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Archive for January, 2010

“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.”
Holden Caulfield
Catcher in the Rye
Written by J.D. Salinger

How did J.D. Salinger become one of the most wanted writers in Hollywood? By not wanting Hollywood.  Perhaps it would be better said that it was not the reclusive Salinger who was wanted but his work, Catcher in the Rye. When Salinger died a few days ago I imagine producers were excited about the possibility of finally bringing the book to the screen.

Selling the film rights to Catcher in the Rye would be very lucrative for the Salinger estate.

The story goes that Salinger was so upset with the adaption of Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut (made into the 1949 film My Foolish Heart) that he was done with Hollywood. (Though I did notice on IMDB that he is credited a couple times in the last 30 years.)

I don’t know if Salinger ever stepped foot in Iowa but his spirit was drawn here. In the Field of Dreams, the character that James Earl Jones plays (Terrance Mann) was based on Salinger. In the W.P Kinsella book (Shoeless Joe) that the movie is based on the character actually is  J.D. Salinger himself, but he did not allow his name to be used in the film so changes were made. Good thing, too. It would be hard to imagine that film without James Earl Jones, a fine actor but one who doesn’t quite look like Salinger.

Not much is known about Salinger and that’s the way that he wanted it. But that will all change since his death.  Screenwriter Shane Salerno (Shaft, Armageddon) has spent five years working on a self-funded documentary on Salinger. One in which he interviewed over 150 people who “had contact with him otherwise, or were greatly influenced by him.”  (Robert Towne, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, Philip Seymour Hoffman) The documentary is based on Salinger: A Biography, written by Paul Alexander.

Salerno told Mike Fleming at Deadline Hollywood;

“I loved (Salinger’s) work, and how he had the world at his doorstep, and said no thanks. He somehow understood in 1951 the corrosive effect that fame and money could have on his writing. He was singular, and in this Internet age where people pursue their 15 minutes of fame, nobody did what Salinger did: living in the woods in New Hampshire, writing to please only himself.”

Maybe in the future it will be hip to pursue 15 minutes of reclusiveness. I think it was Blaise Pascal who said a few centuries ago that the chief problem of man was that he could not stand to be in room by himself. (I might update that to “by himself—without a TV, a computer and the Internet.”)

Scott W. Smith

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“The story of Kurt Warner, who announced his retirement after a 12-year NFL career on Jan. 29, always starts with the chapter in that grocery store in Iowa.”
Sean Gregory
Time Magazine

This week’s Sports Illustrated (January 25, 2010) contains an article titled, Iowa’s Got a Secret. SI writer Albert Chen says of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) basketball team that it, “remains the best kept secret in college basketball.” (The men’s NCAA basketball team is 17-2 and currently ranked #25 in ESPN/USA Today poll right after the much larger & established programs such as Ohio St., Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.)

UNI happens to also be where quarterback Kurt Warner played college football before going on to have a career worthy of landing him in the NFL Hall of Fame when eligible. Warner retired yesterday from the NFL after a 12 year career which included playing in three Super Bowls (winning the MVP in one of them) as well as being the most accurate quarterback in NFL history.

I’ve written about Warner before and I really think his story symbolizes everything that I’ve been writting about for the past two years. That you can come from a small place and really accomplish some good things—sometimes even great things at the highest level. But, as with Warner’s case, persistance is equally as important as talent.

After Warner’s high school career in Cedar Rapids, Iowa he was disappointed to not win a scholarship to a Division 1 school. Then he changed his perspective by accepting a scholarship  to Division I-AA UNI back in the 90s.. He would play only an hour away from home so friends and family could see him play, and being a smaller school he figured he could maybe start playing as a freshman. He figured wrong and ended up not winning the starting QB position until his senior year. He got hurt in his second game that year but stuck it out and ended up earning the Gateway Conference player of the year.

He figured he played well enough to be drafted into the NFL. He figured wrong once again, but was given a chance as a free agent to make the Green Bay Packers. But they had a young quarterback named Bert Favre so thing didn’t work out too well in Green Bay. The story is well-known in sports circles and will make a fine movie some day. He worked at Hy-Vee Grocery Store for a little over five dollars and hour, worked as an assistant football coach at UNI, became a QB in Des Moines in the arena football league, moved up to playing pro ball in Europe, before becoming the ringleader in “The Greatest Show on Turf” as quarterback for the St. Louis Rams earning the NFL MVP award twice (1999, 2001). He not only holds the record for top passing yards in a Super Bowl game—he hold the #2 and #3 spots as well.

Not bad for a kid from Cedar Rapids who didn’t even earn a Division 1 scholarship and sat the bench for his first three years of college here in Cedar Falls. Time and time when asked what’s kept him going through the dark times, his answer always involves faith. Faith in his talent, and faith in God.

You don’t have to be a football fan (or even a sports fan)  to appreciate the Kurt Warner story. And it’s a nice bonus that his work on the field is matched by his charity work off the field. Kurt Warner is simply one of the good guys.

“Since those days chucking candy in the grocery store in Cedar Falls, Kurt Warner has been an inspiration.”
Sean Gregory
Time magazine

Kurt Warner is retiring, but don’t expect him to disappear. You’ll see more of him, just not in a football uniform. He’ll probably be leading the way in something like building homes in Haiti for Habitat for Humanity, just like he did last year after the floods destroyed over 5,000 homes in his hometown of Cedar Rapids.

Scott W. Smith

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Last night I finished the last episode of season five of LOST, so now I’m ready for the final season which starts next week. And for whatever reason the TV show Northern Exposure crossed my mind. Probably because that’s one of my top five TV programs of all time. Loved the small town and the interesting characters. Loved the writing.

I’ve always said I wanted to live in the fictitious town Cicely Alaska and I imagine it played into my psyche when I moved to Iowa almost seven years ago. (Though in real life my experience has been that if you want to visit a real life Cicely-like place try Ely, Minnesota or Talkeentna, Alaska.) But I find there are traces of Cicely, Alaska everywhere.

It’s hard to believe that Northern Exposure started airing 20 years ago. Can 1990 really be 20 years ago?  It was a simpler time before people were blogging, text messaging while driving, nor was there even the Internet as we know it. A time when part of the nation leaned on a DJ at KBHR for a little prime time philosophy.

Even if you didn’t agree with all his philosophy, you had to appreciate the words and the thought process (as well as John Corbett’s voice).

Goethe’s final words: “More light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry: “More light.” Sunlight. Torchlight. Candelight. Neon. Incandescent. Lights that banish the darkness from our caves, to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerators. Big floods for the night games at Soldier’s field. Little tiny flashlight for those books we read under the covers when we’re supposed to be asleep. Light is more than watts and footcandles. Light is metaphor. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” “Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on!” “The night is dark, and I am far from home.” “Lead Thou me on! Arise, shine, for thy light has come.” Light is knowledge. Light is life. Light is light.
Chris in the morning (John Corbett)
Northern Exposure
Written by Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider

Scott W. Smith

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“I have not failed. I have just found 1,000 ways that did not work.”
Thomas Edison (And one of screenwriter Chris Sparling’s favorite quotes.)

Los Angles is full of screenwriters who came from outside L.A.

Of course, most of them broke in the old-fashioned way. They moved there. That’s been going on for 100 years ever since L.A. replaced New York and Chicago as the go to place to make movies.

And that may be true for the next 100 years, because that is still the heart of the film industry. It’s where the majority of studios, executives and film talent are based. It’s the main place for deals to happen and for movies to be made.

But what keeps that heart pumping is the fresh talent that movies through it. And that talent often comes from outside L.A.

And I’ve spent two years giving accounts of talented writers who come from all over the U.S. (and sometimes other countries) to make an impact on the film business. Occasionally, writers have enough clout to stay in their hometowns (John Hughes/ Chicago) and sometimes they move back to their hometown (Mike France/St. Pete Beach) or move to their ideal creative place (George Lucas/Skywalker Ranch). But those are exceptions to the rule.

The big question now is has the technology and the business evolved to the point where it is becoming more common for screenwriters and filmmakers to not only launch a career outside L.A., but sustain one from wherever they want live? In the 70s & 80s Francis Ford Coppola & Lucas fled to Northern California to do their thing. In the 90s & 2000s, we’ve see places like Austin, Atlanta & Portland become places where filmmakers live and work. I think that is a trend that is going to continue to spread throughout the country.

Let me throw out a quote that point to where things are heading:

“I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.”
(Steven Spielberg in interview with Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show in 1999)

Have you noticed that the phrase “I think that the Internet…” has become a very popular? As in I think that the Internet…helped Diablo Cody become a screenwriting rock star.

But I think that it is fair to point out that Diablo Cody moved from Minneapolis to L.A. soon after her script for Juno sold. My guess is newcomer Chris Sparling will be moving from Rhode Island to L.A. soon (if he hasn’t already done so). I think Sparling is a recent and great example of how to launch a screenwriting career from outside L.A.

At this point he’s just a few days removed from the stir that was created at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival where the film he wrote, Buried, sold for $3 million plus. So there is not a lot written about him, but I’ve pieced together a few things I could from the internet.

Since he’s said he is roughly the same age as Ryan Reynolds (who stars in Buried), I’m guessing that he has been writing for ten years (maybe even 15 if he started as a teenager). He made some short films and in 2005 made a low-budget feature called An Uzi at the Alamo where he was the producer, director, writer and lead actor. The film can be viewed on Netflicks.

But as is often pointed out, getting a film made and paying the bills are not always the same thing. In one interview he said he recently “started applying for police jobs.”

From what I can gather Sparling earned money as a personal trainer and a freelance writer for magazines and blogs such as Maximum Fitness Magazine, Sunrise Helpers, Indie Slate and Imagine Magazine,The Diabetes Blog, The Cardio Blog, FitBuff,  America Online’s That’s Fit and Exist Magazine. He also taught screenwriting at Emerson College and I found an ad from just a year ago where he would read scripts for people and help them write query letters for extra money.

In an interview with Emerson College, Sparling was asked how one gets an agent and he said,“You have to cultivate relationships. You have to nurture them. You may meet an agent and send him a script. Odds are it will be a pass if he or she reads it at all, but you keep that relationship open and get recommended to others, and maybe on the fourth or fifth script you send to an agent…that’s the one they love and want to rep.”

Did you catch that? He said “maybe the fourth of fifth script.” Good writing is a process. It takes time. Sparling has said that it took him seven scripts before it “clicked” for him and that he wrote 9 or 10 scripts before Buried sold. Then he was on the fast track as it went into production, was edited, and shown and sold at Sundance all within the last year. It will be released in the spring of 2010. He’s a hot writer in Hollywood now as he’s sold other scripts and picked up other assignments. But don’t forget the many years and many scripts that paved the way for his recent success.

Living in Providence, Rhode Island he would also make occasional trips to L.A. to make contacts in the film industry.

“The first time I flew into LA, I had 15 meetings in five days. The next time it was 20 meetings.”
Chris Sparling

So did Chris Sparling just get lucky? I don’t think so. His is not the only way to break into Hollywood, but it follows a pretty common path that I would condense as:

1) Read a lot of scripts
2) Write a lot of scripts
3) Meet a lot of people

And if you want to read most of the good, logical reasons on why you should live in L.A., check out Ashley Scott Meyers’ post Do you have to live in Los Angeles to be a screenwriter?

© 2010 Scott W. Smith 
 

 

 

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“The idea (for the script Buried) was born out of financial necessity. It had been several years since I directed a feature (2005’s An Uzi at the Alamo), and I wanted to write something I could afford to shoot with almost no budget. This meant cutting back on cast, crew, lighting, locations, props, wardrobe and just about everything else—which basically left me with nothing. And then one day I came up with a very challenging conceit: A guy buried alive for an entire movie. No other actors appearing on screen, no cutting away from this one location.”
Screenwriter Chris Sparling (Buried)
MovieMaker
interview with Kyle Rupprecht

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“It was a brilliant script.”
Director Rodrigo Cortes on Chris Sparling’s script Buried
(And why he didn’t change the one location/one on-screen actor concept.)

So here’s my latest angle to give “Screenwriting from Iowa” a new perspective. My first video blog. Since shifting to daily posts was burying me why not add video into the mix? Right now, I’m going to try doing one video a month for now and see how it goes. (Of course,  the shooting style of this video is best understood if you’ve seen the original trailer for Buried.)

Buried was purchased by Lionsgate for between $3 & 4 million after the film was shown at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival just a few days ago. The entire movie is said to feature one person (Ryan Reynolds) held captive in a coffin for the entire length of the film as he tries to call people on his cell phone to secure his $1 million ransom.

Buried alive? There’s no app for that.

Scott W. Smith

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“I was really beginning to question if I’d ever catch my proverbial big break. I drifted away from film work and started applying for police jobs.”
Chris Sparling, Buried screenwriter

“(Chris Sparling) went directly from struggling indie director to successful Hollywood scribe when the screenplay for his horror thriller Buried was picked up, cast with a major up-and-coming star, and thrown before the cameras in just six months. And now it’s receiving its U.S. première at the Sundance Film Festival.
Melissa Silvstri
Filmmaker Magazine Winter 2010

Until this morning I had never seen or heard the name Chris Sparling. Then I read on Scott Myers’ screenwriting blog (Go Into The Story) about a movie Sparling wrote called Buried that sold at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival for between $3 & $4 million. Sparling is from Providence, Rhode Island and has made short films and one low-budget independent feature five years ago that had little distribution.

He was looking to write a movie that could be shot quickly and cheaply when he stumbled upon the idea for Buried.

“Stealing a page from Hitchcock’s playbook, I decided on writing a story that takes place entirely in one small location. In my case, this was inside an old, wooden coffin.”
Chris Sparling

While his sudden rise is rare, the process that he took to be a screenwriter in demand is a familiar story. One of dedication and hard work.

Sparling was asked in an interview with Carson Reeves at Script Shadow, “How many scripts had you written before Buried? Which script did you realize that maybe you were getting the hang of it?” Sparling said, “Before Buried, I think I’d written about nine or ten features and two TV specs. Truth be told, it didn’t start to click for me until about my seventh feature script.”

I think to pull off writing a 90 minute story in a coffin one has to have a solid handle on the craft of screenwriting. You have to think that having a story set in a coffin would cut down on crew, cast, wardrobe,  lighting, etc.. The film was directed by Rodrigo Cortes and shot in 21 days in Barcelona, Spain. With Ryan Reynolds in the lead role it couldn’t have be too low a budget film.

Renyolds plays a  U.S.  contract driver in Iraq who is attacked and placed in a coffin with a flashlight, a cell phone and a lighter and must find someone to pay a million dollar ransom or he’ll soon die. A primal survival story reminscent of low-budget success stories of past years; The Blair Witch Project, Open Water and Paranormal Activity.

Is there a Midwest angle? Of course.  The character Renyolds plays says that he’s from Hastings, Michigan. Below is the promo for the movie that is said to being released this spring. If you do a little homework you can find a version of the script online.

Scott W. Smith

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