“Life is short
Even in its longest days”

—John Mellencamp/Longest Days

Ten year ago I was hired to field produce and shoot a spot with Super Bowl winner and on-air personality Tony Siragusa. When we were setting up in his New Jersey home, he came into the kitchen and joked, “What are all these people doing in my house?” Big personality, very enjoyable to work with, and instantly likable. Last night when I heard that he died at age 55, I thought that though he had a relatively short life, he seemed to have a zeal for life you don’t often see. Along with his Super Bowl XXXV ring with the Baltimore Ravens, he also had on his resume: NFL on Fox reporter, host of the TV show Man Cave (2007-2016), and parts in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and David Chase’s The Sopranos. 

Enjoy each moment you can.

P.S. On that shoot with me was the talented Sara Kinney (standing to Tony’s left), who is now an LA based cinematographer. She has an MFA from AFI and her credits include The World According to Jeff Goldblum.

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

“I believe in the three-act structure, I’ve just never succeeded in doing one. Terminator is five acts, with a coda. Aliens is four acts. None of my stuff ever fits the three-act structure. I think thinking in acts is good up to a point. . . . If you think in terms of act breaks you‘ll create transitions that are interesting. . . . There are plenty of book on screenwriting. Read the books. Know the rules. And then just break them.”
— Oscar and Emmy winning producer/director/writer/editor James Cameron whose work includes Titanic and Avatar

P.S. One of the things I’ve done over the years on this blog is to curate how a wide variety of screenwriters and filmmakers development their stories. Even the great ones contradict each other.

Related posts:
‘Drama has rules…’—David Mamet

Rules, Breaking Rules, No Rules

‘There are no rules‘

‘Rules are what makes art beautiful.’ —Aaron Sorkin

Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule

There Are No Rules, But..

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


”I don’t know of a more noble, a bigger deal as a filmmaker than to be a YouTube filmmaker.”
—Casey Neistat

”[MrBeast’s] giving a lot of kids a new path to take, to teach these young kids on how to be entrepreneurial, not just to get a lot of views or become famous.”
—Josh Richards, 19-year-old TikTok creator
2021 NY Times article by Taylor Lorenz

This isn’t really a fair competition since Tom Cruise/Maverick is a real person/movie character and Casey Neistat/MrBeast are a real person/real person—YouTube persona, but I think I can make a point here (especially to young people) about where we’ve been and where we’re heading.

As of today (June 9, 2022), Top Gun: Maverick has made over $300 million at the domestic box office and is pushing $600 globally. And it’s only been out two weeks today. It’s on track to be the most financially successful movie of Cruise’s long and distingushed career. When he turns 60 next month he’s got to be grateful of the run he’s had.

But, I do wonder if he were 19 years old and starting out today, would Cruise head to Hollywood to build his empire or would he head to YouTube? This is where Neistat and MrBeast come in. A 19 year old today would have been born in 2003. Two years after 911, and the same year when Neistat’s first viral video (iPod’s Dirty Secret,) gained attention. They were 2 when YouTube officially launched in 2005. And 11 or 12 when Neistat launch his YouTube channel in 2015. Casey went on a two year daily tear and racking up as many as 77 million views per video on his channel. It made him a very wealthy man, and he earned the nickname the Vlogfather.

Are you with me so far? Here’s the crazy thing,

In 2015, MrBeast (Jimmy Donaldson) hadn’t even graduated from high school. We’re only talking seven years ago! But what MrBeast had done was obsess with his friends about YouTube and what makes videos go viral. And with the threat of his mom ready to kick him out of the house unless he went to college or got a job, Donaldson cracked the code and MrBeast was born. His first branding deal in 2017 was for $10,000. At the age of 23 he is said to now have built a $54 million empire as a content creator. (Or was that just his salary last year? Hard to keep up with these numbers.) His main YouTube channel has 96.7 million subscribers. His studio in Greenville, NC, is one of the largest on the east coast. When Cruise was 24 Top Gun hadn’t hit theaters yet, and MrBeast owns a dang production studio and and is employing I don’t even know how many producers, directors, cameramen, editors, designers, etc., etc.

This is one more perspective, Mr.Beast/Donaldson’s philanthropic out reach has given away more money than most actors and filmmakers will make in their lifetime. He’s the most popular YouTuber in the U.S. (maybe the world) and many of you are thinking—“I’ve never even heard of this guy.” There have been major shifts in production over the years—sync sound in the 20s/30s, TV in the 50s, cable in the 70s/80s, the internet in the 90s/00s—but this shift toward streaming/YouTube/social media in 10s/20s is making this the greatest era in history to be a content creator—and especially for those outside of New York and LA. (MrBeast is based in Raleigh, North Carolina.)

This may be a sweeping generalization, but I think the rock stars of this young generation are the content creators. Young people want to be YouTubers more than they want to be the next Mick Jagger, Meryl Streep, or Spike Lee. And here’s the good news for them—that YouTuber dream is much more attainable. I didn’t say easy, I said obtainable. Lilly Singh talks about working 13 hour days creating content, Neistat when he was doing his daily vlog had a 6 AM to midnight (18 hours) schedule. And MrBreast said forget the 10,000 hour rule, he estimates he has already put 30,000-40,000 hours into his career. (He started obsessing about YouTube before he was a teenager.)

And to that point, this week I finished Casey Neistat’s Filmmaking and Storytelling course. There were 17 people in my group and only four people completed their two films within the 30 day period. Some people didn’t even start the first one. I made a five minute short video in 10 days that I think I worked on harder than any production I’ve worked on in the last 10 days. (I’ll share it later when I can write a post about the experience.) But I am reminded of the book by the legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser—“Art is Work.”

There is a sea of change coming and I will write more about that this month.

But one thing remains the same, Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses still look as cool today as they did in the 1950s and musicians and actors started wearing them.

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

”Just do it. Make something. Put it out there and if it is good, it will be noticed.”
—Director Joseph Kosinski

Director Joseph Kosinski is going to remember June 2022 very fondly. He directed Top Gun: Maverick which has only been in theaters for a week and it’s already made over $300 million. And in a couple of weeks, his Spiderhead comes out on Netflix. How did go from growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa to directing a Tom Cruise blockbuster movie? I’m glad you ask.

According to this Time-Republican article, he moved to Mashalltown at age 5 and graduated from Marshalltown in 1992. He did his undergraduate work at Stanford (mechanical engineering) and master’s work at Columbia (architecture). Smart cookie for sure, but where did film come into the picture?

His skills in computer graphics opened the door to working on commercials and short films. And he started writing a short story called Oblivion —that grew into the 2013 film Oblivion starring Tom Cruise.

“I have come to appreciate the freedom I had while growing up in Marshalltown, being able to ride my bicycle around and going to movies at the Orpheum. Having lived in Manhattan for 10 years and now the Los Angeles area, the freedom was special.”
—Joseph Kosinski
Hollywood director comes home by Mike Donahey

Related posts:
Marshalltown #56 (Marshalltown) Photo of Orpheum where Kosinski saw Raiders of the Lost Ark as a kid in 1981.
Once Upon a Time… in Iowa (Jean Seberg)

Tron: Legacy (Part 1)

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

”During another period, [screenwriter Jim Cash] lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., working in a factory and writing all night.”
—Myrna Oliver, NY Times
(Cash was the co-screenwriter of Top Gun)

Tom Cruise and I both graduated from high school in 1980 —and that’s pretty much where the comparison stops. But I only mention that just to show how mind-boggling his rise to Hollywood success was. Just a year out of high school he had a bit part in Taps (1981), followed by a bigger role in The Outsiders, and as the main protagonist in All the Right Moves (both in 1983), and then slid into stardom with Risky Business (1983).

But wait, there’s more! Just six years out of high school he stared in Top Gun, which was not only the top office movie of 1986, but became one of those rare enduring movies that becomes part of the American fabric. (And he finished out the decade with two of the finest performances of his career with Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July. He had a full career even before his 10 year high school reunion.)

And while many of the cultural icons of 1980s have faded, crashed, or had tragic ends, here we are in 2022 with a Tom Cruise movie set to be not just the top movie of the weekend, but the top box office movie of his career. In fact, when just this Memorial Day weekend is over for Top Gun: Maverick it will be close to making what the original Top Gun made in total domestically.

I haven’t seen Top Gun (1986) since I completed my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles (or maybe even since I started this blog in 2008). But since I plan on seeing Top Gun: Maverick this today I thought it would be fun this morning to revisit the original written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., and run it through the first four four aspects of the Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles filter. (I should mention Epps met Jim Cash at Michigan St. where Cash was a professor until he died in 2000. They collaborated via modem (in the days before the internet) with Epps in L.A. and Cash was working on the Top Gun script in East Lansing, MIchigan. Unlikely places….)

CONFLICT: Top Gun is full of conflict from the opening scene. The movie came out during the Cold War ear—just a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Political tension between the US and Russia was worse then than it even is today. When Tom Cruise was growing up, he and all his classmates (and everyone else has age) did not know a time when nuclear war with Russia wasn’t a real threat. The launch of Sputnik by Russia in 1957 was called the shot heard around the world because of what in symbolized. Though the movie nods to a potential global crisis with an unnamed enemy. (More evergreen and better attracting a worldwide box office I imagine.) Maverick’s conflicts extend to various commanders and supervisors, a love interest, and fellow top gunners, And the movie tosses in some daddy issues for Maverick as well. Conflict, conflict, conflict.

CONCEPT: The origins of Top Gun was an article about this elite jet fighter pilot training program at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego. Hollywood has along history of making movies centered around airplanes for years, including Wings which was the first best picture Oscar Award winner back in 1929. The concept was that great combination of familiar, yet fresh.

CHARACTERS: The cocky Maverick who has trouble following orders, his comic sidekick Goose, the confident Ice, Charlie (the female instructor and love interest), and the stern Viper may not be the most three dimensional characters, but it’s a action-oriented movie, not an Eugene O’Neill play. The characters have great names and are engaging to watch. But audiences really showed up for that Tom Cruise smile (and sunglasses) and the cool air footage. I’m trying to avoid reading or hearing about Top Gun: Maverick, but what I do know is the aerial footage is worth the price of admission alone.

CATALYST: The skipper around the 15 minute mark has Maverick and Goose in his office and is partly thanking them for saving two lives (and an expensive plane) on a test mission gone wrong, but to also blasts Maverick for his dangerous buzzing the tower stunt.

”Don’t screw around with me Maverick. You’re a hell of an instinctive pilot—maybe too good. I’d like to bust your butt, but I can’t. I got another problem here. I got to send someone from this squadron to Mirimar. I got to do something here I still—I still can’t believe it. I gotta give you your dream shot. I’m going to send you up against the best. You two characters are are going to top gun. For five weeks you’re going to fly against the best fighter pilots in the world. You were number two, Cougar was number one. Cougar lost it. Turned in his wings. You guys are number one. But you remember one thing, you screw up just this much [nods to his stubby cigar] you’ll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dogshit out of Hong Kong.”

Without that scene you don’t have a movie. At least not one with Maverick and Goose going to top gun school. And in that expo dump is the catalyst/inciting incident that sets the story in motion.

For a 2022 high school graduate, parts of the original Top Gun might feel like watching a Wham! concert, but I think it holds up well. There are themes, motifs, and situations at play in Top Gun that are universal to the human spirit no matter the era. One of the things I love about movies is you can be put into a dramatic situation in space in the distant future, or be on a cattle drive in the distant past. For what it’s worth, my five month old puppy enjoyed watching Top Gun with me this morning— and I think she had a moment with Tom Cruise.

Totally unposed photo of my dog watching “Top Gun” this morning (That candle holder was part of a wine barrel that I brought back from a video shoot I did in South Africa about 15 years ago.)

P.S. Another thing that Top Gun (1986) did was change the perception of the military. Many of those raised in the ’60s and ’70s were jaded by Vietnam War. When it ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon there was a solid decade where young people were not flocking to join the military. (Keep in mind there was a military draft in the U.S. from 1964 and 1973.) The PR problem was so bad that in general Hollywood avoided producing many military movies.

And those that did get produced did not put the military in a favorable light. Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986) come to mind. But if you ever doubt the impact movies can have, Top Gun could be case study #1. The movie changed the perception of the military and made being a jet pilot cooler than being a rock star. Enlistment exploded.

“According to the US Navy, the box office success of Top Gun saw their recruitment rates balloon by a massive 500% in the year following the original movie’s release.”
—Cathal Gunning, Screenrant

Heck, I’m still dreaming about getting on an air craft carrier just to see a plane land on a ship at sea.

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

”I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.”
—Steve Martin

”Embrace your environment and try to seek out a handful of ideas. . . You don’t need to live in New York for that to work. Find interestingness in your own life ”
—Casey Neistat

The above Casey Neistat quote reminds me of the time when I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa and drove by a grain silo in the winter with a small group of people ice climbing up it. I thought it was interesting, but I didn’t pull over and spontaneously start shooting footage. I missed a golden opportunity at spontaneous filmmaking. At least someone did a short doc on the unusual activity. Interestingness 101.

This post has a little bit of a back to the future aspect to it. After all, silent film great Charlie Chaplin was known in his silent film days for getting an idea and going outside that day with some actors and shooting footage for a short film. That’s a long way from Titanic where James Cameron (and his crew of hundreds) spending years planning, shooting, and editing that hit movie.

But have you ever challenged yourself to create something in a week or two?

When last was started, I hadn’t even begun the Casey Neistat 30-day filmmaking and storytelling online class, and now I feel like I’ve wrapped my head around spontaneous filmmaking. (I was very fortunate to find an interesting character.) Here’s how last week went down.

Monday, May 9:

I watched Casey’s first message about how he just walks out onto the NYC streets looking for ideas to explore. (“Whenever you step outside here, you’re just kind of hit in the face with stories. And I think that’s true for wherever you call home.”) He’s looking for potential stories that will be compelling and emotional. It could be the noise of a chop saw and how the incessant noise of the city makes it difficult to get clean audio for his video, or wondering what it’s like to buy a counterfeit hand bag in Chinatown. It took me about 20 minutes to come up with four ideas to explore for my first project;  Brutalist architecture, my dog, my old Panasonic HVX 200, and kayaking. I decided on kayaking because it seemed like the most contained topic. There wasn’t a story yet, but I figured I’d at least get some good visuals. I knew that beauty shots alone wouldn’t be interesting, but it was a start. 

Lesson 1: Just start. I’m reminded of the Goethe quote, “In action, there is power, grace, and magic.” Or the more well known Nike ad campaign—”Just Do It.”

Tuesday May 10: 

Woke up at 5 A.M. so I could shoot my kayak in the water at sunrise. (That wasn’t the plan, but my puppy was my alarm clock.) Because the iPhone doesn’t handle dynamic range well, I knew the actual sunset would not be the best shot because the sun blows out. My best shot was about 30 minutes before sunrise at a boat ramp. It’s when the sky is the most dramatic as it’s transitioning from darkness to light. I finally was in the water around 6:45 and about 10 minutes into my trip I came up on a guy named Blake fishing on a dock, and he changed the direction of my entire concept. He’s a Full Sail University student originally from Louisiana and knew a thing or two about alligators. He instantly became my main character, and alligators became my focus. I interviewed him with my iPhone while sitting in my kayak as he stood on a dock where I found him fishing bathed in the early morning light. (He was the only person around the lake the morning I went out.)

Lesson 2: Don’t pass up the obvious. I paddled by Blake at first, but then an imaginary, miniature Casey Neistat popped up on my shoulder and told me, “Ahhh, you might want to go back and interview that guy.” Glad I did or my concept would be dead in the water. 

Wed—Saturday May 11-14

I shot more beauty footage around the lake, and looked for gators. 

Lesson 3: The little Joby GorilliaPod Magnetic tripod comes in very handy when shooting with an iPhone 13 ProMax from a kayak. Holding any kind of camera on kayak has a built in threat of dropping your camera in the water, but the Joby clamp and magnetic thingy gave me a measure of security.

Sunday May 15

Before going out to shoot a sunset Saturday night, my wife said to be careful because it was gator mating season. I’d forgotten that fact. On Sunday, it hit me that I could make that my hook to the story. So I recorded myself on-camera saying, “Is it dangerous to kayak in Florida during gator mating season? Let’s find out.”

Lesson 4: Because you’re continually developing your idea, your brain is like a pinball machine. You just have to recognize when you hit the sweet spot. I needed something that I could hook a viewer within the first 10-12 seconds. The promise of a premise is the way people talk about it in developing features and TV shows.

I’m currently listening to the Dave Itzkoff audio book Robin on comedian/actor Robin Williams who had off the chart talent as a spontaneous performer. But Williams admittedly could not translate that skill into a traditional style of writing a script.

“To be funny in print is a very hard thing for me to do. I can do it in performing, because it’s straight up—kaboom! But when I sit down at the typewriter I feel like an autistic child.”
—Robin Williams

So if you have ideas you want to explore, but have trouble sitting down and writing a story, explore some more spontaneous ways to create. Casey Neistat and Robin Williams are examples of people who work/worked best spontaneously on the fly.

Some screenwriters dictate to someone writing down their ideas, and some people audio record themselves. There’s no one size fits all way to create. You don’t have to just sit (or stand) at a computer. In fact, you don’t even need to have a computer. Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Woody Allen hand wrote some of their most beloved and award-winning screenplays. Judd Apatow wrote a screenplay on his phone during downtime from meetings and working on another film. While some resort to using notes on their phone or even emailing themselves ideas, there are several screenwriting apps for you phone or iPad/tablet. I bet there is someone in the world right now that is working on a feature film just spontaneously shooting actors with a smartphone.

The history of this blog owes a debt to spontaneity. Especially, when I was blogging daily I just had to jump in the water and start swimming. Even today it might just be a quote or something that serves as a nub for me to pick at until something more fully formed emerges.

Here are a couple of frames that are quick glance the video I shot last week. While I could have shot this with an Alexa camera and had a boom operator and sound team on a pontoon boat nearby, it wouldn’t fit my zero budget spontaneous experiment.

Now that I think about it, this style of just jumping into a story before it’s fully formed reminds me of the five years I participated in the 48 Hour Film project where you make a short film from beginning to end in 48 hours. I enjoyed that process. And the fringe benefit was I got to work with a great team of people all who volunteered their time, and each each with one some kind of award.

P.S. Much of the traveling I’ve done over the years I would classify as planned spontaneity. It’s a phrase I started using about 20 years ago when I backpacked across Europe with my wife. I had an overall idea of the countries we’d hit, but no real plan what days we’d be where, so we didn’t book any hotels or rooms. My wife (and others) thought I was crazy. But we did have a Rick Steves travel book, so we had a general idea when we’d go next. It was easily one of the best trips of my life. But buried within the spontaneity was years (decades?) of unofficial planning and dreaming to that the trip. Those that were close to Robin Williams said that what often came out as 100% spontinaity was stuff he had be thinking about a while. I’ve been wanting to do a kayaking story for about two years, so while it was a spontaneous decision last week—it was in the back of my head for a while.

Related posts:
Spontaneous Filmmaking with Casey Neistat

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

”Seek out interestingness.”
—Casey Neistat

It’s not like Casey Neistat and I are hanging making films together, but yesterday I started his online filmmaking and storytelling class. It’s not a sponsored thing either. Just taking it to pick up how he does what he does so well. Part of his secret sauce is spontaneous filmmaking. Just walking outside and seeing what he finds interesting. Or in the case of the above airplane video—find what inside is interesting. That video shot mainly in an airplane seat has 77 million views to date, so there’s quite a few people who find what he does quite interesting.

But it doesn‘t have to be an expensive seat or an exotic location. He first got wide recognition for doing a video complaining about getting a ticket in NYC for not riding in the bike lane. His idea of spontaneous filmmaking is to just go hunt for a basic idea around you and see what unfolds. No overthinking it. No meetings to kill it. (Most of the productions I’ve worked on over the years are fairly well planned out. After a discouraging meeting once, an art director friend quipped, ””How many meetings does it take to kill a good idea?”) So for the first assignment for his class, I looked around me and came up with four ideas from my home, work, and commute. Please help me decide which would make the best spontaneous video.  

1)    Brutalist architecture—think concrete:

Orlando, Florida is not known for its architecture (beyond Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World). A while back I worked on an educational video of a college professor lecturing on Brutalism and it opened my eyes to an architectural style I didn’t understand. In fact, a building considered by some the ugliest in town (the Orlando Public Library) is an example of Brutalist architecture. I think there’s something to explore there since Brutalist buildings are scattered around the world.

2)    Sugar our puppy:
Getting a 9-year-old rescue dog is a setup for heartbreak. But Ginger made it thankfully to 14 and died in 2021. A little over a year later we made a spontaneous decision to get a puppy and it’s been wild two months. Puppies grow up quick so I’ve already shot a lot of videos and stills of her I could use.

3)    My old camera:
Casey stresses looking for ideas close by, and as I watched him talk I literally glanced to my left and two feet away was a box for an old Panasonic HVX 200 that I think I bought new 14 or 15 years ago. Loved that camera. I haven’t shot anything with it in years, but can’t quite come to terms with selling it (it’s worth maybe $200). Again, part of the concept of spontaneous filmmaking is not starting with a well formed three act structure. You just have a catalyst to get started. That camera helped pay a lot of bills for a few years. I don’t know what the ending would be, but the start of that video could just be memories of shooting with that camera.

4)  Kayaking through COVID:
I’d wanted to buy a kayak for years (even used a demo once), but didn’t think I’d have enough time to ever really use it. There are a lot of lakes and waterways in Florida, but time is a more limited resource. But I bought one the second month of the lockdown, and while working at home and a hybrid model for the last two years has provided me the opportunity to kayak over 200 hours in the last two years. This lake photo was taken this morning just after sunrise. Then it was off to the studio to edit. The best of both world.

So which one of these concepts would be more interesting to you to watch?

P.S. Here’s a trailer for the class. I’ll let you know what I think of it when I’m done. But I’m optimistic out of the gate. When I was much younger, I once asked for a refund after the first day of a three day production workshop I took. (As was the policy.) I felt like they covered ground I already knew. An older and wiser production friend told me, “Scott, you don’t go to workshops to learn everything—you go to learn a handful of things you didn’t know so that you can do what you do better.” That was (and still is) great advice. After that, every workshop or seminar I’ve gone to (or video watched) is an opportunity to pick up a few things. And, now that I think about it, that’s probably part of the foundation of this blog. Sometimes I’ll listen to an hour or two podcast interview just looking for that one fresh and interesting thing I can hold on to.

Here’s an example from just my first day in the class. Since Casey doesn’t start with a fully formed idea, while he shooting and walking around his mind is churning with not only the shot he needs for Act 1, but what ideas are there for Acts 2 & 3. Because even though it starts out loosely constructed doesn’t mean he plans on just letting the idea meander. He wants to stick the landing.

”The ending is always the hardest part of any story told. The ending has to be a bow that ties the whole thing together. . . .Without an ending you don’t have a story.”
—Casey Neistat

While that is well said, it’s not exactly a revelation. But what is a revelation is Casey’s success was built on starting videos without even knowing where he was heading. That’s pretty hard to pull off if you have a crew and a budget. But he could pull it off flying solo or with a friend or two. If you’re unfamiliar with Casey check out his film for Nike from 2012 that started without a plan other than basically let’s fly around the world until the budget runs out.

Related posts:

Work hard and be brave —Casey Neistat

Filmmaking is a Sport—Casey Neistat

Do What You Can’t—Casey Neistat

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

From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody’s very happy
‘Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day

I Love LA written by Randy Newman

My last post touched on the four part Apple TV+ series They Call Me Magic, which was about Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers back in the 1980s. It’s a hot topic at the moment with the HBO TV series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. Both Netflix and Hulu also have projects on the ’80s Lakers in the works. When I mentioned that I briefly worked for the Hollywood equipment rental company BERC (that supplied camera and gear to Lakers games) while I was in film school back in the 80s, one of my friends said he loved hearing about my L.A. time. I’m not sure how many others are interested, but I at least thought it would be fun to explore some highlights as all this Lakers interest has brought back a flood of living in Los Angeles in my 20s.

I may add to this post from time to time, but I’ll start out with just 10 memories of my time in LA between 1982 and 1987.

1Paramount Studios, Hollywood, CA
My first full time production job out of film school was working for a group in Burbank as a 16MM cameraman (Eclair NPR) and editor (Steenbeck flatbed). My first shoot was to fly to Aspen and shoot America’s Downhill. I was 25 years old and thought for sure I was positioned to make my first feature by the time I was 30. But as Robert Redford said in The Natural, “Life didn’t turn out like I planned.” The company I worked for did large screen multimedia productions that were shown in school and youth groups. They had some big corporate sponsorships which helped give access to using current music, movies, and TV shows.

Part of my job was going on the various studio lots (Disney, Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount) to get assets. This was long before camera phones and ubiquitous selfies, so the only photo I have is being on the lot at Paramount Studios in 1987. My co-worker Tom took the photo with the iconic Hollywood sign seen in the background. I don’t recall what assets I was picking up that day, but there’s a good chance it was clips from the movie Summer School starring Mark Harmon. Directed by Carl Reiner, music by Danny Elfman, and screenplay by Jeff Franklin.

Life Lesson: By the time I was 25 I had been on every major film and TV studio in L.A. but I didn’t really have a plan. And I was inpatient. I wanted things to happen faster. So the message to my 25 year old self would be, “Dude, you’re only 25. Keep writing, keep producing stuff, keep meeting people. Give it some time.” (That’s basically what that kid down in Manhattan Beach was doing in 1987, when he wasn’t working at a video rental store—that kid named Quentin Tarantino.)

2—John Huston
There was a post-production house in Burbank where I went to do some color timing for one of our productions, and when I was leaving I saw an older man being pushed in a wheelchair and instantly recognized it as Hollywood legendary John Huston. I was familiar with his acting in Chinatown (where Huston plays Noah Cross), and also knew his directorial work (The African Queen, The Maltese Falcon, Moby Dick, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) I didn’t even approach him, I just stood there star struck as he went by. He died later that year.

Life Lesson: John Huston’s career spanned over seven decades (from the 1920s to the 1980s). He worked as a producer, director, writer, and/or actor on some of the greatest movies ever made and picked up two Oscars along the way. But I doubt most people today could tell you much about Huston or even recognize his name— “All glory is fleeting.” That famous line could describe the movie Sunset Blvd. about the fictitious Norma Desmond or the real life William Holden. Holden received a nominated for his role as a struggling screenwriter in Sunset Blvd., and then won Best Actor in a Leading Role for his work in Stalag 17. But he died in 1981 when he fell drunk and hit his head on a table in his oceanfront condo in Santa Monica. He laid there for three days before anyone missed him.

3—CHiPS & Cheryl Tiegs shoots, Marina del Rey

When I first arrived in LA I was trying to make connections to break into the business. One of those connections was a guy who coordinated shoots at Marina del Ray. He’d tip me off when a shoot was being done there and the first two shoots I went to were the TV show CHiPS (staring Erik Estrada and created by Rick Rosner, and a commercial featuring model Cherl Tiegs.

Life Lesson: Having only worked on student productions at that time it was the first time I realized how boring film shoots can be for someone watching. And it demystified the process. Bigger productions meant more money, nicer equipment, and bigger crews, but the nuts and bolts were the same as student productions.

4—”Alive & Well,“ Marina del Rey
Through my connection at Marina del Rey I was able to land a internship on the USA Network’s cable show Alive & Well. It was my first taste of being a part of a professional crew. It was a multi camera, switched live program taped outside at a hotel overlooking the marina. Memorable guests on the show that I remember talking to were L.A. Dodger Steve Yeager, actor Dean Jones, and fitness guru Jack LaLane. You quickly learn lessons working on a crew. The first is the grind. Call time for me I think was 7:00AM and I lived in Burbank. I think that drive would be intolerable today, but back in the ’80s I could be up at 5:30 AM and make the long drive. And my classes we

re at night, meaning days when I worked on Alive & Well were 16 hours days for when I left my apartment to when I returned. (Not making a dime.)

It was a good group of people and one of the crew wrote “Intern“ on gaffer tape and put it on my chest. I wore it all day and kept it to this day. Alive and Well did not have a teleprompter, but did it old school with cue cards. One day I was holding cue cards for one of the older hosts and she kept telling me I was moving the cards too slow. One of the other crew told me I was doing fine and to not be discouraged, whenever she messed she would just blame it on me. The fitness expert on the show was Kathy Smith who’s gone on to have a long career in the fitness world.

Life Lesson: “If man made it, don’t eat it.”—Jack LaLane. At least were I live, it seems like a new gym is opened every week. Yet, the Harvard University School of Public Health reported a study that, “About half of the adult U.S. population will have obesity and about a quarter will have severe obesity by 2030.” Jack LaLane (a former “sugarholic”) knew the importance of working out, but he also knew about eating the right portions of the right foods. Avoiding soft drinks, sugar, and all that processed food on the inside aisle at the grocery store is a good start. Jack LaLane made it to age 96.

5—Super Bowl of Motocross, Rose Bowl, Pasadena

When I was in film school, I did a bunch of cold calling trying to get paid production gigs and once got ahold of a company shooting the Super Bowl of Motocross that thought they ”might” be able to pay me as a production assistant. My job ended pulling cable down for a cameraman in the area just a few feet where motorcycles flew by. It was exciting, but I also thought this could be how I die. It was another 16 hour day, I earned my first production credit, but when they dust settled they said they didn’t have any money to pay me.

Life Lesson: The lesson I quickly learned from that and my internship is L.A. is full of production opportunities for people willing to work long hours for little or no pay. (A trend that continues to this day. Writers that move to L.A. who end up working as production assistants quickly realize how little time there is to write between their work, commute, and sleep.) It’s not a sin to work on stuff for free or do an unpaid internship if you can swing it financially, but do your best to make sure it’s a project/opportunity that will benefit you.

6—Exploring Every City in LA and Orange Counties
Instead of pursing more lower level production jobs while in film school, I decided to work as a photographer. I started doing freelance work for Yary Photography in Cerritos (just north of Long Beach). It was a flexible schedule, I learned a lot, worked with some good people, and it had the perk of taking me to jobs throughout Southern California. From Santa Barbara to San Diego, from Palos Verdes to Big Bear, and everything in between. It was a visual feast. It left me time and energy to focus on school projects and go to classes and workshops. Also took photos of the L.A. Rams, L.A. Raiders, the USC football teams, and golfer Greg Norman. Ended up taking a staff photographer position there after graduating, and then got promoted to director of photography (stills). But after a couple of years I started to worry that I was drifting too far from my film school dreams, and that led to my cameraman job.

Life Lesson: The old saying is life is what happens when you’re making other plans. My time driving throughout Southern California and experiencing all the different cultures and varied scenery was actually one of the highlights of my life. I don’t think there was a single city in LA and Orange County I didn’t at least drive through. (And probably the majority of Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Imperial countries.) Something that would be very hard to do today because of the increase in population and traffic.

7—L.A. Entertainment: Concerts —Jimmy Buffett (where I caught one of the small toy bears he tossed into the crowd because he legally couldn’t perform a song about Buddy the Bear), James Taylor, Boy George/Culture, a symphony concert of John Williams music at the Hollywood Bowl—complete with an appearance by R2D2, and Bruce Springsteen and a packed L.A. Coliseum for the final concert of his “Born in the USA Tour.“ And in perhaps my most quintessential Hollywood experience was going to a John Mellencamp concert at the Universal Amphitheatre, in I think 1984, and during a break before the encore I met Rob Lowe who was sitting in front of me. We both had a Dayton, Ohio connection, so had a brief interchange about that. Theatre: Seeing Dennis and Randy Quaid in the Sam Shepard play True West, Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Ibsen and Chekhov plays, and Yul Brenner‘s 4,000 performance of The King and I at the grand Hollywood Pantages Theatre. And, of course, Disneyland.

Life Lesson: I don’t know how COVID, the internet, and traffic changed how people seek entertainment in L.A. these days, but when I was in my 20s there was a smorgasbord of options every week. Time and money were your only limitations. I remember going to a concert and a play once in the same night in what turned into an overpacked weekend. In the land of excess, I eventually learned the wisdom of moderation. The Tortoise and Hare stuff.

Yes, I kept the handmade intern badge made for me on day one of working on “Alive & Well”

8—Only in L.A.: As I look back on my time it L.A., parts of it seem like an extended dream vacation. Snow skiing in Big Bear, body surfing The Wedge in Newport Beach, windsurfing in Malibu, surfing in Seal Beach, watching playoff games with both the Dodgers and the Rams, hiking in Lake Arrowhead, taking photos on Venice Beach, shopping on Melrose, visiting the Johnny Carson set at NBC in Burbank, shooting interviews with Eric Dickerson (L.A. Rams), Kim Fields (Facts of Life), and Kirk Cameron (Growing Pains), seeing Jodie Foster at the Farmers Market on Fairfax, talking to actor Charles Haid (Hill Street Blues) at a North Hollywood gym, actor Paul Glesson (the principle in The Breakfast Club) came a spoke to an acting class I was in, and legendary stuntman Terry Leonard (Indiana Jones) came to another. Once toured a gym where I was told Heather Locklear was a member. I’m not saying that’s why I joined the gym—but I never saw her there. (What can I say? I was 21 and a little naive. Kinda like the time the guy told me I “might get paid” on that PA gig. )

Life Lesson: Enjoy the journey, and take what people say with a grain of salt.

9—Film Education: Besides film school where I had classes with producer Bruce A. Block (and author of The Visual Story) and cameraman Peter Gibbons, I took classes and workshops at UCLA extension, AFI, Robert McKee’s story structure, and studied acting for three years (Tracey Roberts, Van Mar Academy, Estelle Harmon, Arthur Mendoza). Loved dropping in at the AFI library to read scripts in the days before the internet. There was Samuel French Book Store and other places where you could buy plays and scripts. Met a ASC director of photography who told me it would be 10 years before I operated a union camera. And, of course, there were great movie theaters in Westwood, a revival theater in Pasadena, the Beverly Center Cineplex, the iconic Cinerama Dome and the Chinese Theatre both in Hollywood. Met Oscar-nominated actor Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story) at a movie theater in Burbank and he genuinely seemed pleased that I recognized him. Great connection to old Hollywood as he got his start as a stuntman working classic Westerns and Ben Hur.

Life Lesson: The history of Hollywood is a glamorous and brutal one. You can be so close, yet so far away. Twenty Feet from Stardom to borrow a phrase from the doc on backup singers. Staying 20 feet (or 20 states) from stardom is not the worst thing in the world if you’ve read more than two biographies or news stories inside the whirlwind of Hollywood.

10—Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (or Austin/Atlanta/Minneapolis/Des Moines/Massapequa)

Give me the weekend to come up with my 10th memory. But I left L.A. in 1987, just as a young guy from the Midwest was arriving. And 33 years later that fellow picked up his first acting Oscar Award—Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood.

…After thinking about it over the weekend, the coolest cat I saw when I lived in L.A. was Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats. If I recall correctly, I saw him hanging out in the parking lot of the Rainbow Room Bar a Grill. It was a prime rock and roll hang out in the 80s, and this was just a year or two after the Stray Cats popped hits “Rock This Town,” “Stray Cat Strut,” and “(She’s) Sexy + 17.” Setzer stood out in the crowd with that crazy pompadour. (I‘ll never know how Setzer didn’t have some kind of involvement in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The man was made for Jack Rabbit Slims.)

Over the weekend that Setzer moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota 15-20 years ago and I believe still lives there. That’s no surprise that he ended up there as it a great arts down and a music scene with roots all the way back to Bob Dylan and Prince. He release a new album last year, and said this about living in the Twin Cities:

”The best thing about Minneapolis – these guys are just as good as any players anywhere in the world. The difference is they’d be in the middle of dinner and they’d be over in 20 minutes. You would never get that in New York or L.A. You’d get his answering machine and a call back in a couple of days and ‘I’m available in a week or two.'”
—Brian Setzer
Brian Setzer moves in Minneapolis and finds his groove

Life Lesson: This is where we come full circle. And you’ve made it this far in this long post, I hope this helps you on your journey. Especially if you’re 17-25 and wondering if you should move to Los Angeles. It’s a different town than when I arrived in 1983. The studio apartment I rented in Burbank for $350 a month now rents for over $2,000 a month. And not only have expenses been supersized there, you can no longer zip all around town because traffic is so bad. There’s a reason people are fleeing to Austin, Texas. (Of course, driving the prices up there.) Where do creative people go if they don’t have deep pockets today? Maybe in a post-COVID world they don’t go anywhere. Writer/directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (who just finished shooting a film shot on a Stephen King story) did go to L.A. after they graduated from the University of Iowa. But they cut their chops making films in their hometown of Davenport, Iowa. In recent interviews, they say if they were young filmmakers today they might just stay in Iowa.

Today, Atlanta is a hotbed of production. I’ve read that all of the film studios in L.A. could fit inside Tyler Perry’s Atlanta studio. (Can someone confirm that?) And while Des Moines hasn’t become a hotbed for features and TV shows, there are some very talented people there. And writer/creator Mike Schur (The Office, Parks and Rec) has TV show on the Field of Dreams that begins shooting in Iowa this year. A production friend of mine did location scouting for it and I’ve read they are going to be training crew of P.A. positions

Fields of Dreams is developed by Universal Television. Universal is launching a Production Assistant (P.A.) Bootcamp training program in Iowa offering an intensive workshop for the job of P.A. — the entry-level gateway into a career in the entertainment industry. The bootcamp will be a two-day work-based job training program, set to take place on June 4 and June 5 (2022). It will teach Iowa residents the foundational knowledge of working in TV production while providing hands-on experience.”
—’Field of Dreams’ Limited Series to Film in Iowa, TV Insider

If you’ve followed this blog much you know that I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa between 2003-2013. Long story short, most of my production friends thought it was career suicide. But it turned into a great decade of working on productions throughout the Midwest and even a few overseas. In 2008, I started this blog as a creative outlet inspired by Univ of Iowa grad Diablo Cody writing the screenplay for Juno while living in Minneapolis. In 2008, she won and Emmy for writing Juno and later that year this blog won a Upper Midwest Emmy in Minneapolis. Cody was big into the music scene when she lived in Minneapolis and imagine she or her ex-husband at least crossed paths a time or two. And when I walked back to my SUV in downtown Minneapolis after winning my Emmy, I imagine I wasn’t too far from Setzer downtown Minneapolis loft.

The bottom line is there are creative people everywhere. Team up with them and create stuff and see where it takes you. Setzer and Cody didn’t just pop up in L.A. and start cashing checks. Cody started writing poetry everyday from age 12 on, and after college wrote a screenplay in the Minneapolis that put her on the map. Setzer started playing the euphonium with school with jazz bands on Long Island and formed the Stray Cats with two other classmates Leon Drucker (Lee Rocker) and James McDonnell (Slim Jim Phantom). And just to prove that talent comes from everywhere, not only did Setzer graduate from Massapequa High School, but so did Jerry Seinfeld. The Baldwin brothers actors and Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) also grew up in Massapequa.

If a kid in Massapequa starts a band, a podcast, or writing a screenplay today in Massapequa I wouldn’t bet against him or her. Especially if they’re sporting a pompadour. There’s something magical going on in Massapequa.

P.S. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that Massapequa is an Indian name meaning “by the mall.”

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

Magic vs. Grit

”All creative work is mystical.”
—Screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now)

”Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves lacking.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche
(As quoted in the chapter ”Effort Counts Twice” in the book Grit by Angela Duckworth)

Last night I watched the four part series They Call Me Magic about one of greatest basketball players in NBA history. This was the Magic Johnson quote that jumped out at me about his dedication for the game as a youth and teenager growing up playing pickup games in Lansing, Michigan:

“I played [basketball] in the rain. I played in the snow, it didn’t matter. Sun up to sun down. And then I started playing against older boys, then I started playing against men. . . Nobody outworked me in the neighborhood. I was on the court more than any kid. It wasn’t even close. I wanted it more.”
—Magic Johnson

The reason that quote jumped out as at me is because I’ve been listening to the audio book Grit by Angela Duckworth. Just a few days ago in the chapter titled ”Effort Counts Twice,” Duckworth addressed greatness in Olympic athletes whose talent seem otherworldly. (Think of swimmers Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps.)

She points to an study of competitive swimmers titled “The Mundanity of Excellence,” by sociologist Dan Chambliss who observed;

“Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and them are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; one the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produces excellence.”

How old do you think Magic Johnson was when he threw his first no-look pass? I’m gusessing pretty young. And before that become one of his trademark plays, I’m sure that small skill was well honed by thousands of passes before he put on a professional uniform.

I was a better than average football and baseball player as a youth, but when I joined my first basketball team when I was 12 I was instantly out of my league with kids who grew up around the game. Magic Johnson was the youngest of nine brothers and sisters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if when he was 12 years old he didn’t already have a decade of experience around the game.

Back to Duckworth’s book:

“With everything perfect,” Nietzsche wrote, “we do not ask how it came to be.” Instead, “we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”

But Magic wasn’t really created from magic. Or fully formed. How did he come to be Magic Johnson? He told us in that first quote. He was created from the mundane task of showing up to play pickup games in the the rain, and snow, sun up to sun down. Determined to win, because winners got to stay on the court. And win he did. Here’s what he accomplished before he turned 21 years old:

Everett High School, State champs & Parade First Team All American (1977)
Michigan State, NCAA champs & All American (1979)
Los Angeles Lakers, NBA Champs & NBA Finals MVP (1980)

Astonishing. And not only that, but Magic changed the game. He lead the team that made the NBA popular. The NBA Finals in 1980 weren’t even broadcast live, but aired on tape delay because CBS didn’t want to spoil the ratings of Duke of Hazards. (In 1980, Dukes of Hazard was the #2 Tv show in the United States with an estimated audience of over 21 million. About twice as many viewers of even the 2021 NBA Finals.)

But Magic and his Lakers teammates “Showtime”style of play throughout the 1980s (along with the Boston Celtics rivialry) made basketball mainstream in the United States in a way it had never been. And paved the way for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to take it to even a greater level of global popularity. And if you just saw Jordan in his prime—flying in the air—you’d swear it was a mystical experience. But when you read his story, you know he may have been the most determined person to ever play basketball.

Michael Jordan = Grit. (Of course, in basketball, it also helps if you’re 6’6″ like Jordan, or 6’9″ like Johnson.)

On page 211 of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles, I touched on what I called the mystical aspects of creativity. The unexplained aspects. I even quoted Jimmy Buffett who said that even though he wasn’t the greatest singer or guitar player he was able to “capture the magic” in his songs and concerts. But now I’m thinking Buffett was full of grit. Still performing and touring as he approaches 75, he cut his chops playing on the streets of New Orleans and working his way up to clubs, then colleges, then larger concert venues, on his way to playing stadiums.

As I update my book, I’m going to revisit that section. I’m thinking that grit is a cousin of The 10,000 Rule.

P.S. My first paid job when I was in film school in the early ’80s was with Broadcast Equipment Rental Company (BERC) in Hollywood. My primary job was to drive Ikegami cameras to various production companies and TV studios throughout Southern California. I never got to make a delivery to the Forum where the Lakers played, but I know they did sometimes supply cameras to ESPN who covered games. But I did get a glimpse (thanks to a security guard) of the empty stage of The Tonight Show at NBC in Burbank back when Johnny Carson was the host. Here’s a clip of when Magic Johnson was on the show after he won his third NAB championship in 1985.

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

”Film will only become an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.
—Jean Cocteau

In regard to the above quote, the iPhone 13 Pro isn’t as cheap as a pencil and paper—but it is cheaper than the supplies I’ve seen in some art studios. Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh shot High Flying Bird a few years ago on an iPhone 8, so these cameras should be taken seriously. (Granted he had a $2 million budget, but it’s a film to study to see how he used the iPhone to his advantage. Tangerine was made for a lot less and with an even older iPhone. ) The 13 Pro Max is a huge step-up from previous iPhones because it can shoot 4k in ProRes, has a cinematic mode for select focus, and three lens selections.

Here’s a couple videos that show you the potential of the newest iPhone featuring the direction of Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser (who just won an Oscar for his cinematography on Dune: Part One). I hope there are film schools out there (even high schools) that are using the latest iPhone to make feature films this year. Producer Ted Hope said that if he was running a film school he’d require everyone to make a $1,000 feature because the lessons learned would be tremendous. Of course, you don’t even need to go to film school to make a $1,000 feature. You just need a $1,000.

I think in May, I’ll start exploring that concept some more.

P.S. High Flying Bird can been seen on Netflix.

These are the kind of accessories being made for the iPhone today.

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

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