In my last post I wrote about Missouri’s influence on Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, and how he wrote his first play during lunchtime while working at an ad agency in Chicago.

But those weren’t the only things that shaped him as a writer. When Wilson was 26-years-old he moved to New York City in the early sixties and worked various odd jobs (dishwasher, reservation clerk, riveter, waiter)—but more importantly he became part of an informal group of about 45 writers. (One of the writers was Sam Shepard who at the time was a bus boy at a jazz club called The Village Gate.)

Here’s an excerpt from Dennis Brown’s book Shoptalk explaining the era:

Wilson became involved with Off-Off-Broadway when it was nurturing a young generation of writers. 

“The greatest thing about the early days was that it was like a five-year apprenticeship for all of us,” he said. “I don’t know any place, even today, other than Off-Off-Broadway that offers people what we had. Working on one-act plays with live audiences that we had to get ourselves. It was dragging them off the streets.”

Talent has a way of clustering, and it clustered in Greenwich Village in the mid-sixties. These starving writers were filled with ambition and confidence. 

“We knew,” Wilson enthused. “We knew. When Sam Shepard’s first play was done, there was a general cheer across all the Village. Everyone knew that someone was added to the list. We would sit talking about theater all night long in some cafe, and before we would leave someone would say, ‘Does this remind you of Van Gogh and Gauguin sitting together? We always knew!”

In 1969 Wilson, director Marshall, director Rob Thikield, and actress Tanya Berezin founded the Circle Repertory Company (first known as Circle Theater Company). In 1982, The New York Times stated, “Circle Rep is home to some of the most prolific talent in the American theater.”

P.S. The first play I ever saw on Broadway was a revival of The Three Sisters in 1997 featuring a Lanford Wilson translation of the Anton Chekhov play. The cast included Lili Taylor, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Amy Irving, Eric Stoltz, David Strathairn, Jerry Stiller,  Calista Flockhart, Justin Theroux and Paul Giamatti. A lot of talent on one stage.

Scott W. Smith

“I wrote my first play at an advertising agency in Chicago during lunch hours around 1957. Actually, when I went to Chicago I thought I’d be a commercial artist…until I saw what commercial art was. Then I decided I’d be a painter. I did about ten paintings. They were terrible. At the same time, I kept writing stories. Not realizing I was a writer, but writing stories. Everyone said, ‘Your dialogue is very good, but your description is horrible.’ And one story would have been better as a play. I always had this interest in theater. ‘Long about this time I decided that I didn’t want to be a terrible painter. Writing was fulfilling me more. So I started working on plays.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson (Talley’s Folly)
Interview with Dennis Brown/Shoptalk
Pages 8 & 9

P.S. Long before Wilson left Chicago and found Broadway and off-Broadway success in New York he was raised in various parts of Missouri (Lebanon, Springfield, Ozark). In fact, the story of Talley’s Folly is set in Lebanon where Wilson was born in 1937. (He died in 2011.)

When Dennis Brown asked Wilson how much influence Lebanon, Mo. had on his writing this was the answer he received:

“It’s going to get stronger and stronger. I am so thankful that I had the background that I did. When I was five years old in Lebanon, I had a grandmother with Indian blood who would go around picking wild green in the fields. And I still could—I don’t, but I could—pick a mess of greens. But for her, I learned the trees and the birds. I didn’t know until I came to New York that there where people who didn’t know the names of trees…The play I’m working on now [The Mound Builders] is rooted in the land….We’ve got to get back to the garden. That is the theme that is in every play of mine, and I believe it sincerely.” 
Lanford Wilson

The Mound Builders was first performed by Circle Repertory Company and won the 1975 Obie Award for Distinguished Playwriting. (There was a revival of the play in 2013 by the Signature Theatre Company.)

Dream big, start small. Remember Wilson and his being raised in a small town in Missouri and writing during his lunch breaks on his way to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

Related post:
The Breakfast Club for Writers (2.0) Elmore Leonard on writing each morning before his job at an ad agency in Detroit.

Scott W. Smith 



“You need to have a lot of perseverance and persistence in order to get things through, which was certainly true for The Theory of Everything.”
Producer/screenwriter Anthony McCarten
(Who said he worked on The Theory of Everything “more or less, for 10 years.”)

Oscar-nominated and  BAFTA-winning screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) started his writing career as a journalist with a small newspaper in New Plymouth, New Zealand. Along his writing journey the 53-year-old has written plays, novels and TV programs.

“When I left university, I tried making it as a poet for a while, but there was no money in poetry. So, I turned up at an unemployment office and they said, ‘We have no positions for poets at the moment, but can you act?’ I said yes, of course, but it was a complete lie. And I found myself performing a reduced Shakespeare for schools. This threw me into the world of actors and opened a door for me to write a play. It’s how I morphed from someone who wrote poems to someone who wrestled with plot and structure and character and movement and so forth.

“I was 10 years into being a playwright and, during that time, nurtured a desire to write a novel. While I was developing my skills as a novelist, opportunities arose where I was asked if I would be happy to turn my novels into movies. And that returned me to my first love, which was TV, and the stories I grew up watching in black and white.”
Anthony McCarten
MovieMaker interview with Mark Sells

Related posts:
“I can’t keep handling this…rejection” Advice from a now Oscar-winning screenwriter.
Perseverance (Werner Herzog)
Tennessee Williams on ‘Apparent Failure’
Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcuts’
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter “I think every writer harbors—secretly or not-so-secretly—delusions of grandeur.” Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (whose own writing journey echoes McCarten’s—Perseverance & Persistence).

Scott W. Smith



“I see only one requirement you have to have to be a director, or any kind of artist: rhythm. Rhythm, for me, is everything. Without rhythm, there’s no music. Without rhythm, there’s no cinema. Without rhythm, there’s no architecture. The cosmos is a system of rhythms that come in many ways: Images. Sounds. Colors. Vibrations… . And if you don’t get that, if you don’t have that, it’s impossible to do something that vibrates. You can have the craft, the knowledge, the information, the tools, even the ideas—but if you don’t have rhythm, you are fucked.”
Oscar-winning Birdman producer/director/writer Alejandro González Iñárritu
Esquire, January 2015

Related post: The Rhythm of Writing

Have you heard the news, everyone’s talking
Life is good ’cause everything’s awesome
Everything is Awesome!!! from The Lego Movie

Okay, maybe not everything is awesome. In fact, if we just look at a few of last night’s Academy Award-winning films we’ll see a lot of the harder aspects of life represented; Birdman, Still Alice, American Sniper, Whiplash, Ida, Selma.

(The same was true of last year’s films—12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, Gravity— and the year before that, and throughout the 100+ years of the history of movies.)

Congrats to last night’s winners and nominees. And best wishes in your own writing, filmmaking and life as you deal with the less awesome times of your life—the ones full of strife and conflict.

Capture the magic.

Scott W. Smith

“[Foxcatcher] was kind of an orphan movie for a while. There was no financing. There were no actors, and we were just trying to get the script right.”
Foxcatcher co-screenwriter Dan Futterman
The Wall Street Journal 

In the post Wrestling for an Oscar Nomination I wrote about screenwriter Jason Hall physically wrestling with someone while he was researching the story that would become the movie American Sniper.

While Foxcatcher is a story actually centered around wrestling—and up for 5 Oscars this year—I didn’t find any physical wrestling the filmmakers had to endure while bringing the story to film life, but director Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman had plenty of metaphorical wrestling along the eight-year journey to get the film made.

“In spring 2006, a total stranger handed me an envelope at an event at Tower Video that contained newspaper clippings about the story. That was my first exposure.”
Bennett Miller on the early seeds for Foxcatcher

Frye and Futterman worked on the screenplay seperatley—Frye before the 2007/2008 writers’ strike and Futterman afterwards.

“Bennett… became obsessed with it, and I think for, oh, six months at least, began to really do a lot of research and compile a lot of articles and public domain material and histories of the du Pont family, etc., etc. But he also did another really important thing, which was he went around and he interviewed and videotaped a lot of wrestlers who knew the Schultz brothers and/or were at Foxcatcher during that time period. And for me that was really essential to understand the world. I’m an ex-jock but I’m a basketball player and not a wrestler. So wrestling is a very, very particular kind of person and personality that becomes involved in it, in the sport, and it was really interesting for me to…I feel like that’s what I really…my research, you know, aside from the nuts and bolts and the facts and how to crack the story, my research really involved getting to know wrestling in a way and really understanding the mentality of people that wrestle, because that was, certainly for Mark and Dave, that was essential to understanding their characters.
E. Max Fry
Final Draft interview with Pete D’Alessandro

Apart from nailing the script, finding the right actors and securing financing were the major battles in getting the film made.  Miller set the project aside and made Moneyball (2011) before things finally fell in place to get Foxcatcher produced.

The payoff is Miller received an Oscar-nomination for directing Foxcatcher, and both Fry and Futterman were nominated for writing the screenplay. A win-win even if they don’t win.

P.S. To see how Miller launched his career go back and watch the documentary The Cruise (1998). Dream big, start small.

Scott W. Smith


Can you have a day job (or a night job) and still find time to write? Yes.

“I was a sound engineer. That was my day job when I started writing. I sort of did my day job every night. I would write from ten to six every day and at six, leave my apartment and head down to one of these rock clubs I worked at and mix for bands, or I would go into my studio… I had a little studio that I started with friends on the Lower East Side, and record bands there and I remember we did a series of Garnier shampoo commercials that like paid my rent for a year.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Graham Moore (The Imitation Game)
Interview with Brad Brevet/ Rope of Silicon

In case you missed it, Moore (whose roots are in Chicago) wrote from “ten to six everyday”—that’s eight hours a day, 40 hours a week if he did that five days a week. Over 160 hour of writing a month, all while working another job that paid his bills.

The Imitation Game was written as a spec script and was chosen as the top script on the 2011 The Black List. For what it’s worth, Moore’s degree from Columbia University is in religious studies.

Related post:
“I can’t keep handling this…rejection”—Graham Moore
“Art is Work”—Milton Glaser
The Breakfast Club for Writers (2.0) Elmore Leonard on writing two hours before work each morning— for ten years!—before his writing career really took off.
Iowa Kutcher on Jobs/Work —”Opportunities look a lot like work.”
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70) Hint—it’s not screenwriting contests, screenwriting workshops, or screenwriting blogs and podcasts.

Scott W. Smith

%d bloggers like this: