Frank Pierson, teaching a Master Class at SFIFF54, offers sage advice to screenwriters: 'Do it.'

Frank Pierson, 'These Amazing Shadows' Offer Inspiration

Michael Fox May 3, 2011

“You’ve got a great screenplay,” Frank Pierson used to tell his more ambitious students at the American Film Institute. “Why would you want a first-time director to direct?” The would-be writer-director typically would look at Pierson as if he were crazy, or a mummified relic from the pre-Preston Sturges era, and continue with the Sisyphean task of getting a first feature made in Hollywood.

The 2011 Kanbar Award-winner for excellence in screenwriting found a more receptive audience for his hard-won wisdom at the San Francisco International Film Festival last weekend. Pierson captivated the attendees of a Friday evening master class as well as the next day’s audience for his onstage interview prior to a screening of Dog Day Afternoon, the beloved 1975 movie that garnered him the Academy Award for best screenplay.

“I don’t know that I’ve learned anything,” Pierson said in response to interviewer Roy Eisenhardt’s opening query, “but I can testify to a lot of change in the business, and the world.” Pierson conceded that some of the innovations have made filmmaking more efficient, but have also drained most of the fun out of the process.

The tall, lanky Hollywood vet, who started out writing for television in the late ‘50s, recalled that writers regularly lunched together at the studio commissary into the 1970s. “For the most part, we all work [now] on our own computers, in our own homes,” he noted. “The social interaction and intellectual ferment that could come out of it is gone completely.” It’s clear why Pierson, who turns 86 in a week, relishes being part of the group of writers who brainstorm ideas for “Mad Men.”

Pierson especially rued the dominance of special effects-driven movies, and the deleterious intrusion of green screens on the collaborative domain of actors and director. The traditional role of the director, Pierson explained, “was to create a safe space, a bright space where the truth can be told in the darkness. The actors need to be protected, and made safe. All that’s gone away.”

From a writer’s standpoint, Pierson preached persistence. “Just keep on doing,” he said. “The people I know who are doing what they’re doing just never stopped.” At the same time, he didn’t sugarcoat their struggle.

“It’s a very, very hard and rotten business on every level,” Pierson acknowledged. “For the very best of us, five to 10 percent of our [working] hours are spent on things that actually get made. That’s very hard on people. It means that a lot of talented people are, in effect, silenced.”

Asked by someone in the audience which of his screenplays was butchered the least en route to the screen, Pierson smiled. The ones that weren’t produced, he replied. “Those pictures unspool in my mind—pure, pristine, left alone—and I can enjoy them all by myself.”

Standing in the Shadows of Love
When they embarked on These Amazing Shadows, their graceful feature-length documentary about the National Film Registry, East Bay directors Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton had a long list of movies and topics they planned to include. Things didn’t go precisely according to plan, though.

“Our interview subjects had other ideas,” Norton reveals. “They would tell us about films that were important to them. You want to go down the road with someone who has passion for a film. We took the story as it was presented to us. People were a lot more passionate about films that were more well known. We didn’t want to force our story when we couldn’t get people to support it.”

These Amazing Shadows premiered at Sundance and opens this Friday at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. Even now, Norton regrets the omission of a favorite title. “The film that still bothers me is Dr. Strangelove,” he laments. “We had all these great ideas how to work it in, and for some reason we couldn’t get anybody onboard with that. It’s still is disappointing to me.

The NFR was created by Congress in the late ‘80s, and adds 25 films every year. These Amazing Shadows focuses largely on the Hollywood features that comprise the bulk of the Registry.

“Some people have said it’s a celebration of the National Film Registry,” Mariano says. “I think it’s really a celebration of film. We wanted to show the great diversity of American film and how American film was viewed purely and simply as entertainment value, but it shows us as a people and a society much better than any other art form.”

This writer wishes a larger chunk of the film were devoted to experimental films and offbeat selections. But that’s admittedly a minority view.

“We did want to dive into the lesser-known films,” Norton says. “In order to make our film accessible to mainstream audiences, and satisfy their need for the familiar, if we included films that were too remote, it would kick them out of their experience.”

Above all, These Amazing Shadows taps into a shared love of seeing movies, and taking a journey, with an audience.

“I’m absolutely not of the opinion that small screens will be the death knell of the cinema experience,” Mariano declared unambiguously. “No matter how big your screen is at home, you cannot reproduce that communal experience of laughing together and crying together. The theater will not die.”

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