Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

One of the people I got to know when I lived in Iowa was actor Gary Kroeger who was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Kroeger left Iowa to attend Northwestern University where he started an improv group with Julia Louis Dreyfus. The two ended up with Second City in Chicago and then on Saturday Night Live.

Kroeger went on to work on various TV shows (LA Law) and movies (The Big Picture) and co-wrote the script for The Chameleon before returning to Iowa in 2003 to work as a creative director. And he continues to do theater, TV and films. A few years ago I saw an exceptional theater performance by Kroeger as “Professor” Harold Hill in The Music Man–written by Meredith Willson from Mason City, Iowa. (I wrote about it in the post Talent and Trouble in River City.)

In 2004 he had the opportunity to work with Seinfeld creator Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm.  (The two met while working on Saturday Night Live.) Since I’ve been blogging about golf the last few days I thought a fitting scene to show was one from Curb Your Enthusiasm where Gary Kroeger (as a weatherman) and Larry David have a nice confrontation.

Today I asked Kroeger about getting the role and how it was shot and here’s his reply:

“I auditioned for Larry by improvising a weathercast. Once on the sets there is no script, only an outline for where the scene needs to go.  When I got to the golf course I was told ‘This is where Larry will confront you with his notion that you say it’s going to rain to empty the course.’ I wasn’t even told whether or not my character consciously did that, it was left to me to decide. They roll a camera on each actor and just ‘go.’ Every line is made up. Larry and a producer may then make a couple of suggestions and we’d do it again.”
Gary Kroeger


P.S. It’s interesting how many times Northwestern has come up on this blog. Here’s some other talent that’s come from Northwestern.

Scott W. Smith

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“I have no daily process. I have trouble calling myself a writer. It was never a plan of mine. I learned to type in the Navy’s communication corps, learned Morse code and how to type at 100 words a minute (I never went to war). Typing was a skill I took advantage of. I like dialogue, exploring behavior. Behavior takes you everywhere – beyond imagination for a character. It runs you into other people’s behavior and so the battleground is set.”
Two-time Ocar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent
WGA Interview by Denis Faye  

Ordinary People (1980) won four Oscars including Best Picture and Alvin Sargent’s screenplay.  It’s a movie full of conflict, including this “battleground” scene on a golf course—that’s also a great example of sweeping emotional change that transpires in just two minutes:

P.S. Over the weekend Sargent turned 87 years old. Happy Birthday Alvin.

Related post:
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule
Conflict: What? vs. How?

Scott W. Smith





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On this day six years ago I wrote the post below reflecting on a relatively unknown golfer named Zach Johnson who beat Tiger Woods in his prime at the Masters Tournament. Since the Masters was today I thought I’d have a special repost Sunday and add a fitting quote by writer Carl Hiaasen that shows a parallel between all those screenwriting and golf instructions.

“Golf books and golf magazines sell like crazy because every player is searching for the formula, the secret, the code, the grail—how do I conquer this impossible, godforsaken game? 

“And the more you read, the more hopelessly muddled you become. After digesting an article by David Leadbetter advocating and early cocking of the wrists on the backswing, I came upon the following quote by Byron Nelson: ‘Make a takeaway with no wrist break, and you’ll like what happens through impact.’

“Now what? Chose between Leadbetter, tutor of champions, or Nelson, the only guy to win eleven consecutive PGA tournaments?

“Because no two experts play, teach or analyze golf the same way, the instructions are often contradictory and vexing.”
Carl Hiaasen
The Downhill Lie; A Hackers Return to a Ruinous Sport

Here’s the original 2008 post called Sneaky Long Screenwriting —(back when my posts where a lot longer):

“If you follow your passion, the money will follow. Success, in my opinion, involves sheer luck, hard work and humility.”
Anthony Zuiker, creator CSI TV programs

“I’m Zach Johnson and I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s about it, I’m a normal guy.”
Zach Johnson, professional golfer

Last year at this time Zach Johnson’s above quote caused laughter from the press corp in Augusta, Georgia as he spoke those words before a national TV audience after winning the prestigious Masters at Augusta National golf tournament.

But do normal guys come from seemingly nowhere to win their first major tournament against the greatest golfers in the world? Do normal guys fend off Tiger Woods, one of the greatest golfers in the history of the game?

Zach Johnson was sneaky long.

Sneaky long is a golf phrase which describes a golfer, a golf shot, or a particular hole that looks deceptively underrated. Think of it like an Adam Sandler/Bill Murray-like fellow in his goofiest outfit coming up to some serious golfers and saying, “You guys want to put a little money on who can hit the next ball the longest?” They take the bet thinking the guy doesn’t have a chance and he ends up taking their money.

Sneaky long is the underdog that causes snickers. Rocky, Seabiscuit, and Erin Brockovich were all sneaky long. Audiences love an underdog mainly because the underdog represents us and our deepest wishes.

When a 36-year-old writer broke into the TV business (in a business where 30 is old) with a script for an episode for the TV show Hunter (followed by scripts for even lesser remembered TV shows) few probably thought that within ten years this guy was going to write a movie that would win five Oscars. But that’s what happened after Randell Wallace wrote Braveheart.

Johnson’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa has had its share of sneaky long characters. Former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner not only grew up in Cedar Rapids but went to the same high school as Johnson. When no large schools offered him a football scholarship, he signed with the University of Northern Iowa, a Division II college right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

It wasn’t the big-time college football that he’d hoped for, but at least he thought he’d start all four years. However, he sat the bench for three years before making his marking mark his senior year by becoming the Gateway Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Following graduation, he worked as a grocery stocker at HyVee  and then played arena football in Des Moines. Next was pro ball in Europe before joining the St. Louis Rams where he was booed in his first game. He went on to be twice voted the top player in the NFL and Super Bowl XXXIV MVP. Someday they’ll do a movie about his life.

One could even say that artist Grant Wood was sneaky long. He was a schoolteacher and artist who lived in a small apartment above a carriage house in (you guessed it) Cedar Rapids, where he eventually painted one of the most recognizable (and copied and parodied) paintings in the history of art—American Gothic.

Wood once said, “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.” He also coined the term regionalism to define his belief that an artist should “paint out of the land and the people he knows best.”

Isn’t that what Van Gogh did in Arles? Isn’t that what Winslow Homer did in Maine? Isn’t that what Faulkner did in Oxford, what Steinbeck did in Monterey, what O’Connor in Georgia, what Ibsen did in Norway, what Willa Cather did in Nebraska, and what Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) has done in Texas?

This is the heartbeat of Screenwriting from Iowa. Hollywood will always make its tent pole movies. Movies will always have a LA/New York thrust because that’s where the majority of studios, crews, and talent are located.

But if the writer’s strike signaled one thing it’s the times are changing. As the founder of The Geek Squad said recently, “What people don’t understand is the internet hasn’t yet started.” I believe new forms of distribution will fuel a revival in regionalism.

“What regional filmmaking means to me is not only utilizing the actors of your area, the musicians and the artists, but probing what it means to that region. And for me, the thing about Memphis that I’ve always responded to is its music scene, from Sam Phillips recording Howlin’ Wolf, Rudus Thomas, Elvis Presely, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich.”
Craig Brewer, writer/director Hustle & Flow

Audiences for years have been complaining about the lack of originality and seemingly endless repetition of remakes and sequels. And writers have struggled with the pressure to write what they think will sell to the masses rather than writing what they know and really want to write.

Every year the entertainment industry experiences some minor tremors. Like the era from silent movies to sound pictures the industry is shifting.

Hollywood is stocked with talent from all across the United States and Canada. We enjoy hearing stories of Katie Holmes being from Toledo, Ohio and Julia Roberts from Smyrna, Georgia. Even the greater Cedar Rapids area alone has its share of actors in recent films and TV programs.

Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings)
Eric Rouse (Superman Returns)
Michele Monaghan (Mission Impossible III)
Tom Arnold (The Final Season)
Michele Emerson (Lost)
Ron Livingston (Office Space)
Ashton Kutcher (The Guardian)

But wherever the sneaky long actor, writer, or director lives they need to keep plugging away at the craft. Work through that “contradictory and vexing” advice they get from friends, teachers, books, and blogs. Keep learning and keep creating.

I’ve said before in workshops I’ve given, “Don’t quit your day job, because you never know how that can serve your work.” (Not to mention it pays the bills.) Johnny Depp says he used to use different voices in the telemarketing job he had when he first moved to L.A. from Florida.

Then there is Illinois born  Anthony Zuiker’s story. After the show he created, CSI, became the top rated scripted show he told Creative Screenwriting magazine, “Three years ago I was living in Vegas as the night manager of the Mirage Hotel tram line.” (Zuiker whose creation has since grown into the hit shows CSI:New York and CSI:Miami has Chicago roots. How many years until CSI: Cedar Falls?)

But when Zuilker was a night manager he was also writing. It was while working at a motel when he actually found the inspiration for his first TV script. “The police and I are in this motel room searching for evidence when an officer lifts up the bed skirt. All I see is a pair of eyes before she leaps from beneath the bed clawing at my face. And I thought, ‘There’s a show here.’”

Certainly golfer Zach Johnson has followed Zuilker’s advice: “If you follow your passion, the money will follow. Success, in my opinion, involves sheer luck, hard work and humility.” Johnson was not the top golfer on his college team at Drake.  Johnson even wasn’t the #1 golfer on his high school team.

But he had passion and kept improving his game until he got to slip on the famed green jacket at Augusta on his way to making $4 million dollars in 2007.

Whether you’re making music videos in Minneapolis, turning out B-grade cable scripts, teaching high school theater in Tulsa, a grocery store stock boy, a night tram manager in Vegas, a daytime tram operator in Orlando,  or someone sweeping up Cheerio dust in a factory you have to believe that you’re sneaky long and can surprise a lot of people with what you write. But you have to be writing to get there.

Scott W. Smith



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Here’s a baseball themed repost I wrote back in 2008 that seems fitting for this baseball themed run of posts connected to screenwriting:

“I’d wake up at night with the smell of the ball park in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet… The thrill of the grass.”
Field of Dreams
Shoeless Joe Jackson

Yesterday I wandered over the Iowa state line into Omaha, Nebraska to watch the final game of the 2008 College World Series. The Georgia Bulldogs played the Fresno State Bulldogs.

That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen two teams play that have the same mascot. What are the odds?Probably a little worse than getting a script you’ve written made. Since every screenwriter is an underdog there are a few things every screenwriter can learn from the game of baseball.

In the end the Bulldogs from California won the school’s first ever baseball national championship. One sports announcer proclaimed it “one of the greatest stories in sports history.” I don’t know about that but those Fresno St. ‘dawgs were true underdogs. They lost 12 of their first 20 games and finished the regular season only 32-27 but somehow won when they needed to and ended up in the College World Series where they were ranked dead last.

No team had ever come from the last ranked team to win a national championship…until last night. As I said about this year’s Super Bowl, if it had of been a movie you would have said it was full of clichés. But everyone has a dream.

Before we get to screenwriting I want to go back to 2003 where Chris Moneymaker changed the face of poker playing when playing in his first tournament he began as an unknown and turned $39 into a $2.5 million winning purse.

“I got lucky along the way. I also bluffed a lot during this tournament, but somehow I got away with it.” 
Chris Moneymaker

The screenwriting equivalent may be Diablo Cody who won an Oscar for her first film script Juno. These are rare cases, and it is important to have a real understanding of how difficult it is to have a screenwriting career or even get one of your scripts made. But it’s also important to know that Hollywood needs good scripts because the Hollywood system needs good movies.

I found this little nugget of information in Joe Eszterhas’ The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood:
Director Phillip Noyce: “I realized that the Hollywood system–based as it is on the employment of branch offices all over the world promoting and selling movies–is totally dependent on a continual flow of product, and it’s been set up to promote that product into the hearts and minds of people all over the world. In essence, movies represent marketing opportunities for Hollywood.” 

That should encourage you in your writing. And keep in mind:

“The only essential requirement to launch a successful screenwriting career is a terrific script.”
Cynthia Whitcomb

The Fresno St. baseball team, Chris Moneymaker, and Diablo Cody are a group of talented people who were all considered underachivers before their breakthroughs. And what do you do until that breakthrough? You keep dreaming and you write scripts and continue to find key people to read your scripts.

When former baseball players Logan Miller and Noah Miller dream to play professional baseball failed they turned their attention to screenwriting and filmmaking. Once they wrote their first script they cornered actor Ed Harris at a film festival where he was receiving an award and he agreed to read the script. Last year that film, Touching Home (which they also directed and star in) was completed with Ed Harris playing the Logan brothers father.

Editor Walter Murch said this about the film:  “With its crisp photography, concise editing and excellent use of sound, I found Touching Home to be a thoughtful and emotional exploration of the forgotten corners of the American Dream.”

Driving back home today I made a slight detour to Winterset, Iowa which is where The Bridges of Madison County was shot and where John Wayne was born in a house not far from where Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep did scenes together in downtown Winterset.

And if that’s not enough, George Washington Carver lived in Winterset for a while where the former slave was encouraged to attend college which he did, both Simpson College and Iowa State Agricultural College where in 1891 he became their first black student and would go one to earn a Master’s degree before going on with many agricultural discoveries.

George Washington Carver and John Wayne are two more examples of coming from a small town before finding global success.

P.S. I noticed on TV’s at the stadium that Orel Hershiser was calling the game on ESPN. In my Cedar Falls office I have a signed baseball from Hershiser for a project I helped produce for his retirement celebration. It’s also worth noting, before Hershiser became a World Series MVP he played minor league ball in Clinton, Iowa and when he played for the LA Dodgers manger Tommy Lasorda gave him the nickname “Bulldog.”

I really don’t make this stuff up, you know?

Scott W. Smith

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“The voicemail [saying I'd won the Nicholl Fellowship] was in between like 15 missed called from debt collectors.”
Screenwriter Stephanie Shannon

Once upon a time—way back in November 2012 (less than a year and a half ago)—a woman in her twenties decided it was time to write her first feature length script. That script (Queen of Hearts) written by Stephanie Shannon was just one of five scripts chosen by the 2013 Academy Fellowship in Screenwriting competition (out of the  7,241 scripts submitted) to win a $35,000 prize. Later in 2013, the script made The Black List. She’s now repped by CAA. And the script sold this year.

Home run. First script.

You know, I’ve often talked about the 10,000 hour rule and how it can take a screenwriter ten years to get any traction in their careers. Is Shannon an anomaly? Ah, no.

In Scott Myers’ excellent six part interview at Go Into The Story we learn that Shannon’s creative journey to success didn’t take 10 years—it took 15+ years.  And keep in mind, that as of right now she doesn’t have any features in theaters…or even shot yet.

But she’s still a great screenwriting success story–just not an overnight sensation that ever new screenwriter hopes they can emulate. So while it was Shannon’s first feature script here’s the behind the scene journey in bullet points and a few quotes:

* Shannon was an only child growing up in Dallas and would watch VHS  movies until the tape would wear out. In seventh grade she watches Schindler’s List and decides she want to be a director. (Let’s call it 13 years old.)

* In high school she not only took video production classes and shot games in such for community access stations, but in her junior and senior years of high school she got involved in a vocational career center where she “used to stay all night in the editing suites there, editing little movies for hours on end.” One of those movies, in a Texas statewide student competition, won Best of Show.

* She went to film school at NYU where she made several 16mm short films, editing them old school with “razors and tape” and Steenbeck flatbed editing machines.

* At NYU she did a study abroad in Prague where she made a 35mm short about Lewis Carroll who wrote Alice in Wonderland (and is also the subject of her Nicholl winning script).

*When she graduated from NYU she had just completed an education in what is considered historically considered one of the finest film programs in the world. And what that prepared her to do I’ll leave it up to her words to explain:

*After I graduated, I stayed in New York for five more years just doing any job I could find. When you graduate film school you’re like ‘What? They didn’t hand out Oscars at graduation? I guess I need to get a real job’. I did a lot of PAing on film sets: everything from commercials to indies to reality TV to big studio movies.”

* She spent two years working as an assistant at Brillstein Entertainment Partners that she considers her grad school education. She learned about the business side of the industry and read scripts (and thought she could write better scripts  than the ones she was reading).

* At 28 years old she moved to L.A. where she was able to work as an assistant with Brillstein in California, and friends put her in contact with working writers her own age who gave her advice and confidence that she could have a career as a writer.

* She began writing her first screenplay in that first year in L.A. in the morning, evenings, and on weekends away from her assisting job.

*When Myers ask any advice she had for aspiring writers Shannon said, “I think it’s important to just sit down and to do it. That was my biggest obstacle I had to overcome, was that it took me years to actually have the courage to sit down and believe that I could actually do it, and to put pen to paper.”

And that’s how Stephanie Shannon hit a home run. She’ll be 30 this October. It takes a little time sometimes. Actually, most of the time.

P.S. Shannon’s 15 year journey has similarities to Diablo Cody’s journey. Cody had been writing everyday since she was 12 and her Juno script sold when she was around 28.

Related Posts:
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
First Screenplay, Oscar—Precious

Scott W. Smith







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“Take the shot when you think you’ve got the moment.”
Christopher Lockhart

We continue our baseball themed week today by looking at Pete Rose. When Rose was a rookie with the Cincinnati Reds he picked up the nickname Charlie Hustle as a derogatory comment after he’d run to first after he walked, and because he’d slide head first into bases.

Rose embraced the nickname and there were a lot of Little League ballplayer who wanted to be just like Rose. I was one of them and in my micro doc Tinker Field: A Love Story I mention going to a baseball camp Rose did back in the day.

Here’s a picture from that camp. (I’m the little guy in the background next to where’s Rose’s left knee.) Charlie Hustle is a good metaphor for what is required of screenwriters. Don’t take my word for it, read the quote below my WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart.


“It’s funny because when I would go out with my wife sometimes we’d be at an event or something and she’d always get annoyed when people would find out where I worked and then say, ‘Well, I have a script.’ And she’d think it was rude or that’s not why we’re there and it would piss her off because she didn’t want me talking about business. And I’d always say to her, ‘Look—it’s their job. That’s what they’re supposed to be doing.’ It sucks for me, it’s worse for you, but that’s what [screenwriters] are supposed to be doing….Take the shot when you think you’ve got the moment…Anybody in this business has to hustle. You just have to. And if you’re not a hustler, it’s not the best business for you. Unless you’re an amazing writer and the writing is going to do all the hustling for you.”
Christopher Lockart
Final Draft Webinar
And for the record Lockhart says half of 1% of screenwriters are amazing writers.)

P.S. Pete Rose is still hustling.

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s kind of unusual to be creative and also like sports.”
Filmmaker & CalArts faculty member James Benning (and long time friend of Richard Linklater)

“I often joke when people ask me if I went to film school I say, ‘Oh, I went to the Stanley Kurbrick Film School,’ which means you just buy a camera and you learn how to use it and you start making movies.”
Filmmaker Richard Linklater

Before Richard Linklater became the filmmaker Richard Linklater he was a college baseball player at Sam Houston University. He left school to work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and used some money he made to buy an Super 8mm camera and eventually moved to Austin where he made his first commercial feature Slacker. While he’s directed one baseball movie (Bad News Bears–2005) he’s more well known for Dazed and Confused,  School of Rock, and his Oscar nominated films (Before Sunset and Before Midnight).

“One of the first things director Richard Linklater did with money he had saved from his movies was buy a piece of land in Bastrop, Texas. He built a baseball diamond on it and a library in which he stored his collection of movie posters, a personal ­35-mm. print of his 1996 film subUrbia, some paraphernalia from 1993’s Dazed and Confused, and writing going back 30 years, says Linklater’s frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke. When a forest fire tore through the area in 2011, it was destroyed. ‘Everything went up in flames,’ recalls Hawke. Thirty years of work. He lost everything. And when I called him to say how sorry I was, he was already thinking about how grateful he was for the fire for teaching him not to be materialistic.”
Tom Shone in Vulture, 2013

P.S. You’ll see more of Linklater in 2014 where he’s on camera in La noche de los Oscar (with James Benning) and the release of Boyhood in July which follows a young man from the ages of 5 to 18 and was shot over a 13 year period while the boy and other cast members aged naturally.

Scott W. Smith


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 “I wrote it quickly (10 weeks), without an outline, and we pretty much shot the first draft.”
Ron Shelton on his Oscar-nominated Bull Durham script

I’m not sure you could put together an outfield (3 players) of screenwriters who once played professional baseball.  In fact, the only player that comes to mind of any produced screenwriter who played pro ball is Ron Shelton. (But there has to be at least two, right?)

Shelton played minor league ball for the Baltimore Orioles and also wrote and directed Bull Durham, which Sports Illustrated back in 2004 ranked as the #1  greatest sports movie of all time (just ahead of Rocky and Raging Bull).

So I hunted around online and found a Q&A from Back to the 80s: Interview with Ron Shelton—here’s just the first question:

Q. What is the story of how a minor league baseball player ends up becoming an esteemed screenwriter and director?

Shelton: I was an English Lit major in college and liked to write a bit, but had no thoughts beyond that. In the minor leagues I used to go to movies everyday on the road because we didn’t have to go to the ballpark until about 4 in the afternoon–and I really fell in love with movies. I also had a college professor who introduced me to the French New Wave, which intrigued me, and Ingmar Bergman was quite popular when I was in college (along with other foreign directors), but mostly I just found my own way. I remember seeing The Wild Bunch when it came out. I was in Little Rock, Arkansas playing against the Travelers, and the movie knocked me out. At that moment I wanted to know more about how to make movies, but I was still playing ball.

Shelton also wrote the screenplay for Cobb on Detroit Tiger great Ty Cobb, and wrote and/or directed the basketball films Blue Chips and White Men Can’t Jump, the boxing movie The Great White Hype, and the golf movie Tin Cup. 

P.S. You may have read hundreds—even thousands of posts on screenwriting—but how many have you read that mentioned baseball and Bergman in the same post?

Related Posts:

Baseball, Screenwriting and Underdogs
One Swedes Major Impact on Cinema (On Bergman)

Scott W. Smith



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Personal Projects (Part 3)

“The overall importance of personal projects ranges from creative freedom to creating new work. Whether you are an established photographer or filmmaker or transitioning from assistant photographer /filmmaker this is an opportunity to produce something that has no boundaries.
Andrea Maurio
Why Are Personal Projects So Damn Important?
PNDonline March 30, 2013

Here’s a photo from my shoot yesterday at Tinker Field in Orlando, Florida. I’m on track to finish this micro doc next week and will post the 2 or 3 minute video on this blog when done.


Scott W. Smith

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John Carpenter on Theme

Erik Bauer: Do you think a great science fiction film needs to have some kind of a social anchor? I mean, a social relevance, a metaphor, or a statement that it makes?

John Carpenter: “It has to have a thematic concern. Every great work has something that’s thematic about it. Not a message, because I don’t think movies do messages very well. They fall flat. Socially, I mean, some great films were made back in the ’30s and ’40s and you can see that they were placed in the time they were made, but their themes are for all time. The biggest thing is the story, but within that you need some thematic element that gets the audience going, that reaches out to them.”

Creative Screenwriting, Volume 6, #1

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