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Posts Tagged ‘Quentin Tarantino’

“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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It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess 
And that’s enough reason to go for me
It’s My Job/Mac McAnally

“I kind of like the ring of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” I’m thinking about naming everything after Lee Daniels.”
Danny Strong screenwriter of Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Huffington Post article by Christopher Rosen

Following yesterday’s post about Ashton Kutcher’s quote on work, it seems fitting to give a shout-out to Lee Daniels’ The Butler which hits theaters today. Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a character based somewhat on Eugene Allen who worked at the White house for eight presidential terms between 1952—1986. The original seed for the movie was inspired by the Wil Haygood 2008 Washington Post article A Butler Well Served by This White House and the screenplay written by two-time Primetime Emmy winner Danny Strong (Game Change).

“I knew pretty early that if we stuck to the absolute truth there would be no movie, because butlers are pretty tight-lipped. I didn’t know how to tell the story. Then I started researching, reading memoirs of people who worked at the White House. I interviewed butlers, house men, engineers, former chief ushers, family members of the first family. Through the course of these interviews, I realized I could create a composite character through which I could utilize different stories from different people. And that’s basically how the Gaines family came to be….There were two big breakthroughs. It was a story that took place over many administrations. As soon as I realized that this was going to be a story about the Civil Rights movement, and that was going to be the spine of the film, that was the first breakthrough. In all these administrations, there will be a common theme going on as we travel through the eras. And then the second breakthrough was [creating] a son who was a Civil Rights activist so that we could actually be in the center of the action while those events were happening. That created this really great triangle of the butler trying to get his son out of the Civil Rights movement and the presidents dealing with the crises that his son is in the middle of as the butler is serving those presidents. It made the story emotional even when the butler wasn’t speaking in the White House, and it created what I thought would be a very interesting generational story between father and son. It keeps everything personal and emotional as opposed to a history lesson.”
Screenwriter Danny Strong (Lee Daniels’ The Butler)
Fact, Fiction, and ‘The Butler’: A Q&A with Danny Strong by Jay Fernandez

Strong says other books that were helpful in giving a glimpse to working in the White House and of the times were My 21 Years in the White House by Alonzo Fields, Upstairs at the White House by J. B. West, Walking With the Wind by John Lewis,  How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life by Peter Robinson, Kennedy by Ted Sorense, and The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro.

Look for the Lee Daniels’ directed film and screenwriter Strong (and maybe Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey) to pop up again when Oscars are announced next year.

P.S. Love to hear writers talk about characters, theme, and emotions because I think those are the keys of the best writers in command of their craft. Oh, and speaking of great writers and work—Strong became friends with Quentin Tarantino when Tarantino worked as a video clerk at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, CA.  More on that Monday.

Related Posts:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
40 Days of Emotions
Filmmaking Quote #10 (Lee Daniels)
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (Tip #7)

Scott W. Smith 

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“Charlie don’t surf.”
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in Apocalypse Now
Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius

Hightower Beach
©2013 Scott W. Smith

This morning I took the above photo and decided to make it a challenge to use it as a springboard for a new post. How could I take a sunrise surfer shot and tie it into something useful about screenwriting? Well, to make a long story short I found an interview with Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius talking about Apocalypse Now that they collaborated on together.  I found the You Tube video on a website that is somewhat new to me called Cinephilia and Beyond . The site is a tremendous resource and I believe originates from a filmmaker in Zagreb, Croatia. On Twitter @LaFamiliaFilm. (I see a “Screenwriting from Croatia” post forming.)

So all the way from Croatia via a turn in Satellite Beach, Florida here’s an interview between the filmmaker who made the quintessential Mafia film (The Godfather) and the one who made the quintessential surfer film (Big Wednesday) talking about how they made Apocalypse Now, how George Lucas was the original director on the project, and how the now classic film had a rocky start out of the gate.

“When the movie first came out it was very dicey which way it was going to go. And I really had my life realy based on it— I’d financed it, and it was starting to get a negative buzz. It had gotten horrible reviews. I remember the reviewer Frank Rich wrote in his review, ‘This is the greatest disaster in all of fifty years of Hollywood’..my feelings were so hurt by this pronouncement.”
Francis Ford Coppola

If you’ve never seen Apocalypse Now, definitely put it on your list of films to watch/study. (Will it help add emphasis if I you knew that last year Quentin Tarantino put it on his list of Top 12 Films of All Time?)

“[Robert Duvall] came to me and he wanted to know what all those surfing terms were. Exactly what they were. He wanted to go down to Malibu and look at surfers—see how they walked around, what they did. He wanted to know when he talked about a cutback that he knew what a cutback was.”
John Milius

P.S. File this one under odd connections: In the interview Coppola talks about going to UCLA at the same time as did Jim Morrison of The Doors. Music from the Doors is played in Apocalypse Now. Morrison was born in Melbourne, Florida just a few miles from where I took the above photo of the surfer that started this post in the first place. Apocalypse Now came out when I was a senior in high school and it was by far the most transformational movie experience of my then 18 year existence. And the scene where The Doors’ song The End plays is still mesmerizing (even on You Tube).

Related Posts:
Writing “The Godfather (take 1)
Postcard #22 (Kelly Slater Statue)
Jack Kerouac in Orlando
Surf Movie History 101
Kelly Slater on the Digital Revolution
Off Screen Quote #12 (Kelly Slater)
“Take a Risk”—Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.”
William Froug

“START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. IT MUST START BECAUSE THE HERO HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.”
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO?

Last week I did something I’ve never done before, I read a screenplay of a film that was just released and then a couple of days later went to the movie. It was a great experience.

The script and movie was Silver Linings Playbook written and directed by David O. Russell from a book by Matthew Quick. Earlier this month the movie, director  and screenplay all received Oscar nominations, along with being the first film in 31 years to be nominated in all for acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress). I’ll write more about the movie Monday, but the great thing about reading the PDF official screenplay at the website of The Weinstein Company who produced the film is regardless of how well the actors performed—the script totally worked on the page.

Of course, you kind of expect that, but we’ve all read scripts where we think “those actors really made that movie better than the script.” Not to take anything away from Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jackie Weaver, but I believe several top actors would have made an equally compelling movie because the script is so dang strong. I look forward to reading Quick’s novel to see how different it is from Russell’s script.

You can also find the screenplay of other Oscar-nominated film produced by  The Weinstein Company, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained online.  I happened to see Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained back to back last weekend and noticed that while they are different genres and take places in different eras, the core stories are the same—men who want to reconnect with their wives. A pretty simple through-line or story spine.

But read both screenplays and watch each movie to see how the filmmakers develop their stories. The originality come from taking a simple (and shared) concept and mixing it with familiar yet unique settings , along with complex characters surrounded by conflict with much at stake.

My writer friend Matthew sent me this link at Film Buff Online that actually has 30 recently Oscar-nominated scripts offered by the studios. I’m not sure  how long these links will be live so if you’re interested check them out before the Oscar ceremonies.

P.S. Anyone else remember the days when you had to save up $15 and head down to Hollywood to buy a script or go to AFI where you had to hand over your driver’s licence to read a script in their library?

Related Posts:
What’s at Stake? (Tip#9)
Descriptive Writing—Characters

Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting (Tip#7)
“Goal. Stakes. Urgency.” (Tip #60)

Scott W. Smith

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“My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.”
Cowboy, humorist, actor, Cherokee Will Rogers

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
1776 USA Declaration of Independence


Chief Kandiyohi 17-foot tall statue by artist Eben E. Lawson 
Shot while on location in Willmar, Minnesota

What do the following U.S. cities and states have in common?

Minnesota, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Michigan, North & South Dakota, Utah, Kentucky, Connecticut, Cheyenne, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Tallahassee, Lake Tahoe, Roanoke, Saratoga, Seattle, Chicago, Malibu and Manhattan.

Those are just a few places whose names are rooted (or believed to be rooted) in American Indian culture.  It was in in the movie Wayne’s World that many learned from the great historian (and rocker) Alice Cooper that the city of Milwaukee was an Indian word; “It’s pronounced ‘mill-e-wah-que’ which is Algonquin for ‘the good land.’”(I even don’t know if that’s true, but if it’s in the movies it must be, correct?)

What I do know is one of the great things about America is it is indeed a melting pot of cultures and traditions.  And Native American Indian culture is a huge part of that melting pot.

In some ways, if you grew up in America—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, whatever—your story is probably similar to mine in some ways. Today I live in Black Hawk County in Iowa, the town I grew up in the South was Seminole County, one of the colleges I attended was the University of Miami, I was born in Ohio—again all names rooted in American Indian culture. You can’t escape it and the mythology that surrounds it.

I grew up seeing old cowboy and Indian westerns on TV and enjoyed playing the Indian as much as the cowboy. What little boy doesn’t want their face painted? (One American Indian actor said he like pretending he was Gary Cooper in old West. Two way street, I guess.)  I liked Tonto as much as the Lone Ranger. But the big American Indian event of my youth was seeing Billy Jack when I was 12.

Forget John Wayne oe Bruce Wayne. I wanted to be Billy Jack. Tom Laughlin played a kind of a peace loving half-Cherokee Indian who could kick ass if needed. And if you couldn’t be Billy Jack you at least wanted him to show up when you were in dire straits, because you knew he could take care of business. Then as Bob Marley sang in Three Little Birds, “every little thing gonna be all right.”

I watched Billy Jack a couple of nights ago to see if it holds up. It does. Low budget to be sure—message driven with some meandering improv scenes— but the emotional theme of standing up to injustice is there along with a Messianic-like Billy Jack to lay down his life for his people. (Like America, the movie is isn’t perfect, but Billy Jack is definitely worth looking today from a filmmaking perspective asking the question why it was such a tremendous box office success and still resonates with people today. I’ll do a post on this later because long before The Blair Witch Project that little indie film helped change the industry.)

I started to put together a list of movies featuring American Indians, but those waters are too deep for me to navigate at this time. (But I welcome you listing your favorite American Indian related films in the comment section—especially if you’re an American Indian. And please tell me what you think is good about the film.) Let me just make this blanket statement for now— that on this land, some incredibly moving pictures have been made. (I feel like I’m running for some political office.)

Since this is a blog on screenwriting let me end this week-long run on about American Indians talking about some high-profile screenwriters with at least some Indian blood.

Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglorius Basterds) was reportedly not only named after the Indian character Quint on the TV show Gunsmoke (played by Burt Renyold’s (how perfect is that in Tarantino’s legacy?), but Tarantino himself has Cherokee blood on his mother’s side.

Billy Bob Thorton (Sling Blade) is quoted as saying, “Ethically, I was screwed from the beginning, being Italian, Cherokee, and Irish.”

Even this blog as some Cherokee blood running through it. When I did a video shoot last year of a Cherokee artist in Okalahoma (Bill Rabbit, who just past away this year), I told him my grandmother’s grandmother from Kentucky was part-Cherokee, (“way down the line” as Johnny Deep says of his Cherokee roots) the Indian artist told me I was Indian and it didn’t matter what percent or what they looked like. He said he was half-Indian but he knew a blond lady who was more Indian than him. (James Earl Jones is said to be African, Irish, Cherokee.) I have a friend in Florida who also has Cherokee roots in Kentucky whose last name is Rainwater. I told him that Rainwater was a much cooler name than Smith and joked about changing my name to Scott Rainwater, He said “welcome to the Rainwater tribe.”

So there you go— a couple Academy Award winning-screenwriters, a couple of the finest American Actors (Depp & Jones), and the great Will Roger (and even the writer of an Emmy-Award winning screenwriting blog) all with at least a little Cherokee blood.

It may be an unlikely place to end this post, but I just get a kick out of imagining a ten-year old Quentin Tarantino sitting in a movie theater watching the following scene from Billy Jack where he stands up for some American Indian kids from the local reservation who’ve just been bullied trying to buy some ice cream in town. ( A scene that I also believe influenced the “I do not want to fight you” scene in An Officer and a Gentleman.) If Tarantino never saw Billy Jack, I don’t want to know it—it’d ruin my mythology.

P.S. I have a sudden urge to track down one of those hats Billy Jack wore and finally visit Monument Valley in Navajo Indian Nation. (Ouch, just learned those replica Billy Jack hats cost over $500—better start saving for that. Caliqo.com says the hatbands are handmade on a loom at the Kahnawake Indian Reservation and take 30 hours to reproduce.)

P.P.S. By the way, if you’re in the Santa Fe area this week (though August 19, 2012) you can catch the Native Cinema Showcase at the Santa Fe Market which is showing shorts, features, and documentaries that are dedicated “towards advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures in the Western Hemisphere.

Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I watched the movie Mask for the first time since it was released in 1985. It’s a terrific film. Mask is not to be confused with the Jim Carrey comedy The Mask (1994), it’s more in line with David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980).

Mask is based on the life of Rocky Dennis who suffered from craniodiaphyseal disease which gave him a severe skull deformity. In the film, Eric Stoltz is Rocky and Cher is his mother and both of them are 100% believable. Part of what’s so amazing about that is they both had limited feature film acting experience.

Cher won the Best Actress Awards at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival for her performance. She would later win an Academy Award for her role in Moonstruck, but when Peter Bogdanovich cast her in Mask it was a gamble. Though she had solid performances in Silkwood (1983) and the Robert Altman film Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), she was still best know for the TV show Sonny & Cher (71-74) and her hit songs. Against Bogdanovich’s wishes, the studios made Cher test for the part.

Though Stoltz was around 24-years-old when he made Mask, he had been acting for ten years in theater, TV, and in films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Wild Life. Bogdonovich cast him out of 300 people he saw for the part of Rocky.

So all that leads us to the first tip we can learn from Peter Bogdanovich.

Tip #1: Cast the right actors in the right parts.
Bogdanovich seems to follow the old Hollywood axiom, “casting is 90% of directing.” (I’ve seen that quote attributed to everyone from John Ford, to John Huston, to Elia Kazan, to Hitchcock, but don’t if any of them actually said that—only that it’s often repeated. (On the director’s commedtary on Mask, Bogdanovich says that of all of the actresses being consider for the role, Cher was the only one he thought would be believable as a druggie/biker chick.)

Watch Bogdanvich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and you’ll also see a wonderful cast.

Tip #2: “If you have two good actors there’s no reason to cut around a lot. Just let the audiences get into the story.”
Peter Bogdanovich

Cast the right actors for the part and let them act. Simple, right? Bogdanovich was an actor first—he studied with Stella Adler—so it would make sense that he would be concerned with performances. One trick that he used frequently in the past is to not complicate the production with lots of set-ups. Here’s how he explains a shot in Mask where two character have a conversation on a picnic bench with the scene staring with a close up of some baseball trading cards before settling on a two shot:

“This close-up pulls back into a two shot and then the whole scene plays in one piece. I’ll point that out a number of times in this picture where you had a whole scene play without any cutting, it’s a way of giving the actors a tremendous amount of fluidity. Good actors always love that if you can do.”
Peter Bogdanovich
Mask director’s commentary

Tip #3: Forget about shallow depth of field.

“I like everything in focus because that’s the way the eye sees. Orson Welles had that done in Citizen Kane and other films.”
Peter Bogdanovich
Paper Moon Director’s commentary

Bogdanovich has been a long time fan of the films of John Ford and Orson Welles. And while today shallow depth of field is all the rage with many filmmakers where the background is out of focus, both Ford and Welles were notorious for shots where everything is in focus. (Watch Citizen Kane and The Searchers.) Bogdanovich seems follow their lead. Bogdanovich describes one scene in Mask where two actors walk and talk on a long tracking shot with horses riding and jumping in the background and a freeway with cars beyond that;

“We have the horses behind them and the traffic way in the distance. That’s my idea of a good scene. Two good actors, no cutting, and a lot of movement in the background. It isn’t distracting. It gives you the feeling of life going on. This therefore becomes more real.”

Every actor knows the frustration of  what it’s like having to do a good take over because an assistant didn’t nail a focus pull. Having a large depth of field allows a greater chance of having technical problems. Every great performance is captured. Bogdonovich and his crew tended to favor wide angle lens and fast film to achieve that look. These days because digital cameras can really jack up the ISO without adding too much grain that’s easier to achieve than ever. Though most shy away from it because it’s too reminiscent of the smaller senor video cameras which made everything look it focus. Shallow depth-of-field is now considered the “film look,” yet film history is full of other kinds of styles.

Tip #4“Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”
Peter Bogdanovich

Great acting isn’t just saying words.

There’s a scene in Mask where Cher’s father playfully tosses a baseball to Cher. She playfully tosses it back to him. There seems to be a connection made, and he tosses it back to her. Then Cher’s countenance changes and she fires it back to her father. He catches it but seems stunned. He puts the ball down, and walks out of the house. Not a word is spoken, but so much is conveyed. In fact, you can read into it their entire relationship. Silence is powerful stuff. (I should mention that Mask screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan received a WGA for the script.)

Tip #5:The best kind of movie acting is with the eyes.”
Peter Bogdanovich

This is more of an extension of tip #4, showing how to maximize silent looks. In The Last Picture Show where the Timothy Bottom’s character is in the back of a movie theater making out with his girlfriend yet at the same time is glancing up at actress Elizabeth Taylor on the big screen, and then glancing down in front of him at Cybill Shepard who is kissing Jeff Bridges. His eyes say everything about his relationship with his girlfriend.

P.S. In case Bogdanovich is off your radar, or you only know him as an actor on The Spranos, his film The Last Picture Show was nominated for eight Oscars including two for him for Best Director and Best Writing Based on Material from Another Medium (shared with Larry McMurty). (He also edited The Last Picture Show, though didn’t take a credit for it since he thought his name would be on screen too much.) The documentary he directed, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream, won a Grammy. And if that’s not enough clout, Quentin Tarantino once said that They All Laughed (a 1981 film directed and co-written by Bogdanovich) was one of the top ten films ever made. Wes Anderson called it a “masterpiece.”

Related Posts:
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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“By 1995 I was literally down to my last dollar. I called dad to ask for money, which was like pulling teeth. He wanted to know when I was going to get a real job. My car was stolen, so I was riding a bike. I thought I’d end up working in Starbuck’s.”
Screenwriter Ken Nolan

If you looked up screenwriter Ken Nolan on IMDB it’s possible you’d be underwhelmed. He has one lone feature film writing credit. But it’s a one big —Black Hawk Down. The 2001 film got solid reviews (74% at Rotten Tomatoes), made $172 million world-wide, and earned Nolan a WGA nomination.

But if you’re an inquisitive type you might ask,”Why does Ken Nolan have only one feature film writing credit?” Good question and I think the answer gives a nice mini-history of screenwriting in America.

Nolan was born in Detroit and grew up in Buffalo and Portland. He applied to UCLA Film School twice and was turned down twice. He ended up getting an English degree at the University of Oregon. While in school he wrote short stories and as soon as he graduated in 1990 he moved to LA. He got a job as an assistant at Richard Dreyfuss’s company and started to write scripts, “using Syd Field’s Screenwriter’s Workbook as my guide. ” By his own admission he learned to write by writing six bad scripts. His seventh script was sent out and some liked it, but no one liked it enough to buy it.

He read good scripts and bad scripts and decided to write his own version of a Die Hard/ Speed rip-off and sold it for $100,000. He had an agent and thought he was on his way,  but the film never got made. Then he wrote what he thought was a very commercial natural catastrophe script  but it didn’t sell putting him in a financial bind.

So if you’re keeping score:

1) Rejected from UCLA film school—twice
2) Writes seven scripts that don’t sell
3) Finally sells a script, but it doesn’t get produced
4) Next script doesn’t sell and he ends up broke

Inspired by an interview he read about Quentin Tarantino he decided to focus not on what he thought people wanted but on what he was interested in. He wrote a character driven script that sold for $600,000, but when a similar movie came out it killed the production of his script. But at least he had a little coin in the bank, right?

He then sold another script for $850,000 that also didn’t get made.

“I was starting to realize that I had a nice career, a car and could afford a house, but I had no movies made. I was very worried about my career.”
Ken Nolan

Through a little persistence by Nolan and his agent he landed on the Black Hawk Down project based on the book by Mark Bowden. He ended up writing a 60-page treatment and eight drafts over a year’s time before Ridley Scott was attached to direct. He did two more drafts before the project was green lit and eventually becoming his first credited (and to date, only) feature film credit.

And while other writers (including Steve Zallian) were brought on the project, Nolan retained sole screenwriting credit. In an interview with Alan Waldman for wga.org Nolan said of writing Black Hawk Down;

“One challenge was that Mark’s book had about 60 characters, so I had to figure out who our main characters were while maintaining the ensemble feeling and staying true to the story. Another challenge was that I had to track and balance several story lines, while eliminating others. I had to distill a book that dealt with the families of the servicemen who were killed, the political situation, the Somali side of the story and the repercussions after the venture. I thought that this movie should be about the soldiers only and put the viewers—to a greater degree than any movie in the past—into the boots of the soldiers and thrust the audience into modern urban warfare.

Jerry (Bruckheimer) kept hammering that we had to care about the characters, but I felt we had so much story to cover that we didn’t have time to develop characters. But as I went along in the drafts I realized it was important for the audience to care for the characters, lest it become a cold, distance movie that lacks gut punch. Mark’s book touches on the characters, but a big challenge was to invent the barracks scenes and hanging-around scenes before the battle, without making it seem expository or exploitative…Also the story is very confusing and complex, because, as I said, it is several stories. There’s the Delta Force capturing the bad guys story, the helicopter pilot crashing story, the two guys left on the corner story, the incredibly complicated lost Humvee column story, the General Garrison story at the joint operations center and what ties them together: the story of our Ranger Platoon who are the first on the scene of the first downed helicopter and who get pinned down there. So it was really hard to decide how much time to spend on each story and how to effectively weave them together. That took 11 drafts and 14 months of development.”

I imagine these days Nolan keeps busy working on various writing projects that, while not credited, I’m sure pay him quite well.

Scott W. Smith

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Last week I was asked by Debra Eckerling to do my first ever guest blogging on her excellent Write On Online website. I appreciated the opportunity and wrote the following post after making the observation that there was a heavy dose of films made beyond what is known as the thirty mile zone in L.A. (As a side note, though Eckerling lives in L.A. these days she is part of the Midwest tribe invading Southern California, having been raised in the Chicago area and college educated in Wisconsin and Nebraska.)

The Oscars & Screenwriting East of L.A.

On my blog Screenwriting from Iowa I enjoy writing about screenwriters who come from outside L.A., not because I have anything against L.A., but because I think there are wonderful stories to tell from all over the world. The famous painter Grant Wood (American Gothic) was fond of talking about regionalism in painting. I’d like to think there is a regionalism brewing from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective.

One thing that jumps out at me about this year’s Oscar nominations in both the original and adapted screenplay categories is every single one of the stories is set outside Los Angeles.

I haven’t seen all of the films, but after a little research I’m not even sure that of the 10 films nominated in the screenplay categories that there is a single scene even set in the state of California. Those are pretty staggering statistics considering that L.A. is the center of the film industry.

Original Screenplay Nominees:

District 9
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; set in Johannesburg, South Africa,

An Education
Screenplay by Nick Hornby; set in England

In the Loop
Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche; set in England and Washington, D.C.

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher; set in New York City

Up in the Air
Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner; set in various airports & airplanes around the county with key scenes set in Nebraska, Wisconsin and in the air over Iowa

Adapted Screenplay

The Hurt Locker
Written by Mark Boal; set primarily in Iraq

Inglourious Basterds
Written by Quentin Tarantino; set in France

The Messenger
Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman; set in and around New Jersey

A Serious Man
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; set in Minneapolis

Up
Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter. Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy; set in South America

Just taking a cursory glance at all the films in every single Academy Award category and I don’t notice a single movie set in Los Angeles. There are films set in places like Michigan, Memphis, China, and of course, Pandora. This year’s films represent a global cinema.

Novelist and musicians have always been able to ply their trade in far away places that over the centuries has brought an original and rich texture to their work. It’s exposed readers and listeners to new worlds and experiences.

But because feature films usually take large crews and a good deal of equipment it has traditionally resulted over the decades in a good amount of stories that are L.A.-centered. And because of that screenwriters from all over have always been drawn to Los Angeles and end up writing more stories about L.A. (Or had their stories changed to be able to be shot in California.)

Perhaps we’re witnessing the end of a cycle that began 100 years ago when the movie industry moved from New York and Chicago to Hollywood. In 2008-2009 there was a lot of talk about L.A.’s runaway production and what to do about the shrinking number of films being shot on the streets of Los Angeles.

People can argue and blame it on the economy, unions, the high cost of shooting in L.A., tax incentives that are available all over the world, reality TV, the fact that people are tired of seeing the Santa Monica Pier, or the downsizing & democratization as the result of digital production, but the one thing this year’s crop of Oscars prove is that the door is wide open (slightly cracked?) for screenwriters who have stories that take place beyond the shadow of the Hollywood sign.

We may not be at that place where Francis Ford Coppola prophesied 20 years ago when he said that, “One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart” by making a film on her father’s videocamera. But things are getting very interesting.

Mark Boal who wrote The Hurt Locker is a good example of a screenwriter who did not take a traditional route to break into Hollywood. Though neither fat or a girl he did go to a small college in Ohio where he majored in philosophy. As a journalist embedded in Iraq it led to writing the story that became the film In The Valley of Elah.Then he took the next step by writing his first screenplay (The Hurt Locker) which not only got produced, but has been nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards.

* * *

In a related note, this year’s Oscars will be doing a John Hughes tribute. Hughes was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan until his family moved to the Chicago suburbs when he was a teenager.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more successful mainstream Hollywood writer/director who was as much of an Hollywood outsider. Hughes, whose films include Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink. Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Christmas Vacation, and of course Home Alone, once told film critic Roger Ebert:

“I’m going to do all my movies here in Chicago. The (Chicago) Tribune referred to me as a ‘former Chicagoan.’ As if, to do anything, I had to leave Chicago. I never left. I worked until I was 29 at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, and then I quit to do this. This is a working city, where people go to their jobs and raise their kids and live their lives. In Hollywood, I’d be hanging around with a lot of people who don’t have to pay when they go to the movies.”

Scott W. Smith

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schoolhouse.jpg

“I wrote screenplays as a way to get into production. I wrote six or seven before I sold one.”
Lawrence Kasden
screenwriter, Raiders of the Lost Ark

There is an age-old question; Can writing be taught?

Don’t be silly, of course it can.

When it comes to most things in life we expect that we must be taught how to do them properly. We are taught how to ride a bike, swim, our A-B-C’s, to a drive a car, how to be a doctor or a mechanic. Talent and drive will play a part in how well we do something, but Tiger Woods’ dad taught him how to hit a golf ball and Archie Manning taught his boys (Peyton & Eli, Super Bowl MVPs) how to throw a football.

For some reason when it comes to the arts many yield to the old saying that that is a talent we are simply born with. I took the photo of the little red school house yesterday just for this blog. (I took the barn photo at the top as well while driving to a short film I was working on this summer.) I was taught in high school and college about lighting, composition, exposures, etc. I took bad pictures and teachers told me what I did wrong. I read books and studied great photographers. I learned how to be a photographer. (It probably didn’t hurt that my mom was an art teacher.) While I don’t claim to be the next Ansel Adams, that skill has paid a few bills.

Here’s what the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop states on their website:

“Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed. If one can ‘learn’ to play the violin or to paint, one can ‘learn’ to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.”

Okay, so maybe they had a lawyer look over that document so it essentially says writing can’t be taught but it is something you can learn. Fine. I’m in their camp on this matter. If they don’t want to use the T word that’s their prerogative. With their track record they can call whatever goes on there whatever they want. (But I do think we’re dealing with a degree of semantics between educating, training, honing skills, inspiring, developing, encouraging and teaching.)

Often when people talk about being self-taught they mean they weren’t taught in the formal sense of going to school and taking classes. But make no mistake, they were taught. One can learn in a variety of ways outside a classroom, but having a mentor is the best way to learn a trade. That is the way the Renaissance painters learned. It was a tradition passed down for generations in various trades be it a shoe smith, a glass blower, or a carpenter. In the United States that model has been eclipsed a good deal by academia.

How would someone go about teaching themselves how to write if they lived, say, in the middle-of-nowhere? Here’s what screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wrote, “Inhale a writer you admire. Knowing nothing about writing a play, Paddy Chayefsky (Network) taught himself playwriting by sitting down at the typewriter and copying Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour word for word. He said, ‘I studied every line of it and kept asking myself, Why did she write this particular line.’” That’s a passion for learning.

Now probably the majority of writers these days do come from a college educated background. But it’s not a requirement. Neil Simon said the closest he got to college was walking by NYU. At one time Simon had three plays running on Broadway and has had a string of hit films. Where did he learn how to write? He credits his older brother Danny.

Academy Award winning writer of Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino said, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, no, I went to films.” That was his education. He also studied acting and a filmmaking workshop or two.

Some writers come from law school (John Grisham) and some from medical school (Michael Crichton. Who, by the way, wrote Twister shot here in Iowa–can’t pass those opportunities.) Writers come from everywhere.

And writers keep writing. One thing I will keep shouting on this blog is that screenwriters that get produced are relentless. I just read an interview with Geoff Rodkey, who said after his screenplay Daddy Day Care was released, “I’ve written something like eighteen screenplays, and this is the only one that’s ever been made.” Sure the reviews were less than glowing, but my hat goes off to anyone who can pull in $100 million in the box office.

And what do writers do before that breakthrough? They keep writing.

“I felt the years go by without accomplishment. Occasionally I wrote a short story that no one bought. I called myself a writer though I had no true subject matter. Yet from time to time I sat at a table and wrote, although it took years for my work to impress me.”
Bernard Malamud (The Natural and Pulitzer Prize winner The Fixer)

“Learning to write is not a linear process. There is no logical A-B-C way to become a good writer,” says Natalie Goldberg.

There may not be a logical way to being a good writer, but having a good mentor or teacher is probably the most common factor found in successful writers. You’re fortunate if you can find one in your life. This is not to be confused with a screenwriting guru who passes though town over the weekend. They can be helpful as I’ve pointed out before, but are best seen as a quick motivational jolt.  A mentor or teacher guides you through the ups and downs of your learning process. They invest in you as a writer and as a person. They nurture your writing.

Lew Hunter who helped found the masters in screenwriting program at UCLA used to open his home in Burbank to writers. Since retiring he now runs Lew Hunter’s Superior Summer Screenwriting Colony in Nebraska. He used to teach fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne (Sideways).

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
John Steinbeck

Though none of my feature screenplays have been produced I have had the opportunity to hear actors say words I have written for short films, radio dramas, one-act plays and video productions. I’ve had over a 100 newspaper and magazine articles published. And I have carved out a 20-year career working in media production. And it all began with one teacher at Lake Howell High School who took an interest in developing in me a skill in writing that I didn’t really know I had. (Honestly, I signed up for her creative writing class because it looked like an easy elective.)

“A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.”
Goethe

So this Monday Night when ABC airs a new version of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (starring Sean Combs) I will be watching and thinking of Dr. Annye Refoe who showed the Sidney Poitier film version to our creative writing class. For it was there I began to see and appreciate powerful writing.

Somewhere in Hansberry’s education growing up in Chicago and later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she learned how to write. And she took some negative experiences that had happened in her life and turned them into something that we’re still watching today. If you’re a writer, I hope your work finds that kind of light. And if you’re a teacher, may you help your students write one single good poem, or perhaps a single good screenplay.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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