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“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

“I had this kind of 1930s childhood because my dad was really into radio serials, and my parents were also very, very anti-TV… It certainly was helpful having grown up with my dad as a film professor, and I studied movies and worked at EW for 10 years…If you’re wondering if I’ve always written dark stories—yes. Starting at age 8.”
Author Gillian Flynn (Dark Places, Sharp Objects) who was born in 1971
(Pieced together from three different articles.)

I’m always curious where writers come from and since Gillian Flynn went from being unemployed just a few years ago to be a multimillionaire, NY Times best selling author and screenwriter (Gone Girl) I thought I would show that she may have come out of the Midwest—but she didn’t exactly come from nowhere.

She was raised in Kansas City, Missouri and both of her parents taught at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley Community College. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Kansas and graduate work at Northwestern University—not far from where the 43-year-old writer lives now in Chicago.

“I was a Missouri kid in New York working at my dream magazine (Entertainment Weekly) 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. I think it let me overwrite — I probably wrote two books and had to chop it back to one. I had done journalism school at KU and gotten my master’s at Northwestern, and I thought I wanted to be a crime reporter. Very quickly, I discovered I did not have what it takes to be a good crime reporter: I was too unassertive and a little bit wimpy. It was very clear that was not what I was going to do, but I loved journalism, and I’m the daughter of a film professor, and my mom taught reading. I grew up in a house full of books. So I applied straight to EW right out of Northwestern.”
Gone Girl author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn
Hollywood Reporter article by Kimberly Nordyke

In other words, she followed a similar (yet different) path of fellow Northwestern University grad, screenwriter John Logan. She wrote a lot. If she was writing stories when she was eight, then it was a about a 30 year journey before her literary success.

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How to Be a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) “I graduated from Northwestern. I had no money. No one had any money. So I got a day job, shelving books at the Northwestern University Law Library. Every morning I would work from nine to five and shelve books, for ten years. Every single day for ten years. “—Three-times Oscar nominated John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo, Aviator)
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Scott W. Smith

“I try never to go longer than two lines of action because I think the eye naturally drifts away. We all do it. You look at the script and there are breezy reads—Scott Rosenberg (Con Air) to me pioneered how to do a breezy quick read.”
Screenwriter Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air, The Longest Yard)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters

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Scott W. Smith 

“America was born as a rebel country, and Americans have always had a soft spot for the outlaw.”
Professor Maurice Yacowar
Married to the Mob by Mark Sauer

One of my favorite discovers since starting this blog in 2008 is being able to find the connective tissues between ideas, scenes, ideas, characters and sometimes entire stories found in movies and TV shows. Often writers are open about their influences and yet other times plead ignorance for similarities.

Many critics said The Sopranos was indebted to Goodfellas—I can’t remember who called it “the companion guide to Goodfellas.” But there is a key element to The Sopranos that I think was taken from Donnie Brasco. Much was made about how fresh and original it was for Tony Soprano—a mobster—to go therapy.

But Johnny Depp’s character in Donnie Brasco is an undercover agent who has infiltrated the mafia. And when what started out as a six month FBI assignment starts turning into years it causes friction at home with his wife. Like a military man or a truck driver his lifestyle is somewhat unorthodox, yet there is something about the job that he loves. In the scene below his wife (Maggie played by Anne Heche) says tells her husband that he’s becoming like the mobsters he’s investigating.

Eventually Depp’s character’s wife says she wants a divorce. He tells her, “There hasn’t been a divorce in my family since back to Julius Caesar. Divorce someone else.” They settle on going to marriage counseling.

The Sopranos first aired in 1999 , Donnie Brasco was released in 1997. Here’s the beginning of the first counseling scene from a Donnie Brasco script dated 1992.

INT. DAY. OFFICE

SHELLY BERGER, late 40s, flannel shirt, earth shoes -- PSYCHOTHERAPIST -- 
sits with Donnie and Maggie.

                                     MAGGIE
                         ...He comes home at all hours of the 
                         night, without announcing when or 
                         why, or where he's been for three 
                         weeks. Or three months. Then he 
                         expects everything to be just the 
                         way he wants it. He vacuums the entire 
                         house. Do you know another man who 
                         vacuums? It's abnormal. Of course, 
                         he expects the girls to drop their 
                         lives when he shows up...

                                     DONNIE
                         I'm their father, Maggie. I ring 
                         that doorbell I expect them home.

                                     MAGGIE
                         They think it's a Jehovah's witness.
                              (to Berger)
                         You'd think he'd tell me where he 
                         goes or what he's doing --

                                     DONNIE
                         That's for your own protection.

                                     MAGGIE
                         Ha!
                              (to Berger)
                         I know he's cheating on me --

While Donnie Brasco screenwriter Paul Attanasio used the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life as his foundation, he said the counseling concept came from his imagination. This doesn’t take any thing away from what the great David Chase created with The Sopranos, it just helps us understand how the creative process works.

And since Donnie Brasco was not a made man in the Mafia, but FBI agent Joe Pistone that means the Tony Soprano—unless there is a film/TV show I’m unfamiliar with—was technically the first Mafia man depicted in a counseling setting. File it under, “the same thing only different.”

In my post Where Do Ideas Come From? I quoted James Young Webb, “ An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Orson Welles all acknowledged they built on what came before them.

P.S. Of course, Attanasio including a romance into Donnie Brasco accomplished many things including adding pressure (i.e. conflict) in Donnie Brasco/Joe Pistone’s. (On top of his pressure of some in the FBI questioning the operation, pressure from the mob itself, life or death circumstances if his cover is blow, and conflict with himself over his relationship with mobster Lefty Ruggiero, who will be killed or go to prison because of the undercover operations.

The Mike Newell directed film was not a box office hit when it first came out, but it has aged very well.

But about that husband/wife element of Donnie Brasco, Oscar and Emmy-winning director Sydney Pollack once stated something to the effect that each of his film always had a romance element. Certainly true of Out of Africa, The Electric Horseman, The Way We Were, and Tootsie.

P.P.S. I was enjoying The Dialogue series that was put on You Tube, but it went dark yesterday. Anyone know why. It now says those videos are private. If anyone knows why please shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com.

Related Post:
(Note: While I’ve used the term cloning before, I now prefer the concept of sampling to describe what goes on in connecting movies.)
Movie Cloning (“Raiders”) Some of the DNA of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Movie Cloning (Pirates) Some of the DNA of Pirates of Caribbean.
Movie Cloning (Part1) 

Scott W. Smith



									

“The basic thing that attracted me to Quiz Show was it was a kind of companion piece to Donnie Brasco. Donnie Brasco was about guys who were really dumb but really shrewed. Cause those mob guys are like that, they all have a 75 IQ but they can read people and read the room. And that was Joe’s (Joe Pistone, uncover FBI agent) achievement—getting over on them is not easy. The Quiz Show people as a companion to it—having written them consecutively—were people who were so smart they were dumb. They were so wrapped up in how smart they were that they were getting defrauded and making horrible life mistakes without any ideas that that was going on.”
Two-time Oscar nominated screenwriter Paul Attanasio
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Quiz Show’s beginning point was a chapter in the book Remembering America: A Voice of the Sixties by Richard N. Goodwin.

Scott W. Smith

“When I started writing Donnie Brasco—first of all, it was right at the beginning of my career so I was just really grateful to have a job. It was the first thing I did with Barry Levinson, and really that experience with Barry—you know Quiz Show came out of that, Homicide came out of that—it was fundamental to my development as a writer because all I’d been hearing up to that point was a lot of that kind of Syd Field, Robert McKee kind of [story structure]. And Barry basically, if you wrote a funny scene—that’s what he was looking for. It was really like the Howard Hawks’ apothegm that a good movie is five or six scenes and something in-between. If you have the five or six scenes the structure would announce itself. That was eye-opening for me. And when found that I could do that, that was the experience of [writing] Donnie Brasco.

It was really zeroing in on this character Lefty (Al Pacino). And what was great with that too is there is a lot of tape because they were eavesdropped on by the feds all the time. You could understand Lefty through how he sounded. And there was just all of this tape. And it was that relationship. The basic spine of it was clear to me early on which was at the end he [Donnie Brasco/Johnny Depp] either had to betray himself or betray his friend. That’s all you really need to find the structure.”
Screenwriter Paul Attanasio on writing Donnie Brasco
The Dialogue interview with Mike DeLuca (part 1)

Donnie Brasco originated from the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joseph D. Pistone with Richard Woodley.

“What [Levinson] got from the book was that mob life was really about guys in coffee shops scheming and bullsh*#ing, so that spoke to Diner, and Tin Men (other Barry Levinson films). Perception about people that he has mined for a while, and it wasn’t The Godfather and the beautiful Gordon Willis lighting, and the dignity of those guys. It was low life. And what I found in there is the relationship that gave it some heart and emotion.”
Paul Attanasio

P.S. Several years ago I interviewed former capo in the Columbo family Michael Franzese in Santa Monica for a TV program I was producing. I asked him what his favorite mafia film was and he said that he preferred the term “the family” and singled out Donnie Brasco. Fortune magazine once listed Franzese as number 18 of the “Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses.”

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40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

“To make a good film, to write a screenplay, is surprisingly hard. It shouldn’t be that hard. You’re really creating a diversion for people for two hours. But because of the length—it’s almost like writing a villanelle, or one of those forms that has so many requirements, that to hit the marks you need to hit and to express something is incredibly hard. And the result is there are a handful of people who know how to do it.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco, Quiz Show)
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriter Paul Attanasio, like screenwriter Sheldon Turner, came into the film world not through film school but through law school.  He also says he was not “one of those clerk in a video store” kind of guys, but that his writing is based in literature. After graduating from Harvard Law School he turned an internship with the Washington Post into a four-year stint as a film critic.

I’m not sure how he made the jump onto the filmmaking side, but he had the advantage of being mentored by Oscar-winning writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve). His first produced screenplay (Quiz Show) was directed by Robert Redford, his second film Disclosure was directed by Barry Levinson and starred Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, and his third film (Donnie Brasco) starred Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. He had two Oscar-nominations right out of the gate. A pretty good start, huh?

In the ’90s Attanasio also made his mark in TV when he created Homicide:Life on the Street (based on the book by David Simon) and from 2002-2012 he’s credited as executive producer on House M.D.

Here’s a glimpse into his writing process:

“I’m a late convert to outlining. I used to really try to know where I was going to end up and feel my way through it. And [Steven] Soderbergh when we did The Good German said, ‘no, why don’t you outline.’ And I was at the point where my process had gotten so amorphous—it wasn’t quite as amorphous as my friend Alvin Sargent—but it was semi-amorphous. And I said, “Okay, I’ll try that.” And it’s good. It’s like having a road map on a family trip. What happens is the kids have to go to the bathroom, you leave the road, you see something interesting, you go to it, then they’re hungry and you go there. But then when you have to get back to the highway, you know where the highway is, or at least you have a general direction to find your way back to the highway. Writers who stick rigidly to an outline, and never go up those blind alleys aren’t real writers. But on the other side of it is if you’re collecting scraps of paper you can take a long time to write a screenplay.”
Paul Attanasio
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

P.S. Here’s part of Attanasio’s 1987 review of the movie Hoosiers;
“In Hoosiers, director David Anspaugh and screen writer Angelo Pizzo have taken the tired ‘go for it!’ dramatics of a David-and-Goliath story and revived it with the fervor of real experience. Hoosiers demonstrates that it’s not the tale but the telling, for beneath the cliche’s lies a rich and detailed portrait of a time, a place and a way of life.” (I’m pretty sure that should be “beneath the cliches” or “beneath the cliche” but who am I to correct the Washington Post or Attanasio? Anyway, you get the idea of what he was saying. My guess is his years reviewing films was Attanasio’s substitute film school.)

P.P.S. Paul’s brother, Mark Attanasio, is the principle owner of the Milwaukee Brewers Major League Baseball team. Talented family.

Scott W. Smith

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