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“When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate.”
Pulitzer-Prize winner John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men)
Travels with Charley: In Search of America

I generally try to discover my own quotes but this one came via a tag team effort—From The Black Board via @GoIntoTheStory (Scott Myers). Both worth following.

P.S. This is in line with the well-known saying; “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” And echoes of the classic Anne Lamott insight “Bird by Bird.”

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #66 (John Steinbeck)
Pages Per Day
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Stephen King’s Double Wide Trailer “There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station.”—Stephen King
Travels with Steinbeck

Scott W. Smith

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“The process by which the idea for a play comes to me has always been something I really couldn’t pinpoint. A play just seems to materialize; like an apparition, it gets clearer and clearer and clearer. It’s very vague at first, as in the case of Streetcar, which came after Menagerie. I simply had the vision of a woman in her late youth. She was sitting in a chair all alone by a window with the moonlight streaming in on her desolate face, and she’d been stood up by the man she planned to marry.”
Tennessee Williams ( Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie)
The Paris Review 1981 interview by Dotson Radar

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“What I’m really involved in when I’m writing is something that no one ever mentions when they see any play. Writing is like trying to make gunpowder out of chemicals. You have these words and sentences and the strange meanings and associations that are attached to the words and sentences, and you’re somehow cooking these things all up so that they suddenly explode and have a powerful effect. That’s what absorbs me from day to day in writing a play.”
Actor/Playwright/Screenwriter Wally Shawn
EsquireThe Secret Life of Wally Shawn by Don Shewey

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“At first I wasn’t sure at all where to begin.”
Opening line in the novel Hombre, written by Elmore Leonard

“When I wrote 3:10 to Yuma. I sold the original [short] story for $90, and then got $4,000 for the movie rights.”
Elmore Leonard
(Leonard did add that “a 5,000 word story was a hundred bucks. And in the early ’50s, that wasn’t bad.”)

“Bewteen 1951 and 1961, Elmore wrote 30 western short-stories and five western novels, even as he made his main living with advertising work.”
Tom Nolan
 WGAW Written by article Dutch Landscape 

“In 1961, Leonard quit his job at the ad agency to write full time. The western fiction market had dried up because of a plethora of westerns on television and he wanted to write contemporary stories. But the demands of a growing family required him to take freelance advertising jobs instead. After five years away from writing fiction, Leonard finished his first non-Western novel, The Big Bounce, buoyed by the sale of film rights to his novel Hombre. His Hollywood agent, the legendary H. N. Swanson read it and told him, ‘Kiddo, I’m going to make you rich.’”
Biography on ElmoreLeonard.com

“Elmore’s first crime book, The Big Bounce, was rejected 84 times.”
Ann O’Neill, The CNN Profile

But The Big Bounce got published and eventually made into a movie in 1969 which Leonard said ,”Was probably the second worse movie ever made.” The worst movie? According to Leonard, the 2004 version of The Big Bounce. But artists aren’t defined by their failures, but by their successes.

“One remarkable thing about Leonard’s talent is how long it took the world to notice. He didn’t have a best-seller until his 60th year, and few critics took him seriously before the 1990s.”
Mike Householder, Time Magazine

P.S. Since I’m into regionalism, it’s worth noting that two writers that Leonard admired both had ties to Leonard’s Michigan:
Writer Jim Harrison (Part 1) The writer of Legends of the Fall was born in Grayling, MI and partly raised in Reed City, MI.
Writing Quite #24 (Elmore Leonard) Hemingway much spent time in Michigan and one of his first published stories was Up in Michigan.
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6)
The Breakfast Club for Writers (Starting early in the morning before a day job didn’t hurt Leonard.)

Scott W. Smith

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“When I used to look out at the world, all I could see was its edges, its boundaries, its rules and controls, its leaders and laws. But now, I see another world. A different world where all things are possible. A world of hope. Of peace.”
Neo
The Maxtrix

“It’s all for nothing if you don’t have freedom.”
William Wallace
Braveheart

“You cannot tell a meaningful story without the potential for loss.”
                                                                                      Robert McKee

“A good point of attack is where something vital is at stake at the very beginning of the play.”
Lajos Egri
The Art of Dramatic Writing

I don’t know if Monday’s immigration raid in Postville, Iowa made it on your radar but it was the largest single site raid in the history of this nation. Federal immigration agents arrested 390 people from Mexico, Guatemala, Israel and the Ukraine.

Let’s put the politics aside and look at this from a Screenwriting from Iowa  perspective. How you answer the question  “What’s at Stake?” has a big impact on your writing.

Recently I wrote about David Lynch being in a small town in Iowa known as a haven for transcendental meditators and I find Postville just as intriguing. The community was founded by those of German and Norwegian decent and they make up half of the town’s 2,500 people. The other half are mostly Hispanics who work for the Hasidic Jews who moved there from New York, so the place is a little surreal.

Yesterday I drove to Postville to shoot some footage and interviews for Univision, the Hispanic Network in Miami,  and the first two people I met to were a couple Jewish young men. We talked a little about the town and had a common connection talking about B&H Camera in New York.

The Hasidic Jews are in Postville because they own and run Agriprocessors the world’s largest kosher meatpacking plant and where Monday’s raid occurred. (As a side note, did you know that Coca-Cola makes a kosher Coke available for the Jewish Passover?  No high-fructose corn syrup used.)   The Mexicans and other immigrants are there to work in the meat packing plant. The Germans and the Norwegians are still in the area running the farms they and their families have been tending for over 100 years.

Stephen Bloom, author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America writes, “I look at Postville as a social laboratory to test the limits of diversity, tolerance, and acceptance.”

When I first pulled into Postville it looked like many small Midwest towns you drive through. But then you notice the Guatemalan restaurant and the Mexican clothing and convenience stores and know that there is something unique about this area. Then you wonder how the Hasidic Jews have adjusted to moving there from New York.

Bloom writes, “When the Hasidic community moved to Postville, they moved their entire ethos with them from Brooklyn to northeastern Iowa. They created immediately a shul or synagogue. They made two mikvehs, or ceremonial bath houses, as well as a yeshiva, or school for their children. They replicated in northeastern Iowa the community they had established in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. So in my mind, they were not suffering any degree of cultural deprivation. They moved their world, lock, stock, and barrel, one thousand miles westward.”

Am I the only one who thinks that setting would be more a fascinating and original setting for a movie than say…”What Happens in Vegas”? In fact, What Happens in Postville sounds like a fine title. Witness meets La Bamba meets The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg with a dash of Ibsen and Wim Wenders. 

But what I really want to talk about is the concept in your screenplay of “What’s at Stake?” That is a key question of the stories you tell. Investors and studios long ago learned the secret of that question. Because at the core of the question “What’s at stake?” is the concept of what holds an audiences attention.

Writers are sometimes slow learners and can get caught up in the story, characters and dialogue they are writing. But “What’s at Stake?” is vital to ask when what’s at stake financially is a lot of money. “What’s at stake?” is related to the level of conflict I wrote about in tip #1.

If you take a long look ar AFI’s top 100 films you’ll notice that 70% of the films deal with life or death, or at least significant life and career blows. Great conflict.

Citizen Kane
Casablanca
The Godfather
Gone with the Wind
Lawrence of Arabia
The Wizard of Oz
On the Waterfront
Schindler’s List

When you talk about life and death a lot is at stake.

 “I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of last track myself. Being how this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you have to ask yourself one question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’
                                                                                                         Dirty Harry

If you look at the all time box office hits you’ll find a majority also have life or death, or significant life or career blows.

Titanic
Star Wars
Spider-Man

E.T. (the immigrant from outerspace)
Lord of the Rings
Jurassic Park
Pirates of the Caribbean

No one said all successful movies had or needed to have this element but obviously it increases your odds of having an award winning film as well as one that finds a large audience.

Maybe that’s the simple secret to horror films and super hero films usually doing well at the box office.

As I made the hour and a half drove home from Postville yesterday I thought of all lives involved in Monday’s raid. Certainly surrounded by agents with guns and helicopters overhead was a dramatic and traumatic situation. Now many are separated from family members and facing deportation. Others face charges of identification tampering.

It made me recall my days in Miami when Haitians would risk their lives to come to the United States on overcrowded and poorly constructed boats. And sometimes they died in the process.

The mayor of Postville said if the meat packing plant closed then his town could become a ghost town. There is a lot at stake from many angles in Monday’s raid.

What’s at stake in the script you are now writing?

“What’s at stake?” is a significant question in life as well as drama.

copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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Thanks in part to the plethora of new books and seminars on screenwriting, a new phenomenon is taking over Hollywood: Major scripts are skillfully, seductively shaped, yet they are soulless. They tend to be shiny but superficial.”

                            Richard Walter
UCLA Screenwriting Professor

 “Where do we go to solves life’s problems? We go to the movies… Stories are the language of the heart.”

John Eldredge

In my post “Screenwriting by Numbers” I pointed out some basic numbers common to the majority of produced screenplays. But now we’re going to go beyond mere numbers and talk about what make movies work beyond the level of entertainment.

The only time I watch cable TV is when I’m on the road. And it seems like every trip I take The Shawshank Redemption is on some channel. Maybe they should just dedicate a channel to that movie.  The Shawshank Channel. The simple reason that film is on so much is people love that film. It trades places with The Godfather on IMDB.com as fans’ favorite film.

It’s the highest rated film by Yahoo! Movies and by the 2006 the readers of Empire magazine.

The Shawshank Redepmtion is a movie people identify with. Not because they were once in a prison in Ohio back in the day, but because through all of life’s danger, toils and snares — we need hope. We can sympathize with Andy Dufresne and his predicament. An early Jimmy Buffett song comes to mind, “There’s nothing soft about hard times.”

For any writer looking for excuses don’t look to Stephen King. Long before he wrote the novella that would become The Shawshank Redemption he was an unpublished writer with a stack of rejections, teaching high school English in Hampden, Maine and living in a trailer with his wife and kid and having trouble making ends meet. He wrote his first novel (Carrie) in a laundry room balancing a typewriter on his knees. (Please read the February 12 post Screenwriters Head Back-to-Work (Tip #2) if you want to get rid of the “artist” monkey on your back.)

Once King had success then he had to deal with a drug and alcohol addiction as well as getting hit by a van while the driver was reaching for “one of those Mars bars.” A collapsed lung, a broken leg in nine places, a shattered hip and after who knows how much physical therapy and pain, he is still writing away.

Stephen King understands hard times.

We understand hard times. That’s a universal theme that doesn’t need explaining.

“Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
                 Forrest Gump, (While Jenny throws rocks at the house she grew up in.)

“Are you going to be something else I have to survive?”
                                                                                          Erin Brockovich
“I coulda been somebody.”
                                                                                          On the Waterfront 

“You don’t throw a whole life away just cause it’s banged up a little.”
 Seabiscuit 

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
William Butler Yeats
poem, The Second Coming 

“You’re breaking up with me?! I thought you were proposing.”
                                                                                          Legally Blonde

“I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that, but prison is no fairy-tale world.”
                                                                             The Shawshank Redemption 


I think Shawshank’s ongoing popularity is because the story simply transcends film. Director Frank Darabont talks about getting many letters from people thanking him for making that film because it helped them through a difficult time in their life.

It’s doubtful that when King wrote the Shawshank story or when Darabont wrote the script that either were thinking that this male dominated prison story would bring comfort to a woman going through a divorce. But good stories have a way of creeping into our lives in unexpected ways.

In seminars I’ve given it’s amazing to see how the same films pop up when I ask what films people watch over and over again:

The Wizard of Oz
Forrest Gump
Apollo 13
Star Wars
Casablanca
When Harry Met Sally
Princess Bride
Good Will Hunting
Rain Man
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Sound of Music
Braveheart

Something resonates in those films with large groups of people. I heard director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) recently say on a DVD commentary that his films were a mixture of spectacle and humanity. I think that would be true of most of the above films.

When we write we are writing about ourselves. A good part of writing is self-discovery. The odds are good that in the films you see over and over again you are identifying with a character or a situation.

This is where we tap into writing beyond the numbers. It’s the reason that films that don’t fit the typical Hollywood mold find an audience.

Have you ever walked into a show home and been impressed at first only to feel that it’s well decorated but impersonal? The house I grew up in had a place in our kitchen where we had a growth chart on a wall. It was fun to look back over the years and see how you had grown. I’ve never seen a growth chart in a show home. No worn out carpet, no stacks of paper, no drawings by the kids on the refrigerator. Nothing authentic. No sign of life.

Just as your home should be full of stories and memories- and life- so should your screenplays.

“There should be something in the writing that indicates that it was written by a person.”

William Zinsser
On Writing Well

What sets your writing apart? The same thing that sets you apart from the crowd.

Your vision, your life experiences, and your worldview. It is why first time writers (like Diablo Cody) sometimes break in with an original story. (By the way, speaking of Cody, the Juno DVD is out this week.) This is also where Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside LA comes into play big time. Here is why I think writers from outside LA, or writers in LA that keep their hometown non-LA roots, have a better chance of showing audiences something new.

“If you try to write honestly about yourself, you’re writing about every single individual in the world.”
                                                                 Walter Brown Newman
Oscar & Emmy nominated Screenwriter

I heard a speaker once say that basically we all grew up in the same neighborhood. I took that to mean we all long for the same basic things; Food, shelter, love, dignity, purpose.

Primal needs as Blake Snyder would say.

You don’t have to be a salesman to identify with Willy Loman’s need for significance in Death of a Salesman.

Sometimes as writers we jump through all kinds of strange hoops trying to guess what will sell. We err on one side by trying to write the sensational story that everyone will love and on the other side by writing the small personal story where nothing really happens.

“It’s all one story, really, the story of who we are and how we relate and how we get it wrong.”
                                                                                                Ron Bass
Rain Man

“We spend much of our lives trying to reconcile these two halves of our spirit and soul — call it identity –as we struggle to figure out just what and who we genuinely are…The reason we go to movies is precisely to explore these perpetually unanswerable questions regarding our identity.”

                                                                                                   Richard Walter

Think how these films deal with the theme of identity (who am I?):

Babe
Big
Toy Story
Shriek
Stand By Me
Fight Club
Elf
Lion King
Finding Nemo
Seabiscuit
An Officer and a Gentleman
Sense and Sensibility
Office Space
The Incredibles

They’re all about identity. Yes, we can identify with not only people, but pigs, orges, fish, and horses.

“Each film tells a story in which the central character seeks only to discover his own true identity.”

     Richard Walter

We never know how high we are, until we are called to rise and then if we are true to form, our statues touch the skies.”

Emily Dickinson

“I finally became the man I always wanted to be.”

Jerry Maguire, mission statement
written by Cameron Crowe


“Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.”

                 Anne Lamont 

“Stories are equipment for living”

Kenneth Burke

One of the female writers at a seminar I once gave said movies were cheap therapy. Perhaps you’ve seen the book Cinematherapy which develops with that concept. And cinematherapy is not just a chick thing. Once when I was at Blockbuster I saw a guy pick up Braveheart to rent and his girlfriend said, “You’ve watched that 100 times,” to which he said, “And I’ll watch it 100 more times.”

We want to be the hero of our story and we are inspired by heroes of stories we read and watch. We identify with them. We identify with William Wallace, Hans Solo, Erin Brockovich and Cinderella.

Not all films have identity themes but those that do tend to not only have a long following, but they tend to do well at award time as Linda Seger points out in her book Advanced Screenwriting, “If we look at some Academy Award winners of the 1980s and 1990s, we can see an identity theme shimmering though the philosophical, theological, and/or psychological ideas.”

That trend hasn’t stopped in the 2000s, nor is it likely to as longs as human beings roam the earth.

 “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

                                                                                 The Shawshank Redemption

Get busy writing, too.

Related posts:
Broken Wings & Silver Linings
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
Diablo Cody on Theme
Theme=What Yor Movie is Really About

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“If you follow your passion, the money will follow. Success, in my opinion, involves sheer luck, hard work and humility.”
                                                           Anthony Zuiker, creator CSI TV programs

 

“I’m Zack Johnson and I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s about it, I’m a normal guy.”

                                                           Zach Johnson, professional golfer

Last year at this time Zach Johnson’s above quote caused laughter from the press corp in Augusta, Georgia as he spoke those words before a national TV audience after winning the prestigious Masters at Augusta National golf tournament.

But do normal guys come from seemingly nowhere to win their first major tournament against the greatest golfers in the world? Do normal guys fend off Tiger Woods, one of the greatest golfers in the history of the game?

Zach Johnson was sneaky long.

Sneaky long is a golf phrase which describes a golfer, a golf shot, or a particular hole that looks deceptively underrated. Think of it like an Adam Sandler/Bill Murray-like fellow in his goofiest outfit coming up to some serious golfers and saying, “You guys want to put a little money on who can hit the next ball the longest?” They take the bet thinking the guy doesn’t have a chance and he ends up taking their money.

Sneaky long is the underdog that causes snickers. Rocky, Seabiscuit, and Erin Brockovich were all sneaky long. Audiences love an underdog mainly because the underdog represents us and our deepest wishes.

When a 36-year-old writer broke into the TV business (in a business where 30 is old) with a script for an episode for the TV show Hunter (followed by scripts for even lesser remembered TV shows) few probably thought that within ten years this guy was going to write a movie that would win five Oscars. But that’s what happened after Randell Wallace wrote Braveheart.

Johnson’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa has had it’s share of sneaky long characters. NFL quarterback Kurt Warner not only grew up in Cedar Rapids but went to the same high school as Johnson. When no large schools offered him a football scholarship, he signed with the University of Northern Iowa, a Division II college right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

It wasn’t the big-time college football that he’d hoped for, but at least he thought he’d start all four years. However, he sat the bench for three years before making his marking mark his senior year by becoming the Gateway Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.

Following graduation, he worked as a grocery stocker at HyVee (where I shop these days to pick up the vibe) and then played arena football in Des Moines. Next was pro ball in Europe before joining the St. Louis Rams where he was booed in his first game. He went on to be twice voted the top player in the NFL and Super Bowl XXXIV MVP. Someday they’ll do a movie about his life.

One could even say that artist Grant Wood was sneaky long. He was a schoolteacher and artist who lived in a small apartment above a carriage house in (you guessed it) Cedar Rapids, where he eventually painted one of the most recognizable (and copied and parodied) paintings in the history of art—American Gothic.

Wood once said, “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.” He also coined the term regionalism to define his belief that an artist should “paint out of the land and the people he knows best.”

Isn’t that what Van Gogh did in Arles? Isn’t that what Winslow Homer did in Maine? Isn’t that what Faulkner did in Oxford, what Steinbeck did in Monterey, what O’Connor in Georgia, what Ibsen did in Norway, what Willa Cather did in Nebraska, and what Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) has done in Texas?

This is the heartbeat of Screenwriting from Iowa. Hollywood will always make its tent pole movies. Movies will always have a LA/New York thrust because that’s where the majority of studios, crews, and talent are located.

But if the writer’s strike signaled one thing it’s the times are changing. As the founder of The Geek Squad said recently, “What people don’t understand is the internet hasn’t yet started.” I believe new forms of distribution will fuel a revival in regionalism.

“What regional filmmaking means to me is not only utilizing the actors of your area, the musicians and the artists, but probing what it means to that region. And for me, the thing about Memphis that I’ve always responded to is its music scene, from Sam Phillips recording Howlin’ Wolf, Rudus Thomas, Elvis Presely, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich.”
Craig Brewer, writer/director Hustle & Flow

Audiences for years have been complaining about the lack of originality and seemingly endless repetition of remakes and sequels. (And again that’s why they flocked to Juno.) And writers have struggled with the pressure to write what they think will sell to the masses rather than writing what they know and really want to write.

While advertising dollars are shrinking along with the writing dollars for TV jobs, the advertising dollars are not going away. They’re heading to the internet. And audiences are no longer satisfied the the TV limitations they’ve had in the past. They like being their own Internet programers.

We don’t know what it will look like yet, but the writing jobs (and acting, producing, directing, editing, and shooting jobs) will follow. Like the era from silent movies to sound pictures the industry is shifting.

Hollywood is stocked with talent from all across the United States and Canada. We enjoy hearing stories of Katie Holmes being from Toledo, Ohio and Julia Roberts from Smyrna, Georgia. Even the greater Cedar Rapids area alone has its share of actors in recent films and TV programs.

Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings)
Eric Rouse (Superman Returns)
Michele Monaghan (Mission Impossible III)
Tom Arnold (The Final Season)
Michele Emerson (Lost)
Ron Livingston (Office Space)
Ashton Kutcher (The Guardian)

Did you know that Kutcher grew up in rural Homestead, Iowa and once had a job sweeping up Cheerio dust at the General Mills factory in Cedar Rapids? That was before he became a biochemical engineering student at the University of Iowa, New York model, film and TV actor, and husband of Demi Moore.

Kutcher had the looks, drive, talent, and quirky good fortune to make a name for himself that thousands of small town actors, writers, directors will never find in Hollywood. And what happens to those actors, writers and directors who don’t find fame or fortune in L.A.?

Do they embrace that hotel manager job? Have a career in sales for a health club or a real estate company in the valley? Move back home and unpack their suitcase full of broken dreams? Probably a little of all of that, but it’s going to become less necessary for talent to have to be in New York and LA.

This trend has already been seen in the advertising world as Crispin Porter in Miami was chosen to launch the Mini Cooper campaign years ago. (More recently they revamped VW’s image.) And Virginia’s Martin Agency has been doing the UPS Brown and quirky Geico cavemen & gecko ads. (At Martin they used to have a sign in the creative department that read, “Nobody comes to Richmond for the restaurants.”) Creativity Magazine has called Martin the “Third most creative agency in the world.” And they’re in Virginia! Changing times indeed.

But wherever the sneaky long actor, writer, or director lives they need to keep plugging away at the craft. Keep learning and keep creating.

I’ve said before in workshops I’ve given, “Don’t quit your day job, because you never know how that can serve your work.” (Not to mention it pays the biils.) Johnny Depp says he used to use different voices in the telemarketing job he had when he first moved to L.A. from Florida.

Then there is Anthony Zuiker’s story. After the show he created, CSI, became the top rated scripted show he told Creative Screenwriting magazine, “Three years ago I was living in Vegas as the night manager of the Mirage Hotel tram line.” (Zuiker whose creation has since grown into the hit shows CSI:New York and CSI:Miami has Chicago roots. How many years until CSI: Cedar Falls?)

But when Zuilker was a night manger he was also writing. It was while working at a motel when he actually found the inspiration for his first TV script. “The police and I are in this motel room searching for evidence when an officer lifts up the bed skirt. All I see is a pair of eyes before she leaps from beneath the bed clawing at my face. And I thought, ‘There’s a show here.’” (By the way if you’re interested in having Zuilker speak to a group of yours contact the Greater Talent Network.)

Certainly golfer Zach Johnson has followed Zuilker’s advice: “If you follow your passion, the money will follow. Success, in my opinion, involves sheer luck, hard work and humility.” Johnson was not the top golfer on his college team at Drake. (Congrats, by the way, to Drake men’s basketball coach Keno Davis for getting AP Coach of the Year last week.) Johnson even wasn’t the #1 golfer on his high school team.

But he had passion and kept improving his game until he got to slip on the famed green jacket at Augusta on his way to making $4 million dollars last year.

Whether you’re making music videos in Minneapolis, turning out B-grade cable scripts, teaching high school theater in Tulsa, a grocery store stock boy, a night tram manager in Vegas, a daytime tram operator in Orlando,  or someone sweeping up Cheerio dust in a factory you have to believe that you’re sneaky long and can surprise a lot of people with what you write. But you have to be writing to get there.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“There’s nothing like it in American show biz. It’s part comedy and part burlesque. It’s raw drama. It’s not Crime and Punishment. And it doesn’t pretend to be Masterpiece Theater.”  Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University on professional wrestling

This past week was a big week in wrestling. You may have missed it so I thought I’d fill you in on the celebrations and the spectacle. I will preface this by saying that I haven’t really followed wrestling of any form since I was about ten and watched professional wrestling on TV.

TV Announcer: “It looks like this match is over…wait, wait…he’s pulling a foreign object out of his pants…it looks like brass knuckles.” Never once did I ask how those brass knuckles, hidden in those tight underwear-like pants, went unnoticed by the ref the entire rest of the match. I was too caught up in the play.

Other than Dusty Rhodes I don’t remember any names, but I do remember the body slams, the jumping off the ropes, the sleeper holds, and the chair over the back move. High drama for a ten year old growing up in Central Florida before video games.

Last Sunday 74,635 people (a record for the Orlando Citrus Bowl) gathered for WrestleMania XXIV. I remember going to a Super Bowl of Rock concert at the Citrus Bowl as a teenager back in the day and I gotta tell you that it was a transcendent  moment looking out at a sea of flickering lighters in the summer night and hearing 60,000 people singing “Against the Wind” along with Bob Seger. I can imagine the atmosphere last Sunday. 

The event last week was called  “The Biggest WrestleMania Under the Sun” and over 40,000 tickets were sold in 30 minutes. Festivities lasted for five days and Snoop Dogg was the Master of Ceremonies. Internationally the main event was also on pay-per-view for $54.99 making it was one of the largest pay-per-view events in history with over a million buys. Do the math on $54.99 times a million.   

Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) have tapped into a multi-billion dollar melodrama. Is it Hollywood’s competition or your future work? Someone has to write those wrestling storylines.  

“To me, wrestling is just like watching a movie, or better yet a television series.” Colin Vassallo, editor of Wrestling-Online Newsletter was recently quoted as saying in an Orlando Sentinel article by Dave Darling, “It has good guys, bad guys, the women and the action. And what more would young men want to watch on television?”

Even boxing champion Floyd Mayweather got into the WrestleManna act and I read he even used good ole’ brass knuckles to knock out his opponent. Some tricks never fade away. Shakespeare had to compete with public hangings and as screenwriters and filmmakers you have to compete with professional wrestling and NASCAR. It’s good to know what you’re up against as well as what’s considered popular culture.

Back here in Iowa, Iowa Governor Chet Culver proclaimed last Thursday “University of Iowa Wrestling Day ” in the state of Iowa. It doesn’t get the same press and coverage as March Madness, but two weeks ago in St. Louis the Iowa Hawkeyes wrestling team won the school’s 21 NCAA title.

1972 Olympic champion wrestler Dan Gable once coached the University of Iowa to nine straight NCAA championships. And that’s the real deal — no brass knuckles. But still plenty of drama. In fact, writer John Irving (a former wrestler) is developing a movie on Gable’s life. Gable won every single high school and college match except for his last one.

Last Thursday was also the 100 Anniversary of Iowan Frank Gotch defeating George “The Russian Lion” Hackenschmidt for the world heavyweight wrestling championship. I had never heard of Gotch, but apparently this event in its day was a bit like Seabiscuit. According to Jim Neson of the Waterloo Courier it was front page sports news for the papers in New York and L.A. and a trip to the white house for Gotch to meet president Teddy Roosevelt.

And a play for the farmer turned wrestler toured up and down the east coast. (If anyone has a copy of this play I’d love to read it.) So wrestling and drama have gone hand in hand for a long time. 

Director Darren Aronfsky (Pi, The Fountain) recently wrapped production on Robert Siegel’s script The Wrestler starring Mickey Rourke as a long haired pro wrestler past his prime looking for a comeback. Marisa Tomei plays his stripper girlfriend and it’s said to feature a lot 80′s music. For some reason I’m sensing a lot of on screen perspiration. Why didn’t they just title it 9 1/2 Rounds?

Aren’t the Spider-Man movies just a glorified wrestling match with costume changes, over the top fights, and a girl thrown in the mix? This wrestling stuff is primal and probably has been side by side with storytelling since the beginning of time. 

If there’s one thing every screenwriter can learn from professional wrestling it’s this: when you character is running against the wind and all seems lost, that’s the time for them to pull out their brass knuckles. It works every time.

Come to think of it, almost thirty years later, Seger lyrics still resinate:

Well those drifter days are past me now
I’ve got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out

Against the wind
I’m still runnin’ against the wind
I’m older now but still still runnin’
Against the wind 

If you choose a life in the arts you will face many days when you’re runnin’ against the wind. You need lots of tenacity and determination…and it doesn’t hurt to have a pair of brass knuckles.

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

                              

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Today marks the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  The civil rights leader and Baptist minister has left a lasting impression on the United States.

In 2006 I was doing a video shoot in Jackson, Mississippi and then had to drive to Atlanta for another shoot. When I’m on the road I try to make it as interesting as possible and I took a detour off the main highway so I could retrace the Selma to Montgomery march. (This shot was taken as I drove over the bridge in Selma, Alabama where the conflict known as Bloody Sunday occurred back in 1965.) 

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Much of that region looks similar as it did in that day. In route to Atlanta I learned that King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, had died and there would be a public viewing in Atlanta that weekend. I figured that was a more than amazing way to finish my civil rights tour and I took the photo of King’s hearse outside the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’d like to address Martin Luther King Jr. from that perspective.

Let’s talk about the characters you chose to write about.

“Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.”                           Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay

It’s been said that drama favors the great saint or the great sinner.

We don’t have to go very far in theater, literature and film to see that this is true:

Hamlet
King Lear
Blanche DuBois
The Godfather
Scarlet O’Hara
James Bond
Mad Max
Lawrence of Arabia
Snow White
Norma Rae
William Wallace
Virgil Tibbs
Darth Vader
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Bonnie & Clyde

In fact, we might as well say that history favors the great saint or great sinner:

Nero
Lincoln
Grant
Washington
Kennedy
Stalin
Elvis
Ali
Nixon
Churchill
Hitler

It’s been said that the History Channel should be called the Hitler Channel because he plays such a key role in many programs.

Certainly the words saint and sinner are religious in nature so let’s look there to see if it favors the great saint and the great sinner as far as being remembered:

Adam & Eve
Cain & Abel
Moses
King David
Christ
Mary
Paul
Judas
Gandhi
Muhammad
Buddha
St. Augustine
Martin Luther
John Calvin
Mother Theresa
Jim Jones
Satan

How memorable are the characters you have created? Do you write characters that are as fascinating to watch as animals at the zoo? “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

That’s not to say that every character you write has to be as fascinating as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s Wall St. but your protagonist and antagonist must be somebody we are interested in investing two hours of hours lives. (They could be a shark, a robot, or a tornado as well, but whatever they are make them standout.) They don’t even have to shoot the bad guy at the end. Jake LaMotta in Ragging Bull is a despicable character but man is he ever an interesting case study.  

“I’m not interested in having to root for someone; I’m trying to get some sort of understanding as to what makes people tick and what they’re about. — Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct

If you do write about a common person it’s best if you put them in an extraordinary situation. (Like Miss Daisy & Hoke’s relationship in Driving Miss Daisy centered around a changing world, or Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest who must run for his life. And let’s not forget the quintessential common man Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman who is a mirror for all humanity that faces living, as Thoreau said, “lives of quite desperation.”  

The truth is it’s easier to write a strong bad guy than a strong good guy. For every Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) there are probably three Norman Bates (Psycho). (And actors love to play a good bad guy.) And basic dramatic structure dictates that when you throw your protagonist and antagonist into the ring it should be a fair battle. 

Look at Steven Spielberg films and you’ll find a long list of really bad people and creatures. 

And here’s a secret. Many great characters are a mix of saint and sinner. Isn’t there a Jekel and Hyde in all of us? Don’t we love to go to movies and watch characters wrestle with life, with themselves? (Heck, even Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell characters are really wrestling with life.)

Showing that struggle is part of what makes your characters engaging and memorable. It gives your characters dimension.

“It’s rare that you find three-dimensional characters in a writing sample, and when you do, it’s obvious that’s a writer you want to work with.”   Paramount Story Editor 

So as you hear the stories about Martin Luther King Jr. today ask yourself what was it about this man and his work that made him memorable. What obstacles did he have to overcome? How did his character respond to the set-backs? And how in the years after his death has his work been relevant in shaping America today?

The debates I’ve heard on the radio programs have given answers all over the map. Great characters are not lukewarm.

Martin Luther King Jr., by some accounts, was like Oskar Schindler, in that he was a flawed man who left a great legacy. His dream has not been realized, but it’s a good dream.  Remember that throughout history, ideas flow from the philosophers and prophets to the masses via artists.

“Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”  William Romanowski

Photos & Text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“My psychological state when I start a screenplay is always the same. It’s a mix of fear, anxiety and insecurity.”
Akiva Goldsman, Oscar winner (A Beautiful Mind)

“Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?”
Paddy Chayefsky (Network)
Three-time Oscar winner


How do you start your story? Something must happen to set your story in motion. Some call this an inciting incident, a hook, or a catalyst.  When this event or situation happens it disrupts the life of your protagonist. It sets them on a quest.

It must be a dynamic event. An event that rocks their world and one in which they must fight to correct. And most of the times the inciting incidents are easy to spot.

Juno finds out she’s pregnant (Juno)

E.T. misses his ride (E.T.)

The Italian Stallion is chosen to fight for the championship (Rocky)

A shark eats a girl on a late night swim in the ocean (Jaws)

A sports agent writes a controversial mission statement  (Jerry Maguire)

Zack Mayo signs up for officer training (An Officer and a Gentleman)

Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is killed (The Fugitive)

Miss Daisy wrecks her car (Driving Miss Daisy)

Charlie Kane dies just after saying “Rosebud”  (Citizen Kane)

Jack wins a ticket on the Titanic boat (Titanic)

Thinking she’s getting engaged her boyfriend break-ups with her (Legally Blond)

Charlie Babbit’s gets news that his dad is dead (Rain Man)

Nemo is captured by fishermen (Finding Nemo)

The war happens (The Pianist)

A Helicopter is shot down (Black Hawk Down)

Ferris takes the day off (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

Will solves a difficult mathematical equation (Good Will Hunting)

The oven breaks on Thanksgiving day (Pieces of April)

A large family goes on vacation leaving a child behind (Home Alone)

A law grad takes an offer for what looks like the perfect job (The Firm)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Sunset Blvd.)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Bourne Identity)

Boy wishes that he was bigger and wakes up a grown-up (Big)

A farmer hears a voice telling him “If you build it he will come” (Field of Dreams)

“As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.”

David Mamet (The Verdict)

Two Oscar nominations

Often inciting incidents boil down to the worst things that can happen in your life:

Divorce (Kramer vs. Kramer)

Murder (Witness)

Illness (The Doctor)

Shooting victim (Regarding Henry)

Plane crash (Castaway)

Financial Crisis (The Perfect Storm)

Quitting a job (Lost in America)

Taking the perfect job (The Firm)

Aging (City Slickers)

Dying (The Bucket List)

Kidnapping (Ransom)

Natural Disaster (Wizard of Oz)

Recession (Indecent Proposal)

Things that make newspaper headlines on a regular basis. They are headlines because they get our attention. What’s the old newspaper expression, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

These all set the story in motion. Like a boxer’s one-two punch they often have a set-up & payoff:

Jerry Maguire writes mission statement—gets fired.

Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is killed—he’s charged with murder—he decides to flee bus wreck and track down killer.

Miss Daisy wrecks car—Hoke is hired to be her driver.

The shark attacks the girl—the sheriff finds her body, well, an arm.

Charlie Babbit’s dad dies in Rain Man—he learns he’s out of the will, well, he gets the car and the award winning rose bushes, but not the millions he hoped for.

Ferris takes the day off—Principle wants to catch him skipping school

Someone has to hear Charlie Kane say “Rosebud” or there can’t be the quest to find out what it means. (Never mind that nobody is around to hear the words actually being said.)

You could argue that if the girl dies in the ocean without being discovered then the case is written off as a drunk girl drowning, so which is the inciting incident? But let’s not get hung up on technical things or we’ll say the beer is the inciting incident…or the moment the beer was bought. Chalk it up to a cause and effect. Find your inciting incident and get on with writing your story.

If the inciting incidents doesn’t happen then the movies doesn’t happen. Writer Skip Press asks, “Will this event put my main character on a path to his ultimate goal from which there is no turning back?”

Sometimes this event happens in the first scene, but usually within the first ten pages, and always within the first act. Syd Field notes that in studying Joe Eszterhas scripts he noticed, “In most cases…the inciting incident was a cinematic tool he used to set up the story from page one, word one.”

If you’ve ever found yourself watching a movie and wondering when it’s going to start the cause is usually too much time was spent setting up the inciting incident. The moment needs to come when it will have the most impact, but in our ADD culture it’s hard for viewers (and studio readers) to wait too long for the inciting incident. Over and over again that’s why you will hear about the importance of the first 10 pages of your script. It sets the tone of your story, and gives us an indication of who the characters are and what they want.

The inciting incident must happen on screen and it must be dynamic. It gets our attention and the attention of our protagonist. If our protagonist doesn’t react to this then you have no movie.

The climax of the film will be tied into this inciting incident. Think of them like bookends that hold your story in place. Rocky is picked to fight Apollo Creed and the climax is occurs after the fight is over and he’s still on his feet.

An inciting incident arouses a desire in the protagonist that he or she is willing to go to the end of the line to get. Rocky can’t say, “I don’t even have a locker. I’m a bum. Maybe if I can get into shape.” Well, he could but it’s a different movie.

Your audience wants to know what your story is about. They have paid money to be entertained. And they want to watch your characters wrestle with life issues. Because that’s really why we go to movies. To watch human drama be lived out in a way that helps us with our own human dramas.

So your inciting incident is what sets your protagonist in motion.

“The overwhelming majority of stories are based on a need, a problem, or an unusual situation.”

Edward Dmytryk (The Caine Mutiny)

Oscar & DGA nominations

“Find a character who’s obsessed and you have a real driving line.”
Ron Bass (Rain Man)
Oscar winner

P.S. If indeed Rocky’s inciting incident is Apollo Creed picking it fight him, it is one of the latest inciting incidents ever—it comes around the 33 minute mark.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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