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”We wanted this journey, even though it was 1958, to feel energized and vibrant and for an 18-year-old to look at it and go, ‘I get that. And that is my story, too.’”
Amy Sherman-Palladino on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Variety 

After The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won seven Emmy Awards on Sunday on Sunday (including Outstanding Comedy Series) I decided to check it out. I carved out time at 5:30 Wednesday morning and watched the pilot (which the show’s’ creator—Amy Sherman-Palladino— won two Emmys for writing and directing).

The rapid banter between actors and 1950s world the production team created somehow has a retro-contemporary feel. Sort of like Joan Rivers meets Mad Men meets Amy Schumer. I wondered what the origins were for the show and found this excerpt:

‘My dad was a stand-up comic. So I grew up with a bunch of Jews sitting around trying to make each other laugh. And I knew Lenny Bruce’s mother when I was a kid, because she was sort of the godmother to all the comics. And I worked at the Comedy Store. So the show was not so much a conscious homage to any particular comic as it was something that was in my zeitgeist. I was having a meeting with the guys over at Amazon, and we were just kind of shooting the shit, and [The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel] was a little idea I had standing in the back of my head. They’re like, ‘Great. Go do that and bring it back.’”
Writer Amy Sherman-Palladino
Vanity Fair interview with Hillary Busis

P.S. This morning I got up early again and watched the pilot of Gilmore Girls that Amy Sherman-Palladino also created. That series ran from 2000-2007 and was full of snappy dialogue and some of it by actress Alexis Bledel who played a sassy high school student when the series began. I have to think that when screenwriter Diablo Cody was somewhere between being a student at the University of Iowa and writing Juno (2007) that she probably watched an episode or two of Gilmore Girls.

Related post:
Where Do Ideas Come From? 

Scott W. Smith

“You can’t write code. You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! … So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?”
Steve Wozniak confronting Steve Jobs in a scene written by Aaron Sorkin

I thought the most dynamic scene in the movie Steve Jobs (2015) was the confrontation between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak before the launch of the NeXT computer. It’s a confrontation that didn’t literally happen, but one in which Wozniak told Tech Insider that it was the “sentiment” and “feelings”  that others had and that those words “were put into my mouth for the movie.”

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is clear in The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith that the entire film, not just that Wozniak scene, is a restructuring for dramatic purposes. That while the conversations weren’t real, the contents of those confrontations were real.

“I got a sense from all the time I spent with Woz that . . . for the first 10 or 15 minutes that I was with him—he is a man who doesn’t like saying a bad word about anyone, that he’s a man without ego, that he does not have the kind of ambition that Steve Jobs does, that he likes building, that he likes tinkering, and that the things that were important to Steve weren’t important to him. He doesn’t care who gets credit. That’s the first 15 minutes. In minute 16, it starts to become very clear that he cannot understand why in the world he’s Garfunkel. That he really believes Steve has gotten credit for things for which he did not deserve credit. That he really thinks Steve is a person whose integrity can’t be trusted. All this stuff starts coming out. So how do you dramatize that? You can do it one of two ways; you can have a scene that did happen which is between Woz and a screenwriter named Aaron Sorkin, or you can be a dramatist and write a movie, and not a journalist.  And they both have their places. I knew what I didn’t want to do. What I didn’t want to do was dramatize a Wikipedia page.”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

It’s called dramatic writing for a reason.

BTW— That Q&A that Goldsmith did with Sorkin back in 2015 is easily one of my top ten interviews of all-time in regard to the screenwriting process.

P.S. The group Simon & Garfunkel created beautiful hit music together, but Paul Simon is the one who had a long and successful solo career. Though the began singing together when they were 11, as of 2016 (and now into their 70s), Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle were not on speaking terms. Their hit Bridge Over Troubled Water sums up many dynamic relationships over history “when times get rough, and friends just can’t be found.” (That album sold 25 million copies. The single Bridge Over Troubled Water was released in January 1970. The duo act broke up later that year.)

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Emotional Climaxes
Dialogue as Music (Aaron Sorkin)
The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of ‘The Florida Project’

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

“You had me at hello.“
Dorothy Boyd (Rene Zellweger) in Jerry Maguire

Most of the time, me writing looks—to the untrained eye—like someone watching ESPN. The truth is if you did a pie chart of the writing process, most of the time is spent thinking. When you’re loaded up and ready to go—when you’ve got that intention and obstacle for the first scene that’s all you need.  For me at least, getting started is 90% of the battle. The difference between page zero and page two is all the difference in the world. So once I had the technical jargon to write [the ‘Hello’ scene in the movie Steve Jobs] and I also knew that scene would take us into a dressing room of some kind. . . . In the dressing room I knew they were going to talk about the overinflated projections and managing expectations, and that was going to get us into Time magazine, which was going to get us into paternity. I was able to see that far ahead. So once I knew everything about what I was doing—once I start typing it’s not going to be finger-painting, I’m not just going to be feeling my way in the dark and ‘let’s see where these characters take me.’ . . . Once you do know what you’re doing—for me, it’s intention and obstacle, for you it could be something else. You do understand there isn’t one way of doing this, right? Whatever way works for you is the right way, for me it’s intention and obstacle. Once you have that, there does come a time when you actually now are ready for your talent to take over. Start writing. Do your thing.”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

Related post:
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention, and Obstacles

Scott W. Smith

When comedian, actor, and game show host Drew Carey was starting out he tried doing standup “as a goof” while in college and it didn’t go well. After a few failed attempts, he was glad he gave it a shot and get it out of his system.

After he dropped out of college, he joined the U.S. Marines.  Carey served in the military for six years and was waiting tables in his hometown of Cleveland when a radio host he knew said he’d pay him $20 a joke. He was hoping to pick up an extra $100 a week and ended up building over his career (so far) an estimated net worth of over $100 million.

This is how Carey told Terry Gross on Fresh Air how he learned to write jokes.

Drew Carey: I went to the library and I finally got a book on how to write jokes. And from reading that book, that’s what really started me. I thought, oh wow, there’s a formula to this. I can write jokes.

Terry Gross: How did the book help you to write jokes?

Carey: There’s formulas for every kind of joke writing. There really is. The example they used in the book is you take driving and write it at the top of the page. It’s all about list-making. Then you write down everything that relates to driving: angry drivers, slow drivers, fast drivers, new cars, old cars, junk cars, car washes, red lights. You write all this stuff down and then you try to exaggerate something to make it bigger than it is. Then there’s words that sound like other words and you try to make puns up that way, and use all these different techniques to take all this little lists you’ve made—angry women drivers, angry men drivers—when you detail it down you try to exaggerate it, or minimalize it, or twist it around. And then you try to make 20 jokes and try to get one good joke out of that, and that’s how you come up with one good joke. If you’re starting out, it takes you like three hours.

P.S. He didn’t say in that interview what that book he read, but if you’ve seen it in others interviews let me know and I’ll put a link to it here. In the meantime check out Comedy Writing SecretsThe Hidden Tools of Comedy, The New Comedy Writing Step by Step, and Jerry Seinfeld’s doc Comedian.

Scott W. Smith

“I was Number One at the box office five years in a row, which I don’t think anybody has done since. In 1978, I had four movies at once playing nationwide. If I met you then, I’m sorry.”
Actor/director Burt Reynolds (reflecting on his unchecked ego)

It wasn’t a fair fight. Star Wars vs. Smokey & the Bandit that is.

When both of those movies opened during the same week in May 1977, who do you think won coming out of the gate?

The one featuring a cocky driver in a black Trans Am or the one featuring a cocky pilot flying an X-Wing Starfighter?

Keep in mind that Burt Reynolds was the biggest box office star throughout the late ’70s, that legendary comedian and actor Jackie Gleason was Smokey (the cop), and co-star Sally Field was well-known for her Tv show The Flying Nun. That Star Wars movie had a bunch of then-unknown actors in a space genre that not many people believed in. (Granted in time, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Darth Vader would become bigger than any superlative I can come up with.)

Smokey & the Bandit wonat least that opening week. And according to Burt Reynolds in his book  But Enough About Me. Other sources back that up, others say it was a tie, and one I found even said Star Wars edged out Smokey. (Box office data appears to be spotty from more than 40 years ago.) It was close either way.

But even if the numbers $1.6  million (Smokey) vs. $1.5 million (Star Wars) were the final numbers, Smokey may have won the first round, but it definitely lost the fight. Star Wars finished the year number one ($460 million) and Smokey second or third ($126 million) depending on how counts the revenue for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then the Star Wars franchise went on to crush everyone in movie history.  (I don’t count the Marvel universe as one franchise film.)

And, as the saying goes, a number without a reference is meaningless. Star Wars had a limited release in its first week opening in only 43 theaters. Smokey opened in 726 theaters. So even if Smokey did win the box office that first week, Star Wars was killing it in per theater. But, according to IMDB,  Smokey did finish in the top ten of all movies in the 1970s.

Oddly, one of the fans of the movie was the director Alfred Hitchcock. His daughter says it was one of his favorite films in the years before he died, and that he watched it repeatedly.

When I heard that Burt Reynolds died yesterday a zillion thoughts went through my mind. One was I don’t know that there would be this blog without Burt Reynolds. I was 16-years-old when Smokey and the Bandit hit the theaters.  My three biggest interests then were sports, girls, and cars. The fact that I’m talking about Reynolds in the same breath as Star Wars is amazing when you consider he was essentially a jock from a small town in Florida who only became interested in theater when a drama teacher at Palm Beach Junior College encouraged Reynolds to audition for a school play.  Within two years he was in a play on Broadway. (A reminder of the power of one person to give others a sense of direction in life.)

While I was in high school I knew that Burt Reynolds was once a star football player in high school, briefly played football at Florida State University, and then found fame and fortune as a Hollywood actor. For a kid growing up in central Florida, he made that path seem possible.

I was a good enough football player in high school to earn All-Conference honors my senior year, and then walk-on to the University of Miami football team. UM is where I first studied film history and made my first 8mm and 16mm films in the film school there. (Emmy winning Game of Thrones director David Nutter was the Jim Kelly of the film program while I was there.) It’s also where I dislocated my shoulder in practice, got operated on, and walked off.  (Having only dressed for one JV football game—I think I had the shortest football career of any Hurricane player ever.)  Then I set off to finish film school in Los Angeles the next year.

Fame or fortune did not follow, but in tracking Reynolds’ career (and others like him) over the years I realized that path has its own pitfalls. But I’ve had the opportunity to work in production my entire creative career, so I’m thankful to Reynolds for giving me hope and planting that dream.

And that’s the part of the unlikely roots of this blog. Mix in Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville album also coming out in 1977, getting my driver’s license that year—then a few months later scoring three touchdowns in a game, seeing the swagger and laugh of Burt Reynolds on the big screen, and you had one optimistic young fellow.

Hold on to sixteen as long as can
Changes come along real soon
Make us women and men
Jack & Diane/ John Mellencamp

I once produced a video for someone who was fond of saying, “The one thing I’ve learned is every day the world rolls over on top of someone who was just sitting on top of it yesterday.” Burt Reynolds knew what it was like to be at the top and then have the world roll over on top him—then have it back up and roll over him again.  As he reached his 80s, he said his final role was “survivor.”

Fifty years from now, when people think back to the coolest actors of the ’70s I’m sure Burt Reynolds (and specifically his performance in Deliverance) will be on the shortlist. (All the bad choices he made in life and in roles will be forgotten. In time, ideally, artists are judged on only their best work.)

I flipped through his autobiography last night and found a few odd connections that show what a small world it is. Reynolds briefly studied at the Actors Studio in New York. One of the acting teachers I had in L.A. was Tracey Roberts who also studied at the Actor’s Studio so I wonder if she ever worked with Reynolds. Turns out they were both in a movie called Sam Whisky (1969).

One of the writers on Smokey and the Bandit was Charles Shyer, and one of my professors in film school was Bruce Block who’s worked as a producer on a few films with Shyer, including Father of the Bride I & II. (Two great resources by Block are his book The Visual Story, and his DVD commentary on the collector’s edition of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.)

One of the players I played high school football with (Billy Giovanetti) and the starting wide receiver when I was at Miami (Larry Brodsky) both played for the short-lived USFL pro-football team the Tampa Bay Bandits which Reynolds was a part owner.

Reynolds continued working as an actor and director over his lifetime and was involved with his own theater in Jupiter, Florida. His various personal, financial, and physical struggles were well documented in the press, but when I think of Reynolds I remember how he entertained me in movies like Gator, Semi-Tough, White Lighting, and The Longest Yard.

One last little bit of Burt Reynolds trivia is Oscar-winning writer/director Quentin Tarantino was named after Renyold’s Gunsmoke character Quint. Tarantino was born the same year I was so I imagine he also enjoyed Reynolds and his ’70s films when he was a teenager.

If Quentin Tarantino hadn’t become “Quentin Tarantino,” I’m not sure what he’d be doing for a living since video stores faded away—but he’d probably have a movie blog and write a post about Burt Reynolds the day after he died

P.S. I’m grateful for a teacher in school who had us read Irwin Shaw’s classic short story, The Eighty-Yard Run. It made you want to make sure you had a life once the glory days passed you buy.  A few years later I saw the documentary Hoop Dreams about a pair of Chicago basketball phenoms starting in eighth grade and follows their dream until they get to college. It should be required viewing for every high school athlete.

Since 2009, ESPN’s  30 for 30 series of sports-centered documentaries have done a great job of showing how athletics intersects with life outside of the games themselves. Three of them have featured the University of Miami football team—The U ,The U Part 2, and Catholics vs. Convicts. 

And if ESPN wanted to do a fourth documentary on UM football they could. There are so many storylines to explore. There’s former QB Jim Kelly and his struggles with cancer, and there’s former QB Mark Richt’s long journey from Hurricane QB to current head coach. The struggles and triumphs of life. It was sad when I learned of the passing of two great players who were at Miami when I was there who also briefly played in the NFL. Rocky Belk was a prime target for Jim Kelly’s passes and died after an illness at age 50,  and Stanely Shakespeare who died in a boating accident when he was 42. I always thought Stanley Shakespeare was the coolest name of anyone who ever put on a football uniform.  He was also starting wide receiver on the 1983 team that won Miami’s first National Championship. And in the final odd connection in this post, both Stanley Shakespeare and Burt Reynolds died in Jupiter, Florida.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Andy Hertzfeld’s reaction to the movie [Steve Jobs] was probably the most accurate—‘My god, none of that happened, but it’s all true.’”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

This post is three years behind the times since the movie Steve Jobs came out in 2015, so I’m going to begin at the end. So if you haven’t seen it—spoiler alert. But since Jobs’ daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, had her memoir Smal Fry recently published this seems like perfect timing.

In The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith (which is a favorite podcast of mine), Goldsmith does a great job of interviewing Aaron Sorkin about his process of writing the screenplay.

Jeff Goldsmith: Here’s one of the toughest challenges to writing [the screenplay for Steve Jobs], because Isaacson’s book [Steve Jobs] was very clear about [Steve] Jobs having a not so friendly side to him. And you’re writing a story where your protagonist is also your antagonist, and that is not an easy feat. So what were your challenges as a writer? Because audiences love Steve Jobs, but not everybody has read that book yet. For some people, this is new news—this dark side. Part of your task is to get the audience to engage with your characters. And I think you did it, but it’s a tough balancing act to show the dark and the light together and have us care. So what were the challenges in doing that for Jobs?

Aaron: Well, the biggest challenge for sure—I’ll forgive a lot, I was not able to get past his denying paternity of Lisa and the way he treated her. Lisa was the one who got me past that. Now I found the emotional center of the story, because I’m not getting that emotional about the computer that won’t say hello. Here’s the emotional center of the story . . .  she would tell me stories about her father that often weren’t the most flattering stories about him. But she would always at the end of the story, turn it like a prism for me, and say, ‘But you can see how he really did love me.’ Because think about this and this and this. . . .The rest of it goes back to don’t judge the character. See how much you can identify with that character. And I can [identify with Steve Jobs]. . . . It’s not hard for me understanding Steve wanting end-to-end control of all his stuff. ‘Here, you get to buy it or not. I’ve made this thing, but I don’t want you messing with it’ . . .  

While Jobs is not the most sympathetic person to write about, Sorkin said he was looking for a way that showed Jobs change “even just a little bit.” In the closing scene, he does that. Though he’s clear that not everyone liked the ending. One lady at a Q&A in San Francisco even asked Sorkin if he was pressured by the studio or director into writing the final scene with Lisa that humanized Jobs and Sorkin replied he wrote, “exactly the scene I wanted to write.” Goldsmith said it was the right ending.

Goldsmith: Characters need redemption. And if you did a movie like this without a scene like that that where there was absolutely no redemption whatsoever there would be—

Sorkin:—I couldn’t agree more. The story of the movie is Will Steve and his daughter get together? The fact is that in real life they did find each other isn’t even the reason why I did it. Although I like it’s supportable by facts. I did it because I don’t just think there’s a movie if you don’t do it. I think what you’d have is a theater full of people saying, ‘Why did you make me sit here for two hours?’

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Martin Luther King Jr. and Writing Strong-Willed Characters
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Scott W. Smith

When Neil Simon was 31 years old and had yet seen a play of his produced, he was called into a meeting with Max Gordon, who was “the archetypical cigar-smoking Broadway producer” known for producing many Kaufman-and-Hart classic comedies. This is how Simon, in his book Rewrite,  recounted the story of meeting Gordon around 1960:

In this business you look for bread crumbs and settle for what the pigeons couldn’t get that day. The meeting with Max Gordon in his office was brief.

‘I read your script, kid. Good dialogue. Funny. Someday you’re going to write a great play. This isn’t it.’

I nodded, waiting for more. None was forthcoming so I pushed my luck. ‘Can you tell me what’s wrong with it?’

He looked up, surprised to see I was still there. Out of some sense of benevolence, he shared his wisdom with me. ‘A play is like a house. It has to be built on a solid foundation. You don’t have a solid foundation here. What you’ve got is a house built on sand. Once the curtain goes up, your play is going to sink right into the sand. You understand what I’m saying?’

‘Yes. Too much sand.’

’Right. One last thing before you go.’

I hadn’t even made a move toward the door.

‘Characters.’

‘Characters?’

‘There’s no play without characters. First you get your characters, then you get your story, then you get your dialogue. If you got a story and dialogue but no characters, what have you got?’

‘A sand castle.’

’Now you understand. Okay. Nice meeting you, kid. If you ever write a great play, let me read it first. Close the door.’”

Simon would go on to earn a Pulitzer Prize, be nominated for 17 Tony Awards (win three),  and be nominated for four Oscars. May you find (or give) breadcrumbs of encouragement in the coming days.

P.S. I’m not sure what play that was (probably Come Blow Your Horn)—or what version of the early play it was. Or if he made any changes based on what Gordon told him. But Come Blow Your Horn soon afterward had a three-week summer stock run at The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. (Simon called summer stock “a last ditch for his play.”)

That playhouse—which first opened in 1939— is still operating and tonight the play Million Dollar Quartet (book by Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux) begins at 8:00.

Related post:
Flaming Rejection—Garry Marshall’s brutal run-in with a famous veteran comedian

Scott W. Smith

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