The Writers Guild of America strike has finally ended and now the “We Support” signs can come down and go on ebay. But I do have a couple of questions. Who is the “we” in the above photo? And why does Gary Kelley have it on his door at work? Kelley is not a screenwriter though he did spend time in Los Angeles on the picket line during the writer’s strike. His daughter is a screenwriter and a member of the WGA, so that’s probably the reason the sign’s there.
Kelley is an artist who can be found most days (and often nights) working in his upstairs studio in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Yes, downtown Cedar Falls does resemble Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. Yes, it was snowing when I took the photo below last week, and yes, the Christmas lights are still up in mid February. (Talk about a long December….)
If you don’t recognize the name Gary Kelley I’m sure you are familiar with his art work. As an illustrator his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Time, New Yorker Magazine, Newsweek and many other publications and national advertising campaigns. He has won over 25 medals from the Society of Illustrators and last year was elected into their Hall of Fame. He’s kind of the William Goldman of illustrators. But he is most known for the murals he’s done of writers that can be found in every Barnes & Noble Booksellers across the country. Including two 70 foot murals at the most recently renovated Barnes & Nobel on 5th and 48th street in Manhattan.
When you walk into Kelley’s studio it’s like walking onto a movie set. It’s exactly what you’d expect a working artist’s studio to look like. During the day beautiful natural light spills into the loft like area and onto a large easel where he is often painting. What he’s usually not doing is sipping a glass of wine, waxing philosophically about art.
He can do that, but he’s got work to do most of the time. It was from Kelley that I learned the phrase “Art is work.” It originated from the book with that as the title by Milton Glaser, the designer of the ubiquitous “I (heart shape) NY” design.
It’s a book Kelley likes to recommend. “First off Glaser is a giant in my eyes,” Kelley told me in his studio, “He’s extremely articulate and he shares everything he knows in this book which is wonderful. It’s such an honest book. Art is Work that’s a pretty honest statement. The thing that makes it so great is that he’s not afraid to talk about inspiration and influence. Many artists are very secretive about that. They want you to think that ideas come from some kind of magical, middle-of-the-night revelation. Creativity is assembling influences. It’s not about having something totally original pop into you head all of a sudden.”
That explains why Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, who are basically film historians as well as filmmakers, are known for their original work. But even a director of Scorsese’s stature hits creative dry spots as he has talked about before he made Raging Bull. How does work fit into that predicament? (Or, say, a financially drained screenwriter after a three-month strike? Or a mother of two trying to squeeze in a script writing at night?)
Thomas Moore writes in Dark Nights of the Soul, “Don’t work only when the mood is right. Let the dark night come and go, but keep doing your work. Igor Stravinsky said, ‘Even when I do not feel like work I sit down to it just the same. I cannot wait for inspiration.’ He liked to quote Tchaikovsky who said that composing was like making shoes. In that sense, it was a job.”
Screenwriting is a job. It’s work. Just show up and ply your trade. Do that whether you get paid or not and even if you live in Memphis, Des Moines or Fairbank. These things take time. Steve Martin in his book Born Standing Up, recounts how he did thousands of performances over a 10 year period getting his act down and then another four years fine tuning it before he found wild success for four years. It took a lot of work to discover how to be a wild and crazy guy.
There is an old saying that writers don’t like writing but they like having written. And the only way to have written is to write. If you look at the lives of writers you will find all kinds of styles. But the one thing many successful ones have in common is a discipline (desire, obsession?) to write on a regular basis.
John Grisham is one of the most financially successful writers in history. But before he made a name for himself as a writer he was a lawyer in Oxford, Mississippi. Lawyers aren’t known for having a lot of free time so on top of his 60-80 hour days as a State Representative he would wake up at five 5 AM to fit in an hour of writing on his first novel. After he did that for three years, he could not find anyone interested in publishing the book. So he continued to wake up early and write the next novel that eventually got published and went on to make him a very wealthy man.
Ron Bass & Stephen King are also known for their dedicated daily writing schedules.
Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) was a struggling novelist for ten years before he found success with his first screenplay The Client based on Grisham’s novel.
I grew up with laid back musician Jimmy Buffett as one of my heroes, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized Buffett didn’t spend much time in Margaritaville because he is a workaholic who’s usually on the road or in the studio. That’s why he’s had a 30+ year career and why he made around $30 million back in 2006. Don’t let those flip-flops fool you – it takes a lot of work to be that carefree.
A few years ago I was producing a TV program in LA with director of photography Peter Biagi who shot on the first HBO Project Greenlight movie. On our last day of shooting a group of us had dinner with Stolen Summer writer/director Peter Jones. The HBO Greenlight show projected Jones as merely an insurance salesman from Chicago which was partially true. I asked him how many screenplays he had written before Stolen Summer and he said six. This wasn’t a guy who went from writing insurance claims to screenplays overnight. It was a process where he worked on his writing.
“For me, it was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.” Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)
“My average UCLA student who’s been successful wrote at least six complete, polished screenplays before finally selling one.” William Froug
“I wrote maybe 10 screenplays before I was able to sell one.” Nicolas Kazan, At Close Range“
“We wrote six scripts before anything was produced.” Jack Epps, Jr., Top Gun
“Before I got adept at it, I had to write about ten scripts.” Brian Helgeland, L.A. Confidential
Those are encouraging quotes when you’ve written seven unproduced feature scripts, and help keep you sane when you see Diablo Cody knock her first script out of the park with her Oscar nominated Juno. (Congrats once again to Cody for winning the Writers Guild of America best original screenplay award.) For those of you who haven’t read The Juno-Iowa Connection on this site, Cody is a graduate of the University of Iowa.
But Cody is not a freak of nature.While her first screenplay won an Oscar, Cody mentions writing everyday sice she was 12. That’s fifteen years of writing before she wrote Juno. Oliver Stone wrote 12 screenplays before he sold one. Are you getting the picture? Screenwriting is work. But let’s get more specific and look at work on a day-to-day basis.
Joe Eszterhas’ (Basic Instinct) advice in his screenwriting book The Devils Guide to Hollywood is; “Write six pages of script a day. Stick to this schedule no matter what. You’ll have a finished first draft in roughly twenty days. Then go back and edit what you’ve written. Spend no more than five days on this edit.”
Any way you look at it it comes down to work.
Gary Kelley’s work made it to the big screen this past November when I photographed and produced an HD production of his artwork for Holst’s The Planets performed by the Waterloo-Ceder Falls Symphony under the direction of conductor Jason Wienberger. Viewed on a 20 foot screen it received a triple standing ovation from the 1,300 in attendance. (Newspaper Review.) I took this photo at rehearsals.
I don’t think Kelley has any desire to make the feature film leap as Julian Schnabel’s (The Diving Bell and Butterfly) has done, but it was fitting for him to walk the picket line during the Writer’s strike because he did get his first paid gig though the movies–sort of…”In eighth grade I did a drawing of Gary Cooper for the local newspaper,” Kelley said. “I got a free pass to the movies for a year.” So it makes sense that he would come full circle and illustrate his picket line experience with a piece of work that will appear on a future cover of the North American Review.
Welcome back to work.
© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith