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“I formed my notions of America in Yugoslavia by watching films. And most of the films were westerns so therefore when I landed [in the USA] I honestly expected—maybe if not John Wayne, a close friend of his to be there on a horse.”
Screenwriter Steve Tesich (The World According to Garp, American Flyers)

I don’t know how many screenwriters David Letterman has had on his show over the years but on that short list is Oscar winning screenwriter Steve Tesich (1942-1996).

Tesich was born in Yugoslavia but immigrated to the United States when he was 14. His family settled in East Chicago, Indiana (the Hoosier state) back in its heavy industrial days when soot filled the skies daily.

He did his undergraduate work at Indiana University, and according to Wikipedia he was actually an alternate rider for the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity team that rode in the Little 500 bike race that is featured in the movie Breaking Away, which was based on his screenplay.

And because I’m always interested in story origins, this is the beginning of the creative process that lead Tesich to his first produced film—an eight year journey from script to screen—and his only Oscar Award:

“I ran into a guy [in Bloomington] who was doing his Italian fantasy. I was riding a bike— I hear an Italian opera being sung behind me and I turn around and there’s this guy climbing a hill singing. He starts talking Italian to me, and being Yugoslavian and knowing how tough it is on foreigners I really have pity on the guy. For a week I try to tell him what America is like, what it’s like to be in Indiana and all this and I find out he’s from Indianapolis [Indiana]. He grew up there and this whole fantasy was just kind of a daydream.” 

Yes, inspiration and story ideas can be found in unusual places all over the world. Like Stephen King says, you have to be like a paleontologist looking for bone fragments in the ground.

Related Posts:
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Where Are The Wild Men?
Stagecoach Revisited 2.0
‘Breaking Away’—Like a Rock
Screenwriting Quote #55 (Stephen King) “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
The King of Cool’s Roots Steve McQueen was from Indiana. James Dean, too. (John Wayne, now he was from Iowa.)

Scott W. Smith

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Back on the first day of summer I wrote a post called Screenwriting Summer School and while most schools are in their Fall session now, it’s technically still summer. Heck, tomorrow it’ll be in the 90s here in Orlando so it’ll feel like summer long after the first day of Fall next Tuesday. So we’re still in summer school mode. Today’s class features Professor Stephen King.

While King has given talks before at various colleges and universities, I’m not sure if he’s technically ever taught a class at the college level. But Professor King just sounds right. Before his writing career took off, King did teach high school English in Maine. Here are a couple of quotes pulled from an interview he did with Jessica Lehey in The Atlantic article, How Stephen King Teaches Writing.

“It went best for me when I could communicate my own enthusiasm. I can remember teaching Dracula to [high school] sophomores and practically screaming, ‘Look at all the different voices in this book! Stoker’s a ventriloquist! I love that!’ I don’t have much use for teachers who ‘perform,’ like they’re onstage, but kids respond to enthusiasm. You can’t command a kid to have fun, but you can make the classroom a place that feels safe, where interesting things happen. I wanted every 50-minute class to feel like half an hour.”
Stephen King

 “Always ask the student writer, ‘What do you want to say?’ Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go. I don’t think it’s the words per se, it’s the sentences. I used to give them a choice, sometimes: either write 400 words on ‘My Mother is Horrible’ or ‘My Mother is Wonderful.’ Make every sentence about your choice. That means leaving your dad and your snotty little brother out of it.”
Stephen King

P.S. Wouldn’t it be nice if every 2 hour movie felt like it was 90 minutes?

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Stephen King’s Doublewide Trailer “I wrote my first two novels, Carrie and Salem’s Lot in the laundry room of a doublewide trailer.”—Stephen King
Descriptive Writing (Stephen King) ““Good description usually consists of a few well chosen details that will stand for everything else.”—Stephen King
Screenwriting Quote #33 (Stephen King)
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

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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“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…”
The Shining (A Stephen King story)

DSC_0164

Iowa is getting blanketed in a snow storm today. About ten inches of show has fallen in the last 12 hours with wind gusts measuring over 40 mph. I took the above photo this morning at my house and it reminded me of the scene in The Shining when Jack Nicholson has a form of writer’s block while writing at a prolific rate.

You really don’t need to go to film school to learn filmmaking—just study how this Stanley Kubrick directed scene is a tour de force of visual filmmaking—and simplicty. Two actors, two minutes, seven words, 10 shots (fewer setups) and just a great example of solid writing, acting, directing, cinematography, editing, location scouting, and sound design.

You could shoot this scene yourself with two friends and one camera in a couple hours. Do what the Renaissance painters did—copy the masters until you find your own style.

Related posts:

Stephen King’s Doublewide Trailer
Descriptive Writing (Stephen King)
Screenwriting Quote #55 (Stephen King)
Beatles, Cody, King and 10,000 Hours

Scott W. Smith

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“I wanted the reader to know that not all is lost. And then show, within the story, what was worth saving.”
Justin Cronin
On his new book The Passage

“There’s a little bit of Iowa in everything I write.”
Justin Cronin


First let’s look at the numbers behind Justin Cronin’s new book The Passage about a vampirepocalypse.

Justin Cronin’s age: 47

Pages of his new book The Passage: 766

Price paid by Ballantine Books for trilogy: $3.75 million

Price director Ridley Scott’s production company paid for rights: $1.75 million

Odds that Cronin will return to being a college English teacher any time soon: 0%

Before you think Cronin got lucky, realize that he is a graduate of both Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That’s a couple hundred grand worth of the finest education in the history of civilization.

He’s had many short stories published, some novellas and two serious literary novels (The Summer Guest and Mary and O’Neil). He’s won a PEN/Hemingway award and The Stephen Crane Prize.

Stephen King said of The Passage , “Read fifteen pages and you will find yourself captivated…”

I only needed to read the first sentence before I was captivated;

“Before she became the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years—she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy, Amy Harper Ballafonte.”

Somehow it’s reassuring to know, that in the future, the girl who sets out to save the world was born in Iowa. Yes, it is another vampire book but this week on Iowa Public Radio’s The Exchange Cronin told the host Ben Kieffer why his vampires are not like the sexy ones in the Twilight series, “The thing about the vampire story is that’s it’s really good soft clay and you can really do what you want with it. And you have to also…The handsome debonair underwear model vampire has been done.”

The book was released last week and it’s been called the hot book of the summer. Cronin was back in Iowa City Tuesday to read from his book and sign copies at Prairie Lights. While on The Exchange radio show he mentioned his affinity for Iowa. Though he had lived in New England, Hawaii and California before he moved to Iowa to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop he said, “I just fell in love with the place.,,I thought (Iowa City) was the best town I’d ever lived in. (Iowa) is beautiful and surprising which is what art is supposed to be, beautiful and surprising.”

I have not read or seen any of The Twilight Saga, and while Cronin’s book sounds like a more literary vampire book, time will tell if his apocalyptic, non-sexy vampires will be as popular. (The book that people really seem to be comparing it to is Stephen King’s The Stand.)

And while vampire stories have been around for at least 200 years, Cronin points out that the subject of immortality has a longer history saying, “You can look at the Garden of Eden as a vampire story.” I can honestly say I’ve never made that connection before. But two things I do know; Cronin is now a very wealthy man, and vampire stories will never die.

Related post: The Juno-Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

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“A thorough knowledge of Eliot is compulsory for anyone interested in contemporary literature. Whether he is liked or disliked is of no importance, but he must be read.”
Northrop Frye

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
T.S. Eliot
The Waste Land

St. Louis born writer T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) is best known for his poem The Waste Land, but he also won a Best Play Tony Award in 1950 for the Broadway production of The Cocktail Party. (He would have been 62 years old at the time.)  He won two more Tony’s for his poems that were used in the musical Cats. Less remembered these days is he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. He also wrote the screenplay (based on his play) for the 1951 movie Murder in the Cathedral.

The legendary literary editor Robert Giroux (who worked with Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac and many others) said of Eliot’s death that, “the world became a lesser place.”

I’m always interested in the writing habit of writers and think it can be a helpful guide for others. Knowing that Stephen King’s goal when writing a novel is 2,000 words a day allows you a glimpse of how he can write a first draft in three months. It’s a nuts and bolts way of demystifying the writing process.

“A great deal of my new play, The Elder Statesman, was produced in pencil and paper, very roughly. Then I typed it myself first before my wife got to work on it. In typing myself I make alterations, very considerable ones. But whether I write or type, composition of any length, a play for example, means for me regular hours, say ten to one. I found that three hours a day is about all I can do of actual composing. I could do polishing perhaps later. I sometimes found at that I wanted do go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory.”
T.S. Eliot

And just in case you’re thinking, “Well, Eliot didn’t have a day job.” Before he made a living as a writer he worked as a banker by day and wrote poems, essays, and reviews at night. (He did this for eight years while at the same time taking care of his wife who suffered from migraines and depression.) He was 34-years-old when The Waste Land brought him fame and some financial rewards, but it would still be a few years before he quit his banker position.

Scott W. Smith


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“Sins can be such fun. Of the seven supposedly deadly ones, only envy does not give the sinner at least momentary pleasure. And an eighth, schadenfreude — enjoyment of other persons’ misfortunes — is almost the national pastime.”
George Will

“Part of the attraction of the first seasons was Schadenfreude — the joy in watching filmmakers suffer and struggle when they got their big chance. As the New York Sun newspaper put it in a headline ‘Bad Film = Good TV’.”
Peter Henderson; Reality TV ‘Project Greenlight’ Has New Goal: Money; Reuters; Aug 6, 2004.

Thanks to a comment (from Scriptwrecked; Making sure your screenplay doesn’t leave you stranded) about my Dorito’s commercial, I just learned of the German word Schadenfreude this week. Now I see it everywhere. Schadenfreude is “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.” There’s some schadenfreude going on in Iowa this week with the first criminal charges filed surrounding the Iowa film incentives.

Lee Rood of the Des Moines Register wrote, “The Iowa Attorney General’s office on Monday charged the former manager of the Iowa Film Office with misconduct in office and filed first-degree theft charges against principles involved in the making of a 2008 film in Council Bluffs.” The article goes in detail about the tax-credit scandal and how some filmmakers abused the system.

Filmmakers in Iowa have either known of (or at least heard rumors of) the way that some producers where inflating billings to basically have the taxpayers of Iowa fund films that otherwise would not get made. The most common word I heard from people was the simple word fraud. The government was a little slow to catch on, but they’ve been making up for lost time and the word now being used is felony. Changes have been made of producers from Nebraska and Minnesota and undoubtedly I’m sure there are other producers who are very afraid of the next phone call, letter, or knock on the door.

This drama is becoming more interesting that most of the films made under the Iowa tax incentives.

And since Iowa was a part of the recent runaway production in Los Angeles, I’m sure there are a few production people in L.A. experiencing some schadenfrude.

And according to Rood’s article these charges aren’t just a slap on the wrist, if convicted the filmmakers are facing 2 to 10 years in prison. I guess the flip side is spending time in prison would give you time do to first hand research on a new prison film. I’m surprised  some prison hasn’t harnessed the talent inside those walls to make a feature film. (Any prison wardens out there? I’m open do doing a screenwriting workshop in a prison.) Oscar-winning Pulp Fiction co-screenwriter Roger Avary even got creative and started Twitting from prison (until his privileges were revoked) where he is serving a one-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter.

But some things are better left to the imagination rather than experience. Really, did Stephen King or Frank Darabont need to spend time in a prison during the 1930’s to write The Shawkshank Redemption? Of all the prison films over the years, and there have been some good ones, I bet almost all of them were written by people who didn’t serve time.

Looking at the list of abuses and lack of proper government insight of the Iowa film incentives it’s not a surprise that the state of Iowa has suspended their film incentives. They were once some of the best in the country and some are saying now that they aren’t coming back. We’ll see. It’s too bad this wasn’t a successful program, because it could have been the start of something good.

But, as I’ve said before, the main job of the writer is to write and not get caught-up in all the “if, “ands,” and “buts” of the Alice-in-Wonderland world of filmmaking.

And for all those people out there looking for easy money–remember the old saying, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

Scott W. Smith

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