Archive for July, 2009

“It’s not the dramatist’s job to bring about social change. There are great men and great women who effect social change. They do so through costly demonstrations of personal courage—they risk getting their heads beat in during the march on Montgomery. Or chain themselves to a pillar. Or stand on the line, and that can inspire heroism in others.
     But the purpose of art is not to change but to delight. I don’t think its purpose is to enlighten us. I don’t think it’s to teach us.”

                                                                 David Mamet 
                                                                 The Wind-Chill Factor 

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So last weekend for The 48 Hour Film Project/ Des Moines our team drew “Ghost Story” as the genre in which we had to make a short film.  We quickly started connecting the dots and Ghost was the first movie we tossed out as fitting the genre. That lead to jokes about getting a pottery wheel. 

Other movies with ghosts were mentioned; Field of Dreams, A Christmas Carol, and of course, Ghostbusters. We had discussions about the difference between angels and ghosts. We agreed in general (right or wrong) that in pop culture that angels helped other people while ghosts tend to resolve issues they have before they can move on.

We again pointed to the movie Ghost as having bad ghosts that went to the bad place while Pat Swazye’s got to go upward. We pounded out a story concept in about 5 hours and then shot for 12 hours on Saturday, turned in the finished film on Sunday, and it screened tonight in Des Moines. I’ll post a link of our efforts for this Sunday.

So it seemed fitting to find a quote today from Ghost screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin who won an Oscar for writing the 1990 film. 

“As a writer, I’m trying to promote some alternatives to nihilism. Art, I think, has a larger purpose than just diversion. Art is a transcendent view of the mundane, So much of what we look at has no transcendence in it. The brackets are in the wrong place. It doesn’t leave us complete. It doesn’t leave us with a vision that allows us to see life from another angle…the end of the film (Ghost) was was about spirit, about the fact that our lives are embued with spirit. It’s really about trying to affirm that spirit in man—though in  very quiet way. I said something about that when I accepted my Oscar, and I could hear everybody laughing in the auditorium, like, Oh, come on, this is just entertainment. I think one of the reasons the film enjoyed such acceptance was because it addressed this issue that somehow there is a higher aspect to man.”
                                                          Bruce Joel Rubin
                                                          Screenwriters on Screenwriting 


Scott W. Smith

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There’s nothing new about looking at the lasting impact of the Cinderella story. The basic theme resonates in so many stories it would take a lot to ignore the facts. Overlooked working girl ends up getting the prince. It strikes a cord. No one wants to be overlooked. We long for our work and ourselves to be recognized and appreciated.

What writer (Cinderella) doesn’t want a producer/studio executive (prince) to come in after finding a discarded script they wrote and want to know where the author is?

Steven Spielberg is known to ask writers, “What does the audience feel now?” I thought I’d share with you a quote from a friend of mine who posted it on Facebook because it answers that question from at least from one person who enjoyed the movie Cinderella Man.

“I watched Cinderella Man last night–one of my ‘go to’ movies when I’m feeling beat down. Reporter to James Braddock: ‘A year ago–you couldn’t win a fight. Now you’re going to fight the heavyweight champion–what changed’ Braddock: ‘I finally figured out what I was fighting for.’ Reporter: ‘What are you fighting for?’ Braddock: ‘Milk.’ Friends, I can see that fight from where I’m standing.”

What are you writing for? And are you writing anything that connects with people on that gut level?


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There are two performances by actors that stick in my mind as transcending acting. In both performances I had not see the actors before which helped bring a sense of heightened reality to the roles they played. And both come down to a single scene that burned into my memory. One was Denzel Washington and his role in Glory when he was being whipped, and the other was Scott Glenn’s role in Urban Cowboy when he drinks from a bottle of tequilla and eats the worm.

Glenn had actually been kicking around Hollywood for 15 years by the time he played the tough ex-con in Urban Cowboy.  But as he approached 40 he had given up on Hollywood and moved to Idaho with his wife and family. His agent talked him into auditioning for the role and the rest is history. From then on the former Marine was a Hollywood movie star.

What I remember when I watched his performance is that I thought, “This guy isn’t an actor, he’s a real bad ass.” Glenn has said he picks roles not for the story but whether or not the character interests him as something he wants to spend four months doing. But there is a Glenn quote I remembered reading years ago that I thought would be a fitting quote of the day.

I couldn’t find the original quote but did find one in the same vein where in speaking about his decision to move to Ketchum, Idaho back in 1978 Glenn said:

My plan was to get a job as a bartender and apprentice myself out as a cross-country ski guide for hunting and fishing and do Shakespeare in the park in Boise during the summer until the kids were older.”

That’s a spirit I can appreciate.


Scott W. Smith

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Frank McCourt 1930-2009

Ernest Hemingway once said something to the effect that the secret of being a good writer was to have a miserable childhood. If that’s the case, Frank McCourt was fully qualifed.

McCourt, who died last week, really should be the patron saint of something. Maybe the patron saint of writers who endure. If you’ve read his writings you know that he endured a rough childhood that included many memories of poverty and none of any Christmas worth recalling. He endured almost dying at age ten of typhoid fever.  And he endured teaching in the New York City public school system for 30 years.

He endured and then he wrote about it. And at the age of 66 his first book, Angela’s Ashes, was published and not only became a best selling book and a movie but it won the Pulitzer Prize. He would go on to write ‘Tis, Teacher Man, and Angela and the Baby Jesus.

He had a way with words that I really appreciated. And while he didn’t get published until he was in his 60s he had been writing in notebooks for 40 years. 

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. 

People everywhere brag and whine about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.

Above all — we were wet.”

                                                                          Frank McCourt
                                                                          Angela’s Ashes 

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A friend of mine from film school who has made over a dozen feature films says forget whether or not a film is any good or not, he’s just amazed that a film simply makes sense after you’ve finish editing it. Anyone who’s made even a short film knows there is a lot of truth in that thought. It’s a messy process.

This weekend I made another short film with a handful of people for The 48 Hour Film Project (Des Moines). 

That’s where you have 48 Hours to make a 4 to 7 minute film from start to finish. This was my fourth year of taking part in the process. In the past three years the short films I’ve made have won best cinematography in the competition that usually attracts about 35-40 teams of filmmakers here in Iowa. 

One of the reasons my films have won in the cinematography category is I started out back in the day as a photographer and am drawn to strong visuals. This year was no different as you can see from the above photo that feature a beautiful stained glass window in the background. And one of the fun parts for me is to work with talented people who have never made a film before. 

This year was no exception. This year’s film stars Dom Wooten a voice major at the University of Northern Iowa (standing in suit) and Jack Ackerman who is a retired lawyer who next month will compete with nine other people to be the top Toastmaster in the world for 2009. So I had a gifted tenor and a gifted public speaker and just needed to figure out a way to write a story around them. (The process of which is really not all that different than writing a script to fit a particular Hollywood actor. Embrace your strengths and limitations.)

You’ll see the results in the coming days as I’ll post a link and tell you how our team did in the competition. In the meantime if you’ve never had a film made this is an excellent way to not only put some rubber to the road but to also meet a lot of like-mined people (crazy creative types that don’t care if they get much sleep and work for no pay). The 48 Hour Film Project is done around the world so there is a good chance there is one near you. (Even if it’s two hours away like Des Moines is for our team.)

Thanks again to the cast and crew for getting another film done—and turned in with 13 minutes to spare.


Scott W. Smith

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“(As a screenwriter) your goal should be to develop an educated gut, which is where the intellectual and emotional meet. When you have an ‘educated gut,’ it means that you receive visceral signals from your creative instincts, yet have enough command of craft to translate their message with with clarity and confidence.”
                                                                   Dona Cooper
                                                                   Writing Great Screenplays for Film & TV

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This weekend I’m doing the 48 Hour Film Project where you have to make a short film from beginning to end in 48 hours. It’s an exercise in embracing limitations. And when push comes to shove all filmmaking is embracing limitations because somewhere you have to draw the line on running time and expenses.

The Twilight Zone was no exception. Now considered one of the best programs ever produced for television it had trouble finding an audience in the early sixties an actually only ran for a few years. Rod Serling wrote 49 original programs in three years which is an amazing output. According to The Twilight Zone producer Buck Houghton, Serling came up with a pattern that became the standard for all programs.

According to Houghton in his book What a Producer Does here are a few of the patterns they used.

Find an interesting character, or a group, at a moment of crisis in life, and get there quickly; then lay on some magic.

The character(s) must be ordinary and average and modern, and the problem facing him (her, them) must be commonplace. (The Twilight Zone always stuck people as identifiable as to whom it was about, and the story hangups as resonant of their own fears, dreams, wishes.)

The story must be impossible in the real world. A request at some point to suspend disbelief is a trademark of the series.

Embrace your limitations.

Scott W. Smith

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Here are some shots I took from the Good Morning America’s taping today in downtown Cedar Falls, Iowa. We’re almost famous.






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Sometimes I think about the only way
That I’ll ever see life beyond L.A. is dying

                                                  (David Pack/ Burleigh Drummond) 


Today marks a year and a half since I started the Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A. blog. That first post (Life Beyond Hollywood) on January 22, 2007 featured a picture of a cold winter day in Iowa. If you’d like to see what Iowa looks like in the summer then turn on ABC”s Good Morning America tomorrow morning (July 23, 2009) as they will be doing four remote segments from downtown Cedar Falls.

How about that? Good Morning America is coming to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Maybe not life changing, but this hidden gem of a town really is starting to be less hidden. 

If you’re new to this blog let me recap how it all started. After seeing the movie Juno on January 19, 2007 and reading that the screenwriter of the movie, Diablo Cody, was a University of Iowa graduate (The Juno-Iowa Connection) I decided to start a blog focusing on screenwriters outside L.A. (or who at least come from outside L.A.).

Writers that have a little different perspective just by coming from a different geographical part of the country from the movie making capitol. Because of the Internet writers like Cody with her Chicago-Iowa City-Minneapolis background have a chance to have their writing discovered in a way that wasn’t possible in the past. That’s good for both writers and audiences.

So I’m doing my part to help those writers out. Right here from my headquarters in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Too bad we didn’t land that Drew Barrymore directed film Whip It that I did some location scouting for last year.  Then maybe we’d really be on the map. But it will be fun to have Good Morning America in town. Then again we really are on the map, conveniently located between New York and San Francisco.

By the way, they ended up shooting much of Whip It in Michigan to take advantage of their film incentives.) Just saw the first promo of Whip It that features Juno star Ellen Page in a story that takes place in Texas.

There’s a great big world out there beyond L.A. and stories from those parts that need to be told — so I hope you’re doing your part to write those screenplays.

Scott W. Smith

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