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“Somewhere a screenwriter is preparing a query letter to send out. Will you read the letter? We will. Will you write the letter? You should. It has to start somewhere.”
Producer Adam Kolbrenner (Prisoners)

“#1 – IT ALL STARTS WITH AN ENVELOPE

Let’s go back to 2006. It was a simpler time in America for screenwriters (you know, pre‐WGA Strike). It all started with a query letter from an unrepresented screenwriter named Aaron Guzikowski. A hard letter … in an envelope. With a stamp! Not a blind email or submission through a website. A letter.

I picked up the letter and quite liked that this writer had an odd last name and lived in Brooklyn, NY. I love Brooklyn. So, I called him and he sent me his first script, which I read and called him again to say I can’t sell it. But, he can write, that voice was there. So we agreed we would work on a new idea for a film that we can develop together. This might take a few tries, but we’ll get there.

Several months later, a PDF one page movie idea arrives in my inbox. The story for a movie called Prisoners.”
Adam Kolbrenner, co-founder of Madhouse Entertainment 
@madhouse_ent
MAKING A MOVIE IS EASY
Hollywood Journal, September 17, 2013

You’ll have to read the entire article by Adam Kolbrenner to learn how the past seven years came to fruition yesterday as Prisoners took the number one spot at the box office this past weekend.

I wonder if Kolbrenner would mind if I adopted as the official motto for Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places his phrase, “It has to start somewhere.” Because that’s the drum I’ve been pounding on this blog since January 2008. And I’ve tried to show example after great example of how various writers started.

So wherever you are in the world and wherever you are in your screenwriting journey just remember Kolbrenner’s tip—”It has to start somewhere.”

P.S. Of course, screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s start was not the query letter he wrote to Kolbrenner in 2006…or even in Brooklyn. Tomorrow we’ll look at his roots in Brockton, Massachusetts and how this now 39-year-old screenwriter’s journey into writing actually began back in fourth grade.

Related Posts:
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part2)  If an out-of-town writer scores a local manager or agent, the writer can certainly see results.”
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 3) WME explains what to put in a query.
The 99% Focus Rule “I would say 99% of your effort should go to writing a good script.” Michael Arndt (Another writer who toiled for years in Brooklyn before his eventual success.)
The Myth of Breaking-In  Thoughts from screenwriter Terry Rossio
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)  John Logan
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip # 41) Michael Arndt

Scott W. Smith

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A few years ago I read that in this world that there are over 200 civil wars going on at any one time. We don’t hear about most of them because it would be sensory overload. But when things reach a certain level then the press or the government makes Americans aware of what’s going on. In the little traveling I have done outside the states I have sometimes wondered what keeps certain countries from total collapse.

Seeing Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined takes in a place that has collapsed. Set in the war torn Demoratic Republic of Congo (formerly know as Zaire and the Belgian Congo).  It’s a country that had over 5 million people die in the Second Congo war between 1998-2003. It was also a war where accounts of rape and other brutal acts of violence were widespread. (Nottage has pointed out that though the war is over violence on women continues in that region.)

If you’ve seen the movie Hotel Rwanda which took place is the neighboring country of Rwanda in 1996, and later spilled over into Zaire, you begin to have an understanding of the situation. Another slightly older reference is when the area was known as the Congo Free State it was the setting for Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness which was published over 100 years ago (and for which in turn was the beginning point for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.)

Somewhere in hearing the modern day suffering of women in the Demoratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Nottage decided there was something worth exploring. According to an article by Patrick Pacheco in the L.A. Times Nottage spent two months “at a Uganda refugee camp interviewing women who had been raped and brutalized in the fierce Civil War that has wracked the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo for decades.”

He quotes Nottage about her desire to write a play on what she had seen and heard, “I thought to myself, ‘This play will be the ruin of me.’ I knew I wanted to tell a story that was not agitprop, that was universal, epic and unabashedly theatrical. Something truthful and yet joyful. And I didn’t know how I was ever going to do that.”

But somehow she did and won the Pulitzer Play in drama this year. I was fortunate to see the play in its last weekend in New York this past Saturday. It’s a powerful piece of drama and instantly took me back to high school when an African-America creative writing teacher showed our class the film A Raisin in the Sun and I began to have a whole new understanding of drama beyond Smoking and the Bandit. That class is also where I first heard the name Zora Neale Hurston. A writer who Nottage has been compared to.

Nottage’s skill as a playwright did not come from nowhere. She was raised in Brooklyn around a family of storytellers and where she began writing plays as a teenage and later graduated from Brown University and has an MFA in Drama from Yale. While working for Amnesty International she wrote a short play called Poof! that she submitted to the Actors Theater of Louisville where it won a competition and she was off to the races.

Since then many of her plays have been performed; Mud, River and Stone, Por’Knockers, Crumbs from the Table, and Intimate Apparel. And in 2007 she was named a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award.

Before Ruined found its way to the stage at the Manhatten Theatre Club it was first commissioned and produced by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The performance I saw in New York was theater at its best. It’s hard to be transplanted from a beautiful summer day in the city to some harsh realities in war-torn Africa–but somehow Nottage and the actors made it as seemless a transition as taking the subway from Grand Central Station to the Bronx.

And part of Nottage’s gift and talent as a writer is show us an incredibly painful world full of moral ambiguity and depravity and to weave a story of humor, humanity and hope.

Scott W. Smith


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When the Orlando Magic beat the Los Angeles Lakers last night it was a huge win for the franchise. It was their first NBA game victory in a Championship series in their 20 year history.

It takes a little time sometimes? No, it usually takes a lot of time to accomplish the big things we want to do in life.

Take writer Nichloas Pileggi for example. He was born in 1933 and grew up in Brooklyn, graduated from Long Island University with a degree in English, and then spent 12 years working for the Associated Press in New York where he collected and feed info to the writers.

He was 30 when he began writing for Esquire doing stories on New York’s crime and corruption and then began working for New York magazine in his mid-thirties.

All his work reporting on crime during New York’s prime mafia era prepared him well to write the book Wise Guy which came out in 1987. That lead him to receiving a phone call from a guy saying he was Martin Scorsese. Pileggi hung up on him. The guy saying he was Scorsese called back and finally convinced him he was Martin Scorsese and that he wanted to make a film based on Wise Guy. Pileggi, who then would have been in his early fifties, told Scorsese that this was the call that he had waited for his entire life.

Pileggi, along with Scorsese, wrote the script for the 1990 film Goodfellas which earned them both an Academy Award nomination for best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.

Pileggi went on to write Casino and City Hall and was an executive producer on American Gangster and is currently developing a movie based on gambling in college sports.

So I figure the time from his internship at AP to his first produced screenplay was just over 35 years. No magic there—just plowing away at the work at hand and collecting material along the way. (And working on his 10,000 hours.)

 

Scott W. Smith

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“When I used to look out at the world, all I could see was its edges, its boundaries, its rules and controls, its leaders and laws. But now, I see another world. A different world where all things are possible. A world of hope. Of peace.”
Neo
The Maxtrix

“It’s all for nothing if you don’t have freedom.”
William Wallace
Braveheart

“You cannot tell a meaningful story without the potential for loss.”
                                                                                      Robert McKee

“A good point of attack is where something vital is at stake at the very beginning of the play.”
Lajos Egri
The Art of Dramatic Writing

I don’t know if Monday’s immigration raid in Postville, Iowa made it on your radar but it was the largest single site raid in the history of this nation. Federal immigration agents arrested 390 people from Mexico, Guatemala, Israel and the Ukraine.

Let’s put the politics aside and look at this from a Screenwriting from Iowa  perspective. How you answer the question  “What’s at Stake?” has a big impact on your writing.

Recently I wrote about David Lynch being in a small town in Iowa known as a haven for transcendental meditators and I find Postville just as intriguing. The community was founded by those of German and Norwegian decent and they make up half of the town’s 2,500 people. The other half are mostly Hispanics who work for the Hasidic Jews who moved there from New York, so the place is a little surreal.

Yesterday I drove to Postville to shoot some footage and interviews for Univision, the Hispanic Network in Miami,  and the first two people I met to were a couple Jewish young men. We talked a little about the town and had a common connection talking about B&H Camera in New York.

The Hasidic Jews are in Postville because they own and run Agriprocessors the world’s largest kosher meatpacking plant and where Monday’s raid occurred. (As a side note, did you know that Coca-Cola makes a kosher Coke available for the Jewish Passover?  No high-fructose corn syrup used.)   The Mexicans and other immigrants are there to work in the meat packing plant. The Germans and the Norwegians are still in the area running the farms they and their families have been tending for over 100 years.

Stephen Bloom, author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America writes, “I look at Postville as a social laboratory to test the limits of diversity, tolerance, and acceptance.”

When I first pulled into Postville it looked like many small Midwest towns you drive through. But then you notice the Guatemalan restaurant and the Mexican clothing and convenience stores and know that there is something unique about this area. Then you wonder how the Hasidic Jews have adjusted to moving there from New York.

Bloom writes, “When the Hasidic community moved to Postville, they moved their entire ethos with them from Brooklyn to northeastern Iowa. They created immediately a shul or synagogue. They made two mikvehs, or ceremonial bath houses, as well as a yeshiva, or school for their children. They replicated in northeastern Iowa the community they had established in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. So in my mind, they were not suffering any degree of cultural deprivation. They moved their world, lock, stock, and barrel, one thousand miles westward.”

Am I the only one who thinks that setting would be more a fascinating and original setting for a movie than say…”What Happens in Vegas”? In fact, What Happens in Postville sounds like a fine title. Witness meets La Bamba meets The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg with a dash of Ibsen and Wim Wenders. 

But what I really want to talk about is the concept in your screenplay of “What’s at Stake?” That is a key question of the stories you tell. Investors and studios long ago learned the secret of that question. Because at the core of the question “What’s at stake?” is the concept of what holds an audiences attention.

Writers are sometimes slow learners and can get caught up in the story, characters and dialogue they are writing. But “What’s at Stake?” is vital to ask when what’s at stake financially is a lot of money. “What’s at stake?” is related to the level of conflict I wrote about in tip #1.

If you take a long look ar AFI’s top 100 films you’ll notice that 70% of the films deal with life or death, or at least significant life and career blows. Great conflict.

Citizen Kane
Casablanca
The Godfather
Gone with the Wind
Lawrence of Arabia
The Wizard of Oz
On the Waterfront
Schindler’s List

When you talk about life and death a lot is at stake.

 “I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of last track myself. Being how this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you have to ask yourself one question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’
                                                                                                         Dirty Harry

If you look at the all time box office hits you’ll find a majority also have life or death, or significant life or career blows.

Titanic
Star Wars
Spider-Man

E.T. (the immigrant from outerspace)
Lord of the Rings
Jurassic Park
Pirates of the Caribbean

No one said all successful movies had or needed to have this element but obviously it increases your odds of having an award winning film as well as one that finds a large audience.

Maybe that’s the simple secret to horror films and super hero films usually doing well at the box office.

As I made the hour and a half drove home from Postville yesterday I thought of all lives involved in Monday’s raid. Certainly surrounded by agents with guns and helicopters overhead was a dramatic and traumatic situation. Now many are separated from family members and facing deportation. Others face charges of identification tampering.

It made me recall my days in Miami when Haitians would risk their lives to come to the United States on overcrowded and poorly constructed boats. And sometimes they died in the process.

The mayor of Postville said if the meat packing plant closed then his town could become a ghost town. There is a lot at stake from many angles in Monday’s raid.

What’s at stake in the script you are now writing?

“What’s at stake?” is a significant question in life as well as drama.

copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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