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Posts Tagged ‘Clint Eastwood’

Today I made a subtle change in the subtitle of Screenwriting from Iowa. The change came out of working on a potential panel talk for the 2011 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference. Figuring that the title Screenwriting from Iowa…or Wherever You Live Outside L.A. might not be attractive to potential voters since many would be coming from L.A. I realized that could be true of blog readers as well. (I’ve always said an unlikely place for screenwriters to be is not only West Des Moines, but West Covina in L.A. County.)

So as of today the title of this blog is now Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. Same name as the potential talk in Austin that you can help get selected for the SXSW Film Conference next March by voting for it at the SXSW online Panel Picker. Here is a description of the panel:

Every year there is a screenwriter like Diablo Cody who beats the odds by seemingly coming from nowhere to write a film like “Juno” that becomes a financial success and catapults the writer into a Hollywood career. How does this really happen? Is there a pattern? And is this lottery-like jackpot the only option for writers outside L.A.?

We take a sweeping look at how writers from all over the United States have brought a unique flavor to films of the past and how they will have even greater opportunities for films of the future. We’ll glance at some creative parallels of how in the past musicians—like Bob Dylan (Duluth) and Elvis Presley (Tupelo)— were able to rise up from small places to become international stars and how that translates to a new breed of writers who cling to a sense of place that brings a uniqueness to their work.

We’ll also address how the downturn in the economy has also helped open the door for writers today. How first time feature film writer Nick Schenk from Minneapolis took advantage of the changing face of America and wrote a script that Clint Eastwood made in Detroit because it not only fit the metaphor of the film, but because Michigan has one of the most aggressive tax incentives for filmmakers.

And lastly we’ll look at the changing face of the film business and how new filming and distribution channels will provide screenwriters opportunities to stay home if they choose. And just for the record, Diablo Cody did go to college in Iowa.

On the Interactive side I also have a panel up  for voting as well called In the Future, Everyone Will Be a Filmmaker. Here’s the description:

Andy Warhol’s most famous quote was, “In the Future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Warhol said that back in 1968 and when he died in 1987 we didn’t have any solid clues on how this would be possible. But these days things are looking a little clearer. In the future, everyone will be a filmmaker. And the future is here.

I always thought that the future would look like the Jetsons with people flying around in space mobiles, now I know it’s more likely to be people with cell phones that can shoot, edit, and upload videos to You Tube.

Back in ancient times, around the year 2000 (five years before You Tube) I began to look for a new job in production. It had been several years since I had looked for a job, and though I was a film school grad with many years of production experience behind me,  I was surprised at the kind of jobs that were being advertised. They generally were in line with: “We’re looking for a producer/director/camera person who can edit on AVID/FCP, knows their way around Photoshop & After Effects, web compression, and ideally can speak Spanish—and perform open heart surgery as needed. Who does all of that I thought.”

In school I was taught, “You don’t want to be a jack-of-all and a master-of-none.” I can throw those notes away. The creative landscape today is full of multi-taskers, so the big question is what skills transfer and what tools are out there to help non-filmmakers begin to think and work like a filmmaker?

Voting ends August 27, 2010 and I appreciate those of you who take the time to vote for one of both of these panels.

Scott W. Smith


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(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade


“I don’t know if you saw the parting of the Red Sea with the chariots on the horses, I did stuff like that.”
Richard Farnswort
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After I posted the above Goldman comment yesterday on the post titled Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” it jogged my memory of another story about a career transition—both fictional and real life. The Grey Fox was released in 1982 about a decade after Butch Cassidy, but there are some similarities, mostly the concept of change in the Old West.

Richard Farnsworth plays a former stagecoach robber who is released from San Quintin after serving 33 years for his crimes. When he gets out in 1903 it’s a new world—the stagescoaches are out and movies are in. His character, Bill Miner, goes to see The Great Train Robbery and is inspired to take up his old ways yet with a new fresh angle.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film so I’ll rely on Rodger Ebert’s account to bring us all up to speed:

“(The Great Train Robbery.) That famous movie is only eleven minutes long, but long enough to make everything absolutely clear to Miner, who realizes he has a new calling in life, as a train robber. All of this could, of course, be an innocuous Disney movie, but it’s well-written and directed, and what gives it zest and joy is the performance by Richard Farnsworth, who plays Miner. Maybe you’ll recognize Farnsworth when you see him on the screen. Maybe not. His life has been one of those careers that makes you realize Hollywood is a company town, where you can make a living for years and never be a star. Farnsworth has been in more than three hundred movies.”
Roget Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, The Grey Fox
January 1. 1982

Though Farnsworth had been in more than 300 films, they were mostly as a stuntman. He doubled for some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors; Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen. You think he might have picked up a thing or two about acting from those fellows because after 30 years as a stuntman he began acting.

And he did it well enough to receive a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1979 for his role in Comes a Horseman and another Oscar nomination for Lead Actor in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (that was filmed right here in Iowa). He was 79 at the time of the nomination making him the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor nomination.

You may also remember his roles in The Natural, The Two Jakes, and Misery. I had the good fortune to meet Richard Farnsworth at a movie theater in Burbank some time in the 80s. Nothing exciting, he was just standing in front of me waiting to buy popcorn or whatever.

“Are you Richard Farnsworth?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I appreciate your work.”
“Thank You.”

He smiled and we shook hands. This was in the days before IMDB so I didn’t know in that simple exchange I was shaking hands with a man who was a real life Forrest Gump in the film industry having been in some legendary Hollywood productions;   Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Ten Commandments, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Roots, Bonanza, The Wild One,  Blazing Saddles, Spartacus and many others.

That means to one degree or another he worked with John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Howard Hawks,  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Cecil B. DeMille.

I don’t know how long stuntman work on a regular basis in Hollywood, but it has to take its toll on your body.  Farnsworth’s last credit as a stuntman was 1975 when he would have been 55. He was almost 60 when his acting career took off. He changed with the times.

By the way, the screenwriter of The Grey Fox, John Hunter,  was no spring chicken himself and was 71 when the movie was released.

Oh yeah, Farnsworth did stunts in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, too.

Scott W. Smith


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Screenwriter/director John Lee Hancock earned an English degree at Baylor University and a law degree from Baylor Law School, both in Waco, Texas. His first credited film was in 1991 with a film called Hard Time Romance. In 1993 he wrote the script for A Perfect World which starred Kevin Costner and was directed by Clint Eastwood. He considers Eastwood his mentor and went on to write the script for the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil which Eastwood also directed. Among other films Hancock worked on include The Rookie which he directed and My Dog Skip which he was a producer.

But almost 20 years after his first film credit he had his biggest success critically and at the box office with the 2009 film The Blind Side which he both wrote and directed. The movie which he wrote and directed is up for best picture and Sandra Bullock is highly favored to win her first Oscar as best actress for her role as the feisty Leigh Anne Tuohy.

The film which takes place in Memphis is what I would qualify as a regional film. Based on the book The Blind Side; Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis based on the true story of Michael Oher, who made the journey from an under educated homeless youth to playing football in the NFL with the help and guidance from a family in Memphis. If the story wasn’t based on a true story I think I might have walked out of the theater because the story is so unbelievable. Truth is stranger than fiction. And after seeing interviews of the real Tuohy family, I think the real story is even better than the movie as they really talk about how hard the work really was bringing Oher to the point where he could just graduate from high school and be prepared to attend college at Ole Miss.

“I didn’t see it as a sports movie at all, any more than you’d call ‘Jerry Maguire’ a sports film. It was two equally involving stories, one about Michael and the Tuohys, the other about the left tackle position, but they both turned around the same question — how did the stars align so brightly around this one kid from the projects?”
John Lee Hancock
The Blind Side, written by Patrick Goldstein, LA Times

Note: The Blind Side had a $29 million budget and to date has made $250 million domestic. Julie Roberts reportedly turned down the role for which Sandra Bullock received her Oscar nomination. Hancock is at least the third law school grad turned screenwriter that I’ve written about; Sheldon Turner (who is nominated for an Oscar for his part in writing Up in the Air) and John Grisham (though primarily a novelist whose books have been made into many fine movies, but he did write the screenplay for the 2004 Mickey). And from the odd connection category, Grisham graduated from Ole Miss law school, part of the University of Mississippi in Oxford where Michael Oher (the real Blind Side guy) played football.

Scott W. Smith

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“I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them, my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones.”
Pip in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations 

When a hero starts his life as an orphan, it is to show he has nothing to lose. He is unattached and unencumbered by family ties and social obligations, so he is usually portrayed as an orphan to indicate that he is not saddled with the normal attachments the rest of us have. This sense of not belonging is a part of all of us.”
Michael Chase Walker
Power Screenwriting

I’m sure somewhere along the way in reading Joseph Campbell or Chirstopher Vogler, and their work on mythology, I read about the role of the orphan character. But not until I read Michael Chase Walker’s brief one page summary on orphans in his book Power Screenwriting did I connect it with a screenplay I have written and have been recently re-writing. (And I should add that Walker himself credits Carol Pearson’s book The Hero Within for many of his insights.)

Then once I connected the dots the floodgates opened wide and there were orphans running all over the place in cinematic history. While the orphan can literally be an orphan he or she usually isn’t.  Walker clarifies, “The orphan/hero today is created by giving your main character a single and footloose status. He may be divorced, widowed, abandoned, handicapped or a maverick. It doesn’t matter. The point is that the heroes and heroines must be free to seek their destiny and reclaim their birthright.”

Think of how these characters are orphans:
Neo/The Maxtrix
Superman
Rocky
Dorothy/The Wizard of Oz
Will Hunting/Good Will Hunting
Jason Bourne/Bourne trilogy
Tom Hanks character/The Terminal
Jack Lemon character/ The Apartment
Citizen Kane
E.T.
Bambi
Forrest Gump
Seabiscuit
Jerry Maguire
Rain Man
Sleepless in Seattle
Babbett’s Feast
Hoosiers
The Firm
Kramer vs. Kramer
Lion King
Home Alone
Oliver Twist
Gladiator
Elf
Star Wars
Erin Brockovich
The Wrestler
Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood has made a career of playing orphans)

Orphans in movies are often lost and alone as they begin their journey. Is there any wonder why audiences connect with such characters?

1/25/12 Update:  “I never looked at (Hugo) as a 3-D family film. I never consider an audience that way when I’m working. To me, it was a compelling story about an orphan making a home for himself.”
Hugo screenwriter John Logan
Movieline interview with S.T. Vanairsdale 

Scott W. Smith

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Grumpys

“O muses, o high genius, now assist me!”
The Inferno
Dante

Stephen King says his muse is a working class guy down in the basement chomping on a cigar. I think his muse is related to screenwriter Nick Schenk’s. When his day job was over, Schenk wrote much of Gran Torino while sitting at Grumpy’s Bar in northeast Minneapolis. He told Colin Covert of Star Tribune, “Loading trucks every day, your back was tired but your mind was fresh…So I’d just roll into Grumpy’s, where my friend was the bartender, and write the stuff longhand on a pad of paper.”

I stopped in Grumpy’s Bar  yesterday late afternoon and was told that Schenk is considered family, though he doesn’t come in as much since the success of the movie Gran Torino based on his screenplay. It’s opened up writing gigs for him in L.A. where he now lives.

Grumpy’s is the kind of place that you could see Clint Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski walking into and ordering a Pabst Blue Ribbon. If you’re looking for original stories and original characters look for them in the places you work and hangout. (Tennessee Williams based Stanley Kowalski on a fellow he worked with in a factory in St. Louis. Kowlaski…coincidence?) According to the owner of Grumpy’s, Schenk is a talented writer who has been at it a long time, but he also has a great ear for dialogue. And much of Eastwood’s character flowed from the banter that was kicked around that corner bar.

Though they shot Gran Torino in Michigan (thanks to their film incentives) the area around Grumpy’s is very similar to Walt’s neighborhood in the movie. The only beef with the movie from the bartender I talked to at Grumpy’s is that they didn’t shoot the film in Minneapolis.

Since I’ve written about Diablo Cody writing much of Juno in a Target in the north suburbs of Minneapolis I thought you’d be interested in knowing that these two locations are probably less than 3 miles form each other. That’s around $300 million dollars of box office success written from the same basic area far from L.A. and far from that perfect little cabin in the woods everyone dreams about writing the perfect novel or screenplay.

I don’t know if Schenk and Cody have crossed paths in L.A., but I’d like to at least think they’ve met back in Minneapolis at that kitschy Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge and celebrated their unusual journeys with a Tiki drink.

If you haven’t hired a working class muse maybe you should give one a call.

Related post: Juno vs. Walt.

words & photo copyright  Scott. W. Smith

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“A man’s got to know his limitations.”
                                  Clint Eastwood (as Harry Callahan in Magnum Force)

 

John Grisham didn’t get to see his dream come true. His childhood dream was to play professional baseball and he made it all the way to playing junior college ball before he realized his limitations. So at 20 years old he shifted his focus to school and becoming a lawyer.

Once he graduated from law school at Old Miss he saw his new dream come true and then he got an itch to write. While he didn’t have instant success with his writings, according to CNN, he sold 60 million books in the 90s alone.  His books translated to film well and attracted a talented group of actors over the years including Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Susan Saradon, Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Matt Damon, John Cusack, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman.

From a box office standpoint Grisham had a dream year in 1993 when two films made from his books (A Time to Kill & The Firm) both made over $100 million. Not bad for an old jock from Mississippi.

“The writing has come fairly late in life. I never dreamed of being a writer when I was a kid, even a student, even in college. In fact. I’d been practicing law for about three or four years in the early ’80s, when I decided to make a stab at writing a story that I’d been thinking about. And the story eventually became A Time to Kill.

It took three years to write, and I was very disciplined about doing it. It was very much a hobby. By the time I finished it, I had developed a routine of writing every day. When I finished it, I went to the next book, which was The Firm. Once that was written, everything started changing. I wouldn’t use the word ‘accident,’ but it certainly wasn’t planned. I never dream it….

A Time to Kill and The Firm, those books were written over a five-year period, back-to-back, from about 1984 to about 1989. The bulk was written at five o’clock in the morning, from five ’til seven in the morning. I’d get up and go to the office that early. And again, it wasn’t any fun, but it was a habit. It got to be part of the daily routine. And I remember several times being in court at nine o’clock in the morning, really tired, because writing takes a lot out of you. It’s draining.”
                                                           John Grisham 
                                                           Academy of Achievement website

 

Scott W. Smith

 

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The movie Changeling was nominated for three Oscars last week. It’s success has made the writer,  J. Michael Stracyznski, an A-list writer in Hollywood. And though he had been writing for TV for 20 years before Changeling sold he recently wrote in Script magazine,”Nobody in features knew me from Adam.”

They didn’t know about his Emmy winning work on Babylon 5, his novels, short stories, or comic book writing. What got him attention in the feature film world was a script that he spent a year researching going through 6,000 pages of documents. Now he’s been attached to projects with Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass and Brad Pitt to follow his Changeling story that attracted Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie.

Because he saw first hand how one script can change people’s perception he wrote the following:

“It doesn’t matter if you didn’t go to the best schools, if you’re a kid or in your 50s. It doesn’t matter if, like me, when I moved to Los Angeles in 1981, you come at the business without friends or relatives in the business. It doesn’t even matter if you spent formative years digging carpet scraps out of dumpsters instead of going to film school. The only thing that matters is the quality of the storytelling. More than hearing about techniques, more than discussing the construction of dialogue, I think that’s the important message; that it’s possible.”
                                                                          J. Michael Straczynski
 Script
Volume 15/ Number 1
Pages 38-39  

And though he was born in Newark and graduated from high school in the San Diego area he did live for a time in Kankakee, Illinois.Which is perhaps why he mentions Kankakee in the video below.  And he was an early adopter (going back to the 80s) of using the computers to Interact with audiences.

Straczynski also wrote The Complete Book of Scriptwriting.

Scott W. Smith

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It’s January in Iowa, it’s cold and snowing outside, and I’m blogging about a screenwriter from Minneapolis—-so what else is new? What’s new is the screenwriter is not Diablo Cody. She’s so ’08. No this Twin City screenwriter is not a former stripper…he’s a former construction worker/liquor store clerk/fruit truck driver who likes to ice fish.

The newest Minneapolis screenwriter on the scene is Nick Schenk. Nick who?

Nick Schenk, the screenwriter of Gran Torino starring Clint Eastwood.  The film won the best original screenplay from The National Board of Review. (The same award Cody won the year before for her Juno Script. (No, The National Board of Review best original screenplay award does not go to the best screenplay from a Minnesota screenwriter.)

At age 43 Schenk is old enough to have watched Starsky & Hutch in its original TV show version that featured that funky red with white stripped Gran Torino. While he sold his first script almost 15 years ago this is his first produced screenplay. He does have a writing credit on B0Dog Fight, a mixed martial arts TV show. He’s told several reporters that he “was too stupid to quit” (writing screenplays).

But he did get some help. Sharing Gran Torino story credit is another Minnesotan Dave Johannson, who sells furnaces for a gas company. (That sound you hear is the sound of people dropping out of film schools in L.A. and taking up odd jobs in Minnesota. The hottest trend to break into the movies.)

Of course, the big question is did Schenk use the screenwriting software Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter to launch his career? According to Patrick Goldstein’s blog at the LA Times, “Schenk says he wrote the script, using a pen and a pad of paper, sitting at night in a bar called Grumpy’s in northeast Minneapolis.”

So I thought you’d enjoy reading what Schenk told Goldstein was the process that led him to writing a script that attracted the attention of  Clint Eastwood (a four time Oscar-winning director who has his pick of projects);

“I just scribbled away every night. …The bartender there is a friend, so sometimes I’d ask him questions about where I was going with the story as I was writing. When it came, the words just came. One night, I knocked off 25 pages right there in the bar….They said it would never get made, because you’re not supposed to write about old people, especially a guy that sounds like a super-racist. But I’m not the kind of person that listens to that stuff. I just knew this character well. When I was working construction, I’d meet a lot of guys like Walt Kowalski. Because I liked history, I’d always be the one that the older guys on the site would tell their stories to.”

Let’s recap Schenk’s 10 simple steps to success because it’s at the core what Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places is all about.

1) Write everyday
2) Don’t move to L.A. (At least wait until your screenplay sells)
3) Always be looking for stories (It doesn’t hurt to listen to old people)
4) While 40 is old for a screenwriter in Hollywood terms, keep writing anyway
5) Hang out with friends who aren’t screenwriters
6) Don’t quit your day job (because that’s a good source for stories—-and paying bills)
7) Screw complaining about not having a computer (or screenwriting software) and grab a pen and note pad
8 ) Regular writing develops your craft and helps you write something good enough that attracts producers who believe in the story enough to get a Hollywood icon interested, who in turn gets the film made
9) Collect awards
10) Continue writing

I look forward to finally seeing Gran Torino this weekend as the film that’s getting some Oscar-buzz has finally made it to my neck of the woods.

To read more about other writers from Minnesota read the post The Oscars Minnesota–Style.

Other related posts: Juno Vs. Walt
                                      Screenwriting Post Card from Minneapolis


copyright 2009  Scott W. Smith

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cedarriverblog1.gif

Screenwriting from Iowa, huh?

No, it’s not a joke or an oxymoron. (Doesn’t the above photo I took today look like an ideal day to write?)

Screenwriting from Iowa isn’t really just about Iowa or limited to screenwriting. But that is the starting point. And I
 hope this on-going blog encourages writers who feel like they live in the middle of nowhere. And if you hold on a moment you’ll learn that the hippest and hottest screenwriter in Hollywood today has some Iowa roots.

It’s ten degrees below zero and snowing as I begin this first blog compounding the barren wasteland fears people have about the state of Iowa. But I think you’ll be surprised at the creative talent growing beyond them there cornfields.

On January 3, 2008 all eyes were on Iowa (at least for a quick glance) as the first presidential caucuses took place. Jay Leno joked on The Tonight Show, “Many people don’t know this, but the word caucus is Indian for the one day anyone pays attention to Iowa.”

Iowa may not be New York or LA but where else can you see 13 presidential candidates up close within a ten-mile drive of your home as I did in the last couple months? There was plenty of drama, and enough material for a couple screenplays.

Iowa is a metaphor for any place that represents life beyond Hollywood. (That could be West Virginia, West Africa, or even West Covina.)   Iowa is where I live and write and is also a state that most people in the United States would have trouble pinpointing on a map. Quintessential “fly-over country.”  What good can come from Iowa? Can you get any further from Hollywood? You’d be surprised.

Forget that six degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon thing. Bacon was right here in Cedar Falls earlier this month stumping for presidential hopeful John Edwards.  Cedar Falls is also where Nancy Price wrote the novel that became the Julia Roberts’ film Sleeping with the Enemy, and where Robert Waller wrote the book that became the Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep film The Bridges of Madison County.

And since this is the first blog let me also mention that entertainment icons Johnny Carson & John Wayne were both born in Iowa. This site is dedicated seeing the depth of talent that can from a remote place and will provide you with practical advise on screenwriting and digital filmmaking.

As I write this, the independent film Juno continues its strong box office run and has already won the Critics’ Choice Award for screenwriter Diablo Cody.  (And I don’t think that will be the last award she wins.) Film critic Tom Long of the Detroit News wrote, “Juno’s the best movie of the year. It’s the best screenplay of the year, and it features the best actress of the year working in the best acted ensemble of the year.” Roger Ebert wrote, “The screenplay by first-timer Diablo Cody is a subtle masterpiece of construction…The Film has no wrong scenes and no extra scenes, and flows like running water.”

The 29-year-old Cody’s own life story of spending a year as a less than exotic dancer in Minneapolis is well documented, but to learn where she honed her writing skills we must go back a couple of years to when she was a college student in…you guessed it, Iowa. The University of Iowa  in Iowa City has long been sacred writing grounds and home to one of the richest traditions in creative writing. Tennessee Williams and John Irving are among its alma mater.

“They have the writer’s workshop there. They have an undergraduate workshop, and I got in,” Cody said in this month’s Written By. “I focused mainly on poetry. I laugh about that now. I actually think it wound up helpful because as a poet you develop a certain efficiency with language that I think you use as a screenwriter.” (The entire article by Matt Hoey can be found at the Writer’s Guide of America’s website: www.wga.org/writtenby/writtenbysub.aspx?id=2693)

Though Cody couldn’t wait to get out of college she did earn a degree in media studies and was known for her excellent writing. And I believe that excellent writing will always be discovered wherever you live.

So over the course of this blog I will offer insights gleaned from my film school days, various workshops I attended and given, over 100 books read on writing and the creative process, as well as more than 20 years of experience as a video producer/director/writer (www.scottwsmith.com), and most importantly quotes from successful screenwriters.

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith


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