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Posts Tagged ‘Detroit’

“I found myself seeking shelter against the wind.”
Bob Seger/Against the Wind

“Run, Forrest! Run!
Jenny in Forrest Gump

Many of you weren’t even born when Bob Seger’s album Against the Wind was released in February of 1980. Some of you have never heard the title song on the album. And since this blog has a global audience, there are others who have never even heard of Bob Seger—or his Silver Bullett Band. But I don’t think there’s been a human being anywhere in the world, anytime in the history of mankind, whose heart would not resonate —to one degree or another—with the core experience of running against the wind.

If Adam and Eve heard this song—once they were banished east of Eden—they’d have been just as moved as I was when I first heard it as a high school senior the year it was released. And every decade of my life this song has taken on new meaning. And if I make it to age 80 in a retirement home, I’ll be the one in the corner listening to this song cranked up in my ear buds on my retro iPhone 14  (just like I did with those jumbo Koss headphones at age 18) and I’ll still be seeking—probably more than ever— shelter against the wind.

The kid in the inner city Chicago, the businessman in Singapore, the factory worker in China, the mother in the favilla in Rio, the president of Pakistan, the actress in Hollywood, the computer programmer in India, and the farmer in Iowa—all know what it’s like to run against the wind. It’s a universal and primal.

In fact that screenplay you’re currently writing should have a protagonist who’s running against the wind. Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, Erin Brockovich, Luke Skywalker, Ellen Ripley, Rocky, Superman, Batman, Bambi, Nemo, Dorothy, and more recently Django all spend a lot of movie time running against the wind. No conflict, no drama.

And since this blog celebrates storytelling and regionalism, this song and Seger’s Michigan roots (Lincoln Park, Ann Arbor, Detroit) fit right in. Seger spent fifteen years on the Midwest club circuit—with limited national success—before hitting it big nationally in 1976 with the song and album Night Moves. Seger is a study in persistence. And here we are fifty years after he first hit the Detroit music scene and he’s getting ready to tour again this month performing in many of the Midwest cities where he honed his act in the early years; Toledo, Grand Rapids, Dayton, Green Bay, St. Paul, Fargo, and of course, Detroit.

Againstthewin

I saw Seger in concert the summer of ’78 at what’s now The Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida. Few things were as magical and captivating in my teenage years as sitting in the dark with around 60,000 other people watching the flickering glow of lighters throughout the outdoor stadium and listening to the raspy voice of Seger.

Happy Valentine’s Day—in a melancholy sort of way.

Against the Wind
Bob Seger

Seems like yesterday
But it was long ago
Janey was lovely she was the queen of my nights
There in darkness with the radio playin low
And the secrets that we shared, mountains that we moved
Caught like a wildfire out of control
Til there was nothin left to burn and nothin left to prove
And I remember what she said to me
How she swore that it never would end
I remember how she held me oh so tight
Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then
Against the wind
We were runnin against the wind
We were young and strong we were runnin
Against the wind
And the years rolled slowly past
And I found myself alone
Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends
Found myself further and further from my home and I
Guess I lost my way
There were oh so many roads
I was livin to run and runnin to live
Never worried about payin or even how much I owe
Movin’ eight miles a minute and for months at a time
Breakin all of the rules that would bend
I began to find myself searchin
Searchin for shelter again and again
Against the wind
Little somethin against the wind
I found myself seekin shelter against the wind
Well those drifting days are past me now
I’ve got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out
Against the wind
I’m still runnin against the wind
I’m older now but still runnin against the wind
Well I’m older now but still runnin against the wind
Against the wind
Against the wind
Still runnin
Against the wind
Against the wind
Against the wind…
P.S. Against the Wind did appeared in the movies For Love of the Game and Forrest Gump. Other Seger songs have been featured in movies over the years, but one of the most iconic scenes in modern American films is when Tom Cruise slides across the floor in Risky Business and dances to Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll.
P.P.S. Against the Wind is Seger’s only number one album on the Billboard 2oo charts, and knocked Pink Floyd’s The Wall album out of the top slot after it topped the charts for 15 weeks.

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“It still boggles my mind that people went to movie theaters to go see a movie about corn.”
Aaron Woolf (on his film King Corn)

On Saturday, while on a flight from Des Moines to Detroit, I met documentary filmmaker Aaron Woolf. He was in Iowa to show one of his films at The Fleur Cinema & Cafe. (The Fleur is a funky little theater that is supportive of the arts and helping develop local talent. Over the years I’ve had several short films shown there.)

This wasn’t Woolf’s first trip to Iowa. Before he moved to New York, he received an MFA in Film from the University of Iowa. He also produced & directed the 2007 Peabody Award-winning documentary King Corn which was shot in Greene, Iowa. King Corn played in theaters and on PBS. Woolf gave me a DVD of Big River which he produced as companion to King Corn. Big River also features Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who were the two young men in King Corn who set out to see what happens when one tries to farm one arce of corn.

King Corn is still off many people’s radar but  it did receive a 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune wrote that the film was,  “A breezy diary from a pair of first-time farmers, as well as a wry rebuke to a nation devoted to eating cheaply but not necessarily well.” After seeing the film, you may never hear or read about high-fructose corn syrup without thinking about Iowa.

Woolf’s narrow focus on making a film about corn is part of a strategy that Woolf thinks is good advice for documentary filmmakers:

“Find the smallest focus possible for your film…In our case, it turned out that even the story of one acre of corn was a colossal topic, and we were still left with dozens of storylines that died a lonely death on the cutting room floor.”
Aaron Woolf
Independent Lens

Woolf’s latest documentary is Beyond Motor City, a 90-minute look at the rise, fall & future of Detroit. The film will air on PBS February 8, 2010.

Scott W. Smith

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“I just happen to find life funny. Everywhere I look I see comedy…often where it’s inappropriate. “
Jason Reitman
Director Juno/Up in the Air

After the success of Juno Jason Reitman’s had the clout to make a film like Avatar. A big budget extravaganza. Instead he made Up in the Air. A film that not only works on many levels, but that was also shot in an area dear to my heart—flyover country. Granted some of it is literally  in the air in the vast stretch of land between New York and L.A., but the are plenty of Midwest moments including George Clooney’s business headquarters and what he has of a home both being located in Omaha, Nebraska.

And this won’t be a spoiler, but there is even a nice little moment tied into Dubuque, Iowa.

Somehow Reitman directed a film (co-written with Sheldon Turner) that deals with contemporary issues of the economy and yet gave it a timeless feel of a classic film. Somehow he made a film that touches on psychology, sociology, and even the meaning of life and along the way entertains us and makes us laugh.

I don’t know specifically which states the movie was actually shot in but I do know that Reitman did location scouting in Michigan and Missouri that impacted the making of the film:

“At a certain point during scouting, I realized that the scenes that I had written of people getting fired were just inauthentic. We needed something that spoke to the times and what was really happening. I cut out all the firing scenes in the movie and we put ads out in the paper, both in Detroit and St. Louis, saying that we were making a documentary about job loss.”
Jason Reitman
Free Press article by Julie Hinds

Twenty of those people where chosen to be film. To paraphrase Clooney’s character who fires people for a living, being fired brings new opportunities.

But the authentic ground work for the movie is rooted in the book Up in the Air written by Walter Kirn. And though there are many differences to the movie, the heart of the story came from Kirn’s own travel experiences:

I wrote this book in [Earl], Montana of all places, in a snowbound winter on a ranch thinking about airports and airplanes and thinking about a particular conversation I’d had that had startled me. I sat down in a first class cabin – somebody else must have been paying – and you know, I’m the guy you don’t want to sit next to on an airplane because I want to know your story and want to tell you mine and I asked him where he was from this line is in the movie. He said, “I’m from right here” and I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “Well, I used to have an apartment in Atlanta but I never used it. It just collected dust and then I got a storage locker, I stay in hotels and am on the road 300 days a year. So this is where I’m from and this is my family.” He pointed to a flight attendant and said, “I know her. I know her name. I know her kids’ names.” And I thought, this is a new creature. I felt like an ornithologist discovering a new bird and when you’re a novelist and you discover a new creature and you discover a sort of new environment in which this creature is possible, you have to write the book.
Walter Kirn
CinemaBlend. com article by Perru Nemiroff

So far Up in the Air has been named the best picture of 2009 by the National Board of Review and the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association. Personally, it will be the only film in 2009 I will see multiple times in the theaters. Actually, the first one since Juno. In case I’ve understated myself—if you like fine writing, go see this film.

12/28 Update: Found out that Walter Kirn was born in Akron, Ohio and raised in Marine on Saint Croix, Minnesota (just outside the greater suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul). For some reason that doesn’t surprise me. How many times have writers from Minnesota come up in this blog?

Related posts: Filmmaking Quote #6 (Jason Reitman)
Screenwriting Quote of the Day #117 (Jason Reitman)

Scott W. Smith

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“Most screenwriters are unemployed, chronically unemployed.”
Screenwriter Tom Lazarus (Stigmata)
Secrets of Film Writing

“It’s either very lucrative and exciting, or nothing.”
Screenwriter Anthony Peckham (Invictus) on screenwriting

(Note: Though this post is now several year old it continues to get solid hits because it’s such a basic question. I’ve chosen not to update the NFL references because that’s a continually moving target. Just exchange the names for the current hot players of whatever year you’re reading this post.)

When people think of how much professional football players make they tend to focus on the big numbers. Brett Favre’s $20 million dollar one year contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Payton Manning’s $99.2 million seven year contract with the Indianapolis Colts. But the truth is most rookies in the NFL earn around $300,000 per year. Deduct taxes, agent fees, a down payment on a house, and an expensive sports car or two and there’s not that much left. (Relatively speaking, of course.)

Then factor in that most pro football careers last less than four years (NFL=Not For Long) and you can see why the majority of players who play in the NFL really have under a million dollars to their name when they retire.  And when you factor in a history of NFL players making bad investment decisions it’s not hard to understand why so many end up filing for bankruptcy when their short careers are over.

Often when people think of Hollywood writers they tend to once again think of the multi-million dollar deals. (Like Basic Instinct banking Joe Eszterhas $3 million—back in the early 90s.) But the truth is most writers (factoring both union and non-union) won’t make any money this year from their writings. (According to the Writer’s Guide of America-West (WGAW) recent report, of the 8,129 union members in 2007 3,775 were unemployed.) Depending on different sources working WGAw members seem to average between $40,000-$110,000. per year. (Key word there is “working” WGAw members.) Factor in the cost of living where most writers live (New York & L.A.) and  that’s probably about the earning power of (just a wild guess) $20,000-65,000. in much of the country.

On the film side a good rule of thumb is scripts can make up between 2-5% of the total budget. So on a $50 million dollar film that could be as much as $2.5 million.(The highest paid spec script to date I believe  is $5 million to M. Night Shyamalan for Unbreakable, though that may have included his directing fee.)  But it also means on a $200,000 indie film could mean the screenwriter was paid $4,000. (And independent films make up the majority of the 500 or so feature films made per year. ) On the TV side writers can be paid per script or as a staff writer. The highest paid are the ones who create a hit network show and stay on as producer/writers. If that show stays on the air for five years and goes into syndication then they can afford to buy a small tropical island.  A good gig if you can land it, but that doesn’t describe most TV writers.

“On balance, television writers today are the highest-paid practitioners of the literary profession in history. But mark the phrase on balance. If you can sell two one-hour scripts per year, which is a pretty good average for a freelance writer, that’s about $40,000 per year, before taxes. That figure is comparable to or less than the yearly average of elementary school teachers and considerably less than plumbers. The majority of working writers fall into this financial category. It’s only when you get the top 5 to 10 percent that you find writers and hyphenates who routinely earn six figures a year or more.”
J. Michael Stracznski, writer/producer
(Babylon 5, Changeling)
The Complete Book of Screenwriting

Granted that book was published in 1996 (and I think the minimum range for a 90 minute or less story & teleplay these days is around $30,000.*) but in a world of reality TV programing there is less scripted work being produced. (I know there are a lot fewer soap operas being produced than in 1996.)

“In 24 hours, NBC has just three hours of dramas and comedies. And, on some nights those make way for Dateline or Deal No Deal.”
Charles B. Solcum
Written By, August/September 2009
page 19

I have a writer friend with network credits in L.A. who was recently offered a job on a cable TV program that would pay her just a little more than her unemployment benefits. When you live in a land where rent is $1,500-3000. per month these are trying times. One more reason to live outside L.A., right? (Heck, for $3,000. I think you can still pick up a house in Detroit.)

Screenwriter John August recently wrote an excellent post What’s wrong with the business where he addressed some of these issues. I’ve quoted from that article before, but this is worth repeating because the industry is changing and the young, creative people coming up are going to embrace the changes;

“To become one of those inventors of industry, you need to surround yourself with similarly ambitious people. Film school is a good choice, but so is living and working in the right neighborhood in Silverlake or Brooklyn or Austin — or more likely, a place I wouldn’t even realize is a hotbed.”
Screenwriter John August
(Big Fish, Corpse Bride)

Could that hotbed be a place like Des Moines, Iowa? Steven Spielberg thinks so. He told Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show back in 1999, “I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”

Wait a minute, didn’t John August go to Drake University in Des Moines? That Spielberg is a genius, you know? And didn’t Diablo Cody go to school in Iowa City? If John August and Diablo Cody ever move back to Iowa then you know that this blog will at least be assured a small footnote in the history of screenwriting.

I wouldn’t bet on that anytime soon, but I would bet that within ten years places now known more for football like Minnesota & Indianapolis (as well as Detroit, Austin, Atlanta, Memphis…and, of course, Cedar Falls) will see writers and filmmakers rise up (and stay put) as they embrace the digital revolution and the opportunities it brings.

Related Post: Investing in Screenwriting. (I have a quote in there by Max Adams who explains how a $500,000. feature script option can really translate to a mere $3,500. per year for the writer who worked on that script.)

* To see current Writers Guild of America’s Theatrical and Television Basic Agreement visit the WGA-West website.

Update 12/09: Since this is a popular post as far as views I will update it from time to time and welcome your input on correcting any numbers. While reading over the WGAw report I made another connection between screenwriting & the NFL. On the film side there were 1,553 male writers employed in the last year of the report. That’s about 150 less writers than players in the NFL any given year. If you’re a female writer it just gets harder as they make up just 24% of all members in the guild. I don’t write these stats to discourage you but to help you know how solid your writing has to be to make a living doing this. And to also encourage you to keep your eyes open for alternative ways to earn a living in film, TV, and the Internet.

Update 3/12/10: Just read on Scott Myers’ blog Go Into The Story that the average production worker salary in the motion picture and tv industry is $74,400 a year.

Update 5/14/10: Residuals are another way film and TV writers get paid. I once worked with an actress who had worked on a popular TV show back in the day who told me she made $40,000 a year in residuals. A nice base. Check out the post Question: Do screenwriters get a percentage on the back end? by Scott Myers.

Update 11/08/10: Interesting article about football player (Keith Fitzhugh) who turns down NFL offer to keep his train conductor job.

Update 1/15/11:  “Let’s talk money, because no one ever does. A top tier screenplay deal these days might be for a million dollars or more. Most are far, far less, but let’s work with those crazy high numbers, in fact let’s say 2 million dollars, though nobody is paying that any more. Wow that’s a lot of money. But consider. With a writing partner, that gets cut down to $1,000,000., and after taxes, lawyers, agents, managers, and the WGA, let’s hope you get to keep $400,000.

That’s still a truckload of money, life changing, but they don’t give you that all at once. It might take six months to a year just to get the contract done, and the deal is contingent on the film going into production, and if it does that might take a year or three or five, and also the WGA has to grant full credit at the end of it all, which often doesn’t happen. But let’s say it all goes well, which means the ‘highest paid screenwriter in history’ is actually taking home around $200,000. a year, at least on that one deal. Which is good money, real good money, more than I ever imagined making, and let me tell you I do own a dream home in the hills … but it’s not in the fly-a-Learjet-to-your-own-private-island-in-the-Caribbean category.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Shrek & Pirates of the Caribbean)
Interview with John Robert Marlow 

Update 2/11/11 “For every writer I know that lives high on the hog I know twenty who buy their bacon at Costco.”
Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds)

And this from the book Power Screenwriting:
“The truth is, the odds of writing and selling a screenplay are probably just as great as winning the state lottery or the next Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. Yet, with the emphasis directed towards the big bucks sale, the aspiring screenwriter may be deprived of one of the greatest transformational processes known to man: spinning a well-told story.”
Michael Chase Walker

Update 3/24/11: “Most writers never sell scripts. Why should you be any different?”
Christopher Lockhart who is the Story Editor for WME
From the post The Right Stuff on his blog THE INSIDE PITCH.  

Update 5/29/11: This is the WGA’s current minimum basic agreement (MBA) for a screenplay purchase:
Between $500,000 & $1.2 million budget: $42,930
Between $1.2 million and $5 million: $42,930
Between $5 million or more: $87,879

Keep in mind those are union numbers—and minimun numbers at that. (Top writers making much, much more than scale.) But if a non-union company buys your script expect less. If you wrote the screenplay with another writer cut those numbers in half, and of course, deduct for taxes, lawyers, agents, etc.

Update 7/6/11: This post is by far the most viewed post of all time on this blog and you may enjoy this post today from Scott Myers on his blog Go Into The Story: Reader Question: How much does a top screenwriter get paid for a rewrite?

Update 11/08/11: “Most writers are middle class; 46% did not even work last year. Of those who do work, one quarter make less than $37,700 a year and 50% make less than $105,000 a year. Over a five year period of employment and unemployment, a writer’s average income is $62,000 per year.” Writers Guild of America, West

Update 2/22/12: Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2010 listed the mean annual wage for writers (including screenwriters) and authors at $65,960 (with $109,440 being in the 9o percentile).

Update 2/28/13: Link to screenwriting quote where Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo) talks about writing scripts for $5,000 and $10,000 coming up in the New York indie world.

Update 12/11/13: Even though this post is now four years old it continues to get steady hits and is by far the most viewed post I’ve ever written. But I’d like you to take the time to jump over to the post and read what Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arendt has to say about what I call The 99% Focus Rule. And a postive thing  that’s happened since I originally posted this is quality cable TV has exploded —as well as groups like Netflix producing their own programs— opening up new opportunites and a broader income stream for writers.

Closing thought: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know?…Don’t you know that?”
Sheriff Marge Gunderson in Fargo
Written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Scott W. Smith

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Before screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin won an Oscar in 1990 for his script Ghost he spent time in the Midwest. He was born in Detroit and graduated from high school there, he was a student at Indiana University, and was living in Illinois before he and his wife and their two kids decided to give L.A. a try with $4,000. to their name.  It was a gamble that paid off.  

“Everyone who tells me they don’t have time to write, I just say, ‘One scene a night for three months, and you’ll have a movie—you can even use the weekends.’ It’s possible to be a writer if you want to be a writer, even without all the time in the world….After doing the dishes, instead of turning on the television or reading a book or going to the movies, write one scene. Whatever you do write one scene.”
                                                                  Bruce Joel Rubin

                                                                  Screenwriters by Joel Engel 
                                                                  Page 18

 

Scott W. Smith

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“Why does New York have a monopoly on theater?”…I have no vested interest in New York, I don’t live there anymore. It’s all the same to me. But that is where the talent is collected, and if it doesn’t happen there, generally it doesn’t happen anywhere else. I wish it would happen in Ann Arbor, when you get a new theater.
Arthur Miller
February 28, 1967
The University of Michigan

Writing is core to everything we do. Yet good writing is becoming a lost art, and a lost value. I am looking forward to watching Michigan invest in what it takes to create the best writing program in the country.
Helen Zell

As I’ve said many times before Screenwriting from Iowa is not limited to screenwriting or Iowa — but it represents movies and people coming from a place beyond Los Angeles. Today we’re going to take a look at talent from another Midwest state as I turn the spotlight on Michigan.

It was no mistake that the great New York born writer Arthur Miller got his college education at the University of Michigan. Even in the 1930s UM was already know for its high literary output and in the 1920s playwright Avery Hopwood created an endowment for UM writers. Miller was an early recipient of the Avery Hopwood Award award in 1937. It was just the first step of recognition for the writer that would go on and write Death of Salesman and The Crucible as well as many other plays, screenplays, short stories and novels in a career that would span 70 years until his death in 2005.

He is considered one of the greatest American dramatists and supported the University of Michigan his entire life. Last year the Arthur Miller Theater opened on the UM campus keeping his wishes as being the only theater bearing his name. That was a tribute to the education he received in Ann Arbor.

But even before Miller became famous the University of Michigan had tradition in Hollywood. Dudley Nichols, a UM alumni  wrote the 1939 John Ford and John Wayne classic Stagecoach. The long train that followed include:
Valentine Davies (Miracle on 34th Street)
John Briley’s (Ghandi)
David Newman’s (SupermanBonnie & Clyde)
Kurt Luedtke (Absence of Malice, Out of Africa),
Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It)
Adam Herz (American Pie)
Josh Greenfield, (Harry and Tonto)
Roger Lowenstein (TV’s L.A. Law)
Judith Guest (Ordinary People)
Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Grand Canyon, Body Heat)
Laura Kaisischke (
The Life Before Her Eyes)
Jim Burnstein
(D3: The Mighty Ducks)

Burnstein who also wrote Ruffian starring Sam Shepherd has taught at the University of Michigan and gave a presentation this year titled “Wolverines in Hollywood.”

I’m not sure where this Michigan writing legacy started but chances are famed Hollywood screenwriting teacher (and Detroit native) Robert McKee does know. He also attended the University of Michigan where he earned his undergraduate, masters and Ph.D. degrees.  Studying under Kenneth Thorpe Rowe where he learned a good deal about story structure that he promotes in his famed three-day screenwriting seminar and book Story.

Rowe wrote Write that Play and also hooked former student Arthur Miller up in New York that helped Miller start his career.

And though not a writer where would Hollywood be without the talent of former UM pre-med student James Earl Jones? A big voice (“Luke, I am your father”) who was born in a small town of Arkabutla, Mississippi, raised in a couple small towns in Michigan where he overcame a stuttering problem that caused him to be a functionally mute from grade school until high school.

In an interview with Michael J. Bandler Jones mentions Donald Crouch as the teacher that helped him overcome stuttering and find his voice. “I credit him with being the father of my voice. He said, ‘You have a man’s voice now, an impressive bass, but don’t let that impress you. If you start listening to your voice, no one else will.’ It was a good lesson in general. I [try] to be devoid of self-consciousness.”

According to Wikipedia his career in theater began at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan where he was a stage carpenter before his role in Shakespeare’s Othello. Again to quote to old expression; “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” (And no, I won’t pass up the opportunity to mention that Jones brought his booming voice to Iowa in Field of Dreams.)

And just so we don’t leave out UM rival Michigan St. — that’s where Top Gun screenwriters Jack Epps Jr. and Jim Cash first teamed up. The academy-award nominated screenwriter of Finding Neverland and 48 hr director Walter Hill also graduated from Michigan State. Peter Gent was an athlete at MSU and went on to write the novel & screenplay for North Dallas Forty which impacted me greatly when I saw it as a high school football player. Spiderman director Sam Raimi also attended the school in East Lansing. And lastly writer/director David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) is also a Spartan.

Grand Rapids is where Paul Schrader was raised and attended Calvin College to become a minister before eventually writing Taxi Driver and having a long career in Hollywood.

Flint, Michigan native and current resident of Traverse City, Michigan is Academy-Award winning filmmaker Michael Moore who has made three of the top five grossing documentaries of all time. In 2005 he started the annual Traverse City Film Festival.

Michigan native Mike Binder was the writer/director of The Upside of Anger. In a talk he gave in Ann Arbor Binder told students, “If you’re looking for respect don’t become a screenwriter.”

And batting clean-up is a writer who has been called “the Dickens of Detroit” – Elmore Leonard. His novels and short stories often find their way to the big screen with big talent: Get Shorty (John Travolta), Jackie Brown (Robert De Niro) 3:10 to Yuma (Russell Crowe), Hombre (Paul Newman), and the upcoming Killshot starring Diane Lane. He graduated from University of Detroit Jesuit High School and the University of Detroit.

Back in 2001 Leonard had an essay published in The New York Times called Writers on Writing where he offered ten rules for writing. It’s well worth a read. Though geared toward writing novels most apply to screenwriting such as rule number 9: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”

“Oh, I love Elmore Leonard. In fact, to me True Romance is basically like an Elmore Leonard movie… I actually owe a big debt to like kind of figuring out my style from Elmore Leonard because, you know, he was the first writer I’d ever read.
Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction)
The Charlie Rose Show 1994

Leonard lives in Michigan these days, and though in his 80s has a website (www.elmoreleonard.com) complete with a blog and podcasts. From the man who inspired Tarantino, here’s Leonard’s advice on how to get an agent: “My advice is to learn how to write and the agent will find you.”

Of course, Michigan also has a long history of real life characters who were interesting enough to have movies made about their lives (Ty Cobb, Jimmy Hoffa, Eminem, and most recently the intermittent windshield wiper guy Robert Kearns).  Then there is the storytelling history through music from Michigan which is way too long to list but covers probably every form of American music; Jazz, blues, soul, gospel, rock, country, hip hop, rap, punk, techno.)

The rock and roll hall of fame has a little space taken up with artists from Michigan including Aretha Franklin, Bill Haley, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Glenn Frey, and Bob Seger.

I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to connect Michigan’s creative success to one man — Henry Ford. With his cars and factory line he brought prosperity to the area. Some of the people coming to Detroit were from the Mississippi Delta and they brought their music with them. That’s the short history of the Model T to Motown. But again you can’t ignore the part economics plays in its connection to the arts.

These days are lean times for those in Detroit. (Heck, these days they are even lean times for Toyota and Honda.) As the Michigan prophet Kid Rock sings; “Now nothing seems as strange as when leaves began to change, or how we thought those days would never end.” (All Summer Long)

One thing Michigan has recently done to rejuvenate the area economically is to pass one of the largest tax incentives for the film industry. Late this past spring I did some location scouting for Mandate Pictures for Whip It!, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. But Iowa lost out to Michigan and I’m sure the incentives played a part. The roller derby film staring Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis began shooting in Southeast Michigan in July.

The WNEM TV station reported this on their website: In April, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation aimed at giving Michigan a bigger role in the film industry. The key bill in the package gave film studios a refundable credit of up to 42 percent on production expenses in the state. The bills also cover commercials, TV shows, documentaries, video games and other film work.

Landing the Barrymore film is a nice start out of the gate for Michigan and there is talk of three film studios being built. It would seem like a good time to be writing Michigan-centered screenplays. If you don’t have any ideas you can start here: A popular mayor in Detroit has an affair…

P.S. If you are interesting in shooting in Michigan or in learning more about their incentives contact Janet Lockwood at the Film in Michigan office.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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