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.”
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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