Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for October, 2008

“Here’s my unsolicited advice to any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition.  No one else is capable of doing what you do.”

Diablo Cody
Introduction/Juno
The Shooting Script
“The internet is a miraculous things. Just share as much as you can, self-publish, blog, podcast whatever you need to do. Just make sure you are not withholding your gifts from the world. Because you have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
Diablo Cody

I woke up this morning with a strange lady next to me. We just met last night and I was glad to see her still sitting on the night stand this morning. She’s gold, has wings and seems to be holding some kind of science project. I won her last night at the regional Emmy Awards in Minneapolis. It was a great way to end a good week.

The Emmy is for the Screenwriting from Iowa blog that I started earlier this year just a few days after seeing Juno. Of course, I didn’t know back in January that Cody would win an Oscar, but I thought her story was a great example of a writer emerging from fly-over country.

Nor did I think back in January when I started my first blog that it would lead to an Emmy 9 months later. (But that is good timing since this Emmy is an sort of an offspring of Juno.) So thanks to Ms. Cody for the inspiration and thanks to all the readers and friends who’ve encouraged me to keep chipping away at this concept.

Yesterday as I drove up from Cedar Falls to Minneapolis I thought about how this thing had come full circle.

Cody lived in Minneapolis when she wrote Juno just a few years after graduating from the University of Iowa. So to fully complete the circle this afternoon I visited the Starbucks inside the Target in Crystal, Minnesota where much of Juno was written. (Reportedly in just seven weeks.)

Adam Vanderlinder was working this afternoon when I walked in with my Emmy award (in a backpack, thank you) and ordered a chai latte and he confirmed that I was at the right Starbucks. He remembered Cody and even pointed out the table she sat while writing. I asked how he remembered the exact table and he said it is the only place with an electrical outlet.

This may not be a news flash, but I haven’t seen any newspaper, magazine or blogs showing any pictures of this part of the Juno back story. So in all its glory here are a couple photographs of my new angelic lady friend at the spot where Cody spent a little time before she made her way to the red carpet at the Academy Awards. (Complete with the soon to be famous electric outlet that somebody will probably steal and sell on ebay.)

So for all those screenwriters outside L.A. who think they could jump start their career if they could only move to L.A., I offer this photograph of Cody’s exotic former office (not to be confused with her former exotic job) far from Hollywood as a practical and inexpensive example of where your ideas and dreams can grow. (Just substitute your town or suburb.)

Vanderlinder also said he remembers Cody also drinking chai lattes. This symmetry is starting to move beyond full circle and into The Twight Zone…oh, while we’re speaking of classic TV — I wonder if Cody will ever get a statue like spunky Mary Tyler Moore (seven time Primetime Emmy Award-winner) has at the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis.

If you’ve never seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show (the story was set in Minneapolis) do yourself a favor and hunt down some episodes and watch the program that was ranked #11 in “TV Guide’s 50 Best Shows of All Time.”

The Coen Brothers are currently back in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area shooting a new movie (A Serious Man) on their home turf. I was pleased to hear all the Minnesota-rooted boys (Dylan, Prince and Garrison Keillor) on the radio during my short trip to the twin cities. I also learned that the current film Quarantine is the product of two St. Paul filmmakers (and, yes, brothers) Drew and John Erick Dowdle.

In an interview with Colin Covert in this Sunday’s Star Tribune, John explains their horror fixation, “We blame the long winters sitting home wishing we could get out. We’re the latest in a long list of Midwestern filmmakers and artists with a very dark side.”

So the Minneapolis–St. Paul area continues to show serious creative clout to go along with their serious cold weather. (Yes, it did snow in Minneapolis yesterday –a week before Halloween!)

This is as fitting a place to give you the link for Diablo Cody’s Tips for Blogging Your Way to Hollywood Success as written by John Scott Lewinski. And if you haven’t read The Juno-Iowa Connection it is still the number one read post on Screenwriting from Iowa.

And here are two little bonus Cody Q&A’s, the first with Steve Marsh I found at mspmag.com and the other with Oprah Winfrey:

What inspired Juno? 
”I was kinda sitting in my kitchen in Robbinsdale, and thinking about the image of a teenage girl sitting across from these uptight yuppies in their living room. They’re basically auditioning to be the parents of her unborn child. And I was like, that’s possibly the most awkward thing I could imagine, and it is therefore hilarious. And I wound up building the film around that image. And then I just based the character of Juno on myself as a teenager, although I was never that cool.”

Oprah Winfrey: How did you get it (Juno) to be so fresh? “I don’t know, I guess, you know, when you’re coming from the middle of the country and you’re not part of the industry and you’re just telling your own story, I think it’s easy to be more original.”

text & photos 2008 Copyright Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Small town people are more real, more down to earth.”
                                                             Groundhog Day 
                                                             Phil (Bill Murray) 

 

“A growing number of Americans are seeking a larger life in a smaller place. Many are finding it.” 
                                                                                      Life 2.0
                                                                                      Richard Karlgaard 

You hear a lot about Main St. these days and I thought I’d explore what that means from a screenwriting & filmmaking  perspective. A couple days ago my travels took me to northern Illinois and to the town of Woodstock which happens to be where much of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray was filmed.

The above photo is the corner where Ned confronts Bill Murray’s character again and again and where Murray steps off the curb into the puddle of water. The town, which is about an hour north east of Chicago, has improved much over the last 15 years and continues to embrace the fact that Groundhog Day was filmed there.

 

That’s right, Woodstock doubled for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Director Harold Ramis thought the town square there worked better as a location than the real deal. I wonder how many people go out of their way to go to Punxutawney and are disappointed that it doesn’t look like the town in the movie? That’s showbiz.

In fact, the town even has a life-imitating-art groundhog day celebration and a nice map you can follow to see the various filming locations of the Danny Rubin and Ramos screenplay. The bar scene where Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell drink to world peace is now the Courtyard Grill and has a signed script on the wall by where they sat.

 

Certainly, if you’re in the area it’s worth it to stop to see where one of the great comedy films (#34 on the AFI Greatest American Comedy list) was filmed. If you’re there at the beginning of February you can even take part in the groundhog days celebration. 

From my home where I am typing this I can see Main St. here in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It’s just a block to the west and is quite a lively Main St. USA. Shops, a playhouse, art galleries, several bars and restaurants (a new one opening next month will feature a respected Chicago chef) and even a comedy club. It’s also worth a stop if you are ever driving the Avenue of the Saints between St. Louis and St. Paul.

There’s something endearing about Main Streets in general. Of course, sometimes they aren’t even called Main St., but they are the historic main road through the heart of smaller towns. It’s not hard for me to think back at some of my favorite main drags (Telluride, Colorado, Winter Park, Florida., Franklin, Tennessee,, Holland, Michigan, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Seal Beach, California, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania  and Galena, Illinois).

Places that for the most part that have been around for 100 years. Places with history and character. Perhaps in a response to sprawling suburbs there has been an architectural movement to design areas that look a little like small towns complete with a Main St. (Some even have a small movie theaters.)

I first became aware of this while a student at the University of Miami in the ’80s when two Miami architects (Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) began to design the beach community of Seaside, Florida. (Seaside is so idyllic, it is where they filmed The Truman Show.) The success of Seaside has been well documented.

On the Seaside website you’ll find the history and the philosophy of what they set out to create after doing extensive research:
“Most of the buildings were studied in the context of small towns, and gradually the idea evolved that the small town was the appropriate model to use in thinking about laying out streets and squares and locating the various elements of the community. 

Seaside is a great place and today you can go throughout the country and find other areas that were designed in its wake; Celebration, FL,  Baldwin Park, FL, Harmony, FL, Prospect New Town in Boulder County, Colorado, and Kentlands in Gaitherburg, Maryland. 

That is not to say that this new urbanist master planned communities idea doesn’t have its critics. The most common charge is they say the towns are more like film sets or some kind of fantasyland — sentimental and far removed from reality.  Some felt it a little strange when Thomas Kinkade (The Painter of Light) got into the act outside the San Francisco Bay area by inspiring a development called The Village at Hiddenbrook that feature homes that would be at home in one of his glowing paintings. Where are the Rod Serling/Twight Zone inspired writers on that one?

But for many (including Walt Disney, and perhaps Kinkade) small towns represent the ideal. (Community, honesty, fullness of life, etc.) The way life ought to be, or the way it was.  Many movies and TV programs tap into this mystique: It’s a Wonderful Life, American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show, My Dog Skip, The Andy Griffith Show, Cars, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Truman Show, Northern Exposure, Places in the Heart, and Hoosiers.

(And some books, films and songs are critiques and satires of small town living such as Pleasantville, Harper Valley PTA, and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street.

Either way Main St. (and all that it represents) is a part of Americanna and will continue to be probably forever and is fertile ground for you to explore in your screenwriting, and perhaps even in your life. As Don Henley (who was raised in the small town of Linden, Texas) sings in The End of the Innocence:
Who know how long this will last
Now we’ve come so far so fast
But somewhere back there in the dust,
that same small town in each of us

On a closing note, I remember when I lived in L.A. there was a popular radio host named Dr. Toni Grant who used to encourage her callers/listeners to write the script of their life. I always thought that was an interesting concept and worth exploring as you take a few more trips around the sun. 

Come to think of it, isn’t that what Bill Murray’s character did in Groundhog Day? He rewrote the script of his life and became a better person — and got the girl to boot. It is a wonderful life…

 

Photos and text 2008 copyright Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about.”
                                                                         David Bayles & Ted Orland
                                                                         Art & Fear 


Anytime you take up a new sport or hobby you often see a sudden rise in your skill level at the start. That’s when learning is fun. But sooner or later you hit a plateau. That’s when you start thinking of the next sport or hobby you’d like to take up.

This rings true for screenwriting. It’s easy to get discouraged when writing screenplays because there are so few peaks. In fact, I think writing screenplays is a lot like climbing mountains. While climbing to the top of Mt. Everest seems almost common these days the fact is there still aren’t that many people who have made it to the peak. (Less than 3,000 people have seen the view from atop Mt. Everest.)

And when you ask how many people have ever made it to the top more than once the numbers really drop off.

The real killer about climbing Mt. Everest is once you get to the top you only have 5 minutes to enjoy the view before you have to head back down due to oxygen demands. The real killer about writing a screenplay is once you reach the peak (produced and your movie finds an audience) — you may never get there again.

But a lot of people dream of climbing Mt. Everest that never step one foot on even the smallest mountain. (Kind of like, “Someday I’d like to write a screenplay.”) But there are other people who are climbing all the time and enjoying getting to the top of much smaller mountains.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming about winning an Oscar, but chip away at it page by page and script by script. Years ago a college professor showed me a picture (that I believe was in Esquire magazine) of writers standing by the amount of work they had written before they became successful. From memory it seems like the stacks for each writer were in the four to six foot range.

Meaning a lot of writing. I thought of this yesterday as I was going through my own piles of writings. But what do you do if you’re discouraged? Seems to me you have two options: quit or just keep writing.

My first screenplay was about a college walk-on football player. I was told that it was an original protagonist and a good story but football stories didn’t sell. A couple years later a film called Rudy was made about a walk-on football player and my idea wasn’t so original. (Not to mention there have been about half a billion football movies made since that time including one opening this weekend.)

What do you do? Quit or just keep writing.

Back in 90s I completed a script called First Comes Marriage about a couple that gets married just hours after meeting each other. Then they have to work out their differences. One reader told me it was the best screenplay she’d ever read. (They say Hollywood will nice you to death. The real sign if someone loves your script is if they give you a check.) Two years later a successful TV show appeared called Dharma and Greg where a couple married instantly after connecting on a first date.

I began sending my script out in 1995 and Dharma and Greg began airing in 1997. For all I know the show’s creators had been pitching that show for years — but it does make you wonder. Other than the initial concept the stories and characters were not the same and my understanding is you cannot copyright an idea only the expression of it. So what do you do? Quit or just keep writing.

Art Buchwald’s well known case (Buchwald v. Paramount) comes to mind where his treatment was declared to be the story behind what would become the Eddie Murphy film Coming to America. (According to attorney Ray Dowd, “If parties agree by contract that one is going to pay another for an idea, that contract may be enforceable.”) Buchwald did have an agreement – and money, lawyers, a track record and a lack of fear of Hollywood that prevents writers from suing.  

Buchwald had a great career as a writer. He was a long-time columnist for The Washington Post, wrote 30 books and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 Outstanding Commentary. But even though he won a breach of contract against Paramount and the case was later settled before an appeal — he died last year without a single feature film credit to his name.

On my marriage script, a friend said I should be glad because that meant I was on the right track. Somehow it didn’t make me feel better. (Honestly, I was so upset at that time when I heard the concept of the TV program that I never watched a single episode of Dharma and Greg.) But I kept writing. I’ve kept climbing smaller mountains. Writing and producing videos and commercials here and a short film there.  
 
Here’s why you shouldn’t get discouraged. There is nothing new under the sun. (Yes, I know that’s not a new thought either.) Just this year a film came out where a couple meet and hours later get married. When I saw the first promo for What Happens in Vegas I actually had new hope for my old script because I realized that the getting married without knowing each other was practically becoming a new genre. 

There is lots of room for comedy there. Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat says that Hollywood is looking for is “the same thing… only different!” When I first saw the trailer for The Earnest Gaines Story about a football player up against the odds I thought “how many times have I seen this film?” It is the same thing…only different. And I’ll go see it because I appreciate the sport genre.

And like horror or westerns or thrillers there are built in conventions that audiences are looking for. Your goal as a writer is to give that genre a fresh twist. The same thing… only different.

Also know that writing is a two way street. You may think someone is just stealing your idea (and of course, that does happened) but the chances are better you are stealing someone else’s idea. Or at least playing homage (that line between influenced and stealing) someone else’s idea.

I have a coming of age script that is my version of Stand By Me and The Wonder Years. The place, story and characters are different, but it’s in the same family. It’s set in the 70s. It’s encouraging that I’m starting to see a lot of interest in the 70s these days; There’s the TV program Life on Mars which is set in 1973, quite a few NFL players are driving 70s classic cars these day, the Greg Kinnear film Flash of Genius takes place in the 70s,– heck, I even saw 70s sitcom star Valerie Bertinelli on a magazine cover last week. And is there a day where we aren’t exposed to 70s music?

The bottom line is trends come and go. The stock market goes up and down. Your job is to just keep writing. Focus on writing a great story and the rest will take care of itself. Flash of Genius is a good example.

I doubt that film will make a ton of money, but it is a solid film (and script written by Philip Railsback) and one that I hope gets some Oscar nominations. The director, Marc Abraham, bought the rights to a story nine years ago. (That New Yorker article was written by John Seabrook.) But for whatever reason it took nine years for Abraham to bring that to the big screen. Certainly in those nine years I’m sure he had plenty of investors tell him his version of David & Golitah parallels too many other films. (And there are probably other people who had written screenplays on inventor Robert Kearns.)

So the next time you see a movie that you feel parallels the one you have spent months or years working on relax and just keep writing. But it wouldn’t hurt to read The Writer Got Screwed (But didn’t have to) by Brook A Wharton. And for more information about copyright laws visit attorney Mark Litwak’s website Entertainment Law Resources.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I was just a guy with a pen and paper and an idea for a book.”
Sebastian Junger
Author of The Perfect Storm

“Writing is sweat and drudgery most of the time. And you have to love it in order to endure the solitude and the discipline.”
Peter Benchley
Author of Jaws

Yesterday I had a video shoot in Cedar Rapids and ate lunch the Irish Democrat Pub & Grille which is the kind of local, non-chain restaurant many people hope to find when they stop in a new town. I’m not sure if their cheese wontons are Irish but they were good.  The place has been around for more than 20 years and taps into that whole John F. Kennedy thing for their theme.

Somehow Kennedy, a Harvard grad, got me thinking about screenwriters from Massachusetts. A lot of talent has flowed through that state because of the colleges.  In fact, look at this list of writers who’ve attended Harvard alone and have had their books and screenplays made into movies:

Frank Pierson  (Dog Day Afternoon) 1976 Oscar winner
James Agee (The African Queen) 1952 Oscar nomination
James Torback (Bugsy), 1991 Oscar nomination
Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) 1991 Oscar nomination
Ron Bass (Rain Man) 1988 Oscar winner (shared with Barry Morrow)
Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) 1989 Oscar Nomination
Erich Segal (Love Story) 1971 Oscar Nomination
Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) 1999 Oscar Nomination
Douglas Kenney (co-writer Animal House, Caddyshack) Co-founder of National Lampoon magazine
Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song) 1983 Primetime Emmy Nomination
Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream)
Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay!)
William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch)
John Updike (Rabbit, Run)
George Plimpton (Paper Lion)
Ben Mezrich (21)
Ethan Canin (The Emperor’s Club)
Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent)
Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park)
Peter Benchley (Jaws) Novel and co-wrote script that became the first film to make over $100 million
Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) 1998 Oscar winner
Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) Oscar-nomination

Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for drama studied playwriting at Harvard and honed his craft writing one-act melodramas for the Provincetown Players on the northern tip of Cape Cod.  From there he became one of a handful of giants in American theater.

While he was born in New York and found his greatest success on Broadway, O’Neil is one more example of someone developing their talent in smaller towns.

But not all writers from Massachusetts have had the benefit of a Harvard connection. In fact, there is one writer from Belmont, Massachusetts who is a nice role model for this entire blog. Sebastian Junger was armed with a degree in cultural anthropology (from Wesleyan College in Connecticut) when he kicked around as a freelance writer until he had an accident while working as a tree cutter in 1991.

In just so happened that at the same time a six fishermen who had left Gloucester on the Andrea Gale died at sea. Junger became fascinated by what happened and used his down time recovering from his injury to write an article, that became a book, that inspired the movie The Perfect Storm.

Junger writes in the introduction of The Perfect Storm:

“My own experience in the storm was limited to standing on Gloucester’s Back Shore watching thirty-foot swells advance on Cape Ann, but that was all it took. The next day I read in the paper that a Gloucester boat was feared lost at sea, and I clipped the article and stuck it in a drawer. Without even knowing it, I had begun to write The Perfect Storm.”

But what really separates him from everyone else who heard about that story is he followed his curiosity and eventually did the research, wrote the article, then the book that became a #1 New York Times Bestseller and a George Clooney movie. He ended up on Oprah, with a career as a writer, and even part owner of The Half King bar and restaurant in New York.

Of course, Massachusetts has a long literary tradition going way back to the Puritans founding the Massachusetts Bay in Colony in 1630, and then with Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson that I won’t touch on here. I’m not as interested in an exhaustive history lesson as much as encouraging you to write.

But the well does appear deep in Massachusetts. And here’s one more example for you to focus on your writing not where you live:

“New York’s playwright find of the year (Eugene O’Neill) lives obscurely in a clean little cottage, miles from nowhere on Cape Cod.”
Olin Downs
Boston Sunday Post (August 1920)

Update November 2008: Screenwriters from Boston may be interested in the Screenwriting Certificate Program at Emerson College and the group that calls itself New England’s oldest screenwriters network is the Harvard Square Scriptwriters. If you are interested is shooting in Massachusetts contact the Massachusetts Film Office. Paul Sherman has a book out called Big Screen Boston that goes into detail about some of the many movies that have been made in the Boston area.

Update June 2010: Just learned that two-time Oscar winner Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) is from Rockport, Massachusetts.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Ohh Nooo!!!”
Mr. Bill

“You could make a really good-looking movie right now for ten grand.”
Steven Soderbergh

The other day I saw Mr. Bill in a commercial and I realized I hadn’t seen him in many years. That took me back and I somehow I ended up looking at screenwriters from Louisiana because that’s where Mr. Bill’s creator Walter Williams is from and now lives.

The New Orleans native discovered Super-8 film when he was 17 years old. According to the Mr. Bill website he began making comedy films that were shown in local clubs and bars and he ended up with his own UHF TV show.

In the pre-You Tube days of 1975 Saturday Night Live put out a call for home movies and Mr. Bill debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1976 and ran until 1980. (Williams was eventually hired by Lorne Michaels as a staff writer.) The years ’76-80 were the early golden years of the program with a cast that included Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin and John Belushi.

Mr. Bill and his supporting cast Mr. Hands and Sluggo were quite an inspiration to me in those years because they were my high school years. One of my first films in Annye Refoe’s creative writing class featured my version of Mr. Bill. I don’t remember the story line but I do recall the obligatory destruction scene where Mr. Bill is standing in front of the door as the entire class leaves for the day flattening Mr. Bill. “Ohh, nooo!!! (My art teacher mom had to make a few Mr. Bill’s for the stunts.)

It was that class that set me on course for film school and an over 20 year career in production. Looking back on the years ’76-80 there was an eclectic mix of inspiration for a young creative mind:  Star Wars (77), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (77), David Lynch’s Elephant Man (80), Rocky (76), Raging Bull (80), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (77), Saturday Night Fever (77), Grease (78), Animal House (78),  Apocalypse Now (78) Kramer Vs. Kramer (79), Norma Rae (79), …And Justice for All (79), Breaking Away (79), Halloween (78)Being There (79), The Great Santini (79), Silent Movie (76), Silver Streak (76), Heaven Can Wait (78), Mad Max (79)  along with those movies I probably saw at the now defunct Prairie Lake Drive-In Theater–Smokey and the Bandit (77), Up in Smoke (78) and The Kentucky Fried Movie (77).

Mr. Bill is an American icon from the 70s and it’s nice to see him (and Williams) kicking around 28 years later. Williams has not only directed Mr. Bill in spots for Lexus, Burger King and Ramada Inn but in non-profit efforts to help restore the wetlands in New Orleans.

In 1978 there was a 15 year-old over in Baton Rogue, Louisiana who began to make animation and short narrative films (perhaps inspired by Mr. Bill’s success) who would go to make his mark in 1989 writing and directing and shooting sex, lies, and videotape. (Winner of the Palm d’Or at the ’89 Cannes Film Festival some credit the film with starting the modern day independent film movement.)

Steven Soderbergh went on to win an Oscar for best director for Traffic (2000). (That same year his Erin Brockovich was also nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards. That’s called having a great year.)

Soderbergh has done an amazing job of making big budget features with actors as such as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and then turning around and making a DV feature like Bubble with amateur actors in Ohio and West Virginia. (Though from what I’ve read, it’s not a favorable outlook on small town America.) His next two films, Guerrilla & The Argentine (on Che Guevara) were shot with the new revolutionary RED camera which shoots digitally –no film or tape. (Am I the only one who thinks it’s ironic to make a film on a Marxist leader with a camera called Red?)

Now that I think about it, do we really need two more films on Che Guevara? From a guy who was executive producer on Syriana? (Justifiably cynical at best, anti-American at worse.) It’s good to be reminded in film critic Andrew Sarris’ review of Syriana that despite this countries problems, ” The world is too full of people who’d kill us (Americans) for the shoes on our feet.”

We need counter-cultural writers and filmmakers who challenge us (even our capitalistic & materialistic faults that helped bring on the mortgage crisis), but do we need to make socialist, marxist, communist, dictators, and/or terrorist our heroes? (And I’d bet that there are more than one pro-Taliban scripts floating around Hollywood.)  But I do look forward to seeing what the RED camera footage looks like on the big screen and I’m sure Benicio Del Toro performance as Guevara will be worthy and increase sales of Che Guevara t-shirts.

Politics aside, Soderbergh is also unusual in that he is the director of photography on most of his films, and sometimes the editor as well.  I think he and multiple creative hat wearer Robert Rodriguez will be the inspiration and model for filmmakers of the future.

Anne Rice, novelist and screenwriter of Interview with the Vampire, was born in New Orleans which is where many of her stories take place. Novelist and essay writer Walker Percy (The Moviegoer, The Second Coming) spent his last forty plus years in Covington and most of his stories take place in Louisiana.

Ernest J. Gaines  whose A Lesson Before Dying was nominated a Pulitzer Prize and made into a TV movie is a writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafaytte.

Other well-known writers with a Louisiana connection are Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes), Stephen Ambrose (writer of Band of Brothers and consultant on Saving Private Ryan), and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire).

John Kennedy Toole after years of publishers rejection won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize A Confederacy of Dunces over a decade after committing suicide. Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood) was born in New Orleans but belongs more to Alabama where he grew-up.

On the production side, Louisiana has been aggressive over the years in making movies in the state:
The Apostle
Southern Comfort
The Big Easy
Dead Man Walking
The Cincinnati Kid
Live and Let Die
King Creole
Tightrope
All the Kings Men

Even Shreveport is getting into the action according to an USA Today article last month titled “Hooray for movie locations outside Hollywood.” According to writer Alexandyr Kent, Shreveport has attracted “at least 18 projects in 2008, totaling more than $200 million in production budgets, and more than 80% of that will likely be spent in Louisiana.”

Shreveport is where Katie Holmes filmed Mad Money and where Josh Brolin was arrested in an incident outside a bar in July while there for filming Oliver Stone’s W. (No, Stone didn’t use a RED camera.)

To learn more about the film industry in Louisiana contact the  Louisiana Film & Television Office of Entertainment Industry Development and Louisiana Movies Blog.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Why does New York have a monopoly on theater?”…I have no vested interest in New York, I don’t live there anymore. It’s all the same to me. But that is where the talent is collected, and if it doesn’t happen there, generally it doesn’t happen anywhere else. I wish it would happen in Ann Arbor, when you get a new theater.
Arthur Miller
February 28, 1967
The University of Michigan

Writing is core to everything we do. Yet good writing is becoming a lost art, and a lost value. I am looking forward to watching Michigan invest in what it takes to create the best writing program in the country.
Helen Zell

As I’ve said many times before Screenwriting from Iowa is not limited to screenwriting or Iowa — but it represents movies and people coming from a place beyond Los Angeles. Today we’re going to take a look at talent from another Midwest state as I turn the spotlight on Michigan.

It was no mistake that the great New York born writer Arthur Miller got his college education at the University of Michigan. Even in the 1930s UM was already know for its high literary output and in the 1920s playwright Avery Hopwood created an endowment for UM writers. Miller was an early recipient of the Avery Hopwood Award award in 1937. It was just the first step of recognition for the writer that would go on and write Death of Salesman and The Crucible as well as many other plays, screenplays, short stories and novels in a career that would span 70 years until his death in 2005.

He is considered one of the greatest American dramatists and supported the University of Michigan his entire life. Last year the Arthur Miller Theater opened on the UM campus keeping his wishes as being the only theater bearing his name. That was a tribute to the education he received in Ann Arbor.

But even before Miller became famous the University of Michigan had tradition in Hollywood. Dudley Nichols, a UM alumni  wrote the 1939 John Ford and John Wayne classic Stagecoach. The long train that followed include:
Valentine Davies (Miracle on 34th Street)
John Briley’s (Ghandi)
David Newman’s (SupermanBonnie & Clyde)
Kurt Luedtke (Absence of Malice, Out of Africa),
Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It)
Adam Herz (American Pie)
Josh Greenfield, (Harry and Tonto)
Roger Lowenstein (TV’s L.A. Law)
Judith Guest (Ordinary People)
Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Grand Canyon, Body Heat)
Laura Kaisischke (
The Life Before Her Eyes)
Jim Burnstein
(D3: The Mighty Ducks)

Burnstein who also wrote Ruffian starring Sam Shepherd has taught at the University of Michigan and gave a presentation this year titled “Wolverines in Hollywood.”

I’m not sure where this Michigan writing legacy started but chances are famed Hollywood screenwriting teacher (and Detroit native) Robert McKee does know. He also attended the University of Michigan where he earned his undergraduate, masters and Ph.D. degrees.  Studying under Kenneth Thorpe Rowe where he learned a good deal about story structure that he promotes in his famed three-day screenwriting seminar and book Story.

Rowe wrote Write that Play and also hooked former student Arthur Miller up in New York that helped Miller start his career.

And though not a writer where would Hollywood be without the talent of former UM pre-med student James Earl Jones? A big voice (“Luke, I am your father”) who was born in a small town of Arkabutla, Mississippi, raised in a couple small towns in Michigan where he overcame a stuttering problem that caused him to be a functionally mute from grade school until high school.

In an interview with Michael J. Bandler Jones mentions Donald Crouch as the teacher that helped him overcome stuttering and find his voice. “I credit him with being the father of my voice. He said, ‘You have a man’s voice now, an impressive bass, but don’t let that impress you. If you start listening to your voice, no one else will.’ It was a good lesson in general. I [try] to be devoid of self-consciousness.”

According to Wikipedia his career in theater began at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan where he was a stage carpenter before his role in Shakespeare’s Othello. Again to quote to old expression; “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” (And no, I won’t pass up the opportunity to mention that Jones brought his booming voice to Iowa in Field of Dreams.)

And just so we don’t leave out UM rival Michigan St. — that’s where Top Gun screenwriters Jack Epps Jr. and Jim Cash first teamed up. The academy-award nominated screenwriter of Finding Neverland and 48 hr director Walter Hill also graduated from Michigan State. Peter Gent was an athlete at MSU and went on to write the novel & screenplay for North Dallas Forty which impacted me greatly when I saw it as a high school football player. Spiderman director Sam Raimi also attended the school in East Lansing. And lastly writer/director David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) is also a Spartan.

Grand Rapids is where Paul Schrader was raised and attended Calvin College to become a minister before eventually writing Taxi Driver and having a long career in Hollywood.

Flint, Michigan native and current resident of Traverse City, Michigan is Academy-Award winning filmmaker Michael Moore who has made three of the top five grossing documentaries of all time. In 2005 he started the annual Traverse City Film Festival.

Michigan native Mike Binder was the writer/director of The Upside of Anger. In a talk he gave in Ann Arbor Binder told students, “If you’re looking for respect don’t become a screenwriter.”

And batting clean-up is a writer who has been called “the Dickens of Detroit” – Elmore Leonard. His novels and short stories often find their way to the big screen with big talent: Get Shorty (John Travolta), Jackie Brown (Robert De Niro) 3:10 to Yuma (Russell Crowe), Hombre (Paul Newman), and the upcoming Killshot starring Diane Lane. He graduated from University of Detroit Jesuit High School and the University of Detroit.

Back in 2001 Leonard had an essay published in The New York Times called Writers on Writing where he offered ten rules for writing. It’s well worth a read. Though geared toward writing novels most apply to screenwriting such as rule number 9: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”

“Oh, I love Elmore Leonard. In fact, to me True Romance is basically like an Elmore Leonard movie… I actually owe a big debt to like kind of figuring out my style from Elmore Leonard because, you know, he was the first writer I’d ever read.
Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction)
The Charlie Rose Show 1994

Leonard lives in Michigan these days, and though in his 80s has a website (www.elmoreleonard.com) complete with a blog and podcasts. From the man who inspired Tarantino, here’s Leonard’s advice on how to get an agent: “My advice is to learn how to write and the agent will find you.”

Of course, Michigan also has a long history of real life characters who were interesting enough to have movies made about their lives (Ty Cobb, Jimmy Hoffa, Eminem, and most recently the intermittent windshield wiper guy Robert Kearns).  Then there is the storytelling history through music from Michigan which is way too long to list but covers probably every form of American music; Jazz, blues, soul, gospel, rock, country, hip hop, rap, punk, techno.)

The rock and roll hall of fame has a little space taken up with artists from Michigan including Aretha Franklin, Bill Haley, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Glenn Frey, and Bob Seger.

I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to connect Michigan’s creative success to one man — Henry Ford. With his cars and factory line he brought prosperity to the area. Some of the people coming to Detroit were from the Mississippi Delta and they brought their music with them. That’s the short history of the Model T to Motown. But again you can’t ignore the part economics plays in its connection to the arts.

These days are lean times for those in Detroit. (Heck, these days they are even lean times for Toyota and Honda.) As the Michigan prophet Kid Rock sings; “Now nothing seems as strange as when leaves began to change, or how we thought those days would never end.” (All Summer Long)

One thing Michigan has recently done to rejuvenate the area economically is to pass one of the largest tax incentives for the film industry. Late this past spring I did some location scouting for Mandate Pictures for Whip It!, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. But Iowa lost out to Michigan and I’m sure the incentives played a part. The roller derby film staring Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis began shooting in Southeast Michigan in July.

The WNEM TV station reported this on their website: In April, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation aimed at giving Michigan a bigger role in the film industry. The key bill in the package gave film studios a refundable credit of up to 42 percent on production expenses in the state. The bills also cover commercials, TV shows, documentaries, video games and other film work.

Landing the Barrymore film is a nice start out of the gate for Michigan and there is talk of three film studios being built. It would seem like a good time to be writing Michigan-centered screenplays. If you don’t have any ideas you can start here: A popular mayor in Detroit has an affair…

P.S. If you are interesting in shooting in Michigan or in learning more about their incentives contact Janet Lockwood at the Film in Michigan office.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: