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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday June 11, 2008 Update

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

 

Thursday June 12, 2008 Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday June 15, 2008 Update

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

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

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

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

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

                                            Bob Marley
                                            Three Little Birds

 

 

Wednesday June 18, 2008 Update

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

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

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

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

Vinton, Iowa Library

Vinton, Iowa Courthouse

 Cedar Rapids, Iowa 

Cedar Rapids Historic Theater

 

 

Photos and text copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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Indiana’s been in the news the last couple weeks. First there’s the new Indiana Jones film that’s on top at the box office, there was the Indy 500 this past weekend, and then I saw the front page of New York Times yesterday morning and learned that director and Indiana native Sydney Pollack died Monday.

It seems like a fitting time to take a road trip to the Hoosier State. Though Pollack was not a screenwriter it’s worth paying tribute to this giant of a filmmaker who knew how to tell a story.

Before he headed to New York after high school in South Bend to study acting with Sanford Meisner he had spent his life in Indiana.  From acting in theater, to directing TV shows, to directing over 40 feature films Pollack was unusually gifted. I was a long time fan of Pollack’s and he directed some of my favorite films:

They Don’t Shoot Horses, Do They? The Way We Were Jeremiah Johnson Three Days of the Condor The Electric Horseman Absence of Malice Tootsie Out of Africa The Firm Sketches of Frank Gehry 

He was a two time Oscar winner (Out of Africa & Tootsie) both of which films also won Best Picture Oscars.  Another Indiana native producer/director Robert Wise also had won two best director Oscars for his films West Side Story & The Sound of Music. He also won two more Best Picture Oscars for producing both movies.

And to challenge Nebraska’s cool actor category (which produced both Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando), Indiana lays claim to Steve McQueen and James Dean. The list of entertainment icons from Indiana also includes Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), comedian Red Skelton, song writer Cole Porter, and TV host David Letterman.

Moving to the writing side, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis. Glenn Berggoetz writes, “It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis that Vonnegut gained his first writing experience. During his last two years there he wrote for and was one of the editors of the Shortridge Daily Echo, which was the first high school daily newspaper in the country. At this young age Vonnegut learned to write for a wide audience that would give him immediate feedback, rather than just writing for an audience of one in the form of a teacher.” (Note also that Vonnegut also honed his skills at the Iowa Writers Workshop.) 

Theodore Dreiser from Terre Haute wrote the novel An American Tragedy that was made twice made into a film including the 1951 George Stevens’ version (A Place in the Sun) staring Elizabeth Taylor that won 6 Academy Awards. It is a film that Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) said if you wanted to learn how to direct you should watch 50 times.

To counter Dreiser’s somber look at the dark side of America let’s look at another film with Indiana roots. Playwright and screenwriter Steve Tesich was born in Yugoslavia, raised in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University. He won an Oscar for his screenplay Breaking Away based and filmed in Bloomington, Indiana and that became the 1979 sleeper hit staring Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Chrisopher Plummer and James Earle Haley.

Tesich’s script came at a time before we were jaded by sports stories and was released just three years after Rocky. The film captures much of what I’m trying to write about in Screenwriting from Iowa. That is that there are stories to tell beyond Hollywood, and people all over the world need encouragement to tell those stories.

Frank Deford reviewed Breaking Away for Sports Illustrated in 1979:

“It is the rare film that has understood the essence of sport so well as Breaking Away; or understood summer or growing up; or, for that matter, America and Americana. This joyous story about four young A&P cowboys and a bicycle race in Bloomington, Ind. cost a measly $2.4 million to make but it is better by far than all the ballyhooed, star-studded epics. Steve Teisch’s screenplay is impeccable; Peter Yates’ direction is nearly magic in its command and sensitivity; and the cast is perfectly chosen, an ensemble always in character. And if all this were not enough, Breaking Away also evokes a spirit these times yearn for.

“I’m sure that Teisch and Yates didn’t set out to wave the flag, but there is something special here… the wonderful thing about Breaking Away is that you leave the theater very proud that America has both an Indiana and a Hollywood.”

TV and film director David Anspaugh was born in Decatur, Indiana and also studied at Indiana University before going on to win two Emmy’s producing and directing Hill Street Blues and the quintessential Indiana film Hoosiers.

Matt Williams from Evansville, Indiana is best known as the creator and executive producer of Roseanne and co-creator of Home Improvement. But he also wrote for The Cosby Show and produced the Mel Gibson film What Women Want. He graduated with a theater degree from the University of Evansville and was awarded an honorary doctorate from there in 2003.

And the newest up and coming writer/ director from Indiana is James C. Strouse (from Goshen, Indiana) whose latest film Grace is Gone won the critics awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. His first film Lonesome Jim starred Casey Affleck and was directed by Steve Busemi. 

But I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana who seems to embody a Midwestern spirit in everything he does. Going way back into the early 80’s with prefect sing-a-long songs Jack & Diana (“Two American kids growing up in the Heartland”), Pink Houses and Small Town to his classic thought-provoking album Scarecrow that addressed the farm crisis in the 80’s, to his more recent Our Country. Mellencamp embraced his Midwestern roots and we were better for it.

While his film connections are usually on the soundtracks of films he did star and direct the 1992 film Falling from Grace. Mellencamp was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Indiana University awarded him an honorary doctorate of Musical Arts.

On Sunday I spent a several hours driving on the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinenental highway in the country. (It goes through both Iowa and Indiana. And paid my first ever $4.+ per gallon for gas.) It’s hard for me to make that kind of trip and not think of Mellencamp’s lyrics, “Ain’t that America Something to See.”

It’s something to write about, too.

P.S. Did you know that in the original Indy script that it was Indiana Smith? Doesn’t have the same ring does it?  (Spielberg thought it sounded to much like Nevada Smith, a 1966 Steve McQueen film.) And isn’t it hard to see Tom Selleck as Indy, who Spielberg originally wanted but couldn’t get because of Selleck’s commitment to Magnum P.I.?

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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