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Second City in Chicago has been providing comedy and training actors for 50 years now.  Here’s a list of some just some of the more well known people who have honed their skills there over the years:

Bill Murray
Tina Fey
Alan Arkin
Gilda Radner
John Belushi
Dan Aykroyd
Chris Farley
John Candy
Mike Nichols
Mike Myers
Steve Carell

But they didn’t start out famous, or sometimes, even on stage…

“Many talented people began at Second City working behind the scenes while awaiting their big breaks. When he worked the merchandise booth, in our lobby, Stephen Cobert held the record for five years for selling the most T-shirts. (Boy I miss him!)…Director John Favreau was one of the best people we ever had tending bar. And writer/director David Mamet was even a busboy for a time. Maybe that’s why he has a potty mouth.”
Andrew Alexander
CEO/exeutive producer for Second City
Sky Magazine Dec 2009

Second City 50th Anniversary

Scott W. Smith

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I have no idea how many advertising copywriters have become produced screenwriters, but I have an idea how many would like to make that leap—about 100%. One of the great modern day success stories of an ad writer turning screenwriter was John Hughes.

Just found an article on John Hughes by Robert Nolan who hired Hughes at a well known advertising agency back in the mid-70s. (The Early Ferris Bueller: Remembering John Hughes in Advertising.) He writes that Hughes didn’t have much of a writing portfolio at the time he hired him but that it was Hughes’ hysterical jokes that he had sold to comedians for $5. that got him the job.

“One of the last times I saw John Hughes, he was sitting across my desk at Leo Burnett in Chicago and telling me he was quitting. It was early 1979 and he said he was leaving advertising to write screenplays. His first assignment, he said, was to write a script for a prospective National Lampoon movie called Jaws -3, People- 0. Selfishly, I told him that he was making a big mistake. That he’d never make it as a screenwriter. That he shouldn’t quit his day job. I felt so strongly about this that at the end of his last day at Burnett, I drove him all the way home trying to talk him out of it. But John was unmoved. His mind was made up.”
Robert Nolan

Hughes proved his old boss wrong and went on to write Mr. Mom, The Breakfast Club, Home Alone ,Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and around three dozen more filmsHughes, who passed away earlier this year, would have been 29 in 1979.

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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“I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.”
                               Ray Bradbury
                               On writing
Fahrenheit 451 

It would be a fitting end to writing about Ray Bradbury by talking about the remake of Fahrenheit 451. But the only news I know is old news in that Tom Hank pulled out of the project a while back and director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) is still trying to get the movie done.

In an interview with MTV Darabont said, “The time has never been better for Fahrenheit 451. I think the message is something we need to hear. Anybody who believes authority should be questioned needs this movie. There’s a reason that novel has been in print for over half a century. It’s one of the most vital antiauthoritarian stories ever written. It also happens to be a really wildly galloping yarn. This would be on the bigger end of the scale for me.”

I hope Darabont gets that film made some day. But since we can’t end there I thought I’d end my posts on Bradbury by talking about the beginning. Bradbury is yet one more writer from the greater Chicago area. He was born in 1920 just a little north of downtown Chicago in Waukegan, Illinois.

Though he spent some of his childhood in Arizona much of his early inspiration came from Waukegan where he lived until his family moved to Los Angeles when he was thirteen. But by that time Bradbury already had a love for books and a strong desire to be a writer. And Bradbury is still alive in L.A. and of this writing is 88 years old. He has a website that is simply www.raybradbury.com which is where I pulled the extended quote of the day from.

“I was fully in love with writing from grade school on and in high school I began to write things about the ravine in my hometown. In FAREWELL SUMMER the ravine is the center of everything; the old people and the young live on opposite sides of this ravine that divides the town. 

Many years since DANDELION WINE began, which was the beginning of the genesis of FAREWELL SUMMER, I had begun to collect essays and short stories about front porches and summer nights and Fourth of Julys and all the celebrations that led me into writing. Looking back I realize that I never had a day when I was depressed or suffered melancholia; the reason being that I discovered that I was alive and loved the gift and wanted to celebrate it in my story. 

At one point Gourmet Magazine offered me a chance to write an article about helping my grandfather make dandelion wine when I was three in our cellar in Waukegan, Illinois. When I went back to visit my home town I wandered into the shop of the town barber, discovering that he had been there since I was a child and he remembered being my grandmother’s boarder and recalled my coming up from the cellar to gather dandelions to make wine with my grandfather.
                                      
Ray Bradbury 
                                       In His Words 

 

Related posts — and one of my most popular ones: Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Scott W. Smith

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Did you know the Midwest had a big part in the success of Sunset Boulevard? Not only was Gloria Swanson born in Chicago and William Holden born in O’Fallon, Illinois (just east of St. Louis) but Nancy Olson who received and Academy Award nomination in her supporting role in the film was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

But it was a preview screening just north of the city of Chicago that first signaled there was a problem with the opening scene.

While few have seen the original opening of the movie since 1949 there are scripts kicking around with the original open. The opening scene takes place in a morgue where William Holden’s character Joe Gillis lies dead with other dead bodies of men, women and children. Then things get funky when the voices of the dead people begin to talk.

                                                           A MAN”S VOICE
                                             Don’t be scared. There’s a lot of us here.
                                             It’s all right.
                      
                                                             GILLIS
                                             I’m not scared.

And then they all continue talking about how they died and one asks if “Satchel Paige beat the White Sox yesterday?” to which the Gillis voice-over replies, “No I wouldn’t. I died before the morning paper came.” The tone Wilder was after was missed by that first audience in the Midwest.

“Because of the touchy subject matter. Paramount sought a venue far from Hollywood to preview the picture. Evanston, Illinois, seemed distant enough. After the opening credits, when the story moved down Sunset Boulevard and into the L.A County Morgue, the audience stunned Billy Wilder. Years later he recalled, ‘When the morgue label was tied on Mr. Holden’s toe, they started to scream with laughter. In the mood of hilarity I walked out of the preview, very depressed.’”
                                                    Sam Staggs
                                                    Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard
                                                    Page 151

Paramount got the same negative reviews in Poughkeepsie, New York  and Great Neck on Long Island. The release was delayed as Wilder took six months to make changes.  When the film was released with changes in 1950 it was generally well received in the larger cities with some reviews having a clear understanding of the lasting value of the film. But the film was not a blockbuster hit. But it would go on to become what many have called the greatest film about Hollywood and in 1998 AFI would list Sunset Boulevard  as #12 on its top 100 film list.

 

Scott W. Smith

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Walt Disney was a little like Moses. He never made it to the promised land. Disney died a few years before his dream project, Walt Disney World, opened in Florida in 1971.

I remember going to Disney World that opening year and it was magical. Central Florida was not the sprawling Central Florida that it is today. No, for better or worse, that sprawl is the after effects of Walt Disney World. Before Disney took a rural area and transformed it into one of the top destinations in the world, Central Florida was lucky to have air conditioning and indoor plumbing.

And in those pre-Disney days in the Orlando area, other than putt-putt golf courses, go-kart rides, and Gatorland there wasn’t a whole lot of competition for a place like Disney World.

Now Orlando has plenty of theme parks, as well as places with indoor plumbing, air-conditioning, and more than its share of strip malls. Ah, the power of imagination.

There is no question that Walt Disney is a product of the Midwest, having been born in Chicago and raised in Missouri. But few realize the huge impact little  Marceline, MO had on Walt’s imagination and in effect on the world. For Marceline’s Main Street is the inspiration for Main Street USA.

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When you drive down Marceline’s Main St. today it doesn’t really seem magical. There’s no indication that there is anything special about this place. It’s not one of those quaint main streets you stumble upon while traveling that makes you say, “I’d like to live here.”

But that’s the place where young Walt Disney watched the parades go by on his way to becoming the filmmaker who has won more Oscars than any one else (32).

The farm Disney lived on (and worked on at a young age) in Marceline was also no doubt  fertile ground for young Walt as observing animals played such a large part of his enduring success.

Wade Sampson at mouseplanet.com  unearthed an interview Disney did back in 1933 following the success of his newest film The Three Little Pigs:

“All this talk about my making a lot of money is bunk.  After 10 years of pretty tough sledding, I am now making a moderate profit on my products, but every dime I take in is immediately put back into the business. I’m building for the future. And my goal isn’t millions; it’s better pictures. I’m not interested in money, except for what I can do with it to advance my work. The idea of piling up a fortune for the sake of wealth seems silly to me. Work is the real adventure in life. Money is merely a means to make more work possible….The secret of success if there is any, is liking what you do. I like my work better than my play. I play polo, when I have time, and I enjoy it, but it can’t equal work!”
                                                                                              Walt Disney 

And work in 1933, during the Great Depression, was not always easy to come by. Disney provided not only entertainment in a difficult time but also a lot of jobs.  Today Walt Disney Studios still entertains and The Walt Disney Company has annual revenues around $35 Billion.

Side note: I think it’s worth mentioning that Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri (and his inspiration for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) is only about an hour and a half away from Marceline, MO. As well as Twian’s birth place of Florida, MO.

Scott W. Smith

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I Hate Valentine’s Day!

That’s a movie now in post-production and was written by the female screenwriter who actually wrote the most successful romantic comedy in box office history. Any guesses on the title of that movie?

Here’s a hint, the screenwriter was born in Canada.  Another hint? The writer’s name is Nia Vardalos and she starred in the film. 

According to Box Office Mojo, My Big Fat Greek Wedding pulled in $241,238,208. Not bad since it only cost $5 million to make. One thing that wasn’t fat was the script as the movie came in at only 95 minutes. And I should add that it was Nia Vardalos’ first script and she received an Academy Award nomination.

She wanted to write it as a one act play but a friend told her to write it as a script first so she could register her story. So she wrote the script first then she wrote the story as a one-person play and began performing it in Canada and in the US. Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson loved the play and thought it would make a good movie and the rest is history.  

Now that the actress is now also a writer/director I figured I could find a quote from her for those of you who love screenwriting. 

“I think the lesson in everything that happened to me, for people, is don’t listen to the odds, not to listen to the naysayers, to listen to the odds of you getting hit by lighting and getting kidnapped by terrorist are greater than your screenplay being done–if you have a story to tell just write it.”
                                                                                Nia Vardalos 

And while Vardalos was born in Canada and found fortune and fame in LA, I should add that she honed her comedic chops here in the Midwest at Second City in Chicago. She worked in the ticket office for two years until she got a break one night by getting on stage when a performer was sick.

If you recall, the My Big Fat Greek Wedding is set Chicago (though it was filmed in Toronto). Years ago while on a production in Chicago I made a point to eat in Greektown. (If you’ve ever had a gyros, that’s where the tradition reportedly started in America.) It’s a great area to visit to get a different slice of America beyond the suburbs and strip malls.  

I didn’t realize this until I wrote this post that there are similarities with Nia Vardalos and Diablo Cody. First time writers that found box office success, comedy writers, Chicago connection, recognition from the Academy Awards, films focused on families dealing with issues.  (Didn’t I just write about Orson Welles and his Chicago-area connection? There’s something going on over there.)

By the way, I pulled the Vardalos quote from an interview she did that is part of a video series called The Dialogue, Learning from the Masters that looks great. Here is a sample found on You Tube.

 

Related post: Screenwriting da Chicago Way  (Which for the record is the #4 most read post on Screenwriting from Iowa.)

Scott W. Smith

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