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Archive for May, 2010

“Most people , I believe, initially shun jury duty. The summons always seems to come at the least opportune time, and one might go kicking and screaming.”
David Mamet
Introduction, Twelve Angry Men, Penguin Books

Some writers begin with character, some with a situation, some from theme, but today we’ll look at a writer who once started with setting. A setting most try to avoid—the courtroom.

The first time I stepped foot in a courtroom I was 18 years old and fighting a traffic ticket. It was intimidating, and stimulating to the senses. And it was made all the sweeter in I presented my case, showed some photographs, and won. I was relieved and the police officer even gave me a pat on the back when it was over. That was a good day and left a positive impression of the legal process. My next time in court was a wake-up call.

I was a 22-year-old film school student when I was given a ticket in North Hollywood for what I believed was a mistake of perception on the police officer’s part. I took pictures once again and was confident that the judge would understand the situation and rule in my favor. And he might have, except I didn’t factor in one thing—that the police officer would lie. I was stunned. The judge believed his story, I lost, and the cop called me a punk as we walked out of the building. My hands shook as I drove back to my apartment in Burbank, constantly looking in my rearview mirror.

After that day I started to listen to those who complained of police improprieties. Yes, Virginia, there really are good cops and bad cops. (And  good doctors, bad doctors, good money managers, bad money managers…) Sooner or later you realize we all live outside the garden. Once your eyes are opened, it doesn’t take much to realize the depth of depravity in the world.

But fortunately we live in a country where in general the law and the courts seek the truth. The water may get a little muddy, and it may not always be found, but truth and justice are the goal. And that leads us to Reginald Rose and what led him to write the classic story 12 Angry Men as a successful teleplay (for which Rose won an Emmy), play, and Oscar-nominated screenplay and movie. (In 2005 , the play also won an Tony for “Best Revival of a Play.”)

Rose began writing plays as a teenager and sold his first teleplay when he was 30. Four years later he wrote 12 Angry Men as a one hour teleplay for Studio One and its popularity grew into the play and the 1957 film starring Henry Fonda directed by Sidney Lumet. (A great study for independent filmmakers because the bulk of the movie takes place in one room.) In 1997, another TV version was made starring George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon and Edward James Olmos and would win a collection of Emmy, DGA, SAG, and Golden Globe awards.

And what was the impetus for the story that would go on to win so many awards and be performed so much? A court case where Reginald Rose was part of the jury.

”It was such an impressive, solemn setting in a great big wood-paneled courtroom, with a silver-haired judge. It knocked me out. I was overwhelmed. I was on a jury for a manslaughter case, and we got into this terrific, furious, eight-hour argument in the jury room. I was writing one-hour dramas for ‘Studio One’ then and I thought, wow, what a setting for a drama.”
Reginald Rose
1997 interview with The Daily News.

I don’t know if Rose looked at his jury duty as a pain or a civic duty but I do know that it was that it resulted in a story that was the pinnacle of his career. And since today is Memorial Day let me say that since Rose was a veteran I’d like to think that he, to borrow Mamet’s phrase, saw himself an “essential component of American Democracy.”

Rose enlisted in the Army in 1942 after Pearl Harbor and served in the Philippines and Japan as a First Lieutenant until 1946.

He was nominated for a total of six Emmys winning three and belongs to mentioned with his TV contemporaries Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling.

So the next time you get that dreaded jury duty request, remember Reginald Rose and 12 Angry Men.

Twelve Angry Men (Play published by Penguin Books with David Mamet intro)

12 Angry Men (50th Anniversary DVD starring Henry Fonda)

Twelve Angry Men (L.A. Theatre Works CD)

Twelve Angry Men (DVD of original 1954 Studio One production)

Scott W. Smith

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“Being born in Dodge City, I really wanted to know where the trains were going. The first real light I saw was in a movie theater. I just wanted to know where they were making those movies.”
Dennis Hopper

“He was a Midwestern boy on his own…”
Bob Seger
Hollywood Nights

Dennis Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas and spent his early years on farm. When he was nine he moved to Kansas City, Missouri (where he took Saturday art classes with Thomas Hart Benton) and then on to San Diego area when he was 13, eventually being named “Most Likely to Succeed” at  Helix High School in La Mesa.

Hopper succeeded at a lot of things—unfortunately they weren’t all good for him.

His acting career started by performing Shakespeare as a teenager at The Old Globe at San Diego’s Balboa Park, and he then headed to Los Angeles when he was 18 and did some TV work before landing a role in classic James Dean films Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. On a PBS interview, Hopper would say of the actor from Marion, Indiana, “James Dean was the best actor that I ever saw work, really. He was just incredible.”

Hopper also worked with four other Midwestern actors who made their mark in Hollywood (Marlon Brando & Montgomery Cliff/Omaha, John Wayne /Iowa-Nebraska, and Paul Newman/Ohio). When Hopper died yesterday he had more than 200 credits as an actor. But he’s probably known best for just a handful or so roles on top of the James Dean films; Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, True Romance, Speed, and his Oscar-nominated role in Hoosiers. When the dust all settles he may be best remembered for directing and starring in Easy Rider for which he also received an Oscar nomination for co-writing the screenplay.

“There are moments that I`ve had some real brilliance, you know. But I think they are moments. And sometimes, in a career, moments are enough.”
Dennis Hopper

Hopper rode motorcycles with Steve McQueen, hung out with Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce and Jack Nicholson, he collected and created art, he was at the civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery which was led by Martin Luther King Jr., along with his Hollywood career that spanned 56 years.

And while Hopper had his days in the sun, he had his years (decades?) in the darkness. His was a life of excess— alcoholism, cocaine, heroin, LSD, hallucinations, abuse, violence, multiple failed marriages, detox clinics, jail, psychiatric wards, and orgies. But somehow he managed to rebound time and time again and somehow lived to be 74. (Even in his final days as he was in the midst of a divorce, he reportedly had “marijuana joints throughout his compound’ and loaded guns nearby to help ease the pain of his cancer and perhaps provide an exit—Hopper was Shakespearean to the end.)

I’ll always prefer to remember Hopper as his role in Hoosiers as the brilliant, yet alcoholic, Shooter. The story of a town drunk and a disgraced coach who both have a shot at redemption. That’s the hope I have for everyone, especially the artists—the crazy ones who seem to have a harder time than most dealing with demons.

“I am just a middle-class farm boy from Dodge City and my grandparents were wheat farmers. I thought painting, acting, directing and photography were all part of being an artist. I have made my money that way. And I have had some fun. It’s not been a bad life.”
Dennis Hopper
USA Today

Scott W. Smith

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Two years ago I wrote a post called Can Screenwriting Be Taught? and I just found another quote to toss into that mix:

“It is possible to examine how certain dramatists have constructed material in a way that at times has seized the interest of the audience. If they have also succeeded in seizing and retaining your interest, you should take a closer look at just how they did this. Though drama cannot be taught as such, it can definitely be learned the way most skills are learned: by examination of others whose work you admire.”
Screenwriter/ Director Alexander Mackendrick
(Sweet Smell of Success, The Ladykillers & Oscar-nominated screenplay The Man in The White Suit)

If that doesn’t convince you would it help if I told you that, according to the book Orson Welles: Hello Americans, Welles watched John Ford’s Stagecoach 40 times before and during the making of Citizen Kane? Frank Darabont says that while making The Shawshank Redemption he watched Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellows every weekend for inspiration.

Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) said of the movie Blade Runner “It’s a film I’ve seen hundreds of times. I’m one of those people that knows every single detail of that movie.”

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“Creative-minded people enjoy a mix of influences. They want to hear different kinds of music and try different kinds of food. They want to meet and socialize with people unlike themselves, trade views and spar over issues.”
Richard Florida
The Rise of the Creative Class

“We focused on places that specialize in out-of-the-box thinking.”
Kiplinger’s editors on their picking the 10 Best Cities for the Next Decade

When people think of Iowa the word creative isn’t usually the first word that pops into their mind. (Nor even the second or third word.) But what makes Iowa a fitting metaphor for screenwriting outside LA (as I have tried to show in the last two and a half years) is some tremendous creative talent has flowed from this state. Way back to painter Grant Wood and playwright Meredith Wilson (Music Man) to current actors from right here in Cedar Falls Michael Mosle and Annabeth Gish.

Certainly every state in America has, to borrow Richard Florida’s phrase, a creative class. In fact, Florida says they actually represent 40 million people in this county. He doesn’t limit the creative to writers and painters but includes those in education, biotech and architecture and small business.

I was living in Orlando when I first read Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class and was excited to a see a shift in the culture where creative people were not just tolerated, but seen as a key part of economic development for cities across the country. It’s been a while since I read the book, and I’m not sure how recent economic changes have altered the course of Florida’s predictions, but the lasting impression I got from reading the book is—it’s a good time to be creative.

(And even those in non-creative professions are more creative in their lives these days due to the increasing popularity of home improvements and decorating TV shows, taking better pictures of their kids, cooking gourmet meals. blogging, etc.)

Which brings me back to Iowa. Des Moines has made national news this week a couple of times and they are not unrelated. First when Slipknot bass guitarist Paul Gray was found dead in a hotel room is a Des Moines suburb. Slipknot came on the scene in the 90s and was unorthodox even by heavy metal standards. I’m not sure when people’s perception of Iowa began to changed, but it may have something to do with the founding of Slipknot in 1995—or when the Iowa-based band won a Grammy in 2006 for “Best Metal Performance.” (Maybe someone can fill in the gap between the dreaded Des Moines in the 60s & 70s that Bill Bryson writes about in his books and the Slipknot era.)

The fact is times are changing. A 1999 quote I’m fond of digging up comes from Steven Spielberg; “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.”
(Interview with Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show)

This week Kiplinger magazine name Des Moines the seventh best city to live and work. (10 Best Cities for the Next Decade.) Austin was listed as #1 and Seattle #2. No surprises there, nor with Boulder a little further down the list—but Des Moines? Really? This is what Kiplinger was looking for:

“Places with strong economies and abundant jobs, then demand reasonable living costs and plenty of fun things to do. When we ran the numbers, some of the names that popped up made us do a double take at first…One key to a bright future is a healthy shot of people in the creative class. People in creative fields — scientists, engineers, architects, educators, writers, artists and entertainers — are catalysts of vitality and livability in a city.”

This is nothing new to people in Des Moines. In a 2002 article by Florida he listed Des Moines as #2 (after Madison, WI) in his “Small-Size Cities Creativity Rankings.”

I’ve been fortunate over the years to have traveled to all 50 of the United States and I’ve seen creative people everywhere; Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Portland, Cleveland, Boston, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, Talkeetna—you get the picture. And I’m sure in all of those places there are screenwriters chipping away on scripts that they hope will find their way to Hollywood or perhaps a local filmmaker who can bring their words to life.

“Screenwriting from Iowa” is just here to give you a little encouragment—a glass of water for thirsty souls on a long journey.

PS. If you happen to find yourself driving through Des Moines on I-80, stop by the East Village downtown to see some of the creative changes happening in Iowa.

PSS. Also making Kiplinger’s top ten list is Rochester, Minnesota. Cedar Falls, Iowa where I live is about two hours south-west of Rochester and about two hours north-east of Des Moines…so once again in the middle of a lot of action.

Related Post: Off Screen Quote #2 (Bill Bryson)

Scott W. Smith


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Danny Rubin is another screenwriter with Chicago roots. Before he wrote Groundhog Day, he did his grad work at Northwestern. Rubin was around 35 years old when the classic Bill Murray comedy was released in 1993. What was he doing before that, and what’s his advice to writers before they sell their first screenplay?

“If you can, make money as a writer.  You may not be able to sell your screenplay just yet, but I always figured that any kind of writing would be better than flipping pizzas.  I wrote industrial videos and I typed resumes.  I worked for peanuts on a local TV show, wrote brochures, wrote sketch comedy for corporate shows – whatever I could wiggle my way into.”
Danny Rubin
Screenwriter, Groundhog Day

To find out what Rubin’s doing these days check out his website & blog (www.dannyrubin.com).

Related posts: Screenwriting the Chicago Way
Movie’s from Main St.(Photos from the town where they shot Groundhog Day
)

Scott W. Smith

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To blog daily is a monster beast to feed and I wish I had some great system to feed that monster. Instead it tends to be like manna I get just for the day. But when I find myself stuck for a post I don’t turn to the Internet to find something fresh, I turn to books I have read and reread over the years. And usually in some highlighted text and old friend jumps up and down saying, “use me, use me.”

And so it is today when I turned to the book Conversations with Arthur Miller (edited by Matthew C. Roudane) that I found the following quotes on writing by the great Death of a Salesman playwright:

“The very impulse to write springs from an inner chaos, a crying for order, for meaning and that meaning must be discovered in the process of writing or the work lies dead as it is finished.”
Arthur Miller interview with Chrisitan-Albrecht Gollub
Page 287

On being asked “What stimulates you into writing a play?”
“If I knew, I could probably control the inception of it better. I’m at the mercy of it; I don’t really know. I cannot write anything that I understand too well. If I know what something means to me, if I already have come to the end of it as an experience, I can’t write it because it seems like a twice-told story.”
Arthur Miller interview with Henry Brandon/1960

“Ibsen used to present answers. Despite the fashion that claims he never presented answers, he of course did. In the Doll’s House and even Hedda Gabler, we will find—and in Chekhov, too—we will find speeches toward the ends of these plays which suggest, if they don’t overtly state, what the alternative values are to those which are misled the heroes or heroines of the action shown…So far, I will admit, the bulk of literature, not only on the stage but elsewhere, is an exposition of man’s failure: his failure to assert his sense of civilized and moral life.”
Arthur Miller interview with Phillip Gelb/1958
Page 36

Note that Ibsen was a big influence on Miller’s early years as a writer. Miller even did an American translation of the Ibsen play An Enemy of the People.

Scott W. Smith


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Orson Welles was only 25-years-old when he made his first film Citizen Kane. It is considered one of the greatest films ever made. He won his sole Oscar on that film. He was 43 when he directed his last significant film Touch of Evil. Welles died in 1985 at age 70. Though he worked as an actor, voice-over talent, director, and even had his own TV show in his later years,  he was most well known to the general public for his Paul Masson commercials; “We will sell no wine before its time.”

When Clint Eastwood was 25-years-old he was digging swimming pools in Los Angeles.  While in his thirties he started to build a name for himself as an actor, but it was not until he was in his forties when he turned his hand to directing. And that was a 12 minute film called The Beguiled: The Storyteller. He followed that with the feature Play Misty for Me and has gone on to direct more that 30 films. He’s won four Academy Awards (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby) the last one at age 74. He was 78 when he directed and starred in Gran Torino, which to date (according to Box Office Mojo) is the highest grossing film that he’s ever starred in or directed.

“Some people glow really early, in their twenties and thirties, then in their fifties they are not doing as much. but I feel that growing up and maturing, constantly maturing—aging is the impolite way of saying it-—I like to think there is an expansion going on philosophically.”
Clint Eastwood
Devil’s Guide to Hollywood
Joe Eszterhas
Page 361

Scott W. Smith

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“Movies are dying because they killed off the people who could make them, the writer and the director. They took away their identity.”
Ben Hecht
February 15, 1958

Yesterday, on the post The Shakespeare of Hollywood, I wondered what screenwriter Ben Hecht (Spellbound, Wuthering Heights) would think about TV and the Internet today.  In one of those happy accidents I found an 1958 interview that I think gives the answer.

Hecht was one of those guys you don’t meet much any more. He openly spoke his mind. If you didn’t agree with him he didn’t seem to care. He was what they used to call a colorful character. He died in 1964 before political correctness came into vogue. (Though he was concerned with growing censorship.) And though Hecht had a long distinguished screenwriting career, one of the things he liked to lambast was Hollywood. The main targets of his diatribes were greedy producers and how American films had dumbed down American culture. I found a link at the University of Texas that had a transcript for The Mike Wallace Interview where in 1958 Ben Hecht was a guest.

WALLACE:  You’ve said that (TV is) a babysitting industry cooing at the crowds, it threatens to turn us all into furniture.

HECHT: It will when it gets matured. When you get your screen eight by ten feet picture on the wall and color and three dimensions, I’m afraid America will lose the use of its legs.

So here we are just a little over 50 years down the road from Hecht’s comments. While in 2010 we may fall a little short of 8′X10′ screens—color, large screens, and 3-D are now here. The largest I could find on a quick search is a Panasonic 4K 3D 152-inch Plasma. (It appears to be about the same size as a 4′X6′ piece of plywood.)

And back when Hecht made that comment there would have only been three main TV stations. And it was the heyday of live TV drama when The Philco Television Playhouse provided writing opportunities for writers like Paddy Chayefsky and Horton Foote.  Of course, today all the many network and cable channels provide employment opportunities for all sorts of creative folks, including writers.

But when you step back and look at the overall kind of programing that is being produced you have to wonder what kind of culture we are helping to produce. Has the writing evolved as much as the technology? (Some say there is more crap on the air, but more good stuff as well.) Or are we creating simply creating “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? (A colorful character like Ben Hecht, the Shakespeare of Hollywood, might have said that described the final episode of LOST.)

Hey, did you see that video on You Tube where the dog wakes up and starts chasing its tail until it runs into a wall?…

Scott W. Smith



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“Writing a good movie brings a writer about as much fame as steering a bicycle.”
Ben Hecht

“The job of turning good writers into movie hacks is the producer’s chief task.”
Ben Hecht

Screenwriter Ben Hecht was born in 1894 just as moving pictures were being invented. Before he died in 1964 he worked on 70+ films and wrote many plays and books. He was the first screenwriter to ever win an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story. He’s considered  one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of motion pictures.

Hecht was born in New York City and spent time on the lower east side before moving to Racine, Wisconsin. where his mother worked in downtown Racine. For those keeping score, Racine is not far from Kenosha, WI where Orson Welles was born.

After graduating from high school in Racine and briefly attending college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (for all of three days), Hecht went to Chicago where he eventually began working for newspapers (Chicago Journal and The Chicago Daily News). His first novel (Erik Dorn) was published in 1921. His Chicago-basedplay The Front Page was written in 1928 and was made into films several times. His time in Chicago covering murders and gangster would serve him well in Hollywood as those stories translated well to the big screen.

Jumping into the world of movies just as they were using sound, his script for Underworld was released in 1929 and earned him an Oscar award. He sometimes wrote a script in a matter of days and said that he never took longer than eight weeks. Scarface (1932) was written in nine days. He is quoted as saying of his screenwriting career that he was paid, “tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle.”

He was called The Shakespeare of Hollywood but had this to say of his own career: “Out of the seventy movies I’ve written some ten of them were not entirely waste product. These were Underworld, The Scoundrel, Wuthering Heights, Viva Villa, Scarface, Specter of the Rose, Actors and Sin, Roman Holiday, Spellbound, Nothing Sacred.
Ben Hecht

Some of the other movies he worked on (credited and uncredited) include:

Gunga Din
Notorious (Oscar Nominated)
Gone with the Wind
The Shop Around the Corner
His Girl Friday
Stagecoach
Angels Over Broadway (Oscar Nominated)
Viva Villa (Oscar nominated)

He won his second Academy Award for The Scoundrel (shared with Charles MacArthur). Because he sometimes used a pseudonym (partly because he was blacklisted in Europe) we’ll probably never know exactly how many novels, plays and movies Hecht actually wrote. But it’s safe to say that he cranked out his share of pages. Combine the tough-talking gangster persona Hecht carried with the rapid exchange found in His Girl Friday (based on Hecht/MacArthur play The Front Page) and it’s hard to think that Hecht didn’t pave the way for writers Joe Eszterhas and Quentin Tarantino.  (Eszterhas in his book Hollywood Animal called Hecht “the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood history.”

Later in life Hecht had his own TV talk show in New York City (you can find a weak interview he did with Jack Kerouac on You Tube) and was critical of the culture that American movies had helped produce:

“The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century….Of their many sins, I offer as the worst their effect on the intellectual side of the nation. It is chiefly from that viewpoint I write of them — as an eruption of trash that has lamed the American mind and retarded Americans from becoming a cultured people.”
Ben Hecht

What would he say of TV and the Internet today?

Scott W. Smith

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My years in Chicago were a bright time spent in the glow of new worlds. I was a newspaper reporter, playwright, novelist, short-story writer, propagandist, publisher and crony of wild hearts and fabulous gullets.  I haunted streets, whorehouses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, mad houses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls and bookshops. I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock, tasted more than my fly belly could hold, learned not to sleep, and buried myself in a tick-tock of whirling hours that still echo in me.”
Screenwriter Ben Hecht
A Child of the Century

Tomorrow I’ll write more about the greatest Hollywood writer of his day, Ben Hecht, but before he turned to the riches of writing movies the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter was a newspaper writer in Chicago. Back in the bad old days. 1920s—Gangsters.
A collection of his articles were published in the book A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago. That’s where I found the excerpt below that gives you a glimpse of his observational powers as a journalist that I’m sure served him well in Hollywood and the 70 or so films he worked on;

People come in out of the rain. A girl without an umbrella, her face wet. Who? Perhaps a stenographer hunting a job and halted by the rain. And then a matron with an old-fashioned knitted shopping bag. And a spinster with a keen, kindly face. Others, too. They stand nervously idle, feeling that they are taking up valuable space in an industrial establishment and should perhaps make a purchase. So they permit their eyes to drift politely toward the wares. And then the chatter of the books has them. Old books, new books, live books, dead books–but they move carelessly away and toward the bargain tables–”All Books 30 Cents.” Broken down best sellers here–pausing in their gavotte toward oblivion. The next step is the junk man–$1 a hundred. Pembertons, Wrights, Farnols, Websters, Johnstones, Porters, Wards and a hundred other names reminiscent more of a page in the telephone book than a page out of a literary yesterday. The little gavotte is an old dance in the second-hand book store. The $2-shelf. The $1-rack. The 75-cent table. The 30-cent grab counter. And finis. New scribblings crowd for place, old scribblings exeunt.

The girl without an umbrella studies titles. A love story, of course, and only thirty cents. An opened page reads, “he took her in his arms….” Who would not buy such a book on a rainy day?

A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago is no-longer copyright protected and you can read the entire book for free at Project Gutenberg.

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