Screen Shot 2020-08-03 at 8.52.18 PM

Before Hamilton my knowledge of Alexander Hamilton was as thin as a $10 bill.  Where was Lin-Manuel Miranda when I was struggling through American History my junior year of high school? Oh, that’s right, he wasn’t born yet.

Back in 1979 I was much more interested in movies, music, playing football and baseball, and girls than learning about The Founding Fathers of the United States. The cherry tree, wooden teeth, powdered wigs— yeah, yeah, yeah.

At least I was fascinated by the American west of the 1800s and did my final report on that and was able to pass the class. The following year Lin-Manuel Miranda was born. But I really wish I’d seen Hamilton before I took that 5th grade field trip to Disney World where they made us sit through the Hall of President exhibit. (Hamilton is now on Disney+ with a PG13 rating and I’d suggest you watch it first and decide what age is appropriate if you‘re watching it with them. But Miranda leading 5th graders on a tour of Disney’s Hall of Presidents would be interesting.)

In school I couldn’t connect past history with my future.  Even in college, I dropped the first film history I took because I did not find the topic engaging. Writing, shooting, directing and editing my first 8mm film (set to Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life”) that semester was exciting. Sitting in a class with over 100 people listening to lectures about black and white movies was less than exciting.

Two years later a passionate film professor walked the class through A Place in the Sun and a light shined in the darkness. By him walking through choices George Stevens made through his directorial choices I had a new appreciation for what I could learn from the past.

And watching The Civil War, A Film By Ken Burns in 1990 awakened my desire to know more about American history. Better 10 years after high school than never. Then in 1998, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan gave me a hunger to know more about world history.

In 1999 I backpacked across nine countries in Europe which was like walking through history. Twenty years ago you could still see bombed out churches that were remnants of World War II. After that trip I appreciated Casablanca on a whole different level.

All that set the stage to finally experience Hamilton just two weeks ago. I won’t be the last one to get on the Hamilton train, but getting on in 2020 (five years after its Broadway debut) is pretty much jumping on the caboose.

Actually the analogy of train fits well. Back in 1979 when I was avoiding studying for my American history class, a Saturday tradition for me was watching Soul Train and American Graffiti back to back. That was one hour featuring the hit music of the day and the leaders of the future.

Disco was at the end of its run then, and the first time I remember hearing rap music was 1981. It was in the locker room at the University of Miami where I was a walk-on football player. I don’t remember any of the songs, but I remember asking what kind of music it was and thought someone said it was  “rat music.” (To my defense, the music was loud.) They clarified that it was “rap music.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda was born into a world where rap and hip hop emerged and then matured. And along the way its given voice to many artists who Miranda not only pays homage to Hamilton, but Miranda has the stroke of genius to give that voice to men and women circa 1776. And he has the talent to pull it off.

Within the first few beats of the opening song I was hooked. More on that in tomorrow’s post.

Scott W. Smith 










I am not throwin’ away my shot!
I am not throwin’ away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young scrappy and hungry
Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)

Singer/songwriter Paul Simon preceded Hamilton—the play, not the person. And I sure hope he knows it. I just learned over the weekend how Simon’s biggest musical failure planted the seeds for the off the chart success of Hamilton: An American Musical.  

Simon & Garfunkel had their first number one hit back in 1966, with a song Simon wrote when he was just 21-years-old (The Sound of Silence).  Their greatest hits include the classics Mrs. Robinson, Homeward Bound, and Bridge Over Troubled Water. That alone represents a solid music career.

In the 1970s, Simon’s solo career included the hits Kodachrome, Loves Me Like a Rock, and 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.  At the 1976 Grammy Awards his album Still Crazy After All These Years was named album of the year, and he was also named Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male. Simon could have called it a day and rode off into the sunset knowing he’d reached the height of success that few get to experience.

But Simon reached into the well in the 1980s and released his most successful solo album, Graceland. The album scored more hit songs and more Grammys. But it was in the late ’80s that he began working on a passion project, the musical The Capeman. Written with Derek Walcott, Simon said it was “a New York Puerto Rican story based on events that happened in 1959—events that I remembered.” The controversial musical ruffled many feathers on Broadway and closed after just 68 performance and personally cost Simon millions.

But one of the people who saw the play was a high school senior named Lin-Manuel Miranda, who would later write Hamilton. Miranda knew the play didn’t totally work, but he thought it had a “gorgeous score” and planted seeds on how he could carve his own path. Being of Puerto Rican decent he wasn’t sure if there was a place in the spotlight for him in theater. Plus in school he knew there were better singers, dancers, and musicians than him. Two years after seeing the The Capeman he began working on In the Heights. 

To make a long story short, he stumbled on the 2004 book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow while on vacation and the rest is history (ba dam tss).  The twist was he told  the story “America then, as told by America now.” That meant using hip hop, rap and other music not usually associated with the American Revolution. And he cast people of color as founding fathers of the United States, and a nice lead role for himself as Alexander Hamilton. That’s how you turn the world upside down.

The show eventually found its way to Broadway in 2015 and the following year won a Best Musical Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But . . . before all of that, way back in 2009, Miranda had the opportunity to sing the opening song of his work in progress at a White House event. (I think the laughter is because the audience thinks he’s joking about working on a musical about the first United States Secretary of the Treasury.  Which is a reminder that there’s a good chance that people will laugh at your crazy ideas before the applause and awards come.)

Hamilton has toured around the world since then and a month ago a filmed version of the Broadway play was released on Disney+ for a whole new audience to discover.

P.S. Three other successful musicals that influenced Miranda before his Hamilton; West Side Story, 1776, and Amadeus.  More on that in a future post, but I have a friend whose mother calls herself a Nuyorican (born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City). She couldn’t tell you how many times she’s watched the film version of West Side Story. Miranda can look forward to day when writers start approaching him with how seeing Hamilton as a youth inspired them to create their own stories.

P.P.S. I have a vision that late one night 78-year-old Paul Simon is home surrounded by his 12 Grammy Awards (including one for Life Achievement) and he watches Hamilton and smiles knowing that his expensive Broadway failure sparked a phenomenon.

Here are a couple of songs from The Capeman and a insightful video of Simon walking Dick Cavett through his process of wrtiting Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Scott W. Smith 


There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
“It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Screen Shot 2020-08-01 at 3.55.46 PM
Today I’ll start a run of posts on Hamilton that began running on Disney+ last month. I was not fortunate enough to see the Broadway or touring versions of the musical, so glad to finally see the 2016 filmed Broadway version. Since I avoided reading much about the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning (Best Musical) creation by Lin-Manuel Miranda I came at it fresh last week and it blew me away.

Ii also brought tears to my eyes in a couple of places. Repeated viewings, and listening to the CD on continue loop while driving, have enriched my understanding of history and deepened my appreciation for the dramatic experience.

The craft of storytelling is on full display. I’m not sure how many posts I’ll write, but starting Monday I’ll unpack why I think Hamilton is an instant classic.

Eventually, I’ll get around to seeing what Miranda, fans, critics, and podcaster have to say about the musical. But today I just want to mention that Hamilton is that rare emotional journey that audiences crave.

“‘What is the single emotional journey?’—That’s always the mantra for me. That’s the true north. Screenwriting is an intellectual exercise that’s designed to illicit an emotional response.  If I write a script and somebody calls me and says ‘this is the smartest script I’ve ever read’ that means I have failed 100%. Because I’m not reaching that reader on an emotional level. When you write a script that works, you do the thinking so your reader can do the feeling.”
Billy Ray (Captain Phillips, Shattered Glass, Richard Jewel) 
UCLA Story Break podcast

Last night on the Facebook group for The Rewatchables (based on the Bill Simmons podcast dedicated to movies that people find rewatchable) Jimmy Mak asked the question “What movie made you cry the hardest?” Iin less than 24 hours there were 300 responses. Many of the movies were repeated, but here is a partial list of movies that made people cry. (And, yes, Hamilton made the list.)

12 Years a Slave
American Sniper
Apollo 13

Big Fish
Boyz N the Hood
Brian’s Song
The Champ
Cinema Paradiso

Dancer in the Dark
The Elephant Man
Field of Dreams
For the Love of the Game
Forrest Gump
Friday Night Lights
Fruitvale Station
Green Mile
Home Alone
Inside Out
It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It’s a Wonderful Life
Joy Luck Club
Just Mercy
Kissed By God
Kramer vs. Kramer
La Bamba

Marley and Me
Marriage Story
Me & Earl and the Dying Girl
Million Dollar Baby
Mr.Holland’s Opus

My Dog Skip
My Girl
Old Yeller 

On Golden Pond
Ordinary People
The Patriot
A River Runs Through It
Rocky 2
Saving Private Ryan
Short Circuit
Sling Blade 

Stand By Me
A Star is Born
Terms of Endearment
Toy Story 3
Where the Red Fern Grows

P.S. Personally, Hamilton has proven to be an instant rewatch. But what’s interesting about listening to Bill Simmons and his team talk about movies they’ve see 10, 20, 50, 100 times is you get an audiences understanding (verses an academic one) of the verceral level at which movies can hit people. Often times the filmmakers and actors/actresses are mystified by the depths that some of the movies they worked on impact others. (More than one actor has said they can’t watch movies they’re in because they only see room for improving their performances. Audiences come at movies from a different perspective. They’re not looking for perfection, but to have an emotional journey. But Hamilton is that rare production that achieved both.

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions
Aim for the Heart
Movies as an Emotional Journey 
Frances Marion on Emotion

Scott W. Smith 

“I always found that the harder a place was to get the more I enjoyed going there.”
—Jimmy Chin
(Who lived out of his car for six years as a mountain climber on his way to being an Academy Award winning filmmaker.)

Somewhere in a shoebox is a photo of me 15+ years ago in Georgetown, Colorado standing next to a restored late ’60s/early ’70s Ford Bronco that has always been my go-to dream vehicle. For whatever reason that boxy two door SUV just hits me in an emotional spot.

I guess that old Bronco hits a spot with a few other people because last week Ford unveiled their updated version of the Ford Bronco—and it looks similar to the design of the one that’s 50 years old. (An larger echo if you will.) And to top it off, they hired rock climber and self-taught photographer/filmmaker Jimmy Chin to help with the branding of the Bronco. Yeah, that’s a pretty good marriage.

Chin co-directed and co-produced Free Solo (featuring climber Alex Honnold) which won Best Documentary Feature at the 2019 Oscar Awards.  It’s been a few decades since I really got excited about a new vehicle. (No disrespect to Tesla.) But, yeah, that new two door Ford Bronco has me dreaming about returning to Georgetown, Colorado in my own Bronco someday.

P.S. Here’s a photo I took during my 6:45AM commute this morning. I think that new Bronco would transport my Kayak quite well.


Related post: ‘First Man’ vs. ‘Free Solo’

Scott W. Smith 


Every once in a while someone will briefly come into your life and leave a lasting impression on you. I met Gehrig Chambless on a video shoot two years ago and I knew he was special.

He was only a high school senior but he could hold his own talking to college students. His attributes of intellect, politeness, good looks, and creativity stood out from the first hour I met him. I was not surprised to learn later that he was also the starting quarterback on his high school football team and tied a national high school baseball record for triples in a single game (4).

You didn’t know where he was going, but you knew he had a huge amount of potential. (Screenwriting was just one of his interests.) Unfortunately, in April he died in an accident. He was just 21. I’m saddened that the world will never benefit from all that he had to offer. At his memorial service his poem The Lonely Tavern was read and I was moved by it. This morning I came across the college publication where it was printed in 2018.


P.S. Gehrig (who was named after Yankee great Lou Gehrig) enjoyed spending time in northern Minnesota which is where Bob Dylan was born and raised. As I read The Lonely Tavern again this morning it made he think of Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm. 

Scott W. Smith 

Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 2.51.28 PM

Ramesh Santanam on The Inside Pitch interview with Oscar winning screenwriter Chris McQuarrie (at the 1:58:58 mark) asked a question about how he dealt with notes from studio executive in the development process and McQuarrie told this great story about a writer who said he got a the “dumbest note he’d ever received” from an executive while working on a remake of Walking Tall (1973). The executive wanted Sheriff Buford Pusser to have a 2″x4″ piece of wood that was a character in the story. McQuarrie didn’t think giving the 2×4 a personality was a dumb note at all.

“I said that’s an excellent note. And he said, ‘That’s the dumbest note,’ Because in his mind he saw Tommy the 2X4 that was a character in the story that had some voice, or spoke to Buford. And I said, ‘Buford and his wife are building a house, or his wife to be are building a house, when the villains of the movie come to kill Buford.  And in the process they fail to kill Buford but they burn his house to the ground. And in so doing his wife is killed. And Buford ends up in the hospital. Now when he gets out of the hospital the first thing he does is he goes to the wreckage of his burned home that was going to be the home where he was going to spend the rest of his life with his wife, and he pulls a 2×4 out from one of the unfinished walls, with nails sticking out of it, and he spends the rest of the movie beating the sh— out of people with that 2×4. Now, don’t you think every time you look at that 2×4 it doesn’t have some meaning? And don’t you think that 2×4 becomes his sidekick in the movie?’” 

Once McQuarrie explained it that way the writer admitted that is wasn’t a dumb note after all.  Back in 2011, I wrote a post called Objective Correlative (Tip #48) that is the fancy literary term T.S. Eliot used to explain how objects in stories have meaning. (Though the phrase was used in the 1800s.) It’s the glass unicorn in The Glass Menagerie, Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away, and Rosebud in Citizen Kane. 

McQuarrie says when you get a note from an executive, know that you are getting a note from someone who isn’t a writer. So what you need to try to do is understand the emotion behind the note. Then you find a way to fit that note into your “storytelling philosophy.” Fix their problem with the story with your understanding.

P.S. I don’t think I’ve seen the original walking tall since it played at the Prairie Lake Drive In back in the ’70s (might have caught a few minutes in TV), but I remember that vividly the character of Buford Pusser played by Joe Don Baker. (And I’d bet that Quentin Tarantino loved the original Walking Tall which is set in his home state of Tennessee.That movie just had to influence him. Just like Spielberg has the original sled from Citizen Kane above his writing desk,  I wouldn’t be surprised if Tarantino has the original 2×4 prop from Walking Tall above his writing desk.)

I’ll have to revisit the 2012 version of Walking Tall with Dwayne Johnson to see if the 2×4 (or a chunkier 4″x4″) had a character backstory.

Scott W. Smith 

“What I’ve learned to do, probably really in just the last couple of films is to regard music and dialogue as very much one in the same. Dialogue is just as musical as music is a language. And by thinking of dialogue in musical terms, thinking of dialogue in terms of something that  conveys an emotion rather than information. It has changed they way that I write scenes. When I find myself writing something that is purely informational, if I can’t inject it with something like conflict, humor, tension, suspense, drama—especially conflict—then I know that what I’m doing is writing is information. And information is the death of  emotion. The biggest lesson I learned between Rouge Nation and Fallout was how to articulate that.  Somebody asked me about writing exposition and what was the secret to writing exposition and without thinking I said that ‘information is the death of emotion.’” Thinking about dialogue as a delivery device for emotion. That’s not to say it’s a character expressing emotions. There’s nothing less emotional than watching a character experience an emotion. What you want is the audience experiencing emotion through that character. That really changed the way I wrote dialogue. They way that I wrote exposition.”
—Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie  (Top Gun: Maverick)
The Inside Pitch interview with Christopher Lockhart 
(starting at the 1:55:02 mark)

P.S. Starting on August 1, I’m going to begin a string of posts on Hamilton which is a prime example of blending music and dialogue in what I found to be an emotional story.  If you haven’t seen the play or the taped version on Disney+ at least get the 10 day free subscription to check it out.  I look forward to exploring what Lin-Manuel Miranda created what is the best production I’ve seen this year.

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions
‘Exposition is BORING unless…’
Mysterious Minimal Exposition from ‘A Quiet Place’ and ’Sicario’
Cary Grant & Exposition (Tip # 38)
Screenwriting & Exposition (Tip #10)
Cody on Expo
10 Solid Exposition Examples 
Dialogue as Music (Aaron Sorkin)
‘I’m in the feelings business’—Brian Grazer 

Scott W. Smith 

Christopher Lockhart’s two hour interview with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie— that was originally shown on the private Facebook group The Inside Pitch— is now on YouTube.

Here are two filmmaking lessons from the Mission: Impossible writer/director McQuarrie (the second which he said took him 25 years to articulate):


“I didn’t understand lens on my first film, and I never had one discussion about lens on the film. I do not I do not know a single shot  in my first film—what lens it was shot on. I can guess it now because I’ve developed an eye for what lens are. Once you’ve determined who the audience is, the next most important conversation to have is about what is the lens? On my first film I never discussed the lens once. On Mission: Impossible Fallout, I had 3,000 setups in that movie. I had more setups than two Harry Potter movies combined. There was not one setup on that movie where the first conversation we had didn’t have the lens. We talked about the lens every single time. And what you need to think of when you think of lens. You can look up focal length. You can look up the rule of thirds. You can look up lighting. You can read all that stuff—all those books are so tedious and so boring, and I don’t understand them. And they’re really, really hard. Here’s what you need to do: when you look at a lens, look at the number on the focal length on the lens. Whether it’s an 18mm lens right up to, say, a 150 mm lens. The number on the lens signifies the amount of intimacy that that lens provides. And the more intimacy you want to put into the scene, or a line or a moment, the higher that number goes. And the more you want to stand back from the action the lower the number goes. . . understanding that principle when I was 20-years-old would have gotten me where I am a lot fast.”


“The other thing I want you to do is I want all of you to go out and take photographs. And I want you to do it with you phone. And what I want you to do when you’re taking the photograph is I want you to think about three things and only three things; lens, light, and location. And when you take a photograph and look at it and go ‘Why don’t I like this photograph?’ It is because one of three things, or all three of those things, are not in sync. And remember that you can almost always alter one of those three things. You can either change the light, you can change the location, or you can change the lens. On most iPhones now you can sort of pretend to change a lens. What we don’t understand when we’re first starting out, and what most people don’t tell us, they don’t make us aware of those things. They don’t make us aware of light. And so what happens is we look at the picture and we can’t understand why when we’re taking the picture that it doesn’t look like what our eye sees.. . . . So what you want to do is stop looking at the world through your eyes, and start looking at the world through the lens. If you don’t tell the lens what you want to see exactly, the lens will show you what it sees approximately  . . .  The first lesson in photography is just an awareness of those three things: lens, light, and location.”

Here’s an example of that from a photo I took last week with my iPhone. (Straight out of the camera with zero post production.)
Lens: I used the 2x (telephoto) on my iPhone 7 Plus to compress the tree in the foreground and the sunrise in the background.
Light: I knew the sunrise was at 6:41 so I had to be in position in my kayak before then. I also knew that the small sensor on the iPhone doesn’t actually handle the blinding sun well so I wanted to capture the sun just before it breaks the horizon. And because the camera want to expose for the tree in the foreground instead of the bright background, I had to use the slider to bring the exposure down. This would silhouette the tree which was the effect I wanted.
Location: Since I started kayaking four months ago I was familiar with the best places to shoot the sunrise. This cypress tree is my favorite location because I knew where I could position myself to get the best composition of the rising sun and the tree with Spanish moss to make it visually interesting. I was fortunate to get the clouds as they add extra visual interest. Perhaps the trickiest part was positioning myself on a kayak to be at the right place just before the sun shined through. There was less than 30 seconds to get the shot I wanted to get where the lens, light, and location came though.  The only thing that would have made it better was if I would of had Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) kayaking in the frame between the tree and the horizon. If Tom ever wants to make the two and a half hour trip from Clearwater to Orlando I’m up for a reshoot. (Seaplanes can land on the lake.) I’d even break out my Nikon for that.


Light, Lens, Location

Related posts:
I did go to film school so I’m not bored by all the technical aspects of cinematography. Here are some posts I’ve written about the subject over the years:
Wide, Normal, and Telephoto Lens Explained & Other Cinematography Resources 
The Five C’s of Cinematography
Cinematography for Directors
Cinematic Storytelling
Master Shots 
Film Directing Shot by Shot
Film Directing, Cinematic Motion
Oscar Winning Cinematography ( 1927-2016)
Cinematography (Overview)
Cinematographer Allen Daviau (1942—2020)
Cinematography Cheats #1 (Jerry Maguire)
‘It’s all about emotions’ Cinematographer Jamusz Kamunski
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)

Scott W. Smith 

“Here’s how you become a screenwriter: Get yourself a pencil and a piece of paper—you don‘t need a computer, you don’t need Final Draft— and write interior [INT] and then chose any location you want. And then decide whether it’s night or day.  You’re a screenwriter. There’s no such thing as an aspiring screenwriter or an inspiring filmmaker. You’re either creating or you’re not creating. I haven’t made it. And I’m making two Mission: Impossible movies and I’m producing Top Gun. I have’t made it—I’m making it. I’m in the process of making it to where I still dream of being, and you will be, too.”
Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart

A quick look online shows you can buy 100 sheets of paper for just over two dollars and pencils cost around twenty cents each. So that’s how I came up with three dollars. Now if you want to get fancy like Jerry Seinfeld and use a yellow legal pad and a pen that can push you to around the $10 mark. But the good news is, no massive student loan is required for either. (I believe Quentin Tarantino also uses a yellow legal pad to write his scripts.)

One of the themes that has emerged in writing a screenwriting blog for the past 12 years is screenwriters come from everywhere. And there are many contradictory views on screenwriting and filmmaking. What I’ve tried to do is curate many of those views and present them in a way that I hope will resonate with others and help them create. (And I hope to have news this month on how I’ve boiled the 3,000 posts over the years into a greatest hits of sorts into a 250 page book.)

McQuarrie’s advice reminds me of the story I once heard where William Faulkner was giving a talk to writers and asked them why they where there instead of writing.

Of course, if it was as easy as just write we’d all be walking around with Academy Awards and Nobel Prizes like McQuarrie and Faulkner. But McQuarrie didn’t say, “Here’s how you become an Academy Award winning screenwriter….”

So sharpen your pencils and get busy creating something today.

Related post:
The Myth of ‘Breaking In’

Scott W. Smith 




“If you think you’re a failure as a writer because you’re failing, you’re doing it wrong. The whole idea is you’re supposed to be failing. You’re supposed to be learning from your mistakes. You’re supposed to be going through a process of trial and error and trial by fire. The strongest steel goes through the hottest fire. And everybody is so consumed with getting to a place of ‘success’—you don’t even know the definition of success as you define it. If you think money is success, let me tell you, money can turn into failure faster than anything. If you think a hit movies is a success— I had a really good experience, I had as good an experience you can have on my second feature film, my first sole writing credit, and won the Academy Award. It didn’t solve my problems for me. It created a lot more problems than it solved. And the night I won that award was not a happy evening. Bryan [Singer] and I weren’t speaking to each other, and I was in a miserable relationship. And more importantly, I didn’t know what my next job was. That’s not the case when I came up with the idea for The Usual Suspects.  I was working in a copy-room in a law firm in downtown Los Angeles. I was making a couple of bucks an hour. I was broke. I was and miserable, but I had an idea that I knew was a great idea. If I had to compare the two experiences; the experience of winning an Academy Award for The Usual Suspects or coming up with the idea? I’ll trade [for] coming up with the idea every time. 
Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart

%d bloggers like this: