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Archive for May, 2009

“(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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DSC_0599

While Josh looks in this photo like an American Idol contestant I don’t even know if he can sing. He’s been helping me out at River Run Productions the last couple months doing freelance editing. He’s a student at UNI here in Cedar Falls but heads out to L.A. today to work as an intern for Entertainment Tonight over the summer.

So next week when those of you in Southern California see him driving to or from CBS studios in his Mini Cooper you’ll think he’s just an another L.A. hipster, but it’s really another talented kid from Iowa finding his way to California to work in the biz.

So how does a kid from Iowa end up working on the set of Entertainment Tonight? In part because of another kid from Iowa has paved the way. ET co-anchor  Mark Steines was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa and attended UNI on a football scholarship and earned a B.A. in radio & TV. He got his start in broadcasting here at KWWL before eventually joining ET in 1995. So he’s opened the door for others to follow in his tracks. 

And speaking of American Idol, I finally sat down last night and watched  my first (almost) entire program of the popular show. I jumped on the bandwagon just in time. It didn’t feel like 2009, but more like 1979 as they featured a who’s who of people I listened to in high school back in the day; Rod Stewart, KISS, Lionel Richie, Queen, Carlos Santana  and even a cameo with Steve Martin on the banjo. 

My favorite quote of the night was when runner-up 27-year old Adam Lambert said he had been working on his singing dream since he was 10. That’s a 17 year journey. I imagine that winner Kris Allen’s story is probably the same. There probably won’t be too many screenwriting blogs talking about American Idol, but I’d like to point out, that like top screenwriters there’s a lot of talent and hard work to make it to that level. Congrats to both Adam and Kris. 

I enjoyed the commercial during American Idol with Iowa-native Ashton Kutcher promoting the Nikon D90. That’s the camera I’m shooting with these days including the above photo. (Along with a couple SB-800s flashes for those of you technically minded.)

And I might as well send out congrats to another Iowa native (and Olympic goldmedist) Shawn Johnson who won the Dancing with the Stars competition on Tuesday night. And I really should mention that The Official Shawn Johnson Website is powered by my buddies at Spin-U-Tech who I share office space with right here in beautiful downtown Cedar Falls, Iowa.

So you see, Iowans are not really out of the entertainment loop. And as I like to say about Iowa itself — “It’s conveniently located between New York and L.A.”

 

photo & text copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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wolverine_poster

You may not know the name Michael Muller, but you probably know his work. It would be hard to miss the ubiquitous face and claw of Hugh Jackman on the movie poster for X-Men Origins; Wolverine. Muller is the photographer who took that photo.

Muller started out getting paid to shoot as a fifteen year old shooting snowboarders.  He eventually found his way to L.A. where he attended Otis College of Art and Design.  But like a lot of creative and passionate souls he didn’t quite flourish in the classroom.

“After that first semester I went to the guidance consoler and I said what do I need a diploma for? And he said basically to teach.  So I don’t need to show a diploma or a piece of paper from Brooks or the Art Center or some school to get a job? And they we’re like. ‘no.’ And I was like great. And I left.

And I went right from there and I started testing models and friends of mine that were actors and in bands. I had a lot of problems with school because I had a lot teachers tell me what I was doing wrong or ‘Don’t do it this way.’ I never got the zone system… And so I quit and basically was paid to learn by shooting up-and-coming models and they’d pay me. And I’d try new films and I’d learn that way. So I sort of got paid to learn instead of paying to learn.

My experience with school is they teach you the box. They teach you the laws, they teach you the rules and they critique you. So by the time you walk out of there -–you’re so insecure—because they put your photo up in front of the class and everyone critiques it. What’s wrong with it is that you question everything you do – and you’re left with a quarter million-dollar debt…so I just went out and did it on my own.” 
                                                                      
Micheal Muller
                                                                      LightSource Photography Podcast 
                                                                      with Bill Crawford & Ed Hidden

 

Scott W. Smith

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“There’s a million different reasons to write. It took cancer to help me find the best reason in the world.”
                                               David Michael Wharton
                                               Creative Screeenwriting

There’s nothing glamorous about cancer. Whatever motive Farrah Fawcett had of having herself videotaped as she went through various stages of cancer it made for compelling T.V. last Friday.  And it was a sobering change to most of what pop culture has to offer and a new twist on reality programming. And also and a reminder of our fleeting lives.

As I sat at a coffee house in Rochester, MN last Friday morning I couldn’t help but overhear several  discussions about people’s various stages of illness. The Mayo Clinic attracts millions of people every year who are dealing with cancer or know someone who is.

I have had friends and family die of cancer and chances are so have you. Recently, I had a friend have one of his legs amputated as part on his ongoing battle with cancer that has involved more pain and suffering than anyone should have to go through.

It probably wasn’t the first time I ever cried, but when I was 10-years old  and watched the original TV movie Brian’s Song, when the Gale Sayers character says, “Brian Piccolo has cancer…” — I lost it. 

Farrah Fawcett shaving her hair is not the worse thing that cancer has ever done to someone. But since her hair style at one time represented the most famous style of an era (of all time?) then it was as symbolic an act you can find on TV of the effects of cancer. Remember that great screenwriting is made up in part of strong, visceral images.

Hollywood has not been untouched by cancer. Across the board cancer has claimed the lives of cast, crew and executives. And there have mean meaningful movies on cancer and maudlin ones as well. Don’t shy away from writing about cancer, just work toward avoiding the curse of the disease-of-week mentality which trivializes death and suffering by making things overly sentimental.

“All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you.”
                                   Ernest Hemingway
                                   Death in the Afternoon


Scott W. Smith 

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Barnes&Noble Rochester,MN

Barnes&Noble Rochester,MN

Last Friday my travels took me through Rochester, Minnesota which is located just a little bit above the Iowa-Minnesota border. Rochester is, of course, known for being home to the Mayo Clinic which is one of the most respected medical centers in the world.

It is also home to the coolest Barnes & Noble Booksellers building I have ever seen. It’s located downtown in the former Chateau Theatre which is a building on the National Register of Historic Places.

When I got home I decided to see if there were any screenwriters from Rochester and I found that Warren Skaaren who wrote Beetlejuice and Batman (1989) was not only born there in 1946 but attended its public schools and graduated from Rochester Community College in 1966. I’m sure he even went to a movie or two at the Chateau Theatre when it was still a movie theater. (He also earned his Eagle Scout badge in Rochester as well.)

He left Rochester in 1967 to attend Rice University in Houston where he was student body president and an art major. He after receiving his BA degree he became the first Film Commissioner of the State of Texas from 1971-1974. He made a feature documentary called Breakaway in the 80s and was an associate producer on Topgun in 1986 where he was also said to have done some script doctoring.

He gained a reputation as a Hollywood script doctor and there was even an article written on him by Emily Yoffe called The Man Hollywood Trusts. Unfortunately he died in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas in 1990 at age 44 of bone cancer. The AP report when he died said the films he worked on as a screenwriter and script doctor grossed more than $1 billion dollars.

Not bad for a Eagle Scout from Rochester. And one more example of a writer rising up from a place far from Hollywood.

 

words and photo copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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