Saturday, December 27, 2014

Robin Williams remembered by 'Dead Poets Society' producer, screenwriter

According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, actor-comedian Robin Williams' suicide last summer prompted the largest number of Google searches during 2014. It was also one of the top-ten topics on Facebook.*

The tragic and untimely passing of Robin Williams in August made for the most Googled term of the year. The actor’s name ranked No. 1 on Google’s most searched list of 2014. Last week, Facebook released data around the most-talked about topics on the social-networking platform, and Williams ranked No. 4. Needless to say, this moment was one of the biggest of the year.
This year also marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Dead Poets Society, the 1989 film that brought Robin Williams his second Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role. (He later won an Academy Award for best supporting actor for 1997's Good Will Hunting.)  Dead Poets Society also earned Williams a Golden Globe nomination for acting.

To commemorate the movie's quarter-century and to pay tribute to Williams, the Virginia Film Festival screened the film and brought its screenwriter, Tom Schulman, and one of its producers, Paul Junger Witt, to Charlottesville to participate in a conversation about the making of Dead Poets Society. The discussion was moderated by film and stage director Mitch Levine, president of the Film Festival Group.

In addition to Dead Poets Society, for which he received an Academy Award, Tom Schulman's screenplays include Honey I Shrunk the Kids (with Rick Moranis, 1989), Medicine Man (with Sean Connery, 1992), and Welcome to Mooseport (with Ray Romano and Gene Hackman, 2004). His producing credits include Indecent Proposal (with Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson, 1993) and Me, Myself, and Irene (with Jim Carrey, 2000), and he directed 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (with Joe Pesci, 1997).

Paul Junger Witt has produced more than 60 movies and TV shows, ranging from 1960s TV series like Occasional Wife, The Second Hundred Years, and Here Come the Brides to The Partridge Family and Soap in the 1970s (a decade in which he also produced the award-winning TV movie, Brian's Song with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams) to Benson, The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, and Blossom in the 1980s.

Levine, Schulman, and Witt discussed Dead Poets Society and related topics on Sunday, November 9, the closing night of the 2014 Virginia Film Festival at the Culbreth Theater on the grounds of the University of Virginia.

Paul Junger Witt at the Virginia Film Festival
Asked by Levine whether Robin Williams was the first choice to play John Keating, the unconventional English teacher at a boys' boarding school in 1959 New England, both Schulman and Witt nodded their affirmation.

Director Peter Weir, Witt said, “got a performance from Robin that we hadn't seen before.” For the younger cast members (including Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, and Ethan Hawke), “most of whom were green, were inexperienced, Robin actually became that figure [of an inspiring teacher] because he was so generous and so patient with the kids and kept them so loose and kept them laughing and inspired. They adored him, much the same way, as characters, they adored their teacher.”

Before Dead Poets Society, he noted, Williams “had done a couple of turns as a serious actor and he had an energy that we believed audiences would find believable in terms of a teacher who is inspiring.”

Schulman added that “we encouraged Robin to bring as much of himself as he could to the part. Dinging the bell and things like that, that's Robin, his comedy.”

Levine suggested that what he finds “remarkable” about Williams' performance as John Keating “is that he doesn't do – forgive me – the 'Robin Williams shtick,' with the performance. It's so subtle and so nuanced that even when he's imitating Marlon Brando, it's with reason and truth and intent and complete believability. For those who, at that moment, only knew him from the funny stuff, it's a remarkable tribute to him as part of this collaboration.”

Schulman agreed: “It seemed to me the essence of his character was to reach these boys and Robin gave of himself in that way. You can feel the connection.”

Witt agreed, as well: “And they adored him. If any of them could have made it this evening, they would have. Most of them are working, which speaks to how well it was cast. They just adored him.”

Recalling Williams' unexpected passing last August, Levine said that “one thing I was particularly struck with when we learned of his death was [the] outpouring of public and private mourning and grief for a man who was a public figure and not part people's lives in an immediate way, for most of us – yet people grieved as if they lost one of their own. I think, for me at any rate, he was so lacking in guile. That's so rare. There wasn't an evil molecule in him and for him to offer a performance like this” in Dead Poets Society, “it's for the ages, and we have it for the ages, which is a fact.”

Witt added that he had worked on a second film with Williams, the Christopher Nolan-directed Insomnia, which also featured Al Pacino.

“It was a tough shoot,” he said. Pacino's acting style “is very different than Robin's but they blended perfectly and Robin kept, as he could, the entire set loose. He even managed to make Al smile a couple of times. He was just an extraordinary talent and a really good guy.”

On the set of Dead Poets Society, Schulman recalled, “As soon as you'd call cut, he would start doing his thing and at a certain point you'd just have to send him away because you couldn't get any work done.”

Witt also remembered how one of the key shots in the film had to be done on the morning of New Year's Day, because the weather conditions were just what were needed.

“We couldn't take a break between Christmas and New Year's,” he said. “We had the school [St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware] and we could use it completely because the students were home” for the holidays.

“There was one shot that Peter had planned but there was never enough snow” to do it, he continued.

On New Year's morning, “after an evening of debauchery, the crew came together with [cinematographer John Seale] and they went out and got this one extraordinary shot and gave it to the director as a gift because it was on their own time, on a holiday, [with] no charges to the production because it would have been triple [time] or whatever.”

That was the shot in the snow when the students have learned about their classmate's suicide.

At Levine's request – because it was a show he grew up with – Witt talked a bit about his experience producing The Partridge Family, the 1970-74 ABC-TV sitcom about a musical family led by mom Shirley Jones and featuring David Cassidy, Susan Dey, Danny Bonaduce, and Dave Madden.

“I wish I could tell you a happy story,” Witt replied. “It was a kind of a nightmare. The business can, – and especially a series – can be very hard on kids. I did the pilot and the first year and I walked away from a hit because of what I was seeing and could not stop. I was never sorry. I never again did a series that featured kids that young. And we chose the kids, the children we worked with very, very, very carefully in areas beyond their talent. It's tough and that show was painful for me in that respect.”

Screenwriter Tom Schulman
An audience member noted that “Robin Williams humor seems so organic,” almost like rock and roll. “Did he seem to suppress it during filming?”

Schulman said no, he didn't.

“In fact, I remember the first day Robin showed up for a shot. He was going to be there for a day and he was going to go to New York for two weeks to be in a play. And he seemed almost too on-book, so literal in the way he was delivering the lines that it worried me. I wanted more of Robin's humor and Peter [Weir] agreed and said, 'Well, we've got two weeks to think about it.'”

When Williams came back to the set, the director “did an improv with Robin. He said, 'What would you like to teach the class? A little Shakespeare, maybe read to them?'”

Weir told Williams he would shoot the improvs, just to see what happened.

“And Robin came in and did that improv, he did the John Wayne thing, he did a reading from that book, and something connected. Robin realized, 'Even though I'm doing all the talking, it's a dialogue, I'm getting something from these kids.' It changed his performance right away and from that day on, Peter never said another word about Robin's performance. Robin just got it. Peter called him 'Robin Keating' – Robin and the character became the same guy. It felt to me that whatever wacky humor Robin used, say on Mork & Mindy or in his improv, he never used that” during the filming of Dead Poets Society. “It was all blended into the teaching” of the character, John Keating.

The entire conversation among Mitch Levine, Tom Schulman, and Paul Junger Witt can be seen on this YouTube video.

*For what it's worth, here's the entire top-ten Google search list for 2014:

1. Robin Williams
2. World Cup
3. Ebola
4. Malaysia Airlines
5. ALS Ice Bucket Challenge
6. Flappy Bird
7. Conchita Wurst
8. ISIS
9. Frozen
10. Sochi Olympics

I have no idea who or what “Conchita Wurst” is, and I imagine a lot of people asking “What is Flappy Bird?”














Saturday, December 20, 2014

Director Barry Levinson Talks About Making 'The Natural'

Movie director and screenwriter Barry Levinson is in the entertainment news pages these days because he is making his debut as a musical theater writer. He is now adapting his 1982 film, Diner, into a musical play at Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre in Arlington.

Levinson's collaborators on this world-premiere musical version of Diner include Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer and composer-lyricist Sheryl Crow, who is also writing her first score for a book musical.

In a feature by the Washington Post's Nelson Pressley, Levinson acknowledges that he's not a big fan of musicals but he's dived into the genre to create this new version of Diner for the stage.
Levinson’s been reading theatrical memoirs and marveling about great numbers written under the gun on the road, even though in his early days he met weekly deadlines as a TV writer for Marty Feldman and Carol Burnett. This was just after he studied broadcast journalism at American University and interned at a Washington TV station, working on the morning puppet show and eventually directing the evening news – just like the protagonist in “Sixty-Six.”

But he’s never been particularly crazy about musicals. He enjoyed “Book of Mormon” and laughed at “The Producers,” by his old mentor Mel Brooks – Levinson helped write “Silent Movie” and “High Anxiety” – but he rightly categorizes them as comedies first, with music. What he really admires is the sturdy melodic stuff, like “South Pacific.”

He can talk “Guys and Dolls” and “Carousel,” [director Kathleen] Marshall says, and Crow says he easily refers to everything from early rockabilly icon Eddie Cochran to “High Society.” But at the diner, he seems wary of the dark mark of the frivolous Broadway show.

“I’m not precious about the material,” he says. “But it does have to be a dramatic comedy. There are dilemmas. Shrevie and Beth don’t share common interests, and they’re desperately trying to connect. You can’t just pull that out and make it a fluffy piece.”
Last month in Charlottesville, Levinson came to the Virginia Film Festival, where he discussed the making of his 1984 baseball film, The Natural, with New York Times journalist Mike Tackett.  Over the same weekend, the director also presented his newest film, The Humbling, which features Al Pacino as a late-career actor in a panic.  The Humbling is based on a novel by Philip Roth.

Based on a novel by Bernard Malamud, Levinson's film version of The Natural starred Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs and a supporting cast that included Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey, Robert Prosky, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth, and Darren McGavin (uncredited).

Here is video of that conversation, recorded at the Paramount Theater on Charlottesville's downtown mall on Sunday, November 9:


Other celebrities who spoke at the Virginia Film Festival this year included actor Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and novelist Adriana Trigiani (Big Stone Gap), as well as political scions Barry Goldwater, Jr., and Skip Humphrey.






Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sanctions: South Africa, Libya, and the Cuban Embargo

Today's announcement from Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro about progress toward normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba and the possible end of the 55-year-old embargo on trade with that island nation reminded me of a time, long ago, when I was testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee on Africa.

The topic was sanctions against South Africa, with an aim of ending apartheid there.

I testified that sanctions were a futile gesture and never worked the way they were intended.

The subcommittee chairman, Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.) identifying me as a conservative -- I was testifying alongside Alan Keyes -- tried to trap me by asking whether I also opposed sanctions against Libya or Cuba. I said yes. He was surprised but commended me for my consistency.

Here's a clip from C-SPAN of that hearing on November 5, 1987:




Here's the entire three-and-a-half hour hearing, which includes testimony from Chester A. Crocker, Assistant Secretary, Department of State-African Affairs; Thomas Reilly Donahue, Secretary-Treasurer, AFL-CIO; Nicholas Haysom, Deputy Director, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg-Centre for Applied Legal Studies; Alan Keyes, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute; James Mndaweni, President, National Council of Trade Unions; Thokoana "James" James Motlatsi, President, South Africa-National Union of Mineworkers; Patrick J. O'Farrell, Executive Director, African-American Labor Center; Richard Sincere, Research Associate, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Damu Smith, Executive Director, Washington Office on Africa; and Peggy Taylor, DirectorAFL-CIO-Legislation.






Has It Been Ten Years Already?

Today marks the tenth anniversary of my blogging life.

Starting here on December 17, 2004, this writing platform has expanded to include Book Reviews by Rick Sincere, Where Are the Copy Editors?, Bearing Drift, and the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner, with a few smaller projects along the way. The orbit of this blog includes three YouTube channels (see the sidebar to your left).

By coincidence, I produced several interesting blog posts on December 17, without making explicit reference to its being a blogoversary.

By far the most popular of these has been one from last year, headlined "Obligatory Dylan Sprouse Nude Selfie Blog Post." To date, that report on the former Disney Channel star's naked mishap and his deft handling of it has been viewed 4,723 times, which is a pretty good rate.  It's remarkable how interested people are in seeing a celebrity's genitals.

On this date in 2007, I noted that that was the ten-year anniversary of the blog itself.

Quoting Kai Ryssdal, the host of the public radio show, Marketplace, at the time:
The blog is celebrating an anniversary today. Ten years ago a guy named Jorn Barger coined the term "weblog" to describe his website Robot Wisdom. It was shortened to "blog" two years later by someobody else.

Back then only about 23 websites were properly considered blogs. These days, whether you write them or read them, blogs are a pretty common pursuit.

Estimates are that 120,000 new ones are created everyday. No word, though, on how many are actually read.

There are a lot more than 23 "weblogs" today, that's for sure.

The most-viewed post on this blog was "Snowpocalypse!," a collection of photos from the big snowstorm of December 2009 -- published, coincidentally, on December 18.

The second most popular post is an oddity: "Shirtless and Circumcised," which traces strange search terms that lead readers to this blog.

Other blogoversary posts have included "Christmas Carols: The Odd and the New," a review of the Daily Telegraph Book of Carols, also from 2009.

On December 17, 2006, I took the Washington Post ombudsman to task for sloppy writing in "Small Pool."

Two years later, I reported on the progress of the breathtaking recount in the razor-thin race between then-Congressman Virgil Goode (R-Rocky Mount) and future former Congressman Tom Perriello (D-Ivy) in "Fifth District Recount Continues."

Only once, nine years ago, in 2005, did I make an explicit commemoration of the start of my blogging in "Anniversary Waltz." In fact, for a long time, I thought my blog-start was on December 22. I had to look up the correct date as I prepared for this post!

Let's hope I have at least ten more good years of filling this space with compelling words arranged in sentences and paragraphs.

Cheers!





Saturday, December 13, 2014

12/13/14

It's December 13, 2014 or, expressed another way, it's 12/13/14.

Numerically successive dates only occur twelve times each century. The next time we'll encounter one is just over 88 years from now, on January 2, 2103 (or 1/2/3).

The other dates like this we've seen so far this century include February 3, 2004; June 7, 2008; and November 12, 2013.

People whose birthdays fall on these unusual dates include gangster Pretty Boy Floyd (February 3, 1904), American football player Weeb Ewbank (May 6, 1907), actress and singer Betty Noyes (October 11, 1912), Brazilian nurse Ana NĂ©ri (December 13, 1814), and English historian Alan Bullock (December 13, 1914).

Notable deaths that happened on these dates include those of French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze (March 4, 1805), Italian general Nicola Calipari (March 4, 2005), singer-songwriter Gene Pitney (April 5, 2006), actor-director-screenwriter Curtis Harrington (May 6, 2007), sportscaster Jim McKay (June 7, 2008), Chinese martial artist Huo Yuanjia (August 9, 1910), Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (August 9, 2010), Oscar-winning actor Cliff Robertson (September 10, 2011), French singer Frank Alamo (October 11, 2012), Polish astronomer Konrad Rudnicki and English composer John Tavener (both November 12, 2013), and Charles-Joseph, 7th Prince of Ligne (December 13, 1814).

On July 8, 1709, Tsar Peter I of Russia defeated King Charles XII of Sweden at the Battle of Poltava. Ninety-nine years earlier, on August 9, 1610, the first Anglo-Powhatan War began in colonial Virginia, while on the same date in 1810, the Emperor Napoleon annexed Westphalia. On October 11, 1912, The Greek army liberated the city of Kozani during the first Balkan War.

Meanwhile, today is celebrated as Acadian Remembrance Day, Republic Day in Malta, and the Christian feast of St. Lucy (commemorated in Scandinavia and Italy), and the national independence day of St. Lucia in the Caribbean.




Friday, December 05, 2014

'Bootleggers and Baptists': An Interview with Adam Smith

Over on Book Reviews by Rick Sincere is a recent interview with economist Adam Smith of Johnson & Wales University.

Smith is the coauthor, with his grandfather Bruce Yandle, of Bootleggers & Baptists: How Economic Forces and Moral Persuasion Interact to Shape Regulatory Politics, which was published by the Cato Institute in September.

The two authors gave a presentation about their book at Cato in October. Afterward, I spoke to Smith about the book and its title. Here is an excerpt:

Smith explained that the term “bootleggers and Baptists” originated during alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s, when “you had bootleggers and Baptists with aligned interests” even if they did not realize it.

Baptists, he explained, proclaimed “Down with legalized distribution of alcohol!” because they saw drinking as morally detrimental. Bootleggers, too, proclaimed “Down with legalized distribution of alcohol!” because Prohibition raised the price of illegal liquor and fed more profits to the bootleggers.

“It was a boon to the bootleggers,” Smith explained, “and the Baptists were kind of oblivious to that situation.”

Broadening the concept to include other kinds of regulations, Smith said, “what we see today in our modern political economy [are] many, many manifestations of the same kinds of strange bedfellows.”

More and more, he said, “we're seeing that those bedfellows are recognizing one another and coming together to form even more powerful would-be bootlegger/Baptist coalitions.”

There is also a relationship between “bootleggers and Baptists” and “crony capitalism,” when government grants preferential treatment to certain, well-connected businesses.

Smith said that, in the book “we call it 'bootlegger/Baptist' capitalism instead of crony capitalism.”
Read the whole thing here.