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Archive for May, 2009

“I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.”
                               Ray Bradbury
                               On writing
Fahrenheit 451 

It would be a fitting end to writing about Ray Bradbury by talking about the remake of Fahrenheit 451. But the only news I know is old news in that Tom Hank pulled out of the project a while back and director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) is still trying to get the movie done.

In an interview with MTV Darabont said, “The time has never been better for Fahrenheit 451. I think the message is something we need to hear. Anybody who believes authority should be questioned needs this movie. There’s a reason that novel has been in print for over half a century. It’s one of the most vital antiauthoritarian stories ever written. It also happens to be a really wildly galloping yarn. This would be on the bigger end of the scale for me.”

I hope Darabont gets that film made some day. But since we can’t end there I thought I’d end my posts on Bradbury by talking about the beginning. Bradbury is yet one more writer from the greater Chicago area. He was born in 1920 just a little north of downtown Chicago in Waukegan, Illinois.

Though he spent some of his childhood in Arizona much of his early inspiration came from Waukegan where he lived until his family moved to Los Angeles when he was thirteen. But by that time Bradbury already had a love for books and a strong desire to be a writer. And Bradbury is still alive in L.A. and of this writing is 88 years old. He has a website that is simply www.raybradbury.com which is where I pulled the extended quote of the day from.

“I was fully in love with writing from grade school on and in high school I began to write things about the ravine in my hometown. In FAREWELL SUMMER the ravine is the center of everything; the old people and the young live on opposite sides of this ravine that divides the town. 

Many years since DANDELION WINE began, which was the beginning of the genesis of FAREWELL SUMMER, I had begun to collect essays and short stories about front porches and summer nights and Fourth of Julys and all the celebrations that led me into writing. Looking back I realize that I never had a day when I was depressed or suffered melancholia; the reason being that I discovered that I was alive and loved the gift and wanted to celebrate it in my story. 

At one point Gourmet Magazine offered me a chance to write an article about helping my grandfather make dandelion wine when I was three in our cellar in Waukegan, Illinois. When I went back to visit my home town I wandered into the shop of the town barber, discovering that he had been there since I was a child and he remembered being my grandmother’s boarder and recalled my coming up from the cellar to gather dandelions to make wine with my grandfather.
                                      
Ray Bradbury 
                                       In His Words 

 

Related posts — and one of my most popular ones: Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Scott W. Smith

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Before Ray Bradbury wrote his masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, and before his over 500 other short stories, and before the TV shows and movies based on his writings, he put in his 10,000 hours of learning how to write.

“I wrote at least a thousand words a day every day from the age of twelve on. For years Poe was looking over one shoulder, while Wells, Burroughs, and just about every writer in Astounding and Weird Tales looked over the other.

I loved them, and they smothered me. I hadn’t learned how to look away and in the process look at myself but at what went on behind my face.

It was only when I began to discover the treats and ticks that came with word associations that I began to find some true way through the minefields of imitation. I finally figured out that if you are going to step on a  live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.

I began to put down brief notes and descriptions of loves and hates. All during my twentieth and twenty-first years, I circled around summer noons and October nights, sensing that there somewhere in the bright and dark seasons must be something that was really me.

I finally found it one afternoon when I was twenty-two years old. I wrote the title The Lake on the first page of a story that finished itself two hours later. Two hours after that I was sitting at my typewriter out on a porch in the sun, with tears running off the tip of my nose, and the hair on my neck standing up.”
Ray Bradbury
                                                Zen in the Art of Writing 

Bradbury sold The Lake to Weird Tales for $20. And his original voice was off to the races.  Do the math all it took for Ray Bradbury to find his voice was 2 hours of writing —plus the 1,000 words a day for 10 years. 

Scott W. Smith

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“Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he we wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.

You have your list of favorite writers; I have mine. Dickens, Twain, Wolfe, Peacock, Shaw, Moliere, Jonson, Wycherly, Sam Johnson. Poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Pope. Painters; El Greco, Tintoretto. Musicians: Mozart, Haydn, Ravel, Johann Stauss (!). Think of all tthese names and you think of big or little, but nonetheless important, zest, appetites, hungers. Think of Shakespeare and Melville and you think of thunder , lighting, wind.”
                                        Ray Bradbury
                                        Zen in the Art of Writing 

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“Every town has festivals of some kind, not too many of them deal with something happening over 200 years from now.”
                                                            Phil Richman
                                                            Riverside, Iowa resident  

 

I didn’t know until yesterday that the future of not only the United States, or even the entire Earth, but the whole safety of the Universe is in the hands of a man born in Riverside, Iowa –Captain James T. Kirk (and his crew, of course.)

Forget that the recent J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek has Kirk being born in space and raised in Iowa. That’s all fiction. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in his book The Making of Star Trek acknowledged that James Tiberius Kirk was in fact born in Iowa. Serious scholars(okay, a few people) have agreed on Riverside, Iowa as the place Kirk will be born in the future.

They even have a rock in Riverside saying so, which, of course, settles the matter.

Riverside is an actual town in Iowa about 20 miles south of Iowa City or about an hour and a half from where I type this in Cedar Falls. It’s just off 218 which is known as the Avenue of the Saints because the highway basically connects St. Louis, MO and St. Saul, MN.

There is a staggering amount of creative literary activity from that stretch of land (which includes The Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Grant Wood and Mark Twain) so it’s safe to say that there is something mystical about this region and it’s not really a surprise that the future captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise is from a small town in Iowa.

If you’re a Star Trek fan you have a good reason to go to Riverside, Iowa next month for the 2009 TREKFEST June 26-29,2009. Walter Koening (Checkov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) and Geroege Takei (Sulu) are scheduled to be there. And the Grand Marshal this year will be Steve Miller who in 1984 first encouraged Riverside to declare it was where Captain Kirk had been born. City council later wrote Roddenberry asking for permission to make that a declaration and he agreed.

Last night I did go to see the new Star Trek movie and there are a couple scenes in Iowa. Iowa is a happening place in the future. Not that it’s not now, of course.

“Live long and prosper.”

 

Scott W. Smith

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It’s not every day when you get the chance to rewrite a major Hollywood screenwriter — so I’ll try to tread lightly. Recently screenwriter John August posted an impromptu Q&A video on his website. Here’s one of his exchanges:

“Stranger than Fiction writes in to ask, ‘As a married mother of three whose husband is very established and has an immovable career in the middle of nowhere I have no chance of ever move to Cali –ever, ever ever.  Am I wasting all my spare time writing? Do I ever have a prayer of having a screenwriting career from –dare I say –Utah?’ 

Screenwriting is probably not your best bet. Honestly, it’s very hard to have a career from Utah because so much of the job of screenwriting isn’t just the pushing 12-point Courier font around on the page.  It’s all of the meetings and all of the dealings with people who are making films. That’s really rough to do from Utah. Fiction is a much better choice and people can write books anywhere. You can write the next Twilight from Utah.  So I’d say look for some other form of writing you like because it’s going to work a lot better for you in Utah.”

Here is my rewrite for John (written from John’s perspective);

Utah, huh? That’s a great state full of natural beauty like Arches National Park.  They have the wonderful Utah Shakespeare Festival in St. George complete with a close replica of the Globe Theatre (where Shakespeare’s play were originally performed). And of course, there is that place up in the mountains where Robert Redford established that little film festival called Sundance where every year in the middle of winter they somehow attract some of Hollywood’s biggest names. (That would be a good place to bump into film people in Utah.)

You didn’t exactly say where in the middle-of-nowhere Utah you were from but let me say that as a Hollywood A-List screenwriter myself that having a screenwriting career is hard even if you live in Los Angeles. Even though I did my undergraduate work at that fine school in Iowa, Drake University, and got an MFA from USC film school and have written hit movies such as Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels; Full Throttle and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and some other hits I’ve been an uncredited writer on) I still find it a difficult business.

Heck, I stuck my neck out a couple years ago and wrote and directed The Nines which only made $63,000. at the box office. (Yes, $63,000, not $63 million.) So it’s tough for anyone to have a Hollywood career, not to mention being a mom stuck in Utah. Having a screenwriting career in Hollywood is on par with playing basketball in the NBA. The list is actually pretty small.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t pursue screenwriting. If that’s your passion, then by all means write away. But pursuing a Hollywood screenwriting career may not be the best fit for you.  There are other options. Since your husband is “very established” as you mentioned perhaps you two can put up the money to have one of your screenplays made into a film. Perhaps start with a short film.

Let me tell you about a young fellow and his wife who did just that a few years ago. First the young man shot a short film in two days while a student at BYU in Utah. That nine -minute 16mm black and white film (Peluca) was made for $500. and shown at Sundance in 2003 and was so well received that it helped him raise $400,000. to make a feature. The young man and his wife wrote the feature script and hired some local actors and shot most of the film in Preston, Idaho — a middle-of-nowhere town on the Idaho-Utah border.

That little 97-minute film actually made it to the 2004 Sundance Film Festival where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Award.  (That alone made it a wild success.) But it found a distributor and not only got released but found an audience to the tune of $46 million dollars. You may have heard of the film that Jered & Jerusha Hess made — Napoleon Dynamite.

Let me also point you to a website that I think is very helpful to writers living outside L.A. –Screenwriting from Iowa. The guy who writes it lives in the middle-of-nowhere Iowa but he seems pretty plugged in. He actually posts everyday (apparently there is no traffic in Iowa) and some of it you may find inspirational like this famous screenwriter quote from a post called Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl from Ohio

 “If you write a script anywhere and send it to an agent in Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever…and if that agent sends it to an agent in Hollywood who loves it…you can sell your script. You don’t need to have any connections, you don’t need to have an agent, you don’t need to live in L.A. All you have to do is send your finished script to an agent anywhere. That agent will know another agent in Hollywood and you’ll be in business.”
                                                                               Joe Eszterhas

Best wishes in your writing, Stranger than Fiction.

Lots of Big Love — John

* Back to me as Scott W. Smith*

In closing, let me say that re-writing a Hollywood screenwriter is not as exciting as it sounds and the pay is terrible. But I hope this answer finds its way to Stranger than Fiction in Utah. And that it is helpful. John’s probably correct that to have a lasting career in Hollywood it’s best to live in L.A., but it’s important to also point out that in recent years some Minneapolis screenwriters have launched careers while living and writing scripts in the Twin Cities. And both films each made over $100 million at the box office. So Diablo Cody (Juno) and Nick Schenk & Dave Johannson (Gran Torino) prove a career can at least be started outside L.A. 

And John is also correct that you can write novels from anywhere and when I last heard there were over 500,000 book titles published last year. As opposed to what, maybe 200 Hollywood films? Stay in Utah (or wherever you live outside L.A.), enjoy your family, and keep writing. But Don’t Waste Your Life just writing screenplays.

Make that little $500. film because you never know where it will lead you.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“If you take the occasional seminar and come away with one great tip you didn’t know before, that’s a good thing. But I’ve come to believe you only learn on your own by doing it, by trying to tell stories that work. When you write 14-20 screenplays, you begin to internalize a sense of timing and movement of the story, structure, and dialogue. It’s not somebody else’s rules that matter, it’s your own. If you do it by trial and error from the inside out, your work will find its own unique storytelling voice.”
Michael Schiffer
screenwriter, Crimson Tide, Lean on Me
Quoted in The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters
by Karl Iglesias
page 32

Scott W. Smith

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“I’ve been told that I’m not smart enough to realize I can’t tilt windmills and win, but tenacity has a life and a way all its own, I’ve found. If one approach to a problem doesn’t work, figure out how to go around it”
Jack Lewis

Since today is Memorial Day I wanted to find a quote from a screenwriter with a military background and landed on Lt. Colonel Jack Lewis, USMCR (Ret) in part because he just happens to be a honored veteran and was born right here in Iowa.

Before he joined the Marines and served in World War II Lewis was a writer, selling his first short story when he was 14 years-old for five dollars. He has gone on to write an estimated 6,000 magazine articles and work on more than ten films as a screenwriter.

He was born in 1924 and joined the Marines at age 18. According to Wikipedia after the War he earned a degree in Jouralism  from the University of Iowa and later returned to active duty during the Korean War where he earned a Bronze Star as Combat Correspondent and Photographer.

In addition to writing screenplays (A Yank in Viet Nam), he wrote the novel Tell it to the Marines, and his memoirs on Hollywood, White Horse, Black Hat —A Quarter Century on Hollywood’s Poverty Row. In total, he’s had more than 30 books published including Mojave. Lewis is still writing (under the name C. Jack Lewis) and living in a beach house in Hawaii. Just this month (May 09) at age 84 he had an article in Leatherneck (Magazine of the Marines.)

“Two of my characters in my mystery series are probably somewhat autobiographical.  Charlie Cougar is a Mescalero Apache who has been a stuntman, a drunk and a rodeo rider.  I’m a quarter Mescalero and I’ve been all of those things.  Sam Light is a newspaper man who has been a Marine, a reporter, a drunk, an editor and a hobo.  I’ve been all of those things, too.  But at least, I’m writing about things of which I have a basic knowledge!”
Jack Lewis

Update: From the odd connection section I found out that when Lewis and his parents moved from Florida from Iowa when he was two, he lived in Winter Park. Winter Park, Florida is where I lived for 13 years before moving to Iowa. (Still checking to find out where he spent time in Iowa beside college in Iowa City.)

Update June 10: Found out today that Jack died on May 24 of this year. Just one day before I posted this article. I also found out from someone who worked with Jack for many years that Jack spent much of his youth in North English, Iowa which is a small town southeast of Iowa City. Here’s Jack’s obituary from the L.A. Times.

Scott W. Smith

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“(USC Film School) made me realize that this wasn’t something I could take lightly; if I was serious about it, I’d have to get my butt in gear.”
Stepehen Susco
screenwriter, The Grudge, Red

Years ago I heard it said that there were plenty of screenwriters in L.A. who had never had a movie produced but were living in homes with swimming pools and driving nice cars. Meaning that even though a screenwriter hadn’t been produced he or she could still earn a decent living. I’m sure today that is still true (though perhaps to a lesser extent).

Up until yesterday the record number that I had ever heard about of feature scripts written by a screenwriter before they were produced was 18 by Geoff Rodkey who finally broke through with Daddy Day Care. Then I heard the Creative Screenwriting’s podcast where Jeff Goldsmith mentioned that Stephen Susco wrote 25 movies before he had his first one produced (The Grudge).

The Grudge was produced by Sam Reimi and starred Sarah Michelle Gellar and had an $100 million domestic gross at the box office. An interesting side note is The Grudge is based on the Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge written and directed by Takashi Shimizu though that version only made $3 million worldwide.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Susco is not that he wrote 25 screenplays before being produced but that he wrote 25 screenplays in less than a decade. He wrote his first feature screenplay in ’96, graduated from USC film school in ’99 and The Grudge was released in ’04. But he had also been writing since he was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania far from the film industry. He also had made some short films including one that won an award in California which helped open the door at USC.

So Susco wrote his pages and paid his dues. Susco’s directorial debut Red premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Everybody’s got their own crazy story about how they got started, and for me, I had written a lot by that point. Also, when I got to USC, I got a really good recommendation from someone. What the school’s going to be able to do for you is somewhat limited, so you should try to get an internship at the studios and you can learn a lot, so I ended up getting an internship at Warner Brothers at a production company over there.

My job was basically to get coffee and water for people in the morning and alphabetize the script library . . . but I read all of them, and listened to people talking on the phone and started to figure out how the business actually worked, things you couldn’t really get in school. I kept writing and second semester I switched and interned at Silver Pictures: Joel Silver’s company, which was good for me cause I grew up on those films; I loved his films. And it was also a totally different kind of shop.

The first place I worked was sort of a smaller company, Paul Weinstein’s company, and they did a lot of sort of independent films and going over to Joel Silver, it was suddenly you’re in a middle of an episode of Entourage but there was a guy who worked there who had aspirations to be a producer also, and he had found out that I had written a couple of scripts and he said you know I have this project that needs re-writes, and I have this director involved. Can’t pay you, but if you’re interested that’d be great. I ended up re-writing their script for them, and that’s the script that ended up at New Line cinema a number months later and led me to get my first gig. It was kind of a circuitousness path- I didn’t have an agent at the time.
Stephen Susco
Interview at filmmaker.com

Scott W. Smith

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Blake Snyder, screenwriter and author of the popular screenwriting book Save the Cat, was recently Interviewed by Demetria Dixon and this was one of her questions followed by Blake’s answer:

You’ve talked about the “touched by the divine” moment . Would you expand on that?

Blake: I think we write stories and listen to stories looking for the “touched by the divine” moment. All stories are about transformation, and that change comes with a crushing truth about ourselves. That “all is lost” beat forces us to look at the “shard of glass” that’s been buried deep in us, and that this story pulls out and forces us to look at, but then what? Is there nowhere else to turn when human solution falls short? However we “dig, deep down” to find the next step in our evolution, we must! And whether it’s a “happy ending” or a “sad ending” we like stories about enlightenment, that moment where we get it, and either use what we’ve learned to win, or find a moment before we die that tells us we are not alone in the universe, we are part of it. The ironic thing about all this is: you find these moments in the Oscar winning dramas, as well as silly rom-coms[romantic comedies], and high concept poster movies! A good story must address this no matter what type of film… it’s why we tell stories and need to hear them.

Scott W. Smith

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No one would confuse me with a Trekkie. In fact, I’ve never seen a Star Trek movie. And chances are good that whenever the TV show was on when I was a kid that I was outside playing ball. But when a movie has an opening weekend of $75 million and has made over $200 million worldwide since its release two weeks ago you kinda take notice. Thought I find out about the writers and discovered the team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. 

It turns out that they have been writing together since just after graduating from high school. And they are red hot Hollywood writers with writing credits on Transformers, Mission: Impossible III, and many episodes of the TV program Alias. Just in their mid-30s now it’s safe to assume that you’ll be seeing their name on the big screen for perhaps as long as screen are still big.

So how do these two writers work together? I found a Q&A that Alex Billington did with them online at Firstshowing.net :

 

Alex: Tying back to the beginning, how do you step into the process of collaborating? What I mean is, does one of you write the dialogue, the other write the story, or is there an equal share between what is contributed to the script from both of you? Does one of you finish the first draft and the next take a look at it? How do you work together? How does your chemistry work between you two when working on a script?

Orci: Altogether different, but Alex and I right now are talking to you from across the table that we’ve been sitting at for the last five years. We sit across from each other, each with our own computer and our scripts are our conversations. We contribute equally, to figuring out what the story is and then actually writing down what is said and how the scenes are blocked, etc.

Kurtzman: It goes back all the way to the way we started writing together, which was pre-internet when we were at college. Bob and I would get on the phone and we would put the phone between our ear and our shoulders for like six hours and just write line for line together, staring at screens half way across the country from each other. That sort of conversation just became what we knew. We didn’t really know any other way. It wasn’t like “All right. You take this scene and that scene and then we’ll divide it up and we’ll come back together.” It was just kind of a conversational line-for-line development that continues to be the way we write now.

 

Related Post: James T. Kirk, Iowa and the Future

 

Scott W. Smith

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