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Posts Tagged ‘Frank Darabont’

“I’m not interested in characters who aren’t broken.”
3-time Oscar nominated screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator)

“All characters are wounded souls, and the stories we tell are merely an acting out of the healing process. They are the closing of open wounds, the scabbing-over process.”
Richard Krevolin
Screenwriting from the Soul

Today is the sixth anniversary of Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, and I’m pleased to announce my loose and distant connection to a recent (and controversial) Oscar nomination. In fact, Deadline called it the “Academy’s Most Obscure Nominee—Maybe EVER.” Since one of the inspirations for starting this blog was the movie Juno, let me start there.

When Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) was 17 she got pregnant. When Joni Eareckson was 17 she broke her neck. The movie character Juno gave her baby up for adoption and went back to singing indie songs. The real life person Joni became a quadriplegic and went back to singing gospel hymns.  Screenwriter Diablo Cody walked away with an Oscar for writing Juno. Joni spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair—but also recorded a song that’s just been nominated for an Oscar.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms

The now 64-year-old Joni also become a speaker, author of 50 books, married Ken Tada, and for the past 35 years has provided a global outreach to people with disabilities—including an organization that restores 10,000 wheelchairs per year and ships them to people in need around the world. If you like heroic underdog stories then you’ll enjoy Joni’s.

The Hollywood Reporter says the Oscar nominated song she sings (Alone Yet Not Alone) caused a “mini-controversy.”  The Week called the nominee “shady” and a “genuine head-scratcher.” You can read those links, but what’s speculated is the song (music by Bruce Broughton and lyrics by Dennis Spiegel—the two who actually got the nomination) benefited from a little Hollywood back scratching.

Hollywood studios spend millions—sometimes $10-15 million on promoting their movies. There’s much written about the fierce battles to win Oscars and how every front door, back door, side door, trap door—and even no door— is explored to win the coveted award that can result in millions of dollars on the back-end of a movie. The stakes are high.  (My friend Matthew recommends the book The Men Who Would Be King which gives insights into the Oscar process. He told me, “In short, it’s ugly. Makes a UFC bout look like a Tupperware party.”)

Hollywood has been called the world’s biggest high school and at this year’s Academy Awards Alone Yet Not Alone is not sitting at the cool kids table. It’s the kid in the wheelchair sitting alone in the cafeteria.  And I hate to throw out the C word here, but adding to the controversy is the song  (which beat out songs by Coldplay, Taylor Swift, Celine Dion and other heavyweights) is from a little seen Christian film shot in the Ohio Valley.

Who knows, maybe the song’s nomination was the Academy’s version of adding a little diversity to the Oscars. A wild card—like sprinkling in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa into the Oscar nominations (Steve Prouty for hair & makeup). And maybe, just maybe, the song was nominated on merit. Broughton after all does have an Oscar (Silverado) and 8 Primetime Emmys. (Talent not typically found on a smaller independent film.)

But keep in mind there are four Biblical films coming out this year including Russell Crowe as Noah and the February release of Son of God —and even the book that’s the basis for the Angelina Jolie directed Unbroken (scheduled for a December release) has a Christian theme. Studios are concerned about every Christian with ten dollars in their pocket and just the Academy nominating Alone Yet Not Alone (for whatever reason) I imagine is seen as an olive branch by many Christians.  That olive branch didn’t hurt a little Mel Gibson film a decade ago.

Several years ago when I was based in Cedar Falls, Iowa I provided camerawork for an episode of a TV program that Joni and Friends produced.  (Couldn’t find that program online, but Wheels for a Kid’s World gives you a solid glimpse into Joni’s work and world.) I also produced a video of Joni talking at the Minneapolis Convention Center and remember it well because she quoted a classic Frank Darabont script and movie.

(Here’s a similar context I found online from a book Joni wrote about visiting someone she knew in intensive care and unresponsive after a tragic accident. )

“I sat there by Gracie’s hospital bed. I read Scriptures to her. I sang to her: ‘Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side.’ I leaned over as far forward as I could and whispered, ‘Oh Gracie, Gracie, remember. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.’ She blinked at that point, and I knew she recognized the phrase. It’s a line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption.
Joni Eareckson Tada
Hope…the Best of Things

While I did talk with Joni it’s doubtful she’d remember me, but I remember her well. And I got a signed book out of the deal.

Because Joni can’t use her arms she signs books with a pen in her mouth. (And singing is no simple task either for Joni. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “Her lung capacity is just 51 percent of what it ought to be — so weak, in fact, that her husband needed to push on her diaphragm while she recorded the Oscar-nominated song to give her enough breath to hit the high notes.”) She’s an amazing woman and I’m thrilled to see her in the spotlight. And the best thing about a little Oscar controversy is it puts the spotlight on the global work she’s done and continues to do for people and their families dealing with disabilities. You know the old cliché , “Hollywood couldn’t have written a better story”—but I’m glad they added a chapter to Joni’s story.

photo

That book,  Joni, An Unforgettable Story, is an updated version of the book she wrote that became the feature film Joni (1979) written and directed by James F. Collier and stars Joni herself.

“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these things.”
George Washington Carver

1/29/14 Update: According to Indiewire tonight, “The Academy’s Board of Governors voted to take back the Original Song nomination for ‘Alone Yet Not Alone,’  music by Bruce Broughton and lyric by Dennis Spiegel. The decision was ‘prompted by the discovery that Broughton, a former Governor and current Music Branch executive committee member, had emailed members of the branch to make them aware of his submission during the nominations voting period.’”

No additional song will be added. One good thing that came out of this Oscar controversy is it shed a little light on the work Joni is doing.

And really, if you’re a producer of Alone Yet Not Alone you have to take this news like Bill Murray in Scrooged did when he’s told about a woman who had a heart attack over a TV promo his network ran. Murray at first looks distraught, then exclaims, “You can’t buy this kind of publicity!” Alone But Not Alone was put on the radar because of this controversay and today’s news seals the deal on it being locked in as a permenat footnote in Oscar history. Can’t hurt ticket or DVD sales when the film is released. And in ten or twenty years people may forget who won for best picture, or best actor—but will remember the Alone But Not Alone controversy. Call it the year of the “Oscar-nomination but not an Oscar-nomination.”

P.S. When I lived in Burbank, California back in the ’80s I would sometimes get calls to my house asking if I was “the editor Scott Smith.” At the time I was a 16mm operator/editor, but I knew who they were really looking for—  M. Scott Smith. Smith at that point had edited  To Live and Die in L.A. and Some Kind of Wonderful. Other big projects he’s edited are The Crow and Ladder 49 starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix. Turns out he’s the editor on Alone Yet Not Alone.

Scott W. Smith

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Looking for a New Year’s screenwriting resolution? Here’s one nicely tucked in just two sentences that you can adopt:

“The road to Hollywood is neither a sprint nor a marathon…it’s a death march. The smartest things you can do to advance your craft and career are to read scripts, watch movies, be up to date on the current script marketplace/industry, network, and write 2-3 scripts a year.”
Christopher Lockhart
WME Story Editor, Producer
@TheInsidePitch1

And as a bonus link to learn how to get started today (and exactly what equipment you’ll need) to write those 2 or 3 screenplays this year, check out screenwriter Brian Koppelman’s video Six second screenwriting lesson No. 121.

P.S. And that second Lockhart sentence is good even if your goal is making indie films in unlikely places. (My WordPress annual report said last year this blog had readers in 191 countries. Thanks for stopping by and best wishes for you and your writing this year.)

Related Posts:
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70)   “I would say 99% of your effort should go to writing a good script.”—Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)
Bob DeRosa’s “Shortcuts” “There are no shortcuts. There is only hard work. Perseverance. Luck. Craft. Failure. Success. Mistakes. And yes, dreams that come true.” Bob DeRosa (The Killers)
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2) “For me, it was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.” Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)” “I lived in a tiny studio apartment…” John Logan (Hugo)
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41) “When you’re starting out, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll ever ‘succeed.’” Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)

Scott W. Smith

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“The problem with Our Thing [screenwriting] is that it’s fertile ground for delusion… Most unappreciated writers are unappreciated because they suck.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin

“Those who can’t write, teach seminars.”
John August’s blog post title Oct, 25, 2010

“It’s very hard to describe how one ‘writes,’ the actual process.”
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest)
Creative Screenwriting interview

“I don’t know anything about the writing process.”
Pulitzer-prize winning playwright & Oscar-nom screenwriter David Mamet

Back on Halloween of 2010 I wrote the post The Angry Screenwriters. What I learned from that post is to never write a post while I’m ticked off. A few days after the post I edited it and stated “Because [Craig] Mazin himself believed this post was ‘disguised mostly as a personal attack on me’—which was not my intent—I have removed a couple of paragraphs that make reference to where he is from, where he went to school, and any mention of reviews of his produced films.” Mea culpa.

Though just because Mazin has a couple of hit movies to his name, counts Lawrence Kasden as a friend, and drives a Tesla doesn’t mean I still can’t disagree with him, right? But since I enjoyed Saving Mr. Banks last weekend and Vanity Fair quoted the movie’s screenwriter Kelley Marcel calling Mazin her “amazing mentor” I think it’s finally time to revisit this post.

And in the Christmas spirit I’ve decided to make it a little more upbeat. Tried to make it a little shorter, but failed. If you have some downtime here at the end of the year jump in, but since it’s a little (okay, a lot) on the long side try to read at least the next four paragraphs. Maybe someday I can get the time to condense these thoughts down to 500 words.

Let me start by adding that I really think all a new writer needs to read is the following links (all free)—and a couple of screenplays— to jump into screenwriting and to keep plugging away at the dream:

1) David Mamet’s Memo
2)  Terry Rossio’s 23 Steps to A Feature Film Sale (Track it down at wordplayer.com) 
3) Christopher Lockhart’s post The “A” List on his The Inside Pitch blog
4) Mystery Man on Film’s The Raiders Story Conference (Spielberg, Lucas, Kasdan)
5) The 99% Focus Rule (Yeah, it’s a post from me, but I’m just a conduit for Michael Arndt’s words)
6) Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) 

Screenwriting is an illusive business. If you combine all the spec script sales and scripts on The Black List any given year you come up with a total under 200. Sure there are studio assignments, indies, and television, but the number of screenwriters making a steady income is— like I pointed out in How Much Do Screenwriters Make?—like being a professional football player. It’s a relatively small and talented group.  And the odds of writing a good script, that gets produced, that gets both good reviews and does well at the box office, and which brings you a major award  is on par with becoming a Payton Manning or a Tom Brady.

So when a young unknown writer in the suburbs of Minneapolis wins an Oscar for her first script it catches a little attention. It makes the impossible seem possible. But as I point out in Screenwriter’s Work Ethic, Diablo Cody mentioned in one interview that she’d been writing everyday since she was 12. That’s 15 years of poems, short stories, etc. before she captured the magic in the screenplay Juno. (A better example of the 10,000 rule and The Outsider Advantage than getting lucky.)

Cody did it the old-fashioned way of just writing. No film school, no podcasts, no screenwriting workshops, no screenwriting books. Many have taken those more common routes. Everyone seems to take their own path.

“The scriptwriting field is unpredictable and potentially hazardous to your sanity, chockablock with all the paraphernalia of warfare–booby traps, blast craters, land mines, poison gas and agents. Your best hope of survival is to begin the journey with as much information as possible about the landscape and the strange people who live hereabouts.”
Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski
The Complete Book of Screenwriting

Find what works for you—guard your time and pocketbook closely—and best wishes on your journey.

And since I’m updating this post on Christmas eve let me say that I’m all for:  “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

******

Who are the angry screenwriters and what are they angry about? What screenwriter isn’t angry? Certainly the 2013 WGA, West report that there are 17% fewer screenwriters working than just three years ago angered a few.  (Despite the bump in TV writers.) It could be said that anger is a prerequisite for being a writer. Something must drive you to write whatever you write and anger has to be one of the top things that motivates most writers. Want a short list of examples?

1) Network (Paddy Chayfesky), #8 on WGA 101 Greatest Screenplays

2) High Noon (Carl Foreman), #75

3) Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee), #93

But today I want to address what’s bothering screenwriters Craig Mazin and John August.  It’s mostly screenwriting consultants and those who give screenwriting seminars. The ones who aren’t successful screenwriters and who charge fees for seminars and script consulting.

Mazin started the thing a few years ago when he came back from the Austin Film Festival  and wrote a post called Screenwriting is Free on his now defunct blog The Artful Writer. Keep in mind that these are his unedited words, not mine:

“You go to screenwriting conferences because you want to be a professional. You want to sell a script. You’re a student. You want to learn.

Good for you. Listening to and questioning the people who do the job you want is a smart move.

What is NOT a smart move is listening to the people who DON’T do the job. And who are they? Oh, you know who they are. They’re selling books. They’re selling seminars. They’re ‘script consultants.’ And for a small fee, or a medium fee, or a goddamned flat-out ridiculous fee, they’ll coach you right into the big leagues!

Horseshit. Let me say it loudly and clearly: IF THEY WERE ANY GOOD, THEY WOULD BE DOING WHAT I DO, NOT DOING WHAT THEY DO.”

I actually can take either side of this argument. But what’s the fun in simply agreeing with Mazin? Perhaps Mazin’s heart is in the right place—he wants to save aspiring screenwriters from wasting a boatload of money. Good for him.

But his passion (Anger? Look at all those capital letters) leads him down the wrong path as a sweeping generalization against anyone who teaches screenwriting. John August adds fuel to the fire with just the title of his post Those who can’t write, teach seminars.” Though August is more generous in his response.

Mazin believes if you are going to buy a book or take a seminar on screenwriting that there should be this criteria;

“Don’t spend a dime unless the seller has worked, is working and is gonna BE working. Multiple credits. A hit or two would be nice. Or recent critical acclaim, like a script on the Black List. A recent spec sale, or a spate of new gigs. Awards and nominations never hurt….”

That’s the major flaw in Mazin’s thinking. That just because you can do something means you can explain it—or teach it.

“I don’t really have any [screenwriting] advice because I feel like the circumstance that I find myself in I think is attributable to luck to a large extent. I wrote for a lot of years in obscurity…”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman
WGA/Angle On

“I’m not really qualified to give any advice at all.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody
WGA article Cody in Chaos

“I just feel my way through. If I had to give an acting class, I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman (The Hours)

I once took a screenwriting workshop from Alfred Urhy who not only won an Oscar for writing the screenplay Driving Miss Daisy, but his play of the same title earned him a Pulitzer Prize. For his play The Last Night of Ballyhoo he won his first of two Tony Awards. (I believe he is still the only writer to ever win an Oscar, a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize.) Can you get anymore solid writing credentials than that?

Even Mazin whose credits include The Hangover Part II  and Identity Thief I think would say that Uhry is a well-respected writer. I think Uhry is a brilliant writer. But as a teacher Uhry was weak and even admitted that he didn’t know what to say about writing.  Now the workshop was worth it just to hear Uhry’s anecdotes about Hollywood. (In fact, just his story of how he was taken off the project The Bridges of Madison County was worth the fee I paid.)

This year I read three screenwriting books by produced screenwriters, one is credited on one of the top films of its genre and another actually has an Academy Award—but all three books I would put in the bottom ten percent of screenwriting books I’ve read. (And for better or worse, I’ve read far too many.)

Perhaps the best example of a successful screenwriter who wrote a weak book on screenwriting is Joe Eszterhas’ The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God!Eszterhas was once the poster child for angry screenwriters. How many screenwriters have punched a star actor? (Or was it a big name producer?) Don’t look for an Oscar or a Pulitzer on Eszterhas’ shelf, but according to Box Office Mojo 14 movies from his scripts have a total domestic earning of almost $400 million. (Or more than $850 million when adjusted for inflation.)

He’s a successful screenwriter with a long career. But Eszterhas’ book on screenwriting, along with his book Hollywood Animal, will not help you much in become a better writer. Because his screenwriting book is really about Joe Eszterhas and his experiences in Hollywood. It’s full of interesting quotes by producers, directors, and writers that serves as kind of a disjointed history of the film business.  If you like Hollywood anecdotes then Eszterhas’ book is a goldmine. But understanding the screenwriting process?  You’ll get better insights from Story by Robert McKee (who Eszterhas hates along with a long list of people in Hollywood).

To carry my football analogy a little further, pro football (and actually baseball, basketball, etc.) is full of great coaches who either didn’t play professional ball or didn’t excel at the highest level. (There are few star athletes who went on to become great coaches or executives, but I actually think that number is relatively low. In the NBA Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan come to mind as superstar players who haven’t carried their winning traditions as coaches or executives.) Major league baseball greats Ted Williams and Jim Rice were frustrated trying to teach less talented players than they were.

For a while I was confused why Uhry & Eszterhas couldn’t unpack the mysteries of screenwriting as well as McKee and Seger. Then I came across this passage by Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs in their book Screenplay—Writing the Picture:

It is interesting to note that few Hollywood screenwriting gurus have ever sold a movie (and Aristotle never wrote a play). This is because the ability to structure a story and the ability to analyze the structure of a story are two totally different talents. They come from different parts of the brain…Good writers seldom have an analytical understanding of what they do or how they do it. Instead they have a practical understanding of dramatic techniques.”

That’s not saying that writers can’t be good screenwriting teachers, or that screenwriting teachers can’t be good writers—but I think it’s rare to find one person who can do both well. William Goldman comes closest with his Oscar-winning screenplays and his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. And though playwright & Oscar-winning screenwriter David Mamet doesn’t think writing can be taught, he’s a pretty good teacher.

And both August and Mazin do a super job expounding screenwriting concepts on their podcast Scriptnotes. (I even did a post on it, Scriptnotes’ 100th Podcast.) Listening to their podcast for a couple of years, I don’t know how angry they really are—I think it’s just part of their persona. They have a give and take on their podcast that keeps the show interesting and entertaining. If you can get August or Mazin to be your mentor or give you notes for free then by all means go for it.

But keep in mind that working screenwriters are working. So even if a working screenwriter was the best to give you notes on your script getting them to carve time to help you will take some finagling. You’re more than likely to get a very direct Josh Olson-like response, I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script. (You know, Olson does have A History of Violence.) And given that there are tens of thousands of people writing scripts the demand out weighs the supply.

Plus a good deal of writers are introverts and public speaking is not at the top of their skill set. So even those few writers who can write great movies and can also proficiently write about the screenwriting process doesn’t mean that they could hold a room for a day (or even an hour) speaking about screenwriting. And now that we’ve whittled the number down to maybe a couple dozen people in the world (who are too much in demand as high paid screenwriters to even care about giving a seminar in the first place) there isn’t enough people to fill the demand to give screenwriting advice.

(Now the question of why there is so much of a demand for screenwriting advice is a whole separate can of worms for a post of its own. But a desire to tell stories and Cody’s success pretty much cover most of the bases.)

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure how beneficial a Charlie Kaufman or Quentin Tarantino screenwriting seminar would be. Likewise I doubt Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen would be very good teaching a class on songwriting. But it’s important to learn that Dylan was influenced by his Minnesota Jewish-roots (and Buddy Holly’s songs) and Springteeen was influenced by his New Jersey/Catholic-roots (and Dylan’s songs). If you want to write like Tarantino watch the movies that he watched and read authors that influenced him like Elmore Leonard.  Then read the writers that influenced Elmore Leonard. Tapping into your roots and influences will make you a much better writer than being told what page plot points should be on.

Sorry to go on about this but the analogies are deep. Sanford Meisner, was a frustrated and failed actor who went on to become one the greatest acting teachers in American history. His students included actors Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, and Sandra Bullock, directors Sydney Pollack and Sydney Lumet, and writers Arthur Miller and David Mamet. (I’m guessing that at one time those wannabe actors, directors, and writers paid money to learn the Meisner Technique.)

I think that top screenwriters are gifted and talented people who simply tap into the magic in a way that works for them but is not easy to convey to others. Uhry was at least honest when asked by students why he did certain things in his script and replied, “I don’t know.” I’ve read where the great Horton Foote gave basically the same answer. That’s the mystery of writing.

The best screenwriting teachers & seminar leaders (and I imagine the top screenwriting consultants) are really cheerleaders who help point the way based on their unique mix of education, & life and work experiences. Does charging $5,000. for script coverage seem high? Absolutely, especially when people are making feature films for under $5,000.

Are there scam artists? Sure, as there is in every profession from politics to religion. But I believe that teaching is an honorable profession and if you do it well you may be honored to some degree. You may gather a following. And sometimes when you gather a following you are well paid. Either accidentally, by good word-of-mouth, or via good marketing some of these screenwriting teachers have in fact become well-paid screenwriting gurus. But like A-list screenwriters, well-paid screenwriting gurus are pretty rare.

Mazin is correct that screenwriting is free. Mazin is correct that the best way to learn is reading screenplays, watching movies, and writing screenplays. (And thanks to computers and the Internet all of those are easier to do today than when Syd Field published Screenplay in 1979 and started the modern-day screenwriting teaching cottage industry.) But to think that you can’t learn a kernel of truth and get a little inspiration from someone unless they are a successful screenwriter is just plain wrong. (Whether any book, teaching DVD, workshop, expo, conference—or even college—is worth the price, is perhaps the big question. Remember the old maxim, “Make every purchase a wise investment.”)

The only real criteria for  any writer or teacher/consultant/guru should be “Are they any good at what they do?”  In Seger’s defense, two -time Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) is on record saying, “I’ve used Linda’s concepts from Making a Good Script Great on all my films starting with Apollo 13.” In McKee’s defense, Oscar-winning Akiva Goldman (A Beautiful Mind) credits McKee with helping him make the transition from a failed novelist to a screenwriter. The fact that the majority of Seger’s and Goldman’s students don’t become a Ron Howard or a Akiva Goldman doesn’t negate what those instructors bring to the table.

Honestly, these days there is way more than enough free info out there for anyone who wants to learn screenwriting.  And if August and Mazin—along with Go Into the StoryJeff Goldsmith’s podcast,  ScriptshadowWordplayer— and other free screenwriting blogs were around in the ’80s perhaps McKee, Seger, and the like wouldn’t have risen in popularity. But even if there’s more than enough free info out there, what there will never be enough of is teachers who take a personal interest in their students and invest time to inspire, correct, and encourage them to be the best they can be in a given field.

Keep in mind that most of the advice of August and Mazin come from Hollywood insiders. They definitely have valuable and helpful information. I come from the angle of an outsider. At least the folks at TomCruise.com and a few others appreciate that perspective.  My goal with Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places is not to mimic everything being done in Hollywood, but to learn from the best storytellers on record and encourage writers in that vast, often overlooked, and despised area known as flyover county. That could be east of Burbank or west of Hoboken….or some other unlikely place around the world.

And to echo the words of writer/director Edward Burns— “Don’t try and compete with Hollywood.” (Though with the success of The Black List I do think there are some newer avenues a screenwriter in Kosovo can take to see the doors of Hollywood open wide.)

Now, if you want to read where I agree in part with Mazin check out the post I wrote a couple of years ago called, Screenwriting, Infomercials & Gurus. It’s a post that has a photo I took of Yoda when I visited ILM and a great quote from Tootsie screenwriter Larry Gilbart, “So many gurus and so few good writers. Where are all these lessons going?”

Which was the thinking behind the post Can Screenwriting Be Taught?

*Eszterhas’ memoir Hollywood Animal also won’t give you much practical advice on screenwriting because it’s really a book about Joe Eszterhas (it is a memoir after all) but it’s an engaging read if you want to will learn the details about Eszterhas’ affair with Sharon Stone, about his battles with alcoholism, and about how much he hates the business.  Perhaps the real takeaway from Eszterhas is if you want to write like Joe Eszterhas you have to live the crazy rock-n-roll life the Joe Eszterhas has lived.

Related Posts:
The Secret of Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)—John Logan

How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)— Michael Arndt

Script Consultant Adam Levenberg After I originally wrote this post Levenberg contacted me and said he’d read a script of mine and give me notes to show what he does. The result was not only a three hour phone call but the most detailed notes I’d ever recieved. Actually, changed my focus on what kinds of scripts I should be writing. On that line read Concept, Concept, Concept and Lockhart’s 2006 post Hallewood and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s quote in The Idea is King. (And for what it’s worth, Levenberg thinks 90% of script consultants are quacks.)

Syd Field (1935-2013) When screenwriting guru Field died the writers that sang his praise were Frank Darabont, Tina Fey, and Judd Apatow.

Related Link:
Script Consultants: A Waste?

Update 3/28/11: This may be as close to a Charlie Kaufman seminar you’re going to find:

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m often asked by younger filmmakers, ‘Why do I need to look at old movies?’ I’ve made a number of pictures in the past 20 years and the response I find that I have to give them is I still consider myself a student. The more pictures I’ve made in the past 20 years, the more I realize I don’t know. And I’m always looking for something or someone I can learn from. I tell the younger filmmakers, the young students that they should do it like painters used to do it—painters do it—study the old masters. Enrich your palette. Expand the canvas. There’s always so much more to learn.”
Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese (The Departed, Goodfellas, Hugo)  
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995)
Section The Director as Smuggler

Related Post:
Learning from Others (Tip #42) Post the touches on Orson Welles watching Stagecoach 40 times while making Citizen Kane, Frank Darabont watching Goodfellas while making The Shawshank Redemption, and Christopher Nolan watching Blade Runner 100 times.
Can Screenwriting Be Taught? (2.0)

Scott W. Smith

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“When you read a good screenplay, you know it—it’s evident from page one.”
Syd Field

“Shakespeare knew his audience; the groundlings standing in the pit, the poor and oppressed, drinking freely, talking boisterously to the performers if they didn’t like the action on stage. He had to ‘grab’ their attention and focus it on the action.”
Syd Field

Syd Field’s book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting came out in 1979 putting him at the center of a new wave of interest in screenwriting that continues to this day. Sure there were books on screenwriting before Field’s released his “Step-by-Step Guide from Concept to Finished Script” but he had a flair of looking at then contemporary films like Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy as well as more mainstream movies;  Star Wars, Rocky and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

By the mid-70s, the party was over for many baby boomers born between 1946-1964 and they were looking for a new guru to lead them into actually finding an income stream. Field’s, who died last month at age 77, filled that void. (And it certainly did provide an income stream for at least one person.)

I bought the “New Expanded Edition” of his book Screenplay when I was in college. To show how times have changed, I bought that book when I was in film school in the early ’80s. I think it was the first book on screenwriting I ever bought. This was long before the Internet became a great free resource for people wanting to learn about screenwriting. Before DVD commentaries featuring screenwriters. In fact, if you go back to 1979 I bet the average American couldn’t have named one screenwriter.

These days I’m often amazed at the way film savvy high school students can talk about movie structure and their favorite filmmakers (including screenwriters). These days the book Screenplay doesn’t exactly take your breath away, but you have to remember that the gems Field’s tossed out—”The first ten pages of your screenplay are absolutely the most crucial”—were not common knowledge back then.

Field wrote from the perspective of the script reader. He had spent several years as the head of the story department at Cinemobile Systems and began to wonder why so few good scripts were recommended for possible development and why other films succeeded.

“My reading experience gave me the opportunity to make a judgment and evaluation, to formulate an opinion. This is a good screenplay, this is not a good screenplay.”
Syd Field

And just as he was formulating his experiences, he was asked to teach a screenwriting class at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College. His book flowed from the years of teaching that class. Of course, not all of his students became working screenwriters. And one could even argue that the ratio of scripts recommended verses rejected today has basically remained unchange—despite the wealth of screenwriting info out there today.

Field addressed that reason in the introduction to his first book—talent. It’s the same reason sometimes that even gifted college athletes (even Heisman Trophy winners) don’t have sustainable pro careers.

Field ended up giving screenwriting workshops all over the world, and took a lot of blame over the years for basically starting a cottage industry that has made a lot of money over the years out of the pockets of dreaming screenwriters, but after his death there were some accomplished screenwriters that had some positive things to say about him.

“What I learned in Syd Field’s class was here’s how Annie Hall works, and here’s how Witness works, and then I begin to think, ‘OK now how would I do it differently than that?’ That concept of ‘Always being in learning mode’ has stuck with me to this day” 
Producer/director/writer Judd Apatow 

“I did a million drafts. And then I did the thing everybody does—I read Syd Field and I used my index cards.”
Producer/writer/actress Tina Fey

“RIP Syd Field. We can argue about formula and dogma, but Field introduced countless screenwriters to the craft. He was an inciting incident.”
Screenwriter John August

“I’m not surprised to have seen the many acknowledgements from screenwriters, professional and non-pros, about Field today. I know I never would have broken into the business without the insights into the basics of screenwriting his book gave me.”
Screenwriter/Go Into The Story blogger Scott Myers

 “I’ve gone from reading [Field's] books, to being taught by him in courses! I think one of us must have done something right! I thank him all the time for inspiring me.”
The Shawshank Redemption writer/director Frank Darabont

Field went on to write several books which reportedly sold over a million copies. Just this past September he delivered the Keynote address at STORY EXPO on Why We Are Storytellers. (I’ll try to track that talk down for a future post. ) You can find several videos of Field teaching online, but here’s a short clip of him interviewing screenwriter Micahel Ardnt. (It’s worth pointing out that Ardnt was a co-screenwriter of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire which has been at the top of the box office the last two weeks and pulled in over $500 million worldwide.)

According to the Syd Field website, they list three places charitable donations can be made in Syd’s name:

P.S.  An interesting sidenote: Field was said to have written nine screenplays, none of which were produced. I have also written nine feature scripts, but have only had my short film scripts produced. I like to point out on this blog that there are several Oscar-winning & nominated screenwriters who have mentioned having no scripts made (or even sold in some cases)  after writing nine scripts including Oliver Stone (Platoon), Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air), and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine). So I think persistence is the bookend to talent. Arndt said well before his success that he made a commitment to be “a screenwriter for life.” (In his case, he wrote ten scripts before selling one.)

Related posts:

How To Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)
The Secret of Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Screenwriting Quote #144 (Syd Field)
Screenwriting Via Index Cards
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
‘Up in the Air’—Take 2 “I wrote 12 screenplays before I gave one to anybody.”—Sheldon Turner
Screenwriting from Pixar (Part 2) One of the all-time most popular posts on this blog. Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3 with the Pixar team, breaks down what he found in studying previous Pixar movies.

Scott W. Smith

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“When did you last see a movie that engaged your mind a week or a month later?…When crap drives out class, our taste grow coarser and the life of the imagination grows smaller.”
Stephen King
What’s Next For Pop Culture?

Recently I looked at what movies were playing at a four-plex theater by my house and couldn’t help but notice (thanks to the app I was using) something they all had in common—very low Rotten Tomatoes scores (28%, 24%, 16%, 12%). Doesn’t really matter what films they were, they were just typical Hollywood movies. Go back a few years, or look forward in a few years and there’s a good chance you see a repeated pattern. The big question is why haven’t Hollywood movies evolved?

Here’s a barrage of soundbite reviews of those movies at the four-plex:

“The comedy equivalent of mud-wrestling without the mud.”
“Uninspired trudge.”
“Unfunny, predictable, and vulgar.”
“Filled with the sentimental schmaltz.”
“Hallmark romance that ranges from the dull to the ridiculous.”
“Forget dialogue, character development, or logic.”

So why did those films get made? Why did they get made in the past? And why will they get made in the future?

The easy to answer—money.

Movie 24% and movie 16% both spent at least one week #1 at the box office and movie 12% was written by one of the most financially successful writers in history. (My wife did go to movie 12% but left before the movie was over when it got “too cheesy.” But Hollywood got the ticket sale.)

Hollywood is in the money-making business. And it’s trying to make movies that people want to see, so they can make a profit. Business 101. It’s the same reason all those trite reality TV shows that people complain about are on the air.

This all reminds me of a writing class I had in L.A. back in the ’80s taught by a playwright/screenwriter who told us that Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007) was not a good writer—but that Sheldon was a rich and famous writer. He went on to make his case against Sheldon known for his many novels, Broadway plays, movies, and for creating the TV shows Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie.  The teacher concluded his talk saying that though he considered Sidney Sheldon a hack he wished he could write like Sidney Sheldon.

I’m not an expert on Sheldon, though I confess to enjoying both Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie as a kid. (I don’t remember any storylines, but I remember Stefanie Powers and Barbera Eden well.) But I don’t think Sheldon was a hack. A hack to me doesn’t really care what he writes. I don’t remember the teacher’s name either, but that class was a memorable moment that’s stuck with me.

Looking at the work of other writers and filmmakers is often a mix of subjectivity, objectivity, education, temperament, envy and jealousy. I always think it’s best to judge any artist by their best work. And to be fair, Sheldon did win an Academy Award for writing The Bachelor and the Bobby-Sock (1947), won a Tony, received a nomination for an Emmy, was a New York Times best-selling author, and is listed as the seventh best-selling fiction author of all time—ahead of even J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss.

But it is surprising why Hollywood films as a whole aren’t better. All of the other crafts related to filmmaking have overall arguably evolved significantly. (Cinematography, editing, special effects, sound effects, acting, set design, etc.,etc.) The reason some say those crafts are better is technology has improved and they had a great tradition to build on. But the types of movies that get made don’t really seem to improve. Certainly screenwriters also have opportunities to build (not just try to duplicate) on a body of work that went before them.

Who do we blame? Screenwriters? Audiences? Studios?

“The logic behind the Hollywood development process for a motion picture goes something like this: no matter where you are making movies in the world , if you are producing a product for a mass audience, the various funnels through which your story (the entertainment you are creating) must pass will narrow in order to appeal to the most people waiting on the other side. Typically, mass audiences reduce characters to white hat/good guy and black hat/bad guy. Consequently they like the familiarity and comfort of a twice told tale…The trick for the Hollywood writer is to create a script that is intensely personal, yet still manages to resonate with a mass audience by virtue of its universal theme.”
Michael Lent
Breakfast with Sharks
Page 4

The good news if you want to—and have the desire, skill, and opportunity— to write those poorly reviewed films that pull in a big mass audiences—you can make a lot of money. (Like all that money spent at fast food restaurants and Thomas Kinkade paintings, maybe not the most nourishing things but someone’s making money.)  These days writers who aim a little higher tend to find refuge in independent films or cable TV. Or you can turn to teaching where you can breakdown why the Sidney Sheldon of the day is a hack and where one professor at a well-known film school reportedly said, “I prepare students for unemployment.”

To really end this post on a positive note.;What about those handful of great Hollywood films made every year? Perhaps Frank Darabont explained it best when he said Hollywood is like a big shipwreck, and while most of the ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean, every once in a while a couple of pieces of wood made it to shore.

And 2012 was actually a pretty solid year, wasn’t it? Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Silver Linings Playbook are just three well-done Oscar-nominated films that crowd the top of the Hollywood pyramid. In every level of production there is a pyramid. The best thing you can do wherever you are on the pyramid is to focus on what you do best and hope your work can find an audience. First with a small audience of investors (a studio, an investment group,  kickstarter) and then with a larger audience that brings a return on investment (ROI).

But if you can do that with a little heart and soul, there’s a few of us that would appreciate it.

P.S. Sidney Sheldon was raised in Chicago during the depression and attended Northwestern so I’ll see if I can find some interviews so he can get some stage time to defend himself. But since he was raised during the depression I imagine he may just say, “I wasn’t trying to be Shakespeare or Hemingway— just looking for a way to feed my family and pay some bills.”

Scott W. Smith

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“A whole new UNIVERSE of ADVENTURE is about to open up for you!
Trailer for Robinson Crusoe on Mars

“Here’s my guilty secret, I have always loved the literature and the cinema of the fantastic. From earliest memory. The earliest movies I saw on television when I was a kid were Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein—the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater, my older brother took me  took me when I was five years old to see to see Robinson Crusoe on Mars which was so cool….It goes back to Melies. ‘Here, here—look what we can do. This is impossible in real life.’ Of course, you can do a stage version I suppose, but film does the illusion better. I always loved black and white for that reason because that doesn’t exist in real life. It’s an artificial representation of something remarkable.  Movies show you experiences you don’t necessarily have every day in life. And the more magical they get the more out of our experience they are, but they make me feel rather childlike when they work.

This is my favorite story about Tom Hanks. (One of my favorite stories.) When we were shooting The Green Mile —it was a long shoot— we spent lots of time on the set and I remember one day when I turned to him and I said, ‘What are you doing here? What made you want to be an actor? What brought you to this life?’ And he said, ‘When I was a kid…,’ eight years old or something like that he saw the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, and he said ‘I saw Jason, I saw guys fighting skeletons with swords and I said that’s what I want to do!’  That where Tim Hanks’ passion springs from. I love hearing where the passion comes from.”
Frank Darabont
Frank Darabont at Masterclass —Zurich Film Festival

P.S. The trailer for Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) states that Crusoe is “struggling for survival in a cruel environment.” That could said of many films—from Winter’s Bone (which I’ve written a little bit about) to Life of Pi (which I’ll write about on Monday.)

Scott W. Smith

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“I was reminded of how badly television used to suck. And you will be reminded if you go buy like a DVD set of any show that was popular prior to, I don’t know 1990-something. And you take your favorite show from the 80s—I promise you it sucks. They’re simpleminded, they’re stupid, television used to be a wasteland. It started to change in some measure with Hill Street Blues, and then suddenly television started getting smarter and movies started getting dumber. And suddenly there were these men who drive Maseratis, and wear Gucci loafers to their offices who realized they could spend 200 million dollars making one movie that has not one thought in it, and nothing for an actor to do, but lots of special effects, and they can make a billion dollars. Interesting thing that’s happened in our business is that the middle class has disappeared. It’s like the middle class in society has disappeared. The middle-class of movies have disappeared.

And that’s why I finally have come around to believing that the 70s were a golden era because filmmakers often got to make their movies. There is no middle class of film’s today. You notice they’re not making A Few Good Men now. Tom Cruise gets to make big action movies, or something on a very small-scale of course he could. But they’re not making movies like that. They’re not making Network, they’re not making Dog Day Afternoon—this would be a good cable movie perhaps. If Sidney Lumet were starting today he’d be doing what he did back then which was working in television, that’s where all the good writing has gone. So much of the writing has fled movies because it doesn’t take any wit, or intelligence, to write ‘more shit blows up…only bigger.’ They don’t want Paddy Chayefsky.”
Frank Darabont (L.A. Noir, The Walking Dead)
Frank Darabont at Zürich Film Festival 2012
(At the 1:20:28 mark of the Q&A)

P.S. I don’t normally post on weekends, but I have one more Darabont quote from that Q&A I’ll run tomorrow with is a perfect lead into a post on the writer of The Life of Pi I’ll run on Monday.

Related posts:

Sidney Lumet on Theme
Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Paddy Chayefsky Interview
Screenwriting Quote #134 (Paddy Chayefsky)
James L. Brooks on Chayefsky
Writing Quote #9 (Chayefsky)
John from Cincinnati
Television Vs. Movies

Scott W. Smith

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“I learned a lot of my values growing up watching movies. Of course, they made a lot more movies like that then than they are currently.”
Frank Darabont

In the Q&A with Frank Darabont at the Zürich Film Festival he was asked if the DVD sales from The Shawshank Redemption were his safe security in old age and he replied, “It’s so not.” He went on to explain as a young screenwriter and new director he made a deal that wasn’t meant to make him rich in his old age. (Keep in mind he was offered a lot of money to let Rob Reiner direct the film. Reiner had just directed A Few Good Men, and Darabont had never directed a feature film.) Money was not the bottom line for Darabont, and he expounded on that fact that safe security in old age is ultimately not the point of making a film.

“It’s not what happens when I’m old, it’s what happens after I’m gone. Do people still hear the voice of that story being told a hundred years after I’m dead. I mean, that’s really what cinema is for—I don’t care what Frank Capra’s bank account was when he died. I care that It’s a Wonderful Life moves the shit out of me. They’re never going to talk about your bank account when you’re dead, but they will talk about maybe the movies you left behind if you really cared about what you did.”
Frank Darabont

File that one in the folder marked, “You can’t take it with you.”

 P.S. I first learn of this video from Scott Myers last week at Go Into the Story and it’s hard to believe that a masterclass with Frank Darabont speaking about his movies for an hour an a half has less than 1,000 views after being on-line for over a month. Check it out. (Oh yeah, ignore the “Fred Darabont” graphic at the open of the video. Maybe Fred means Frank in Switzerland.)

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“Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”
Frank Darabont, Writer/director of The Shawshank Redemption

That observation by Darabont came during a Q&A at the Zurich Film Festival where he also made this comment:

“To me, aside from I really dig movies and a good story well told, I think there is sort of a nobler aspiration to film. And I felt this very keenly when I was the kid. I remember intellectualizing this at the age of 12. I saw a movie when I was 12-years-old that struck me as being very, very profound and I realized for the first time intellectually that there is a storyteller. Not just a storyteller but that there was a world view, a philosophy, an imprint of somebody’s intellect and heart on the screen. And I remember having the thought that if I could put my head through the screen I would be able to look off the edge of the camera and see that person standing there.  And I thought, ‘I want to be that guy.’”
Frank Darabont

Related posts:

Descriptive Writing (Frank Darabont)
The Real & Creepy Shawshank Redemption
Self-Study Screenwriting
Movie Cloning (Part 1)
Prison Food

Scott W. Smith

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