Archive for May, 2009


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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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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“There are an awful lot of Scott Smiths running around the world.”
                                                                          Scott B. Smith
                                                                          Writer, A Simple Plan, The Ruins 

Years ago when I lived in Burbank I received a phone call asking if I was “the editor Scott Smith.”  Now I was working at a production company as an editor (as well as director, 16mm cameraman, and writer) but I knew the person was talking about the other Scott Smith. In this case, M. Scott Smith the one who edited To Live and Die in L.A.


There’s always another Scott Smith. In fact. if you look on IMDB there are 55 Scott Smiths listed working on various productions. (At least at this point I’m the only Scott W. Smith.)  If the stars lined up someday I could make a film with an entire crew members named Scott Smith. Really I could—and it would be a nice marketing angle. And it really would be “A Scott Smith film.”  

There are Scott Smiths as producer, director, cinematographer, sound recordist, boom operator, actor, visual effects, editor, production assistant, composer, grip, set dresser, and make-up. There is even a character named Scott Smith in Milk. (And another Scott Smith has written a book on film called The Film 100.)

And, of course, there is the screenwriter Scott B. Smith. Armed with an MFA from the writing program at Columbia University the Sylvania, Ohio native came on the scene as a 28-year-old bestselling novelist with his first book A Simple Plan. Then Hollywood came calling and he not only sold the rights to the book but wrote the screenplay for the movie as well (making a lot of money along the way). The film version directed by Sam Raimi was shot in Wisconsin and Minnesota and released in 1998. The reviews were good and it would earn Smith an Academy Award nomination. 

But it did not find an audience making less than its $17 million budget.  It would be another 10 years before he would have another movie produced—The Ruins which was based on his only other published novel. Though the novel and the movie were hailed by Stephen King the movie version failed to find box office success. Who knows if we’ll hear from Smith for another 10-12 years?

But according to various reports and interviews Smith has been writing all along, on a novel he abandoned and on scripts that have either gone unproduced or he didn’t do enough script doctoring to receive a credit. He’s a talented writer with a following and he’ll pop up again. Given the nature of his success in writing thrillers you may be surprised who he credits with teaching him how to write screenplays:

“Ben (Stiller) really taught me how to write a script. I don’t know that he ever explicitly said it, but by imagining the script as a verbal description of a movie, the movie that I wanted the book to be. That’s very simple, but it really was the key to everything for me—just imagining what was on the page. I was shortchanging the visual in my script (A Simple Plan), concentrating on dialogue, which I imagine is a very common first-time screenwriter’s mistake, and to suddenly just do it visually opened up everything for me.”
                                       Scott B. Smith
                                       screenwriter, A Simple Plan, The Ruins
Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen
                                       page 273-274 

Scott W. Smith 




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Most screenwriters don’t jump onto the world stage like Diablo Cody who won an Oscar for the first screenplay she ever wrote. More often than not they follow a 20 year journey like screenwriter John Logan who was 40 years old when he received an Oscar nominated for his part in writing Gladiator. 

Logan was born in 1961 and graduated in 1983 from Northwestern in Chicago. He started out with a desire to be an actor but fell in love writing when he took a playwriting class.  After Logan finished college, according to David S. Cohn “He stayed in Chicago, writing plays by night and working at Northwestern Law Library by day. Some fourteen years later he was solidly established in Chicago theater.”

His plays including “Never the Sinner” and “Hauptmann” won awards and he also acted on occasion. In 1996 he had his first TV movie produced (Tornado) and in 1999 approaching 40 years old he had his first feature film produced (Bats). A major break through occurred when Oliver Stone optioned his script Any Given Sunday in which Logan eventually earned a story credit and a lesson or two in screenwriting from Stone. 

From then on he left the tornados and bats behind and was in the big time.  In 2000 he received a shared screenwriting credit on Gladiator, in 2002 Star Trek; Nemesis,  in 2003 The Last Samurai, 2004 Aviator, and in 2007 Sweeney Todd.

“My learning curve on writing movies—which, believe me, is still going on, under the tutelage of people like Martin Scorsese—(has involved) the amazing slapping-the-head realization that Leo DiCaprio’s eyes communicate more than a paragraph I have written. Unlike writing for the stage, which is declamatory and presentational for an audience, in writing for a movie you’re really trying to bring the audience in to see, to experience the world through a character’s eyes. For me it’s always stunning to watch actors communicate so silently with one another, in a way that’s as powerful as the greatest line of dialogue I could possibly imagine writing.”
                                                        John Logan
                                                        Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen

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The 1985 film Witness is one of those movie that pops up again and again in screenwriting books as a fine example of writing. But like Rain Man there are a lot of reasons why the film works and it is an example of a collaboration at it’s best. It was a perfect storm of talent and it resulted in an Oscar award for writers Earl Wallace, William Wallace and Pamela Wallace.

Helping the film become a classic was the direction of Peter Weir, the acting and personna of Harrison Ford, and a wonderful crew that helped the tone of the film set largely in Amish country. Many were nominated for their work on the film, John Seale (Best Cinematography), Maurice Jarre (Best Music, Orginal Score) and Stan Jolly and John H. Anderson (Best Art Direction-Set Direction). And Thom Noble picked up the Oscar for Best Film Editing.

But according to David S. Cohen’s book Screen Plays it all started with a simple story idea from Pamela; “A contemporary cop falls in love with an Amish women.” Earl and William who had written for the old TV show Gunsmoke fleshed the story out and after 16 versions had a well tuned script. Neither had ever written with a partner before and neither had ever had a feature film produced.

There were creative battles fought during the making of the film but at the end of the day it all came together and they made a film that resonated with audiences and the Academy. No small feat. Then the storm was gone. Cohen writes that, yes they won an Academy Award, “Yet the writing team of Wallace and Kelly got no career boost from the success of Witness.” In fact, they had a fall out of sorts and went their separate ways.

The creative process is odd and messy and it’s nice to get a glimpse behind the scene of a script that not only found the light, but that still shines bright almost 25 years later.  Cohen writes, “The film was nosed out for best picture by Out of Africa—the film that gave Kurt Luedtke his Oscar. But Kelly and Wallace won, and from the podium Wallace got off one of the more memorable lines in Oscar acceptance speech history: ‘I have the uneasy feeling my career just peaked.'”

Your career has to peak somewhere — it might as well be at the Academy Awards.

Scott W. Smith

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“Are you something else I’m going to have to live through?”
Erin Brockovich 
                                                            Written by Susannah Grant 


Yesterday while making the 3+ hour drive to Minneapolis where I have a video shoot today I listened to Don Henley’s CD Inside Job and there is one particular song I tend to listen to over and over again — My Thanksgiving (written by Henley along with Stan Lynch and Jai Winding):

For every moment of joy
For every hour of fear
For every winding road that brought me here 
For every breath, for every day of living
This is my Thanksgiving 

For  everyone who helped me start
And for everything that broke my heart
For every breath, for every day of living
This is my Thanksgiving

Henley’s songs often have a spiritual element and this song is no different as it takes an angle to be thankful for the winding roads and things that have broken your heart. That album came out in 2000, the same year as the movie Erin Brockovich which featured Julie Roberts in the lead roll playing a character who had her share of winding roads and heart breaking experiences.

It was written by Susannah Grant who also wrote Pocahontas, 28 Days, and The Soloist which is currently in theaters. In David S. Cohen’s book Screen Plays he dedicates a chapter to Erin Brockovich that ended up with a worldwide gross of $259 million and earned Grant an Oscar nomination.  Cohen asks Grant, “What’s the hardest thing about having a life and being a screenwriter at the same time?”

Grant: Maintaining concentration. Maintaining your focus. And protecting the creative part of your brain. When you have a baby and a husband and an extended family and friends, not letting those aspects of your brain overwhelm the part of your brain that writes. Just getting some mental privacy.
        I run—that helps a lot. I don’t let light in my office. I think that just cuts out the outside world. I just have a big blank wall in front of me. I just try to get rid of the things that will make me think of something else. I don’t have very good concentration. If I had a desk in front of a window, there’s no way I could work.”  

I think Erin Brockovich strikes a cord with audience because it does give meaning and purpose to a life full of winding roads and broken heart or two. That the difficult things in your life can be steps toward the opportunities you’ve always dreamed about. Isn’t that the hope we all have? So be thankful, keep writing, and it wouldn’t hurt to read Cohen’s book Screen Plays, How 25 Screen Plays Made It To A Theater Near You — For Better Or Worse.

Scott W. Smith


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You’d think since I’ve written a couple posts on the film industry in Michigan and another post just on Grand Rapids that I would have mentioned screenwriter Kurt Luedtke at some point, but I haven’t. But the the Oscar winning screenwriter of Out of Africa was in fact born in Grand Rapids. Actually, he was off my radar until I read about him in David S. Cohen’s book Screen Plays.

The truth is as far as produced screenplays Luedtke has been off the radar for 10 years since the disappointing results of Random Hearts in 1999. (Cohen dedicates a whole chapter in his book to what went wrong with that movie.) But Luedtke had a great debut when his first produced movie hit the screen in 1981 — the powerful Absence of Malice starring Paul Newman and Sally Field that was directed by Sydney Pollack.

Luedtke was in his early forties when that film was released and had already made his mark in the newspaper business in Detroit and Miami before he heading to L.A. to try his hand in the movie business.  According to Cohen, Luedtke prefers to write in his northern Michigan cabin or in the Florida Keys. But if you listen to Luedtke you realize he’d rather not write at all:

“I’ll do almost anything to avoid writing so there’s a lot of sitting around thinking about other things that need doing. But eventually I write something, sooner or later. I tend to take an awful long time thinking about the thing, even though I know I shouldn’t…So when I finally write, you know, I write very, very fast.”

While the movie well is not deep for Luedtke he did write two fine films he can be proud of and having an Oscar on your shelf has to bring some measure of satisfaction that despite all the procrastination you made it to the top of the mountain.  


Scott W. Smith


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Screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator, Amistad) might as well be living back home in Vermont (or here in Iowa): 

“In this town (L.A.), if you’re a screenwriter, the two biggest things that are important (are): One, get a life, because the only stuff that’s any good is writing about the life you’ve led, not about the movies you’ve seen. And two, don’t pay any attention to what’s going on in this town. I’ve never read the trades. I don’t go to any screenings. I don’t go to any parties unless I have to. I don’t pay attention to the shit that’s going on here. Because if you do, you’ll start doing what they want you to do, and it’s always wrong. It’s always wrong. That’s why they make such shitty movies. So you have to be free from this place, even if you’re here.” 
                                      David Franzoni
                                      Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen
                                      page 25 


Scott W. Smith

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