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Archive for August, 2008

“I finally figured out we are somewhere between the end of the line and the middle of nowhere.”
Dr. Joel Fleischman
Northern Exposure

Goethe’s final words: “More light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry: “More light.” Sunlight. Torchlight. Candlight. Neon. Incandescent. Lights that banish the darkness from our caves, to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerator.”

Chris in Morning
KBHR, Cicely, Alaska
Northern Exposure

When Sarah (Barracuda) Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate it was textbook solid screenwriting inspired. A nice twist in the story. If it were a movie and she ends up VP I’d call it Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington. Kind of a remake of the Jimmy Stewart classic.

How do you offset the first African-American presidential candidate who makes his acceptance speech before more than 80,000 people at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on 45th anniversary to the day of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech? How do you offset Obama being raised by a single mom and forgoing a Wall Street career to do social work on the south side of Chicago?

How do you take advantage of millions of women who are upset that Hillary Clinton is not the presidential or VP candidate? How does McCain avoid being seen as just rich and elitist and out of touch with the countries economic problems?

You head north…to Alaska, that’s what you do. You choose their female governor as your running mate.  A “hockey mom” with five kids (pro-family)  including one with Downs Syndrome (pro-life) , a moose hunter (NRA), whose husband is part Yup’ik Eskimo (multiethnic) and a commercial fisherman (working class) and union worker (union), whose parents were teachers (middle class), who has faith (evangelicals), who has brought reform to government there (change), who fought the “bridge to nowhere” (fiscally responsible), whose son joined the Army last year on September 11 (patriotism), and who comes from an area more than 3,500 miles from Washington D.C. (beltway outsider).

As a former broadcaster she is media savvy and can read a teleprompter. And her selection as the first VP GOP candidate came on the 88th anniversary of women being allowed to vote. And to top it off the former Miss Wasilla has the whole sexy librarian thing going on with the glasses and wearing her hair up.

I’ll leave it to others to debate whether she’s qualified for the White House, but there is no debate she has a heck of a story. And stories outside L.A. is what this blog is all about.

Is choosing Palin a Hail Mary pass by McCain? If so, he’s old enough to remember when Doug Flutie’s desperation pass beat the mighty Miami Hurricanes back in ’84. Sometimes the high risk pass works.

And for the media, picking Palin is a slice of Hollywood. A political narrative full of conflict. Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Palin’s candidacy “will be either dramatically successful or dramatically not; it won’t be something in between.”

We know screenwriter Gary Ross (Big, Seabiscuit) has written presidential speeches for the Democrats. The talent pool of Republican or conservative screenwriters is not quite as deep (99 to 1?), but I wonder what writer or filmmaker they’ve employed. (Perhaps John Milius, Clint Eastwood, Dennis Hopper or David Mamet.)

Maybe it was Hillary’s Hollywood people (Spielberg or Murphy Brown creator Diane English)  suggestion since a Republican victory is Mrs. Clinton’s only chance to make a run in ’12.

No matter the outcome of the election, from a dramatic standpoint McCain couldn’t have written a better script. Well, Palin could have been born in Cedar Falls, Iowa to an African-American mother and a Hispanic father and have captured Bigfoot last week–but let’s not get carried away.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Alaska has been at the heart of many good stories as well as being full of folklore. Say, did you hear the “Little known facts” about Palin? “The Northern Lights are really just the reflection from Sarah Palin’s eyes.” “Sarah Palin doesn’t need a gun to hunt. She has been known to throw a bullet through an adult bull elk.” (Do you know how long it took for Chuck Norris to get that kind of street cred? She did it in one day.)

On second thought, Sarah Palin appears to have more in common with Erin Brockovich than she does Jimmy Stewart. (“You may want to re-think those ties.” Erin, in the movie written by Susannah Grant.) But let’s get back to Alaska.

Stories do flow from Alaska; Jack London’s Call of the Wild, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, Never Cry Wolf, and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia written by Hilary Seltz , Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, Johnny Horton’s number one hit North to Alaska, documentaries by Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North)  and Warner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and more recently the Sean Penn movie Into the Wild from the Jon Krakauer book.

But my favorite set of stories that are Alaska-based is what I think of as one of the all-time great TV programs - Northern Exposure. (In my book it’s right up there with The Twilight Zone and Seinfeld.) Though the show was filmed in Roslyn, Washington it retains the feel of a small eccentric, creative town you’d like to think exists in Alaska. Some say it is based on the quirky little town of Talkeetna, Alaska and others say the quirky town of Ely, Minnesota, a town near the Canadian border in the Boundary Waters.

In part because of my love for the show I’ve been to  Roslyn, Talkeetna and Ely. (However, I’ve never been to Moosefest.)  I do think the show Northern Exposure in part lead me to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Growing up in Florida steeped on Jimmy Buffett’s songs about Key West, the Caribbean, and paradise mixed with a heavy dose of Walt Disney’s version of Main Street, I think I have always been looking for my own personal Margaritaville. (A place where “My old red bike gets me ’round.”)

Even if you didn’t get into Northern Exposure you’d have to give it points for originality. Where else in the history of TV have you seen two people arm wrestle over the doctrine of transubstantiation or see someone have a conversation with a human-sized dust mite? And isn’t there a little spunky Maggie O’Connell (Janie Turner) in Palin? Yes, Palin even owns a float plane. I’m sure Noexers (as fans of the show are called) have already connected John & Cindy McCain with the older/younger couple Shelly & Holling.

Is it more than a coincidence that one of the co-creators of Northern Exposure went to college just a little over an hour from Cedar Falls? John Falsey is one more MFA graduate from the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. The Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe winning producer/writer also worked on St. Elsewhere, The White Shadow and I’ll Fly Away. (I don’t know much of what he’s done in the last decade. “Where have you gone John Falsey?” Maybe he cashed in and moved to his own personal Cicely, Alaska.)

And I guess this blog is my own little version of Northern Exposures resident radio DJ Chris in the Morning (John Corbett). Trying to do my best to wax philosophically while making odd connections.

Cedar Falls is a little bigger than Cicely Alaska, but it’s got enough characteristics to feel similar and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than Key West, FL, Seal Beach, CA, or Crested Butte, CO. No oceans or mountains here (though we do have a river and killer bike trails) but we have a perfect view of the political process as I pointed out in Politics, Power & Screenwriting.

I’m sure will see plenty of Mrs. Palin which will make up for all the times I saw Obama last year. (I think the guy was stalking me.) If John McCain and Sarah Palin don’t make it to the White House I think they could have shots at a career in Hollywood. At least a reality show.

And whoever is our next president I wish they add to their packed political campaign platform a decree for films to be better. Yesterday I walked out of two movies in one day for the first time in my life. On second thought, that’s really not the government’s job–it’s yours, so get busy writing.

And just to tie this all together as we say goodbye for now you might not know that the beautiful, haunting song that was played at the end of the last episode of Northern Exposure was written and performed by Iris DeMent — a folk artist who is married to another folk artist named Greg Brown from Iowa City and where I believe they both now live.

If you’ve never heard “Our Town” or if it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, do yourself a favor and listen to the link below. The song resonates every bone of my body and I hope it hits a nerve or two for you. (And if you’ve never seen the show at all check it out because it is a fine example of great writing.)

September 4 Update: From a public speaking perspective you’d have to pull for an Obama-Palin ticket. Palin: “The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?.. Lipstick.” Great writing and great delivery. All of this reminds me of that great Jon Stewart quip at the 2008 Oscars: “Normally when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.”

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Little Jamaica — our country is blessed with some of the best, if not the best, talent you can find.”

Olivia Grange,
Jamaica’s minister of sport

Chances are when you think of movies and Jamaica Cool Runnings comes to mind. (If you’re old school you may remember that part of Sean Connery’s first Bond film, Dr. No, was filmed in Jamaica.)  But my interest in connecting screenwriting and Jamaica has to do with the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Not to take away from Baltimore’s Michael Phelps’ outstanding achievement of winning eight gold medals in Beijing, but I can’t get over the fact that over the weekend Jamaican athletes won gold in the men and women’s 100 meter sprint.

Usain Bolt did it in world record speed on the male side and on the female side Jamaican runners collected all the medals. ESPN dubbed Jamaica “World’s Fastest Nation.”

What is most amazing to me about this feat is that the total population of Jamaica is under 3 million compared to over 300 million for the United States. (And there are a few other countries at the Olympics as well.) Another way to look at it is Iowa also has three million people. This is really at the heart what Screenwriting from Iowa is all about. That amazing things can come from little places.

But amazing things don’t come out of thin air. If you look beyond Jamaica’s gold medals you will find the secret to how a small impoverished island ended up on top the world stage.  Matthew Clark wrote an insightful article on this titled a couple of months ago, How Tiny Jamaica Developed So Many Champion Sprinters. Like champion long distances runners from Kenya and Ethiopia the key word there is developed.

Anthony Davis, the sports director at Jamaica’s University of Technology (UTECH), whose programs and facilities developed Bolt told Clark, “You’d have had to plant a seed long ago to get where we are today.”

Davis helped start the school because traditionally Jamaica’s best athletes left the country to compete for colleges in the United States. And though the program is looking golden now, its original vision was doubted and even today its facilities are still second-rate compared to the US.   According to Davis, “We had a choice: complain about the resources and do nothing or work with what we have.”

Clark’s article points out; Another reason for Jamaicans’ success: their attitude, according to  (Fitz) Coleman ( a technical coach on Bolt’s team) “We genuinely believe that we’ll conquer,” he says. “It’s a mindset. We’re small and we’re poor, but we believe in ourselves.”

A couple years ago I shot a documentary in Jamaica and spent a few days in Kingston far away from the other side of the island where tourist usually spend their time on peaceful beaches. We were told not to walk outside the barbed wire topped walls of our hotel at night and that the murder rate per capita was higher than Haiti.

The economics of the area are poor – in fact one home we shot in would be the equivalent of a large tool shed in the States-no air and and no bathroom. But I found the people warm and friendly, and the music, food, culture and history totally captivated me.

We did take time to tour the Bob Marley Museum in the home where he used to live and it is a must see for reggae fans. Nothing quite brightens driving on snowy freezing day in Iowa as listening to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” (But even if a white guy from Iowa likes reggae music, it may be a sin for him to wear a traditional Jamaican hat. At least I didn’t get the one with fake dredlocks for the full Rastafarian poser look. Just doing my part to help the economy there.)

And just how has a little island again produced such memorable music? No, I’m not thinking about the herbs Marley had in his spliff. Once again talent, training and time are the key.

Believe it or not there is actually a strong connection between Jamaica’s musical heritage and a school run by Catholic nuns. The Sisters of Mercy founded the Alpha Boys’ School in 1892 to house and educate “wayward boys’ from poor families in Jamaica. Music was a key part of their education.

An interesting read on this is Tracing reggae’s Catholic roots by Thomas Green.

“Without the school, there just wouldn’t have been the blossoming of talent on the island in the key period of the `60s and `70s,” says Laurence Cane-Honeysett, a music consultant to reggae label Trojan Records, who has compiled the excellent album Alpha Boys’ School: Music in Education 1910-2006.

“When the Jamaican music industry took off, it was totally dependent on those who studied there,” he says.

So wherever you are in your screenwriting journey I hope you can be inspired by the small island of Jamaica and its recent gold medal achievements. And whether you live in West Des Moines, West Africa, or West Covina I hope you remember the words of Jamaican sports director Anthony Davis, “We had a choice: complain about the resources and do nothing or work with what we have.”

August 22, 2008 Update
In the last couple days the men and women’s Jamaican track team left no questions in regard to their dominance as they claimed gold medals in every single Olympic individual sprinting event. Anyone working on the script on the life of three time gold medalist and world record holder Usain Bolt’s life story yet?

To put Jamaica’s achievements in perspective, they ended up with six gold medals. It was estimated that for China to have won the same amount of gold medals per capita that they would have had to won 2,889 gold medals. So pop open a Red Stripe for the little guys this week.

(It was also great to see Iowa’s own Shawn Johnson—who just happens to be from West Des Moines— win a gold on the balance beam.)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“I shoot video because it gives me freedom as a filmmaker to try new things.”
                                                                                                Mike Figgis
                                                                                                Writer/Director
                                                                                                Leaving Las Vegas  

“Montage is conflict.”
                                                                                              
Sergei Eisenstein 

 

 

Since my last post was on the six-word story, I thought it would be a fitting place to talk about the 48 hour film.

A couple weekends ago I made a film as part of The 48 Hour Film Project taking place in Des Moines, Iowa. Below the film titled “Heart Strings” I’ll talk a little about the process of making that film.

This is my third year doing The 48 Hour Film Project in Des Moines. The past two years my films have won best cinematography against the 35+ teams competing. This year I really wanted to take a shot at making the best film.

The first thing I noticed is in these sort of things comedy does very well so I had in mind that I’d make a film with a humorous angle. I also decided that I wanted to shoot in one location and be done shooting by Saturday morning. Local artist Paco Rosic (www.pacorosic.com) has a restaurant here and said we could shoot there after 10 PM. 

Then we had a handful of people that had agreed to be in the film if I needed them. My goal was to use only two or three people. I really was aiming for simplicity. On Friday night we drew romance as the genre we had to make and the idea of speed dating came to my mind in about ten seconds.

Which of course fit the talent pool I had gathered– a mix of men and one women. Paco ended up as one of the actors and not only gets the girl at the end of the movie, but he edited the film as well. He is a talented artist and who has a non-linear editing system in his loft near the restaurant.

You learn to go with the flow when you’re making a film in 48 hours. I had an editor and a DP both from Minneapolis who had to pull out of helping just days before the shoot so I was glad Paco wanted to take a stab at editing it. Local grip and lighting specialist Jon Van Allen decided he could help out and the film would not have been as good without him. He brought not only his talent, but his fully equipped grip trailer and an extra Panasonic HVX 200 camera.   

And then there is the lead actress Amy Anderson. This is a classic case of “do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” This was Amy’s first film, but I knew she could play the violin so that would play a part of the story. So she not only was on camera between midnight and 6AM talking to strangers, but she had to perform for the final scene after that. Thank you, Amy.

The entire cast and crew did a super job and it was an enjoyable and stress free shoot. I had written a loose outline of characters and some dialogue and then we just shot a lot of footage picking out the best performances that seemed to have the most conflict in the character Bridget’s search for Mr. Right. 

We turned in the film before the deadline and would have liked more time to tweak the audio–but it is a 48 hour film. Thanks to people lending their time, talent and equipment the total budget was less than 48 bucks. (Probably less than the average lunch for Matthew McConaughey on “Failure to Launch.”)

If you’re a screenwriter who’s never directed a film, events like this are perfect for you to try some new things. It’s also a good chance to let people who have little or no experience to get a glimpse into what it takes to make a film. Believe it or not, an all night shoot is a great introduction to the carnival of a life in the film business.

And if you’re ever driving through Iowa and looking for a unique restaurant check out  Galleria de Paco in Waterloo, Iowa. (The shooting location of Heart Strings.) How many places in the world can you eat shrimp and grits and look at a fantastic spray painted recreation of the Sistine Chapel?

Update: On August 14, The 48 Hour/Des Moines Awards were given out and my little film  “Heart Strings” won best cinematography and an honorable mention for best directing.  

Later that night US Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson from West Des Moines snagged a silver metal in Beijing. In one of those quirky timing things I drove by Johnson’s high school on the way to the Fleur Cinema where the top 12 48 Hour Films were being shown.

Johnson is one more reminder that Iowa is full of surprises. Check out her website that is hosted by my buddies over at Spin-U-Tech.

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