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Archive for May, 2010

“(Writing the screenplay for An Education) was a bit like being given an outline and being asked to color it in.”
Nick Hornby

With apologies to Henry David Thoreau— The unexamined script is not worth writing.

A few days ago I watched An Education for which screenwriter Nick Hornby received an Oscar nomination for adapting Lynn Barber’s memoir to the screen. He’s a fine writer and will always have a following for writing the book High Fidelity which was Americanized and turned into a cult movie classic of the same name starring John Cusack and Jack Black.

Hornby has long been comfortable letting others write scripts from his novels, so it’s interesting that his first step into screenwriting was adapting an essay* he read in the British literary magazine Granta. He liked the essay enough to pursue writing the screenplay.

“The degree of examination that goes on in film is very interesting for a writer, because there’s not a line that goes unchallenged in a script. You do so many drafts, so every single conjunction is subject to some kind of thought, which never happens with books…I came away with the idea that I’d like to write books the way people write screenplays. I think I’m not going to let another line go through unexamined.”
Nick Hornby

Hornby has a blog and has a post called My advice to you: which could come in handy if you ever get nominated for an Oscar. (He writes, “I actually pretty good at being in the room with Meryl Streep.”) And if you need assistance picking summer reading material Hornby’s post My Waterstone Writer’s Table may be helpful.

As a sidenote, when I was watching the finely crafted An Education I keep trying to figure out where I had seen the lead British actor. Turns out that Peter Sarsgaard has not only been in Jarhead, Flightplan, and Garden State, but his an American from the Midwest. Born and raised in Belleville, Illinois. He graduated from Washington University where he majored in history and literature (and did some acting and improv), before heading off to New York to make a career as an actor. I think that’s working out okay for him.

* Barber later expanded her essay into the 192 page book An Education)

Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriter Michael Schiffer is known for writing screenplays that have attracted some of the finest actors of this era; Crimson Tide (which starred Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman), Lean on Me (which starred Morgan Freeman as inner city principal Joe Clark) Colors which starred Robert Duvall and Sean Penn, and The Peacemaker (which starred George Clooney and Nicole Kidman).

Coming off the post Writers Getting Older I thought you’d be interested in hearing from a screenwriter who came to screenwriting later in life.

“I drove to Hollywood when I was 35 to become a screenwriter. Directing theater in college made me want to write stories myself. I gave myself five years and worked really hard, writing 14 specs before I got hired for Colors.”
Michael Schiffer
The 101 Habits of Highly successful Screenwriters
Karl Iglesias

And Shiffer, who must be around 60-years-old now, is still at it. Though I’m not sure where it is on the production chain, The Hollywood Reporter announced last year Shiffer had sold his script Speed Boyz to Alcon Entertainment.

Scott W. Smith

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Arthur Fiedler was a musician with the Boston Pops Orchestra for 15 years before being chosen as its conductor in 1930. It was a position he held for 50 years. A young conductor once told me that the reason he chose conducting was because of the longevity of career. The reason for the longevity is the older a conductor gets the greater his repertoire, experience and knowledge becomes.

Granted for Hollywood screenwriters, 40 is considered old for feature writers and 30 is considered old for TV. But that has more to do with the industry than talent. Perhaps that will change as distribution channels change making the film business less focused on Hollywood blockbusters that hit the coveted 18-25 male demographics.

But writers write, right? One way Alfred Uhry beat the Hollywood odds was writing his first play when he was over 50. It opened at a small theater in New York an ran for six weeks. Uhry was thrilled with that because it was just long enough for his relatives to make their way to New York to see this play he had written about his grandmother.

But the play struck a cord and ended up on Broadway, and eventually Driving Miss Daisy was made into a film winning four Oscars including best picture.  (To go along with the Pulitzer Prize.)

Theater*, and certainly novels, have less to do with writers needing to be young because the audiences are more diverse. It will be interesting to watch as the boomers get older, and Internet distribution grows, if screenwriters over 60 will be in demand. (Until then we’re stuck with hearing about law suits involving agism in Hollywood.)

Here is what the writer best known for writing the detective character Mike Hammer had to say on writers getting older;

“If you’re a singer you lose your voice. A baseball player loses his arm. A writer gets more knowledge, and if he’s good, the older he gets, the better he gets.”
Mickey Spillane

The key thing on the side of boomers is quite a few of them have a little stash in the bank. (Or at least have a friend or two who does.) In a world of low-budget and micro-budget filmmaking it would seem there would be one or two that would forgo buying a yet one more toy or taking one dream vacation to make a feature film.  With 4 million baby boomers turning 60 each year for the 15 or so years there has to be some older screenwriters success stories in the near future. If you hear of any, let me know.

*Case study from the world of theater: Ibsen was over 50 when he wrote, A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, and An Enemy of the People. Those are his masterpieces. (Though Ibsen began writing plays as a teenager, today I doubt many people have heard, read or seen any of the plays he wrote in his first 30 plus years of writing.)

Scott W. Smith

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“What interested me about the story (of the Dalai Lama) was how a young man who lived in a society based on the spirit, found himself in conflict with a strongly anti-religious society, the Maoist government of the Chinese communists. How does a man of non-violence deal with these people?”
Martin Scorsese

“A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker.”
Siddhartha

As unlikely as it sounds, the Dalai Lama will be speaking today in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  Since I moved here in 2003 I’ve come to almost expect these kind of things. After all, just in the last few years Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman have performed here, and Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama stumped here.

So I wouldn’t say this is a typical small town of 35,000 people. The Dalai Lama will speak a of couple times on education at the University of Northern Iowa.

There are many kinds of Buddhist (sort of like denominations among Protestants), but the one I am most familiar with is the Hollywood Buddhist. Richard Gere being the leader of the pack and who recently did the narration for The Buddha which recently aired on PBS. Harrison Ford did the narration for the documentary Dalai Lama Renaissance. Martin Scorsese directed Kundun, based on the life and writings of the Dalai Lama. And Brad Pitt starred in Seven Years in Tibet. (Not that they all claim to be Buddhist, but there is a connection, and much of what the average person in America knows about Buddhism flows from those sources.)

Others linked with Buddhism in Hollywood are Sharon Stone,  Orlando Bloom, and Oliver Stone. (Scorsese and others are interviewed in the John Halpern documentary Refuge, which is a look at why Buddhism is so popular in the West.)

Melissia Mathison, who wrote the screenplay for The Black Stallion as well as E.T., wrote the script for Kundan. The Scorsese directed film is based on the life of the Dalai Lama and the political struggles between Tibet and China. In an interview Mathison did with Erin Free she had this to say about writing the script for Kundun:

“I buried myself in research, and I loved it. I had to learn about the people, the religion, the history and it was all quite fantastic and tantalising. I read everything I could find on Tibet and this went on for a couple of years. So that was the basis. I also did interviews with lots of people, including His Holiness, the Dalai Lama… It was wonderful. I would send him questions and his secretary would fax me back the answers. I took a couple of different drafts at different times to India and read through them with him. You could imagine what a pleasure it was.”

The script for Seven Years in Tibet was written by Becky Johnston. (Johnston was nominated for an Oscar for her script Prince of Tides.) She also did a great deal of research on the religion and met for a short time with the Dalai Lama. Both Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun came out in 1997. (For whatever reason both of those films were the last film credits for both Johnston and Mathison.)

That’s as close as I could find of American screenwriters with any ties to any kind of Buddhism. William Froug did write two volumes of Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, though the title really is just a play on Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But Froug does include a quote in the second volume by screenwriter Ron Bass that I think is a pretty wise quote about life and the stories we tell; “It’s all one story really, the story of who we are and how we relate and how we get it wrong.”

Scott W. Smith

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“The future has arrived!”
Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges)
Seabiscuit

“But I’m not; I’m not obsolete!”
The Obsolete Man written by Rod Serling
The Twilight Zone

Thinking about my recent posts that touched on the theme of the Old West changing, represented in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1970) as well as The Grey Fox (1982), made me think about another movie that begins in those years of transition—Seabiscuit (2003).

Back in 1996 magazine journalist Laura Hillenbrand stumbled upon an article that would change her life.

“That day I found just a tidbit of information, a few passages about how Charles Howard was a modern automobile man and Tom Smith was a plains cowboy. Something about that tugged at me, and I kept turning it over in my head. I thought it was fascinating that a man who would find his true greatness by teaming up with a frontier horseman who had been rendered obsolete by the automobile. I started poking around in more documents and doing a few interviews, and a spectacular story tumbled out of the research.”
Laura Hillenbrand

Her research became an article, then a best-selling book, and then a wonderful film based on Seabiscuit and the people that were touched by that horse. One of the side benefits of research is what you can stumble upon along the road you thought you were headed down. Serendipity happens in writing, in traveling, and in life.

Speaking of life, the movie was produced and released in wake of the September 11, 2001. A film about struggle was timely then, and it’s timely in 2010. A public speaker once told me that if you talk about pain and suffering, you will always have an audience. This is how the book starts:

“In the winter of 1937, America was in the seventh year of the most catastrophic decade in its history. The economy had come crashing down, and millions upon millions of people had been torn loose from their jobs, their savings, their homes.”

It was the task of screenwriter and director Gary Ross to take Hillenbrand’s research and best-selling book and somehow tell the story in two hours.

Seabiscuit is about these broken characters coming together, how they helped heal one another. It’s about people redeeming each other, getting past their own barriers and isolation to live again, and to re-engage in life. That’s what I found so amazing about it, was the struggles these three guys had out of despair. As the country was engaging in a similar struggle. That’s what really drew me to it.”
Gary Ross
DVD Talk Interview

Themes about hardship and the hope for change and transformation will never go out of style. Perhaps that is not only the history of American cinema, but of the history of civilization.

Related Posts: Seabiscuit Revisited in 2008
Writing Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid

Scott W. Smith

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(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade


“I don’t know if you saw the parting of the Red Sea with the chariots on the horses, I did stuff like that.”
Richard Farnswort
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After I posted the above Goldman comment yesterday on the post titled Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” it jogged my memory of another story about a career transition—both fictional and real life. The Grey Fox was released in 1982 about a decade after Butch Cassidy, but there are some similarities, mostly the concept of change in the Old West.

Richard Farnsworth plays a former stagecoach robber who is released from San Quintin after serving 33 years for his crimes. When he gets out in 1903 it’s a new world—the stagescoaches are out and movies are in. His character, Bill Miner, goes to see The Great Train Robbery and is inspired to take up his old ways yet with a new fresh angle.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film so I’ll rely on Rodger Ebert’s account to bring us all up to speed:

“(The Great Train Robbery.) That famous movie is only eleven minutes long, but long enough to make everything absolutely clear to Miner, who realizes he has a new calling in life, as a train robber. All of this could, of course, be an innocuous Disney movie, but it’s well-written and directed, and what gives it zest and joy is the performance by Richard Farnsworth, who plays Miner. Maybe you’ll recognize Farnsworth when you see him on the screen. Maybe not. His life has been one of those careers that makes you realize Hollywood is a company town, where you can make a living for years and never be a star. Farnsworth has been in more than three hundred movies.”
Roget Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, The Grey Fox
January 1. 1982

Though Farnsworth had been in more than 300 films, they were mostly as a stuntman. He doubled for some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors; Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen. You think he might have picked up a thing or two about acting from those fellows because after 30 years as a stuntman he began acting.

And he did it well enough to receive a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1979 for his role in Comes a Horseman and another Oscar nomination for Lead Actor in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (that was filmed right here in Iowa). He was 79 at the time of the nomination making him the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor nomination.

You may also remember his roles in The Natural, The Two Jakes, and Misery. I had the good fortune to meet Richard Farnsworth at a movie theater in Burbank some time in the 80s. Nothing exciting, he was just standing in front of me waiting to buy popcorn or whatever.

“Are you Richard Farnsworth?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I appreciate your work.”
“Thank You.”

He smiled and we shook hands. This was in the days before IMDB so I didn’t know in that simple exchange I was shaking hands with a man who was a real life Forrest Gump in the film industry having been in some legendary Hollywood productions;   Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Ten Commandments, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Roots, Bonanza, The Wild One,  Blazing Saddles, Spartacus and many others.

That means to one degree or another he worked with John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Howard Hawks,  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Cecil B. DeMille.

I don’t know how long stuntman work on a regular basis in Hollywood, but it has to take its toll on your body.  Farnsworth’s last credit as a stuntman was 1975 when he would have been 55. He was almost 60 when his acting career took off. He changed with the times.

By the way, the screenwriter of The Grey Fox, John Hunter,  was no spring chicken himself and was 71 when the movie was released.

Oh yeah, Farnsworth did stunts in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, too.

Scott W. Smith


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“I don’t know if any studio would make Butch Cassidy today.”
William Goldman

When I was a kid there was a place in Florida called Six Gun Territory that was an old west theme park near Ocala. They had a rail road, a saloon complete with can-can dancers, old-time photo studio, and most importantly they staged bank robberies and shootouts in the street. I still remember being around 9-years-old and the feel and the sound of walking on the gravel streets wearing cowboy boots.

I have many fond memories of that place and even shot my first 16mm film there. I remember ending that film paying homage to The Great Train Robbery by ending with a shot of a gunfighter shooting into the camera for no other reason than I thought it looked cool.

Every time I watch the opening scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid I think of Six Gun Territory. I don’t know if that was the first movie I ever saw set in the old west but I know it’s the one I go back to the most. It’s also the second highest rated western (after High Noon) on AFI’s top 100 films (1997) joining just a handful of other  Westerns that  made the list (Shane, Stagecoach, The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven).

Paul Newman and Robert Redford speaking screenwriter William Goldman’s words—that’s great stuff.  It took Goldman eight years to write the script which paid him a record fee up to that date of $400,000.  He also took home the Oscar for the 1970 film.

I sometimes watch favorite films with the sound off to get a different perspective. The movie holds up well without the great banter (“Think you used enough dynamite there Butch?”) With the sound off you follow the story easily and it plays as a visually stunning action film. (Though personally I could do without the trendy zoom lens shots.)

On this viewing I also realized that it perfectly matches Goldman’s “stay with the money” theory. Studios pay actors a lot of money, because audiences pay money to see stars. How many scenes do you think there are in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that don’t include Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and/or the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford)? The grand total is…zero. In fact, there is one scene where the town’s men talk about what to do about these bank robbers, and it’s more humorous by having Butch and Sundance listening to the discussion from a hotel balcony. Stay with the money.

“The essential opening labor a screenwriter must execute is, of course, deciding what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing. And to do that, you have to know what is absolutely crucial in the telling of your story—what is its spine? Whatever it is, you must protect it to the death…(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman 

Adventures in the Screen Trade

If I recall my philosophy class correctly, it was Heraclitus who said a long, long time ago that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” I think the times are always changing and that’s a good thing to realize. It was true of the old west, and it’s true of the new west, the Midwest, Key West—wherever you live. “The times they are a-changin’.”

By the way, Six Gun Territory pre-dated Disney World but closed in 1984. The land where it sat is now a strip mall. If you want to survive….

Scott W. Smith

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“There’s something magical about this place.”
Field of Dreams Visitor

If you’re in the market for a traditional Iowa farmhouse with a white picket fence, 193 acres, a two car garage and one baseball field used in the movie Field of Dreams—you’re in luck. Yesterday, it was announced that the field of dreams is for sale for $5.4 million.

The real estate bust in parts of the country like Las Vegas, Southern California and Arizona is pretty bad. I’ve read that 40% of homeowners in Florida owe more on their homes than they are worth. Foreclosures continue to climb. But Iowa has been spared from much of those problems because they never experienced a bubble in the first place. Growth here is like corn—slow and steady.

I live in Cedar Falls, Iowa about an hour and a half away from the field of dreams so I don’t really know the housing market there, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that $5.4 million is the most well-known and expensive house & property on the market in Dyersville, Iowa.

But while it is listed as a one-of-a kind property, I have to admit the annual 65,000 tourists that are attracted to the field of dreams pales in comparison to Graceland. (And, of course, those visitors do buy t-shirts and artwork which provides a nice income stream to keep your John Deere tractors running.)

Here’s my dream, that some wealthy benefactor (and longtime Screenwriting from Iowa reader) would buy the property and donate the house to serve as the iconic global headquarters for Screenwriting from Iowa. I’m not real interested in maintaining the ball field or farming the land. But I am open to hosting writing and acting workshops with Diablo Cody and Kevin Costner in the machine shed by the corn bib.

(For new readers, the Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter, Diablo Cody, went to college at the University of Iowa. Same school, by the way, that W.P. Kinsella (who wrote the novel that became the movie Field of Dreams) happened to attend. Check out the post The Juno-Iowa Connection. And keep an eye open for a change of address.)

Scott W. Smith

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Since this is a blog on screenwriting I often don’t worry about spoiler alerts as a movie reviewer would. In general, I usually deal with films that have been around a while and that have stood the test of time. But for those of you who haven’t seen Little Miss Sunshine…spoiler alert.

“A good character always has a crisis lurking inside them like a ticking time bomb. Once I’d decided who the characters would be in Little Miss Sunshine, it was just a matter of figuring out when those crises would happen. You also want those crises to happen in ascending order of importance. It all fell together pretty easily in the outlining process. The only really noteworthy choice I made, I’d say, was to kill off Grandpa at the midpoint, rather than hold off until the end of the second act. I hate seeing characters die in the late second act or early third act—it’s just such a clichéd time for a character to die. There’s a lot more shock value in a midpoint death, because audiences aren’t used to losing a major character that early in a movie.”
Screenwriter Michael Arndt
Little Miss Sunshine
MovieMaker interview with Jennifer M. Wood
February 3, 2007

Not much need for me to add anything there. But I like Arndt’s description about having a character in crisis—”lurking inside them like a ticking bomb.” Certainly describes many a great movie character; Nicholson in Chinatown, Dorothy in Oz, Charlie Sheen in Wall St., Harrison Ford in Witness, Juno, Oskar Schindler, Butch & Sundance,  Tom Cruise in Rain Man, James Cann in Misery, and Sandra Bullock in Speed.

Character in Crisis = Conflict = Interesting

Scott W. Smith


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“I think every writer harbors—secretly or not-so-secretly—delusions of grandeur. Still, when you’re starting out, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll ever ‘succeed.'”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt 

“There are two kinds of people in this world, winners and losers.”
Quasi-motivational speaker Richard Hoover (Greg  Kinnear), Little Miss Sunshine

Screenwriter Michael Arndt is a textbook example of everything I’ve been writing about on this blog for the past two and a half years. Like Diablo Cody his first produced screenplay (Little Miss Sunshine) not only became a sleeper hit, but it won him an Oscar for best original screenplay. A pretty good start, huh? Except that’s not the start.

Rewind a few years and you’ll find that he’s a New York University film school grad (steeped in the films of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, and Woody Allen) who spent 10 years working in the film business as an assistant and a script reader. Times that weren’t always fun, but his time as a reader served him well.

“I had read enough mediocre scripts and was determined not to inflict another one on the world.”
Michael Arndt

According to an article by Anne Thompson in The Hollywood Reporter, Arndt quit his job in 1999 and with $25,000. in savings took time to just focus on writing screenplays. And lots of them.

Thompson writes; “(Arndt) holed up in his cheap Brooklyn apartment and knocked out six stories. Six of them didn’t sing. The seventh did. ‘It was the most simple story,’ Arndt says. ‘That’s a mistake a lot of scripts make: Their plots are too complicated, so you don’t have time for characters.’ So he kept working on it, writing it over and over and over, 100 drafts, until it was as good as he could get it.”

That script was Little Miss Sunshine. The script created buzz as soon as it was sent out, but it would still take five years to get it produced and released.

“I read a lot of comedy screenplays and the reason why most of them don’t work is they’re not about anything. If your story isn’t about anything, or your character just wants a pretty girl and the bag of money then—it’s not going to add up to anything…I wanted Little Miss Sunshine to actually have a real climax at the end.”
Michael Arndt

I’m not sure what other writing opportunities the success of Little Miss Sunshine brought Arndt after 2006, but you may be surprised to learn that to date Little Miss Sunshine is his sole feature credited film that has been released. Of course, that will all change next month when Toy Story 3 is released. That’s right, the small indie, philosophical screenwriter who wrote what one reviewer called “a cultural look at the emptiness of America,” follows his Oscar success with a big budget Disney franchise film.

Remember what screenwriter Christopher (The Usual Suspects) McQuarrie said; “(Winning an Oscar) doesn’t make the studios want to make your movie any more than before. It just means they want you to make their movies.”

I’m personally excited to see what Arndt comes up with for Woody and the gang. One thing that I know he came away with on Toy Story 3 is a boat load of money. And let’s be honest, doesn’t every screenwriter want an Oscar and a boat load of money? (In addition to writing satisfactory screenplays that are turned into artistic films, of course.)

So let’s review Arndt’s 10 not so easy steps to becoming a successful screenwriter:
1) Film degree from NYU
2) Toil in the industry at various non-writing/non-production jobs for 10 years
3) Save money
4) Quit job
5) Write six screenplays in less than a year
6) Write one more that you finally think is “the one” in three days
7) Write 100 drafts of “the one” over the next year
8)Send it out
9)Sell it ($150,000) and wait five years for it to get made and become a sensation
10) Collect Oscar

Losers are people who are so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try.” Grandpa Hooper (Alan  Arkin) Little Miss Sunshine

Pop quiz:  What do these comedies all have in common?: The Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Groundhog Day, Tootsie, The Apartment, Modern Times.
(Ding, ding) Correct, they are all about something.

Related Posts:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Insanely Great Endings

Scott W. Smith

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