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Archive for December, 2010

As this year winds down and a new year begins tomorrow I thought I would offer some help with your new year’s resolutions.  Perhaps you’ve always wanted to go to film school but are concerned about the time or money. Or maybe you just want to make a film but aren’t sure where to start. Well, Robert Rodriguez (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) has a no-cost film school that just takes 10-minutes of your time. Happy New Year.

Keep in mind that Rodriguez started out as a kid making short films in his San Antonio backyard with his family, and he keeps that tradition alive today in Austin by making films with his kids that are just for personal use.

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“Do you believe that America is the land of opportunity?”
Boxing promoter in Rocky

At the time that the New York Times interviewed Sylvester Stallone in 1976 he was living in a 1 1/2 bedroom apartment in LA with his wife and 6 month old baby. Rocky was about to be released and as the Times reported, United Artists was optimistic that the movie (which cost $1 million to make) was going to pull in more that $40 million. (They were right, too. Rocky made $117 million domestic.)

If you weren’t even born in 1976, one thing to keep in mind is when Rocky was released Hollywood was under a wave of nihilism, pessimism and grit.  The anti-hero had been in vogue for years.  (Bonnie & ClydeMidnight Cowboy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Deliverance, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, M*A*S*H, Serpico, The Last Picture Show, Being There, They Don’t Shoot Horses Do They?,  Dog Day Afternoon, Chinatown.) Perhaps the movies were just a reflection of the times in the United States. The Vietnam War and Watergate set the tone for the first half of the 70s.

But by 1976 America was ready for a change. There was a huge bicentennial push leading up to celebrating the 200th anniversary of the country on July 4, 1976. I recall a spirit of optimism in the air. Stallone and director John Avildsen tapped into that spirit. And while Rocky may not be a traditional hero, I’ve always seen him as the anti—antihero.

Now Stallone from a spec screenwriting perspective is a hero’s hero. On the mythic hero level with Rocky.

“You know, if nothing else comes out of that film (Rocky) in the way of awards and accolades, it will still show that an unknown quantity, a totally unremarkable person, can produce a diamond in the rough.”
Sylvester Stallone
NY Times November 1, 1976

The awards and accolades did come. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and won for Best Picture, Best Director , and Best Editing. And even if many critics at the time thought that Stallone had written a warmed over Frank Capra 1930s film, it did make the AFI list as one of the top 100 American films of all-time. (And many forget that Stallone avoided the total fairy tale ending by having Rocky lose the fight at the end.)

And the money came as well. The Rocky franchise would go on to make more than a billion dollars at the box office. Films that Stallone has starred in have made over $4 billion. Not bad for a “totally unremarkable person.”

It’s fun to imagine Stallone back in 1976 thinking that no matter how well that Rocky did that he’d already proven himself a winner.

P.S. Just to show the contrast between the two spirits doing battle in ’75-’76 check out the trailers below for The Day of the Locust and Rocky.

Related post: Writing “Rocky”

Scott W. Smith



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“If you want to go toe to toe with any foe, you’ve got to be fearless.”
Boxer Chuck Wepner


Much has been written about Sylvester Stallone writing the first version of the Rocky script in just a few days, but little is mentioned about Rocky actually being his 8th script. (The other seven were never produced.)  Stallone has also said that only about 10 % of that first Rocky script remained in the finished version of the film that would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar.

“Since I was obsessed with the idea of personal redemption, I kept saying to myself, ‘Redemption, redemption, redemption…but whose redemption?’ So I considered a gangster, then a cowboy, then an actor, all kinds of people, until I finally came back to the Wepner* fight. Why not a loser, an over-the-hill boxer? I loved the visuals, and the warrior aspect, and the grand symbolism. Bang! It all crystallized. I said, ‘That’s it,’ and I went to work immediately…I was young, and I wrote it in a fury…The original draft was only about 89 pages long, and it was rather hastily thrown together.”
Sylvester Stallone
Going the Distance article by Bill Baer
Creative Screenwriting magazine
January/February 2003

Since Stallone started with “redemption, redemption. redemption” in mind I’ll put him down as starting from theme. 

* Chuck Wepner was working as a liquor salesman in New Jersey back in 1975 when fought Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali. With some odds 30-1 against Wepner, he lasted until the fifteenth round before Ali won the fight on a technical knocked out . In 2003, Wepner sued Stallone for his name and story being used without his permission in the marketing of the Rocky franchise. (Lawsuit.) In 2006 there were reports that the case was settled out of court. 

Related post: Writing from Theme


Scott W. Smith

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“I have a theory that compulsive fiction writers are subconsciously working out traumas that happened to them when they were young. I call this process self-psychonalysis.”
David Morrell

While David Morrell is most known in film circles as the writer who created Rambo, he is also a writer who can walk in both the worlds of popular fiction and the more scholarly and literate world. Has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Penn State. As a scholar he taught American Literature at the University of Iowa for 16 years, and as a writer he has written more than 30 books, most of them novels. His first novel, First Blood, was published almost 30 years ago so it’s easy to find interviews and quotes from Morrell over the years. Here are a few that give some insights into the person and the writer:

“My father was killed during World War II, shortly after I was born in 1943. My mother had difficulty raising me and at the same time holding a job, so she put me in an orphanage and later in a series of boarding homes. I grew up unsure of who I was, desperately in need of a father figure. Books and movies were my escape. Eventually I decided to be a writer and sought help from two men who became metaphorical fathers to me: Stirling Silliphant, the head writer for the classic TV series “Route 66″ about two young men in a Corvette who travel America in search of themselves, and Philip Klass (whose pen name is William Tenn), a novelist who taught at the Pennsylvania State University where I went to graduate school from 1966 to 1970. The result of their influence is my 1972 novel, First Blood, which introduced Rambo. The search for a father is prominent in that book, as it is in later ones, most notably The Brotherhood of the Rose (1984), a thriller about orphans and spies. During this period, I was a professor of American literature at the University of Iowa. With two professions, I worked seven days a week until exhaustion forced me to make a painful choice and resign from the university in 1986. One year later, my fifteen-year-old son, Matthew, died from bone cancer, and thereafter my fiction tended to depict the search for a son, particularly in Fireflies (1988) and Desperate Measures (1994). To make a new start, my wife and I moved to the mountains and mystical light of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where my work changed yet again, exploring the passionate relationships between men and women, highlighting them against a background of action as in the newest, Burnt Sienna.
David Morrell
Amazon Introduction to First Blood

“Stirling Silliphant’s brilliant scripts for “Route 66” made me decide to be a writer when I was 17. At the time, I sent him a letter, telling him so, and he encouraged me. Eventually, we worked together when Stirling was the executive producer for the NBC miniseries of my novel THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE. His scripts are characterized by a tremendous amount of action coupled with ideas — opposites coming together. The theme of “Route 66” is that the journey matters more than the destination, and that is how I’ve led my life.”
David Morrell
Bookreporter.com

“The only advice I can give (aspiring writers) is to suck it up and keep writing. If you’re determined to write, then you accept the conditions within which you’re forced to survive. There’s no alternative. Write, write, write, keep writing. With modern PC software, self-publishing is easy to learn. If you believe in your work and you haven’t found a publisher to help you, then do it yourself. I’m amazed by the professional look of many self-published volumes. Of course, you don’t have the benefit of a distribution network and have to sell your books “from the trunk of your car,” as they used to say. But that doesn’t mean those books won’t get sold. On occasion, a self-published book attracts a lot of buyers.”
David Morrell
Writers Write
A Conversation with David Morrell by Claire E. White

Related post: Writing “First Blood”


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“They drew first blood, not me.”
John Rambo

“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.”
Joseph Campbell

The road to the first Rambo movie being released in 1982 was a long journey. The novel First Blood was published in 1972 and reports are that the property went through three studios, 16 scripts, and a lot of high-profile actors and directors before it became Sylvester Stallone’s second franchise character (after Rocky). And though Stallone had become a superstar after the 1976 release of Rocky his other non-Rocky films (F.I.S.T., Nighthawks & Paradise Alley) hadn’t faired so well. Nor was the topic of Vietnam a popular one in ’82—the last U.S. troops pulled out of Saigon in ’75. There weren’t strong indicators that First Blood was going to be a hit film.

But producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, and director Ted Kotcheff, put together a team that would defy the odds, and created not only a film that would open #1 at the box office, but one that would go on to make $125 million worldwide, followed by three sequels—all creating the rare international iconic character, John Rambo.

The movie was based on the David Morrell novel First Blood that actually had Rambo as more of a killing machine. (The first movie while having plenty of actions, explosions and injuries, actually only has a few people dying.) The changes were made to make the character more sympathetic. Morrell was a professor of English at the University of Iowa between 1970-1986, which means the chances are good that the novel was written in the vicinity Iowa City. (Just learned that today as I was doing research on Morrell.)

“My intent in writing (First Blood) started back in 1968 when I was a graduate student at Penn State and I was watching TV one night when I was struck by the news by two reports that followed back to back. One which was of a Vietnam fire-fight with soldiers screaming, and shooting and bullets kicking up dust, and the other was about riots going on in American cities. That summer and the summer before there were many, many riots and many of them had to do with off-shoots of the Vietnam war. And I got to thinking what if we had a novel in which the Vietnam war came home to the United States and we sort of had a taste of what it would be like in our own back yard. Basically what the intent was was to write an anit-war novel about how I was not in favor of the Vietnam war. It was about how the establishment abused young men and took them over and made killing machines and then took them back and never retrained them.
David Morrell
First Blood Blu-ray commentary

His key model for the Rambo character was World War II hero Audie Murphy. Morrell has gone on to have a long successful career as a novelist. He received his undergraduate degree at the St. Jerome University (a Roman Catholic university in Canada), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Penn State. He said on the DVD commentary that he always thought of First Blood as being a western and lists The Sheepman (1958) as a film that was a sort of parallel to First Blood.

Here is a summary of The Sheepsman found on IMDB:

A stranger in a Western cattle-town behaves with remarkable self-assurance, establishing himself as a man to be reckoned with. The reason appears with his stock: a herd of sheep, which he intends to graze on the range. The horrified inhabitants decide to run him out at all costs.

Morrell also was influenced by Joesph Campbell’s work on mythology in developing his character and story for First Blood. (Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was also key to George Lucas years later as he would develop the Star Wars movies.) It’s not hard to read Campbell and understand the primal aspects that Morrell drew upon in creating First Blood. There’s the warrior fleeing into the woods, descending into the mine, starting a fire, and surviving swimming with rats, and ascending the ladder into the light. Morrell called it a “Hunter hunted story,” while Stallone has made references is to Rambo being a Frankenstein-like character.

First Blood was also a film that dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and while not giving any answers, Morrell says that he heard reports that many Vietnam vets wept for the first time since the war as the film somewhat depicted how hard it was to make the transition from solider to civilian in a country where they were often despised and rejected.

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son don’t you understand”
Bruce Springsteen
Born in the USA 

You may be also interested to know that Morrell picked the name John Rambo as a combination of the poet Arthur Rimbaud (A Season in Hell) and a type of apples called Rambo that his wife brought home one day while he was writing. Credited on the First Blood screenplay are Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone.

You can find out more about Morell, and the 30+ novels and books he’s written, on his website davidmorrell.net.

P.S. For the person who has everything…the survival knife that Rambo uses in First Blood was designed by the late Jimmy Lile who was known as the Arkansas Knifesmith. For $3,500 you can have a knife like Rambo—it’s called the New Lile First Blood.

Scott W. Smith

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For Christmas I received a book that I’ve heard a lot about over the years but have never read. I’m sure I’ll be pulling a few quotes from Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc by Dara Marks in 2011, but here’s one for 2010.

“The single most important connection authors make with their audience is forged through the protagonist. In effect, the audience enters the story through the protagonist; as the protagonist encounters conflict, hardship, and obstacles, the audience encounters those same problems right along with him or her. This is how we become emerged in a story.”
Dara Marks
Inside Story

And since Christmas was yesterday, here are a couple fitting example that’s Marks goes on to discuss in her book.

“In the beginning of both It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, the audience knows that George Bailey’s life is already valuable and that Scrooge would be happier if he were kinder. But the characters don’t know this yet because they are both stuck in old patterns of behavior that distort their perceptions. The drama, therefore, is designed around knocking down those old barriers.”
Dara Marks
Inside Story

And here’s a quote about Dara’s book from a producer at MPower Pictures who I met years ago in LA when he was an actor;

“Theme, character, and transformational arc often get convoluted and confused in the complicated process of script development. Dara’s Inside Story takes the highly complex craft of screenwriting and breaks it down into the simple art of good storytelling.
John Shepherd
Bella, Bobby Jones: Stroke of a Genius

Creative Screenwriting magazine and UCLA Professor Richard Walter have also spoken favorably of Dara’s book. (BTW—I recently did an interview with Richard Walter and will start the new year off with several posts based on that interview.)

Scott W. Smith

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“What gets me is that there never was a movie about POWs — about prisoners of war.”
From Billy Wilder’s 1953 film  Stalag 17

This week I had a video shoot that took me through Algona, Iowa and I was reminded of a little known piece of American history. And  an unusual Christmas story.

During World War II, German Prisoners of War were kept in various cities in the United States and Canada. One of those cities was Algona, Iowa in the northern middle part of the state.  Between 1944-46 over 10,000 German POWs spent time in Algona, though no more than 5,452 were there at one time.

Some think Algona being chosen had something to do with Vice President Henry Wallace who was born and raised in Iowa. But whatever the reason, the government purchased 287 acres of land and in three months the camp was built.

Today the camp is gone and all that is left are some remnants collected in a museum and the stories. Some of the stories involve how the town and the POW were friendly with each other. German was not a totally foreign language in parts of the the Midwest that were founded by German immigrants. Apparently the POW were not limited to the camp but worked on farms and in factories in Iowa and nearby Minnesota. As according to The Geneva Convention regulations the POW were paid between 10 & 80 cents a day for their labor. And this is where the Christmas twist occurs in the story.

Eduard Kaib was an architect in Germany before becoming an officer in the Germany Army and ending up as a POW in Algona in 1944. Using a mixture of soil and an oven he made a small Nativity scene and displayed it at the camp. The next year Kaib and and five friends began working on a much more elaborate Nativity scene that involved 60 one-half sized figures made of wood, plaster and concrete. The expenses were covered by the POW from their earnings.

The Nativity was set up in the camp but also in a way that could be seen by the public. When the camp was disband in 1946 the town preserved the Nativity scene and the tradition of viewing during Christmas time in Algona survives until this day.  It’s a pretty interesting story. Especially when you contrast it to war itself, Hitler and Nazi Germany. Like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol it’s a feel good story that has a dark side.

At least one screenplay has been written regarding this unique era, but as far as I know no film has been produced. But one day I think this story will get told as a feature because stories that contrast the best and worst of mankind need to be told to give us hope. That the light shines in the darkness.

Merry Christmas.

P.S. For more information about the camp visit the Camp Algona POW Museum website.

Scott W. Smith

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