“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”
Proverbs 12:15


Yesterday I listened to the longest podcast I’ve ever heard. The Interview Master: Cal Fussman and the Power of Listening on The Tim Ferriss Show is over 3 hours and 22 minutes long and full of storytelling gems.

Fussman is perhaps best known for his Esquire features What I learned, where over the years he’s had the opportunity to interview a wide variety of people including Tom Hanks, Muhammad Ali, Dr. Dre, Helen Mirren, Mikhail Gorbachev, Faye Dunaway, George Forman and Johnny Depp.

Here’s one bit of advice I pulled from that interview.

Q—Tim Ferriss: If you could have a billboard anywhere, with anything on it, what would you put on it?

A—Cal Fussman: One word, listen…I don’t know what reaction that would get, but I would like to see the reaction on people’s faces when they saw that. Listening is an art form, people just aren’t using it as an art form. But it is an art form. And a lot of great things could be achieved through listening.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) was also interviewed by Tim Ferriss and his answer below is a nice bookend to Fussman’s answer.

Q—Tim Ferriss: If I watch Inside Man or 30 Days I’m consistently impressed  with how you get people to embrace you from different worlds and get people to accept you and trust you. How did you develop that? Or have you always been hardwired for that?

A—Morgan Spurlock: Well I think the biggest thing you have to do is—you just have to listen. The minute you start listening it’s amazing how people will talk to you, and how people will embrace you. We live in a culture where we don’t listen to begin with. I think that’s one. And I think we also live in a culture, and live in a world, where people aren’t honest with each other. And just don’t kind of openly have conversations with you, and talk about things that are hard to talk about…I think that if you come into those kinds of moments wanting to understand, and wanting to understand where someone is coming from—it doesn’t have to be confrontational, it doesn’t have to be ugly—you can have a really honest, above board conversation that is meaningful. So for me I think that’s the biggest thing. I think the best thing I do sometimes is shut up and listen.   

Scott W. Smith

Before Cal Fussman interviewed Mikail Gorbachev for Esquire magazine he was told that he only had 10 minutes with the one time Soviet Union leader. Instead of jumping in with a question about nuclear disarmament, the Cold War, or Ronald Reagan, he asked this question:

“What’s the best lesson your father ever taught you?”

This turned into a long answer about how Gorbachev’s father took his family to get ice cream before he went off to serve in World War II. When the publicicst showed up ten minutes later Gorbachev wasn’t even finished with the story, much less deeper answers. Fussman thought he’d blow his opportunity.

But Gorbachev said he wanted to speak with Fussman further and ended up connecting the ice cream story—and fears that his father could be killed during the war— to Ronald Reagan and ending the Cold War.

“What I realized was the power of the first question going straight to the heart and not the head. Because it was that first question that went into his head that took us to that very deep place and enabled the interview to continue to go. And because the interview could go, I was able to fill out the page for Esquire. Otherwise that would have been it, there’s no way the interview would have run. So lesson number one is aim for the heart, not the head. Once you get the heart, you can go the head. Once you get the heart and head, then you’ll have a pathway to the soul.”
Cal Fussman
Interview with Tim Ferriss 

Here’s the interview as it appeared in Esquire in 2008:
What I’ve Learned: Mikhail Gorbachev

Esquire What I’ve Learned: The Meaning of Life According to 65 Artists, Athletes, Leaders & Legends

P.S. From the unlikely places file, Gorbachev was from a remote farm in the Soviet Union and Reagan was raised in various Midwestern towns in the United States, but mostly in the small town of Dixon, Illinois. Both would rise up for a season to be the two most powerful people in the world. And for what it’s worth, Fussman went to journalism school in Columbia, Missouri (I visited the University of Missouri back in 2011 and wrote about in the post Brad Pitt & the Future of Journalism).

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions
Finding Authentic Emotions
Theme= Story’s Heart & Soul
A Beautiful Heart
Storytelling Soul Game
The Creative Fight
Mind, Spirt, Emotion
Filmmaker/Entrepreneur Robert Rodriguez (quote from The Tim Ferriss Show)

Scott W. Smith


“One of those lines from the how-to-write-movies books finally became real to me: The script is only a blueprint. During filming, last-minute decisions have to be made because of weather or budget, an individual’s availability or the director’s flash of insight. Pushing for greater naturalism, [director Lenny Abrahamson] often got the actors to improvise within a scene and I was startled by how much I liked the results.

“…A novelist shouldn’t write the screenplay unless she embraces the chance to change everything, to try to make the same magic over again, out of different ingredients. (For instance, ‘Room’ the novel gives him an expressive child’s body. The book is one boy’s story, and his mother is only shown in flashes, through his limited perspective; the film is a two-hander, with Brie Larson’s extraordinary performance bringing Ma right into the spotlight.)

“Adapting fiction for the screen is an act of mysterious translation, and working on ‘Room’ taught me much about both forms that I’d never known.”
Novelist/screenwriter Emma Donoghue (Room)
Novel Ideas for a Script/LA Times

Related post:
Good in a Room—Literally
Up in the Air—The Book vs. The Film
Up in the Air—The Book vs. The Film (part 2)

Scott W. Smith

“To me, Kurosawa is the Beethoven of movie directors.”
Director Sidney Lumet (Network, The Verdict)

“One of the hallmarks of Kurosawa’s style are his fluid camera moves… that go from a close-up, to a full shot, to an over the shoulder [shot] in a single unbroken take….What’s important here is every camera shot has a clear beginning. middle, and end.”
Tony Zhou

Tony Zhou has a voice, and a voice. And an audience. In fact, as I write this his Every Frame a Painting video on Kurosawa has over 1.8 million views.

Back in 2014 I became familiar with Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting You Tube channel and it’s one of the best ways to get bite-sized information on filmmakers and filmmaking techniques.

And while video essays have been around for decades—Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), Chris Marker San Soleil (1982)—and probably since the silent film era, there is an entertaining as well as informative way that Zhou puts together his video essays that make them part of a new Internet-era way of communicating about movies.

He conveys information that normally would be buried in film theory books and tucked inside film commentaries and makes them visually accessible. Film is a visual medium so it makes perfect sense to marry film theory and film clips together in video essays.

What makes Zhou’s work exceptional is they are so well done. His does his research and takes his time on the edit (80 hours of editing on the above Kurosawa video). He’s a freelance editor in San Francisco and his professionalism shows. He also has a enjoyable voice to listen to and comes with a distinct point of view (his other voice) on each topic.

Ever since being introduced to his video essays I’ve been encouraged to start producing my own video essays as an extension of this blog, and a way to reach some new plateaus. So look for my first one this summer.

“ I would encourage anyone who would like to make films or video essays—or would like actually to make anything— go out and make it….It sounds so simple and so banal, but it really is one of those things where I didn’t realize until I had done it how gratifying it is emotionally and psychologically just to get it out of your system….The crazy thing is that if you make something like this it could be successful, it could not be, but I would argue don’t try to replicate anyone else’s success, just make something that you would want to watch. And the crazy thing about the internet is there almost certainly will be someone else out there who wants to watch it. “
Tony Zhou
Patreon Podcast Extended Interview

As far as copyright laws are concerned Zhou believes what he does falls under fair usage  (education, commentary, criticism) and is transformative in nature. He says some of his videos have been flagged and temporarily taken down, but he has not been sued and all his videos have been restated.  (Welcome any lawyers to chime in here.)

For those interested in technically how he edits his video essays, he uses Final Cut Pro X, in part because of the ability to use keywords. (For instance he could go though a bunch of Kurosawa’s films and tag all the dolly shots “Dolly” that would add the meta data so he could easily find so the all the dolly shots from the films he’s tagged.)

He also talks about writing, recoding, and editing simultaneously so the process is organic.  And it’s worth noting that Zhou did not attend film school. He was an English major at UCLA and simply loves watching and analyzing movies.

P.S. I do have a question for Zhou (or any of you editing existing footage). I have used Hand Brake and MacX DVD software to convert standard def DVDs to mp4 files. But I need a recommendation on converting Blu-Ray or iTunes moves to be able to edit them on Final Cut Pro X.  Put your solutions in the comment section or email me at info@scottwsmith.com.

Scott W. Smith



“I think it’s great to have the Rams back in Los Angeles. Not having football in L.A. has been missed for the past 20 years, for sure.”
Eric Dickerson

Yesterday while I was eating lunch at a restaurant I saw that former Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson was on ESPN. I couldn’t hear the sound, but figured it had something to do with the NFL draft.

It turned out that the LA Rams not only had the first pick in the draft last night, but it was the first time in more than 20 years that the LA Rams where in the draft. Though the team was found in Los Angeles in 1946, they moved to St. Louis in 1995 where they became the St. Louis Rams.

There are a few things special about the above photo: first I took the photograph. I moved to LA in the early 80s and began working as a freelance photographer for Yary Photo while I was in film school. After I graduated I became director of photography there and was part of a small team of shooters who set up the portable bleachers and lights for the shot. When it came time to take the photo, I was the one pressing the release on the Mamiya RZ67 .

Two years later I was a 16mm cameraman working for Motivational Media in Burbank and shot an interview with Eric Dickerson at his Calabasas home and I took the 16X20 team photo that I shot and Dickerson was kind enough to sign it.  It’s one of my favorite mementos over the years. One of the things that makes it timeless is Dickerson is still the single season rushing leader. (A record he’s held for over 30 years.)

Another thing special about the photo is a fellow I played football with in high school is in the photo (Chuck Scott, on the end next to #3). He was playing his rookie year after being a second round pick out of Vanderbilt. (Today Chuck’s son Caleb Scott is a wide receiver at Vanderbilt, and another son Chad Scott is a WR at Furman.)

Another item of interest is Yary Photo was started by Ron and Wayne Yary who both played  football at USC. Ron Yary was the Outland Trophy winner in 1967 (top offensive lineman) where he blocked for the eventual Heisman Trophy winner—O.J. Simpson.  He went on to play for the Minnesota Vikings and was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. The football field at Bellflower H.S. (where he played high school ball) is named Ron Yary Stadium.

And that’s the rest of the story…

Scott W. Smith


“The purpose of a ticking clock: to inject urgency and tension into the story or an individual scene.”
Screenwriter Doug Eboch (Sweet Home Alabama)
Let’s Schmooze blog

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 11.05.48 PM

The last movie I saw (Eye in the Sky) was full of anticipation, and that was set up by the ticking clock scenario. Time was of the essence for the entire film. While I have touched on the ticking clock concept in pervious posts, I realized I had not done a post dedicated to unpacking the concept in detail—so here it is:

The ticking clock is simply a device writers use to create a sense of urgency—in both the characters and the audiences. It’s not found in every film and TV show, but there are plenty of examples over the years of stories across all genres that show it’s something worthwhile to have in your toolbox.

Sometimes the ticking clock is used in a single scene and other times it basically spans the entire film.

Two examples that come quickly to mind are Back to the Future (1985) and Taken (2008). Situations where major stakes are on the line if such and such doesn’t happen within in a specific time frame.

It doesn’t have to be a literal clock ticking down (though it can be) but it must be clear to those involved (and those watching) that there will be dire consequences if some terms aren’t met before a specific deadline.

“An example of a ticking clock would be the movie Armageddon, where the team had only a short time to blow up the asteroid, or all of mankind would be destroyed when it hit Earth. This gives an underlying tension to the entire movie”
Stephen Cannell

“A time endpoint, also known as a ticking clock, is a technique in which you tell the audience up front that the action must be completed by a specific time. It is most common in action stories (Speed), thrillers (Outbreak), caper stories (where the characters pull off some kind of heist, as in Ocean’s Eleven), and suicide mission stories (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen).”
John Truby
The Anatomy of Story

“Always helps to have a ticking clock. In Millions, the two boys have only a limited amount of time before the fortune in cash they found is worthless, as all currency is about to be converted to Euros. They are forced to solve their problem before the suitcase of money is useless.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks

Here are other films with ticking clocks:

127 Hours —A solo adventurer must find a way to get his arm released from being wedged in a rock crevasse before he dies from lack of food and water.
48 Hours
The  Hunt for Red October
United 93
Back to the Future

Silence of the Lambs
Little Miss Sunshine
The Hangover
High Noon
Blue Brothers
Happy Gilmore
The African Queen
and more recently The Martian.

Here’s what the ticking clock looks like on the page from the Drew Goddard written screenplay The Martian (based on Andy Weir’s book). This scene starts at page 16 after astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) survives being left behind on Mars.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.53.39 PMScreen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.54.24 PM

Even terrific indie films Winter’s Bone, Buried, and Ida have ticking clocks. Tv programs like Breaking Bad and Empire have ticking clocks related to the health issues of the lead characters.

Like any technique there are times when its use can seem heavy handed and forced—even a cliche. But that doesn’t negate that in the right hands it is a time trusted (pun intended) way to produce a sense of urgency.

Remember in Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks and his troop are charged with finding (and returning) Private Ryan before he’s killed on the battlefield? That qualifies as a ticking clock. As does finding (and killing) the shark in Jaws before it wrecks the town’s tourist economy.  And, now that I think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, E.T. and Schindler’s List all make uses of ticking clocks. So if Spielberg doesn’t shy away from ticking clocks why should you?

Related Posts:
The Bomb Under the Table 

Scott W. Smith




“I find violence very disturbing on screen. I hate Tarantino’s films … I hope people will challenge this more. It’s totally unacceptable to be making such films.”
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert (speaking after the release of Django Unchained)
Evening Standard 2013

British screenwriter Guy Hibbert began working on the script for Eye in the Sky in 2008—meaning it was an eight year journey to get the script written, the film produced and released.

The movie isn’t going to set any box office records, but I can’t imagine it getting some love come award season. Hibbert has won BAFTAs: No Child of Mine, Omagh, Complicit, and Five Minutes of Heaven. In 2009, he also won the World Cinema Dramatic screenwriting award at Sundance for Five Minutes of Heaven.

Born in Oxford, England in 1950, he dropped out of school at 15,  and at age 20  started a career in theater as a stage hand and a tour manager. And he began writing plays.  In his words, “I got a couple plays put on—couldn’t make a living out of it, and then moved into television.”

There he’s been able to make a living. And fast forward a little more than 20 years since his writing career took off and I imagine you’ll hear his name mentioned come award season for his script for Eye in the Sky.

Here’s some advice (from the above interview) to writers just starting out :
“Work hard. Learn everything. And go out and experience life—as a writer you have to have a story worth telling. So you have to live your life.”
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert

Related post:
‘Eye in the Sky’
‘Art is work’—Milton Glaser




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