Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

“I formed my notions of America in Yugoslavia by watching films. And most of the films were westerns so therefore when I landed [in the USA] I honestly expected—maybe if not John Wayne, a close friend of his to be there on a horse.”
Screenwriter Steve Tesich (The World According to Garp, American Flyers)

I don’t know how many screenwriters David Letterman has had on his show over the years but on that short list is Oscar winning screenwriter Steve Tesich (1942-1996).

Tesich was born in Yugoslavia but immigrated to the United States when he was 14. His family settled in East Chicago, Indiana (the Hoosier state) back in its heavy industrial days when soot filled the skies daily.

He did his undergraduate work at Indiana University, and according to Wikipedia he was actually an alternate rider for the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity team that rode in the Little 500 bike race that is featured in the movie Breaking Away, which was based on his screenplay.

And because I’m always interested in story origins, this is the beginning of the creative process that lead Tesich to his first produced film—an eight year journey from script to screen—and his only Oscar Award:

“I ran into a guy [in Bloomington] who was doing his Italian fantasy. I was riding a bike— I hear an Italian opera being sung behind me and I turn around and there’s this guy climbing a hill singing. He starts talking Italian to me, and being Yugoslavian and knowing how tough it is on foreigners I really have pity on the guy. For a week I try to tell him what America is like, what it’s like to be in Indiana and all this and I find out he’s from Indianapolis [Indiana]. He grew up there and this whole fantasy was just kind of a daydream.” 

Yes, inspiration and story ideas can be found in unusual places all over the world. Like Stephen King says, you have to be like a paleontologist looking for bone fragments in the ground.

Related Posts:
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Where Are The Wild Men?
Stagecoach Revisited 2.0
‘Breaking Away’—Like a Rock
Screenwriting Quote #55 (Stephen King) “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
The King of Cool’s Roots Steve McQueen was from Indiana. James Dean, too. (John Wayne, now he was from Iowa.)

Scott W. Smith

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“There’s a quality that most first scripts share: fresh, surprising, and unspoiled.”
Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (The Sting)

I was eighteen
Didn’t have a care
Working for peanuts
Not a dime to spare
But I was lean and
Solid everywhere
Like a rock
Lyrics by Bob Seger/Like a Rock


The 1979 movie Breaking Away received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and Steve Tesich won the Oscar for his screenplay. It was his first produced feature film. Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates,  also landed at #8 on AFI’s list of 100 Most Inspirational Films of All Time.

If I ever put together a Hall of Fame list of Hollywood movies that represent well the world outside of Hollywood, Breaking Away would be there. But the aspect of the movie and screenplay I want to look at today is what could be called texture.

In my last post writer/director Gary Ross touched on the texture of Seabiscuit by including key elements (fishing pole, tackle box, keysin one pivotal scene of a young boy going fishing. In Breaking Away the texture—the limestone from the area— is a major motif of the entire film.

The opening shot and opening scene are of rocks and a rock quarry in Bloomington, Indiana. Stones that were cut out of the ground built many of the buildings at the Indiana University Bloomington.


Tesich (who was born in Užice, Yugoslavia but raised in Indiana) uses those stones brilliantly in his script as he shows what unites the town is also what divides it. Working in the rock quarries and cutting the stones provided jobs for the locals—the townies known as Cutters. But the buildings they built for the local college were more preppy than blue collar friendly. (This may not be true in real life, but it worked for the movie.)

Tesich touched on that contrast in the script and in the scene below shows a beautiful synthesis of the two worlds colliding—then merging.


The campus is deserted. Dave and Mr. Blasé are walking slowly outside a huge classroom building. Mr. Blase lights a cigarette.

                                                MR. BLASE
Just one.  Don’t tell mother.
(looking at the building)
You know, I do this every now and then. Come here at night and…I cut the stone for that building over there…

Yes, I know, Dad.

                                                MR. BLASE
I was one fine stonecutter…Mike’s dad…Moocher’s, Cyril’s…we all were. Well, Cyril’s dad…Ah, never mind. The thing is. I loved it. I was young, slim and strong and damn proud of my work…and the buildings went up…and when they were finished…damnest thing happened…It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. But we just felt uncomfortable. Even now. I’d like to be able to stroll through the campus and look at the limestone but I feel out of place. I suppose you guys still go swimming in the quarries.


                                                MR. BLASE
So, all you get from my twenty years of work is the holes we left behind.

I don’t mind.

                                                MR. BLASE
I didn’t either when I was your age. But…Eh, Cyril’s dad says he tool that college exam.

Yeah, both of us did.

                                                MR. BLASE
So, how did…how did both of you do?

Well, I think, eh, one of us…eh…I won’t go, Dad. The hell with them. I’m not ashamed of being a cutter. 

And that’s pretty much how the scene played out in the movie between Mr. Blase (Paul Dooley) and Dave (Dennis Christopher). It’s a scene that shows the evolution of  both characters. At the beginning of the film Dave is fascinated with being an Italian bike racer (even though he’s an American in Bloomington, Indiana) and the the dad (Mr. Blase)—now a used car salesman— doesn’t understand his son’s directionless life. Nor does he think his son should go to college because he didn’t. But in the end, Dave’s way to break away from his directionless friends is to attend college. And his dad now sees that as a good thing.

The synthesis is a Cutter’s son will be going to the very college that he helped build. Perhaps if we could magically follow those characters today we’d discover that Dave became a successful architect and continued the building motif. But his flaw is while his education and talent helped made him financially set it also made him materialistic.

And Dave’s son doesn’t want anything to do with his father’s money or to go into debt  going the four-year college route, but instead wants to be an artist working with stone from the local quarry tapping into working with the land as his grandfather did.

All that to say, dig deep into the world you’re creating in your stories and mine the riches that surround your characters.

H/T to Jim Mercurio for mentioning the limestone in his Complete Screenwriting course making me want to revisit Breaking Away and dig a little deeper.

P.S. While these days Breaking Away is not as revered as Rocky or Raging Bull in the  movie world it did make AFI’s top 10 sports films. Which along with Hoosiers gave the state of Indiana two films in that category.

P.P.S. One of Dave’s directionless friends in Breaking Away is the former jock character played by Dennis Quaid—who for what it’s worth in that movie is built like a rock.

Related posts:
Storytellers from Indiana
Postcard #15 (Seymour, Indiana)
Against the Wind  (More Seger)
Frank Gehry on Creativity Limestone from Iowa used in LA concert hall.
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) I started this blog as an offspring of a first script—Diablo Cody’s Juno.

Scott W. Smith


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 “I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass.”
David Mamet

“The question is how do you get somebody to suspend their disbelief—that’s the central question in drama. And the answer in drama is you have to give them a plot. You have to make them wonder what happens next?…How’s he going to get out of the locked cage? What’s going to happen to Othello? And this goes back to the primal—the essence of the cerebral cortex. How do I get away from the wolf that’s trying to kill me? Which is very, very different than trying to figure out a logical problem. I think it’s absolutely two different parts of the brain…The forest is on fire, how do I get out of here?…It’s hard to write a drama, because it’s hard to write a drama with a plot. Because a plot means that at the end of the drama you have to resolve that problem which gave rise to the drama in such a way that’s both surprising and inevitable as per Aristotle. “
David Mamet
House of Game  director’s commentary
Excellent site for condensed commentaries: filmschoolthroughcommentaries 

Related posts:
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (Part 2)
‘There is Only One Plot’
Making Dramatic Writing Dramatic (Tip #98)
“Don’t bore the audience!”

Scott W. Smith

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“I’d been through all the usual jobs of waiter, busboy, night clerk in a hotel, janitor in a nursery, and so forth, and I was running out of those jobs when Paul Sills again offered me a job in Chicago at what was then called Compass, which was an improvisational cabaret. And that’s where I began to work with Elaine May, who I had known before. I was very bad at it for months, and then I became better, and then I became better, and then I became pretty good. Elaine was very good at it.”
Mike Nichols
Film Comment interview with Gavin Smith

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, improv as a structured theatrical art form began in 1955 when David Shepherd and Paul Stills started the ensemble group the Compass Players in Chicago. Many of the alumni later went on to be part of Second City.

Along with Compass Players Ed Asner, Alan Alda, Valerie Harper and others was a German born, former pre-med major, and method trained actor named Mike Nichols—who would later go on to be one of the few people to win the rare combination of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards.

When Nichols, who passed away this week, was asked in 2013 if there were any ground rules for improvisations with the Compass Players he replied:

“The greatest rule was [Elaine May’s], ‘when in doubt, seduce.’ That became the rule for the whole group. And looking back, because I did teach acting for a while, we figured out over a long time that there only were three kinds of scenes in the world—fights, seductions, and negotiations.”
Film and theater director Mike Nichols (1931-2014)
Vanity Fair article by Sam Kashner

While not improv scenes, yesterday’s post had the classic seduction scene from The Graduate, and here’s a negotiation scene from that film which Nichols won an Oscar for directing:

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Nichols’ first feature film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? but I seem to recall Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fighting throughout the film so it wasn’t hard to find a fighting scene. (Lots of fighting and 13 Oscar nominations.)

P.S. The well respected acting teacher Del Close—who was once roommates with Gene Wilder at the University of Iowa— was part of the Compass Players before later influencing/teaching Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, John Candy, Tina Fey, and John Belushi. Close also co-authored Truth in Comedy, The Manual of Improvisation.

In the book The Funniest One in the Room:The Loves and Legends of Del Close, Kim Howard Johnson writes, “Many have called Del Close the most important comedy figure of the last fifty years whom you’ve never hear of.”

Scott W. Smith

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“Sometimes the truth is shocking.”
Tennessee Williams

“I did four plays with [Neil Simon]: Barefoot and Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Odd Couple. There were real discoveries. Sometimes we didn’t even know things were funny. Walter Matthau says: ‘You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow.’ ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes. F.U.’ Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar.’ And the audience laughed so hard, he had to sit down and read the New York Post.

“I never understand when people say, ‘Do you do comedy or tragedy?’ I don’t think they’re very much different. They both have to be true, and there isn’t a great play in the world that doesn’t have funny parts to it — as Salesman does, as King Lear does. The whole idea is to reflect life in some way, which means surely you have to have both.”
Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate)
As told to Stephen Galloway/ 2012 Hollywood Reporter

Related Posts:
The Shocking Truth (Tip #84) “The truth is your friend.”—Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nicholas Kazan
Hunting for Truth “Truth is not found in the sunshine, truth is found in the shadows.”—Novelist Paul Lieberman
Telling the Truth=Humor “Watch human behavior. Telling the truth about people will make them laugh.” Phil Foster via Garry Marshall
Insanely Great Endings Screenwriter Michael Arndt puts The Graduate (written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham based on the novel by Charles Webb) on his short list of movies with “insanely great endings.”

Scott W. Smith

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All stories are about transformation, and that change comes with a crushing truth about ourselves.”
Blake Snyder

Just gonna have to be a different man
Changes/David Bowie

Chemistry teacher Walter White playing with fire

Chemistry teacher Walter White playing with fire

Are you ready for a chemistry lesson that will transform your screenwriting—maybe your life? I hope so because in less than 60 seconds Walter White not only gives us a glimpse into chemistry, but one that nails the overarching theme of the Emmy-winning Breaking Bad, and at the same time gets to the heart of storytelling—and perhaps the history of the human race.

Can you really do that in just 60 seconds? Well, I don’t know if you can—but Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan did.

"Breaking Bad" pilot  script Written by Vince Gilligan

“Breaking Bad” pilot script
Written by Vince Gilligan

You can read the full Breaking Bad pilot script dated 5/27/05 online, but here’s how Bryan Cranton as Walter White spoke the words in the pilot directed by the writer Vince Gilligan.

“Chemistry is—well, technically chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now just think about this, electrons—they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements they combine and change into compounds. Well, that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant. It’s the cycle; solution, dissolution just over and over and over. It is growth and decay, and then transformation. It is fascinating, really.”
High School chemistry teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad

“It is growth and decay, and then transformation”—that sentence packs a punch. And as we’ve learned in books, TV shows, and movies— as well as world history— that transformation is not always positive.

Related posts:
Breaking Bad’s Beginning
Breaking Bad Y’All
‘The Farmer and the Tweaker’
TV Vs. Feature Films (Vince Gilligan)
Screenwriting Quote #190 (Vince Gilligan)
Writing ‘Water Cool Moments’
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
‘Groundhog Day’ and Cheap Therapy

Scott W. Smith

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“I don’t want to do a film unless I’ve got a chance to create a mood and an atmosphere, which is what I think my job is. Anybody can photograph a film — you can just put lights on and make an exposure. I want the challenge of creating an atmosphere and the right frame for the director.”
Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis (1917-2007)
Interview with David Morgan on shooting Cape Fear (1991)

In Jim Mercurio’s DVD Complete Screenwriting From A to Z to A-List he has a section where he mentions that screenwriters should think like filmmakers, meaning some of the key roles people physically do working on a film—the director, the director of photography (DP), and the editor.

Mercurio like many screenwriting instructors says that you shouldn’t write camera direction overtly like “Using a 200mm lens…” or “a Stedicam follows the cop down the stairs…”, but that there are ways to cheat your vision in your screenplay.

“One of the most effective ways to get at mood and tone is with light. In fact, here are a couple of sentences from the first Mission Impossible, just little pieces of action description where everything is done with light;

A bare bulb shines down the contents of a shabby hotel room.

The American Embassy glitters beside the Vitava River.

‘Glitters’ is the suggestion of light…I think about the scene in Cape Fear where Max (Robert De Niro) is harassing them (Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis) and he’s smoking a cigar, and the smoke is wafting up with the light through it—now that’s a DP. That’s how a DP thinks; ‘How can I make this visual?’ ‘How can I make this beautiful?’ ‘How can I tell this story with light?’

Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio

Here are some more screenwriting examples I found piggybacking on Mercurio’s ideas which could be see as any combination of the roles of the director, the DP/cinematographer, or editor.

Example from St. Vincent screenplay by Theodore Melfi that suggests a wide angle lens:


School pickup. Oliver’s an ant amongst the THRONGS OF KIDS waiting for a ride home.

Example of camera position from Gone Girl screenplay by Gillian Flynn:


We see the back of  AMY DUNNE’S HEAD, resting on a pillow.

Example of a close-ups inferred from The Verdict screenplay by David Mamet:

Gavin twists tea bag around a spoon to extract last drops of tea. His hand movers to his felt pen lying on the table. He moves his hand to the paper, open at the obituary section. We SEE several names crossed out. He circles one funeral listing.

Suggestion of a tracking shot from Nebraska by Robert W. Nelson.


Woody walks down the sidewalk toward the BUS STATION. David pulls up alongside him in his car and rolls down the window.

Use of color from Promised Land script by John Kransinski and Matt Damon:


In the first minutes of a cool Spring day we see a idyllic landscape of blood orange colored sky hanging above the tree covered mountains of McKinely, a small town at the foot of a mountain.

Here’s a description from The Artist screenplay by Michael Hazanavicus which could be done with a complicated crane shot or a sequence of wide, medium, and close-up shots.


There’s hardly anyone in the theater. The people that are there look bored more than anything. At the back smoking a cigarette George takes the failure on the chin.

And circling back around to lighting, here’s an example of getting at mood and tone on an exterior shot from the Flight script by John Gatins:

                                       WHIP (CONT’D)
                         C’mon sweetheart, show me the sun.

Suddenly, clouds –we see a beam of light breaking through the black 12 o’clock high. A God ray.

And in Flight you could even say that ray of light is symbolic of the overarching theme of the entire movie where Whip (Denzel Washington) moves from darkness to light, from living a lie to living the truth.

P.S. The above Cape Fear (1991) clip, written by Wesley Strick (reportedly 24 drafts) and directed by Martin Scorsese, shows how cinematographer Freddie Francis employed a few lighting cheats himself.  Can you see the cheats in this shot taken from that scene?


I’m no Freddie Francis, but I’ve shot several short films and won a Regional Emmy for location lighting so let me take a guess at the lighting cheats in the above shot of De Niro.

The key light appears to be coming low because it’s brighter on his shirt and lower face than on his forehead and hair meaning the light is coming low from inside the car. (Something like a Kino Flo Mini-Flo would do well if you were shooting this scene today.) It’s a cheat because car dash lights (even on old Mustangs) aren’t bright enough to light up a faces. (At least with the older technology Francis was using. (I have used my iPhone flashlight and pushed the ISO higher for similar effect on videos I’ve shot digitally.)

In the background there is separation in the tree and the wall background so there are at least two lights there. Maybe more and gelled (or a TV) to add some color. And there is a slash of light hitting the side of the car and mirror. And finally when De Niro puffs on the cigar that is back lit which could be yet another light or spill from one of the other lights hence doing double duty.

All that work done by a film team for a series of shots that are on screen for a total of about 10 seconds. Think of the layers of just De Niro sitting in his car: cars moving in the foreground and background, he’s smoking a cigar which adds some movement as the smoke blows in the air adding visual interest, and there are extras walking in the background. That challenge for the screenwriter is to peel back the layers of their story using a few words and sentences.

Francis won two Best Cinematography Oscars (Glory, Sons and Lovers) and also four BAFTA Best Cinematography awards (The Elephant Man, The French Lieutenant’s Woman). And I should mention that he also shot a film in Iowa—David Lynch’s The Straight Story.

P.P.S. To see how editors cheat go to the 1:56 mark of the above video clip of Cape Fear and you’ll notice that the car that crosses the frame is a Chrysler convertible, but a few frames later on the closer up shot there is a SUV or mini van. It’s an intentional jump cut to add tension/disharmony to the scene.

Related posts:

10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)
Cinematography and Emotions
Cinematography and Emotions (Part 2)
Lighting ‘Friday Night Lights’
Shooting ‘Chinatown’
Professor Jerry Lewis (The Total Film-Maker)
David Lynch in Iowa
Study the Old Masters
Cinematographer Roger Deakins

Helpful link:  ASC, The Society of Cinematographers

Scott W. Smith



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