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Archive for November, 2010

Italian screenwriter Mario Monicelli died Monday in Rome. He was 95 and twice in his lifetime he received Oscar nominations; I Soliti Ignoti (Big Deal On Madonna Street, 1958) and Casanova (1970). He made his first short film when he was 19 and some obituaries say that he wrote as many as 100 screenplays.

“The Italian comedy revolves around arguments and themes that are very dramatic, and sometimes tragic…The themes that make one laugh always stem from poverty, hunger, misery, old age, sickness, and death. These are the themes that make Italians laugh anyway. And the best one’s have always used these.”
Mario Monicelli
An Interview with Mario Minicelli (1999)

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“Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”
E.M. Forster
A Room with a View

It’s no secret that a life dedicated to writing has a lifelong history of financial struggle. But year after year there are also stories of writers who break through and join the ranks of the financially secure—some even very weathly. I at least got a taste of that Friday night when my wife and I stayed one night in the Author’s Suite at the Swissotel Chicago.

I would like to say I was there because of a screenplay I had written or at least for this blog, but the truth is it was an upgrade for it being our 25th Wedding Anniversary. Since we got married in the Rocky Mountains, for our 25th I had always dreamed of going to the Swiss Alps, so at least staying in a hotel whose headquarters are in Zurich was a nice compromise.

I don’t know if John Grisham,  Stephen King, J.K. Rowlings or any screenwriters have ever stayed at the Swissotel’s Author’s Suite, but if they did this one-bedroom suite comes complete with a writing area. Though there are plenty things to distract you from writing including four TV’s (3 flat screens and one in the bathroom mirror), one telescope and fantastic views of downtown Chicago including one that overlooks the Navy Pier “where the river meets the lake.”

So if you need a little inspiration this morning perhaps a few photos from The Author’s Suite will encourage you. I took the photos below around sunrise Saturday morning. Over the years my wife and I have been fortunate to stay in some pretty nice places in the states and overseas, but we concluded that this suite (I’m guessing at least 1,000 sq. feet) on the 41st floor was the most stunning hotel room we have ever stayed. So thanks Swissotel for the upgrade. (And the added touch of Champagne and cake.)

Happy writing—may it lead you to stay in The Author’s Suite.

Scott W. Smith

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“Art Gropes. It stalks like a hunter lost in the woods, listening to itself and to everything around it, unsure of itself, waiting to pounce.”
John Gardner

I like to refer to creativity as a blender in which you pour your life experiences and talent into. Your originality comes out of this mix. One of the early longer posts I wrote touched on this, Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C). Novelist, literary critic, professor John Gardner* (Grendel, The Art of Fiction) wrote this for you to ponder:

“Original style arises out of personality and the freak accident of the artist’s particular aesthetic experience—the fortuitous combination, during a writer’s childhood of (let us say) Tolstoy, Roy Rogers, and the chimpanzee act at the St. Louis  Zoo. Only after the style has begun to assert itself does the writer’s intellect make sense of it, discover or impose some purpose and develop the style further, this time in full conscuousness of what it portends…Out of the artist’s imagination, as out of nature’s inexhaustible well, pours one thing after another. The artist composes, writes, or paints just as he dreams, seizing whatever swims close to the net. This shimmering mess of loves and hates—fishing trips taken long ago with Uncle Ralph, a 1940 green Chevrolet, a war, a vague sense of what makes a novel, a symphony, a photograph—this is the clay the artist must shape into an object worthy of our attention; that is, our tears, our laughter, our thought.”
John Gardner
On Moral Fiction

You can add John Gardner to the list of those who were a part of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He received his MA & Ph.D degrees from the University of Iowa in the late 1950s. He died in 1982 at the age of 49 from a motorcycle accident.

Scott W. Smith

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“You have to design your film just as Shakepeare did his plays—for an audience.”
Alfred Hitchcock
Interview with Francois Truffaut

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Screenwriter Edward Anhalt had a more than a 40-year career after graduating from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. While two of his most popular films were Jeremiah Johnson and The Young Lions, his two Academy Awards were for Panic in the Streets and Becket.

Along the way his work was produced by an amazing group of people:
Elia Kazan,  Robert Redford, Henry Fonda, Ricard Burton, John Frankenheimer, Shelly Winters, Burt Landcaster, Bob Hope, Edward Dmytryk, Montgomery Clift, Elvis and Marlon Brando.

I often find it interesting and helpful to learn how writers write, and I came across this old interview of Anhalt where he laid out his writing process:
“I write longhand and from that I go to tape. I read the scene, and if it doesn’t sound right when I replay it, I do it over. Although I’m not a very good actor, it works for me. So I can play a number of parts. Brando taught me that. He does that—where he’ll play all the parts and listen to himself. So I do that and I transmit that over the telephone to my secretary, who has a telephone pickup on her end, and then she takes it off her tape onto the typewriter. Then once a day or so, we meet. She comes down to the boat or I go to her house, or whatever, and she gives me the pages.”
Edward Anhalt
The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter
by William Froug

You may not have a secretary or a boat, but who can’t afford a pen and a pad of paper? And you can probably pick-up a used cassette recorder for $5 or a fancy new digital one for $75. For a couple bucks toss in some index cards and you’re off to the races. There are a lot of things people will tell you you need to be a screenwriter, but what you really need is a story and willpower.

Scott W. Smith

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You find someone to love in this world
You better hang on tooth and nail
The wolf is always at the door
Don Henley
New York Minute

I know it’s Thanksgiving day, but it’s also my 25th wedding anniversary. (No, I didn’t get married on Thanksgiving, it just happens to be where it falls this year.) Can I tell you a story?  I won’t bore you with all the details, but if you’ve ever wondered—as a friend once ask me—”How did you end up in Iowa?”—here’s the answer.

After getting interested in writing short stories, photography, and video production growing up in Central Florida I attended film school at the University of Miami for one year. (Even was a walk-on on the football team where Jim Kelly was the quarterback.) Made a few short films and decided to transfer to film school out in LA.

In my senior year I met my wife to be in an elevator in Burbank. Can you get any more romantic than that? She was a model & actress from Denver and had two kids. We got married a year and a half later in a covered bridge in Vail, Colorado. (That really was romantic.)

She worked as a temp at various industry related places (Disney, Warners, Paramount, NBC, Technicolor) which was part of our greater plan for me to break in. I worked as a photographer and then as a 16mm cameraman/editor for a production company in Burbank. By the time I was 25 and thought I was on the L.A. fast track.

Then life happens the way it does. On top of a few other things the Whittier earthquake happened and we decided to move to Florida where the cost of living was cheaper and they were just starting to build “Hollywood East” in Orlando as Disney and Universal were building theme parks that promised to have real working studios. It looked good on paper.

Yeah, that didn’t quite work out either but I ended up producing and directing videos for a group in the 90s just as digital revolution was taking off. That got me on the ground floor of working with AVID and eventually Final Cut Pro. Fast forward to 2003 where not only had my step kids both graduated from high school and college, but my step-daughter was married and had a couple kids. (For the record, I was an empty-nester grandpa at age 37.)

My step-daughter and her family had moved to Cedar Falls, Iowa and when my wife and I would visit and I found myself saying, “I could live in a place like this some day.” By that time I had my own little production company in Florida and I was doing some freelance producing for a TV program in Chicago that brought me to the Midwest from time to time. As often as I could I’d visit Cedar Falls.

Eventually, my wife and I thought it would be best to live closer to Chicago and we decided to try living in Cedar Falls (a five hour drive from Chicago and 3 1/2 hours from Minneapolis) and see if we could make that work. It took a little work to make it work, but I eventually met some young guys here who had a web design company and I started doing some productions for them.

This just happened to be in 2005-2006 as video for the Internet was just starting to take off. (Hard to believe now that You Tube only started in 2005.) We ended up forming a new company in 2007 called River Run Productions and we’ve watched video for the Internet grow. I’ve had a front row seat view of watching the production world totally evolve. And part of the change has been the world of blogging and how information and entertainment is distributed.

Moving to Iowa not only forced me to embrace the changes (tapeless production, multiple hats on productions, blogging) it also allowed me to tap into a great literary tradition as well as a Midwest mythology.  It certainly wasn’t in my mindset that I’d start writing a blog on screenwriting in January of ’08 that it would win an Emmy and get shout outs and links from people like Tom Cruise, Edward Burns, and Diablo Cody—but that’s all happened. And oddly enough, it’s brought me connections that I never had in my five years in L.A.

And it’s happened in part because of people like you who’ve visited Screenwriting from Iowa from time to time. As the views have increased month after month it’s given me encouragement to continue this slightly time-consuming endeavor. So this Thanksgiving I’m thankful for you all stopping by and I do hope it helps you in your writing and your dreams wherever you call home.

That 24-year-old me in the above picture thought he was going to be the next Steven Speilberg. Didn’t happen. But to quote one of Minnesota-based singer Sara Groves’ songs, there are “Different Kinds of Happy.” I just have to get Robert Duvall and former Iowan Ben Foster interested in my latest script and the whole story could have a Hollywood ending.

And I’m thankful for my wife who’s been on this crazy journey with me these past 25 years. Happy Anniversary.

Scott W. Smith


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“We work out the story on index cards to break it down.”
Screenwriter Ted Elliot (Pirates of the Caribbean) on how he and writing partner Terry Rossio work

“While I always outline scripts, for me it’s 50/50 whether I use index cards or not.”
Screenwriter John August

A few years ago the popularity of Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat! introduced a who new group of writers to using index cards in the screenwriting process. I’ve seen writers mount their index cards on walls, neatly place them in Moleskine* notebooks, and even stack them on their desk using a funky little system. Some even have a color coding system for their index cards. (Some technically use post-it notes.) But screenwriting via index cards has been a long-standing tradition in screenwriting circles.

“I write each sequence on (three-by-five index) cards. One card for each sequence. I usually end up with twenty-eight, thirty sequences per hour of film. I put them on the floor so I can see them from up here. Probably because I was a film editor. I think it’s very good training for a screenwriter because I can tell the actual lengths of sequences in terms of film. Frequently, before I write them, I know pretty much how they’re going to come out, in some strange way…I’ve rarely written anything that I‘ve looked at and said this doesn’t work at all, because the cards seem to tell me this.”
Edward Anhalt (1914-2000)
2-time Oscar winning screenwriter
Panic in the Streets (1950), Becket (1964)

One bonus of using index cards is they are cheap and another is you can find them easily in every city. If you’ve never used index cards here’s a simple little excercise you can do to get your feet wet. The next time you watch a favorite film at home get a stack of index cards and write down every scene in the movie. Just a line or two of what the scene is about and what characters are in the scene. When the movie is over flip through the cards and see if you get a feel of the story.

Now you just need to do that with your own ideas and stories. I find 40-60 scenes is what most narrative stories can hold. To borrow from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird concept, you don’t need to write your whole screenplay at once, just chunk it out card by card. Not every writer uses index cards, but the next time you see a photograph of a writer in their office look at the background and see if you see any index cards laying around or mounted on the walls.

Even though my screenwriting software does index cards for some reason I prefer the old school, basic white 4X6 index cards (with lines). I like writing on the cards (in black ink) and like being able take them with me and just shuffle through the cards when they are not mounted on a board. Essentially I am doing what Anhalt is talking about—I’m running the movie in my head.

And sometimes like on the script I am working on now I just use the index cards to write down a thought or two. (Most recently I wrote down “Atlanta” and “Size 10 shoes” on a note card that was something I wanted to work into the script.) I could (and sometimes do) make notes to myself on my iPhone or place it on the bottom of the script, but the index cards are really my favorite way of keeping track of new ideas.

Anybody have any index card tips you use or index stories to tell?

*Moleskine has a Storyboard Notebook that has three 16:9 panels which looks pretty useful.

Update 11/30/10, John August link: 10 hints for index cards

Update 1/11/11:

“There are index cards everywhere in Aaron Sorkin’s office…The writer of The West Wing and The Social Network likes to use those cards, tacked to a large corkboard, to keep track of key elements. Social Network’s pivotal scenes are still up there, with notes that read, “Mark and Erica in bar,” “Mark walks back to dormitory” and “Mark begins drinking, blogging, hacking.”
Christy Grosz
Inside Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Process
The Hollywood Reporter

Scott W. Smith

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