Archive for January, 2009

While studying acting for three years in L.A. I learned a few things about the craft. When I inquired about classes at the The Actors Studio in West Hollywood I was told, “If when your feet hit the ground in the morning you don’t want to be an actor more than anything then don’t even try, because it’s too hard to make it and if you do make it— it’s still hard.”    

I didn’t have the passion to be an actor, but I was in film school and wanted a first hand understanding of the acting process. I found film students rather intimidated by actors which makes some sense in that they were more comfortable with the technical aspects. On the other hand I found the actors often insecure. One of those dances in life in that the filmmakers and actors need each other. 

Part of the insecurity in acting I found was it was hard to gauge when you did a good job. Even if someone did a scene in class that everyone else thought was great  the actor might say, “it seemed flat to me.” I did not find acting like playing sports where you knew if you had a good game or not. 

I think that has to do with subjective nature of acting. Just look how people fight over whether so and so is a talented actor or not. Acting is also quirky in that actors with limited abilities sometimes win major awards. It seems to me that the best working actors understand their limitations and work to do their best work within those limitations.  Stallone may not be the greatest actor, but he was a great Rocky. (Even Paul Newman said he didn’t feel he could perform well the classics of theater.)

After one acting class at Tracey Roberts Actors Studio a teacher asked me why I seemed a little down and I said something about not feeling like I was doing a great job. And he made an off the cuff comment that has stuck with me all these years, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you can’t play baseball.”

That is just because you’re not one of the greatest at what you do doesn’t mean you can’t perform at all. Professional sports have a few outstanding players that even people outside the sport are familiar with–people like Tiger Woods. But there are a whole lot of less talented (and less known) athletes that still earn a good living doing their job.

I was reminded of this last night when I saw the movie New in Town. How could I pass up on a story about a Floridian who ends up living in the cold Midwest? I don’t think it will find a warm spot in the hearts of critics, nor will it be accused of breaking any new ground, but it does have its moments.

But here’s the key thing to learn from New in Town…it got made. And it got made with Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr. in the lead roles.  (And J.K. Simmons, the father in Juno, is a delight to watch.)

Free yourself from the burden of comparing your writing to Casablanca. It’s great to dream of writing the greatest movie ever made, but in practice just write the best script you can and hope it gets made. Colleges and writing workshops are full of teachers who can go on for days about what makes Citizen Kane a great movie and mock films like New in Town for being filled with cliches.

I found out New in Town was originally written by yet another Minneapolis, Minnesota native, Ken Rance. And though he’s kicked around the TV business since graduating from Howard University in 1992, this is his first produced feature film. In various interviews Rance has mentioned it took a lot of faith to realize a 16 year dream.

He shares a screenwriting credit with C. Jay Cox who was 40 when he finally had a screenplay produced. (Sweet Home Alabama starring Reese Witherspoon & Patrick Dempsey.) So just a few weeks before Rance turns 39 I doubt he’s too worried about what the critics say about his film, I bet he’s just glad that the critics are saying anything about his film. And there’s always hope that it will find an audience.

Meanwhile Rance is developing other projects. So the lesson from up Minneapolis way today is just because you’re not the Coen brothers or Diablo Cody doesn’t mean you can’t write a screenplay that gets sold and made.


copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I videotaped Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa as he was honored with the Graven Award. The third son of Bobby Kennedy spoke a little about the environmental organization Riverkeeper and how they have fought to protect the waters of the Hudson River from being polluted and how those efforts have spread around the globe.

His father who while running for president in 1968 was assassinated and who was the subject of the 2006 Emilio Estevez film BOBBY is where the quote of the day comes from. It’s one you’ve probably heard before but well worth repeating no matter where you stand on the political spectrum:

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why…I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
                                                             Robert F. Kennedy  

Photo copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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The well is deep with writer John Updike who died a couple days ago. So I thought it was fitting to quote him one more time. These insights coming from a Q&A he did with Salon when his novel In the Beauty of the Lilies first came out:

Dwight Garner: There’s a place in the new book where you say, “Movies took you right up to the edge but kept you safe.” Is that still true?

John Updike: No, they don’t keep you so safe anymore. I just saw a picture called “Leaving Las Vegas” in which very little mitigation is offered. A guy just resolves to drink himself to death, and slowly does. And he rather unaccountably attracts the attention of a very pretty Las Vegas hooker who decides she loves him and … I don’t know. It’s a story without any turn in it. There’s no point as to any real resistance. An old-fashioned Hollywood movie would have taken that guy, and at least at one point he would have looked at the girl and said, “Why am I doing this? Why am I destroying myself? I’m unfair to you, let alone myself.” He might have failed in the end.

I forget how “The Lost Weekend” worked out, actually. But that was another story of alcoholism, in which you felt a struggle. There’s no struggle here. No struggle. In the end, the movie felt to me a little flat, and French. It was rubbing our noses somehow. Rubbing our noses in something, rather than offering us a way out. In the old movies, yes, there always was the happy ending and order was restored. As it is in Shakespeare’s plays. It’s no disgrace to, in the end, restore order. And punish the wicked and, in some way, reward the righteous.


Scott W. Smith

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There was a big spike in readers here at Screenwriting from Iowa yesterday and I think it’s because author John Updike died this week. People’s Internet search that lead them to this blog was not because I’ve written anything about Updike, but because they probably confused him with writer John Irving who I have written a little about. (And who is still alive.)

Both are known as east coast American authors around the same age whose name happens to start with John. I bet the same thing would have happened back in the day if Faulkner’s first name was Ernest. We’d confuse who wrote which book. So just so we’re on the same page, Irving wrote The World According to Garp and Updike wrote Rabbit, Run.

Updike twice received the Pulitzer Prize and also wrote The Witches of Eastwick which became a movie in 1987 starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeffer and Susan Sarandon. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania and raised in the nearby suburbs of  Shillington and Plowville where he was an avid reader. 

“Sometimes writers need no training, and some of the amateur ones who just jump in do better than the ones who have the Ph.D. in creative writing. Colleges are very willing now to teach you, to give you a whole course of creative writing classes. Although I took some when I was a student, I’m a little skeptical about the value….To the young writers, I would merely say, ‘Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour say — or more — a day to write.’

Some very good things have been written on an hour a day. Henry Greene, one of my pets, was an industrialist actually. He was running a company, and he would come home and write for just an hour in an armchair, and wonderful books were created in this way. So, take it seriously, you know, just set a quota. Try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. Try to think of getting into print. Don’t be content just to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff. We’re still a capitalist country, and writing to some degree is a capitalist enterprise, when it’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience. ‘Read what excites you,’ would be advice, and even if you don’t imitate it you will learn from it. All those mystery novels I read I think did give me some lesson about keeping a plot taut, trying to move forward or make the reader feel that kind of a tension is being achieved, a string is being pulled tight.

Other than that, don’t try to get rich on the other hand. If you want to get rich, you should go into investment banking or being a certain kind of a lawyer. But, on the other hand, I would like to think that in a country this large — and a language even larger — that there ought to be a living in it for somebody who cares, and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”

                                                        John Updike
                                                        Interview in Academy of Achievement 

Now if you are interested in John Irving I have a longer post about him at John Irving, Iowa & Screenwriting.


Scott W. Smith

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Since I like to focus on dramatic writers with origins outside L.A. I think Lope de Vega qualifies. The playwright was born in Madrid, Spain in 1562 and is thought to have written around 1,500 plays. I was unaware of him until I read The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard and Edward Mabley a few years ago.

In the book’s introduction is sound advice with what to do with all that you’ve learned about screenwriting:

“My hope is that the reader will take all the rational and reasonable body of knowledge this book offers, that he or she will digest it in the manner recommended by Lope de Vega…in his comprehensive study of dramatic theory and practice, Writing Plays in Our Times (published in 1609 and written in verse) he stated openly and bravely, after having introduced all the “rules”: ‘When I have to write a play, I lock up the rules with six keys.”‘
                                          Frank Daniel
                                          The Tools of Screenwriting


Scott W. Smith

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The movie Changeling was nominated for three Oscars last week. It’s success has made the writer,  J. Michael Stracyznski, an A-list writer in Hollywood. And though he had been writing for TV for 20 years before Changeling sold he recently wrote in Script magazine,”Nobody in features knew me from Adam.”

They didn’t know about his Emmy winning work on Babylon 5, his novels, short stories, or comic book writing. What got him attention in the feature film world was a script that he spent a year researching going through 6,000 pages of documents. Now he’s been attached to projects with Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass and Brad Pitt to follow his Changeling story that attracted Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie.

Because he saw first hand how one script can change people’s perception he wrote the following:

“It doesn’t matter if you didn’t go to the best schools, if you’re a kid or in your 50s. It doesn’t matter if, like me, when I moved to Los Angeles in 1981, you come at the business without friends or relatives in the business. It doesn’t even matter if you spent formative years digging carpet scraps out of dumpsters instead of going to film school. The only thing that matters is the quality of the storytelling. More than hearing about techniques, more than discussing the construction of dialogue, I think that’s the important message; that it’s possible.”
                                                                          J. Michael Straczynski
Volume 15/ Number 1
Pages 38-39  

And though he was born in Newark and graduated from high school in the San Diego area he did live for a time in Kankakee, Illinois.Which is perhaps why he mentions Kankakee in the video below.  And he was an early adopter (going back to the 80s) of using the computers to Interact with audiences.

Straczynski also wrote The Complete Book of Scriptwriting.

Scott W. Smith

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While tears are not the best indicator of whether a film is great or not, it is an indicator that a viewer was moved. As so was the case yesterday when I saw Marley & Me. There’s been maybe a half a dozen movies in my lifetime that have brought water to my eyes—the first one being the original TV movie Brian’s Song.  

Most of those films probably dealt with death or some other significant life blow. And while some films feel as manipulative as Barbara Walters asking “Tell me about your father” at just the right moment, other films touch us in a deeper place. That’s when we translate what is happening on screen with what’s happened or happening in our lives.

Marley & Me is more than the story of the world’s worst dog, it is a story about life and coping with change. The fact that I have a nine year old golden retriever and am the same age that the book’s author was when he completed the book gave me plenty to identify with. 

But John Grogan didn’t start out thinking “some day I’m going to write a movie about my life that stars Jennifer Aniston as my wife.” (Of course, he may of had those dreams.) No, he lived his life and he wrote about it. And after about 25 years of doing that he became a first time book author with smashing success.  Before I get to the quote of the day from him let me start in a place far from Hollywood.

Grogan was born in Detroit and raised in what he calls the “sleepy village of Orchard Lake,” he graduated with a degree in journalism from Central Michigan University (Mount Pleasant, Michigan) and a master’s degree from Ohio State University.  He was a columnist for  the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale when he and his wife brought home a little dog that would change their lives. (The book Marley & Me became a New York Times bestseller on its way to selling 5 million books and eventually being made into a movie (with the script written by Scott Frank & Don Roos) that was number one at the box office at Christmas time, and crossing the $100 million threshold in just 11 days.)

“I’m usually a night owl, but when I wrote “Marley & Me,” I forced myself to go to bed early and get up early. I wrote from 5 to 7 a.m. and then ate breakfast and went to work to write my newspaper column. I averaged a chapter a week this way. I began the book in early 2004 and finished the manuscript right after Labor Day. My agent, Laurie Abkemeier, sold it the next month in an auction.”
                                                                                      John Grogan 
                                                                                      Author Interview
                                                                                      Harper Collins

Grogan now lives in rural Pennsylvania and his newest book is The Longest Trip Home. He also has a website and blog at John Grogan Books. And if you don’t mind, let me slip in another Grogan quote from the Harper Collins interview:

“Keep a journal and write every day, even when it seems impossible. Read really good writers, and re-read the best parts aloud. Write about what you know and care about. Believe in yourself and your voice. And here’s what I consider the most important part: Take your finished piece and cut it by 20 percent. Relax, you can always restore the lost text. You’ll be surprised how seldom you will feel the need. In my own work, tighter is almost always better.”

Related posts:

Screenwriting from Michigan

Screenwriters Work Ethic (tip #2)

Scott W. Smith

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As I close out this anniversary week of seeing Juno and starting this blog it seemed fitting to find a quote that connects screenwriting and blogging.

“Although there’s been a tradition of journalists such as Nora Ephron, Nick Pileggi, Paul Attanasio and Stephen Schilff jumping into screenwriting, Cody is one of the first from the new blogging world to cross over, bringing with her much of the raucous, young, irreverent attitude of the Internet.”
                                                                            Rachel Abramowitz
                                                                            Giving Birth to Juno
                                                                            Los Angeles Times
                                                                            December 06, 2007

Although in the same article Cody makes it clear her blogging wasn’t a master plan to pave the road to Hollywood.

“I hate the idea that I’m some sort of self invented Gatsby-type figure who clawed her way to the top. I have done nothing of the sort. I’m Forest Gump. I feel like I’m superimposed in all these scenarios. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here.”
                                                                            Diablo Cody


Scott W. Smith

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One Year Anniversary

Yesterday marks the one year anniversary of my blog Screenwriting from Iowa. In fact, January 22, 2008 was my entrance into writing any blog. I would like to thank all the people for wandering to this site over the past year because without growing stats I’m not sure I would have had the energy or desire to keep posting. 

I’m going to try something a little later in the day to celebrate so stop back in. Meanwhile, just to show you what can happen in a year check out the article Mary Stegmeir did on Screenwriting from Iowa for The Courier.

And if you’d like to read the very first post here is the link to Life Beyond Hollywood.


Scott W. Smith 

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Since it’s the middle of winter as I look at the Oscar nominations today, one title stands out—Frozen River. I don’t know much about that film other than it was a Sundance Film Festival winner. So I dug around a little and found out about the screenwriter, Courtney Hunt, who has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

I found out she represents well a writer coming from outside L.A. She was raised in Memphis and Nashville before going on to film school in New York. And at age 43 she is too old by traditional Hollywood standards to be launching a writer/director career, but there she is with an Oscar nomination to go along with her 2008 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

And she did it with a film about working class women. One of the things I like about the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman is the depiction of Debra Winger and Lisa Blount as factory workers. Though young and attractive they do represent working class women who were looking for a better life and those kind of characters don’t get a lot of screen time.  From what I’ve read Hunt’s characters are more gritty and worn down—and wear less make-up.

Hunt took ten years researching and developing the story and even produced the story as a short film which helped raise money for the feature. And if all that wasn’t enough endurance she and her crew spent several nights shooting outside in upstate New York while the temperature was in the teens getting the needed exteriors for the feature version.

Congratulations to Hunt for showing us how far you can go with perseverance, a good story and a heavy jacket.

“We didn’t have hardly any preproduction, we didn’t have favorable conditions. We had very little funding. What we had was a good script, and people fell back on that. We kind of knew we were onto a good story, and as soon as we saw [actors] Melissa Leo and Misty Upham in action, people said, ‘Ooh, we’re onto something here! This is good.’ That story kind of warmed us all up in a funny way so we didn’t feel so out in the middle of nowhere.”
                                                       Courtney Hunt
Interview in The Reeler

BTW-Glad to see Debra Winger still at it picking up an Independent Spirit Award nomination in Rachel Getting Married and Lisa Blount not only still acting but producing as well, winning an Academy Award in 2001 for Best Short Film, Live Action (The Accountant).


Scott W. Smith

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