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Archive for October, 2010

“The problem with Our Thing (screenwriting) is that it’s fertile ground for delusion… Most unappreciated writers are unappreciated because they suck.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin

“Those who can’t write, teach seminars.”
John August’s blog post title Oct, 25, 2010

Update 11/5/10: Because Mazin himself believed this post was “disguised mostly as a personal attack on me”—which was not my intent—I have removed a couple of paragraphs that make reference to where he is from, where he went to school, and any mention of reviews of his produced films. Mea culpa.

Update 12/24/13 In the Christmas spirit I’ve decided to re-work this post. Make it a little more upbeat. Tried to make it a little shorter, but failed. And since it’s a little on the long side let me start by adding that I really think all a new writer needs to read is these handful (and free posts)—and a couple of screenplays— to jump into screenwriting and to keep plugging away at the dream:

1) David Mamet’s Memo
2)  Terry Rossio’s 23 Steps to A Feature Film Sale
3) Christopher Lockhart’s post The “A” List on his The Inside Pitch blog
4) Mystery Man on Film’s The Raiders Story Conference (Spielberg, Lucas, Kasdan)
5) The 99% Focus Rule (Yeah, it’s a post from me, but I’m just a conduit for Michael Arndt’s words)

Screenwriting is an illusive business. If you combine all the spec script sales and scripts on The Black List any given year you come up with a total under 200. Sure there are studio assignments, indies, and television, but the number of screenwriters making a steady income is— like I pointed out in How Much Do Screenwriters Make?—like being a professional football player. It’s a relatively small and talented group.  And the odds of writing a good script, that gets both good reviews and does well at the box office, and which brings you a major award  is on par with becoming a Payton Manning or a Tom Brady.

So when a young unknown writer in the suburbs of Minneapolis wins an Oscar for her first script it catches our attention. But as I point out in Screenwriter’s Work Ethic, Diablo Cody mentioned in one interview that she’d been writing everyday since she was 12. That’s 15 years of poems, short stories, etc. before she captured the magic in a screenplay in Juno. (A better example of the 10,000 rule than getting lucky.)

Cody did it the old-fashioned way of just writing. No film school, no podcasts, no screenwriting workshops, no screenwriting books. Others have taken those more common routes. Everyone seems to take their own path. Find what works for you—guard for time and pocketbook closely—and best wishes on your journey.

And since I’m updating this post on Christmas eve let me say that I’m all for:  “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

******

The past week has turned into anger week as I pulled several quotes from The Angry Filmmaker (who I happened to met last Monday) and I then dealt with the anger following an auditor’s report of abuses in the Iowa Film Commission who apparently misappropriated  25 million dollars in taxpayers’ funds. So why not keep this thing rolling and talk about the angry screenwriters?

Who are the angry screenwriters and what are they angry about? What screenwriter isn’t angry? It could be said that being angry is a prerequisite for being a writer. Something must drive you to write whatever you write and anger has to be one of the top things that motivates most writers. Want a short list of examples?

1) Network (Paddy Chayfesky), #8 on WGA 101 Greatest Screenplays

2) High Noon (Carl Foreman), #75

3) Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee), #93

But today I want to address what’s bothering screenwriters Craig Mazin and John August.  It’s mostly screenwriting consultants and those who give screenwriting seminars. The ones who aren’t successful screenwriters and who charge fees for seminars and script consulting.

Mazin started the thing a few days ago when he came back from Austin Film Festival  and wrote a post called Screenwriting is Free on his blog The Artful Writer. Keep in mind that these are his unedited words, not mine:

“You go to screenwriting conferences because you want to be a professional. You want to sell a script. You’re a student. You want to learn.

Good for you. Listening to and questioning the people who do the job you want is a smart move.

What is NOT a smart move is listening to the people who DON’T do the job. And who are they? Oh, you know who they are. They’re selling books. They’re selling seminars. They’re ‘script consultants.’ And for a small fee, or a medium fee, or a goddamned flat-out ridiculous fee, they’ll coach you right into the big leagues!

Horseshit. Let me say it loudly and clearly: IF THEY WERE ANY GOOD, THEY WOULD BE DOING WHAT I DO, NOT DOING WHAT THEY DO.”

I actually can take either side of this argument. But what’s the fun in simply agreeing with Mazin? Perhaps Mazin’s heart is in the right place—he wants to save aspiring screenwriters from wasting a boatload of money. Good for him.

But his passion (Anger? Look at all those capital letters) leads him down the wrong path as a sweeping generalization against anyone who teaches screenwriting. John August adds fuel to the fire with just the title of his post Those who can’t write, teach seminars.” Though August is more generous in his response.

Mazin believes if you are going to buy a book or take a seminar on screenwriting that there should be this criteria;

“Don’t spend a dime unless the seller has worked, is working and is gonna BE working. Multiple credits. A hit or two would be nice. Or recent critical acclaim, like a script on the Black List. A recent spec sale, or a spate of new gigs. Awards and nominations never hurt….”

That’s the major flaw in Mazin’s thinking. That just because you can do something means you can teach it. I once took a screenwriting workshop from Alfred Urhy who not only won an Oscar for writing the screenplay Driving Miss Daisy, but his play of the same title earned him a Pulitzer Prize. For his play The Last Night of Ballyhoo he won his first of two Tony Awards. (I believe he is still the only writer to ever win an Oscar, a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize.) Can you get anymore solid writing credentials than that?

Even Mazin whose credits include Hangover Part II  and Identity Thief I think would say that Uhry is a well-respected writer. I think Uhry is a brilliant writer. But as a teacher Uhry was weak and even admitted that he didn’t know what to say about writing.  Now the workshop was worth it just to hear Uhry’s anecdotes about Hollywood. (In fact, just his story of how he was taken off the project The Bridges of Madison County was worth the fee I paid.)

This year I read three screenwriting books by produced screenwriters, one is credited on one of the top films of its genre and another actually has an Academy Award—but all three books I would put in the bottom ten percent of screenwriting books I’ve read. (And for better or worse, I’ve read far too many.)

Perhaps the best example of a successful screenwriter who wrote a weak book on screenwriting is Joe Eszterhas’ The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God!* Eszterhas was once the poster child for angry screenwriters. How many screenwriters have punched a star actor? (Or was it a big name producer?) Don’t look for an Oscar or a Pulitzer on Eszterhas’ shelf, but according to Box Office Mojo 14 movies from his scripts have a total domestic earning of almost $400 million. (Or more than $800 million when adjusted for inflation.)

He’s a successful screenwriter with a long career and I think Mazin would agree. But Eszterhas’ book on screenwriting, along with his book Hollywood Animal, will not help you much in become a better writer. Because his screenwriting book is really about Joe Eszterhas and his experiences in Hollywood. It’s full of interesting quotes by producers, directors, and writers that serves as kind of a disjointed history of the film business.  If you like Hollywood anecdotes then Eszterhas’ book is a goldmine. But understanding the screenwriting process?  You’ll get better insights from McKee (who Eszterhas hates along with a long list of people in Hollywood).

To carry my football analogy a little further pro football (and actually baseball, basketball, etc.) are full of great coaches who either didn’t play professional ball or didn’t excel at the highest level. (And actually there are few star atheles who went on to become great coaches or executives. In the NBA Isiah Thomas, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan come to mind. )

For a while I was confused why Uhry & Eszterhas couldn’t unpack the mysteries of screenwriting as well as McKee and Seger. Then I came across this passage by Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs in their book Screenplay—Writing the Picture:

It is interesting to note that few Hollywood screenwriting gurus have ever sold a movie (and Aristotle never wrote a play). This is because the ability to structure a story and the ability to analyze the structure of a story are two totally different talents. They come from different parts of the brain…Good writers seldom have an analytical understanding of what they do or how they do it. Instead they have a practical understanding of dramatic techniques.”

That’s not saying that writers can’t be good screenwriting teachers, or that screenwriting teachers can’t be good writers—but I think it’s rare to find one person who can do both well. William Goldman comes closest with his Oscar-winning screenplays and his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. And though playwright & Oscar-winning screenwriter David Mamet doesn’t think writing can be taught, he’s a pretty good teacher.

And both August and Mazin do a super job expounding screenwriting concepts on their podcast Scriptnotes. (I even did a post on it, Scriptnotes’ 100th Podcast.) Listening to their podcast for a couple of years, I don’t know how angry they really are—I think it’s just part of their persona. They have a give and take on their podcast that keeps the show interesting and entertaining. If you can get August or Mazin  to be your mentor or give you notes on your screenplay for free then by all means go for it.

But keep in mind that working screenwriters are working. So even if a working screenwriter was the best to give you notes on your script getting them to carve tiem to help you will take some finagling. You’re more than likley to get a very direct Josh Olson-like response, I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script. (You know, Olson does have A History of Violence.) And given that there are tens of thousands of people writing scripts the demand outways the supply.

a good deal of writers are introverts and public speaking is not at the top of their skill set. So even those few writers who can write great movies and can also proficiently write about the screenwriting process doesn’t mean that they could hold a room for a day (or even an hour) speaking about screenwriting. And now that we’ve whittled the number down to maybe a couple dozen people in the world (who are too much in demand as high paid screenwriters to even care about giving a seminar in the first place) there isn’t enough people to fill the demand to give screenwriting advice.

(Now the question of why there is so much of a demand for screenwriting advice is a whole separate can of worms for a post of its own. But a desire to tell stories and Cody’s success pretty much cover most of the bases.)

For what it’s worth, I doubt Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen would be very good teaching a class on songwriting. And I’m not sure how coherent a screenwriting workshop by Quentin Tarantino or  Charlie Kaufman would be. The best way to write like those guys would be to extract some of their DNA and somehow infuse it into yours. If you can’t do that than you’re best off reading a lot of Elmore Leonard.

Sanford Meisner, was a frustrated and failed actor who went on to become one the greatest acting teachers in American history. His students included actors Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, and Sandra Bullock, directors Sydney Pollack and Sydney Lumet, and writers Arthur Miller and David Mamet. (I’m guessing that at one time those wannabe actors, directors, and writers paid money to learn the Meisner Technique.)

I think that top screenwriters are gifted and talented people who simply tap into the magic in a way that works for them but is not easy to convey to others. Uhry was at least honest when asked by students why he did certain things in his script and he replied, “I don’t know.” I’ve read where the great Horton Foote gave basically the same answer. That’s the mystery of writing.

The best screenwriting teachers & seminar leaders (and I imagine the top screenwriting consultants) are really cheerleaders who help point the way based on their unique mix of education, & life and work experiences. Does charging $5,000. for script coverage seem high? Absolutely, especially when people are making feature films for under $5,000.

Are there scam artists? Sure, as there is in every profession from politics to religion. But I believe that teaching is an honorable profession and if you do it well you may be honored to some degree. You may gather a following. And sometimes when you gather a following you are well paid. Either accidentally, by good word-of-mouth, or via good marketing some of these screenwriting teachers have in fact become well-paid screenwriting gurus. But like A-list screenwriters, well-paid screenwriting gurus are pretty rare.

Mazin is correct that screenwriting is free. Mazin is correct that the best way to learn is reading screenplays, watching movies, and writing screenplays. (And thanks to computers and the Internet all of those are easier to do today than when Syd Field published Screenplay in 1979 and started the modern day screenwriting teaching cottage industry.) But to think that you can’t learn a kernel of truth and get a little inspiration from someone unless they are a successful screenwriter is just plain wrong. (Whether any book, teaching DVD, workshop, expo, conference—or even college—is worth the price, is perhaps the big question. Remember the old maxim, “Make every purchase a wise  investment.”

The only real criteria for  any writer or teacher/consultant/guru should be “Are they any good at what they do?”  In Seger’s defense, two -time Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) is on record saying, “I’ve used Linda’s concepts from Making a Good Script Great on all my films starting with Apollo 13.” In McKee’s defense, Oscar-winning Akiva Goldman (A Beautiful Mind) credits McKee with helping him make the transition from a failed novelist to a screenwriter. The fact that the majority of Seger’s and Goldman’s students don’t become a Ron Howard or a Akiva Goldman doesn’t negate what those instructors bring to the table.

Honestly, these days there is way more than enough free info out there for anyone who wants to learn screenwriting.  And if August and Mazin—along with Go Into the Story. Jeff Goldsmith’s podcast,  Scriptshadow, Wordplayer— and other free screenwriting blogs were around in the 80s perhaps McKee, Seger, and the like wouldn’t have risen in popularity. But even if there is more than enough free info out there, what there will never be enough of is teachers who take an interest in their students and invest time to inspire, correct, and encourage them to be the best they can be in a given field.

Keep in mind that all of the advice of August and Mazin come as Hollywood insiders. They definitely have valuable and helpful information.

But then again my goal with Screenwriting from Iowa is not to mimic everything being done in Hollywood, but to come at things from a different angle and to encourage writers to write solid original stories in that vast, often overlooked, and despised area known as flyover county. (Or some other unusual place around the world.) And to echo the words of The Angry Filmmaker who said to me this week about a script I just finished, “Don’t wait for LA or NY, do it yourself.”

Now, if you want to read where I agree in part with Mazin check out the post I wrote a couple of years ago called, Screenwriting, Infomercials & Gurus. It’s a post that has a photo I took of Yoda when I visited ILM and a great quote from Tootsie screenwriter Larry Gilbart, “So many gurus and so few good writers. Where are all these lessons going?”

Which was the thinking behind the post Can Screenwriting Be Taught?

*Eszterhas’ memoir Hollywood Animal also won’t give you much practical advice on screenwriting because it’s really a book about Joe Eszterhas (it is a memoir after all) but it’s an engaging read if you want to will learn the details about Eszterhas’ affair with Sharon Stone, about his battles with alcoholism, and about how much he hates the business.  Perhaps the real takeaway from Eszterhas is if you want to write like Joe Eszterhas you have to live the crazy rock-n-roll life the Joe Eszterhas has lived.

Related Link:

Script Consultants: A Waste?

Script Consultant Adam Levenberg After I originally wrote this post Levenberg contacted me and said he’d read a script of mine and give me notes to show what he does. The result was not only a three hour phone call but the most detailed notes I’d ever recieved. Actually, changed my focus on what kinds of scripts I should be writing. My post Concept, Concept, Concept and Lockhart’s 2006 post Hallewood and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s quote in The Idea is King. (And for what it’s worth, Levenberg thinks 90% of script consultants are quacks.)

Syd Field (1935-2013) When screenwriting guru Field died the writers that sang his praise were Frank Darabont, Tina Fey, and Judd Apatow.

Update 3/28/11: This may be as close to a Charlie Kaufman seminar you’re going to find:

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
Wise old saying

Yesterday, I mentioned the danger of financing your feature film using personal credit cards. (The Angry Filmmaker & Four Eyed Monsters.) If your film doesn’t sell, it’s a risk that could leave you broke at best and heavily in debt  (or bankrupt) at worst. But there is even a more dangerous way to finance your film—commiting fraud. An audit was released earlier this week here in Iowa that stated that 80% of the Iowa film tax credits were flawed.

You don’t have to read all of the 277 page report (or even agree with some of its findings) to see there were a gross abuses of tax payers money. Auditor of State David S. Vaudt released a special investigation that “identified $25,576,300.50 of tax credit certificates which were improperly issued for the 22 projects.” (If you got lost in the commas, that’s more than 25 million dollars.)

The Des Moines Register article by Lee Rood stated, “Following release of the audit, Attorney General Tom Miller announced he had filed a new civil lawsuit in Polk County against five business partners and four companies involved in producing or pursuing 15 movie projects.”

The layers of fraud appear to be deep and quite commonplace. (And consistent with rumors that began kicking around the Iowa production community in ’08.) And for a dramatic twist, in the report there is a letter of concern from an Minnesota resident who wrote a letter in June of ’09 to the Iowa Film Commission stating, “I am writing because I discovered what I think to be fraud perpetrated on the tax payers of Iowa.” He goes on to detail how the head of a production company in L.A. told him (in his words), “She puts in millions of dollars in phony deferments with people she knows then gets tax credits to cover it.”

Needless to say, the Iowa Auditor is not the only one angry. Everyone from Iowa politicians (on all sides) to Iowa residents are angry. I doubt if the State of Iowa will be able to recoup much of the money that it says its owed. But I image there are some filmmakers, producers, and “tax certificate brokers” that are getting a little less sleep these days. Perhaps some houses and Hummers will be sold and perhaps some people will go to jail. (Lawyer fees alone for those being investigated will be ridiculous.)  Time will tell. But the moral of the story is don’t commit fraud to get your film made. (Heck, let’s just go out on a limb and say it’s never a good idea to commit any kind of fraud.)  And if you just see yourself as a big picture artistic person, be careful of whose advice you follow.

And  it’s not like these people were even stealing to make good films. You know, you at least have a little sympathy for the unemployed, down on his luck fellow who steals a loaf of bread to feed his family. But we’re talking about pure greed to produce crap. Just another scam to make money.

And from a pure filmmaker’s perspective it’s sickening to see the inflated fees that were paid to crews on the taxerspayers’ dime. I noticed more than one line item for inexperienced production people  who were paid more for a few weeks work than the total film cost of Edward Burns’ new film , Nice Guy Johnny. (Reportedly made with a three person crew for $25,000.) It was released on iTunes this week and as I type this it is currently #7 in iTunes rentals. If you want a true independent filmmaker to look up to and who’s leading the alternative distribution way, Burns is a great choice to follow.

Scott W. Smith

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Have you ever seen a one-legged dog making its way down the street?
If you’ve ever seen a one-legged dog then you’ve seen me
Then you’ve seen me, I come and stand at every door
Then you’ve seen me, I always leave with less than I had before
Bruce Springsteen
The Wrestler

“Credit card debt is a major problem in America.”
Dave Ramsey
The Truth About Credit Card Debt


Americans love a good success story. We love good myths as well.  And the model of financing your film via credit cards has given us some wonderful success stories and a myth as well.  The truth is most credit card  filmmakers (99% would be a good guess) are like the one-legged dog that Springsteen sings about in The Wrestler—they leave with less than they had before. And the one thing worse than being broke, is being in debt.

The problem is we usually only hear the success stories. Robert Townsend was the first person I ever heard about who financed a feature film using credit cards. Back in 1987 Hollywood Shuffle was released and it launched his career.

“There was nothing I couldn’t get with a credit card. And what I couldn’t pay for with credit card I would get a cash advance on the credit card. I couldn’t pay people but I said, ‘I could put gas in your car.’ So I said, ‘All of you follow me to the gas station. I would tell the dealer, ‘See those 20 cars out there? Put it on my American Express.”
Robert Townsend
Jet magazine Jun 1, 1987

Kevin Smith’s Clerks is another film said to be funded on credit cards. Again, it launched a career. The documentary Spellbound was not only nominated for an Academy Award  but grossed over six million dollars and was funded by credit cards.

“We hit the road, using our credit cards to fund the project. Then we’d come home between shooting the film, pay down some of the debt and resume shooting,”
Spellbound producer Sean Welch in a Money magazine article.

So there you have three examples of success stories that solidify the myth of credit card filmmaking. But the truth is best summed up in a Charles Lyons 2005 article in The New York Times called Join a Revolution. Make Movies. Go Broke. Seriously, every filmmaker needs to read that article. Arin Crumley and Susan Buice were filmmaking darlings five years ago as their film Four Eyes Monsters was well received at film festivals and garnered lots of press. But the film did not find a distributor and left Crumley and Buice with $55,000.+ in credit card debt.

“It’s not O.K. for our film to have been mildly successful on the festival circuit. But otherwise, it was just a jaunt into the abyss and now we have financial hell to pay.”
Susan Buice (2005)

Filmmakers using credit cards to self-finance their films is another reason why Kelley Baker is The Angry Filmmaker;

“Too many people finance their films on credit cards, and they go broke! Their films end up not getting a distributor and they’re left paying 30% interest on a film that no one wants. Heed the words of noted financial consultant and former NBA player Charles Barkley, ‘Credit cards exist to keep poor people poor.’

DON’T USE YOUR DAMN CREDIT CARDS FOR ANYTHING!!!”
Kelley Baker
The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide

With that said, Four Eyed Monsters filmmakers Crumley and Buice got creative and kept finding ways to get people to see their film. One of them was in 2007 when their film became the first feature length film to be shown on You Tube. As I write this on October 29, 2010 there have been 1,256,401 views. They also made a plea on You Tube for people to join spout.com and that company would give Crumley and Brice $1 for each person who joins up to $100,000. Fast forward a few years and I read on the blog Distribution 2.0 that Crumley and Buice got $50,000. from the You Tube/Spout deal, and that exposure not only added DVD sales, but the online attention got them a $100,000 broadcast and rental deal. Does that add to the credit card myth or fall under the category of a crazy success story?

The entire film is linked below. (As a quirky side note, A few years ago I did a documentary shoot in Russia with DP Jon Fordham who was a cameraman on Four Eyed Monsters.)

Scott W. Smith


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The Angry Filmmaker (Part 2)

Kelley Baker on anger take one:
“A lot of people ask me why I’m angry. I am the Angry Filmmaker after all. What makes me angry is the state of INDEPENDENT films. The independent film industry is no longer even remotely independent. It’s been mainstreamed by Hollywood and is now simply another over-hyped product. Like commercial radio, pop music and Starbucks coffee, the industry gas become a homogenized mess of conglomerates owned by a handful of extremely powerful corporations. It begs the question Independent from what? We need to take the word ‘Independent’ back!”

Kelley Baker on anger take two:
“I was visiting my alma mater (USC Cinema) a few years ago, and after touring the place, it seemed like a whole different world to me. When I was there, the school was full of outsiders, people who didn’t fit in anywhere else. People were artists, or at least trying to be. Now the school looks like a giant fraternity/sorority party. I know there were outsiders somewhere, I just didn’t see any. I was asking one of my old professors if they ever let the ‘riff-raff’ into the program any more. The people who don’t fit in. He said, sadly, ‘No.’ A lot of the people in the program now were kids of Hollywood people. “

Kelley Baker on anger take three:
“Think of all the people who’ve entered those (screenwriting) contests for years and got nothing. You have as much chance of winning one of those contests and having your movie made as I do having monkeys fly out of my butt! Your only choice is to make the damn thing yourself.”

Taken from Baker’s book The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide.

Scott W. Smith

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Over the years I’ve learned to wear quite a few hats; producer, director, writer, cameraman, editor, etc.—but one thing I have little experience in is sound design. Thanks to The Angry Filmmaker, Kelley Baker, I know a lot more today than before I met him two days ago.

Years ago, I had one class is film school where the teacher showed us the George Stevens’ classic A Place in the Sun. When it was over he asked us questions like, “What sounds do you associate with the Elizabeth Taylor character?” and “What is going on in the background noise for Shelly Winters’ character?” None of us had a clue. We talked about sound design and then watched parts of the film again and I began to understand the details that went into a well crafted film. Though it’s been a big gap, what I learned from Baker took up right where that film professor left off.

Baker stopped into my office Monday as a quick pit stop on his way from Wisconsin to St. Louis. He watched a short video I’m on the tail end of production on and offered some wisdom on sound design and added that I should cut it the whole thing by a minute. A minute? It’s only four minutes long. A minute is 25% of the almost finished video. Later that night (just before midnight) 51 seconds had been painfully edited out and it’s a better project for it.

Baker is a USC film school grad, an independent feature filmmaker, and was sound designer on several high profile features including Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, and My Own Private Idaho. That’s a pretty good resume.  These days he spends a lot of time doing film seminars and passing on what he’s learned over the years to other filmmakers. (I’ll get into why he’s the Angry Filmmaker in later posts.)

But today I want to touch on one scene Barker sound designed for Good Will Hunting. It’s the scene where Will (Matt Damon) gets into a fight. Watch the linked clip and then read Baker’s comments below. (If you really want to dip your toes in sound design, first watch the clip without sound and then ask yourself how you would design the scene, Then listen to it with sound before you read Baker’s comments below.)

Baker told me that he asked director Gus Van Sant what he wanted for the fight scene thinking he might want big punches like those found in Raging Bull. Van Sant simply told him, “I want Revolution Number 9.” That’s the Beatles song off their White Album and what Van Sant was saying was he wanted chaos.

Baker goes into more detail on his educational DVD Sound Design For Independent Films saying;

“We already agreed that the fight would be from Matt’s point of view—all the audio for the fight…You’re going to hear church bells, you’re going to hear birds, happy little birds, and you’re going to hear kind of a choir…There’s a lot more going on, but those three kind of stand out. And you have to think, “This is a fight, what am I hearing happy birds for? Why am I hearing church bells? What’s the whole deal with the choir? It’s easy. As a young man Will Hunting was beat up and knocked around and dumped on by all these foster parents and he talks about it in the movie.

The only time he’s ever happy and at peace with himself is when he’s fighting. When he’s beating the crap out of somebody. So to him to some extent—and this is only in my logic perhaps—it’s the happiest time for him when he’s invloved in a fight and he’s winning. That’s why you get happy birds, that’s why you get these religious type sound effects because he is at one. He is at peace when he’s in the middle of a fight.

Is anybody in the middle of watching the movie going to say, ‘Listen there’s a choir, he’s at one with himself because of his horrible childhood”? No, nobody’s going to say that. Are they going to pick up on it psychologically? I hope so. That’s the idea. I’m trying to tell you more about characters through sound and sound effects.”

Now watch the clip of the Good Will Hunting clip again. You may be a writer, not a sound designer, but look at the detail that professionals (including directors, actors,  editors, directors of photography, wardrobe, set designers, sound designers, etc.) are looking for clues on how to best bring your story to life.

And just for good measure listen to the Beatles Revolution Number 9 to see Van Sant’s original reference point for the fight scene sound.

Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I was fortunate to have lunch with The Angry Filmmaker (Kelley Baker ) and  Jon Gann, founder of the D.C. Film Alliance, as they journeyed from doing a film workshop in Madison, Wisconsin to meeting with filmmakers in St. Louis. I’ll write more about what I learned about filmmaking over yesterday’s lunch (and it was a lot) later this week, but for today let me sum it all up in one word—”Stagecoach.”

Kelley and Jon noticed as they pulled into Cedar Falls fresh from a morning stop at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville) that the 1939 John Wayne/John Ford film “Stagecoach” was on the marquee at the Oster-Regent Theatre on Main Street. No, movies don’t take that long to get to Iowa (though many good ones never get here), but it was part of the theater’s 100 year celebration.

On Sunday afternoon I gave a short introduction to the classic western film and that info I learned meshed very well with Kelley’s own views on filmmaking and that is simply that filmmaking is a process that is best learned by doing. If you’ve read this blog much you’ve heard illustration after illustration of writers and filmmakers who simply learned their craft by writing script after script and making film after film.

And the same was true for John Wayne and John Ford. While Stagecoach is #63 of AFI’s list of the greatest American films ever made and #9 on their list of top ten westerns. The film was nominated for seven Oscars and won two. It did not win for best picture  because 1939 was one of the greatest years for films in the history of cinema.

Stagecoach joined Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka and The Wizard of Oz in losing the best picture Oscar to Gone with the Wind. Victor Fleming also won best director for Gone with the Wind.

But Stagecoach was the go to film for Orson Welles before he made Citizen Kane (1941). In fact, Welles not only watched the film 40 times, but when once asked who his favorite three film directors where said, “John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.” For what it’s worth, both Citizen Kane and Stagecoach did mediocre business at the box office when released.

But the more fascinating thing to me about Stagecoach from this blog’s perspective is that for both John Ford and John Wayne it was about the 90th film each had made. Of the 180 films between the two made before 1939  most people today wouldn’t recognize but one or two films. (John Wayne called his pre-Stagecoach films “poverty westerns.”) A good deal of those films where two-reelers that were 20-50 minutes in length. Though the popularity of these shorter films that played along side feature films died out in the mid to late 1930s, they proved to be a great training ground for actors and filmmakers since the beginning of film history in the late 1800s.

And if the 10,000 hour rule is true then the greatest benefit for actors and filmmakers today in working on short films is the learning process.  What does the Angry Filmmaker have to say about short films?

“If you make a feature without having made a short film, you’re an idiot. Filmmaking is as much a craft as it is an art form and a business. First and for most you have to learn your craft.”
Kelley Baker
The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide

These days it really doesn’t take much time and money to get some friends and some equipment together and make one to seven minute films. And there are plenty of film festivals to enter so you can collect some awards and this little thing called the internet for your films to perhaps find an audience and make a name for yourself.

If John Wayne can go from being born in little Winterset, Iowa to becoming one of the greatest on-screen legends via doing 13 years of  “poverty westerns”— just maybe there is some magic in just in the process of doing little things well until greater opportunities come your way.

P.S. And just because I delight in making odd connections, The Angry Filmmaker (who’s really a gentle soul from what I can tell) is from Portland which happens to be where writer Ernest Haycox was born and died. Haycox wrote 300 short stories and 12 novels and  of who Ernest Hemingway once said, “I read The Saturday Evening Post whenever it has a serial by Ernest Haycox.” Haycox’s short story Stage to Lordsborg was what screenwriter Dudley Nichols based based his script Stagecoach.

P.P.S. The movie Stagecoach was also John Ford’s first film to be shot in Monument Valley. Though I’ve been all over the county that area is one place I’ve missed and is in my top five place I want to see. I dream of staying at The View Hotel on the Arizona/Utah border someday. As John Ford found out, there is some beautiful land out there in flyover county.

Scott W. Smith


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Here is one more quote to add to the stack about growing up in a place somewhat disconnected. In a 1966 interview Bob Dylan spoke about growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota* (located in northern Minnesota).

“Well, in the winter, everything was still, nothing moved. Eight months of that. You can put it together. You can have some amazing hallucinogenic experiences doing nothing but looking out your window. There is also the summer, when it gets hot and sticky and the air is very metallic. There is a lot of Indian spirit. The earth there is unusual, filled with ore. So there is something happening that is hard to define. There is a magnetic attraction there. Maybe thousands and thousands of years ago, some planet bumped into the land there. There is a great spiritual quality throughout the Midwest. Very subtle, very strong, and that is where I grew up.”
Bob Dylan
1966 Interview with Ron Rosenbaum

*Though Hibbing is a small town in the range of 20,000 people it also happens to be “where ‘Carl’ Wickman and Andrew ‘Bus Andy’ Anderson, started a bus line between Hibbing and Alice, Minnesota which would eventually become Greyhound Lines, the world’s largest bus company.” It’s where New York Yankee Roger Maris, who once had the Major League Baseball single season home run record, was born. And Hibbing is where the parents of Hall-of-Fame vineyard operator Robert Mondavi’s parents settled when they emigrated from Italy.

Scott W. Smith

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Highway 61 Meets A1A

It’s full circle here today at Screenwriting from Iowa. Tonight I’m going to hear Bob Dylan live for the first time. Talk abut a slow training coming. But before I remember being drawn to Dylan’s music there was another up and coming fellow named Jimmy Buffett in the mid-70s that captured the attention of this 15-year-old growing up in Florida.

Only last night did I realize there really was a connection between Dylan and Buffett. The following exchange is from an interview of Dylan by Bill Flanagan, Bob Dylan Exclusive Interview: Reveals His Favorites Songwriters.

BF: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

BD: Buffett I guess. Lightfoot. Warren Zevon. Randy. John Prine. Guy Clark. Those kinds of writers.

BF: What songs do you like of Buffett’s?

BD: “Death of an Unpopular Poet.” There’s another one called “He Went to Paris.”

Buffett who is a five years younger than Dylan would have been in college (Auburn and Southern Mississippi) and just developing his own music styles when Dylan was having a major influence in the 60s. At that time, while  Buffett was playing little dives in Hattiesburg, Mobile, Biloxi and New Orleans he was known to play Dylan’s songs like, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice it’s All Right (Number 9).” I’m sure he played a few off Dylan’s album Highway 61 Revisited.

Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde in Nashville in 1966 when nobody outside of Nashville recorded there. Many make the connection between Dylan recording there with having a profound impact on the writing of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. A few years later Buffett would land in Nashville for a spell trying to launch his musical career.

Dylan and Buffett were not only both under the influence of the bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta but by country legend Hank Williams from Mobile, Alabama. (Which happens to be Buffett’s hometown.)  In D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Bob Dylan Don’t Look Back, Dylan breaks into a Hank Williams song and on Buffett’s Licence to Chill album he sings Williams’ classic Hey, Good Lookin.’

So while Dylan’s life started at the northern end of Highway 61 in northern Minnesota, Buffett was cutting his teeth at the southern end of the long highway 61 in New Orleans. Another road worth mentioning is State Road A1A in Florida which runs along the Atlantic Coast from Callahan, FL all the way down to Key West.  Jimmy Buffett territory. A-1-A also happens to be a 1974 Jimmy Buffett album that is considered one of his most highly regarded.

There is a song on the A-1-A album called A Pirate Looks at Forty that Dylan and Joan Baez covered at the Pasadena Peace Sunday back in 1982. So while technically Highway Highway 61 & A1A never cross in real life they do in the world of storytellers.

I know Dylan has 500 of his own songs but if he performs a Buffett song tonight I will know that at least for a few moments that all is right in the world.

Scott W. Smith



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Lord, that 61 Highway
It’s the longest road I know
61 Highway Blues
Fred McDowell

And he said, “Yes, I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61″
Bob Dylan
Highway 61

In light of Bob Dylan playing two miles from my house tomorrow night here in Cedar Falls, Iowa I thought I’d give a nod to the man from Minnesota who influenced a generation. (And, yes, I have a ticket for the concert.)

Dylan and Highway 61 both are deeper roots to what Screenwriting from Iowa is all about. (Yes, technically a stretch of Highway 61 runs though Iowa, but Dylan’s reference as well as this blog’s name is more metaphorical.)

Where does really talent come from? Everywhere. Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota which happens to be a stop on Highway 61 as it goes from New Orleans all the way north to Wyoming, Minnesota. (Contrary to the lyrics in 61 Highway Blues, Highway 61 goes nowhere near New York City.) Highway 61 has been called “The Blues Highway” because of the southern region from which blues music sprang up before it flowed into the world.

At the corner of Highway 61  and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi is where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange to become a master blues musician. Lots of talent has driven up and down Highway 61 including Muddy Waters, “the father of the blues,” who was born in the Mississippi Delta near Highway 61 between Clarksville and Vicksburg.

Muddy Waters not only influenced Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Elvis, but rock n’ roll, jazz, folk, R&B,  country and who knows what else. His 1950 song Rollin’ Stone is where the Rolling Stones took their name.  And of course, Waters & other bluesmen influenced Dylan. So that’s the Highway 61 connection.

Dylan spent most of his youth in the mining town of Hibbing in northern Minnesota. A group of close-knit Jewish people from Eastern Europe were drawn to opportunities in the area known as the Mesabi Iron Range. (See David Mamet’s connection to storytelling and Eastern European Jews.) The ore from the area once made the small town of Hibbing very wealthy. But by the time Dylan (then known as Robert /Bobby Zimmerman) was a teenager in the 1950s the mining town’s heyday was over. But it was fertile ground to listen to blues and country on the radio and learn to play the piano and guitar. Dylan graduated from Hibbing High School in 1959.

Zimmerman became Bob Dylan while playing the folk music circuit in the Minneapolis area known as Dinkytown by the University of Minnesota. Some have said the name change was a nod to Welch poet Dylan Thomas. (“Do not go gentle into that good night.”) That was 50 years ago. Just a few years before he would record the album Highway 61 Revisited, which the magazine The Rolling Stone listed as the #4 on its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. And on the magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone (from the album Highway 61 Revisited) comes is at number one.

Not bad for a kid from Hibbing.

P.S. I’ve been listening to Dylan’s songs before screenwriter Diablo Cody was born. But I should point out that she was not only the inspiration behind me starting this blog in ’08 —Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)— but she has ties to the same artistic, literary, and musical turf that Dylan tread in Minneapolis.

Related Posts:
Highway 61 Meets A1A (Dylan & Buffett)
Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)

Scott W. Smith

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Once upon a time (1978) in a land far, far from Hollywood (Utah) a film festival popped up that eventually became what is considered today as the granddaddy of film festivals in the United States—the Sundance Film Festival. I imagine 30 years ago if you asked most people if they wanted to go to a film festival in Salt Lake City a common answer would have been, “Why?’.

Of course, having Robert Redford involved didn’t hurt visibility, nor did the decision in 1981 to move the festival to Park City, Utah. And since that is a ski resort town they also moved the festival from the summertime to the winter as a way to make the festival more glamorous to the Hollywood crowd. Those changes all worked. And the festival that was originally started to increase filmmaking in Utah and highlight regional independent filmmaking has become a two-week suburb of Los Angeles full of celebrities and paparazzi.

So where do you go these days to see small, independent, regional filmmakers? Well, honestly, if you’re not making a film try next door because somebody there is probably between writing a script and editing the film. Small film festivals are everywhere as cities now see it as a marketing advantage—a way to seem with it.

But I want to tell you about a little film festival that is located in one of my favorite areas in the country—The Fly Way Film Festival began in 2008 and is held in late October in Pepin & Stockholm, Wisconsin.  (It’s going on right now.) The two small villages on Lake Pepin (part of the Mississippi) while not large in number are a located in a beautiful area that has no shortage of artists. And begin located an hour and a half south-east of Minneapolis makes it not so remote.

This year 35 feature films and shorts will be show through this weekend. I met the director Rick Vaicius last month while sailing on Lake Pepin. One of the things I like most about the festival is they don’t charge an entry fee for filmmakers. I think that probably sets them a part from most (all?) film festivals right out of the gate. I don’t know if they’ll become the next Sundance (or even want to be), but I think it’s a festival that should be on your radar because what every filmmaker needs is a few cheerleaders in their corner.

And speaking of cheerleaders, Kelley Baker, The Angry Filmmaker, will also be speaking at the Fly Way Film Festival this year.

As a taste of this year selections… Ballhawks is a documentary by Mike Diedrich that is narrated by Bill Murray. The film will be show tomorrow (10/23/10) at the Fly Way Film Festival and Diedrich will be on hand at the showing. (For those of you in Texas, the film is also showing this week at the Austin Film Festival.) The film is about  a little known aspect of Chicago Cubs baseball that happens just outside Wrigley Field. Diedrich says it’s, “A story about hope, exuberance, shattered dreams and picking up the pieces to move on.”

Vimeo doesn’t play well with WordPress so click here to watch a trailer of Ballhawks.

Oh, and one for the trivia books. Pepin, Wisconsin happens to be the town that Laura Ingalls Wilder was born just outside of. (Before she wrote Little House on the Prairie, her first book was Little House in the Big Woods about the Pepin area.)

One more example of big things happening in small places. (Not to mention Bob Dylan playing here in Cedar Falls, Iowa on Sunday.)

Scott W. Smith

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