Archive for July, 2009

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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“The antagonist must be as strong as the protagonist. The wills of conflicting personalities must clash.”
                                                   Lajos Egri 

“The better the villain, the better the picture.”
                                                   Alfred Hitchcock    

As we dip back into Lajos Egri’s classic book The Art of Dramatic Writing we’re back to the basics. But something always worth repeating as we look at conflict between the  protagonist and the antagonist.

“After you have found your premise, you had better find out immediately–testing if necessary–whether the characters have the unity of opposites between them. If they do not have this strong, unbreakable bond between them, your conflict will never rise to a climax.”
                                           Lajos Egri
                                           The Art of Dramatic Writing
                                           page 124



Related posts: Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip 1)

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“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
John F. Kennedy 
                                                 Rice University
                                                 September 12, 1962 


Ever heard of Wapakoneta, Ohio? 

It happens to be where screenwriter Dudley Nichols was born. He wrote over 70 screenplays including Bringing Up Baby which is a classic Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant film.  He also served as the Screen Guild President in 1937-38.

His first film credit was in 1930 which just happens to be the same year that another fellow was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio who would go on to eclipse Nicholas’ fame.

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was born on August 5, 1930 in Wapakoneta, a small town just 59 miles north of where the Wright Brothers designed the first airplane (that would fly) in Dayton, Ohio around the turn of the 20th Century century.

If an Eagle Scout from a small town in Ohio becoming the first person to walk on the moon isn’t inspiration for you to pursue your dreams from wherever you live, then nothing I write can help.

I was eight years old when Armstrong uttered those famous words as he walked on the moon, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Big moment. One of the greatest achievements in modern history. If it was symbolic as some have said, then it was symbolism at its finest. 

I have the original New York Times front page–MEN WALK ON MOON– hanging on my office at work (along with the Sebiscuit movie poster and Don McLean album I’ve mentioned in the past).

Along with wanting to be a fireman and a professional baseball player I added astronaut to things I wanted to be when I grew-up. Growing up in Central Florida in the 60s was a fascinating place to be for the single reason that it in an age before cable TV,  Disney World, and video games (heck, pong wasn’t even invented until 1971)  you could watch a lift off on TV and then run outside and see this small glow rising into the sky on its way to space.

Today is the 40th anniversary of man landing on the moon. And while I remember sitting around the TV watching the event on a fuzzy screen it is the years leading up to it that I remember more. It was a feat that many thought could not be done. And there was plenty of evidence that it was not going to be an easy effort. At one point it is estimated that 400,000 people were working on President Kennedy’s dream to put a man on the moon by the end of the 60s.

It was an endeavor where there would be years of failure and the loss of lives.

Beyond making history the events remembered today are textbook storytelling that has a clear goal at the start, full of interesting characters, plenty of conflict and a fully developed and satisfactory ending. I’m not sure anyone born from 1969 on didn’t grow up thinking that technology could do just about anything. But that wasn’t always the case.

The space program as a whole has resulted in many great books, movies, and television programs on the subject. One of the best is Apollo 13 which was based on a book Lost Moon; The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by astronaut James Lovell and Jeffery Kluger.  Kluger  wrote the recent Time magazine article on the historic event and touched on one of my favorite themes; what happens after you’ve been to the top of the mountain. Once you have the t-shirt that says, “Walking on the moon –been there done that” then what?

Kluger remembers Lovell’s warning when their book was a best seller and Apollo 13 was in theaters; “Remember where you’re standing when the spotlight goes off, you’ll have to find your own way off the stage.”

That’s wise advice for anyone.

Scott W. Smith

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 “Time. We live by it, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t live by us.”
                                                                       Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks)
                                                                       Cast Away 

Recently I’ve written a bit about the importance of theme in movies. Some writers start with it and some writers are oblivious to it relying on their on instincts for theme to emerge. Back in the 90s when Tom Hanks first had an idea to do a modern day Robinson Crusoe type story of a man on a deserted island the concept was intriguing to screenwriter William Broyles Jr. who was a marine in Vietnam.

It was Hanks’ suggestion that the main character work for Federal Express, which Broyles said turned out to be “the perfect symbol of a modern company” and just happened to have the motto, “The World on Time.” From there Broyles began to find ways to take a man deeply reliant on time and disconnect him from his modern life. To ask the questions, “What happens when your dreams don’t come true?” and “What’s truly important in life?”

“Wrestling with dramatic elements—and others about acceptance and fate and forces larger than ourselves–was an important part of the screenplay, but those battles tend to play out on a subconscious levels. They’re hard to write about explicitly, and to do so in a movie would be as self-defeating as it would be presumptuous to write about here.
            So while these thematic questions were constantly at work beneath the surface, they weren’t the story, and that’s what a movie has to be.”

                                                           William Broyles Jr
                                                            Cast Away; The Shooting Script

It’s a healthy question to ask if your theme is overpowering your story. I think particularly in movies with strong political or religious themes this is often where zealous filmmakers get into trouble and the critics start making accusations of propaganda. 

A great example of making a film with a religious theme that doesn’t overpower the story is The Decalogue by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski who also co-wrote the scripts with Krzystof Piesiewicz. They are ten one hour films that each explore one of the ten commandments. 

This is what Stanley Kubrick wrote in 1991 about their work:  “It should not be out of place to observe that they have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on rather than being told. They do this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don’t realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.”


Scott W. Smith

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“The pivotal character knows what he wants…Without him the story flounders…in fact, there is no story.”

                                       Lajos Egri

One of the hang-ups that some people have with the classic writing book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri is that its focus in on theater. And while some of the references are more well known plays, others are more obscure in today’s terms.

So I’ve decided to give the fifty three year old book a little contemporary injection by connecting his thought to a more recent film. Egri starts his book discussing premise (which we cover in parts 1 & 2) and follows it talking about character.

What some people call the protagonist, hero or main character, Egri also calls the pivotal character.

“A pivotal character must not merely desire something. He must want it so badly that he will destroy or be destroyed in the effort to attain his goal…A good character must have something very vital at stake.”
                               Lajos Egri
                               The Art of Dramatic Writing
                               page 108

The character Chuck Nolan comes to mind. He is the pilot played by Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. has given Hanks plenty at stake. First there is just the survival issue of living on a deserted island, and then there is the issue of his fiancé back home. Toward the end of the movie he is even willing to risk his life to attain his goal of returning home.

Hanks’ character also fits well another aspect that Egri writes about;

“A pivotal character is a driving force, not because he decided to be one. He becomes what he is for the simple reason that some inner or outer necessity forces him to act; there is something at stake for him, honor, health, money, protection, vengeance, or a mighty passion.”

Later in the chapter Egri carries this point over to those who have a desire to write, act, sing or paint by saying that with 99% of those people it is a caprice or a whim. Egri writes, “Ninety-nine per cent usually give up before they have a chance to achieve anything. They have no perseverance, no stamina, no physical or mental strength, the inner urge to create is not strong enough.”

So write strong, willful pivotal characters. And be one yourself.


Related screenwriting post: What’s at Stake? (Tip #9) 


Scott W. Smith

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