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In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman’s Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot. I am sure that I did not.
Moby Dick, Chapter 6, written by Herman Melville

I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw the 1956 version of Moby Dick, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the director (John Huston), the star (Gregory Peck), or the actor playing Father Mapple (Orson Welles). It was probably something I stumbled upon in my youth while watching TV on a rainy Saturday afternoon. What I do remember is the minister climbing into the pulpit shaped like a boat. It was visually stunning.

Here’s the sermon that Welles reportedly did in one take. It’s not the sermon on the mount, and I don’t know how theologically accurate the sermon is, but Welles has quite a commanding delivery. (The film version sermon written by Ray Bradbury with the director John Huston is significantly shorter than the book version Melville wrote in chapter 9.)

Last week, I revisited the film version of Moby Dick after part of my recent vacation took me to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The film was not shot in New Bedford, but there is a ship shaped pulpit in Seaman’s Chapel there. (When I stopped by on July 4 it was closed for the holiday, so I could only take exterior photos.) Moby Dick author Herman Melville visited this church in 1840 before setting out to sea on a whaling boat.

I imagine someone has written extensively on sermons in movies, but here’s a short list of movies I came up with.

On The Waterfront (1954)

The Apostle (1997)

Tender Mercies (1983)

Sister Act (1992)

I’ll Give My Life (1960)

Places of the Heart (1984)

The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Elmer Gantry (1960)

Leap of Faith (1992)

MARJOE (1972)

The last three on that list could be filed under hypocritical preachers. And the last one I’d never seen or even heard about until writer/director (and encyclopedia of film history) Quentin Tarantino mentioned the name Marjoe Gortner in passing on his recent interview with Joe Rogan.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

After I left Nantucket in June, I spent most of the next day accomplishing my own whale quest. The photo below is the best result of about three hours of total driving on Cape Cod and around three and a half hours on a boat. (And a few dollars on a whale watching boat.)

We saw three whales on our outing off Provincetown, Massachusetts in an area known as the Stellwagen Bank. Those waters off Cape Cod are considered some of the best places in the world to watch whales.

Your expectations tend to be high when you go whale watching—in part because we live in an internet age. But our guide said that seeing 3-5 whales is a good day. She had seen as many as 20 once, and they occasionally have days where they don’t see any.

And the sperm whales you think of when you think of Moby-Dick are in deeper waters so that was off the table. I was glad to see the whales we saw, and seeing the classic tail on the end of a dive was worth my entire trip.

My wife and I only spent a few hours in Provincetown because we were staying at an inn located in Brewster. Provincetown is a dash of Key West and a sprinkle of Savannah. And odd mix considering it’s a sub-two hour boat trip from downtown Boston (and a little longer if you drive).

The town has always been on my radar since the days when I studied acting and playwriting since Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill went there in 1916 and for a time in his 20s lived, wrote, and had the plays Anna Christie and Bound East For Cardiff performed (and sometimes just readings of his work with actor friends).

If you’ve never read O’Neill’s one act plays, I just saw that four of then are available on Kindle for just $5.25 total. (And in paperback for $8.99.) It can be overwhelming for young writers (and older writers for that matter) to read his masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night. The early in his career Bound East for Cardiff is a good place to start.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

“Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.“
Ishmael in Moby-Dick (Chapter 17)
Written by Herman Melville

“I can assure you, Ernest Hemingway was wrong when he said that American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn. It begins with Moby-Dick.”
—Novelist E. L. Doctorow
(More than 150 years after Moby-Dick failed to make a ripple when initially released.)

While I was on Nantucket at the end of June, I picked up the book Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick at Nantucket Bookworks.

Philbrick wastes no time in dropping some surprising facts about Melville that were unknown to me:

Page 6:

“By the time of Melville’s death in 1891, Moby-Dick had sold a grand total of 3,715 copies.”
–Nathaniel Philbrick

Page 2:
”In December 1850, Melville was just thirty-one years old. A few months earlier he’d decided to move his family from New York City to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, the temporary home of his new literary idol, Nathaniel Hawthorne. . . . From the second-floor study of the farmhouse he purchased and renovated with loans from his father-in-law and a family friend, he could see nearby Mount Greylock.”
–Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathanial Hawthrone’s The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850. He moved to a farmhouse near Lennox, MA in March of that year, and a few months later met Melville at a picnic. Melville had already had success with his novel Typee. The house he bought in 1850 is known as Arrowhead and located in Pittsfield, MA. I took a tour of the house during the last week of June.

The furniture and other items in the room are not authentic, and there have been some modifications to the house, but the room where Melville wrote Moby-Dick is essentially the same.

And you can see the view that Melville had when he looked out over Mt. Greylock. When Melville finished Moby-Dick, he thought he’d written a story that would be considered one of the best American novels. He arguably did, though it would take about 80 years for the book to be discovered and appreciated. When he died, Moby-Dick wasn’t even mentioned in some of his obituaries. Unable to make a living as a writer, he sold Arrowhead 1863 and moved to New York City where he died 1891.

Though Melville was landlocked when he wrote Moby-Dick, he did spend four years at sea living a great adventure in his early 20s. (He said that was his Harvard and his Yale.) Melville was inspired by the tragic true story of the Essex whaling ship.

Philbrick’s modern retelling of the Essex story is the book In the Heart of the Sea, which became the Ron Howard directed movie In the Heart of the Sea.

P.S. Part of my short time in Nantucket was spent at the Whaling Museum which was quite fascinating, and gave a great overview of how the small island for a time was a hub of international trade due to the islanders success in the whaling industry. And though Melville has a chapter on Nantucket in Moby-Dick, he did not actually visit the island until after his book was published.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

This afternoon I fly home from Boston after a vacation in New England that was like a live Ken Burns documentary. Much of the time I listened to David McCullough’s audio book 1776. If I would have taken this trip at 16 (and paid attention) I would have done much better in my high school American History classes.

Hundreds of years of history are at every turn in this part of the country. Even the hotel I’m writing this post has its own history going back 100 years. The hotel is also where some scenes of The Firm starring Tom Cruise were shot back in the ‘90s, and where Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell are shooting a movie (a reworking of A Christmas Carol) down in the lobby as I type this post.

For the next week or so I’ll post some photos and stories of what I learned along the way. But like a good screenplay, American history is full of conflict, interesting characters, transformative transition periods, climaxes, resolutions, and new beginnings.

Update: Apparently, today was the first day of shooting of the movie Spirited:

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

“Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse.”

Moby Dick written by Herman Melville

It took me a few decades to make it to Nantucket. Yeah, it was worth it. The little island is just over an hour boat ride from mainland Massachusetts, but it takes some effort. One lady from western Massachusetts told me it’s easier for her to get to Paris than to get to Nantucket.

Nantucket was once the whaling captain of the world which afforded it to build a beautiful little town. It’s unlike any place I’ve ever been. A hint of Key West, a dash of Savannah, but a personality all its own.

An interesting side note is that Herman Melville had actually never been to Nantucket before he drew on it for inspiration in his classic novel Moby Dick.

P.S. The Nantucket Film Festival is held every year in June.


Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

16mm Memories

Earlier this month a friend of mine had some 16mm equipment he was interested in selling. One of the pieces was a Bell & Howell 70DR 16mm camera.

Robert Capa

It’s the kind that has turret lens you turn for wide, medium, and telephoto shots. Bell & Howell started making these kinds of cameras back in the 1920s. I always think of them as World War II era camera because of their durability and no need of batteries since you hand wind the camera for a spring loaded action.

I imagine it as the camera used in real life during the storming of the beach at Normandy during D-Day. Back in the early ‘80s those cameras were already ancient, but it I what I (and other students) used to shoot our first 16mm films. (Which we only got to do after shooting and editing an 8mm film.)

It was like a right of passage. And it’s a good one that some schools still continue to use, even if most of their work will be in the digital world.

Working in film teaches you patience. And it connects you to the craft with a 100+ history. It’s also a pain in the ass. And expensive and time consuming. And in the case of the B&H camera, it’s not going to deliver beautiful images like an old Arri SR camera would.

But if you’ve never shot film before I encourage you to do so. It’ll be a way to break things up creatively, and will give you a new appreciation all of the digital tools that are available today.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

“You know it when you see it: whether it’s the symmetrical lines, pastel hues, immaculate composition, or something idiosyncratic and beautiful that you can and cannot describe at once, the director Wes Anderson has an immediately identifiable style to his films.”
—From the book Accidentally Wes Anderson

A couple of weeks ago I was kayaking on Lake Howell and came across a newly built dock and I could see a Wes Anderson inspired shot. One of my friends commented that it was ”Accidentally Wes Anderson.” I didn’t know there was a whole social media movement around #accidentallywesanderson. I later tracked down a book based on shots from around the world echoing the influence of filmmaker Wes Anderson.

Wally Koval with Amanda Koval have turned many of the photos into the book Accidentally Wes Anderson.

A few days ago I went back that same dock around sunrise and decided I could tweak my composition to improve the shot. This one (the one at the top of this page) I call Purposely Wes Anderson since I trying to fill the frame in a way that Anderson might.

Of course, there is more to Anderson’s films than quirky framing, and here’s an video by StudioBinder that is an excellent overview of what make his style some unique.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

Last Saturday night I had the opportunity to see and take some photos of something I’ve only seen one other time in my life—the night-blooming cereus. And in this case it was the Selenicereus grandiflorus which only bloom once a year. And only at night.

Perhaps equally as impressive to the individual blooms was the group of cereus which climbed up a tree that had to go higher than 60 feet.

”I’m a fast typer but I’m slow at ideas. Most of my scripts have taken probably about seven years between writing and getting made.”
—Oscar winning screenwriter Taika Waititi (JoJo Rabbit)

”The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
—Mark Twain

This past weekend I went to a movie in a movie theater for the first time in over 14 months. I saw A Quiet Place II—and so did a lot of other people. The movie pulled in over $57 million to top a healthy Memorial Day weekend box office that signaled that the movie going experience still has a place in American culture.

Writer/director/actor John Krasinski—and all of Hollywood— breathed a sigh of relief. Hopefully, it was a positive turning point in a world previously shutdown by COVID-19.

And here are a couple of videos on Krasinski directing the original A Quiet Place that you may not have seen before.

Scott W. Smith is author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles (original co-screenwriters of A Quiet Place wrote the introduction to the book)

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