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Posts Tagged ‘Drew Barrymore’

“What if your script doesn’t sell?  Most of them don’t.  Doesn’t mean you should give up.  Writing involves a long learning curve.  Most scripts or early novels suck.  Usually, it takes three or four tries before some kind of talent and structure begins to emerge.  It’s frustrating to think that your initial efforts might be just that — early, learning efforts.  But the truth is, most of the time, that’s what they will turn out to be.  That said, scripts can have a long shelf life.  I’ve had at least three scripts sell years and years after I initially wrote them.  In one case, I sold a script a decade after I wrote it.  Sometimes, it’s just a question of timing — the area you’ve chosen to write about isn’t in vogue, but becomes so at a later date.  Or sometimes, your particular stock goes up and a producer will ask if you have anything else in the drawer.  The other thing about scripts is that they can be wonderful calling cards — even if they don’t sell or don’t get made.  It took 4 years from the time I wrote Blade until the day the cameras rolled.  During that time, that un-produced script probably netted me a half-dozen jobs because it worked as a writing sample.”
Screenwriter David S. Goyer (Man of Steel)
On Screenwriting

P.S. As an example of scripts having “a long shelf life”— A writer friend of mine Clare Sera recently sold a script that was completed six years ago with her writing partner Ivan Menchell. Their script Blended is currently being filmed in South Africa with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in the lead roles.

Related Posts:
Don’t Waste Your Life
 (“I spent 18 years doing stand up comedy. Ten years learning, four years refining, and four years of wild success.”—Steve Martin)
What it’s Like Being a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Bob DeRosa’s “Shortcuts”(“There are no shortcuts. There is only hard work.—Bob DeRosa)
Commitment in the Face if Failure (“I wrote five scripts, then I wrote Little Miss Sunshine and then I wrote four more before I finally sold Little Miss Sunshine. It’s an endurance race.” —Michael Arndt)

If your script doesn’t sell…you can always make it yourself:
“It’s a good time to be a filmmaker” (“The field has been completely leveled. You can go and make your movies. There’s tons of ways to get your movies out there now.”—Edward Burns)

Scott W. Smith

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Ellen Page can skate. Really skate. Roller derby-style to boot. That alone makes Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It worth seeing. But wait, there’s more….

Most people know Page for her Juno role, but the 22-year-old Oscar nominated actress from Nova Scotia already has a decade old career having been in over 25 films and TV programs. We know Page can act but it’s special to watch the actress continue to blossom. Special in that way you see Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun or Paul Newman in The Hustler where you see great talent being revealed.

Many actors have stumbled in trying to play convincing roles as an athlete so I appreciate it when it’s done well. It was not a safe choice for Page or Barrymore, but they pulled it off.

Now I remember the roller derby in its 1970s incarnation.  Not that I was really a fan, but back then the roller derby was hard to miss because in a pre-cable TV and Internet world you only had three main channels to chose from. So on weekends somewhere between bowling, fishing and wrestling you had the roller derby. The roller derby was popular enough in the 70s to have a few films made about it including Unholy Rollers (1972), the documentary Derby (1972) and Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber (1972)–and let’s throw in the futuristic Rollerball (1975) for good measure.

Today the revival in roller derby is relatively small in comparison which may account for the soft opening this weekend at the box office. (That and people can’t seem to get enough of zombies.) But Barrymore and screenwriter Shauna Cross have put together a fine and entertaining film that also has a layer of wisdom in it, so I think it will continue to gather a following for years to come.

There is one scene, one line in particular (and this gives nothing away) that I thought was brilliant. It’s when Page’s character simply says, “I don’t want to be that girl.” It’s a moment that I don’t remember ever seeing in a film before and would benefit every teenage girl who is feed a steady diet of pop culture in regard to relationships. (Also part of that relationship plotline involves a t-shirt from the 80s Christian heavy metal band Stryper. I got a kick out of that as back in my L.A. days as a 16mm director and cameraman I shot an interview with Stryper’s lead singer Michael Sweet. If I find some photos from that shoot I’ll post them.)

At its core, Whip It is a coming-of-age story. Or as Save the Cat screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder calls it a rite of passage (ROP);

The ROP yarn…has three telling indicator: (1) The Problem, (2) the ‘wrong way’ to fix it, and (3) the solution to the problem: acceptance.’”

There are trampings involved with any genre and it’s hard to be original when you are dealing with a story that centers around sports, but I think Barrymore and Cross bring some subtle nuances to the film. One being the role of the parents played by Marica Gay Harden and Daniel Stern. Stern of course brings clout not only with his Wonder Years background, but as being in one of the greatest coming-of-age films/sports films ever—Breaking Away. Great casting choice. And way to go in not making the parents total dorks. (Took a page from Juno there.)

From a screenwriting perspective I do think they missed a huge opportunity to show some three dimensionality by at least giving a nod to the fact that the tribe some girls may want to be in is being in beauty pageants. What if Page’s best friend in the film would have really been gung-ho for doing the pageant thing? That’s the kind of dynamic that made John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club stand out. We’re all different and we’re all in this together.

Recently actress Sela Ward, who was raised in Mississippi, said this in an interview with Parade magazine;  “Growing up in the South, it’s all about manners and propriety. Every weekend, I went to charm school at the Sears department store, where I learned such fabulous tidbits as how to blot your face with a damp cloth to remove some of the powder and give yourself a little glow.” Not every girl is going to grow up and be dignified, refined and as graceful as Sela Ward. But those traits haven’t hurt her career any and there is still a man or two who finds that more attractive than blood and tattoos.

Two other missed opportunities were on the sound track. The dry opening to the film would have benefitted from a jump start montage of the roller derby girls intercut with shots of Page’s character getting ready for a beauty pageant with the song Roller Derby Saved My Soul by Uncle Leon and the Alibis playing. And on the credits Devo’s Whit It would have been a fitting tribute and left audiences with a big smile.

Whip It may not be as insightful as the classic Texas movie  The Last Picture Show, but you could put it on the shelf with the old John Travolta/Debra Winger film Urban Cowboy. It’s a fun film with a few life lessons thrown in, and a wonderful start for Barrymore. And she can really skate, too.

Whip It (Part 3)

Scott W. Smith

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I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am women

I Am Women
Written by Helen Reddy & Ray Burton

“I couldn’t find any songs that said what I thought being a woman was about. I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that.”
Helen Reddy

The movie Whip It owes a lot to the 1970s. Not only were Whip It screenwriter Shauna Cross, director Drew Barrymore and supporting actress Juliette Lewis born in the 70s— the movie’s theme of girl power rises from the Gloria Steinem version of feminism that came to fruition in the early 70s. (The National Women’s Political Caucus and Ms. Magazine were both founded in 1971 with Steinem’s guidance. A year before Helen Reddy sang I Am Woman in which would become a catchy powerful feminist anthem.)

And while there are probably a zillion different views of feminism today (and plenty of strong women who don’t care for that label) most would look at the role women have in culture today and agree with the popular 70s Virginia Slims ad champaign, “You’ve come a long way baby.”  (Of course, not everyone would agree on the interpretation of that phrase. Some would say a long way good and others a long way bad.) In the 1970s there was a shift in the roles that women would play in business, education, politics, military and sports. I was raised in the 60s-70s by a single mother and two of the best athletes on my street were girls, so I can’t say I felt the shift and only knew the traditional world by watching old reruns of Leave it to Beaver.

(Growing up in Central Florida I have burned into my memory the blarring 70s radio ads for drag racing events, “Big Daddy Don Garlits, and Shirley ‘Cha-Cha’ Muldowney this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Gainesville International Speedway. BE THERE ! BE THERE! BE THERE!” I never did get there but I remember being amazed that there was a female drag racer. Muldowney was the first women to receive a NHRA licence and won NHRA top fuel championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982. Her story was made into the excellent 1983 film Heart Like a Wheel starring Bonnie Bedelia.)

Of course, as women sought more independence, freedom and accomplishments outside the home this would impact how children were raised and as a result our entire culture effected.  Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) was one of the first films to deal with this changing world. And The Fight Club (1999) dealt with the lingering effects. But honestly, things haven’t exactly been a picnic ever since that incident with the fruit in the garden of Eden. We live in a broken, fallen world and everyday the news confirms this. We go to movies for the hope of a little sliver of restoration.

Which brings us back to Whip It. The movie’s poster with a great shot of star Ellen Page says, “Find your tribe.” It’s about finding your place in this world even if you live in a little town like Bodeen, Texas. I became aware of the story when Cedar Falls, Iowa had a shot at becoming both Bodeen and Austin when I received a call from Mandate Pictures to do some location scouting in the Cedar Falls, Waterloo and Cedar Rapids area here in Iowa.

Iowa’s film incentives were the main reason they considered shooting a story set in Texas. (It would have been a nice payback since the Johnny Depp/Leonardo DiCaprio/Juliette Lewis film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was set in Iowa but shot in Texas.) When I got the call last spring, Ellen Page was already in Iowa making another Mandate Picture called Peacock which was shooting in the Des Moines area.

I ended up doing two days of scouting and thought we had a good shot. One of the biggest problems though was they were really looking for a 50s style ranch home made of brick. We had a good deal of 50s ranch homes in the area but brick for whatever reason was not commonly used. They also wanted the yards to be a little worn down. Maybe it’s because the soil is good in Iowa or the neat German heritage, but there aren’t many lawns in disrepair in this part of the county.

I took hundreds of pictures for the various locations they needed including the Oink Joint where Page’s character worked. My best find was the town of Vinton, Iowa (between Cedar Falls & Cedar Rapids) that I thought made a fitting small Texas town like the ones I’ve driven through before. But at the end of the day they shot most of the film in Michigan. (Apparently, they don’t take care of their lawns as well as Iowans.) I was bummed when I found out they weren’t shooting in Iowa because it would have meant a lot to the community and I would have loved having a small part in bringing the first Hollywood film here since they shot Country in Black Hawk County back in the mid-80s.

But I’m glad the film got made and will write specifically about it tomorrow. The script was written by Cross based on her youth book Derby Girl. Since I write a blog that’s focused on writing or writers that come from outside of L.A. I enjoyed reading an interview where Cross stated, “It’s easier to be more original writing about Texas than New York or L.A.” But it should be noted that while Cross went to film school at the University of Texas at Austin, she did get her breakthough while living in L.A. and bumping into film people.

Whip It (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith



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Last night I just caught a few minutes of the Primetime Emmy awards and glad to see Jessica Lange and Ken Howard win Emmys for their roles in Grey Gardens. The HBO movie also picked up the Emmy for Made-for-TV Movie. (The movie won a total of six Emmys.) It’s always great to see someone like Howard who has been nominated for 10 Emmys finally pick up an Emmy after a long career.

Someone who hasn’t had a long career is the writer/director of Grey Gardens, Michael Sucsy. I didn’t really know much about him so I poked around and here is what I found. I think it’s important to see the path that talented people take to see what it takes to succeed at the highest level. Sucsy was born in 1973 and received his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and an MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

He worked various below the line jobs on some features and made an award-winning short film after school. But he really made a name for himself directing commercials and in 2002 according to IMDB he was “nominated for the Young Director of the Year Award in conjunction with the 2002 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.”

He began to work on the script for Grey Gardens in 2003 after seeing the documentary by the same name. So we’re talking six years from idea to award. He was working as an assistant to a entertainment lawyer while doing research and writing for Grey Gardens meaning he had to get much of his writing in in the early morning hours before going to work. (The Breakfast Club for Writers.)

Eventually his script found its way to HBO where Sucsy directed Lange, Drew Barrymore and others in that would go on tie for the most Emmy nominations ever for a TV movie.

Dream big dreams, but keep plugging away on smaller projects.

(I’m preaching to myself here and look forward to going up to Minneapolis Saturday for the Midwest Regional Emmy Awards where I’m nominated for two Emmys—one for editing and one for lighting.)

Dec. 6, 2009 Update. I did pick up a Regional Emmy for location lighting for a spot I shot film noir style. But much more impressive is Grey Gardens which I finally saw a couple weeks ago. Just an extraordinary, moving and insightful film.

Related posts: Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Screenwriters Work Ethic

Scott W. Smith

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”This is not about harming the growing film and television industry in Iowa, but about protecting public funds and the best interest of Iowans.”
Gov. Chet Culver

Okay, most people don’t think of Iowa as paradise. Not in the traditional sense. But as people wander into the state they’re often surprised to find a kind of paradise that could be described as a quality of life paradise. Blue skies, friendly people, safe neighborhoods, affordable housing, little traffic and the list goes on. But from a filmmaker’s perspective the last couple years Iowa have been seen as a film incentive paradise.

That could be changing. It was announced today that the governor of Iowa was halting Iowa’s well-known film incentives. This is what I found on KCRG TV’s website:

Apparent problems have prompted the Governor to step in. In a late email announcing the resignation of the state’s economic development director, The governor stated that, quote, “there have been insufficient procedures…to assure a full and accurate accounting of expenditures.”

He goes on to ask that “no further schedules of qualified expenditures be approved nor tax credit certificates be issued.”

Films are getting made here and according to a FORTUNE Small Business article called Hollywood on the Plains one company moved here from California saying, “These incentives really sealed the deal.” Tom Wheeler who had a key role in helping films get made in Iowa as the manager of the Iowa Film Office is on paid administrative leave.

Now there is some hope that once these problems are sorted out that the incentive program will continue. But the fear is that the momentum that has been built the last couple years will suffer. Welcome to the world of film incentives. I warned about all of this because of what I saw in Florida back in the 80s. If you try to build an industry on film incentives you must realize that sooner or later someone will offer better incentives than you.

Back in the day Florida lost out to North Carolina and Canada. More recently, just two years ago the Louisiana Office of Entertainment Industry was advertising that it was the #3 place in the country to shoot films. Then Michigan came on the scene with film incentives as a remedy to help replace jobs and money lost in the ailing auto industry. (Link to Michigan’s incentive debate.)  All of this competition has been a part of L.A.’s problem with runaway production as groups look for cheaper ways to make their films.

I was reminded of all of this when I saw Drew Barrymore on The Jay Leno Show talking about her new film Whip It! that opens in a couple weeks. I did some location scouting for the film here in Iowa for Mandate Pictures who produced the film. Iowa’s incentives were a draw but they ended up shooting most of the story (that takes place in Texas) in Michigan. Follow the money, right?

The effectiveness of the incentives is debated and that’s when they are run properly. Iowa’s situation appears to be an administrative issue. Time will tell if it was just sloppy accounting & paper work or something more fraudulent. (Rumors of films being totally funded by the Iowa film incentive program via sketchy billing methods and not employing Iowa residents as per the incentives agreement have been kicking around for months.) The film industry has always attracted its share of Bernie Madoffs. There’s a line from the movie Wall St. that says something to the effect of, “Money makes people do things they don’t want to do.” Perhaps in line with, “Money is the roots of all sorts of evil.” The film industry has it’s share of scam artists/investors who I’ve seen go to jail over the years as well.

If you’re a writer you can’t really get caught up in all of this or you’ll go crazy. (Okay, crazier.) Focus on writing great stories that others will fight to get made. Even if that means your story set in Montana ends up getting shot in Croatia.

Related article at Quad-City Times: Iowa official resigns amid tax incentive probe

State of Iowa Press Release with Gov. Culver’s letter

Related L.A. Times Article: Filmmaking incentives losing glamour in cash-strapped states

Nov. 3, 2009 Update: Iowa sued over halt to film tax credits

Scott W. Smith

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Sometimes I think about the only way
That I’ll ever see life beyond L.A. is dying

                                                  Ambrosia 
                                                  (David Pack/ Burleigh Drummond) 

 

Today marks a year and a half since I started the Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A. blog. That first post (Life Beyond Hollywood) on January 22, 2007 featured a picture of a cold winter day in Iowa. If you’d like to see what Iowa looks like in the summer then turn on ABC”s Good Morning America tomorrow morning (July 23, 2009) as they will be doing four remote segments from downtown Cedar Falls.

How about that? Good Morning America is coming to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Maybe not life changing, but this hidden gem of a town really is starting to be less hidden. 

If you’re new to this blog let me recap how it all started. After seeing the movie Juno on January 19, 2007 and reading that the screenwriter of the movie, Diablo Cody, was a University of Iowa graduate (The Juno-Iowa Connection) I decided to start a blog focusing on screenwriters outside L.A. (or who at least come from outside L.A.).

Writers that have a little different perspective just by coming from a different geographical part of the country from the movie making capitol. Because of the Internet writers like Cody with her Chicago-Iowa City-Minneapolis background have a chance to have their writing discovered in a way that wasn’t possible in the past. That’s good for both writers and audiences.

So I’m doing my part to help those writers out. Right here from my headquarters in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Too bad we didn’t land that Drew Barrymore directed film Whip It that I did some location scouting for last year.  Then maybe we’d really be on the map. But it will be fun to have Good Morning America in town. Then again we really are on the map, conveniently located between New York and San Francisco.

By the way, they ended up shooting much of Whip It in Michigan to take advantage of their film incentives.) Just saw the first promo of Whip It that features Juno star Ellen Page in a story that takes place in Texas.

There’s a great big world out there beyond L.A. and stories from those parts that need to be told — so I hope you’re doing your part to write those screenplays.

Scott W. Smith

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Kevin Williamson failed. But at least he failed to the tune of $103 million at the box office when his script Scream became his first screenwriting credit in 1996. And that launched a career for the New Bern, North Carolina native who studied film and theater at East Carolina University. A career that includes being the creator of the Tv show Dawson’s Creek.

But once upon a time after acting gigs in New York didn’t pan out he moved to L.A. and took a screenwriting class at UCLA extension and began writing his first script. That script got optioned and paid enough to quit his day job. But the film never got made and he found himself unemployed and low on cash. He found inspiration for a new script in one of his favorite films, Halloween, and set out to to write a scary movie (which happened to be the original title). 

“I wanted to have a kick-ass opening, because I wanted to write one of the scariest movies ever. And then I thought, ‘Well, you know what? I may not be able to do that, but I may be able to write one scary scene.’ So I set out to write the opening telephone scene with the Drew Barrymore character. I knew that if I could capture just the terror of that situation—in an empty house with windows, a girl on the phone—right away you have the necessary ingredients. And then when I added the horror movie quiz game game on top of it, that brought the fun into it….But it’s a simple three act structure. The lead character is in peril. At the end of act one, she meets her attacker, who is trying to kill her; she barley escapes with her life, and then you’re thrust into the second act. It’s by-the-book, really. The only thing I did differently was I disclosed the conventions of the horror genre while doing it, and I let the breaking of the rules tell the story.”
                                                   Kevin Williamson
                                                   Creative Screenwriting magazine 
                                                   An Interview with: Kevin Williamson
                                                   by Laura Schiff 

So Williamson failed to write the scariest movie ever, but I think he wrote the funniest scary movie ever. By the way, that little twist Williamson gave the horror genre is called originality. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Just tweak it a little and make it yours. Or as Blake Snyder likes to say that what Hollywood is looking for is — “The same thing, only different.”

 

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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“Trouble, oh we got trouble, Right here in River City!”
                                                  Music Man, written by Iowa native Meredith Willson

How high’s the water, mama? 
Five feet high and risin’ 
                                                   Johnny Cash
                                                   Five Feet High and Risin’ 

 

I was supposed to get my haircut today…that didn’t happen.

When the morning begins with a segment of the NBC Today Show in Cedar Falls, Iowa you know there’s trouble in River City. Just two blocks from my office the Cedar River flows. In fact, we chose the name River Run Productions for our company because we saw the river as a metaphor that runs though Iowa and eventually into the Mississippi which eventually runs into the Gulf of Mexico and around the world.

Little did we know when we launched in January of ‘07 that just four months later I would be doing a shoot in Brazil including flying in a seaplane over the meeting of the waters where the Amazon and Rio Negro Rivers meet. 

But back in Cedar Falls today it was a long day of partaking along with hundreds (thousands?) of volunteers (including my partner who lost his home in the Parkersburg tornado two weeks ago) filling and placing sandbags trying to keep the river at bay. So far it’s been working to protect the downtown area, though many people in the low lying areas have evacuated and much of their homes underwater.  And the river is not supposed to crest until sometime tomorrow. 

 

Somewhere between moving boxes of photographs and memories to the basement Saturday night due to a tornado warning and taking the same boxes upstairs this morning in case of flooding, one can’t help but examine what you really need in your life.

I took all of these photos today and will give updates in coming days and then bring it full circle in regard to screenwriting and life.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday June 11, 2008 Update

The sandbagging on Tuesday paid off in Cedar Falls as the river crested at 2 AM with the downtown being spared from any flooding despite a record level of 102 feet. I drove over to Waterloo to help artist & friend Paco Rosic with his battle to hold back the flooding there from his restaurant/studio. Without much sleep in the last two night he and his father are winning the battle when most have given up.  Here are some shots of the front, inside (the multiple cords going to several water pumps), and view from the back of Galleria De Paco (voted this year as the #1 attraction in Iowa).

 

Thursday June 12, 2008 Update

Where’d all the good people go?
I’ve been changin’ channels
I don’t see them on the tv shows
Where’d all the good people go?
                                                                                                 Jack Johnson
                                                                                                 Good People

The secret’s out, Jack. A lot of those good people are in Iowa. They’re even on tv. NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams showed some of them in last night’s broadcast, including a nurse who volunteered in the morning after working an all-night shift in an intensive care unit. All told, I heard 5,000 people and 250,000 sandbags filled and placed on the levee helped keep the river back in downtown Cedar Falls. (Not that I put myself in the good people category, but I did make a brief cameo on the NBC segment in a non-speaking role as “Volunteer passing sandbag in white long sleeve t-shirt and camera strap around front.”)

It appears the worst is over in Cedar Falls but problems continue to mount in Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City and in other cites across Iowa and the Midwest. All of this reminds me of a quote from Steve Brown who I produced a video for in Nashville a couple years ago:

“The one thing I’ve learned is every day the world rolls over on top of someone who was just sitting on top of it yesterday.”

I don’t think a week goes by when I don’t think of that quote. I used to keep a list I called the roll over club. It contained names like John Kennedy Jr., Princess Diana, Mike Tyson, Kenneth Lay (Enron), Michael Vick, Britney Spears, Barry Bonds…you get the picture.

The point is things change quickly when your sitting on top of the world. I’m fond of pointing to Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air where after reaching the peak of Mount Everest exhausted he took a few pictures and then began his decent. Krakauer writes, “All told, I’d spent less than five minutes on the roof of the world.”

Over the years I’ve seen many people who were at the top of the world before it began to roll: Muhammad Ali, Christopher Reeves, and Michael J. Fox come to mind. Ali continually reminded us that he was “the greatest” though he had to recant that later, when Reeves died due to complications from a horse riding accident that had left him paralyzed one headline read, “Superman Dies,” and Fox had an amazing dream year in his early 20′s when he was the star of the top rated TV program that he shot in the day and then went to his night job shooting “Back to the Future” that would become a #1 box office hit long before his career and life took a blow as he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

And in 1990 The New York Times  ran an article on The Man Who Own Prime Time about Brandon Tartikoff who had become the youngest person ever to be chosen the head programmer of a network at 31 and rose to become president of NBC Entertainment. Under his leadership NBC flourished with a string of successes including Cheers, The Cosby Show, LA Law, Family Ties and Seinfeld and for one incredible five year run NBC was the No. 1 Network for five consecutive seasons. Seven years after that article appeared Tartiloff died at age 48 from Hodgkin’s disease. 

Despite human’s great accomplishments, the above stories and this recent flood are reminders of how fragile we are. 

Whatever mountain top you are reaching for know that if you are one of the fortunate ones who gets to the summit you don’t get to stay up there very long. An acting teaching once told me “When your feet hit the ground in the morning if you don’t want to be an actor more than anything then don’t pursue it because it’s too hard to make it and too hard to stay if you do make it. So unless you love acting it’s not worth it.” That’s great advise for the screenwriter as well.  

In the June 5 issues of Time magazine there is an article called “How to Live Live With Just 100 Things.” Lisa Mclaughlin writes, ‘Excess consumption is practically an American religion. But as anyone with a filled-to-the-gills closet knows, the things we accumulate can become oppressive.” Dave Bruno started what he calls “the 100 Thing Challenge,  a grass-roots movement in which otherwise seemingly normal folks are pledging to whittle down their possessions to a mere 100 items.”

Maybe trading in your multiple piece spoon, fork and knife set for a spork won’t bring the Jewish concept of Shalom or peace (what Cornelius Plantinga Jr. calls “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight…Shalom, in other words is the way things ought to be.”)  But maybe it’s a step in the direction of that happy ending we all seek.

I think that is the single greatest reasons why movie audiences yearn for (in some cases demand) a happy ending. Because one of the deepest longings in life is to find shalom. Look at many of the films people return to again and again (The Shawshank Redemption, Titanic, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, Finding Nemo, Rocky, The Wizard of Oz) and you will find this concept over and over again. Most (all?) films at least show a small corner of shalom or it’s opposite, a world lived outside the garden.

Who doesn’t want to have that moment of clarity that Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire has as he writes his mission statement and says, “It was the me I’d always wanted to be”? 

Often it takes an event like a flood, 9-11 or a death in the family, or a personal illness to get our attention. Out of difficult times we need to have hope that there is a purpose and meaning to our suffering. Let’s not forget those who have lost greatly in the recent tornadoes and floods and pitch in where we can. And in time we’ll hear stories from this flood about how good things came out of the calamity.

Just like the Johnny Cash song Five Feet High and Risin’:

My mama always taught me that good things come from adversity if we put our faith in the Lord.
We couldn’t see much good in the flood waters when they were causing us to have to leave home, 
But when the water went down, we found that it had washed a load of rich black bottom dirt across our land. The following year we had the best cotton crop we’d ever had.

Sunday June 15, 2008 Update

This morning’s early morning lightening storm was kind of an exclamation point to two weeks of strange weather for the area.

And all the flooding in Iowa proves one thing: Jay Leno was wrong. Back in the first week January just before the Iowa caucuses he said that the word caucus was an Indian word meaning the only day of the year anyone pays attention to Iowa.

From two weeks ago when Parkersburg and other towns where hit by a tornado to the flooding of last week has provided the national press with lots of dramatic images.

Things began to return back to normal in Cedar Falls on Friday when the downtown ban was lifted and the national guard moved on. By Friday night hundreds of people had gathered in Overman Park to watch a movie in the park. Late Saturday afternoon I rode my bike downtown and saw Cup ‘O Joe was open on Main St. and the distinct sound of a Bob Marley song was being performed live at The Hub: 

Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Singin’: “Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right!

                                            Bob Marley
                                            Three Little Birds

 

 

Wednesday June 18, 2008 Update

It’s tough out there
High Water Everywhere
                                                                              
Bob Dylan   
                                                                               High Water (For Charlie Patton)
 

It’s hard to believe that is less than a week that flooding in Iowa alone as displaced tens of thousands of people and caused over $1.5 billion in damage. It’s a classic man vs. nature battle that will also have long a term economic impact.

Just about a month ago I did a couple days location scouting for Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It in the very areas being hit by flood waters; Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Vinton and Cedar Rapids. Probably a good choice by Mandate Pictures to shoot their roller derby film later this summer in other states. 

But those areas will rebound because that’s what good Midwestern people do. And I thought I’d share with you some photos from this part of Iowa that I hope will be a refreshing break from the images you are seeing on the TV day after day. 

Vinton, Iowa Library

Vinton, Iowa Courthouse

 Cedar Rapids, Iowa 

Cedar Rapids Historic Theater

 

 

Photos and text copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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