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Archive for September, 2009

Since Diablo Cody is my poster child (female) for a screenwriter coming from outside L.A. (and the original inspiration for this blog)  then I think I’ll name Lawrence Kasdan as the poster child (male) screenwriter from outside L.A. Kasdan was raised in Morgantown, West Virginia. Quick, name another screenwriter from West Virginia.

(While Morgantown is the second largest city in West Virginia it only has about 30,000 residents not including the students at the University of West Virginia. My lasting memory of Morgantown goes back to 1994 when I was there for a video shoot and the news broke of O.J. Simpson’s famous low-speed police chase. I remember walking down the main drag and seeing restaurant/bar after restaurant/bar having the same helicopter shot of the Simposn’s white Ford Bronco on their TVs.)

Kasdan left Morgantown to attend the University of Michigan where he was an English major. A gifted writer he would go on to win Hopwood Prize at UM for creative writing. In his 30s he became  one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood with a string of box office hits— Star Wars: The Empire Strikes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He has also had  three Oscar nominations for his screenwriting —Grand Canyon, The Accidental Tourist, and The Big Chill.

But what I think you’ll be interested in is that little period between college in Ann Arbor, Michigan and his first sale as a screenwriter. While reading The First Time I Got Paid for It, Writers’ Tales from the Hollywood Trenches I found this retelling by Kasdan when he would have been a 28 year old advertising copywriter:

“One summer day in 1977 my agent asked to lunch, which was so unusual it made me nervous. It has taken me a long time to get an agent, so naturally, I was worried about hanging on to him. For two years now he had been trying to sell a thriller I had written for my favorite star Steve McQueen, who didn’t know I’d written this thriller for him. Originally, the agent thought he wouldn’t have much trouble selling the script, so he agreed to represent me. But after sixty-seven rejections he was getting discouraged.”

But his agent didn’t want to part ways with Kasdan, but he did want Kasdan to try his hand at writing for television, specifically Starsky & Hutch. Kasden reluctantly agreed to give it a shot. Soon he heard back from the powers that be at Starsky & Hutch that he didn’t have the goods to write for the show. He told the agent not to give up on him that he had a new screenplay in the works that was almost done. He thought that would buy him a little more time to breakthrough.

Then Kasdan writes, “But when I came into my job the next day, there was a message that my agent had called. Could he have changed his mind overnight? Of course he could. After nine years of writing screenplays without success, I believed only bad things were going to happen to me. But what he had to tell me wasn’t bad. It was kind of miraculous. After two years and all that rejection, suddenly two different parties were interested in my thriller—which was called The Bodyguard.”

So while you dream of writing the next  Raiders of the Lost Ark or Return of the Jedi (or get discouraged in your own career) remember Kasden’s line, “After nine years of writing screenplays without success.” And also keep in mind that while that first sale came in 1977 it was fifteen years before the film The Bodyguard was produced and released into theaters. (The film starred Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in roles that were originally thought would star Steve McQueen & Barbra Stresisand. The movie made over $400 million worldwide.)

Related posts: Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Screenwriting from Michigan

Raiders Revisted (part 1)

Scott W. Smith

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Driving from Minneapolis to Cedar Falls feels like a long commute because the three and a half hour drive literally involves heading south on Interstate 35 and making one turn. It’s a pretty mellow drive. There’s not much worth looking forward to once you’ve made the slight detour to visit the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa (where Buddy Holly played his last concert),and  The Music Man Square in Mason City (A museum dedicated to hometown writer Meredith Willson who wrote The Music Man).

There are a couple casinos along the way but they personally bore me. I am still fascinated by the hundreds of wind turbines scattered along the way, but my point is you have work a little to break up the drive a little if you take the Interstate. This past weekend I stopped at a discount bookstore and ended up picking up The First Time I Got Paid for It, Writers’ Tales from the Hollywood Trenches. It was edited by Peter Lefcourt and Laura J. Shapiro and has various stories by writers such as Cameron Crowe, Robin Swicord, and Gary Ross telling their stories of making their first bucks from writing.

The forward by William Goldman alone is worth the $1.99 I paid for the book. Here’s an excerpt:

“I was eighteen and an aunt gave me a copy of Mixed Company, a book of his (Irwin Shaw) collected stories. I’d never read a word by him, never heard his name. But I remember the lead story in the book was The Girls in Their Summer Dresses. About a guy who looked at women.

Followed by The Eighty Yard Run… Well, The Eighty Yard Run is about a football player. Shit, I remember thinking, you can do that? You can write about stuff I care about?…At eighteen, I began writing stories. Not a whole lot of acclaim. I took a creative writing class at Oberlin.  Everyone took it because it was a gut course. I wanted a career. Everyone got A’s and B’s, I got the only C…. I have, somewhere, hundreds of rejection slips…My confidence is not building through theses years. I hope you get that.”
William Goldman
Two-time Oscar Winner
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
All the President’s Men

It’s good to hear those kind of stories.

By the way, the first time I got paid to write anything was when I was a 19-year-old staff writer/photographer  for the Sanford Evening Herald and Sam Cook, the sports editor, paid me 10 cents a word (and a little extra for photos). That may not seem like much but those dimes add up, you know? (And it’s more than I’m paid for writing this blog.) And at 19 I also discovered Irwin Shaw’s The Eighty Yard Run. Still dreaming of an Oscar.

Update 9/30/09: I tracked Sam Cook down via the internet and found out he is now an award-winning columnist for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida where he specializes in stirring up trouble reporting on the local government. I sent him an email and he called me today and we spoke for the first time in a long time.

Scott W. Smith

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Lake Wobegon 0463

I confess that when I was in my early 20s and was given some cassette tapes featuring Garrison Keillor I totally did not get his appeal. But somewhere on a long road trip I’m sure (as well as a few more years of life lived) I stumbled upon A Prairie Home Companion on some remote public radio station and the light went on. I’ve been a fan ever since. Now I search for him on whenever I’m driving on the road any given weekend.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to see A Prairie Home Companion preformed lived and it’s much better than the movie. And even more enjoyable than listening on the radio while on the open road. I recently found on the Public Radio website a question posed to Mr. Keillor by an aspiring writer in Chico, California asking for some writing advice. Here is part of his advice:

“If I were a California writer, I would try to describe this sense of easiness and perhaps tie it to the landscape and the climate. I’d write about people in love with their home. But they must deal with the same troubles that afflict other humans, and not only mudslides, earthquakes, and brush fires, but also the dreadful problem of indifference. Spiritual listlessness, what is sometimes included under Sloth, or Acedia, in the Seven Deadly Sins. The inability to carry out one’s duties. Not an easy subject, indifference, but it’s very much part of most good crime novels. Injustice is supposed to arouse us from indifference: an essential test of our humanity. And indifference is the prime target of satire.”
Garrison Keillor

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Prairie Home Companion

Saturday afternoon & evening in the Twin Cities I was able to pack enough fun into about a six hour period to last me for the rest of the year. I was in Minneapolis to attend Emmy Night for the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. But I also saw over in St. Paul that  A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor was kicking off their season opener and I thought that would be great to see live after listening to the show a long time before I moved to Lutheran territory here in the Midwest.

The show was sold out but I was hoping to get a couple rush tickets. Worst case scenario, they were piping audio of the show live outside in a street celebration that included a meatloaf supper and a street dance. I literally got the last seat as the couple in front of me generously passed on account that they both couldn’t get in and my wife was already inside.  (They call it Minnesota nice for a reason. Yah, you betcha. And what a great seat it was as it’s where I took the above photo.)

So I was able to see The Sam Bush Band, Connie Evingston, Sarah Jarosa, and Garrison Keillor and his gang perform. Complete with a Guy Noir skit, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a Powedermilk Biscuit Break. Good stuff. And the 1,100 seat Fitzgerald Theater, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2010, is beautiful and a great place to watch Keillor work his magic.

Fitzgerald Theater Sign 0443

Overall the show and the venue reminded me of the Grand Ole Opry which I was able to catch years ago while traveling through Nashville.  I remember hearing Keillor once saying that the Opry was an early inspiration for his show.

Yesterday was also significant in that it was Keillor’s first show since he suffered a minor stroke just a few weeks ago.  I don’t know how much Keillor has written over the years (and I doubt he does) but the 67-year old began his broadcasting career while a student at the University of Minnesota, where he graduated in 1966 with a degree in English. He’s written everything from radio programs, short stories & novels, poems & sonnets, songs & essays and a screenplay.

He appeared in the Robert Altman directed film version of  A Prairie Home Companion and was the voice of Walt Whitman in 9 episodes of the Ken Burns PBS film The Civil War. And on top of all that work Keillor also hosts The Writer’s Almanac, a daily radio program and podcast. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994. He’s had quite a career since being born in Anoka, Minnesota in 1942. (So all you creatives outside New York and L.A. keep that in mind. Great things from small places is what this blog is all about. I never get tired of telling people that Bob Dylan was from Hibbing & Duluth, Minnesota.)

When the Keillor show was over I had to zip over to downtown Minneapolis to the Pantages Theater for Emmy Night. The Pantages Theater was built in 1916 and renovated in 2001/2002. I was up for two Regional Emmy Awards and ended up winning one for location lighting on a commercial I produced and shot. What a thrill to accept the award on the same stage that used to stage vaudeville performers when it first opened and in a theater that used to play movies starring Rita Hayworth and a host of other Hollywood movie stars over the years.  Thanks to Teresa Vickery and all the people working behind the scene who moved the venue and helped pull off the Emmy Awards this year. And congrats to all the winners.

Scott Emmy 09 0445

Yes, Saturday September 26 goes down in my book as one nice day in Minnesota.

(Apparently there was a little magic still in the air Sunday as 40-year-old Bret Farve tossed a 32-yard game-winning touchdown with just two seconds remaining in the game to give the Minnesota Vikings a victory in Farve’s debut regular season game in the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Is someone writing scripts for the NFL?)

And just a word of caution for those working on writing screenplays— Keillor had said around mid-summer when asked if he was going to make another movie, “I’m working on a screenplay now, a fragile love story set in Lake Wobegon, and want to finish it before Labor Day.  And then we shall see.” I don’t know if he finished that screenplay on time, but he did have his stroke on Labor Day.

Update 9/28/09: One regret I have in my years of living in Burbank was never going to see a taping of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Keillor has that kind of iconic clout and if you enjoy his program this would be a good year to buy tickets for A Prairie Home Companion. (For the ’09/’10 season they will record the show live from St. Paul, MN, Bismarck, ND, Des Moines, IA, New York, NY, San Francisco, CA and Atlanta, GA.)

Scott W. Smith


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And my last quote from Michael Hauge’s book Writing Screenplays that Sell comes in on the inspirational side and something worth posting above your writing area.

“100 percent of the screenwriters who now have agents at one time didn’t have an agent.

100 percent of screenwriters who are now working at one time weren’t working.

100 percent of the screenwriters who have made money at screenwriting at one time time didn’t made a dime.”
Michael Hauge
Writing Screenplays that Sell
page 213

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The only thing wrong with Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays that Sell is that it was first printed in 1991 so the film references are all old.    (At least that’s true of the version I have, and I don’t think it has been updated in the  30+ reprintings of the book.) But the tend to be modern day classics, or at least ones that are still popular today so don’t let that hinder you from tracking down a used copy on Amazon even if you weren’t born in 1991.

“Teach the audience how to do something, vicariously. Often a story will be more emotionally involving if the hero must learn some particular skill, which the audience can ‘learn’ through the character. In The Color Money, we learn the skills and philosophy of the pool circuit just as the Tom Cruise character does. Similarly, the karate training in The Karate Kid, the boxing training in Rocky, the military training in Uncommon Valor and the The Dirty Dozen, serve to involve the audience in the story.
Michael Hauge
Writing the Screenplays that Sell
page 101

I’ve watched this happen time and time again since first reading those words many years ago. A more recent example that jumps to mind (though a remake) is The Taking of Pelham 123 starring Denzel Washington (script by Brian Heleland) that gave us a fascinating tour of what goes on behind the scene in making the New York City subways run. (Not sure if that was in the John Godey novel that the movie was based on or not.) Can you think of other examples of where you’ve learned something through a movie?

Scott W. Smith

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I saw where highly regarded screenwriting teacher Michael Hauge will be teaching a one-day workshop in Minneapolis Saturday (9/26/09) and this offers a good chance for Midwest writers to get a taste of whom Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) said, “When I pick up the phone for help, Michael Hauge is the call I make.” He’s taught screenwriting at UCLA, USC and AFI.

Two of Hauge’s books that I’ve read are Writing Screenplay that Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds. So in light of him coming to this neck of the woods I thought I’d pull some quotes the next couple of days.

“‘Lack of originality’ is consistently a stated reason for the rejection by producers and studios of screenplays and story concepts. And it is true that while audiences seem to support ‘more of the same’ in TV and theaters, people still want to see something they’ve never seen before when they go to the movie theater.”
                                                                         Michael Hauge 
                                                                         Writing the Screenplays That Sell
                                                                         page 26 

(Something that’s never been a problem from Minneapolis-raised Coen Brothers.)

 

The Michael Hauge workshop is sponsored by the Midwest Fiction Writers

Fee for non-members is $109.

Location: Crowne Plaza Hotel, Bloomington, MN

 

Scott W. Smith

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