Archive for June, 2009

“Making it up as I go along. I write with a ballpoint pen and scratch out lines and paragraphs, revising them as I make my way into the story, the characters letting me know what comes next. Once I’ve handwritten a page until I like it, I put in on the IBM Wheelwriter 1000. If I compose on a typewriter I’d spend more time x’ing out lines than writing. I don’t use a word processor, I can’t imagine looking at a screen as I write. I have to look at the words on unlined yellow paper, my only writer affectation. I used to aim for five clean pages in an eight-hour day. I’ll settle now for three in a somewhat shorter day, continuing to revise to maintain that sound I want.”
                                       Elmore Leonard
(Novelist—Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Rum Runner)
                                       AARP magazine
                                       July/August 2009 
                                       Page 33

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But, somewhere back there in the dust,
That same small town that’s in each of us.

                                    The End of the Innocence 
                                    Don Henely 

Got nothing against a big town
Still hayseed enough to say
Look who’s in the big town
But my bed is in a small town

                                     Small Town
                                     John Mellencamp


What would you do if you won an Academy Award? What if against all odds you won two? Would you load up the family and move to Beverly Hills? But what if you already lived there or in New York City? Where would you put the idea of moving to a small town in Minnesota a year after you won your second Oscar? 

That’s what actress Jessica Lange did back in 1995 after she won her second Academy Award. She, Sam Shepard and their four kids moved to Stillwater, Minnesota,  a small town that sits on the St. Croix River just outside the Twin Cities.  Why?

Jessica Lange told Architectural Digest a couple years ago, “I had this kind of romantic image of the children growing up not dissimilarly to the way I grew up in a small town where they could walk to school. Even more than that, I wanted to raise them close to their extended family.”

So they bought a house next to where her mother lived. So the town not only got a Hollywood actress, but in Sam Shepard they also got an Oscar nominated actor (The Right Stuff), a screenwriter,  and a Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright (Buried Child).  It’s not so off the wall when you think about it. Lange was born 15 miles south of Duluth in Cloquet,  Shepard was born in Fort Sheridan, IL.

They lived in Stillwater for about a decade.  Then after Lange’s mother died and all but one of their kids had graduated from high school there was no reason to be in Stillwater anymore so they moved to New York. But for a while they lived the small town dream. (They still own a lake cabin near Cloquet.)

A few days ago I had a video shoot in Minneapolis and ended up driving through Stillwater one morning. In some ways it’s outgrown the hardware store on Main St. thing and in some ways has been changed by gift shops and the condos that have popped up. After Lange sold their Stillwater house she commented that the town wasn’t real anymore. But for most small towns in America it’s a matter of growing or dying. (That probably could be said of most things in life.) From my perspective, Stillwater looks like a pretty fine place to live. (But it is a long commute if you work on Broadway from time to time.)

There’s something mythical about small towns in America. A little idealism mix with romanticism. A place where life is somewhere in between It’s a Wonderful Life and  Live it to Beaver. Where little kids can wander down Main Street like Opie did in Mayberry and where teenagers can hangout like they do on Happy Days. And if you can’t move back to the 1950s or live in a black & white movie or TV show then living in a small town may be as close as you can get to the ideal.

Of course, the reality is that there are often economic struggles in smaller towns. Teenagers are bored and can’t wait to leave. And small towns are not immune from drugs and violence. But small towns are still a refuge. And there is a reason why many of those teenagers when they hit their 30s and have kids move back to those same boring towns to raise their families. And they bring their gifts, talents and new perspectives that make the town a better place for everyone.

If you were in Cedar Falls, Iowa this weekend it would have made you at least think, “I could live in a place like this.” With two days of weather more fitting for San Diego, you could have watched a parade down Main St., eaten kettle corn while you listened to the United States Marine Corp Band perform at the band shell, taken a long bike ride through a state park, watched lighting bugs in the early evening, and listened to the church bells Sunday morning and a sala band down by the river Sunday night.

As a matter of fact, Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard lived in this area for a while back in the 80s. They rented a house in the Prospect area of the neighboring city of Waterloo while filming the farm crisis movie Country that was shot here in Black Hawk County. (That would have been the time when I was living in L.A. and going to Shepard’s play True West that featured Randy and Dennis Quaid in a small theater in Hollywood.)

Lange has the talent and has built her career in a way that allows her to live anywhere she wants and to continue her acting career. And my hope is with the changing digital technology and the various incentives to shoot films outside L.A. that there will rise up a new generation of filmmakers and actors who can make good films and live good lives wherever they want to live.

Well, I have to go walk to work now…


Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I quoted Natalie Goldberg who in her first book wrote about the bliss of writing, but  a few years later she added this:

“I have not seen writing lead to happiness in my friends’ lives. I’m sorry to say this, I, who fifteen years ago published a book telling everyone to grab their notebooks and write their asses off. No high like it, I said. I meant it–it was true. Now I’m past fifty, and I have given everything to writing, the way a Zen master watches her breath and burns through distraction. Was I a fool to do this? Did I choose the wrong path?…I know no one wants to hear me say how hard writing is—quit while you can.”
                                             Natalie Goldberg
                                            Thunder and Lighting

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I sometimes write on the inside cover of books where and when I bought the book. Inside Natalie Goldberg‘s Writing Down the Bones I have written, “Georgetown, CO, 9/2000.” Once upon a time there was this wonderful little bookstore in Georgetown, Colorado that was the perfect stop between Denver and the Vail/Breckenridge area. The bookstore is gone now, but it’s eteched in my mind. 

And I still have Goldberg’s book. One of over a million copies since it was first published in 1986. The subtitle is “Freeing the Writer Within.” She wrote the book while living in Minneapolis.

Goldberg now lives in northern New Mexico and does writing workshops around the country. Her most recent book is Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.  She also recently worked on the documentary Tangled Up in Bob about Bob Dylan and his childhood roots in Hibbing, Minnesota.

If you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance.  You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want to stop. And you stop, hungry for the next time. That’s how writing is, too.”
                                          Natalie Goldberg
                                          Writing Down the Bones
                                          page 11 


Scott W. Smith

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Farrah. Michael. They are part of the small, but elite club in pop culture that are known by one name. Before their deaths yesterday, both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson had their share of time in the spot light as well as time getting lost in their own versions of never never land. Seems to often be the price of fame and fortune. 

Yes, I was one of the zillions of teenage boys in the 70s who had the Farrah poster. And my first 8mm film as a 20-year-old film student at the University of Miami used Michael Jackson’s song She’s Out of My Life. A fellow student told me afters seeing the film, “I’ll never forget your film.” (Heck, I’ve pretty much forgotten that film–but I haven’t forgotten that compliment.)

Jackson & Fawsett came from smaller cities in the interior of the United States. Jackson from Gary, Indiana and Fawsett in Corpus Christi, Texas. I always like to point those things out. But what sometimes gets lost in the media flurry of discussing their deaths is these were two talented people. Jackson sold 750 million records and Fawsett was a three time Emmy nominated actress. 

And just to keep this in line with screenwriting I have been thinking in the last year or so about a lesser known film that Fawsett was in back in 1977, Logan’s Run. It’s a Sci-Fi film that takes place in the 23rd century where due to population control and the economy, people are not allowed to have a 30th birthday. And since the main character Logan is 29 he decides to run. Good concept and a fitting topic today as aging and the economy are hot topics. 

I did a little searching and found out that an updated version of Logan’s Run is in pre-production with a script being written by Oscar-nominated Timothy Sexton. (Though talks of a remake have probably been going on for a decade.) It would be a timely film that would probably address issues we’ll be debating long before the 23 century.

For what it’s worth, Farrah was 29 when her famous poster came out and Michael was 31 when he recorded “She’s Out of My Life”–their best work was years down the line. Let’s hope Logan’s Run is always considered to be Sci-Fi.


Scott W. Smith

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“I’m one of those coaches who believes it’s my responsibility to be there for my players—my students—any way I can.”
Ed Thomas

That kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen in a place like this.

Highly regarded and admired high school football coaches are not supposed to be killed. Icons of a community are not supposed to be shot. Especially in a small town in Iowa. But that’s what happened yesterday when Aplington-Parkersburg High School football coach Ed Thomas was shot and killed.

When I moved to Cedar Falls, Iowa from Orlando six year ago I didn’t think I was moving to a place free from crime. The end of the innocence happened long before this. It even happened before Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood where he chronicled murder in a small Kansas town in 1959. But yesterday’s shooting is still a shocking tragedy.

Parkesburg, Iowa is 20 miles west of Cedar Falls and was in the news one year ago due to the devastation of an EF 5 rated tornado that hit there last year. A couple days after the tornado destroyed about a third of homes (including Thomas’ home) and took several lives I was hired by an insurance company to video tape the damage. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

A few weeks ago that same company hired me to go back and help tell the stories of how some people had helped rebuild their lives. It was amazing to see the transformation that had taken place in just one year.

And symbolically at the center of the town’s transformation was the Aplington-Parkersburg High School football program lead by CoachThomas. ESPN did a feature last fall on Thomas and the team and how much they meant to the town. Reporter Steve Cyphers’ ESPN story called  The Scared Acre is a moving story. It really underscores the tragedy and loss of the death of Thomas. (If you click the ESPN link you will have to put up with an ad before the video plays.)

As a coach he had 292 wins, two state titles, and was the 2005 NFL High Football Coach of the year. Currently there are four NFL players who played under Thomas. Four players from the same high school is a staggering number considering some high schools have never had a single player in their entire history make it to the NFL.

A couple years ago columnist Bob McClellan pointed out that the city of Miami, Florida with its 40 high schools only had four active players in the NFL. To see the same number from the same school and from a small town of 2,000 people has to make you wonder if the coach has tapped into something special.

Thomas at Aplington-Parkersburg for 34 years and was a respected coach, teacher, and mentor as well as a man of faith whose concern for his players went beyond the football field.

“Aside from my own father and mother, no one had a more profound impact on my life than Coach Thomas…He truly epitomized everything that is great about high school football and all the things it can teach young men. Heaven just got a great football coach and an even better man.”
Jared Devries
Detroit Lions Defensive end

One of the top ten all time posts for Screenwriting from Iowa is called Don’t Waste Your Life.  In that post I quoted many well known screenwriters reflecting on their work and life and I used last year’s tornado as a springboard for that discussion. I even had a picture of the scoreboard from Aplington-Parkersburg High School that was blown down during the 200 mile per hour winds.

The death of Ed Thomas will no doubt be felt by the people and town of Parkersburg for a long time. But more importantly I believe the life of Ed Thomas will have a more profound and lasting effect.

Check out the ESPN story on Thomas because it’s a great example of where storytelling and meaning come together.

Don’t waste your life.

8/28/09 Update: ESPN in Parkersburg, Iowa.  They’re broadcasting tonight  nationally A-P’s first  high school football game in 34 years without Coach Thomas on the sidelines.

Scott W. Smith

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Ed McMahon played many roles as a spokesman and announcer in a show biz career that spanned more than 60 years.  McMahon, who died yesterday, was best known as the sidekick for Johnny Carson for more than 30 years on The Tonight Show. His trade mark  “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny” has not been forgotten and probably never will thanks to Jack Nicholson borrowing the phrase for his character in The Shinning.

But as I have done so often for writers, I’d like to show McMahon’s roots and what prepared him for the work that would make him a house hold name.

He was born in Detroit Michigan and raised in Michigan, New Jersey, New York City and Lowel, Massachusetts and began his career as a bingo caller in Maine when he was just 15. I’d put him in the camp of “Dream  big, start small.”

McMahon was also a carnival barker, a pitchman for vegetable slicers, and worked in radio before working his way up to a TV game show emcee. He was also a decorated pilot in the Marines who also served in Korea and  was a late night TV host in Philadelphia. An eclectic background that prepared him for meeting Johnny Carson in 1959 when he would have been 36-years-old.

He never stopped being a pitchman and along the way he also appeared in movies and TV shows along with his work on Star Search, TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes and with the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon’s.  I thought it would be good to find a quote from McMahon that would provide a little inspiration for life’s journey.

”Honesty is the single most important factor having a direct bearing on the final success of an individual, corporation, or product.
                                                Ed McMahon 


Scott W. Smith

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The first time I read a book by Ernest Hemingway I was a junior in high school. I didn’t chose to do a report on him because he was a literary giant but because The Old Man and the Sea was so thin. In about the time it takes Melville to explain whale blubber in Moby Dick, Hemingway’s story of a Cuban fisherman is done. And that began my appreciation for Hemingway. 

A few years ago I was doing video shoots in London and Berlin and picked up Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa which I had never read. His well quoted line, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn” is found in this non-fiction book. He also speaks fondly of Stephen Crane’s The Blue Boat. Then he reflects on writers who get older but not wiser; 

“You see we make our writers into something very strange…We destroy them in many ways. First, economically. They make money. It is only by hazard that a writer makes money although good books always make money eventually. Then our writers when they have made some money increase their style of living and are caught. They have to write to keep up their establishment, their wives, and so on, and they write slop. It is slop not on purpose but because it is hurried. Because they are ambitious. Then, once they have betrayed themselves, they justify it and you get more slop.  Or else they read the critics. If they believe the critics when they say they are great then they must believe them when they say they are rotten and they lose confidence. At present we have two good writers who cannot write because they have lost confidence through reading the critics. If they wrote, sometimes it would be good and sometimes not so good and sometimes it would be quite bad, but the good would get out.”
                                                             Ernest Hemingway
                                                             Green Hills of Africa


Scott W. Smith

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If I told you I was going to write about the most famous writer from Jamestown, North Dakota that probably wouldn’t be a good clue for most people. If I told you that at one time he was one of the most popular writers in the world and is mostly known for his westerns you might guess Louis L’Amour. Even though L’Amour left school at the age of 15, by the time of his death in 1988 he had over 100 of his works in print. According to Wikipedia he’s sold over 225 million books. And according to IMDB 38 of his short stories and novels found their way to TV or the movie screen.

Not a bad career for a high school drop out from North Dakota. But he was far from uneducated having by is own account read hundreds of books as he wandered the earth in search of adventure and work. And then there’s the education he got from traveling. In fact, when the class he was supposed to graduate with back in Jamestown was having their graduation he was in Singapore.

He wrote in his memoir Education of a Wandering Man;

“Before that day in Singapore I had skinned dead cattle in Texas, baled hay in New Mexico, worked as a roustabout with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, and in between times had boxed a couple of exhibitions in small towns and won a few fights. I had hoboed across Texas on the Southern Pacific and shipped out to the West Indies as a seaman and, later, on another ship, to Liverpool and Manchester, England. Returning, I had planted fruit trees near Phoenix, worked as a caretaker of a mine in the Bradshaws, and spent three very rough months ‘on the beach’ in San Pedro.”

He lived a lifetime in three years. And though I haven’t read anything about his going back to school to get a high school diploma, he was awarded an Honorary PhD by Jamestown College in 1972.


Scott W. Smith

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One thing that is not going down in price is the cost of going to movies. While you can buy a classic movie on DVD for $5, going to a mediocre one in the theaters can cost just about twice as much. And by the time you add drinks, snacks, gas (and sometimes parking), a family of four can spend over $70 bucks going to a single movie.

Heck, for $70 you can make a movie these days. A feature film, too. That’s how much Welsh director Marc Price spent making his film Colin which made it to the Cannes Film Festival last month. According to an interview with CNN the film took 18 months to shoot and most of the money according to Price went to, “A crowbar and a couple of tapes, some tea and coffee.” Remember when low-budget filmmaking used to be a couple hundred thousand dollars?

Blame it on the Blair Witch guys and their $40,000 film, Kevin Smith’s Clerks for $27,500, then Robert Rodriguez and his sub- $10,000 film El mariachi. Welcome to filmmaking in the new economics. If you can get your hands on the latest cameras that shoot digitally you should be able to cut the tape costs out and maybe cut Price’s budget in half.

The film’s press release says, “Without funding the filmmaker’s goal to make an explosive feature length production fuelled by the creativity and inventiveness of those involved that would not be restricted in any way by lack of funding.”

Casting was done through Facebook and MySpace where 50 people answered the call to “Who wants to be a zombie?”And what sets this film apart from other no budget films is that it not only played at Cannes, but it may be the first one to pick up a distribution deal. It’s another piece of a growing trend.

Another piece of new school filmmaking is Twitter. A couple months ago I said someone was going to write a screenplay on Twitter. Well…Killer Green is reported to be the first screenplay written on Twitter to have been optioned. Writer David Niall Wilson began the script in February 2009 and it was optioned this month by Ambergris Films. Wilson has been writing since the mid-80s and has had over 150 short stories published. He lives in North Carolina and you can follow him on twitter @David_N_Wilson.

Interesting things happening outside L.A.

Things a lot more interesting and original than The Proposal which happens to be number one at the box office this weekend. Really, is that the best that Hollywood can do? Think of the years it takes to sift through thousands of scripts to find the few that will be produced by a studio. Think of all of the creative, talented, and experienced cast and crew that it takes to make a film. The tens of millions of dollars that it takes to produce a Hollywood feature. And we get …The Proposal.

A movie that Rolling Stone critic Peter Travis wrote, “A romantic comedy so numbing it feels like Novocaine,” and that Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune wrote, “The problem is not the acting. The problem is what these actors are required to say and do.”

Now Sandra Bullock could make eating an apple interesting to watch for an hour and a half, my point is simply this — The Proposal reflects the best Hollywood has to offer. My case for this whole blog is the cure — fresh scripts and movies from places far from L.A.

Nov.’09 Update: Story in New York Post of guy who started to Twitter funny thing his dads says and lands a TV deal.

March ’11 Update: In 2010, CBS began airing the sitcom  $#*! My Dad Says starring William Shatner based on the Twitter feed @ShitMyDadSays written by Justin Halpern (and which I referenced in November ’09).

Scott W. Smith

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