Archive for September, 2008

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
                                                         Gordon Gekko
                                                         Wall St. 

“Our entire economy is in danger.”
                                                         President George W. Bush
                                                         September 2008    

“When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod?”
 Doc Hudson (voice of Paul Newman)


This is a look at two Hollywood icons. One fictitious, one real. One that’s alive and well and one that just died. 

But before we get to our heavyweight match-up let’s look at why I’ve put them in the ring together.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase made popular during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid. It’s always about the economy. Well, usually. Understanding economics can help your screenwriting greatly.  

First let me clarify that if you’re looking for “The Economics of Screenwriting” (how much you can get paid for screenwriting)  then check out Craig Mazin’s article at The Artful Writer

Few things are as primal in our lives as the economy. Wall Street’s recent shake-up joins a long list of economic upheaval throughout history. Just so we’re on the same page, the word economy flows down from the Greek meaning “house-hold management.” I mean it to include how people, businesses, villages, towns, cities and countries manage resources such as money, materials and natural resources. 

That is a wide path indeed. It’s why college football coach Nick Saban is on the cover of the September 1, 2008 issue of Forbes magazine as they explain why he is worth $32 million dollars to the University of Alabama. Why is the economy center stage once again in the most recent presidential election? Because… it’s always the economy, stupid.

Looking back you’ll see economics at the core issue of not only Enron, Iraq, 911 and the great depression but world wars, famines, and even the Reformation. I’m not sure how much further we can look back than Adam and Eve, but that whole apple/fruit thing in the garden had huge economic (as well as theological) ramifications. (In fact, it’s been said that there is more written in the Bible about money than about salvation.)    

There is no question that economics plays a key role in films as well — in production as well as content. On some level it’s almost always about the economy. This first dawned on me when I saw Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” for the first time and I realized the thread of money in it. Then I read Ibsen’s play  “An Enemy of the People” and noticed the economic theme there. They I started noticing it everywhere in plays, novels and movies.

From the mayor’s perspective the real danger of Bruce the shark in Jaws is he threatens the whole economy of the island town. In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney takes the boat back out because money is tight. Dustin Hoffman auditions as a women in Tootsie because he can’t get work as a male actor. Once you see this you see it everywhere in movies. 

Here is a quick random list where money, need to pay bills, lack of a job, greed and/or some form of economics play a key part in the story:

Sunset Blvd.
On the Waterfront
Wall St.
Cinderella Man
Ragging Bull
Jerry Maguire
It’s a Wonderful Life
Field of Dreams
Body Heat
Falling Down
The Godfather
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 
The Jerk
Gone with the Wind
The Verdict 
Gone with the Wind 
The Grapes of Wrath
Risky Business
Do the Right Thing
Hoop Dreams 
Rain Man
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Gold Rush
Home Alone
Babette’s Feast
The Incredibles
Ocean’s Eleven
The Perfect Storm
Pretty Women
Trading Places
Indecent Proposal 
The Firm
American Ganster 

And it’s not limited to dramatic films. It’s hard to watch Hoops Dreams, Ken Burns’ The West, or any Michael Moore documentary and not connect it to economics.

So if you’re struggling with a story or struggling what to write, open up that door that explores economics. You don’t have to write The Wealth of Nations, but at least explore some aspect of it.  Join Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and other great writers who tackled that monster.

One thing living in the Midwest the past five years has done is help me understand how the world works economically. Because on a small level you see when John Deere is selling tractors locally, nationally and globally it helps the housing market here as the standard of living increases. The Midwest was the only place to to see homes appreciate last quarter. (Other parts of the country saw a 2 to 36% drop.)  But that wasn’t always the case.

When the farming crisis hit in the mid-eighties and John Deere (Cedar Valley’s largest employer) laid off 10,000 of it’s 15,000 employees and people were walking away from their homes. A film that came out of that era was the 1984 Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange film Country filmed right here in Black Hawk County. (By the way John Deere the company celebrates today 90 years being in this area. If you’ve ever eaten food they’ve had some role in it along the way.)

Three years later Oliver Stone’s film Wall St. came out the same year Black Monday occurred as stock markets around the world crashed. It was the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history since the great depression. (It only ranks #5 now.)  So here we are 20 years later still trying to figure it all out as two of the top ten largest stock market drops have been in the last two weeks. (Sept 29 update: Make that three of the top ten stock market drops have occurred in the last two weeks.)

(I’m sure Stone felt good when Wall St. first came out, kinda of like “I told you so.” But on the DVD commentary Michael Douglas said that he often told by stock brokers that they got into the business because of the Gekko character he played. Douglas said he doesn’t understand because he was the bad guy. But how many of those guys now in positions of leadership in the financial crisis had Gekko as their hero? To quote writer/professor Bill Romanowski one more time, “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”

The news will tell us what happened, critics will tell us why it happened, and it’s up to writers to tell us what it means. For years now I have noticed in many different states that more often than not when I go into a convenience store I see someone buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets and I ask myself, “What does this say about about the direction we are heading?”

Screenwriting is a place where we can pose those questions –and the playwright Ibsen said it was enough to ask the question.  So get busy asking questions. And if the economy gets worse remember this Carlos Stevens quote:

”Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”

On the opposite end of Hollywood from Gordon Gekko is Paul Newman. If there ever was an example of a talented actor/director and giving businessman/ social entrepreneur it was Ohio-born and raised Newman who passed away last night. Newman’s films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict will always be favorites of mine.

“I had no natural gift to be anything–not an athlete, not an actor, not a writer, not a director, a painter of garden porches–not anything. So I’ve worked really hard, because nothing ever came easily to me.”
                                                                                            Paul Newman 


(Newman’s Midwest roots extend to performing in summer stock theaters in Wisconsin and Illinois. And an Iowa connection is his last Academy Award nomination was for his role in The Road to Perdition which was based on the graphic novel by Iowa writer Max Allen Collins. And don’t forget that the Newman’s Own label was inspired by Cedar Rapids artist Grant Woods’ American Gothic.

I find it interesting that the three largest legendary film actors coming up in the 50s were all from the Midwest; Marlon Brando (Nebraska), James Dean (Indiana) along with Newman.)

Gavin the lawyer Newman played in the David Mamet scripted The Verdict says words that are just as relevant today as when they we spoken a couple decades ago: “You know, so much of the time we’re lost. We say, ‘Please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless…’ We become tired of hearing people lie.”

The world is upside down when we pay executives millions in golden parachutes when they drive a company into the ground. And that’s after they lied about the about the companies financial record along with their hand picked spineless board of directors. And after they’ve cashed in their own inflated stocks while the stockholders and employees are shortchanged.

But how nice to see a company like Newman’s Own whose entire profits from salad dressing and all natural food products are donated to charities. The company motto is “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.” To date Newman and his company have generated more than $250 million to thousands of charities worldwide. 

“What could be better than to hold out your hand to people who are less fortunate than you are?
                                                                                                      Paul Newman

P.S. Robert Redford had hoped he and Newman would be able to make one last film together and had bought the rights to Des Moines, Iowa born and raised Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods

“I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn’t decide if we were too old to do it,” said Redford. “The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart.”


Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”
                                                          Henry David Thoreau

“I lost passion. I felt a little unfulfilled and empty.”
                                                           Jim Brandenburg

                                                           Photographer & cameraman
                                                           (Reflecting on his 90-day journey)                       

We normally associate renewal with springtime but I think fall is a wonderful time to undergo creative renewal and would like to talk to you about a great story of an artist who used the 90 days of fall to undergo a creative transformation.

Today marks the first day of fall. Before I moved to Iowa a few years ago fall had little impact on my life. That third week of September was usually just another summer day in Florida and California. But here in the Midwest the change is amazing to watch. Just this week I was riding my bike and couldn’t help but notice the fallen leaves on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail.  Soon there will be an explosion of color in the trees and coolness in the air.

Several hundred miles north in Ely, Minnesota near the Canadian border I’m sure fall is well on the way. That is where photographer Jim Brandenburg calls home. Several years ago when Brandenburg was on contract with National Geographic he found himself in a place that many dream of. Traveling the world in search of great images that people would admire and appreciate.

Yet the schedule was grueling as he traveled away from his family 50 to 70% of the year. After 20 years he decided that he need a time of creative renewal. I have read that National Geographic photo assignments average 550 rolls of film and that a 1,000 is not unheard of.  (A thousand rolls of 36-exposure film is 36,000 shots.)

It’s been said that every assignment for National Geographic is like getting up to bat expecting to hit a grand slam home run. 

Brandenburg said of the schedule “the day is never done. You start early and don’t stop until you are exhausted or you are absolutely sure you got that photograph. And I had been through that cycle for 20 years and I was getting weary.”

So he began to look for way to find creative renewal knowing that he’d either find a breakthrough or do something different with his life. 

So Brandenburg’s idea for creative renewal was to take the fall of 1994 and only shoot one shot a day. If he stayed the course he would shoot less than three rolls of film. He explains it as sort of a Zen experiment in ascetic discipline. To search everyday for the one photograph that needed to be taken.

Brandenburg said, “I was looking for something elusive, an idea or a process, or a spiritual direction of some kind.”

“If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things. This is the best season of your life.”

It’s reminiscent of the stories of photographer Ansel Adams who in the 1930s would take his 8X10 camera deep into Yosemite. Because he was limited on how much film he could take he would often camp out and just watch the sun one day as preparation for shooting the next day. There is a reason we still admire Adams work today.

And there is a reason I’m bringing up Brandenburg. His special project that was meant for just himself eventually became a National Geographic spread that showed every single shot making it the largest single photo essay in National Geographic history. 

(Side note: You can view all of Brandenburg photo from his journey on his website www.jimbrandenburg.com. Because of copyright issues I did not use a photo of his at the top of this post. But that photo was inspired by Brandenburg as I took my camera on an early morning bike ride yesterday after reviewing Brandenburg’s photos for this blog. Creative renewal is contagious.)

Brandenburg’s photo eventually became his best selling book and a DVD followed in which Brandenburg recounts the creative process and the struggles he had along the way. Chased by the Light; A Photographic Journey with Jim Brandenburg is a wonderful documentary full of insights into the creative process. Rarely do you find such an elegant exposition of the creative process and I think there is something here that all writers and artists can gleam from.


On the DVD Brandenburg talks about some of the experiences of his self-assigned experiment that was never intended to be seen by others. Some times he would set out before dark and walk many miles. At day 23 he thought about abandoning the project because he thought he had failed. But he remembered the old saying, “There are no rewards without risks.”

Day after day he waited for the right moment to that that one picture of an eagle, wolves, deer, ravens, loons, trees or whatever else captured his imagination. 

His last photograph was December 31, 1994 at 1:40 AM. The photos then sat in a drawer for two years until National Geographic Senior Editor John Echave saw them and then published them in November 1997 as a 90 photo feature. 

Brandenburg continues to shoot. He has also taken steps to protect the land “that nurtured and renewed” his creative spirit  Brandenburg and his wife Judy have set aside with The Trust for Public Land 640 arces of Ravenwood forest to be preserved in perpetuity. 

The Brandenburg’s are also involved with preserving the tallgrass prairies of Jim’s youth at Touch the Sky Prairie Preserve in Rock Country, Minnesota.

If you’re ever in the Lavern or Ely, Minnesota be sure to check out the Brandenburg Gallery or see more of his work online at www.jimbrandenburg.com.

There are other ways to seek creative renewal. Tom Peters says that some times you need to move another country or climate to rejuvenate yourself. No one said creative renewal would be easy or practical. (Heck, how do you think I ended up living in Iowa?) Let me tell you another story of renewal.  

When I was in film school back in Los Angeles in the 80s I sometimes assisted fashion photographer Art Pasquali.  Art not only had the coolest last name but lived in his studio in downtown LA with two doberman pinschers and flew gliders in his downtime from shooting beautiful people. 

After shooting for 20 years Pasquali bought a sailboat and sailed away from LA-LA land, down to Mexico, through the Panama Canal and eventually found his way to the Cayman Islands where he stopped for a Corona and has called it home ever since.  

Brandenburg and Pasquali’s stories are exceptional which is why I bring them up. Deep down change and renewal is going to take more than turning off the TV for a week. If you’re a writer it may be taking up photography or writing in a genre or style that you’ve never tried. If you’ve never written a screenplay maybe that’s what you do in the next 90 days. (All you have to do is average a page a day.) 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings didn’t hit her stride as a writer (or publish a novel) until she moved to rural Florida which would provide her inspiration for her novel The Yearling for which she won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie staring Gregory Peck. Martin Ritt directed the excellent Cross Creek that tells the unusual life story of Rawlings.

Perhaps you just need to take a small step in your creative renewal. Here is Julia Cameron’s suggestion in her book The Artist’s Way:

“Spending time in solitude with your artist child is essential to self-nurturing. A long country walk, a solitary expedition to the beach for a sunset or a sunrise, a sortie out to a strange church to hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighborhood to taste foreign sights and sounds–your artist might enjoy any of these. Or your artist might like to go bowling.”

I hope these stories and ideas provide some inspiration for you as fall starts. When is the best time to start your creative renewal? I’ll defer to Karen Lamb; “A year from now you may wish you had started today.”


Photo & Text Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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Last Friday I learned that Screenwriting from Iowa was nominated for an Emmy. Who knew you could even win an Emmy for a blog?

A couple months ago I entered a couple of my productions for regional Emmys in the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Television Academy. I saw where there was a catagory for blogs on the arts and decided to give that a shot as well. 

While I’ll find out in October if I’ve won I really have to thank (one more time) Diablo Cody. Her inspirational story of blogging that eventually lead to her writing Juno (which of course, led to her winning an Academy Award) is what gave me nudge to jump into the blogging game.

She single handedly changed my perception of blogging. (Well, Ken Lee of Michael Weise Productions also had a role.) As I’ve said before, I began blogging Screenwriting from Iowa just a few days after seeing Juno and discovering Ms. Cody went to college at the University of Iowa. (The Juno-Iowa Connection.) 

It’s fitting that the Emmy Awards Gala next month will be held in downtown Minneapolis…just a few miles from where Ms. Cody wrote Juno. Don’t you just love those circle of life moments? I may never win an Oscar, but an Emmy (even a regional one) would be pretty cool.

Which brings me to the topic of screenwriting contests and awards. Are they a waste of time and money or something you should do? First let me say the writing lifestyle is hard. Writing is hard in and of itself, and finding time to actually write can be difficult between paying bills and juggling relationships. And then add on top of that it’s difficult to get much encouragement along the way. And the money thing? Forgetaboutit.

Most writers that make a living at writing could measure their work not in pages but in feet before they were discovered and the money began to flow. (Cody is no different in that while Juno was her first screenplay she had been writing since she was 12.)

One thing contests and awards provide is a little encouragement along the way. I know I have pushed more than once to make a deadline for a screenwriting contest. And I’ll never forget the person from the first Project Greenlight who commented that my script reminded then of the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. So if entering a competition forces you to write that’s a good thing. And if you win a reputable contest it could lead to getting an agent and/or getting produced. Some even offer feedback on your script.

On the other hand…I’m not a big fan of screenwriting contests in general. I think they are cash cows for many people and groups and a good deal are a waste of your time and money. Why not spend your time (and money) sending your scripts and notes to various people who can actually get your script bought and hopefully made? 

Any salesperson will tell you sales is a numbers game. It’s a matter of knocking on doors, making phone calls, sending emails and shaking hands. When screenwriter/director Gary Ross contacted Seabiscuit: An American Legend author Laura Hillenbrand to tell her why she should chose him to make her film he had on his salesman hat.  

(Allow me to add a little Midwest trivia. Hillenbrand attended Kenyon College in central Ohio whose notable alumni include actor Paul Newman, Calvin & Hobbs cartoonist Bill Watterson and writer E.L. Doctorow.)  

Before you send your script and money into a contest check it out online and see what other people are saying. I’m sure there are some good ones out there so check around. Of course, the grand daddy of screenwriting contests is The Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting

Lots and lots of competition but they offer up to five $30,000. fellowships. Age range of past winners range between 21 and 64 years old. And winners have gone on to have a role in writing 60 produced feature films. Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) was a fellow. 

The only produced screenwriter (Love Liza) I know who has his own screenwriting contest is Gordy Hoffman of Blue Cat Screenplay. In fact, Hoffman has an insightful article on screenwriting contests called The Rouge Knight: Why Screenwriting Contests Matter.

I think there are some exciting things developing with online screenwriting contests that will be refined over the coming years and I think will have some real opportunities to not only win awards but have a direct hand in getting winning scripts produced.

Let me end with a closing story on how a screenwriting contest indirectly landed my first paid dramatic writing gig. I was producing a radio program in Orlando and had missed a contest deadline for some reason (like not enough postage) and I was complaining about it at this studio where I was working on the radio program and this guy said, “I didn’t know you wrote scripts. I have a radio drama that I’m producing, do you want to write the scripts?”  (Sometimes it’s not who you know or what you know, but where you are when opportunity knocks.)

And over the next several months I wrote 12 one hour long scripts that aired nationally on the USA radio network. The producer who wrote those checks has gone on to produce several feature films so who knows if my missed opportunity many years ago could lead to other opportunities?

So keep writing and keep telling people what you do. 


Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Coincidence. It’s a screenwriter’s stock in trade. It lies at the very heart of storytelling; it’s been around even before Oedipus slept with his mother. It’s the essence of the ‘what if.’ Coincidence comes into play for inciting incidents, chance meetings, clever plot twists, surprising revelations. It’s a very necessary dramatic tool.”
Terry Rossio
Pirates of the Caribbean

“There’s nothing wrong with coincidence, per se. Almost every movie is going to have some incidents where one character just happens to be in the right place at the right time.”
Screenwrtier John August
Big Fish

Last week I spent two days in a town I had never been before and both mornings went to the same Starbucks at different times in the morning. And both times the same person was standing behind me in line. What are the odds? It’s hard to miss that kind of coincidence. It made me think about how coincidence is used in screenwriting,

All of us have real stories of coincidence ranging from simple to complex. Things like hearing a song you haven’t heard in years playing on the radio at the same time on two different stations. Or like the time I got on a connecting standby flight in Dallas and ended up on the same flight as a guy I went to high school with who I hadn’t seen in years.

Coincidence is a part of life so we shouldn’t be surprised when coincidence is used in the movies. But if it’s not a law it should at least be a rule that coincidence not be used throughout your story unless you are writing a farce (Groundhog Day) or a story where coincidence is built into the story. For instance we expect Forrest Gump to bump shoulders with Elvis, John F. Kennedy and John Lennon. It’s part of the fun.

But since coincidence must be used to one degree or another it’s best if you don’t use them at important moments of your script.

Coincidence is best used in the first act and as early as possible. Sure it’s a coincidence that the swimmer in Jaws just happens to take a swim at feeding time. But something has to start the story. Inciting incidents are often a fitting place for coincidence.

The worst time to use coincidence is at the end of the film.  You will find coincidence abuse across every genre. Perhaps the biggest offender is romantic comedies as writers work to get two people together. Could there be a bigger coincidence (or heavy handed metaphor) than after a man’s wife dies to have him  and fall in love with the recipient (via heart-transplant) of his dead wife’s heart? Critics used words like gimmick, contrived, and  creepy to refer to the plot of Return to Me. Yet the quirky comedy did find a satisfied audience.

So you can overcome heavy-handed coincidence but it takes work to avoid. The real secret of using coincidence is to sneak it in where needed. Avoid using coincidence at key moments of the story.

Terry Rossio writes in his Wordplay Columns:

One of the classic rules of coincidence is that fate — if it must be present — should always favor the antagonist. If our hero has a gun on the villain and the hero’s gun jams, it’s called drama. If the villain has our hero dead in his sights, and the villain’s gun jams, it’s called a lousy cheat, a not-very-inventive way to sneak the hero out of his predicament.

When the audience rolls back their eyes and has one of those “you’ve-got-to be-kidding” moments you know that coincidence has been misused.

It’s best when the audience doesn’t even realize the coincidence. For instance in Mystic River the novelist and/or screenwriters start and end the movie with coincidence, but the story is so compelling it’s not a stumbling block. (Spoiler alert) Sean Penn’s daughter is killed the same night that his friend Tim Robbins kills a man — big coincidence. And Sean Penn kills Robbins thinking he killed his daughter the same night that detectives arrest the real killers of Penn’s daughter–another big coincidence.

Perhaps coincidence is like subtext, exposition and other tricks of the trade in that it can be handled well or poorly. The best way to handle coincidence in your scripts is to do so organically. For instance it is not just a coincidence that at the end of Jaws Roy Scheider has a gun and knows how to use it (he is the police chief) or that there is an oxygen tank on the boat. Those were built into the story.

Scheider is simply forced to go to the end of the line because he has run out of options. May you strive with the same diligence to fight off heavy-handed coincidence in your scripts.

Scott W. Smith

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