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Finding Authentic Emotions (Part 1)

“What is a story, exactly?”
Alex Blumberg

What were you doing at 4:16 this morning? I was watching a story unfold  about a woman who married the hunk who lived next door to her in Dayton, Ohio and moved west to live the California dream.  She found her dream, but not until she went through years of despair.

“Everyone wants to find a way out of pain.”
Alex Blumberg

It wasn’t a movie, a TV show, or even a radio program, but the CreativeLive online class Power Your Podcast with Storytelling with Alex Blumberg. It was intriguing because you were able to watch how Blumberg takes a person out of the audience and shows how he would learn and tell her story for a program like This American Life (the NPR program where Blumberg was once a producer). Great stuff for anybody wanting to develop and tell better stories.

You can watch part two of the class for free today (and the rebroadcast tonight), or buy both days today for $79 (or $99 after today). I don’t recommend a lot of things to buy, but what I caught of Blumberg’s talk yesterday (and again early this morning) it’s solid material that you’ll find helpful and engaging if your storytelling is for features, TV, documentaries, radio, corporate videos, non-profit/NGO, or podcasts.

“Go where the medium lets you go.”
Alex Blumberg

He covers aspects like finding the core of the story, what hooks the audience into the narrative, what details do you need to tell, what surprises can you find, and what areas need explored. With the woman in the audience some of those areas were her dream of living in San Francisco turned into living in a suburb outside of Davis,CA. Her marriage and plans of 2.5 kids turned into a divorce and no kids. But there is a revelation and discovery on her way to finally living her California dream life—being a painter in San Francisco. If there’s a theme to her story it could be, “The road to happiness travels through many unhappy places.” (How’s that for a universal theme that would resonate with a few people worldwide?)

A few thoughts that I’ll pass on from Blumberg are his formula for nailing the thumbnail version of the story is, “This is a story about X, and it’s interesting because of Y.” When you tell people this framework for your story it must hit them at the gut level—they want to hear the story. It’s instantly intriguing.

This wasn’t an example from the workshop but I think works:”This is a story about ordinary people with the same name as famous people.” I’m flying from memory here, but I think that was the basic concept from a This American Life broadcast a few years ago. One of the ordinary people name was Willie Nelson and he lived in Texas where the more famous Mr. Nelson lived. Ordinary Willie Nelson kept voice mails left on his answering machine but obviously left for the famous Willie Nelson lived. It was an engaging program in the radio medium.

“Boredom is the enemy.”
Alex Blumberg

In telling your story look for the unexpected twists, contrasts, We like to hear about the pain, the a-ha moments, and the resolution/triumph.For true stories he looks for someone with direct experience rather than just an expert in the field.

Blumberg also said what he’s looking for when interviewing people is “authentic emotions.” Finding someone who went bankrupt because of a subprime loan they couldn’t afford to pay will tend to have more authentic emotion versus an expert on the topic. (Boots on the ground stuff, versus the view from afar.)

While it was a risk to interview an audience member in front of a live Internet audience, he certainly found “authentic emotions.”

If you can check it out today for free.

Related post:
Finding Authentic Emotions (Part 2) 
40 Days of Emotions
Ira Glass on Storytelling
Creative Learning 2.0
Chase Jarvis—A Creative Force one of the co-founders of CreativeLive
The End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14) The California dreamer story belongs in the end of the rope club.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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Embracing the Near Win (Part 2)

“Success motivates us, but a near win can propel us in an ongoing quest. One of the most vivid examples of this comes when we look at the difference between Olympic silver medalists and bronze medalists after a competition. Thomas Gilovich and his team from Cornell studied this difference and found that the frustration silver medalists feel compared to bronze, who are typically a bit more happy to have just not received fourth place and not medaled at all, gives silver medalists a focus on follow-up competition. We see it even in the gambling industry that once picked up on this phenomenon of the near win and created these scratch-off tickets that had a higher than average rate of near wins and so compelled people to buy more tickets that they were called heart-stoppers, and were set on a gambling industry set of abuses in Britain in the 1970s. The reason the near win has a propulsion is because it changes our view of the landscape and puts our goals, which we tend to put at a distance, into more proximate vicinity to where we stand….[A near win] gets us to focus on what, right now, we plan to do to address that mountain in our sights. It’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who in 1984 missed taking the gold in the heptathlon by one third of a second, and her husband predicted that would give her the tenacity she needed in follow-up competition. In 1988, she won the gold in the heptathlon and set a record of 7,291 points, a score that no athlete has come very close to since. We thrive not when we’ve done it all, but when we still have more to do.”
Sarah Lewis 
2014 TED talk Embrace the near win

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“Mastery is in the reaching, not the arriving. It’s in constantly wanting to close that gap between where you are and where you want to be. Mastery is about sacrificing for your craft and not for the sake of crafting your career.”
Sarah Lewis 

“What gets us to convert success into mastery? This is a question I’ve long asked myself. I think it comes when we start to value the gift of a near win.”
Sarah Lewis

There’s been a resurgence in archery in the last few years. In pop culture archery has even figured prominently in some of the biggest box office movies of this century;  Lord of the Rings, Brave, The Hunger Games.

In 10-zone target archery competitions the targets consist of ten rings and points are scored on a one to 10 basis depending on what circle your arrow lands on. (Of course, if you miss the target altogether that is called a miss and zero points are awarded.) The 10 ring in the center of the target is the smallest ring and most difficult to hit.

Archery-target-

“So success is hitting that ten ring, but mastery is knowing that it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again. Mastery is not just the same as excellence, though. It’s not the same as success, which I see as an event, a moment in time, and a label that the world confers upon you. Mastery is not a commitment to a goal but to a constant pursuit. What gets us to do this, what get us to forward thrust more is to value the near win. How many times have we designated something a classic, a masterpiece even, while its creator considers it hopelessly unfinished, riddled with difficulties and flaws, in other words, a near win? Painter Paul Cézanne so often thought his works were incomplete that he would deliberately leave them aside with the intention of picking them back up again, but at the end of his life, the result was that he had only signed 10 percent of his paintings. His favorite novel was The [Unknown] Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac, and he felt the protagonist was the painter himself.”
Sarah Lewis TED talk Embrace the near win
Author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

Tomorrow we’ll look at how, according to Lewis, the near win has inspired others.

P.S. “The aim of art is not to copy nature, but to express it. You are not a servile copyist, but a poet!”—Master painter in The Unknown Masterpiece

Related posts:
Failure is an option.’
Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Commitment in the Face of Failure
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“No one wants to be laid off; it feels embarrassing.”
Author Gillian Flynn

When Up in the Air hit theaters in 2009 it was timely because many people in America were experiencing being laid off from their jobs. The fictious character played by George Clooney tried to encourage people he was firing in Up in the Air by telling them:

“Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it. That’s the truth.”
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air

You know who was fired in real life in 2009? Gillian Flynn. She worked ten years with Entertainment Weekly. I bet if she saw Up in the Air the week after she was let go the first thing she thought was, “I wish George Clooney would have been the one to let me go.” The second thing she thought was probably in line with, “What a load of BS.”

But if she saw Up in the Air tonight, she’s say Clooney was absolutely correct. It was because she was let go that it allowed her to write the novel Gone Girl that became a best selling book in 2012 (over 6 million copies sold), was option to be made into a film for $1.5 million, and she was also paid to write the screenplay. The last two weeks Gone Girl has has sat at #1 at the box office and made $140 million worldwide in 10 days.

She may not have built an empire yet, or changed the world, but in just five short years she’s had about as much of a positive shift one can have after being laid off.

“I was a Missouri kid in New York working at my dream magazine and got laid off and had to figure out what to do with my life next. I did have more time to write; [Gone Girl] was the first of the three books that I wrote while I didn’t have a day job.”
Gillian Flynn
The Hollywood Reporter

Now Flynn already had a novel published before she was laid off and one shortly after, and was thankful at the time she was laid off that her lawyer husband still had a job, so there are a few variables unique to her sudden rise to fame and success. But don’t let that overshadow the fact that she wrote two novels while working a day job.

As screenwriter Bob DeRosa wrote,“There are no shortcuts. There is only hard work. Perseverance. Luck. Craft. Failure. Success. Mistakes. And yes, dreams that come true.”

Related posts:
How Gillian Flynn Killed It
Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcuts’ 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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Gillian Flynn: Author or Farmer?

“I had always, always, always wanted to write, and pictured myself as an author. From third grade on, my mom kept those scrapbooks about ‘what do you want to be when you grow up.’ I always said, ‘An author.’ Either an author or a farmer. But that was my aspiration. I was a big reader. My mom’s a reading professor — she literally taught reading for a living — so I was always surrounded by books and was a bookworm, which is where I think all writers start, with a love for books.

“I got into journalism because I was a practical Midwesterner and thought, ‘I can’t actually write books for a living so I’m going to do journalism, and that’ll be great too.’ And I loved it. I was at Entertainment Weekly for ten years and just had an absolutely great time. Then I started working on Sharp Objects just on my evenings and weekends. I would write at Entertainment Weekly all day doing interviews and going to set visits. I’d be on the set of Jackass: The Movie by day and then come back at night and try my hand at writing the book.”
Author/Screenwriter Gillian Flynn Gone Girl
2013 Interview with Brendan Dowling

Flynn’s debut novel in 2006 was Sharp Objects

Related Post: Don’t Quit Your Day Job (2.0)

Scott W. Smith

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“Here I am, a cowboy author in a town of 25 [Ucross] in northern Wyoming. And all of sudden, my character is on Sunset Boulevard 20 stories high. It’s a little odd.”
Writer Craig Johnson
Author of the Walt Longmire mystery series
LA Times interview by Liesl Bradner

“ I’m of the belief that everybody has a writer in them, but they also have an editor that strangles the writer to death before the writer gets anything down on paper.”
Craig Johnson

Ucross, Wyoming is unlikely place. At least from the perspective of being a novelist whose work ends up being a popular TV show. But that’s the short version of Craig Johnson’s life whose Walt Longmire novels (The Cold Dish) were the basis of Longmire which aired on A&E for the past three seasons.

Recently the show, despite being its most viewed scripted program, was cancelled and is currently looking for a new home. Johnson is also credited as executive/creative consultant on the show.

So how did Johnson pull that off while writing from a town with a population of just 25? Before I answer that, first I’d like to share a quote that I read on excellent blog Go Into the Story that always bugged me a little:

“I am not that interested in representing people who want to write for CSI North Dakota.”
Manager/producer Dan Halsted
2012 Q&A with Scott Myers

Now Halsted has both a film and TV background so it’s not a feature film verses TV for him. He did admit that he’s bored by police procedurals that proliferate TV. But since he dropped in North Dakota—let me ask, “What of interest can come from North Dakota?” I labour the point because Longmire has been called CSI Wyoming—without the team of investigators and high-tech equipment. (And while Wyoming isn’t North Dakota—it shares some “unlikely places” DNA.)

A phrase I’m fond of is “embrace your limitations” and I think what Johnson did was embrace the surrounding area of rural Wyoming and mesh it with some Native America Indian culture found more along Montana-Wyoming border and create some interesting characters and drama.

“[Johnson] got his big break when an agent from Creative Artists Agency walked into his literary agent’s office in New York City. The CAA is an agency that puts promising stories and characters with producers and studios, and the CAA agent asked whether Johnson’s agent had any strong characters. Johnson’s agent gave her a copy of The Cold Dish and refused to give her anything else until she read it.”
Tom Milstead
Buffalo Bulletin

Johnson became a New York Times best selling author, and had the image of his character Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) “20 stories high” on Sunset Blvd. in L.A., by writing.

Eventually Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny wrote the Longmire pilot resulting in a viewership averaging more than five million people per episode (from 2012-1014).  That’s actually a higher viewership than even Mad Men, so why would A&E cancel Longmire. Ah, money? Exactly. Longmire attracted an older audience which didn’t meet the necessary advertising revenue that made the numbers work for A&E. Plus scripted shows cost a lot more per episode to produce than the reality shows.

According to Deadline.com Warner Bros. owns the Longmire TV rights and is working on finding a home for season 4 of Longmire.

P.S. Apparently Ucross, Wyoming isn’t a one writer town. I found this on the website for the Ucross Foundation:
“Founded in 1981 by Raymond Plank, the Ucross Foundation provides a rare gift in today’s world – uninterrupted time– along with work space and living accommodations, to competitively selected visual artists, writers, and composers.  Nearly 1,300 individuals have spent time at Ucross since we first opened our doors.  They have come from every state in the U.S. as well as from many countries including Germany, France, Scotland, England, Poland, Egypt, the Netherlands, Canada, Thailand and others. Ucross extends invitations to approximately 80 individuals each year, selected by an outside panel of professionals.”

Annie Proulx wrote part of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Shipping News on the Ucross Foundation ranch, and now lives on her own 640 acre ranch in the area. In fact, the movie Brokeback Mountain flowed from one of Proulx’s short stories published in Close Range: Wyoming Stories.

Here’s part of the New York Times 1999 review of Close Range:
“The strength of this collection is Proulx’s feeling for place and the shape into which it twists her characters. Wyoming is harsh spaces, unyielding soil, deadly winters, blistering summers and the brute effort of wresting a living out of a land as poor as it is beautiful.”
Richard Deer

Related post:
Movie Making in Marfa (Texas)
Screenwriting from Nebraska “Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pigpen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.” Author Willa Cather (My Antonia)
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70) Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt suggests where your efforts should be placed.

My guess is Oscar-winning writer/director Alexander Payne would agree with Cather. Craig Johnson, too.

 Scott W. Smith

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Turn out the lights, the party’s over
They say that all good things must end…
The Party’s Over/Willie Nelson

Over the weekend Disney World closed its Studio Backlot Tour. It was a tram ride through the backlot and into a studio where tourists could be given a glimpse into the world of filmmaking—and if they were lucky they might even see animators working and a feature film being shot.

Back when Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then called Disney MGM) opened in 1989 it was kind of the first part of a bookend to Universal Studios Florida (that opened in 1990) for what was touted as a part of  “Hollywood East.” And while there was actually about a ten-year run of films and  TV programs being shot in the Orlando area— Passenger 57 with Wesley Snipes and The New Mickey Mouse Club both shot on the Disney sound stages, and Nickelodeon Studios and Parenthood with Steve Martin shot at Universal— “Hollywood East” it wasn’t.

Nickelodeon Studios ended its partnership with Universal Studios Florida in 2005.  For a variety of reasons, including a lack of film incentives, neither Disney or Universal in Florida lived up to the hype in terms of  feature film and TV production.

“The whole romance of seeing where movies are made really began to die as people got the ability to make movies themselves. The only movie production that’s happening in there are people holding up their iPhones and uploading to YouTube.”
Robert Niles, editor of the Theme Park Insider website
Orlando Sentinel article by Dewayne Bevel

The side benefit for local crews that worked on projects like From the Earth to the Moon is they got valuable experience that eventually led some of them to greater opportunities in LA, New York City, Atlanta, and Louisiana. (Certainly true of some of the Mickey Mouse cast; Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake.)

I actually moved back to Orlando from Los Angeles partly with the hopes of getting on the ground floor of Hollywood East. And while I didn’t work on the features or TV programs shot here, it did lead me to working for a non-profit educational group were I gained valuable experience producing multi-camera productions and learning non-linear video editing  (AVID/Final Cut).

Experience that when coupled with my film school background eventually led to video productions I’ve done from Aspen, to Berlin, to Cape Town.

Disney hasn’t announced plans yet with what they’re going to do with the studio tram ride. But I imagine it will be something like when Universal got rid of the JAWS ride in favor of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  So even though they’re turning out the lights on the Disney backlot ride, I don’t think the party’s over. There are still plenty of films to be made in Florida, but no one here really uses the term “Hollywood East” anymore.

Related post: Screenwriting from Florida

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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