writers doing it?

It was good for the end product, but it makes a lot of people hate you. I'm glad I stuck to my guns, but it's bruising.

What's a table reading like with Robert De Niro saying your lines?


Double Duh. What book would you give to a friend starting out in screenwriting?

A screenwriting book? I'd say, better to stick to my standard rule: does the reader want to turn the page to the next page? It's a toughie.

Who is the first person you let read your scripts?

Don't remember who the virgin reader was. I was shoving my work under everyone's nose.

How has the screenwriting movie business changed since your early days in Hollywood?

Huge question. Seismic shift after shift -- from corporations owning studios, to the DVD revolution, which kept older moviegoers home (but brought huge profits), to direct download as a method of delivery, the revenues from which still haven't rolled in the way they should. Literacy was already on the way out when I started, so that much is the same! (One of the reasons I wrote "Limitless" was that it gave me an excuse to write a literate lead.)

Would you write for TV if asked?

I love cable shows more than anything, and if I could start my career over, that's where I'd go. That said, I might not have the brutal monomania to be a showrunner.

Do you prefer watching movies at home, in a theater with an audience or online?

I love being with the audience in a real theater. I don't think you can write for the screen if you don't know how a film affects its viewers -- where they laugh, groan with disgust, etc.

Today when you sit down to write you pretty much know that script will become a movie one day. How did you find motivation and discipline to write before selling your work?

I don't for a second presume that what I write will get made. I have a great batting average, but I still strike out. I've written my heart out and been fired. I've done uninspired work and had it instantly greenlit. I had a good feeling about this one, but you never know. (The only way you, a neophyte, can get through a script is to please yourself. You have to love it, or no one else will.)

If channel surfing on a Sunday afternoon, what one movie will you watch again (and again) if it's on?

The usual suspects. Godfather I or II. Dr. Strangelove. Oddly, Mr. & Mrs. Smith has wormed its way onto that list. It's so damn well directed.

What's next on your plate?

Nothing. I may take a year off, I make take forever. I mean it -- I'm fried. Maybe too much "disciplined productivity?" I've been approached to write a novel, and I'm seriously considering it. I'm such an audience whore, it'd probably get shitty reviews and sell.

Thanks, Leslie.
We hope you don't really take forever to tackle your next script. Enjoy some rest and relaxation. Or just pop a pill... ;)

Until next time.

Watch the trailer for Limitless here:

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

by Janet Lawler

Sean Astin as RUDY
I love true stories.  Don't you?  That's why we watch Jersey Shore or the Real Housewives that only pretend to be true.  It's also why Hollywood produces movies "based on actual events". When we know something really happened, we invest more emotion into that movie or character.

Think about some of the great movies that were based on real people...Rudy, Silkwood, Serpico, Erin Brockovich, and most recently, The Blind Side.  Would we have been as deeply moved if those movies were about made-up characters with the same names?  Doubt it.

True stories.  We love 'em.  I've been on a big documentary kick lately.  If you look at a documentary in the frame work of a movie script, you see many similarities in telling a solid story with structure: intro of characters, a life-changing inciting incident, conflicts, challenges, violence, hope, then the all is lost moments and finally, God willing, victory in the face of defeat.  We appreciate a strong resolution for having taken the emotional ride with these characters.

American Experience on PBS is hitting one documentary after another out of the park this season.  Each one is powerful and gripping.  I recommend them all.  They're about real people, real instances and tell great tales of bravery and the human spirit.

As writers, we can learn from these actual events in history and from individuals who turned disappointment, repression, violence, and blind raging hate into stories about love, redemption and achievement.

Some of the documentaries to air on American Experience are:

Freedom Riders.  This doc marks the 50th anniversary of Original Freedom Riders.  It asks the question Could You Get On the Bus?  Some Americans did.  They were threatened, attacked and beaten... but their courage helped change the civil rights movement.  Freedom Riders is about our American history. These Americans confronted segregation and death to change the law. It airs May 16th on PBS.

Stonewall Uprising.  Today with the political debate for marriage equality discussed openly on TV, we forget what gay Americans endured before the gay rights movement: shock treatments, mind-altering drugs, lobotomy, public service announcements denouncing homosexuals, beatings, excommunication, depression, and repression under the law.

Gays growing up in the 40s, 50s, even 60s were arrested, threatened and hunted.  We talk about bullying today in our high schools, but wait until you see what occurred less than just twenty or thirty years ago to gay youths.  There was no coming out then, unlike today.  There was only in.  Hiding for your life.  Stonewall Uprising shows what gay Americans long accepted until on June 28, 1969 when the gay community experienced what one Village Voice reporter who was at the scene called its "Rosa Parks moment" and said no more.  On that June night, when the N.Y.P.D. invaded the Mafia-owned gay bar at the Stonewall Inn  and began handcuffing gays and lesbians for dancing on a Friday night... all hell broke loose.

For the first time ever, gays and lesbians banded together and refused to be led off to jail... it set off a three-day riot in Greenwich Village.  It's the inciting moment that launched the gay rights movement as we know it today.  Stonewall changed the tide.  Pride would overcome shame from city to city across the country.  Stonewall in 1969 wasn't about one night of police harassment in a gay bar.  It wasn't about homosexuals being upset on Judy Garland's funeral day.  It was instead about decades of abuse, hatred and fear rising up and turning on its oppressor.  We see it happening today all over the world.  Stonewall Uprising airs on Monday, April 25th.

Great job, American Experience and PBS!

On a screenwriting side note, soon we'll have Q&A's with top screenwriters Leslie Dixon (Limitless and Mrs. Doubtfire) and Angelo Pizzo (Rudy and Hoosiers).

Rudy!  Rudy!  Rudy!  Yes, we really do love true stories.

Until next time.