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Archive for April, 2008

“There’s nothing like it in American show biz. It’s part comedy and part burlesque. It’s raw drama. It’s not Crime and Punishment. And it doesn’t pretend to be Masterpiece Theater.”  Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University on professional wrestling

This past week was a big week in wrestling. You may have missed it so I thought I’d fill you in on the celebrations and the spectacle. I will preface this by saying that I haven’t really followed wrestling of any form since I was about ten and watched professional wrestling on TV.

TV Announcer: “It looks like this match is over…wait, wait…he’s pulling a foreign object out of his pants…it looks like brass knuckles.” Never once did I ask how those brass knuckles, hidden in those tight underwear-like pants, went unnoticed by the ref the entire rest of the match. I was too caught up in the play.

Other than Dusty Rhodes I don’t remember any names, but I do remember the body slams, the jumping off the ropes, the sleeper holds, and the chair over the back move. High drama for a ten year old growing up in Central Florida before video games.

Last Sunday 74,635 people (a record for the Orlando Citrus Bowl) gathered for WrestleMania XXIV. I remember going to a Super Bowl of Rock concert at the Citrus Bowl as a teenager back in the day and I gotta tell you that it was a transcendent  moment looking out at a sea of flickering lighters in the summer night and hearing 60,000 people singing “Against the Wind” along with Bob Seger. I can imagine the atmosphere last Sunday. 

The event last week was called  “The Biggest WrestleMania Under the Sun” and over 40,000 tickets were sold in 30 minutes. Festivities lasted for five days and Snoop Dogg was the Master of Ceremonies. Internationally the main event was also on pay-per-view for $54.99 making it was one of the largest pay-per-view events in history with over a million buys. Do the math on $54.99 times a million.   

Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) have tapped into a multi-billion dollar melodrama. Is it Hollywood’s competition or your future work? Someone has to write those wrestling storylines.  

“To me, wrestling is just like watching a movie, or better yet a television series.” Colin Vassallo, editor of Wrestling-Online Newsletter was recently quoted as saying in an Orlando Sentinel article by Dave Darling, “It has good guys, bad guys, the women and the action. And what more would young men want to watch on television?”

Even boxing champion Floyd Mayweather got into the WrestleManna act and I read he even used good ole’ brass knuckles to knock out his opponent. Some tricks never fade away. Shakespeare had to compete with public hangings and as screenwriters and filmmakers you have to compete with professional wrestling and NASCAR. It’s good to know what you’re up against as well as what’s considered popular culture.

Back here in Iowa, Iowa Governor Chet Culver proclaimed last Thursday “University of Iowa Wrestling Day ” in the state of Iowa. It doesn’t get the same press and coverage as March Madness, but two weeks ago in St. Louis the Iowa Hawkeyes wrestling team won the school’s 21 NCAA title.

1972 Olympic champion wrestler Dan Gable once coached the University of Iowa to nine straight NCAA championships. And that’s the real deal — no brass knuckles. But still plenty of drama. In fact, writer John Irving (a former wrestler) is developing a movie on Gable’s life. Gable won every single high school and college match except for his last one.

Last Thursday was also the 100 Anniversary of Iowan Frank Gotch defeating George “The Russian Lion” Hackenschmidt for the world heavyweight wrestling championship. I had never heard of Gotch, but apparently this event in its day was a bit like Seabiscuit. According to Jim Neson of the Waterloo Courier it was front page sports news for the papers in New York and L.A. and a trip to the white house for Gotch to meet president Teddy Roosevelt.

And a play for the farmer turned wrestler toured up and down the east coast. (If anyone has a copy of this play I’d love to read it.) So wrestling and drama have gone hand in hand for a long time. 

Director Darren Aronfsky (Pi, The Fountain) recently wrapped production on Robert Siegel’s script The Wrestler starring Mickey Rourke as a long haired pro wrestler past his prime looking for a comeback. Marisa Tomei plays his stripper girlfriend and it’s said to feature a lot 80’s music. For some reason I’m sensing a lot of on screen perspiration. Why didn’t they just title it 9 1/2 Rounds?

Aren’t the Spider-Man movies just a glorified wrestling match with costume changes, over the top fights, and a girl thrown in the mix? This wrestling stuff is primal and probably has been side by side with storytelling since the beginning of time. 

If there’s one thing every screenwriter can learn from professional wrestling it’s this: when you character is running against the wind and all seems lost, that’s the time for them to pull out their brass knuckles. It works every time.

Come to think of it, almost thirty years later, Seger lyrics still resinate:

Well those drifter days are past me now
I’ve got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out

Against the wind
I’m still runnin’ against the wind
I’m older now but still still runnin’
Against the wind 

If you choose a life in the arts you will face many days when you’re runnin’ against the wind. You need lots of tenacity and determination…and it doesn’t hurt to have a pair of brass knuckles.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 


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“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.” — William Froug

                              

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Today marks the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  The civil rights leader and Baptist minister has left a lasting impression on the United States.

In 2006 I was doing a video shoot in Jackson, Mississippi and then had to drive to Atlanta for another shoot. When I’m on the road I try to make it as interesting as possible and I took a detour off the main highway so I could retrace the Selma to Montgomery march. (This shot was taken as I drove over the bridge in Selma, Alabama where the conflict known as Bloody Sunday occurred back in 1965.) 

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Much of that region looks similar as it did in that day. In route to Atlanta I learned that King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, had died and there would be a public viewing in Atlanta that weekend. I figured that was a more than amazing way to finish my civil rights tour and I took the photo of King’s hearse outside the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’d like to address Martin Luther King Jr. from that perspective.

Let’s talk about the characters you chose to write about.

“Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.”                           Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay

It’s been said that drama favors the great saint or the great sinner.

We don’t have to go very far in theater, literature and film to see that this is true:

Hamlet
King Lear
Blanche DuBois
The Godfather
Scarlet O’Hara
James Bond
Mad Max
Lawrence of Arabia
Snow White
Norma Rae
William Wallace
Virgil Tibbs
Darth Vader
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Bonnie & Clyde

In fact, we might as well say that history favors the great saint or great sinner:

Nero
Lincoln
Grant
Washington
Kennedy
Stalin
Elvis
Ali
Nixon
Churchill
Hitler

It’s been said that the History Channel should be called the Hitler Channel because he plays such a key role in many programs.

Certainly the words saint and sinner are religious in nature so let’s look there to see if it favors the great saint and the great sinner as far as being remembered:

Adam & Eve
Cain & Abel
Moses
King David
Christ
Mary
Paul
Judas
Gandhi
Muhammad
Buddha
St. Augustine
Martin Luther
John Calvin
Mother Theresa
Jim Jones
Satan

How memorable are the characters you have created? Do you write characters that are as fascinating to watch as animals at the zoo? “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

That’s not to say that every character you write has to be as fascinating as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s Wall St. but your protagonist and antagonist must be somebody we are interested in investing two hours of hours lives. (They could be a shark, a robot, or a tornado as well, but whatever they are make them standout.) They don’t even have to shoot the bad guy at the end. Jake LaMotta in Ragging Bull is a despicable character but man is he ever an interesting case study.  

“I’m not interested in having to root for someone; I’m trying to get some sort of understanding as to what makes people tick and what they’re about. — Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct

If you do write about a common person it’s best if you put them in an extraordinary situation. (Like Miss Daisy & Hoke’s relationship in Driving Miss Daisy centered around a changing world, or Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest who must run for his life. And let’s not forget the quintessential common man Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman who is a mirror for all humanity that faces living, as Thoreau said, “lives of quite desperation.”  

The truth is it’s easier to write a strong bad guy than a strong good guy. For every Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) there are probably three Norman Bates (Psycho). (And actors love to play a good bad guy.) And basic dramatic structure dictates that when you throw your protagonist and antagonist into the ring it should be a fair battle. 

Look at Steven Spielberg films and you’ll find a long list of really bad people and creatures. 

And here’s a secret. Many great characters are a mix of saint and sinner. Isn’t there a Jekel and Hyde in all of us? Don’t we love to go to movies and watch characters wrestle with life, with themselves? (Heck, even Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell characters are really wrestling with life.)

Showing that struggle is part of what makes your characters engaging and memorable. It gives your characters dimension.

“It’s rare that you find three-dimensional characters in a writing sample, and when you do, it’s obvious that’s a writer you want to work with.”   Paramount Story Editor 

So as you hear the stories about Martin Luther King Jr. today ask yourself what was it about this man and his work that made him memorable. What obstacles did he have to overcome? How did his character respond to the set-backs? And how in the years after his death has his work been relevant in shaping America today?

The debates I’ve heard on the radio programs have given answers all over the map. Great characters are not lukewarm.

Martin Luther King Jr., by some accounts, was like Oskar Schindler, in that he was a flawed man who left a great legacy. His dream has not been realized, but it’s a good dream.  Remember that throughout history, ideas flow from the philosophers and prophets to the masses via artists.

“Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”  William Romanowski

Photos & Text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Let’s talk about something important…coffee’s for closers only.”
Alec Baldwin’s character in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross

“During my time as a studio executive at MGM, I had over three thousand pitch meetings where writers, directors, stars, and producers would try to persuade me to buy their ideas. Most of the time, ideas are pitched poorly.”
Stephanie Palmer

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Are you good in a room?

I mean can you convey those great ideas in your head (or in your script) to group of strangers sitting across from you? Have you thought about how you’re going to connect with them and get them excited enough about your ideas to actually pay you money? That’s what this blog is all about as we interview former MGM executive Stephanie Palmer as she offers advice on how you can improve your chances of selling your screenplay.

As I’ve said before, I started the Screenwriting from Iowa blog a couple of days after seeing the movie Juno and hearing the unlikely story of its screenwriter Diablo Cody. (Who happened to go to college in Iowa and is now known as Oscar-winning Diablo Cody.)

But another piece of the puzzle was writer Blake Snyder, author of the screenwriting book Save the Cat. I think Blake’s angle on screenwriting is the most refreshing I’ve read in the last decade.

He also has a blog (www.blakesnyder.com) and that’s where I learned about Stephanie’s new book called Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself (and your Ideas) and Win Over Any Audience. Her book is directed toward helping screenwriters, but the book also applies to many business situations.

Stephanie was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions regarding her experiences in Hollywood and I think you’ll find them helpful in your journey.

1) How does one go from being born in Des Moines, Iowa to working on the biggest money-making movie in history (Titanic)?

Thanks so much for asking, Scott.  I’d have to say a combination of luck and hard work.  No one in my Midwestern family worked in Hollywood and I grew up in a house without a TV.  However, I read as many books as I could about the business, went to a great university and then started as an unpaid intern getting coffee, making photocopies and running errands.  Eventually, I worked my way up.  Titanic was just the beginning, but it was an incredible way to start.

2) You went from an unpaid production assistant to MGM Director of Creative Affairs. How did your degree in theater prepare you for that journey?

Well, I didn’t make that jump in one move.  I worked as an assistant for a couple years at Bruckheimer Films and at MGM, though I was given a rare internal promotion from assistant to executive.

In terms of how my theater experience prepared me for the executive side of the business, I think it helped me tremendously.  Many movie executives have backgrounds in business and finance, and sometimes, expertise in these areas is crucial.  However, I think that experience in storytelling is just as valuable.  My theatrical training helps me understand the challenges that creative people face.  With my knowledge of plays and experience directing and producing them, I have a wider body of knowledge to draw upon when developing a script or solving a production problem.

3) Carnegie Mellon has a long tradition of actors in Hollywood, did you find that being from Pittsburgh actually helped you after you moved to LA?

Being part of a network is always important, and so is having perspective.  Certainly, graduating from Carnegie Mellon put me in touch with previous graduates, one of whom helped me get my first job.  So that was incredibly important.  As well, coming from Pittsburgh, I was steeped in a culture that was more down-to-earth.  So when I got to LA, I had some perspective on the insanity.

4) In your time at MGM what did you learn that surprised you most about screenwriters?

How unprepared they were for meetings.  The fact is that the skills and talents required to come up with a great idea are different from the skills required to present it.  However, the skills that allow you to pitch effectively and with confidence can be learned by anyone.  I’ve seen the most shy, awkward people become good in a room—not because they transformed their personalities and became charismatic extroverts—but because they practiced the right techniques and developed their own style.

5) Now you have a consulting firm and have written a book called Good in a Room. Why is it important for a screenwriter to be good in a room if they’ve written a solid script?

Even great ideas don’t sell themselves because decision-makers generally don’t just buy scripts.  They invest in people who have great ideas.  Selling yourself is crucial to the success of your project.  When you sell something, you will be asked to make changes, adapt to new circumstances, and work with people whose opinions may differ from your own—for at least a year, if not more.  Therefore, before saying “Yes” to you and buying your script, the decision-maker needs to know if they like you, trust you, and can rely on you during the challenging process of making a movie.

6) A question that every writer outside of LA is interested in is “How does one get in the room in the first place?”

This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many different routes by which people have been successful.  Consider the story of Juno, where the writer of the script (Diablo Cody) was found by a producer who was just surfing the web, came across her site, and asked her if she’d written a screenplay.  To borrow from the cliché, she wrote something great and the world beat a path to her door.  I have seen that happen many times.

Of course, not every great writer gets discovered.  These days, to get in the room, at some point, you have to go where the meetings are actually happening.  This means… and I hesitate to say this… living in or near Los Angeles.  In my experience, only well-established writers can live somewhere else, then fly in for a week of meetings.  Everyone else needs to be ready to jump on opportunities when they happen.

I know that not everyone will want to move to LA, and it doesn’t seem fair to require it.  Why can’t you just write something fantastic and sell it?  Because studios and production companies aren’t just investing in your idea—they’re investing in YOU.  And if you’re not local, the perception is that you are not as committed to career as your competition.  It’s much more challenging to fulfill your function as part of the creative team.  Plus, you will have a harder time building your network and developing the relationships which help you get into the room in the first place.

7) Any closing advice for the writers in Iowa, India and other places beyond LA?

No matter where you live, you can develop your craft and learn how to present your ideas effectively.  One way to stay current is to subscribe to my free online newsletter, where twice a month I’ll send you a quick tip to help you refine and hone your meeting technique.  You can sign up at www.goodinaroom.com.  That way, when you do get that big meeting, instead of hoping that your script will do all the work (like most writers), you’ll confidently present both yourself and your ideas.  That’s what being good in a room is all about.


POSTSCRIPT
After I first posted this blog I heard from a writer in Minneapolis who was discouraged by Stephanie’s comment about screenwriters having to live in or near L.A.  Stephanie also said that, “In my experience, only well-established writers can live somewhere else, then fly in for a week of meetings.” It’s fair to say it makes the odds a little tougher on the L.A. outsiders if you go the studio route.

But there are other people around the country–around the world–who are writing and making films outside that system so don’t be discouraged. In fact, read my blog titled “Screenwriting from Ireland” that talks about the movie Once.  And this is as good a time as any to pull out a nugget I’ve been holding for the right moment and now seems as good as any.

Early in this blog I mentioned screenwriter & Save the Cat author Blake Snyder.  I asked Blake a while back if he had any encouraging words for screenwriters outside L.A. and here’s Blake’s response:
“I have said often that geography is no longer an impediment to a career in screenwriting. I know of one woman who decided to be a screenwriter in Chicago, wrote 5 scripts, sold 2 and got an agent and manager, all while never leaving the confines of her condo.  It starts with a great concept! You have a great idea and a great poster, if you execute that well, you will get phone calls — and deals.  The key is: the great script!  And that starts with the step by step process I outline in Cat!  Go get ’em!”

And the LA Times just reported that Brad Ingelsby, a 27-year-old who lives in the Philadelphia area with his parents and sells insurance for his father, just sold a script for $650,000 against $1.1 million. And just for the Midwest fans, the movie is set in Indiana. (I first learned about the Philadelphia sale via a helpful screenwriting site called mysterymanonfilm.blogspot.com.)

While selling insurance, I bet Ingelsby learned a thing or two about being good in a room. And, hey, if money is what drives you…I’m pretty sure the average insurance salesman makes more than the average screenwriter.

STEPHANIE PALMER helps creative professionals who want to perform better in high-stakes meetings, set up projects, secure financing, and receive better assignments for more money.  As the Director of Creative Affairs at MGM, she acquired screenplays, books, and pitches and supervised their development, including 21, Legally Blonde, Be Cool and Agent Cody Banks.  She has been featured on NBC’s Today, CBS’s Early Show, NPR, and in the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Good in a Room: How To Sell Yourself and Your Ideas and Win Over Any Audience

Related Post: Learning to be “Good in a Room” (Part 2)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“I think screenplays should be written with as much speed as possible.” 

William Goldman, Two-time Oscar Winner

(All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)

 

Do you want to do something foolish this April?

Why not write a screenplay in one month?

I’m not joking.

I know there are a zillion reason why you can’t do it…but it can be done. Stallone wrote Rocky in less than a week. Ditto that for Joe Eszterhas writing Basic Instinct.

Granted it took Arthur Miller six weeks to write Death of a Salesman, but let’s not shoot for such lofty goals this time around.

 

“It’s important to write quickly because creativity comes from the unconscious.

William Mastrosimone

(Extremities)

When you write quickly you write from the subconscious. It was said that Jack Kerouac used to take a butcher roll of paper and just keep writing. (Let me sneak an Iowa reference in here…In “On the Road,” Kerouac wrote, “the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.”)

But those moments seem to be rare for any writers so you need to grab a hold of them when they come.

(To see a great shot of Kerouac’s roll of writing check out the trailer for a new documentary call One.Fast.Move.or.I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sir directed by Curt Worden. That looks like a great film.)

I think if you read the tips on this blog it will help you get out of the gate. There is a wonderful book on screenwriting by Viki King titled, How to Write a Movie in 20 Days that is a fitting book to recommend.

The title isn’t the only thing that’s kept this book in circulation longer than most. Most books on screenwriting tend to be written by men and tend to be analytical in nature. Viki brings some nurturing skills to the table. Like, it’s okay to write. And all artists need encouragement .

But the main thing I like about the book is she says day one—write ten pages. Just like that. The crazy thing is you can do it. It may be like learning the game of chess, you may not be any good at the game but at least you’re playing.

Don’t have a computer or screenwriting software? That’s okay, there are still successful screenwriters who prefer to write on a typewriter (Joe Eszterhas, his films have earned over a billion dollars at the box office) or to hand write their scripts (Emma Thompson, Oscar winner for Sense and Sensibility)

Need a little more inspiration? Accountability? Competition?

Script Frenzy may be for you. I don’t know much about it but beginning today there are 6,460 writers signed up to write at least a 100 page original screenplay within the next 30 days. Check it out at http://www.scriptfrenzy.org/ (Kids and teens can get into the act as well through a separate challenge.)

And once you hit that deadline you can turn around and send your script to The Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting whose deadline is May 1, 2008. 

That fellowship attracts the best screenwriters who have never sold a script. Past winners include Michael A. Rich (Finding Forrester), Doug Atchison (Akeelah and the Bee), Susannah Grant (who went on to write Erin Brockovich). It’s not free to enter and the competition is stiff. But remember, we are talking about screenwriting here.

Heck, half the writers in the WGA didn’t earn any money writing last year. You do this because you have a passion and desire to write and tell stories. And like riding a bike the more you do it the better you’ll get. (And not too many people get paid to ride a bike either. But there’s satisfaction there.)

Then after you’ve written your script in 30 days, and entered it in the Nicholl Fellowship you can take a month or so and polish your script for the June 15, 2008 deadline for Final Draft’s Big Break screenwriting contest.   

I still think most screenwriting contests are money makers for the groups and people that sponsor them, but if it keeps you turning out pages that’s good. And writers have launched careers through them so don’t rule them out. Just be careful where you send your money because at $50. a pop that adds up.

But mainly focus on writing and marketing your writing.  Meaning you should be contacting producers, agents, and anyone related to the industry that can get your work read. That includes the local production talent wherever you live.

Be like that protagonist you are writing about; willing to overcome obstacles to go to the end of the line to achieve a goal. And if you can write a screenplay in 30 days you can at least cross that off your bucket list.

 

Scott W. Smith

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