Feeds:
Posts
Comments

“In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between.” 
—Alfred Hitchcock

Nothing quite ushers in the holidays like the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I’m a big fan of The Criterion Channel and this month they are running 21 Hitchcock movies. While this includes some classics (Vertigo, Rope, Lifeboat) it also includes some of his lesser known silent film work (The Lodger, Downhill).

It’s easy to look at a masterpiece like North by Northwest (1959) and miss that Hitchcock was 60 when that film was released. Like everyone else had to learn to be a filmmaker. If you look back on his early 20s you begin to see how he evolved as a filmmaker. He loved watching movies as a kid, but being a filmmaker wasn’t on his radar. He studied engineering and through his skills as a draftsman, started doing some side work title design work and art directing on two reeler silent movies.

It was while working with the Famous Players—Lasky in London where he says he learned screenwriting from ”some middle-aged ladies.” Mix that with his appreciation of the silent films by Chaplin, Keaton, and D.W. Griffith and he was prepared to start directing himself. Perhaps the real take away for the young filmmaker/content creator today watching Hitchcock’s British-era films is to see how he engineered his shot selection. Working with film and lower budgets in his early days forced him to think though where he was going to place the camera for maximum impact.

Oscar-winning writer/ director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) was greatly influenced by Hitchcock and only started his featuring film directing career after a three year study of the films by the master of suspense. Here’s what he had to say about The Man Who Knew Too Much (which is also available on The Criterion Channel this month).

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

This Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the States and while giving thanks is always a good idea any time of the year, this week seems to bring it to the forefront for many people. This morning after a video shoot a co-worker dropped by the studio and brought her cool new iPhone 13 Pro Max.

I’m still rocking a prehistoric 7+ iPhone so I was thrilled to check out the new camera. I love the new wide angle feature. So I took a few photos of her and she took a couple of me. So thanks McKenzie for the photo.

Photo by McKenzie Lakey

When I was 21 or 22, and still in film school, I was first paid to work in a studio. Even though back then I was just a part-time freelance second assistant to a fashion photographer in L.A., it was like being given the portal to a secret world.

Art’s studio was just outside downtown L.A. between Silver Lake and Chinatown. Back then it wasn’t the safest part of town, which explained why Art had two Doberman Pinschers to keep his live-in studio and Alfa Romero in check. When Art answered the phone he simply said, “Studio.” It was the epitome of cool. And one of the great things about being an assistant is you get to learn a lot just by observing.

Over the years I been in many big and small studios and still find them magical. I’m thankful that through this pandemic (almost two years now) I’ve had a studio to work in and the flexibility to edit at home when things were shut down. I know many people have had their lives turned upside down during this time.

I mentioned a while back my brother-in-law was in the hospital with COVID. Unfortunately, he died from it and there was a graveside service last week and a get together with friends and family afterwards. There was much to be thankful for as memories were shared, and just that it was beautiful blue sky day. My sister said she was aiming that it being a meaningful day and was grateful that was accomplished. It is an act of grace to be able to experience gratitude in the face of loss.

I could write and never stop if wrote down all the things that I’m thankful for just this year. But let me just point you to a movie that is my go to favorite Thanksgiving movie—Pieces of April. I’ve written about that 2003 film staring Katie Holmes many times on this blog, but I think it’s been a few years so let me beat that drum again.

Pieces of April was written and directed by Peter Hedges who was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, so its fitting to treasure that film on this blog. It’s the story of a young lady who is living in NYC and decides to cook Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family because she’s trying to make amends to her mother who has cancer.

Katie’s character finds her oven isn’t working and things go south from there. Even though it was made for only $200,000 it features an incredible cast and holds up well today because of the performances. And from a screenwriting perspective, it is a wonderful example of conflict/goals/stakes/urgency. And it packs in humor and emotion as well. Check it out and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Update Thursday 11.25.21

Happy Thanksgiving. Because today is also our wedding anniversary, my wife and I went to St. Augustine to celebrate and see the Nights of Lights holiday display. The historic part of St. Augustine is a visual feast 24/7. But this morning on a narrow side street off the beaten path I was able to capture a not so touristy photo.

Related Pieces of April posts (a deep dive about that film):
Pieces of April (Part 1)
Pieces of April (Part 2) 
Pieces of April (Part 3) 
Pieces of April (Part 4) 
Pieces of April (Part 5)
Pieces of April (Part 6) 
Pieces of April (Part 7)

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

“When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.”
Life on the Mississippi written by Mark Twain

Many years ago I read where a National Geographic photographer said some of his best shots were from returning to the same location at not only different times of the day, but different times of the year. Then I learned that bigger movies and commercials had location scouts whose main job is to find great locations for various productions. Reading all the searching that the producers of Cast Away did to find the island for Tom Hanks to be stranded on is how you capture the magic.

When I was a teenager and just learning photography I went to Lake Monroe in Sanford, Florida to take some pictures. I was hoping to take photos of sailboats but instead found some people doing hang gliding. Sanford is flatland country so the hang glider would stand on the edge of the shore and his hang glider was connected to a boat by rope. The boat would speed away and eventually pull the hang glider into the sky.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, after a few successful launches I was situated behind a hang glider who for whatever reason did a face first nose dive into the sand. Broken nose, blood, people crying—the whole deal. I was shocked, but got off a few shots. Not sure where they are now, but it was my “Welcome to photojournalism” moment. An editor for the Sanford Herald inquired about using some photos and a couple years later I become a photojournalist with the Sanford Herald at 19.

I was at the right place at the right time.

Fast forward a few decades and on Saturday I returned to Lake Monroe. Maybe just 50 yards from the great hang gliding flop, I saw a vision emerging in front of me. An old steamboat coming towards me. I just had my iphone and knew I couldn’t get a close shot of it so I ran over to some palm trees to have something to fill the foreground. I cursed there being a light in the corner of the frame. I could have cropped or Photoshopped it out, but once I shifted the photo to black and white I thought it added a nice design element.

So while this isn’t the shot I thought I’d get when I drove to Sanford Saturday, I did drive there with my visual antenna alert to capturing the magic if it came my way. I made note of the time and imagine I’ll return some day with my Nikon and a video camera to get an even better shot and some footage. Who knows, maybe when I return I’ll get the steamboat and a hang glider in the same shot. (Though I’m not sure anyone hang glides there anymore.)

The 21st century doubling for the 19th century

P.S. Long before the pandemic—even long before airplanes and cars—people used to travel to Central Florida via steamboats. My understanding is back in the late 1800s wealthy people in the North East would take the train south to Jacksonville, Florida and board a steamboat on the St. Johns River. They would head south on the river that flows north. They would stop in towns along the way and look at the scenery unlike anything they could see in New York or New England. Imagine an era before the internet and even television and being a Manhattan socialite and seeing your first manatee or alligator. Exotic stuff. (You can ride this steamboat by contacting the the St. Johns Rivership Co.)

I’m not sure that era has ever been captured in a movie, but much of the St. Johns River is visually untouched from what it was like in 1875. About 15 years ago I did shoots on the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers near Manaus, Brazil and it reminded me much of trips I’d had on the St. Johns River. So the St. Johns River can double for South America as well.

And lastly, Lake Monroe is part of the St. Johns River where painter Winslow Homer used to love to leave his Maine home and studio in the winter and fish and paint in and around Enterprise, Florida which sits across the lake from Sanford, Florida.

Winslow Homer painting ”St. Johns River” (1890)

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

Today I came across an Every Frame a Painting visual essay on Buster Keaton that I first saw back in 2015, and I wondered what Tony Zhou was up to these days. Good timing, too. Just found out that he had a hand in VOIR, a series of essays on cinema. It will be shown on Netflix and the trailer for it just dropped today. David Fincher and David Prior are executive producers and it will debut on December 6. Looking forward to it.

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

“I wanted to create something that would resonate not just for Korean people but globally. This was my dream.”
Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk

“Unbeknownst to many outside the Midwest, over the past 15 years Des Moines has transformed into one of the richest, most vibrant, and, yes, hip cities in the country, where the local arts scene, entrepreneurial startups and established corporate employers are all thriving.”
Colin Woodward, Politico Magazine in 2016
How America’s Dullest City Got Cool

“Will they love it in Des Moines?” was one of the comments Rod Serling made when talking to students about writing at Ithaca College back in 1972. It was a twist on the old phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” in regards to how well a movie or television (or play) would be received by an audiences outside of New York or Los Angeles.

Places like Des Moines, Iowa and Peoria, Illinois are seen as representing the middle of the country (or the middle of nowhere depending on your perspective). And as someone who started a blog in 2008 titled Screenwriting from Iowa …and Other Unlikely Places, I have long had an affinity for those places outside the cultural hot spots. (I’m even writing a spec TV pilot this month set in Des Moines.)

When I heard Serling’s above Des Moines quote it made me think of something director Steven Speilberg said to Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show way back in 1999.

“I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”
—Steven Spielberg

I thought of that Spielberg quote a couple of weeks ago when Netflix announced that its most viewed original program of all time was Squid Game. The nine-part series was written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk and shot in South Korea. Home base for the production was the town of Daejeon. It’s at city of 1.5 million people, but still an unlikely places for a global phenomenon to originate. In the first month of its release (according to Netflix’s metrics) it had reached 111 million viewers. (And as a side note, Dong-hyuk was born in Seoul, Korea but also has an MFA from USC film school.)

One way to contrast Dong-hyuk and Serling is to look at their lives at age 50. Dong-hyuk is at the peak of his career now at 50, and at age 50 Serling died a legend. (Serling was said to smoke up to four packs of cigarettes a day. As Stephen King has said, smoking can fuel your brain—but it’s killing you at the same time.) But man, Serling packed in a lot in 50 years. Here’s a sweeping overview.

1943—Graduated from Binghamton Central High and joined the U.S. Army the next day.

1944—Saw combat in the South Pacific. Seeing death on a daily basis shaped his life and writing. According the Wikipedia, Serling was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Philippine Liberation Medal.

1950—After the war he got a BA degree in Literature from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He also worked for the college radio station writing and directing programs. After graduating he worked for WLW radio in Cincinnati. He then moved to television working for WKRC also in Cincinnati. While writing things like fake testimonials on his day job, he also submitted radio and Tv dramas on a freelance basis. Sometimes getting rejected and sometimes getting produced.

1953—Now married and his first child on the way he quit his day job in Ohio and moved to Connecticut. (Now or never?) He found work writing for Kraft Television Theatre and the next year moved to New York City.

1955—TV was in its infant stages in the 1950s and Serling wrote the script for Patterns. The show was performed live in 1955 and then shot on tape in 1956.

1956— Serling cranked out script after script for General Electric Theater, Playhouse 90, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse through the 1950s. His amazing run from 1959 to 1964 included not only creating and writing 71 episodes of The Twilight Zone, but also writing the teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight. First performed in 1956, Requiem became a feature in the US in 1962, and British, Dutch, and Yugoslav versions were later produced. It also made its way to Broadway in 1985.

The well runs deep with Serling. But it is The Twilight Zone for which Serling is best known. A show that was not immensely popular in its day, and Serling tired of always fighting corporate censorship. But back in 1959 (just ten years out of college) he put on his old salesman hat and did his best to find sponsors for the unusual show.

Throughout the ’60s and until his death in 1975 Serling continued to write, but he also found time to teach. He had a home in Ithaca, New York and taught at Ithaca College from 1967—1975. The Rod Serling Archives (and I believe some of his Emmys) are at Ithaca College.

Back in June, after stops in Binghamton and Cooperstown, New York I visited Ithaca. It sits on the southern end of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region of Central New York and is also home to Cornell University.

Serling not only knew how to write scripts that would play in Des Moines, but he wrote scripts that would be relevant long after he was dead.

P.S. The Twilight Zone script “To Serve Man by Rod Serling .”

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

“Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.”
—Six-time Primetime Emmy winner Rod Serling

The day before I visited the National Baseball Museum in Cooperstown, NY, I got to make a brief pilgrimage to another destination I’d long wanted to visit. Binghamton is about an hour and a half drive south west of Cooperstown and is where The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling grew up.

The Twilight Zone is one of my all time favorite TV programs so I went out of my way to make a brief stop there. Though the famed TV show began airing before I was born, it’s just one of those rare programs that resonates deep with me. (Northern Exposure would be another.)

Serling said that one of his personal favorites from The Twilight Zone was Walking Distance that first aired in 1959. It’s the story of a Don Draper advertising type fellow who wanders into his childhood town only to be transported back in time. (And one that features child actor Ron Howard.)

The Walking Distance episode also features a carousel as a set piece. While I think they shot the episode in California, Binghamton calls itself the “Carousel Capital of the World” with six in town. So it’s not a stretch to think Serling tapped into his youth when writing this episode. I stopped at Ross Park to see that carousel that’s been there since 1920. Since Serling was born in 1924 (and this one his next to the Binghamton Zoo) there is a good chance Serling rode this carousel.

No one was riding the historic carousel the day I arrived because it was broken. But the guys working on the repairs were kind enough to let me come in and take some photos. So here’s a snapshot of my stop in The Twilight Zone.

P.S. Serling went to college at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio just north of Dayton. Comedian Dave Chappelle’s father taught at Antioch which is how Dave ended up living in rural Ohio to this day. (How often can you fit Serling, Chappelle, and Ron Howard in one post? Think it’s a first for me.)

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

You know how some people go to church only on Christmas and Easter (with an occasional wedding or funeral now and then)? That’s how I am with Major League Baseball these days—Spring Training and World Series (with an occasional All Star or playoff game now and then). And since tonight kicks off the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves playing Game 1 of 2021 World Series, I thought I’d sneak in one more baseball related post from Cooperstown, New York.

When I went to Cooperstown in June to see the National Baseball Hall of Fame, one of the fringe benefits was celebrating my birthday at The Otesage Resort Hotel. The historic resort opened on the southern end of Otsego Lake in 1909 and is a short stroll from the Hall of Fame. Since my wife isn’t into baseaball she enjoyed just sitting on the hotel’s expansive back deck while reading a book overlooking the lake.

Since I had dreamed of seeing Cooperstown since I was a kid playing Little League baseball, the lakefront hotel—and the beautiful sunrise and sunset—helped make it an extra special visit.

Sunrise
Sunset
The Otesage Resort Hotel in Cooperstown, New York
What started in downtown Atlanta makes its way to downtown Cooperstown for a picture of Americana

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

A few minutes ago I watched the Atlanta Braves defeat the LA Dodgers to advance to the 2021 World Series. This seems like a fitting time to share a 2015 video I just saw for the first time this week. It features professional baseball player Daniel Norris and his unusual off-season practice of living out of a classic VW bus despite making millions playing MLB player.

I’m not sure how much time Norris spends these days in his VW, but this past season he made $3.5 million playing for the Detroit Tigers. (This article still has him spending time in his VW.) Last month, the 2011 second round draft pick was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. The short film Offseason was directed by Ben Moon, with Ben Sturgulewski as the director of photography, and edited by Dana Shaw.

If you dig that film check out Denali.

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

“The world crushes your soul and the arts remind you that you have one.”
—Legendary actress/acting teacher Stella Adler

If I listed all the writers who started out as actors it would be an extensive list. But here’s a short list: Sofia Coppola, David Mamet, and Aaron Sorkin. And there are others that are still known for both acting and writing; Ben Affleck, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tina Frey, Jordan Peele, Sylvester Stallone, and Emma Thompson.

Even if you don’t have a desire to act—and just the idea terrifies some introverted writers—just taking one class for say three months is still an experience that can benefit you as a writer. Here’s what sitcom writer Sheldon Bull says new writers should do after taking a writing class or joining a writers group.

l“Take an acting class. Even if you have no aspirations to be an actor, an acting class can be invaluable to a writer. Even of you just audit the class and never do any acting yourself, it’s great to see how actors work and what their problems and challenges are. Observe how the acting teacher coaches the actors. That’s how a director on a sitcom works. You’ll see how the acting teacher gives notes to an actor. Learn how to give notes that improve the actor’s performance and build his confidence. As a sitcom writer, you are writing words that are intended to be spoken by the actors. The more you understand the acting process, the better your writing will be.”
—Producer/writer Sheldon Bull (M*A*S*H, Coach, Newhart)
Elephant Bucks, An Inside Guide to Writing for TV Sitcoms

That’s timeless advice that works across the board no matter the kind of writing you want to do. Some writers act out their lines while writing. Walt Disney was said to get so excited in story meetings that he would act out scenes as his ideas were flowing. (And you really haven’t had an acting class unless you and your classmates have all acted out being animals in a zoo.) A fringe benefit is just getting to know actors and how they’re wired. Understanding their doubts and insecurities. Their strengths and weaknesses. Plus having more actor friends help do table readings of your script is a good thing.

Robert Towne was in an acting class with Jack Nicholson when they were starting out and neither knew if they were going to have careers in Hollywood. Towne wrote the script for Chinatown with Nicholson in mind for the lead role. Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar and Towne won the Oscar for his screenplay.

If you can’t take a class in person, and interesting class to watch is the Nina Foch Course for Filmmakers and Actors. (Foch was a legendary in film, Tv, and theater actress.)

On Udemy right now, the course Directing the Actor a USC Course with Nina Foch is only $14.99 (No sponsorship.) That’s worth four hours of your time. Here’s what Alex Ferrari from Indie Film Hustle says about that course.

P.S. Two opportunities I missed while living in LA back in the ’80s. Shelly Winter’s was teaching an acting class. I was in my early 20s and only knew her then from The Poseidon Adventure, but later became aware of her two Oscars in A Patch of Blue and The Diary of Anne Frank. And my favorite Winter’s film is A Place in the Sun. I would have loved to watch her teach. And Stella Adler had long been based in New York, but opened a studio in LA around 1985 and was teaching a class that somehow involved William Hurt. I could audit the class for $360, but just couldn’t part with that money at the time. If ever those kinds of things come your way—jump at the opportunity. When I lived in Iowa, I once drove 3 hours each way to hear filmmaker David Lynch speak for a couple of hours. No regrets there.

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

“Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”
—Babe Ruth

While I was in film school and a couple of years after graduating, I took acting classes. They weren’t that different from the ones Michael Douglas leads in the Netflix show The Kominsky Method.

,I was told that every writer, director, and filmmaker should at least know what it’s like to walk in an actor’s shoes. So I took sensory classes, cold reading, and scene study classes. I worked with Arthur Mendoza doing scenes from Chekhov’s The Seagull and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (“I have tricks up my sleeves…”), studied at the Van Mar Academy, Estelle Harman’s Actors Workshop, and at Tracy Roberts Actors Studio. I learned something from all of them.

I even learned from a couple of places I didn’t study. I cold called Jeff Corey because I knew that Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne had studied with him. I told him I was interested in checking out his classes to see if I wanted to study with him. He firmly told me that first he was in Malibu and that was too from my apartment in Burbank, and secondly that I wasn’t the one doing the qualifying. Next.

Another day I dropped into what is now called The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute on Santa Monica Blvd. A lady there told me that unless I wanted to be an actor more than anything, then don’t come there to study. Because she said, it’s too hard to make it as an actor, and too hard to stay if you do make it. That the only thing that keeps you going as an actor was that when your feet hit the ground in the morning—all you want to be is an actor. That wasn’t me, so I moved on.

Tracy Roberts was where I spent the most time. She had been part of the original Actor’s Studio back in New York in the ’50s and racked up film and Tv credits through the ’70s before turning to teaching. She was the first one to turn me on to the work of Clifford Odets and liked a short story I wrote enough to give me a scholarship to a dramatic writing class they were doing at her studio.

And it was at her workshop that I got some of the best advice of my life. And while it was given in the context of acting, you can apply it to just about any area of life. But this is where my memory is a little fuzzy, and I can’t remember exactly who told it to me. But I think it was Howard Fine. Recently, I came across a sheet from a scene study class I did with Fine, who I think was teaching with Roberts’ studio back in the ’80s.

Fine now runs the Howard Fine Acting Studio in LA and has a who’s who list of actors that have worked with him. (Brad Pitt, Gal Gadot, Jered Leto, Dwayne Johnson, Salma Hayek, Kerry Washington, and Chris Pine.) I’m not 100% sure, but I think he’s the one that gave me the great advice below.

After class one night, I was discouraged about how I’d done. I think I told him I had a sports background and liked that at the end of a game you knew how you’d done. I sensed I wasn’t going to be the next great thing. Fine said, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you can’t play the game.” That was a revelation.

For those of you unfamiliar with the analogy, Babe Ruth was arguably the greatest baseball player ever. When I visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY this summer, I learned even more what an iconic player Ruth was in his day. Even when he wasn’t playing a game, he caused a stir when he just visited a town. He wasn’t your average a baseball star, he was a rock star (long before there were rock stars).

There are layers of talent in every field. In screenwriting terms, if your goal is to be the next Paddy Chayefsky, William Goldman, or Aaron Sorkin you just might fall short. But if you do, that doesn’t mean you can’t play the game. That’s also true at every part of the entertainment and content creation industry.

So be encouraged— there are more creative opportunities in the world than ever before. There are even more ways to make a living producing, directing, writing, and editing outside of Hollywood than inside it. So when you get down just remember, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you can’t play the game.” And Ruth’s own story from a troubled youth to baseball star found its way to the big screen in The Babe Ruth Story.

P.S. I did a little digging and did read an interview where Howard Fine said he started teaching at Tracy Roberts Actors Studio in 1985 so I at least got that part right. I would have been one of his first students in LA and the chances are slim that he’d remember me, but he might recall giving that Babe Ruth advice. I’m sure that advice comforted many an actor, because there was only one Babe Ruth–just like there was only one Marlon Brando.

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

%d bloggers like this: